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BAFICI 2015: Vergüenza y Respeto, The Look of Silence, 35 and Single, The Royal Road, & More

Many of the excellent documentaries screened at BAFICI articulate a surprisingly coherent argument about nonfiction filmmaking and its relationship to the real.

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BAFICI 2015: Vergüenza y Respeto, The Look of Silence, 35 and Single, The Royal Road, & More

Seen together, many of the excellent documentaries screened at the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival (BAFICI) articulate a surprisingly coherent argument about nonfiction filmmaking and its relationship to the real. The people on screen might not be invented characters, and their words might not (explicitly) be the creations of screenwriters, but the camera means mediation and performance. Someone selects the shots, presses the record button, and edits the footage, while the filmed subjects know they’re being filmed and knowingly create a version of themselves for the consumption of unknown audiences. Rather than ignore this phenomenon, some of the best documentaries take advantage of it, emphasizing how capturing reality is a way of intervening in it.

No other film at the festival conveyed this as forcefully as Tomás Lipgot’s Vergüenza y Respeto, concerning the Romani community in the greater Buenos Aires area. At the screening I attended, the film’s subjects were actually in the theater, cheering, applauding, and laughing at their projected selves, transforming the cinema into their living room. Cinematic portraits of minorities often establish a distance between the observer and the observed, between the director and his or her subjects, which then grows into an irreparable abyss between the viewers and the viewed. To pose an Argentine example: Even the canonical, fictional works of Lisandro Alonso, though they interrogate the marginality of the rural characters, end up reinforcing their inscrutable Otherness. Alonso himself acknowledges this problem in his meta-textual, self-reflexive Fantasma, in which blinkered city-dwellers, after watching the director’s own Los Muertos, fail to meaningfully connect with its provincial star, who travels to Buenos Aires for the quiet, underpopulated screening. “Who is this movie for?” Alonso seems to ask.

Lipgot attempts to solve this quandary by allowing his subjects to become co-creators. The members of the Campos family, whom the documentary focuses on, recognize this as a rare opportunity to publicize what it means to be an Argentine gypsy in the 21st century. They reflect on their culture, their traditions, and their history; they sing and dissertate on the significance of their music; they defend their sexual politics; they explain the reach and limits of their acceptance of modern technology; they point out that, unlike other strands of Romani, they don’t wear traditional clothing and aren’t nomadic. Their community is invisible in the local consciousness, a blip amidst the all-engulfing spread of greater Buenos Aires. And so, rather than passively allow the camera to capture their daily activities, they actively engage with it, shaping Vergüenza y Respeto into a vehicle for their self-expression. Rather than settle for being seen, they tell others how they wish to be seen.

The Look of Silence and Citizenfour, also shown at BAFICI, are equally aware of the camera’s active role. The latter, by Laura Poitras, recounts the faithful meeting between journalist Glenn Greenwald and whistleblower Edward Snowden in a Hong Kong hotel room, along with their subsequent revelation of the NSA’s surveillance program. But the director is no mere bystander: she made the meeting possible, after Snowden failed to establish secure communications with Greenwald; she scrupulously documented the proceedings; and, crucially, her film is a key element in the trio’s media strategy. As Snowden and Greenwald discuss their soon-to-be-disclosed information and explain its significance, and as they share tips to avoid detection, with Snowden regularly lapsing into didactic monologues on the vulnerability of technological tools, it becomes obvious that these aren’t conversations they would have had outside of the camera’s eye. They aren’t only speaking among themselves, but also to a larger, future public. Near the end, as the existence of another whistleblower is unveiled, and as Poitras, Snowden, and Greenwald encourage the sprouting of more like him or her, Citizenfour turns into a visual manual on how to reveal state secrets, what risks and sacrifices are involved, and how to go about doing it without getting caught.

The Look of Silence is similar in this respect. Joshua Oppenheimer’s sequel to The Act of Killing follows the optometrist Adi, whose brother was killed by death squads during Indonesia’s anti-communist purge in the 1960s, as he interviews those responsible for the massacre. Each encounter is charged with incredible tension, because what’s at stake, in every tortured dialogue, isn’t merely a circumstantial, immediate conversation between oppressor and oppressed, but the recording of their words for posterity. What’s at stake, then, is history, or rather, what’s made of it. Because to plunge history into the depths of an intractable past, to disconnect it from the present, to declare it irrelevant and to condemn any attempt to restore it as “too political,” as the interviewees would wish it, is a way to forget it. The Look of Silence, then, militantly attempts to contradict this position by proving how the past still exists in the present, how the latter has its roots in the former, and how forgetfulness is the art of those who don’t want their fortunes reexamined.

Instead of seeking not to intrude on reality, as in “fly-on-the-wall” documentaries, these films embrace their inevitable intrusion. An ethos that, during BAFICI, was behind not only such serious and lofty fare as the aforementioned, but also more playful, even trifling titles. Paula Schargorodsky’s 35 and Single is the feature-length extension of the director’s previous short of the same name, which went viral after being commissioned by The New York Times. In both cuts, the author attempts to figure out why she’s burdened with her titular relationship status. What did she do wrong? Does she even want to marry? To find some answers, she tracks down her former boyfriends and interviews them. But the added minutes—more than 70 of them—add little to the sweetly brief seven of the original, and the result is confused and meandering. Her conclusions, after journeying halfway around the globe, are pat and simplistic, not too far removed from what she already sketched out, far more swiftly, in her older piece.

What’s most engaging about the film, nevertheless, is Schargorodsky’s use of her camera to investigate her past, question her memory, and map out her future. Previous editions of BAFICI have included memorable movies with a similar objective, if different styles and topics, such as Nicolás Prividera’s M, from 2007, in which the director probes his mother’s disappearance during Argentina’s last military dictatorship, and Ross McElwee’s Photographic Memory, from 2011, in which McElwee, not unlike Schargorodsky, seeks out an old flame in France, several decades after the abrupt end of their youthful romance, and wistfully reflects upon the evanescence of time. Like 35 and Single, these films are what Prividera calls “subjective documentaries,” in which filmmaker-protagonists chronicle their personal journeys. In all three, the camera, far from being invisible or passive, makes everything that happens possible. But if M and Photographic Memory connect individual experience to national, historical, or philosophical issues, 35 and Single sticks to Schargorodsky’s own problems and concerns, her own doubts and fears, with welcome levity, but little depth. Sometimes the filmmaker looks at issues larger than herself, analyzing the institution of marriage or deconstructing expectations of women, but she always returns to her own universe of sitcom-like days. More isn’t always better, and the careful balancing act of her short, which devotes equal time to the private and the social, comes undone in her feature-length version.

35 and Single participated in the Avant-Garde and Genre competition, where it was joined by Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road and Daigo Matsui’s Wonderful World End, which explored related themes and ideas. The former mixes the filmmaker’s remembrances with an inquiry into California’s checkered past and how it has or hasn’t dealt with its Spanish and Mexican legacy. Unlike Schargorodsky, Olson constantly reinforces the links between the private and the socio-historical. She sketches out a chronology of America’s expansion to the west, criticizing the appropriation of California’s missions as uncomplicated tourist spots, which effaces the history of how they were conquered—and then transitions, often jarringly, to her romantic anecdotes, to memories of her platonic and physical passions. Her constant voiceover plays over images of Los Angeles and San Francisco, short and poetic takes captured by Olson herself and which seek, as she describes it, to preserve her most beloved urban spots in the amber of cinema. What unites all of these fragmented materials is that they’re equally pierced by transience, by the faultiness of memory, at both the national and individual levels. The difficult process of recollection is necessary to understand our own lives and even our own nations, both subject to the passage of time and the incoming of forgetfulness. In the midst of BAFICI, The Royal Road played like an unlikely cross between The Look of Silence and 35 and Single, and reminiscent of the works of W. G. Sebald.

Olson, like Schargorodsky, Prividera, and McElwee, uses her camera to peer into herself. Yet her colleagues tend to make their presence felt, either in front or behind the camera, transforming their process of recollection into a voyage as physical as it is mental. What Olson does, instead, is situate this process elsewhere: She doesn’t film herself going back to meaningful places and people, but focuses on seemingly random—though, in fact, deeply and personally significant—vistas of the two famous coastal cities. She reminds us (again, much like Sebald) that memories don’t always hide where we think they do, underneath what we recognize as emblems of our past, but await anywhere and everywhere, in a whole urban space pregnant with impressions of our former selves.

Olson is admittedly obsessed with aging things. A fading building isn’t just evidence of bygone eras, it’s also radically modern: However it appears now, it looked differently (and less ruinous) before. Its walls evoke not a specific, foggy, and distant date, but a span of decades. They recall, not just the past, or not the past at all, but duration into the present. On the other hand, the Twitcam sessions, photo shoots, chat messages, and assorted digital outlets in Wonderful World End evoke a perpetual, ongoing, flat present. Although a fiction film, it nevertheless converses with the documentaries examined above. We again have a protagonist (in this case, a young woman named Shiori) followed by a camera (or, rather, her own smartphone) and whose actions and words are altered by this device, which blurs the distinctions between “being yourself” and “being for other people.” But unlike the subjects of the aforementioned documentaries, Shiori never steps outside the frame, because her entire existence has become a self-conscious performance. She works as a model, forever seeking roles in films or television shows, and regularly dresses up in gothic-Lolita clothes for the delectation of her Internet viewers. The cultivation of her image has become her full-time job, albeit one for which she receives no salary. Her fans are her only real compensation, outside of sporadic, low-paying gigs, and among her most fervent admirers is Ayumi, a teenager who would like to retrace her idol’s footsteps.

Beneath the movie’s often obnoxious twee cleverness there’s a rather depressing (and no less so for being on the nose) reflection on our constantly-connected moment. In fact, though Wonderful World End admittedly presents an extreme case of multimedia saturation (text messages and chat boxes, removed from their appropriate monitors and shown floating alongside the characters, take up much of the screen), it calls into question the longevity of the movies covered in this article, and asks if they will not someday merge into an undifferentiated mass on a streaming service. Like the fading buildings preserved on celluloid by Olson, all these films document duration into the present, how the past connects with (and is responsible for) the now: the aftermath of genocide, the preservation of ethnic heritage, the scars of love, the transformation of cities. But these films exist in a wonderful world where Shiori, or those like her, can make their every waking hour a “subjective documentary,” except not about the past, but only the present. Exacerbating our human tendency to forget, which, as The Look of Silence makes clear, requires no computers. Directly or indirectly, the above titles consider how we might deal with the past in a culture marked by the ubiquity of the present, and question how their images can offset rather than contribute to this amnesiac bent.

BAFICI ran from April 15—25.

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