Monday, August 17, 2015

Documentary Taste Formations

dir. Sergei Loznitsa, 2014
Genre: experimental/observational
on home video from Cinema Guild, via VOD, and on Netflix (US)

I have been reflecting a lot of just what I am trying to do with documentary criticism, both in my research project and on this blog. I am not a documentary critic and am not trying to be one, strictly speaking. I write as a scholar, with a scholar's perspective. At the same time, film studies has reenergized by a dialogue with film criticism, and it's something I've been mulling over. And most of all, the documentaries themselves are driving my interest, and I want to grapple seriously with what they do, and that's a process that's not too different than film criticism.

I still don't have a full answer, but I think one difference is that I have a different relationship to the evaluative than film critics do. I have judgments and they inform what I do, but I am trying not to be invested in what I see as sometimes narrow polemics of what documentary should do. As I wrote in an earlier post, I seek to walk the line between omnivorism (loving all documentaries for the sake of their nonfiction-ness) and discernment (loving only a narrow and particular kind of nonfiction practice). To be honest, I see this as not too different than some of the discussions that goes on in TV studies, between those invested in a historically far-reaching TV canon and those champion contemporary long-form prestige TV.

I had this in mind watching Maidan, the poetic-observational portrait of the Euromaidan, a series of protests and police action in Independence Square, Kiev. Loznitsa works in a range of styles but the hallmark perhaps has been the importation of certain experimental techniques (for instance structural filmmaking) into documentary. Maidan works in this structural vein, featuring a series of long-takes that have the immediacy of capturing the protests but are clinically detached from them.

The film was a fairly big festival and critical hit, so at first glance it doesn't need any defenders. But it is a difficult film, in large part because of the gap between the current events hook (Maidan gives a close-up look missed by many journalists) and the minimal, even evasive narration. The film consists mostly of static, (very) long takes. Beyond some basic intertitles, the film gives the spectator no indication of any particular political meaning of the shots.

Of course it's the minimalism that endears it to critics. After all, a less minimal approach can pose easy answers to to complex political problems. But it also poses problems. If there is an opportunity to illuminate the events of Euromaidan, not simply phenomenologically but politically, historically, and analytically, Maidan's structural approach does not allow it. The disadvantage of poetic and experimental documentary can be its refusal to analyze.

So I can imagine two sides of a polemical debate, or really two documentary taste formations. My impulse is to value both formations without taking sides. Though to do so without losing the sense of critical perspective on the film or on doc aesthetics.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Personal Documentary and the Collective Subject

Do I Sound Gay? 
dir. David Thorpe, 2015, US
Genre: Personal, issue documentary
currently in theaters in the US; available cable on-demand (US)

After watching Do I Sound Gay? I wondered if I saw the same film that Clayton Dillard did for his Slant Magazine review. On a literal level, yes, but I had a very different take than this impression:
Do I Sound Gay? is another link in an increasingly tiresome chain of navel-gazing think pieces posing as personal documentary.... Thorpe's approach is less historical or experimental than staid and solipsistic, as his own biography, which includes growing up in South Carolina and not acknowledging his own homosexuality until reaching college, is dutifully presented as a series of facts and tidbits which are meant to substantiate the film's interest in cultural norms regarding homosexual behavior and self-acceptance. 
Part of me understands where the review is coming from. I'm not always fond of personal documentaries and for instance dislike ones like My Architect where the more broadly interesting subject matter is deflected toward personal emotional therapy of the filmmaker. And like or dislike the genre, there's a real aesthetic dilemma in the choice to make the filmmaker a character: is the showmanship and box office hook of a personal story worth losing some of the objectivist dimensions (or just aesthetic evocativeness) that documentary can excel at?

But the other part of me has to ask: who are you calling solipsistic? The plural of anecdote is data, but Do I Sound Gay? has as a reasonable a claim as any personal or portrait documentary that its main subject represents something broader, much broader. The very point of the film is that the personal is political. Falling back on "critical, scholarly, or journalistic investigation" would be interesting (one can imagine any number of ways of making a documentary) but would not capture the subjective experience that gay men have of their voice. It's not an essential gay experience - not all gay men identify their voice as an issue -  but it's a common one. The experience, I would argue, and the film argues, is a collective one. 

To put my cards on the table, I too have had similar ambivalence about my own gay voice and mannerisms. So perhaps I'm the target demographic. And perhaps I prefer "communal confirmation over more rigorous, troubled grapplings." But I would argue it's bigger than me or Thorpe. With the gay marriage victory in the US legal system, gay rights has had a success that arguably gay liberation has not. It's a real crisis of sorts for the queer left, and it also poses an issue even for more assimilated gay culture. Are there still structures of oppression that (objectively) police gay people and (subjectively) act as self-oppression? These are not legal questions, and I think the documentary is timely to raise them.

Certainly, the documentary form is conventional and the narration cloying at times. But even here, voiceover narration serves the role of reminding the spectator of the sexuality of voice. It's not political modernism, yet there is some interesting work on the signifier going on. 

I do agree with Dillard that the conflict resolution is too tidy, or at least it feels like an imposition of the character-driven three-act structure on historical reality, which in fact offers no real resolution. Oe problem is that a film that does not adopt this narrative structure has a hard time for broad documentary distribution. But more charitably, I see the film in the tradition of feminist and gay liberation consciousness-raising, or a collective catharsis that's about connecting personal experience to social structures. Perhaps with that comes a desire for a progress narrative.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Conspiracy Documentary as Puzzle Films

The Forecaster
dir. Marcus Vetter, Karin Steinberger, 2014, Germany
Genre: Issue documentary
available German DVD ( and on VOD (for $50!)

I've been following the Greek crisis as it unfolds, and since the US news outlets have been frankly doing a miserable job at covering other than in the business press, this means a few overseas websites and lots of Twitter. One thing that is striking is how the situation seems to illustrate ideology in Mannheim's sense - a scattershot of versions of reality based in social situatedness. And, broadly speaking, there is the oddness of witnessing this from overseas. On one hand the crisis has brought out international alignment of right and left sentiment along the battle lines of austerity and anti-austerity. On the other hand 

I bring this up because I keep thinking back to the screening of the Forecaster that I attended at Transilvania Film Fest. The documentary is about financier Martin Armstrong, a fund manager who was convicted of running a Ponzi scheme in the 1990s. Armstrong in turn claims that it’s the financial system that is a Ponzi scheme and he is being persecuted for being a Cassandra and for his forecasting models. He presents the claim on the basis of both a “common sense” stance and a secret computer model based on cycles of the number Pi.

I am reminded of the Marxist economist Kondrateieff and his cycles (Amstrong seems influenced by him) but mostly, from my American vantage, this all seems like trumped up Ron Paul-ism, and in fact Paul has a new informercial peddling this very type of economic apocalypse. (I'm not the only one cynical about the film.) But the largely Romanian and presumably left-leaning audience I saw the film responded very well to its message. And I have to guess that it's inclusion in film festivals, including IDFA, speaks to the way its polemic speaks to the European left's suspicions about global capital and the US government. It's not that those suspicions are absent in the U.S. but they're tempered by the libertarian hard right's mobilization of anti-monestarism.

So, there is often a tendency for transnational ideological sympathy: those on the left in one country identify with depictions of political struggle in another. But sometimes, the nationally specific context changes this identification.

But I think there's something about the film itself and its documentary genre that's at play. Formally, The Forecaster is not a straightforward issue documentary and in fact would not be getting much play if it were. Rather something about the narration introduces both suspense and surprise. In their book on the puzzle film, Warren Buckland refer to “mind fuck” movies and Thomas Elsaesser refers to the genre as “mind game” movies. The analogy to the puzzle film is not perfect, but this film does rely on revelations of surprise information that is meant to retroactively provide the answer key for the enigmas of the film. 

By now we have witnessed a cycle of lefty conspiracy documentaries that have some variant on this technique. Art of the Steal comes to mind. I can see the appeal to filmmakers, since the genre provides an entertainment hook to otherwise dry material and a moral political clarity to what otherwise might be confusing or arcane economics. But the genre also imposes its own politics and own problems. I'm reminded of 1970s film theory's take on the matter - say, John Hill's reading of the conspiracy film. If anything, the conspiracy documentary is an even better example.

cited: John Hill (1997) ‘Finding a form: politics and aesthetics in Fatherland, Hidden Agenda and Riff-Raff‘ in George McKnight (ed), Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach 

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Touristic Gaze of Festival Documentary

The Domino Effect (Efekt Domina)
dir. Elwira Niewiera, Piotr Rosołowski, 2014, Germany/Poland 
Genre: Character-Driven

There are so many critiques that festival documentaries can and do face, and my impulse as a scholar is to take seriously these critiques but also think if there can be fresh ways to frame the aesthetic and political problems at stake. An overriding criticism of these documentaries is that they compromise their politics for a global (privileged) spectator, yet I think there is not a sufficient case to be made for the complexity of transnational spectatorship. I don't have a workable theory of this idea, but the answer may lie in the “touristic” shot common to documentaries.

The Domino Effect is a good example. It is a character-driven documentary about a mixed-nationality couple in the breakaway region of Abkhazia - not recognized as an independent country but not functionally integrated with Russia, either. The protagonists, Natasha and Rafael, feel the strain in their relationship as is unable to fit into Abkhazian society and is unwilling to give up his pro-bono efforts to build a national profile. 

The film opens with a series of shots of the beach and many of the former Black Sea resort architecture now in a state of decay. Although not typically pretty, the treatment of the imagery falls into what Alina Predescu discusses as the picturesque in documentary. These shots stand in for the otherness of place and spectator. Even if the viewer is Abkhazian, she understands a hypothetical gaze from outside, appraising the country for its beauty. 

These are all limiting things, which might be corroborated by the dripping condescension of HotDoc’s program blurb (though in fairness some of it is lifted from the promotional material):
In Abkhazia, an unrecognized “country” in Russia’s Caucasus, patriotism runs rather deep. In this Black Sea black comedy, its self-appointed sports minister must choose between his foreign wife and a bizarre tournament that will surely put them on the map.
And, yet, the touristic gaze is sometimes a useful hook for spectatorial engagement. The touristic shots figure the ideal spectator epistemology, since we are to balance socially objectifying knowledge (Abkhazia has insurmountable problems) and humanistic empathy (cross-cultural connection is a tough thing to maintain). And The Domino Effect does thematically present the shoreline as a space that is experiences with local in addition to touristic meaning. In fact, the Sea is one of the few resources Abkhazia has its disposal.

Establishing shots are frequently overdetermined in their meaning. But they are also part of a stable narrational disposition that can be a way of engage spectator’s attention without the traditional crutches of documentary features (expository voiceover, titles, talking head expertise). The recent festival documentaries make a strong turn toward art cinema style minimalism but the tradeoff is that they rely on underlying stable representational tropes to anchor the spectator's experience.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Documentary Personality vs. Biography

Stream of Love
dir. Ágnes Sós, 2013, Hungary
Genre: Character-Driven Observational
Not currently in distribution

There is something that strikes me as typical of Stream of Love – typical of a distinctly European approach to television documentary that’s pitched somewhere between observational and character-driven forms. From its editing to its composition and approach to transitions, it exemplifies the well-made doc in many ways. In my research, I’d like to tease out how I see these are ultimately different narrational approaches that happen to overlap in a continuum of popular practices in documentary today.

Setting aside the issues of categorization, though, I find Stream of Love instructive for what it says about documentary character. The documentary follows a number of Hungarian-speaking peasants living in Transylvania, Romania as they discuss romance and sexuality. Again, we have a film at partial battle with its (justifiably catchy) logline:
Love and desire fill the minds of villagers in a Hungarian speaking village in Transylvania, Romania, even in their old age. Time has stood still here, and although most of the village’s inhabitants are elderly, they are refreshingly young at heart. 
Feri, for example, is an incurable romantic. Way past his 80th year, he’s still making moves on the village’s 25 widows – although he claims that only two or three of them are really worth the effort. And the women speak plainly when sharing their most intimate thoughts and dreams to the camera. 
Stream of Love is funny, surprising and heartwarming, revealing how these tragicomic tales prove the ancient game of love and romance is still being played in this remote village, with its aura of bygone days.
There are elements of this, but two layers of pathos challenge the feel-good ethos. First, the characters are responding to the twin changes of feminism and the sexual revolution, which if not exactly fully foregrounded in village life nonetheless have raised the consciousness of women that patriarchal culture never maximized their sexual needs – and led the men to feel a sense of historical loss of traditional sexual norms. Second, the women in particular feel that just as they come into sexual consciousness, the opportunities for expressing it have been denied by their age.

So, like many documentaries, the characters come to stand in for something broader, more historical. And like character-driven docs, Stream of Love accomplishes this standing-in quality by treating character testimony as expository “expertise.”

Yet questions remain. What exactly is the social dynamic in the village? One of the men, Feri, says at the beginning that widows outnumber the widowers by a considerable number, which sets up an expectation that the documentary will be about the village’s dating culture (and maybe a metaphor for aging villages themselves). But any sense of this is oblique.

Ultimately, the film finds such dynamic, engaging characters (and gets them to open up about sexuality, which might not have been easy to do), but it offers little sense of biography. The viewer learns little of their lives other than their discussions of their romantic and sexual pasts (and present-day shots of their doing typically peasant work of farming and cooking). Of course a documentary cannot depict the entirety of a characters life and sometimes there are practical and ethical reasons of respect not to tell too much about a social actor. In any case “biography” in a film is a construct, the inclusion of non-instrumental details, along the lines that Barthes discusses as the Reality Effect in literature. But as a spectator, I can’t help but think there’s a symbiotic relationship between (expository) biography and (charismatic) personality. The character-driven funding infrastructure privileges personality as a selling point for a documentary, but biography is what allows the documentary and its thesis to breathe.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Non-Circuit Festival

This week I am attending the Transilvania International Film Festival in Cluj-Napoca, Romania. It's part of my goal to attend more film festivals - I'm a newcomer to festivals and festival studies - and the dates lined up for me for this one. Also, I have seen a couple of very strong Romanian documentaries and am curious how nonfiction might be in dialogue with recent Romanian New Wave  films.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me has been how local this festival feels. Unlike Sarajevo Film Festival, which is split between a local audience, regional industry participants, and members of the international film circuit, TIFF (not to be confused with Toronto, of course) draws an overwhelmingly Romanian audience. At some screenings, in fact, I have been the only non-Romanian in attendance. This is not to deny the national significance of the festival (it's the most important one for Romanian fiction film) and the international nature of European coproduction and distribution. And mostly it's a bilingual festival, in Romanian and English. But the overall feel is of an inward looking festival, trying to imagine a Romanian cinephile sense of self.

This placement has implications in the program. A lot of the program comprises "best of fests" samplings - this is true of many festivals, but with TIFF the proportion seems higher. For the documentary program, which I'm most interested in, there is not an overriding identity guiding the selection in the way I've seen other festivals have. On the other hand, TIFF does have a competition program and special focus series. These, to my surprise, are not regionally focused in Southeast Europe but rather along thematic and tonal lines. Whereas Sarajevo (to use my best point of comparison) privileged a synthesis of humanist art cinema and political filmmaking amenable to human rights discourse, TIFF at least this year gravitates to the épater-la-bourgeousie side of art cinema: dark subject matter, downbeat tone, and more violent narratives. I would love to know what drives this identity.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Radicality of the New Archival Doc

A German Youth (Une jeunessse allemande)
dir. Jean-Gabriel Périot, 2015, France/Switzerland/Germany
Genre: historical compilation film

There's been a lot of exploration lately within the historical documentary that has opened up the archival footage to function in different ways than a typical recollective documentary, which subsumes the meaning of the archival footage to a rigid historical idea. In one direction, documentaries have understood the document as an artifact to be highlighted and explored for its own meaning, its own historicity and texture - I'm thinking for instance of the home movies in Our Nixon. In the other direction, the found footage film has an influence on documentarians who want to presignify official history by treating archival footage differently, obliquely - Loznitsa's or Forgacs's work comes to mind.

But what if we push both directions simultaneously? A German Youth does just that and in the process raises the question of how we apprehend the archival without a clear hierarchy of information. Mind you, the film itself is not hard to follow in its general sense: it tracks the radical German youth movement from its beginnings to the formation of the Red Army Faction (the Baader-Meinhof group) and its terror campaign. In its account, it uses only archival footage with very minimal attribution (only a few of the students' films are introduced with a title).

But if the broad strokes are easy enough to follow (and it helps that I know a little about the RAF and have seen fiction and documentary films about them), the specifics are trickier. A German Youth strives for a seamless spectator experience - and the producer answers that the filmmakers considered attribution but deemed it too confusing for so many sources - but part of me wanted some disjunction to know when I was watching contemporary news accounts or student-made footage. In fact, these distinction are crucial for me to know fully what is going on. Similarly, major political and intellectual figures pass on screen, but not being German I could have used far more attribution of them. (Wait, was that Habermas?)

It's about my limitations as a viewer, of course, but also about the blurring of lines between primary and secondary text, to use historiographic terms. One of the most interesting contributions of A German Youth is its exploration of the youth/RAF filmmaking as a cultural practice that documented and commented on the historical moment. These are both documents of the time and documentaries-within-the-documentary.

I don't disagree with the producer in one sense, since I think it's a powerful documentary, but as a viewer I found the approach far more destabilizing than he acknowledged. Just a comparison to recent American doc, Let the Fires Burn - a film that on paper should be very similar yet is not - shows the distinctiveness of the approach.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Conferences Summer 2015 edition

Here is my current list of English-language conferences of interest to those in film studies (and some for TV and media studies). Upcoming conferences are listed in order by date or, for open calls, by abstract due date. Please let me know if I should add anything.  I will update this post throughout the summer.

Closed calls:
ICA - San Juan, Puerto Rico, May 21-25, 2014 [website ]
Console-ing Passions - Dublin, Ireland, June 18-20, 2015 [website]
The Annual Conference of the Film Studies Association of Canada - June 2-4, 2015 Theme: “Capital Ideas” [website]
Society for Cognitive Studies of the Moving Images (SCSMI) Jun 17-20, 2015, Birkbeck, University of London [website]
NECS - Łódź, Poland, June 18-20, 2015 Theme: "Archives of/for the Future" [website]
Screen - Univ of Glasgow, June 26-28, 2015 Theme: "Screening Animals and the Inhuman" [website]
Visible Evidence XXII - Toronto, Aug 19-23, 2015 [website]
UFVA - American University, Washington, DC, Aug 4-8, 2015 [website]
Screenwriting Research Network Conference - London, Sept 10-12, 2015 [website]
The Resnais Archipelago conference - Duke University, October 29-31, 2015 [website]
MLA - Austin, Texas, Jan 7-10, 2016

Current calls:
Due date: May 17, 2015 European Cinema, Intercultural Meetings: Aesthetics, Politics, Industry, History (ECREA) - Copenhagen, November 13-14, 2015 [call]
Due date: June 1, 2015  Film and History Conference - Madison, Wisconsin, November 4-8, 2015 [website and call]
Due date: June 14, 2015 World Picture Conference - Toronto, November 13-14, 2015 [website and call]
Due date: August 28, 2015 SCMS - Atlanta, Mar 30-Apr 3, 2016 [website]

Upcoming calls:
NECS - Potsdam, Germany, July, 26-30, 2016
Visible Evidence XXIII - Bozeman, Montana, Aug 11-14, 2016

Friday, May 01, 2015


dir. Sean Clark, 2014, US
Genre: Observational Short
Not currently in distribution

Mallwalkers has a straightforward topic: the (mostly) older Minnesotans who powerwalk though the Mall of America in the morning. The film intercuts between four sets of "characters," and perhaps inevitably walks the line between ironizing humor and humanizing portrait. There's such a palpable sense that the documentary imagines an audience who is socially distant from the Midwestern subjects, but Mallwalkers does not overly exploit.this dynamic. It's poised to be a festival audience hit while also functioning as a small-scale observational piece.

The counterpoint would be the opening and closing shots, whose carefully composed view of the mall spaces contrasts with the moving and following camera of the observational footage.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Second Game

The Second Game
dir. Corneliu Porumboiu, 2014, Romania
genre: experimental documentary
French-release DVD (French subtitles only) available from

To me, one of the more exciting trends lately has been the convergence of the documentary world with experimental approaches that could be considered akin to structural filmmaking. I don't know if Porumboiu is explicitly influenced by or in dialogue with structural film. Maybe something about the slow cinema project of the Romanian New Wave arrives at similar ends from another route. But The Second Game would suggest that something beyond simply durational art cinema but rather a spectatorial experience of being distanciated from the very basics of the medium, the very split between sound and image. 

The concept is simple enough: a 1988 soccer match refereed by Porumboiu's father between two of the major football clubs (Dinamo and Steaua) plays without original commentary while the Porumboius, father and son, discuss the match. It's not a tidy commentary on the Communist era or the politics of the revolution that would follow, but the now-and-then conceit does underline the stakes of historical knowledge and historical passing. Films from the vantage of post-Communist public spheres have the challenge of critique the pre-1989 regimes while understanding that daily life under Communism was a complex affair, not entirely reducible to the great historical picture the West in particular has of the era. Soccer does not neatly allegorize the Ceausescu era but it does pose the problem of citizen ethics to the present. The Second Game thereby manages to use soccer/football as an occasion for political and historical issues, but it also examines the game on its own terms.

Aesthetically, The Second Game brackets television within cinema and asks the spectator to read both the aesthetics of TV and the politics of state-controlled broadcasting. Much of the affect of the film lies in its desaturated and degraded video images.

All the while, the film is a durational exercise - an ultimate one-scene film. At one point the filmmaker makes a wry commentary about his fiction-film style, in which "nothing happens." As he puts it in the director's statement: "If you were to ask which football game says the most about everything, I would tell you it is the one which is most banal." If Soul Food Stories shows the instance of a log line overpromising for a film, The Second Game shows the difficulty of creating a log line for an experimental doc that defies an easy summary or "hook." Think of it as an art-doc version of Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Tourisme International

Tourisme International
dir. Marie Voignier, 2014, France
genre: experimental documentary
available streamed at Doc Alliance (free through May3)

Tourisme Internationale is a fascinating experiment in documentary sound. Other precedents like Loznitsa's and Ujica's work have used foleyed sound to give a sense of presentness to archival footage. Voignier instead takes present-day footage--of an international tourist visit to North Korea--and removes almost all spoken word in favor of foleyed sound effects and ambient sounds. The effect is an uncanny play on presence and absence, on documentation and the fantastic. 

One clear role of the move is as a power play between a government which wishes to control images and a filmmaker who refuses to allow the government's version to stand. By putting the voices under erasure, Tourisme Internationale obliquely gets at a portrait of contemporary North Korea that it otherwise cannot access. In the process, too, it figures the missing voices of the populace. (The tour guides are all well-connected elites.) Most of all, it's a film in which the concepts are experiences as much as intellectualized.

The one instance of spoken word allowed in the film is the dubbing of a North Korean fiction film. The film takes a wonderful turn of meta-reflection on cinema, sound, and the role of classical cinema language in our understanding of the medium. The putative propaganda of state-sponsored media gets a "real" presence in the film that the putatively more real tours of cities do not.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Soul Food Stories

Soul Food Stories
dir. Tonislav Hristov, 2013, Bulgaria / Finland
genre: observational
not currently in distribution

I don't know how often a film's log line gives a bait-and-switch for a film, but I have to say that Soul Food Stories was not exactly the film the description set me up for:
“Soul Food Stories” is a 70 minutes long observational documentary that tells of a place where practices of food and the rituals around the table have not been changed in the last centuries. The film consist of a series of vignettes, each one telling different story. The protagonists Djamal and his wife Aishe are Pomacs (a Slavic Muslim population native to some parts of Bulgaria). Their parents and grand parents have been always living from the land. They produce everything - from the cigarettes they smoke and the clothes they are wearing to the milk and cheese on the table. During the Communist regime, Djamal and Aishe had to change their names, the way they dress and speak as part of the state-supported assimilation campaign in 1989. Djamal and Aishe’s children represent another part of the story – they immigrated to the USA in a search for better life and more opportunities and thus they lost connection with their nuclear family and their traditions – part of which is the food. “Soul Food Stories” seeks to explore not only why the food bring us together, but the many ways it could enrich our lives. At the same time it touches upon themes such as religion, the past and the reconciliation with it, the family and the kids, etc. Or as the director Tonislav Hristov puts it - “Soul Food isn’t a film about the food itself. Soul food is the ritual of getting together around the table when each one of your friends brings his own spice in the sense of experiencing each other."
The main issues are there, and the main thematic use of food preparation, too. However, rather than the redemptive narrative of "food overcomes social divisions," the film has a more open tapestry of the social conflicts of rural Bulgaria. The villagers represent certain aspects of social divides marking contemporary Bulgaria: women/men, Orthodox/Muslim/Roma-Evangelical, Communist/reformist, older/younger, and while the people do voice a sense of shared community never do they put aside differences. (It is hard to tell how much of the discussion is provoked by director Hristov, but especially in this case I'm not sure that makes much difference.)

What I find refreshing is that the documentary tackles two motifs common to recent documentaries - the waning of pre-industrial agricultural parts of Europe and the economic challenges facing depopulated rural villages. But something about the observational approach gives a new spin on these: rather than static shots of empty spaces or rural tranquility, Soul Food Stories offers instead a group of Finnish tourists and village spaces that are lively, if aged.

The documentary does show the impact of poetic style on observational film, as in the long take of the funeral, done with locked down camera.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Hand Gestures

(photo courtesy the filmmaker's Twitter)

Il Gesto delle mani/ Hand Gestures
dir. Francesco Clerici, 2015, Italy
genre: poetic/observational
not currently in distribution

I do wonder if there is a documentary equivalent of the heritage film, dedicated to celebrating national aesthetic and historical traditions. Hand Gestures would probably fit the bill and is in fact produced by a century-old firm specializing in bronze sculpture, the Battaglia Artistic Foundry. On a literal level, the film could be seen as an advertisement of sorts for the Foundry and for Velasco Vitali's sculptures. But it easily transcends this as a creative documentary with both formal rigor and a clear aesthetic eye for the process of art creation.

There has been a recent cycle of documentaries about artisanal crafts, but what immediately strikes me about Hand Gestures is the adoption of certain aspects of the poetic-doc form rather than a more familiar character-driven format. It's not a slavish fit with the genre, as the film uses a faster montage,  for instance, but the lack of voiceover narration and minimal spoken word pushes the spectator to experience the pace and subtextual narrative of the sculpture process. Not only does Hand Gestures excite me to be studying contemporary documentary but it also inspires me to write about it.

The use of archival footage is both entirely legible in its historicity (unlike many "craft" documentaries, Hand Gestures suggests continuity between now and then) and related to experimental activation of archival footage in the work of Forgacs, Loznitsa, Ujica, etc. Most of all, it provides a lyrical structuring device for the documentary.

Hand Gestures is currently on the festival circuit, having won a critics prize at Berlin Film Festival. Here's hoping this film gets a broader theatrical or video distribution stateside.

Thursday, April 09, 2015


dir. Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Ilisa Barbash, 2009, US
available on DVD or via iTunes

My list of shame is long, and I am a late comer to the entire Sensory Ethnography Lab work, and I have to admit some trepidation approaching Sweetgrass. After all, I have had a tendency to be underwhelmed by some of the critical favorites in recent documentary (Stories We Tell, Act of Killing, and others). Yet, I was blown away by the film, I believe because it confounded my expectations in two ways: it did not fully fit the mold of the contemporary poetic documentary, nor did it exactly play the role of slow cinema in the way I thought it might. 

The key to both is that Sweetgrass does not restrict itself to static long takes shot at a wide distance. Indeed, those shots are there, but camera movements (handheld and controlled) and close shots balance the shooting style. My understanding of Sensory Ethnography is that it balances the objective poetic-observational shots with strategies that suggest the phenomenological aspect of its subject. Watching the film, it also occurred to me that Sweetgrass fits what David Bordwell calls parametric narration, in which the stylistic system of the film develops (partly) independently of the meaning structure. This is an idea I'll have to reflect on and develop.

I was also surprised how much a traditional Griersonian spirit lay at the heart of the film. Not exactly an issue film but a objectifying eye to how ranching is declining in the contemporary American economy and Western environment. It's a theme not spelled out in detail or hit over the head, but it does sustain the film, through its portrait of the shepherds to the final titles.

Probably my experience of the film was colored by seeing it in 35mm - a transfer from video and a sonic remix from low-quality recording, apparently, but still, quite gorgeous. The low-light videography in particular is amazing, with images at times barely registering but somehow still affective. 

I definitely look forward to watching more Sensory Ethnography work.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Classical Cinema SIG for SCMS?

On Twitter, I tossed out a quick idea that maybe it's time for there to be a Scholarly Interest Group (SIG) for SCMS geared toward those of us who work on classical cinema. There is a good reasons there hasn't been one up until now: SIGs have emerged to champion emerging research areas or those historically overlooked in the fields of US- and Canadian-based cinema and media studies. Classical Hollywood in particular was the canonical and culturally dominant hegemon at the center of film studies stretching back through the history of the Society, going to the SCS days. Why carve out a interest group niche for something that was already established and widespread?

I think there are two reasons it's time to do just that. First, it's hard for me not to see SIGs gaining in importance in SCMS. There's currently not anything like the divisions at the MLA Convention, neatly organized along clear subdisciplinary lines. Maybe they'll never have that rigidity or clarity. But the conference's and society's continued growth means that there's going to be increasing pressure for sub-division, and the SIGs and Caucuses are a logical mechanism to manage this pressure. If these do become more important, than SIGs no longer need to be limited by the emerging or "minority" approaches in the discipline, but even heretofore dominant approaches may find a need for organizational representation.

Second, classical cinema studies is not as dominant as it used to be. There are still a good number of papers on classical Hollywood at the conference, but not as many as there used to be. Papers on the studio periods of other national cinemas are much sparser. I wouldn't want to put forth the case for a SIG as a rearguard action to preserve the status quo of a canon - it's great that both contemporary cinema and alternative practices are getting more of their due. But a SIG can provide a form and cohesion to what now feels scattershot. SIGs provide community and help for a collective agenda setting and in the process raise the profile for excellent work that is already being done.

These goals seem particularly vital because classical cinema studies is actually a dynamic area now, hardly dead despite the sense of many in the field that the area is too well charted and everything has already been said. Not to make an exhaustive list, I would point to a few trends worth highlighting:

  • The availability of films (via video, cable TV, etc) has radically transformed our understanding of the period, both popularly and academically.
  • An generational difference from the period compared to the flurry of scholarship in the 1970s and 80s means that scholars have a different relation to the period and are asking different questions. 
  • Scholarship has increasingly reappraised the criticism contemporary to the films themeselves, opening up a dynamic account of the history of writing on film. The scholars of "useful cinema" have impacted how we see even the history of entertainment cinema.
  • Work in other areas, such as transitional cinema, have challenged and refined canonical accounts of classical cinema. Incidentally, this is one reason I think limiting the purview to "classical Hollywood" would be a mistake.
  • There is sometimes a sense of stalled impasse after the theory/history debates of the 1990s, but I see an opportunity. Classical cinema is one key area in which scholars often work across these disciplinary traditions and combine them in innovative ways.

For these reasons and more, I would love to see a Classical Cinema SIG. I honestly don't know how much groundswell of support the idea would have, but it's worth putting the idea out there.