For the last decade, the Museum of Modern Art has presented an annual sampling of international non-fiction films and media works that probe the interstices of cinema and contemporary art. Continuing in this mode, this year’s Documentary Fortnight presents a selection of entries from 14 different countries, with an emphasis on Latin America and China. Serving up titles headed for imminent theatrical runs (Clio Barnard’s The Arbor, Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light, and Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev’s The Desert of Forbidden Art) alongside more spontaneous offerings (like the three ‘live documentaries’ presented by Dave Cerf and Sam Green), the series maps a variegated topography of non-fiction moving image forms.
Of particular note is the large selection of contemporary Chinese films on this year’s slate, which affords a glimpse into the country’s highly diverse independent media scene. Works range widely in style and tone, from the trauma-scarred activism of Xu Xin’s six-hour Karamay to the characteristically elegant art-cinema fare of Jia Zhangke’s I Wish I Knew to the gritty portrait of an ancient practice in a modern world in Xu Tong’s Fortune Teller. With very different results, each film employs interviews as a means of mining cloudy histories for intimate detail: Xu Xin assembles a galling and exhaustive litany of testimonies about government negligence in the wake of a catastrophic fire that killed nearly 300 people (mostly schoolchildren) in the titular town; Jia casts a rather wistful glance back on the history of Shanghai in the 20th century through gliding camerawork and a turbid monochrome palette; and Xu Tong takes something of a middle road, mixing vérité and bedside chats in his neatly structured profile of an aging, handicapped soothsayer in the Beijing purlieus, whose illegal practice, situated amongst prostitutes and beggars, places him in constant fear of police crackdowns.
Still in China, but much further afield stylistically, are Huang Weikai’s Disorder and Li Ning’s Tape, two daring works that make exhilarating use of digital video to capture the jarring precariousness of China’s urban life. Huang’s film draws from 1,000 hours of low-grade footage by a dozen semi-anonymous videographers to create a grainy, black-and-white mash-up of postmodern absurdities: pigs trot amok on the highway, crocodiles navigate the Pearl River, and police bust up a black market for anteater and bear-claw, prompting an all-out looting. It’s a relentless and rough-edged work of guerilla video that wonderfully complements (and helps to ground) Li Ning’s positively bonkers document of his life and work as a performance artist. Using an often hilarious and always baffling combination of dance, digital video, and computer animation, Li and his troupe enact quasi-Situationist and surely illegal interventions, often in drag or completely naked, in public spaces, in the middle of busy intersections, or amid wreckage and busted concrete. With the persistent use of the texture and sound of tape in all its forms, it’s hard not to think of Jack Smith’s Scotch Tape, but Li’s cracked self-portrait also weaves in fly-on-the-wall documentation of everyday life, burlesques of Chinese bureaucracy, and personal disclosure in its exploration of the body as a site of unconquerable self-possession.
An essay film on corpses, dust, the unanswerable questions posed by looking at the night sky, and the unfathomable pain we inflict upon each other, Nostalgia for the Light demonstrates how we cast our vision out as a way of coping with history and loss. Patricio Guzmán, who has documented the systemic violence in his home country of Chile for the past thirty years (notably, in the nonfiction films The Battle of Chile and Salvador Allende), examines the Atacama Desert: the driest place in the world, one of the foremost viewing and mapping locations for astronomers, and site of the concentration camps set up by Pinochet for some of the 80,000 dissidents imprisoned during his reign. Here, Guzmán encounters Victoria and Violeta, two women who have been trawling the desert for nearly three decades with their shovels in search of some fragment of the bodies of their loved ones buried in the sand. He speaks with Luis, the amateur astronomer who began stargazing while imprisoned in the camp, and Lautaro, an archaeologist who has found 1,000-year-old mummies in the sand, and who helps the women search for hints of bones. The bones and the stars, Guzmán notes, in the synthesizing moment of the film, are all made of calcium. This material proof of our connection to celestial bodies offers the strange but palpable sensation that we might eventually learn how to be human beings: The answers are in the stars; the stars are here.
The spirits of California social historians Mike Davis and Rebecca Solnit hover over Peter Bo Rappmund’s cinematic water sculpture, Psychohydrography; the memory of films like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and Pat O’Neill’s Water and Power fill in historical imagination and add weight to the tone. Composed of single-frame shots, the film traces the Los Angeles water supply from its source in the Sierra Nevada Mountains through the Los Angeles River and all the way to its release in the Pacific Ocean. Gorgeously mixed field recordings provide the soundtrack, which oscillates between evocative and ominous along the landscape of flowing streams, power plants, brutal waves, and faint trickles on concrete. The water itself changes too, from clean and bubbling in the mountains, to silt-ridden and sloppy, running apace the cars on the highway, to dark and thrashing in the sea. From timidity to violence through Rappmund’s manipulation of time and exposures, it becomes the subject, rather than the object, of California’s myopic overdevelopment.
The Desert of Forbidden Art, co-directed by Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev, centers around a câché of avant-garde art that was banned under Stalin’s dictatorship but managed to find its way to a small museum in Nukus, capital of the Karakalpak province in Uzbekistan, on the outskirts of what was once the Soviet empire. That these paintings survive at all is as much due to the museum’s distance from the Kremlin as to the political and cultural commitment of the museum’s curator, Igor Savitsky, who collected both the modernist and folk art that was seen as dangerous to the Stalinist hegemony. For a film about progressive and daring artwork, The Desert of Forbidden Art is stylistically dull and conventional, an unfortunate irony. Between Savitsky, the painters (all deceased), their children, and the stock ‘authorities,’ the film can hardly keep its subjects straight or its narrative on task. Too many digressions and too broad a scope make this a confusing curiosity. As interesting as the paintings are, they’d be better appreciated on the walls of the museum than on its movie screen.
More coherent, but no less frustrating, is El Ambulante (The Peddler), co-directed by Eduardo de la Serna, Lucas Marcheggiano, and Adriana Yurcovich. Its main character is Daniel Burmeister, an itinerant filmmaker who travels across Argentina, offering to make movies with local citizens in return for room and board. His only income comes from selling tickets to the screening and home video copies. Recalling Chris Smith’s American Movie, El Ambulante follows Burmeister as he tries to make a movie against all odds: He’s a one man crew, working with untrained actors, shooting with no budget. ‘Actors’ suddenly disappear, or are called back to real life because of emergencies, leaving Burmeister to improvise and make do. As inspiring and warm-hearted as it is, El Ambulante never gets too close to its subjects. We are never told the story of Burmeister’s film, Let’s Kill Uncle, nor are we shown more than a brief glimpse of the footage. We learn as little of Burmeister and his personal life as we do of the townspeople—strangely impersonal, for a film that purports to be about how cinema brings a community together.
Much more successful in this regard is Kazuhiro Soda’s PEACE, which partly follows Toshio and Hiroko Kashiwagi, a couple who run a volunteer taxi and health-care service for elderly and disabled welfare recipients in suburban Japan. A moving work of remarkable patience and earnest human curiosity, Soda’s film is a departure from earlier works like Campaign and Mental in its discursive mode and seeming willingness to stray from its already ambiguous subject. Odd moments, like a limping cat with a heart-shaped spot on its fur, distract the camera, which functions like a casual bystander that effortlessly recedes from its subjects and then nonchalantly rejoins the conversation. Soda affects no fly-on-the-wall pretense—“If I spray some tick repellent on you, will it damage your camera?” Mrs. Kashiwagi concernedly asks him—but instead builds a careful rapport with the subjects of his film that feels like an extension of the small community of friends, family, and feral cats that Mr. Kashiwagi builds in the same patient, unassuming manner.