Museum of Modern Art’s 16th Doc Fortnight expands the definition of docs


Now in its 16th year, the Museum of Modern Art's Doc Fortnight continues to highlight trends and developments in documentary as it expands the range of the genre.

Running February 16-26, the festival includes 20 features and over 10 shorts from around the world, many making their North American premiere. Filmmakers will be present at a number of screenings.

Speaking by phone, chief curator Rajendra Roy points out that documentary film has played a critical role at New York’s MoMA, extending back to curator Willard Van Dyke, himself an important documentarian. For Roy, Doc Fortnight is a chance to investigate form as well as content.

This year's festival is guest-curated by Kathy Brew, a filmmaker who teaches at the New School for Social Research and the School of Visual Arts. Along with festival director David Neary, Brew chose movies from festivals in Toronto, Amsterdam and other cities. Some entries were referrals from colleagues. She agrees that one function of the series is to expand the definition of "documentary."

"I pay attention to the overlap of film and video and contemporary art," she says in a phone interview. "In 2017, it seemed imperative to have a program that dealt with nonfiction and new media—interactive documentaries, virtual-reality projects, augmented reality." New media titles from the National Film Board of Canada will screen as part of the museum's “Modern Mondays” program.

An example of a new form of nonfiction, Ulysses in the Subway (Feb. 17 & 18) is a collaboration between Paul Kaiser and Marc Downie of Open Ended Group and experimental filmmakers Ken and Flo Jacobs. Inspired in part by a 1905 Biograph actuality of a subway ride from New York’s Union Square to Grand Central, Ulysses takes a similar journey on the Q and 2 lines. Sound recorded for the trip was then transformed into 3D waveforms which pulse and throb as Jacobs makes his way through trains and stations.

Another genre-stretching title, Julia Heyward's Italian Perspective will screen in the film entrance lobby through the course of the festival. Shot from Heyward's bedroom window, this 24-hour-long movie is an experiment in ambient filmmaking.

This year's roster of filmmakers features some unexpected names, like playwright and theatrical director Lee Breuer, perhaps best known for his work with the Mabou Mines Theater Company and his staging of The Gospel at Colonus. Breuer's contribution to Doc Fortnight is the world premiere of The Book of Clarence (Feb. 18 & 26), an intimate look at Clarence Fountain. One of the founding members of The Blind Boys of Alabama, Fountain talks about his life, from singing in a choir of a school for the blind to becoming a celebrity for his work in The Gospel at Colonus.

Since the 1970s, Abigail Child has been a significant voice in experimental documentary. Her Acts & Intermissions (Feb. 17 & 19) combines several visual formats and sound collages to connect modern-day protest with early 20th-century dissident Emma Goldman, once called "the most dangerous woman alive." It's a bracing work that finds alarming patterns and repetitions in methods of repression over the past century.

Equally compelling is the raw, vibrant The Revolution Won’t Be Televised (Feb. 17 & 18) from Senegal. Director Rama Thiaw follows hip-hop stars Thiat and Kilifeu as they protest President Abdoulaye Wade's efforts to run for a third term despite the country's constitution. Thiaw can barely contain the movement's anger and energy within the frame.

The more formal Austerlitz (Feb. 19 & 20) documents tourists at the notorious concentration camp, a site of one of the last century's most horrific crimes. Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa juxtaposes visitors and their often insensitive comments with both the architecture of genocide and a serenely beautiful landscape.

The opening night documentary, Machines (Feb. 16) explores a textile factory in India, turning its mind-numbing work into something approaching beauty. Plastic China (Feb. 22 & 23) examines the toxic afterlife of an economy driven by the petrochemical industry.

Brew started assembling the Doc Fortnight program before results of last year's Presidential election were known. Even so, political events can change the way we see some of the titles.

Brew encountered the filmmakers behind Through the Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film in Amsterdam. Director Sam Wainwright Douglas's feature follows Postcommodity, a Native American activist art collective, as its three members try to put together a two-mile art installation along the Mexico-United States border.

The film also looks at classic "land art" installations like Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, Michael Heizer's Double Negative and Nancy Holt's The Sun Tunnels. Slick cinematography and music help position the movie as a smoothly entertaining, audience-friendly piece. But it's no longer possible to look at the border wall between Douglas, Arizona, and Agua Prieta, Sonora, without being reminded of recent political changes.

For Doc Fortnight's retrospective program, Brew choose Bay Area filmmaker Emiko Omori, little known on the East Coast despite a wide body of work extending back to the 1960s. Ed Hardy: Tattoo the World (Feb. 21) explains how the artist and author built a retail empire; To Chris Marker, An Unsent Letter (Feb. 21) is an appreciation of the life and work of the French filmmaker, Omori's friend.

Released in 1999, Omori's award-winning Rabbit in the Moon (Feb. 22) resonates with new power today. Politicians and pundits may pay lip service to the injustices of the Japanese internment program during World War II. Omori, who was relocated to the Poston, Arizona camp along with her family, provides a first-hand account of the personal damage the program caused. Its repercussions are still being felt within the Japanese-American community. As Omori documents, it was startlingly easy at the time to erase individual rights, strip away financial security and consign an entire ethnicity to prison in a desolate wilderness. Rabbit in the Moon should be required viewing for everyone in the new administration.

Roy notes that "almost every program that you're seeing at MoMA now essentially was decided upon for the most part before the election. Doc Fortnight and New Directors were curated post-election, but we haven't really changed our mandate. This is still a celebration of innovation in nonfiction storytelling, and New Directors/New Films will be a collection of the most exciting emerging directorial talent. The urgency that filmmakers are bringing to the fore, if we can help amplify that, then we're doing our job."

Current events inevitably have an impact on how we view movies, let alone the world at large. The Oscar-winning filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar was the subject of a retrospective at MoMA this past November and December. In interviews supporting the series, and during a post-screening question-and-answer segment, Almodóvar reminded listeners that he grew up in a fascist regime, and commented on the effect that had on his life.

"Coming of age in a repressive society and using filmmaking as his outlet, he wasn't making aggressively political films, but he was creating new environments for being," Roy observes. "Everybody talks about the way he uses set design. What he was in fact doing was describing a new modality of living that was antagonistic to the repressive society that he thought he was going to be forced to live under."

For Roy, viewer support has helped validate the Museum's efforts. "Audiences have been super-loyal, engaged, really a record turnout since the election," he says. "To me, that speaks both to a desire to use cinema in the way it's been used for over a hundred years in times of turmoil, which is a gathering place, a kind of comfort and escape. Also I think in a way viewers want to be informed, to be together and engaged in a dialogue."