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Museum of Modern Art: Doc Fortnight 2017
MOMA’s presentation of innovative nonfiction films was held from February 16-26 with more than 20 features and 10 shorts, including a section of new media Canadian nonfiction films and a retrospective of Emiko Omori with six productions. As in prior editions the program covered a broad range of themes and issues as well as innovative approaches in documentary film making. This year’s edition presented an outstanding selection of films investigating global issues and problems faced by contemporary societies.
Rahul Jain’s feature Machines, (2016, India/Germany/Finland) opened the program. This first production by a film maker still attending school provides a superb visual exploration of a huge textile factory in Gujarat, India including interviews with workers and managers setting the political context of the documentation. Workers seem to be part of the machinery they attend. Given extensive unemployment for the semi and unskilled labor force in that and other Indian areas employers can readily replace workers. One worker states that those who rebel are considered dangerous and get killed. Workers in turn become dependent on minimal wages because they cannot assert themselves. During the first six months of their employment only half of the salary is paid because they are in training. Workers, including many teenagers and children, complete 12-hour shifts under dreadful conditions. As Jain’s visual exploration of the work process and the aged machinery shows, there is virtually no modern technology or automation used, thus there is no need to hire skilled labor which would require higher wages. Management expresses contempt for their workers and even suggests that they are overpaid. Yet the verbal exchanges recede behind the visual imagery, the long cuts and a superb score. Colorful textiles dominate the screen yet they are balanced by the juxtaposed images of the environmental damage the production process causes. As Jain pointed out in the post screening discussion, American features tend to have more than a thousand cuts while Machines has only about 170. The score uses sounds recorded by 70 contact microphones which Jain attached o to the factory machinery. Rahul Jain plans to rent theatres in India to show his film and wants to present it on Indian television, stimulating a debate of the issues presented.
Plastic China, Jiu-liang Wang, 2016, China.
The filmmaker finished Beijing Besieged by Waste in 2011, a comprehensive documentary that received widespread attention in China and caused the government to force the municipality of Beijing to address the problem[MM1] of environmentally sound waste disposal. Plastic China investigates an equally important issue, disposal of highly toxic plastic waste. China is the world’s largest importer of plastic waste generated by advanced industrial societies, specifically the United States. More than half of the global plastic waste is imported by China. In 2011 one million tons were shipped from the US to China, a figure that is much higher now given the growing costs of recycling in the US. Whereas advanced technologies permit the US to process some plastic waste the bulk of it is shipped to China. 30 Chinese towns handle the imported plastic with devastating consequences for the environment, polluting air, water, and impairing the health of the people processing it. Increased consumption in China adds to the amount that must be processed or recycled. The work is carried by mainly small family based enterprises and requires few skills. Jiu-lang Wang investigates two families with children, which make a living processing the waste that surrounds them. In Machines, the surplus of unskilled labor in India forces people to accept poorly paying work to survive. The same holds for the plastic waste processing in China. Sorting out plastic waste requires few skills and as large numbers of people migrate from the countryside to cities where farming skills cannot be applied plastic processing can becomes one of few options for employment. Income is needed to survive but also to pay for the schooling of children; motivating their parents to engage in dirty labor and forcing the children to help. There are upsetting images in this documentary. A family literally lives in the plastic toxic trash which serves as a playground for the children, eating food found in the waste. They also get dead fish from a polluted creak and after frying they eat the fish. According to the film maker his documentation resulted in the closure of some processing facilities. Hopefully, this film will help to foster the consideration of toxic waste pollution which has not yet figured prominently as an issue in Chinese public discussion.
Austerlitz, Sergei Loznitsa, 2016, Germany
There is no single documentary answer to reporting about the challenging theme of concentration camps. Loznitsa does not probe what his images present, holocaust tourism. His camera does not move and remains fixed recording black and white images of visitors to two concentration camps near Munich and Berlin; Dachau and Sachsenhausen. Dressed like summer tourists we see them entering and leaving the camps and buildings which harbored horror. We watch those taking pictures of themselves in front of and behind the ignominious Arbeit Macht Frei[MM2] (Work Liberates) sign of the entry gate. They talk with each other sometimes, and listen to the tour guides. The documentary has no score and is restricted to few excerpts of the explanations offered by the guides. The facial expressions of the visitors do not reveal the impact of what they see, or at least their faces do not seem to show emotions when they inspect the furnaces where thousands were cremated. Rather, we see selfies of the visitors taken from all kind of angles. The inscriptions on their casual t-shirts reflect the tourist mentality. They seem to be consuming the experience of the camp, apparently disconnected from the horror and murder that took place seven decade ago. There is no discernible link. As the film’s title Austerlitz , referring to a vaguely known century-old battle implies, a clear memory of the historical and the dreadful seems to be drifting away. The question remains in the discussion of the tourism which Loznitsa depicts, what motivates individuals to visit places of horror and destruction. Is their curiosity restricted to the consumption of visual images or does it still encompass learning and commiseration?
Wolf and Sheep, Shahrbanno Sadat, 2016, Denmark/France/Sweden/Afghanistan.
The filmmaker who is Afghanistan’s first female feature director received the 2016 Cannes Art Cinema Award for Wolf and Sheep, a film which crosses the traditional boundaries of filmmaking. Her presentation of everyday life in a small Afghan shepherd village is a mélange of ethnographic and naturalistic folkloric elements incorporating the fairy tale of a green nude female visible for brief moments. There are no actors and the story is carried by dozens of imported villagers and children playing themselves. The action takes place in a village which the director recreated for security reasons in neighboring Tajistan because her crew consisted of foreigners and the film’s tale was considered offensive to the Taliban. The audience gains an intimate view of the life of male and female villagers and their children whose spheres are gender segregated. Time seems to stand still for these people and their communication is shaped by gossip and their daily experiences. Young girls and boys tend the flock of sheep and the adults continue repetitive activities which have remained unchanged over decades. Slowly paced, the story evolves with some high points, a funeral opening the film, wolfs killing some sheep, a boy losing an eye in a slingshot accident, and, closing the story, the villagers deserting their homes because of outsiders threatening them. The superb photographic and sound work in this film and the captivating delivery of the story by non-actors conveys to Wolf and Sheep authenticity.
Claus Mueller, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Bulletin Board
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