From Talking Heads to Dancing Bear

It's another strong Doc Fortnight at MOMA

In a Saigon meeting room, equal parts bordello foyer and job-placement service, a balding 38-year-old Singaporean takes his pick of potential brides: Vietnamese belles du jour selected by a matchmaker who specializes in fixing up foreign men. Whenever new girls walk in—chosen for age, beauty, virginity, Zodiac compatibility, and especially limited options—the matchmaker's assistant snaps photos of any likely candidate. "Wouldn't you be wasting a lot of film?" asks the girls' handler. "No," replies the assistant, like a true 21st-century documentarian, "this is digital."

In an indirect way, this small exchange from Mirabelle Ang's sneakily devastating Match Made (February 16)one of 32 films and videos screening at MOMA's eighth annual Documentary Fortnight— touches on issues confronting nonfiction film in the age of Motorola moviemaking and the post–Michael Moore marketplace. As docs yet again weigh aesthetics against the urgency to record and report, the MOMA series reverberates with the impact of cheap new media, the alarm-doc uprising, and the current vogue for nonfiction narratives.

Cell phones are evidently the new camcorder, as evinced in the "CELLuloid" program (February 20), which gathers films as diverse as I'm Not There cinematographer Edward Lachman's kaleidoscopic shaggy-dog goof Bearand Darrin Martin's blip-a-second truth-in-advertising collage Every (Text, Image, Sound, Movie) from my cell phone. From these two, anyway, it's impossible to tell whether cell-phone imagery has any evocative power beyond memo-to-self recording or trippy blow-up distortion effects.

When the subway had style, in SprayMasters
Streetwise Films
When the subway had style, in SprayMasters

But that's what cellu-Luddites initially said about video, and the only snap in Manfred Kirchheimer's disappointingly tame SprayMasters (February 13)—a four-talking-head history of NYC graffiti art—comes from the way digital makes Day-Glo color go boom in his subjects' block-rockin' murals. Even that is trumped, though, by Kirchheimer's sweet emulsion of tagged 1970s subways. But for visual beauty, nothing in the series may top Mong-Hong Chung's Doctor (February 16), which uses starkly gorgeous black-and-white celluloid to chart a haunted Taiwanese-American physician's treatment of a young cancer patient.

Even within the series' nominal focus on the environment—normally an occasion to air out the charts and Power Point slides a la An Inconvenient Truth(February 28)—the multiple approaches veer from traditional to unconventional, from agitated to contemplative. With its damning onslaught of stats and grim eyewitness testimony, Catherine Pancake's Black Diamonds (February 14 and March 1) lays out a blistering if homely brief against coal mining by mountain-top removal. By comparison, The Unforeseen (February 16), directed by Laura Dunn at the urging of executive producer Terrence Malick, turns a disastrous development scheme near Austin's beloved Barton Springs into a billowing, imagistic meditation on hubris and folly.

The renewable resource that these and other Doc Fortnight films share is the past: a rich vein that yields ghostly archival photos, bygone footage of aged participants, and cultures and ways of life getting shunted onto oblivion's off-ramp, from Bulgarian dancing bears (Albi Biblom's Mechkar, February 21) to Viennese corner shops (Harald Friedl's Aus der Zeit, February 17). But it's the cinematic language of docs that sometimes seems antiquated: the slow zooms toward a face, the creaky pans and scans across sepia photos. Paradoxically, the most form-breaking film of the series may prove to be Peter Watkins's 1971 fake-umentary Punishment Park (February 23). Shot by festival guest of honor Joan Churchill, this imagined account of a Vietnam dissenter's doomsday seems dated in its rhetoric but entirely of the moment in its outrage and threat—and its challenge that a fictional construct can find real truth has rarely been taken up. Perhaps at Documentary Fortnight 2008, the truthiness shall set you free.

 
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