Last August, three of the most impressive, innovative documentaries of the year, Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge, Nele Wohlatz’ El Futuro Perfecto and Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival. With an even greater focus on nonfiction film for this year’s 70th edition, it’s perhaps worthwhile to look back on the festival through these offerings alone. Though this year’s documentaries may not have offered the same sense of excitement as with previous years, new films from familiar nonfiction filmmakers delivered on expectations, whilst a few new names provided some sincere surprises.
An impressive early offering came from Denis Côté, a filmmaker who alternates between fiction and documentary features, often hybridising both approaches. Having interrogated the workplace with Joy of Man’s Desiring, and the zoo in Bestiaire, for the new film, A Skin So Soft, his eye is fixed firmly on the gym, rigidly observing (and organizing) the processes and practices behind bodybuilding. Focusing particularly on the form of his subjects’ musculature and the textures of their flesh, Côté builds a vivid, wryly amusing, and increasingly peculiar portrait of this dedicated act of self-sculpture. His aesthetic approach intensifies the quotidian scenarios being observed, unsettling the ordinary through precise, rigorous cinematography and heightened sound design.
At the start of Panoptic, Rana Eid states that when returning to Lebanon, she is inclined to “close [her] eyes and take refuge in the sound.” A sound designer turned documentarian, Eid constructs a dense, provocative picture of her country by capturing various subterranean spaces that hold historical significance or have personal value. Creating atmospheric, abrasive music out of the city’s soundscapes, she collides cacophonic planes of audio with abstract and creatively composed architectural imagery. Meanwhile, Eid’s overlain narration forms a personal, conflicted essay that interweaves musings on her city, her father, and the fractured histories of the places she tunnels into.
Another multilayered essay, Travis Wilkerson’s Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? is abrasive and confrontational, the director playing the hard boiled narrator-detective with particular effectiveness. “This isn’t a white saviour story, this is a white nightmare story” opens Wilkinson, taking his great grandfather’s mid-century murder of an Alabaman black man as a point of enquiry from which to probe into the buried consequences of that act, and the director’s own complicity (and equally that of his audience) in the ongoing legacy of anti-black violence in America and beyond.
Two films begin with reality before collapsing it. Blake Williams’s 3D Prototype starts in September 1900, depicting—through a slideshow series of sepia-toned historical images converted onto a three dimensional plane—the devastating storm that struck Galveston, Texas. Across 63 sensorial and often inscrutable minutes, an array of found and created sources are stretched, suspended, reinterpreted and remade anew, starting with reality and diverting ever further into abstraction.
Similarly, Gürcan Keltek’s Meteorlar uses a variety of aesthetic techniques to visualise a situation, with similarly arresting and oblique results. Keltik manipulates and blends both captured and crowd-sourced footage of the ongoing Kurdish-Turkish conflict with original recordings of surrounding natural environments, creating a barrage of distinctive abstract monochromatic images that contrast and converge. Rather than attempting direct representation of something so complex and transitional, Keltek effectively uses collage to convey a mood.
Also mood driven, Ben Russell’s miner portrait Good Luck contained the festival’s best opening sequence. The landscape, a trembling tree-line that dissolves into a great mountain expanse, appears static whilst a trumpet fanfare plays, before the camera pans back to reveal this soundtrack is diegetic, as Russell tracks a troupe of musicians as they march in long take through an ancient ruin. The subsequent film is similarly inventive, two and a half hours of bracing, visceral participatory ethnography filmed across Serbia and Suriname on colorful Super 16mm. Russell’s subjects instruct and opine to camera throughout, as well as appearing solo in interspersed camera tests, self-taped on scratchy, evocative black and white stock. These beautiful micro-portraits divide the lengthy landscape segments, as people and place, character and creator all become intermingled and inseparable.
The above films all disrupt form or challenge convention, but, as Wang Bing displays with Mrs. Fang, sometimes the most radical act is just to pick up a camera and film. Having stripped back his approach for recent features, operating the single camera himself, Wang here directs attention towards an elderly Alzheimer patient’s final days, empathetically and attentively recording the family’s final measures. The most affecting scenes are those when he hones in on Mrs Fang herself, who, despite only having the remaining strength to lie mute, her mouth agape and expression strained, manages to express a lifetime in the flicker left in her eyes. One particularly wrenching moment arrives almost accidentally, Fang reaching out an arm to her daughter at the exact moment that a sentimental soap opera theme rings out from the bedroom’s always-on TV set. Real life can be written, or it can be recorded.