It is perhaps something of a misnomer to refer to the best of the Art of the Real lineup as “discoveries.” Many of the films in the nonfiction showcase have already received warm receptions across the world. Some of them have won awards at major festivals, some of them have already screened on multiple continents. True, there are also a handful of North American and US premieres. But the real discovery here is in the context of the wider program, the editorial mission of spurring a dialog about how nonfiction is presented and perceived. And so, with that (and the lessons of experimental cinema) in mind, here are five films that stood out as examples of truly creative nonfiction.
Dead Slow Ahead
When Russian documentarian Viktor Kossakovsky awarded Dead Slow Ahead the Opus Bonum prize at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, he praised it for “respecting the basics of film language.” This unadorned description is both exactly right and entirely too simple, in that it captures the style without acknowledging its magnificent scope. While it is a nearly wordless exercise in technical expertise, shot by director Mauro Herce onboard an ocean-bound cargo ship, its skilled use of detail takes place on a huge scale.
His images communicate the vastness of both the vessel and the ocean around it. Their towering symmetry suggests the intergalactic temples of ambitious science fiction films. The sound design, meanwhile, overwhelms the audience with the echoes of the waves and the eerie white noise of the ship. It is a hypnotic, mechanical journey out into the empty ocean, like a Joris Ivens documentary for a world of giants.
The Moon and the Sledgehammer
Philip Trevelyan’s The Moon and the Sledgehammer premiered in 1971 at the Berlin Film Festival and has since had a bit of influence. Nick Broomfield, for example, is a fan. But if we live in a just universe, the new restoration will much more firmly establish it in the canon of nonfiction cinema. A portrait of a reclusive, aging English farmer and his four adult children, it should be seen as a precursor of everything from Grey Gardens to Brother’s Keeper.
The family passes the time by experimenting with astronomy, haberdashery, biology and engineering. One of the sons repairs and improves an enormous steam engine, a technology that he thinks should get a bit more credit in the post-industrial age. Amid all of this philosophizing and tinkering, Trevelyan focuses on the beautiful details of this pastoral life, both in the trees and on the faces of his subjects. Like much of the Art of the Real lineup, it is a masterpiece of moments, rather than argument.
Oleg and the Rare Arts
Oleg Karavaychuk is a living legend and a forgotten eccentric. He’s a Tsarist nostalgic, a wistful Stalinist, a pianist, a composer, an admirer of American Jazz and an obsessed regular at the Hermitage. He is the perfect subject for a documentary, something that director Andrés Duque must have noticed immediately. Duque also clearly understood that Oleg himself is the treasure, not necessarily his story. Any “objective” background is irrelevant to what this 88-year-old survivor has to say in his own words.
He gossips about his neighbors in Komarovo, artists that included Anna Akhmatova and Andrei Tarkovsky. He teaches the entire history of Western music to Duque in just a few minutes. He performs gorgeous music, eyes nearly closed, at the last piano given to Tsar Nicholas II before he was shot by the Bolsheviks. Duque, aside from capturing these glorious and intimate sounds with precision, also keeps things tight. A good filmmaker knows when to just let a subject perform their identity. A better filmmaker knows exactly when to cut them off. Oleg and the Rare Arts is a triumph of smart, concise portraiture.
Of course, there are other ways of making a documentary about a solitary old man. Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis profile the mysterious Mario de Marcella, a hermit in a small town outside of Rome nicknamed “il solengo,” a term for a bull that has become separated from the pack. Rather than hunting him down, they instead interview the men of his generation, aging farmers and hunters who share the full corpus of local gossip. His mother killed his father, but no one agrees whether it was before or after Mario was born. No one knows quite what drove him up into the cave on the mountain, but there are certainly many theories.
The men are mostly respectful, though, perhaps because of the distance offered by time. “We as human beings can’t understand things we haven’t lived,” one of them explains. That’s certainly true, though Rigo de Righi and Zoppis pursue a kind of understanding anyway, with fascinating results. And, as an added bonus, Il Solengo contains perhaps the most intriguing, unpredictable solo saxophone score ever written.
Tales of Two Who Dreamt
At this point, it is probably absurd to call any film by Nicolas Pereda a “discovery.” Yet Tales of Two Who Dreamt, a collaboration with Canadian filmmaker Andrea Bussmann, is actually something of a surprise. It was filmed at an old apartment block in Toronto, where asylum seekers live while awaiting a decision from the Canadian government. Two people in particular, Roma parents who brought their children across the ocean from discrimination in Hungary, now bide their time by helping Pereda and Bussmann make a film.
The subject is twofold, layering a fantastic narrative on top of their daily lives. It’s quite directly Kafka-esque, an adaptation of The Metamorphosis to their current situation. They tell and retell a story of their son turning into a bird, workshopping it for Pereda and Bussmann one step at a time. Eventually elaborate makeup is even applied to the boy, like a dress rehearsal for a movie that is never actually completed. It’s a clever and touching illustration of the temporariness of this life, at the end of which hangs the threat of deportation back to an environment where the discrimination of Kafka’s lifetime continues to plague the Roma people.