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 resignify 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 the 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.