How documentary filmmakers are experimenting with historical narratives to better understand the present
The current US political climate has already claimed many casualties, with the most significant among them being, arguably, consensus reality. As national mythologies are upended, our so-called imagined communities are splintering into islands of nostalgia, xenophobia and progressivism, with few bridges remaining between them. ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Joan Didion famously noted in ‘The White Album’ (1979), her essayabout the spiritual vacuum of the late 1960s. The implication, of course, is that without narratives we are set adrift, which certainly seems to be true of the US. Political cynicism has seeped into all corners of society and we no longer respond to the stories that once enabled us to live together. The Horatio Alger myth – the 20th-century belief that anybody could come to the US, build a life and become a middle-class citizen – is now no longer an ideal but a partisan flashpoint.
Perhaps this is why non-fictionfilmmakers in the US are experimenting with ways of deconstructing identity and political representation. Some, including Kevin Jerome Everson, had their films screened at last year’s BFI London Film Festival. His slow-burn, black and white feature, Tonsler Park (all films 2017, unless otherwise stated), documents four Virginia polling stations over the course of the US Presidential Election Day in 2016. Everson – an American artist who also works in sculpture, painting and photography – has made nearly 100 films during his career, many focusing on the lives of working-class black Americans. Drawing on archival materials from the 1960s and ’70s, as well as contemporary street footage, Everson approaches film with a painterly sense of abstraction. As he remarked in a 2017 interview with BOMB, his films can appear casual in composition and narrative, an effect he achieves by having ‘the people on screen be smarter than the audience – in the sense that the subjects don’t need them’. In Tonsler Park, he channels the filmmaker Frederick Wiseman by fixing his camera on various volunteers in the stations, all of whom are African-American – part of a community that continues to struggle against redlining and disenfranchisement. The film is a close study of the drudgery of democratic processes: supervisors pace, women behind computers check IDs and ambient voices fill the room. Tonsler Park may sound like an exercise in formalism (or durational cinema) but, in its subject and style, it also serves as a sly reminder of how electoral politics actually work – a process Donald Trump’s administration would prefer we forget.
German-born, UK-based artist, activist and filmmaker Andrea Luka Zimmerman approaches US history in a very different manner in Erase and Forget, a pastiche documentary about James ‘Bo’ Gritz, a man billed as the real-life inspiration for the Rambo film series (1982–ongoing). Zimmerman – a former member of a film collective that also included Joshua Oppenheimer, the director of The Act of Killing (2012) – spent ten years working on the film, which blends archival and Hollywood footage, re-enactments and interviews to create a portrait of Gritz as a kind of cipher for evolving 20th-century American ideologies. Having been decorated as a Vietnam War hero and claiming to have killed about 400 people, Gritz became a vocal critic of the government, a pro-gun conspiracy theorist, a populist candidate for president and, ultimately, something of a cult figure. In a scene taken from Louis Theroux’s BBC documentary Survivalists (1998), Gritz takes a Sharpie pen to a map of the US, crossing out regions that are vulnerable to hurricanes, riots, tornadoes or ‘Iraqi missiles’, before determining that Idaho is the only safe place to live. Zimmerman not only acknowledges the fiction at the heart of Gritz’s narrative, she frames it in terms of shifting visual forms. If, to paraphrase the 19th-century writer Stendhal, a documentary is a mirror walking down the street, Erase and Forget reflects the kind of ideological instability that has contributed to the US’s surreal political moment.
Training their focus beyond the US, filmmakers such as Narimane Mari, who is Algerian, are grappling with the problem of how to use the medium to upend particular historical narratives. At the beginning of Le Fort des fous (The Strength of Madness), Mari veers away from documentary, taking a dreamlike, impressionistic approach to her meditation on colonialism. The film has a tripartite structure, with each section distinguishing itself stylistically from the last. It moves from a gauzy re-enactment of French military training in a 19th-century compound in Algeria to a utopian community on the Greek island of Kythira and, finally, to the Greek mainland, where the camera settles into something resembling a traditional talking-head documentary, cutting between a lawyer and a radical political activist discussing the country’s ongoing economic crisis. The transitions can be choppy but, in these shifts, Mari captures the emotional tenor of colonialism and draws parallels to the present, evoking the idea that although history might not repeat itself, similarities between events echo across time. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film, which was commissioned for documenta 14, is Mari’s use of speech. As they practise bayoneting dummies, the young soldiers in the first part either remain silent or speak in a garbled language rendered in subtitles. By the film’s close, the camera is guided by real people sharing their political opinions. With her anarchic approach, Mari complicates Didion’s statement about the necessity of stories by offering an addendum: that violence is always part of dominant narratives.
In a slightly different vein, Portuguese artist Filipa César’s debut, Spell Reel, powerfully addresses the relationship between filmmaking and political identity. César travelled to West Africa to explore the archives of Guinea-Bissau, a former Portuguese colony that considers film to be an integral part of its struggle for liberation. During the country’s war of independence, which lasted from 1963 to 1974, revolutionary leader Amílcar Cabral sent four young filmmakers – José Bolama Cobumba, Josefina Crato, Flora Gomes and Sana na N’Hada – to Cuba to learn their craft; they later studied with the French writer and filmmaker Chris Marker when he spent several months working in Guinea-Bissau. The collective shot more than 100 hours of footage in their homeland but the vast majority was lost or destroyed in a military coup. Some scenes did, however, reach an international audience after Marker included them in his film Sans soleil (Sunless, 1983); the rest of the surviving footage was digitized in Berlin. Working with the National Film Institute of Guinea-Bissau, Césartravelled the country with the ageing collective as they screened fragmentsof their films for Guinean crowds. César superimposes archival footage over contemporary scenes, taking an elliptical, essayistic approach that recalls the work of the filmmakers’ former teacher. In her interviews with the collective, they stress the role of film in ‘imagining a national space’, and preserving a sense of national history in light of periodic upheaval. Their work, of course, was designed to further the revolution. Yet, Spell Reel – along with the other films discussed here – demonstrates not only the value of storytelling in creating a shared sense of history, but also the need, every so often, to burn down our stories and begin again.
Main Image: Kevin Jerome Everson, Tonsler Park, 2017. Courtesy: the artist, Trilobite-Arts DAC and Picture Palace Pictures
Jessica Loudis is the editor of World Policy Journal, a culture and current affairs quarterly based in New York, USA. Her writing has appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times, Bookforum and the TLS, among others.
First published in Issue 193