The Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight, which just wrapped its 19th edition, is always a surprising, eclectic event. For its 2020 version, the series showcased projects from 38 countries, and featured 12 World, 16 North American and 14 U.S. premieres, as well as top prize winners from Sundance, Locarno, Berlin and Cannes.
Unlike other festivals presenting new non-fiction films, Doc Fortnight attracts an unusually diverse, sometimes eccentric audience. Though separately ticketed, screenings are included in the Modern’s daily admission price. So along with hundreds of non-fiction film devotees, this annual program attracts curious tourists and Modern “regulars,” oddball locals who frequent the Museum’s various film programs as a form of adult day care. Every year lively audience talkbacks with makers follow many of the screenings, yet there is no industry market, competition, awards nor red carpet. Focused on the artistic potential of documentaries and more recently hybrid doc-narrative works, year after year, the content of Doc Fortnight bears evidence to an increasingly broad concept of what non-fiction cinema can be.
Among the shared themes emerging from this year’s offerings was the extraordinary sphere of common labour: insightful portraits of workers simply performing work.
In Laura Herrero Garvin’s poignant La Mami, Dona Olga, a world weary Mexico City taxi dance hall dressing room/ladies lounge attendant doles out toilet paper and advice to all within earshot: “Men are only good for two things: for nothing and for money.” As Latin music pierces this increasingly claustrophobic environment, La Mami instructs and protects the toughened, older ladies for whom this humiliating job is a means towards economic recovery. When a group of young, upwardly mobile girls on a wild night out invade this somber workplace, economic, class and cultural divisions come into especially sharp and sad focus.
Echo, Icelandic director Runar Runarsson’s luminous, Locarno prize winning hybrid doc is composed of 56 extremely brief vignettes of people performing tasks between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day. Each scene is observed from a single, static camera POV, giving viewers an eerie sense of agency, that one is simultaneously voyeur and participant: A man prepares a boy’s body for a funeral, interrupted by a phone call from his own young son; as a Christmas pageant choir begins to sing, the audience leaps to its feet, raising iPhones in unison; a hot mist engulfs people swimming in an outdoor pool; three rough looking middle-aged men play a board game in a dark room; a woman gives birth; two emergency services telephone operators respond to calls; men uninhibitedly dance in a slaughterhouse; a family bickers over a Christmas tree purchase; a widower burns down his empty family home; illegal immigrants are arrested outside a church; two men tend a fish smoker in a garage; a dog cowers under a couch to the sound of fireworks. In just 82-minutes, and without obvious judgment, Runarsson offers up an entire universe of familiar, absurd, and truly moving human experiences.
My Darling Supermarket, Tali Yankelevich’s feature-length documentary debut takes viewers into the bright and colourful, yet strangely antiseptic world of low wage earners at a large São Paolo, Brazil food store. Lyrical and dissonant musical interludes accompany visual poems of workplace mechanics: people stacking perfect rows of cans and boxed goods, an extreme close-up of a butcher slicing meat, the inside of a dough mixing machine, a floor sweeper and shots of fruits and vegetables piled high. Interspersed are conversations with employees, each quietly aware they are a mere cog in this enterprise’s perpetual wheel. At the bakery counter, a worker muses about quantum physics in between bagging rolls for customers; a young male cashier explains how he silently fantasizes about marriage to female customers while ringing up their purchases and a baker preparing bread rhapsodizes excitedly about Japanese anime. During the post screening Q & A, Yankelevich, who was inspired by science fiction, Jacques Tati films and the music of John Cage, said: “I wanted to break through the physical space and show the spiritual aspects of it… How electrons behave when no one is looking.”
Artists at work were also prominently featured on Doc Fortnight’s 2020 menu. Some highlights:
Marie Losier’s Felix in Wonderland is a rollercoaster ride, blending a sincere biographic exploration of contemporary German electronic musician Felix Kubin with scenes of Jackass-like sound experiments involving dogs, sandwiches, traffic signals, bathwater, fire and ambient electric frequencies as well as staged fantasies of the inner workings of Kubin’s mind.
Director Spencer Leigh’s Raymond Pettibon: A Collection of Lines was assembled from 14 years of interviews and other footage with this influential, prolific, yet elusive artist at his Venice Beach, CA studio. Pettibon, whose work blends writing with lyrical and provocative visual compositions, first came to recognition in the late 1970’s as the flyer artist for the L.A. punk scene. Reflections by artists and friends including Ed Ruscha, Mike Kelley, Kim Gordon, Mike Watt and Thurston Moore round out this portrait of a complex and enigmatic man.
In The Lonedale Operator, a short film about poet John Ashbery (1927-2017), director Michael Almereyda interjects an on-camera interview with the poet with clips from early 20th C. films. These images serve to illustrate Ashbery’s earliest and most persistent sources of inspiration, including an especially touching parting shot of Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes (1934).
Crip Camp, triumphant from winning the U.S. Documentary Audience Award at Sundance opened the series. This is the second co-production from Netflix and Higher Ground, Barack and Michelle Obama’s film company (the first was 2020 Doc Oscar winner American Factory). The first half of the film is devoted to home movies and wickedly honest, 50 year-old black & white video from Camp Janed, which according to co-director Jim LeBrecht, was a “summer camp for the handicapped run by hippies.” Through the video (shot mostly in 1971), viewers are introduced to a spirited group of young disabled teenagers (including LeBrecht) and their counter culture counselors, who treat the campers as regular teens with normal adolescent desires–which at one point results in a camp-wide outbreak of “crabs.” The vintage footage splendidly reveals how influential this place was—Camp Janed freed these young people to view themselves simply as kids, not as young people with disabilities. The second half of the film is devoted to what happened next. Many of these campers together (in Berkeley, CA and then in Washington, D.C.) went on to become leading activists in the social justice movement for people with disabilities.
Many former Camp Janed campers, counselors and their family members were present at the Doc Fortnight screening, infusing the jam-packed theater with a mood of pure celebration. For anyone who feels trapped in a rigged system, this film is sure to inspire people to fight injustices for years to come.
Since this year’s film selection was overseen by the Modern’s internal film department, previous Doc Fortnight independent curator, Kathy Brew focused entirely on what is happening on the outskirts of the documentary genre, in an invigorating sidebar program titled: NonFiction +
In this series within a series, Tiffany Shlain, an Internet pioneer and Webby Awards founder charted her path from digital evangelist to digital cautionary in Dear Human, a Live Spoken Cinema Performance.
Acclaimed Indian theater director and playwright Anamika Haksar’s brilliant Taking the Horse to Eat Jalebis immersed the audience in a kaleidoscope of sight and sound, blending dramatic recreations, documentary footage and animated magical realism. Based on conversations with working class residents of the ancient city of Old Delhi, Haksar invites viewers to experience this “oasis of different communities living together.”
In Domesticating Reality, New Media Head and IDFA DocLab founder and curator Caspar Sonnen showcased examples of unusual and innovative work happening at the intersection of documentary cinema, interactive media, digital technology and immersive theater to illustrate “how documentary today can take any shape and form.” Riffing on Dr. Nancy K. Baym’s 2015 Domestication Theory, a social science model that proposes a three-stage adaptation process to new technologies, “Euphoria, Moral Panic and Domestication,” this event left the audience with a LOT to ponder (and perhaps be deeply troubled by). Examples of artistic use of surveillance technology and artificial intelligence, especially an entirely fake, yet utterly believable rendering of a speech never given by Richard Nixon were chilling. Technologies like Virtual Reality may not yet be universally embraced, but they are definitely coming for you.