Film at Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real is only on its ninth edition, but in its short lifetime it has become the the most exciting documentary-focused film festival in New York. An exceptionally curated event, it brings together the most formally inventive and boundary-pushing recent works of nonfiction from across the globe — many of which are so experimental and creatively arranged that some viewers might not even consider them nonfiction. But that’s a feature, not a bug, and is a huge part of the appeal for anyone hungering for something different. After the pandemic forced the 2020 festival to go virtual and the 2021 to unfold in a severely abridged form, Art of the Real is making a full-fledged comeback for 2022.
One of the more boundary-stretching titles is Serbian filmmaker Dane Komljen’s Afterwater, composed of three segments that each follow a trio of subjects and characters as they navigate around lakes. The first, which follows present-day students on a camping trip, is shot digitally; the second, possibly set in the past, is on 16mm; the third, featuring characters dressed in retro-future costumes, is is shot on videotape. The film’s varied use of settings and different languages emphasizes the common elements in human relationships to the natural world. In Come Here, Anocha Suwichakornpong (who has a deft, underrated knack at infusing mundane scenes with a hypnotic layer of unreality) follows a quartet of young people as they visit the Burma Railway, a site of extensive forced labor during World War II. It is a near-literal spin on encountering the past, with the ensuing queasiness manifested through some supernatural elements introduced to the plot. (Continuing the locomotive theme, the film will be showing with Peter Tscherkassky’s short Train Again.)
Other films in the program approach social issues commonly addressed in docs, but from oblique angles. In Footnote, Zhengfan Yang captures the surreal mixture of violence and banality in the United States by overlaying footage from his balcony in Chicago with audio from a police scanner. A Marble Travelogue, directed by Sean Wang, explores the sometimes-absurd conventions of contemporary globalization by accompanying pieces of marble as they are quarried in Greece, transported to China, made into chintzy keepsakes, and then shipped back to Europe. With When There Is No More Music to Write, and Other Roman Stories, Éric Baudelaire combines the personal and political by filtering the radical activism in the US and Italy during the 1960s and ’70s through the experiences of composer Alvin Curran.
The festival has also arranged a spotlight tribute to Alice Diop, a French director of Senegalese descent who’s made a name for herself with her incisive vérité-style films. Her trio of features here each scrutinizes a different social issue in France through a specific character or set of characters — typecasting and the limits of using art to transcend class in The Death of Danton, medical care for refugees in On Call, and everyday immigrant life along a commuter train route in We (Nous). It’s a testament to Art of the Real’s vibe that these are among the most straightforward films in its lineup. For documentary lovers with adventurous tastes, the festival’s return is most welcome.
Art of the Real 2022 will take place March 31 – April 7 at Film at Lincoln Center (theaters along 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, Manhattan).
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