This article appeared in the January 5, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Horizon (Performance by Opening Statement; directed by Joeri Heegstra, 2022)

“What will I be doing in 30 years? Will I still be able to live in this city?” From the balcony overlooking the courtyard of De Brakke Grond in central Amsterdam, one of the venues for the annual International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), a 15-year-old girl confronted me with a series of questions and demanded answers—right there, right then. “What will the world look like in 2052?” As I swayed between doom and hope in trying to articulate my incoherent vision of the not-too-distant future, I was struck by how this one-on-one performance by Dutch theater collective Opening Statement, titled Horizon, challenged the parameters of what I understood to be documentary. Horizon involved no screens or prerecorded media. Even the subject of discussion was not the present or the past, but the future, which is usually the realm of fiction. I began to ask myself: where is “documentary” in this experience?

IDFA on Stage, the festival section in which Horizon was showcased, aims to redefine the frameworks of documentary in invigorating ways. Five years ago, then-new artistic director Orwa Nyrabia prompted programmer Jasper Hokken, who had been co-programming double bills of live music and film at IDFA, to expand that concept into a new festival sidebar. While live music remains a part of IDFA on Stage—a 2022 highlight was Arcadia, involving members of Portishead and Goldfrapp performing a soundtrack to archival footage of the British countryside—this year’s program offered documentary theater, a participatory ritual, a talk show, a group virtual-reality experience, and a collective reading, all within the context of a nonfiction festival. Each performance explored, in its own ways, how reality is evoked and constructed in documentary storytelling. As these offerings testified, the cinematic real can reside not just in prerecorded images but also in experience, memory, and emotion.

As with Horizon, no screens were used in Funeral, a staged ceremony by Belgian performance group Ontroerend Goed. While Horizon honed in on individual responsibility, Funeral had collective experience at its core. The actors-turned-guides led a recital of funeral rituals and songs of unspecified cultural origins, allowing participants—including me—to join in by observing and following their gestures. Our bodies moved in unison, but our minds likely went to different places. Upon entering the theater, attendees had been encouraged to whisper the name of a deceased loved one to a guide at the door. This small gesture opened a well of emotions and, at least in my case, became a moving anchor for each subsequent action. And it was apparent that I wasn’t alone: I heard sobbing as we stood in a communal moment of silence at the end of the proceedings.

If artist Maxime Jean-Baptiste had taken part in Funeral, perhaps he would have whispered the name of Lucas, his teenage cousin who was murdered at a birthday party in Cayenne, French Guiana, 10 years ago. Jean-Baptiste summoned memories of his cousin through a multimedia performance, Between Nothingness and Infinity, I Began to Weep, that shifted among live readings, shadow play, choir song, dance, and projections of documentary fragments, some featuring interviews with Lucas’s family and friends. Jean-Baptiste became a host for his cousin’s ghost. Lying on the floor like Lucas’s corpse, he writhed back into life in a staccato rhythm, his resurrection recalling Kahlil Joseph’s music video for the Flying Lotus album Until the Quiet Comes, a powerful image of a body resisting its own demise, or perhaps of a spirit ascending. This constellation of reflections on Lucas’s life conveyed Jean-Baptiste’s commitment to offering a portrait of his cousin that isn’t defined by the senseless moment of violence that resulted in his death. Instead, the temporally and stylistically mercurial performance aimed to defy the stereotyping of Black bodies, which its title—a quote from Frantz Fanon’s 1952 book, Black Skin, White Masks—explicitly invokes and resists.

Back in 2020, during an IDFA held in partial pandemic lockdown, Dutch filmmaker Eliane Esther Bots presented a performance about interpreters in the Yugoslavia Tribunal; this piece was later realized as the short film In Flow of Words (2021). Now available to stream via The New Yorker, the film gives insight into the secondhand trauma interpreters incur from being the voices of others—whether the accused or the loved ones of the victims—in a war-crime tribunal. Bots’s performance iteration, The Channel, used the theater space to re-create the floor plan of a courtroom from the International Court of Justice, thereby emphasizing the inherently performative nature of judicial proceedings. When I met her a few days after this year’s festival, Bots shared with me that she was intrigued by how attendees had infused new and potent energy into every performance, which could never be exactly replicated. What the opportunity provided for her was a chance to experiment with ideas in front of a captive audience before finalizing a film version. Jean-Baptiste intends to do the same: he is developing a feature film on Lucas’s life, though he doesn’t plan to appear in the movie.

But IDFA on Stage offers something more than just a trial ground for documentaries. It asks why—and whether—a documentary film should even be completed? And what does “completion” mean? An in-flux, shape-shifting form can often bring us closer to a real past, present, and future than an end product ever could.

Julian Ross is co-organizing Doc Fortnight 2023 at the Museum of Modern Art and is an assistant professor at Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society.