Thursday, April 10, 2014

Preview: Art of the Real Tests Boundaries of Documentary Filmmaking

Film Society of Lincoln Center's inaugural film series Art of the Real - a showcase for nonfiction films that pushes the farthest boundaries of documentary filmmaking, is for me, one of the most exciting film series I have a privilege to be part of, even in New York standards.

It's only been the last couple of years that I've been writing about film seriously, realizing that film medium can go much further than just mere entertainment and that freeing from the dominant narrative structure can be exhilarating.

What started out as a simple question that if there was an adequate name to describe the current crop of shape-shifting postmodern cinema pulled me into the very depth of the cinematic rabbit hole, left me exhausted and confused and exhilarated at the same time. As I was reminded watching Film Socialisme (Godard), Sans Soleil (Marker), Fontainhas Trilogy (Costa), Koker Trilogy (Kiarostami), Tren de Sombras (Guerrin), Tabu (Gomes), A Man Vanishes (Imamura), and Two Years at Sea (Rivers) that I am just scratching the surface of this great artistic medium. At the same time, I feel glad and relieved that there are so much more to explore.

It was Lucien Castraing-Taylor and Verena Paravel's Leviathan screening at New York Film Festival in 2012 where everything clicked for me. Watching the film and noticing French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux, whose visceral art films which happen to be some of my very favorite film watching experiences, in the audience. They turned out to be good friends. And the subsequent discussion I had with Castraing-Taylor and Paravel reaffirmed me that there could be much more to film as an art form than mere storytelling.

Curated by Denis Lim and Racheal Rakes, and presented in collaboration with the 2014 Whitney Biennial, along with the focus on the Sensory Ethnography Lab, I have no doubt Art of the Real's enthralling lineup would delight serious, adventurous film lovers senses and help expand their minds.

The series include last year's festival favorite Manakamana, works by renowned experimental filmmakers/documentarians - Thom Andersen, Harun Farocki, Robert Gardener, Alain Cavalier, Raymond Depardon, James Benning and more.

The series runs April 11 - 26. For tickets and more information, please visit Film Society of Lincoln Center website.

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A girl narrator, friend of a 13-year old Filipino boy named Lukas, whispers to him softly and gives a loose, elliptical narrative to the all together dreamlike, strange film. The narrator tells him that it's the beginning of the film and he doesn't know it yet, but he will fall in love with an actress later in the film. One night, Lukas is told that his father is tikbalang (half-man, half-horse). In turn, his father abandons his family and disappears across the river. There is a film crew in town, casting roles and everyone in town is in a buzz. So goes Lukas the Strange - part documentary, part narrative, part free-association visual essay, part...

Lukas thinks he inherited some super powers and needs to test his abilities. He can run fast, he can jump high. He is bullet proof and has scars to prove it. Meanwhile, his father has settled in neighboring town. He earned a scar when he crossed the river but left his memories behind. The river has magical powers like that. There are videotapes that the narrator girl collected from the river. It contains grainly black and white footage of the actress the narrator talked about in the beginning. Lukas watches and falls in love (at least he tries to masturbate to it).

Shot on 35mm in full frame format, the rural Philippines in rainy season has never been more beautiful. The faces of none actors with out of synch sound (or just made up sound to push along the narrative) gives the film its light, playful tone. Perhaps the dreamest, strangest film about boy entering manhood. Folklore, improvisation, formal rigor...this is good stuff, very much akin to Weerasethakul films.

ACTRESS - Robert Greene
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Brandy Burre was an actress who was in The Wire. She gave up acting to have a family, moved to Beacon, NY with her partner, Tim. They have two young children. They own two restaurants/bars. But now in her late 30s, she realizes that being a housewife/mom of two kids is not what she wanted. She wants to get back to the business. Director Robert Greene chronicles trials and tribulations of an actress as she struggles with her life. Brandy's story is nothing really special. A lot of people go through the same family vs career crises. She has an affair, Tim moves out, she looks for a job, battling ageism and stage fright. It couldn't be any more special than a Lifetime channel movie. But that's just it. Because she is a real person, not an actress, it is quite compelling.

There is a scene where Burre putting away toys in the 'toy room', labeling them carefully with label maker. She says, "This is how I express my creativity." Then she says it again, as if reciting a line from a script. It's meta-ness aside, Actress, thanks to Burre's brevity to reveal her life in such a frank way and Greene's intimate approach, is quite mesmerizing experience. I had to imdb Burre and she has one more film under her name after Wire. Good to know that she is working. Hopefully she will retain her freedom by making a living as actress again.

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An average German male who was born in the 70s, lives up to be 76 1/2 years. Philipp Hartmann started filming in 2010. He, then 38 1/4, was exactly at the half point of his life. Suffering from chronophobia - fear of passing of time, he made this movie, clocking at 76 minutes, one minute counting as one year of his life. At the half point of the movie, he hurriedly catches up to "now" in a very inventive fashion. This philosophical visual quandary isn't as dry as it sounds. It's warm, funny, and thought provoking.

The still photos of Hartmann's childhood in the beginning, all only half part exposed, are the compilation of the beginning of each film rolls, signifying the images just before his father captured that moment. He visits scientists at the site of atomic clock in Braunschweig. Apparently, because the earth is spinning slower at times, the clock needs to be adjusted a second every 18 months. The scientist futzes around with the switches and says, "Uh oh, I don't think it goes back..." Hartmann travels to the world's largest salt desert in Bolivia and contemplates the absence of time. He sets up situations with actors, narrating scenarios dealing with time. He asks one of his subjects/friends, who is a compulsive gambler about how he feels about ruining relations, his future. The friend replies that as the time passes faster, it hurts a little less. We watch Hartmann's shadow, sitting on a ski lift rolling over the green hills for the last 3-4 minutes of the movie. Contemplative and lyrical, Hartmann's inquiry is sincere and heartfelt rather than clever.

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Paris based visual artist Eric Baudlaire films modern day Lebanon in super 8 at the request of Masao Adachi, a former United Red Army (later Japanese Red Army) member and guerrilla filmmaker. The film juxtaposes the footage of Lebanon and Japan. It is narrated by Adachi and May Shigenobu, a daughter of JRA leader Fusako and a Palestinian guerrilla fighter. Both Adachi and May spent 27 years in hiding in Lebanon, then extradited to Japan in 2001. Their lives are filled with fascinating stories: Adachi, along with Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima, plays a pivotal role in Japanese New Wave. But politically more extreme and hands on, Adachi chose a path that led him to devote in Palestine's cause for statehood, lived with guerrilla fighters in Lebanon refuge camps. May, who was born in Lebanon, never had a national or cultural identity until she was a teen, narrates her fascinating story in uninflected English. Their shared stories glide over the city and nature landscapes, film clips and news reels, accompanying the narrative. It's an interesting experiment: borrowing images, not to explicitly match them with someone's memories but to help us to imagine their experience. It's fascinating trip.

The series also plays The Makes, Baudlaire's adaptation of Michelangelo Antonioni's notes on unmade films and The Ugly One, a sort of a sequel to Anabasis.

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Mati Diop, the alluring actress in Clare Denis's 35 rhums directs A Thousand Suns, a dreamy documentary fantasy that encompasses Senegal's past, present and perhaps future simultaneously. Taking cues from her famous Senegalese director uncle (Djibril Diop Mambéty)'s seminal African avant-garde film Touki Bouki, she incorporates the real actor Magaye Liang of that film, now an old man, still living in Dakar, herding cattles, into a fiction and vice versa. New and old collide and co-exist, as Liang watches Touki Bouki on the screen in an outdoor screening projected digitally. He says proudly that the dashing young man on the screen is indeed him. The street kids laugh at him. In that seminal film, Mory (Magaye Liang) stays behind while her lover Anta (Mareme Niang) sails to France. It reflects what happened in real life some 40 years ago, sort of. Magaye tracks down Anta, now supposedly living in America. It turns out she lives in Alaska and works as a security guard on an oil rig or she tells him. The following snowy scene is jaw-droppingly sensual. The film is filled with colors, layers upon layers of hidden stories and rapturous images. I can't wait to see Diop's other work.

The series also plays Diop's Atlantiques which tells the story of a young boy’s tragic migratory voyage over the Moroccan border.

SWEETGRASS - no director credited *Part of Focus on The Sensory Ethnography Lab
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My full review here.

FOREIGN PARTS - Verena Paravel, JP Sniadecki *Part of Focus on The Sensory Ethnography Lab
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Shot in 2008-2009 in industrial neighborhood of Willets Point, Queens by Verena Paravel (Leviathan) and JP Sniadecki (People's Park) of the Havard's Sensory Ethnography Lab, Foreign Parts presents a rare glimpse into the lives of its inhabitants. Willets Point, in the shadows of 7 Train Line, Citi Field (Mets Baseball Stadium) and the constant planes flying overhead (La Guadia Airport only a stone's throw away) is where cars go die and being gutted and mutilated for their parts to various auto related shops. Without sewage system and sidewalks and most of work force being immigrant workers, you'd think you are in Mexico or some other less developed countries. Paravel and Sniadecki just follow them around as they go about their daily business. There is Joe Ardizzone, a white haired, vocal resident who's been fighting for the city's redevelopment plan, there is Julia, a sweet natured, tiny old lady, and there are Luis and Sara, a couple who live in an abandoned car. They all talk candidly about their lives. The combination of these people's lives and their otherworldly surroundings - mountains of auto parts, unpaved dirt roads, gigantic water puddles, roaming wild feral animals, sonic plane engine and car noise, make Foreign Parts a fascinating concoction.

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