One of the most anticipated film series of the year for any docuphile is Doc Fortnight, the Museum of Modern Art’s international festival of nonfiction film and media. Doc Fortnight presents some of the most exciting nonfiction productions of the past year to North American audiences. This year’s edition is no exception. A significant portion of not only the film series itself but also the handful of Asian titles screening at the festival is a retrospective of veteran Asian American cinematographer-director Emiko Omori’s documentary directorial efforts. Included in the retrospective is Omori’s most famous and poignant film, Rabbit in the Moon (1999), which addresses her own family’s experience and memories of the internment camps as well as the lesser-known divisions between different generations in the Japanese American community that developed during (and resulted from) internment.
A Room of One’s Own: Emerging Voices
Linking together a number of the Asian titles in the festival is the physical and thematic crux of place, be it a demarcated zone bridging a divided country; a town of hope and exile for a particularly discriminated community; or a rural space where children are adults first and only children second. The worlds of 489 Years (2016), Irrawaddy Mon Amour (2015), and Wolf and Sheep (2016) are stubbornly confined to one location. At the same time, the singular locations in these films represent threshold spaces.
Though all three films share locational thematics, and therefore address to varying degrees the politics of space and their representation, their styles of representation could not be more different, which attests to the festival’s ever-eclectic and roving kino-eye to challenge and expand notions of nonfiction and documentary, particularly where the two meet.
Multimedia artist/filmmaker Hayoun Kwon’s latest short film, 489 Years, takes place in the Korean DMZ, that politically charged threshold between North and South Korea; or more specifically, in an animated simulation of it. Kwon moulds her striking, stunning animation of the DMZ with voiceover conversations with Kim, a former South Korean soldier who worked in the DMZ from 1971 to 1995. After an expository two-dimensional illustration of what the DMZ constitutes in terms of terrain and the politics and dictated it, the film shifts to three-dimensional spaces as it moves ever deeper into DMZ terrain. With the virtual camera providing the first-person perspective characteristic of video games, Kwon enables the materialisation of Kim’s memories of the terrain, which becomes increasingly, contrapuntally rich in relation to the outside assumptions of the DMZ as nothing but concrete and barbed wire. The film’s creative movement of imagery and landscape, within its eleven-minute running time, is nothing short of breathtaking. As such, Kwon’s work is a revelatory new voice in the confluence of animation, nonfiction, documentary filmmaking, and oral history.
For their second co-directorial project, Irrawaddy Mon Amour, cinematographer-directors Valeria Testagrossa, Nicola Gragnani, and Andrea Zambelli’s traveled to central Myanmar, specifically to the village of Kyaukmyang. The film’s title stems from the fact that the village sits by the country’s largest river, the Irrawaddy. Though with a small population and in a country where marriage between two men is illegal, some of its most notable inhabitants are four gay men — a human rights activist, a schoolteacher, a shaman, and a hairdresser/makeup artist — who are fostering tolerance, celebrating gay pride, and combating discrimination. The film opts for a strictly observational approach in capturing their daily lives (the filmmakers understanding that, here, it is a case of content outweighing form). A balance of footage of the four men at work and their LGBT activism structures the film. The latter includes holding meetings that welcome gays from various parts of the country, in self-exile from their respective hometowns due precisely to discrimination. The goals of their activism converge when they and the rest of the villagers work towards a wedding ceremony between two men, in absolute defiance of the country’s criminalisation of homosexuality.
In her debut feature, Afghan writer-director Shahrbanoo Sadat’s Wolf and Sheep is set in an Afghan village located in rural, dry plains, occasionally interrupted by mountains and cliffs; a similar environment where Sadat had spent her teenage years. Living here is a Hazara community, composed of several families. Also taking an observational approach, the film details the community’s daily lives and activities; the opening sequence presenting the death of a husband and discussions of what will come of the widow and her children. The focus gradually rests upon the children in the families, as they herd sheep, get scolded, play, and survive, as best they can, sometimes in the face of internecine prejudices and quarrels. Life is difficult and underdeveloped, but it is also idyllic (and absent is a pitiful tone). Sadat takes the idyllic quality of the scenes to gradually crack open the film to magical realist moments involving a two-legged Kashmir wolf preying upon the village. By extension, over the course of the film, the title takes on more figurative meanings, thus pluralising the film’s status as documentary, experimental film, and a collective neorealist-inspired collaboration. For what appears to be a local geographical space is in actuality Tajikistan and the boy and girl, whom the film singles out, are inspired by Sadat’s experiences and those of Anwar Hashimi from his unpublished diaries.
A Room All Her Own: Established Voice
Also included in the festival’s retrospective of Emiko Omori’s directorial works is her contribution to the specific and elusive category of the essay film, addressed perhaps to the most well-known and equally elusive film essayist, Chris Marker. Released after Marker’s passing but made in his knowledge, To Chris Marker, An Unsent Letter (2012) is a collage of impressions and invocations – both filmic and personal – of Marker by the people who had known him, including Omori herself. Omori weaves together interviews filled with anecdotes of Marker, clips from La jetée (1962), Sans soleil (1983), and The Last Bolshevik (1992), and her own footage and voiceover ruminations on the impact of Marker as a person and multimedia artist.
Of note as well is When Rabbit Left the Moon (2017), a video poem that represents Omori’s ongoing working through of the experiences, memories, identities, and lives (both remembered and forgotten, said and unsaid) of the families uprooted due to the Executive Order 9066, which enforced the relocation and imprisonment of persons of Japanese ancestry during World War II: ‘“In 2017,” she says, “I commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of my incarceration at the age of one by my government, the United States of America.”’
Doc Fortnight runs at the Museum of Modern Art from February 19-26.
Screening schedule (including titles not covered above)
19 February | Shorts program: The Presence of Place, which includes 489 Years (2016) and Chitrashala (2015, directed by Amit Dutta)
21 February | To Chris Marker, An Unsent Letter (2012), preceded by When Rabbit Left the Moon (2017)
22-23 February | Plastic China (2016, directed by Wang Jiu-liang)
23-24 February | Irrawaddy Mon Amour (2015)
25-26 February | Wolf and Sheep (2016)