By Robert Koehler
Last month, I served as a member of the jury for the international competition at FICUNAM (Festival Internacional de Cine de Universidad Nacional Autonomia Mexico), where most of the lineup was devoted to in-between cinema such as Luis Patino’s Costa da Morte, Denis Cote’s Joy of Man’s Desiring and Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart. Without identifying itself as such, much of FICUNAM’s programming (conceived mainly by festival director Eva Sangiorgi and the phenomenal Argentine-based critic-programmer Roger Koza) is interested in exploring the interstices of fiction and non-fiction, whether that may be a conversation between highly conceived mise-en-scène and moment-by-moment action (as with Costa da Morte) or a focus on actual people depicted cinematically as if characters in a fiction (as with Stop the Pounding Heart). FICUNAM understands that this is where the future of cinema lies.
Jumping across the Texas border to South by Southwest, the values are different. The detectable cases where fiction and non-fiction intersect rarely happens there, as in the visually symphonic conceptions of co-directors Edward Lovelace and James Hall for their fluid, dreamy portrait of former Brit pop singer Edwyn Collins, The Possibilities are Endless, or the ruptures of Detroit suburban and street life in Buzzard. Lovelace and Hall, who previously made Werewolves Across America, deploy a similar technique expressively used by Tatiana Huezo in her astonishing debut in-betweener, The Tiniest Place/El lugar mas paqueno, in which the subjects’ speech is used as off-screen voice-over accompanying complimentary images—not necessarily the literal image attached to the thing being described or discussed. The result is a two-dimensional experience, in which the spoken words function as a kind of music to the pictures; in the case of Possibilities, the intent is to take the viewer inside the damaged head of Collins (best known for the hit tune A Girl Like You with his group Orange Juice), who suffered a massive stroke in 2005. It nearly wiped clean his memory and speech functions, resulting in an interesting experiment for Lovelace and Collins to record Collins’ voice as he continues to rebuild his ability to speak, supported by his devoted wife Grace. They live in a remote corner of rural Scotland, a landscape made for widescreen cinematography and moody poetics, a perfect physical antonym for Collins’ gradually repairing mindset.
The reason why movies The Possibilities are Endless are outliers at South by Southwest is simple. Like too many other North American festivals, it assumes that the non-fiction movies that matter and that audiences care about are grounded in facts and some kind of journalism. It’s the single most hidebound aspect of North American festival programming, this notion that documentary cinema must be prose and not poetry. The work that passes the documentary gatekeepers at Sundance, South by Southwest, Hot Docs and Full Frame (the four major doc platforms on the continent) is almost never of the sort that Patino makes, in which an actual place and culture are observed but not explicitly explained or “reported.” Grounded in the Pompeu Fabra non-fiction school in Barcelona (whose great teachers include filmmakers Jose Luis Guerin, Joaquim Jorda and Ricardo Iscar, and graduates like Isaki Lacuesta, Abel Garcia Roure and Mercedes Alvarez), Patino does away with talking heads or “facts” about his subject, Galicia’s imposing and awesome northern Spanish coastline and its inhabitants. Instead he uses cinema: His camera is often at least a mile (or three!) away from his subjects, who are directly miked and heard close-up, resulting in a watching and listening experience that’s layered and only possible in a cinema setting.
Compare this with the disappointing (and prize-winning) Margaret Brown documentary about the 2010 BP/Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil disaster, The Great Invisible. Brown does a fine job with the facts of the eco-disaster, and draws out the gnawing, drip-drip-drip horror of the episode. She has access, and talks to a remarkably wide group of folks, especially the poorest Gulf victims frequently ignored by mass media outlets. This underlines the strength of Brown’s filmmaking, displayed in her best work to date, the 2008 The Order of Myths. Like Emile Zola, she has an acute eye for the panorama and nuances of class difference, the way systems govern and define us, almost beyond our ability to recognize them.
But there’s no poetics to Brown’s approach, no cinematic passageway to a greater perception, beyond facts, beyond issues, beyond the people in front of her camera. Like far too many of her North American colleagues in documentary (and I include filmmakers and programmers together, since both have created a kind of Sundancian cosmology of sorts), she takes on a headline-grabbing story but won’t rise above the factual into something more powerful, something that reaches art. This kind of transcendence was detectable in Order, especially in how she captured the rituals of young people in the Deep South. In the tiniest moments of Order lay its largest ideas and emotions; the Deepwater Horizon is so big, so titanic in its implications, that detail is lost, and the lure of burning issues (literally) seem to blow out the possibility of a poetic approach—say, the way Peter Mettler captured the Alberta Tar Sands complex in his stunning and, yes, poetic non-fiction, Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands. Like the hidebound teacher in Dickens’ Hard Times, Brown and her fellow documakers seem to insist on the “facts,” but they’re neglecting the greater possibilities of cinema.