Film at Lincoln Center announced the eighth edition of Art of the Real, the essential showcase for vital and innovative voices in nonfiction and hybrid filmmaking, from November 19-21, 2021. Aptly subtitled “Counter Encounters,” this year’s Art of the Real presents one feature and 41 shorts, and encompasses works by historical and contemporary filmmakers, artists, collectives, and communities. Their practices not only disturb classical ethnographic paradigms, but also reinvent an art of the real in itself.
Highlights of the showcase include two presentations by Onyeka Igwe: Specialised Technique, her attempt to return authorship of West African dance footage taken by the British Colonial Film Unit to its original subjects, and the names have been changed, including my own and truths have been altered, exploring family history and the slippery notion of “truth”; Jodie Mack’s Wasteland No. 2: Hardy, Hearty, a hypnotic silent animation about growth and regrowth through nature; Barbara Hammer’s Vital Signs, a haunting short confronting profound losses and mortality; At the River, an ongoing effort by filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax to document his small-town Michigan roots; Les Enfants de la guerre, Jocelyne Saab’s document of her time spent bonding with surviving children in a shantytown in Beirut; Chick Strand’s Soft Fiction, which considers the identification and representation of womanhood, and the sense of possession and dispossession through consensual and abusive sexuality; and Djibril Diop Mambéty’s first film: Contras’ City, framed as a journey through Dakar, encompassing colonial and indiginous culture and architecture. The insightful program is complemented by a roundtable conversation, with filmmakers Carlos Motta, Basel Abbas, and Ruanne Abou-Rahme joining curators Laura Huertas Millán and Rachael Rakes to discuss different strategies, ethics, and forms of alter-ethnographic practice.
Counter Encounters is a cinephilic letter to ethnography, one of rupture and reignition, inviting consideration by everyone interested in building visual cultures of mutual recognition. Almost since its inception, ethnography has reckoned with its own complicated foundations, among them its roots in colonialism, and the imbalanced and troubled relations inherent in a one-sided narrative of encounter. Through this self-reflection and reinvention, new forms of cinema have been devised by ethnographers and artists, which have helped to question and reinvent the languages representing alterity.
Films of 2021 Art of the Real
Program 1: Acts of Refusal I
The films in this program revolt against the assignation to prescribed identities that’s been replicated throughout centuries by foreign eyes (belonging to colonizers, anthropologists, artists, tourists, politicians, and so on). As seen here, taking back the authorship of these images constitutes an act of refusal toward being represented (both in iconographic and political terms) and consequently alienated by others. Evoking the face-to-face encounters so recurrent in historical ethnographic films, these works are a testament to a lasting and still ongoing anti-colonial resistance. Through elements like makeup, costumes, reenactments, staged political speeches, and other détournements, they aim to reclaim accessibility and agency for a cinema of one’s own, giving form to incisive manifestos and statements of resistance and struggle.
Cowboy and “Indian” Film
Raphael Montañez Ortiz, USA, 1957-58, 2m
Drawing on his Puerto Rican, Portuguese, and Native American heritage, Montañez Ortiz’s influential work stages destruction as an alchemical process. Originating from the shaman-like act of chopping up Anthony Mann’s 1950 western Winchester ’73 with a tomahawk, Cowboy and “Indian” Film constitutes an exhilarating manifesto against cinematic alienation.
From the Raphael Montañez Ortiz Papers, #200.Courtesy of the Artist, LABOR, Mexico City and the Chicano Studies Research Center, University of California, Los Angeles
Free, White, and 21
Howardena Pindell, USA, 1980, 12m
Artist and curator Howardena Pindell’s essential video merges a poignant coming-of-age account, a memory of survival, and a reflection on creativity in a racist and sexist cultural field. A manifesto against discrimination in everyday life that remains painfully topical.
Journey to a land otherwise known
Laura Huertas Millán, France, 2011, 23m
A surrealist ethnography of the so-called New World, Journey to a land otherwise known interweaves the words of European travelers during America’s colonization with lush recordings of a tropical greenhouse in France. Part of a series exploring exoticism, and haunted by masked figures, the film evokes Latin-American tropicalist movements.
Speech at the Constituent Assembly, Brasilia
Ailton Krenak, Brazil, 1987, 4m
This video depicts an iconic moment in Latin American history, in which activist Ailton Krenak covered his face with black jenipapo paint at the National Constituent Assembly, in defense of the constitutional amendment for the Union of Indigenous Nations. Beyond the content of the speech, this is a powerful performative act blurring the lines between aesthetics and politics.
La cabeza mató a todos
Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Puerto Rico, 2014, 8m
Activist and botanist Mapenzi Chibale Nonó casts a magic spell to destroy military industries. Introduced by a clairvoyant cat, the film achieves a feverish nocturnal dance, invoking the memory of anti-colonial Caribbean resistance.
The Giverny Document
Ja’Tovia Gary, USA/France, 2019, 40m
Built upon “acts of refusal” (multidisciplinary artist Gary’s formulation), and intertwining recorded and found material centered on Black women’s experience and representation, The Giverny Document explicitly addresses trauma while avoiding literal exposition.
Friday, November 19, 6:30pm
Program 2: Acts of Refusal II: The Persistence of Invisible Traces
The desire for the encounter oscillates, in this program’s films, between alterity and recognition of sameness. Each work engages with an inward exploration, employing the intimacy of a subjective first-person address to reckon with an environment devastated by colonialism and its consequences. The evocation of genocides and violence is mostly left outside of the frame, pointing instead to intense forms of absence, erased indigenous narratives, and diasporic legacies. Even if loss and exile are predominant themes of this program, each artist conceives a singular space for remembrance, where opacity, embodied gestures, and a trace can create a radiant force.
Strata of Natural History
Jeannette Muñoz, Switzerland/Chile, 2012, 16mm, 11m
Opening with the double exposure of photographs of Kawéskar natives in Berlin in 1881 and views of the city’s Zoological Garden in 2011, this film recalls the forgotten history of human zoos present throughout Europe until the mid–20th century. Composing the work through alternating glimpses of Chile and Germany, Muñoz delicately creates a silent memento of belonging and exile.
Three Songs About Liberation
Cauleen Smith, USA, 2017, 10m
Three monologues from the book Black Women in White America (edited by Gerda Lerner) are performed by actors looking directly into the camera, surrounded by flags created by the artist herself. Inspired by Soviet avant-garde cinema, this revolutionary work calls upon the legacy of subversive Black voices.
Carlos Motta, Colombia/USA, 2016, 13m
Looking for “the traces of the predesignated” inscribed into a Colombian landscape, Nefandus awakens the memory of pre-Columbian nonbinary sexualities, heavily repressed and destroyed by the Spanish conquest. Intertwining Arregoces Coronado’s voice in Kogi and the filmmaker’s in Spanish, the film becomes a sensual record of heretofore undocumented desires.
Tatiana Fuentes Sadowski, France, 2012, 18m
The voices of a forensic doctor and the filmmaker herself accompany a photographic archive gathered by Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, documenting atrocities committed during that nation’s civil war from 1980 to 2000. La huella, “the trace,” lends material form to the collective emotional trauma that lingers after a war.
Alia Syed, UK, 1992, 16mm, 19m
A diasporic sensation cuts across the first seconds of Fatima’s Letter, filmed entirely at Whitechapel Underground Station in East London. The disjunction between the Urdu spoken on the soundtrack and its English translation, and between trains crossing the frame, filmed with a completely still camera, and intimate observance of anonymous faces, materialize the liminal emotional space of migration.
Alexandra Cuesta, Ecuador/USA, 2013, 10m
Mapkaulu Roger Nduku’s voice infuses Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights, a neighborhood historically built by diasporic communities and immigration, today subject to gentrification. Assembled like a series of tableaux, this farewell letter to the filmmaker’s ephemeral home depicts what Trinh T. Minh-ha calls an “elsewhere, within here,” a series of places at the threshold of transitions to come.
Minia Biabiany, France, 2018, 10m
Mina Bibiany’s graceful Toli toli is a haptic missive to Guadeloupe, the artist’s homeland. “Toli toli” means “butterfly chrysalid” in Créole. Its presence, alongside other organisms, songs, and murmurs, operates as a metaphor for a territory shaped by colonialism. The work is constructed through stratifications of narratives and migrations.
Friday, November 19, 9:15pm
Program 3: What We See Is Real
Much of ethnography has been historically based on the fundamentally imbalanced position of one individual or group observing and interpreting another. As a practice, auto-ethnography has the potential to pull at some of the structural tensions of the trade, and expose the inherent difficulties in attempting to know another through projections of one’s self or relations. The works in this program push the premise of auto-ethnography into a rigorous, foreign, and experimental art form. They include raw and sensitive excavations into personal history and environments, and express the entangled inheritances endemic to any forms of self.
Points of Departure
Alia Syed, UK, 2014, 16m
The director’s voice narrates entangled memories triggered by finding a family tablecloth, accompanying archival footage and shots of Glasgow’s landscape, in this essayistic portrait of place, home, and lost words and translations.
Thirza Cuthand, Canada, 2013, 3m
Filmmaker Thirza Cuthand blends two stories of blindness—their own migraine-induced episodes, and their cousin’s self-inflicted blindness later in life—to think about the realities of disability and mental illness. This frank testimony plays over Super-8 footage obscured by colored markings.
Miko Revereza, USA, 2017, 6m
With vulnerability and a note of rage, Miko Reverera details the experience of his family’s relocation to Los Angeles from Manila. The film’s ’90s home-video aesthetic further reflects on the act of “recording a film document without the possession of living documents.”
At the River
Angelo Madsen Minax, USA, 2020, 10m
Part of an ongoing effort, spanning the past four years, to document the filmmaker’s small-town-Michigan roots, this short seamlessly juxtaposes tensions inside the family house—touching onaddiction, jail time, money worries, and unspoken tragedies—with a father and son’s walk in the woods.
Jeannette Muñoz, Chile/Switzerland, 2014-ongoing, 16mm, 20m
A study of landscape as personal history, and a marker of time’s passage, Puchuncaví is a project in ongoing mutation, as director Jeannette Muñoz uses 16mm film to capture the same Chilean coastal town every time she travels there, making several cuts and revisions along the way. The storied place has been part of the Inca road system, a center for healing, a site of dumping and pollution, and a fishing port.
Barbara Hammer, USA, 1991, 10m
In the wake of three profound losses, Barbara Hammer waltzes with an anatomical skeleton, confronting mortality head-on and meditating on grief, sickness, and burial rituals.
the names have been changed, including my own and truths have been altered
Onyeka Igwe, UK, 2019, 26m
A family story and land story, told in multiple ways, explores the slippery notion of “truth” with the help of the British Colonial archive, Nollywood, and an adapted novel.
Saturday, November 20, 6:00pm, followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Angelo Madsen Minax.
Program 4: Living Among Ruins
Archival media are the remnants of capture. They are the evidence of previous points of view, types of gaze, power configurations, knowledge constructions. Examining earlier languages, biases, and forms of representation, the works here use found footage and archival matter to shed light on the specificity of disciplines of categorization. This could allow for a systemic critique, offering up the old material for new kinds of manipulation and reevaluation.
Only the Beloved Keeps Our Secrets
Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Palestine, 2016, 10m
Structured around footage taken from an Israeli military surveillance camera in Palestine, Only the Beloved Keeps Our Secrets combines that material with found footage of quotidian ritual and performance, abandoned lots, local plants, and landscapes. The images overlap one another in the frame, visually juxtaposing the past and the volatile present.
Les Enfants de la guerre
Jocelyne Saab, Lebanon, 1976, 11m
After the Karantina Massacre early in the Lebanese Civil War, Jocelyne Saab bonds with the surviving children of a shantytown in Beirut. They allow her to film their games, which are marked by the horrible events that they’d witnessed.
Já me transformei em imagen (I already became an image)
Zezinho Yube, Brazil, 2008, 32m
A striking documentary shifting all the cinematic ethnographic tropes (the face-to-face confrontation, the first-contact footage, the didactic voiceover), and produced by Videos nas Aldeias, Já me transformei em imagen illustrates how the Amazonian Hunikui people became subjects of a foreign gaze. Taking back the archival materials made by others serves as a reminder of the hardships that the community has had to endure since their first encounter with white people.
Onyeka Igwe, UK, 2016, 6m
Part of a suite of films concerned with dance, movement, the colonial gaze, and Nigeria’s Aba Women’s War of 1929, Specialised Technique is an attempt to return authorship of the footage of West African dancers taken by the British Colonial Film Unit to its original subjects.
Abigail Child, USA, 1983, 16mm, 11m
The second installment of Abigail Child’s ambitious Is This What You Were Born For? series, Mutiny presents chopped fragments of women represented in a variety of mediated footage. We find them speaking, playing instruments, working out, and always ready to deliver a message. The infuriated and truncated syntax of the film, built in service of readjusting the archives, honors its rebellious title.
How Green Was the Calabash Garden
Truong Minh Quý, Vietnam, 2016, 15m
Filmmaker Truong Minh Quý prompts a Vietnamese veteran to recall his participation in the Cambodian genocide, encouraging him to sketch his memories in a lush calabash garden. This sincere, personal short film ends with an unexpected twist when the director starts reflecting on the veteran’s story in his own way.
Saturday, November 20, 8:15pm
Program 5: Collaborative Survival
“How other kinds of beings see us matters,” observes Eduardo Kohn in his eco-ethnographic study How Forests Think. This program pivots on this notion from different ontological perspectives, imagining how plants and animals might see, focusing on microscopic views, images of decay, forest floor–level views, and other attempts at non-human-centered perspectives. The films in this program, consequently, are experienced as immersive, saturated, and sometimes even psychedelic, breaking from what could be thought of as typical documentary or ethnographic aesthetics.
Discoveries on the Forest Floor
Charlotte Pryce, UK, 2007, 16mm, 4m
A Study in Natural Magic
Charlotte Pryce, UK, 2013, 16mm, 3m
Recalling early photographic botanic studies through techniques such as heliographic models and animation, these two works by filmmaker Charlotte Pryce create moments of visual alchemy and cinematic wonder, centered on natural alterities.
Colectivo Los Ingrávidos, Mexico, 2018, 9m
The flicker of rock vestiges from a Mexican pyramid proffers an earthly hallucinatory cinematic experience, bringing us back to the lost rituals that the archeological site once hosted. The geological ground becomes psychotropic, uncovering buried memories of lost times.
The Great Silence
Allora & Calzadilla with Ted Chiang, USA, 2014, 17m
The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico is the site of what used to be the world’s largest single-aperture radio telescope, which transmitted and captured radio waves at the edges of the universe. It was situated near the Río Abajo State Forest, home to the last wild population of critically endangered Puerto Rican Amazon parrots. The Great Silence explores this relationship, and more broadly the connections between humans and animals, the terrestrial and the cosmic, the living and the decayed. Courtesy of the artists and Gladstone Gallery.
Laura Huertas Millán, Colombia/France, 2019, 24m
The fabrication ritual of a green coca powder (called mambe or “Jíibie”) unveils an ancestral myth of kinship. In the Muiná-Muruí Amazonian community, the coca plant is not a product, but a sacred interlocutor, the beating heart of a collective body.
Wasteland No. 2: Hardy, Hearty
Jodie Mack, USA, 2019, 16mm, 7m
A silent animation featuring flowers freeing themselves from melting ice, only to be slowly replaced by rooted plants, which themselves grow flowers again. Petals, frozen cubes, and leaves billow alluringly in this hypnotic process.
Anja Dornieden & Juan David González Monroy, Germany, 2018, 16mm, 26m
This captivating collection of found footage consisting in large part of biological processes and natural life comes from a set of film prints discovered by the co-directors. The original films were apparently intended as an amateur psychological test, where the viewer’s behavior is observed. The resulting work is a mesmerizing montage of life processes and undulating images.
Program 6: Troublemakers: Subversive Fictions
The introduction of fiction into ethnographic practices, as well as the reverse (anthropological sensibility infused into fiction), are movements embedded in cinema’s history from the time of its commencement. Even though abundant attempts from a variety of perspectives have been made to revise the ethnofiction history, this aesthetic canon has been historically co-opted by a cultural minority. Donna Haraway’s statement “It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories” explains well the blistering urgency across this program’s films to reclaim the subversive powers of the imagination, transforming marginality into fertile lands of playfulness and new storytelling.
Djibril Diop Mambéty, Senegal, 1969, 22m
The witty dialogue between a Senegalese man and a French woman opens Djibril Diop Mambéty’s first film, framed as a journey through Dakar, encompassing colonial and indiginous culture and architecture. The gentleness and empathy of the filmed subjects, occupying real settings presented with a critical eye, prefigures the provocative tone and politically engaged spirit of Diop’s last series Tales of the Little People. Restored in 2020 by Cineteca di Bologna/L’Immagine Ritrovata and The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project in association with The Criterion Collection. Funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. This restoration is part of the African Film Heritage Project, an initiative created by The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers and UNESCO – in collaboration with Cineteca di Bologna – to help locate, restore, and disseminate African cinema.
Madame a des envies/Madame’s Cravings
Alice Guy, France, 1906, 4m
Motion picture pioneer Alice Guy invented fictional narrative in cinema but was erased from its official history. In this film, Guy stages a pregnant woman who unapologetically gives in to all her cravings.
Wutharr, Saltwater Dreams
Karrabing Film Collective, Australia, 2016, 29m
Consisting of more than 30 intergenerational Aboriginal filmmakers from Australia’s Northern Territory, Karrabing Film Collective’s process is often described as “improvisational realism.” Inspired by the real-life event of a broken boat that stranded a family in the outback, Wutharr intertwines three perspectives on the same story, where the mythical and the factual, the past and the present, are part of the same frame, in an “an ongoing interconnected relationship.”
Qu’un sang impur
Pauline Curnier Jardin, Germany, 2019, 16m
Echoing and gloriously enlarging the iconic prison scene in Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’amour, Qu’un sang impur is a queer, feminist tale of postmenopausal eroticism. Navigating genres such as gore, erotica, video art, and political cinema, Curnier Jardin’s film celebrates desire and bodies historically excluded from film.
Sofia Bohdanowicz, Canada, 2018, 9m
Part of a long-term collaboration with actress and director Deragh Campbell, Veslemøy’s Song finds auto-fictional character Audrey travelling to the New York Public Library in search of a rare recording produced in 1909. Invoking the legacy of Kathleen Parlow (a Canadian celebrated violinist) who was Bohdanowicz’s grandfather’s mentor, the film resonates with the filmmaker’s own familial history, imbued with the heritage of migration and artistic expression.
The Tuba Thieves: Scene 22 (The Deaf Club)
Alison O’Daniel, USA, 2015, 6m
Filmmaker and artist Alison O’Daniel creates divisions in the normative relationship between sound and image in cinema, subtly criticizing how in this art form hearing is taken for granted. Reenacting a punk show hosted by Bruce Conner at The Deaf Club in San Francisco in 1979, The Tuba Thieves: Scene 22 intensely formulates through fiction a nonexistent but necessary archive of both Deaf and underground cultures.
Marta Rodríguez & Jorge Silva, Colombia, 1966-71, 42m
Planas, testimonio de un etnocidio/Plains: Testimony of an Ethnocide
Marta Rodríguez & Jorge Silva, Colombia, 1972, 37m
Marta Rodriíguez was Jean Rouch’s student and one the first women documentary filmmakers in Colombia. These two early works, co-directed with Jorge Silva, culminated in threats to their lives and even an assassination attempt. Both films marked the beginning of a socially engaged oeuvre, focused on the Colombian working class and indigenous people. Made with a couple of Bolex cameras on loan from the dictator Rojas Pinilla’s official TV station, Chircales is the story of a family of brickmakers on the outskirts of Bogotá. Planas, testimonio de un etnocidio documents the massacre of indigenous people in Vichada, in the east of Colombia, and denounces the past and present indigenous exterminations by the Colombian state.
Chick Strand, USA, 1979, 16mm, 55m
In this acclaimed document and expression of gendered pain, joy, and hardship, experimental filmmaker Chick Strand collaborates with five women who communicate their experience through direct and frank stories. Strand’s technique focuses on close-ups of facial expressions, profiles, and attention to physical gestures like the tension of hands, resulting in a unique documentary of intimacy and sexuality. This approach creates an elliptical mise en scène where little context is offered, and the subjects are presented as interlocutors rather than characters. Throughout these testimonies, the film considers the identification and representation of womanhood, and the sense of possession and dispossession through consensual and abusive sexuality.
Artists and filmmakers from the program Carlos Motta, Basel Abbas, and Ruanne Abou-Rahme join curators Laura Huertas Millán and Rachael Rakes to discuss different strategies, ethics, and forms of alter-ethnographic practice. The conversation stems from works being screened as well as additional comparative and historic references in film, art, writing, and related disciplines.