Notes from Art of the Real: What Critics Can Learn from Great Programming

Let’s leave the issue film and its accompanying straw men behind. A new Cinematic Nonfiction is already here and it has brought some giant owls.

Documentary critics have a tendency to describe good films in terms of what they aren’t. “No talking heads” is a perennial compliment, along with less than friendly comparisons to Al Gore and his notorious PowerPoint presentation. Entire aesthetic strategies are characterized as stagnant and cliche. Don’t overuse archival footage. Reenactments are bad. And even though these individual gripes often ruffle feathers, there remains a sense that American documentary cinema remains firmly stuck in a rut of genre and form.

The discourse lasts because of the continued proliferation of “issue films,” calls to action that end with a website and an appeal for donations. The problem was recently addressed with unusual and welcome frankness by Chris Boeckmann, a programmer at Columbia, Missouri’s Ragtag Cinema. His Filmmaker Magazine article, entitled “Projecting Outside the Echo Chamber,” offers withering insight into these screenings.

“Nearly every one of these films has failed to leave an impression,” he confesses. “They don’t make me feel any more knowledgeable about the world, and they haven’t inspired me to lift a finger.”

He goes on to describe the good intentions that lead to these screenings and the way these same intentions often undermine their impact. “Secretly,” he explains, “[issue films] make people feel as if they’ve done a good deed by simply bearing witness.”

The most essential part of the article is likely what comes next. Boeckmann offers some excellent advice to programmers on how to show better films and engage new audience members at the same time. But the article’s blunt opening salvo speaks to a much larger audience. It also opens the door to critics, who have their own responsibility to grapple with this question.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the issue film is one of truth. Much of the work that fits the label is made with an absolute sense of moral and factual correctness. There is a presumption of objectivity, despite the fact that objectivity in the context of American activism is couched in the cultural constructs of Western journalism. And, of course, there is the inconvenient fact that every issue film is directed and edited by real, subjective human beings. Many of these films are made by outsiders to their chosen topic, further blurring the lines between reporting, activism and missionary work.

And so the genre, however loose it may be, has become the bugbear that inspires so many to decry the entire situation. Michal Marczak, for example, told The Film Stage just this month that he hates most documentaries and then named only The Act of Killing as an alternative.

Of course, Marczak is a filmmaker. It is not his responsibility to advocate for new work. But critics have also pushed the “most documentaries are terrible” line, often without subsequently attempting to organize a coherent defense of what isn’t terrible. Moreover, there’s a lot more great work out there than is implied by such sheer mathematical cynicism.

Enter Art of the Real, an annual program at the Film Society of Lincoln Center that has quickly become an essential polemic on behalf of cinematic nonfiction. Nonfics has covered all three previous editions of the festival and we are no less enthused by this year’s lineup. The program always bends and breaks the lines between experimental, documentary and narrative forms, a rare kind of alchemy. If anything, the fourth Art of the Real is the highest profile of the lot, closing with the (presumably) final cut of Laura Poitras’s highly-anticipated Risk.

But this isn’t just about the programmers, it is about the opportunity this program provides. Critics should also be tasked with deconstructing the hazy, theoretical border that divides American documentary. Not everything that can technically be branded an issue film has bland, hackneyed aesthetics. And there are plenty of artistically ambitious films, some of which could even be considered “anti-issue films,” that fall into remarkably similar traps.

Look no further than Untitled, the film that Michael Glawogger was working on before his sudden and tragic death in Liberia three years ago. It was finished by Monika Willi, his longtime editor, according to his notes and integrating the text of his journals. She even opens the film with audio of Glawogger himself, describing his plan. Untitled is to be “a film in constant motion…a film about nothing.” It is a travelogue of happenstance, its sounds and images those that appeared to the filmmaker as he wandered from Northern Europe to West Africa.

Of course, the announcement of such a rigorous formal experiment only draws attention to the utter impossibility of such a project. There is no happenstance, no film about nothing. Glawogger and Willi both made choices. A documentary about nothing is really a documentary about a filmmaker’s idea of nothing. Untitled is no more a purely cinematic object than any journalistic expose.

This begins only as a theoretical distinction, of course, and the film does possess a great deal of poetic beauty. Glawogger’s travels began in Germany and went south, through the former Yugoslav nations and then to Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and Liberia. But rather than impose a linear structure, Willi bounces back and forth across the map with a much more kinetic logic. The images possess a diversity of topography and tone, as well as a reassuring sense that the camera is always placed at precisely the center of the action.

Gradually, however, trends emerge. The scenes in Sub-Saharan Africa are predominantly about the bodies of black men, wrestling and working with equal physical exertion. The camera follows muscle. By the Sahara, meanwhile, the focus turns time and again to the sluggish lifestyle of dusty domesticated animals. Donkeys are the inevitable stars.

Finally, the Bosnia sequences revolve primarily around the depth of religious fervor of the people and the quiet beauty of their mourning. There is a particular interest in the buildings that still stand empty after the war, a war which one has to remind oneself ended more than 20 years ago. And, perhaps crucially, none of the people encountered anywhere along this journey are subtitled.

Glawogger’s “extreme project about movement and travel,” even with its loose form and gripping tableaux, meanders in the direction of some very specific themes. The cumulative result is an impressive document of sound, image and even time, but not an especially intuitive film about human beings.

Bizarrely, Untitled finds itself in the unique position of exposing the underlying biases that also tend to come up in issue films. The persistence of social and cultural preconceptions is not something than can simply be banished by aesthetic experimentation. An image without direction is not necessarily an image without destination. Yet, like all Art of the Real films, its character is most effectively revealed by a dialogue with something else in the program.

Salomé Jashi demonstrates a minute awareness of political detail in every scene of The Dazzling Light of Sunset, though its themes also emerge quite gradually. In a sense, this is inevitable for a documentary about local media. Jashi has crafted a low-to-the-ground portrait of Dariko, a reporter and anchor at Jikha TV. The network, strapped for cash and minimally staffed, covers current affairs in a rural part of Georgia’s Samegrelo province (usually referred to in English as Mingrelia).

Dariko spends a lot of time covering human interest stories, much like her counterparts across the globe. The film begins at a small a cappella concert and proceeds to follow a teen beauty pageant, from the first rehearsals to the final event. The most charming moment is one of sheer joy, when Dariko gets a call that “Someone has caught a giant owl!” She rushes out with her camera, while her boss grumbles at his desk about the waste of time. This is not the first time someone has caught a giant owl.

Yet while Jashi quite expertly catches the thrill of the errant charismatic bird, she is not herself content with this sort of material. She also includes the political debates hosted by Jikha, as well as some especially tense meetings of elected councilmembers. And while the former are clearly made to be broadcast, it is unclear whether these rowdier conflicts actually make it to air.

Jashi also includes a few scenes that certainly wouldn’t make it to the anchor’s desk. The first is a glimpse into some backroom dealings, in which an important local figure receives private requests. One petitions for a job, another for the right to retain ownership of some trees. Jashi positions her camera behind him, obscuring his identity but capturing the real concern on the faces of his petitioners.

The second, even more instructive encounter takes place at what appears to be a regional professional development event. A colleague from another city distracts Dariko during a lecture, taking the opportunity to criticize her network for its lack of coverage of a particular corruption scandal. She insists there’s nothing to cover, but he refuses to be convinced.

By the end of The Dazzling Light of Sunset, Jashi’s presence has become an issue for her subjects. People have noticed what she’s been filming, a liability for a station so intimately connected with the clearly quite delicate politics of the area. One imagines it’s especially troubling for a station that needs to ask the government for more money, a detail that Jashi does not neglect including.

At the same time, though, Jashi does also succumb to the appeal of a very large owl. The Dazzling Light of Sunset is precisely about these dilemmas of shooting and editing, the choices that must be made by those holding the camera and those sitting in the control room. What is the responsibility of the journalist? What is the responsibility of the documentarian? And where do these responsibilities diverge?

Yet Jashi has not made an issue film about media transparency in Mingrelia. She gives little wider context, includes very few names and resists the urge to structure the last 20 minutes of her film like a journalistic thriller. She is neither villain nor the hero, but rather an extremely perceptive observer. By the end of the film, she has slowly alerted the audience to the choices posed by both Dariko’s camera and her own. Every shot contains implied negotiations of perspective, ethics and intent, doubly scaffolded where Untitled remains resolutely flat.

Of course, in this way the latter film is actually fairly unrepresentative of the Art of the Real program. To further belabor the architectural metaphor, the assembled films have a tendency to resemble a cathedral of cinematic architecture, their common themes forming flying buttresses of new meaning. But the tension between these two particular films is still instructive when it comes to the formal and ethical debates that continue to occupy the minds and schedules of critics and programmers.

The future of cinema, once the foolish borders of fiction and nonfiction fade away, lies in those thorny questions. The archetype issue film, as we know it, is a dead end. Boeckmann is exactly right about that, and programmers must learn to look past work that can only be advertised on its activist merit.

Critics need to follow suit. We must learn how to review a film’s form rather than its subject, to think beyond the borders of old genres and to advocate for groundbreaking work that can’t be easily classified. But there is no real line in the sand between politics and art. Formal experiments can be just as falsely conceived as progressive PowerPoint presentations. Every film has something deeper to uncover and interrogate, even if it is presented as simply a meditation on motion, time, the joy of youth or the passion of faith.

At the intersection of these concurrent missions lies the film festival. Art of the Real is more than counter-programming. It’s a positive assertion of where cinema is headed. The programmers’ consistent selection of beautiful, nuanced depictions of international queer life outdoes many LGBT film festivals. Its integration of narrative, documentary and experimental film, never hopping over the spaces in between, should be a role model for nonfiction film festivals around the world. And as we move amongst definitions of “issue,” “documentary” and even “cinema,” it seems likely to become more essential with every passing year.

The 4th edition of Art of the Real runs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City from April 20th through May 2nd.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.