New York Film Festival 2009: This Year's Documentaries

Each year, a documentary or two peers out from the narrative ranks of the New York Film Festival, which has, in the past, premiered work by Frederick Wiseman, Errol Morris, and Ross McElwee. But in this go-round, whether by chance or selection committee declaration, a small band of nonfiction entries confidently stand their ground, scoping out far-flung Chinese mountain villages and the Northeast power elite alike—not to mention Jeanne Balibar.

The Art of the Steal is a smoothly assembled talking-head account of art commerce and art as commerce—how the rural, education-focused Barnes Foundation lost its squillion-dollar post-impressionist-heavy collection to Philly. With the timeless appeal of an inheritance feud, Don Argott's debut reminds us how objects of great value attract great forces, here in the form of municipal maneuvers and decades-old grudges, partly recounted by carping Barnesians. Audience aesthetes can fret over civilization's patrimony and join the institution's founder—Depression-era bootstrapper Albert C. Barnes, who died in 1951—in feeling they were right all along about philistines.

Another American story, Sweetgrass, rides long-shot with two Montana ranchers massing their herds of very vocal sheep to greener pastures—with one key adjustment: This Western is radio-mic'd. A funny, revisionist kick comes from the mismatch between Anthony Mann vistas and the audio of a momma's cowboy blubbering into his cell phone and cursing a ewe somewhere in the landscape.

Sweetgrass arose partly from the documentary urge to archive a fading reality, but the heavyweight in that regard is Ghost Town. In many ways a radical selection, Zhao Dayong's visit to remote Zhizuluo yields nearly three hours of streetside shit-shooting, a Sherwood Anderson clump of life vignettes, and scraps of ritual and work. The mood and moment, preserved in the clear, silent mountain air against a backdrop of Communist bunker housing, is less the standard New China fable of the venal-heartless-amnesiac urbanity to come, and more the specifics of humanity left behind or simply ongoing. A pastor who survived purges reflects on the enduring role of evangelical Christianity, a bereft man stops feeding his pigs after his wife leaves with their child—all of whom we revisit in a heartbreaking estate negotiation. And after a youth hops a roll-cage bus out of town, we meet an amazingly resilient "swindled" bride, whose urban job foray yielded an arranged marriage and a baby. All of this is loosely grouped under three chapters, the last, "Innocence," an ambivalent look at a jut-chinned orphan who lives on his own. Like other recent independent Chinese documentaries on the festival circuit, Ghost Town is generous with its time and hands-off. It's a big chunk of film, no question, and slacker than necessary, but it sure disproves one villager's quip, cheekily placed near the beginning of the doc: "Go ahead and film, but there's nothing worth filming here!"

You might wrongly think the same of In Comparison, a fascinating, pellucid documentary by Germany-based film essayist Harun Farocki. The hour-long work is a highlight of the festival's "Views From the Avant-Garde" program, but otherwise could reoccupy the slot of '06 main-slater Our Daily Bread—though instead of agriculture, we get the under-heralded métier of brick-making. In Comparison is a globe-trotting The Way Things Work illustration, with an unwavering feel for the beauty in human labor and craft. Farocki's playful coverage of one worker's brick-hurling is unforgettable, and, what's more, the elemental materials look gorgeous in 16mm.

The fest's apparent Year of Nonfiction also marks the first inclusion of Portuguese cinephile favorite Pedro Costa, whose stringently framed long takes and ravaged locations push his fiction features into the documentary of experience. Costa makes his comparatively straightforward bow here with Ne Change Rien, a strikingly shot tag-along with French actress Jeanne Balibar as she sings in rehearsal rooms, voice class, etc.

Last, but not least, under the doc rubric are Serge Bromberg's filmic exhumation-exorcism Inferno and, stretching the definition of a doc, master Russian animator Andrei Khrzhanovsky's pastiche portrait of Joseph Brodsky, A Room and a Half—all of which suggest that the documentary is rich enough to warrant festival real estate in years to come.

 
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