Most Beautiful City

The Most Beautiful Country in the World

“Can we have truth with images?” James Benning asked this to his audience at the 16th edition of the Doclisboa documentary film festival, after the screening of his new film, L. Cohen, presented in a double bill with his earlier work measuring change (2016). Both movies—the first capturing a two-minute full eclipse of the sun, plus 20 minutes before and after it, and the second dedicated to Robert Smithson’s famous landscape artwork Spiral Jetty—deal with how our notion of narrative time becomes diffused when we lack physical markers, such as a human figure, movement, or changes in light. Benning’s question conveys his profound skepticism about the status of image and sound, signaling their innate potential to deceive. And yet, ultimately, Benning also rings a relatively hopeful note: “We have a stronger contract with looking in cinema than we have in real life. Hopefully, cinema can teach us how to have a more critical eye. It’s an intellectual experience rather than a purely physical one.”

Seeing was repeatedly reaffirmed as a profoundly political act throughout the festival, which began with a bit of controversy. Festival directors Cíntia Gil and Davide Oberto found themselves addressing the event’s openly political stance when, in the midst of the festival, the Ukrainian Embassy demanded that Aliona Polunina’s Their Own Republic, which portrays a pro-Russian battalion in Donetsk, be pulled from the program, and the Turkish Embassy objected to the term “genocide” being used to describe a sidebar program on Armenians, Kurds, and the Middle East. “Doclisboa refuses to normalize images, languages, or political stands. We accept that the world and its people are complex and that films can deal with this complexity in an open, generous way. We must reject normative cinema made to appease people’s consciousness,” Gil told me during a conversation with her and Oberto. “Our feet are grounded in freedom.”

The festival’s chief guest, Colombian underground filmmaker Luis Ospina, who received a comprehensive retrospective—the first such program dedicated to his work in Europe—framed this artistic freedom even more pointedly. “There is a key distinction between making political films and making films politically,” he told the audience during a talk at the Cinemateca Portuguesa. The difference, as illustrated by Ospina’s career, lies in not being satisfied with reproducing distressing images that can conform to an audience’s preconceived notions, and instead taking an active, critical, and provocative stance toward such images, and toward the act of looking. Ospina’s own infamous mockumentary short, The Vampires of Poverty (1978), co-directed with Carlos Mayolo, was a protest against what the two saw as uncritical portrayals of poverty by many documentary filmmakers whose investigative reportages turned the Third World’s poor into “merchandise,” as Ospina put it; filming in their native Cali, Ospina and Mayolo aggressively pointed their camera at the homeless and the destitute, including children. The filmmakers’ ruthless approach outraged their leftist contemporaries, who saw their own well-intentioned reportages being ridiculed. “Remember to get all the [sordid] details,” Mayolo says at one point in the film. Later on, Ospina and Mayolo are seen on-camera hiring a poor family to improvise miserabilist roles. In the middle of a staged interview, a disturbed man bursts in on the scene and rages about the directors’ voyeuristic vampirism—only to later reveal that he too is acting. When asked which of his actions he liked best, the man answers, “The obscene part.” (He had pulled down his pants and wiped his buttocks with the bills that Mayolo had given him to pay for invading his plot to film.) This pseudo-self-reflective coda is perhaps the most brilliant parody of cinéma vérité’s self-important solemnity, exhibited by such famed directors as Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin in Chronicle of a Summer (1961).

Ospina’s eclectic passions, ranging from American Westerns to experimental cinema (the latter discovered while studying at UCLA), compelled him to play with a number of genres and styles. He co-authored with Mayolo the “poverty-porn” manifesto, porno-miseria, but escaped fatal self-importance, never appointing himself as the developing countries’ conscience (a fate that befell some other brilliant Latin filmmakers, such as Brazil’s Glauber Rocha). Every inch an iconoclast, who, as he told me during our extensive interview, was very much a “drugs-and-rock-and-roll” type in those days, Ospina, contrary to the more serious-minded, politically engaged Mayolo, went on to make genre films, plunging into what was later coined the “tropical gothic.” His features Pure Blood (1982) and Breath of Life (1999) were commercial flops, and made him swear off fiction, yet today they testify to his work’s robust, fluid nature, a vernacular that easily straddles the cultural high and low.

Doclisboa was invigorated by yet another illustrious presence, Serbian director Želimir Žilnik, who was given a retrospective at the festival two years ago. Ospina and Žilnik both emerged in the context of New Cinemas: Žilnik as part of the robust cinema club movement in Belgrade and in his native Novi Sad, during the Yugoslav Black Wave, and Ospina, along with such integral Latin cinema vanguard figures such as Mayolo, Rocha, and Fernando Birri. Žilnik, who like Ospina oscillated between creative documentaries and genre films, produced such exhilarating work as the B-movie styled Marble Ass (1995). Like his previous films, most notably Fortress Europe (2000) and the Kennedi trilogy (Kennedi Goes Back Home, 2004; Kennedi, Lost and Found, 2005; Kennedi Is Getting Married, 2007), Žilnik’s new documentary, The Most Beautiful Country in the World features a young man who immigrates from Afghanistan to Austria, only to find himself torn between his newly acquired freedom and his homeland’s traditions. In this staged docudrama, when the young man’s grandfather shows up demanding that the young man find himself a proper Afghan wife, Žilnik stages a wedding, playfully echoing the exuberance, if not entirely the groundbreaking style, of his feature debut, Early Works (1969). Žilnik is also here commenting on a changing Austria in which young people from places such as Afghanistan and Syria use cinema and reportage to try to understand their increasingly complex, interconnected world.

Ospina or Žilnik’s anarchic spirit and creative zeal weren’t as palpable in the festival’s international competition, framed by Ruth Beckermann’s The Waldheim Waltz and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Infinite Football as opening and closing night selections, with the international prizes ultimately going to Greetings from Free Forests (main competition), a contemplative feature by Ian Soroka, and the prize for the best short from any section going to a rather modest documentary, Sebastian Weber’s The Guest. Weber’s film delves back into the over-explored topic of alcoholism in Eastern Europe (more specifically, Poland), albeit through the personal lens of a local farmer. Much more complex and ultimately more rewarding were the films by Sabine Groenewegen and Jorge Cramez, which both point to cinema’s potential to render strange the act of seeing. In Groenewegen’s Odyssey, scenes from archival black-and-white footage depicting Dutch and Belgian colonization are intertwined with on-screen text that stages a conversation between two artificial intelligences (though also possibly Groenewegen herself, reimagined as an AI). The two converse as if two computers or machines puzzling over the footage, a fragmentary cosmic flotsam. Images showing the succession of European queens being feted by the colonies’ crowds are punctuated by the two AIs’ constant interrogations: “Who is that?” and “What does it mean?” At times, when glitches occur, images blur and audio is disrupted, pointing to the fragility of truth as a highly mediated, constantly renegotiated construct. “Magnetic contingency,” the phrase used in Odyssey, is perhaps the most aptly poetic way to put it. While not thematically new, given the proliferation of postcolonial found-footage films emerging from Europe, Groenewegen’s approach adds whimsy to the solemn material. Meanwhile, Cramez’s Antecâmara ingeniously utilizes the camera itself as its protagonist, or, more specifically, the Video Assist feature, which is used to preview shots and organize space, lighting, and actors. A mix of actual footage and moments in which actors do blocking, the film is an ephemeral meditation on how new technologies become agents, changing actors and crew’s behaviors and dictating work pace—a unique time-space orchestrated for the camera, yet for the most part, hidden from the viewers’ sight.

Another attentive act of seeing, very much in the spirit of Benning albeit with narrative touches, lies at the center of an effortlessly poetic and formally sophisticated short, From the Land, by Jeff Silva and Ramona Bădescu. The Marseille-based duo use their city as the focus of the investigation: walls, sidewalks, pools of water in a roof’s crevice, trees or blades of grass eager to burst through concrete—a constant negotiation between man and nature, urban and wild, in a treatment that occasionally interpolates film and photography. On the soundtrack, the city’s inhabitants comment on how Marseille used to be, with certain areas that had been entirely green. Our attention is drawn to the importance of such breathing spaces, however minute, in shaping our daily interactions with the immediate environment. Another short, Mood Keep, by Alicia dos Reis, takes the bizarro aquatic salamander, axolotl, as its protagonist, luxuriating in the fact that, according to scientific research, the young members of this purplish, bug-eyed species refuse to ever grow old. They also develop certain morphological features, such as growing eyelids, to deliberately not see their environment. Axolotls were a fixation of late Mexican writer Alejo Carpentier while in exile, and, although dos Reis does not refer to Carpentier directly, the axolotls’ otherworldly creepiness here too takes on an existential dimension. In Orwa Al Mokdad’s achingly introspective short, Resurrection, in ways a follow up to his documentary feature 300 Miles (2016), the filmmaker’s musings on being stuck in war-torn Damascus are punctuated by dreamy visits from the Minotaur, an aptly ghastly visitor in the midst of the delirium, desperation, and labyrinthine ignominy of war. Of all the competition offerings, Mokdad’s film perhaps best embodies Ospina and Žilnik’s instincts to tell painful truths “sideways,” using staged, narrative devices to filter complex political realities through a more self-ironizing personal lens.

Still more formal experimentations were found in the sidebars and in the New Visions section. With a cemetery setting in its opening, Canadian experimental filmmaker Mike Hoolboom’s House of Pain (1995-98) is a filthily playful gothic that toys with death infatuation and the morbidity of human desire. Meanwhile in New Visions, where Benning also screened, Dominic Gagnon’s Going South, a broader, more metaphorical follow-up to his Of the North (2015), is a highly filtered six-part accumulation of YouTube subscription vlogs. A bizarre psychic space, the vlogs are a combination of a deeply therapeutic psychotherapy session and a solitary echo chamber, in which best and worst human impulses can have avalanche effects. One of Gagnon’s protagonists, a young transsexual, Chloe, veers back and forth between life-affirming proclamations and gut-wrenching despair. Gagnon pairs Chloe’s faux earnestness—she finally confesses that she’s really after more subscribers—with random episodes: young surfers guzzling beer from a tube, an older woman’s quaint VR game in which her avatar knocks down trees to survive on a desolate island, and a stewardess’s monotonous dietary routine. Moments of exquisite beauty drown in the viral swamp of hate, gratuitous cursing, and vile prejudice. Gagnon is in many ways the extreme opposite of Benning. While Benning’s attentiveness tends toward syncretism, Gagnon trades in overabundance. Yet both filmmakers look keenly, obsessively: Benning at the subjective construction of time, Gagnon at the curious, desperate performativity of the YouTube space.

In Communion Los Angeles, also featured in New Visions (following its premiere in Locarno’s Signs of Life section), artists Adam R. Levine and Peter Bo Rappmund take us on a ride down California’s oldest freeway, 110, as it courses through the San Gabriel Mountains. A stream-of-consciousness mirage, utilizing skipped frames, reveals America’s illusory mobility, be it physical, embodied by its highways, or metaphorical. The intricately designed soundtrack meshes dialogue, traffic, and snippets of urban white noise, betraying formal ambition akin to Gagnon’s. In selective static moments that echo the work of Benning, car traffic appears to cease. Such forced pauses make our strain to look, to observe, all the more palpable. At other times, night neon lights flow into each other, creating a beautiful Rothko-like canvas—reflecting Benning’s words that, at its most rapturous, cinema can seem almost to be a painting.

Watching the Detectives

Relentless looking also gets a treatment in Chris Kennedy’s riveting 16mm short film Watching the Detectives, which premiered this year at Berlinale, in which he sources photos from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, as investigated by the users on sites like Reddit and 4chan. Kennedy offers a silent stream of images whose sections are circled with colorful markers, to single out particular faces, clothing, poses, and gestures, and so demonstrate the human fixation on searching for visual clues, particularly in times of tragedy and trauma. Could we have altered history had anyone noticed the perpetrator before he committed his crime? The contextual vacuum gives rise to endless speculation and sinister impulses. Not surprisingly, the way the images are framed is far from neutral. By insistently zeroing in on a potential killer, the filmmakers reveal viewers’ tendency to profile by race, gender, and class.

The festival highlight—one of many—was the screening of Bruce Conner’s experimental works, part of the Carte Blanche given to Ospina. Conner’s iconic found-footage collage film A Movie (1958), which draws on the material from B-movies, newsreels, and pornography, was a revelation for Ospina, who saw it during his school days. In the only 16mm feature presented in the program, Report (1963-67), Conner returns with anguished doggedness to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Footage from the famous motorcade plays on repeat, set to the splintered, cacophonous soundtrack Conner composes from extracts of the album Four Days That Shocked the World—itself a historical sound montage of radio and television reporters. Conner’s films, including the presented Cosmic Ray (1962), featuring atomic bomb explosions, and his luxuriously voyeuristic Marilyn Times Five (1968-73), are examples of a highly caustic, intellectually pointed intertwining of politics, personal eros, and cultural critique that Ospina embraces in his own work.

Doclisboa’s motto this year, “The entire world fits in Lisboa,” may seem solipsistic, yet it encapsulates the festival’s ambition to not merely draw on the wealth of global cinema but to instill a sense of moral, sociopolitical disquiet. With the presence of Ospina, and the news of Brazil electing, on the same night as Doclisboa’s closing ceremony, an ultra right-wing populist president, the moment could not feel more charged—an ominous reminder that, like economics, history too is cyclical. With its triangulation of the American experimental cinema of Benning and Conner, Žilnik’s Balkans, and Ospina’s Latin America—significantly, now all in the grips of nationalistic right-wing administrations—Doclisboa indeed felt smack in the center of an urgent conversation. Its audience was encouragingly young, which meant that viewers could not only see themselves reflected in the protagonists of Žilnik and Ospina’s daring films from the 1970s but also thoughtfully question Ospina during the Q&As on how today they might respond to current political crises with creative agility. To this end, it is useful to recall a few words from Ospina and Mayolo’s poverty-porn manifesto: “In the Western world, misery is juxtaposed to the consumers’ opulence. And if it once served independent cinema as an element of denunciation and analysis, the commercial angle has turned it into . . . yet another spectacle, during which the viewer can alleviate his heavy conscience, can feel touched and tranquilized.” Provoke, disturb, but above all, never normalize. This is Ospina’s message, a call that Doclisboa has taken very much to heart.