#Cinelove: 2015’s Memorable Documentary

I’ll dispense with the musings of year’s end, looking back, etc… and cut straight to the point to offer up the most memorable non-fiction films I saw this year.  My list cuts a wide spread across styles and subject matter, but I think the common denominator is that all the filmmakers approach their subjects with a pure desire to tell the story.

Democrats
Camilla Nielsson goes behind-the-scenes of the political process in Zimbabwe in this expertly crafted film about the making of a constitution. She and her editor manage to take a potentially dry subject and make it fascinating, absorbing, and touched with humanity.

Last Days of Freedom

Still from Last Day of Freedom.

Still from Last Day of Freedom.

The most memorable film of the year for me was this incredible short. Made by two artists, the film combines visceral animation, intricate sound design, and an intimate story in this emotionally powerful journey.  It’s the heart-breaking recollections of a man who discovers his brother has committed murder and must decide what to do. Being that I run a short documentary festival, I suppose it’s not surprising that it’s at the top of my list.  But it truly rivals any feature for a full, powerful experience. (Directed by Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman)

Heart of a Dog
I don’t love personal films and I don’t love dogs, so it was utterly surprising to me that I was enraptured by Laurie Anderson’s touching essay film. It’s not a traditional narrative, but instead washes over you with imagery, animation, music and, of course, Anderson’s lulling narration.
Cartel Land
In Cartel Land, sometimes you just can’t believe what you’re watching. Director Matthew Heineman says the film unfolds the way that he discovered the story and you can only imagine what it was like to be him as the filmmaker. Cartel Land’s incredible access gives you a different view of the fight against the Mexican drug cartels and gives thought to a big question: who is the good guy?

Spartacus and Cassandra
Ever fall in love with a film?  I felt myself doing just that while watching this impressionistic fairytale. Two Roma children are taken in by a young trapeze artist in a circus on the outskirts of Paris, and while it touches on hard aspects such as parents, legality and education, it also celebrates love and imagination. (Directed by Ioanis Nuguet)

Look of Silence
Joshua Oppenheimer’s companion piece to his The Act of Killing is quieter, more intimate, and in my mind, even more powerful.  It’s one man’s journey to confront his brother’s killers during genocide in Indonesia. It’s also a testament to the fact that social impact films can be cinematically beautiful.

Tocanda la luz
Charming and thoughtful, this verité film follows the ebbs and flows of life for three blind women in Havana. The women share their lives, fears, loves, and struggles for independence with us. (Directed by Jennifer Redfearn)

P.S. –  I define #cinelove as “to fall in love with a film in that way where it captures your heart through its beauty & humanity.”

– Karen Cirillo

Afghanistan through the (creative) eyes of others

Afghanistan, as a subject, has been crossing my path over the last year – through both my work in the development sector and via various forms of film and writing.

We in the west get a pretty limited view of the state of affairs in Afghanistan, mostly filtered through news media. It should not surprise anyone that the view is pretty limited, as in general our traditional media isn’t really capable of nuance or complexity of perspectives.

Afghanistan, of all places, is certainly a country with a complex history – this latest chapter of over a decade of American involvement represents just a sliver (although, our involvement actually stretches further into the past than many of us realize).

A still from "Tell Spring Not to Come This Year".

A still from “Tell Spring Not to Come This Year”.

After 2001, Afghanistan became the hot topic of numerous documentaries and books. Most focused on the war, usually from the point-of-view of American soldiers or allied troops (Restrepo and Armadillo). Others focused on the myriad of projects and initiatives that were bringing opportunities to the citizens of Afghanistan (Beauty Academy of Kabul).

Earlier this year, I saw/read three works about Afghanistan that transcended the traditional story lines to tell stories beneath the surface that shed light onto the complicated and complex nature of Afghanistan’s history, culture and present day political situation.

Tell Spring Not to Come This Year – by Saeed Taji Farouky and Michael McEvoy

This powerful film follows an Afghan National Army squad fighting insurgent forces in the southwestern province of Helmand. This is a rare glimpse into the world of the local army. Despite the trainings they received from the invading armies, they’re not always fully prepared for combat. On top of that, what they’re fighting against is not always clear, as the politics of the nation place warlords in governance positions in local provinces. These soldiers are not sure of themselves and are often frightened by the circumstances they face.

Michael McEvoy was a Liason Officer, working with the Afghan Army for 9 months. What he witnessed compelled him to make a film, and he was introduced to Saeed Taji Farouky as someone who would be a compatible co-director. Their collective approach is in-the-trenches, observational, and revealing. The film is intense and immersive, disorientingly so at times. But you feel like you are embedded with these troops, and the confusion you feel is often a reflection of what the soldiers are experiencing as well.

When the usual focus on allied interests and the larger “Afghanistan” narrative is stripped away, the film reveals the personal stories of soldiers who are doing what they can to survive (even if they haven’t gotten paid lately). As the film’s summary says, “this is the war in Afghanistan, through the eyes of the Afghans who live it.”

(The film won the Amnesty International Film Prize and the Panorama Audience Award at the Berlin International Film Festival. I saw it at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. You can watch the trailer here.)

The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan by Jenny Nordberg

Jenny Nordberg’s book is a fascinating look at bacha posh, the tradition of girls being dressed and passed off as boys. The main story looks at various bacha posh youth and their families, covering how the girls experience boyhood (and the transition back to girls/young women) and why families make this decision for their children.
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This tradition is intricately tied up with the gender politics and culture in Afghanistan, which is not always as simple as it seems. This leads to another strain of the book, which focuses the push of western aid agencies for female independence and equality and the common failure of not entirely understanding the complex cultural history that feeds into gender politics. The book paints portrait of mothers and girls who are balancing tradition with new opportunities and how complicated that can be.

(I got the chance to see Jenny Nordberg and Faheema, one of the bacha posh from the book, in conversation at New America Foundation. You can listen here.)

Bitter Lake by Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis isn’t interested in the traditional narratives that media puts forth. Using a treasure trove of archival footage, he weaves together unique takes on major issues facing society. His most recent work “Bitter Lake” takes a look at the history and story of Afghanistan that few are telling you. The West’s interest/relationship with Afghanistan did not begin with 9/11. And the United States is not the first country to be engaged in this complicated country. We’re also not the first to try to empower women or make education more accessible. The Russians tried to do that before we ever got there.

Another theme of the film is the United States’ long alliance with the Saudis, aspects of which Curtis credits for the development of Islamic extremism in the region. At times, the history and interpretation Curtis presents is simplistic and it can feel like he views the Afghan people as disinterested in “progress.” But the film challenges the common narrative of Afghanistan, in history, politics, and culture, and overall lays out a series of complex, interconnected stories that challenges us to learn more.

(I saw the film at the 2015 True/False Film Festival. You can watch it on the BBC player or here.)

– Karen Cirillo

Is raising awareness enough? Two more factors of impact

A few weeks ago, I was talking with Felix Endara, who works with the Artist as Activist program at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.

We were discussing an arts initiative I had managed, and he challenged me: “In addition to raising awareness, what kind of impact does the initiative have?”

Now, let me say that while I believe all art has impact, I don’t believe that all art has to “have impact” as its guiding force or purpose. But the nexus of this discussion revolved around projects and films that were indeed seeking to make an impact.

Adi and his mother, Rohani, share a solemn moment in Drafthouse Films’ and Participant Media’s The Look of Silence. Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.

Filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer worked intimately with the people affected by the 1965 Indonesian genocides that he filmed for The Look of Silence (film still pictured here). Courtesy of Drafthouse Films and Participant Media.

At his question, I suddenly realized how dubious “raising awareness” could be as a purpose. Make no mistake – I believe strongly in the idea of it. My dream job would be to work for a large company akin to Bell Laboratories of the 1960s-70s, that believes that presenting employees with arts, music, lectures, etc… inspires its staff to see different perspectives, be inspired, and think creatively in its work. If I worked for a company like that, I would schedule programming that brought people into other worlds and introduced them to new concepts. I would be championing arts that raise awareness.

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In Libya, sheep heads are a side dish

“So, I read about a specialty – bazin. Can I get that anywhere?”

I was in Tripoli, Libya, where we were running a video workshop with kids from around the country. The logistics for each workshop were different, and for this one, the organizer enlisted a rotating crew of work colleagues to serve as translators. I liked this set up, because it meant that we got to know a group of local young men and women during our time there.

That day, during a break, I was talking to Nabeel, who was built like a bodyguard but whose face welcomed you with a smile.

Libya_first

First stage of bazin, with lamb.

“You know bazin?” he asked, surprised.

I explained that I was pretty obsessed with food, and for each trip, even before learning about the politics of a place, I would research the food. Food, of course, is such a part of a places’s culture. And this way I would know what to expect during the trip and what specialties I might want to try to find.

“Well, that’s one of those home-cooked dishes,” Nabeel continued, explaining that it was something that was cooked by hand, and consumed communally. “Most restaurants won’t serve it because you eat with your hands and you only want to do that with people you trust.”

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Watching the watchers – how VR can be a participatory experience

This past winter, virtual reality “exploded” at Sundance. VR technology is not new thing, but in the first part of this year it seemed as if every other film-related article was about it.

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Clouds Over Sidra screens at Davos. Photo: Socrates Kakoulides

I’ve always been a bit skeptical. With most new formats and technologies, I find that people get really excited about the bells and whistles, but don’t spend as much time focusing on quality content. It takes a little while for the “fervor of the new” to die down, and for people to realize that just because something uses a new technology, it doesn’t automatically mean the finished product is actually interesting.

I had my first experience with VR at last year’s Tribeca Interactive, when I saw Nonny de la Peña’s Use of Force. It’s an immersive VR experience, where the viewer is observing a deadly beating of a migrant by Border Patrol agents at the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s chilling. I mean, I’ve seen dozens of docs about border and migrant issues and am well-read on the subject. But this was gutting. You’re watching this altercation, and the fellow observers “on-screen” are yelling to stop and trying to intercede, but there’s nothing that they – or you – can do. And you feel so at a loss. It is in your face, and you are powerless. And you realize that people of color face situations like this every day, and not just on the border.

Returning to Tribeca Interactive this year, I saw another piece that blew me away. It was Chris Milk’s Clouds over Sidra, which follows a twelve-year-old in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. Unlike the animated Use of Force, this is documentary footage, taking you on the streets and into homes at the camp. You feel like you’re there. Maybe it was so striking because I have been there, and it captured the essence, the presence, so well. It brought it all back. Would it have the same poignancy for someone who was witnessing it from the outside.

Both of these pieces show the potential for a new kind of journalism – sharing reality with viewers through a visceral immersion that writing or photography can’t provide. But what makes this possible is the very thing that VR is often criticized for – that it isolates the viewer from others and the experience is only possible as a solitary experience.

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Birdly installation. Photo: Museum of the Moving Image

I do see this as an issue, but wonder how different this is from so many other platforms. Does watching Netflix on your phone with headphones not do the same thing? Viewing something on your computer, even without headphones, is still mostly only for single consumption. And say you could create “theaters” for VR exhibition – would a bunch of people sitting in a room with headsets really be very different from wearing 3-D glasses? Even though the glasses don’t make it a personal experience, just the presence of something that stands between you and your neighbor adds a level of distance.   The difference with VR is people can usually affect what they see by the movement of their heads, making the experience no longer collective, as a 3-D movie would be.

But recently I discovered an interesting angle of “crowd participation” for virtual reality material. A few months ago, I visited the Museum of the Moving Image’s Sensory Stories exhibition, a diverse collection of virtual reality and interactive pieces. When you first entered the museum space, the Birdly installation was set up. You don a headset, lie down on a platform and get strapped into wings, which control your movement onscreen. And thus, you have the chance to be a bird flying over Manhattan, dipping between buildings and soaring over Central Park in the wind (a.k.a. a fan).

Here’s the funny thing – being in line (which of course was quite long) was almost as fun as being in the installation. Watching the movements (something flailing, sometimes smooth) of others and experiencing the reactions of what they were seeing (smiles, exclamations of wonder, pleas of help because they were about crash) was enjoyable as its own “experience.”

Another section had four stations featuring immersive experiences – including Evolution of Verse (another piece by Milk) and Herders. Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphael’s Herders is an amazing fly-on-the-wall observation of a community of nomadic yak herders in Mongolia. You have 360 degrees to observe the landscapes or the family in their yurt. Like Sidra, it brought back memories for me and captured the essence of place, particularly in details – the vastness of the landscape, the ceiling of the yurt.

I generally am moved more by the reality pieces than animation or graphic demonstrations, but Evolution of Verse is filled with magical moments. And as I sat waiting, I was again caught up in people’s experiences. You see their heads turn and lift and feel their sighs of wonder as they are watching. There’s a dynamic moment where something special happens on screen and observing viewer’s reactions over and over from viewers is kind of magical. Especially because I hadn’t seen it yet. What were they seeing? Would I feel the same way? When I got to that moment in the piece, I had the same reaction as the others, and felt like I was sharing something with those viewers, even if we weren’t watching it together.

So, in a weird way, there IS a communal aspect to VR, in the sense that the process of watching something becomes an installation of its own.

– Karen Cirillo

What is art good for?

We’re in an age where everything seems to be quantifiable, whether it’s page views or Facebook likes or Twitter shares or how many people showed up for an event.* Or at least there are a lot of people and organizations out there that feel the need to quantify what we produce, what impact we’re having. This is not a bad thing necessarily, especially not when it comes to social campaigns or advocacy projects.

So is it elitist to want art to exist on a plane that’s different from the “quantifiable”? I’m not even speaking about the art for art’s sake idea – for art can indeed be a tool for social activism – but also from the standpoint of personal connection and exposure.

Zanele Muholi (South African, born 1972). Faces and Phases installed at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany, 2012. (Photo: © Anders Sune Berg)

Zanele Muholi (South African, born 1972). Faces and Phases installed at dOCUMENTA (13), Kassel, Germany, 2012. (Photo: © Anders Sune Berg)

Lately, I’ve been devoting a lot of time to lectures, exhibits, and cultural exploration and it made me realize something. Aside from enjoying what I’m seeing and being inspired by different perspectives, I’m continuously learning about the world around me. It’s the comment that makes me think about something in a different way, or a series of photographs that evokes someone else’s state of mind, or a film that reveals to me that there’s a subculture within a subculture within another culture that I didn’t even know about.

And I think that’s one aspect of how art can connect us to what’s outside ourselves, and sometimes even make us realize what we never thought of as being inside ourselves.
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Evocative objects: reflecting history, nuance and emotion

“Living in an era defined more by complex systems than by material things, and increasingly mediated by the digital, how are we touched by the objects we can still touch?”

These words open the summary of the new Flaherty NYC series That Obscure Object of Desire, flahertynyccoverand made me excited. The ideas of coming to terms with our digital space is one I think a lot about. And I’m a big believer that daily life objects reflect our realities. One of the things I do in a new country is go into the supermarket and walk the aisles and get a sense of what is important to people.

So how great to have entire series devoted to the ideas behind objects – what they say about our histories, our personalities, our cultures. And even better that it was curated by two filmmakers (Pacho Velez and Sierra Petengill) that are thoughtful, artistic, and challenging in their own work.

The series runs every other Tuesday at the Anthology Film Archives in New York.

I had the chance to talk with them about the theme, the importance of objects and the shift to digital.

Q: What inspired this programmatic theme?

Sierra: Conversations had been happening around the idea. I saw the Simon Martin film [Louis Ghost Chair]. It compares furniture objects – chairs. The end of the film spirals off into more abstract, emotional ways that architecture and design and objects affect us. It becomes a kind of poetry. I mentioned this to an architecture friend, who works a lot in abstracted space and how architecture in the real world can play off of conceptual ideas of architecture and film. He noted there’s a lot of thinking now about the difference between digitally mediated space and physical space. [In this context] so many films came to mind – it’s a very fertile space. All artists right now are thinking about that. Digital touches everything we do. It felt like a ripe time for this type of programming.
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Americana: History Viewed Through Artifacts

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66 Scenes of America

The new Winter/Spring Flaherty NYC series That Obscure Object of Desire , curated by filmmakers Pacho Velez and Sierra Petengill, continues tonight with the Americana program.

I spoke with Velez and Petengill about their entire series, which I’ll publish soon, but in the meantime, some thoughts on tonight’s program to whet your appetite.

Q: What about using objects to tell a history?

Sierra: There’s something interesting happening in the program – the Jorgan Leth film is an older piece, but we’re viewing it in 2015 – the gap between the year of the making and the year of viewing changes it. We’re also showing Real West, which is just made and returning to a historical place, or to recreate a historic time. They’re both historical films, but from very different ends of the spectrum.

Q: Can you elaborate on the idea of Americana buttressing national ideas of mobility and entrepreneurship? How do we see that through the Americana films?

Pacho: One of the concrete objects through which we understand these ideas and perpetuate these ideas of America – the notion that we can travel all over it geographically, and also the idea of social mobility that’s implicit through that geographical travel. This “can do it” American value. These things are abstract. How do you codify these ideas? What are the objects that contribute to fetishizing these ideas? Cars; the open road and highways; the single family home; fast food – all of which make appearances through these films.

I just watched 66 Scenes of America again for a class I’m teaching. There’s a scene inside of it, a very famous scene, where Andy Warhol eats a hamburger. There’s the Burger King logo and the Heinz ketchup bottle, things that make me reminisce about my childhood. I’m sure at the moment it was shot, it didn’t feel like a very nostalgic gesture. When one reads about Pop art, it’s often posited as ‘new,’ ‘contemporary,’ ‘in the moment,’ clearing away past artistic ideologies (abstract expressionism, cubism, Social Realism, etc). But, of course, the mass advertising culture that Pop was mirroring has now been with us for so long, and is in many ways being displaced by the online digital world, so that certain icons of pop have started to make me feel nostalgic, or sentimental for ‘the way things used to be.’ Modern consumer gestures have aged in their own way. They’ve gained a kind of sentimentality, gained a historical nostalgic that I imagine Pop artists would be horrified at.

Check out the Americana program if you can.   The series runs every other Tuesday at the Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Exploring China through a Writer’s Youthful, Creative Eyes

What do I really know about China? I know there’s a lot of good food, only the tip of which I have experienced here in New York City (I believe everyone who has been there and attests that the food in China changes everything you thought you knew about Chinese food.) I’ve seen a lot of dramatic films recounting tales of dynasties and cultural revolutions. I know there are serious human rights issues to contend with, notoriously profiled around the Beijing Olympics but stretching past that in every direction. I know that the Chinese have made their mark on development throughout the Asian and African continents. I know there’s a rich cultural history, from tea to literature to art.Beijing-Bastard-cover-final-397x600

What I don’t know a lot about is the art and everyday life that don’t make the headlines. I’ve been able to glimpse some of that through independent documentaries, like Last Train Home and Up the Yangtze – films that shed light on major societal issues through the lens of ordinary individuals – and Disorder.

I imagine the latter film is in the vein of the film that made Val Wang excited about going to Beijing in the late 90s. In her recent memoir, Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China, Wang writes about her journey to and through Beijing, where she had gone to immerse herself in the underground cultural scene, meet extended family and produce something creative along the way. She was inspired by an underground documentary she had seen in college (Beijing Bastards), and when she arrives in Beijing, she is faced with a changing city, shedding itself of some of its old trappings.

I was excited to read her memoir because it gives the reader a portrait of China that is far different from the mainstream stories we usually get.  She befriends Yang Lina, whose documentary Old Men captures the lives of old men sitting on the sidewalk through four seasons. “The documentary had consecrated a completely nondescript spot on the sidewalk, though the old men were no longer there,” she writes. “Through her film I was seeing a side of the rapidly changing city that was hidden in plain sight. It offered me one of the deepest understandings I had of the city yet.”  And this is what Wang’s book does for me.
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We Walk Their Path

This weekend, the OneMinutesJr. awards were announced and “We Walk Their Path,” by Amar, won the One Minute of Freedom award. The film was produced during a workshop I facilitated in Zaatari, the Syrian refugee camp in the north of Jordan.

There are so many stories from that trip – tales of kids uprooted from their homes, remembrances of lost items and childhood adventures, consistent declarations of an eventual return to Syria. All the kids in the workshop lived at Zaatari, some having been there a year and a half already. The majority came from Daraa, a city in southwestern Syria, just north of the border with Jordan. At the time of the workshop, in January 2014, the Zaatari camp hosted about 85,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria.

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I had facilitated workshops in over 20 countries at this point, so I was no stranger to challenging work environments. In addition to the physical containment (our movement was extremely limited) and the emotional impact (of witnessing life in the camp), there was the hurdle of general inexperience. Most of the seventeen participants of the workshop had never held a video camera before and their image-taking experience was mostly limited to mobile phones. The ideas behind creating imagery were fairly distant for them. But while they didn’t outright grasp the concepts of filmmaking, their imaginations never lacked.

As you can imagine, there are many stories to be told. But, for now, a focus on Amar (first name only, for security’s sake) and his tale of war.
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