Directors: Darek Barecki, James Kenney, Gloria Kurnik and 3 others
Running Time: 76 mins
Searching For Hell is a Polish documentary about five places around the world, all of which represent a real-life modern hell.
As a cinematic experience, this is a hugely impressive documentary. It’s visually striking, and is absolutely brilliant at creating its desired atmosphere in the most powerful way, making it a hugely engrossing watch throughout. The stories that it tells may not quite match the impressive filmmaking, but still provide a consistently unsettling and bizarre watch that makes this film all the more captivating.
Searching For Hell is effectively a compilation of five separate small documentaries, all with the theme of hell running through them, whatever form that may take. So, we get to see a bleak former industrial town in the remote reaches of Russia, a small American town/tourist attraction called ‘Hell’, a bizarre Japanese house that gives people the opportunity to experience the underworld, a terrifying sulphur mine in Indonesia, and the madness of war-torn Congo.
All the stories are intriguing, but what’s most impressive is just how alien they feel. The directors do a fantastic job here at making their subjects feel like a completely different world to our own by giving each location a powerful atmosphere of isolation and loss, which makes each story hugely captivating from the moment they begin.
However, due to the huge variety of subjects on show here, this film isn’t quite as hellish as you may think. Although it starts off with a strikingly unsettling depiction of a dilapidated ex-Soviet village centred around the deepest hole on Earth, there isn’t one simply dark atmosphere running all the way through.
For example, the chapter that looks at the American ‘Hell’ is relatively light-hearted in comparison to the rest of the film. It does eventually delve into a darker, more hellish story that is found within the small town, but for the most part, it plays more on the bizarre extremities of this tourist attraction popularising hell and the underworld.
The same can be said for the Japanese chapter, however it’s definitely not as easy-going. Again showing a tourist attraction that uses myths of hell, this chapter is far more unsettling and shocking, showcasing some of the most powerful images of the entire film.
The final two chapters return to a similar vibe to the first chapter, looking at the incredibly dangerous and depressing work that people undertake at a sulphur mine, and the situation that Congo finds itself in in modern day. They both feature a dazzling atmosphere that, rather than using a bleak landscape, plays on the madness and chaos of the modern world, which is fascinating to see.
As an experience, Searching For Hell is fantastic, with a brilliant variety of atmospheres throughout, all created brilliantly, making it a thoroughly engaging watch. However, the stories that the film tells aren’t as captivating. Whilst the alien nature of the places are fascinating, the way that the film goes about narrating the stories isn’t as effective.
My major issue with the storytelling was that we’re not given quite as much information as needed to fully understand the situation of whatever’s on screen. The atmosphere does a lot to rectify that, but it could have been resolved very simply with some titles at the beginning of each section. The Indonesian chapter does do this well, but in the rest of them, it’s a consistent problem that often had me a little lost every time we went into a new chapter.
Overall, Searching For Hell is a brilliant cinematic experience, and I absolutely loved the striking power of every atmosphere that it created. As a documentary that informs, it might not be so masterful, but as a piece of filmmaking, it’s an impressive watch, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.5.