This year, the program for Doc Fortnight — the Museum of Modern Art’s annual showcase of international documentary media — heavily emphasizes both labor and alienation, and often how the two subjects are related. Works featured in the festival include an epic film about a trans outsider attempting to shake up Japanese politics, a film about a summer camp for disabled teens produced by the Obamas, a VR experience comparing historical and contemporary racial segregation, a trilogy of shorts on the cultural perception of the afro, and a metaphorical meditation on a strained relationship between mother and child which Hyperallergic’s Jake Pitre has previously praised. Both overtly and subtly, each of these films deal with how people act when in some way estranged from the society around them.
Sometimes this is presented with a light touch. Tali Yankelevich’s My Darling Supermarket is almost whimsical at times. Following the day-to-day of workers in a São Paulo supermarket, it depicts their repetition-based activities with wry humor, letting their silly idle conversations flow into their work. A highlight is undoubtedly the store’s anime enthusiast, who in one surreal moment walks the aisles in full cosplay.
There’s a similarly gentle touch to La mami, Laura Herrero Garvin’s look behind the scenes at Barba Azul, a storied nightclub in Mexico City. The title character is Doña Olga, who minds the cabaret’s dressing room / restroom. “Mami” watches out for the various female workers, particularly the dancers, always ready with toiletries or advice. (In one legendary moment, she reminds them that “Men are only good for two things: for nothing, and for money.”) Garvin observes only the in-between moments of this work, the rest periods in which her subjects either prepare themselves to get out there or recover from the strain of both physical and emotional labor. The only time her cameras venture into the club itself are in its closed daytime hours, when it is in the process of getting cleaned, restocked, and otherwise prepped for the next night. (In one arch but thematically appropriate moment, a janitor dusts the bared breasts of different female statues around the establishment.)
Much more stark is the situation in Overseas, which opens with a scene so emotionally raw that it feels like it’s edging up on exploitative, as a woman gradually breaks out into sobs as she cleans a bathroom. But director Sung-a Yoon thankfully pulls back from there. Like La mami, this film does not depict labor itself but a peripheral aspect of it, in this case training. It follows women in the Philippines preparing to become domestic workers in other countries. But their classes go beyond bathing babies, setting tables, and scrubbing floors. The program also trains them to deal with verbal, physical, and even sexual abuse, often in disconcertingly specific ways. (In one seminar, said to be based on a real incident, an instructor not only acts out yelling at a maid, but has a volunteer play the role of the mistress’s daughter coming to the maid’s defense.) The result is an eerie meta feeling, an extended exercise in going through the motions not merely of physical labor, but of an entire emotionally stressful enterprise.
The lingering effects of social ostracization are scrutinized in Straight Flush, a split-screen film playing as part of an evening featuring the collective 13BC. Shot in an abandoned Air Force base, performers read the letters exchanged in the ’60s between German peace activist Günther Anders and former pilot Claude Eatherly, who participated in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Eatherly, who struggled with mental illness and petty crime after his discharge from the military, professes immense guilt for his role in the bombing. Through discussion over a prospective film about his life, he and Anders debate ethics and personal culpability in larger movements, as well as the limits and possibilities of redemption. The disembodied narrator also muses on the interplay between the cultural understanding of such events and their lingering effects, such as how years after shooting the 1956 Genghis Khan film The Conqueror near a former nuclear test site, John Wayne and 90 other crew members developed cancer.
A general disconnect from society comes to the fore in two films screening together, Ben Rivers’s Ghost Strata and Denis Côté’s Wilcox. In the former, Rivers applies his usual methodology of free-flowing travelogue to examine sites of human-made impact on the world. This takes the form of both obvious examples, such as geological changes, and more conceptual ones, such as a tapestry that’s in the midst of preservation. With Wilcox, Côté’s camera becomes as unmoored as its lead, a lone survivalist drifting through rural Quebec. Entirely silent, it often watches Wilcox as he simply exists in proximity to regular human interaction, in the world but not of it. The cumulatively effect is incredibly melancholy, particularly in the film’s final minutes, in which Wilcox finally demonstrates some strong emotion. (Though whatever he’s truly feeling is left to the viewer to decipher.)
Doc Fortnight runs February 5 through February 19 at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53rd Street, Midtown, Manhattan).
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