A meaty buffet of current documentary filmmaking like MOMA’s annual retro is as ripe a place as any to examine what’s gone drearily wrong and, occasionally, poetically right with the form since the salad days of vérité. On one hand, nonfiction film has become the (mostly) profit-free realm of activists who possess outsize hearts but little cinematic sense. You can’t blame audiences for shrugging over contemporary docs’ graceless video work, sentimental single-instrument scores, tepid tales of hardship, dull interviews, and reliance on ethnicity’s payload to carry the ball home. Perfectly ordinary examples Moving Forward (2005), Roosevelt’s America (2005), and Al Otro Lado (2005) are all righteous, chaste, correct, and forgettable, their subjects (store-owning Colombian women, a Liberian refugee’s American life, Mexican corrido-&-dope-grower culture) worthy but underserved by the films’ unimaginative earnestness.
God Sleeps in Rwanda (2005) is also sympathetic and affecting but dry, unadventurous about its titanic context—the 1994 genocide—and fairly simplistic in its framing of a scarred society that is now 70 percent female, many of them survivors of wholesale rape. The Devil’s Miner (2004) is typical but more successful, taking us to a network of age-old Bolivian silver mines drilled by desperate villagers, ruled by a mutant-Christian culture that equips every tunnel with an ancient horned-deity shrine, to which alms must be paid for safety’s sake.
The other end of the spectrum is, luckily, well represented, running from William Greaves’s legendary not-quite-nonfictional landmark Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 1 (1968) and its meta-sequel Take 2 1/2 (2005) to Sean McAllister’s remarkable Iraqi journal The Liberace of Baghdad (2004), in which the BBC cameraman befriends Samir Peter, a beloved, sophisticated concert pianist now living in a hotel basement and playing show tunes in the lobby for foreign journalists. Infectiously gregarious and ferociously unhealthy, Peter is every doc-maker’s dream subject, and his savvy day trips through the city are worth hundreds of hours of CNN footage.
One of the few pieces of culture crit, Czech Dream (2004) is a winking document of a very real socioeconomic film school stunt: Interrogate the nation’s newborn mega-consumerism by launching a vast advertising campaign hawking a huge “hypermarket” that doesn’t actually exist. Outrage ensues before the forthrightly dishonest film spontaneously morphs into a critique of the European Union and, implicitly, American globalism.
Still, Pirjo Honkasalo’s galvanizing Chechnyan fugue The 3 Rooms of Melancholia (2004), released here last year, is my idea of a sociopolitical doc: unafraid of poetry, scalding in its imagery, more interested in transcendence than education. (By itself Grozny is a freestanding post-apocalyptic wasteland of decimation, hunger, and limping dogs, and Honkasalo knows how to shoot it.) Two movies explore memories of female anti-Nazi resistance: Poumy (2005) interviews a nonagenarian Jewish matriarch about her wartime espionage, while Barbara Hammer’s
Lover Other (2006) self-consciously invokes the fascinating tale of two stepsister lesbian lifemates, both of them dedicated surrealists, butch cross-dressers, and vampy masqueraders who lived on the Isle of Jersey for decades and defied the German occupation with their own covert propaganda campaign.
Amid all of this, Paul Rosdy’s New World (2005) is a unique, 35mm sojourn through Eastern Europe, from Mostar to Sarajevo to Vienna, and from the last days of the Austro-Hungarian empire to the present (the geographic overlaps are a favorite motif), encompassing barrels of lingering Hapsburg- era history, old news stories, archival footage, work-life, and constant explosions of ethnic music. Rosdy’s thesis is up for grabs, but he captures the landscape of history on a workingman’s level, and for that I’d happily belly up to a five-hour work print.