September 1, 1999

The Second Annual New York International Documentary Festival

Lars Von Trier and Henrik Prip from <em>The Humiliated</em> by Jesper Jargil.

As a medium of expression and exploration, documentary film is compelling for its breadth of subject matter and diversity of style. Nowhere was this more evident than at the second annual New York International Documentary Festival, otherwise known as docfest. The screenings took place June 2-6 in Manhattan, and included gritty reportage pieces, experimental films and poetic works. Sixteen films screened at the festival, and all were impressive for their insightful, wide-ranging investigations into the human condition.

Launched in part to fill the void left by the demise of the Global Village Documentary Festival in 1990, docfest is a project of the New York Documentary Center. Gary Pollard, founder of both the Center and docfest, is also a documentary filmmaker. He created the festival in hopes of "generating excitement among the general public over the art of documentary filmmaking, and expanding the audience and growing the demand for nonfiction films." Judging by the large, enthusiastic crowds that gathered every night at the Directors Guild of America Theater on West 57th Street, where the festival was held, Pollard is achieving his goals.

This year’s docfest included both world and US premieres, as well as screenings of works that have been traveling the festival circuit. Among the highlights were The Valley (US premiere) a four-part Channel 4 production by Dan Reed. The film is a harrowing account of the destruction that occurred in Kosovo’s Drenica Valley in 1998 during a Serb military offensive. Against a backdrop of automatic gunfire and burning villages, Reed and his crew spent months traveling between KLA and Serb military strongholds, interviewing ordinary Albanian and Serb villagers.

“I was trying to capture on film the complexity of the conflict, the parallel and irreconcilable half-truths which divide the Serbs and Albanians of Kosovo and make them blind to each other’s plight—and the sheer incestuous brutality of a war between neighbors,” Reed explains. In his powerful account of this war, Reed has indeed exposed how ordinary citizens have become inextricably caught within a web of fear and hatred of their own making.

On the opposite end of the documentary spectrum is Daniel Thorbecke’s In the Rhythm of Time (world premiere), a dreamy portrait of life on the island of Fogo, one of 10 small islands that make up the archipelago of Cape Verde. Beautifully photographed in black and white with an ethereal music score by Philip Glass, In the Rhythm of Time touches on themes of displacement, love, nature and poverty in the village of Cha das Caldeiras, which rests at the foot of an active volcano. Shots of the island’s striking mountainous landscape coupled with images of villagers tending fields, fishing and dancing evoke an atmosphere of enchantment. Dialogue in the form of voiceover fragments flit across the film like birds in flight, adding to its lyrical quality.

Jesper Jargil’s The Humiliated (US premiere) is an impertinent and uncompromising look behind the scenes at the making of the feature film The Idiots, by Lars von Trier. Von Trier, along with fellow Dane Thomas Vinterberg, director of The Celebration, is a proponent of Dogme 95, a manifesto that eschews all forms of movie-making artifice—including artificial lighting, sets and props and predictable genre formulas—in an attempt to “force the truth out of characters and settings.”

Following in von Trier’s Dogme footsteps, Jargil uses a hand-held digital video camera and takes the audience deep into von Trier’s conflict-ridden artistic process. We watch him provoke, excoriate, seduce and even beg his actors into delivering the performances he desires. Von Trier emerges through Jargil’s gaze as simultaneously witty, insecure, humorous, disquieting man afflicted with more than a touch of hypochondria. Running commentary taken from a diary von Trier kept during the filming is enough to keep an analyst busy for years.

An astute film, The Humiliated illuminates not only the difficult proposition of bringing together a large group of people to work collectively on an artistic endeavor, but also manages to reveal how fleeting moments of imagination can be transformed into worthwhile drama.

Other notable docfest screenings included Nick Kurzon’s Super Chief, an investigation into tribal government corruption on the White Earth Indian Reservation in western Minnesota; Hitman Hart, by Paul Jay, a look at the ups and downs of the pro wrestling business; and Meeting People Is Easy, a journey with the band Radiohead during their 1997-98 world tour, directed by Grant Gee.

Along with film screenings, docfest presented two panel discussions: New Technology Showcase, and Dialogues with Frederick Wiseman and docfest ’99 Directors. The new technology update on documentary filmmaking in a digital world was a highly informative discussion with industry experts on the impact of new technologies on low-budget documentary production. Demonstrations of the latest digital camera and editing equipment along with a sneak peek at Aaton’s new A-Minima Super 16mm camera gave the packed crowd a view of things to come.

Frederick Wiseman, one of the patriarchs of documentary filmmaking, talked about his “never-ending fascination with the human experience.” He also elaborated on his work process—he still cuts on a flatbed and typically shoots 80 to 110 hours of footage per film. In addition, Wiseman discussed the continual struggle to find money for projects, a circumstance filmmakers are unfortunately all too familiar with.

Amidst the film and workshop offerings at docfest, one of the hidden pleasures of the festival was the intimacy and camaraderie of the event. From the opening night bash to the individual coffee and doughnut gatherings with directors that followed each screening, the festival’s welcoming atmosphere encouraged participants to eat, drink, talk, and breathe documentary film.

Docfest is not the only project of The New York Documentary Center. Planning is underway for Block Island DocForum 2000, a retreat for documentary filmmakers modeled on the Flaherty seminars. Additionally, Pollard is pursuing his dream of creating a dedicated documentary theater in New York. “It is not as farfetched as it may sound,” says Pollard. “There are many little black box theaters in the city, 99 seat places showing all kinds of cinema. Why not one for documentary films?” Why not indeed?

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