Frames of Representation 2018: The Human Epochby Matt Turner
Frames of Representation’s founding mission was to bring “new forms of documentary cinema” to London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, but this mandate felt a little looser for the festival’s third edition. The lineup included several fiction films and was generally marked by a readjustment of its doctrine to encompass not just classical documentary but rather the whole “cinema of the real,” broadly understood to mean works that both draw from and interrogate reality beyond the traditional formal parameters of nonfiction filmmaking. The overall theme was “Landscape”—broader than “Working” and “The New Periphery” which came before—but the best of the selection was in fact quite human, featuring work that mirrors the idea of the anthropocene: films about landscape that also reflect that humanity has become the dominant geological influence on the environment.
In some films, landscape and humanity are indivisible from each other: place and its past innately intertwined. Developing the distinctive style showcased in his first feature, the Harlem-set Field Niggas (2015), in Black Mother (2018) Khalik Allah overlays a textural, rhythmic audio collage stitched from a wide array of voices over a rapidly-cut mix of asynchronous, multi-format visual material to draw a polyphonic portrait of Jamaica. The landscape is nothing without its people, and the people nothing without the land they live on and live off. Surmising an entire country, its history, and its inhabitants is an ambitious feat to attempt, but Allah proves successful in evoking a wide-reaching sense of Jamaica’s multiplicity, presenting not a singular, windowed perspective, but rather a broader picture of the nation’s many (and at times contradictory) facets and textures.
Toia Bonino’s Orione (2017) is another film where place is personal. She depicts a whole neighborhood, Don Orione in Buenos Aires, by spiraling outwardly from one inhabitant and one incident (Alejandro, shot by a police sniper when he was seventeen). It takes time for this detail to emerge, as Bonino chooses to disseminate small pockets of information (and emotion) gradually and non-chronologically, with no single person, place, or perspective taking precedence over another. The result is a complex, contradictory film, a composite community portrait befitting the multiple identities that belong to any person, but especially the one at this film’s center, a man with many secret lives unbeknownst even to those he was closest to.
Several films about families looked at people’s relationships with the land they inhabit. Clément Cogitore’s singular, slyly shocking Braguino (2017) follows the Braguine family, a multigenerational, isolationist clan who, having retreated to the Taiga—Siberia’s entirely inaccessible snow forest—find themselves far from alone. A compact and effective film, Braguino starts idyllically, appearing as an ode to off-grid self-sufficiency before more sinister elements emerge. Increasingly paranoid dialogues, woozy dream sequences, and a number of cinematographic techniques (jerky camera movements; menacing between-scene black screens, oblique, uneasy compositions, and a pervasively unsettling score) more commonly found in genre cinema than in ethnography move direct observation towards something more destabilised and unshakable.
Equally atmospheric, Marine de Contes’s The Game (2018) observes a makeshift family, charting the final hunting season of a group of men brought together by an unusual, antiquated pursuit: wood-pigeon trapping in France’s Landes forest. Sitting with them in their manufactured quarters, Contes patiently records the time-honored rituals that form the hunt. As the men wait fervently, setting elaborate traps and sounding out strange bird-calls, they seem less like intruders than part of the forest, their hide so integrated that moss and vines wind into it, their actions so practiced as to seem routine. With elliptical, entrancing editing and alluring, enigmatic cinematography, The Game is a remarkably engaging, disquieting depiction of a mysterious place and practice.
Another unorthodox observational film, Rosa Hannah Ziegler’s Family Life (Familienleben, 2018) also follows the haphazard communion of a dysfunctional group. Filming on a farm in rural Saxony, Germany, Zieger tracks the troubled life of Biggi and Alfred, separated yet stuck together, and Biggi’s teenage daughters, whose emotional difficulties have been exacerbated by the instability of the social care system and their schooling situations. Ziegler gives them space to tell their stories, overlaying their thoughts—refreshingly honest, if uncomfortably bleak—over lingering landscape shots, over-the-shoulder roaming long-takes, and lengthy portraits of their (in)activity. Ziegler remains non-judgmental and open—even towards the monstrous patriarch Alfred, a rage-prone abuser and self-pitying sulk who constantly torments and disappoints both himself and everyone else around him—and finding eventual light amidst the dreariness.
The festival’s fiction films focused on individuals’ movement through landscapes, homeward bound. In Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias’s Cocote (2017), Alberto returns to the Dominican Republic after his father is murdered, crossing the country and finding his experience shaped by the persistence of tradition, with expectations laid upon him that he is resistant to follow. An energetic, emotive film, it is when Arias’s camera—mostly found up close to its subjects—retreats that the landscape is revealed: a rich array of green forestry and ocean blues that offer levity from the film’s otherwise clamorous atmosphere, marked by the rising surge of rumbling music, raucous familial gatherings, and varying syncretic religious customs and rituals. Rotating film stocks and discordant editing cause aesthetic and narrative ruptures, and Nelson’s forward movement across the land is the film’s only constant. Facing nature reminds Alberto what he misses from his homeland before returning to the human fray reminds him what he does not.
Similarly, Filipa Reis and João Miller Guerra’s Djon África (2018) tracks Miguel, a man travelling from Portugal to Cape Verde in search of his father. As he wanders, the landscape opens up to him—a mix of hectic cityscapes, bountiful beaches, vast mountains, and farmland—as do the country’s citizenry, offering stories, music, and gallons of the local liquor, grogue. A somewhat slight but languidly pleasurable film, it offers little in the way of conflict to complicate Miguel’s journey; yet, as the camera drifts away and onto the island’s environments, Djon África offers greater natural splendor than the more overtly landscape-orientated documentaries in the festival’s program. As the film unfolds, and as Miguel wanders further into the isolation of Cape Verde’s more unpopulated landscapes, his position within the frame shrinks, and the world increasingly towers over him. Despite all attempts to overcome or lay claim to it, nature remains insurmountable. It is great and we are very small.
MATT TURNER is a writer and programmer based in London.