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, June, 2016
Visible Evidence XXIII - Bozeman, Montana, Aug 11-14, 2016

Friday, May 01, 2015

Mallwalkers


Mallwalkers
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 amazon.fr

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

Sweetgrass


Sweetgrass
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.

Monday, April 06, 2015

SCMS2015 Reflections

It's remarkable to go back and read my posts after previous SCMS conferences because some things are still the same for me, and others have changed. This year, I embraced the conference as specialized tracks rather than attempt a generalist sampling. In all, I felt much happier doing this, though I am sure I missed terrific papers that way.

Terrific online schedules. I used the Guidebook app and loved it. The Sched website version is also great. I appreciate the work of the conference organizers in providing these and getting them out in advance.

Conference is too long. I've said this before, but it bears repeating. The conference is too long. Yes, I know people can go for only part of the time, but that's actually a problem. Gone is the sense of a shared conference experience. In a 2 day conference I end up seeing more papers than in a 5 day. This is because SCMS is about more than papers, certainly, but it's also because the exhausting schedule is not as conducive to the presentation and exchange of ideas as smaller conferences.

Scheduling is too tight. Expecting 4 papers and a robust Q and A to fit into 1h45m is not realistic in most cases. My panel experienced technical difficulties that ate into presentation and question time, but beyond my experience I can say that the only active Q and A sessions I saw were for panels of 3 presenters. Which I gather SCMS discourages.

We need lunch. The conference length or overall schedule has some major constraints, but if I could change one thing, it would be to add a proper lunch break each day and prioritize common breaks in the scheduling.

Conference hotels are getting better. At least in terms of conference room size and facilities, common meeting areas. The breakfast at the Fairmont was a nice addition to the conference experience.

SIGs are growing but still underutilized. I do think that Caucuses and SIGs provide the best way forward of achieving a manageable scale within an unwieldy conference. But they still do not involve a majority of the membership or anything approaching.

Weirdly enough, each time I attend the conference I find it an ungainly conference with problems, but I always enjoy it and value the experience. I do look forward to Atlanta.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

SMCS 2015

I'm heading to Montreal tomorrow for the SCMS conference. As always, I look forward to a rewarding time catching up with colleagues and getting (however partially) about the best snapshot of the field I could imagine. 

I will be contributing to the SCMS general conference twitter feed. The idea this year it to have a feed less about live-tweeting panels and more about general observations. 

My panel will be at Saturday, at 1:00pm. I'm excited to be in great company.

Film Festivals and the ‘Creative Turn’ in Documentary

Aida Vallejo (University of the Basque Country) 
“A Niche for Creativity: Defining Documentary in the Festival Circuit”
Ezra Winton (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design)
“Documentary, Film Festivals, and Distribution of the Sensible”
Maria-Paz Peirano (University of Kent)
“Expanding Boundaries: Film Festivals and the Emergence of ‘Creative’ Documentary Filmmaking in Chile”
Chris Cagle (Temple University)
“Character as Aesthetic Problem in the Festival Documentary”

Hope to see many of you there.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Workingman's Death


Workingman's Death
dir. Michael Glawogger, 2005, Austria
available on DVD or via iTunes

This film is now a decade old and therefore less contemporary than others I am watching for this project. But it's been on my list of shame for a while and moreover, I feel it's worth adding some films more readily accessible from time to time. 

Glawogger was, before his untimely death, a prominent documentary auteur and very influential for a vein of poetic documentary popular today, at least on the festival circuit. Workingman's Death resists the kind of documentary meaning we might expect out of the difficult, challenging subject matter we see. Critic Michael Atkinson writes, "Glawogger's film may be thematically loose-jointed, but Wolfgang Thaler's cinematography is the glue." However, the film does have thematic resonances, even if the spectator has to do much of the work for them. And, thematically, too, the refusal of certain explanation is itself meaningful; Glawogger seems to suggest that globalization is important for understanding labor but does not explain everything about it, either as economic fact or human condition. 

Setting aside the big picture, though, I'd like to focus on Atkinson's second assertion, which I do agree with. Take three consecutive shots in the opening Ukraine mining sequence. The first is static but not a posed shot, the second is a reactive pan as a miner appears above the hilltop, the last is a presentational pose setting up an ironic juxtaposition with a Leninist statue.




Whereas the last kind of shot is now common, even cliché, in documentary today, the first two show a real ability to balance compositions that are unusual yet harmonious without distracting from the subject. This is true, also in interviews and interior observation shots:


Looking back from the vantage of ten years now, what's striking about Workingman's Death is not only how influential Glawogger's approach is to poetic documentary but also how it doesn't fully live up to my expectations of what an aestheticized poetic doc would look like.

For instance, even the character-driven issue film Where Heaven Meets Hell (Sasha Friedlander, 2012) films the sulphur mines of Kawah Ijen with more striking beauty, both in composition and color. Some of this may reflect the developments of digital cameras and color correcting software, as well as filmmaker/audience expectations of how either can lend production values to documentary. But that's a larger story.