When is a movie more than a movie? When it’s everything—or trying to be. Since early in cinema, a certain breed of panoramic nonfiction film has chased the dream of capturing the scope of human activity somewhere. The city symphonies of the 1920s, the collective works of Dziga Vertov, and 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi, which set images of American landscapes against a Philip Glass score, chug along through spectacle, poetry, and sheer accumulation, trying to map out the world or at least a world. MOMA’s annual Documentary Fortnight effectively does this in aggregate, but this year’s robust edition also contains some prime specimens of this voyeuristic ambition in individual films.
Such life-in-a-day movies—like, well, the recent YouTube fest Life in a Day—often have massive blind spots and a forced Kumbaya ethos that leave them trite and gimmicky. Not so with the mesmerizing standout in MOMA’s lineup, Nikolaus Geyrhalter and Wolfgang Widerhofer’s Abendland, which takes as its theme work that is done at night (the title means “Land of the Night”). This wondrously shot HD film presents a European nightscape of professionals doing what they do, from security guards checking wire fences and depression-hotline operators (“But I can provide you safety from this distance”) to soft-spoken riot police and bier-hall waitresses to a webcam-porn actress who resembles a human animated GIF. All that peeking harvests fresh material, informative in its unblinking detail, and, without needing to press the point, the sharp-eyed filmmakers paint an indelible, genuinely disarming picture of a cordial civilization that’s catered to and controlled within an inch of its life—think Richard Scarry meets Harun Farocki. The concluding sequence renders a techno concert as an eerie, almost deep-oceanic pleasuredome in long shot before tracking through the golf-ball-pupiled attendees. The DJ’s sample: “It’s a complex situation.”
If Abendland deeply satisfies our atavistic hunger for voyeurism, Victor Kossakovsky’s Long Live the Antipodes stirs in the good vibes that keep the world’s entropy cute. Music enables this not uncommon mission of the globe-trotting doc: Playful classical, tango, and Hawaiian schmaltz goose the twinned portraits of gorgeous inhabited spots (Hawaii/Botswana; Argentina/Shanghai) with a twinkly smile (contrast with the frequent insulated silence of Abendland). People who live near magma are just like us! There are a lot of Chinese people, but how lovely is their bustling! What people do, in this version, is less important than the sumptuous textures and TV-showroom sensory overload of where they do it: the perfect sunset silhouettes of an Argentine river toll man, a verdant Lake Baikal valley, or that hallucinogenically rippling magma. The showman behind the scenes, Kossakovsky acknowledges it’s all just snapshots of something larger: After somebody mentions a metaphor, we see a crane fumbling to lift a beached whale—never quite able to grasp the whole.
But perhaps the truest way of recording life in a day today is through a day in a certain life: Imagining Emanuel might reveal the most about “everything” and “everywhere” with its homeless subject, an African refugee marooned in a no-man’s-land of existence when Norwegian authorities question his story of fleeing Liberia. The conundrum: How to prove it, sans papers? Director Thomas Østbye bookends the film with shots of Emanuel standing in a black studio void; in lieu of an everyman in exotic surroundings, the film displays the date-stamped police log of his border-cell confinement: “Sleeping, breathing. Supervised walk.”
It’s a reminder of the folly of panoramic cinema when a good microcosm can fit the bill. You don’t have to travel around the globe with a camera to show what life is—or can be—like.