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On the Uncomfortable Nature of Documentaries: Art of the Real Festival 2017

Revealing what is at the core of what we call documentary or non-fiction cinema.
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It’s not common that you find yourself having a moment of sudden comprehension and even illumination, almost like finding an inner peace: a sense of quiet and tranquil meditation that allows you to qualm your more restless moments regarding the value and importance of the things that you hold dear. In this case, I’m talking about cinema, and in particular, documentary cinema, the kind of which has always been the sole focus of the Art of the Real festival since 2014, and this year’s edition (April 20th - May 2nd) with over 25 screenings that combine short and feature length non-fiction films at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Along with new films from established directors like Jem Cohen and Michael Glawogger, this year features spotlights on Chinese documentary cinema, Latin American documentary hybrids (with a particular spot for Chilean cinema), the late Brazilian master director Andrea Tonacci and another latest works of Heinz Emigholz. It has something for everyone. It was then, glimpsing through the films that took part of this selection, that I found myself having a realization about what the core is of what we call documentary or non-fiction cinema, about those works that we can’t help but admire and remember throughout the years.
I won’t ponder too much on the old subject of how documentary can or can’t portray reality, or whatever reality is, or any of those discussions that some might still find interesting to have—I don’t, since the answer has already been solved: we don’t know anything and we will never know. But as it has been said, cinema started in the realm of the documentary with the Lumiéres shooting, among other daily events, the exit of their workers from their factory. Much has been written about this barely one-minute-long piece of history, but what I always get from it is two things: first, that these are the subordinates being watched by their boss, subjected to the gaze of this new artifact, they are the subjects under the microscope, there’s an inherent idea of power, as Foucault understood it, in this film.
And second of all, I always can feel, more than a 100 years later, how uncomfortable they all are. Maybe it’s related to the first thing that I’ve felt, but this is more related to their faces, the pace, the way that some avert they eyes once they see the camera. If there’s anything real in that film, it’s in the faces and the eyes of those workers who feel the gaze and react to it in whatever way it might be. Most of the films present in this year’s Art of the Real play and focus on that discomfort created when subjected to documentary cinema, both as a director and as a subject. It is those that make that uncomfortable nature of documentary apparent that are more valuable than others, as this kind of cinema is inherently disruptive: the director puts cinema in a position where it can invade privacies, homes and faces.
Another Year
That’s the kind of invasion that’s present in a project like Shengze Zhu’s Another Year, part of the festival’s Chinese spotlight, which puts on screen a working-class family having dinner over the course of an entire year. Comprised entirely of thirteen long-winded shots (one for each month plus an epilogue), which comprise the entirety of the three-hour runtime, the director puts the camera in a fixed position and doesn’t move it, as it lets the events of the dinner, and actions that surround it, develop with leisure to let all the members of the family have their say regarding what happened in their day. One would think that for a movie that’s so focused on the act of eating and the conversations that happen surrounding it, one would take notice of how the food changes according to the seasons, but it is in the same dishes displayed throughout the year (rice, congee for the kids, various types of vegetables, some unspecified meat) that the economic distress of this Chinese family is represented, as well as their evolution (or lack of) throughout the span of the film. We witness the growth of female teenager, whose voice always raises a bit when confronted with her parents (and whom they try to calm down, due to the presence of the camera above anything else,), an ailing grandmother who always seems sicker than before, and the constant changes in the job of the father. But we also see patterns, beyond the lack of variety in food: there’s also the way that the father sips beer or whatever liquid available directly from the bottle, or how the TV is always on some children’s or variety show that’s undistinguishable from the next, or the picky nature of the second youngest kid regarding food. In the end, the aim from the director is not to generalize the filmed situation to the entirety of China, but for the audience to be subjected to the private concerns and conversations of this family. This brings the level of voyeurism inherent to the film up a notch, but also it also gives Another Year a political edge that is less convoluted and more accessible through the experience of the common man beyond any class portrayal.
Casa Roshell
Now, that’s only a view into one family’s private quarrels and probable problems with a State that’s being a bit too controlling on what their people are doing. But Another Year doesn’t film a private life that one would hide from your family, which is precisely what is filmed in the short feature Casa Roshell, a non-fiction film shot in Mexico and directed by the Chilean Camila José Donoso (co-director of Naomi Campbel). Taking place entirely inside the Casa Roshell, a building where transvestites roam, sing, dance, fuck or just be comfortable with their sexual identity, avoiding the possibilities of violence that might appear outside. It’s a safe haven, though the place is open to male and female customers who can drink and sometimes pay to have sex with the women present, if they’re willing, as the main rule of the house is respect in every sense of the word: of the bodies, of their identities and their privacy (both of those who attend and those who change clothes when they enter). It’s a look at the privacy of these men that don outrageous wigs and put on make-up either to live a fantasy or to finally express who they really are, some of them transsexuals, some doing this with the express knowledge of their spouses, and all of them expect the privacy of their lives untouched. This, of course, goes against the idea of making the movie, but in the end it’s noticeable due to the speech pattern of the conversations “caught in the fly” that they are written and rehearsed, as if they were replications of conversations that really happened, but that they couldn’t be shown when the documentary investigation was underway. It’s a way into a lifestyle that we wouldn’t know about otherwise, unless you’d enter Casa Roshell, and in that way it works like the recreation of that uncomfortable feeling of being discovered doing something that no one else knows about.
The Dazzling Light of Sunset
The Dazzling Light of Sunset is a perfectly shot documentary for those who don’t want to see the camera being revealed—or don’t want that the fact revealed that a documentary is being filmed. As in an animal reportage, the humans of a Georgian town go on with their normal activities as if they weren’t being filmed. In a way, it makes sense that this is a film about a small local news channel that chronicles the daily events of the community—weddings, mayoral elections, climate, wandering animals, and beauty pageants—with a professionalism that is incredible considering the limited crew. But at the same time, the film demonstrates that no matter how small the media is, everything is biased, from the point where their camera stands, to what it shows and what leaves out (thanks to the film, we see what stands beyond the frame). And that is where the uncomfortable sensation settles in, where we see people that supposedly work towards a job that is so necessary, as journalism is, but end up being invaded by partisan biases as in any other profession—something particularly telling in a world where that vocation is being subjected to more scrutiny and disdain every day. It’s only in the scene at the end, almost like a post-credit sequence from a blockbuster, that the tension explodes and we see the subjects of the film address the camera for the first time, and it’s in their uncomfortable faces and phrases that the documentary might win or lose its adherents.
Ignacio Agüero in The Winds Know That I’m Coming Back
Art of the Real specially features two works by Chilean documentary filmmaker Ignacio Agüero, and I found myself incredibly surprised by how they each relate to the idea of how uncomfortable is to: (a) make a documentary; and (b) be a subject in a documentary. The Other Day is his 2012 film where Agüero asked people that knock on his door if he can visit them at their home. Made seemingly on the fly and exploring both personal and historical elements of Chile, the film captures those moments where this apparently absurd question hits the face of the mailman, a beggar, an errand boy and a young woman that’s looking for a job in film or TV. Unaware of the presence of the camera, they go through their speech when presented at the doorstep, and deflect the inquiry of the filmmaker. The awkward questions continue in his latest film, This is the Way I Like It II, sequel to a short documentary he made during the years of the Chilean dictatorship about the intentions and goals of the films various directors were making, but now he turns to a newer generation of filmmakers while they’re shooting their latest movies and asks them what’s “cinematographic” about what they’re doing. Most of the time the answers are pathetic and even embarrassing, but in a way that’s the least interesting element of the film, as Agüero keeps restarting it, re-editing it on the fly, searching for new instances to ask himself if what he’s doing is cinematographic enough. But the tension of documentary filmmaking could never be more accurately portrayed than in a fiction, as The Winds Know That I’m Coming Back is, directed by the wonderful José Luis Torres Leiva and starring Agüero as himself, a documentary director that travels to the islands of Chiloé and asks around, looking for people that can tell him about a story he wants to make. He doesn’t find the story, and while he hears multiple tales, he grows weary, and in the final scene where he’s talking with a kid that keeps on asking questions (in a movie that’s been filled with his own) Agüero stands up and demonstrably shows that he’s fed up with the documentary exercise of investigation. The tension in the tone of his voice speaks to the inherent displeasure with making non-fiction films.
The Modern Jungle
But let’s talk about the film that originated this thought about what I think is the most interesting characteristic of documentary filmmaking let’s discuss Charles Fairbanks and Saul Kak’s The Modern Jungle. It starts out as an average ethnographic documentary, those that we’ve seen in countless festivals around the world, a film that looks closely at a couple of Zoque people, an indigenous group in Mexico who still speak the dying language, and who are in the constant struggle to maintain their lands while battling their own non-race related problems, like their health. But the filmmakers find an interesting way to tackle the honest problem that comes along with the Zoque’s condition as a group that are constantly being looked down upon and thus are left without many opportunities: Fairbanks and Kak don’t leave out when their main subject, a man who has a hernia in his stomach, asks them money for his medical treatments. It is through that relation between subject and director, that sensation that there’s an abyss between them, the uncomfortable feeling that over a 100 years have gone by but the Lumiéres and their workers had the same gaze upon them as Kak and Fairbanks have on this man who only wants to get better. It is the feeling that he is diminished as a person when he begs on camera for some money in exchange of being filmed. There are many debates surrounding documentary filmmaking, and among them is the idea of paying the subjects, warning the people you see about the risks of what they’re doing, filming without consent… all of these are present here, but it’s the subject that brings them forward, because he knows that the directors need him to make their movie, that without him there’s little chance to find other Zoque people with the same problems that he does, so he takes advantage of that and knows how to ask in camera for what he needs. I found those sequences profoundly conflicting and above all, uncomfortable, because I could feel the discomfort both in the man and in those behind the camera, who honestly most of the time don’t know how to react. We see the money exchange, and it’s almost a relief: it’s as if it were the only way forward, which is sad. But it’s the world where we live, and it’s the films that we watch.
I can also recommend at Art of the Real these fiction films that cross into non-fiction either for their use of non-actors or their direct approach to filmmaking: the Bolivian film Dark Skull, the Rotterdam debut of José Luis Torres Leiva from 2008, The Sky, the Earth and the Rain (Ignacio Agüero has a bit role in this one), and Bang Bang, the 1971 Brazilian film from the late Andrea Tonacci, which has been mentioned by more than one friend as the best film ever made in that country. And they might be right.

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