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MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight 2014

One uniting thread that runs through the 2014 edition of Documentary Fortnight (which ran from February 14 – February 28) is a bearing witness to profound social changes. Some filmmakers depict the act of witnessing through first-person testimonies, foregrounding how individuals respond to historical and socioeconomic conflict or personal trauma. Others investigate how imagery and narrative shape our perceptions of conflict and of history, exposing myths, faulty memories, or official media rhetoric.

Letter to a Refusing Pilot. 2013. Courtesy of Director.

Akram Zaatari’s Letter to a Refusing Pilot, a meditation on morality in war, plays on the tension between actuality and imagination, and between the past and present. The narrative follows an Israeli pilot who refused to bomb a Saida School for Boys in Zaatari’s native Lebanon during Israel’s 1982 invasion. In Zaatari’s wistful deconstruction of a key event from his childhood, simple objects tell the story: a pair of white gloves—as if an archivist’s—pages from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, photographs from Zaatari’s childhood, and a drawing that Zaatari makes of a school garden. Zaatari splices into the narrative present-day videos of the school and its students. A paper plane is animated so that it appears to fly over the city, to the sound of thudding plane engines, adding to the film’s suspenseful, at times foreboding, tone. Throughout, Zaatari manipulates time and causality: told that the pilot did not hit the school, we may assume that the archival pictures show the school while it’s being built, when, in fact, as he later reveals, another pilot did bomb the area, and the rubble are ruins. In another careful juxtaposition, archival pictures of the school compound clash with clips from Israeli news that described the attack as hitting “terrorist targets.”

First-person accounts play a key role in Tour of Duty, by Kim Dong-ryung and Park Kyoung-tae. In an early sequence, an old woman who runs a tiny restaurant in Korea tells of having had 26 abortions, terminated extremely late pregnancies, and undergone a mastectomy while she worked as a prostitute for American G.I.s during the Korean War. Another subject makes paintings of the two children she left in America with her unfaithful ex-G.I. husband. This series of painful interviews, interspersed with shots of the women’s daily routines, gains another dimension in an imaginative story about two sisters, Annie and Sera, whose letters are read in voiceover. The disjunction between this narrative, juxtaposed with the ongoing footage of the old women, creates a thrilling suspension of time. A portrait of alienation and despair, Tour of Duty isn’t so much a reconstruction of the past as a fantastical re-imagining via topography, as if the sites were once again inhabited by voices—a haunting, passed down through the generations of Korean women.

Peter Snowdon’s The Uprising engagingly compiles YouTube videos taken by witnesses of the Arab Spring. Though it also chronicles the more familiar images of chanting crowds filling into the streets, the film is most compelling when it lets quiet moments seep in, sweetly tragic or brazenly comic moments which might have gotten lost in the media detritus: a young man is interviewed in his demolished living room addresses the bombers who shelled his apartment, asking them what his destroyed cushions and his damaged Samsung T.V. set ever did to them; a boy fashions a “potato bazooka,” a plastic toy gun from which he shoots potatoes and onions, as he parades through the streets, defying his father’s fears. Snowdon’s film collapses the historical timeframe into the structure of a seven-day journal. The result is an imaginary history, but rooted in actual events and retaining some sense of distinct localities: a massive pan-Arab movement. The compressed timeframe lends the film an aura of inevitability, which is likely part of Snowdon’s thesis, as he closes with a quotation from Russian anarchist, Pyotr Kropotkin, that the gale of history “originated in times past” cannot be stopped. Evocative, at times witty, often apocalyptic, Snowdon’s documentary captures the revolutionary pulse as a fitful mixture of desperate hope and crushing uncertainty.

The violence conveyed in Wang Bing’s ’Til Madness Do Us Part is caused not by oppressive regimes, but rather by the regime-like structure of a mental institution in Yunnan Province, in Southwest China, whose 200 male patients Bing filmed up-close for four months. Stuck in unsanitary, airless rooms, the patients are mainly left to their own devices. Some appear to have been shunted away for unruliness, or for learning disabilities, rather than actual insanity. Bing echoes the feeling of the place by keeping the color palette murky, often filming in semi-darkness, with a camera steadied on the patients, as they argue over food rations or gifts from home, negotiate exchanges of cigarettes, or peer through the bars into the empty courtyard. Sleep is the most often recorded biological function, perhaps to emphasize the catatonic existence into which the patients are thrust. Some bemoan that they would rather die than stay locked up against their will. A Foucauldian vision, Bing’s documentary lays the patient’s plight and vulnerabilities bare before the camera.

A Mãe e O Mar (The Mother and The Sea). Courtesy of Agência da Curta Metragem.

Visual artist Naeem Mohaiemen frequently returns to the subject of oppression, and to constructive reactions to it. His United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1) played at Migrating Forms in 2012, and here he returns with Part 2: Afsan’s Long Day. While in Part 1, Mohaiemen weaves in his own story of watching the Japanese Red Army’s 1977 plane hijacking on television as an 8-year-old boy living in Bangladesh, Part 2 has a more open discursive structure, stringing together a series of global incidents. From contemporary footage of young Bangladeshi men protesting imperialism, to the hunger strike of the Red Army Faction leader, Andreas Baader, Mohaiemen sets the political stances of others against his own engagement with Marxism. Rather than proceed from a central thesis, Mohaiemen guides us through a series of expositions: as images and questions accrue, we reach not so much a conclusive summation, but a sense that the same phenomena have erupted in various parts of the world, and continue to erupt, and that the connections between them have yet to be fully explored.

Oppression also lies at the center of Pays barbare, by found-footage filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. The film opens with the silent footage of crowds in Milan in 1945 witnessing bloodied corpses, among them Mussolini’s, and then moves back to the 1920s and 30s with images of Italy’s conquest and settlement of Africa. Through archival film stock that shows abrasion, fading, and scarring, the past is excavated as a series of progressing scenes: from boastful parades of the conquerors to images of Italian pioneers and explorers, to imagery of African men and women dancing for the victors, and at other times more intimate, like the enigmatic, slow-motion segment where a young black woman bares her breasts for the camera. Pays barbare evocatively renders the delusional narrative of righteous might and submissive “other” that underlies these clips. A plaintive, partly sung voiceover runs through, like a dirge, and unveils the camera as an unwitting, but damning witness but also a handy, pliable tool in the dissemination of colonial myths.

A historically and aesthetically different kind of examination of disappearance is undertaken by Gonçalo Tocha in A Mãe e o Mar (The Mother and the Sea). Tocha sets his camera on a small coastal village in northern Portugal, where women used to take to the seas along with men, to practice artisanal fishing. Tocha’s aesthetic approach, like Zaatari’s, is to structure a narrative around punctuated stills: nets, boats, and water are distinct elements in the story. Many of the shots show Tocha’s fine sense of the pictorial: one of the more powerful takes captures the stock figure of Gloria, the last fishing woman in the village, as she rides the boat. Her upper torso and profile take up the frame, a shadowy cutout against darkening skies. The image renders her with a certain monumentality, both a solid frontier-like figure, and a lonely fighter, as younger generations have moved away. Like Leviathan by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, A Mãe e o Mar privileges the sensory experience, but whereas the former deployed murky, nightmarish imagery to striking effect, building a sense of imminent threat, the latter’s tonalities are subdued, and its mood ranges from subtly deadpan to wistful then stoic, with the sea framed not only as daily sustenance, but also as an unsentimental reminder of time’s inevitable passing.


Ela Bittencourt

ELA BITTENCOURT’s criticism and interviews have been published in Artforum, Cineaste, Frieze Magazine, Guernica, and Senses of Cinema, among others. She reviews film regularly for Reverse Shot, Slant, and The L. She can be found on Twitter @Ela_Bittencourt.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2014

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