Thinking, writing, speaking. It has always been a while. Yet, these are also always ongoing activities. Is it possible that we write during the tiny moments when we do not? Are we writing while processing feelings and ideas? When we water our imaginary plants, or celebrate our birthday near a real campfire? What then constitutes that, ‘’a real campfire’’?
This question leads me back to Arcos de Valdevez, in the north of Portugal, where people come together every year at the beginning of September to discuss a matter very much related to what I was contemplating: what is documentary cinema?
From the moment one gets introduced, inaugurated, or prepared for a specific context in which multiple power structures are at play, one should no longer lie to oneself. It happens quite often that young enthusiasts, of all ages, happen to blindly believe in what is served to them. A smile is often a smile but also much more. I am now speaking about the social construction film culture is and what makes us shut our mouths. The culture of music festivals has, rightly so, been criticized properly and extensively. With many people continually asking: if something feels like an event, does that also make it true? Now, in order to get away from our preoccupation with festivalism, we naturally need alternative structures made with different aims. Doc’s Kingdom, a harmonious adaptation from The Flaherty Seminar, tries this on its very own terms, both for the sake of cinema. This year I had the opportunity to go, and did my best to reflect this model as well as I could, hopefully a bit through the eyes of the initiators, Nuno Lisboa, Filipa César and Olivier Marboeuf. Thus I will start by describing an encounter with one of them, from a reversed perspective:
It is morning. We have all spend our first night in Arcos, after we watched the opening films, discussing them too. As one of the leading organizers, I move downstairs to the hotel restaurant where breakfast is served. I am curious to hear about people’s first night and I enquire to know if they slept well. In the back, I join a young writer we have invited and we talk about Regina Guimarães & Saguenai, two artists from Porto who have been living and working together for many, many years. They voluntarily joined earlier editions of Doc’s Kingdom in the past. Yesterday evening, we proudly presented Saguenai’s Mourir un peu (1985) as the opening film, for which their daughter worked very hard to get the English subtitles ready in time. Furthermore: I speak to the writer and answer his questions regarding their working background. Then I think: there surely is one film he needs to see, to the extent that I already can sense his enthusiasm, even before he has any single notion of its existence. I tell him this and it is impossible to hide my chills.
Being a fresh participant, this was a very important moment for me. Enthusiasm in an industry – or its quirky branches – is far from a given and thus this spontaneous eruption made me more affirmative in an instant. Yet the organizers were not afraid to expound the problems of certain docmentarist issues. In other words, nobody was here for the sake of pleasing one another. People had fun and enjoyed their time, however when it boiled down to it, we were all here for the documentary cause, something that I would like to describe as an engagement with moving-image making in a sense that is in multiple ways absolutely committed to its subject matter (and everything linked).
The theme of this year’s seminar stemmed from the following image:
Troubled waters. Mixed waters. Strange waters. A mixture of intentions, the risk of messing it up, but without it possibly being anyone’s fault. Somehow. An image painted for the seminar, but kept devoid of information. We got to know nothing of its creator. It contains the streams of the sea, always returning to their point of departure and thus the image dissolves or returns nothing but itself. The sea as a source of clues that never stop hinting, promising, giving, like the poster.
If a slightly topical seminar is directed towards certain postcolonial concerns, you nowadays know that there are always people who appropriate these tendencies in order to find out what it has to do with them, with their lives and the way they give shape to it. How to justify this? It is something we need to do, although during this year’s seminar I noticed a particularly broad gap between those who seemed, outside of their films, still busy with justifying their endeavors through elaborate discourse, whereas others plainly stated things and spoke continually in direct relation to the film. It is not to say that the others were not, but there is a tangible difference here. It even forced me to create this opposition as an integral part of the text.
Or, as Lucrecia Martel says in this interview on her latest feature Zama (2017): ‘’You only address colonialism with solemn seriousness if you don’t experience it daily.’’ This is exactly my point. In the weeks since the seminar I kept trying to solve this puzzle that was forming in my head. This was complicated due to the fact that I appreciated films made by both sides (yes, that’s right: sides). One film was Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), a film that lulled everyone to a zen-like state through which we could calmly discuss the matters at hand. It was a condition many of the participants did not expect, because after all, the film tells a painful story about a black American family. How can such a film not be heavy at hand? I am sure it has perplexed many spectators since its 1983 release. On top of this, we had the crucial luck of having Woodberry himself around as a seminarian. He concisely asked and answered multiple questions, without ever overdoing it.
Then, on the other hand, there were Graeme Thomson and Silvia Maglioni, of which the programmers picked two films (without them knowing what exactly would be shown, as with all of the filmmakers invited) including the longest one of the entire seminar: Dissapear One (2015). It revolves around a group of human beings who partake in a theatre play, as performed on a cruise in the middle of the Atlantic. These people, though, are very open and fluid in their expressions, excessively so, meaning that many of the acts they perform as part of the film can be unbearable for some. This audiovisual constellation, an exploratory excavation and test of our empathy, imbued me with perhaps the saddest and most precipitous feeling I ever experienced while watching a film. This is not a judgmental remark. The film tested the flooding capacity of my emotions. As Alexander Kluge once observed: ‘’People are onlookers to their own feelings, so to speak. They stroll through a zoo, through a panopticon of feelings. That’s surely the real form of melodrama, not that we go away having learned something.’’ But beware, this is not a mere melodrama, since many people left during the film. They were bored or did not care. For me, this ambivalence which temporarily altered the atmosphere in the same sense that Woodberry’s did, albeit in a completely new direction. This exemplified that this was not melodrama, according to Kluge’s definition of the opera in general, as a power plant of emotions, since people were too irritated or distracted. It is an overabundance of affect. Not knowing what to do with it. A problem of communication.
I decided to let this and the seminar’s momentum sink. And in the weeks that passed, I watched other films. One was John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project (2013), and I want to invoke it because it is almost anti-obsessed with transposing knowledge, the ending in particular: it soothed my mind. Due to that it allowed me to breathe and think like Woodberry’s film. While, if one is acquainted with Akomfrah, one knows he could very well have been capable of justifying his discourse and of telling the importance of this or that meeting with this or that intellectual juggernaut. But somehow he resists this in this film. Somehow, anecdotes of who you know and why they matter, do not matter. It is all contained in the film itself. And this is also what seemed at stake at this year’s Doc’s Kingdom. A worthy concern.
I could have ended the text here, and this would have been unmistakably easy. Since what does a sentence with words like “worthy“ and “concern“ mean? A few days ago, I had a call with a filmmaker who attended an event that hoped to create a counter-hegemonic public sphere during and against a major national film festival. He reported, saying that it was good “for putting some issues back on the map“, which actually translates as a wish to be absorbed by the festival the organizers are trying to question. Can that possibly happen if it originates so tightly in relation to its main antagonist? As I browse through eighty-six pages of notes jotted down between the 3rd and the 8th of September, I realize that many of its intimate descriptions point, almost instinctively, to a very subjective interest. One that moves me back to my personal life and therefore to, among many other things, a projection of what documentary cinema needs. This opposition I consciously created between imagined collections of bodies, what are they but fictional? Because these sides do not exist but in my very experience of this year’s seminar, and in the many notes on participating artists who happen to be penniless rather than institutionalized.
Straub emphasized this by saying how difficult it is to describe what we see in front of us, as it exposes us too, as we try to engage in a distancing from our own emotions. An important paradox. For one due to its questioning of what work is and how to value it. For another that it cannot hide where the observator comes from. Many canonical works that stem from the established tradition of Direct Cinema provide us with a tricky idea: that the films contain elements of direct-ness as a constitutive body. That we can see all the way through to its bottom. Rerouting us to a pivotal discussion point: what is a surface? Can the sea also be flat? Flatness as full and rich as the deepest pit?
When Regina Guimarães at one point speaks about cinema, and her cinédrawing La panne des sens (2014), she utters the following: “Cinema has a draft-like quality to it, and this film is more like a drawing.” Thus she proposes something different from many of the seminar’s invited artists, namely that by deciding a priori that a film is something devoid of value, and not a commodifiable object to extract financial or sociocultural profit from. Is this not also an embodiment of the seminar’s main intent? To steer itself away from exhausted roads fortified by others? I will only find out through returning, reconsidering.
”You need air between objects in order to paint well like you need feelings between ideas in order to think properly.” – Joachim Gasquet
Cézanne: Conversation avec Joachim Gasquet (Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, 1990)