NYFF Documentaries: Political Cinema Horizons from RED ARMY to CITIZENFOUR

NYFF Documentaries: Political Cinema Horizons from RED ARMY to CITIZENFOUR


the first time in 52 years, the New York Film Festival has expanded to
include a 15-film documentary sidebar. This includes the expected
portraits of artists (Ethan Hawke’s Seymour: An Introduction, Albert Maysles’ Iris, Les Blank & Gina Leibrecht’s How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy),
but it also encompasses films in which Americans gaze at other cultures
and even attempt to critique them (Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, J. P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry, Gabe Polsky’s Red Army.) There’s another strain of documentary here, which might be called the national self-portrait. Arthur Jafa’s Dreams Are Colder Than Death attempts to take the pulse of black America. Ossama Mohammed & Wiam Simav Bedirxan’s Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait
shows the ravages of civil war in Syria. All these films suggest
different ways of making political cinema. Do any of them offer real
innovations or ways forward? 
It’s not exactly news that sports can be a realm where nationalism plays itself out in a more benign fashion than war, but Red Army
examines the last decade of the Cold War through the lens of hockey.
Relying heavily on a varied array on archival footage, as well as
present-day interviews, he centers on Soviet hockey great Slava Fetisov,
who came to prominence in the early ‘80s. Despite a few odd stylistic
tics, such as printing interview subjects’ names first in Cyrillic and
then in English, Polsky resists the urge to wallow in communist kitsch,
like the “North Korea is so cool” tone of several recent documentaries
about the hermit kingdom. He’s more concerned with illuminating the
differences between  the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Fetisov learned to play
hockey well, but his training came at the cost of a private life.
(Granted, this may be the universal price of fame and success.) When he
and his Russian peers were finally allowed to play in the NHL, Red Army
doesn’t present this as an unmitigated triumph. While acknowledging the
human cost of communism, it also depicts their culture
shock, being attacked by North American players and the media, and
having difficulty adjusting to a more individualistic playing style. I’m
not sure what Fetisov’s exact present-day politics are, but he accepted
a post from Putin as Minister of Sport. Now that American-Russian
tensions are flaring up again, this reminder of the last Cold War feels
more  contemporary—and painful—than it might have five years ago:
Russia is once again becoming the Other, a convenient source of villains
for action movies and TV shows.  
If Red Army offers a relatively mellow look at the damage wrought by the Cold War, the much-awaited The Look of Silence
serves up a full, unblinking look at the horrors committed in the name
of anti-communism. If it goes down somewhat easier than its abrasive and
deeply disturbing companion piece The Act of Killing, in which
Oppenheimer had  murderers reenact their crimes on film, that’s because
it adds some warmth and humanity to the mix—protagonist Adi, an
optician, is shown interacting with his family. However, Adi’s elder
bother was murdered in the 1965 massacre of a million Indonesian
“communists,” and Adi lives in a village alongside his killers, who were
never punished and in fact remain free today. The film’s methods are
deceptively simple: Oppenheimer shows Adi outtakes from The Act of Killing,
which gradually evolve into discussions of his brother’s death, on a
video monitor while he watches silently, and then  and goes about his
daily life, which includes making glasses for the surviving killers from
1965 and interviewing them about the bad old days. Adi seems to be the
only Indonesian who wants to remember this period in the country’s
history—or, at least, recall it accurately. In some respects, The Look of Silence feels like a response to the critics of The Act of Killing. Violence is never shown, just described, although its full awfulness may exceed what happens in The Act of Killing:
several killers describe drinking human blood. People who find
Oppenheimer’s films pornographic and exploitative may simply be
uncomfortable with an NC-17 reality. But unlike The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence depicts an inspiring level of resistance to historical oblivion. 
South Korean director Jung Yoon-suk’s Non-Fiction Diary revolves
around a group of serial killers called the Jijon Clan, but it takes in
a wide swath of ‘90s Korean history and politics. The Jijon Clan were a
gang of six youths who committed a series of horrific murders in 1993
and 1994; their crimes were so surreally awful that when one of their
victims described them  to the police, they thought she was high on
drugs. However, Non-Fiction Diary contrasts the Clan’s murders,
condemned by the whole of Korean society and quickly punished, with the
collapses of a bridge and a department store shortly afterwards due to
irresponsisble building methods, which actually killed far more people.
Relying on period news clips (especially a lengthy talk show debate
about the crisis in Korean morality) and interviews with cops,
professors and a nun, Jung also lends a stylish touch to the grim
proceedings. Non-Fiction Diary begins with still photos, and it
then goes into a split-screen montage of some of the images that will
follow. The Jijon Clan both hated and envied the wealthy; the first part
of their three-line manifesto read “the rich shall be loathed,” yet
they wanted to become millionaires. Non-Fiction Diary sees their
crimes as an extreme manifestation of the amorality implicit in
neo-liberal capitalism. At times, it comes dangerously close to making
excuses for them because they weren’t rich, unlike the head of the
Sampoong Department Store, whose fall killed more than 500 people. They
got capital punishment, he got a slap on the wrist, despite bearing
ultimate responsibility for his store’s collapse, as the film points
out. However, Jung ultimately offers a range of perspectives on issues
like the death penalty, told with a distanced touch, although he
sometimes seems to be chafing at the constraints of his film’s form. 
The Iron Ministry opens with extreme close-ups of trains as disorienting and immersive as anything in Leviathan, the film that put Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab on the festival map. (Although Sniadecki is a graduate of the Lab, The Iron Ministry isn’t an official product of it.) Shot over three years on trains across China, The Iron Ministry
is an experience in flux. Its constant  change mirrors that of the
economic and social change sweeping the  nation it depicts. Sniadecki
initially opts for a purely sensual experience; 20 minutes pass before
the first subtitle appears. It’s not edited to look seamless—Sniadecki
clearly cut together numerous train rides and makes no attempt to
smooth over the vehicles’ different looks. Taking a train in China seems
a lot like riding on Amtrak 20 years ago, when they routinely
over-booked trains and cigarette smoking was still allowed. Yet for
every moment of filth Sniadecki shows, there’s an image of beauty or
grace to counter it. He also delves into Chinese politics, interviewing
passengers on  subjects like the role of Islam in Chinese life,
pollution and possible progress towards democracy. His presence is
subtly but definitely felt. Sniadecki has crafted a film that can stand
proudly along the best recent Chinese-made documentaries. 
director Laura Poitras was the first journalist to become Edward
Snowden’s regular correspondent. (Technically, her film is part of the
NYFF’s main slate, not its documentary sidebar.) As an opening card
reveals, she was also put on a U.S. government watch list after making
her first film and is subject to constant harassment at American
airports. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled by her respectful treatment of
Snowden here. While the film starts off as a wide-ranging depiction of
issues around privacy and surveillance, it settles into a Hong Kong
hotel room with Snowden and Glenn Greenwald (then a columnist for The Guardian)
for its central hour, which depicts the meeting that led to the public
revelations about the NSA’s out-of-control spying. At first, the film
seemed strangely impersonal. Poitras uses the first person in on-screen
text and reproduces E-mail and chat sessions with Snowden. Yet she never
appears in the image  herself for more than an instant. I initially
thought that a film which dealt more directly with her personal
struggles with the U.S. government would bring home the dangers of the
NSA’s activities more forcefully. But ultimately, the film she did make,
which often resembles an elegantly shot spy thriller, does deliver the
justified paranoia of Snowden and Greenwald’s message effectively. It
also does a lot to humanize a man who’s too often been demonized as a
traitor; the Snowden depicted in CITIZENFOUR is a likable,
friendly guy who tried to do the right thing, acted on the fly and  got
caught up in a world drama  that overtook him. Poitras is on his side,
certainly, but her depiction is believable. 
The relationship of form and content in political cinema has been debated since the late ‘60s, when Cahiers du Cinéma
declared all films more conventional than Jean-Luc Godard and
Jean-Marie Straub’s work reactionary. I don’t want to jump on that
bandwagon here, particularly when a film like Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War,
although stylistically bland, has managed to accomplish real political
goals in  changing the way the military prosecutes sexual assault.
Nevertheless, there’s something disheartening about the way Non-Fiction Diary
conveys an explicitly anti-capitalist message mostly through the usual
assemblage of interviews and archival footage, which threatens to
collapse into formula. 
However, documentaries like The Look of Silence and The Iron Ministry seem to point the way forward. Oppenheimer’s touch in The Look of Silence
is a subtle one; his voice is sometimes heard, and interview subjects
occasionally refer to him, often in an unflattering light. Adi is
definitely not just a stand-in for Oppenheimer, and he’s a strong enough
presence to remind one that The Look of Silence really is a collaboration with Indonesian filmmakers, including a co-director who can only be billed as “Anonymous.” The Iron Ministry
is less politically inflammatory than Oppenheimer’s films, but it
synthesizes several documentary traditions in an inventive manner. If
Americans continue to make films about other cultures – or our own, for
that matter – it seems best to  leave traces of our own subjectivity in
the frame, as The Look of Silence and The Iron Ministry do, and honestly acknowledge our own perspective’s role in shaping the films we make.

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

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