NEWS FROM EVERYWHERE: Selections from MoMAs Documentary Fortnight 2012by Leo Goldsmith and Rachael Rakes
Every February, the Museum of Modern Art’s Documentary Fortnight presents a program of new work that reveals non-fiction media’s often tenuous foothold between the film and art worlds. And while last year’s program featured two of 2011’s best theatrical documentaries—Clio Barnard’s The Arbor and Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light—Documentary Fortnight is more often notable for its breadth of subject matter and the variety of its smaller, less widely heralded selections. Much like similarly heterogeneous festivals International Film Festival Rotterdam and CPH:DOX, Doc Fortnight’s appetite for new formal hybrids is voracious, and this year’s slate is typically cosmopolitan and mercurial, offering up an amalgam of works that includes experimental filmmaker Naomi Uman’s minute portraits of rural life in Ukraine, a three-program retrospective for Paper Tiger Television, and an evening with video and installation artist Phil Collins.
Toeing the line between biopic and portraiture, Amit Dutta’s Nainsukh revisits fragments of the life of the titular 18th-century Pahari painter through recreations of his most famous works. Nainsukh’s paintings mix Northern and Southern Indian styles in richly detailed, beautifully composed images, which Dutta restages with evident relish, situating lavishly robed actors among temple ruins and in precisely framed tableaux. Sergei Parajanov is a clear point of comparison here, not only for the direct correspondences between painting and cinema and the vibrant colors and tactile quality of the images, but also for the film’s blend of oblique angles and flattened compositions and the opaque referentiality of its narrative. Uninterested in precise chronologies or overbearing period accuracy, Dutta doesn’t strain to fill in the gaps of Nainsukh’s life story, especially his close relationship with his patron, Maharaja Balwant Singh of Jasrota. Instead, like the paintings themselves, the film evokes the painter’s life through intimate minutiae of costume, architecture, and gesture, to which Dutta adds an intricate, suggestive layer in the film's sound design—ruminative period music, a chorus of birdsong, and the persistent, off-screen gurgle of a waterpipe.
Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter has a fondness for stately tableaux of another variety: Our Daily Bread, his epic 2005 film about industrial agriculture in Europe, scrupulously frames the vanishing points of modern cucumber harvests, pig slaughter, and salt mining. In Abendland, his new film, Geyrhalter is less committed to these fearful symmetries, but his images are no less rigorous and considered. With its glimpses of raves, anti-nuke protests, papal benedictions, and parliamentary kvetching, the film reveals Europe through its varied nocturnal rituals and transactions, offering a more sober echo of the kind of fanny-packed Babylonians that Godard deployed Patti Smith and a handful of phone-cameramen to find on the now-sunken Costa Concordia in Film socialisme. But alongside all the upper-middle-class leisure-seekers, Geyrhalter also finds a lot of people simply doing their jobs: cops in a virtual reality training center; waiters and dishwashers at a beerhall during Oktoberfest; suicide-hotline workers offering consoling words; sex workers rutting, posing, and showering in a club in Prague. Geyrhalter’s choice of subjects suggests a heavy emphasis on the E.U.’s major hot-button issues, like race, citizenship, surveillance, and control: officials face off with Roma settlers in a soon-to-be-bulldozed camp outside Rome; patrolmen skirt Spain’s border fence in Melilla on the north coast of Morocco; desk jockeys zoom in on the activities of suspicious characters from the quiet remove of a CCTV-monitoring center in London. The result is an eerie imbalance of late-capitalist abundance and low-level bureaucratic menace.
A program consisting of two shorter films, The Ground We Stand On and Imagining Emanuel, observes the way that property constructs identity, and looks at those ill-equipped to obtain a piece of their own. The family at the heart of The Ground We Stand On is evidently eccentric from the film’s opening—they look ratty, travel solely by bicycle, glean—but they come off as merely standard California middle-class kooks until we realize that they are living in a Los Angeles City park. The Adamses’s story of how they got there sort of adds up: a snowballing effect involving a nasty landlord, heartless cops, and spent savings. But how they handle their situation is so strangely obstinate and so innocently ineffective. Their displacement goes deeper than their physical uprooting; mother, father, and son share a placid disregard for authority that is as commendable as it is unnerving. As they shuffle from place to place, it’s impossible to imagine where they might finally take root, but easy to guess that it won’t end happily. To watch them attempt to speak truth to power is an exercise in patience, but also in reflexiveness—it reveals how routinely most of us go along with a set of rules that is transparently wrong just to avoid losing face.
The displaced man at the center of Imagining Emanuel shares a passivity with the Adamses, but his is far more resigned, not stemming from strong hippie values, but from never having had the smallest thing handed to him, and not expecting any better. Director Thomas Østbye examines Emanuel’s situation in an almost parodically clinical manner that only underscores its hopeless ambiguity. Against a black TV-studio backdrop, Emanuel calmly tells his story of stowing away on a boat to Norway, after first escaping civil war in Liberia as a child, and then eventually losing his mother, his only remaining known family, after relocating to Ghana. In Norway he is immediately delivered to immigration authorities, who not only do not believe his story, but are not able to successfully find out any contradicting evidence. Emanuel has no papers of any sort, and no government anywhere that could corroborate or disprove his identity. He waits, interminably, in in a stifling immigration prison while Norwegian agents oscillate over ways to make him another country's problem. With no education, no resources, and no ties to family or history, Emmanuel proves as slippery a subject for Østbye's mock-anthropological approach as he does for the grinding bureaucracies of immigration services, and ultimately, as with the Adamses, it's his lack of place that becomes his defining characteristic.
The subjects of The Tiniest Place, on the other hand, are tied to their land in the most intimate and scarring ways. The living residents of the Salvadoran village Cinquera are the few survivors of an unfathomably brutal invasion by the National Guard during the civil war of the 1980s. So complete was the devastation of their town that for years it was literally wiped off the map. The few that did not die or join the FMLN guerillas returned to rebuild the village, and now live as a community of survivors, entrenched in traumatic memory and haunted by the missing. As much as they live inside their horrors, they are connected to each other and the verdant, mountainous land. Gratuitously shot at all hours of the day and from all possible vistas, the land begins to stand in for a voiceover narrative, posing the question repeatedly of how something so barbarous could happen in a place like this. It’s the only facet of hyperbole in the film. Like few other documents of terror and memory, the matter-of-factness of the recollections by each of the townspeople has the effect of making their stories feel unsettlingly unexceptional. The details of the people’s former life, then of the sudden invasion, then the witness, flight, and hiding, all seem like events that could happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. The lingering presence of that notion is not easy to shake.
LEO GOLDSMITH is the film editor of The Brooklyn Rail and an editor at Not Coming to a Theater Near You (notcoming.com).Rachael Rakes
RACHAEL RAKES is the film editor of the Brooklyn Rail and the Assistant Curator of Film at the Museum of the Moving Image.