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Writing and Rewriting History at 'Art of the Real'

By wanda bershen

From Agnes Varda's 'Lions Love.' Courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln Center

The Art of the Real series was launched in 2014, under the auspices of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, with the objective of focusing more attention on formally adventurous documentaries. In its second edition, presented in April, co-curators Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes curated an intriguing slate of North American premieres and added two sidebars—"Repeat as Necessary: The Art of Reenactment" and "The Actualities of Agnès Varda."

Lim and Rakes believe there is a need to feature this kind of work, given an environment, particularly in the US, where social issue documentary tends to dominate festival programming and theatrical releases. An important part of that effort is to create a broader context for these films, juxtaposing historical and contemporary work. Rakes felt the discussions about The Act of Killing were limited and ahistorical, which gave rise to the sidebar on the art and history of re-enactment. Combining old and new work offered the curators the opportunity to show such rarely seen films as Rene Vautier's Afrique 50 (1950), which they describe on the Art of the Real homepage as "one of the most vital and urgent examples of the camera's power to write—and rewrite—history."

The Varda retrospective offered a near perfect opportunity to show the development of a filmmaker who has made fiction, documentary and hybrid work throughout her long career. The recent digital restorations of many of her works were a boon for this program, along with the participation of Varda herself at the screenings. Rakes was impressed with her discussion after the screening of her 1955 film Le Pointe Courte: "She recalled details about choices she made in production, and about finding her way through the process of getting her film shown and seen by what would become the luminaries of the French New Wave." Films like Uncle Yanco (1967) looked terrific—full of bright color and the sparkling light of Sausalito. Lions Love (1969) radiates the irreverent spirit so pervasive in the 1960s, as personified in this film by Andy Warhol protégée Viva and James Rado and Gerome Ragni, the lyricists of the musical Hair, who share an open relationship in their California home, while entertaining such artists as actor Eddie Constantine and filmmaker Shirley Clarke; televised reports of the shootings of Warhol and Robert F. Kennedy play out in the background. Varda blends "real" people and "real" events into a fictional story, creating a quintessential postmodern pastiche long before postmodernism was common parlance. Rakes was intrigued by Varda's "insights into process, and to find that she established her own essayistic, discursive and hybrid style through experimentation and the desire to create ideas through cinema."

From Lou Li's 'Li Wen at East Lake.' Courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln Center

Many of the filmmakers whose work was shown in Art of the Real participated in post-screening discussions, and a common theme in these conversations was the examination of facts, histories and memories and how they're constructed cinematically.

One film that explored this hybridity was Li Wen at East Lake (Lou Li, 2014). Opening with an informational doc style, Li Wen at East Lake quickly sketches the meteoric rate of development and accompanying ecological damage affecting the lake over the past 15 years. Shifting to a dramatic mode, the film follows a policeman supposedly seeking a local crazy spouting stories of a fearsome dragon in the lake. The cop mostly hangs out with friends, though, and pursues his passion for collecting historical photos from the Cultural Revolution period. Woven through the cop's story are encounters with local fishermen, young university students and bureaucratic regional bosses. Lou Li serves up a kind of shaggy-dog version of contemporary life in China, simultaneously building up layers of memory and history and exposing the social consequences of ecological destruction.

Another film that focused on a specific place and its inhabitants was Birds of September (Sarah Francis, 2013), set in modern-day Beirut. The filmmaker introduces us to various residents of Beirut, who share stories of their loves, lives and families. Each person is framed in what looks like a tram with large windows so that we see them surrounded by an ongoing panorama of cityscapes, day and night. The screen is full of reflections in windows and on cars, sometimes with busy traffic and sometimes in deserted corners of the city. Interestingly, there is no synch sound, so the stories we are hearing may or may not have anything to do with the people we see on screen. In fact, we do not know if the residents are real, or actors playing residents—and their stories could be real or imagined, or a mix of both. As viewers we simply go along on the journey through this mysterious landscape and its inhabitants.

From Sarah Francis' 'Birds of September.' Courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln Center

Letter to a Father, by Edgardo Cozarinsky, is the final film of a trilogy that he calls "chamber" films—all autobiographical pieces set in Argentina. Cozarinsky constructs his story using family photos, audio recordings and archival and vérité footage. The film addresses issues of immigration, cultural history and family lore. His grandfather was one of the "Jewish gauchos" at the end of the 19th century, and his father was a naval officer who died when Cozarinsky was just 20. Cozarinsky himself is an exile—he's a longtime resident of Paris. As the off-camera narrator, he sifts through the traces—real, imagined and recalled—of his and his father's life, writing and re-writing history.

Le Paradis (Alain Cavalier, 2014) also concerns itself with personal identity and journeys of discovery. Better known for his French New Wave films like Thérèse, Cavalier has rarely screened his essayistic film diaries in the US. Using simple windup toys as props, the film re-enacts several major cultural myths—Odysseus' journey, the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, the trials of Job, the crucifixion and rebirth of Jesus. Cavalier's narration, by turns charming and droll, guides us through these stories while also commenting on the landscape outside his windows. The images are the "actuality," and his narration constructs the dramatic structure that knits the film together. Lighted and photographed in extreme close-up, Le Paradis juxtaposes the quotidian rhythms of everyday life with the epics we create to interpret history.

From Jenni Olsen's 'The Royal Road.' Courtesy of Film Society of Lincoln Center

One of several unusual films on gay life and history in this year's line-up was The Royal Road, Jenni Olsen's latest work. Combining striking visual explorations of the San Francisco cityscape in various seasons of the year with her narration, The Royal Road offers stories of unrequited love, commentary on classic Hollywood films like Sunset Boulevard and Vertigo, and an account of the colonial history of California. The film's title refers to El Camino Real, the territory's first and most important thoroughfare, stretching from San Diego to the Sonoma missions. Eloquent in form and conception, The Royal Road explores the mythologies of California as a locale of personal desire, as movie mythology, and as a key component of the American dream of manifest destiny. Clearly the notion of writing and rewriting history is a theme that runs through many of this year's films in Art of the Real, calling attention to the enormous variety of ways that can be done.


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