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Essential Doc Reads: Week of March 7, 2022

By Bedatri D. Choudhury

Volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft are a white couple seen here wearing blue jackets, against volcanoes emitting smoke. From Sara Dosa’s ‘Fire of Love.’ Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

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!

Over at Variety, Peter Debruge writes about Sam Green’s 32 Sounds, which he describes as "a rare and rewarding sonic journey with the potential to enrich our lives."

Green designed 32 Sounds as a participatory documentary. Sometimes that means closing your eyes or trying to visualize something that isn’t there, but mostly, it just entails actively focusing on whatever sound (or sound-related concept) the helmer might be emphasizing at the moment. Structurally, Green was inspired by François Girard’s 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould, subdividing the movie into numbered chapters (only about half of them are labeled). Frankly, the act of trying to identify and enumerate discrete sounds in a film that contains thousands can feel strangely limiting at times, though it gives audiences a sense of how far along they are in a movie I hoped would never end.

Even within dwindling press freedoms, India is celebrating Writing with Fire’s Oscar nomination, and rightly so. Here’s The Hindu’s Aseem Chhabra speaking to the filmmakers—Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh.

"What does India look and feel like, that question often comes up in the West," Ghosh says. "Our response is, we have our problems, but we have this beautiful sort of legacy as well. This is the best of what India has to offer. It was important for us to restructure and rewire how the West thinks about what the Global South can do and can imagine. I think the fact that we made the Oscar nomination has broken so many paradigms about who can do an Academy run, because it’s never happened before."

Immerse’s Dan Schindel does a deep dive into the "the corner of the internet where torrent trackers, MEGA uploads and other bootleg networks thrive," and wonders if this what will help nonfiction works survive.

The existence of this "archival spirit" is a particularly vital question for interactive nonfiction. Frequently, such works are impossible to access after they’ve made their rounds through film festivals and museum installations. If they aren’t put on marketplaces like Steam (where they are frequently misunderstood by users), how can they be distributed? Obviously, there are additional technical considerations around equipment, file formats, etc. But appreciators might do well to look to the example set by the Karagarga/Twitter/MEGA community, which found ways to circumvent their own obstacles to create a thriving corner of the internet where rare works are kept alive.

The Filmmaker staff speaks to Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput, the editors of Fire of Love—which is one of our favorite Sundance watches. 

Many of our goals derived from the limitations of the footage. On first—or even fifth or sixth—glance, the raw footage doesn’t make a lot of sense. Shot on 16mm, the shooting is very different than in the digital era. The shots are short and precise in order to preserve their precious film stock, but they’re strewn across years of reels, out of order, and have been locked away for decades, and there’s no sync sound to the reels. So, right away we are missing key context. 

Zoë Druick participates in Verso Books’ "Unlearning Imperialism" roundtable considering the work of Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, and asks if the imperial logic of documentary can ever be repaired. 

Although often paired with democracy, the genre of documentary pioneered by John Grierson and the British Documentary Film Movement emerged because liberal political theorists such as John Dewey and Walter Lippmann were already – at the very moment of its instantiation in the 1920s – declaring the fragility of the liberal democratic ideal. Documentary is arguably a genre predicated not only on the attempt to manage structural democratic deficit, then, but also on the pursuit of neo-imperial global hegemonies and standardized ideas of historical time.

The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Olsen writes about Texas’ anti-trans laws and how a festival like SXSW can counter the state’s conservative agenda. 

The Paramount Theatre in Austin, Texas, has been the scene of countless raucous, ecstatically received movie premieres over the years. As the venue for many of the South By Southwest Film Festival’s most anticipated movies, the theater has been full of wild applause, rowdy cheers, cathartic tears and uproarious laughter.

Just a few blocks away is the Texas State Capitol building, where legislators have recently worked to strip residents of abortion rights, voting rights and have attacked trans children and their families. Coupled with the somber mood surrounding the war unfolding in Ukraine, this year’s SXSW looks set for a stark contrast between the joyful, embracing events unfolding inside the Paramount and the world outside it.

From the Archive, November 2021: "Teaching Contemporary Documentary in the Context of Democracy"

Beyond the story form itself, where and how I experienced the film was meaningful—that is, in the context of a sociology course that focused on jobs and socioeconomic inequality. The class backdrop and discussion reinforced the film's power to open a critical lens with which to see the core social issue of the movie, well beyond the news coverage of the loss of manufacturing jobs in the American Midwest. At the time—the 1990s—the looming economic crisis that would befall Flint and its neighbor communities, as the world careened toward a jobs-transforming new information age, was a slow burn that would accelerate in the ensuing years, infusing itself into political speeches for years to follow.

In The News