The French filmmaker Chris Marker died only a couple of days before the start of the Festival del Film Locarno, Southern Switzerland’s annual sampling of international cinema, festival ephemera, and European premieres of Hollywood films (including Soderbergh’s Magic Mike), but his ghost seemed to loom large over the programmers’ selections. Known for a kind of ecstatic non-fiction that frequently blends science-fiction, essay-film, and autobiographical apocrypha with documentary material, Marker serves as a kind of spiritual father to the current trend of hybrid, experimental non-fiction in contemporary cinema. Locarno’s slate foregrounded its usual mix of red-carpet world premieres, prizes, and lifetime achievement awards—for the likes of Harry Belafonte, Charlotte Rampling, and Alain Delon—but its programming also leaned heavily on a species of film that Marker himself would recognize: a sundry, even divisive mode that muddies the distinction between documentary and narrative forms and pushes actuality to its limits through inventive manipulations of form and technology.
While a mixture of fact and fiction is arguably an implicit characteristic of all documentary films, its widespread deployment in a self-consciously hybrid form has become a fixture of festival, art-house, and even mainstream films for much of the last decade. The frequency with which neo-realist auteurs like Abbas Kiarostami, American semi-independents like Richard Linklater, and elaborate practical jokers like Sacha Baron Cohen rely on a careful interplay between narrative and actuality elements suggests this is not a new trend, but it is a growing one. This was apparent even on Locarno’s biggest stage, the 8,000-capacity Piazza Grande, where Pablo Larraín’s Cannes-debuted film No screened with star Gael García Bernal in attendance. The conclusion to Larraín’s trilogy about Pinochet-era Chile (following 2008’s Tony Manero and 2010’s Post Mortem), the film narrates the story of the television campaigns that framed the 1988 popular referendum that ultimately ousted the notorious general from power, using an often indistinguishable blend of archival video footage and narrative scenes shot on fuzzy, rainbow-edged ‘80s-grade U-matic videotape. An insightful account of a revolution televised, and even advertised, Larraín’s film stirringly documents an important turn in Chilean politics even as it ambivalently marks a shift in public consciousness about politics through broadcast media—history as an image on a TV screen.
While No represents a fairly straight, if artfully achieved Zeligization of archival material, other films in Locarno’s selection enacted a more oblique dance between their layers of truth. Greatest Hits (Los mejores temas) by Mexican director Nicolás Pereda, who was the subject of a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives last year, explores the mixed emotions between a prodigal father and the now-adult son he abandoned 15 years prior in two sections, first as neo-realist narrative with stylized, harpsichord-scored tableaux, and then in documentary form, as a visual record of the moments that presumably inspired the film’s first section. The son in both parts is the same person—prolific actor and Pereda-regular Gabino Rodriguez—but an actor plays the father in the film’s first part, providing an abrupt contrast and moment of confusion that is gradually dispelled as the viewer works out the film’s basic conceit.
A similar moment of pleasurable befuddlement occurs in Spanish director Eloy Enciso’s first film, Arraianos, when the exquisitely documented inhabitants and rural landscapes of a mysteriously decrepit and fog-bound Galician village become the stage for portentous, Straubian dialogue about the endlessness of the forest, the inescapability of a world turned upside down, and intimations of an impending fiery apocalypse. Ineluctably grey and marked by a soundtrack of damp crunches, bell chimes, and folk singing, Enciso’s curious debut plays like a hybrid Satantango, stilted and a bit derivative of the rural-quietude genre (cf. Sweetgrass, La Quattro volte, and Bovines). Even so, it’s no less enjoyable for its vivid images of ancient village-folk birthing cows, yanking roots from the soil, and exchanging grim songs, prayers, and tales amid celebratory laughter.
A far less jarring interweaving of the real and the fictive was found in Song Fang’s Memories Look at Me (Ji yi wang zhe wo), which quite deservedly took the festival’s award for best first feature. Song, best known as one of the stars of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s last film The Flight of the Red Balloon, here takes inspiration from her former director’s work with a delicately composed portrait in miniature, an apparently autobiographical narrative of her own return visit to her parents. Despite the fact that Song has cast herself as one of the film’s stars, her presence is somehow self-effacing, yielding a remarkably unpretentious and affecting film about homecoming and contending with her parents’ aging in a manner quite without melodrama. Almost entirely confined to her parents’ apartment, the film frames her mother and father in a series of stationary compositions through which she elicits from them a set of almost inconceivably precise, wholly naturalistic performances, as they reminisce about departed family members over intimate meals, bedside chats, and personal grooming sessions.
Similarly measured in its vacillation between narrative and documentary observation, Museum Hours, the latest film by Brooklyn’s own Jem Cohen, balances a story of a middle-aged Canadian woman—adrift in Vienna as she attends a comatose distant relative—and a guard at the city’s massive Kunsthistorisches Museum who befriends her. Like Song, Cohen elicits moving performances from non-actors—Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer, who provides the film’s lullingly gentle voiceover narration in German—achieving what, in lesser hands, could easily have been a maudlin love story or a drippy “meditation” on museum art. Instead, through the considered pacing of Cohen and Marc Vives’s editing, the film cleverly situates the protagonists’ empathetic (and wholly platonic) relationship in an evocative city symphony and, crucially, in an unaffected essay film on the documentary nature of 16th century Renaissance landscape painting. Here, Bruegel’s “hallucinations of the real,” as one character terms them, form the basis of a tradition of observation of minutiae—of peasant life, folklore, and quotidian landscape—which Cohen himself takes up, circumventing the dreary preeminence of the art-commodity through a deeply humanist alignment of art and life.
While these expressively hybrid works variously challenged the borders of genre through a permeable relationship between documentary and narrative, a number of other selections at Locarno blurred these boundaries largely through form alone. Frequently enabled by digital technology—both during production and after it—these works answer the outrage of documentary purists and the paranoid melancholy of celluloid fetishists with a kind of expressive euphoria. Nowhere was this euphoria more deeply felt than in Leviathan, the hotly anticipated collaboration between Véréna Paravel (Foreign Parts) and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass), which documents—if that’s even the word—the experience of commercial fishermen off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Filmmakers from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, Paravel and Castaing-Taylor launch us face-first into the seas of Moby Dick, but also possibly Jaws, with horrifyingly visceral plunges into cold, black ocean water, and awesomely punishing blasts of sound as waves crash, chains crunch, and dying, mutilated sea creatures flop and wheeze their last breaths on the ship’s deck. Rejecting the slick animal surveillance of Planet Earth, the film’s images—achieved with an unmoored GoPro HD camera—are more avant-garde sci-fi than eco-doc informative, but the film nonetheless conveys the physical, moral, and emotional intensity of the experience and the ungodly carnage it leaves in its wake.
More contemplative, but just as expressive is Peter Bo Rappmund’s Tectonics, a formal crossbreeding of moving and still images, psychogeography, and political documentary. Following up 2010’s Psychohydrography, his cartography of the Los Angeles River, from source to sea, Rappmund offers a similar portrait of the U.S.-Mexican border through animated loops of still photographs taken along its nearly 2,000 miles, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. Unlike his prior work, which begins with a simple concept that slowly accrues socio-political resonance, Rappmund here departs from an already ideologically-loaded subject which he addresses sometimes directly (through images of border-patrol blimps, the iron border fence, or memorials to would-be immigrants killed in the crossing) and sometimes obliquely (through movie-western landscapes, honking urban sprawl, and vibrant, psychedelic sunsets). Throughout, a soundtrack of location sounds and synthesized electronic noise lends atmospheric heft to the images, which yield an uncanny effect by being neither simply still photos nor documentary footage, but something in between—tense evocations of a precise moment in time that serve as metonyms for an anxious geopolitical landscape.
If Rappmund’s animated stills impart a kind of doubt in the veracity of the long take, People’s Park, directed by Libbie Dina Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki, pushes this crucial device of direct cinema to its furthest extreme. In a 78-minute single-take tracking shot that floats and weaves through the Chengdu park of the title, the camera takes in a fluid succession of tiny sequences and portraits, as old folks dance, young children climb on rocks and run around, families take tea, and people generally gaze back inquisitively or suspiciously into the lens. All the while, a cacophonous soundtrack of ambient noise guides the spectator through the environment, mixing Chinese opera with karaoke, traffic with nature, in an occasionally overwhelming din that matches Leviathan’s aural assault. (There’s a deeper affinity here: Sniadecki is also a graduate the Sensory Ethnography Lab, and he and Paravel collaborated on Foreign Parts, their film about a strip of chop-shops in Flushing which won the award for best first feature at Locarno two years ago.) But rather than merely use the long take to support the Bazinian notion of documentary’s spatio-temporal coherence, Cohn and Sniadecki’s film rather raises more questions about the execution of the film (apparently, the 19th take after three weeks of shooting from techno-rigged wheelchair) and about the complex interactions between the film’s subject and its makers’ always-limited viewpoint.
This is, in essence, what all of these varied, crossbred forms of documentary and fiction aim for: a more complex interaction between cinema and the real. Rejecting any simplistic notion of transposing real life onto the screen, these films revel in the transformative nuances of the image’s processes of reflection.
LEO GOLDSMITH is the Film Editor of The Brooklyn Rail and a Ph.D candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University.