Utopia Station

Travis Jeppesen on the 12th Doclisboa

Wang Bing, Father and Sons, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 81 minutes.

I ALWAYS LOOK FORWARD to the month of October because it brings the multitudinous possibilities of Doclisboa, one of the finest film festivals of its sort in Europe. The programming ethos of Doclisboa is as unrelenting in its commitments to politics as it is to poetry. It asserts the documentary medium as an art form with ambiguous categorical boundaries, favors formalist rigor over fluff, and offers the film festival as a site of knowledge production rather than a mere showcase or trade fair.

This year, festival favorite Wang Bing won the best international feature award for his Father and Sons—a ballsy move by the jury, considering that virtually nothing happens throughout the course of the eighty-one-minute-long film. In Southwest China, a factory worker lives with his two adolescent sons in a hut with a dirt floor and a single bed. Shot with a static camera framing the dwelling’s entire interior, most of the film consists of the eldest son sprawled on the bed, his attention divided between his smartphone and the television set. Toward the conclusion, his younger brother joins him. Finally, the father comes home from work, and, after a few minutes, announces that it’s time for bed and turns the lights out. That’s all. “Nothing happening” is very much the point: The ponderous simplicity of the premise returns the viewer to the travails of thought, through which you might momentarily enter the frame, and renders abjection into beauty. Wang never preaches or overtly politicizes his subjects or their existential situation, yet his empathy is unwavering; it magically becomes our own. The family’s two anesthetizing screens, likely their most valuable possessions, are also their most valued.

Indicative of the filmmaking renaissance happening there, China was strongly represented throughout this year’s festival, with perhaps the most popular entry being Ai Weiwei’s Appeal ¥15,220,910.50, a straightforward account of the artist and activist’s well-documented detainment and legal battles with the Chinese authorities. China does have more than one important living artist, of course, and Pedro Cardeira’s eponymous biographical portrait of Mio Pang Fei—the Macau-based master whose “Neo-Orientalism,” as Mio terms it, stages a painterly encounter with the ancient calligraphic tradition and Western Abstract Expressionism—was truly engrossing.

The best Chinese film at the festival, however—and the best film about China in the twenty-first century that I’ve seen to date—was made by an American, J. P. Sniadecki, known for his work with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Following People’s Park (2012) and Yumen (2013), both documentaries on contemporary China that Sniadecki codirected, The Iron Ministry compiles three years of footage shot during rides on China’s extensive railway system. A cow stomach is sliced into edible bits; a man puffs on a bamboo cigar-holder between compartments; the filthy floor is lined with cigarette butts and sleeping human bodies; a precocious little boy sarcastically encourages the crowd to piss and shit in the aisles. The result is a microcosm of China today: a country undergoing an industrial revolution, where the population is constantly on the move and where free and open debate takes place in public spaces among people of all educational, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, in spite of the absence of an overarching systemic democracy.

J. P. Sniadecki, The Iron Ministry, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 83 minutes.

A markedly different portrait of a society moving jaggedly along the brink of chaos emerges from Belluscone: Una Storia Siciliana. It may sound odd to describe a documentary about Silvio Berlusconi’s relations with the Sicilian Mafia as hilarious, but Franco Maresco’s effort is a brilliantly stylized theater of the absurd, exposing the not-too-hidden network connecting the ousted Italian leader’s Forza Italia party, the crasser sides of show biz, and the mob in an all-too-human comedy of corruption. The film uses brisk pacing, cheesy theatrical sets, and the ironic narration of film critic Tatti Sanguineti to accentuate the story’s near-unbelievability—which, of course, makes it all the realer.

Another successful experiment in hybridization was Snakeskin, which had its world premiere at Doclisboa, following director Daniel Hui’s winning of the Revelation Prize for Eclipses at last year’s festival. Documentary is crossed with science fiction as the sole survivor of an apocalyptic cult in the year 2066 meditates, via voice-over, on interviews and footage filmed in 2014 in his native Singapore. In its unraveling narrative, this unusual, thoughtful evocation of time travel probes one of history’s most complex sites of colonialist intrigue.

Other highlights included two films shot clandestinely on tours to North Korea—Soon-Mi Yoo’s Songs from the North, which won the award for best first feature, and Marie Voignier’s Tourisme International—as well as Evaporating Borders, Iva Radivojevic’s exploration of emigration strife and the rise of extreme nationalism in her adopted homeland of Cyprus, which took the RTP Award for Best Investigation Film. And I won’t soon forget Duras et le Cinema, a portrait of the engimatic novelist turned filmmaker by one of her editors, Dominique Auvray. As the protagonists of Wang’s feature could tell you, the screen is a means of transporting one elsewhere: This is the wonder of the cinematic vehicle. It takes you places and it doesn’t expect anything in return. In its comprehension that these “elsewheres” form the overall picture that every being with a conscience should not only be cognizant of but also take responsibility for, Doclisboa ’14 cuttingly enunciated itself as a miniutopia—or the closest thing we may get to one in a world as troubled as ours.

The twelfth Doclisboa ran October 16–26, 2014.