There are documentaries that embrace subjectivity over journalistic pretense, and then there’s the idiosyncratic approach of the new film 306 Hollywood. To examine the life of a recently deceased woman, it opens up the house she lived in for 70 years and the sea of objects within it. Clothing, books, housewares, tools, and other detritus accumulated over decades become archaeological clues. They are laid out in dioramas, disorganized clutter becoming intricate patterns. Old tape recordings are used to dub reenactments of the scenes they captured. The woman made dresses, and models show off her work. All of this is employed not to investigate some famous artist, but a perfectly ordinary person.
Filmmaker siblings Elan and Jonathan Bogarín call their approach “magical realism” — a term not generally applied to the documentary realm. But their work lives up to that descriptor, grounded in everyday life but tinging it with moments of the fantastical. Their subject is their grandmother, Annette Ontell, whose house and possessions they inherited after she died in 2011 at age 93. Tasked by their mother to sell it all as soon as possible, they began excavating 306 Hollywood Avenue in Hillside, New Jersey. But as various possessions both mundane and special kept sparking their nostalgia, the brother and sister duo decided to pay tribute to Annette through film.
The movie also has some more conventional documentary elements. The Bogaríns interviewed Annette intermittently over the last 10 years of her life, and use these scenes to help the audience to feel a personal connection to their survey of the house. One could picture a version of this film made in a more dispassionate mode, with the same aesthetic but no context as to whose life this was. In works like The Family Album, director Alan Berliner did something in a similar vein, cobbling histories from home videos and photo albums. The Bogaríns have a different angle, not drawing from primary documents but instead reworking and re-contextualizing them. The movie can feel haunting, with Annette’s presence felt deeply; the reenactments of the audio recordings become visitations. The things a human collects and uses can’t tell us everything about them, but 306 Hollywood allows its imagination to run wild.
The film sometimes affects a cloying, cutesy tone that may turn off some viewers. The Bogaríns cite Wes Anderson as a major influence, and some of the common criticisms thrown at his work also apply here — if you don’t believe it’s appropriate to overly aestheticize a real person’s life, then 306 Hollywood probably isn’t to your taste. But its magic realist technique is a genuine novelty, and presents intriguing possibilities for future developments in nonfiction film as a form of family history and personal reflection.