April 22, 2014
From the beginning documentary filmmaking was synonymous was artifice. For Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty re-staged scenes of an Inuit family at home, complete with an igloo constructed for the shoot. Getting to truth through fiction was an accepted practice for that non-fiction pioneer. It was a common sense approach, using all the filmmaking tools available to capture as much of a multifarious reality as he could. Today the model, best exemplified by An Inconvenient Truth, is that of a TED talk, in which a pre-determined position is supported by talking heads, explanatory slides and jaunty animations. Most of these message documentaries, well-intentioned or not, have no need for moving images at all. Flaherty’s model has survived, but it lives at the periphery of the film world, in academic contexts like Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), or documentary boot camps like the yearly Robert Flaherty Seminar, which programs formally innovative non-fiction work by a rotating cast of curators. Programmers Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes have gathered the tendrils of these non-fiction experiments into the definition-expanding series “Art of the Real”, which runs through April 26th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Lim and Rakes make wide-ranging connections, from the ethnographic experiments of Jean Rouch (Jaguar, 1954/1967) to the SEL (which receives its own sidebar). Rouch practiced what he called “ethno-fiction”, and with Jaguar, he took an anthropological film he had shot in 1954 in Niger, and asked its subjects to dub a commentary over it thirteen years later, where they try to recall their on-screen conversations and get sidetracked with jokes and digressions. The SEL similarly foregrounds the apparatus of filmmaking, as in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (now in theaters via Cinema Guild), which takes a series of 16mm portraits of worshippers and tourists as they ride a cable car up the mountains to a temple in Nepal. Each rides runs the length of a roll of film, and contain a parade of micro-dramas, from the fate of a sacrificial chicken to that of a melting ice cream cone. The SEL was founded in 2006 to revive a Flaherty spirit in documentary, that “promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography”, as they say on their site. Spray is also represented by her 2009 ethnographic hangout film, As Long as There’s Breath (2009). It is the third in a series of videos she made of a Nepali family, and she has achieved such a laid back rapport it has the deadpan humor and tempo of a Jim Jarmusch movie. It’s a series of conversation sketches about the parents’ depression over their empty nest (the kids have all moved out), and the village women’s state of sexual satisfaction (low). Spray shoots them in silhouette against the mountainside, an image of aestheticized distance. But these ladies are no exotic other, and proceed to assert their agency by debating the relative merits of wooden and rubber dildos.
They have adapted to performing to Spray’s camera and turned into delicate and often hilarious performers. Three other documentaries in the series take performance as their theme: Davi Pretto’s Castanha, the Closing Night film Actress (2014). João Carlos Castanha is an aging actor in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He takes gigs all over town, from bit parts in TV dramas to a drag queen MC at the local gay bar. He’s seemingly born to entertain, though he’s never ascended past the local scene. Pretto emphasizes the small spaces of his dressing rooms, smoke filled squares that are not reminders of failure, exactly, but of a dulling inertia. Castanha lives with and cares for his mother, who spends her time swearing at the condo manager at coddling her grandson Marcelo, a drug addict. The film sways between Castanha’s endless pre-show rituals, the layers of makeup and small talk with other actors, with the rush of performance, his energy refracted in the disco ball light. Pretto takes advantage of Castanha’s performativity by inventing melodramatic scenarios to graft onto his life, turning Marcelo’s story into one of violence and mystery, allowing Castanha to pose as a gangster. In an interview with Ela Bittencourt in Guernica Mag, Pretto states his approach to capturing reality:
Our lives are marvelous constructs, caught between the real and fiction. We are always inventing fictions. We create our own roles and stories that we then interpret to our friends and colleagues. And I’m not the one who came up with this idea; it’s been around for a long time. In Jung, for example. But in the end, only the fictions can heal us. Only fiction shows us a way of dealing with the strange and absurd reality in which we are presently living.
Brandy Burre’s life is another marvelous construct. The subject of Robert Greene’s Actress secured a recurring part on The Wire before giving up acting to raise her children. She moved to Beacon with her boyfriend, and devoted her life to her family. As Greene picks up her story, the relationship is falling apart, and Burre is eager to return to the stage or the screen. Where Castanha is quiet and reflective, Burre is open and in the moment, talking herself through her insecurities and anxieties. It is rare for a documentary, or any film for that matter, to record so closely the everyday life of a woman above the age of 25. The joys of motherhood are all mashed together with career regrets and the mounting difficulty of a woman of her thirtysomething age to make a comeback in show business. She remembers how she was twenty-seven on the set of The Wire, while all the men were in their late thirties. She is not allowed to age gracefully, or balance her life and her work. The institutions of motherhood and show business both seem to conspire against her. Greene is well aware that Brandy is a star, and lights her like one, interrupting the handheld camera of daily life with vignettes of delicate soft focus close-ups, an upstate New York Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Brandy is stumbling her way through a life she is trying to get out of, with empathy and fragility, turning herself into her own crowning performance.
Mati Diop’s A Thousand Suns mourns one of Africa’s greatest performances, and charts an alternate history of its actor. Diop films Magaye Niang as he watches himself in a public screening of Touki Bouki (1973) in Senegal. A classic of the African cinema, it was about two Senegalese grifters who try to con their way out of Africa on a ship to France. It was directed by Mati Diop’s uncle, Djibril Diop Mambety. Niang is older now, introduced rustling cattle with a sewn on star on his shirt, the High Noon theme song on the soundtrack. He is a cowboy, a relic. When he tells kids at the screening that he is the actor in the movie, they don’t believe him, and say he must be dreaming. In this film Diop envisions another life for Niang, one in which he adopts the life of his Touki Bouki character and flees Senegal. The film becomes the dream the children accused Niang of living in, where the border between film and life, and life and dream, disappears as a fade to black.
Philipp Hartmann would admit he’s no great actor, but he’s an engagingly neurotic guide to the digressive essay film Time Goes By Like a Roaring Lion. The title is an odd phrase by Hartmann’s grandmother, conveying the violence and speed of time. Hartmann objects to getting old, and the more time passes the more he gets sucked into the past, like a time traveler. His triggers are not as poetic as Proust’s madeleine – he is set off by banal objects like a soccer magazine or a matchbook, sparking reminiscences on players’ birthdays and lovers’ faces. He uses his revulsion at his incipient death to hopscotch from the atomic clock in Braunschweig to a train graveyard in the Andes, on which an impermanent graffiti is scrawled, “The only thing that happens here is time.” When Hartmann returns to the train, the graffiti has been washed away by the rain. Through bull sessions with his friends, about Einstein’s Twin Paradox and their eternal adolescence, he looks for ways to outrun the clock, but he repeatedly encounters those driven mad by chronophobia:”Time would kill him at some point if he wasn’t faster.”
The films that make up “Art of the Real” supply an eclectic alternate history to non-fiction filmmaking, one that takes advantage of the full expressive potential of the medium. This week there is also a program of avant-garde work, including A New Product, in which Harun Farocki turns a corporate meeting on ideal workspaces into an absurdist essay on the impenetrability of neoliberal market-speak. Or if you’re in a more observational mode you can still catch Castanha and Actress (sold out, but you can always go standby). Instead of flicking on the latest “issue” documentary on Netflix, head to Lincoln Center and see what artists are moving the form ahead by going backward – to Flaherty and beyond.