The creation of an international festival dedicated to documentary and experimental cinema in Goiânia is, somehow, like opening a narrow trail in a virgin forest and putting a post on it. Goiânia is a city positioned in the middle of the Brazilian “central plateau”, far away from the major sites of film production, and capital of a state whose cinematic tradition is almost unknown to the rest of the country. To create a festival there is to invent a new territory in the midst of emptiness, placing on the ground the first wood of a hut. However, the real difference relies on the quality of this new territory: here the borderline does not mean a security line demarcation in front of what is foreign. Here “borderline” refers to a porous zone, a point of intercession that is open to an encounter between that which is inside and that which is outside.
The first edition of Fronteira – International Documentary and Experimental Film Festival – became a unique space-time in which viewers could experience intensively such a challenging and fascinating environment. I was there as jury member for the International Competition and observed the strength and the various nuances of this nascent project, organised by a group of local cinephiles and producers (Henrique Borela, Marcela Borela and Rafael Parrode) and curated mainly by them and by the Italian film critic Toni D’Angela.
Focusing on the fields of documentary and experimental films is a principle way to affirm this idea of the borderline, firstly because documentary and experimental film could be considered two cinematic worlds defined by their uncertain nature. Regarding documentary, one thinks about Jean-Louis Comolli’s “risk of the real” (a sort of necessary friction between the camera and the real, which opens up the documentary to the multiplicity and unpredictability of the world). Regarding experimental film, one vindicates Ken Jacobs’s terms, “indeterminate cinema” (a cinema that creates a non-codified and free experience for the viewer).
Usually relegated to the margins of the hegemonic spaces of film exhibition – obviously in the commercial cinema, but also in film festivals – those two fields became, for one week in Goiânia, the cynosure of eyes on a powerful reconfiguration of places. The combination of these two fields of filmmaking produced a new cartography and created a kind of Temporary Autonomous Zone for the cinematic experience. Although a considerable number of films were not exhibited in the best quality formats – certainly something to pay attention in the coming years, especially as a festival dealing with experimental cinema – the first edition of Fronteira was definitely a week to remember.
The invention of this new cartography allowed the festival the freedom to program in the Competition an international festival hit like Manakamana (Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez, 2013) – the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s anthropological and cinematic immersion – and a short Brazilian film like Karioka (d. Takumã Kuikuro), a kind of essayistic home movie directed by a young indigenous filmmaker. As viewers, in Manakamana we journey together with a group of religious people in a cable car addressing the temple of the Hindu goddess Manakamana in Nepal, while in Karioka we travel along with the director between Rio de Janeiro – where he is a student at a film school – and his former home, a native village in Xingu National Park.
While Manakamana is built as a piece in which the rigour is absolute – the fixed and unchanging framing, the travel time of the cable car exactly equivalent to the length of the shot – but reveals in the variations its bigger force (the fascination of every appearance of a new character, with its unsuspected nuances), in Karioka everything is mobile – the constant back and forth between Rio de Janeiro and Xingu intermediated by the editing, the instability of the frame that changes in each different situation, the stories that blend the Kuikuro language to the Portuguese and produce multiple resignifications – but its constitution as an autonomous cinematic thought is equally potent. In that sense, the festival’s gesture of freedom consists precisely in recognising, in two films whose social status and whose formal procedures are diametrically opposed, a vision equally original and a cinematic idea equally extraordinary. In both films a powerful aesthetic is at play, one concerned with what it might mean to approach cosmology in cinema, how to deal with filmic material (the outmoded use of 16mm, or the use of “low quality” digital), or even how to explore the land of comedy through new modalities.
The borderline between the more traditional documentary look and the discovery of new dramaturgical possibilities was a constant in the International Competition, with more or less interesting (and more or less predictable) results. In Hotel Nueva Isla (Irene Gutiérrez and Javier Labrador), an observational look at the inhabitants of an abandoned Havana hotel, several fictional sketches of rare dramatic force are presented in compositions that are in open dialogue with pictorial tradition. Yet, what could have produced a friction between registers becomes an obsession for an aesthetic of ruin, largely coded and captured by contemporary cinema. What in Pedro Costa’s work (at least since Ossos) relies on an aesthetic conflict between the presence of bodies and the collapsing spaces (one could think of Ventura emerging from the darkness at the hospital in Horse Money, reconfiguring the balance between architecture and human figures), in Hotel Nueva Isla becomes an appeased adhesion to the ruin itself. The decline of the architecture eventually becomes the decay of the characters and of the form itself, when the film insists, by endless repetition, in affirming that these men and women, as well as the walls of the hotel, are in a process of deterioration.
Another film under the influence of Costa, however, goes beyond the contemporary canon. From Colombia, Mambo Cool (Chris Gude) starts from a position of investigation of marginality as an imaginative territory but finds its own dramaturgy: its marginal characters are not corrupted by the ruin of their surroundings, but exist in radical contrast to it, loving or fighting with each other, dancing Salsa or performing a mysterious poetry at once lyrical and brutal. Within an oblique, decentred framework, the film foregrounds these characters to offer an entirely different aesthetic of the margins.
Documentary and Beyond
In two Brazilian feature films in the International Competition, the borderline between documentary and fiction was stated quite differently, but in an equally powerful way.
White Out, Black In(Branco Sai Preto Fica, Adirley Queirós) starts from a tragic story (the mutilation of a couple of young black men during a police intervention on a black dance event in the 1980s) to create – with the cooperation of these characters – a piece of science fiction that imagines Ceilândia (a city on the outskirts of Brasília) in a dystopian future, even more segregating than today. These survivors, now housed in bunkerswhere they prepare a sonic bomb intended for Brazil’s capital, are joined by another character: a detective from the future whose purpose is to collect evidence of the state’s criminal activities and to repair the damage suffered by peripheral populations. The combination of a strong conceptual structure, a desire for direct political intervention with few precedents in Brazilian cinema and exceptional cinematography results in a remarkable film.
On the other hand, The Hidden Tiger (A Vizinhança do Tigre, Affonso Uchôa) features many recognisable elements of Latin American (and particularly Brazilian) cinema: a realistic approach to urban outskirts, themes of violence and drugs, an attempt to work with occasional actors. However, the way in which those elements are combined is a revelation: the result of a four year shooting, this coming of age film depicts the daily lives of five young guys on the outskirts of town (where hard work, children’s games, music, a fascination with weapons and friendship mingle) and gives the distinct impression of being the first Brazilian film to immerse itself so deeply in this world and to extend such a vibrant cinematic power to this immersion. The ludic self-awareness of the staging; the constant interplay between a strong dramatic line and a set of fragmented performances; the mix of comedy sketches and the protagonist’s dramatic heaviness; the frank fearless approach to violence and drugs; all of this gives The Hidden Tiger the integrity of a work completely aware of all its choices.
It would be also important to say that any first edition of a festival – even when pointedly seeking a state of freedom – involves a range of risks. With a remarkably large International Competition – a total of 37 films including 18 feature films, and over 25 sessions – it is impossible to maintain the same level of commitment to all curatorial choices. Yet the most provocative films came from the least expected places.
The Competition allows us to think about one of the most noticeable flaws in contemporary cinema: the glorification of authorship over the work itself. The example of Costa da Morte is particularly interesting. Awarded at several festivals (Locarno, Jeonju, FICUNAM), Lois Patiño was named in 2013 as one of the most promising directors of the year. Though the film presents itself as a fresh and compelling look at the relationship between man and nature (especially in the first ten or fifteen minutes), it encounters difficulties in supporting this gesture throughout its duration. The film’s initial radicalism is soon converted into a postcard aesthetic (a repetition of the procedure – a series of long shots depicting human figures and landscapes – that over time becomes a standardised way to portray the daily life of a coastal village). The first shots of men in conflict with the sea and the rock are undoubtedly impressive, but when the film insists on imposing its geometric obsession to any situation that presents itself in front of the camera – an amusement park, a man ringing the bell of the village church – it only finds a facile beauty and a kind of conservative bucolic appeal that paralyses a place and a community within an aura of lost archaism.
The opposite observation could be made about Il Segreto (cyop&kaf), a film that had found success at some festivals (Torino, Cinéma du Réel), but didn’t have the same reputation as Costa da Morte. Here, instead, the initial impression shows us a very ordinary film: a traditional documentary look at a group of youngsters that try to bring back the ritual of St. Anthony’s day in Napoli (used Christmas trees are reused to make the fire). However, what could have been a quiet re-enactment of an immemorial tradition becomes something much more complex: conflicts around the demarcation of a territory (the teenagers take possession of abandoned land, but face resistance from neighbours, police and rival groups); fights to store the collected trees; runaway escapes though the streets. The filmmakers imbue the film with an impressive vitality, while forming a powerful allegory about the political contradictions of the contemporary world. The conflict between a conservative generation and another that clamours for change, the urge to match the firmness of purpose and the pleasure of subversion, the commitment with pure beauty that cannot move away from the reconfiguration of political and geographic spaces. Everything is there, in this short story about arrangements for a fire. When to the sound of a beautiful piece of jazz the teens finally set fire to the trees piled on a vacant land conquered with great difficulty, each hurl of a Molotov cocktail carries the force of a political statement. A tradition paralysed in the past is no longer the film’s focus. Instead it is the vital celebration of the movement of the bodies, of the fire, of the reinvention of a physical and symbolic territory.
Abigail Child, Andrea Tonacci and the Rushes
Outside the International Competition, the twin ideas of the festival’s cartographic invention and the borderline as a place of creative indetermination appear even more pointedly. Abigail Child’s Vis à Vis, programmed in a session called “Classics Of Experimental Film… And Something Else”, is a masterpiece: a celebration of underground experience as it mixes outtakes filmed decades ago with a vibrant soundtrack. Child’s film is simultaneously a mémoire film and a pure feast for the eyes and the ears and her presence at the festival was an opportunity to see how this great American filmmaker transits between the fields of experimental cinema (as in Elsa and Unbound, both from 2013) and documentary (as in Riding the Tiger: Letters from Capitalist China, 2010, programmed in a session called “Camera Doc: The Eye On The World And Its Conflicts”).
As part of the retrospectivededicated to the Brazilian filmmaker Andrea Tonacci, some key works from the history of Brazilian cinema were screened: Olho por Olho (1966), Blá-blá-blá (1968), Bang Bang (1970), Conversas no Maranhão (1977) and The Hills of Disorder (Serras da Desordem, 2006), films that move between ethnography, essay and fragmented fiction, all with an unique taste for odyssey. The Hills of Disorder – the only film showed in 35mm at the whole festival – isnothing less than the best Brazilian film of this century, depicting the incredible journey of Carapiru, an Indian who survived the massacre of his tribe and spent the next ten years wandering alone through Brazil. Tonacci’s film is, at the same time, a great mix of epic fiction and ethnography, a fabulous essay on language and an accurate analysis of Brazilian history, particularly in relation to our pernicious developmentalism.
But the festival also provided to audiences an encounter with unfinished works, sketches and rough material still under construction. Tonacci’s presence at Goiânia was a beautiful complement to the screenings, and a great opportunity to uncover the aesthetic and political thought of one of our greatest filmmakers. On Os Arara, a project made for television between 1980 and 1983, that difference between the rushes and the finished work is particularly stimulating. Though the two first parts of the film alreadycontain something of Tonacci’s epic cinema – and reveal an impressive odyssey into the forest for the search for an isolated indigenous group threatened by entrepreneurs who have pushed them into the woods –, the rapid, television-style of editing ends up partially affecting the power of the images. However, in the third and final part of the exhibited film, what we have is non-edited material that reveals the first contact between supporters of the native culture and Arara Indians. At this point, Tonacci’s camera is freed and constructs an investigation without precedent into the nature of the filmic image itself. In the tactile discovery of the Indians’ bodies and in the curious looks to the camera and to the recorder, what is at stake for the viewer is the encounter between a Western logic of representation – inscribed on the devices – and something we do not know, and we can only keep asking with our gaze and listening. The material appearance of this other fringe of humanity – which exhibits a mysterious verbal frequency, a distinct movement of the body, an indecipherable look – registers on the image itself a crisis, a split between what the cinema can figure and what it can, actually, only intuit, fumble, touch.
In the retrospectivededicated to Harun Farocki (planned before his death in July), it was possible to see another direction of this borderline idea: the contestation of the boundary between art and criticism, as well pointed by Nicole Brenez in her text to the festival catalogue. The visual studies of Farocki articulate a critique of images – from television to computer games, from publicity to cinema itself – made in an immanent manner: using the procedures of cinema itself. What the curators of the festival allowed us to discern, however, was the multiplicity of cinema gestures covered by Farocki’s work. Although the retrospective was far from complete, it was very diverse and stimulating.
In addition to the examination of images through free association and comment intermediated by editing – a constant inFarocki’s oeuvre, as in Videograms of a Revolution (1992), Workers Leaving the Factory (1995) or in theParallel installation (2013) – there are a range of other procedures. An Image (1983), shot inside the Playboy studios, has a strictly observational look, but it also has the particularity of being an observation of the production of absolute artifice. On the calculation of each position of the model body, on the camera look for each decision regarding the scenario, we find in Farocki an artist of space, paradoxical metteur en scène. In the astonishing Inextinguishable Fire (1969), a young and irreverent Farocki constructs a kind of fictitious pamphlet about Napalm with the same touch of radicalism and good humour. The use of actors, the construction of humorous sketches, the incisiveness of the Brechtian dramaturgy reveals a multifaceted filmmaker whose fictional composition is absolutely peculiar.
Over nine days, Fronteira gave to its audience an experience of the borderline as a freedom space open to exchanges, to mutual contagiousness and to the unpredictability of an intermediate zone still under construction. Even though not all the exhibited films pointed to that place of openness and invention, it is impossible not to recognise a vibrant curatorial wager, one that seems willing to reinvent itself in years to come.
Fronteira – International Documentary and Experimental Film Festival
30 August – 7 September 2014
Festival website: http://fronteirafestival.com