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Do Europeans Make the Best Documentaries About the U.S.?

Do Europeans Make the Best Documentaries About the U.S.?

The article was produced as part of the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy. Learn more about this year’s class here.

The American Dream is a fascinating concept, so much embedded in the history of cinema that we shouldn’t wonder to encounter European filmmakers exploring the subject. Even so, at this 68th Locarno Film Festival it was an enjoyable surprise to see two European documentaries engaging with the theme once again. After the economic crisis, the values upon which the ideal was built have shown their fragilities. But if the quest for happiness may not be achievable through the ways envisioned decades ago, it still provides a fruitful framework for storytelling. “Above and Below” and “My Name is Gary” take part in such narrative and elaborate on the topic in a twofold way: on the one hand they provide a moment for “outcast voices” to share their stories, on the other hand they seem interested in exploring territories that provide an “environmental,” visual counterpart to the experience of marginalization.

The much-praised “Above and Below” premiered this year at Rotterdam and was presented in the Panorama Suisse section. Director Nicolas Steiner has a background in ethnology and one can really sense it. His study of five characters living around Las Vegas speak of a deep human engagement between director and subjects. There is April, a former soldier, who is now a researcher on the Mars Desert Station and investigates the soil of Utah’s desert as though she were in space. In another desert, the Mojave, we find Dave, a veteran who transformed a military bunker into a rather comfortable shelter run by solar power. In awe, we watch three homeless residents of Vegas’ flood tunnels. There, below the gambling capital, ex-convict Lalo and sweethearts Rick and Cindy have founded their temporary residence. They are all examples of the most compelling humanity (but ultimately, after accurate and humble understanding, who isn’t?). This patchwork of outcasts is held together by a thread Steiner declares since the very beginning of the doc: above and below common, regular lives, there are existences worth to know and appreciate. The title refers also to time’s coordinates, as the characters appear both longing for future changes and burdened by events happened in the past.

Despite the great (mutual) trust upon which the documentary is constructed, “Above and Below” doesn’t touch its viewership in profundity. The confidence assigned by the characters to Steiner is evident and effective, but often — too often — one has the impression they’re part of a performance. During the festival Chantal Akerman presented her last documentary and correctly argued that “there is no good documentary without a bit of fiction, and vice versa.” Yet in the case of “Above and Below” the aesthetic urgency overcomes the human and narrative one. A beautifully composed love scene between Dave and Cindy doesn’t appear like the product of a spontaneous collaboration, but rather of a well written sequence. Cindy’s childish wonder in front of a fiber optic lamp or Lalo’s philosophizing are impeccable cinematic moments but they seem too contrived to raise sincere empathy. By the time we see a wave of ping-pong balls magically spread along the flood tunnels, we have learned that Steiner is devoted to a mesmerizing cinematography. Anything is legitimate on film. And yet his framing doesn’t seem accustomed to filming the boundless American landscape, be it urban or natural, and the anthropological material appears overwhelmed by the force of aesthetics.

With no intention to undermine Steiner’s work — which is impressive, especially being a thesis film — it is perhaps worth to mention two recent documentaries equally obsessed with the American landscape. Oddly enough they were directed by two Belgian filmmakers: “Desert Haze” (2014) by Sofie Benoot and “Devil’s Rope” (2015) by Sophie Bruneau explore the American West with the same devoted perspective as Steiner’s. Still, their outcome is drier, more truthful to history and less indulging with beauty. A similar historical approach is adopted by “My Name Is Gary,” presented by Blandine Huk and Frédéric Cousseau during Locarno’s Critics Week. In this case Gary is not a person, but a city in Indiana, 25 miles distant from downtown Chicago. Founded in 1906, it may represent for the U.S. what Leeds is for Great Britain: the city of steel industry. (On the same topic, it is mandatory to watch last year’s “The Big Melt: How Steel Made Us Hard,” by Martin Wallace and Jarvis Cocker.) Gary is known also for being the hometown of the Jackson Five. Michael Jackson’s parents moved there in 1949 along with white flight: the doc listed 47 different ethnicities who migrated there, attracted by the economic growth. The labor force didn’t only come from Europe.

As the many voices of “My Name is Gary” recount, the black migration arrived from the south too, leaving behind the cotton fields and bringing along the tradition of blues music. The relocation of the “Mississippi vibes” imbued the growing city with energy and the liveliest nightlife: “You’d have the brothel next to the church,” as some older resident tells with nostalgic pride. But as the camera wanders around Broadway or lingers on the facade of gigantic buildings, there is no trace of past grandiosity. “Now it’s only alcohol, gas stations and churches,” laments a young mother. Gary had been a lucky place, blessed by a multiethnic working class and home to one of the first African-American mayors (Richard G. Hatcher, an important appearance in the documentary). “My Name Is Gary” is shot in a rather traditional style. Poverty, unemployment and criminality, which now dominate the city, are dramatized by simple editing: as we observe the empty city center, with its deserted roads and the shut-down shops, the voice-over remembers the cheerful queues for the “Sunday’s ice cream,” when Gary would attract crowds of people from the whole county. 

“My Name Is Gary” isn’t as visually daring as “Above and Below,” but it maintains the informative and narrative integrity we wished to see in Steiner’s debut film. One of the reasons behind that may be the type of engagement Cousseau and Huk sought from their informants. The two French directors clearly intended to produce a choral portrayal, and in this case the people we see are indeed informants, not traditional protagonists. In order to achieve a homogenous collage of voices, we don’t really get to know Gary’s inhabitants: we see their city, or what is left of it. But the combination of voiceover and “urban postcards” provides a very clever alternative to the much despised talking heads, and aids to manufacture a collective impression of the city.

“My Name Is Gary” and “Above and Below” prove that the American landscape still triggers the most diverse cinematic fantasies. Further, our ability to comprehend marginalized characters (or character that don’t belong to our world of reference) is strongly connected to the understanding we have of their background environment. In this sense, both documentaries do a great job in situating the “outcast” within landscapes of great cinematic quality. We grow close to Gary’s population and “Above and Below’s” crew and we must admit that the merit of such engagement lies also in the importance assigned to the environment. We are left wondering whether these places may receive better representation by those who don’t belong there, the European outsiders.

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