Art of the Real Proves Documentary Festivals Should Show Experimental Films


We live in an age of documentary festivals, dotting both the calendar and the globe. Most of them offer a wide range of subjects and draw from an equally impressive range of countries of origin. Only some of them, however, offer a real diversity of form. Nonfiction cinema is an extremely broad and open category, yet the programming does not necessarily follow suit.

Enter Art of the Real, The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual showcase of creative nonfiction, now in its third year. The 2016 edition features work on either end of the sliding scale of reality, from the nearly fictional to the rigorously vérité. And, as a centerpiece of the lineup, there is a retrospective of the work of experimental filmmaker Bruce Baillie.

Now, for some, this raised questions. Manohla Dargis, a clear fan of Baillie’s work, sidelined its inclusion in Art of the Real as “arbitrary.” Her argument is not that his films aren’t nonfiction, but rather that “the entire history of the American avant-garde is also one of artists’ turning cameras on the world to create ethnographies of everyday life.” This observation, aside from its vast reduction of such a broad category, also takes for granted the perceived affinity between the American avant-garde filmmaker and the American documentarian.

Oh, that such a link were really so obvious to everyone.

But it isn’t, and it requires thoughtful acts of programming to help solve that problem. This year’s Art of the Real isn’t just a convenient venue for a traveling series of Baillie’s works, though obviously they’re worth seeing on their own merit. It’s also a cinematic provocation, prompting audiences to re-examine how they perceive the essence of documentary cinema.

As it turns out, experimental work should be seen as an absolutely essential part of the “New Golden Age of Documentary,” the boom in “hybrid” films, or whatever it is that we’re living through right now. Dialogue between what we perceive as entirely different forms should be fostered by festivals. Baillie’s films are a perfect example of this. In the context of the Art of the Real lineup, his experimental approach can almost be seen as a way to teach us how to watch nonfiction cinema.

Take one of the most well-worn element of documentary filmmaking: the archival still. The “Ken Burns effect” doesn’t always succeed at livening up a 19th century photograph, after all. Yet Baillie manages to find the open, artistic potential of this material without any extra biographical information. Roslyn Romance is a repository of light, nature and human presence, filled with anonymous family photos. Baillie blends them into the images of leaves, forcing them into dialogue with nature. We stare into the eyes of these souls that we do not know and see them as silent characters, rather than as distant evidence of a dry social history.

Turn, now, to a new essay film by Jerónimo Rodríguez. The Monument Hunter is a falsified memoir about a Chilean filmmaker living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn who winds up on a personal mission to locate a statue of Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz in a park somewhere in Santiago. Moniz, who died in 1955, is the sort of person about whom quiet television documentaries are made. Yet Rodríguez is able to locate a fascinating obsession with memory, both personal and public, in an essay film built out of the raw material of history.

Now, The Monument Hunter is fascinating enough on its own. None of the works in Art of the Real need to be paired with Baillie’s short films to make sense. But the juxtaposition does underline the fact that, essentially, all nonfiction cinema is cut from the same cloth. There’s nothing inherently stilted about an old portrait, but the genre conventions of historical documentary sometimes encourage an expectation of cinema that only works on the surface. The avant-garde can help deconstruct and revitalize the way in which we see these same pictures.

This approach works in a number of different registers. Baillie’s Parsifal and All My Life are miniature romances, emotional and abstract films that build a mood without the assistance of either narrative or character. The best moments of Poet on a Business Trip, another new feature in the lineup, function in much the same way. The picaresque structures of Mass for the Dakota Sioux and Quixote, meanwhile, create heroic narratives out of otherwise humble footage. The same simple glory is a key piece of Philip Trevelyan’s The Moon and the Sledgehammer, though it’s a vérité documentary rather than an experimental essay film.

Quick Billy

One could go on and on, comparing films like this. In a sense, it’s a point so broad it becomes almost meaningless.

Yet one last example from Baillie’s work should clarify what’s so important about these juxtapositions, and what we can gain from Art of the Real’s cinematic project. Quick Billy, perhaps the magnum opus of the retrospective, is a film cleft in four. The first three reels are abstract representations of the stages of life with some enigmatic animal metaphors. Then, in an unexpected coup de theatre, Baillie follows them with a black-and-white Western that both underlines and complicates the themes of the previous segments.

Is this a “hybrid” film? Generally speaking, this isn’t the sort of question one bothers to pose to the avant-garde. Such a distinction only matters in the context of the rigid division of narrative and documentary in the first place, one which only gets in the way of many of the films in the Art of the Real lineup. The Monument Hunter works whether or not its protagonist is a real person, an entirely fictional artist, or a pseudonym for the film’s director. The parts of Poet on a Business Trip that feel the most true are those sequences accompanied by the subject’s poems. Is a poem fiction or nonfiction? Does such a question even make sense?

Dargis, after generalizing about the avant-garde, says something both deeply broad and deeply true about Baillie. He “makes art at the juncture of the visible world and the world of ideas.” One could argue that all cinema, or at least all good cinema, operates at that same boundary. It makes no sense to bequeath documentaries the visible world, narrative films the world of ideas. Every image ever captured contains some truth. Every image ever captured holds at least the kernel of an abstract idea. Why keep them apart?

And, for the benefit of us all, why not screen avant-garde films in documentary festivals? It’s certainly helped Art of the Real become one of the most exciting events on the calendar, and in just three years.

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