Public Works: MoMA’s “Documentary Fortnight”

02/13/2015 10:27 AM |

The Connection

Documentary Fortnight
February 13-27 at MoMA

There are more strong films screening in Documentary Fortnight 2015 than can be done justice here, so I’ll plug my favorites first: on February 15th and 21st, the distributor Milestone Films will present three programs’ worth of recently restored films by the late American director Shirley Clarke. The programs include Clarke’s remarkable feature-length The Connection (1962) and several of her lesser-known lovely shorts, throughout which she and her human subjects developed a style of direct address in which they would open up their lives to her as well as to future viewers.

The bulk of the Museum of Modern Art’s annual festival of nonfiction filmmaking will offer new films, many of which are also excellent. Its diverse selection traverses several genres, from politicized portraiture (Of Men and War and The Domino Effect) to self-reflective ethnography (Episode of the Sea and Cochihza) to novelistic, ensemble-based storytelling in which individuals’ actions impact their communities’ futures (Coffee: Chants of Smoke and Storm Children, Book One). These films and other series highlights share a great sensitivity to character, with emotional riches resulting from simple records of peoples’ struggles.

Several of the directors represented in Documentary Fortnight spoke with me about their works in the series.  Save for Jean-François Caissy, these filmmakers will also all appear at MoMA for post-screening public discussions.

burn the sea

Nathalie Nambot and Maki Berchache’s impressionistic Burn the Sea (screening February 14th and 18th) reflects poetically on Berchache’s status as a young Tunisian exile that finds himself an outcast in France. “We did not look for a subject,” Nambot says. “The Other arrived, and he is here now, close, among us, despite everything that makes him an unwanted guest. The film acts as a place of temporary refuge for things that could be simply articulated: Dreams, home, land, love, revolution, work, and friendship. Our collaboration in making it was like a game between what had already been lived and what we could invent to make it live again. Maki says that we worked as a family, creating a structure that would function like a home. Burn the Sea was our shelter, though we never forgot the importance of living beyond its making.”



Irene Gutiérrez Torres’s observational Hotel Nueva Isla (February 16th and 17th) presents the daily routines of Jorge de los Rios, an aging former clerk in a rundown Cuban hotel who is committed to finding the building’s hidden treasures. “My cinematographer Javier Labrador and I fell in love with the hotel at first sight,” Gutiérrez Torres says. “Day after day we went there and met Jorge, who had escaped unimaginable things in his past. We decided to focus our film upon him, following him without judgment in his rituals and interactions with others. We tried to treat him and the building as one. I wanted to make a film about resistance, but also about a time when dreams seem possible but aren’t carried out; and I wanted to do it in Jorge’s way, without too much dialogue or too many characters, instead committing to record his routines over what turned out to be the last year of his life.”


fathers and sons

Wang Bing’s Father and Sons (February 17th and 18th) watches a Chinese migrant factory worker’s two adolescent boys as they spend a day sitting inside their small home near their television. “I had previously made a film called Three Sisters (2012) in which these boys briefly appeared,” Wang says through the translator Annelous Stiggelbout. “Their mother had left them when they were quite young, and their father was working elsewhere; later on, he came back and took the boys to live with him. In December 2012 I went to see the three of them in their home. It was a rather hopeless situation. When I came into the house, I found that they shared a bed only slightly larger than the table at which I am now seated. That little bed made a big impression on me. When I decided to make a piece of video art that eventually became this film, I thought that I would film the father, his two sons, and it.”



Kevin Jerome Everson’s Park Lanes (February 21st) follows factory employees over the course of eight hours in a way that combines great formal beauty with a relaxed, casual tone. “It’s a full day of work, and you go the whole clip, though a viewer doesn’t actually have to sit and watch it all to get a sense of a workday’s rigor,” Everson says. “We shot in a bowling alley supplies factory in Virginia and focused on workers in movement, with lots of shots of people painting parts, welding metal, and putting together objects that resemble abstract sculptures. Park Lanes might seem nostalgic for labor, but it’s more about people who are skilled at what they do. They’re noble in their craft and surviving with it throughout the course of the daily grind.”



Jean-François Caissy’s hopeful Guidelines (February 22nd and 23rd) focuses on Quebecois high schoolers who are yearning to learn how to acceptably express themselves. “I was looking for a way to record teens with transparency and make a work that would be completely open to their stage of life,” Caissy says. “As I was nearing the end of my research, I by chance attended a closed-door meeting between a ‘problem’ child and a disciplinary teacher. I quickly realized that for young people, the experience of having to deal with an authority figure was so significant that they would soon forget about a camera. I decided to capture such private moments, and then offset them with ones of teenagers outdoors among natural surroundings, free to do as they wished.”



Peter Bo Rappmund’s Topophilia (February 25th and 26th) traverses the Trans-Alaska Pipeline through stop-motion animation, with thousands of stills synthesizing an 800-mile journey into a film lasting a little over an hour. “I’d long admired both the story of TAPS and the structure itself, which I came to understand as a giant continuous building,” Rappmund says. “For Topophilia I chose clips suggesting the landscape reorganizing itself around it; we gain a clearer understanding of the environment through the pivot point of an object placed there. The film unfolds entirely through sequences of animated still photographs, in keeping with the dichotomy of a lifeless man-made structure and its vivid environmental surroundings. It was important to me to highlight interplay (and even ambiguity) between the artificial and the natural. An elemental, repetitious subject allowed me to experiment with different methods of working and to discover previously unknown-to-me rhythms.”

Barbara Kopple’s closing night selection Hot Type: 150 Years of the Nation (February 27th) pays profile-style tribute to the USA’s oldest active weekly magazine. “I wanted to take a contemporary approach and reach out historically from there,” Kopple says. “My idea was to look closely at Nation reporters who are going out into the field today, connect their work to material that the magazine published several decades ago, and see that the problems we face now are not so different from ones with which people used to deal. Making Hot Type was different from making my other films, which have focused on subjects including coal miners, meat packers, and the Dixie Chicks. In each case, though, I’ve tried to let people guide me as they tell me their stories, while also leaving myself with some room to explore.”