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'The Art of the Real' Takes the Long View on Nonfiction

By wanda bershen


Since the beginning of film, the documentary form has often fudged the line between real and imagined, resulting in an intriguing canon of doc/fiction hybrids. The Art of the Real series, which recently concluded its inaugural run at Lincoln Center in New York City, is devoted to this kind of film, showcasing both well-known historical examples and lesser-known work of many contemporary filmmakers, both domestic and international.

"We wanted to expand our sense of what a nonfiction film could be," says Dennis Lim, director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, via email. "In part, we were responding to the increasing dominance of a certain type of documentary (i.e. informational, journalistic, and much more interested in content than form)."

Grounding the series with Jaguar (1954/67), the pioneering film by Jean Rouch, and several classics of the genre including Derek Jarman's Blue (1993), Robert Gardner's Forest of Bliss (1986) and Paulo Rochas' Change of Life (1966), Lim and programmer Rachel Rakes also offered an impressive array of diverse contemporary films.

In The Second Game, from Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu, an actual TV tape, stripped of commentary, of an entire 1988 soccer game played in heavy snow in Bucharest is turned into a meditation on history, space and change. The match, pitting teams backed by the Romanian secret police (Steaua) and the national army (Dinamo), was refereed by Porumboiu's father the year before the collapse of dictator Nikolai Ceausescu's regime. The droll soundtrack consists of the filmmaker and his father talking throughout the game about the past and the present. At one point the director remarks that the game is like one of his films: "It's long, and nothing happens." Using a historic artifact, Porumboiu recontextualizes it to reflect on both national and personal history.


From Corneliu Porumboiu's The Second Game


Another self-referential foray into national and personal history is Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop's A Thousand Suns. Working with Magaye Niang, a non-professional actor who starred in Touki Bouki (1973), by Dopi's uncle, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Mati Diop creates a new story, using the older film narrative intertwined with Niang's life story. At the end of the 1973 film, as Niang's character and his lover are supposed to sail away from Senegal to Paris, he suddenly cannot leave, and she leaves without him. Forty years later Mati tracks down that actress in Alaska,  and convinces Niang to call her. We see this phone call, and Niang is transported by the magic of cinema to a huge snowy field, still in his skimpy old clothes, where he struggles through deep snow. Coming upon a kind of hot springs, he has a vision of his young lover walking in the distance, disappearing into the mist. Diop's contemporary account subtly references the complex colonial past of Africa, refracting that history through a universal tale of love and loss. With its elegant cinematography, A Thousand Suns is both enticing and elegiac.


From Mati Diop's A Thousand Suns


Also included in The Art of the Real are more familiar "observational" documentaries. Foreign Parts (2010), from Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki, profiles a car junkyard at Willetts Point in the Queens borough of New York City prior to a large redevelopment there. Through several seasons, with long takes, we come to know the characters living and working there. We share their birthdays, their Friday night get-togethers, and the much anticipated return of one young man from prison. Equal time is spent on the landscape of this urban graveyard: rows of cars being crushed, and racks and racks of spare parts. Foreign Parts screened as part of a tribute to the Sensory Ethnography Lab, an experimental laboratory at Harvard University that promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography. 


From Verena Paravel and J.P. Snaidecki's Foreigh Parts


Another product of the Sensory Ethography Lab, Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor; 2009), is an almost dreamlike portrayal of sheep-herding in the mountain valleys of Montana. Through long, slow sequences creating a palpable sense of natural time, and with a focus on the spectacular landscape, the film follows cowboys and their herd through the seasons, culminating in the inevitable drive to market. Like Foreign Parts, the environment and its characters (sheep included) are given equal weight and equal time, imparting a kind of epic quality to otherwise everyday events.

Another kind of film investigating a history is Tai Pin Pin's quite fascinating To Singapore, with Love. The filmmaker tracked down political exiles from the 1960s and '70s who are now living in London, Thailand and India and interviews them at length about their experience. While they still cannot return without facing possible imprisonment, each exile keeps up with news and developments coming out of Singapore. Through archival segments we learn the activist history of each exile, and why they chose to leave. We cannot help but be moved as they describe their hopes and dreams from the past, and how they have coped as immigrants in their adopted countries. Most have done well—teaching and writing, starting businesses and gaining citizenship. Most striking is their continued desire for change in Singapore, and the attachment to their homeland after so many years of exile.


From Tai Pin Pin's To Singapore, with Love




One of the most formally intriguing films is Jane Gillooly's Suitcase of Love and Shame (2013). Having bought a suitcase on eBay full of audio tapes from the 1960s, Gilooly discovers a secret love affair preserved by these. Using the tapes to reconstruct both a story and the two characters, we hear the intimate thoughts of this couple (Tom and Jeanne are presented only through their pillow-talk voices; he is married with kids and she is single.) over several years. The visual track features two vintage reel-to-reel tape recorders—one white and one dark, to represent each character—intercut with a collage of images evoking the period. Suburban Midwest houses in a town, changing seasons and daylight and night scenes flow by as the tale of secret passion and adultery unfolds. There is an obvious fascination for viewers in hearing such intimate details of a love affair, and we cannot help but try to imagine this couple. At the same time we are almost embarrassed to listen, since these are presumably "real" people.

Discovering that Gillooly actually created some of the conversations when Tom and Jeanne seem to be together in the same location is thus a bit of a shock. It raises the question of how much of what we have heard is invented and whether there is any "documentary" aspect to the film. As Gillooly shared at the post-screening discussion, "So much of the film is about who is listening, who is witnessing, and where the audience is located—are you inside the film? Outside the film?"


From Jane Gillooly's Suitcase Full of Love and Shame


Another aspect of the hybrid documentary form appears in the striking work of Amie Siegel, who creates installations as part of her film work. In Black Moon (2010), a group of oddly beautiful women dressed as combat soldiers appear to be on patrol, roaming through a landscape of deserted houses. There is no dialogue, and for much of the episode the camera creates an impression of suspense, although little happens. The punch line, so to speak, arrives at the end, when one soldier picks up a discarded magazine from the ground and suddenly discovers fashion photos of her and her companions. We learn that Siegal had hired fashion models for the shoot, insuring an odd disconnect between the "action" and the participants. Similarly in Winter (2013), which Siegal shot in a striking New Zealand house by a famous architect, the characters are all actors attired in draped white clothing. A variety of silent encounters among the inhabitants ensues and eventually one woman goes off on her own. Finding another unusual house, she stays for a while, and one morning a raft with three dead bodies appears on the river out front. Rolling the bodies into the river, she gathers her things and departs with the raft into the mist. Suggesting various temporal and cultural conditions of instability, stripped of narrative explication and causal explanation, Winter plays like dreamy science fiction.

When Siegel shows these pieces in a gallery, they are accompanied by a soundtrack. With Winter the soundtrack was performed live, its content ranging from composed music, appropriated film scores, laptop-generated electronic sounds, voiceover texts and ADR dialogue on a timed schedule.

Siegel's work seems to take us to the edge of documentary definitions, and is certainly part of what curator Dennis Lim calls "the long view." He explains, "If you take the long view, documentary is in no way a monolithic form. As a photographic medium, cinema has always had a privileged and complicated relationship to reality, and some of the most radical films in the history of the medium are precisely those that tackle that relationship in some way—documentaries, in other words. " 

Wanda Bershen is a consultant on fundraising, festivals and distribution. Documentary clients have included Sonia, Power Trip, Afghan Women, Trembling Before G*D and Blacks & Jews. She has organized programs with the Human Rights Film Festival, Brooklyn Museum and Film Society of Lincoln Center, and currently teaches arts management at CUNY Baruch. Visit