Just as the history of cinema is filled with questions and contestations — did the Lumière brothers invent motion pictures, or does the Edison company’s kinetoscope deserve the credit? — so too is the history of documentary. In the late 19th century, the Lumières shot seconds-long scenes of everyday events happening — a train entering a station, bathers in the sea, workers leaving the Lumière factory. Were these the first documentaries, or should we pinpoint the beginning of the genre to Robert J. Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and the introduction of form? The question, I suppose, comes down to which you value more in your definition of documentary: truth or art.
Though it may not have always been the case, American culture at the present moment tends towards the former, anxious as ever about facticity and objectivity. When Michael Moore released Bowling for Columbine in 2002, he faced vocal criticisms that it wasn’t “objective” enough for documentary. And consider that one of the most popular documentaries in recent years has been Exit Through the Gift Shop, beloved and much-discussed for its questionable relationship to the truth, not for its aesthetics.
“Despite its growing popularity, the documentary as we have come to know it, especially in the United States, too often emphasizes content over form, information over aesthetics,” said Dennis Lim, director of programming for the Film Society at Lincoln Center, in a press release announcing the Film Society’s new documentary series, Art of the Real, which begins today. (Full disclosure: I took two classes with Lim in graduate school.) “We think of Art of the Real as a necessary showcase for some of the most daring and unclassifiable work in contemporary film as well as a call for the documentary to be re-considered as art.”
“One thing we’re responding to in this series,” Lim’s co-programmer, independent curator Rachael Rakes, told me, “is the dramatic rise over the past 20 or so years of a few particular forms of documentary, and an industry that has come up around them, that has in turn led to a narrowing of the definition of what a nonfiction film should aspire to be, and what it can be.”
Until this year, Art of the Real was a monthly Film Society program that, although it spotlighted smart, independent documentary, didn’t work to stretch the definition. Lim and Rakes have reconceived of the program as an annual festival “founded on the most expansive possible view of documentary film,” in the words of the press release. This means films that experiment with form, film that oscillate between fact and fiction, and films that are generally considered artworks, such as Derek Jarman’s Blue (the screening of which will be introduced by artist Carolee Schneemann). There will, in fact, be a heavy crossover between the film and art worlds, as Rakes and Lim bring on filmmakers and video artists whose work has often been shown in galleries (Eric Baudelaire, Harun Farocki) as well as documentaries that have been gaining recent attention from art institutions (the festival will include a focus on the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, presented in collaboration with the Whitney Biennial, which features the SEL’s Leviathan).
“The fact that documentary as we know it now and video art were born at the same time (essentially with the invention of the Portapack) is not an accident,” Rakes explained over email. She continued:
They resemble each other in important ways, and for a long time influenced each other’s development. Some of the work we’re showing is of the type that has lived between the cinema and the gallery, playing out in both spaces in different eras, under different circumstances, and often simply because of a certain scene that a particular filmmaker/artist is associated with. What we want to do — in the interest of keeping the documentary tradition vital, its definitions open, and continuing to expand the writing and thinking around it — is show that these works can be film, art, and documents at the same time. They needn’t be only one.
Lim and Rakes have also adopted a determinedly international perspective, with productions from Mexico, Romania, Japan, Brazil, and more, and, as with Jarman’s Blue, brought in historical films that are predecessors to today’s experiments. “I would say it’s less that there are one or two recent films that got me excited about doing the series, rather than identifying a constellation of recent films that defy easy categorization and play with genre and expectations of veracity in similar ways, and wanting to showcase them together, and then finding films from the past that in some way share this spirit,” Rakes said. Building, in other words, a common context for a more fluid understanding of documentary that makes room for both truth and art, and everything in between.
Art of the Real runs from April 11 through 26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (Lincoln Center, Upper West Side, Manhattan). A full schedule can be found online.