Absent Presence

Mohammad Rasoulof, Manuscripts Don’t Burn, 2013, video, color, sound, 125 minutes.

IT BEGAN WITH AN ABSENCE. Invited to serve as jury president at this year’s DocLisboa, where his new film Manuscripts Don’t Burn (2013) would close the festival, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof had his passport confiscated by the authorities to prevent him from traveling abroad. This event takes place three years after Rasoulof’s arrest in 2010 for carrying out propaganda against the state. Like many banned directors in Iran, Rasoulof has shot his latest films clandestinely, owing to threats by the ruling regime. Exile used to be the punishment for crimes against the state. As the outside world becomes more accessible, the situation has reversed, with the state serving as a jail for dissident artists like Rasoulof and Ai Weiwei.

In the case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it’s a jail that no one ever wants to leave. At least that’s the claim made by the citizens featured in The Great North Korean Picture Show (2013), Lynn Lee and James Leong’s depiction of the elusive country’s film industry, which was micromanaged by the “Dear Leader” and noted cinephile Kim Jong Il until his death in 2011. Though he does not appear overtly in the documentary, his presence is a suffusing force, as all film students in the DPRK learn directly from his propagandistic writings. “It’s not about fame,” explains Un Bom Kim, a young actor training at the Pyongyang University of Dramatic and Cinematic Arts when asked what makes his country’s film industry different from the West. “We have to serve our Leader. By making him happy, we are happy too.”

That’s not a claim one could ever imagine director Bela Tarr making. Tarr Bela: I Used to Be a Filmmaker (2013) portrays not only the Hungarian auteur and his exacting process as he works on his final masterpiece, The Turin Horse (2011), but also many of those in his extended cinematic family. The desolation and emptiness of the Hungarian plain—the locale for many of Tarr’s films—which has been abandoned with the decline of agriculture in that country, serves as a geographical metaphor for Tarr’s withdrawal from the world of filmmaking.

Like Tarr, whose magnum opus Satantango (1994) clocks in at over seven hours in length, Wang Bing makes duration-intensive films that allow viewers the immersive experience of time becoming a space; as such, Wang’s films often force us into occupying discomfiting yet fascinating positions. After Three Sisters (2012), which won the top award at last year’s DocLisboa, Wang returns with ’Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), a 227-minute feature set in the caged walls of a men’s mental institution in the poverty-afflicted Yunnan Province in southwestern China. All the men we come to meet have been committed involuntarily and live in wretched conditions of institutional abjection that even Beckett could have scarcely conjured. The claustrophobia-inducing effects of the film’s length sicken the viewer, but this seems justified once one learns that many of these men have been locked up in this cage for over two decades.

Of course, certain allegedly advanced societies allow their nuts to apply their time to other institutions, such as public service. Errol Morris’s The Unknown Known (2013) portrays Donald Rumsfeld through its subject’s tormented battles with rhetoric. Throughout the course of a ninety-six-minute interview that forms the basis of the film, Rumsfeld negates the smug and insulting figure he evinced in his tenure with the Bush administration. His post–Oval Office persona showboats the sort of smiling “by-golly” folksiness that forms the middle-American epitome of charisma and sincerity, the same kind that the rest of the world tends to diagnose as a symptom of brain damage. Of course, anyone who can read a liar’s face will easily see the truth in, among other moments, Rumsfeld’s deplorable defense of Nixon and, most creepily, the shit-eating grin he gives when Morris expresses amazement that no one in the White House or Pentagon had any inkling of what might be coming on September 11, 2001. But it is ultimately Rumsfeld’s war with language, quoted from his countless White House memos that Morris has him read aloud, which forms the core of his tragic flaw. Rumsfeld’s efforts to rewrite the dictionary and assert hegemonic control over meaning to erect a justificatory discourse for doing whatever he wants evoke the clear likeness of a man smart enough to know only what he can get away with, but barely.

In its eleven years of existence, DocLisboa has not only been a testing ground for the documentary’s stakes as an art form, but a restless and unyielding forum for philosophical probings on filmmaking in general. The hosting of cinematic visions as unlikely and incomparable as those of Kim Jong Il and Bela Tarr alongside digital activists like Zhu Rikun—a pro-democracy Chinese dissident whose film The Questioning (2013) consists of footage shot from a static camcorder he set up in his hotel room in Xinyu when the local police came to shake him down—gives the festival its rich and varied texture. You might very well bump into international auteurs like Chantal Akerman or local enfant terrible Joao Pedro Rodrigues, yet DocLisboa remains fundamentally anti-elitist in its civic devotion. It is not uncommon for Lisboans—those lucky enough to be employed during this era of financial duress—to schedule their annual vacation leave at this time to volunteer for the festival and attend screenings. As the festival slogan has it, “Each October, the whole world fits in Lisbon.” A comforting thought in a world that unceasingly troubles our notions of home.

The eleventh edition of DocLisboa ran October 24–November 3.