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New York Documentary Film Festival

The Italian Festival dei Popoli arranged at the Anthology Film Archives in New York from May 26 -30 a documentary film festival and presented a selection of Italian productions. Guided by 'The Feeling of Being There' theme the program included influential classic international documentaries produced during the 1958-1965 period which had a strong impact on documentary film making. An additional focus was an Italian Chronicles section with the work of Alessandro Rossetto and a Special Events part arranged in collaboration with the New York Women in Film and Television dedicated to the productions of Enrica Colusso. The program included 18 films.

Established in 1959 The Festival dei Popoli is a rather important Italian organization which has remained relatively little unknown outside the documentary setting. It has arranged in Florence over the last fifty years screening of the best international productions
introducing film makers like Fred Wiseman, Richard Leacock, Ken
Loach and others. Since 2008 it has also organized an annual festival in New York. The Festival is a unique institution which has archived over 15 thousand documentary films but also arranged since its inception workshops and courses for documentary and other film makers. With its focus on the promotion and dissemination of social documentary productions relevant for the humanities, social sciences, media studies and other disciplines, the Festival dei Popoli has brought its own unique perspective to the documentary enterprise. In the United States there is no public or private institution with a similar mission.

The embrace of the social documentary category broadens and narrows the mission of the Festival dei Popoli. There are virtual no areas in human endeavor to which the label 'social' could not be applied, a thematic realm further enlarged by the impossibility of determining which type of social behavior is more important than another. Thus on face value the documentary representation of rootless individuals is as important as the depiction of problems of retirement. On the other hand I am not sure if the festival's collection could serve as a home for broadly defined successful commercial documentaries as produced by Michael Moore. Other more recent example would be possible inclusion of Alexander Genetlev's exegesis of the Russian mafia THIEVES BY LAW, or innovative experimental work like Clio Bernard's THE ARBOR, an analysis of the playwright Andrea Dunbar's family using in a flawless manner different artistic tools. They may not meet the qualification of a social documentary

The survey of influential productions included eleven short documentaries which were part of a retrospective from the 2009 edition of the Festival dei Popoli. Among the directors presented were D.A. Pennebacker, Joyce Chopra, Robert Frank, Gian Baldi, Agnes Varda, and Cecilia Mangini to name but a few. 'The Feeling of Being There' productions originated in the period in which The Festival was established and included well known classics like A HAPPY MOTHER' DAY, PULL MY DAISY, TERMINUS, LAMBERT & CO., SALUT LES CUBAINS, and LA CASA DELLE VEDOVE.

Alessandro Rossetto screened three productions FELTRINELLI on the famed Italian publisher and his enterprise, BIBIONE BYE BYE ONE
(1999) on Adriatic Sea coast characters, and the rather personal CLOSING DOWN (2001) on his mother shutting down her hair dresser saloon. FELTRINELLI (2006) presented fascinating material from the publishing house and moved on parallel tracks analyzing the publisher and his family on one hand and the fate of the publishing house before and after the death of its founder on the other. There were thought provoking segments about the process of writing and editing, yet the film does not provide an in depth analysis of either the publisher or his business due to editorial limitations apparently imposed by the Feltrinellis, who contracted the film. The film still cannot be shown in Italy. CLOSING DOWN is an appealing ethnographic study of the little community universe which a barber shop inhabits, of its female customers and owner, who have a hard time letting go of their long years of encounters in the shop. BELOW SEA LEVEL
(2008) by Gianfranco Rosi which was honored as the best documentary at the 2008 Venice Film Festival, evoked a mixed reaction. On one hand the documentary is an intriguing presentation of a bunch of individuals living in junked cars in a desert in Southern California, individuals who have been rejected by society or reject it and who are so uprooted that they cannot function in any 'normal' setting.
The depiction is lengthy but appears nonetheless accurate and realistic. Yet one cannot escape the impression of voyeurism or the recognition that given the filmmaker's approach the film remains on the surface avoiding any analysis. of what drove these people into isolation.

The documentaries presented by Enrica Colusso, ABC COLOMBIA (2006) and LIFE AFTER LIFE (1995) merit close attention. ABC COLOMBIA is a superb portrait of youth in a small Colombian community under the rule of the paramilitary forces. The film depicts the loss of innocence among children, "Life", as one boy puts it, "is nice when you are little, once you are grown up it gets ugly". Thus, early on they accept violence as a part of reality and are socialized into killing as a normal activity even before they join as teens the paramilitaries. Those coming back to visit from their paramilitary 'service' depict in a matter of fact the slaughter and dismembering of bodies they carried out. There is no alternative, and the rule of law and justice are unknown to children and their parents. LIFE AFTER LIFE exposes the coping mechanism of four prison inmates condemned to life sentences and their reconstruction of reality. Though the film was shot under time constraints and watchful eyes of the prison administration, it presents revealing insights. Conditions in this model prisons are such that one wonders how these four inmates will cope in the outside if ever released. Ironically, the short LA CASA DELLE VEDOVE (1960) by Gian Viotorio Baldi impressed me most. Here we have thirteen old women beset by ailments and maintenance of past memories living in a rundown house waiting for death. Relatives have long parted and the only social context they share is defined by the other aging women who are querulous, difficult, and bizarre in their behavior. This short is a close to perfect presentation of age and isolation as well as the strategies to hold on to life.

This third edition of the New York Documentary Film Festival certainly delivers on its promise, that is providing remarkable socially oriented films and an effective overview of what happens in the Italian documentary landscape.

Claus Mueller, New York Correspondent


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