DOCUMENTARIES AND MOVIES that trouble the line between fiction and nonfiction have become increasingly present at film festivals. And as was true of the avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s, which embraced everything from psychodramas and diary films to lyric flights and reflections on the medium, no one word or phrase encompasses the varieties of nonfiction cinema. Yet the strongest entries in both nonfiction and the avant-garde at this year’s First Look series overshadow the few narrative films included.
Some might consider docudrama the best word to describe Pawel Lozinski’s You Have No Idea How Much I Love You. Produced by the Polish Film Institute, the work traces a number of therapy sessions in which a mother and daughter struggle to improve their ability to communicate. But while a “real” professor guides the progress of the women, the latter are played by actresses who, far from enacting a preexistent case study, free associate, using their own life experiences. The result is riveting from start to finishbut much less docu- than drama. Is our empathy with mother and daughter any different from that induced by good performances in an overt fiction film? Do we learn from the restrictive format what genuine therapy can do? Or are we so oversaturated with the former and too cynical to trust the latter to care about the difference?
More candid about its pedigree, but no less artfully contrived, Anna Zamecka’s debut feature Communion, also from Poland, is an affecting portrait of the Kaczanowskis, a working-class family whose daughter Ola, age fourteen, is burdened not only with filling in for an absent, depressed mother but with helping her autistic brother, Nikodem, learn the catechism in preparation for his First Communion, while negotiating with her father to eke out a private life. Given the natural rapport between sister and brother, it’s no surprise the film has won many awards for best documentary. Yet while there is no diminishing the conviction of the siblings’ exchanges, we might wonder how much the presence of a camera and a director affected their “performances.”
A more in-your-face presence triggers hostile reactions in Hendrick Dusollier’s Last Days in Shibati, a brief but touching account of the demolition of a neighborhood in Chongqing, China. Though at first unwelcome, Dusollier becomes a familiar presence as he follows inhabitants in six-month intervals, from the quarter’s alleyways to new dwellings the city has provided. Less interested in politics than people, Dusollier tells us little about the socioeconomic circumstances behind the demolition or the housing prospects. But the people are memorable: An old woman who created a fantasy space within the quarter from the debris she collected is later seen adapting this passion to her new life. A young boy who once guided the filmmaker to the edge of Shibati overlooking the “Moonlight City” is last seen gazing out a window of his new apartment from the reverse angle, toward the flattened terrain beyond, which was his to roam just a year earlier.
Equally vivid but more self-effacing is Marie Voignier’s Tinselwood, shot in and around the village of Moulandou in the Republic of the Congo. No narration shapes what we see: a series of distinct, seemingly unrelated activities performed by the inhabitantstrappers, loggers, sand miners, cacao planters, gold prospectors, shopkeepers, and sorcerersforming a mosaic of a community, which, despite its apparent isolation, is sitting on yet-to-be-exploited resources of gold and diamonds. The camera’s patient focus on physical activity has a vibrancy that no amount of expository dialogue or narration could match.
If I find Syrian filmmaker Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement the gem of the lot, it is because it uses every resource of the cinema. An intimate memoir as well as a moving social document, it is also a work of great audiovisual power and lyricism. We watch the daily routine of Syrian construction workers commandeered to rebuild Beirut from bombed-out ruins as a voice-over recalls the boyhood memories of the filmmaker, whose father is also among them. Exiled for weeks and months, living in rough conditions in the unfinished buildings, the men are not only subjected to curfews but have nightmares about imminent bombings and the horrific details of rescue operations, like the one we see of children buried alive. The film’s force comes from its occasional conflating of events: One sequence stresses the perverse interdependence of destruction and constructionas bursts of shells from an invading tank are crosscut with the erection of new buildings at a speed that mocks logic and anyone’s ability to comprehend the raging insanity of history. Eschewing interaction among the men, Kalthoum shows them alone at rest, eyes ever vigilant, counteracted by dazzling shots of individual workers set against and above the vastness of the city, an image that evokes the heroic montage of Eisenstein and its celebration of the worker while reflecting the general indifference to their lives induced by an increasing capitalism. As the title hints, the very element central to what they do is mixed with blood and sweat.
The family in the Portuguese drama Colo, directed by Teresa Villaverde, is in a desperate socioeconomic state. From the movie’s first shot of daughter Marta and her boyfriend, Jaoa, in a tear-filled parting embrace, it’s all downhill. Father is out of work and mother’s overtime is not enough to pay the electric bill. Each parent is often clueless of the whereabouts of the other, but certain of his or her return since there is nowhere else to go. Suicide is a constant option. In the final scene, Marta seeks shelter from a stranger who owns a one-room hut, while the camera, assuming an authorial perspective avoided throughout, moves toward and away from the structure as if uncertain there is anything more to say. All performances are strong, especially that of Alice Albergaria Borges as Marta.
Against the complexity of these works, both Daniela Thomas’s Brazilian period piece Vazante (The Surge) and Mouly Surya’s revenge saga Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts, an Indonesian/French/Malaysian/Thai production, are one-dimensional. The former, though strikingly shot, sheds no new light on colonial racism, and the latter shamelessly depends on such stereotypes as the gang rapist, the callous cop, and the brutish husband. More compelling are Raed Andoni’s Ghost Huntingwhich gathers Palestinian men to reenact their detainments or imprisonments in Israeli prisonsand a number of shorter works, including two by Canadian artist Daniel Cockburn, whose witty lecture, subtitled “How Not to Watch a Movie,” is accompanied by The Argument, a crafty, astutely edited take on the long-married.
First Look has always done justice to the avant-garde. In addition to its opening-night feature, Blake Williams’s 3-D puzzler Prototype, it includes Ken Jacobs’s Shelley Duvall is Olive Oyl, his latest foray into bending minds, time, and space, as well as three new works by James Benning. You won’t find a quieter, more contemplative work than Benning’s Readers, composed of five long takes of people facing, though seemingly unengaged with, the camera, each sitting more or less in one position for nearly thirty minutes and reading a book. Like most of Benning’s work, the reverie of the viewer is as much a component as what is on the screen. Each reader is as distinct as the book being read, an excerpt from which is provided on the black screens that serve as intervals. We are led to appreciate the state we occupy when we reada lone activity that could seem intruded upon here but does not, and in which, though slight shifts of posture and attention are detectable, all the excitement and engagement of the mind remains private.
Benning’s other two moviesthe simply conceived, beautifully shot, aptly titled Measuring Change and the no less striking L. Cohenare altogether different. Increasingly, his long takes, whether they last fifteen minutes, an hour, or more, seem like the compromises an artist makes with the unfathomable reach of his vision. They are as much humble efforts as acts of hubris, recognizing limits while evoking futures none of us will ever know. “Measuring change” is one way to describe what Benning, now age seventy-five, has been doing for decades, although actually perceptible changes in his works are more likely to occur in the viewer’s attention span, perceptual apparatus, and body posture than in anything on the screen.
Watching the singular image of Spiral Jettythe subject of Benning’s camera in Measuring Change, filmed on December 28, 2015, at 8:57 AM and 3:12 PMis another occasion in which one can muse on the ultimate Benning movie, where a camera or some comparable recording machine of the future is left running until the end of human history. While its measure of change might be incontestable, no one alive now or then could experience it as such, any more than one could encompass the accuracy of Borges’s map, the proportions of which would have to be as large as the territory it purports to cover. Instead, like the tiny human visitors to Spiral Jetty we perceive at a great distance moving in from the left, following the jetty’s curvature to the center, and exiting, the engagement of our consciousness seems pitifully small, evanescent, and irrelevant, a mere blip from the perspective of eternity. Beautiful and sobering, Measuring Change is a meditative masterwork.
Jacobs, at eighty-four, could not be less like Benning, yet his work over the past decades also aspires toward a condition beyond the constrictions of time and space, entertaining, as it has, the possibility of defying entombment and revivifying the past, as he did in The Guests (2015). In the new work, Jacobs freezes the present, not in static images but through his own brand of push-me/pull-me seizures, amplifying an object’s organic surge in space while retarding its progress to the next moment in time. As my eyes follow or appear to follow a movement, or an apparent movement, of the camera or of the object before it, I “see” what, in fact, is not happening, another illusion—delusion, actuallya phenomenon defying the laws of cinema, not to mention physics. While my eyes, and the mechanism that determines how I process the data before me, lead me to believe that a figure is moving in space, now closer, now farther away, it is, in fact, doing none of the above. Is Jacobs measuring change or willfully denying the implacable march of time that all movies since 1895 both register and obliterate?
First Look runs January 5 through 15 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.