As we celebrate the 15th installment of Doc Fortnight (February 19–29), it is fitting that we find ourselves looking to the past to illuminate the present, uncovering old stories with new lessons. In 2016, MoMA’s premiere showcase of new nonfiction cinema focuses on unsung or forgotten histories, as well as the lives of peoples across the world.
Some of these films delve into the past by resurrecting and reinterpreting archival footage, uncovering surprising, sometimes shocking truths. Others focus on experimental reenactments or performances, to access more personal stories that might otherwise have gone untold. Doc Fortnight also looks to its past, with a number of alumni returning with new films, including two works serving as follow-ups to documentaries that screened at previous incarnations of the festival—Out of Norway and Last Man in Dhaka Central (see below). Alumnus Nikolaus Geyrhalter premieres his new work Over the Years, one of two films screening that were filmed over the course of a decade; the other, Outfitumentary, follows artist K8 Hardy as she records her daily wardrobe experiments, in a project almost as old as Doc Fortnight itself.The opening film of the festival, And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead, reintroduces us to not one but two of America’s great black artists: the film’s subject, legendary Beat poet Bob Kaufman, and its director, Billy Woodberry, returning with a feature film for the first time in 30 years. Woodberry combines a trove of unearthed footage and photographs to revive Kaufman’s veracious poetry, which reflects the world around him and the tragedy in his own life.
Delving into the archives, documentary filmmakers ask us to reconsider what history has been recorded, and what has been forgotten or ignored. Sergei Loznitsa’s The Event looks at the confusion and excitement of thousands of Russian men and women in Leningrad in 1991, as rumors leaked in from the airwaves that the Communist government in Moscow had been overthrown. The pristine black-and-white footage Loznitsa unveils was discovered long after it was shot by a group of documentary film students. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it appearance by a young Vladimir Putin, then advisor to Leningrad’s mayor, helps recontextualize the collapse of the USSR in light of political and social oppression in Russia today.
Rithy Panh, Cambodia’s documentary master, cuts deep into the history of French imperialism in Southeast Asia in France Is Our Mother Country, a searing critique of Western colonialism. Taking a variety of sources from the early 20th century (newsreels, propaganda films, and home movies shot by the wealthy colonizers and their “wise and noble representatives”), Panh creates his own travelogue to ironically praise the “mother country” while bombarding the viewer with their condescending and oppressive images of Asian peoples.The archives reveal more frightening secrets in other works by established filmmakers. Naeem Mohaiemen’s Last Man in Dhaka Central, part three of his The Young Man Was series, continues his look at the failed dreams of the 1970s revolutionary left in Bangladesh (part two, Asfan’s Long Day, showed in Documentary Fortnight 2014). Mohaiemen accompanies Dutch activist Peter Custers on a journey into the past as he explores documents surrounding his 1975 arrest and torture for his socialist politics. In the monumental Wake (Subic), John Gianvito uncovers a legacy of U.S. neocolonialism in the Philippines that continues to this day. Using photographs and correspondence between U.S. politicians, Gianvito shows how America’s presence in the Philippines echoes across the years, to the current-day pollution of Subic Bay by the U.S. naval base there. Jihan El-Tahri’s Nasser traces the rise to power of Egypt’s iconic leader Gamal Abdul Nasser, using a wealth of archival footage—including clips from Egyptian feature films rarely seen by the rest of the world and interviews from representatives of all political sides—to explain his impact on current Middle Eastern politics. Some of the most inventive films in Doc Fortnight use new methods to reveal the nuances of historical narratives. Qiu Jiongjiong’s Mr. Zhang Believes tells the story of Zhang Xianchi, a staunch Communist Party supporter targeted by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1950s because his family had been Nationalists before the Civil War. Revisiting the early years of the People’s Republic of China, Qiu opts for dreamlike reenactment of events, in a theatrical setting, that highlight the personal nature of Zhang’s unfortunate story, while underscoring the political farce.
The closing-night film also begs us to reconsider the history we think we know. Native American video artists Adam and Zack Khalil have created a cheeky, brazenly original study of Ojibway identity in INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls./]. Shot in their hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, the film explores tales told by traditionally white historians, and reclaims their tribal history by interweaving the Seven Fires Prophecy of the Ojibway people with personal interviews, animated drawings, and provocative performances.Several topical films with universal reverberations explore themes of world immigration. Melissa Langer’s My Aleppo finds a family of Syrian refugees in South Africa unable to draw their eyes from their computer screens, where they witness the horrors still befalling their homeland. In Memories from Gehenna, a reference to the Biblical valley where pagans sacrificed children to their gods, Thomas Jenkoe explores a town in France 10 years after a local man gunned down a North African migrant. Keeping his camera at a distance, Jenkoe reveals a populace still scarred by the violence and hatred reflected in this act. On an even more more intimate level, Thomas Østbye’s Out of Norway revisits the tragic hero of Documentary Fortnight 2012’s Imagining Emanuel, Emanuel Agara, and his unique immigration story. Undocumented in both Norway and his native Liberia, and unable to make a home for himself in either nation, Emanuel begins to take charge of his own story, documenting his quest to return home. On a grander scale, Tadhg O’Sullivan’s The Great Wall looks at “Fortress Europe”—the colossal system of walls, fences, technological surveillance, and impenetrable bureacracy that work to prevent immigration into the EU—and likens its growth and magnitude to China’s Great Wall by way of Franz Kafka.
Artists continue to grapple with big issues and how to present them on the art-world stage. In her latest work, Long Story Short, Natalie Bookchin weaves together hundreds of interviews with impoverished Californians at homeless shelters and job-training centers, giving voice to their varied, yet surprisingly similar, stories. In Time Passes, a young art student attempts to experience the life of an outsider by joining a homeless Roma woman in begging, all as part of a performance art project that rubs against her art world colleagues. And in another trip through time, Call Her Applebroog, artist Ida Applebroog reflects upon her career and reasses her own provocatve artwork, all with the help of her equally audacious filmmaker daughter Beth B.
This year’s films question what we know, but more importantly they ask us what we have learned.