Truth and Circumstance

Ela Bittencourt at the 18th É Tudo Verdade

Tinatin Gurchiani, The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 97 minutes.

“MEMORY IS WHAT WE RECORD IT TO BE,” filmmaker Peter Wintonick said at the conference of the eighteenth “It’s All True” (IAT) documentary festival. No one understood this better than Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov, whose montages extolled the Bolshevik revolution. In collaboration with the Austrian Film Museum, the festival, with over eighty titles reaching five Brazilian cities, staged a Vertov retrospective, comprising early newsreels, shorts, and seven full-length films.

From reverse to stop-motion and concealed camera positions, Vertov embraced cinema’s ability to awe and to estrange. In A Sixth Part of the World (1926), his kaleidoscopic vision spans modernizing cities and the Siberian taiga, with machinists, huntsmen, and shamans made to embody the Soviet nation’s latent energies. At the end of his first feature not made of found footage, Kino-Eye (1924), Vertov cuts away from young pioneers to a circus elephant in Moscow. His digressive art later influenced Chris Marker and Jan Švankmajer, among others.

Vertov wanted to capture political reality. Similar ambition fuels Jango (1984), by Brazilian director Sílvio Tendler, also honored with a retrospective. A historical documentary, Jango, a nickname of Brazil’s president João Goulart (1961–64), is elegiac in tone, but critical in its destabilization of the coup that deposed him. Mistrusted by the United States and antagonized by the right-wing military, Goulart is evoked as a candidate popular with the base and committed to agrarian reforms. His subsequent exile in Uruguay shows him a marked man. Weaving archival material and interviews with the junta generals, Tendler captures the conspiratorial atmosphere that surrounds Goulart against the background of the Cold War.

A number of festival offerings touched on the fall of the Soviet bloc, including the international competition winner, The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear (2012) by Tinatin Gurchiani, and Private Universe (2012) by Helena Třeštíková. Třeštíková’s chronicle, begun in 1974, tracks a Czech family over four decades. Minutely recorded personal triumphs—a child’s first tooth, a new Trabant car—set up a comic tension with historic events and popular culture, shown via old television clips. The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear is communism’s bleak coda, with Georgian youth—a boy who recalls bombings, a girl who confronts her absent mother—among the haunted protagonists. In place of Vertov’s depersonalized cosmic cine-eye that stressed the collective, Gurchiani and Třeštíková use the camera as a social microscope to celebrate the individual.

Among the festival highlights was American director Alan Berliner’s First Cousin Once Removed, 2013. Screened in the special program, Berliner’s collage-like film depicts his cousin, renowned translator Edwin Honig, who’s succumbed to what Berliner calls a “poet’s Alzheimer’s.” By turns pointedly lucid and oblivious as to the identity of those around him, including his two adopted sons, Honig displays an increasingly tangential attachment to his past that redefines what makes us human. The specter of language, at times reduced to childlike cooing and grunts, haunts the film. The found footage of Honig reading his poetry is mute, an apt metaphor for the impossibility of a filmmaker’s adequately capturing reality. Montage not only is Berliner’s method of discovering a storyline in the editing room, but also stresses his belief that, in the end, any portrait—committed to memory, or on film—remains fragmentary.

Sensory memory and language also lie at the heart of Israeli filmmaker Avi Mograbi’s captivating Once I Entered a Garden (2012). In the film, Mograbi accompanies his former Arabic-language teacher, Palestinian Ali Al-Azhari, to Saffuriyeh, a village from which Al-Alzhari’s family was expelled in 1949. Though not clearly linked, the Super 8 and 16-mm clips, and an unknown woman’s love letters read in voice-over, function as a collective memory. By recalling the aura of Beirut threatened by war, they echo Al-Alzhari’s displacement.

In a striking scene, Al-Azhari’s young daughter, Yasmin, from his marriage with a Jewish woman, flees the playground in Saffuriyeh (now Zippori) whose sign forbids foreigners to enter. Yasmin fears the law that pronounces her race non grata, but returns to stir the earth around the sign. Al-Azhari notes that “foreigners” is misspelled, a double dismissal. In an earlier scene, perusing old family photos, he acknowledges the psychic comfort that Mograbi derives from seeing his deceased father as a victim rather than aggressor. He would have thought the same had it been his father. The dialectical moment, one of many in this deeply self-reflexive film, captures memory as a construct that is multifaceted yet necessarily incomplete.

The eighteenth edition of É Tudo Verdade (It’s All True) first ran April 4–14th in São Paulo; it will reprise August 20–25 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.