March 9, 2020

Essential Doc Reads: Week of March 2

Image: CDC on Unsplash

Essential Doc Reads is our curated selection of recent features and important news items about the documentary form and its processes, from around the internet, as well as from the Documentary magazine archive. We hope you enjoy!

Following the cancellation of SXSW, The New York Times' Ben Sisario and Julia Jacobs assess the damage.

Austin effectively canceled South By Southwest with declarations of disaster from Austin's mayor and Sarah Eckhardt, the Travis County judge, a position akin to chief executive of the county. Ms. Eckhardt said she signed a declaration disallowing festival gatherings that attract people from areas with documented cases of person-to-person transmission of the virus. Another qualification is that participants of the festival are expected to be in "close and sustained proximity to one another."

IndieWire's Chris Lindahl diagnoses the impact of COVID-19 on the film industry.

While the outbreak could have a dramatic effect on the business at any time of the year, it has landed on the cusp of several major international film events, and each of them faces different organizational issues related to travel and attendance that could reverberate throughout the year. 

After her multimillionaire uncle was found dead in Mexico under mysterious circumstances, filmmaker Lourdes Portillo decided to investigate. The result was her 1994 film The Devil Never Sleeps, a genre-blending amalgam of personal exploration and cinematic interrogation of journalism and documentary's dual claims to truthfulness. Following a 25th anniversary screening at London's Essay Film Festival, Mubi Notebook's Laura Davis spoke to Portillo about the resonance of the film today.

I wanted to show the process of making the film when you encounter exactly those contradictions. My desire was to include the doubts as well as the contradictions, the two cultures, the process of filmmaking and also the unease in which one makes a film. I wanted to show that even though it offends some people—there are always people who want the story more streamlined. Some people have said it's an investigation in which you don’t find anything out. To that I say it's not an investigation into one person but an investigation into an entire culture.

Also in Mubi Notebook, Daniel Kasman writes about three landscape documentaries that premiered at Berlinale that piqued his interest.

Three key films at the Berlinale take the form of landscape documentaries made in the Americas, and as such make the unavoidable point that you cannot film the land without engaging in a nation's politics. 

The late artists Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson were life and work partners, and the Holt/Smithson Foundation recently discovered a long lost documentary by Holt, Utah Sequences. Hyperallergic's Hikmet Sidney Loe shares her take on this work, which is currently screening at the Utah Museum of Fine arts.

Utah Sequences is purely Holt's vision of place, unfolding through salient points of time. Her perceptual experience captures the intimacy of landscapes while recording the grander impact of its environment. These memories clearly kindled Holt's imagination and enriched her artistic language, resulting in expanded approaches to activating light and engaging viewership.

As the US Presidential primary election season reaches a fever pitch this month with two successive Super Tuesdays, TCM is airing a series of documentaries that address historic fights for justice. Justin Stewart of Film Comment critiques a selection of these docs, including Connie Field and Marilyn Mumford's Freedom on My Mind.

A tenet that unites all of these varied works is a belief in the necessity for solidarity and collective action to combat wrongs inflicted by entrenched power, a political POV conveyed largely through showing and relating lived history and fact, rather than lecturing. That these films are all centered on happenings in the American South is important—the region could very well end up deciding the next election—but should not seal off their obvious relevance to viewers in the North, West, and parts beyond.

From the Archive, November 2017: "Lourdes Portillo: Filmmaker As Desire"

When you go to those dark places, they stay with you. They stay with you in a very profound and deep way. And when you get older they still stay with you. They don’t go away. This is not like making a cake. It's like a poison that you drink. You see the evil in people. You see all the bad things. And you try to not have it live with you. It's like post-traumatic stress syndrome.


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