A question for ReFrame: Where are the documentary films?

Perhaps a strange question to ask a documentary film festival. Certainly there were documentaries at the festivals, but the offerings over the last three years have not been a compendium of the genre. This may be due to the festival’s focus on social and political issues, the quality of submissions, or the choices in programming. The documentaries at ReFrame – the ones I have seen and read about, naturally – accomplish two things: information-transfer and story-telling. And these often amount to the same.

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This is the life of… This is the story of… This is the situation in… An interview, a cut to a shot of person or landscape X, continuity music. Narrativized and digestible. These documentaries, of some value to be sure, find their peers not in the theatre but on the television. This is reinforced by the running time of the films: this year no screening went over 100 minutes and most tended to hover around the 80 minute mark. Long enough to present some fact or some story masquerading as a reality. A fact to learn then quickly forget.

Where are the Flahertys, the Vertovs, the Vigos, the Rouchs, the experimental NFB films, the Allan Kings, the Minh-has, the Farockis? Could we ever see a film from a filmmaker like Wiseman or Seidl or Herzog or Varda, or a work from the Sensory Ethnography Lab? Where are the creative treatments of actuality (Grierson)? To reformulate my question: Where are the non-narrative films?[1] The shared creative moment amongst the feature films I’ve seen at ReFrame: how to present a story or fact so as to not confound audiences, precisely to have them not pose any questions of interpretation or engage too many cognitive skills. The most technical aspect of these films was therefore the editing and organization of the raw materials.

ReFrame advertises itself as Films Worth Talking About. Their posters and pre-show attractions creatively play with this idea (e.g., You are stuck on an elevator with the CEO of your company. If you had been to ReFrame, you could say something smart… instead you mention the weather). A note on spectatorship and my biases on the table: even the worst fictional narrative films are more cognitively demanding than the best of the interview, information-transfer documentaries. Mediocre fictional narrative films are better conversation pieces than a superb interrogative documentary. (Polemics – apologies.)

Bill Nichols named this documentary mode Interactive – its heyday was the 1970s and 1980s. Each film I saw at ReFrame 2015 falls victim to Nichol’s concise account of the mode’s deficiency: “excessive faith in witnesses, naïve history.”[2] The filmmakers tried to counter this with some kind of style or aesthetic device that made their work unbearable to watch: e.g., in Regarding Susan Sontag (2014), the overwhelming number of projections of Susan Sontag’s face onto buildings, frames, bottles, and the painful voiceover reading punchy selections from the author’s publications; in On the Trail of the Far Fur Country (2014), the awful voiceover reading letters from husband to wife; Stream of Love’s (2014) attempt at disrupting temporality with cuts to individuals clearly outside the time of the sequence or scene.

ReFrame has wrapped up its 11th year. The festival seems to grow as each January passes. Its success with individuals young and old, and its assurance that bums will be in seats, now grants festival organizers the opportunity to take some risks in their programming. Such risks would then produce more creative submissions. Fingers crossed for the years to come.

[1] I realize that some of the shorter films at the festival are, perhaps, these non-narrative films. Unfortunately I’ve yet to see one.

[2] Additionally, the expository mode of documentary in the 1930s still carries its deficiency to films of the 21st century: “overly didactic.”

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