“Why are you filming so much of me?” a woman in a Nepalese leper colony asks of documentarian Ellen Bruno. That question, and all the ethical implications it carries, should be posed to anyone who trains a camera on himself or anyone else in the guise of seeking truth. On that score, Bruno’s conscience ought to be clean—cleaner than most, anyway. A humanitarian relief worker for more than 25 years, the San Francisco filmmaker has spent much of the past two decades exploring and documenting social and political conditions in East Asia, often at great personal risk.
Yet it’s the depth of Bruno’s commitment—not to abstract principles of liberal idealism, but to flesh-and-blood people—that creates tension within her films. By nature, a documentarian’s job is to not look away. Yet there’s something fundamentally intrusive about making art of people’s lives—starting with the decisions of what to include or omit, whether to shape a narrative or satisfy an agenda. In three short films playing at Film Forum through January 9, Bruno wrestles with contradictory impulses: to expose or to protect, to report or to shelter.
These aims are most strikingly at odds in Bruno’s 1998 film
Sacrifice, which seeks to shed light on the ugliness of Bangkok’s seamy sex- trafficking industry without adding to it. The structure alternates talking-head testimony from underage Burmese sex workers with impressionistic visuals accompanied by a girl’s dispassionate, poetic first-person narration of slavery. The effect is not unlike a Terrence Malick Real Sex
episode—only Bruno thwarts any viewer who craves titillation in a plain brown wrapper of moral outrage.
Bruno shields the subjects of Leper (2005) in plain sight, introducing them matter-of-factly as workers in a Nepalese colony before the title can summon its centuries of fear and repulsion. Finding a range of attitudes from acceptance to anger, Bruno lets the villagers clear the air about their misunderstood condition with often shocking candor. At the same time, she understands that she’s a vessel for the viewer’s timid curiosity. In one brief but telling shot, the camera catches a woman rubbing her deformed hand. The filmmaker watches so intently that the suddenly self-conscious woman tucks it away.
Bruno’s films can seem tedious without the narrative beats that propel most docs in commercial release these days. They raise more questions than the filmmaker intends to answer, either about their methods—was the narration of Sacrifice scripted? Were the artier shots staged?—or factual matters as simple as the subjects’ names. But they’re not intended as cinematic encyclopedia entries. They’re windows that open outward, not cases slamming shut.
The same holds true for the third film, Sky Burial (2005), which records a Tibetan ritual in which monks flay the flesh from dead bodies and offer it to flocks of collie-sized vultures, which carry the carrion into the heavens. Bruno doesn’t allow Western sentimentality or squeamishness to intrude; she doesn’t even show the lift-off of the giant birds to signify transcendence. Instead, she ends with the scavengers in a ravenous pack, moving in for the feast. They’re still on earth—and in the films of Ellen Bruno, heaven can wait, indefinitely.