New Visions, Old Crises

from Film Quarterly Fall 2015, Volume 69, Number 1

On Documentary

Documentary has been in the grip of a shape-shifting transformation, thanks to shifts in technologies, genre, journalism, and the status of evidence and veracity. Not since the 1980s—when the invention of camcorders, VHS tape, and VCR machines, alongside the debut of cable television, fueled the last great upheaval—has the field been so explosively inventive and destabilized. In the wake of these disruptions, new documentaries are developing that are both inward and outward, local or global or glocal, obsessed with individuals or dedicated to communities. Made by established practitioners as well as newcomers, there are new documentary features, television programs, cable fare, online miniatures surveillance footage, dashcams, interactive formats, even databases, all debuting either online or through a theatrical and film festival sector that continuously expands its reach.

Too often, debate is focused on cameras or platforms at the expense of examining actual documentaries, what they are doing, what they are meant to do. Documentary is a key part of contemporary life, a crucial mechanism of investigation, thinking, discovery. It is crucial to the formation of empathy and the exposure of injustice, essential for the attainment of diversity and the apprehension of both self and others. Documentary ideally brings audiences into a discourse of mutual recognition. From the work of Joshua Oppenheimer and his filmmaking partners in Indonesia to Rithy Panh in Cambodia, from the late activist George Stoney to the dedicated Louis Massiah to documentary warrior Laura Poitras, FQ has made documentary integral to its scope over the past three years, with analyses by some of the best writers in the discipline.

This issue opens a new era. Film Quarterly, in partnership with the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative, hereby launches a new effort focused on the future of filmmaking and its capacity to address issues of social justice, in the United States and globally, on screens of all sorts and sizes, both in terms of subject matter and structures of production and diffusion. JustFilms has already had a powerful impact on the world through its support of filmmakers and institutions, including both Oppenheimer and Poitras. With this grant, Ford brings FQ into the conversation.

The effort will also encompass the assessment of dramatic films aimed at transformation, considering not only topics but also the potential change-making aspects of the process on participants, whether makers, subjects, or audiences, in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Criticism and analysis are crucial to the development of a medium. This recognition by the Ford Foundation of the importance of thinking about representation can encourage writers to think big, to consider documentary and narrative strategies with renewed vigor, and to think more critically about screens and publics. Translation also needs to be part of any rejuvenation, both to avert parochialism and to open FQ scholarship to an international range of perspectives.

Festivals and screenings, galleries and art fairs, websites and apps all proffer the discovery of new work and distinct filmic practices, but can be siloed spaces that don’t cross over from one to another. Partnering with JustFilms director Cara Mertes, FQ aims to create a space in which far-reaching debate and scholarship can take place. With Ford’s support, FQ is better equipped to examine issues of cinema and social justice, and to play a bigger role in helping to shape the field—through publication and direct participation.

The image on the cover of this issue signals the importance of Angela Zito’s analysis and history of The Folk/Minjian Memory Project of the Caochangdi (CCD) Workstation as FQ begins its expanded documentary commitment. For more than a decade, Zito has studied and collaborated with China’s Caochangdi Workstation filmmakers, organizing events at New York University and traveling to the Beijing Independent Film Festival to see their work. Her analysis of the group’s Memory Project, which has turned villagers with cameras into documentary filmmakers (and returned documentarians to their villages), chronicles a project designed to suit a particular purpose: to reclaim crucial memories and to school a generation in how to remember. Zito describes their unusual approach: a praxis of xianchang that employs a revisiting of location to shape an aesthetics of presence, with each documentarian now a social actor within their own examined history. And the completed documentaries are not the whole story: the “long tail” of their work has already propelled the unedited documentary footage into the archives of Duke University.

Also in This Issue

Longtime contributor James Williams provides another of his customarily detailed, close analyses of cinematic masters, focusing his attention on Bruno Dumont on the occasion of his latest film, Li’l Quinquin, reaching U.S. audiences. Williams considers the interplay between landscape and the human face in Dumont’s cinema, revealing what he terms the “mystico-naturalism” at the heart of Dumont’s cinematic practice. With Quinquin, Williams uncovers a radical departure into television, which on the one hand afforded the expansiveness of the four-part series and consequently epic feature. Its constraints, on the other, opened up Dumont’s visual field and spurred a new energy that is likely to continue as he pursues television production.

Columnist Paul Julian Smith traveled to Mexico to make a case for its often-overlooked state film school, the Centro de Capacitación Cinematográfica (CCC), which is having a very good year with work by its alumni winning awards, festival exposure, and Smith’s attention. No sooner had Smith filed his article, however, than its more famous rival, the University Center for Cinematographic Studies (CUEC), also in Mexico, attracted attention with its announcement that filmmaker Maricarmen de Lara had been appointed its first woman director.1

Columnist contributor Amelie Hastie, meanwhile, returned to her hometown of Portland where, at a screening of The Clouds of Sils Maria, she found herself engulfed by memories right alongside the film’s star Juliette Binoche. Along with Still Alice, My Dinner with Andre, and other titles, Hastie’s ruminations on Clouds explore cinema’s time-machine capabilities and the transformative experience of spectatorship.

Longtime contributor Scott MacDonald found himself unexpectedly in the grip of a previously unknown film, Sem Titulo #1: Dance of Leitfossil, by Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Adriano. The chance encounter gave rise to a transnational correspondence and MacDonald’s discovery of the late Bernardo Vorobow, who figures in Adriano’s film and in the wider sphere of Brazilian experimental film. Unpacking the meanings in Adriano’s re-editing of appropriated footage led MacDonald into a renewed apprehension of the power of film, across time and nations.

In New York, FQ contributing editor Megan Ratner spoke with Swedish master Roy Andersson about A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the 2014 Venice Golden Lion winner and the latest installment in his Living Trilogy series. She uncovered influences as diverse as a working-class upbringing, the Swedish welfare state, and Edward Hopper’s paintings that, combined with Andersson’s two decades in advertising, form his distinctive deadpan style and sardonic view of humanity and mortality. Ratner finds Andersson deeply committed to an ethics that is capable of unsettling viewer complacency; just below the minimalist surface, a mordant wit darkly links past and present into a damning continuity.

Also in New York City, Nick Forster reports on the landmark series Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986 shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center last spring. Considering the outsize role played by “discovery” in the assessment of classic black cinema in the U.S., Forster finds a revelatory encapsulation of New York’s black cultural life in film and television that had long gone unrecognized: William Miles’s four-hour ode to Harlem, Dick Fontaine’s capture of James Baldwin’s Reagan-era trip across America, Bill Gunn’s prescient video romance, and numerous others.

On the review front, Dana Polan delves into the new Kaira M. Cabañas volume, Off-Screen Cinema: Isidore Isou and the Lettrist Avant-Garde; Regina Longo talks with Homay King about her Virtual Memory: Time-Based Media Art and the Dream of Digitality (with a chapter available free on the FQ website); in DVD/Blu-Ray news, Jonathan Kirshner traces the history of Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Silence of the Sea, newly restored by Criterion; while six other important volumes capture the attention of reviewers including Catherine Grant and Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Film Festival Claims and Crises

Contributor Joan Dupont returns to the pages of FQ with her report on the Cannes film festival during Pierre Lescure’s first year as president. Dupont’s history with the festival is extensive, grounding her amusing observations on its legendary cult of the badge in her own slow ascension to la carte blanche. Todd Haynes presented his acclaimed period drama, Carol, at the festival; since it is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, Dupont shares an incident from her meeting with the legendary writer. Reviewing the selection of films, Dupont has kind words for festival favorite Son of Saul but saves her greatest praise for Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s Our Little Sister and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin.

Dupont sidesteps the dress-code scandal that dominated headlines during the festival, when a number of women were blocked from attending Carol due to their egregious violation of red-carpet dress code: attempting to enter the Palais without high heels. Dubbed “flatgate” by one reporter and a “miniature scandal” by another, the incident blew up enough to dent the festival’s image in a year when it was trying to show more respect to women filmmakers by actually including a few (very few) of their films. Perhaps the news was exaggerated a wee bit. Carol‘s producer Christine Vachon navigated the same red carpet in combat boots without any banning, while this writer too has walked the Cannes red carpet, in years past, without heels and without prohibition.

Much bigger problems were brewing in Korea, where the Busan International Film Festival (BIFF) has been a prominent showcase for nearly two decades; with its twentieth anniversary fast approaching, it is now facing a serious crisis. Darae Kim, Dina Iordanova, and Chris Berry join forces to examine the challenge to the festival’s integrity in the context of contemporary pressures on many international festivals in a time of fiscal crisis. As Professor Min Byung-lock observes: “The life of a film festival depends on autonomy and independence.”2 Berry, Kim, and Iordanova analyze the sources of the current Busan crisis in its dependence on municipal funding while also considering exactly what elements define the modern festival, under pressure from governments who seek to control them.

Korea is not the only site of festival vulnerability. As Alisa Lebow recently reported, the 34th Istanbul Film Festival was targeted by governmental forces over the screening of a Kurdish documentary.3 After the festival was forced to withdraw Bakur [North] (Çayan Demirel and Ertuğrul Mavioğlu, 2015) from its lineup, the festival’s juries demanded that all competition screenings be canceled, and almost all domestic films were withdrawn, to protest this “blatant act of censorship” and “arbitrary abuse of power.”4 But Lebow noted that a later festival Documentarist was able to screen, without incident, a program “Censored Documentaries” that included both Bakur and Reyan Tuvi’s Yeryüzü Aşkın Yüzü Oluncaya Dek (Love Will Change the Earth), which had caused a scandal at last year’s Antalya Altin Portakal (Golden Orange) International Film Festival when the festival itself had pressured her to remove a short section and the documentary jury had resigned.5

Finally, over the summer came news of another documentary controversy, this one at the Jerusalem Film Festival on the eve of its first edition since the death of its founding director Lea Van Leer at the age of 90. The scandal concerned Beyond The Fear, a film by Hertz Frank and Maria Kravchenko on the life of Yigal Amir, the man who assassinated former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and the woman who fell in love with him. Both Right and Left seemed incensed by the very existence of a film humanizing the assumed monster. Israel’s minister of culture threatened to cancel festival funding if the film were not removed from the line-up. The festival arranged a “compromise” of two screenings, scheduled the night before the festival in a “sketchy auditorium” in “an obscure location,” which sold out two days ahead of time.6

Such incidents point up the situational politics of film festivals. Whereas once film festivals faced censorship largely over sexual representation, now it is politics that intrude. Berry points to Venice under Mussolini and Iordanova to Cannes in May ’68 as fabled examples in festival history of events blatantly emblazoned with political significance. Film festivals have always threaded the needle, so to speak, among a cluster of contradictory roles and expectations.

Localities want to see enhanced tourism, regimes hope for enhanced respect, and filmmakers come looking for recognition and financial assistance. Critics and juries demand excellent cinema without any vestige of cronyism, while the realities of festival financing demand significant governmental subsidy and financial contributions from other entities, ranging from the luxury brands that emblazon Cannes to car companies, technology interests, and corporate sponsors. It’s a tricky balance. Just as newspapers (used to) keep advertising separate from their editorial and reporting pages, so do most festivals still try to maintain a firewall separating sponsorship from curatorship.

History, however, is filled with counterexamples. In the seventies, there were such compromised models as the Shah of Iran’s sponsorship of the Tehran Film Festival and Imelda Marcos’s involvement first in the Manila Film Center and then in the 1981 film festival that inaugurated it after a fatal construction accident. Anyone who attended international film festivals during the Cold War years can attest to attempted political manipulation of jury prizes, with some jurors fearful of returning home if they didn’t deliver an enhanced status to their home-country films. Film festivals have never been neutral citadels of cinematic purity, much as cineastes might wish so. But they have often prevailed against hostile or unwelcoming environments to bring wonderful cinema to life, educating and pleasing their audiences, smuggling political messages into hostile environments, and influencing the filmmakers who come there with new models and leave with aesthetic discoveries.

I do still believe that film festivals are a bulwark of democracy and essential to global understanding, as old-fashioned as that might seem. During times of mounting fiscal emergency and inequity, in the midst of evolving geopolitical authority, pressures on film festivals continue to increase. An engaged citizenry is key to their survival. Support your local festival!

In Flight

Airplane flights are the very opposite of film festivals, but I cannot end this essay without mentioning them. My travels this spring and summer led to a discovery in the air, but I am not extolling the economy-class seats or bags of peanuts. Rather, what amazed me was found on the back of the seats, in the form of the movies on offer.

International airlines are remarkably sophisticated in the choices they provide to their passengers. On the way to Zurich, I was able to watch Stefan Haupt’s The Circle (Der Kreis), a film combining documentary and reenactments to explore gay life in Zurich’s postwar period—and to slip the film into a panel discussion at the Pink Apple festival the next day. More surprisingly, en route to Provincetown for its film festival in June, I noticed my fellow flyers engrossed in Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer’s Still Alice, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, and Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner. Such a menu of films is an astonishing advance for U.S. in-flight entertainment, which long offered a captive audience nothing but the most mediocre options. The new movie menu is cause for celebration in today’s fraught environment for adventurous film viewing.

1. See Nisa Rivera, “María del Carmen de Lara, nueva directora del CUEC, Proceso, May 12, 2015, www.proceso.com.mx/?p=404094.
2. Jean Noh, “Busan Film Festival in Danger of Being ‘Ruined,” Screen Daily, March 11, 2015.
3. Thanks to Alisa Lebow for information on the ongoing situation in Turkey. See Alisa Lebow, “Istanbul Film Festival Cancels Competitions Due to Censorship,” Jadaliyya, April 14, 2015, http://oil.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/21369/istanbul-film-festival-cancels-competitions-due-to.
4. Ibid.
5. Thanks again to Alisa Lebow. See www.todayszaman.com/arts-culture_censored-documentaries-shown-at-documentarist-festival-in-istanbul_385526.html and www.todayszaman.com/arts-culture_festival-judges-siyad-protest-gezi-films-removal-from-altin-portakal_360553.html.
6. Nirit Anderman, “The chilling film about Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s killer goes beyond the fear,” Ha’aretz, July 12, 2015.