The Reality Principle: Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

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Before the start of his heartbreaking rural romance True Heart Susie (1919), D.W. Griffith asks in an intertitle, “Is real life interesting?” He implies that the answer is yes, expecting that you’ll sit through the ninety minutes to follow based on its adherence to the facts of everyday life. But there is no expectation of documentary truth, since the star is Lillian Gish and and the writer of the story, Marian Fremont, are named front and center. Instead, Griffith said, “I am trying to develop realism in pictures by teaching the value of deliberation and repose.” The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s second annual Art of the Real series, a wide-ranging survey of non-fiction (ish) cinema that runs through April 24th, is one that privileges the contemplative and dreamlike over works that only admit to one truth. Like Griffith’s work, the Art of the Real films (over twenty shorts and features), co-programmed by Rachael Rakes and Dennis Lim, think along with you, offering multifarious pathways to the “real”. The series will feature the North American premiere of the Lebanese portrait film Birds of September, Luo Li’s environmental doc/shaggy dog mystery Li Wen at East Lake and Luísa Homem & Pedro Pinho’s epic observational documentary of the Cape Verde tourist boom Trading Cities. Not to mention sidebars on The Actualities of Agnès Varda (with Varda introducing her films in person) and Repeat as Necessary: The Art of Reenactment, which takes the abused reenactment form and traces its storied history in documentary art.

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The most affecting work in the series, though, might be its simplest. Masa Sawada’s I, Kamikaze is a seventy-five minute interview with the ninety-year-old former kamikaze pilot Fujio Hayashi. Hayashi sits behind a table, his glasses traveling up and down his nose, as he dredges up the memories from his time in the Japanese Imperial Navy. One of the original volunteers for the air suicide attack units, he was, and remains, a good soldier. He lost his mother at a young age, and the few words he spares for his father depicts a neglectful, distant figure (after he returned from WWII, he said, “I’m back. I’m sorry for losing the war.” His father did not respond, and they barely spoke the rest of their lives). Hayashi poured his soul into the unit, and was willing and able to give up his life for his country. Instead he was tasked with training the young kamikaze recruits, ordering their missions, and hence, their deaths. Hayashi takes long, considered pauses before many of his answers, opening up blocks of time to study his face, his posture and his too-large suits. These are silences filled with thought, for Hayashi and the viewer. His expressions are almost entirely impenetrable and thus open to interpretation, a stonewall even when discussing his good friend Nishio, whom he had to order on a suicide mission. His military bearing is still intact, emotions attaching to the meaning of the words, but none in the inflection of his steady, phlegmy voice. Hayashi is comfortable with death, and has lived with it all his life. He keeps repeating that for long stretches of his life living or dying made no difference to him. He was, in this sense, the perfect kamikaze -though he was never able to achieve his intended destiny. He describes that period as “memories bathed in light”, and that when it is his turn to leave on his final mission, he will have a smile on his face, just as the kamikaze pilots did on theirs as they were heading out into oblivion.

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Trading Cities depicts a journey of material and capital into and out of Cape Verde, the island country that lies off the coast of West Africa. The island has few natural resources, and the local government as been promoting itself as a tourist destination for Europeans. They joined the WTO in 2007, built a new international airport, and started developing beachside resorts. But they started to run out of sand. This essential element for creating concrete was being stripped bare from their beaches, turning sand thievery into a source of petty crime. Construction ceased while trade routes opened to import the concrete from nearby Mauritania, which in turn received boats from Lisbon. For Trading Cities, Luísa Homem and Pedro Pinho take an observational, direct cinema approach with their 16mm as they document this circulation of material. The film stars in Lisbon on a cargo ship, goes to Mauritania to depict the collection of sand and the firing and molding of concrete blocks. They pay close attention to the process of labor, the particular skills and peculiar rhythms that emerge in any workplace. The slow journey of a cargo ship, which has the abstracted beauty of one of Peter Hutton’s Hudson River films, is contrasted with the slow camel-ride a white European couple takes on their way to one of the resorts. This is where the concrete comes to rest, in the static packaged splendor of a middle-class resort, designed to channel the country’s colonized past. The majority Italian, German and Portuguese tourists laze in wading pools as a black African plays a native string instrument. Another Cape Verdean sings a canned “Redemption Song” to a group of bored tourists uninterested in freeing themselves from mental slavery, while in another show the locals paint themselves in tribal-looking  make-up for some community theater Lion King knockoff. The Cape Verdeans put their kitschy colonial-burlesque work in and go home, where the old subsistence farming economy proceeds at its edges, slowly fading into the future of the service economy.

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Sarah Francis is after a more stylized kind of city portrait in Birds of September. She constructed a “glassed van”, a kind of vehicular bubble into which she invited random people from Beirut’s streets. She recorded interviews with them as the bubble drove slowly around the city, the locals’ daily anxieties percolating on the soundtrack as the city reveals itself behind their heads. Francis said she made the film because of “a claustrophobic feeling I had towards Beirut. I have always lived here and yet I always felt like I was not always fully part of things.” She is using the bubble to break the city down into component parts. She even separates the interview audio track from the video track, so the subject’s words play over their silent faces. Each element is only partially graspable – it’s possible to focus on the words, the face or the city behind them, but usually never all at once. At times it feels like tapping into Beirut’s unconscious, the streets and sky merging with anxieties about work, relationships and religion. The concept is stretched thin over its 100 minutes, but it’s a provocative and promising work.

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Luo Li is another young artist on display at Art of the Real with Li Wen at East Lake, an shapeshifting shaggy dog thing that begins as a documentary about developers illegally filling in a lake to build the “Happy Valley” amusement park. About 35 minutes in it changes into a narcoleptic mystery as two misshapen detectives track down a vagrant who may or may not be spreading tales that a dragon will soon rise from the lake in anger. The investigation gets sidetracked into Cultural Revolution history, the detective’s fear of castration, and real estate conspiracies. It’s a series of dead-ends and false leads that recalls the proliferating melancholic mysteries of Inherent Vice. What lies beneath is the state’s micromanaging fear of the old, weird China. The McGuffin of this whole enterprise is a young eccentric who believes all the old timers’ myths about the lake – about its personality and the dragon who protects it. The whole state apparatus springs into action to shut this harmless guy down. The cop’s obsession with Cultural Revolution paraphernalia suggests the current era has replaced Mao’s little red book with technocrat babble.

Art of the Real is formidable, ear and eye-worm kind of programming. These are movies that burrow up into your cortex, laying eggs that will hatch for weeks afterward. Each film gets at the “real” in their own way, through unvarnished interview, direct observation, stylized portraiture or fictionalized documentary. Regardless of the process, they each glimpse their own facet of reality, which is, as D.W. Griffith must admit, interesting indeed.

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