Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016 Dispatch #1 - No Distance

After a whirlwind weekend at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, some notes on a few films seen. One unknown entity, one surprise highlight and a final statement from a legendary filmmaker. Three demonstrations of the scope and strength of modern non-fiction filmmaking.

First, from director Gina Abatemarco, the quietly impressive Kivalina, a project six years in the making born out of Berlin’s Talent Campus, which premiered recently at the festival there and is likely to continue to pop up internationally. An advocacy doc of the most unassuming manner, Kivalina is portrait of the Alaskan town of the same name, a nomadic community that due to ever more dramatic weather conditions has been planning to move from their current shore-side location for more than a century. Met with resistance from the North American authorities ever since, who have instead pursued a sea wall defence that even they admit is powerless to resist nature’s drive, the townspeople struggle on with their traditional lifestyle in the face of constant colonial imposition.

A film of gorgeous compositions, measured, patient takes, and a sense of fluid, rhythmic editing, Kivalina is a piece of cinematic, artful creative non-fiction, of a style that is increasing popular, if presumably hard to explain to funders and decision makers (hence those six years.) Choosing no specific focus, Kivalina’s narrative drive, if it can be called that, is tied to place but emerges heavily as being also about character. Abatemarco and editor Nadav Harel cut a cross section of the community that lives in the town, one that feels intimate and collaborative, spending time with many of the families in Kivalina, observing their lives and activities, focusing heavily on the rituals of hunting, preparation and eating that are central to their culture. Smart use of archive - from W. S. Van Dyke’s film Eskimo and home video footage of the consumption of the last whale the town caught, all the way back in 1990 - contextualises the observations without resorting to any kind of linear exposition, and the whole thing flows for a welcomely brief sixty five minutes, without really any kind of exact structure emerging.

As the director explained, waiting for the climatic event that they expected to be central to their story would essentially be willing the destruction of the community for the sake of a narrative arc, so it is a blessing that the film has no neatly tied conclusion. Instead, what they find is a community in crisis that perseveres despite external influence. By sitting in on meetings with US government interlocutors and hearing from the residents themselves they tease out a political message, without ever straining. Though perhaps a little too low key, Kivalina is a measured low-key documentary that achieves the goal of making the viewer consider our fractured relationship with indigenous communities and with the land without imposing in any way, or feeling polemical.

Ethical considerations are far from new to filmmaking. Even the most basic immersion in the form creates quandaries that only the most detached, self-obsessed filmmaker would be able to ignore. Yet as the medium develops, so do the dilemmas. Introspection over her process, and the ever evolving and unpredictable factors that affect a filmmaker’s responsibilities towards their subject lead veteran camera operator and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson to request access to the rushes of the films she has shot over the last twenty five years, so that she might both re-consider them and take more agency over what she has filmed over all that time. Instead of moving on to the next project, next locale, next community as she had been doing up to this point, she chose to look deeply into her materials, and reflect on what it is to be a documentarian.

From this, her quite incredible film Cameraperson, an assemblage of hundreds of moments filmed by Johnson – both professional and personal – sequenced and presented only with labels of their location. Part personal travelogue and diary, part poetic essay on filmmaking as a craft and process, and (perhaps to the strongest degree) also an interrogation over what it means to film and photograph people, Cameraperson will manage, despite surface simplicity (it is essentially just outtakes from other films, arranged or stitched together) to be many things for many people.

Cut together with a fluidity and intelligence that Johnson dedicates to her editor Nels Bangerter, who apparently discovered the balance between darkness and hope that she was unable to see in her initial search through the materials, Cameraperson presents for the audience a series of well-selected moments from a career of filming. Some are beautiful and some ugly, some prove very touching and many inversely very uncomfortable. Across this remarkable career, we’re given glimpses of all kinds of experiences. We see intense confessions from damaged families and injured children, a deeply troubling recording of a tumultuous baby delivery, hairy run-ins with government officials. These are juxtaposed by domestic intimacies, playful video exchanges with Johnson’s twin children and precious ones with her parents. A necessary contrast to the material from her working life, these warm, cherished moments with her father and equally precious last ones with her alzheimer's afflicted mother provide both levity as well as an extra emotional dimension.

Some of the most exciting parts feature Johnson talking over the camera or reacting to the frame – breaking her silence by gasping at what is unfolding before her, adjusting blades of grass in the foreground to get the perfect scene, crying empathetically despite a language barrier, or interrupting her director’s morose interview technique to ask a subject something more palatable. These moments when she ceases to be passive and becomes an active component in her scene setting are astonishing considering how much control filmmakers tend to assume over the behind-the-curtain intricacies of their craft.

A simple film in concept and execution, Cameraperson is effective because of the strength of the handling of these basic elements. Sound design compliments image selection, coming in heavy at moments of great impact, and finding the quietness that more serene happenings demand. What emerges is a poetic collage of a life spent filming, looking, exploring and thinking, one that features countless people and nations, friends and families permanent and temporary, and a whole host of background characters and landscape actors. Few films are as simultaneously open (there is no leading narration at any point) and as direct (everything that could be said is present in the image and selection) about what it is to look and what it means to work in images, than this one. Described by Johnson as “a film made as much in the viewing as the watching,” Cameraperson is a rare and beautiful thing, self-reflection that is both deeply personal and entirely universal. She asks “how can we share this experience of dropping in and out of worlds?” Her film is the answer.

A thematic partner to Cameraperson, Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie also explores the role of the camera through interactions between a filmmaker and their mother. Like Akerman’s 1977 feature Letters From Home, it is a film about a dialogue between mother and daughter. In News From Home, this dialogue came via letters, read aloud. Here the dialogue is direct, the camera less a barrier than an enabler, functioning as a point of connection as well as an aid to memory. A film that has gone through two levels of complications since conception, in addition to knowledge of the fact that No Home Movie features some of Akerman’s last experiences with her mother, Natalia, who died shortly after the film was completed, viewers now approaching No Home Movie face the added dimension of being aware that the filmmaker also passed between the films Venice premiere last year and subsequent screenings since.

A difficult film then, in more ways that one, No Home Movie consists largely of exchanges between the filmmaker and her mother, in person and over Skype, interrupted by lengthy static shots of the brightly lit interior of her mothers home. Some of these conversations are complex: probing ambiguously into the history of her family, Natalia’s time in Auschwitz and eventual migration to Belgium, and some more trivial: on living, eating, clothes and other more immediate matters. In all of them, there is an intimacy and familiarity that emanates out of the screen, the strength of the relationship and the importance of their bond convulsing outwards despite minimal dramatic propulsion.

When asked by her mother why she is filming her over Skype, Akerman replies that its because “I want to show that there is no distance in the world,” an explanation she repeats again later in similar words. Wherever Akerman may have been, the connection between her and her mother was something consistent, something that grounded her. When her mothers health begins to decline, the film takes a darker tone, the brightly lit interiors now underexposed and hard to recognise. Akerman’s sister becomes more involved as Akerman herself retreats. The warm exchanges of the film’s first half give way to lengthy landscape sequences, the hostility and aridity of these locales emphasised by the harsh wind sounds high in the mix, and a number of searching, lengthy interior shots where the emptiness is made ever more obvious. Near the end, during one of their exchanges, Akerman’s mother remarks to her pensively that was “it was so great to have you here.” Her daughter’s immediate reply: “I haven’t gone yet.” Akerman’s presence over cinema was enormous. Even after her passing, with this film and the various other documents from her life she has left behind, it will remain so.

Originally published on Shooting People's Blog

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