MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight
Published on February 13th, 2013 | by Tynan Kogane1
“Personal exposure to otherness,” the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas suggested, “is the only path to self-discovery and ethical responsibility.”
Walking down the street and making eye contact with a stranger, for example, can be a communion that results in awareness, obligation, and perhaps transcendence. But in New York City, especially during these bleak gray months of winter, it doesn’t seem possible to have these connections with pedestrians or strangers: everyone hurries inattentively and guardedly, avoiding glances, consumed in private thoughts, barely conscious enough to avoid stepping in the dog poop or gum on the sidewalk.
If such a thing is possible, I think a slightly incongruous alternative to Levinas’s idealized encounter with otherness could be found by watching some of the films in MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight, an annual festival of nonfiction films that runs from February 15 to March 4.
This year, the festival includes an international selection of 23 recent films; “New Cuban Shorts,” documentaries by emerging Cuban filmmakers; and a selection of films from the acclaimed, long-running television PBS series POV.
Sally Berger, MoMA’s assistant curator of the Department of Film and member of the selection committee, explained that the committee “casts a wide net every year to see and consider as many films as possible.”
With a broad range of subjects, languages, and narrative styles, “Documentary Fortnight” seems to invoke the Tower of Babel, but conveyed through subjective experience: the individual, the particular, the minutiae. A visitor might join the claustrophobic backseat of an ambulance bouncing along a dirt road in Eastern Europe, or watch the solemn rituals of a group of Mexican boys learning to fly, or experience something as banal as an aging man trying to quit smoking cigarettes.
The most remarkable thing about this year’s festival—now on its twelfth year—is this far-reaching and varied selection. The diversity of subject matter naturally lends itself to different storytelling methods as well, and Berger added that the films “reveal a variety of original approaches.” But this comes as little surprise, given the festival’s intention of exploring the relationship between contemporary art and nonfiction practices. Inevitably, I think of Chris Marker, and his influential oeuvre of visual essays, whose presence at the crossroads of this relationship surely must have inspired many of these filmmakers, as well as the committee’s selection process.
One of the prevalent thematic subjects of the international selections, I think, is the fallout of globalization—the immediate delicacy of particular cultures and subgroups that are facing a complicated moment in time. A perfect example of this, and one of my favorites in the series, is “China Concerto,” a study of contemporary China. Based on the fictional letter of a traveler in China, and accompanied by a series of striking, often paradoxical images, the film compactly and sensitively offers a Debordian analysis of spectacle and shows the complexity of China’s transition into capitalism (as well as a great gunshot montage made from Chinese propaganda films that seems to be inspired by Christian Marclay).
Another film, “Pablo’s Winter,” which premiers opening night, follows a retired miner dealing with nicotine withdrawal as he goes about his quotidian routines in an obsolete (also seemingly retired) mining town in Spain. Though “Pablo’s Winter” isn’t explicitly a political film, it depicts a fading way of life at a unique juncture, on the path toward becoming entirely anachronistic.
“Many of these films show life as an unfixed and evolving process,” remarked Berger, probably with these international selections in mind.
The selections from the POV series are a much more accessible, domestic, and stylistically conservative offering, and give a sweeping overview of the documentary medium as it has appeared on television over the past 25 years.
“Where Soldiers Come From,” “If a Tree Falls,” and “American Tongues” stood out to me, but any number of these films seem to skillfully capture the ambivalence inherent in their subjects. Berger described the series as “deeply researched films about topical subjects told in masterful ways.” With a devotion to the underdog and a strong sense of social consciousness, the POV films force the audience to confront different human conditions, reconsider the villains, and ultimately question their own prejudices.