Hot Docs Review: 'Consuming Contemporary' Shows How Culture Is Safe-Guarded by the Upper Class Directed by Ana Aleksovska

Hot Docs Review: 'Consuming Contemporary' Shows How Culture Is Safe-Guarded by the Upper Class Directed by Ana Aleksovska
On the face of it, Macedonian short documentary Consuming Contemporary is about an older woman, Sunchica, enriching herself through coordinated events on offer in the capitol city of Skopje. But look deeper and you'll feel the vibrations of Sunchica's frustrations with the formidable barriers to attaining this culture — barriers that maintain class differences — and her anxieties as she clings to these events for existential meaning. Consuming Contemporary is an honest but respectful film that raises important questions about class and high culture, while depicting the importance of this culture for a group of retired friends.

At first, everything seems copacetic. The residents of Skopje are able to attend events that aim to educate them about the city's history, and these events provide take-home literature so that education can be continued — for the most part, free of charge. Sunchica (who has been laid off from her job and has depression) and her friends notify each other of these events taking place throughout the city via text and calls. Sometimes, Sunchica attends alone, enjoying the free food and drink, mingling with other guests. She says her mother, who used to be a professor and has since passed away, told her to go out, as it might help with feelings of loneliness. As such, the events provide Sunchica with an opportunity to dress up and to get her brain working.   

"We've got only the culture, it feeds us and brings us alive," one of Sunchica's friends says. But Sunchica and her friends' outings are complicated when they wander into events that require ticket purchases, which they have not made. One scene depicts the group being hounded by a security guard who wants them to leave without making too much of a scene. Sunchica is indignant. 

The documentary does a good job of showing us Sunchica's perspective — it allows her to speak, to ruminate. She is intelligent and holds her own in discussions with her male friends. It's just that she doesn't have much money, and she feels the weight of this fact in face of cultural gatekeepers and among the bourgeois partygoers. When at the more communal events Sunchica takes advantage of the buffet and no one bats an eye, but as she gathers food at the "classier" affairs, she is closely watched by the security personnel, one of whom tells her to stop poking at the food.  

The documentary respects Sunchica's intellect, allowing her to show us how she experiences these events, and to talk about her mother and her need for her friends and their daily outings — all respectfully and without patronizing. It also does a good job of depicting, without too much cinematic mediation, the nuances in how certain events receive her. In some settings, the obviously higher-class attendees look at Sunchica uneasily, bothered and unnerved by her presence, but in the communal gatherings she floats through learning and consuming and mingling with ease, without issue.   

This film, while short, is textured, communicating volumes about ageism in society, but also raising such important questions about who has and should have access to certain kinds of culture. Ultimately, it shows us that just having something to do can sometimes be the most important thing a person can have — in addition to her friends.

Hot Docs Film Festival has moved online for its 2020 edition. Buy tickets over at the festival's website. (European Film Promotion)