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 3, 2012

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Since I’m not stinking rich just yet, my plan to go on a heavily medicated tour of international film festivals has been put on indefinite hold. Luckily, the Museum of the Moving Image has purloined 13 new features from all over the world, most without U.S. distribution, for their inaugural “First Look” series (Jan. 6-15), bringing the best of the fests to NYC. Since distributors continue to lose money on any film not in English (or, occasionally, French), it’s something of a miracle that any foreign titles reach our shores at all. This leaves a huge glut of films without any stateside release, left as rumors of masterpieces in the words of the few industrious critics and curators able to send word back to us in the sticks. “First Look” was programmed by some of these proud few: Dennis Lim, the editor of Moving Image Source, Assistant Curator of film Rachael Rakes and Chief Curator David Schwartz. It’s a small but impactful series, with invigorating entries from old masters like Chantal Akerman and enchanting young voices like Gonçalo Tocha.

The opening night slot is given to Akerman, who will be in person to present Almayer’s Folly (2011), her impressionistic rendering of Joseph Conrad’s first novel. As with her adaptation of Proust’s The Captive (2000), Akerman eschews textual faithfulness in order to establish a specific atmosphere. In The Captive it is of airless enclosures, as Simon (Stanislas Merhar) creeps at the edge of the frame, seeking to imprison Ariane (Sylvie Testud) within his own paranoia, subtly shifting the narrative center of Proust’s story over to the woman. It owes as much to Vertigo as Proust, and Almayer’s Folly is  equal parts Tabu and Conrad, using the story as a loose outline to contain images of luxurious colonial decay. It is filled with shallow-focus tracks through greenery and static shots of Almayer’s arthritic stumbling around his crumbling kingdom. Almayer (again Stanislas Merhar, equally opaque and vainly controlling as his Simon) is a Dutch trader who seeks his fortune in Malaysia (the film was shot in Cambodia). He marries a local, Zahira (Sakhna Om) because his mentor, Captain Lingard (Marc Barbé), believes the woman’s family owns land on top of a gold mine. The plan fails, and Almayer is marooned in a combative marriage on a dilapidated farm, his only respite his daughter Nina (Aurora Marion), whom Lingard enrolls in a strict French boarding school. As Almayer and Zahira slowly decompose into their surroundings, nurturing mutual resentments and growing manias, Nina increasingly occupies the center of the frame and the narrative, Akerman’s camera fixated on her placid, inquisitive face. This shift is signaled in the opening scene, in which an adult Nina is a backup dancer to her sometime lover Dain, as he lip-synchs to Dean Martin’s “Sway”. After an unknown attacker carries Dain off, Nina is left alone on stage, still dancing, seemingly oblivious to the world around her. Then, she takes the center in a close-up, and sings a gorgeously melancholic version of “Ave Verum Corpus”. A Eucharistic hymn to the redemptive power of Jesus’ suffering, it turns Nina into a martyr before the narrative proper begins, a grievous angel who pays for the sins of her father.

The protagonists of Christoph Hochhäusler’s The City Below (2010) live in a world without God and sin, but plenty of greed, as they sleepwalk their way through the global financial crisis. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, but was never released in the U.S.. A co-editor of the German film magazine Revolver, and associated with the loose cadre of “Berlin School” filmmakers, Hochhäusler is a precise technician, as his follow-up, One Minute of Darkness (2011, part of the Dreileben trilogy) shows. The City Below follows two empty suits: bank president Roland Cordes (Robert Hunger-Buhler) and Svenja (Nicolette Krebitz), the bored wife of one of his employees. Svenja is exhausted from constant re-location (from Hamburg to Houston to Frankfurt) and desperate for a way out of her modern glass-walled life, which Hochhäusler frames with geometrically precise right angles. His tracking shots use frequent jump cuts, however, irruptions in style that neatly echo the characters’ fissuring psyches. In the first shot, Svenja sees a woman wearing the same blouse as her, so she follows her steps, even ordering the same Danish (and spitting it out), desperately trying out a new life.  Cordes is equally eager for escape, fiercely identifying with (and gaining voyeuristic pleasure from) heroin addicts, as well as an employee in Indonesia who was kidnapped and killed. Cordes pretends that the victim’s childhood was his own – a lie he acts out for Svenja during their mutual seduction. It is a union of split, hollow personalities, who continually break-up and reunite in increasingly violent fashion, as if they were a rapidly multiplying microbe, set to take over and infect the world.

Phillipe Garrel’s mindset is still set squarely in the ‘60s, no matter what year his films are set in. His newest work is That Summer (2011) an earnestly affecting relationship drama in which its characters discuss revolution as if the May ’68 riots where happening right outside their doors. But no, it is set in the present day, and Phillippe’s son Louis plays Frederic, a mercurial, adulterous painter still passionately in love with his movie star wife, Angele (Monica Bellucci). When he invites his friend Paul (Jerome Robart) and girlfriend Elisabeth (Celine Sallete) to stay in their Paris apartment, they are there to witness the spectacular flameout of Frederic and Angele’s love. Garrel lovingly cultivates the star personas of Bellucci and and his son – Louis is insanely sensitive and brooding, Belluci imperiously cold and beautiful, more mythic archetypes than human beings. Frederic is all Dionysus with no Apollo, an artistic, atavistic soul not fit for the world, and so he departs it. Bellucci, who has never stood out to me in a film before, is wonderful as the herder of Frederic’s untrammeled emotions – and when her Olympian reserve cracks, it does so spectacularly in an uninhibited dance with a stranger, which Garrel shoots in a generously long take.

The standout title in the First Take series, though, is Gonçalo Tocha’s It’s the Earth, Not the Moon (2011), an absorbingly inventive three-hour documentary about the smallest island in the Azores archipelago, Corvo, population 440. Tocha spent parts of two years on the island, and attempted to film everything he could: knitting, cheese curdling, lock-making, accordion-playing, sitting, standing and dancing. Tocha is a restless social historian, trying to capture every tradition and personality on the island before they disappear – lending the film its joyous and elegiac qualities. He gets Ines Ines (a name she married into) to knit him an old-style beret, the retired cheese maker to make him some wheels of cheddar (“you have to take care of them just like babies”), and the 94 year old Uncle Pedro to play his accordion that he hadn’t brought out for ages. Tocha explores not just the people, but the volcanic landscape which produces the almost unearthly neon greens of the caldera vegetation, and the rocky shores that are nightly attacked by rising waters. The locals track these waters like sacred texts, producing a photo book of the highest wave crests. A former whaling port, the population has the ocean in their blood, even if it no longer provides a living. One of the former lookouts says of the whales, “I still dream with them”, before backtracking (“You want more lies?”). Tocha’s Corvo is not simply a necropolis sliding into the ocean, though, but a town, like any other, struggling to adapt to brutal new economic realities.

First Look is an essential new series, bringing together a cross-section of styles and approaches impossible to see in your neighborhood arthouse. And I haven’t even mentioned (or seen) the other entries in the program, including Johnnie To’s financial crisis drama Life Without Principle and Raya Martin’s Super-8 road trip freakout, Buenos Noches, Espana. With the number of films exploding and distribution channels shrinking, I hope this First Look is one of many to come.