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Sensory Ethnography Lab (#110 of 4)

Berlinale 2017: El Mar La Mar Review

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Berlinale 2017: El Mar La Mar Review

Sensory Ethnography Lab

Berlinale 2017: El Mar La Mar Review

On paper, El Mar La Mar sounds simple: a documentary about life in the Sonoran Desert, specifically for the border control agents stationed near the U.S.-Mexico border and the undocumented immigrants who’ve survived the daunting trek across the area’s rugged terrain. But Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki’s documentary—made after Sniadecki had left Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, which is devoted to pushing the aesthetic boundaries of nonfiction filmmaking—often veers toward the avant-garde in its approach to exploring the desert and the topic of immigration.

Locarno Film Festival 2014 Sleeping Giant, Kookaburra Love, Single Stream, The Iron Ministry, & More

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Locarno Film Festival 2014: Sleeping Giant, Kookaburra Love, Single Stream, The Iron Ministry, & More
Locarno Film Festival 2014: Sleeping Giant, Kookaburra Love, Single Stream, The Iron Ministry, & More

There’s a brief shot in Andrew Cividino’s short film Sleeping Giant that’s very similar to one in The Dirties, the self-aware comedy by Cividino’s fellow Canadian Matt Johnson, which debuted at Locarno Film Festival last year. Premiering in the Pardi di domani competition at this year’s edition, Sleeping Giant also shares with the other film themes of bullying and peer pressure. In the shot in question, two young boys fire flares into the air, and then at each other—and that it primes such a comparison reveals one coincidental link between last year’s and this year’s edition of the festival. Certainly, continuity is paramount at Locarno Film Festival, whose host town has a population of less than 16,000—small enough to feel like an intensely surreal bubble of stability, while the festival itself is paradoxically colossal, making for an atmosphere all its own.

True/False Film Fest 2014: The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, Manakamana, & Concerning Violence

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True/False Film Fest 2014: <em>The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga</em>, <em>Manakamana</em>, & <em>Concerning Violence</em>
True/False Film Fest 2014: <em>The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga</em>, <em>Manakamana</em>, & <em>Concerning Violence</em>

Jessica Oreck’s The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga is a staggeringly polymorphous documentary that often suggests a collaboration between Carlos Reygadas, Godfrey Reggio, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Part meditative nature film, part urban observational, part fairy tale, these seemingly disparate parts consistently juxtapose throughout to form not just an evocative mood piece, but a larger, discursive work that achieves something resembling Sergei Eisenstein’s concept of dialectical montage.

To call Oreck’s film “hypnotic” would be too easy, as it would neglect the content of her ravishing images, which cohere into a rather precise essay film. The film begins in an undisclosed forest with men using scythes to cut tall grass, and voiceover discloses an important clue to the film’s themes: “culture imagines an advantage over nature and builds high walls to keep it out.” From there, the film turns to “Eastern Europe, sometime after the 20th century.” The imprecise temporal markers could suggest sci-fi, but Oreck’s subsequent images of high-rise apartment buildings and expansive urban development (and decay) are unmistakably of our neoliberal realm, the dregs of modernist architecture on full display. Finally, an animated retelling of a fairy tale is introduced, as a pair of children must contend with the wilderness and, ultimately, a witch named Baba Yaga.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012 Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan

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Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Leviathan

Cinema Guild

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: Leviathan

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan opens with a passage from the Book of Job, an Old Testament chronicle of the suffering endured by the titular everyman, who’s tumultuous relationship with his faith is documented in roughly 39 chapters of poetic inquiry. Concerning Job’s allegorical inquisition into the relationship between human nature and that of our earthly environs, Chapter 41 of the Book of Job provides a metaphysical foundation for the latest documentary from Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, who’s cinema division has given us some of the most impressive recent work in the field of nonfiction cinema, including Castaing-Taylor’s Sweetgrass and Paravel’s Foreign Parts. These two luminaries collaborated on Leviathan, a staggering anthropological account of an industrial fishing vessel off the New Bedford coast of Massachusetts, where an untold number of ships have gone missing over the years as crews tend to a seemingly mundane vocation. Yet their workaday grind is anything but routine, and the results of Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s fearless documentation of the enterprise is the heart-stopping cinematic analogue to the crew’s real-world peril.