NYFF Showcases Docs on Artists
Published OCT 2015 DOCUMENTARY magazine (documentary.org)
From Laura Israel’s ‘Don’t Blink–Robert Frank’
This year’s New York Film Festival (NYFF) featured a healthy offering of portraits of artists in its Spotlight on Documentary strand, including Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words; Walter Salles’ Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang; Rebel Citizen, Pamela Yates’ profile of Haskell Wexler; and Jacob Bernstein’s Everything Is Copy, an homage to the filmmaker’s mother, Nora Ephron. In addition, Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink—Robert Frank screened in NYFF’s Main Slate.
For Don’t Blink, Israel created a rapid-fire collage of Frank’s still photos and avant-garde films, as well as recent footage of the artist with friends, colleagues and his wife, June Leaf. An ambitious music track featuring the Velvet Underground, The White Stripes, Johnny Thunders, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith makes for a bracing complement to Frank’s work.
Following his landmark photo study The Americans (1958), Frank teamed up with Beat Generation legends Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac to make Pull My Daisy (1959), one of the iconic American underground films. Irreverent and outrageous, the film starred Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso with a guest appearance by William Burroughs. Don’t Blink features gorgeous clips from Pull My Daisy, as well as Sin of Jesus (1961) Me and My Brother (1969) and the legendary Cocksucker Blues (1972), commissioned—and buried—by the Rolling Stones.
Equally gorgeous are the many full-frame representations of Frank’s still photographs; his 1970s Polaroids and negatives with captions scratched onto the surface encapsulated the unstudied, often partially blurred style of shooting he has always favored. Frank’s work has been described by critic Max Kozloff as a mode of “abused pastoral, pervaded by themes of loneliness and isolation.” For many years Frank’s subject was American culture, while in later years he shifted his focus to more personal, autobiographical concerns.
Filmmaker Haskell Wexler (center), subject of Pamela Yates’ ‘Rebel Citizen’
Structured as a conversation with filmmaker Haskell Wexler, Rebel Citizen details his unusual career as both Hollywood cinematographer and courageous indie doc director. Perhaps best known for Underground (1976) and Medium Cool (1969), Wexler discusses the making of both films. Since the Weather Underground was still on the government’s most wanted list, Wexler and collaborators Emile de Antonio and Mary Lampson had to shoot in a secret location and could not show any faces or other identifying aspects. An FBI attempt to seize the footage resulted in subpoenas served on all three filmmakers, and the film was pulled from circulation. With massive support from the film community (and top-notch lawyers), they succeeded in having the subpoenas revoked on First Amendment grounds.
No less ambitious, Medium Cool was one of the first theatrical films to mix actual news footage with a dramatic storyline, portraying the infamous riots of police against demonstrators outside the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. His account of tracking the actors and trying to shoot amidst the melee of cops, protesters and tear gas in the streets is fascinating. Citing Godard as major influence on the film, Wexler points out a striking sequence of a car accident when the camera and operator are suddenly revealed onscreen and a slow zoom turns the screen into a white flare. This recalls the famous opening sequence of Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), where Raoul Coutard’s camera slowly tracks towards us until only the camera operator is in the center of the frame.
Now 93, Wexler shows no sign of slowing down, speaking enthusiastically about recent projects like Who Needs Sleep? (2006), exposing the dangers of the excessive hours required of workers on Hollywood films, and Four Days in Chicago (2013), about the Occupy Chicago movement.
From Walter Salles’ ‘Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang.’
Made by Brazilian director Walter Salles, Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang takes us on a journey with the Chinese filmmaker through the locations of many of his films. He visits his childhood home in Fengyang after 29 years and is remembered by the neighborhood ladies as a scamp. Between multiple clips from The World (2001), Jia and his wife, actress Zhao Tao, describe how it was inspired by stories she told him about her life as a dancer. He is eager to tell stories of everyday people since he feels individuals as subjects were wiped out of Chinese film history after 1949. That impulse also informs Still Life, a portrait of laborers leveling an entire town of high-rise buildings so a huge new dam can be constructed in Three Gorges. The project destroyed over a thousand towns and villages and the film creates a haunting portrait of dislocation, juxtaposing the rubble-filled landscape with the magnificent natural surroundings.
Jia’s 2014 film Touch of Sin was banned in China for its unflattering portrayal of current Chinese society. The filmmaker remarks how he began to hear many reports of violence and then researched the topic, so the film is based in part on actual incidents. All four episodes culminate in sudden and shocking violence—a woman sauna attendant stabs her oppressor, a laid-off worker murders rich big shots in his village, and a kid from Hubei jumps off the balcony of a factory dormitory building after suffering a series of setbacks. All these characters are caught in the jaws of historical change, feeling exploited and dehumanized by others who now value only material objects. Jia mixes a tough realist style with occasional flashes of surrealism in hard-to-forget scenes such as one of prostitutes working in a luxurious nightclub who march out in Vegas-style versions of Red Army uniforms.
Towards the end of the film and the journey, Jia offers an eloquent account of his father’s suffering during the Cultural Revolution, his subsequent destruction of his many diaries, and his concern for his son’s safety after seeing his films. Clearly this is a legacy that resonates throughout his films.
Wanda Bershen is a consultant on fundraising, festivals and distribution. Documentary clients have included Sonia, Power Trip, Afghan Women, Trembling Before G*D and Blacks & Jews. She has organized programs with the Human Rights Film Festival, Brooklyn Museum and Film Society of Lincoln Center, and currently teaches arts management at CUNY Baruch. Visit reddiaper.com.
Writing and Rewriting History at ‘Art of the Real’
The Art of the Real series was launched in 2014, under the auspices of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, with the objective of focusing more attention on formally adventurous documentaries. In its second edition, presented in April, co-curators Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes curated an intriguing slate of North American premieres and added two sidebars—”Repeat as Necessary: The Art of Reenactment” and “The Actualities of Agnès Varda.”
Lim and Rakes believe there is a need to feature this kind of work, given an environment, particularly in the US, where social issue documentary tends to dominate festival programming and theatrical releases. An important part of that effort is to create a broader context for these films, juxtaposing historical and contemporary work. Rakes felt the discussions about The Act of Killing were limited and ahistorical, which gave rise to the sidebar on the art and history of re-enactment. Combining old and new work offered the curators the opportunity to show such rarely seen films as Rene Vautier’s Afrique 50 (1950), which they describe on the Art of the Real homepage as “one of the most vital and urgent examples of the camera’s power to write—and rewrite—history.”
The Varda retrospective offered a near perfect opportunity to show the development of a filmmaker who has made fiction, documentary and hybrid work throughout her long career. The recent digital restorations of many of her works were a boon for this program, along with the participation of Varda herself at the screenings. Rakes was impressed with her discussion after the screening of her 1955 film Le Pointe Courte: “She recalled details about choices she made in production, and about finding her way through the process of getting her film shown and seen by what would become the luminaries of the French New Wave.” Films like Uncle Yanco (1967) looked terrific—full of bright color and the sparkling light of Sausalito. Lions Love (1969) radiates the irreverent spirit so pervasive in the 1960s, as personified in this film by Andy Warhol protégée Viva and James Rado and Gerome Ragni, the lyricists of the musical Hair, who share an open relationship in their California home, while entertaining such artists as actor Eddie Constantine and filmmaker Shirley Clarke; televised reports of the shootings of Warhol and Robert F. Kennedy play out in the background. Varda blends “real” people and “real” events into a fictional story, creating a quintessential postmodern pastiche long before postmodernism was common parlance. Rakes was intrigued by Varda’s “insights into process, and to find that she established her own essayistic, discursive and hybrid style through experimentation and the desire to create ideas through cinema.”
Many of the filmmakers whose work was shown in Art of the Real participated in post-screening discussions, and a common theme in these conversations was the examination of facts, histories and memories and how they’re constructed cinematically.
One film that explored this hybridity was Li Wen at East Lake (Lou Li, 2014). Opening with an informational doc style, Li Wen at East Lake quickly sketches the meteoric rate of development and accompanying ecological damage affecting the lake over the past 15 years. Shifting to a dramatic mode, the film follows a policeman supposedly seeking a local crazy spouting stories of a fearsome dragon in the lake. The cop mostly hangs out with friends, though, and pursues his passion for collecting historical photos from the Cultural Revolution period. Woven through the cop’s story are encounters with local fishermen, young university students and bureaucratic regional bosses. Lou Li serves up a kind of shaggy-dog version of contemporary life in China, simultaneously building up layers of memory and history and exposing the social consequences of ecological destruction.
Another film that focused on a specific place and its inhabitants was Birds of September (Sarah Francis, 2013), set in modern-day Beirut. The filmmaker introduces us to various residents of Beirut, who share stories of their loves, lives and families. Each person is framed in what looks like a tram with large windows so that we see them surrounded by an ongoing panorama of cityscapes, day and night. The screen is full of reflections in windows and on cars, sometimes with busy traffic and sometimes in deserted corners of the city. Interestingly, there is no synch sound, so the stories we are hearing may or may not have anything to do with the people we see on screen. In fact, we do not know if the residents are real, or actors playing residents—and their stories could be real or imagined, or a mix of both. As viewers we simply go along on the journey through this mysterious landscape and its inhabitants.
Letter to a Father, by Edgardo Cozarinsky, is the final film of a trilogy that he calls “chamber” films—all autobiographical pieces set in Argentina. Cozarinsky constructs his story using family photos, audio recordings and archival and vérité footage. The film addresses issues of immigration, cultural history and family lore. His grandfather was one of the “Jewish gauchos” at the end of the 19th century, and his father was a naval officer who died when Cozarinsky was just 20. Cozarinsky himself is an exile—he’s a longtime resident of Paris. As the off-camera narrator, he sifts through the traces—real, imagined and recalled—of his and his father’s life, writing and re-writing history.
Le Paradis (Alain Cavalier, 2014) also concerns itself with personal identity and journeys of discovery. Better known for his French New Wave films like Thérèse, Cavalier has rarely screened his essayistic film diaries in the US. Using simple windup toys as props, the film re-enacts several major cultural myths—Odysseus’ journey, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, the trials of Job, the crucifixion and rebirth of Jesus. Cavalier’s narration, by turns charming and droll, guides us through these stories while also commenting on the landscape outside his windows. The images are the “actuality,” and his narration constructs the dramatic structure that knits the film together. Lighted and photographed in extreme close-up, Le Paradis juxtaposes the quotidian rhythms of everyday life with the epics we create to interpret history.
One of several unusual films on gay life and history in this year’s line-up was The Royal Road, Jenni Olsen’s latest work. Combining striking visual explorations of the San Francisco cityscape in various seasons of the year with her narration, The Royal Road offers stories of unrequited love, commentary on classic Hollywood films like Sunset Boulevard and Vertigo, and an account of the colonial history of California. The film’s title refers to El Camino Real, the territory’s first and most important thoroughfare, stretching from San Diego to the Sonoma missions. Eloquent in form and conception, The Royal Road explores the mythologies of California as a locale of personal desire, as movie mythology, and as a key component of the American dream of manifest destiny. Clearly the notion of writing and rewriting history is a theme that runs through many of this year’s films in Art of the Real, calling attention to the enormous variety of ways that can be done.
‘The Art of the Real’ Takes the Long View on Nonfiction
Since the beginning of film, the documentary form has often fudged the line between real and imagined, resulting in an intriguing canon of doc/fiction hybrids. The Art of the Real series, which recently concluded its inaugural run at Lincoln Center in New York City, is devoted to this kind of film, showcasing both well-known historical examples and lesser-known work of many contemporary
filmmakers, both domestic and international.
“We wanted to expand our sense of what a nonfiction film could be,” says Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, via email. “In part, we were responding to the increasing dominance of a certain type of documentary (i.e. informational, journalistic, and much more interested in content than form).”
Grounding the series with Jaguar (1954/67), the pioneering film by Jean Rouch, and several classics of the genre including Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1986) and Paulo Rochas’ Change of Life (1966), Lim and programmer Rachel Rakes also offered an impressive array of diverse contemporary films.
In The Second Game, from Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, an actual TV tape, stripped of commentary, of an entire 1988 soccer game played in heavy snow in Bucharest is turned into a meditation on history, space and change. The match, pitting teams backed by the Romanian secret police (Steaua) and the national army (Dinamo), was refereed by Porumboiu’s father the year before the collapse of dictator Nikolai Ceausescu’s regime. The droll soundtrack consists of the filmmaker and his father talking throughout the game about the past and the present. At one point the director remarks that the game is like one of his films: “It’s long, and nothing happens.” Using a historic artifact, Porumboiu recontextualizes it to reflect on both national and personal history.
Another self-referential foray into national and personal history is Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop’s A Thousand Suns. Working with Magaye Niang, a non-professional actor who starred in Touki Bouki (1973), by Dopi’s uncle, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Mati Diop creates a new story, using the older film narrative intertwined with Niang’s life story. At the end of the 1973 film, as Niang’s character and his lover are supposed to sail away from Senegal to Paris, he suddenly cannot leave, and she leaves
without him. Forty years later Mati tracks down that actress in Alaska, and convinces Niang to call her. We see this phone call, and Niang is transported by the magic of cinema to a huge snowy field, still in his skimpy old clothes, where he struggles through deep snow. Coming upon a kind of hot springs, he has a vision of his young lover walking in the distance, disappearing into the mist. Diop’s contemporary account subtly references the complex colonial past of Africa, refracting that history through a universal tale of love and loss. With its elegant cinematography, A Thousand Suns is both enticing and elegiac.
Also included in The Art of the Real are more familiar “observational” documentaries. Foreign Parts (2010), from Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, profiles a car junkyard at Willetts Point in the Queens borough of New York City prior to a large redevelopment there. Through several seasons, with long takes, we come to know the characters living and working there. We share their birthdays, their Friday night get-togethers, and the much anticipated return of one young man from prison. Equal time is spent on the landscape of this urban graveyard: rows
of cars being crushed, and racks and racks of spare parts. Foreign Parts screened as part of a tribute to the Sensory Ethnography Lab, an experimental
laboratory at Harvard University that promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography.
Another product of the Sensory Ethography Lab, Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor; 2009), is an almost dreamlike portrayal of sheep-herding in the mountain valleys of Montana. Through long, slow sequences creating a palpable sense of natural time, and with a focus on the spectacular landscape, the film follows cowboys and their herd through the seasons, culminating in the inevitable drive to market. Like Foreign Parts, the environment and its characters (sheep included) are given equal weight and equal time, imparting a kind of epic quality to otherwise everyday events.
Another kind of film investigating a history is Tai Pin Pin’s quite fascinating To Singapore, with Love. The filmmaker tracked down political exiles from the 1960s and ’70s who are now living in London, Thailand and India and interviews them at length about their experience. While they still cannot
return without facing possible imprisonment, each exile keeps up with news and developments coming out of Singapore. Through archival segments we learn the activist history of each exile, and why they chose to leave. We cannot help but be moved as they describe their hopes and dreams from the past, and how they have coped as immigrants in their adopted countries. Most have done well—teaching and
writing, starting businesses and gaining citizenship. Most striking is their continued desire for change in Singapore, and the attachment to their homeland after so many years of exile.
One of the most formally intriguing films is Jane Gillooly’s Suitcase of Love and Shame (2013). Having bought a suitcase on eBay full of audio tapes from the 1960s, Gilooly discovers a secret love affair preserved by these. Using the tapes to reconstruct both a story and the two characters, we hear the intimate thoughts of this couple (Tom and Jeanne are presented only through their pillow-talk
voices; he is married with kids and she is single.) over several years. The visual track features two vintage reel-to-reel tape recorders—one white and one dark, to represent each character—intercut with a collage of images evoking the period. Suburban Midwest houses in a town, changing seasons and daylight and night scenes flow by as the tale of secret passion and adultery unfolds. There is an obvious fascination for viewers in hearing such intimate details of a love affair, and we cannot help but try to imagine this couple. At the same time we are almost embarrassed to listen, since these are presumably “real” people.
Discovering that Gillooly actually created some of the conversations when Tom and Jeanne seem
to be together in the same location is thus a bit of a shock. It raises the question of how much of what we have heard is invented and whether there is any “documentary” aspect to the film. As Gillooly shared at the post-screening discussion, “So much of the film is about who is listening, who is witnessing, and where the audience is located—are you inside the film? Outside the film?”
Another aspect of the hybrid documentary form appears in the striking work of Amie Siegel, who creates installations as part of her film work. In Black Moon (2010), a group of oddly
beautiful women dressed as combat soldiers appear to be on patrol, roaming through a landscape of deserted houses. There is no dialogue, and for much of the episode the camera creates an impression of suspense, although little happens. The punch line, so to speak, arrives at the end, when one soldier
picks up a discarded magazine from the ground and suddenly discovers fashion photos of her and her companions. We learn that Siegal had hired fashion models for the shoot, insuring an odd disconnect between the “action” and the participants. Similarly in Winter (2013), which Siegal shot in a striking New Zealand house by a famous architect, the characters are all actors attired in draped white clothing. A variety of silent encounters among the inhabitants ensues and eventually one woman goes off on her own. Finding another unusual house, she stays for a while, and one morning
a raft with three dead bodies appears on the river out front. Rolling the bodies into the river, she gathers her things and departs with the raft into the mist. Suggesting various temporal and cultural conditions of instability, stripped of narrative explication and causal explanation, Winter plays like dreamy science fiction.
When Siegel shows these pieces in a gallery, they are accompanied by a soundtrack. With Winter the soundtrack was performed live, its content ranging from composed music, appropriated film scores, laptop-generated electronic sounds, voiceover texts and ADR dialogue on a timed schedule.
Siegel’s work seems to take us to the edge of documentary definitions, and is certainly part of what curator Dennis Lim calls “the long view.” He explains, “If you take the long view, documentary is in no way a monolithic form. As a photographic medium, cinema has always had a privileged and complicated relationship to reality, and some of the most radical films in the history of the medium are precisely those that tackle that relationship in some way—documentaries, in other words. ”
War without End: ‘The House I Live In’ Deconstructs America’s Failed Drug Policies
Amid the media frenzy surrounding the Republican and Democratic conventions and upcoming elections, perhaps you find yourself in need of something more substantive than dialogue with empty chairs. By all means, check out Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this year. The film opens October 5 in New York City, and will tour to cities across America through the fall.
The House I Live In takes on the 40-year history of the “War on Drugs,” exploring in depth why it has been such a costly failure. No dry exegeses, this story is full of unexpected twists and turns, and compelling accounts from police officers, prison authorities, Federal judges, journalists, politicians, inmates and families trying to deal with drug users in their own homes. Jarecki lays out complex issues in accessible terms, delineating a clear analysis of what has happened over four decades– and in the process telling the stories of individuals from all over the United States.
From Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In. Phot: Sam Cullman. Courtesy of Charlotte St. Films
Opening with his personal account of his family background and that of Nannie Jeter, his African-American childhood caretaker, Jarecki counterpoints the experience of the two families throughout the film. While his white, Jewish family moved up the economic ladder, Nannie lost a son to drugs and had to migrate north to find work. That was how she became part of the Jarecki family.
One of the key issues in the film is the contention by several academics and journalists that drug policy is driven by economics. Scholar Richard Lawrence Miller relates an eye-opening history of drug policies as a means to oppress minority populations in America, whether through the criminalization of opium to purge the Chinese in California, or cocaine and hemp to vilify blacks and Mexicans.
This disturbing pattern is what journalist/television producer David Simon (The Wire) characterizes as a “chain of destruction.” Draconian sentencing laws have driven thousands into the prison system, which has consequently evolved into a big business–in many cases providing economic support to entire towns. There’s more of an incentive, then, to populate the prisons than to address the culture of drugs.
Journalist/TV producer David Simon, featured in Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In. Photo: Sam Cullman. Courtesy of Charlotte St. Films
“Drug abuse is ultimately a matter of public health that has instead been treated as an opportunity for law enforcement and an expanding criminal justice system,” Jarecki observes. “I saw how this misguided approach has helped make America the world’s largest jailer, imprisoning her citizens at a higher rate per capita than any other nation on earth.”
Police officers in the film reveal that colleagues with multiple arrests per week or month are able to generate significant overtime pay, while those in homicide or fraud don’t get those perks. The Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, laws enacted in the 1980s allow cops to pull over any car and search for drugs, even if they find nothing and make no arrests. In the process the police may confiscate any drugs or large sums of cash they find.
Mike Carpenter, chief of security at Lexington Corrections Center in Oklahoma, doesn’t mince words in describing the policy failure, which forces everyone-law enforcers and defendants- into untenable positions. “Some of the prison guards there were among the most thoughtful people I have met and have better ideas on how to change things than most I’ve heard,” Jarecki notes. “They confront the problems of over-crowding, over-penalization of non-violent drug offenders, and diminishing resources on a daily basis.”
We also hear from US District Court Judge Mark Bennett regarding the disastrous results of the extreme sentencing laws. He has no choice but to give life sentences to defendants arrested for possession of a small amount of drugs. That is a major way the prison system has mushroomed into a billion-dollar industry.
Photo: Etienne Sauret. Courtesy of Charlotte St. Films
What makes The House I Live In so engaging is the access Jarecki manages, even in situations that could show his subjects in a bad light. He stresses the importance of taking time to get to know people before interviewing them on camera in order to understand the context they inhabit. One of his subjects, a town marshal in New Mexico, was initially a chance encounter; Jarecki had asked him for directions. They started talking, and Jarecki asked him about the war on drugs. The marshal not only obliged, but also made both his office and his home available for filming interviews-and he provided valuable insight into aspects of the system in which he works.
Contrast the marshal with Larry, an inmate who admits to Jarecki that prison was the best thing that happened to him, underscoring how unforgiving life is for drug users on the outside. Larry vents about how funding for skills training in prisons too often gets diverted by politicians who maintain their power through War on Drugs posturing.
With access to such a rich range of individuals comes responsibility to them, especially in how they’re filmed. “The trouble with a camera–particularly a camera that is ultimately making a product to sell to the public–is that it can, even with the best of intentions, become yet another instrument of abuse, something that can woefully compromise human dignity if misused,” Jarecki explains. “I have often been filming people in compromising positions–whether they are on the receiving end of our callous and broken system of draconian laws or whether they are charged with enforcing them–and it often doesn’t look good for any of them. For others, seeing police enforce laws that are unjust and make arrests that too often accrue to their personal benefit does not make them look very good either. So the balancing act, ethically, of portraying people candidly and rigorously while preserving their dignity before the camera is a delicate one.”
When it comes to editing, Jarecki sticks to his overall objective, even when some footage might be particularly powerful. Sometimes he has to “muscle out” his best footage, since he won’t use anything which looks like an ambush of the subject. His aim in the editing room was to show how social, political and economic systems become dysfunctional and how damaging those systems are to individual lives. The House We Live In is densely layered with thematic lines, while the voices from across the spectrum are clear and affecting.
Despite the cataclysmic failure of the war on drugs, Jarecki cites inspiring efforts towards reform from many groups, including The Sentencing Project, which advocates fir reforms iun sentencing policies; and the Drug Policy Alliance, which works to change unjust laws at the federal and local levels.
After four years in production on The House I Live In, Jarecki is about to embark on an extensive two-year outreach tour not only to theaters, but also to churches, high schools and professional associations and their conferences. Jarecki has already screened his film for such key policy makers as Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, who took part in discussions with the filmmaker at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, and representatives from the New York City District Attorney’s office and the New York Department of Corrections, who attended a screening hosted by the Ford Foundation in New York. Jarecki believes the next two years of touring with the film will inspire more and more people to become active in pursuing reform for the issues he has so passionately put on screen.
Docs beyond the Wall: Berlinale Presents a Panorama of Nonfiction
Founded in 1951 in what was then West Berlin, as a counterweight to the Communist era East Germany by which the city was surrounded for 50 years, the Berlinale has long been committed to showcasing work about social and political issues, often with provocative content and style. Originally comprised of the Competition and Panorama sections, the Forum was established in 1970 to ensure selection of films not only with artistic quality, but also originality of form. Another criterion was to show films from the Third World, which remains one of the focal points of the Forum. As with all the arts in Berlin, films engaging with the complex and difficult history of Germany in the 20th century are also an important part of the festival’s heritage.
The Berlinale is a huge event, now headquartered at Potsdamer Platz–an island of high-rise steel and glass in the middle of the city, with thousands of press and industry attendees and one of the largest and most enthusiastic public audiences in the world. Every screening seems to be packed, no matter how arcane the film, or how unknown the director or actors. The work of Thai director Pen Ek Ratanaruang, for example, sells out along with films from Europe, Africa, and Latin America, while discussions after the screenings are animated and multilingual.
Always a welcoming host for documentaries, the festival programs many of them in the Forum and Panorama section. The curatorial sensibility reflects an awesome range of both style and content, from abstract to personal to political.
This year’s festival focused on fiction and nonfiction films about the Arab Spring. Panorama Documente included several fascinating docs, three of which were set in Cairo: In the Shadow of a Man(Hanan Abdalla; Egypt); La Vierge, les Coptes et Moi(The Virgin, the Copts and Me) (Namir Abdel Messeeh; France/Qatar/Egypt); and Words of Witness(Mai Iskander, USA). These films offer powerful insights into current events, constrating sharply with television reporting. In Words of Witness, a 22-year-old female journalist questions people about parliamentary elections and democracy on the streets, building up an image of a well-informed public whose concerns often turn into strong demands in this new era. In the Shadow of a Man takes a crucial look at the long years of pre-revolutionary times, which provide valuable context for the present-day uprisings. We hear women eloquently express their views; then as now, it’s about equal distribution of power through gender empowerment. La Vierge, les Coptes et Moi takes an entirely different approach, centering the film around an apparition of the Virgin Mary in a Coptic village. Using a personal style, the filmmaker shows his family, long settled in France, watching video of the apparition; he then returns to Egypt to investigate. Heading south to his maternal family, despite his mother’s implacable opposition, Abdel Messeeh realizes the real story is his family, not merely as believers in the visions but as hard-working, good-hearted people. He decides to reenact the vision with family and locals in various roles, and the film gently evokes the parallels between being a Christian minority in Egypt and an Egyptian in France, where he is both outsider and insider in both worlds.
Shifting from Egypt to Yemen, The Reluctant Revolutionary(Sean McAllister, Great Britain/Ireland) focuses on the story of Sana’a Kais, a tour operator who scrapes together a living from the few travelers daring to come to his country. Although initially skeptical about the protesters, once he begins working for filmmaker McAllister as a translator, Kais and his younger brother Abdulrahman both join in the uprising. The state of emergency puts a huge strain on the family’s already difficult financial situation, while the Yemeni secret service considers the filmmaker an unwelcome foreign journalist.
A major focus of the Forum was Japan, with three films about the March 2011 tsunami and the meltdown at Fukushima nuclear power station highlighting the programming. In No Man’s Zone (Mujin chitai), Fujiwara Toshi advances into the contaminated zone around the nuclear reactors, evoking images of an invisible apocalypse. Iwai Shunji addresses the political, economic and social situation of a country in a state of dependence infriends after 3.11. And Funahashi Atsushi’s Nuclear Nation profiles a mayor without a town, desperately trying to keep together a community scattered across different emergency shelters in the Tokyo suburbs. One of the most talked about films at the festival, Nuclear Nation focuses on Mayor Katsutaka Idogawa’s ordeals; the Yokoyama family, who remain close despite their permanent uprooting; and the Nakais, a father and son not having had enough time to search for their missing wife and mother during the frantic retreat. Idogawa’s heartbreaking account traces how the town’s rise and fall are inextricably linked with its exploitation by Tepco to become the country’s cradle of nuclear power.
A unique section in these days of market madness is the Forum Expanded, which creates a space annually for a variety of projects including documentaries, hybrid documentaries, and not easily categorized film, video and installation work. Forum Expandedsets itself the task of taking apart cinema, putting it back together or even rediscovering it by presenting a wide range of lengths and experimental formats. Some of the noteworthy projects in Forum Expanded included Canadian video artist Steve Reinke’s bitingly ironic series of short films, Tiny Dinosaurs, in which he returns again and again to his family roots in their exploration of queer and Canadian identity; My father is still a communist, intimate secrets to be published (Ahmad Gossein; Lebanon/United Arab Emirates), in which a mother writes audio letters to her absent husband; whiteonwhite:algorithmicnoir (Eve Sussman/Rufus Corporation), a film edited live in real time, in which a man lives under surveillance in a fictional East European city; Joshua Bonnetta’s American Color, which traces a journey of a roll of the discontinued 16mm Kodachrome film stock, from its in Rochester, New York, to Kansas, where a small photolab developed the last rolls in early 2011; and Avi Mograb’s At the Back/The Details, a blend of photo images and music in a live performance.
The Panorama Documentary Audience Award went to Matthew Akers’ Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present. Focused on Abramovic’s 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City, the film is a fascinating and intimate portrait of both her personal life and long career, as well as the behind-the-scenes goings-on at MoMA. Akers follows Abramovic for a year as she prepares and presents the biggest show of her career. The exhibition encompasses key Abramovic pieces (some originally performed by her with German performance artist Ulay), as well as a new piece at MoMA, to which the film’s second half is almost exclusively devoted. She describes her key motivation for participating in the film as the opportunity to bring performance art to the masses and hopefully make it accessible. Having seen the exhibition at MoMA, I was fascinated with the process of preparation in the film, as well as the toll taken on Abramovic during the three months in which she sat motionless and impassive for eight hours a day in the museum atrium.
For most filmmakers, having a film accepted by the Berlinale is a coveted event, and the imprimatur of screening there pretty much assures that your film will get international notice. Additionally many films not in the festival, including documentaries, are screened in the European Film Market, which is also huge and attracts an international cadre of distributors, producers, agents, programmers and commissioning editors. Setting up a meeting and/or inviting someone to see your film is manageable despite the size of the festival, and the Market sees brisk sales activity every year.
One of the most interesting aspects of seeing documentaries from all over the world is the variety of approaches and definitions encompassed within that terminology–poetic essays, archival films, personal docs, as well as installation work and combinations of all the above. The programmers at Berlinale clearly have a broad interpretation of “documentary” and take a very inclusive view in their selection, generating lively discussions and considerable food for thought.