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Film Docs In Sight

Go Underground for the Good Stuff

Film still of Concrete Revolution by Xiaolu Gou.

Why would The New York Times Magazine recently bother to run a feature article about the muddled issues in documentary using the film Assisted Living as the example? No doubt the makers of that film, a tepid example of anything documentary, were happy. Or at least they had a well-connected publicist who was ecstatic. The film is shot in a real assisted-living facility with some “real” elderly in some scenes, but it’s so unconcerned with documentary that it would be like publicizing Tomb Raider as a doc because parts of it were shot in Africa using a real tribe as a backdrop. For real challenges regarding the complex and always energized issues in fiction versus nonfiction films (a tangled web indeed), you would have been more rewarded visiting this year’s New York Underground Film Festival. The filmmakers there shed made-for-TV narrative concerns and delved into realms that illuminate the filmmaking process, make fun of it, or use mixtures of techniques to comment (sometimes quite obtusely) on class, race, history, and all that good stuff.

Kevin Jerome Everson’s Spicebush, for example, uses found footage, “archival” footage he shot himself, documentary vérité, and staged quasi-vérité to weave a subtle narrative that comments on the banality of work, the selectivity of history, and the “truth” that much of what we watch and know is staged. Spicebush is not a formal, realistic documentary, but it provides the viewer with a new and poetic understanding of working-class black Americans through the history of desegregation and neo-segregation. While I’ve earlier criticized the idea of using real archival footage for other purposes in fiction films, I was stuck by the idea that Everson could make his own archival footage of African American experiences that were not covered in the same ways that white experiences were. Part of documentary is about producing an opinionated translation of historical experience, and if archival footage was never shot because the establishment was not interested, then filmmakers must do what they have to do. In contrast, shooting something in a real location and using some actual people in a film simply doesn’t cut it as representing an important issue. If the Times even went to the NYUFF they might, just might, know better.

Film still of Mardi Gras: Made in China by David Redmon.
New York Underground Film Festival

Yes, I know it’s over, but here’s a couple of things you missed that you might be able to find again (yeah, right!). As usual, the festival is fine and gritty at the same time, extracting seriously bizarre and highly original shorts from hard drives around the world. One that stood out for me was Living a Beautiful Life by Corinna Schnitt, in which a handsome couple in a nice L.A. house take turns talking to the camera about how happy they are. The dialogue is based on the answers kids from different schools gave when asked to imagine a beautiful life, and the result is chilling in its clichéd recitation of platitudes found in American advertisements and politicians’ speeches. Some of the video noise/distortion pieces were killing me, although I learned to have a sort of affection for them at the end.

Brooklyn Underground Film Festival
April 20–24

Think the LES has had its day? You’re right on most counts. Since you missed the NYUFF, check out the BUFF, in its third year and growing. Some of last year’s festival fare still sticks with me—a good sign indeed. This year’s BUFF takes place at the Brooklyn Lyceum and showcases docs like The Concrete Revolution, a film about the transformation of Beijing, and Mardi Gras: Made in China, both of which promise to shed light on a country that is currently floating the U.S. economy. There’s also a doc titled Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat, which will surely cause some uncomfortable stirrings.

Havana Film Festival in New York
April 15–21

In its sixth year, the HFFNY presents some of the best features and docs from Latin America, most with a sociopolitical edge. This year the docs program includes Nietos, Identidad y Memoria, about children separated from their parents during the Argentine dictatorship and now located elsewhere under a new identity. Digna Hasta el Ultimo Aliento tells the story of Digna Ochoa, a lawyer fighting against human rights violations in Mexico. And there are also a number of trenchant films by Estela Bravo, the Brooklyn College-educated, Cuban-based filmmaker who has been illuminating the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba for decades.


Williams Cole


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2005

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