At the close of this war-embedded, reality-TV-crazed year, holiday shoppers are snapping up unprecedented scads of consumer-end devices for recording the human experience. Whether these budding documentarians ever move past Polaroid-shakin’ porn, it’s a perfect moment to reflect on the capturing of reality—the motives and methods behind supposedly objective nonfiction. Many of this year’s Doc Fortnight films provide timely glimpses into their filmmakers’ obsessions, goals, and biases.
In The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2003), an Irish team captures last year’s attempted coup against Venezuela’s elected president Hugo Chávez. They make no attempt at objectivity, challenging the equally lopsided accounts of the event by oil-money-controlled Venezuelan media. In Another Afghanistan: Kabul Diary 1985 (2003), Japanese director Tsuchimoto Noriaki narrates over footage shot in Soviet-controlled Kabul in 1985, giving rhapsodic accounts of nourishing orphanages, coed schools, the issuing of land deeds en route to collectivization. His companion piece, Traces: The Kabul Museum 1988 (2003), tours the place prior to Taliban-ordered destruction. Reciting each artifact’s heritage—Indian, Greco-Roman, Egyptian—Noriaki implicitly argues for Afghanistan’s cultural value, though curiously basing his claims on genteel notions of sophistication and first-world civility.
Weighing in for the first world is ragingly misanthropic Austrian director Ulrich Seidl—Animal Love observing twisted pet culture, and Jesus, You Know (2003) munching the black heart of personalized religion. The curators have also included Seidl’s Dog Days (2001), a doc-narrative hybrid boasting gimlet-lensed nudity and nonprosthetic ectomorphism. Sophistication prole-style is also mocked in Judy Fiskin’s one-joke 50 Ways to Set the Table (2003), a look at the L.A. County Fair’s table-setting competition. But civility emerges as the answer again in Flag Wars (2003), which throws its faith behind a kindly arbitrator parsing the culture clash between gay home-buyers and the minority residents they’re pricing out of a Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood.
In the “privileged camera” category, Mountain Men and Holy Wars (2003) finds director Taran Davies and some cocky scholar pals retracing the footsteps of 19th-century Chechen freedom-fighter Imam Shamil. Though the regional history is fascinating, the filmmakers come off smugly thrilled with their own merging of respectable inquiry with a trip to one of the most perilously beautiful parts of the world. Paul Chan’s video collage Baghdad in No Particular Order (2003) shares a perspective with Noriaki’s insistent Afghan exhibitions. Filmed during the Iraq Peace Team’s anti-embargo campaign, its images are all Western-friendly: Baghdad artists discussing Matisse, unscarfed young girls dancing to a boombox, Sufis singing in a world-music fan’s fantasy of ritual trance.
The gruelingly distended Return to Tibet (2003) follows Richard Gere and his exiled guru Rato Khyongla Rinpoche on the titular journey. Filmed worshipfully by Nicholas Vreeland, a fellow monk in the entourage, the rituals surrounding the Western guru’s return seem unctuous, and the jealousy that brews under the surface of all the celebration is never acknowledged. We do see a lot of stills shot by Gere. Black-and-white, arty, blurred—an idealized future memory of aestheticized spirituality. For every camera, a hundred possible assumptions.