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“I could make the inside of myself show on the outside,” Barbara Hammer says in Lynne Sachs’s documentary Carolee, Barbara & Gunvor (2018), explaining how a lighter movie camera, developed in the Sixties, helped her convey intimacy, and thus became a useful, malleable tool of expression. The short, in which Sachs pays a visit to pioneering women artists who used moving image in their practice — Hammer, Carolee Schneemann, Gunvor Nelson — will enjoy a weeklong run as part of “Doc Fortnight,” the Museum of Modern Art’s annual showcase dedicated to nonfiction film.
In this year’s program, the intimacy celebrated by Hammer comes in many guises. In the feature-length Instructions on Parting (2018), artist Amy Jenkins shapes a narrative of mourning from family videos. Jenkins’s camera is like an irksome busybody you can’t get rid of: It roves, at times haphazardly, at weddings and parties, becoming the family’s consummate chronicler. Later on, when Jenkins’s older sister, then mother, and brother fall ill with cancer, the image-capture becomes more self-aware, reflecting Jenkins’s evolution from exuberant picaresque explorer to haunted memoirist. To be sure, Jenkins’s video aesthetic accentuates some of the pitfalls of amateur filmmaking. Nature shots, such as the ones of birds nesting, raising their young, or falling prey to the cold, set up a facile parallel with the human lifecycle. Yet the shortcomings — the rough edges, the occasional lack of purposeful framing — are trivial compared to the film’s passionate prosody. In the end, Jenkins rescues these essential glimpses of dignity and compassion from the grips of death.
In Rena Effendi’s three-channel video installation Spirit Lake (2017), which was filmed on a North Dakota Native American reservation and is featured in the aptly named shorts program “The Presence of Place,” intimacy arrives via painful confessions of rape, silencing, and suicide, and is interwoven with a broader narrative of ancestral spirit sightings. Unlike in Jenkins’s film, the image and story here are often nonaligned, and the stories’ authorship is communal, rather than first-person. At the same time, Effendi, as Jenkins does, links man to nature. In turn, the ghost stories become hauntings of particular landscapes and spaces, and create an extra-sensory dimension that expands human consciousness. The confessional female remarks articulated in voice-over form a powerful refrain of terrifyingly intimate stories that mustn’t be suppressed.
There’s also striking intimacy in Pia Borg’s playful sci-fi documentary Silica (2017), which has played a number of festivals, including Locarno. Borg revisits various sites in Australia where famous sci-fi flicks, among them Mad Max, were filmed, and shapes a whimsical narrative from the mix of stunning landscape shots of the desert and uncanny details, such as an underground chapel or a nuclear-bunker hotel. Yet the film’s greatest allure is Borg’s inclusion of details that seem lifted straight out of her life: brutal jetlag, soulful disillusionment. She deflates the notion of cinema as Eisensteinian attractions, instead favoring episodes of banality. The short’s raspy, soft-spoken voice-over lends it the winsome touch of a fairytale.
The idea of intimacy takes a sinister turn in one of the festival’s most singular shorts, Find, Fix, Finish (2017), by Sylvain Cruiziat and Mila Zhluktenko, also screening in the “Presence of Place” program. The film uses surveillance-camera imagery to tell the stories of army drone operators following “terrorist” targets. In one story, we listen as, in voice-over, one such figure recalls his disturbing observations: watching a man take a shit outside his home; observing a couple for months on end as they routinely make love on the roof of their building, unaware that a spying, voyeuristic eye is following their every amorous move. Uncensored, uninvited, invasive — here’s a vision of intimacy increasingly forced and violated, as technology draws us close to strangers in ways that those who watch find abominable and creepy, and those who are observed can do nothing to escape.
In this sense, Cruiziat and Zhlutenko’s film is an apt, dire coda to an entire program that can be viewed through a progression of our emotional relationship to film technology — from our early incantation with the lens’s potential for intimacy, so palpable in Sachs’s short, to our dawning wariness, hints of which we trace in Jenkins, Effendi, and Borg, of a very real fear about our right to privacy. In Find, Fix, Finish, the subjects surveilled have their profiles drawn up, not on the basis of any real actions but instead based on call traffic and GPS. The “hot” trails often turn out to be mere duds. Nevertheless, establishing innocence is so nebulous that “finish,” a code word used for murder, gets applied to some targets anyway — a reminder that the camera, first photographic and now a film one, has also serviced the state pretty much since its creation. It helped the French government handpick the members of the Paris Commune in 1871; it aided racial and other types of profiling, populating criminal databases. And now its eye is wider, its memory a microchip that makes our intimacy everyone’s business.
‘Doc Fortnight 2018’
The Museum of Modern Art
Through February 26