Muhammad Ali Was My Hero
Documentary Fortnight: MoMA's International Festival of Nonfiction Film, 2010
US theatrical: 17 Feb 2010 (Limited release)
I began to wonder whether we’d ever get our cameras out of this place and keep our tapes. And there was always the possibility that we could disappear.
—George Gittoes, The Miscreants of Taliwood
“When I moved to the village for the film, the hardest thing was adjusting myself to the farming lifestyle.” Situating herself at the start of Earth’s Women (Ddang-ui yeo-ja) (2009), Woo-jung Kwon raises an important question, concerning the intertwining effects of documentary films—on makers and subjects alike. It’s a question that comes up repeatedly in Documentary Fortnight: MoMA’s International Festival of Nonfiction Film, 2010. Now in its ninth year, the festival runs 17 February through 3 March. Offering wide-ranging perspectives and diverse experiences, these documentary films and videos also reveal the ways that art and life intersect.
Screening on 24 and 27 February, Earth’s Women tracks the experiences of college girlfriends over a year and a half, All leave the city to pursue farming in rural South Korean, each for different reasons. Byun Eun Joo has accompanied her husband, Kang Sun Hee wants to become a peasant activist, and So Hee Ju seeks an alternative from her privileged background. The camera follows each woman’s journey, including physical labors (the “laid back” Hee Ju smiles while describing her schedule, “During farming season, my eyes are open at the crack of dawn,” but worries at first at the camera in her kitchen: “Why do you have to shoot this? I’m really bad at housework”) and emotional revelations (Sun Hee devotes herself both to activism and to her husband Jung Ho Kim, especially when his diabetes becomes debilitating, then finds herself the object of local criticism when she runs for election while he is ill: “This is a conservative community, it takes a lot of courage to run for the election when your husband’s sick”). As Byun Eun Joo realizes she is not cut out for farming, she begins teaching local children and then finds a “new goal,” a tutoring center for women, in order to “help them financially.”
All three women find themselves in their efforts to help their communities, Woo-jung Kwon’s camera tracking their various endeavors—picking vegetables in the field, planting in a greenhouse, driving from rally to meeting, looking after their children, and tending to the needs of mother-in-laws. Throughout, the filmmaker narrates her changing relationships with each of her subjects, as she comes to know their families and appreciate the delicate balances they must strike among so many priorities, the many sorts of images—long shots of bent bodies in green fields, POV shots from tractors, smiling close-ups in senior centers—reflecting the range of their experiences each day.
Alla Kovgan and David Hinton’s Nora (2008), screening 22 February, presents the experience of Nora Chipaumire, a dancer “born by the side of the road June 26, 1965 in Zimbabwe.” In this inventive short film, she performs her life story through dance. “I grew up surrounded by women,” she says, “Women have shaped my life.” And yet, she recalls, she also absorbed lessons from the wider world (as she remembers, “Muhammad Ali was my hero,” her own fighting form visible in moves both powerful and exquisite). Her mother, a divorcee, found work teaching in schools sponsored by Lever Brothers, and became a “purveyor of all things British, white bread, white sugar, white soap.” She reenacts her mother’s lessons at the front of a classroom, specifically, how to brush their teeth using Colgate toothpaste, her broad smile white white white. With compositions both compellingly mobile and gorgeously composed, Chipaumire tells her story with grace and confidence.
In the Air (2009) stages another kind of formal innovation. Liza Johnson’s short, clever film, screening 24 February, introduces the daily dreariness endured by three girls in Southeastern Ohio. By day, April Hobbs works at a junkyard and looks after her younger siblings, Daphany Blair tends to the window at a fast-food restaurant, and Lee Brown finds herself bored at school. But when they begin classes at the Cirque D’Art circus school, their options change drastically: rather than working the field as her father instructs, Lee backflips away; April develops a crush on a cute classmate; and Daphany feels a new self-confidence in her shiny purple leotard. The film adapts to their evolving sense of fantasy and joy in physical adventure, with scenes staged to show how their tricks reshape their self-images, inviting their families and community to join in the possibilities to be found in acrobatics. Part weird, part charming, the film is full of small surprises.
More conventional in structure, Cathryn Collins’ Power (Vlast) (2010) investigates the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Once the wealthiest man in Russia, he was arrested in October 2003, charged with fraud and tax evasion. His real crime, the film submits, was to challenge the absolute authority of Vladimir Putin. Screening 22 and 24 February (both nights featuring discussions with Collins and film participants), the documentary is the result of some 10 years of research, and her investment is clear. The film includes interviews with experts ranging from the Financial Times’ Chrystia Freeland and Neil Buckley, to Khodorkovsky’s personal lawyer Anton Drel, whose offices were violated repeatedly during the early stages of the prosecution.
Structured as a series of talking heads and archival footage sequences, the film contends the case shows the fiction of democracy in Russia, arguing that despite political elections and the rise of commerce, not much as changed since the Soviet days of oligarchs and violent oppression. As Khodorkovsky used the wealth and influence he gained through the oil company Yukos to advance the cause of democracy (for instance, working with Western bankers and promoting transparence and education). The film reports that Putin was “irritated” by these efforts and set in motion Khodorkovsky’s arrest, as well as that of his friend Platon Lebedev, former CEO of Group Menatep.
Other government abuses are showcased in Uruphong Raksasad’s Agrarian Utopia (2009) and George Gittoes’ The Miscreants of Taliwood (2009). Both are extraordinary films, but in very different ways, they look at how daily lives are affected by oppressive systems. Gittoes’ film (which already screened at MoMa, 19 and 20 February, but is definitely worth seeking out elsewhere), bills itself as a “fictional documentary,” and brilliantly interrogates the many interconnections between life and art. Arriving in Islamabad amidst widespread violence against shops that sell dramatic videotapes (“Entering any war zone is a heightened reality, but this is surreal”), Gittoes and his crew go on to travel through Pakistan for six months, in an effort to understand the fight “between those who believe in the freedom to use creative energy and those who believe only in prayer and the afterlife.” He gets work as an actor in a film starring Javed Musazai (playing the famous Pashtun action star’s brother: they are the villains). “I’m in the twilight zone.” Gittoes muses, “Inside my worst nightmare and yet I’m doing it because I’m making a documentary about this very industry and this is my way of getting inside it.”
The Miscreants of Taliwood
This is the kind of multiply layered reality and hallucination where Gittoes apparently feels most at home—his camera highlighting action scenes full of fake blood and grandiose overacting, alongside images of real tyranny and explosions, shops decimated and citizens in shock. One observer notes, “Creativity is only for God. They believe making bombs is good in serving Islam but making movies is against Islam.” While Gittoes plainly enjoys working on the film and interviewing actors and experts (for example, Rubina Khiji, professor of Gender Studies, who notes, “Women are always seen to be subservient… Somebody who challenges whatever men say would be seen as a miscreant!”), he also conveys the threat inherent in such work. “I’m starting to feel that this is a joyless country,” he laments, “That nothing that will bring happiness is allowed.” As he documents such oppression, he also fights it outright, his film a terrific mishmash of constructive excavation and exciting entertainment.
Raksasad’s documentary, screening 28 February and 1 March, is pretty much exactly the opposite, yet it also communicates the resilience of individuals and communities surviving incessant hardships. An experimental hybrid of documentary and drama, the film follows the daily lives of poor tenant rice farmers in a village in Northern Thailand, Raksasad’s birthplace. The farmers are played by local actors, their work in the paddies rendered in lyrical, if arduous, rhythms. In rain and in sunshine, their forms appear bent over long rows of green sprouts, their feet revealed in close-up, digging planting holes in red dirt. As Duen (Prayad Jumma) and Nuek (Somnuek Mungmeung) contemplate their unpromising futures, they decide to pool their resources and work together on a single paddy. Their gamble goes wrong, and they must reassess, the film showing their exertions, day in and day out.
While Agrarian Utopia finds poetry in this work, it also shows contexts, the social tolls of lives unchanging and the exploitations of poor citizens by local campaigners for office. This expressive combination of images and ideas insists on the junctions of experience and art, politics and daily circumstances. It also underlines, like other films in the festival, the ways that filmmakers shape their projects, and are shaped in return.