Aftermaths and Undergrounds

Leo Goldsmith at the 4th Porto/Post/Doc

Gürcan Keltek, Meteors, 2017, black-and-white, sound, 84 minutes.

IN 2001, MARTHA ROSLER coined the term “post-documentary” to describe the unusual status of “social documentary photography in the postmodern world”—a moment in which the form’s claims to transparency, objectivity, and authenticity were everywhere under scrutiny. It’s a scenario that’s familiar enough sixteen years later: Suspicion of media in general and images in particular is widespread to the point of numbing banality, and yet no less dizzying. With endless hand-wringing over “fake news” and the politics of distraction, the little cinematic category we call “documentary” and its “fundamental claim to a unique capacity to offer a direct insight into the real” now seem quaint, almost meaningless—less a stable aesthetic tradition or set of cinematic strategies than a metadata tag for VOD recommendations.

And yet, what better site for an investigation of our current epistemic malaise than the documentary? The form has always wrestled with distinctions between the immediate and the constructed, forcing the question of what an image can convey of lived experience, much less the history or social relations that might lie embedded within it, or just behind. In this light, the more circumspect designation of “post-documentary” might better position us to explore its relation with the real on a number of fronts. A burgeoning number of international festivals have emphasized works that skirt the borders of nonfiction cinema, and the result is not so much a muddying of categorical distinctions but a tactical reappraisal of the tropes by which documentary has laid claim to things like authenticity and objectivity.

Adirley Queirós, Era Uma Vez Brasília (Once There Was Brazilia), 2017, color, sound, 98 minutes.

The gorgeous hillside city of Porto might seem an unlikely venue to consider such issues, but the festival Porto/Post/Doc has consistently foregrounded these questions. With this sense of post-ness installed quite literally at the center of its project, the festival, now in its fourth year, has been central to an effort to bring cinema-going back to the downtown centers of Portugal’s second largest city—a project that has included the restoration of several of Porto’s majestic Art Deco and Streamline Moderne cinemas. (These include the Rivoli Theatre, one of the festival’s venues, where competition films play in a grand auditorium named for local boy Manoel de Oliveira, the legendary director who died in 2015 at the age of 106.) But it is the festival’s exploratory programming that distinguishes it, allowing it to follow nonfiction’s many experimental encounters with contemporary art, expanded cinema, and even sci-fi.

One particularly vivid example of this capacious definition of the form was to be found in Adirley Queirós’s third feature, Era Uma Vez Brasília (Once There Was Brasília), which follows his 2014 hybrid work White Out, Black In with a still more extreme confusion of genre. Set in the exurban wastelands and cinderblock shantytowns of Ceilândia—a region created by the Brazilian government in the 1970s to keep squatters from setting up homes in the modernist metropolis of Brasília—Queirós’s film creates a vivid afro(Brazilian)futurist dystopia: Mad Max by way of Pedro Costa and Brother from Another Planet. While the incarcerated are transported through the city via prison-metros, nomadic diesel-punk vigilantes roam Ceilândia in a junk-shop, jury-rigged hot hatch and resistance-training rallies in their very own back-alley Thunderdome. Amid nocturnal longueurs and amusingly low-impact car chases, we hear archival audio from “the past,” or rather, right now: recordings from 2016 of the vote proceedings that ousted President Dilma Rousseff, impeached for corruption through decidedly underhanded maneuvers by an elite that is itself corrupt. Of course, such a thin tether to recent history may seem an insufficient link to the traditions of “documentary,” thus straining the categorical designation to the point of meaninglessness. And yet, why not? Low-budget sci-fi is as much a creative treatment of actuality as any, and there is indeed a sense in which the crises of the present lend themselves to such treatment. If science fiction, as a rule, more accurately reflects the now than any putative time to come, then surely its direst prognostications can serve as documents of the present.

Filipa César, Spell Reel, 2017, color, sound, 96 minutes.

A slightly more orthodox, if no less ingenious, set of temporal disjunctions formed the basis of the festival’s thematic program, “Archive and Post-Memory.” Comprising a set of short and feature works, as well as a series of panel discussions, the program explored the lingering aftereffects of twentieth-century colonialism and state oppression. Many of the works—including recent features by Paz Encina, Albertina Carri, and Filipa César—are examples of filmmakers contending with the histories of political struggle via a radical set of archival strategies from some historical distance. Directed by Carri—daughter of the Argentine sociologist, essayist, and left-wing militant Roberto Carri, who was murdered shortly after the anti-Perónist coup of 1976—Cuatreros (Rustlers) details the filmmaker’s father’s involvement with and defense of the legendary, doomed outlaw figure Isidro Velázquez. For Carri’s father, Velázquez served as a (perhaps not unproblematic) exemplar of “prerevolutionary forms of violence” (the title of Carri père’s book on Velázquez), and the film explores these possibilities with an admirable mix of nostalgia and perspicacity. While often logomaniacal in its voice-over—a challenge for the non-native Hispanophone or slow readers of subtitles—Cuatreros offers an approach to found images (of historical events, but also unrelated pop material) that is dynamic and maximalist, drawing on a delirious array of footage: from commercial cinema to advertisements to newsreels, interviews, and abstract, corroded film reels. Crowding the frame with an alluring multichannel split-screen approach reminiscent of 1960s expanded cinema, the film can be overwhelming, but not unpleasantly so. If anything, it attests to the mediatized blur of a century obsessively documented, censored, and suppressed—which, for subsequent generations, becomes the precondition for a kind of obsession bordering on exhaustion with the loose threads of a revolution without end.

The strongest of the works in this sidebar, César’s Spell Reel enlists a similar strategy with the preserved images of four revolutionary filmmakers from Guinea-Bissau—Sana na N’Hada, Flora Gomes, José Bolama Cobumba, and Josefina Crato—sent by Amílcar Cabral during the country’s war of independence to study cinema in Cuba under the great Santiago Álvarez. Gorgeously refractive and elegantly mercurial in its construction, Spell Reel is a confrontation of history and the present, a rich investigation of cinema’s part in historical liberation struggles and its capacity to reignite these sentiments in the present. César’s approach to split-screen is uncommonly elegant here, fragmenting the space of the frame in a manner less like a desktop interface and more like a portal to another dimension. Archival footage, scarred and corroded by time and neglect, shares the frame with sharp observational digital footage of the very preservation processes used to save these images; matter-of-fact interviews pair with poetic on-screen text to form a metahistorical essay film which makes the screen itself a portal into multiple temporalities. Screens and projectors enact a return and re-exhibition of these images back in the small villages of Guinea-Bissau in the twenty-first century, activating a kind of cross-temporal connection that, as the on-screen text hopefully suggests, “[allow] ciné-kinships / to relate beyond the system / of national and racial patterns.”

A different set of conditions of visibility marks the festival’s grand-jury prizewinner, Gürcan Keltek’s Meteors. Set in the fractured landscape of Turkish Kurdistan, where the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (or PKK) has been in armed conflict with the Turkish government for decades, the film takes on the recent eruption of conflict with Erdogan’s regime in ways that are allegorical and immediate. Shot in a variety of digital video formats that have been unified into a grungy, crepuscular black-and-white, Meteors takes on its subject via multiple sidelong glances: mini-portraits that blur the terrestrial, cosmic, and political antagonisms bubbling over in the region. The film is scanty on sociopolitical detail and weighted with impressionistic visions under a doomy postrock sound track: eclipses foretell an indistinct and ongoing cataclysm, hunters stalk prey across a quasi-lunar landscape, and street demonstrations flare in urban centers hollowed out by state violence—“cities . . . where there’s nothing left to control.” The title indexes a 2015 meteor shower that the film captures in psychedelic high-contrast streaks of flaming embers—and it’s part of Keltek’s strategy that these images graphically match those of hostile bombs and celebratory fireworks elsewhere in the film. This slippage between orders of knowledge—from the anecdotal to the mythic—are characteristic to a set of conditions that, in Turkey, are becoming increasingly difficult to address. As of this writing, the more than twenty-five hundred signatories of a petition organized by Academics for Peace to protest the Turkish state’s war with the Kurdistan Workers’ party have been illegally targeted by the government, fired from their jobs, and now await trial for spreading “terrorist propaganda.”

Among Porto/Post/Doc’s biggest discoveries was a pair of films by the Czech documentary filmmaker Miroslav Janek. Director of a couple of dozen films, many for television, Janek presented here a small but rich sampling. His 1997 film The Unseen was the big revelation. A fifty-three-minute portrait of about a dozen visually impaired students, the film is at once graceful and restless—matching the students’ vigorous mental and physical lives with a similar energy in its cinematography and visual and sonic editing. It’s a dense film that always feels light as air, carried along by the children’s hilarious, anarchic ebullience as they play, sing, chatter, relate tripped-out dreams, play-act neo-Dadaist talk shows, ride bikes, jog, canoe, and, most avidly of all, take photographs. Interpolated throughout the film, these images are of course off-kilter, canted, blurry, and hilarious—but they point to something about the image that, in some ways, clarifies a contemporary approach to documentary’s many forms. The photograph has captured something: for the sighted, it is an image; for the visually impaired, it is something else—an object, a trace. The “unseen” of the film’s title attests to the social invisibility of the film’s subject, but it also may point us to a reconfiguration of visuality that lies at the heart of a post-documentary project—to see, to re-see, and to un-see.

The fourth edition of Porto/Post/Doc ran November 27 to December 3, 2017.