“Bye bye, Africa” are the words spoken by Mahamat Saleh Haroun as he leaves his native Chad for life as an ex-pat in Europe in the film of the same name which screened at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) as part of Flaherty at MoMa program running from June 22 – 30. Haroun stars in his film and though the story is fictional, he plays a character of the same name who is a filmmaker. Haroun, the character, returns to his native soil upon hearing of the death of his mother whom he hadn’t seen in ten years. He has changed.
Filmed on location in his actual neighborhood in Chad, many of the people in the film are not actors, but locals who wished to participate. The story relies heavily on a documentary aesthetic as Haroun’s character records and interprets his life primarily through the lens of his video camera. His friends and family feel disconnected from him and his far-away life. He is equally disconnected from Chad, evidenced by a scene where a local man smashes the camera because Haroun is “stealing his image.”
Haroun, a director who works in both documentary and narrative forms, made “Bye Bye Africa” in 1998. It was the first feature film made in Chad, and within the text of the film, explores issues like creating a national cinema and the responsibility of the filmmaker to contribute ones craft toward this goal, as opposed to plying ones craft elsewhere. The film is certainly not the first, nor last, that genre-bends narrative and documentary storytelling.
Co-programmer of this year’s Flaherty, Carlos Gutierrez, co-founder and director of Cinema Tropical, noted that at the seminar, “Bye Bye Africa” was dismissed by people who viewed the film within a feminist context. He said, “Dismissing the film based on one way of reading it reveals the relativity of our theoretical models” for interpreting such work. He went on to note that in other cultures, there is often an understanding that “truth and fiction go together; the barrier blurs more” than in the US where people tend to gravitate toward stricter dichotomies.
The Flaherty Seminar, which was co-programmed this year by Gutierrez and Mahen Bonetti, founder of the African Film Festival, is an annual documentary event that brings together scholars, programmers, students and filmmakers to discuss nonfiction film. It was established by Robert Flaherty’s widow Frances Hubbard Flaherty and is now in its 53rd year–a true legacy institution of the form. Executive director Mary Kerr said that in the early days when Frances ran the seminar, “Early seminars examined Flaherty’s films, not just the good but also the issues raised by his filmmaking techniques.”
Flaherty (1884-1951), whose “Nanook of the North,” widely considered the first documentary (as we know it), was an exercise in ethnographic storytelling, relying on its Inuit participants to help him achieve a kind of picturesque and dramatic telling of life on the Tundra, though the style of living portrayed in the film had actually already passed. The film is a fiction in the sense that it did not portray “life as it is,” as another early documentary maker Dziga Vertov (“The Man With A Movie Camera“) described the form.
Kerr also noted the unusual format of the seminar, “One thing that we do is to not announce the films in advance. You might know the filmmakers who are attending, but when you sit down in the theater, you don’t know what film you are going to see. For that moment, everyone is on a level playing field.” But after the screening, the entire group discusses the film. “The comments start flowing and you hear and see things about the film that you might not have noticed if you had known about the film before, even if you had seen it.”
With Nanook as the seed for the form, it is no wonder that documentary filmmakers have continued to experiment with the form to tell nonfiction stories. Some films out now that might be considered in the same lineage as Flaherty’s work, last year’s “The Road to Guantanamo” by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, “Strange Culture” by Lynn Hershman Leeson, “Zoo” by Robinson Devor, “Radiant City” by Gary Burns and Jim Brown and “Nanking” by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman.
Said Sean Farnel, director of programming at Hot Docs, which included several of these selections in this year’s April program, “Until 5-8 years ago the ‘movement’ was rather, very generally speaking, self-contained and ‘regulated’ (in the sense that the parameters of what was ‘documentary’ were rather rigid). More recently a plethora of new filmmakers coming into the form from other disciplines has meant less questioning or auditing (and in many cases, complete ignorance) of the barriers between documentary and fiction.”
Michael Winterbottom’s “The Road to Guantanamo” won last year’s Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary. The film, about young British-Pakistani men who are arrested by US troops in Afghanistan during the invasion of that country, is partially reenacted material intercut with traditional talking-head interviews with the subjects. The overall arc of the film shows the absurdity of US intelligence regarding terrorists, introduces us to the practice of torture in use by the US military, and the film comments on the lack of due process for the men who continue to be held at Guantanamo, despite its subjects having been released.
“Strange Culture,” which opened the Human Rights Watch New York Festival on June 14, is about artist Steve Kurtz, who is being prosecuted by the US government for criminal mail fraud in a botched bioterrorism investigation. Because of the ongoing legal case, Kurtz could not recount his own story, so instead, actors Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan play out the events that took place. The real Steve Kurtz does appear in the film, at times with Ryan in part to make the process of production obvious.
Nanking retells the story of the Japanese invasion and massacre in Nanking, China during WWII through the eyes of a small group of Westerners who stayed in the city and attempted to save civilian lives. In dramatic readings of writings left behind by actors like Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway and Stephen Dorff, these dramatized segments serve to not only illustrate events but to bring the story into the present tense, and thus emotionally charge the viewer.
Also using reenacted segments, not only because the events happened in the past but also because the subject portrayed in Zoo, people who engage in sexual conduct with animals, is so taboo that the people who engage in the practice, zoophiles, would not appear on camera. Employing impressionistic camera work and reenactment allows Devor to tell a story that would be impossible without such techniques.
“Radiant City” is of the largely scripted variety, and this work has the most potential to ruffle the feathers of purists. It tackles the subject of suburban sprawl in Canada by following several families as they deal with the various challenges and benefits of living in ever-burgeoning North American subdivisions. From having to worry about car break-downs or taking the bus to differing opinions between spouses about whether the ‘burbs are the right choice, the film asks why people choose to live in cookie cutter developments. Near the end of the film, the characters are exposed as fictional versions of themselves. The non-actors do live in these developments but the stories and relationships portrayed are fictions, making several reviewers question the need to for the significant portion of scripted and acted material.
Werner Herzog, who works in both narrative and documentary, continually espouses the “ecstasy of truth,” that “Truth” (with a capital T) is not a product of facts. In his “Minnesota Declaration,” or documentary manifesto, point #5 is “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.”