February 25, 2014


Since 2001 the Museum of Modern Art has hosted “Documentary Fortnight”, a series devoted to formal innovations in non-fiction filmmaking. It’s where talking heads go to die. This year’s edition includes twenty features and a passel of shorts from twenty countries, covering a wide range of styles and subjects. I was taken with two documentaries that take wildly different approaches to the observational form. The Mother and the Sea is an immersive ethnographic study of pioneering Portuguese female fishing captains, while Campaign 2 (non Will-Ferrell division) is a run-and-gun vérité portrait of a Japanese city council election.  Running through February 28th, Documentary Fortnight is a one-stop-shop to witness the future of the non-fiction form.

My most anticipated title was The Mother and the Sea, the latest ethnographic deep dive from Gonçalo Tocha. At the beginning of his 2011 documentary It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, he promises to “to film everything we can” of the Portuguese island of Corvo, the westernmost point of Europe. That 3-hour epic captures the past in the present, as the history of the island emerges through dying out traditions and the reminiscences of its oldest inhabitants. Corvo was once a major whaling outpost, as well as the repository of local wisdom ranging from cheese mongering to hat knitting. Tocha tries to extend these traditions and incarnate memories through his patiently wandering camera, where static portraiture of residents conjures up whole histories in a glance. In The Mother and the Sea he takes a similar approach to the small coastal Portuguese village of Vila Chã, though with a narrowed focus. Tocha is  fascinated by the group of 1940s women who became captains of small fishing boats. He claims they were the only women in the world to captain their own ships at the time, their ages ranging from 16 to 60. He can only find scraps of published memory in the library stacks, consisting of a few articles and one heroic photo of the women standing at attention.


To get a fuller sense of their world Tocha docks at Vila Chã and chats with the locals. His interlocutor is Gloria, the last of the fisherwomen. At its height the town housed 120 boats and 17 women of the sea. Now there are 9 ships, with Gloria the last female skipper. She is Tocha’s key to unlocking the memories of the other villagers, triggering their sense memories of when the town was abuzz with activity. She is a living link between past and present, and so Tocha, who acted as a protagonist in It’s the Earth, is more in the background here. Gloria takes center stage, interviewing daughters of the captains, as well as her own mother. The daughter of Ines de Chula, framed against a window opening upon the sea, remembers how her mother “went to sea” after her dad abandoned the family. The term “went to sea” takes on a sacred tone whenever it is uttered, akin to taking on the raiments of priesthood.


So despite the economic necessity of these ladies’ decisions, once they “went to sea” they were loathe to come back, as if they were given a taste of heaven and then had it retracted, as with some who were forbidden to continue after they were married. Their fishing licenses are filmed in silence, as if holy writ, physical proof of their transitory transcendence. Tocha shoots his film with equivalent reverence, the villagers posed in static compositions like saintly icons.

The men continued in the job as long as they were physically able, one 91-year-old speaking of it as an addiction, feeling the urge to tug at fishing line as habit forming as a pull of nicotine. The town’s top evangelist of the sea is Guilherme “Pilo” Sales, who claims he can speak to the sea. He has three daughters, none of whom took up the family business, for which he exhibits a twinge of regret. His love for the water will pass away with him.

The longest interview Gloria conducts is with her mother, Maria Ramos Canito, who “went to sea” at 17 and continued through her life. Maria is a born storyteller, polishing anecdotes to a high sheen. Her most memorable involves one of her first journeys into the sea, when she was caught in a storm with her captain Norberto. When all was thought to be lost, she kept the faith, navigating them home to safety when hysteria was taking over. Tocha’s time-traveling reels the 1940s fisherwomen into the present, and conveys the spirituality in which these fishermen and women approached their task. For the women it started as necessity, the only way to make a living on their own, as they were shut out of so many other professions. But just like the men in town, they became hypnotized by its imperturbable beauty. The film ends with Guilherme talking to the waves, thanking the sea for giving him the only life he desired.


There is not much of a spiritual side to local Japanese elections, at least not in Kazuhiro Soda’s Campaign 2. In a system which limits its nominees from debating political issues in public, the candidates are reduced to standing at transit hubs and shaking the hands of rush hour passersby. This was the fate of Kazahuki Yamauchi in the first Campaign (2007), in which he had the support of the Liberal Democratic Party machine and won a seat on the Kawasaki City Council. The circus of handshakes, loudspeakers and touring vans is documented in intimate fashion by Soda, who uses a first person observational style, jutting his camera in as close as possible to the action.  It’s a run-and-gun style that motors on adrenaline. It could be wearying, except that Yamauchi is an irresistible subject, an excitable idealist motormouth with absolutely no filter. Soda knew Yamauchi from their time at Tokyo University, so there is a familiarity that breaks down any PR barriers.


Yamauchi lost his city council position in a 2007 party shake-up, and then he spent the next four years as a house husband, raising his son Yuki while his wife Sayuri paid the bills. Yamauchi was enraged by the political standstill over nuclear power following the tsunami and Fukushima reactor disaster in 2011, motivating his 2011 run as an independent. This time, however, he refused to engage in the usual campaigning. Instead he invests only in posters and postcards, spending $850 total. Despite a minuscule chance at victory, the mischievous Yamauchi is downright giddy as he cruises past his miserable looking competitors as they don sashes and bow deferentially to every customer cruising out of KFC. As he says, “The 3/11 disaster has changed Japan but not the politicians.” The radioactivity levels in water and vegetables are a daily story, but no politician seems prepared to challenge the hegemony of nuclear power. Yamauchi’s is a noble cause, but he seems to enjoy needling his competitors more than advancing his platform, which he does only once – at an isolated intersection the day before the election. Soda is recognized far more than Yamauchi, the original Campaign having been a success in Japan. Some politicians cozy up to Soda’s camera, one Democrat decrying the banality of their election season in damning terms before wandering right back to his election team and bowing to every commuter – who ignore him completely – a microcosm of the election at large.



January 12, 2019


Early yesterday, news broke that Eric Rohmer passed away at the age of 89. Dave Kehr has a fine obituaryup at the NY Times, and I would recommend Michael J. Anderson’s essay on My Night at Maud’s and The Green Ray for an analysis of his styleThe Six Moral Tales will remain his legacy, but I found his swan song, The Romance of Astree and Celadonto be equally extraodinary. Suzi penned a lovely tribute to the recently deceased film critic Robin Wood yesterday, and who else but Eric Rohmer was the publisher of Wood’s first essay (on Psycho) for Cahiers du Cinema. Rohmer’s influence on filmmaking and criticism is incalcuable, and his art will live on as long as we value film as an art form.

Now back to the regularly scheduled sheep programming…

The first quarter viewing calendar I posted last week is off to a rousing start. Sweetgrass opened in NYC after its local premiere at the New York Film Festival, and it’s an overpoweringly tactile experience. Cinema Guild is expanding it to ten more cities through the spring, so check the schedule….now. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash recorded 200 hours of footage of two Norwegian-American sheepherders as they led their flock through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains for summer pasture. There are no interviews and the only explanatory text appears at the end of the film before the credits roll. It is a ravishing document of a dying tradition, and one that sets its boots deep in the sheep shit as well as in the rolling plains. This is no romantic gloss of the West, but an immersion in it. Castaing-Taylor and Barbach spent two years filming in and around Big Timber, Montana, which produced a series of short films, but the feature took eight years of editing (and double foot surgery for Lucien after lugging all his equipment over the mountains).

The duo are professors in Visual Anthropology and Sensory Ethnography at Harvard, and their work has previously only been exhibited in art galleriesFrom Sweetgrass, it’s clear that they aim to straddle the boundary between social science and the arts, both documenting culture and reflecting upon it. There are some very artfully composed shots in Sweetgrass, of cowboys framed against the horizon and sheep inching down a mountain in extreme long-shot, that would seem to be outside of an anthropologist’s purview. In a great interview with Cinema Scope, Castaing-Taylor elaborates:

Ambiguity, or any kind of aesthetic opacity that isn’t readily translatable into the limpid clarity of expository prose, is somehow lacking for anthropologists, in their quest for “cultural meaning.”…I’m not desperate for Sweetgrass to be recuperated as a work of visual anthropology, but simply because it doesn’t tell you what it’s about, and because there aren’t that many words in it, doesn’t mean for me mean it isn’t a work of anthropology. It actually feels profoundly so to me, but maybe more a philosophical anthropology.

Castaing-Taylor is working against the grain of his profession to get at the poetry of his subjects’ existence along with the exterior that can be studied. The three subjects under their camera’s microscope here: John, an older, gentle herder; Pat, the hot-headed, younger herder; and a whole mess o’ sheep. Castaing-Taylor had placed between four and eight lavolier microphones on the men and the sheep at all times, and captured some extraordinary footage on his DV camera. Since this was filmed in 2001-2002, the image quality suffers. One often wishes he had the budget for a 35mm setup, but then the remarkable intimacy would be lost. The sound design is often stunning, however, edited by experimental musician Ernst Karel, it’s a cascade of sheep noises – their bleats, honks, skronks, and death rattles.

The only calming sounds in the film, other than the cricket-y silence of nightime, comes from John, a craggy-faced loner who speaks more to the sheep than to Pat. His voice is low and rumbly, and he rarely raises it above a whisper. In  a sequence of great beauty, he urges his “girls” not to stray out of line, repeating the phrase over and over until it sounds like a declaration of love. Filmed against the dusky night sky, it’s a scene of delicate romance.

Then there’s Pat, a younger guy on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Sick of the sleepless nights, whining sheep, bum knee and an injured dog, he calls up his mom and unleashes a torrent of complaints, which he also unleashes on the herd (he calls them “bitches” as opposed to John’s “girls”). But it’s impossible not to be sympathetic to his plight – this is an incredibly exhausting, isolating, and dangerous job. With John only talking to his animals, Pat is alone, unstable, and completely lost.

The ultimate stars, though, aside from the vistas of Montana, are the sheep. The opening shot finds one of these incurious beasts raise its head and stare directly into the camera, daring us to imagine the world within its miniscule brain.