Portraits in tenacity make for some of the strongest films in this year’s Documentary Fortnight film fest, again bundled within the supergroup of nonfiction attractions known as MOMA’s Doc Month. You might also group the filmmakers under the banner of the relentless, as they rustle up category-blurring human endeavors everywhere from Sri Lankan no-man’s-lands and Sudanese badlands to South Korean shoals and German nursing homes. The narrative hand-holding and talking-head captioning endemic to mainstream documentary are in scant supply here, and that’s a blessing when the material is strong.
With dashes of absurdism and unease, Phie Ambo’s Mechanical Love (February 21 and 22) tacks between a Japanese scientist perfecting an android that won’t creep everyone out and a German nursing home resident who finds solace in a yowling harp seal toy. The roboticist, who models the frowning, lifelike “geminoid” after himself, chases the ghost of “presence,” and Ambo wryly keeps this would-be creator’s own foibles very much in the picture. The Teutonic shut-in becomes a tragicomic spectacle, attached to a reactive furball whose cry is almost hilariously unnerving, though the sobering upshot is the hold that even rudimentary AI can exert.
Creation is also front and center in Pietra Brettkelly’s The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins (February 21 and 22), but the debate comes a bit more ready-made. On a photo shoot in Sudan, orchestrator of multi-women mise-en-scènes Vanessa Beecroft is seized with the desire to adopt two black babies; objet d’art becomes object of her affection. Kiwi export Brettkelly holds on for a dumbfounding ride with an insistent Western will that won’t take no for an answer, though the film gradually comes undone as you realize you could care less about the maddening pixie-eyed subject.
Shorter and tauter is Barbara Hammer’s Diving Women of Jeju-do (February 19), a bracing 30-minute dip in a dwindling enclave of hold-your-breath-and-pray fishing. These distinctive distaff divers make their home in the historically independent-minded island of Jeju off the southern coast of Korea. The hardy, boisterous, mostly middle-aged lot are instantly appealing, slurping into wetsuits and joshing the game, crew-cut Hammer. With the ladies’ sea shanties as a recurring soundtrack, her film briskly runs down the specs on the slo-mo suicide of this low-paying profession.
Death also looms for two rebels in Beate Arnestad’s My Daughter the Terrorist (February 15 and 20), who are pledged to the “suicide cadre” of Sri Lanka’s separatist Tamil Tigers. Arnestad may be a tad too reticent when it comes to this fatigues-clad pair of young women, who volunteer their unblinking loyalty to an unnamed leader and matter-of-factly detail their cyanide-pill endgames. With periodic drive-bys of villages and churches destined to become battlefields, the film has a disembodied feel, which may well be true to the situation—an in-the-dark mother of one seems beyond grief.
The Fortnight isn’t entirely a furlough to Gloomtown, but would-be comic relief Bachelorette, 34 (February 20 and 22) peddles a strained hilarity as singleton Kara Herold documents her marriage-minded Mom’s interventions. The next series standout is Kazuhiro Soda’s Mental (February 20), about the depressed, neurotic, and otherwise paralyzed patrons of a Japanese psychiatric clinic. Hitting hard with a few quick, numbing consultations, Soda then slowly and compassionately circulates among patients and staff. Though the film is noted for breaking Japanese taboo-powered silence about mental illness, I haven’t seen many American documentaries as devoted to stalled-out minds. Soda’s appreciation for his subjects’ desperate resilience and camaraderie is balanced by an unappeasable crank monopolizing the community-center phone at the film’s conclusion.
And finally: Although the opening-night Howard Zinn extravaganza The People Speak (February 11) was not available for preview, Lee Anne Schmitt’s California Company Town (February 12 and 13) confirms a burgeoning genre of lefty secret histories unfurled over uninhabited landscapes. Through factoids delivered in deadpan voiceover, Schmitt performs serial archaeology on dusty locales that were central-planned into industrial and residential shapes—mining towns, farming cooperatives, internment camps—before getting lapped by history and nature. While there might be limitations to this somehow already-dated-feeling mode of (re)chronicle, the inquisitive explication of the world at large is one way of describing documentary, and the Fortnight’s mission, in raw form.