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Is the Definition of ‘Documentary’ Too Narrow? This New Series Has the Answer

Is the Definition of 'Documentary' Too Narrow? This New Series Has the Answer

Writing in Artforum in 2009 about what he called “the New Real-ness” of digital cinema, critic J. Hoberman identified two basic tendencies present at cinema’s inception, contrasting the “undirected” actualities of the Lumiere brothers with the trick films of Georges Melies. In the former, the camera primarily captures recognizable images of the real world. In the latter, camera and editing conspire to produce filmic effects, and to create a reality that we can only experience through film. A trip to the moon, for example.

Digital cinema, the argument goes, erased the relationship between the camera and reality inherent in the photographic image. The picture made of pixels is infinitely malleable, and reality can be built from the ground up. But how reliable was the photographic image? Matthew Brady, chronicler of the American Civil War and one of the world’s first photojournalists, famously altered elements in the compositions of his photographs, rearranging debris on a battlefield or adding a person to a group portrait. Despite these “untruths,” the cumulative effect of the images on our understanding of that war’s reality remains unquestionable.

And the same is true for the moving image works we call documentaries, a hybrid species that has always drawn its power from the tension between actuality and artifice, between the camera’s observation and participation.

Art of the Real,” the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s new annual documentary showcase of new and old work opening Friday, is as much a celebration of cinematic invention as it is a thorough acknowledgment of the medium’s longstanding influence on how we view our world. Curated by FSLC’s director of programming Dennis Lim and independent curator Rachael Rakes, this expansive 16-day festival includes six North American premieres, world premieres of three new short works by James Benning, and screenings of seminal works of non-fiction by masters such as Paulo Rocha and Raymond Depardon.

Organized around the arguably nebulous category of “documentary art,” the showcase offers a provocative and dizzying array of practices and aesthetic attitudes. “Art of the Real” proposes that documentary has always been a place of innovation, and it situates recent tendencies, such as the “hybrid doc,” within a larger historical framework. “The idea of dealing with the real has preoccupied filmmakers since the invention of the medium,” Lim said.  “It’s not as if people have just decided now that you can be experimental within the form. The conversation is a bit behind here.”

If there’s a common denominator among the new films, it’s that they’re produced outside the traditional film industry by filmmakers working on their own terms.You won’t find Sundance-ready selections here. Among the films receiving premiers are debut features by young Brazilian filmmaker Davi Pretto, whose “Castanha” offers a partially fictionalized portrait of an aging drag performer, and French Algerian director Narimane Mari’s award-winning post-colonial fable “Bloody Beans.” Other titles include “The Ugly One,” by prolific artist Eric Baudelaire, “Lukas the Strange” by Filipino director John Torre, and “Time Goes by Like a Roaring Lion” by German filmmaker Philipp Hartmann.

A theme running throughout “Art of the Real” is cultural cross-pollination, and the unexpected ways art from radically different formal and conceptual standpoints resonate next to one another. Writer Rachel Kushner, who’s acclaimed novel “The Flamethrowers” references the recently rediscovered Italian masterpiece “Anna,” will be on hand to introduce a screening of the controversial four-hour portrait of the titular 16-year old. It’s safe to say that this is probably the only documentary festival to feature a screening of Derek Jarman’s 1993 final feature, 1993’s “Blue,” the ultimate meditation on bodily absence, introduced by pioneering performance artist and filmmaker Carolee Schneemann, whose work literally addressed the body politic.

Speaking of resonant pairs, the festival’s two opening night films couldn’t be farther apart on the aesthetic spectrum. Yet together, Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s anxious fever dream “La ultima pelicula,” and Romanian auteur Corneliu Porumboiu’s “The Second Game” provide a lesson in pushing cinematic form to its limits. “La ultima pelicula,” a tribute to Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie,” is a journey into the cinematic heart of darkness with Alex Ross Perry as the guide. He plays an American director in Mexico making a movie using the world’s last celluloid on the eve of the Mayan Apocalypse. Shot on multiple formats and screening on 35mm, Martin and Peranson’s film is as stylistically excessive and expressionistic as Porumboiu’s is deadpan and single-minded.

“La ultima pelicula” constantly refers to its own making, which presumably constitutes its documentary aspect. “The Second Game” is equally self-reflexive. It could be accused of taking the Romanian New Wave’s dedication to duration to its logical conclusion. The film is essentially one 90-minute shot — except that the “shot” consists of a grainy VHS tape of a soccer game from 1988 played out in real time as Porumboiu and his father, the game’s actual referee, comment off-screen.

Of course, it’s not just any game: it’s a face-off between the state police and the army that occurred one year before the collapse of Ceausescu’s regime. Father and son discuss politics and answer cell phones. At one point, Porumboiu remarks that the game “is almost like a film.” The father replies skeptically. “But you couldn’t make a film of this.” The director retort: “Let’s see.” Whether what we’re watching is a film or something else entirely is a question worth asking.

The festival’s interest in making connections across the arts extends across Central Park. In collaboration with the 2014 Whitney Bienniel, “Art of the Real” is presenting a section devoted to the work produced at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. The program includes screenings of the features “Foreign Parts” (2010), “Sweetgrass” (2009), and “Manakamana” (2013), as well as shorter works by Stephanie Spray and Ernst Karel. SEL’s director Lucien Castaing-Taylor and others selected films that they teach in their courses, such as Jean Rouch’s “Jaguar” and Robert Gardener’s “Forest of Bliss” to play along side their own.

The spiritual center of “Art of the Real,” however, may be found in a program that arrives halfway through the festival, with a trio of formally daring films that defy classification. Largely or entirely dialogue-free and devoted primarily to the close observation of gesture, Ben Rivers’ “Ah! Liberty” (2008), Lisandro Alonso’s “La Libertad” (2001), and Alain Chavalier’s Bressonian “Libera Me” (1993) are all intensely observational and highly constructed works of cinema. Their political titles could also be instructions to the viewer to leave behind their expectations of what the medium can say.

Rivers’ award winning experimental short, shot on black and white 16mm, observes a clan living on the economic margins in the English hinterlands that subtly plays with the tropes of the ethnographic portrait. Deftly skirting both sentiment and exploitation, he manages to evoke a spiritual place somewhere between anarchy and utopia.

Its theme of rural isolation is taken to the extreme in Alonso’s debut feature, a radical minimalist study of a solitary woodcutter in the Argentine pampas. During a master class at last year’s CPH:DOX, Alonso remarked that “film is a powerful excuse to be curious about other people and about human behavior.”  The filmmaker, in fact, spent months alone with his subject in the wilderness before turning on the camera. At once deeply engaged with the real (the film is essentially a catalogue of one man’s daily actions) and also a meticulously crafted film object, “La Libertad” stakes out a place between fiction and ethnography — and could serve as a primary text for “Art of the Real.”

For tickets and more information about “Art of the Real,” go here.

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