At the end of Edgardo Cozarinsky’s Letter to a Father, the sun sets. Set to the softness of tango, its bright colors slowly turn to embers before the audience. This film is a personal one, in which the eminent Argentine novelist and director tries to uncover his family history. The photographs and heirlooms of late 19th century Jewish immigration and 20th century political turmoil occupy most of his focus, leaving one a bit surprised by the breathtaking natural beauty of its conclusion. His techniques have much more in common with Claude Lanzmann than, say, Carlos Reygadas, whose Silent Light opened with a similarly grandiose dedication to the heavens. Yet there it is at the end of Letter to a Father, a creative leap into the sky.
This, in a nutshell, is the spirit of Art of the Real, now entering its second year at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Cozarinsky is interested in both the prosaic details of the past and the dramatic poetry of its expression. At 76 years of age, he can’t exactly be considered new, but his film is part of the burgeoning conversation around documentary, nonfiction cinema and “hybridity.” This discourse of what is real, what is fictional, and why that matters is being treated by this series as an international phenomenon worth addressing, for more than two weeks of screenings at that. There’s a lot to take in, including a sidebar dedicated the art of reenactment and a retrospective of the nonfiction films of Agnès Varda. As for the main program, the selection runs quite the gamut. Beyond the aforementioned Letter to a Father, here are five films not to miss.
Iec Long (João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata)
In Macao, former Portuguese colony and current Chinese gambling capital, there is a decrepit fireworks factory. It now sits waiting to be made into a historical tourist attraction. Caught between the present and the past, it’s a place where every image evokes the many lives who have passed through its walls. Filmmakers João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata apply a diverse handful of cinematic styles to their subject, only some of which resemble what we might consider verite filmmaking. They capture the architectural essence of the decaying buildings and the character of the community around them, featuring local musical celebrations that have the kitschy air of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s dramas.
Alongside these sequences are miniature reproductions of the factory and its workers, an evocation of memory akin to Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture. Finally, there is a sense that Iec Long haunts its subject just as much as it represents it, the filmmakers applying faked archival footage of the place’s former denizens atop contemporary images of its decay. “Suddenly my life grazes dusk,” reads one of their intertitles, a good summation of their approach. This is a living portrait of a dying space, brushing up against the fading light of passing time.
The Absent (Nicolás Pereda)
The Absent begins with a cow. It stares directly into the camera for what feels like the majority of a three-minute shot. The beast draws attention to the fact that these images are real, that the documentary camera is present. This film is predominantly a portrait of an old man living out his twilight years by the beach. His house has been slated by local bureaucrats for condemnation. Director Nicolás Pereda shows this man going about his daily life, looking after neighbors’ cows and cooking for himself, as if nothing is wrong.
Pereda also inserts a much younger actor into the same space. Actor Gabino Rodríguez is a frequent collaborator of Pereda’s, as well as the co-star of Art of the Real 2014 opening night film, La última película. It’s unclear who his character is, an anonymous wandering youth or a younger version of the old man himself. They do not meet until the end, instead moving in and out of the space like a couple of bored ghosts. In the film’s final moments, echoing the cow, another figure stares directly into the camera, this time with an even more complex significance. When an actor breaks the fourth wall, it calls attention to that old adage that a fiction film is a documentary of its own making. The Absent is both a film about an old man and a film about itself, as well as a poetic investigation of the intersection of time and space.
The Absent screens with The Palace, a short film by Pereda that takes a similarly ambiguous approach to the line between fiction and nonfiction, in this case with regard to the lives of women preparing to be hired as housekeepers. It is equally unmissable.
Birds of September (Sarah Francis)
Beirut is a city of two million lonely people. Or, rather, it feels that way in Sarah Francis’s remarkable Birds of September. Built up from the city’s streets, the film is a driving tour of the Lebanese capital. Francis’s method, aside from expert drive-by cinematography, is the use of a car with an enormous glass box in the back. It’s like the Pope-mobile, but without the high-tech bulletproof assassination protection. Residents of Beirut step into this box and share stories and secrets as they ride around, the traffic always visible over their shoulders. It’s somewhere between Manakamana and HBO’s Taxi Cab Confessions, but with a dynamic sense of space that strides beyond both. The boon of the glass walls is that Beirut itself never fades into the background, rather constantly asserting its role in the life of its citizens.
And, as comes up time and again, these people are lonely. Some are divorced. Others continue to live with their families but seem trapped in their private troubles. They’re present in the frenetic city but also closed off from it, the glass box serving as a powerful (if not subtle) metaphor. Even the happiest guest, a man with an enormous smile and a devotion to yoga, finds his warmest moments of enlightenment when by himself. This is underlined by the voiceover narration written by Francis that occupies the interludes between passengers. She evokes the city as a “cacophony of faces” and includes a particularly memorable anecdote about a girl’s first understanding that human individuality implies solitude. United by space, the residents of Beirut are divided by time, each one of them living in their own moment. Sad but remarkably beautiful, Birds of September is a transcendent panorama of loneliness.
Li Wen at East Lake (Luo Li)
Documentary is the backdrop of Li Wen at East Lake, another entry in the ever-growing canon of Chinese nonfiction cinema with an interest in urban development and government corruption. Luo Li’s film begins with the people of Wuhan, central China’s largest city. They all testify to both the official rules protecting the region’s beautiful lakes from development and the frequency with which they disappear anyway. Both informative and strikingly political, this opening act uses both local feeling and the technological advantage of Google Maps time-lapse to promote a sort of cinematic activism.
Then, just over half an hour into the film, it becomes a fictional detective story. A cop is tasked with finding one particular local citizen who has been making the biggest ruckus about recent development in historic East Lake. The message of this environmentalist/prophet is that the dragon of the lake will rise up, as once happened before. The troublemaker must be handled before he can jeopardize the new =est construction project planned for the lake shore. On paper it sounds like a noir but the documentary aesthetic holds fast, following the cop’s mostly unsuccessful wanderings with a distant and bemused tone. It also contains some very strange archival footage, part of a striking evocation of the darker days of Communist rule in Wuhan.
Naomi Campbel (Nicolás Videla and Camila José Donoso)
Another potential buzzword for the stylistic melange of fiction and nonfiction, to borrow terminology from the realm of religion, might be “syncretism.” The coexistence of different beliefs and rituals, particularly the blending of Catholicism with indigenous religions in South America, is perhaps more productive a word than “hybridity.” It is also a central theme of Naomi Campbel. The film is a fictionalized portrait of Yermén, a Chilean transgender woman struggling to fund her transition. She works as a psychic, giving out tarot card readings over the phone. She also takes great pride in her own syncretic faith.
Directors Nicolás Videla and Camila José Donoso highlight the syncretism of gender as well as religion, featuring not only Yermén’s transition but also introducing the character of Naomi Campbel, a woman determined to surgically pursue the look of her favorite model. On top of even that, the film achieves stylistic syncretism as well. Yermén is given her own camera, with which she films apparently nonfiction scenes of her life around the city, facing discrimination on the streets. All of these varied elements combine to form an ambiguous and layered world, in which every theme is multiple.
Art of the Real runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City from April 10th through April 26th. The full program of screenings, including the above five films, can be found at the Film Society’s website.