MOMA’s ninth annual docstravaganza arrives with the wishy-washy-sounding theme of “community”—for part of its program, the fest has culled selections from community-based film initiatives from around the world, including Williamsburg’s own pocket-size dynamo, UnionDocs. But, watching the wide-ranging lineup of under-traveled internationalia—movies that showcase the ties that bind, anywhere and everywhere—the ostensible theme quickly becomes a fascinating question: How are communities invented and reinvented?
Wrong-turn hamlets Viganella, Garcina, and Trefeurig get their close-ups alongside topical Tehran. Viganella—epiphanic views, aging villagers, zero prospects—is languishing in the Italian Alps when a brainstorm strikes its part-time mayor: Let’s helicopter in giant mirrors to score sunlight in winter! David Christensen’s The Mirror follows the irrepressible Pierfranco Midali (day job: driving trains) as he tries to whip up civic enthusiasm and garner global human interest. A neighboring settlement of crunchy German Buddhists provides Viganella’s foil—firmly self-defined, and fussily lukewarm on the project.
Of course, doc-makers actively shape the images of togetherness we see. Case in point: Bill and Turner Ross’s 45635. That’s the ZIP code of 20,000-odd-strong Sidney, Ohio, which the Ross Brothers’ harmonizing camera tours with the easy swing and gossipy intimacy found in a neighborhood barber shop. To a soundtrack of local radio and guitar strumming, we’re squeezed in close at county-fair gatherings, on dad-and-son fishing jaunts, election-day canvassing, domestic disturbances, football huddles, even teen cell-phone duels and toenail-painting heart-to-hearts. The effect is a mood of abiding good humor and decency—”I’ve known you for 13 years” and never got guff, says a friendly cop to a repeat DUI in her nightgown—and it’s enough to restore faith in folks. A more static look, Gideon Koppel’s lovely Sleep Furiously takes in the hands-on endeavors and banter of a picturesque Welsh village (Trefeurig) losing its schoolhouse, but leans toward curating beauty—framing a tilled field or a home baker’s hands just so—rather than stumbling upon it.
Andrei Dascalescu’s Constantin and Elena crops all the way down to one Romanian couple who’ve puttered and farmed together for 55 years. Craftsy, full of song and continuous streams of plain observations and never-gets-old flirtations, potbellied C. and babushka-clad E. are at once incredible and ordinary. The generation-spanning climax occurs when a devoted granddaughter visits with her new baby—and asks to hear rhymes from her childhood—and it’s beyond heartwarming. The colors are magnificent; the agrarian patterning of fields and cottages is reflected in Elena’s home-loomed embroidery.
Unsurprisingly, when the filmmakers get insistent, the films get brittle. Dan Boord and Luis Valdovino’s Chinese Ghost Story nobly raises the profile of Chinese-American rail-splitters in the Old West, but despite breathtaking invisible-labor-in-the-landscape shots, it’s a bit of a lecture. One of a series of Iranian docs, Massoud Bakhshi’s Tehran Has No More Pomegranates patches together a robustly sarcastic historical collage of the village-turned-city, but the cleverness gets stale (maybe nimble irony is lost in translation). Props, though, for the jaw-dropping forecast of earthquake apocalypse.
Speaking of which, Cathryn Collins’s debut feature, Power (Vlast), twins the collapse of railroaded oil oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Russian democracy—with Putin to blame for both. Collins, who sides with robber-baron-turned-transparency-advocate Mikhail, makes the government’s threat personally palpable—and ’90s Russia just as mind-bogglingly up for grabs as you feared—through wall-to-wall interviews with principals, including Khodorkovsky’s personal lawyer, a son, and journalists naming bleeped-out names. Through the nightmare of phony democracy, this chronicle of an ugly open secret only underlines the importance and fragility of community.