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.


January 1, 2013

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The beginning of the New Year means it’s time to catch up with the old. For the second year running the “First Look” series at the Museum of the Moving Image (January 4 – 13) provides an invaluable showcase for undistributed international cinema. Programmers Rachael Rakes, Dennis Lim and David Schwartz pluck adventurous work from festivals around the world, tracking developments in documentary form, the Berlin School, Korean indies and the continuing vibrancy of Portuguese film culture. In a clue as to the series’ disregard of commercial impulses, the series’ opening night film is Hors Satan, the latest by the divisive arthouse provocateur Bruno Dumont. Operating as a relatively youthful version of the New York Film Festival, First Look is an attempt to clue its audiences in to the possible future of the medium.

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If you’re looking for a crime flick alternative to Jack Reacher, you should seek out Thomas Arslan’s In the Shadows, a terse heist film worthy of both Jean-Pierre Melville  and Donald Westlake. Released in Germany in 2010, it has never been shown in the U.S. aside from sparse festival screenings. Arslan has been grouped in the “Berlin School” of filmmakers along with Christian Petzold and Angela Schanelec, as they all attended the German Film and Television Academy in the early 1990s under the tutelage of Hartmut Bitomsky and Harun Farocki (for more on the Berlin School read Marco Abel in Cineaste). Their style tends toward coolly observational reworkings of traditional genres, as last year’s “First Look” selection from the Berlin School, Christoph Hochhausler’s The City Below, rethought the corporate thriller. For In the Shadows, Arslan wrote an original script but is clearly channeling the stoic Melville hero from Le Samourai. The lead actor Misel Maticevic has more than a passing resemblance to Alain Delon, and plays a similar figure of blank professionalism. Known only as “Trojan”, Maticevic stalks through a glimmering Berlin of glass and chrome after being released from jail. Arslan often frames him in the corners of cafe windows, always watching and waiting for a lucrative gig to come his way. If the character is pure Melville the plot is straight from Westlake’s Parker novels, obsessed with the process of executing lucrative small time crimes. Trojan is constantly forming and reforming plans, covering for every contingency, sticking wedges of paper in hotel doors as a makeshift alarm systems and knifing through fights to leave as little evidence of his presence as possible. Arslan would be the ideal candidate to direct Jason Statham in the forthcoming Parker movie, but instead he’s moving on to recast another genre. This year Gold will premiere, his Klondike gold rush Western starring that brilliant blonde axiom of the Berlin School group, Nina Hoss (Barbara).

Another title for Jang Kun-jae’s Sleepless Night could be This is 30. A slender 65 minute reverie about a young married couple, this is a deceptively slight film that trembles with unspoken terrors. An unexceptional couple, the man a factory worker, the woman a yoga instructor, spend their days and nights together as one extended embrace. Actors Kim Soo-hyun and Kim Joo-ryeong ooze pheremonal attraction, each gaze and gentle graze positioned so they fit together like puzzle pieces.  The film uses the standard static camera/long take strategy of too many festival films, but these actors justify the strategy, their movements more than making up for the camera’s lack. The couple’s perennial youth must fade, however, and a hilariously picky post-dinner party argument introduces a fissure in their bond that both soon wish to ignore. The change is registered in their bodies, made clear in a final shot in which the wife looks at the husband, and he is looking at the stars.

Sleepless Night is so lived in, and such a reflection of my own life at this stage, that it feels like a documentary, whereas the actual documentaries on display are more composed and choreographed.  Inori is Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s follow-up to his gorgeous family drama on a Mexican coral reef Alamar, and it continues his ethnographic fascination with outsider communities. This time he follows a shrinking mountain village in Japan in which only the elderly remain. The school has turned into a walk-in clinic and the main occupation is decorating memorial shrines, with the residents seeming sanguine about the prospects of nature retaking their once bustling home. The film is a patient one that simply looks and listens, a recording of the dying light. The HD images are gorgeous, but I could have done without the overdetermined symbolism of one of the final shots – a woman’s face reflected in a ticking clock. Arraianos is Eloy Enciso’s more experimental take on the same material. He also filmed an aging community, this time on the Galicia-Portugal border. Along with documenting their traditional farming techniques and asking them to sing old folk songs, he has the villagers act out scenes from the play “The Forest” by Galician writer Jenaro Marinhas del Valle. These recitations in the forest and bars recalls the quotation heavy late works of Straub-Huillet, but with none of their wit.

One who could never be decried for his lack of wit is Thom Andersen, whose latest filmic essay Reconversion (Reconversao) examines the work of Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. It is an education and a delightful one. Andersen’s fastidious work goes project-by-project through Souto de Moura’s career, traveling to each site as it looks today, providing historical context along with liberal quotes from the highly quotable architect. Souto de Moura is obsessed with the concept of ruins, which he considers the “natural state of the work, a work that comes to an end.” The series excavates another ruin with Xavier (1991/2001), an independent feature started in 1991, completed in 2001, and rarely screened afterward. Director Manuel Mozos was a friend and mentor to director Miguel Gomes, whose miraculous Tabu continues to wend its way across the U.S., and Gomes returned the favor by programming a series of Mozos’ work at last year’s Viennale (Vienna Film Festival). A melancholy no-budget drama about being young and lost, it follows the title character (Pedro Hestnes) as he returns from the army to a life of short-term jobs and shorter-term relationships. Abandoned by his mentally absent mother as a child, Xavier’s impulse is to drift instead of connect. A supreme hangout movie, Mozos shoots on the streets of Lisbon as Xavier and his fuckup pals kill time in cafes and bars, waiting for their lives to begin.

The most indelible entries in the shorts program, Mati Diop’s Snow Canon and Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Eletrodomestica, convey a similar atmosphere of waiting, of the in-between moments that define lives. Diop, best known for acting in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, is also a born filmmaker (her uncle is the Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambéty). Snow Canon is a uniquely tactile coming-of-age film, set in a cabin in a French Alps resort. Structured around a pattern of inside/outside, a young girl stares idly at the mountaintops out her window, while building an erotic life inside her head. First it is a cute male babysitter, but he is replaced by an American girl, who suffers a breakup and leaves her emotionally raw. Connecting through dress-up and fantasy, the two build an erotic tension that is only made manifest when both step into the fresh air outside, and their dreams briefly come true. Mendonca Filho’s film is a dry run for his stunning debut feature Neighboring Sounds, a rhythmically cut day-in-the-life of a middle class housewife in Recife, Brazil. Satiric where Neighboring Sounds is more observational, Eletrodomestica shows a household that worships technology to the point of absurdity, using it to cook, clean, do homework, and even self-pleasure. The First Look series is nothing if not pleasurable, a refreshingly hype-free and forward-looking fest that has the added benefit of making you look smart when one of these immensely talented filmmakers makes the next festival hit.

35 SHOTS OF RUM (2008)

March 17, 2009


35 Shots of Rum begins inside of a commuter train, the industrial landscape zooming past the conductor’s front window. Then there is a cut to an off-duty transit worker, Lionel (Alex Descas), smoking a cigarette by the tracks.  Director Claire Denis repeats this contrast throughout the opening sequence,  back and forth between the gleaming locomotive and Descas’ impassive face. Soon his daughter Josephine (Mati Diop) enters the montage, an exhausted rush-hour passenger on the way home.  This simple, wordless sequence sets up the central dynamic of the film: Josephine’s drift into adulthood delayed by the centripetal force of family comforts, located in the reassuring solidity of her father and their apartment.

Screened as part of Film at Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vouz with French Cinema, it is another beautifully textured work from Denis, her first fiction feature since L’intrus (2004). 35 Shots of Rum is a return to a more linear form of storytelling after L’intrus‘ narrative refusal, which used an associative whirl of images inspired by continental philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy (you can read my former academic self’s thoughts on this remarkable film in Senses of Cinema). Denis turned to the family drama because of Yasujiro Ozu and her mother. As she told Robert Davis of Daily Plastic:

it’s the story of my grandfather and my mother. She was raised by her father. And once I took her to see a retrospective of Ozu, and she really had a sort of shock to see that film [Late Spring]. That was maybe ten, fifteen years ago. I told her, “Maybe, once, I will try to make a film like that for you.”

This film is a promise fulfilled, a worthy successor to Ozu’s placid genius and a delicately embossed love letter from daughter to mother.

Lionel is a widow, and Josephine is his only child. Their bond has been cemented through their everyday rituals, lovingly detailed by Denis’ long time cinematographer Agnes Godard. Every night Lionel comes home, changes into his robe, and showers before sleep. Descas is filmed in long shot, with a tentative push-in down the hallway as he turns into the bathroom. Diop is shown in close-up, a cascade of smiles lighting up her face – one for every familiar noise Lionel makes. This noise-as-bond contrasts to an earlier sequence, when their life-long neighbor Noé (Denis axiom Grégoire Colin), comes home and lingers in an upstairs hallway, listening to the music emanating from his beloved Josephine’s stereo. Again Godard uses a small push-in, to an empty hall this time, followed by a close-up of Colin’s face, his loneliness evident on his cadaverous features. This same combination of shots indicates separation, a lucid interplay between shot and counter-shot, long-shot and close-up, that is representative of the precise emotions wrought by Godard’s camera throughout the film.

This lucidity is shown-off to marvelous effect in the film’s major set-piece, set at a cafe nearing closing time. The whole makeshift family (Lionel, Josephine, Noé, and Lionel’s ex-flame Gabrielle (Nicole Dogue)) head out to a concert only to have their car break down in a storm. They wait out the weather in the cafe, and all of the characters’ emotions come to the fore, expressed with a minimum of dialogue. Just like the father in Late Spring, Lionel is adamant that Josephine stop caring for him,  fearful that he is robbing her of her youth. So with the Commodores’ “Nightshift” on the jukebox, Noé cuts in on the father as he dances with Josephine. Relegated to the bar, a remarkable series of edits and performances occur. In medium-shot Colin and Diop move closer, his dextrous fingers letting down her hair, pulling himself into her. This is intercut with a series of close-ups of Descas, witnessing the flirtation. His performance is extraodinary for its surface calm as his daughter is seduced by Noé, his will for her freedom resolute. His only concession is a brief glance downward as Noé moves in for the kiss, before Josephine pushes him away, still unsure of her love. This exchange is the emotional nexus, but the cross-currents effect Gabrielle, as Lionel pulls the restaurant owner aside for some physical escape of his own, eliciting a secondary shot-countershot series. The intensity of emotion here is breathtaking, hearkening back to the power of silent cinema as well as the minimalist aesthetic of Ozu.

The film ends in a bittersweet glow, not unlike the haze produced by knocking back a few Cuervos. With elliptical grace, Denis implies a wedding, and an escape, through a gorgeous insert of a necklace spinning ’round Josephine’s neck and Noé cracking a smile. Again it is a close-up shot/longer counter-shot pattern, but instead of emphasizing their physicality (creating noise, slow dancing), it aims to capture the ineffable contours of love and memory: the close-up necklace connoting the absent mother, Lionel as patient fatherly hands clasping it on, and Noé out in the hallway in medium-shot, out of sight of the bride but reacting with a beatific grin, as if his adoration let him see through walls.