Feb 25, 2013

Documentary Fortnight 2013

Documentary Fortnight 2013 
MoMA's International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media
February 15 - March 4, 2013

A brief introduction of the festival's history 

The Museum of Modern Art presented the first Documentary Fortnight from December 6 through December 16, 2001. The event was organized by Sally Berger, Assistant Curator, and William Sloan, Librarian, Circulating Film and Video Library, Department of Film and Media. According to MoMA's press release in 2001, Doc Fortnight "reflected an expanding interest in the documentary form," and provided "a provocative examination of recent documentaries produced by independent film- and videomakers worldwide." Films showcased in the first exhibition included "a timely collection of works that focuses on the effects of the tragic events of September 11 as seen through the fimmakers' lens" as well as a range of collaborative works on the disaster.  In the following year, Doc Fortnight added "nonfiction film and video" as its focus, and mixied the word use of "nonfiction film and video" with "documentaries" in the introduction of the exhibit. This showcase went on under the collaboration between Berger and Sloan for nine years until 2010 when William Sloan stepped down from the festival comittee. Then the festival was organized by Sally Berger, with the assistance of Maria Fosheim Lund, Director Liaison, Department of Film. In the same year, DF claimed itself as an "International Festival of Nonfiction Film" and rearranged its organzing strucutre, introducing a selection committe of three members. The 12th Documentary Fortnight inherited this type of structure except for one thing that it rebranded itself as an international festival of nonfiction film and media, starting from 2011. The current member of the selection committe are Sally Berger (2010 - Present), Chi-Hui Yang (2011 - Present), independent curator, and Michael Gitlin, documentary filmmaker and professsor at Hunter College (2013). Chi-hui Yang is also the President and Board of Trustee of the Flaherty Film Seminar, a nonprofit media arts institution in support of documentary and other independent film and video. 

Although claiming itself as an international festival, DF actually doesn't accept submissions from film- and videomakers worldwide. Therefore the festival's line-up largely relies on the active outreach of its selection committee members, especially on Berger and Yang's connections. Doc Fortnight is based on an art museum. It is not an indepedent film festival. Then it's unlikely that MoMA would offer substantial financial support to have their programmers travelling all around the world and have access to films directly from the filmmakers. Therefore, DF would mostly rely on other international and regional documentary film festivals to have a first-round selection.

From my knowledge, an interesting case study would be the seletion of China Concerto, conceived by a China-born, Brooklyn-based artist Bo Wang, who is also a graduate from School of Visual Arts in New York. His film was world premiered in the 8th Beijing Independent Film Festival in August 2012. The gurilla-style film festival was shut down and power-cut by the local security several times. However, the film was recommended by America- and Canada-based film critics or distributors who specify in Chinese Independent Cinema to Sally Berger or Chi-Hui Yang, and had its North American Premiere back in New York. 

The opening was on Friday, February 15, and started at 4:00pm in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theatre 2 (T2). Films in the thematic programs were screened for once, while most of the films in the international selection were shown twice, one screening in the afternoon and another in the night. There were four screenings in the weekdays starting from 4 pm and six screenings on the weekends from 2 pm through 10 pm-ish.
Tzvetanka (Bulgaria/Sweden, 2012) is director Youlian Tabakov's debut work. The film tells the life story of a Bulgarian woman who experienced three political regimes, from monarchy to socialism to the present, both a personal and national history. Archival footage, interviews, and staged scenes with Tzvetanka are interwoven with animated sequence to produce an imaginative reflection. What I expected before watching the film is a balance between comedy and sorrow. And it really is. It attends to the repressed history but doesn't want to bring too much pathos and nosltagia of the old times back to here-and-now.Youlian Tabakov is a set designer-turned-filmmaker. The staged scenes in the film are especially well-designed. There's one scene when the old lady, dressed like a polyclinic, enters into an isolated room where bright-colored flowers grow out of the wooden floor. When the political situation gets worse, the color of the flowers fade. Illness becomes a metaphor. 

Bo Wang, the director of China Concerto, is another example of "crossing the boundary." Wang holds a master degree of theoritical physics from Tsinghua University, one of the most elite universities in China, and shifted his focus to photography and new media after quiting his Phd progam from University of Maryland. Wang's film is narrated by an untraceable female voice reading fictional letters of a man. This essay film, a salute to Chris Maker's Sans Soleil, reflects the author's thoughts on spectable and ideology in a quasi-totalitarian country. Mixing found/propoganda footage and documentation of the resurrgence of "revolutionary songs" (红歌) from the Mao era in the public space in the city of Chongqing, Wang's homeplace, the film presents a somehow sophisticated juxtaposition of the past and the present. In both post-screening discussions, Wang introduced the background story, the reason for the uprise of the collective activities in all types of "People's Park" in China, and the collapse of the Chongqing regime. Wang Lijun, Chongqing's police chief, broke up with Bo Xilai, the head the Chongqing muncipality, and fled to the US consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu. Bo Xilai was later dismissed. Some observers saw this incident as the biggest politcal scandal in China since 1989. The first screening of China Concerto was in the afternoon of a Wednesday and in the Roy and Niuta Titus Theatre 1 (T1) of MoMA. Audiences were dispersed in the theatre and half of them were the students brought by their professor from SVA, celebrating their excellence alumi. Another screening the next day was a full house. 

As a film festival attached to an art museum, it is difficult not to compare these moving image exhibitions to the gallery ones. One thing is very clear: moving image exhibitions lack academic publications. When I was doing research on Doc Fortnight's histories, what I can have access to is only the press release for each year's exhibition, plus the brochure at the front desk. Comparing to the close relationship between art history department of universities and art museums, college's film and media studies departments are loosely-connected with film festival and exhibitions. Another issue is the lack of technical info of the selected films: 35mm or 16mm or DigiBeta or HDCAM? And what is the ratio? These are significant technical info for researchers to trace back the history of film exhibitions. Also this technical shift is a significant parameter to evaluate the ambiguity and the blurred boundaries of nonfiction filmmaking in this transitional period from grain to pixel.
Zhou Xin  

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