Cut from a longer piece on the festival, some notes on the films that were not featured in my main Frames of Representation report.
"It's not on the way to anywhere. You either got to know where you're going or be lost to find it." Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands' Uncertain, a film about a Louisiana-Texas border town of that name that has little other than the massive Caddo lake that provides the township with an attraction and industry, tells the story of three citizens of the town plucked from the sum population of 94 who all have struggles of some kind, whether past or current. Switching focus between an elderly guide and fisherman who works on the lake, a hunter who is trying to kill the alpha hog and a young diabetic battling alcoholic dependency, McNicol and Sandilands reveal the character of the town through the storied lives of its inhabitants. With each individual, their past lives are channelled in to their current one, and their sense of the place in which they live informs their understanding of the world. The hunter places the aggression that was characteristic of his youth into an obsessive pursuit of this gargantuan hog that borders frequently on the absurd; the guide floats around the lake in a kind of limbo state after the loss of his family; and the diabetic frames his addiction around the isolation that comes from living in a nowhere town.
Uncertain is a smart and subtly well constructed film that features some of the most gently gorgeous images of all of the docs in the festival, if rarely the most formally inventive. McNicol and Sandilands convey an empathy in their portraiture, as well as a sense that the project was a collaboration, filmmakers and subjects coming together to mutually characterise the town rather than filmmaker utilising the people for their stories. The mix of footage types, the night-mode recordings the hunter uses to track his prey's movements blended in relatively seamlessly with McNicol's photography. Ultimately, that which might be central elsewhere, the decimation of the town's fish supply and income source by a expensive-to-combat bacteria infestation, slides quietly to the side, McNicol and Sandilands taking the laudable decision to focus on the human element of the story. A town is characterised by its community, and Uncertain's charm comes from its gentle, drip-reveal presentation of the townspeople and its afflictions.
The most formally straightforward film in the festival, Wojciech Staron's Brothers sees the Polish filmmaker follow two elderly brothers after they return to Poland, a home they haven't been to since they were exiled to a Siberian labour camp. Contextual information is thin. We don't know for instance, that Staron has known them for twenty years, and filmed them for seven. The explanation of who the brothers are (an artist and a scientist) and the significance of their situation (they were children when deported, lived elsewhere since, and only in their nineties have they returned to Poland) comes via a short, just-the-facts, text overlay at the very start. From here on, its up to the audience to deduce what they can from passing conversational cues, the recording of certain events (e.g. the brother's gallery show and subsequent loss of his work through a fire), and fairly abstruse home-video interludes that show the brothers at a younger age. This initial ambiguity is something that works in the film's favour, allowing the viewer to develop an understanding of the men gradually. Tracking the brothers at a respectful distance, Staron captures their daily life through unobtrusive observation, revealing the character of the men through the rituals they share and the landscape they've returned to. Whether mowing the lawn, painting the scenery or preparing a meal, every action the brothers take is shared.
A piece of tremendously understated portraiture, the pace in Brothers matches the protagonists, revealing an ambling, unhurried, quiet and methodical lifestyle, that, through the nature of their imprisonment and late life freedom, is imbued with a sense of time passing (and passed). Staron has created a distanced and intuitive record of two polar but conjoined souls, one an artist, the other his muse. The context, that these men are bound not just by familial ties but through a shared injustice, is present, noted quietly at the start and resting in the audience's mind throughout, though never forced. As the tone darkens towards the end, Staron's emphasis becomes more clear. These are men who've lost: time, property, and eventually their memories and mind too. Yet despite this, even with the destabilisation of all extemporaneous factors, the one thing which is evidently most important, their relationship, remains steadfast and strong.
Zhao Liang's latest film Behemoth has been referred to as a departure from his previous films - masterful works of immediate, confrontational investigative reportage like Crime and Punishment, a searing expose on the nation's justice system, or Petition, in which he spent twelve years amidst the individuals who protest endlessly in Beijing against a myriad of bureaucratic misdoings they are powerless to resolve. With Behemoth, Liang continues to engage directly with China's ills, but adopts new formal modes in which to do this. Part observational documentary, part ethnography, and part visual art piece, Behemoth is another powerful, searingly critical documentary that strives to voice the silenced and represent the invisible, just as Liang has been doing with increasing potency and aesthetic assurance for well over a decade now.
Moving away from China's cities to Inner Mongolia, Liang records labourers, many of whom have migrated in from different regions of China, toiling over the region's expansive deep and surface mines. Surveying - in a film that switches constantly from the micro to the macro - the devastating effects of humanity's thirst for industrial development on both the land, through expansive wide shots of the monolithic desecration of the natural landscape, and on the body, through material that shows the labourers silently scrubbing away the grime, picking scabs off their hands or filtering viscous black liquid out of their lungs. In between, paraphrased quotations from Dante's Divine Comedy are read out whilst a naked man foregrounds some of Liang's most disquietingly picturesque compositions. This guide leads us first through hell and then into paradise, which proves ironic. Liang shows the fruit of the labourer's toil and suffering, endless cascades of identical, vacant tower-block monstrosities that account to nothing but a ghost town. These readings, whilst certainly fitting, are perhaps unnecessary given Liang so effectively conveys his message through the images.
Indeed, Liang's evocative visuals and soundscapes frequently induce a mix of awe and terror - cranes that occupy only a fraction of the screen demonstrating the scale of the operation, booming detonations collapsing whole cliff faces, or endless stretches of landscape that appear first as oceans but are actually caverns of obliterated land. The most shocking moment comes midway through, when Liang follows a protracted series of observational recordings of labourers working away at molten pits, the clangoring sounds of mechanised production on a monstrous scale mixed high on the soundtrack, before cutting the sound and image jarringly, switching to extreme closeups of the labourers sweat soaked, leathery skin. It's visceral, confrontational cinema, the type of which, though not subtle, is necessary when dealing with such material. Unafraid to show the ills of society, socially conscious Chinese documentary filmmaking of this type can make for dispiriting viewing. As Xiaolu Guo, leading a pre-film discussion on the emergence of underground documentary filmmaking in China, remarked, "it's not about optimism or pessimism, its reality." Zhao Liang continues to show a commitment to visually representing people and problems that though geographically Chinese are essentially universal, and with Behemoth affirms himself as one of the world's most vital documentary filmmakers.