By Jay Kuehner
With the steady proliferation of a particular breed of documentary cinema—call it speculative nonfiction or, as one of its more agile practitioners, Robert Greene, sums up, unfiction—there has been a shift from subject-oriented content to that of orientation itself. The form appears less invested in revealing a given reality than in the mediation of it: of the aesthetic and political how a subject or milieu is rendered, with an implicit interrogation of methodology. This distinctive feature of new documentary practice has opened up new possibilities within an already saturated field of vision, such that the roles of performative gesture in fiction and nonfiction cinema respectively have become destabilized and appear, paradoxically, to have reversed. We expect our truths to incur some amount of suspicion, and we are suspicious of fiction that doesn’t reflect some semblance of truth.
The merits of the new nonfiction have been justly celebrated by critical film culture while offering documentary festivals new territory to mine for content. Expanding, crossing, and exploding “genres”—be they artistic, sexual, or social—is a defining feature of 21st-century living (and could very well explain the rise of a conservative political recalcitrance that favors a reduction of identity, the tightening of borders). Still, as the conceptual definition of documentary has been redefined and re-imagined to rather positive effect, there is conversely a hazard, seldom spoken of, to watching or regarding nonfiction as something other than just that. Truth being intrinsically stranger than fiction, it has also been dubiously enlisted—perhaps unwittingly by audiences—to deliver some of the latter’s enticements. Suddenly, subjects unmoored by genre specificity are free to roam where they may, a kind of symbolic flaneur to the director’s virtuosic imagination. But what becomes of such a subject’s real nature when the viewer sees them in characterological terms, and the presumably foregrounded space of the real is usurped as a performative space for a more commercially appealing use of the medium. Seen in this context, the documentary becomes vulnerable to a voyeuristic impulse, from both a conception and reception standpoint alike.
The occasion for such rumination was last November’s 19th edition of RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal), a festival that situates documentary along non-fixed coordinates, subject to revision by year-to-year metrics but especially by the convulsions of the lived world. There was thus something telling about the inclusion of Eduardo Williams’ The Human Surge in competition; a film I’d first watched in Locarno as a narrative of accursed beauty with a documentary ethos was here prioritized as a work of nonfiction, and with certain logistical merit. Someone, somewhere, in the depths of the global youth demimonde carved open by an incessantly roving camera, posits that sometime in the future the sound of silence will be the noise of a food court at the mall. The film similarly equivocates between prophecy and nonsense. For all its fidelity to the grainy vicissitudes of dead-end jobs, excursions into urban parks and wild forests, and the squalid rooms of webcam pornography, The Human Surge may prove the most symptomatically faithful in its depiction of modern youth, who slum in similar fashion from Buenos Aires to Moputo, onward (or inward, as the case may be) to Bohol, linked by the connective tissue of the internet yet remaining utterly disaffected. At once appearing technically crude and formally sumptuous, neither willfully creepy nor overtly lyrical, Williams’ debut stakes out a terrain of menacingly innocuous torpor among kids who seem hazed by insouciance but still desire, in no certain terms beyond walking and talking, to get unstuck and venture forth. A film about journeys with no particular destination, in which a kind of metaphysics of the moment is disclosed in the gaping distance between camera and character, viewer and subject, one body and another. Perhaps there are still empathic routes to travel within the dystopian new world order.
Contrast this with another film about itinerant youth, Patric Chiha’s Brothers of the Night, which takes a certain theatricality as a means of accessing something ostensibly true about Bulgarian Roma boys adrift while physically for sale in the nocturnal dens of Vienna. Deliberately playing with fictional tropes and flirting with drama throughout, Brothers of the Night refracts the unglamorous reality of billiard-table banter and solicited blowjobs through the glitz of cinema, albeit of the sumptuously sordid variety evinced by Kenneth Anger, Fassbinder, and Pasolini. Beneath the glare of a theatrical lighting scheme and the din of a melodramatic score, there is a pungent reality about work, migration, sex, and survival, though the conceptual gambit of trying to render this more palpable through simulation proves, ironically, to be alienating without the underlying motivation—the Rudiger cafe re-imagined in the spirit of Querelle with none of Genet’s bite. Chiha’s film is a high-concept hybrid whose RIDM award for cinematography could be seen as an inadvertent jab to its purchase on the real.
Leave it to a colossally mundane Chinese doc, Zhu Shengze’s Another Year, to bore directly into its milieu and remain there in steadfast observation, with no tricks other than time to bear upon its subjects, here a multi-generational family filmed gathering at dinnertime over the course of a year. Tedium and revelation unfold in a near-reciprocal fashion and accumulate to a broad reflection of a Chinese society that’s never seen but persistently felt. We witness, with patience, the father-daughter meal of takeout (the cartons of pork, eggplant, and rice seem endless) as the sound of TV provides inadvertent music to the non-action. She questions his daily salary while he admonishes her for the cost of dinner (he was late, and she didn’t want to wait). She laments a boring school field trip to a suburban theme park that he once delivered construction materials to (neither can remember its proper name). Another month occasions another view of the same room, and the film’s temporal strategy begins to work along a spatial axis as well. By June the family have shifted (grandmother increasingly immobile, much to the mother’s shrill disapproval), and so has the camera. Another month, a different room, here channelled with one of those Hou-like shots that gazes into successive chambers, with a lone crutch leaning against a plain wall, light pouring into middle space with certain slant, children passing in and out of the foreground frame. It’s formidable filmmaking from a young director whose steady domestic dispatches offer rare but not too rarified glimpses into Chinese working-class life, as well as something ineffable like the flavor of sweet potato congee in autumn. Another Year was the deserved winner of the Grand Prize for International Feature.
A film that perhaps less wittingly revolves around mealtime: Kimi Takesue’s 95 And 6 To Go, which features the director’s grandfather on camera preparing or indulging home meals while reflecting on his past, as well as his granddaughter’s unrealized script for a cross-cultural love story. What initially feels like a conducive format for a mise of meta proportions, in which a speculative fiction is scaffolded within a documentary, reveals itself as an affectionate and occasionally circumspect portrait of familial discovery, a version on the home movie that reaches back a century to reveal a backstory ripe with love and loss but absent any shattering disclosures. The pragmatic and unsentimental widower, who has spent most of his life on Honolulu, is none too adoring of his departed wife, though his granddaughter’s persistent questioning no doubt lends to his disaffected screen persona. An unforced rhyme emerges between subject and director, in which economic hard times forced a career evaluation in each: for elder Tom, the depression saw him clamouring to gain sufficient weight to meet postal worker requirements, while artist Kimi watched her feature funding dry up when recession hit. The film is in many ways a mutually sombre homecoming; the proverbial return to care for one’s elders becomes an active accounting of the past and provokes an unforeseen source of humble creativity. The subject of Japanese American identity during the war is broached as a matter of course, thus rendering the now quotidian gestures of this resilient nonagenarian all the more affecting: doing half pushups in the kitchen, rigging a makeshift charcoal grill in the garage, and going all-out pyrotechnic for the 4th of July.
Death on the doorstep, if not already in the back seat, goes without saying in Pierre-François Sauter’s Calabria in which two undertakers, themselves émigrés in Switzerland, are assigned to repatriate the body of a Calabrian to his family in a small village. The film offers a long view of migration to include that most inevitable of passages, but this road movie in a hearse is mercifully devoid of moralizing angst or detached irony, instead settling into a relatively restrained camera-on-dashboard two-hander in which a buttoned-up Portuguese and his colleague, a gypsy singer from Belgrade, take turns at the wheel and at ruminating on life’s minutiae: the shifting vegetation, Portuguese poetry, Gypsy deep song, the afterlife, and family back home. There’s something reassuring about the professionalism with which these undertakers do their job—there are no detours involving discos or mafioso, for instance, and these amicable morticians never lose their ties—and an intrinsic rather than cinematically imposed melancholy ultimately presides over the journey. A late sequence involving navigating the lost hearse through narrow roads, along with a taste of local strawberries, tilts the film toward a Kiarostamian lyricism.
Shorts at RIDM constitute a kind of pulse of the festival, and it is often in the competitive courts et moyens metrages program that the rewards of risk can be found. Ben Russell’s tropical malady from the Suriname jungle, He Who Eats Children, is an immersion in myth, or more specifically, myth-making. Lustrous 16mm cinematography captures the texture of place and a people within it: here children gazing at foreign textbooks in a classroom, or at play in game of blindfolded pursuit—once captured you shall be devoured. The matter of the camera’s presence is made explicit through light leaks and film burns, while a sound recordist is seen trying to harness the kids’ laughter. Discarded flip-flops—one conspicuously colored in stars and stripes—are seen floating in puddles of rain. Something evil lurks in the forest, alludes one mother with her child, and a pale figure disappears into the thicket. An elder blue-eyed Dutchman who fixes boat propellers and dwells among his manuals is reputed to be the source of children disappearing, a colonial myth which is playfully deconstructed by Russell and reconfigured by the locals, while still haunting in its implications. This ethno-surrealist film re-imagines the flow of the postcolonial imagination, pace Franz Fanon, and situates the apparatus of film itself as an unstable means of disclosing the real of any place or occasion.
Less oneiric but just as obliquely political in its inquiry into myth, Isabel Pagliai’s Isabella Morra is similarly strategized through an immersion, rather than explanation, of its milieu, here the street outside of a housing estate in northern France where the children seem orphaned. A loose connection is drawn between the titular Italian renaissance poet, slain by her jealous brothers, and the young girls who hold court on the street’s “stage,” pushing a pram about while the offscreen, and unidentified, voice of one girl recounts the story of a murdered friend. Any attempt at untangling literary precedent (good luck finding André Pieyre de Mandiargues’ play) effectively averts one to the intimate non-sequitur musings of these kids, who’ve inherited the language of the banlieue and with it certain forms of resistance. Is this merely a point in a continuum of cruel fortune? Does savagery or liberation await? The candid work with children recalls Valérie Massadian’s Nana, though these children are forlorn but not alone. The sight and sound of an ice cream truck beaming in the dusk offers fleeting reprieve, but no doubt tomorrow will be much the same. Winner of the International Short and Medium Length Competition, the film is indicative of an open-ended cinema that speaks to RIDM’s aesthetic as well as the virtues of a new unclassifiable style, more lacunate than chemerical: not so much a synthesis of genres as a hiatus among them.