Posts

Showing posts from June, 2016

CFP: Documenting the Visual Arts

CALL FOR PAPERS

Documenting the Visual Arts 
(edited collection)
deadline: Nov 1, 2016

The proliferation and popularity of visual arts documentaries are a major component of the recent international documentary boom, but they tend to be overlooked in film criticism and scholarship in favor of documentaries framed more explicitly in social and political terms. Yet visual arts documentaries remain on the cutting edge of documentary innovation, from 3D cinema (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) to questioning documentary truths (Exit Through the Gift Shop). Moreover, visual arts documentaries have long played significant roles in various historical formations around documentary politics (e.g. USIA films in the Cold War, the Left Bank essay films of 1950s and Channel Four programming in the 1980s).

This edited collection will examine the significance of visual arts documentaries from a range of critical perspectives and methodologies. The book will explore not only how documentaries from around the…

Resources for Documentary Releases

I have occasionally been asked how I hear about recent documentaries. I try to be open to a number of sources, but it's worth highlighting a couple of news sources and a few streaming sources:

What Not to Doc. Basil Tsiokos maintains an incomparably complete and amazingly useful blog with documentary release news and festival roundups. This should be a regular read for anyone with a strong interest in documentary. His Twitter feed mirrors the site for those who prefer to access it that way.

POV. The Public Broadcasting System's documentary showcase has a good blog with weekly updates, including links to doc-oriented magazine features and festival news. The site also has regular streaming of documentaries that have broadcast. [Twitter]

Netflix. This is obvious, but I'm surprised how many documentary gems I stumble across on Netflix, both mainstream doc releases and more obscure fare. While the streaming site has given up on its former cinephile offerings in favor of television…

Character-Driven Variations

Image
The Successor (Il successore)
dir. Mattia Epifani, Bosnia-Herzegovina/Italy, 2015
Genre: Character-driven
Not currently in wide distribution

I mentioned in a recent post that there are important variations on the character-driven format. This is especially true in European documentaries and those oriented toward the festival circuit. There’s a wide range of experiments with the character-driven template, and the creativity with the form interests me in some ways more than the form itself. That said, it’s worth pointing to a common variation in the European/festival context.

The Successor is a documentary about the aftermath of land mines from the Bosnian war of the 1990s. It follows Vita Alfieri Fontana, a former owner of Tecnovar, the Italian company that produced the mines used in Bosnia and elsewhere. Eventually, Fontana had a sense of guilt about the use of his company’s products, shut down the company, and spent the following decade helping the mine removal process.

The documentar…

Aesthetics of the Festival Documentary

Image
Roundabout in My Head (Fi rassi rond-point) dir. Hassen Ferhani, 2015, Algeria/France/Qatar/Lebanon/Netherlands Genre: Poetic-Observational
There is one shot in Roundabout in My Head that encapsulates for me so much of what makes watching contemporary festival documentary exciting. The film is a composite portrait of workers at a slaughterhouse in Algiers. Unlike other famous documentaries of slaughterhouses, Ferhani shows very little of the carnage; rather the film focuses on the worker’s interactions and unguarded moments. 
The shot in question is an interior long take of a television screen visible at the threshold of a doorway. Close to the camera, and partially captured at the frame’s edge are an older adult and a younger worker, watching what turns out to be a soccer match on the TV. Other workers walk between us/spectators and the television and more and more activity develops in this hallway until a group of workers is holding a rope, pulling on something heavy and urging other…

The Character-Driven Documentary

Image
A Young Patriot
dir. Du Haibin, 2015, China
genre: character-driven documentary
not currently in video distribution (though may have upcoming ITVS screening on some PBS channels in the US)

By now I have seen a few character-driven documentaries coming from China, and of those, A Young Patriot is one of the more gripping. The documentary follows Xiao Zhao, a patriotic and ambitious teen from Pingyao, Shanxi as he goes to university and comes of age. I know a lot of filmmaker and documentary students bristle at the formula-oriented nature and funding strictures of the character-driven doc (and maybe many more embrace it, I don't know). But to me, A Young Patriot shows how at its best the formula can be a template for strong works. One thing I found so powerful about the film is that it works on levels beyond the central conceit (in which Zhao's conflicts speak to broader issues of Chinese politics). Like other longitudinal docs, this one captures the coming of age process with o…

Stylistic Bricolage

Image
Trading Germans (Pașaport de Germania)
dir. Răzvan Georgescu, 2014, Romania/Germany
available as Romanian imprint DVD (w/ Eng. subtitles) here

I had mentioned in my post on Tea Time, the unusual status of the enactment footage rather than the reenactment. But watching Trading Germans, I noticed a different variation of enactment/reenactment. Trading Germans is a documentary about the emigration of ethnic Germans (Saxons and Swabians) from Romania as well as the diplomatic negotiations between West Germany and Romanian government to achieve the permission to emigrate. At times the latter takes precedence, and like many other theatrical documentaries, Trading Germans borrows from fiction and lends a suspense quality to the international intrigue segment. We see German negotiator Heinz-Günther Hüsch pack money in a suitcase, get on a plane and stay in a brutalist Bucharest hotel. Clearly, the actions mirror the events described in the voiceover narration and in many respects substitute fo…

The Documentary Pretext

Image
Tea Time
dir. Maite Alberdi, 2014, Chile
genre: longitudinal/observational-portrait documentary
screening free on PBS website through June 21

This is a type of documentary with an understandable hook - the juxtaposition of a documentary about Chilean culture and politics with an avowedly feminine and middle-class space of a domestic tea. And it combines a somewhat unusual observational style (heavy on tight framings) with a portraiture of engaging "characters," the women who are friends and keep in touch despite the changes that aging brings into their lives.

But one thing the film underscored for me is how one production convention of the doc is to create a situation to film. Nothing happens in Tea Time other than gatherings filmed by the filmmakers and possibly convened by the filmmakers. In other words, a documentary pretext organizes the filming and the profilmic. This is common to other films, as well, but Tea Time at times foregrounds this, using transition shots of the…