Film

The Fine Line Between Fiction and Truth in the Art of the Reel

Film still of Agnès Varda’s ‘The Gleaners and I’ (2000) (all images courtesy Film Society of Film Center)

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” —Sherlock Holmes

Real, surreal, not quite real, a spectacular con — truth is found in many forms. Where fictional cinema is bound (but often liberated) by the idea that it is not “real,” nonfiction films are free to play with the truth, whether that be dishonest, candid, or somewhere in between. The courtroom might consider truth to be a precious, specific thing, but nonfiction cinema has long seen it as something tricky, mutable, and vast.

And now, for the second year, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s protean Art of the Real series continues to offer a platform for nonfiction filmmaking’s range and experimentation. Programmers Dennis Lim (full disclosure: Lim is a former professor of mine) and Rachael Rakes have doubled down, coming back with a new batch of films that question how reality is seen and used, arguing that while a lie may move much faster than the truth, that may be because the truth is such a broad and loaded thing, the turtle’s truth to the hare’s lie.

A few familiar faces (James Benning, Derek Jarman, Harun Farocki) from last year pop up amid a slate that is otherwise chockablock with new works from around the world: Japan, Argentina, Serbia, Lebanon. A new addition to the festival this year is a great sidebar on the surprisingly vibrant and trenchant uses of reenactment in cinema — projects like those of Ming Wong’s and Jill Godmilow’s that go way beyond Gus van Sant’s much-panned, shot-for-shot recreation of Psycho. The highlight, however, in hopefully what will become a mainstay, is a focus and tribute to a great nonfiction filmmaker: Agnès Varda, who, if it was possible, could neatly be said to be one of the female figures of the French New Wave movement. But Varda, who essentially predated the Wave, outstrips this and most other neat categories. She’s always been more influenced by visuals, people, and ideas than by distinctions or trends. “I need images,” she’s famously said in an interview with The Believer. “I need representation which deals in other means than reality. We have to use reality but get out of it. That’s what I try to do all the time … Even if I made up every line, it has the texture of being true.”

She fits right in.

Along with her documentaries, which have earned her pronounced, however late, career fame, Lim and Rake’s selections include her fictional work: Varda’s fantastic debut feature, La Pointe Courte, and Vagabond, a work of fiction that nevertheless dabbles in the real. Given that she is someone whose sense of truth and time and self is so enmeshed in her work and who is a delight when she gets in front of her camera — as she does in her lovely The Gleaners and I and Daguerreotypes — it should be a joy and insight to see her at one of her three Q&As or introduction, part of what appears to be a somewhat short U.S. victory lap.

Like Varda, her friend and colleague, the late Chris Marker, explored memory, time, place, collective history, and personal history. On top of this Marker was film-obsessed. In this way Jenni Olson’s dispassionately astounding The Royal Road is a kindred spirit, coiled to film in the way it confronts the strange rhythms of life. Witty, sad, and keenly observant, Olson takes a tour down California’s El Camino Real, exploring that state’s history as much as her own personal history. Like Marker and San Soleil, a marvelous record of a road-and-memory trip, Olson is similarly fixated by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, its entrancing tale of love, death, and identity, a springboard to her (and Marker’s) personal and filmic journey. Film captures life. And life absorbs film.

Another notable film is Birds of September, Sarah Francis’s beautiful feature debut that will also be inevitably compared to a previous film — last year’s Manakamana. Like Olson, though, her film has a voice and vision of it own, more canny, engaged, and of a place (Beirut) than Manakamana‘s unblinking look at strangers on a cable car. Driving around town in a see-through car, what looks like a glass box on wheels, Francis’s movie is reflexively, slyly transparent, as open to the city outside the glass as her subjects are during the filming. Only we don’t see Francis, the filmmaker wittily both omnipresent and unseen.

Film still of Sarah Francis’s ‘Birds of September’ (2013)

At 99 minutes Birds of September happens to be one of the longer films. Short (and short-ish) flicks make up a large part of the festival’s slate and some of its biggest surprises. Edgardo Cozarinsky’s beautiful, elegiac Letter to a Father and Eduardo William’s I Forgot together form a pair of astonishing Argentine film. Cozarinsky looks back to his father, but in many ways he is thinking of himself, or rather his memories, those figments of him and his father which will disappear with his own death. I Forgot, concerned with youth’s shorter memory and perhaps wider dreams, follows a group of young Vietnamese teens (from the oceanside to one of their bedrooms) — Cozarinsky’s ever-moving, shadowing camera a double to their anxious energy, boredom at work, and inkling that something can be great and sublime. Amid what is familiar, I Forgot shows in a transformative ending that life and perspective can radically change.

Sharing the screen with I Forgot on the festival’s opening night was João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s Iec Long, a haunted, layering portrait of an abandoned firework factory in Macau. Where fireworks are often used to scare away spirits, in this factory that no longer makes them but does often lose its workers to accidents and politics, Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata uncover a place crackling with memory.

Film still of João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata’s ‘Iec Long’ (2014)

Among the remaining films, Ron Peck’s landmark Nighthawks, Derek Jarman’s only recently seen Will You Dance with Me?, and Shulie, Elisabeth Subrin’s revelatory, shot-for-shot adaption of a 1967 documentary from Chicago — that just happened to catch Shulamith Firestone as a 22-year-old, three years before she would write The Dialectic of Sex — are exciting options, each of them seldom screened.

Ultimately, Art of the Real is a series interested in the question of truth, but, more than anything, interested in the answers it can assume. Between truth and fiction, Art of the Real shows there is a wide, thrilling gap, big enough, it would seem, for at least a few more years of this quickly essential nonfiction series.

Art of the Real 2015 continues through April 26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (165 W 65th Street, Lincoln Center, Upper West Side, Manhattan). 

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