On the Act of Choosing in Non Fiction Films: Art of the Real Festival 2018

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‘The Image You Missed’ (2018, Donal Foreman’

Last year I wrote this piece on MUBI about the uncomfortable nature of documentaries during 2017’s edition of the Art of the Real Festival, and I wrote this as some sort of sequel that was supposed to be edited and published, but time constraints impeded it from going through that much necessary work. Please read it if you like, and as it won’t be published at the time it was needed to, and please understand that it needs a professional editor going through it. Read it as scribbles in the edges of the films that played at this ever important festival.

When I wrote about last year’s edition of Art of the Real, the non-fiction/documentary festival at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center, I spoke about the “uncomfortable nature” of the format itself, and it’s probably one of my favorite pieces of writing that I’ve ever produced, as it allowed me to explore what I thought was at the time the quid of how we record and then show reality to others, at least in the context of cinema. This year’s edition (April 26th – May 6th) and its selection has led me into more technical discussions that go into the making of these kind of films.

I’m specifically talking about editing. It is of common knowledge that when it comes to auteur documentaries, there’s no formula or universal approach to any part of its making, from its investigation, pre-production, shooting and, above anything else, there are no rules when it comes to the way a film like this should be edited. But we know that it’s the most important part of it, it’s there that hundreds upon hundreds of hours of footage start to coalesce not only into sequences and ultimately a film, but it also starts to cement a point of view, which is essential to understanding and adding value to documentary cinema.

The point of view of the director of the film is, hopefully, clear enough before the cameras start rolling, and one can see it in the way that the footage prioritizes faces over bodies (or vice-versa), focusing on a certain type of shot, their length, their framing, etc. But many other times directors and cinematographers aren’t so sure, so they just shoot for coverage. As long as the events happening in real time allow them, they film various types of shot, they extreme their decisions, in hopes that the editor (if it’s not the director himself) finds a way to tell the story. So, it’s in the editing bay where the “script” of the non-fiction film is finished, and it’s also there that the definitive point of view of the story is found and exerted upon the footage.

It’s only thanks to a preciously curated selection of films that one is able to exercise the mind and come up with how crucial to documentary editing (and choosing) is. This year festival not only showcases the latest works of consolidated directors like Corneliu Porumboiu, Kazuhiro Soda, Sergei Loznitsa and Karim Aïnouz, but also a four-film showcase of Brazillian new wave of non-fiction, as well as spotlights on artists that go beyond cinema and into art installations, thus expanding the framework where non-fiction and documentary can work. Programming is also choosing, and the choices here manifest the breath of variety in which this form of filmmaking can take shape.

Let’s take, for example, how much editing was involved in Donal Foreman’s The Image You Missed, considering that it’s images are mostly taken from home movies, newsreels, TV reportages and other documentaries. It’s the sort of film that’s almost entirely constructed in the editing bay, and being such a personal film, it only makes sense that the director is also the editor, as it tells the story of the struggle of Ireland, through the relation between him and his father, also a filmmaker named Arthur MacCaig. The film becomes a sort of Irish version of Périot’s A German Youth, but this time only focusing on the filmic output of a single director, whose 1978 The Patriot Game is the core of this film, as we not only see parts of the film itself (and the repercussion it made in the press of the time as one of the first narratives told from inside the IRA, showing their meetings and reasoning behind their actions), but also footage that wasn’t used, which again brings forward the idea of what we’re choosing that the audience sees. It’s curious that The Image You Missed is an “essay film” just as much as The Patriot Game is one, as it also uses footage from events since 1968 to tell the story it wants to tell. Foreman’s film puts the work of his father into perspective, while also reflecting on the idea of editing, of the moments that we choose not to show, how this dialogue or this shot actually works against our point of view, evidencing the work that also went into the making of it, confronting him with his recently deceased father and with the ethics of film itself.

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‘John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection’ (2018, Julien Faraut)

Similar is the work done in the masterful film that opens the festival, Julien Faraut’s John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection, which is also comprised almost entirely by footage from games played by the legendary American tennis player John McEnroe, brilliantly editing together different perspectives and putting forward not only the masterful techniques of the famed player, but also the technical aspects behind the filming of these matches, as well as their posterior use in educational films that teach about the sport itself. The purely aesthetic waltz of the movements, sounds, combined with the at times technical, sometimes emotional, narration by Mathieu Amalric makes it one of the best films of the year, which Oscilloscope will release in August at Film Forum.

Similarly focused on sports, but ultimately in another wavelength, is the latest film of Corneliu Porumboiu, Infinite Football, which makes a estranged portrait of small town Romanian bureaucrat who has been obsessed for years with the rules of football soccer, enough for him to lobby for years in lieu of a change in the local scene and even at FIFA. The choices made by the director here are immediately evident, as he edits together sequences that try to explain his point of view when it comes to explain why this man is so adamant in his change of rules, connected to an accident he had while playing soccer which resulted in a broken leg, as well as how he continuously adds new rules to surpass the problems that arise once he sees his game in motion with real players. But maybe the most telling of all the choices made by Porumboiu is when he decides not to cut, when a 91 year old woman enters his government office while they were discussing changes to the rules of soccer, the interruption stays, lingering, telling about the problems of Romania after the end of its communist regime, as if telling us that he seems more concerned with his own trauma-fueled passion projects than the betterment of the land situation of an old lady.

But it’s not all documentaries in Art of the Real, at least not on the classical sense, as any viewer will say that Fail to Appear, directed by Antoine Bourges, is a fiction, but it’s based on a extremely well documented reality, result of over a year of investigation on Canadian social services that support people with criminal court cases, as well as the people who use their help. As Bourges told in an interview that run on MUBI, he explains that he has “an interest in these institutions that is documentary-like”, which explains the analytical approach that he has to the characters, who are mostly non-actors, as well as the institutions, both the courts and the care institutions. But it’s mostly in the editing where the film finds its space in the non-fiction realm, as it uses techniques that are common to the documentary to link its sequences as well as forming an aura around the characters that is as if we’re seeing them through a looking glass, with the always defining distance that is the stamp of most observational documentaries, giving off a vibe of truth beyond the artifice.

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‘Baronesa’ (2017, Juliana Antunes)

Going out of the realm of verisimilitude is the case of Adirley Queirós’s Once There Was Brasília, which has been described as an “Afrofuturist docufiction” by the programmers of Art of the Real, but could also be accurately described as a low budget political sci-fi art film, although most would prefer to use the former. It tells the story of a Terminator-like mission; a spaceship travels through time and space with W4 inside, a assassination agent that has been tasked to kill the man who founded Brasília. As we see the makeshift ship travel through stars, we hear about the events that are happening in Brazil regarding the civil coup d’état that ended up with the government of Dilma Rousseff. It’s interesting how is that documented reality, the voices of various parliament members lying to the people as they voted to impeach Dilma, is edited into this science fiction scenario, which brings it political urgency as well as an air of melancholy, as Queirós chooses the most egregious comments and most damning statements to give off an air of a rebellion that’s about to be unleashed in the streets of Brasília.

Also from Brazil is Juliana Antunes’s directorial debut, Baronesa, a film that also mixes documentary investigation with the creation of a narrative and characters using the real people that live in the favela named Baronesa in Belo Horizonte. Leidiane and Andreia are two best friends that have planned to live together even though poverty, boyfriends and pregnancy seem to put that to the task every day, the fights between the gangs in the favelas also bring forward a world of violence in which women just aren’t involved or interested in, giving off the impression that if they were the ones in charge, there would be no death in the poverty-ridden neighborhoods. The editing of the film clearly works in the same manner as in Fail to Appear, imitating more rigid documentaries that shoot their important sequences in long shots as to not lose any of the important dialogue that’s happening, supposedly, in real time. It’s also interesting the choice made by the director to keep a sequence in which the dangers of the place where they’re filming crashes into the non-fiction they’re creating, when a series of gunshots not only makes the protagonists flee into their houses, but the camera and the crew too.

It’s hard to film a conflict, specially one that is still going on in the present, there are too many choices to make and the weight of history will eventually land on their legacy as documentaries, as much as they have a point of view, nobody knows if it’ll be chastised. Hence, the beauty of documentaries like Meteors, directed by Gürcan Keltek, and Wild Relatives, directed by Jumana Manna, that focus on the ephemeral elements of present/recent conflicts, like the Kurdish-Turkish conflict and the Syrian revolution respectively. In Meteors images of the conflict can be seen, but they are rendered as another aesthetic element in the beautifully edited and shot sequences that give off more the sensation of war than one of factual terror, focusing on the hunt for animals, the protests, natural phenomena and a meteor shower that people from around there at one point confuse with “another bombing”. Meanwhile, in Wild Relatives, the moving of a seed bank in Aleppo to Lebanon and later to the world’s seed bank in the Artic, manages to tell a year in the life of those who work both in the place where seeds are stored and in the countryside where the seeds are being put to use, most of them women, most of them Syrian refugees, who relate not stories of war but of how much they prefer working under the sun than staying home where “they can’t say much”, it’s there that they can find friends, talk about whatever they want and be free. A year of the life of these people is summarized in barely 65 minutes, a faithful example of the power of choosing to talk about community instead of misery, of the small moments of happiness, proud and community over those that tore you apart.

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‘Wild Relatives’ (2017, Jumana Manna)

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