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5 Movies that Sum Up the International and Experimental Documentaries of Icarus Films

Celebrating 40 years, Icarus has been one of the champions of international documentary cinema in the US, sharing films that may have otherwise gone completely overlooked.

From A Grin Without a Cat (courtesy Icarus Films)

This year, the distribution company Icarus Films turns 40 years old. Over its lifespan, Icarus has been one of the champions of international documentary cinema in the US, bringing to theaters and home video countless films that may have otherwise gone completely overlooked. The company’s catalogue is filled with works whose experimental style, radical politics, or provenance in foreign countries would have had them written off as “noncommercial” by most other distributors. Before the internet opened up the accessibility of world cinema, Icarus was a vital outlet, and even deep into the online age it continues to spotlight great documentaries which may otherwise go overlooked.

To mark Icarus Films’s ruby jubilee, the Metrograph in New York City has put together a massive retrospective. Icarus Films at 40, running from September 14 to September 30, will screen over 50 movies from throughout the distributor’s history. The staggering breadth of this series allows it not just to chronicle the lifetime of one film company, but also the last four decades of social upheaval, evolving documentary aesthetics, and changes in left-wing film thought. There are multiple legendary directors represented, including Shohei Imamura, Jean Rouch, Peter Watkins, Marcel Ophüls, Alain Resnais, John Akomfrah, and Jean-Luc Godard. It includes works we’ve previously covered here at Hyperallergic, such as Wang Bing’s Bitter Money (2016), about textile workers in China, and Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread (2005), about various processes of food production across the world. Every film in the program is noteworthy in some way, but here are a few representative standouts.

From Nostalgia for the Light (courtesy Icarus Films)

Nostalgia for the Light (2011)

In his work, Chilean director Patricio Guzmán has explored his country’s turbulent political history. Here, he visits the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth. The rainless skies both preserve many fossils and artifacts and make it ideal for stargazing. Guzmán contrasts the sciences of geology and astronomy, which look into the deep past, with the living memory of Chile’s political violence preserved among those who lived it.

From From the East (courtesy Icarus Films)

From the East (1993)

French director Chantal Akerman is a titan still sorely missed since her death in 2015. This is one of three films she directed in the program. Filmed as a travelogue first through Western Europe, then Eastern Europe, and then into Russia, along the way it encounters countless refugees left bereft by the recent collapse of the Soviet Union. In a time when most Western observers were celebrating, Akerman intuited a dark prophecy of future migrant crises and turmoil in Europe.

From Decasia (courtesy Icarus Films)

Decasia (2002)

Bill Morrison makes his films by finding scraps of old, often degraded celluloid, orphaned from their original stories, and then combining them into something new. This is perhaps the purest example of his style, a collage of ghosts acting out fragments of their lives. Beautiful and eerie, it’s film preservation as a work of art rather than a science. Morrison will be in attendance at the screening.

From A Grin Without a Cat (courtesy Icarus Films)

A Grin Without a Cat (1977)

Chris Marker was one of the greatest political filmmakers ever, and this is widely agreed upon as his epic. A three-hour survey of left-wing action and government reaction in countries from France to Cuba to the US, Marker employs his singular mastery of montage to keep things moving at a blistering pace. Marker’s ambivalence over the stalling of the worldwide revolution that was supposed to be coming in the ’60s and ’70s presages the eventual seeming defeat of left politics at the end of the 20th century.

From I Am Somebody (courtesy Icarus Films)

Integration Report 1 (1960) / I Am Somebody (1970)

Both these films from pioneering director Madeline Anderson are featured in the series. Integration Report 1 (according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the first documentary directed by an African American woman) was the beginning of a planned trilogy on the Civil Rights Movement, but funding failed to materialize for any followup. I Am Somebody covers a strike by 400 black female workers at the Medical College Hospital of the University of South Carolina. Anderson will be appearing in person at the screening of I Am Somebody.

Icarus Films at 40 is running at the Metrograph (7 Ludlow St, Lower East Side, Manhattan) September 14–September 30.

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