The most intriguing new venture to hit the nonfiction film community in some time took its first bow at the New York Film Festival last weekend. Field of Vision, a “filmmaker-driven documentary unit,” is the brainchild of curator Charlotte Cook and filmmakers Laura Poitras (Citizenfour) and AJ Schnack (Caucus). The trio brought six of the planned 40–50 short documentary projects that will stream on their website over the next year (two are now available to watch online), all of them NYFF world premieres. They’re a thrilling, diverse batch of films that use a wide variety of styles to investigate news stories from around the globe.
The first was likely the most anticipated, and it was the only unfinished project to be screened. Asylum is a series of shorts that Poitras crafted from her footage of Julian Assange, shot even earlier than her first encounter with Edward Snowden for Citizenfour. The exact format of the final product has yet to be determined, but three installments (not necessarily the first three) were shown. Much of the material relates to Assange’s attempt to fight extradition to Sweden, where he faces questioning regarding allegations of sexual assault. Poitras observes him planning his legal defense, attempting to negotiate with the U.S. State Department over the phone and eventually disguising himself in order to sneak into the Ecuadorian Embassy in London.
Unlike Poitras’s contribution, the other five Field of Vision shorts don’t contain internationally significant phone calls or anything resembling espionage, but they do all peer into events and places that have been in the news in recent months.
Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s Peace in the Valley is a high-energy race through the battle lines over an LGBT rights ordinance in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Heloisa Passos’s Birdie is a slice-of-life profile of a homeless fruit seller in Rio de Janeiro and his three dogs. Iva Radivojevic’s Notes from the Border, which follows a refugee from his arrival on the Greek island of Kos to the Macedonian border and beyond, is a firecracker of hope and peril. Dustin Guy Defa’s God Is an Artist is essentially a comedy about performance art in Detroit, while Kirsten Johnson’s The Above would be a science fiction film if it weren’t so unsettlingly true. It’s a panoramic portrait of the ever-present surveillance blimp that the U.S. military has placed about Kabul, Afghanistan.
In spite of all this diversity, it’s hard not to look for the legacy of a single film: Citizenfour. Asylum is an obvious starting point. It’s replete with the same signifiers of access, calling attention to the thrill of watching something secret through Poitras’s camera. It plays with one of the Oscar-winning feature’s most memorable motifs, the constant scribbling of notes as a form of communication that can’t be bugged. It’s surreal to see the founder of an internationally notorious online organization forced to retreat to pen and paper.
Yet this legacy pops up in the other films as well. The thrill of the camera’s presence is felt in Notes from the Border, when the frame goes dark and Radivojevic is ordered by Macedonian police to delete all of her footage. In The Above, Johnson manages to capture the image of a U.S. military surveillance blimp in a rare grounded moment in Kabul. Less dangerously, but just as unlikely, Palmieri and Mosher are given a special backstage tour of The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs. The actor playing Jesus shows them fake blood, whips and exactly where he has to hold on to the enormous cross upon which he will be faux-crucified.
These striking moments also call attention to the presence of the filmmaker, an equally crucial element of Citizenfour’s own journalistic narrative. Passos plays with one of Birdie’s dogs on the beach while holding the camera, the frame bouncing back and forth in sync with the excitable pooch. Radivojevic treats her narrator and subject, the anonymous N, as a travel companion and friend. The most obvious example of this is God Is an Artist, which is more about the experience of the filmmaker than it is about the ostensible subject, the arrest of Shepard Fairey.
Yet there is one significant difference between Poitras’s more extended work about Snowden and Assange and the variety of shorts commissioned by Field of Vision: speed. Asylum begins with footage taken in 2011. It’s been a long time coming. Notes from the Border, meanwhile, was shot over just one week in August of this year — that is, a month ago. The Eureka Springs LGBT referendum took place this past March, Fairey’s Detroit arrest in July. These are short films not only in length but also in production time, in turn-around, in urgency. Their potency is inseparable from their brevity, something that has always been among the principle weapons of truly significant journalism.
These are the two shared virtues of the Field of Vision program so far. A boldness with the camera that thrills the audience and a brisk commitment to the current and urgent. The components are there for this new endeavor to live up to its stated inspirations, which include Life magazine and World in Action. Yet the choice to keep things brief, in a world focused on the “impact” of documentary features released on television, seems equally reminiscent of Direct Cinema at its start. Some of the earliest Drew Associates films are quite brief, and Cinema-Direct was born in Quebec with documentaries that barely broke 15 minutes. Innovation can come in the smallest of packages.