» The year of the artist documentary

Hussain Currimbhoy, film programmer for Sheffield Doc/Fest, shares some of his favorite films from the last year of docs.

She gestured to the space between her legs and said: “This is where my family’s honor lays. This is where my ancestor’s honor lives. It’s crazy.” This was said by one of India’s few female comediennes. The way she said it reminded me of how I felt during and after many screenings I’ve had this year. It’s a feeling I cannot ignore when it comes to highlighting some of the important documentaries I’ve encountered during the year. The seat of women in society, not just in Asian or Middle Eastern society, is a perpetual crisis of conscience that is reaching a new fervor. This compunction feels all-pervading but it has been the motor for some great documentary stories.

Director Kim Longinotto,
India 2013, 91 min.

Kim Longinotto’s newest vérité feature documentary, Salma, centers on a female Tamil poet of the same name. The region Salma is from in Southern India is enjoying a new-found affluence thanks to strong economic advances. Yet it does not want to accept the inevitable social progress and it is not uncommon for women to be locked indoors for most of their lives.  Salma was no different, spending years almost underground without access to education, exercise or a social life, enduring a bitter marriage. During her imprisonment she began to write poetry, and like many great poets, she often had to memorize her words until pen and paper became available. When she escaped she got her work published and is now one of the most acclaimed writers in Southern India. Much like the film itself, Salma’s poetry has the stride and sting of a boxer, with a sensuality that makes her work rival the writing of Rabbindranath Tagor. Salma echoes a character from a Mani Kaul film: it details the dual lives society forces us all to play. But these games mean life or death for women in India and many other parts of the world.

Directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin,
Russia, UK, 2013, 90 min.

Longinotto’s film is essentially about power and this eternal struggle against power is again illustrated in Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s much anticipated Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer. The acclaimed doc traces the stories of the three Russian musician/artists who found themselves under arrest after singing an anti-Putin refrain in one of the most revered churches in Russia. The arrests made international headlines leading to great demand for the film – from music festivals, human rights events, the usual mixed film festivals, and broadcasters – due to its phenomenal cross-audience appeal. The directors tell this much sought-after story with tenacity and economy, opening up the complexity of the characters who have risked so much to say what many of their generation feel. From the glass cage in which the Pussy Riots members are confined while in court, the accused behave impeccably as they decimate the prosecution’s argument with defiant logic, steely-eyed clarity and courage, and yet present such a dignified front in the midst of their predicament that they elevate the art of protest to great heights.

Directors Martha Shane and Lana Wilson,
USA, 2013, 85 min.

What connects many of the best docs I have seen this year is a sense of dignity, which makes After Tiller such an important film for me. Martha Shane and Lana Wilson’s new feature deals with late-term abortion and meets the few remaining doctors who perform this highly conversational procedure. Performing late-term abortions is a dangerous occupation since the murder of Kansas abortionist Dr. George Tiller five years ago by vigilante ‘pro-life’ supporters. While parents struggle to decide whether to have the procedure, the relationships between their doctors are pared down to their essence, revealing deep moral observations in their conversations. I respect this film immensely for its gentle approach, transforming the fear in both the doctors and patients into a realm of understanding for the audience. Our opinions on what women do with their bodies vary and this will no doubt invite pin-drop Q&As at festivals this year.

Director Carlos Agulló/Mandy Jacobson,
South Africa, 2013, 96 min.

How we treat our fears is at the heart of a fascinating and timely film currently about to start doing the festival circuit. Carlos Agulló and Mandy Jacobson’s Plot for Peace is a tight thriller-doc focusing on the mysterious lawyer, Jean-Yves Ollivier and the extraordinary political backroom wrangling she facilitated at the behest of the then French government to help free Nelson Mandela and end apartheid. Feeling much like the lovechild of a Barbet Schroeder film and John Gresham book, this is a new interpretation of the fall of Apartheid, and is as riveting as it is razor sharp. Much of the film is illustrated using never-before-seen archive materials to brilliant effect. This is made possible through a new programme in South Africa aimed at raising awareness of the treasures of their film archives. I certainly hope the archive is explored creatively by more filmmakers to give audiences further insights into the shadows of Africa’s history.

Director Lynette Wallworth,
Australia, 2013.

For something completely different, but just as enlightening, I must recommend Lynette Wallworth’s doc-art-installation, Coral: Rekindling Venus. It is experienced lying down inside a tent, where a dome-shaped screen offers breathtaking images of the lives within the coral reef off Australia’s coast, photographed by the rare light of Venus. The immersive effect of the dome gives the watery colors a brilliant intensity and brings to life the beguiling dances of hundreds of little creatures that live on the coral. Combined with a haunting soundtrack, it feels like you are living in a David Attenborough dream illustrated by Salvador Dali. The piece is also accompanied by an augmented reality component that is visible with your phone using a specially designed app. It is encouraging to see that her work was funded through Screen Australia. This is real cutting-edge use of the documentary form that will prove popular. It seems that it’s the artists that are regularly teaching filmmakers how to better use documentary and attract bigger audiences.

Director Avjit Mukul Kishore,
India, 2012, 93 min.

Artists and their stories are what make up To Let The World In by Avjit Mukul Kishore from India. Kishore’s feature is a series of interviews with some of India’s leading contemporary artists about their working practices, their philosophies and the state of play in contemporary Indian art today. To Let The World In is a three- hour journey into the changing states of play in Indian art, art production and perception, with characters whose wise and relaxed eloquence speaks volumes about India’s character as well as their own. Kishore clearly has a rapport with his subjects that allows them to speak this way. The result is a wonderfully thought- provoking study of artists finding their paths. There are countless docs about the fine arts and their creators in China so I was genuinely excited to see a detailed account of the artists who represent that other potential superpower, India.

While last year was the year of the artist documentary, this could be the year of the protestor, the outsider, the agitator. If you are a programmer, a broadcaster or audience member, be prepared to meet the fringes of the world. That’s an exciting prospect because it is from the fringes that we understand the center better. _

Hussain Currimbhoy Born in Canada, raised in Australia, and now based in the UK, Hussain is Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Main Programmer.

Hussain Currimbhoy
Born in Canada, raised in Australia, and now based in the UK, Hussain is Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Main Programmer.

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed