The Best Nonfiction Films of the 2015 New York Film Festival

New York Film Festival

The New York Film Festival is many things. It’s an auteurist showcase of the best feature films of the year, many of them plucked from prestigious European festivals like Cannes and Locarno. In recent years it’s become something of a domestic kick-off to the Oscar race, featuring the world premieres of Hollywood prestige fare like The Walk and Steve Jobs. That can occasionally make it seem like an exercise in glitz and glamour, particularly given the price of some of the tickets. As a celebration of art house auteurs and movie stars, the festival has never seemed like an obvious high point in the documentary calendar.

Yet the best nonfiction films of this year’s festival are likely the best evidence that the NYFF is worth going to at all. In an era of digital media, where so many of us consume documentaries online, the NYFF found its greatest moments in the privileges of the physical cinema. Whether it’s hearing the Rajasthan Express with movie theater sound, catching new short works on 16mm or spending a full three hours with Frederick Wiseman, the highlights of the festival were those screenings that engulfed the audience with the sights and sounds of rare and worthy nonfiction.


New York Film Festival

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Junun is an excellent place to start. A mere 54 minutes long, it’s not bound for a theatrical release. In fact, it’s already exclusively available to stream over on Mubi. That makes its appearance at the NYFF all the more special, the opportunity to be sonically surrounded by a film that will most likely be heard primarily through headphones. This is not to say there aren’t plenty of nice headphones out there, of course, but there’s a difference.

The film inhabits the recording of an album, a collaboration between Shye Ben Tzur, Jonny Greenwood and the Rajasthan Express. The sessions took place in the Mehrangarh Fort, a 15th century behemoth that seems more connected to the hawks circling above it than the sprawling city of Rajasthan below. During the recording itself, which is mostly done seated in a circle on the floor, Anderson never rests. Moving among the musicians and occasionally in and out of rooms, Anderson soars along the melodies. This physical curiosity evokes the music studio scenes in Les Blank’s A Poem Is a Naked Person, equally concerned with capturing the collaborative essence of the undertaking.

Yet while Blank’s filmmaking is homespun and earthy, Junun seeks to ascend the heavens. With the help of a drone, Anderson’s camera flies in and out of windows and climbs far above the fort. He echoes the music, which is built of many gradual crescendoes and accelerations. The film is a series of lifts upward, like those Songs of Ascents in the Book of Psalms that use epigrams like melodies to build hope. The combination of this spiritual mood with the occasional diversion into the mundane aspects of music making (getting a harmonium tuned, setting up recording equipment) inspires a pure transcendence.

Nonfiction in the Projections Program

New York Film Festival

Junun wasn’t the only sonic treat of the NYFF, of course. Another unique audio experience came via the Projections program and a short film called Neither God Nor Santa Maria. Filmmakers Samuel M. Delgado and Helena Girón pair new 16mm footage of the Canary Islands with interviews recorded on Tenerife in 1965 and 1967. The oral histories contain credulous stories of witches, who used to travel great distances in the dark of night and occasionally transformed into such odd objects as cabbages. The 2014 images of aging islanders and the mysterious night sky over the Atlantic fit perfectly with the crackling of the recordings and the overall weirdness of Juan Carlos Blancas’s soundtrack. In the dark, surrounded by the legends of the past and the dancing imperfections of film, this nocturnal magic seems entirely plausible.

A similar mood of nocturnal mystery pervades a few other nonfiction films in the Projections lineup. Heather Trawick’s Centre of the Cyclone begins as a wilderness journey, from a forbidding coast up through snow covered forests. The windy soundtrack whooshes past her 16mm landscapes until part two of this bizarre triptych, in which Wagner’s aquatic prelude for Das Rheingold floats atop black and white footage of a demolition derby. Final sequences of radio towers, attempts to break the land speed records and remote land art underline and expand this visceral but intellectually rewarding meditation on humanity’s desire to push its limits.

These sorts of loose connections between distant locales become very scientific in Riccardo Giacconi’s Entangled. A puppeteer muses about the inspiration he uses to create his puppets. A doctor insists on a story of alien abduction. An army of ants eats a cockroach. These images loop, occasionally encountering moog synthesizers and a theremin. Everything seems to involve bizarre, unexplained circumstance. Then the hammer strikes in an interview with a physicist, who explains the theory of ‘quantum entanglement.’ Two particles, once connected, continue to interact in a similar way no matter how far apart they are moved. Like puppet strings spread across the universe, this phenomenon definitely exists but has no clear origin. Entangled, which won the top prize at FID Marseille, is perhaps the most bewildering and stimulating film of the festival.

Simon Fujiwara’s Hello, while smaller in scope, is much more playfully constructed. It begins with an interview. Maria is a professional trash picker from Mexico, selling scrap metal in a border town afflicted by the Drug War. She sits in a pristine white studio, the imaginary landscape of a techy advertisement. Then Fujiwara abruptly cuts over to Max, a German freelance computer animator who was born without arms. Yet there’s no simple cleft in the film’s structure. Imitating the multi-window style of a busy laptop, Fujiwara moves the images of his two subjects back and forth, muting and unmuting their audio streams. He even introduces an animated severed hand, not unlike the one Maria once found in the trash pile, which arbitrarily grabs these two individuals and yanks them across the screen. Both a grounded observation of the nature of work in the 21st century and a brash representation of the way we consume stories, Hello is as charming as it is complex.

Documentary Auteurs on the Big Screen

Zipporah Films

Nonfiction media has certainly arrived in the 21st century with gusto. We watch more documentaries on TV and via streaming services than ever before, with much greater frequency than we catch them in cinemas. Yet that doesn’t make the form any less cinematic, particularly in the case of the best working filmmakers. Frederick Wiseman’s recent films may get their widest audience on PBS, but there’s nothing quite like experiencing his 190-minute epic In Jackson Heights without the option of pausing a DVR recording. Nuno Leonel and Joaquim Pinto’s Fish Tail is another example, a diary of long sojourns in the remote Azores unlikely to find its way to a commercial release. Their intimate style, rich with quiet observations of the quotidian at its most beautiful and cosmic, is unmatched in current nonfiction cinema. And, of course, the launch of Field of Vision (read our write-up here) was a special occasion, not just because of the sneak preview of new work from Laura Poitras. These shorts are already available to stream online, making the screening of such short marvels as Kirsten Johnson’s The Above and Iva Radivojevic’s Notes from the Border a particular pleasure.

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