Culled from 300 programs produced by the Independent Television Service over the past 10 years, the 30-odd titles in MOMA’s “Shaking Up the Box: A Decade of ITVS” are proof that this gritty funding organization has lived up to its congressional mandate—”to serve the needs of unserved and underserved audiences”—to a degree that must have given pause to all but its most ardent supporters. But if ITVS had done nothing except produce Marlon Riggs’s Black Is . . . Black Ain’t, it would’ve justified its existence. The last film by the experimental documentarian, who died of AIDS in 1994, is an extraordinarily sophisticated, generous, and passionate meditation on blackness.
Personal documentaries are ITVS’s strong suit. In Elia Suleiman’s Chronicle of a Disappearance, the Palestinian filmmaker returns to Nazareth in search of his roots in a society so radically dispossessed that the very notion of identity is as comic as it is tragic. In Leona’s Sister Gerri, Jane Gillooly investigates the life of Gerri Santano, who died of an illegal abortion and who, for decades, had been known to the world at large only through the police photo of her bloody corpse, a symbol for the abortion rights movement.
ITVS has shown less mettle in the areas of fiction and experimental filmmaking. Still, it took a risk with David Riker’s La Ciudad, four stories of Hispanic immigrants in ’90s New York, depicted in the lyrical black-and-white associated with Italian neorealism. The series opens with the premiere of Women’s Tales From Modern Africa, three shorts dealing with female independence within tradition-bound cultures. Fanta Régina Nacro’s Close Up on Bintou, a Sembène-like comedy about a woman who starts her own business when her husband refuses to pay their daughter’s tuition, packs the most satisfying punch.