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5 Must-See Documentaries at the 2016 Art of the Real Showcase

5 Must-See Documentaries at the 2016 Art of the Real Showcase

While documentaries with famous subjects or topical issues hog the headlines, the Art of the Real showcase at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center continues to provide a refreshing contrast. Running April 8 – 21, the program offers a global survey of innovative filmmaking techniques that toy with the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction. These category-defying titles offer a range of experiences as well as a welcome alternative to the more conventional projects that generate buzz all year. Here’s a look at some of the highlights from the latest edition. 

“The Academy of Muses”

Though he hasn’t had a film released in the United States since 2007’s “In the City of Sylvia,” Catalan filmmaker Jose Luis Guerin has continued to craft inventive cinematic experiments that blend documentary and fictional components with bracingly unpredictable results. “The Academy of the Muses” is the paragon of this unorthodox approach, and an unexpected crowdpleaser, to boot.

At first, Guerin focuses on the divisive lectures of a literature processor at the University of Barcelona who proposes that women should fall in line with the classic definition of the “muse” and use their seductive powers to inspire poetry. While the heavy discourse is engrossing on its own terms, this starting point becomes the first act of a sensational drama in which the student-teacher relationship evolves into ethically dubious territory, as the professor not only sleeps with his students but also attempts to rationalize the decision when faced down by his no-nonsense wife. Intellectually stimulating in ways both funny and sad, “The Academy of the Muses” is a first-rate illustration of deep thoughts translated into an exciting narrative. Despite the dense concept, it may be closest we get to a crossover work from the ever-impressive Guerin. —Eric Kohn

“The Dreamed Ones”

In the ruins of post-war Vienna, the poet Paul Celan met and fell in love with a young philosophy student named Ingeborg Bachmann. He was the son of two executed Jews; she the daughter of a prominent Nazi soldier. Their initial affair was short-lived, but it sparked a mutual sense of longing and unfulfilled desire — a fire that the pair kindled for more than 19 years by exchanging feverishly emotional letters until Celan’s death.

Using those obscure correspondences as an epistolary screenplay for her two young actors (Anja Plaschg and Laurence Rupp), Ruth Beckermann weaves a fascinating tangle of ideas from a brilliantly simple premise. What at first seems to be an irreconcilable ocean of feeling between the old flames and the young adults hired to recite their relationship quickly dissolves into something far more enigmatic when the camera follows Plaschg and Rupp outside of the recording studio. Their low-key flirtations might be just as scripted as the love letters they’re paid to read, but the contrast between the two modes adds an electric hyper-reality to their smoke breaks and dinners. It isn’t long before their mundane conversations begin to shake with a rare and enigmatic rush of possibility — are they conflating each other with their characters, or is it just us?” Not since “Certified Copy” has a riddle been so romantic. —David Ehrlich

“The Monument Hunters”

A dizzying exploration of the relationship between history and memory, Jerónimo Rodríguez’s “The Monument Hunters” unfolds like a contemporary Chilean twist on the films of Chris Marker. Its subject is an unseen man named Jorge, a Santiago-born filmmaker who has since relocated to a studio apartment in Greenpoint. One afternoon, sleepless and desperate to decompress from his latest project, Jorge sees a documentary that revives a forgotten childhood memory of a statue his late father once showed him. Dislocated from his past and desperate to reconnect with the spirit of his old man, Jorge embarks on a quest to find a monument that may no longer exist (if it ever existed in the first place). 

Riding a constant drone of droll narration, Rodríguez’s temporally untethered cine-essay chronicles Jorge’s journey from Brooklyn to Chile; from clarity to the most cobwebbed corners of his mind (where memories of famous soccer matches compete for attention with the films of Raul Ruiz and Hong Sang-soo). We have no way of knowing if Jorge is real, or if he’s a tool that Rodríguez invented to leverage his way into the space between fact and fiction, but “The Monument Hunters” milks that ambiguity to illustrate how images and memories aren’t in competition with each other. On the contrary, Jorge’s story shows how images create memories, and Rodríguez’s film shows how memories create images. —DE

“On Football”

Brazilian director Sergio Osman’s first narrative feature the portrait of a father and son bonding after 20 years apart in the midst of the 2014 World Cup, isn’t quite fiction. The filmmaker recreates his own experiences reuniting with his father and attending the World Cup together while digging deeper into the nature of their bond. Osman’s meta-fiction finds him telling the story with his real father as the pair drive around town, discussing everything from family history to the mundane details of the sport.

Initially a deadpan comedy about familial relationships, the movie steadily grows wiser as it scrutinizes much about the relationship that both men take for granted. While the events eventually take a tragic turn, Osman’s slow-burn approach results in a uniquely mesmerizing tone. Punctuating dialogue exchanges with shots of empty rooms and ephemeral details, “On Football” provides a keen perspective on the ritualistic aspects of daily life — and the excitement of a major event with the power to disrupt them. Sports movies rarely cut this deep. —EK

“The Other Side”

The great modern chronicler of southern American life may be an Italian. Roberto Minervini’s innovative blend of documentary and narrative techniques was previously epitomized in “Stop the Pounding Heart,” in which the filmmaker embedded himself with a family of goat farmers in Texas. Art of the Real opening night selection “The Other Side” picks an edgier subject: a pair of Louisiana junkies. Minervini captures every intimate detail of their lives — from unsettling heroin binges to pillow talk. Minervini’s warts-and-all perspective finds his characters hopelessly trapped by their racist ideologies at one point and curiously charming the next.

The result is a fascinating snapshot of Americana that’s strikingly different from the one found in most contemporary cinema, one that avoids judgement while relishing in the lyrical dimensions of its paradoxical anti-heroes. Rather than lingering on addiction, Minervini sticks so closely to his subjects’ world that their vices become just one piece of a very complicated story. —EK

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