The selections in this year’s Documentary Fortnight: MoMA’s International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media (February 13 through 27) cast an intriguing look at life using a range of storytelling approaches—poetic, hybrid, observational, and dramatic. Many of these films, which center, at their core, on stories of human resourcefulness, are haunted by the concerns of our age: environmental disasters, wars, austere immigration and economic policies, urban and rural overdevelopment, and the repetition and ellipses of history.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution; Around the World in 50 Concerts; and Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation—the opening-, mid-, and closing-night films, respectively—use more traditional interview formats, interlaced with original scenes and revelatory archival footage, to create complex new portraits of renowned movements and public institutions: the Black Panthers, formed in the 1960s; the 125-year-old Dutch Concertgebouw Orchestra; and The Nation, the oldest continuous weekly magazine in the U.S. Made by three master filmmakers—Stanley Nelson, Heddy Honigmann, and Barbara Kopple—these films remind us that passion for and closeness to subject matter, in-depth research, timeliness, and deft editing techniques remain at the foundation of solid documentary practice.
Another trio of documentaries reflect more poetic methodologies: Khristine Gillard’s Cochihza focuses on the mysterious forces on the volcanic island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua; Peter Bo Rappmund’s Topophilia is a gorgeous time-lapse photographic study of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline; and Nathalie Nambot and Maki Berchache’s Burn the Sea, shown in a newly made 35mm print, is a partially autobiographical portrait of the Tunisian diaspora in France.
In the hybrid category, several works use dramatic or magic-realist elements in conjunction with nonfiction. Hotel Nueva Isla, by Cuban first-time director Irene Gutierrez, follows the life of a retired clerk living in a former luxury hotel that is now a decrepit homeless shelter. Night-scene tableaus, shot in the hotel show Jorge and several other inhabitants in a state of poverty-stricken suspension. Favela football players and Brazilian fans converge on the football pitch in Eryck Rocha’s Sunday Ball, in an animated, mythological expression of Brazilian culture. Dutch filmmakers Lonnie van Brumellen and Siebren de Haan’s Episode of the Sea tells the story of a slowly vanishing way of life in Urk, a traditional fishing community, told through the fishermen’s words and through re-enactments, and contrasted with the filmmakers’ own reflections on the obsolescence of film. And Kenyan filmmaker Jim Chuchu’s Stories of Our Lives, based on tales gathered by the Nest Collective arts group, dramatically retells the stories of Kenyan gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex individuals in fictionalized short-story form.
In the “observational” category, Father and Sons by Wang Bing, Storm Children, Book One by Lav Diaz, and Park Lanes by Kevin Jerome Everson represent vastly different visions. The longest of the three (at eight hours), Park Lanes follows the work carried out by African American and Vietnamese American factory workers. Shot by Everson and his students, the footage is edited to reflect one full day’s shift. The workers are recorded doing their specific tasks, during breaks, and beginning and ending their shifts; the result of their efforts is not fully revealed until the final hours of the film. An elegy to the workers, the film dignifies their daily routine and encapsulates the human experience of labor.
Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing also follows the life of a factory worker, but at home in his factory-owned hut—a small, dark room with one bed—where he lives with his two sons. Shot with a stationary camera, the film catches the two boys on their cell phones, watching TV, playing games, and interacting with their father. Shot over four days but edited down to an hour and a half, Father and Sons captures a family’s daily routine, the rhythms of adolescence, and the life of a factory worker in China without comment, yet speaking louder than words.
At two hours, Storm Children, Book One is short in comparison to other works by Lav Diaz, who here films life in the aftermath of a major typhoon on the coast of the Philippines. Amid the devastation—beached boats, flattened buildings, and buried debris—people are in constant, industrious motion. The children, especially, illuminate what has happened to their community; when they are shown spontaneously climbing and diving off the abandoned ships into the sea, their playful actions bring a sense of revival.
Shirley Clarke’s 1962 feature film The Connection, newly restored as part of Milestone Films’ Project Shirley, is based on a play within a play—a theater piece about a group of drug addicts, some real jazz musicians, who are waiting for a drug connection. It is presented here, along with two programs of Clarke’s short dance and experimental films, in a salute to her influence on American independent filmmaking, Clarke’s adaptation of The Connection was written as a commentary on cinema vérité documentary traditions of the time. (The two shorts programs will be introduced by Dennis Doros, co-owner of Milestone Films.)
A dramatic offering that uses documentary strategies, Elwira Niewiera and Piotr Rosołowski’s The Domino Effect tells an emotionally charged story about a newly married couple—he is Abkhazian and she is Russian. Their relationship is similar to the suspended status of Abkhazia, currently unrecognized by most of the nations of the UN and economically bound by its relationship to Russia. The Abkhazian war hero, now a sports minister in his country, is plagued by memories of war deeds; his Russian wife cannot escape her outsider status, nor the insularity of Abkhazian culture.
The many hauntings in this year’s Documentary Fortnight culminate in Cao Fei’s Haze and Fog, which torments its characters with actual zombies. The title, a reference to the polluted air of Beijing, is an apt metaphor for the blindness of society in general. The story focuses on a middle class apartment complex in which the inhabitants, messengers, and maids—a true cross-section of Beijing society—exist in lonely isolation. That is, until the walking dead emerge onto the scene.
A playlist of Documentary Fortnight film trailers is available on MoMA’s YouTube channel.