Tag Archives: documentary

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.

The State of the Short? (Part 1)

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Image: Bob Sascha

DOCNYC has expanded their panel lineups this year and I was excited to see that they were devoting a day to short documentaries: “All About the Short.” I’ve been focusing on short documentaries for a while now in my programming.*  I love the short form for its capacity to break new boundaries, to experiment with form, to be able to live outside the art vs. social impact mode that features sometimes get stuck in.  So I’m always pleased to see more attention being given to short films, especially if it means there are more opportunities to watch them and ANY opportunity for filmmakers to actually get paid for their work.  But the first two panels of the day gave me pause about the state of short non-fiction filmmaking and the market it lives in today: it seems to be all about “content” for websites – there was very little talk about artistic approach (and seemingly little interest from the audience either).  I am thrilled that the market is expanding for a form I’ve always championed, but does it have consequences for the form as an artistic endeavor?  And is it elitist to be concerned about that?  After all, I’m not the one worrying about getting paid.

First up was “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Short Filmmaking But Were Afraid to Ask.” The panel, moderated by Jessica Edwards (short filmmaker, producer and writer of Tell Me Something), included two filmmakers (Heidi Ewing and Lucy Walker) who are known for their feature films but have also made many shorts and two people in producer/acquisitions roles (Adnaan Wasey, POV Digital, and Jeff Seelbach, AJ+). Continue reading

Art or Agenda? Documentary discussion at Codes & Modes

What is documentary culture?  Hunter College’s Integrated Media Arts MFA Program held the conference Codes and Modes: The Character of Documentary Culture the last weekend to unwrap that question.  On my mind a lot these days is the question of art vs. social impact – can they exist simultaneously?  Do they need to?  Why are they expected to?  So I was interested to see the panel Documentary Film: Art or Agenda?  Competing Paradigms in the World of Non-Fiction Film.  Panels have been tackling the same question at film festivals and industry conferences, but this academic approach enlisted filmmakers and producers instead of funders. The panel included Whitney Dow (filmmaker, Two Towns of Jasper, Unfinished Country, the Whiteness Project), Jennie Livingston (filmmaker, Paris is Burning, Earth Camp One), Joslyn Barnes (producer, Bamako, Trouble the Water, Black Power Mixtape) and Jonathan Oppenheim (editor, Paris is Burning, Children Underground, William and the Windmill) and was moderated by Julia Haslett (assistant professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, filmmaker, An Encounter with Simone Weil).

There’s never really enough time to deal deeply with this core question (or answer it…but is there even an answer?), but a lot of very interesting thoughts were posed.

So what is documentary?
Livingston agrees with Michael Moore that she doesn’t like the word “documentary,” and prefers “non-fiction.”  She sees it as taking reality and making a structure around it.  “We’re not dealing with real life; we’re dealing with fragments that are shaped by someone’s mind.”  When thinking about reality, she notes that when you watch a really good fiction film, it feels real but ironically, when we think of documentary, we think of documenting reality, when filmmakers are really just taking real life and creating a fake structure around it.
Oppenheim agreed and sees himself as taking fragments of real life to create a tableau of human experience.
Whitney Dow sees documentary as the process of understanding his place in the world that he’s observing.  “I don’t have answers when I start, I don’t have an agenda.  I start out with a set of questions.” Continue reading

What is a “docuphile”?

A “docuphile” is the lover of all thing documentary.  A lover of reality.  In essence, a lover of the world that surrounds us.  I believe knowing more about the world around us makes us better human beings.

I’ve been working as a programmer and consultant specializing in non-fiction film and video for almost twenty years.  When I started my company, Docuphile Media, I was inspired by the excitement I felt when landing in another person’s shoes, or being allowed the opportunity to glimpse into another life.  Documentaries (in all forms) teach us so much about the world landscape, both on a global level and a personal level.   It’s amazing what we’re able to experience visually, sonically and emotionally through the documentary form.

(This idea can in some ways become dangerous, when we start assigning “worth” to documentary films or feeling like they need to teach us something.  I think this is going backwards for both makers and viewers alike, but I’ll be exploring this idea in more detail going forward.  It’s a question that artists have long been grappling with, and one that is maintaining a strong presence in the documentary field presently.)

But I also think we can learn just as much through other forms of creative practices.  How many times have we learned about a political situation in another country or gone behind the curtain into a private culture through a novel or a fiction film – where fictitious characters take us on a journey that exposes us to things we might not find in the newspaper (or find difficult to follow in a more journalistic way).  In university, I studied American Social and Cultural Studies – looking at American history not only through the traditional history and politics lens, but also through literature, sociology, cinema and arts.

I believe there’s incredible opportunity for learning and understanding at the intersection of media, arts and cultures (as in “the beliefs, customs, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time,” not “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively”).

Exposure only gives us more opportunity to contemplate and analyze what is not directly in our sphere of being. I believe this fuels creativity and growth potential. Technology has opened the world to us, and while it can keep us from fully experiencing life, it also has the capacity to make the world smaller.  I’m interested in how all these things – media, storytelling, technology, art, societies – can influence positive social transformation.

– Karen Cirillo