The cph:dox festival this past November presented a collection of these challenging, innovative works in its New Vision programme.
Films with an urgent need to be made seem to begin and end in the places where language dissolves. When words fail, the power of images can truly begin. Straightforward, easily sold narratives collapse, and form is refreshed and wrestled with until it communicates an authentic whiff of the real – with all its complexities.
cph:dox celebrated such non-mainstream films with its wonderful New Vision programme. It included work by well-known names-Herzog (“The Wild Blue Yonder”) and Claire Denis (“Towards Matilde”)-as well as “independent” filmmakers and artists such as Doug Aitken (the dazzling “Momen” part of the “3” programme of short films)-famous in art circles for his video installations but less known to documentary audiences.
The zone between art and documentary may never have provided such creative heat or been so vibrant, but it seems crude to try to define a term for work that deliberately sets out to transcend definition, work which so often includes the audience or viewer in its search for meaning and resolution.
Part of the appeal of films such as “Phantom Limb” by Jay Rosenblatt is their urgent need to find a suitable form to unbury emotions which have been silenced over time. The film is a rumination on grief, an evocation of the filmmaker’s own loss of his little brother and the family’s ongoing refusal, twenty years later, to mention him. Super 8 scenes from their childhood are intercut with written pieces of narrative.
“My little brother died when I was nine years old.”
“He had been sick for two years.”
“He was six years old and my parents had to push him in a stroller.”
“I was embarrassed by him.”
“I made fun of him.”
The filmmaker almost seems to be whispering the unmentionable through these written fragments -“I thought my teasing and resentment had caused his death.”
By anatomizing the different stages of grief over a child’s death -“1. Separation, 2. Collapse, 3. Sorrow, 4. Denial, 5. Confusion, 5. Shock, 7. Rage, 8. Advice, 9. Longing, 10. Depression, 11. Communication, 12. Return,”-the 12 sections of the film seem to be articulating the unspoken, to be breathing life into the dead. The film becomes the space for the dead brother to live again, rescuing him from the tyranny of silence and denial.
We move through these 12 stages at an exquisite, inevitable pace. They work like different movements of music, leading us to the heart of the emotions of loss in an almost ritualistic way. Their formality makes it possible to witness the chaos of loss without flinching.
Reminiscent of the auto-biographical work of US video artist Daniel Reeves (“Obsessive Becoming”), Rosenblatt’s “Phantom Limb” works as a confessional, linking the personal with the wider world through the use of archival imagery including scenes from the Depression in America or educational films showing how to tell a child about death. Current documentary footage is also used, including an interview with a man who had an arm amputated and still feels pain in this missing limb.
The film reaches a crescendo in the indelible image in section “8. Advice” when over a long, steady shot of a sheep being sheered by a man in blue overalls, we hear a woman’s calm voice laying out advice for the grieving parent: “Go easy on people who say stupid things such as, ‘at least you had her as long as you did’. You can always have another child. You’ll grow so much stronger through this. I know how you feel. It’s God’s will.” The sheep’s coat is removed with expertise and its pink, vulnerable body emerges. “Don’t expect the pain to ever fully go away.” As the sheep’s body shivers into its new life, we’re left with a raw visceral image for pain that also somehow contains a potential for re-birth.
Other highlights of the festival included the mesmerising “Wayfarers” (winner of a Golden Palm at Cannes for Best Short Film) by the Ukrainian director Igor Strembitskyy-a poetic film set in a male psychiatric ward mingling meditations on love, loss of childhood idealism with portraits of some of the patients.
The dichotomy between sanity and insanity is more overtly explored in a segment of “Trains of Winnipeg” by Clive Holden-who combines poetry, soundtrack and imagery in a 14-part film to ruminate on his life amongst the condos and patios of Winnipeg. “Cinema has proven to be one of history’s most effective inventions for the spreading of lies,” says Holden as he recounts how he visited his schizophrenic brother in a hospital. He hadn’t seen him for 15 years and was scared. Holden realized a lot of his fear came from films and their portrayal of “insanity”. He questions the dichotomy between sanity and insanity-and other dualisms we fill our lives with. His film is an attempt to break through those simplistic definitions and present a fuller, more poetic experience of life.
One of the functions of the documentary festival has to be to present challenging work which would otherwise elude us, despite the current surge of documentaries on the big screen. If cinema is to prove itself as more than an “effective invention for spreading lies” there has to be room for the complex truths of poetry as well as prose.