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Reality Checks: Here Are the Most Exciting Documentaries of the Year So Far

Reality Checks: Here Are the Most Exciting Documentaries of the Year So Far

Once the dust settles on the Sundance Film Festival, the filmmaking community can begin to look elsewhere to take the pulse of the craft. For documentaries, especially, these late winter months are rife with opportunities to see an expanding definition of what nonfiction can be.

The True/False Film Festival — which just announced its lineup — launches in early March, and this week in New York, the 14th annual Documentary Fortnight program kicks off at the Museum of Modern Art. Unlike larger festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, AFI Docs or Full Frame, True/False and Documentary Fortnight put a greater emphasis on documentary “cinema” — that is, documentaries as an auteur-driven art form that exist on a spectrum together, and not exclusively apart from, narrative or experimental film. The hybridity on display can be utterly exciting or frustrating, depending on your taste.

True/False will play host to a handful of Sundance’s more conventional highlights (“Going Clear,” “What Happened, Miss Simone?” “Best of Enemies,” “Finders Keepers,” “Cartel Land”) as well as some of its bolder works (“The Visit,” “Western,” “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”), but it’s also showcasing radical Polish nonfiction from the 1970s and ‘80s, a tribute to iconoclastic British montagist Adam Curtis, and such avant-garde and poetic works as Khalik Allah’s Harlem-set “Field Niggas,” Tonje Hessen Schei’s “Drone,” and the Brazilian docu-fiction sci-fi hybrid “White Out, Black In.”
Many of these documentaries will never see the light of a PBS, HBO or Netflix broadcast, nor will they likely play at an art-house near you. But they stand as testaments to the exciting ways in which contemporary filmmakers from around the world are using real life and real people to tell their stories. These events seem to be able to get away with programming a lot of stuff that other festivals can’t. It’s art, dammit  — deal with it!

If that sounds too high-brow, think again: When was the last time you saw flesh-eating zombies pop up in a Sundance documentary?

Two of Documentary Fortnight’s weirder and wonderful films come from acclaimed media artists Cao Fei and Phil Collins.

Chinese Undead and Musical Invention

Cao’s “Haze and Fog” takes place in a multi-building Chinese apartment complex, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. In its square rooms, receding foyers, and rectilinear architectural spaces, an array of middle-class people go about their daily routines — a man in a walker struggles to get about; a sex worker acts out S&M fantasies for her clients; a real estate agent tries to sell apartments with the help of a team of assistants dancing to “Gangnam Style.” And then the zombies show up, slowly trudging through these perfectly composed landscapes, frightening off prospective buyers, and then settling into their new urban environment like the deadened souls of their fellow disaffected Chinese citizens.

In “Tomorrow Is Always Too Long,” Turner-prize-winning video artist Phil Collins mixes musical sequences, staged cable access TV call-in shows, and animated chapter breaks to create an evocative tapestry of middle-class folks living in an ultra-mediated universe. Most notable are the musical numbers. In one sequence, we see a couple in a birthing class, but then Collins transforms this seminal experience into a time-jumping music video, in which we see the parents having the baby and then playing with it some months later, all the while lip-synching to a song by Welsh pop star Cate Le Bon, accompanied by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. It’s surprisingly stirring stuff.

Then, about midway through the film, the fantastic actress Kate Dickie (the Sundance hit “The Witch”) shows up as a call-in fortune teller, launching a bile-spewing media critique directly at the audience. Like Cao Fei’s work, Collins playfully traffics in pop-culture memes to portray how a community is living in the now.

Actors and Endurance Tests

Another curious Documentary Fornight highlight, Dutch artists/filmmakers Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan’s “Episode of the Sea” similarly employs ordinary folks as actors in their own documentary. This portrait of the residents of Urk, a remote fishing village, resembles, at points, Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s “Leviathan,” in its patient observations of those toiling upon a fishing vessel. But it also employs artfully staged sequences in which the Urkers speak written dialogue about their experiences. The juxtaposition of real footage with theatrical monologues and conversations offers unexpectedly touching and revealing results.

Documentary Fortnight has also boldly programmed examples of what it’s calling “durational cinema,” long-take observational works that become meditative as much as cinematic experiences: Wang Bing’s latest “Father and Sons,” which observes the minimal interactions between a father, his two sons, and the kids’ media devices; Lav Diaz’s “Storm Children Book One,” a stunningly photographed black-and-white portrait of children looking for resources among the waterlogged debris of a flooding disaster; and Kevin Jerome Everson’s “Park Lanes,” an eight-hour document of workers in a Virginia factory over the course of an entire day, from clock-in to clock-out.

If the films may feel slow at times, Documentary Fortnight co-founder and programmer Sally Berger argues, “Art that challenges can be perceived as boring—but the act of being bored can help clear the palate for new understanding.”

Berger, who comes from a background in video art and documentary, sees the Documentary Fortnight program as a trailblazer in examining the cross-fertilization of art and documentary. Since its founding, many other institutions and festivals have followed suit, acknowledging, as Berger says, “documentaries can be as complex narratively as fiction films.”

Teens Speak Up

Indeed, one of the best docs in MoMA’s Fortnight program, which premiered nearly a year ago at the 2014 Berlin Forum, and would feel likewise right at home at True/False, is Quebec filmmaker Jean-François Caissy’s masterful “La Marche à suivre” (“Guidelines”). Following a year in a Québec high school, the film avoids all the clichés of the kid-centered goal-focused documentary, and instead is organized more uniquely by its series of fixed-shot, intimate interviews with distraught or troubled teens, as they discuss their misbehavior or victimization with off-screen school counselors.

Empathic and clinical at the same time, Caissy intersperses these candid slices-of-adolescent angst with beautifully composed images of the students at play, sometimes dangerously so, and defying the rigid structures (both architectural and regulatory) that attempt to constrain them. Documentary filmmakers could take a cue from these reckless kids, and the nonfiction work on display at MoMA: Sometimes, it’s okay to break the rules.

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