Back from IDFA DocLab: 30 pieces of Phenomenal Friction

Phenomenal friction. When the New Media team at IDFA came up with this title, they knew it would reflect a recognition of tensions around the world, but the team had no idea that it would land in the midst of a war and public outcries that stirred up the festival, leading to several filmmakers – including immersive makers – pulling their work from showcase.

Phenomenal friction, as described by Caspar Sonnen, head of New Media, reflects a landscape where emerging technologies are changing how we see the world around us, but also one where we are still encountering and challenging each other’s identities and mindsets in the physical space.

This year’s DocLab and immersive exhibition brought together over 30 pieces from the most diverse set of artists and makers thus far, allowing the audience to encounter worlds not just different from their own, but also created by those living in the other worlds.

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originally published on XR Must

Kundura DocLab 2023: New crossroads of form, genres, and languages

Like other languages, filmmaking is one that is learned but also raised in historical, societal, and cultural patterns. As Augusto Boal posits in his book Theatre of the Oppressed, “By learning a language, a person acquires a new way of knowing reality and of passing that knowledge on to others.” In May 2023, Kundura DocLab brought together documentary theater- and filmmakers from Turkey and surrounding countries to explore the intersections of the two practices and encourage new languages.

Connecting Documentary Theater and Documentary Film

An initiative of Beykoz Kundura, an arts and cultural center in Istanbul, the DocLab’s first edition invited ten artists, half in each practice, for a one-week intensive workshop and creative incubator at the center’s campus in Beykoz. The program was designed as a mix of practical training sessions, project sharing, and personal exercises and exploration.

Anthropology has used both film and theater as tools to conduct and visualize research, and so it is fitting that documentary film can take inspiration from theater and vice versa. In the DocLab’s service region, which includes Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Iran, Georgia, and Romania, strong storytelling language and creativity exist, in addition to histories of conflict, political challenges, and claims for freedom. How do filmmakers preserve their own narratives and creativity when many of the opportunities for funding or distribution expect certain subjects or styles? 

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originally published online and in Fall 2023 Documentary Magazine

Building a documentary culture in Turkey


Film still from Can Candan’s ''My Child'

Stories, exposure, education, networks, funding: Around the world, these things are not a given, nor are they easy to access.

In Turkey, the cultural and political context has made it difficult for documentary filmmakers to survive as working artists, despite their energy and interest. In a country with such a strong history, culture and language, there are many stories to be told. A national preoccupation with politics, however, means that even art is never completely free from responsibility.

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…printed in Summer 2019 Issue of Documentary Magazine

#Cinelove: 2018’s most memorable documentaries

Maybe because the world feels so devoid of humanity these days, I found myself falling for quiet films of people who treat others with dignity.
In no particular order…

Photo: By Then

By Then
Quietly observational, By Then follows a medical driver through the streets of Paris as he picks up and drops off his patients. The “action” takes place almost entirely in the confines of his van, but the gentle soul of the film soars far outside the vehicle. Though the radio speaks about terrorism, political elections and demonstrations, Kofi – at times funny, at times tender – treats everyone with a level of respect not usually seen in such circumstances.

The Raft
A fascinating experiment that documents a fascinating experiment. In 1973, 11 people volunteer to take a raft trip across the Atlantic – as a social experiment to study the sociology of violence, aggression and sexual attraction. Over 40 years later, the director recreates that raft in a studio, and invites the surviving members to reunite on it. Combining archival footage from the sea adventure, the anthropologist’s diary entries and the present recollections of the survivors, the result is a deep dive into the weird and sometimes dangerous behavior of humans.

Photo: Distant Barking of Dogs

Distant Barking of Dogs
Is it worth risking safety to remain where home is? In eastern Ukraine, a boy and his grandmother live day by day on the frontlines of the war, choosing not to displace themselves as so many others in their community have. Oleg grows up amidst bombs and conflict, always in the (not always distant) background, reminding you that the real cost of war is on the individual. But is it worse than losing everything you know?

Next Guardian
An intimate family portrait high in the Himalayan mountains, where a brother and sister face the expectations of the older generation as they seek to pursue their own dreams. Gyembo is expected to take over the Buddhist temple overseen by his father and attend monk school, but he just wants to continue English language school. Toshi doesn’t feel like a girl and just wants to be a football player for the national team, which doesn’t fit her family’s idea of how a girl should act. Normal teenage growing pains take on a larger scope in this traditional Bhutanese village.

Movements of a nearby mountain
In a remote warehouse in the Austrian alps, a Nigerian self-taught mechanic passes his days selling parts and exporting used cars to his native country. The film observes Cliff’s daily routine with a serenity somewhat incongruous with the work, but fitting for his unhurried daily routine. Yet there is so much “life” happening that we are drawn into his world.

Concussion Protocol
I’ve long been a strong supporter of short documentaries. Not as a step-child of the feature, but as equal or even better examples of filmmaking. Concussion Protocol is an example of the latter, where all the politics and activism around the issue of head injuries in American football are distilled into less than 6 minutes. It’s a visceral, powerful six minutes that strips away everything except the bare truth of the pain and suffering.

Won’t you be my neighbor
Even if this wasn’t a solidly crafted film (which it is), I couldn’t not love it. Talk about someone who treats others with dignity. I grew up on Mr. Rogers, he formed so much of my early childhood understanding. So watching this was like returning to my childhood, like watching a home movie but with so much more social impact. As a child, you don’t quite understand what you were seeing, so being able to observe the show and see the deliberate decisions behind it really made me appreciate.
Sometimes it feels like they are deliberately avoiding the bad (is it really possible that the man’s only drawback was that he worked too much?), but I’ll take it. Especially in this era of where treating people with respect is NOT a given.

Photo: Island of the Hungry Ghosts

Island of the hungry ghosts
The residents of Christmas Island pull out all the stops to protect the red land crabs as they migrate from the jungle to the sea. But in this stylized film, the treatment of the crabs is juxtaposed with therapy treatments of human migrants who have found their way to this island, experiencing almost as much trauma here as where they’ve come from. The stories are gutting, as is the inside look at how the detention center operates with a level of inhumanity that is designed to keep people away.

America
Sometimes a film touches you with its humanity, and for me, this was one such case. Another instance of caring for the elderly, but this time it’s family. Three brothers in Mexico move in together to take care of their grandmother after their father is jailed for negligence. The tenderness with which they care for her, especially in less-then-pleasant situations is admirable, but the humanity also arises from the pain they experience in their relationships with each other.
I have some ethical issues with filming someone who clearly is not able to give their permission, especially in intimate scenes of nudity. But appreciate that they also didn’t shy away from showing the less admirable sides of all involved.

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

Virtual reality brought me into the world of a strong Roma woman

What did I know about Roma? Like many people, my assumptions came from films. Beautiful ones, like the documentaries Toto and his Sisters and Spartacus and Cassandra. Both films take you into a world of Roma through adolescents and those trying to help them move out of their stifling situation. These stories show Roma as poor and “gypsies”, who live among drug use and petty crime or wear colorful clothes and perform in circuses.

When we started to think about making a virtual reality film about Roma, it was with the idea to transcend these clichés. Roma face tremendous discrimination across Europe. Could we make people feel a connection to Roma, to transcend their perceptions and engage on a personal level? And without resorting to stereotypes?

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…originally published for UNDP Eurasia

#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.
The_Underground_Girls_of_Kabul
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.

1422989297Image2_Davos

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.

IMAG0455

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