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New Ways to See Non-Fiction: How MoMA Doc Fortnight Brings a Fresh Perspective to Documentary Films

The Museum of Modern Art's 16th annual Doc Fortnight, which runs from February 16 to February 26, includes some unorthodox programming choices — but there's a good reason for that.

“Plastic China”

MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) kicks off its 16th annual Doc Fortnight on Thursday, a 10-day festival that includes 20 feature-length non-fiction films and 10 documentary shorts. This year’s lineup includes four world premieres and a number of North American and U.S. premieres.

READ MORE: 2017 New Directors/New Films Announces Full Lineup, Including ‘Patti Cake$,’ ‘Beach Rats,’ ‘Menashe’ and More

The festival is far from the only major North American showcase for non-fiction cinema. Festivals ranging from Hot Docs to True/False have played key roles in the expanding documentary festival circuit. However, Doc Fortnight has maintained its own niche on the scene, by aiming to expose undiscovered stories and filmmakers, screening a range of documentaries from around the world and capturing the ways in which artists are pushing the boundaries of non-fiction filmmaking.

“It’s not an industry festival, there aren’t awards, and distributors aren’t all coming looking to buy,” MoMA guest curator Kathy Brew told IndieWire in an interview. “All of this gives us a great deal of freedom in programming.” Brew was named guest curator of Doc Fortnight last October following the departure of assistant film curator Sally Berger, who worked for MoMA for three decades.

The 2017 lineup features films spanning a wide range of documentary styles, including animation, archival footage, experimental, vérité camerawork, photography, and interview-based films. Doc Fortnight also puts a heavy emphasis of capturing a global snapshot of the state of filmmaking, often focusing on countries or regions that typically aren’t well represented at festivals.  The 2017 lineup features films from Afghanistan, Argentina, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, Senegal, Palestine, and the U.S.

Brew said many of this year’s films are particularly timely with respect to political and social issues, but that the full lineup doesn’t feature a disproportionate amount of stories focused on these subject areas.

“Sometimes documentaries have tilted too far to only dealing with the social issues, to the exclusion of interesting characters and experimental explorations,” she said. “In looking at what artists are dealing with right now, I think because of the political environment both here and around the world, these documentaries reflect our times. It wasn’t intentional, but you can’t ignore the elephant in the room.”

One of the more experimental films from this year’s lineup is “Ulysses in the Subway,” a collaboration between husband and wife team Ken and Flo Jacobs and digital artists Paul Kaiser and Marc Downie. The project uses sound recorded by a camera as its only source material to animate a 3D visualization.

“Ulysses in the Subway”

MoMA

“The visualization is a 3D abstraction that is produced by a sound-analysis algorithm,” Brew said. “Some might say, ‘Really? That’s a documentary?’ My line is yes, the source material is coming from this non-fiction experience. MoMA gives us that filter that recognizes the experimentation and investigation of new forms.”

In the Fortnight tradition, the festival found films though that didn’t necessarily always address issues in overt ways. For example, “Through the Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film,” captures a Native activist group called Postcommodity (also will featured at this year’s Whitney Biennial next month) that built a two-mile-long art installation that intersected the US/Mexico border in October 2015.

There’s also “Irrawaddy Mon Amour,” the story of young gay couple who find a supportive community inside the repressive military regime in Myanmar, and “The Revolution Won’t Be Televised,” about a hip hop artists who start a movement against a corrupt president of Senegal.

“Wolf and Sheep” is a hybrid film that mixes ethnography, narrative, non-actors and touch of magical realism. The film won the Art Cinema Award at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and marks the first feature made a by female in Afghanistan.

Check out the full festival lineup below.

“Machines”

“Machines”

MoMA

Opening night | New York premiere

2016. India/Germany/Finland. Directed by Rahul Jain. 71 min.
In Rahul Jain’s debut film, the camera patrols the labyrinthine passages of an enormous textile factory in Gujarat, India, fixated on the pulsing machines that make art from fabric—and the ostensibly mechanized humans who run them. Interviews with workers in the midst of onerous 12-hour shifts give the film a political edge, but it’s the unsettling beauty of this industrial underworld and the colorful textiles created there that will remain with viewers. In Hindi; English subtitles
Post-screening discussion with Jain
.

“Acts and Intermissions”

World premiere

2016. USA. Directed by Abigail Child. 57 min.
This experimental documentary circles around the life of Emma Goldman, viewed at the turn of the 20th century as the “most dangerous woman alive”—and her relationship to the history of protest, bringing it into the present day, overlapping past and present events. Goldman fought for many social issues that are still not fully resolved all these years later, making the film seem even more relevant to our current times.

Preceded by “Kaputt” (“Broken”)

U.S. premiere

2016. Germany. Directed by Alexander Lahl, Volker Schlecht. 7 min.
This animated doc is based on interviews with former political prisoners of the main prison for women of former East Germany. In addition to the conditions of daily life in the prison, the film explores issues of forced labor and the export of things produced there to West Germany. Post-screening discussion with Child
.

“Ulysses in the Subway”

North American premiere

2017. USA. Directed by Paul Kaiser, Marc Downie, Ken Jacobs, Flo Jacobs. 61 min.
This collaboration between avant-garde film luminaries Ken and Flo Jacobs and Open Ended Group’s digital-art duo of Paul Kaiser and Marc Downie yields a “picturing of sound” in 3-D. A recording of Ken’s journey through the New York subway—voices, footsteps, a steel-drum performance—is transformed into grand visual renderings through the use of a sound-analysis algorithm. The past invades the present when Thomas Edison’s 1905 film of the same path through the subway—also rendered in 3-D—makes a fleeting appearance.

Preceded by “Animation Hotline”

2011–15. USA. Directed by Dustin Grella. 8 min.
 This selection from among more than 200 entries in Grella’s ongoing Animation Hotline series presents micro-animations of real-life stories crowdsourced via voicemail messages. These creative renderings uncover insights into the apparently banal aspects of daily life. Anyone with a story can call (212) 683-2490. Post-screening discussion with Paul Kaiser, Marc Downie, Ken and Flo. Jacobs, Dustin Grella.

“The Revolution Won’t Be Televised”

“The Revolution Won’t Be Televised”

MoMA

New York premiere

2016. Senegal. Directed by Rama Thiaw. 110 min.
In 2012, Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade began a highly controversial run for a third term, in violation of the nation’s constitution. Among the forces that rose up in protest was a peaceful political movement, an alliance of hip-hop artists and journalists. Rama Thiaw shadows rappers Thiat and Kilifeu and their manager Gadiaga as they crisscross Dakar to rock the youth vote. In Wolof, French; English subtitles.

Preceded by “#Bars4Justice”

2015. USA. Directed by Queen Muhammad Ali, Hakeem Khaaliq. 9 min.
While performing a benefit gig in St. Louis, Missouri, on the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown, hip-hop activist Jasiri X has his own encounter with the Ferguson police force. Post-screening discussion with Thiaw, Ali, and Khaaliq.

“Through the Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film”

World premiere

2017. USA. Directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas. 74 min.
What began as a documentary on the “land art” movement in the US soon evolved to focus on Repellent Fence—a temporary, two-mile-long art installation that intersected the US/Mexico border in October 2015, spearheaded by Postcommodity, an activist/art collective consisting of three Native American artists. The artists “put land art in a tribal context” in “a metaphorical suture stitching together cultures that have inhabited these lands long before borders were drawn.” The story of this timely work is intercut with scenes from major land art works like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty and Nancy Holt’s The Sun Tunnels.

Preceded by “Smoke that Travels”

2016. USA. Directed by Kayla Briët. 13 min.
This autobiographical doc by a young, award-winning, self-taught filmmaker transmits Prairie Band Potawatomi teachings from her father—dance, music, history, and language—in hopes of preserving and inspiring a new appreciation of her culture.
Post-screening discussion with Douglas, Postcommodity, and Briët.

“The Book of Clarence”

World premiere

2017. USA. Directed by Lee Breuer. 99 min.
A founding member of The Blind Boys of Alabama, one of the world’s most successful gospel groups, Clarence Fountain has lived a remarkable life, full of music and passion. Now in his eighties, slowed by age and diabetes, Clarence retains his brash charm, and wistfully recalls his decades of glory, from beginnings in the choir of a school for the blind, to the group’s sudden rise to stardom as “Oedipus” in the experimental musical The Gospel at Colonus. Here, that show’s iconic creator, Lee Breuer, brings his artistry to bear on Clarence’s story, with inventive editing, extensive interviews, archival footage—and a great deal of soul.
Post-screening discussion with Breuer and producer Eric Marciano
.

“Austerlitz”

US premiere

2016. Germany. Directed by Sergei Loznitsa. 94 min.
Perhaps no historical event is as appalling as the Holocaust, yet people’s need to understand the unimaginable has birthed the curious oxymoron of “Holocaust tourism.” On the sun-drenched grounds of a former concentration camp, Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s camera sits motionless, in quiet judgment, observing the comings and goings of these voyeuristic tourists. In German, English, Spanish; English subtitles
Post-screening discussion with Loznitsa.

“Gaza Surf Club”

“Gaza Surf Club”

MoMA

New York premiere

2016. Germany/Palestine/USA. Directed by Philip Gnadt, Mickey Yamine. 87 min.
Away from the rubble left by a decade of airstrikes, young Palestinians find new freedom surfing on the Gaza Strip’s 26-mile coastline. Frustrated with the limitations of a state where surfing equipment is contraband, one young man dreams of crafting his own boards, while a teen girl resists strict cultural principles to follow her sporting passion. Shot in breathtaking widescreen, this upbeat work reveals a new generation determined to be unencumbered by surrounding political tragedy. In Arabic, English; English subtitles. 
Post-screening discussion with Gnadt
.

Modern Mondays: An Evening of New Media Nonfiction from the National Film Board of Canada

Hugues Sweeney and Rob McLaughlin, executive producers of the NFB’s Digital Studios in Montreal and Vancouver, present a selection from their ongoing contributions to the global media ecosystem, from interactive documentaries (A Journal of Insomnia, Bear 71) to mobile stories (Barcode, Soldier Brother) to public spaces (Megaphone, Circa 1948) and virtual and augmented reality (Way to Go, Enemy, Cardboard Crash).

“Plastic China”

New York premiere

2016. China. Directed by Jiu-liang Wang. 81 min.
China is the world’s largest importer of plastic waste; throughout the country there are nearly 30 towns engaged in processing this refuse in highly toxic environments. In this powerful critique of global overconsumption, the stories of two families, and a particularly feisty and optimistic 11- year-old girl, reveal the human and environmental costs of living and working in these artificial— and truly plastic—landscapes. In Chinese; English subtitles
Post-screening discussion with Wang
.

“Irrawaddy Mon Amour”

New York premiere

2015. Italy. Directed by Valeria Testagrossa, Nicola Grignani, Andrea Zambelli. 58 min.
Living under a repressive military regime is even more difficult for Myanmar’s LGBT citizens; homosexuality remains taboo, many face overt discrimination and condemnation, and same-sex
marriage is illegal. Yet on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, a small, gay-friendly community goes against the rules and helps two young lovers realize their dream. In Burmese; English subtitles.

Preceded by “Half a Life”

North American premiere

2016. Egypt/USA/Indonesia/Netherlands. Directed by Tamara Shogaolu. 12 min.
In this animated documentary, a young Egyptian recounts a traumatic confrontation in Cairo that inspired his gay-rights activism in what continues to be an oppressive, unstable social atmosphere. In Arabic; English subtitles
Post-screening discussion with Testagrossa and Shogaolu
.

“Ascent”

New York premiere

2016. Netherlands/Japan. Directed by Fiona Tan. 80 min.
Made entirely using 4,500 photographs taken over the past 150 years, this experimental hybrid of fiction and documentary takes viewers on an ascent up Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji. An English woman and her deceased Japanese partner lead the way as viewers join the climb. In English, Japanese; English subtitles
.

“Las Letras” (“The Letters”)

New York premiere

2015. Mexico. Directed by Pablo Chavarría Gutiérrez. 77 min.
Las Letras is an exercise in (and exorcism of) outrage, a performative representation of an indigenous Mexican professor’s random arrest and erroneous 13-year imprisonment for a brutal slaying. Gutiérrez’s camera stalks the countryside, ghostlike, observing wandering lost children and a woman’s balletic expression of grief, punctuated by Gómez’s proud, hopeful jailhouse letters to his family. In Spanish, Tzotzil; English subtitles
Post-screening discussion with Gutiérrez

“Tell Them We Are Rising”

New York premiere

2017. USA. Directed by Stanley Nelson. 80 min.
Following the huge success of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, which opened Doc Fortnight 2015, Stanley Nelson turns his eye to another branch of African American history: education. Expressly denied prior to the Civil War in order to keep blacks subordinate, higher learning flourished at the more than 100 black colleges and universities founded in the century that followed. Nelson shows how these institutions cultivated generations of leaders in innumerable areas, including the Civil Rights movement, while redefining what it means to be black in America.
 Post-screening discussion with Nelson.

“Solar”

North American premiere

2016. Argentina. Directed by Manuel Abramovich. 76 min.
Flavio Cabobianco was 10 years old when his messianic message of self-salvation, I Come from the Sun, became a bestseller in Argentina. As Flavio releases a 20th-anniversary edition, first-time feature filmmaker Manuel Abramovich follows him and his family to try to understand the book’s
origins and tangled authorship. But Flavio’s escalating attempts to control the film give rise to a compelling tale about the complexities of artistic collaboration. In Spanish; English subtitles. Post-screening discussion with Abramovich.

“Wolf and Sheep”

New York premiere

2016. Denmark, France, Sweden, Afghanistan. Directed by Shahrbanoo Sadat. 86 min. Screened in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Art Cinema Award, this hybrid film by Afghanistan’s first female feature director mixes narrative, ethnography, and a bit of magical realism to portray the lives of those in an Afghanistan shepherd community. Inspired by the director’s teenage years in a similar remote village, the film’s characters are played by real people, translating everyday life 1:1 to the screen.

“Tip of My Tongue”

Closing night |World premiere

2017. USA. Directed by Lynne Sachs. 80 min.
To mark her 50th birthday, filmmaker Lynne Sachs gathers a group of her contemporaries—all New Yorkers but originally hailing from all corners of the globe—for a weekend of recollection and reflection on the most life-altering personal, local, and international events of the past half- century, creating what Sachs calls “a collective distillation of our times.” Interspersed with poetry and flashes of archival footage, this poignant reverie reveals how far beyond our control life is, and how far we can go despite this.
Post-screening discussion with Sachs.

 

Shorts Program

 

“State of Rest and Motion”

World premiere

2017. USA. Directed by Edin Velez. 16 min.
This cine-portrait of New York City uses digital effects to turn the countless riders of the subway system into living, breathing paintings.

“Irradiant Field”

New York premiere

2016. USA. Directed by Laura Kraning. 10 min.
In the Mojave Desert, fields of solar panels follow the sun’s daily journey in perfect synchronicity.

“Coal Creek”

North American premiere

2015. USA. Directed by George Griffin. 10 min.
Animator George Griffin recalls racial discord in his eastern Tennessee hometown. A collage of photographs, maps, interviews, cartoons, and jazz highlights the horrors of a hatred that reverberates to this day.

“489 Years”


New York premiere

2016. France. Directed by Hayoun Kwon. 11 min.
The oral history of a former South Korean soldier who once patrolled the DMZ is brought to life by computer graphics in a style that conjures first-person-shooter video games. In Korean; English subtitles

“Chitrashala”

US premiere

2015. India. Directed by Amit Dutta. 19 min.
Doc Fortnight alumnus Amit Dutta continues to explore his fascination with Indian miniature painting. At the Amar Mahal Palace in northern India, several exquisite works come into focus, before springing to life before our eyes.

“Jungle”


North American premiere

2016. France. Directed by Colia Vranici. 18 min.
The Calais “Jungle” refugee camp was demolished in October 2016. At the tail end of its brief existence, director Colia Vranici follows a 16-year-old Afghan boy as he passes through, dreaming of a future in England. In Pashto, English; English subtitles
Post-screening discussion with Griffin, Kraning, Kwon, and Velez.

 

Emiko Omori Retrospective

Doc Fortnight honors the work of Bay Area filmmaker Emiko Omori with a selection of her films.

“To Chris Marker, An Unsent Letter”

New York premiere

2012. USA. Directed by Emiko Omori. 78 min.
Omori was a personal friend of the late Chris Marker, the French filmmaker and artist best known for his films La Jetée and Sans Soleil. This film, a kind of love letter/homage to Marker, is a contemplative essay that honors and echoes his artistic style. In addition to Omori’s thoughts and recollections, and a look at some of Marker’s major works, the film includes interviews with other admirers, including film programmers Tom Luddy and Peter Scarlet, and 12 Monkeys screenwriters Janet and David Peoples, summing up the legacy of a filmmaker who was both elusive and beloved.

Preceded by “When Rabbit Left the Moon”

World theatrical premiere

2017. USA. Directed by Emiko Omori. 14 min.
Omori created this video poem from footage and outtakes from Rabbit in the Moon. “In 2017,” she says, “I commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of my incarceration at the age of one by my government, the United States of America.” When Rabbit Left the Moon is an elegy to her parents’ generation—the Issei (immigrants)—and the legacy of suffering that haunts the community to this day.
Post-screening discussion with Omori.

“Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World”

2010. USA. Directed by Emiko Omori. 74 min.
As a young boy, Don “Ed” Hardy knew he wanted to be a tattoo artist, and after graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute he rejected “fine art” and returned to his childhood passion. Today he is a cult icon, “the godfather of modern tattooing,” whose imagery has moved into the fashion world and beyond. This success has allowed him to return to his personal art, an arresting synthesis of high and low. Omori’s film presents a portrait of the artist, operating in multiple worlds.

“Passion and Power: The Technology of Orgasm”

2007. USA. Directed by Emiko Omori, Wendy Slick. 74 min.
Based on the book by Rachel Maines, this is the story of a simple invention—the vibrator—and its relationship to female sexual pleasure. The film traces the vibrator’s progress from Victorian-era treatment for “hysteria” to liberating sex toy, and features a cast of feminist luminaries, including Eve’s Garden founder Dell Williams, author and sexologist Betty Dodson, the performance artist Reno, and author Rachel Maines.

“Rabbit in the Moon”

1999. USA. Directed by Emiko Omori. 85 min.
This documentary/memoir recounts the story of two sisters, Emiko Omori and her co-producer, Chizu Omori, who as children were uprooted from their home in southern California and incarcerated with their family and thousands of others in concentration camps during World War II. The film includes eye witness accounts from other detainees and delves into issues that created deep divisions within the American Japanese community, revealing long-term effects still felt to this day.

Preceded by “Far East of Eden”

New York premiere

2016. USA. Directed by Bruce Yonemoto, in collaboration with Karen Finley. 24 min.
This experimental video, created by Karen Finley and Bruce Yonemoto while artists-in-residence at California’s Montalvo Arts Center, touches on the racism of the Center’s founder, James D. Phelan, and brings the story up to the present. Finley’s performance channels Phelan, one of the biggest proponents of anti-Japanese-immigration laws at the turn of the last century, before mutating into a more recent political figure—presenting a jarring juxtaposition between Phelan and Donald Trump.

READ MORE: How Film Festivals Decide Which Movies to Accept

“Italian Perspective”

New York premiere

2017. USA. Directed by Julia Heyward. 1,440 min.
This long-form cinematic observation captures film shoots in a downtown alley seen through the artist’s bedroom window, simulating the real-time suspension of belief over the course of a full day.

Doc Fortnight 2017: An International Festival of Nonfiction Film at MoMA, runs from February 16–26, 2017.

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