Enacting and Reenacting Art: 5 Must-See Films at MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight 2015

National Film Board of Canada

Each February, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City presents Documentary Fortnight, a showcase of nonfiction cinema with a particular eye on the way it intersects with contemporary art. It’s an opportunity for smaller, lower profile works of creative nonfiction to shine in just about as high profile an art institution as there is. Yet that doesn’t mean the festival is full of directors you haven’t heard of. Previous editions have included works by Laura Poitras, Marshall Curry, Victor Kossakovsky and retrospective screenings of films by Marlon Riggs and Pier Paolo Pasolini. The 2015 slate is perhaps the most impressive yet, featuring new films by Wang Bing, Lav Diaz and the world premiere of Barbara Kopple’s Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation.

Yet the strength of Doc Fortnight is its depth. The smaller films in the program, representing a wide international scope, offer a bevy 0f memorable and complex images. There’s a particularly intriguing recurrence of reenactment, some films built entirely out of staged scenes acted by nonprofessionals. The most extreme example of this might be Stories of Our Lives, an anthology film focused on the experience of LGBT people in Kenya. It was produced by The Nest Collective, a group of artists based in Nairobi, and is the feature debut of accomplished fashion filmmaker Jim Chuchu. It consists of five scripted segments based on the real and common events, gays and lesbians fighting discrimination in their daily lives.

Its aesthetics show a willingness to embrace its marginalized, low-budget status, vignettes shot simply but creatively in black and white. Most of the segments are remarkably perceptive representations of the awkwardness of queer identity in a closeted society. Two high schools girls fall in love and are reprimanded by the administrator of their school in harsh, euphemistic language. Two other segments are devoted to young gay men who find their closest friendships in jeopardy, though for entirely different reasons. Chuchu makes sure to emphasize the true-to-life, tense stillness of the closet and the way it hovers over every human interaction.

In the final segment, however, this realist approach is abandoned for what might best be described as homo-futurism. It’s a dreamy leap to the future, the abandonment of reenactment in favor of imaginative hope. This makes it something of an opposite film to Tomorrow Is Always Too Long, likely the festival’s peppiest movie. The new feature from British artist Phil Collins (no, not that one) is a musical love letter to Glasgow. It’s a city symphony, though it’s a far cry from the classics that defined the genre. Man with a Movie Camera and Berlin: Symphony of a City are built primarily from physical architecture, the angled cornices and broad streets their raw material. Tomorrow Is Always Too Long finds the social space of Glasgow not in its buildings but in its media.

It is a film made in three distinct styles. First are musical sequences, shot in real city institutions. The songs are taken from a cycle written by Welsh artist Cate Le Bon, backed up by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. They begin in a hospital, route through the school system and a prison, and conclude with the shared spaces of senior citizens. This grand narrative is interrupted by animated scenes of anonymous Glaswegians out at clubs, walking about the city and having explicit sex, all set to much more restrained instrumental music. The glue that binds it all together, meanwhile, is an increasingly strange batch of interludes in the style of local access television. A blend of real talk show footage and invented characters, including a psychic named Mindy played by Kate Dickie (Game of Thrones), this approach projects Glasgow’s spirit onto its screens rather than its streets.

Collins obscures whether each individual clip is real or staged, underlining the blurry line between real and staged television. The art that derives both from the confusion around this distinction and its relative insignificance is a running theme in Doc Fortnight this year, which ties Tomorrow Is Always Too Long to a film that could not be more different: Irene Gutiérrez Torres’s Hotel Nueva Isla. It is a quiet portrait of a decrepit Havana hotel and its last inhabitant, both of which exist in the real world. It is what keeps the aging Jorge in the Hotel Nueva Isla that seems on the cusp of reality.

Jorge appears to consider it his mission to chip away at walls and ceilings, perhaps in pursuit of hidden treasures. A few who have taken refuge in the abandoned building are beginning to find their own way out, and beckon him along. They include a lover, a woman whose relationship with Jorge is one of the most intimately portrayed in any documentary since Planet of Snail. Yet in a sense the caretaker’s most significant costar is the hotel itself. Shot with a tremendous sense of scale by cinematographer Javier Labrador Deulofeu, it feels like a fantasy dreamed by the city of Havana itself, its architecture collapsing into the past.

Van Brummelen & De Haan

Another film takes a different approach, addressing the role of reenactment quite directly, the filmmakers explaining themselves through intertitles as it goes along. Episode of the Sea is a 16mm portrait of the fishing town of Urk, in the Netherlands. Directors Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan took their defiantly analog equipment to this small corner of their country to capture the Urkers’ traditional values and uniquely nautical willingness to adapt to the future. The unique local dialect of Dutch wasn’t nearly as much a problem for the filmmaking pair as the local religion, a Calvinism that made many residents uncomfortable with appearing on camera. The solution was to write down everything of interest that anyone said and then later to ask the residents more willing to participate in the film to recite these lines as their own.

This is both a creative solution to a problem and a powerful artistic choice. Fishermen and artists are both seen by the rest of society as loafers or relics, outsiders from the normal European post-industrial economy. The decline in fish in the North Sea and the resulting imposition of national quotas of fish has forced many Urkers to smuggle or to purchase English ships and pretend to be English. They apply this ingenuity to the filming as well, frequently contributing to the direction of the film’s staged scenes. The analog nature of both fishing and 16mm film also unites the directors with their subjects, as well as the shared mission to experiment with a new way of presenting themselves and their work.

Jean-François Caissy’s Guidelines does not include reenactments, but its most important moments feel not unlike them. The documentary is focused on a high school in the rural Gaspésie region, and more specifically the disciplinary meetings held there. Caissy places the camera straight at teenagers being questioned and counseled. The stationary frame, which never shows the teacher in the room, foregrounds the faces of the students. Sometimes it unifies the audience perspective with that of the kid, allowing us to feel equally anxious and awkward. Other times it exposes any obvious fibbing or embellishing. Much of the footage consists of students telling stories, explaining or exonerating the behavior that brought them here. It’s almost like a reenactment in itself, presented not by the filmmaker but by the subject.

Caissy surrounds these blunt representations of academic intervention with landscapes of the gorgeous Gaspésie populated by students. There’s an emphasis on movement, both in the form of a fleet of school buses and a group of skateboarders trying, mostly failing, to learn new tricks. An infrequent but pointed use of music, ambient and classical, evokes a prosaic humanism that obliquely links Guidelines to the works of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Throughout the festival there is a commitment to the art of nonfiction and the documentary nature of all creativity, be it in an architectural aging relic or the true-to-life reactions of a teenager, whether in rural Quebec or urban Kenya.

Documentary Fortnight runs at the Museum of Modern Art from February 13th through February 27th. The full program of screenings, including the above five films, can be found at the museum’s website.

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