It seems slightly off-kilter to term a film by Alexander Sokurov, everyone’s favorite Slavophile modernist, a “mash-up.” Yet Francofonia, which opened the Museum of the Moving Image’s fifth annual First Look festival, brings to mind an idiosyncratic synthesis of motifs derived from Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma and Volker Schlöndorff’s Diplomacy. With more than a passing resemblance to the ever-popular fiction/non-fiction hybrid film, Sokurov’s rambling meditation on the aesthetic imperatives of authoritarianism was an appropriate choice to open a festival that specializes in experimental hybridism. New work by such disparate filmmakers as Dominic Gagnon, Léa Rinaldi, and Louis Skorecki traverses generic boundaries—even though, for seasoned festival audiences, this sort of genre-bending is now more of a routine occurrence than a transgressive event.
First Look’s desire to showcase subversive hybridity was evident in Quebecois filmmaker Dominic Gagnon’s double bill—Pieces and Love All to Hell (2011) and Of the North. Gagnon specializes in highly edited amalgamations of YouTube videos—the contemporary version of the found footage film pioneered by avant-gardists such as Bruce Conner, Arthur Lipsett, and Matthias Muller. Unlike Conner and company, Gagnon’s films constitute a peculiar blend of populism and experimental verve, as well as a marked oscillation between snarkiness and earnestness that many viewers find confounding. Pieces and Love, for example, features an array of YouTube videos, once flagged as “inappropriate,” that feature mostly female American survivalists and conspiracy theorists. The film is an exercise in calculated incongruity: stereotypical images of femininity are subverted in glimpses of, to cite one example, a bikini-clad woman toting a rifle, while the bellicose, often rabidly right-wing sentiments come off as eerily comic. Gagnon’s YouTube foraging regales us with loopy fantasies in which regaining a supposedly lost nationalist potency becomes the primary goal. One of the few ranting men remarks that the consumption of soy is generating estrogen in his fellow males and urges his peers to eat yogurt to promote testosterone. In a similar vein, a woman bemoans how “hippies and yuppies” will be left behind as an apocalyptic America prepares for all-out civil war. Although it seems fair to assume that the talking heads in Pieces and Love are being derided, Gagnon, during a post-screening Q and A, maintained, whether disingenuously or not, that he was briefly enamored of survivalism himself as he compiled the raw material for the film.
Of the North is less of a laugh fest—and has proved much more controversial. While the protagonists of Piece and Love were supposedly delighted by the resuscitation of their tirades in Gagnon’s collage, some members of the Inuit community have proved less receptive to images of their compatriots that appear in the new film. The crux of the debate involves the ethics and aesthetics of self-representation and how Gagnon recontextualizes the frequently unflattering video images of Inuits in both the Canadian hinterlands and Alaska. The title slyly implies (although Gagnon seems not to acknowledge this) that “the North” of Gagnon’s concertedly anti-romantic chronicle subverts the heroic, but arguably patronizing, portrait of Nanook and his family’s struggle against the elements in Robert Flaherty’s classic documentary. As a riposte, Of the North offers drunken Inuits stumbling around in the midst of desperate poverty, a randy frat boy type ogling a naked “Eskimo” woman, and the writhings of a young indigenous man in a fat suit while we hear a ditty called “Don’t Call Me an Eskimo” on the soundtrack.
Some unsympathetic viewers in Canada (especially the Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq) reject claims that Gagnon’s assemblage of gritty, admittedly politically incorrect, glimpses of life among some of the country’s most marginalized residents is essentially “affectionate,” as MoMI’s curator David Schwartz insisted at the film’s sole public screening. Tagaq termed the film unabashedly “racist” and decried the inclusion of excerpts from her performances that were originally added to the soundtrack. (Fearing legal retribution, Gagnon has since removed these audio fragments.) In the final analysis, it’s difficult to either thoroughly embrace Gagnon’s agenda or support Tagaq and her allies’ rather unnuanced critique of his cinematic strategies. Eric Hynes’s assertion in Film Comment that the film exemplifies a sort of “gonzo ethnography” seems more than slightly inflated; at best, the work of a Quebecois filmmaker who has never ventured “to the North” is mere ironic “Slacktivism.” Yet trying to muzzle a filmmaker who, if perhaps misguided, is nevertheless far from a racist adds up to a futile example of mechanically deployed identity politics.
Léa Rinaldi’s short documentaries chronicling the “making of ” Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control and Only Lovers Left Alive, Behind Jim Jarmusch and Traveling at Night With Jim Jarmusch, more leisurely variants of the supplements found on DVDs, were both less incendiary than Gagnon’s provocations—and considerably duller. Admittedly, Rinaldi’s patient documentation of Jarmusch’s laid back directorial style will prove illuminating to his fans. The most insightful moments depict his jokey rapport with the cinematographer Christopher Doyle in Behind Jim Jarmusch and his empathetic collaboration with Tilda Swinton in both films. In fact, Jarmusch’s non-authoritarian approach to directing shines through in both films; he’s the complete antithesis of the cliché of the director as general marshaling the troops. His occasional admissions of befuddlement are also refreshing. Jarmusch’s consultations with Swinton concerning line readings and the best stratagem for dealing with a pool of fake blood highlight the delicate, often minute, negotiations that ensure harmony on a film set.
Unlike Gagnon and Rinaldi’s films, Louis Skorecki’s Le Juif de Lascaux (which will be screened on January 24) doesn’t even pretend to emulate documentary conventions—even though it might be construed as a documentary portrait of Skorecki’s inner turmoil. Known in France as a critic for Libération and an occasional filmmaker, Skorecki’s name is familiar to only hard core cinephiles in the U.S. Like Luc Moullet, another French critic/filmmaker, he’s perpetually “almost famous.” Although the word “whatsit” is one of the most shopworn labels in the contemporary critical lexicon, it’s certainly true that Le Juif, which might be termed fictionalized autobiography, is sui generis. Resembling a series of blackout sketches without punch lines, the film is a free form, undidactic exploration of Skorecki’s life as a Jew in postwar France. Born in Gurs, a French concentration camp (sometimes referred to as an "internment camp,") in 1943, he focuses on his Jewish heritage without the usual heavy-handedness that accompany tales of ethnic identity. The tone is more akin to dark whimsy than the axe-grinding of a militantly “Jewish film.” A curious obsession with cuisine suffuses the film; a discussion of gefilte fish takes on nearly philosophical resonances. Lascaux was known for its cave paintings; the delightful faux-innocence of Le Juif de Lascaux is almost the equivalent—a barely decipherable, but engaging, cinematic artifact that sharply contrasts with the more polished autobiographical films that abound on the “indie” circuit.
Despite a more traditional observational approach, Anna Roussillon’s I Am the People (2014) is an equally productive, and informative, example of iconoclastic cinematic ethnography. Unlike other documentary explorations of the Egyptian Arab Spring such as Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (2013), Roussillon is not concerned with the tactics of urban activists but is instead preoccupied with the impoverished rural Egyptians who viewed the insurgency from a distance. The protagonists are peasants—a man named Farraj and his family—who viewed the events in Tahrir Square with equal amounts of fascination and bemusement. Farraj’s political mood swings—which range from exhilaration as President Mubarak is disposed to despair and cynicism as his successor Mohamed Morsi, who turns out to be as despotic as Mubarak, is replaced by a new military regime—mirrors the mood of the entire country. Roussillon’s lack of regard for documentary decorum—her spirited bickering with Farraj— enlivens I Am the People. She challenges his contradictory views and tries to undermine his ultimately pessimistic assessment of the possibilities for democratic change in Egypt. Her lack of interest in traditional notions of nonfictional “objectivity” is what links her films to the more heterodox efforts of outliers like Gagnon and Skorecki.
First Look is to be commended for its willingness to risk alienating audiences by showcasing risky, occasionally flawed, work. It might well be true, as Nick Pinkerton observed in his Artforum communiqué on the series, that these screenings could also constitute New Yorkers’ “last look” at movies deemed too esoteric for most venues. Still, this mini-festival’s resourcefulness in bringing the cream of European and American experimental cinema to Queens is an annual boon to local cinephiles.