The cutting edge of cinema culture at this moment is not what’s premiering in competition at Cannes or picking up the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Rather, it is at the quietly flourishing but deeply influential genre of film festival focusing on new and adventurous work in documentary filmmaking. More than any red carpet extravaganza, this type of festival is consistently challenging audiences to expand their understanding of how the art of cinema explores reality and how reality complicates moviemaking. Whether big, like Copenhagen’s CPH:DOX, or smaller, like Missouri’s True/False Film Fest, these events go further than the traditional and staid vision of festivals devoted to documentary film, whose emphasis is above all on the camera as a bland tool to invisibly tell a nonfiction story, and instead present more closely curated programs that showcase the infinite nuance and complexity—not to mention shades of fiction-making—contained in the promise and practice of cinematic documentation.
Montreal’s RIDM (Les Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal), now in its 19th year, is one such showcase. Over a sharply focused, pre-winter week and a half in Quebec’s largest city, new documentary cinema, short and long, Canadian and international, are presented across several venues. Some of the year’s best documentaries are here, each with their own idiosyncratic and essential perspective on our world’s slippery surfaces and prismatic depths. The collision of theatre and national security in Avi Mograbi’s great Between Fences, hallowed history and cultural tourism in Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz, dystopian landscape and spaces of abandonment in Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens, post-colonial legacy and contemporary imperialism in John Gianvito’s Wake (Subic), public art and personal aging in Andrés Duque’s Oleg y las raras artes and national borders and errant refugees in Wang Bing’s Ta’ang are among 2016’s major highlights that have been gathered and presented at RIDM.
Contemporary retrospectives devoted to American avant-garde filmmaker Deborah Stratman (whose latest film, The Illinois Parables, has been successfully touring festivals) and Belgian poetic documentarian Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd (including a beautiful, incantatory new three-screen film installation, Nouménie) trace paths between hard to see individual works of these relentlessly inquisitive filmmakers.
Not to be outdone by its larger, more attention-getting brethren, RIDM also features several competitive sections. The international competition, for example, features one of the best films this year, Tatiana Huezo's tremendous two-part documentary devoted to outcast women in Mexico, Tempestad, Matteo Zoppis and Alessio Rigo de Righi's exquisite exploration of the legend of an Italian hermit in Il Solengo (which showed on MUBI earlier this year), and young Argentine director Eduardo Williams' much-acclaimed yet totally unquantifiable feature film debut, The Human Surge.
The Canadian competition also features several impressive, risk-taking features. Hugh Gibson’s modest but humanely discreet and altogether bracing The Stairs, a half-decade long portrait of several Torontonian drug addicts and sex workers as they struggle to create new paths for their lives in a larger social situation that seems to encourage recidivism, is a powerful, ground-level documentary of small fights for larger justice and peace. And Tales of Two Who Dreamt, from Nicolás Pereda and Andrea Bussman, also looks at marginalized Torontonians who have been unable to tell their stories: Hungarian immigrants relegated to government housing. Shot in a superbly uncanny black and white 16 mm, Pereda and Bussman let their subjects collaborate in fictionalizing their lives of limbo, smoothly moving the film away from documentation and into a netherspace of lament, play, escape and self-reflexivity.
RIDM’s short film competition, an inevitable requirement that is usually the weakest link in a festival’s curation, highlights the variety, exploration, and pleasurable challenge of the festival’s programming. Ben Russell’s He Who Eats Children and The Masked Monkeys by OJOBOCA (a group made up of Anja Dornieden and Juan David Gonzalez Monroy) showcase two different approaches to wryly challenging conventions of ethnographic moviemaking. Russell’s film immerses itself in a Surinamese story of a children-eating monster in the jungle, a legend that may or may not be tied to a local white Dutchman who lives in the area. He Who Eats Children playfully dances around the story, its link between old white colonialism, an even older folklore, and a new generation of villagers who twist and tease such stories and conflations to make them their own.
While Russell’s film is informed by a collaborative approach, working with its subjects to create their own kind of filmed history and maintaining a distance, however permeable, from documenting supposedly pure and firm facts, OJOBOCA seems to take the precisely opposite approach for its tremendous The Masked Monkeys. Filmed observationally in lustrous black and white and narrated with dominating authority, it tells of the training regiment and philosophical underpinnings of Indonesian street performers who puppeteer costumed (and later, masked) monkeys to tell archetypal stories for the crowd. Yet the filmmakers’ seemingly objective approach quickly gives way to an otherworldly, grandiose quality, accentuated by the primeval textures of the photography, and the philosophically grandstanding interpretations of the narrator. The Masked Monkeys seems sincere in its records of a cultural practice and indeed compassionate and incisive in affording the relationship between man and monkey a rich existential depth. Yet at the same time, its devout graveness achieves an ironic undercurrent that not only brings up obvious issues of abuse and exploitation between trainer and animal, but also calls into question the cultural authority of the narrator—and therefore the filmmakers. This ambiguous duality of the short film feeds back into itself in a powerful way, as the faux-condescending tenor of this tale of mystical-exotic-foreign-art seems to include OJOBOCA’s own filmmaking practice as well, perhaps they the trainers and the Javanese men the puppets and thus The Masked Monkeys itself subject to the film’s subtly withering and ironic commentary.
This tone of ambiguous, but not ambivalent, irony, was surprisingly common in the international competing shorts, and could be seen in Paul Heintz’s strange portrait of a French firm whose function seems to be to simulate the work of a real company. Non-contractual, shot in the pale, inoffensive color scheme of unbranded middle management companies, suggests its subject is work training or perhaps virtual work, like the popular video game genre of simulations like Farming Simulator 17 and American Truck Simulator. But, in a manner reminiscent of the film essays of the late Harun Farocki, the short refuses to reveal its hand to indicate what work we see is real, simulated or practice, what workers are actually working, play-acting, or being schooled. Is it indeed even simulating the conventions of a corporate documentary itself?
James N. Kientiz Wilkins’ Indefinite Pitch is much more directly abrasive in its irony. This American film rides a bristling, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes hilarious line of irony in its affectation of being—or at least starting as—a “pitch” to make a Hollywood film, a pitch made up of Wilkins’ dry narration setting the scene in Berlin, New Hampshire and accompanied by black and white photographs of what is claimed to be the Androscoggin River. This short of scathing self-deprecation and simultaneous anger at various systems (entertainment, industrial, representational) is one of the films this season most redolent of the Trump moment in the United States, suffuse as it is with a sense of lonely disenfranchisement and omni-directional emotion and criticism. Wilkins challenges the audience with this anger by making his film bob and weave between feeling like a personal confession and feeling like a self-critical fictionalization of an artist much like himself so upset with his means and opportunities.
A wise irony was thus one response found in RIDM’s short competition, with the other dominant strand being confrontative migrant stories from the world’s margins that, in their humanism and direct address, strove and succeeded in making small stories stand big.
Anne-Claire Adet’s Bunkers mixes a contemporary oral history of the prison-like immigrant holding spaces in Geneva with vertically oriented cellphone video footage of the squalid, cramped underground quarters, giving the sense of an escapee’s tale of anonymous degradation. (If the film had just been made of this ragged bunkerview, it would feel close to the approach of Harvard’s vaunted Sensory Ethnography Lab. In the competition, Gaspard Kuentz’s Uzu came closest to the SEL’s immersive cinema, in this case throwing us headlong with no explanation into the Dogo Autumn ritual on an island in Japan where rival male clans train for a brutal, colliding duel of mega-heavy shrines that are lifted by the mob and rushed at one another.) Remains from the Desert, by Sebastian Metz, goes for a more poetic route to evoke the lostness of an Eritrean migrant who get waylaid and captured in the Sinai desert. Spare, high contrast imagery of desert landscapes seem frozen in time or, if they move, they move with grand indifference, as we hear a man’s story of his capture and abuse stumbled into while trying to seek a better life. We don’t see his face but rather his damaged and pensive body, a far more eloquent landscape with obvious traces of a history of pain. Both Remains from the Desert and Bunkers show us their storytelling survivors throughout, so that we know they are alive and that they are present to recount what they witnessed and went through. Yet their approaches are divergent. Adet gives an effectively crude snapshot of living conditions, having her survivor address the camera directly, and Metz uses abrasive and isolated landscapes and dark, sidelong views of a damaged body. For Remains from the Desert, these landscapes of terrain and body are metonyms not only for the difficulty and danger of the migrant journey, but of the existential despair of those caught in the desert between their past and their future.
Of the humanist competing shorts, strongest of all was Kwassa Kwassa, by Vietnamese artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen and Danish artists’ group SUPERFLEX, a portrait of migration to Europe in the unlikeliest of places: from the Comoros islands in the Indian Ocean. One of the islands, Mayotte, recently voted to join overseas French jurisdiction, making it a strange, isolated outpost of the E.U. far, far away from the continent. Narrated with a sorrowful humor and sly intelligence, Kwassa Kwassa focuses on the production of the laminate boats made by hand on the island of Anjouan and on the passeurs, passage providers who transport all manner of Africans (“and even a family of Nepalese refugees”) the 70 km across an unexpected sea to what is called Europe. Close-ups of a vessel’s construction is mixed with drone footage—seemingly ubiquitous in 2016 art cinema, but deftly used here—following the movement of the boat from workshop to shore to ocean. The Indian Ocean, with its own particular aqua colors and immense reaches, re-casts the Mediterranean as an even more daunting, unreal challenge. “We play the part of Zeus,” the narrator suggests, the white boats analogized to the white bull Zeus rode to steal away and impregnate Asian Europa. This elegant, powerful film ends with a rhetorical question that in fact is not very rhetorical at all: what would have happened to what we now call Europe if, due to border guards and patrols, Zeus had never reached its shores?
Such a perspective is precisely what is needed now, in cinema, in the media, in this world. Kwassa Kwassa offers the close-up, the top-down, the geographic, the portrait, the local, the global, the historical and the contemporaneous. At its brief length, it just sketches in these directions, but its open-eyes and open-mind—curious, connective, poetic and assertive—is indicative of the documentary visions being highlighted at RIDM and are essential ones for understanding where we are living today.