Film

The Fifth Edition of ‘Art of the Real’ Offers Form-Bending History Lessons

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In Adirley Queirós’s third feature, Once There Was Brasília (2017), an intergalactic traveler (Wellington Abreu) punished for illegally occupying land on his native planet, Rising Sun, is sent to Earth. There he meets a disabled man in a wheelchair (Marquim do Tropa, also in Queirós’s past films) and an ex-convict, Andreia (Andreia Vieira). Stranded in Ceilândia, an impoverished satellite town outside the Brazilian capital, these three black protagonists are isolated and largely invisible to the surrounding world.

Queirós, who often jokes that when he gets funding for documentaries he ends up making fiction (and vice versa), is one of the directors featured in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real,” an annual showcase of films that blur the lines between fact and fiction — and, most importantly, draw attention to form. In Queirós’s film, that form bears the mark of a political manifesto. As punishment for his infraction, Abreu’s space traveler must complete a mission: to kill Brazil’s president, Juscelino Kubitschek. But he misses his target by decades (Kubitschek governed in the late Fifties–early Sixties), arriving as another democratic president, Dilma Rousseff (whose tenure lasted 2011–2016), is being ousted. A Ceilândia local himself, Queirós filmed right outside the Congress in Brasília on the night of Rousseff’s impeachment, and he includes this real-time footage — which includes the voices of senators casting votes — in his futuristic plot of upheaval. Rebels rally via a hilariously haphazard Intergalactic Championship of inept martial artists (one participant wears a Friday-the-13th mask), though their takeover tactics and logistics are unclear; false starts abound. Some avenues are poignant, such as the depiction of Andreia as a struggling single mom. Others, including an alien barbecuing a steak and chain-smoking aboard his tin-can-looking ship, are more burlesque.

With his established penchant for political incorrectness, Queirós remains unsparing about the pitfalls of both right- and left-wing politics (the alien protagonist is offered housing in exchange for his mission, an allusion to former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s popular social policy). Still, one thing that Queirós is deadly serious about is creating a distinct, dialectical aesthetic. The urban landscape is fenced in, crosscut with wires that cast gridlike shadows, yet the horizon is vast and limitless. The anonymous multitudes are patrolled by guards, yet the black bodies emerge as carriers of secret prophecies — endlessly inventive, free, fully mobilized. Their force is undeniable, a fulfillment of historical determinism, ratified by galactic laws.

Politics and aesthetics are also inseparable in Kristina Konrad’s One or Two Questions (2018). The archival footage here, from which the entire film is composed, was shot for Swiss television, as Uruguayans took to the polls in a 1989 referendum on the general amnesty. The stakes were high, as in most Latin American countries, where torture and disappearances had taken place under military regimes. “What is freedom to you?” María Barhoum and Graciela Salsamendi, who serve as our guides, ask passersby. “What do you know about the referendum?” Despite this earnest approach, the film’s tone is often irreverent. The neat fundamental distinction, between those in favor of military trials (a Green vote) and those against (a Yellow one), gets lost in the sea of confused, unknowing answers. Konrad’s insertion of television commercials and propaganda spots authored by both sides drives home the point that the real political battle was carried out (and won, by the military) not with ideas but forms.

“I’m not afraid of a boogeyman,” says an elderly woman in a light-hearted, nearly campy ad, whose tone mirrors most of those in the Green campaign. On another TV spot, a politician wears a green jacket while advocating for a Yellow ballot — a deliberate confusion. Television and radio act like oracles in the tightly controlled, conservative provinces. In such places, the camera catches flare-ups of anger and altercations. Meantime, the more both sides promise peace, the less clear it is what kind they’re promising. “Are we living in peace?” a woman asks in the street. Those hit by the economic crisis conflate amnesty with their troubles. In a rare claim to irrefutable truth, an ex-military man confesses he “saw things that made me quit.” Yet others are incredulous, or simply refuse to engage.

Following this discursive zero-sum game, a polyphonic piece by experimental filmmaker Deborah Stratman comes as welcome respite. Stratman’s Optimism (2018), featured in a strong shorts program — along with films by Laura Huertas Millán and Francisco Rodriguez — captures Dawson City, Yukon, in a prismatic fashion. Light filtering through thick clouds, a red bird, a fox, men at leisure or casting gold — all have, for Stratman, nearly equal valence. The voice-over includes remarks from the town’s former mayor and from Stratman, conversing, laughing. The film suggests Dawson’s geographical quirks, but doesn’t aim to “represent” it in a definitive way. The footage, originally shot on 8mm, is dutifully gray and grainy, due to scarce sunlight. But Stratman also films with an eye to richer hues. In one frame, the skies are swept orange, against pale peaks. In another, a descent into a crepuscular cabaret hall ends with a dancer’s blue sequins glimmering, casting a dreamy mood. Stratman also uses a graphic of concentric circles and dots, followed by a sequence with a raven in flight and thick black lines, that evoke op-art and abstract expressionism. Another sequence segues visually from red-hot molten gold to a low-resolution image of a disco-ball light fixture — a phantasmagoric evocation of Dawson as a rags-to-riches, Gold Rush–to–bust kind of town.

No selection this year is more steeped in history than Sergei Loznitsa’s Victory Day (2018). His blunt approach made his earlier Austerlitz (2016) stilted and scornful, but Loznitsa is less categorical in the new film. He observes, at times morbidly, always wide-eyed, as packs of people at Treptower Memorial in Berlin commemorate the Red Army’s victory over the Nazis. Another study in crowds — their density, direction, and flow — the film paints the site as a minefield of overlapping discourses, with groups affirming unity yet also striving to set themselves apart. Germans, Ukrainians, babushkas, babes in folkloric dress, motor-bikers — no group’s too trivial for the peace medley.

The site’s epic, pathos-heavy symbolism seduces even as it repels. In one mausoleum relief, thanks to Loznitsa’s forced perspective, a German plane appears small enough to be struck by a Soviet peasant’s outstretched, elegantly poised hand. The iconography evokes episodes of unremitting civilian suffering during an airstrike, yet Loznitsa captures it first in close-up, revealing an uncanny inner strength. As myriad interest groups jockey to be heard in the V-Day sites’ liminal space, between canonized past and suppressed present, partisan dances and songs erupt as if spontaneously — a simulacrum of yesteryear.

‘Art of the Real’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
Through May 6

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