Gillian Wearing’s Self Made, an earnest vision of Method-acting as therapy, sounds the keynote to this year’s Documentary Fortnight at MOMA: the liberation and confinement of role-playing. For her latest filmed record, the prize-winning, aging Young British Artist gathers common folk (as in previous works) and unleashes an acting coach/human whisperer to guide them through their issues. The grown men and women act out scenes to exorcise their demons—a neglected daughter does King Lear, a bullying victim restages melees—resulting in something perilously close to the confessional trauma of a reality show (or the sort of “experimental therapy” that leads to exploding heads in early Cronenberg). But, by turns gripping and cringe-worthy, Self Made is fascinating for its faith in the viscerally transformative force of these private performances.
El Ambulante (The Peddler) also shows ordinary people turned performers, but for a lark. Its subject, itinerant filmmaker Daniel Burmeister, putt-putts from town to town in rural Argentina, shooting one of five antic scripts with the inhabitants in each. He’s a throwback to the days of traveling acting troupes, yet his underlying air of anticipatory disappointment suggests that he’s less showman now than slave to bizarre routine. On the other side of the globe, the passport photographer roving through Siberian villages in Countryside 35×45 doubles as interviewer through his blunt banter with farmers and weathered oldsters. History feels matter-of-fact in these practical precincts: The Soviet Union happened, then someone else gave orders, but never mind, babushka, hold still. . . . (Gerontophiles will also want to catch the adorable Mexican-couple diary Un Día Menos, and, for its frisky World War II veteran, Kazuhiro Soda’s caretaker chronicle Peace.)
Just as voiceover and story arcs are endemic to most theatrically distributed docs, exposition in most selections here is, by inverse convention, DIY. Thus you get the extraordinary postwar Uganda dream flight of Kimi Takesue’s Where Are You Taking Me?, which begins by dropping us in medias res at a bustling curbside in Kampala before tunneling through bubbly weddings, soul-thrumming drum circles, a girls’ weightlifting tournament, and more. Takesue’s askew angles, sealed-off compositions, and embrace of return glances foster the strange beauty, humor, and disorientation so rare in the global glut of hard-drive-dump docs. The physical grace of her subjects and the detergent-ad brilliance of the colorful clothes don’t hurt, either, nor does the music. (A little girl taking her turn in a breakdance-off is alone worth the price of admission.) But the secret weapon here is Takesue’s unnerving ability to zoom with uncanny focus into (and out of) individual perspectives—with or without close-ups—building to one electric encounter with her outsider-chronicler status: “Why you want to go with it there?” asks one seemingly edge-of-tears teenager of his New York–bound image.
Among other noteworthy previewed selections, hypervivid HD flipbook Psychohydrography animates clusters of gleaming nature and infrastructure stills. And in addition to previews for the psychic-historical exhumations of Clio Barnard’s The Arbor and Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light, Doc Fortnight is also your chance to catch the disaster-and-breakdown roundelay of Disorder’s Brueghelian China: broken water mains, hogs on the loose, hit-and-run scams, abandoned tots, and bear-paw contraband busts.
Last but not least is a 40th-anniversary tribute to hardy distribution cooperative New Day Films, which stretches from the early-’70s gender interrogations (such as Growing Up Female) that spurred its founding through pre-doc-boom exposés (superhighway superhoaxing in 1996’s Taken for a Ride) and recent Daniel Ellsberg victory lap The Most Dangerous Man in America. The early New Day films find a grim current counterpoint in the permanent frown of Criada’s servant, Hortensia, serving out her life sentence in a villa in Catamarca, Argentina—one of many memorable echoes in this year’s program.