MoMA’s 17th Doc Fortnight examines a wide range of social issues

By Daniel Eagan Feb 15, 2018.

Now in its 17th year, the Museum of Modern Art’s Doc Fortnight gathers documentaries from around the world. Running Feb. 15-26, the series includes shorts as well as features, many receiving their New York premieres. Several of the filmmakers will introduce screenings and participate in Q&A sessions.

For many years, Doc Fortnight was curated by MoMA’s Film Department. Recently, guest curator Kathy Brew has programmed the series, this year with Gianna Collier-Pitts.

Two films will have special week-long, world-premiere engagements. George (Feb. 20-26) is a biography of George Maciunas, the writer and artist who in 1961 founded the Fluxus movement. Adopting many of Maciunas’ strategies, director Jeffrey Perkins combines photographs, archival footage, animation and examples of Maciunas’ work—prints, drawings, obsessive lists, posters, books, etc.—to build a portrait of a complicated, difficult artist.

For Fluxus artists, anything could be considered “art,” from the most mundane, quotidian activities to the destruction of art pieces and musical instruments. Footage of Fluxus “concerts” in Europe show collaborators like Nam June Paik taking hammers to pianos as viewers, either stunned or appreciative, watch from their seats.

Noteworthy figures from Yoko Ono to Jonas Mekas and Larry Miller comment on Maciunas, and to director Perkins’ credit, he includes negative criticisms along with more benign observations. What Nam June Paik realized, and what the film fails to acknowledge enough, is how much of Fluxus was derived from surrealism and slapstick. The Dadaists’ cut-up technique of poetry is a direct forerunner of Maciunas’ diagrams, line drawings filled with text displayed in many fonts. And film comedians like Laurel and Hardy and The Marx Brothers were smashing pianos decades before Fluxus did.

Directed by Jackie Ochs and Susanna Styron, Out of My Head (Feb. 20-26) is a deep dive into migraine, a neurological disorder that afflicts a billion people worldwide. Starting with Emma Larson, whose semester in Paris came to a halt due to migraine, the filmmakers interview several victims who describe not just their symptoms but the effects migraine has on their daily lives. For everyone from Sigmund Freud to Joan Didion, seen reading from her “In Bed” essay, migraine has been a cruel mystery. Experts from the Mayo Clinic and other hospitals confess that although they are closing in on the ways migraine affects patients, they are far from understanding its causes or finding a cure.

Many of this year’s titles deal with society’s core problems: race and gender issues, refugee crises, changes to the environment. Seen together in a series, the titles intersect in unexpected ways. Playwright Irene Fornes returns home to Cuba during The Rest I Make Up; Julien Temple offers a valentine of sorts to Cuban culture in Habaneros.

Opening this year’s series, Habaneros (Feb. 15) is a history of Cuba told by its survivors, the people who lived through its corrupt administrations, U.S. occupations and the Castro revolution. The film blends pop songs, movies, cartoons, newsreels and magazines into a colorful, occasionally romanticized version of history, edited together in an approximation of tropical rhythms.

A feature filmmaker as well as documentarian, Temple has the resources to wait for the right moment, location and mood. Stephen Organ’s cinematography captures Cuba’s brilliant colors and eerie contradictions. Habaneros is filled with complicated moving shots taken from difficult spots. Temple often doctors the footage, projecting it onto buildings, playing with filters, removing or adding colors. A black-and-white drone shot may combine with archival footage to show how little Cuban architecture and landscapes have changed over the years. Temple adds in clips from feature films like The Chase, blending fact and fiction, past and present, in a swirling, music-fueled stew of slavery, sugar, tobacco, rum-running, revolution and exploitation.

The program also builds subtle currents and themes, notably death and rebirth. A world premiere, The Rest I Make Up (Feb. 16) charts, in often uncomfortable detail, Irene Fornes’ physical decline and struggles with memory loss. Director Michelle Memran juxtaposes period footage of the playwright at the height of her success, captivating interviewers and flirting with colleagues, next to shots of an elderly, infirm woman driven to tears by facts she can’t remember, questions she can’t answer.

Death and birth are literally the subjects of Instructions on Parting, directed by Amy Jenkins, another world premiere screening Feb. 16. An intimate account of the filmmaker’s family, Instructions is made up of home movies, slides, voicemail recordings and footage from a camcorder Jenkins apparently never turns off. Expanding the limits of personal essays, Jenkins contrasts the birth of her daughter Audrey with the medical catastrophes striking her parents and siblings.

Far more restrained emotionally, Maso Chen’s The Silent Teacher (Feb. 16) follows widower Lin Hui-tzung as he deals with the death of his wife Hsu Yu-e. Breaking with Taiwanese tradition, he donates her body to Fu Jen Catholic University for use in medical research—essentially, so medical students could dissect it. That’s how a cadaver becomes a “silent teacher.”

The documentary treats its subject with a delicacy that might seem peculiar to those on a steady diet of TV shows set in hospitals and forensic labs. The camera tilts away from gory details, the director preferring poetic asides: clouds, waves lapping the edge of a pool, water poured into a teacup. The Silent Teacher stays at an emotional remove even when Lin breaks into tears.

Doc Fortnight commemorates Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme with a retrospective of five of his documentaries, including Stop Making Sense (Feb. 27), a concert film so revolutionary it changed the genre. Demme collaborated with members of Talking Heads to achieve an unprecedented sense of immediacy with the musicians. Stop Making Sense fleshed out the band’s tunes in ways viewers had never really seen before.

Demme used a similar strategy of collaboration and pre-planning in his three documentaries with Neil Young. Neil Young Journeys (Feb. 24), the third, adds more conventional biographical details to its depiction of Young in solo, but extremely loud, mode. The musician’s characteristically ornery style remains intact.

Demme loved Haiti, and in Haiti: Dreams of Democracy (Feb. 24) he profiled the nation and its people at the downfall of the repressive Duvalier regime. I’m Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad, and the Beautiful (Feb. 25) examines the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the person of Parker, the first to return to her New Orleans neighborhood.

Swimming to Cambodia (Feb. 25) isn’t a documentary so much as a carefully shot and edited version of a performance piece by the late monologist Spalding Gray. Laurie Anderson will participate in a post-screening discussion.

Gray, who died in 2004, could be added to another theme in the series: underappreciated artists. For whatever reasons, Gray, George Maciunas and Irene Fornes didn’t receive the recognition that their peers did. Neither do the subjects of Sans bruit, les figurants du désert/Noiseless, Desert Extras (Feb. 17), a Polish, French and Moroccan co-production.

Set in Ouarzazate, a city in Morocco situated on the edge of a desert, Sans bruit looks at the extras and locations used in numerous feature films, from Biblical epics to Charlie Wilson’s War. Directors Gilles Lepore, Michal Madracki, and Maciej Madracki employ distancing tactics that deliberately confuse viewers. Asynchronous sound, long takes with no obvious narrative purpose and conversations that aren’t translated help make Sans bruit more opaque than necessary. A long “audition” sequence in which the filmmakers taunt an elderly performer until she cries is hard to watch.

Receiving its New York City premiere at Doc Fortnight, Becoming Who I Was (Feb. 18) is another film about death and rebirth, this one set in the Ladakh region of northern India. Filmed over an eight-year period by South Korean director Moon Chang-Yong, it follows Padma Angdu, first seen as a five-year-old Rinpoche, or reincarnate of the deceased leader of a monastery in Kham, Tibet. The young Padma is like a child king, honored by supplicants he blesses from a monastery throne. But he’s also a child, playful, nervous, laughing with friends and fretting over tests at school. Padma lives in a poor, remote village in the foothills of the Himalayas, watched over by his “uncle,” lama and teacher Urgain Rigzin.

Since China has taken over Tibet, monks are no longer welcome, especially not young reincarnates determined to revitalize abandoned monasteries. Without his own monastery, Padma struggles to survive, questioning his faith and purpose in the world.

Moon has remarkable access to Padma’s life and world, one in which cellphones and solar panels coexist with dirt roads and menial labor. Padma forgets his schoolbooks, wears a baseball cap, plays cricket and soccer, is scared of firecrackers. While he studies ancient Buddhist texts spilling out of a crumbling book, his sisters imitate Bollywood dances they watch on TV. Scenes of Padma and his friends sledding down a hill, surrounded by the highest peaks in the world, or Padma struggling with a stove bring us directly into a child’s world and vision.

The setting may be utterly foreign, with an unearthly beauty revealed in mesmerizing drone shots, but Padma’s needs and fears are common to everyone. And the love between Padma and Urgain, marked by the occasional dispute and tantrum, has a universal honesty. Becoming Who I Was is a remarkable achievement, a work of beauty and heartbreak with the power to move us all.

Dong Kim