It should surprise no one that Werner Herzog‘s new film about Antartica, “Encounters at the End of the World,” is the antithesis of the most successful documentary releases in recent years, “March of the Penguins” and “An Inconvenient Truth.” Talking about filmmaking and his latest project during an AFI Fest conversation earlier this week in Los Angeles, Herzog noted that he didn’t want to make a film on “fluffy penguins” and he wasn’t trying to make a movie overtly about the climate crisis, later adding that however effective the film, “An Inconvient Truth” is actually a slideshow. His remarks effectively challenged the large audience to reconsider its own views on non-fiction film as AFI Fest unspooled a roster of acclaimed new documentary films.
During Sunday’s discussion, Herzog candidly offered that he could care less about embracing the term “documentary,” noting that his movies are actually “fiction film in disguise.”
“Objective truth is baloney,” Werner Herzog noted bluntly during the AFI Fest conversation, adding that there is no such concept, even in mathematics. Continuing he detailed that “facts do not constitute truth.” He explained that the guiding principles for filmmakers and audiences alike — perhaps the ultimate power of documentary — should simply be a genuine “quest for truth.”
In the AFI Fest competition documentary “Afghan Muscles,” director Andreas Mol Dalsgaard seeks to offer, in his own recent words, “more than what you see in the news.” Portraying the lives and struggles of ordinary Afghanis, he explores the country’s most popular sport: bodybuilding. The film follows the ups-and-downs as a pair of brothers vye for a bodybuilding title. Along the way, he delivers a striking look inside an insular world where men examine and judge other men. The blatant homoeroticism felt by the viewer is hardly an accident, Dalsgaard excluded the separate role of women in the sport to parallel the realities of the local culture. “It’s men looking at men,” he explained during a Q & A this week, adding, “60% [of men] have their first sexual experience with another man.”
“Muscles” is one of the docs in competition at AFI Fest, along with Andrea Kreuzhage‘s “1000 Journals,” Colectivo Klamve‘s “Atenco, A Crime of State” (Atenco, Un Crimen de Estado), Guido Santi & Tina Macara‘s “Chris & Don, A Love Story,” Michael Addis‘s “Heckler,” Nina Davenport‘s “Operation Filmmaker,” Steve York‘s “Orange Revolution,” Weijun Chen‘s “Please Vote For Me,” Robert Patton-Spruill‘s “Public Enemy: Welcome to the Terrordome,” Oded Lotan‘s “The Quest for the Missing Piece” (Behikvot Ahatiha Ahasera”), Dean de Blois‘s “Sigur Ros – Heima” and Laura Dunn‘s “The Unforseen.”
Also offering a true story with an agenda is Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro‘s “Body of War.” After rousing screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September and then the Hamptons International Film Festival last month, the film drew a standing ovation on Tuesday night at AFI Fest. It depicts the life of a paralyzed Iraqi war veteran turned anti-war activist. “See the pain,” Donahue advocated, “Don’t sanitize this war. This is only one example.” The film combines C-SPAN footage of Senators debating and then voting authorization for the war in Iraq.
In non-fiction filmmaking, directors should simply “bury any attempt at objectivity,” Herzog concluded during the AFI Fest conversation earlier in the week. And criticizing documentarians’ focus on cinema verite, he emphasized, “There is no such thing.”