Any history of nonfiction cinema requires a chapter on the city of Boston, if not an entire volume. When it comes to actually exhibiting such films, however, the city will always be outflanked; all you have to do is compare our theater listings to New York and see that we maintain a relative scarcity of screens. But thanks to programs like the DocYard—which was launched roughly six years ago by a number of individuals involved in the revered Camden Film Festival (another integral part of the New England nonfiction film community) and has hosted screenings of nonfiction movies (almost always with filmmakers and/or crew present for Q&A sessions) ever since—Boston gets to claim world-class status on the exhibition front as well. The finished works may leave for film festivals first, but they always come back.
The DocYard just recently began its spring ’16 program at the Brattle Theatre, and has announced the lineup for the rest of the season as well. There’s no unifying thematic or formal principle that ties the films together; quite the opposite—the gloriously eclectic programming displays nonfiction filmmaking in all its wide-ranging shapes and sizes. Some of the films take an anthropological approach (Democrats , by director Camilla Nielsson, is one such film—it dispassionately watches the creation of a new Zimbabwean constitution), while others are less detached (if you listen closely during certain scenes of High on Crack Street, you can hear the filmmakers directing their subject’s actions). Some of the films function as journalism (T(error) [Mon 3.21] documents an instance of government agents sloppily entrapping a so-called terrorist and purports that such trumped-up charges are all too common), while others eschew comprehension in favor of experimental aesthetics (Counting [Mon 4.11], by director Jem Cohen, is a highly expressive chapter-based travelogue with a cited debt to Chris Marker). Nor are films restricted to feature length: Short pieces will precede every feature-length film, and one evening will be dedicated to Field of Vision [Mon 3.28], a “visual journalism film unit” co-created by AJ Schnack, Charlotte Cook, and Citizenfour director Laura Poitras (they’ll be exhibiting a number of their own short-form works.)
This is all to say that a season spent visiting the DocYard’s screenings can’t help but stress the imposing enormity of the nonfiction form itself, a shape-shifting and self-inquiring beast that ebbs and flows and evolves as surely as any other form. We took an early look at three of their feature-length presentations—including the one that starts the series later tonight.
Screens Mon 2.22, 7PM
There’s a trip to Japan during Containment, where we hear the comments of a man who’s been displaced by the effects of the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima. He will be the first in generations to leave his family’s land, lest the radiation take him as it’s already taken the region’s timber. Another stop in that nation lets us see stone markers, erected many generations prior, that warn future inhabitants of the potential for destructive tsunamis. The marker is an intergenerational command: Don’t build your homes below this rock. Containment investigates and documents the process by which scientists and futurists aimed to solve a related question: What do we do with millions upon millions of gallons of radioactive waste, all of which may be active for as many as 10,000 years? What’s needed is a modern stone marker—and nobody can erect the type that can weather a 10,000-year storm.
The picture is directed by Peter Galison (a professor of the history of science and of physics at Harvard University) and Robb Moss (a professor and chair of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard, and oft-cited as a primary influence by the filmmakers who graduate from that program). It’s edited by Chyld King (whose previous credits include work for Errol Morris) and features animation by Peter Kuper and David Lobser (illustrating some of the far-future scenarios that need to be considered, such as “what if, in the future, underground robot drillers unknowingly cause a leak of buried radioactive waste?”). It traverses the globe to find obliquely interconnected subjects—citizens suffering fallout near Fukushima; others living along the coast of a plutonium well in Burke County, GA; the development in Carlsbad, NM, of the first plant designed to permanently dispose of nuclear waste—and presents nuclear waste as an issue that transcends politics. The concept of it damaging a future on Earth is so likely, Containment suggests, that the threat is now purely existential. The idea is that nuclear power and its resultant waste are now a constant facet of the planet. They’re tied to the human condition as intrinsically as the act of eating lunch.
Editing shifts us between the various lanes in an associative manner, often connecting the macro side (design work on Carlsbad’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, or lawmakers speaking about the bureaucratic requirements and impediments to storing and disposing of nuclear waste) to the micro side (the effect of nuclear power on people who live in close proximity to these facilities, including the effects on trees and turtles) and then on to the future (experts speak about potential scenarios for a radiation leak between now and 12,000 AD, while scientists speak about the more general risks regarding nuclear storage and exposure). The animation steps in when the future arrives, realizing some of the techniques devised for long-term “warning signs.” All the thoughtful structuring renders Containment as an expansive inquiry into a particularly specific topic, marked by authorial voices both soulful and unassuming. As a citizen, you’re scared and angered by it. As a human, it’s humility and shame.
Monday 3.7, 7PM
It’s rare for screens to be graced by a character as captivating as Paul Mangwana, within the realm of nonfiction filmmaking or anywhere else. After a presidential election in 2008, the nation of Zimbabwe is in a state of perpetual turmoil, above and below: incumbent President and noted dictator Robert Mugabe, of the authoritarian ZANU-PF party, is organizing ruthless beatings and engendering systematic manipulations in order to keep himself in power. This despite the fact that Morgan Tsvangirai, the nominee of the more liberal MDC-T party, obtained a greater percentage of the popular vote. International pressure leads to the creation of a coalition government, to be led jointly by the two rivals. A new constitution is to be drafted as well, with representatives from both parties chosen to contribute. Mangwana is the lead man on the ZANU-PF team. Director Camilla Nielsson spends three years filming him, and his colleagues on both political sides, as they bicker and politic their way toward a mutually agreeable final draft. And despite his party’s innumerable troubles, Mangwana is all smiles.
His unofficial job is to be a judicial bodyguard. The MDC-T delegates are explicitly directing their contributions to the constitution in a way that will limit the authority of any acting president, thereby undercutting the reach of Mugabe. Mangwana’s charge, as the de-facto defender of the ruling party, is to prevent legitimate democracy from taking hold. And the question that arises—as he charms his way through interviews with the camera, and gladhands his way through encounters with the public—is just how involved this man is with his fascistic employers. When preliminary meetings and public hearings are violently interrupted on behalf of ZANU-PF, he’s a model of performative naivete: his eyes are wide, his language is unassuming, and as such his supposed ignorance seems almost believable. But as Mangwana grows comfortable with the nearby cameras, he begins to reveal a thoroughly savvy understanding of workaday political manipulation. When we first see him berating a dogged female journalist, we might consider it to be the result of standard-issue misogyny. But then he reveals a much slyer motive: “She will say to her editor: ‘please do not make me call that man again!’” Eventually Mangwana positions his allegiance to ZANU-PF as being the result of cruel pragmatism: he orates to the camera, noting that the “bare hands” and “legal knowledge” wielded by leftists will never be able to match the system of police and prisons controlled by the ruling class. Depending on the day, he’s playing different roles: he’s a bipartisan, then he’s the arm of the army; he’s clueless about government overreach; then he’s a calculating agent of a dictator. Nielsson’s film, which is decidedly focused on the process of the constitution’s writing, leaves it up to the viewer to decide which of these roles is more than just an act.
Mwonzora, his reverse-image, is everything that Mangwana can’t be. He’s a human rights lawyer, the leader of the MDC-T side of the constitutional drafting process, and a genuine cultural hero, with folk songs written about him and government plots organized against him. (He’s put in jail on years-old charges right as the process reaches a fever pitch—as Mangwana astutely noted, there’s no use fighting the prison system with nothing but good intentions.) For long, he suffers by that. But once the cross-country process reaches the industrialized capital city of Harare, the ZANU-ordained sense of order is quickly broken down. Energized by the uptick in revolutionary support, the MDC-T discusses and seemingly implements a number of halfway-illegal counter-measures against ZANU-PF, though Nielsson’s edits and ellipses cloud all the specifics. What we know for fact is this: anti-Mugabe clauses literally sneak into the final draft of the Constitution, and local newspapers are claiming they’re the result of a Mangwana betrayal, even before Mangwana himself has noticed that the clauses are there. That adds yet another version of his ever-shifting character: the one with his head resting in his hands. The turn in events—and the claims that Mangwana has secretly orchestrated a coup against his own party, which obviously stands in stark contrast to all our different impressions of him thus far—leaves viewers to make their own inferences yet again.
Nielsson’s film operates at the intersection of numerous nonfiction forms: it’s historical (archival footage and intertitles constantly interrupt to explain passages of time, or to contextualize matters that are specific to Zimbabwean politics,) it’s anthropological (displaying an interest in the rhythms and processes of the drafting meetings themselves,) and it’s a profile (interviews with the principle subjects, filmed face-to-face in cars and motel rooms, punctuate almost every individual sequence.) The ellipses, and the exposition, and the constant focus on her two chosen subjects render this document as a half-told history—it’s honestly rare for us to hear anyone else speak, as most footage of the meetings sees everyone but Mangwana and Mwonzora remain totally silent. But in the perpetually duplicitous and surprisingly coy Mangwana, Nielsson has found an ideal cinema subject—he wears his emotions nakedly, yet never reveals which one is sincere. His presence, captivating and contradictory, makes up for every part of the history that remains untold.
HIGH ON CRACK STREET: LOST LIVES IN LOWELL
Monday 5.2, 7PM
An hour-long piece originally produced for HBO’s “America Undercover” series, Crack Street—directed in 1995 by Jon Alpert, Maryann De Leo, and local resident Richard Farrell—receives a 20th anniversary screening at the tail end of the spring season. Cobbled together from 18 month’s worth of footage collected in Lowell, it follows three self-described crack addicts through sadly typical plights. Brenda, a part-time sex worker, desperately needs an abortion but keeps procrastinating until it’s too late. Boo Boo, who’s built like a carnival barker (and is convinced he’s the father of said child,) envelops himself further into a mutually abusive relationship with Brenda. And Dicky Eklund—brother of boxer Micky Ward, and yes, this is the documentary recreated and depicted in The Fighter—just works to keep himself out of jail, and on his favorite fix. An opening segment profiles Lowell as “the first planned industrial city in the United States,” and makes a brief attempt to connect the contemporary proliferation of addiction and poverty to the lack of professional opportunities available there in the decades since the mills shut down. But one of the intertitles, separating the film’s occasionally non-linear strands, more accurately reveals the sort of thing the filmmakers are interested in: “Boo Boo starts to fall apart.”
The film takes a direct-interview approach, often edited to showcase the bleakest and most grotesque moments of revelation. A typical scene is structured as such: there’s an intertitle, then we see close-up scenes of the subjects smoking up via home-made crack pipes, then we hear one of the filmmakers ask a general question from behind the camera (“what do you do for work,” for example) and see them getting a rather bleak answer (“you’ll see,” Brenda replies, and then we cut to her working the street corners.) Included in this mass of desolate footage is Brenda asking Boo Boo to “give me a big [hit]” during the middle of her pregnancy, and innumerable other moments of comparably salacious behavior. The structure wears thin, like the subject’s teeth. But even just as a record of a time and place, this is compulsively fascinating footage: the smoke-scratched slang, the dirt-caked pastel furniture. The odd frozen-in-time feel—old homes, old bridges, old shops—of a once-thriving industrial town now devoid of its raison d’etre. It’s enough to remind you that nonfiction cinema is an essential element of our cultural heritage, whether the subject is the future of our species, the origin of a nation’s government, or merely the plastic-bottle crack pipe hidden underneath the couch cushions.
THE DOCYARD SELLS SEASON PASSES TO ITS SCREENINGS AT THEDOCYARD.COM. SEE WEBSITE FOR FULL SCHEDULE AND OTHER INFORMATION.