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Rotterdam 2016. In Praise of Wang Bing and Spencer Williams

Discovering two essential documentaries on marginalized filmmakers, one Chinese working now, the other American working in the 1940s.
In this era of digital cameras and laptop editing, ambitious video essays and filmmaker documentaries are hardly the uncommon encounter they had been when Claire Denis made her film for the Cinéma, de notre temps television series, Jacques Rivette - Le veilleur—a movie on a lot of our minds with the passing of the New Wave master last week. Yet, as with fiction films, while the increased democratization and affordability of movie-making apparatus has meant more such essays and more such documentaries, the quality of this greater proliferation varies widely. Which is why it was such a pleasure to come in Rotterdam across two stupendous examples of each: Night and Fog in the Zona, Jung Sung-il's long-form documentary on Chinese independent filmmaker Wang Bing, and Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams, American teacher and filmmaker Thom Andersen’s video essay on the culturally forgotten films by the African American director.
Jung, a South Korean film critic whose 3+ hour debut Cafe Noir showed in Rotterdam in 2010, has impressively shifted gears from sprawling fiction to documentary to follow the acclaimed but nevertheless marginalized director Wang Bing during preliminary research shooting a follow-up to his great 2012 film Three Sisters, as well as the beginning of the shoot of his 2013 asylum documentary, Til Madness Do Us Part. (I was lucky enough to interview the filmmaker about Til Madness at Toronto’s film festival that year.) A director shown often in gallery settings and raved about on the festival circuit (certainly by this critic), Wang remains in the margins of contemporary film culture despite being one of the world’s most important documentarians, due in no small part to the dedicated length of many of his films, the harsh conditions he aims to express, and, I feel, a certain skepticism towards a more subtle style of documentary storytelling.
Night and Fog in the Zona unquantifiably helps those who know and don’t know this filmmaker by spending time—much time, nearly four hours—with how he works before and during the shooting of one of his films dedicated to impoverished and marginalized Chinese communities. In the first part, we see the extensive traveling and lengthy, patient interviews involved in a planned sequel to Three Sisters, about a rural family splintered by abuse and poverty. In the second, we see Wang actually in production, documenting of the grim, bare existences of those hospitalized and forgotten in Til Madness Do Us Part.
An opening interview with the filmmaker and a single discussion between Wang and his assistant cameraman about directorial technique are extremely illuminating—Wang admires Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky immensely, seeing a kinship in their origins in communist culture with a profound interest in time—but for the most part Jung lets us see in practice, over the time, how a master works. And, most importantly, why a master works: he quietly shows what stories Wang Bing is drawn to and how he goes about evoking them for the cinema, his roving, patient queries of locale, space, and character, his desire to become unobtrusive but still an active participant within his subject’s worlds. As with Wang’s films, some consideration attention is required to let Night and Fog in the Zona unfurl and reveal its insights, but those who stay with it will find one of the best portraits of an artist and activist to be found in contemporary cinema.
While Night and Fog in the Zona devotes considerable time to its filmmaker-subject, the only complaint that could be levied against Thom Andersen’s super-charged 30-minute flourish Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams is that it is too short. But that’s partially the point: Andersen’s film is a work of enraptured advocacy. Williams, an African American director and actor who made nine independent melodramas in Texas in the 1940s, is essentially completely unknown today, and Andersen does him more than homage by constructing an inspired and inspiring meta-film which practically shakes you by the sleeves to get out there and see these films.
Akin to a realist version of animator and fellow Angelino Lewis Klahr’s hieroglyphic style of storytelling (Klahr’s first feature length film, Sixty Six, is also at the festival), which edits across different figures, actions, moments, gestures and plot lines to create a mutable story of seemingly unconnected source material, Juke achieves grandeur and unexplainable coherence with bare means. Andersen cuts scenes and aspects of these handful of movies by Williams (who acted in several of them) into what could be perceived as a mere highlight reel, but instead emerges as something with its own central, enthralled integrity. It is at once a threadbare epic of mysterious narrative following the dancing, despair and sins of a swathe of 1940s African American characters, an essential documentary on African American cultural specificity of the era, and, of course, a tantalizing teaser and incentive to track down these astounding productions. Juke pays tribute by drawing out the bracing details of these movies, then stringing them into an evocative story that feels, at once, as lost to time as the figure of Spencer Williams himself, and as present as if these images and people have always been with us. To see the images from these films is to see images anew, tingling with freshness.

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