Documentary attitudes

Back from Pamplona, from one of the new crop of small documentary film festivals which have grown up all around the globe in the last several years. This one goes by the name ‘Punto de vista’ or ‘Point of View’, in homage to Jean Vigo, who described his own A Propos de Nice of 1930 in terms of le point de vue documentaire—what you might call ‘documentary with attitude’. Vigo presides over the festival through the presence of his 78-year-old daughter, Luce Vigo, who lives in Paris and attends every year. This is a small scale event so everyone gets to meet her, and imbibe her quiet but exemplary sheer love of cinema. The subject of this year’s festival retrospective, New Yorker Jem Cohen, spent the week, between his screenings, making a short portrait of her which was projected at the closing ceremony, but it’s difficult in only a few minutes (or words) to do her justice.

I spent the week shuffling in the snow between hotel, cinema, restaurant, cafe, and the festival office—
—which means at least that I saw a good deal of the work on offer, as well as presenting (for the first time abroad and in public) my own new film, The American Who Electrified Russia.
[Press coverage for Spanish readers:
«El cine es una evidencia histórica primaria, aunque muchos no lo crean»
Diario de Navarra
Noticias de Navarra]

PAMPLONA is really about the cutting edge of independent and experimental documentary, of which there were some very interesting examples. In contrast, however, to MiradasDoc, for example, or festivals I’ve attended recently in Latin America, the politics at Pamplona are subdued. The dominant current, realised in many different ways, is a certain politics of the image, if you like, a questioning of the gaze. This comes in two main forms: films where the director is the cinematographer, and films which use found materials—this is particularly conducive to shorts, while the former group tend to be feature-length. (An over-simplification, but let it do.)
This is not to say that the films from the South that I’m calling more political are necessarily any less questioning about the documentary point of view—some are, some aren’t. And as I wrote about MiradasDoc in 2008, nor are the politics which inform these films the same kind of militant call-to-arms as in the 60s and 70s. I’m still trying to understand what’s really at stake here, but the contemporary experimental current in the North seems to me less outward directed than self-questioning, and often more formalist. As if the film-maker is not too sure that their own eyes, inevitably trained in what Edward Said called the ‘imaginary geography’ of Empire, are reliable enough, and too much remains invisible.
Nevertheless, there is still the old documentary desire to take the camera and travel. The problem is that this produces an assymetrical or unbalanced world, because usually, in the North, we see the South through the camera-eye of Northern film-makers, and there’s little or no traffic going the other way. Film festivals help to break this barrier down, especially those like Pamplona which eschew the big budget institutional documentary in favour of independent production, but even here there are too few films reaching us from the South, and hardly any in which film-makers from over there come and look at life in the western metropolis. Josetxo Cerdán, Pamplona’s director, lamented to me that he’d only been able to include one Latin American film in the official selection, let alone any from other continents.

One of the most interesting examples of border-crossing was Demolition made by John Paul Sniadecki, filmed in Chengdu (Sichuan province) among China’s ‘floating population’ of migrant labourers, in this instance, the workers on a demolition site. Sniadecki’s camera shows us first the geography of the site in long, patient views, before engaging with the workers themselves in conversation with the camera during their breaks (the first moment of speech has one of them inviting the cameraman to sit down and eat). From this point on we understand that the point of view is the first person of the cameraman as outsider, as we’re reminded towards the end of the film when the workers take him to see the city centre at night, and a young policewoman stops them and asks what they’re up to—she’s not aggressive, but rather apologetic, explaining (when they tell her they’re showing their friend from Harvard University the town) that she’s only doing her job. This is a very different image of the relationship with authority on the street than the version usually promulgated in the media. What I found especially interesting was that Sniadecki, a doctoral student of anthropology at Harvard, of Eastern European extraction living in the USA and studying China, has in fact captured to a tee the observational style of the new Chinese documentary (albeit without the visual elegance of a film like Wang Bing’s extraordinary West of the Tracks). A patient camera sets out the scene and engages with the people therein, without voicing any commentary of its own, thus escaping the strictures of the literal-minded censors, but always drawing us in to the experiential level of life in 21st century China.

A similar strategy is followed by the Spanish cameraman-director Ricardo Íscar in Danza a los espíritus (Dance to the Spirits), a particularly beautiful film shot in a village in the Cameroonian jungle. Íscar’s camera is both more fluid and more inquisitive. He is on a quest, following in the footsteps of the anthropologist Lluís Mallart to meet a shaman who specialises in curing what he calls the illnesses of the night, who tells us about his treatments and discusses the differences between traditional medicine and the occidental kind, which belongs to the illnesses of the day. No commentary intervenes—the film is not about explaining but showing, placing in evidence. The metaphor of day and night takes us into a dualistic world which raises fundamental questions about the nature of occidental modernity, and the intolerance of its overweening rationality which denies reality to what it cannot see, hear, touch, dissect, quantify, analyse. A film in the spirit of Jean Rouch.

Los Materiales (Materials) was an interesting choice for the festival’s Jean Vigo prize for best director, because it was made by a young collective from Madrid who call themselves Los Hijos (The Children — Javier Fernández, Luis López and Natalia Marín). Here, as the three of them investigate an empty landscape around the reservoir of Riaño, in the province of León, in which the town and nine other villages lie submerged, the camera remains much more distanced from its subject, but this is precisely because they find the place ambiguous and diffuse (an impression emphasised by the black and white photography). But this is also a film which plays relentlessly and with a wry sense of humour on upsetting convention, eschewing visual elegance, disrupting the soundtrack, and in its most original trope, questioning the image while it’s being produced by the novel means of a conversation in subtitles among the film-makers.

The top award went to Let Each One Go Where He May, another film shot abroad by a film-maker of the west, this time in Cameroon, where Chicago-based media artist Ben Russell follows two unidentified men (the blurb tells us they’re brothers) as they trek across the country on an unspecified journey. Here the dominant aspect is a formalist exercise—a series of thirteen extended takes shot with a steadycam comprising a film of 135 minutes—and I’m sorry, but it left me cold. Unlike Demolition and Danza a los espíritus, there was no human engagement, nor any alleviating sense of humour or irony.

I can’t finish these brief notes without mentioning Jay Rosenblatt’s short (26mns) The Darkness of Day, which deservedly received a special mention. This beautifully edited film is both inventive and deeply harrowing in its portrayal of suicide, and the state of depression and sense of social isolation which leads up to it. The soundtrack includes diary entries by the brother of a friend of Rosenblatt’s who killed himself in 1990, counterposed by visuals entirely comprised by found materials, snippets of films discarded by educational institutions when they switched from 16mm to video. This is yet another way of questioning the image, which addresses the social construction of the representation of the asocial, the one who rejects life itself, and deserves our understanding. Seen alonside Danza a los espíritus, Rosenblatt’s title gains added resonance: here, where the animistic world of the Evuzok people in Íscar’s film has been repressed, the night knows how to take its revenge.

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