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Nick Pinkerton on the 3rd Art of the Real at Film Society at Lincoln Center

Roberto Minervini, The Other Side, 2015, color, sound, 92 minutes.

THROUGH THE YEARS so many films have been said in reviews and calendar copy to “blur the boundaries” between documentary and fiction filmmaking that we might reasonably expect that the work is done by now, and that those lines—never a legally well-defined border to begin with—are well and truly blurred, there’s no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, and that a handful of tropes of representation that were once given to constitute documentary realism were a fluke in the history of the medium rather than its essence.

If there’s still some purpose for boundaries, it must be to determine what films go in what festivals. To wit, the Art of the Real, which began its existence as a regular documentary showcase at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is now in its third year as an annual festival, and forever redefining the limitations of its mandate. It was ushered into being by the absence of a dedicated showcase for formally ambitious films employing elements of documentary practice in New York City, and a hole in FSLC’s already festival-packed calendar.

At the center of the program this year is a celluloid-heavy retrospective, “All My Life: The Films of Bruce Baillie,” an extensive exhibition of the work of the eighty-four-year-old filmmaker who is perhaps not usually considered as a documentarian, and whose importance also extends to his role as the founder of both Canyon Cinema and the San Francisco Cinematheque. While the program takes some care to emphasize the nonfiction aspects of Baillie’s filmography, including several of his docs made under the rubric of The News and intended to be played at Canyon Cinema venues, it is a little more difficult to comprehend how Daïchi Saïto’s Engram of Returning, included in one of two shorts programs, qualifies. Not that I’m complaining, mind you—it’s an opportunity to see the film projected in anamorphic 35 mm, which I have been told is quite the experience, and even viewed with laptop hardware the combination of glimpsed landscapes splashing out of darkness and Jason Sharp’s worrying saxophone score makes quite an impression.

Sergio Oksman, O Futebol, 2015, color, sound, 70 minutes.

Art of the Real is a summary of recent work rather than a showcase for premieres, and there are a few no-brainer recommendations in this batch. The Thoughts That Once We Had, the most recent essay film by one of the form’s acknowledged curmudgeon-masters, Thom Anderson, has its New York premiere here. Born from decades of Anderson’s teaching cinema through the writings of Deleuze and vice versa, the film—his most sprawling work since Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)—sets out to illustrate key concepts from Deleuze’s Cinéma 1. L’Image-Mouvement (The Movement Image, 1983) and Cinéma 2. L’Image-temps (The Time-Image, 1985) via film clips and text excerpts, while also holding court on such varied yet interrelated topics as the perfidy of Chubby Checker, the genius of character actor Timothy Carey, and Anderson’s adulation of Debra Paget. Anderson is prone to reinventing himself from project to project, and his latest is no exception, surprising in that it finds a filmmaker best known for his skepticism toward Hollywood product here openly in thrall to the power of the screen’s seduction.

São Paolo–born, Madrid-based Sergio Oksman isn’t an established name on Anderson’s level, but if there’s any justice his O Futebol will go some ways toward correcting that fact. The film is a deliberately distanced experiment in father-son bonding between the filmmaker and his long-estranged dad shot during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, played out within a rigid framework which doesn’t buckle even with the appearance of unexpected tragedy. O Futebol has been kicking around the festival circuit for the better part of a year now; I saw it in August 2015, and I don’t think I’ve had a more viscerally emotional moviegoing experience since. Also of special note is the opening-night film, The Other Side, the fourth feature by Italian-American director Roberto Minervini, already acquired for domestic release by Film Movement, and his first collaborative ethnography exercise shot outside of his home state of Texas. Minervini here works with two different and not-so-different sets of citizens in West Monroe, Louisiana—ex-con methamphetamine addicts and a paramilitary militia drilling in preparation for the day that Obama and FEMA come down to try to disarm them—offering a window into their worlds that has been assiduously rubbed clean of the filmmakers’ telltale fingerprints.

Bracketing the series on the other end is closer A Magical Substance Flows into Me, Jumana Manna’s first feature, which uses as its stepping-off point the writings and recordings of the German-Jewish ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann, a figure who has been likened to Alan Lomax for his work in documenting the indigenous musics of the varied ethnic groups that he found living in Palestine upon his arrival in 1935: Moroccan Jews, Bedouins, Kurds, Copts, Samaritans, and so forth. Manna uses Lachmann’s recordings as a way to infiltrate the homes of descendants of these groups, catching glimpses of quotidian activity as she invites her subjects to hear the voices of their ancestors through the speakers of a cracked iPhone, and incidentally assembling a panoramic portrait of contemporary Jerusalem and its environs as she shoots her own contemporary vignettes of musicians at play.

In the game of “spot the dominating lineup theme,” a few possibilities stand out: Self-sufficient solitude can be tracked through in Ben Rivers’s What Means Something, revival pick The Moon and the Sledgehammer (1971), or Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis’s Il Solengo, in which elderly local boar hunters advance their theories about what led a somewhat-legendary recently-deceased hermit, Mario de Marcella, to break from civilization and spend more than six decades of his life holed up in a cave on a game reserve in Pratolongo, not far from Rome. In telling the story of de Marcella, the subjects reveal a great deal about local and national history, the vagaries of collective village memory, the tenacity of (possibly misremembered) childhood fear, and, inadvertently, themselves.

José Luis Guerín, Academy of the Muses, 2015, color, sound, 92 minutes.

Along with A Magical Substance, two other films, taking their own highly individual approaches, look into the folkloric origins of lyrical traditions. Ju Anqi’s Poet on a Business Trip is a sordid road movie epic which itself took a roundabout route to the screen, shot in fall of 2002 and edited twelve and a half years later, just in time to win the Grand Prize at the Jeonju International Film Festival last year. Done on cruddy, consumer-quality black-and-white digital video, the film follows Xianbo Hou, a thirty-year-old poet from Shanghai, on a journey through the Gobi Desert and to the wild northwest and the rugged Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, schlepping on buses and hitching rides from drunk-driving long-haul truckers. Hou’s misadventures, deadpan exchanges involving cab drivers, working girls, and country shepherds, are punctuated with instances of the work produced on his “business trip,” sixteen poems, mostly suffused with melancholia, which more or less obliquely may be connected to what we have seen happening to him.

L’Accademia delle Muse (Academy of the Muses) likewise looks at the source of poetic inspiration, in this case literally returning to Arcadian pastures to roam with Sardinian shepherds. (Another theme in this year’s slate: lots of sheep.) The latest from the eclectic José Luis Guerín is a dialogue-dizzy dispositif which, like Guerín’s flâneur/voyeur piece In the City of Sylvia (2007), is concerned with desire as a driving force. Neapolitan philology professor Raffaele Pinto stars as Neapolitan philology professor Raffaele Pinto, teaching a seminar on the art of acting the muse to a largely female class at the University of Barcelona. At one and the same time Guerín and Pinto’s film is an earnest inquiry into the genesis of artistic production and a wickedly sharp comedy about male vanity cloaked in the mantle of pedantic orotundity, with Pinto fighting on multiple fronts to defend his ethical breaches and compulsive philandering. “I’m possessive,” he confesses at one point, “but on the methodological level,” while elsewhere he’s found tut-tutting that “What you call my double life is simply my research.” Even the progressive idea of an “active” muse that Pinto puts forth may strike some viewers as retrograde, but Academy of the Muses, among several works in the Art of the Real lineup, is a testament to the symbiotic synergy between filmmakers and their muse-subjects.

The 3rd Art of the Real runs April 8–21 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.