The tenuous relationship between cinema and nonfiction can be traced to the inception of the medium. The earliest films were themselves a documentary progenitor pioneered by the Lumière Brothers and referred to as “actuality films,” consisting mostly of static shots of people doing everyday things, as seen in the brothers’ first 1895 film “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.” The sheer newness of the technological wonder fascinated audiences, whose rapt attention was likely not predicated upon a desire for storytelling or characterizations but rather with the then-unprecedented and complex relationship to an image that was in motion. Like a game of telephone, a movie becomes a living document from the moment it’s first captured.
Film Society Lincoln Center’s series “Art of the Real” (April 11-26) is a documentary festival for cinephiles, presenting a welcome respite from today’s homogenized nonfiction marketplace in which films default too often to talking heads and infographics in a quest for Truth. Through a well-culled and dynamic collection of formally inventive, intellectually stimulating nonfiction films (new and repertory), the FSLC programmers repeatedly show that documentaries can and should be held to the same filmmaking standards as narrative films, namely by championing the symbiosis of form and content, and by interrogating the notion of epistemological certainty. Documentaries need not be devoid of artistic license; the most challenging art is often the most rewarding, and this series presents a grand selection of it. Here’s what you shouldn’t miss.
Directed by Robert Greene
Brandy Burre achieved modest success as a regular cast member on HBO’s The Wire, but, as with so many women, motherhood and suburban domesticity sidelined a promising career. Brooklyn director Robert Greene picks up with Burre as she attempts professional reemergence while also going through a separation from her longtime partner (for which her own infidelity is the catalyst) and the often competing demands of being a working mom. In a key shot establishing the film’s central theme, Burre is filmed from behind while washing dishes in her home: in voiceover, she says, “I tend to break things.” The line originates from Burre’s television character, but it’s increasingly clear that its application extends far past the confines of scripted drama. Is she talking about her dissolved family? Her career? Actress is that rare piece of meta nonfiction filmmaking that incorporates the subject’s medium of choice, acting, into a structural framework in an effort at character-driven world-building. Like so few documentaries, it’s satisfying both emotionally and discursively. The challenges Burre faces as a modern woman necessitate an omnipresent artifice, an inescapable ability to navigate complex roles. You’re never quite sure if she’s attempting a comeback or if this movie is the comeback. In the end you feel like you know a little more about her, and a lot more about the countless unnamed women like her. (Closing Night Film Screening, Apr 26)
Time Goes By Like A Roaring Lion
Directed by Philipp Hartmann
An intensely personal and associative visual poem, this movie looks at time and our relationship to it, achieving an often ineffable effect. Director Hartmann takes as his jumping off point his own middle-age status and the chronophobia it inspires to try and process both tangentially and finitely his past and the experiences that shaped his understanding of it. For each year of his life Hartmann presents a corresponding analog: memory (his own or someone else’s); an existential theorem; and fascinating and revelatory historical contexts of people dealing with the strain of mortality. The free-form approach culminates in a resoundingly coherent closing sequence in which Hartmann, riding a mountainside chairlift, films his undulating shadow as it zooms in and out against nature below. Viewers ruminate on all that Hartmann has presented and focus, for a time, on their own mortality. (Apr 18-19)
Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez
2013 was an exciting year for nonfiction filmmaking, thanks in large part to Leviathan, the immersive, bombastic sonic and visual onslaught from Lucian Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel, instructors at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Art of the Real highlights six of the collective’s other works, including this new release. (Apr 12) (Also see our review.)
Directed by Derek Jarman
This is a rare 35mm screening (introduced by the artist Carolee Schneemann) of Jarman’s melancholy swansong, which was filmed after the groundbreaking queer director lost his eyesight in the throes of late-stage AIDS complications. Consisting of a single frame of blue, the film features narration from Jarman, longtime collaborator Tilda Swinton, and other actors revisiting the director’s life and work. (Apr 25)