It’s at once a truism and a kind of paradox that documentary is, or can be, a storytelling medium. One doesn’t have to cast back as far as a certain specious Inuit hunter-fisherman to find documentaries that resemble fictional narratives in both their formal structure and their focus on character motivations and actions. Despite the rise of “creative nonfiction” across documentary production and exhibition over the last decade—at a glance, the “sensory turn” associated with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, the recent vogue for hybrid films, growing interest in (largely non-narrative) VR docs, the proliferation of documentary forms in the gallery, and the prominence of a number of adventuresome film festivals such as FIDMarseille, Cinéma du Réel, Doclisboa, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real—the narrative, character-driven documentary remains the most salable, at least in the North American market.
So much so, in fact, that in a recent “online, community-based manifesto” for UnionDocs’s online journal World Records, documentary scholars Alexandra Juhasz and Alisa Lebow issued a challenge to the ethos that positions narrative as documentary’s dominant mode: “Not everything should be molded into a story, not everyone fits its constricting contours nor finds their most meaningful incantation in its familiar folds.” And this apparent dominance is surely attributable to the dictates of the market: “When did story become king? At the very moment when there were profits to maximize.” Instead—or rather, in addition—Juhasz and Lebow “urge filmmakers, funders, programmers, viewers, and scholars to look beyond story and to other forms of documentary,” and call for a documentary culture that looks beyond the story/character structure to forms that are “disruptive, dialogic, non-linear, creative.”
The International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) might seem an unlikely place to seek out such forms. Screening close to 300 works (short, medium, and feature-length, as well as interactive pieces), IDFA is both the largest documentary film festival in Europe and an important marketplace for nonfiction works heading to cinemas, television sets, online platforms, and VR headsets. And while there were, of course, plenty of examples of commercially oriented or activist documentary that fit this mold, it was striking to note the festival’s inclusion of more divergent forms.
This may be thanks, in some measure, to Orwa Nyrabia, the festival’s brand-new artistic director, whose first edition was marked by a significant step forward in terms of representation of non-European films. But nevertheless, even amid a decidedly market-oriented festival with parallel events sponsored by national and transnational broadcast corporations and major NGOs like Oxfam, and panels with titles such as “Towards an Ethical Way of Co-Producing” and “VR for Social Impact,” there was ample room for the dialogic, non-linear, and creative—and maybe even the disruptive. If anything, IDFA’s offerings suggested a more ambiguous relationship between formal experimentalism and the apparent dictates of the international documentary market.
Nowhere was this ambiguity more apparent than in the festival’s top prize-winner, Reason, by the great Indian documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. By any measure, the selection of this film for the festival’s main international competition was a daring one. Across eight chapters and four hours, Patwardhan’s film takes on the issue of far-right Hindu supremacy in contemporary India by documenting a widespread culture of violence against secular rationalists, anti-caste activists, and journalists. The film’s breathless array of audiovisual materials, styles, and modes of address—talking-head interviews, observational cinematography, essayistic voiceover, found and archival footage, animation, internet ephemera—occasionally seem hastily thrown together, but Patwardhan is nevertheless absolutely clear and in command of his intentions and aims, concisely outlining decades of Indian religious and colonial history, and rigorously laying bare the political, social, and religious hierarchies that sustain violence and oppression in contemporary India. Of a piece with Patwardhan’s prior work, Reason represents a curious mix of traditional activist documentary polemics and a bricoleur’s flair for assembling patterns from a culture’s vast production. Dialogic and non-linear, to be sure, but never less than precise and direct.
Few figures loom as large in contemporary European documentary as the Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter. His most prominent works, including Our Daily Bread (2005), Abendland (2011), and Homo Sapiens (2016), are minimalist portraits of landscapes and unpeopled indices of humanity’s presence in the world, and, sight unseen, I was anticipating that his latest, The Border Fence, would be much the same—say, a moody feature-length montage of atmospheric shots of the titular fence, a project floated to stem migration from Southern Europe via Tyrol’s Brenner Pass. In fact, the film could hardly be more different. Working with a sense of urgency appropriate to questions of immigration in Europe, Geyrhalter largely suspends his highly formalist approach of rigid symmetrical compositions and wordless montage in favor of a loose, low-key interview-driven film. One might almost call this approach “conventional,” but Geyrhalter’s lightness of touch works well here, giving his subjects—locals with deep roots in the region, workers with more temporary status, police, and government officials—ample space to voice and work through their thoughts on the immigration, while Geyrhalter casually lobs questions from off-camera. What results is an engaging and strikingly warm look at a tiny corner of Europe’s (and the world’s) refugee pseudo-crisis and the ideologies that continue to manufacture and exploit it for political point-scoring and short-sighted infrastructural budgeting. Geyrhalter’s droll ending makes the contradictions and absurdities of this situation very clear: after years of hand-wringing and public pronouncements from bureaucrats, the fence was never constructed.
Over in IDFA’s Paradocs section—the festival’s sidebar for experimental and artword-adjacent work for more than a decade—a variety of shorts and mid- and feature-length works took up radical approaches to form that played with the borders of narrative storytelling. As in some of her other short films, belit sağ’s cut-out makes innovative use of the frame, mirroring the dimensionless space of the desktop with its analytical approach to a composite of images. The short brings together the passport photographs of the ten victims of the National Socialist Underground, a German neo-Nazi terrorist group that targeted men with migrant backgrounds between 2000 and 2006. Each image is closely considered in sağ’s voiceover, which speculatively narrativizes the backgrounds of each photograph and the lives which they metonymically suggest. In a mere three minutes, the video is able to gesture to a much wider set of concerns, including the unacknowledged re-emergence of far-right, white-supremacist violence in Europe, and the ways in which catastrophe seems to demand and generate its own narrative coherences.
Basir Mahmood’s All Voices Are Mine takes an almost inverse approach: constructing small pieces of narrative content and atomizing them into discrete but suggestive story-shards, resembling fragments of forgotten films. The brief sequences were all shot on the old lots of the Lahore film industry—Lollywood, colloquially—staging with a professional crew and extras. A man falls off a horse and lies on the ground, apparently dead. A Pakistani soldier stands watch, walks off-screen, and returns in the uniform of the Indian army. A woman and child sit in a moonlit window. Mahmood’s scenarios are simple but resonant as staged gestures that subtly yield tiny surprises and spontaneities. For example, the shot holds on the fallen rider as his white stallion mills around, awkwardly (and literally) chomping at its bit, and even looking back into the camera. With an almost Paradjanovian sense of the iconographic tableau, All Voices Are Mine enlists the artificiality and ritualism of film production to reveal tiny traces of the real underneath.
Somewhere in between the approaches of Mahmoods and sağ’s works, the Portuguese filmmaker Salomé Lamas’s new film Extinction also plays with distinctions between narrative and documentary modes, and between staged and observational sequences. The film traces a serpentine, snowy cross-border journey in and out of the former Soviet territory and now-unrecognized micro-state Transnistria, at the shoulder of Kolja—a young man whose allegiances, nationality, and personality the film keeps somewhat frustratingly opaque. Shot in a richly textured black-and-white, Extinction follows Kolja wandering through quasi-sci-fi landscapes and vast Brutalist monuments, occasionally engaging in circuitous dialogues and history lessons with mysterious figures who seem to wander in from a Beckett play. Somewhat undermining these gestures, however, Lamas also interjects fly-on-the-wall passages—some entirely imageless, several hinting at the challenges of the production itself. What remains is less coherent as history or insightful as political commentary, and more a vivid evocation of the affective spaces of post-Soviet statelessness and decay.
As if echoing Extinction across time, Dziga Vertov’s first feature-length documentary Anniversary of the Revolution (1918) was undoubtedly the most important discovery of the festival. Made at Lenin’s behest for the October Revolution’s first anniversary—some ten years before Man With a Movie Camera—Vertov’s film is a fascinating early attempt not only to lend coherence to the emergent Soviet aesthetic project, but also to find a form for a vast number of archival newsreels that captured images and events around the revolution, with historical gaps filled in by Vertov’s explicatory intertitles. Thus, we witness major figures like Comrade Lenin posing for the camera while engaged in an informal roadside chat and Trotsky overseeing a naval battle in a downright kinky all-leather outfit, but also electric sequences of crowds, troops, and communes operating in dizzying, entropic ballets that recall the utopian mass movements depicted in the director’s most famous film. Vertov’s undertaking was very likely the earliest of the great Soviet compilation films—the archival-historiographic style most directly associated with Esfir Shub, whose Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) was made nearly a decade later. A staple of the program of films Vertov would show on the “agit-trains” that toured the new nation in the late 1910s and early 1920s, the film later fell into obscurity and was believed lost until the recent discovery of sections of the film and the filmmaker’s own meticulous shot-list made this restoration possible. This wayward lineage—of Vertov’s ambitious attempt to lend narrative order to the chaos of archival moving images, and the corresponding gesture of piecing Vertov’s film back together—suggests a more complex role for narrative among documentary’s many strategies, one that mediates between a history threatened by loss and erasure, and a future that is collective, multiform, and in process.