(Temporary home for my Film&Festivals magazine coverage until the new website is up. Please feel free to agree, disagree or anything in between in the comments)
The first few days of the week may as well have been called the Neil Young International Film Festival considering the films I had chosen to see. I didn't realise when booking my tickets that these films were pretty much all programmed by - and subsequently introduced by – Neil Young, the festival's international consultant. I learned during last year's BIFF that anything with his name on would satisfy my need for thought provoking films and new cinematic experiences. One of the films that he introduced last year was one that has stayed with me the longest, Gytis Luksas’ Lithuanian DUBURYS (VORTEX).
Over days six through eight there have been a few themes arising, so rather than give the usual bi-daily(ish) update, it seems appropriate to deviate slightly and group films thematically. The most comprehensive and cohesive trend was a trilogy of documentaries looking at photography, with varying styles and to varying effect. I have mischievously also then tacked on Werner Herzog's CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, tenuously linking cave paintings to a Paleolithic form of photography (clutching at straws maybe).
These three films all deal with national identity, but from an outsider’s perspective. DISFARMER: A PORTRAIT OF AMERICA (Martin Lavut) and AN AMERICAN JOURNEY (AJ) (Philippe Séclier) were both, as their titles may suggest, dealing with notions of America and Americanness and were screened as a double bill as part of the always fascinating Uncharted States of America strand, despite neither being American produced (DISFARMER is Canadian and AJ is French). The third (I will declare now is easily my favourite of the lot), TRACES OF A DIARY is directed by the Portuguese Marco Martins and André Principe and is a journey through Japan via many contemporary Japanese photographers. I guess it goes without saying that CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS is also seen from a cultural outsider's perspective considering the cave paintings featured were painted something like 30,000 years ago.
DISFARMER charts the discovery and subsequent fame (way after his own death) of Mike Disfarmer (born Micahel Meyers) and his ability to capture the natural state of his photographic subjects. He was a real outsider within the Arkansas farming town of Heber Springs in which he lived. Therefore the film was not only an outsider's perspective in the sense that it was Canadian produced, but this notion ran throughout the whole narrative; from Disfarmer himself being an outsider within the society, but more importantly, by dealing with the fascination and potential problems of cultural outsiders assessing art created within a particular society. There seemed to be two different Americas that gave their impressions of Disfarmer. There were those inside the society in which the photography was produced and there were the art collectors, or the artistic elite; outsiders looking in and imposing their own views on this society and Disfarmer's depiction of it.
Through this dichotomy of opinions between those within and those outside of this society, the film framed a nice debate about the nature of art and the subjectivity of its meaning. It furthered this position by raising a familiar issue that plagues the notion of art, which is the hypocrisy of the commoditisation of art and what this means for its cultural value. What becomes more desirable, seeing this fascinating and insightful body of work, or hoarding original prints and negatives for vast amounts of money? It isn't only critical of the outside art world for this, but the way the same principle existed within the society. The film showed how everyone, once they had been informed of the value of these photos, suddenly paid attention to them, and suddenly had a story about their encounters with Disfarmer; even though, as someone in the film alludes to, all their stories fit within the narrow mythological representation that had been created of him through this very process.
In the early parts of the film, I was a little annoyed at the art critics constantly telling me what to think and how to feel about these pictures, rather than giving me space to think about them. Yet, after getting the impression that it was specifically dealing with this issue; that this was more the point of this film than the beautiful pictures themselves, then I realised that it made a poignant statement on art itself whilst making me aware of this great artist. The pictures really are captivating and I see precisely why they have stirred such interest in the art world.
I will come back to AJ after I say a few things about TRACES OF A DIARY. In many ways, it was the antithesis of DISFARMER. Not only was it instantly going to be different as the artists themselves were featured, whereas Disfarmer is long since deceased, but there were no constantly reoccurring talking heads and there were no art critics and collectors telling me what to think and how to feel. I completely concur with what Neil Young referred to in his intro as the ‘documentarian’s dilemma’; that documentaries that are dealing with art need to decide whether to take the straight and easy talking head route, or take the bold route and create an expressive piece of art themselves. Both forms have their merit, but the filmmakers here have certainly taken the latter, the bold route; shooting the whole film on 16mm and capturing Japan from their own viewpoint as well as from the viewpoint of the photographers they featured. Not only could I be introduced to many photographers' work, but I could experience the film's own artistic identity as well. Nobody spoon-fed me what to think; rather, the film tidily introduced the film's subjectivity by going through a photography book in the opening scene, with the narrator going at lengths to concede that art is always subjective, always negotiated.
The whole film became a journey through, and exploration of Japan, traversing different regions and using the chronotopes of travel constantly - literally planes, trains and automobiles, with boats, bikes and all sorts else to boot. All the photographers had different styles and worked in different artistic, cultural and geographical areas. It was a little haunting actually to see a film about documenting Japan's national identity that was made prior to, but seen almost immediately after the tragic events of last month's earthquake.
AJ was Philippe Séclier’s (French) tracing of photographer Robert Frank’s (Swiss) journey across America, creating his book The Americans. So thematically, with regard to cultural outsiders’ notions of a nation it sits fittingly with the other films discussed, although I cannot say it had the impact that either of the other two masterpieces did. It fell somewhere between; it spoon-fed me the filmmaker’s, and others’ thoughts on Frank, without really informing me much about him. It seemed a little self indulged and a little pointless. I must declare though that it did suffer from being part of a double bill with DISFARMER, as I was still so captivated by what I had seen; still soaking in everything I had witnessed that this film stood little chance of snapping me out of this thoughtful daze. At least I didn’t walk out, which a number of people did. I don’t see why though, it wasn’t in any way offensive, just a little insignificant after DISFARMER.
I won’t spend long on CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, as it is in pretty wide release and the actual screening wasn’t something that was exclusive to BIFF; although it was a welcome coincidence for it to fall this week. Herzog has managed to gain access to the Chauvet Cave where in 1994, the oldest known cave paintings in the world were found, relatively undisturbed as they still are during the film’s making.
There is a degree of fuss being made about the film’s use of 3D. It must be said, this seems to come from the demographic that consider themselves too good to approve of other 3D cinema: ‘now this is what 3D was made for’ they will say. Well I remain of the same principal I did before; I have no problem with 3D, it doesn’t offend me, but nor do I think it is really necessary. If anything, it is even less necessary in an interesting Herzog documentary where the most compelling features are far removed from the gimmick of 3D and are actually in Herzog’s ability to draw out the raw nature of a subject and find the real humanity within. His voice persistently both amuses and enlightens and the way he draws the character out of the individuals that feature within the documentary has more dimensions than can be added by wearing some glasses. In fact, I still think 3D is better suited to gimmicky theme park ride-esque films, because they need a gimmick, this doesn’t. It detracted nothing from it and I was happy seeing it in 3D but wouldn’t have been missing anything had I not.