For those who long ago gave up on finding diverse programming at your local multiplex, a trip to the nearest arthouse cinema is usually the solution to finding unique film fare - especially for fans of documentaries. But when the mood calls for something a bit more esoteric, art museums are increasingly filling a niche, with February offering some especially good film programs throughout the country. Notable among these include series at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis, and of course the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City.
At the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, audiences can catch a free screening every other Thursday as part of a series entitled "Voices from the Margins: Contemporary Chinese Documentary Film," which runs January 25 - April 5. Curated by Guo-Juin Hong, assistant professor in Duke's Asian & African Languages & Literature Department, February's offerings include Wu Wenguang's "At Home in the World" and Li Hong's "Out of Phoenix Bridge."
In "At Home in the World", accomplished documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang follows up his 1990 feature "Bumming in Beijing: The Last Dreamers" - which kicked off the series last Thursday - in which he chronicled the daily lives of five unemployed artists living in Beijing. Now, in the context of the Tiananmen Square tragedy that followed, he tracks down the artists who are currently scattered throughout Europe and the United States, confronting them with questions about their cultural identity. As an artist, what does it mean to abandon the country that abandoned you?
The series continues with the raw but poignant "Out of Phoenix Bridge," which provides a rare glimpse into the lives of four working women from the countryside who go to Beijing for employment as maids. Li Hong, China's first independent female documentarian, avoids narration and lets the women talk directly to the camera, discussing the struggle of being separated from their families, the urgency to get married, and the desire to be paid a decent wage. (Check out the Nasher Museum of Art's website for more information on the series.)
The Museum of Fine Arts offers some excellent film programs for Boston audiences, from international fare to American indies - not to mention hosting six annual film festivals, including the Boston Gay and Lesbian Film/Video Festival and the Boston Jewish Film Festival. February's screenings are typically eclectic, featuring documentaries such as Peter Miller's "Sacco and Vanzetti", about two Italian immigrant anarchists who were accused of a murder in 1920, Randy Olson's "Flock of Dodos", which explores the cultural battle of intelligent design versus evolution, and Doug Block's "51 Birch Street."
In "51 Birch Street", which had its world premiere at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, director Doug Block ("Home Page") examines his parents' 54-year marriage after the sudden death of his mother. Although it seemed normal on the surface, he uncovers troubling secrets that beg the question: How much do you really want to know about your parents? The extended run at the museum has given new life to the documentary, well beyond the festival circuit and theatrical release, allowing fresh audiences to see the film long after its initial debut.
"We've had an amazing run at the MFA," Block told indieWIRE. "We began at Thanksgiving and it's now been extended through mid-April. And that's largely due to the outreach work the MFA has done in partnership with the Boston Jewish Film Festival... [They] know their audiences really well, and they've done a great job getting the word out to them. A regular theater would never do that kind of work on behalf of a film. It's not like we haven't had other long runs - '51 Birch' was in NYC theaters for 13 weeks - but once we opened we had to do all the promotion ourselves, and we couldn't afford ads after five weeks, so we were totally dependent on word-of-mouth." (Visit the Museum of Fine Arts website for more information on the screenings.)
The Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis is also well-known for its extensive promotion of their excellent film programs. Among February's documentary offerings is Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno's "Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait". A remarkable hybrid of a sports doc and a high-tech art installation, the film follows the movements of international soccer superstar Zinedine Zidane in real time during a complete match between Real Madrid and Villareal - using 17 synchronized cameras. The museum is also screening a series of short documentaries entitled "New Orleans Revisited." (Visit the Walker Art Museum's website for detailed screening information.)
Perhaps the most wide-ranging doc series happening now is "Critics Choice: Great Documentaries" at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. For eight years running, the museum has presented the series, curated by members of the New York Film Critics Circle, which this year offers many notable documentaries - each introduced by the critic who chose the film. The series, which runs January 5 - February 25, screens up to five selections each weekend, giving the chance for doc fans to catch 13 important films in the month of February alone.
This coming weekend's selections run the gamut of hard-to-find music docs, kicking off with Bert Stern's "Jazz on a Summer's Day", which beautifully captures the1958 Newport Jazz Festival as we watch the likes of Louis Armstrong and Anita O'Day swing by the sea. The only way to top that is with Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz", which documents The Band's 1976 farewell concert at San Francisco's Winterland - and features Robbie Robertson, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Van Morrison.
Other screenings that weekend include W. T. Morgan's "X: The Unheard Music", which expertly chronicles the legendary band's varied influences and adventures, D A Pennebaker's "Original Cast Album-Company", a fly-on-the-wall look at Stephen Sondheim's extraordinary Broadway musical recording session, and Dana Ranga's "East Side Story", an illuminating look at movie musicals from Russia and other Eastern Bloc countries filmed during the Communist era. (For more information, visit the Museum of the Moving Image website.)
Whatever the topic or time period, museums can extend the reach of these documentaries to a much wider audience over months and sometimes years. "Because [the screenings] are spread out over a 6-month period," says Block, "each screening is far better attended, and '51 Birch Street' will have a much stronger awareness in not just Boston but the entire New England region... We've had plenty of screenings at art house theaters around the country, but they'll play just about any successful indie film. I'd like to think museums take artistic merit into account as well. And that's quite a compliment for any filmmaker."
[NOTE: Beginning later in the month, also in New York, the IFC Center kicks off the main spring season of its Thom Powers-hosted series "Stranger than Fiction", which screens a special documentary every Tuesday from February 20 - April 10. Check out the IFC Center website for more information as it becomes available.]