The selection at this year’s installation of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real film festival, an annual showcase dedicated to conveying the spectrum of nonfiction filmmaking, are an intriguing bunch culled from a variety of seemingly opposing cultures, yet still exhibiting a fascination with interrogating the past. That this fixation is explored through a miscellany of aesthetic methods is only testament to the veracity of the festival’s undertaking.
As this year’s sidebar retrospective of avant-garde giant Bruce Baillie’s work evinces, the nuances and vagaries of the term ‘“nonfiction” allow for fruitful pairings of works that continue the lineage of the abstract, non-narrative work that comes to define our idea of the American avant-garde with those of more familiar documentary tendencies. Daïchi Saïto’s superlative Engram of Returning, playing as part of the second shorts program,is certainly the film that exhibits the tendencies of the former category most of any in the festival, recalling the variegations of Stan Brakhage’s “closed-eye vision” images. One gets the impression of a symbiotic collaboration between image-maker and composer, as Jason Sharp’s nervy score pulsates, inextricable from Saïto’s strobing visions it appears to be propelling. The images themselves are singular in that what is flashing onscreen are identifiably the filtered, formally distorted mental memories of landscapes and their shape, perhaps the half-remembered rugged vistas of Walkabout put through the avant-garde ringer. Standing out from the pack, Saïto’s film instigates an interrogation of nonfiction cinema in a manner that is certain to provoke and endure.
The opening night festival selections are no less provocative, albeit in ways that are more customary of the documentary tradition, and more concerned with content than aesthetic radicality. Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side immediately presents itself as a film interested in narrative, in blending the lines between fiction and nonfiction, both aesthetically and structurally. The first credit seen after the film ends is “Written by Roberto Minervini,” and indeed were it to play with no documentary context, I would not have recognized it as such. The actions and gestures affected by the subjects of a Louisiana backwater are instantly discernible as performative, even didactic at points—indicative of the subjects’ co-authorship in delivering this portraiture of disconcerting American poverty. Minervini displays remarkable empathy toward Mark and Lisa, the two meth addicts/dealers followed around for most of the film, as well as the larger, insular Louisiana community. He provides them the platform to voice their views and values—many of which are sure to be repellant to the left-wing audience The Other Side will likely be playing to—and builds a quotidian rhythm through observation that still holds a concern in narrative structure. Meanwhile, Ben Rivers’ What Means Something, which receives its world premiere at Art of the Real, has something of a reverence for its subject, expressed through a congenial austerity. Quite the textural opposite to Minervini’s digital, often handheld approach, Rivers sticks with 16mm for this work, shooting with mostly static camera shots. At first glance resolutely focused on observing painter Rose Wylie’s solitary working process in real time, Rivers begins to intersperse these sequences with ostensibly unrelated talking head shots of Wylie discussing influences and looking at sketchbooks. With these cutaways, we realize that Rivers is eliding moments of Wylie’s progression with her current painting; a slipperier portraiture of artistic machinations is being created, more interested in the scatterbrained amalgam of experience that leads to creation than in the purity of experience that Straub/Huillet were committed to with their own renderings of the artistic process (Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, Moses und Aron), bordering on documentary itself.
Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead has its own narrative cinema analogues, resembling 2001: A Space Odyssey and the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul rather than the recent radical nautical documentary Leviathan. Herce juxtaposes shots of wide vistas of the ocean and sky viewed from the deck of the freighter ship the camera tours, with those of its claustrophobic bowels, explored through pensive roving. This juxtaposition contributes to an immersive spatial disorientation that turns the ship into a surreal collection of steel and metal abstractions, working together to power ahead, but disconcertingly unconnected. Shots of the crew are furtive, surprising, as if they are intruders on the ship’s structural perfection. Immersive experience seems to be Dead Slow Ahead’s end, and it excels in that degree, allowing the viewer to ponder isolation surrounded by unmovable force throughout its ruminative 70 minutes.
Perhaps the most exciting subset under the nonfiction umbrella is that of the essay film. The manipulation of extant footage to create one’s own argumentative work has become one of the most interesting ways in which filmmakers can articulate their arguments—and more compellingly, their personas—through editing. One of the most invigorating films at the festival is Jean-Gabriel Périot’s A German Youth, which while ostensibly chronicling the rise and fall of the Baader-Meinhof Red Army Faction militant group through the 1960s and 1970s, ends up being a simultaneously rousing and depressing ode to the spirit of radicalism throughout Europe in the 60s, as relevant to Berlin in ’66 as it is to Paris in ’68. Périot utilizes both the radical films made by many of the prominent student leaders, as well as the copious amount of footage from talk shows where roundtables discussing “the State of Morality Today” were commonly held, in juxtaposition to convey the chaotic desperation the German youth must have felt after being bombarded with all of this rhetorical stimuli. We feel the youth revolt against a new fascism in the crackle of Périot’s editing, only to be defeated by the system in that dream-crusher decade we call the 70s. Constantly impressive in its ability to seamlessly weave footage exposing views of the political spectrum, A German Youth offers perhaps the strongest narrative experience of the entire festival. Serving as a nice compliment to Périot’s film is Camilo Restrepo’s Impression of A War (although it is actually paired with Fragment 53 in the program), which takes a decidedly more obtuse path to depicting the various forms of violence that has come to define the last 70 years of Colombia’s history. This short film stays true to its title and uses a variety of found footage to give impressions of how the various political and social wars define the Columbian people’s reaction to the oppression they face. The clips range from a man tattooing anti-government rhetoric on his own skin unflinchingly, to 240p YouTube clips of the Colombian military filming their exploits in the field, also unflinching in their indifference to war atrocities. Through this approach, Restrepo gives a more effective smelling salt to the audience than had the film been overly didactic and expository.
Less effective than either of the two prior titles—and almost certainly the biggest disappointment at Art of the Real, considering the filmmaker’s track record—is Thom Andersen’s ode to cinema and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze, The Thoughts That Once We Had. Where Andersen’s defining work (to date), Los Angeles Plays Itself, derives its strength from idiosyncrasy and ambiguity, his new film suffers from being too obtuse and vague about the filmmaker’s relationship to the images onscreen, using the vaguest of Deleuze quotes as the most tenuous of threads between years of cinema. It is very difficult to not roll one’s eyes at the notion of “the affection-image” aligning Griffith and Stroheim with Resnais and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Where Encke King’s voiceover in Los Angeles has received much criticism, here it would be a godsend, providing the film with a much-needed backbone to support any of its implicit arguments. Instead what we get is a mélange of Andersen’s favorite films (there is no doubting he has exquisite taste), which is sometimes nice to look at—when he’s able to use a Blu-ray as the source for his clips—but often snooze-inducing.
The most commonly used documentary technique has also become one of the most contentious, often subject to accusations of formal laziness on the part of the filmmaker. The technique would be that of the “talking head,” and it is yet another reason to praise Art of the Real that the selections that employ talking heads in the festival are those that interrogate and justify its value as a structural decision. Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis’s Il Solengo as well as Federico Lodoli and Carlo Gabriele Tribbioli’s Fragment 53 are the two films that jump to mind when thinking of engaging instances of talking heads. De Righi and Zoppi’s film is a playful and beautifully-shot ode to the tradition of verbal storytelling and the Italian countryside on which these stories subsist. Attempting to retell the story of an eccentric, cave-dwelling hermit named Mario de Marcella, Il Solengo also serves as ethnography, observing the elder hunters whom tell anecdotes about Marcella in their community, isolated from the rest of Italian society and living by their own code. Of course, the anecdotes contradict each other, and the only details that seem clear about De Marcella are that his mother’s death was a defining influence on his mental health and that, while antisocial, he was a skilled hunter worthy of respect. Reconciliation isn’t really the goal of Il Solengo, however, so these differences are negligible. Rather, the film strives to depict how a structuring absence works in a closed-off community such as this, and it does so admirably in its aesthetics. Conversely, the reconciliation that does come in Fragment 53 is of a supremely unnerving sort. The film is a succession of talking head monologues delivered by “generals” of opposing sides in the First Liberian Civil War, 20 years later. The disconcertion arrives from the agreement on all sides that the participants are not responsible for the absolute atrocities committed as part of the war, many of which occurred when the film’s subjects were minors. A remorseless philosophy of nihilism is revealed through the interviews, regardless of the physical prices paid (many of the interviewees have sustained significant scars). Hauntingly resolute in its objectivity, Lodoli and Tribbioli’s film demonstrate the observable propensity for abuse and atrocity that has come to define warfare and third-world ruling in the last 30 years.
The values of experimental nonfiction are manifold, not only confined to the now rather taxing “blur between reality and fiction”. The selection at this year’s Art of the Real could not provide a more optimistic view of where cinema is headed, through exploring how we’ve been molded by the past.