OUT OF BASIC PRACTICALITY, most festivals are content to build their programs on a “best of” format based on works submitted. This year’s DocLisboa, however, took a more ambitious curatorial approach: Any path one took through the hundred-plus films on offer guaranteed the opportunity to graduate with a new thesis on both the history and the current state of documentary film. While this will undoubtedly cement the festival’s reputation as an affair designed for fetishists of the genre, beyond merely filmic concerns, its framing by retrospectives of Harun Farocki and Jean Rouch—representing sociological and anthropological stances, respectively—allow for a probing of the great uncertainties of the present.
Where Europe is concerned, this was poetically undertaken by Ivette Löcker and Nikolaus Geyrhalter, whose films Nachtschichten (Night Shifts, 2010) and Abendland (Nightfall, 2010) perform the Joycean task of employing nightscapes to explore the problems that haunt us in daylight—whether we wish to remain blind to them or not. Löcker’s Nachtschichten follows a selection of individuals who—by choice or necessity, their activities illicit or vocational—live as nighthawks in Central Europe’s largest city, Berlin. Geyrhalter’s Abendland takes a similar approach, only widening the scenic focus onto the entire European continent over a patchwork of scenes that move gracefully from the institutional (an EU parliamentary session) to the ecclesiastical (a conference at the Vatican) to careless revelry (a stadium megarave.) Where Nachtschichten is more character-based, with its revolving cast of shadows speaking freely to the camera, Abendland adapts a metonymic approach: While no one scene is returned to, each feeds the next, forming a rich inner narrative logic.
We Need Happiness (2010), Aleksandr Sokurov’s recent collaboration with Alexei Jankowski, was a highlight of the festival. The fifty-four-minute documentary brings us into the homes of families residing in the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq and centers on the struggles they have endured throughout the past half century. Sokurov recites diaristic reflections on his trip, a tactic that illustrates how impossible it is to separate yourself from the world’s great problems when you are immediately confronted by them—We Need Happiness establishes the filmmaker as the most engaging literary voice-over artist working in documentary film. (Sorry, Mr. Herzog!) Elsewise, 20 Cigarettes (2011) by James Benning, the great West Coast structuralist, marks a transition from his landscape films (13 Lakes  and 10 Skies ) to cinematic portraiture: Inspired by Warhol’s screen tests, Benning has twenty individuals each smoke a single cigarette over the course of his film. Agnes Varda’s latest work, Agnès de ci de lá Varda (2011), little more than a “what I did on my summer vacation” presentation with embarrassing iCamera effects, was less compelling—especially when one considers that the late George Kuchar mined similar territory with lesser technology for the last thirty or so years of his life, bringing the material beyond reportage and into the realm of the immortal, a feat Varda’s film does not manage. Finally, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011) was given the benefit of a miss, as this critic can no longer stomach the prospect of witnessing Martin Scorsese’s devolution into mediocrity, and frankly, it’s hard to see how anyone could be persuaded to sit through a three-hour-long biopic of the former Beatle, regardless of the director. Anyway, given the great urgency and range of issues the festival otherwise delved into, the celebrity-culture tripe felt like precisely the kind of diversion it was otherwise aiming to avoid.
Our current Occupy Wall Street era is as fitting a time as ever to take a second look at Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992). Composed wholly of footage shot by bystanders—mainly amateurs with camcorders—the film documents the popular overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s murderous regime in 1989. Videograms of a Revolution reminds us that, in order to be effective, change needs to be total and systemic. Watching the film as a citizen of the United States, a country whose constitution stipulates the right of the people to overthrow their government if necessary, one can’t help but draw inspiration from this coup d’état by the citizenry of a totalitarian regime that denied them the right to any expression of political dissent. Chaotic as the Romanian coup was, it led to the sort of real change that can’t be bought or voted for. In light of the comparatively vaster resources Americans have at their disposal, viewing Farocki’s work today leaves one with hope that the present street protests will explode into full-on revolution, permanently ridding us of the capitalist slave economy that continues to destroy countless lives.
The ninth international DocLisboa ran October 20–30.