By Jesse Cumming
It is no great pronouncement to state that documentary is a genre as coded as horror or melodrama. Yet unlike most other genres, documentary has been more resistant to formal challenging and re-imagining. We might offer documentary’s accepted proximity to journalism as one reasoning, with that discipline’s vested commitment to facts and an assumed ethics in delivering those facts to a given audience. Meanwhile, the use (or abuse) of accepted documentary codes in a hybrid or experimental work has risked, at its worst, charges of propaganda or duplicity. It remains particularly curious considering the famous words of Robert Flaherty, commonly known as the father of documentary, who defined the practice as “the creative treatment of actuality.” Audacious filmmakers and artists have long attempted to utilise or trouble codes of documentary film for artistic purposes, and in recent years many filmmakers and scholars have embraced “non-fiction” as a broader designation for a growth of works that encompass documentary, anthropology, fiction hybrids, essay films and many branches of experimental film.
Vertical Features is a collective and screening series that attempts to embrace and promote such trends of non-fiction filmmaking for Toronto audiences, borrowing its title from Peter Greenaway’s 1978 pseudo-documentary featurette Vertical Features Remake. Many of the ideas that inform the series and its scope aren’t entirely novel, it is a pleasure to gesture to a number of additional initiatives that have emerged in recent years in response to vital new trends in documentary art. We might look to festivals like Porto/Post/Docs in Portugal (founded 2014) and The Art of The Real at New York’s Lincoln Center (founded 2014), the latter of which emphasizes “the most expansive possible view of documentary film.” VISIONS (founded 2014), a monthly series in Montreal with a shared interest in documentary and experimental film, presents “works that look at reality with a different point of view”. Each of the above initiatives and their programmers (only a handful of many) not only appreciate but have routinely encourages a fissure between common distinctions such as “fact” and “fiction”, engaging audiences equally excited by artistic potential it fosters.
Closer to home Vertical Features has also taken inspiration from the noble work of the team at MDFF (or Medium Density Fibreboard Films), filmmakers and producers who have also taken on a vital programming role in Toronto’s film culture with their monthly “MDFF Presents” series. While frequently making room for foreign, experimental, or documentary works, the series most often promotes independent narrative features and shorts from American and Canadian filmmakers. There is an emphasis on emerging artists—many of them MDFF’s contemporaries—but the guiding principle is to show works that haven’t yet graced Toronto screens, for any number of reasons. In a city with more film festivals than there are weeks in a year it might seem unfathomable that critical cinematic gaps remains, but at its best MDFF heroically rescues exceptional works that might otherwise have slipped through the cracks and gone unseen, something Vertical Features hopes to achieve with its promotion of non-fiction works. Less a form of active competition for local festivals, cinemas, or screening series, each of which have limited mandates or programming slates, MDFF (and ideally Vertical Features) can serve to buttress an already healthy film scene by promoting a collaborative and diverse ecosystem that benefits audiences, filmmakers, and programmers alike.
Many of the works selected and promoted by Vertical Features exist in a state of limbo, whether between documentary and fiction, between film festivals and the contemporary art world, between scholarship and spectacle, or between fine art and activism. The increased accessibility to works online has been a valuable development, but the lack of contextualization can be a hindrance, as such a model doesn’t always permit room for direct audience engagement and reflection. The opportunity for reflection has been one of goals in developing Vertical Features, particularly as a chief pleasure of any encounter with experimental non-fiction—typically free of didactic voice-overs or talking heads—is the potential for rich and diverse readings. One way we have hoped to promote critical reflection is through guests speakers when possible, and a commitment to guest program notes for our screenings, solicited from critics and scholars interested in cinema as well as experts from thematically relevant disciplines.
At present the series is currently limited in scale, with screenings at Ryerson through April and an additional collaborative screening to be announced later in the spring, while future sustainability remains an (as-yet-uncertain) goal. A contained series may seem anathema to the seemingly limitless experimentation on display in the work of past artists we’ve screened, like Deborah Stratman and Filipa César, but even if Vertical Features ends it will hopefully have felt like a valuable contribution. After all, we need to ensure room for a remake.