Two important but very different documentaries from 2018 showcase the power of the short film form.
The Houses We Were / DIALOGUE
(Le case che eravamo )
This year, Ny Tid and Modern Times Review have shone a monthly spotlight on new short documentaries, a lively and vibrant format that is all too often overlooked in our feature-length-oriented world. Each month’s dispatch from the film festival scene has focused on two outstanding selections from one such event at a time, but as we near the end of 2018 we’d like to glance back and cover two outstanding works, which for various reasons slipped through the cracks but are much too important to ignore.
Two powerful films
Arianna Lodeserto’s The Houses We Were (Le case che eravamo) and Yuka Sato’s DIALOGUE (the title always written in upper-case script) run 18 and 17 minutes apiece, and their near-identical running times aren’t their only points of similarity. In both cases a female artist, whose output crosses the boundaries between photography and cinema, presents a specific, densely populated urban environment – Rome, Tokyo – and both directors handle writing, production and editing duties.
«The Houses We Were is a rousing kaleidoscopic survey of Italy’s chronic housing problems from the 1940s to the present day.»
The latter task of cutting is a further and crucial point of context: The Houses We Were and DIALOGUE are both a world away from currently fashionable «slow cinema» trends. Instead a relatively rapid-fire approach is adopted: few shots are held for more than ten seconds at a time. This results in compact, stimulating miniatures that, like many of the best short films of any type, manage to cover surprising amounts of ground in their restricted durations. But in nearly every other aspect the two films could hardly be more different, operating at near polar-opposite ends of the documentary spectrum and thus revealing the full diversity of the present day non-fiction moving image.
Of the two directors, Lodeserto is better known, having over the last half-decade staged several well-received photographic exhibitions in her native Italy as well as further afield. Lodeserto’s work across various media is unified by her engagement with cities and psychogeography and is notable for a strong social conscience. Her directorial debut, The Houses We Were, was made in close collaboration with Rome’s AAMOD, the Archivio audiovisivo del movimento operaio e democratico (Audiovisual Archive of the Democratic and Labour Movement), which was set up in the late seventies.
Kaleidoscopic images and sound
One of the AAMOD’s founders, and the president for many years, was the esteemed screenwriter Cesare Zavattini (1902-1989), a triple Oscar nominee whose credits include such Neorealist classics as Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. The AAMOD reportedly holds thousands of documentaries and newsreels, mainly from the collections of the Italian Communist Party. Enjoying all-area access to this treasure trove, Lodeserto has spliced together images and sounds from more than 30 films – many anonymous and fragmentary to begin with.
The result is a rousing kaleidoscopic survey of the nation’s chronic housing problems from the 1940s to the present day. Her emphasis is on the fifties and sixties, when Il Boom (the Italian economic boom that rose up after WWII) saw hundreds of thousands of country folk flock to big cities in search of work. This placed a huge strain on infrastructure and stretched the competence of corruption-riddled local government beyond the breaking point (as chronicled in such fictional landmarks as Francesco Rosi’s harrowing Hands Over the City from 1963).
«Construction is the oldest industry here,» according to voiceover from the film, «the strongest, greediest, most bloodthirsty.» The consequences of low-grade residential building practices are often grim for their luckless tenants, eventually inspiring communal awareness-raising, collective activity and violent resistance. The Houses We Were shows a myriad of glimpses of ordinary people coping valiantly in the face of exploitation, eviction, oppression and capitalist adversity. It is a persuasive paean of praise to those countless nameless individuals who refused to accept the cynical policies of the wealthy and their «astronomical rents, impossible house prices.»
With Italy having recently shifted to the populist right following this year’s elections, The Houses We Were is a suitably fiery and defiant clarion-call from the country’s hardscrabble progressive tradition, one which is likely to be reignited by the business-friendly government in coming months. Propelled in its second half via a moody electronic score by Enrico Tinelli, the film is constructed as a series of elliptical glimpses down a shadowy corridor of the recent past, unified by the guiding principle that having a decent home is a social right and not a special privilege available only to those who can afford it.
A poetic reverie
Not that having a decent home and income are the end of one’s problems, of course. Yuka Sato’s DIALOGUE is a poetic vision of 21st century affluence, overflowing with technological marvels but spiritually and emotionally hollow. Lodeserto used only archive footage for The Houses We Were, most of it originally shot on film (but transferred to digital for her final edit). Sato relies mainly on self-filmed video in DIALOGUE, although the very final sequence consists of home-movies featuring a little girl we take to be Sato herself in her youngest days.
It’s tricky to be sure about anything in DIALOGUE however: there is very little biographical information about Sato online («Yuka Sato is a Japanese filmmaker based in Tokyo who explores the border between photography and film» is as much as her website divulges); the voice we hear from time to time sounds like that of a youngish woman. But is this actually Sato, or an actress? Is «Yuka Sato» an individual or a collective? Future years will presumably provide more answers as Sato’s international renown increases.
«DIALOGUE is a poetic vision of 21st century affluence, spiritually and emotionally hollow.»
This rising profile seems plausible given the strength of DIALOGUE, an entrancing poetic reverie of nocturnal Tokyo that profitably nestles in the limbo zone between documentary, experimental film, video-diary and essay film. We are adrift in the obscure architectural crannies of a sprawling mega-metropolis, saturated with advertising images and bathed in eerie electric blues (and sometimes greens, reds and pinks). Across dozens of elliptical, elegiac mini-episodes – the editing is, as with Lodeserto’s film, a particular delight – Sato constructs a reflective, introspective form of meandering.
Her voice-over endows mundane happenings with a mournful philosophical aspect, with the emphasis very much on solitude. «The day I saw the outside world … Alone, I was going somewhere … A town so bright I can get lost … Where will we all end up, where are we trying to get to.» The title is thus doubly ironic: while the lettering is majuscule, the film’s tone is unapologetically minuscule, deeply absorbed in the smallest of human details. And only one narrating voice is heard. That this is monologue rather than dialogue is a source of much disquiet to the speaker who, in the final moments, states calmly but movingly that she is «desperately wanting to talk to someone.» Engulfed in 21st century anomie, the invisible, all-seeing, hypersensitive protagonist is unable to make the simplest of human contacts.
Time and again her camera happens upon another individual similarly cut off from the masses of humanity that swarm through the city’s streets (many of them engaged in the materialistic, occidental jamboree that is Christmas shopping). Homeless people and bemused-looking senior citizens occasionally pop up in the frame, marginalised by a society prizing youth, beauty and conspicuous consumption. DIALOGUE‘s political and sociological aspects are no less powerful and intriguing for being so very understated, but Sato’s dreamy depiction of a digital dystopia is in its way even more chilling than the naked exploitation and corruption indicted by Lodeserto’s spiky agit-prop montage. In each case, the artist needs barely a quarter-hour to sketch the full picture.