A host of challenging documentaries at this year’s Berlinale exploded the boundaries between author, subject and audience.
Marc Hollinger, a diminutive and fretful – yet luxuriantly wealthy – HR manager from Luxembourg is on a genteel date with a handsome male escort. From a distance, the camera dispassionately observes the pair as they get to know each other on the steps of a palatial European opera house. Quite without warning, our stout fellow rips out his microphone and storms toward the camera.
He begins to complain vociferously that his date is too tall, and that positioned next to him he looks impishly ridiculous. The director enters the shot, as do a number of crew members, and the group have a heated, impromptu discussion. One abrupt cut later, the framing of the shot has changed, the men are positioned at a more equitable spatial level, and our man is happy to continue.
This absurd, continuity-rupturing exchange acts as a telling microcosm for both the authorial power games at large in the rest of Angela Christlieb’s chilly character study Naked Opera, as well as the complex relationship between author, subject and audience that defined a number of documentary films at this year's Berlinale. During one particularly heated exchange late in the film, the demanding Hollinger chides Christlieb: "Come with an idea of what you want to shoot, or get out!" At this juncture you start to wonder who's really in charge.
Functioning as a particularly pertinent complement to Naked Opera’s combination of fourth-wall obliteration and teasing ambiguity was a newly restored version of Shirley Clarke’s 1967 doc Portrait Of Jason. Ostensibly a beatnik performance piece in which the eponymous gay hustler/raconteur raps to camera about his life experiences, it gradually evolves into a confrontational treatise on the nature of truth, performance and storytelling.
Midway through the film, the hitherto detached nature of Clarke’s behind-camera questioning gives way to a more aggressive brand of prodding ("Tell the truth, motherfucker!"), prompting Jason’s character to shift dramatically. It's a deeply uncomfortable experience which proves that in the wide world of experimental cinema, Naked Opera's aggressive, interrogative boundary-crossing is nothing new.
Continuing the dual themes of fractured authorship and queer subculture present in Clarke’s film was James Franco and Travis Matthews' oddball, 60-minute pseudo-restoration project Interior. Leather Bar.. Purportedly an attempt to re-imagine the missing 40 minutes of William Friedkin’s controversial 1980 film Cruising (set in the pre-AIDS, gay S&M subculture of New York), it emerged as a rather shapeless – if endearing – exploration of a number of sociocultural themes: the reclamation of a lost past, the blurring of lines between the definitions of onscreen sex and pornography and, perhaps most overwhelmingly of all, the size of James Franco’s ego.
Featuring copious amounts of of hardcore gay sex, and mining reams of awkward comedy from straight lead actor Val Lauren’s immersion into such a world, it was a funny and thought-provoking, if lightweight, mash-up of cinema verite stylings and cultural excavation. It also begged the pressing question: who really owns a text? Because Cruising, once Friedkin’s work to protect, now has another set of masters altogether. One suspects the veteran provocateur would approve of such salacious chicanery.
Like Franco and Matthews' effort, Joshua Oppenheimer’s deeply troubling The Act Of Killing was concerned with the fictionalised reconstruction of a disappeared past, and the effects of such activity upon the collective consciousness. However, replacing the innate goofiness of Interior. Leather Bar. was a blood-freezing seriousness.
For his film, Oppenheimer invited members of death squads in Indonesia (who murdered over a million suspected communists, intellectuals and ethnic Chinese in the mid-1960s) to reconstruct their crimes on film, using whichever genre conventions they pleased. Instead of morose, apologetic reconstructions, these awful, hateful men (who had begun their criminal careers as cinema-obsessed black market film ticket racketeers) cobbled together celebratory scenes, often involving their families, which glamourised the violence in which they’d once indulged.
The films within the film were cheap, garish aesthetic abortions which simultaneously revealed both their creators’ venality and the contrasting compositional rigour of Oppenheimer and his team. The Act Of Killing was a truly frightening experience that pulled off the rare achievement of being intellectually stimulating and visceral, gut-punchingly nauseating. As if to underscore the film's thematic subversion of traditional modes of control, the majority of the end credits were listed, chillingly, as ‘Anonymous’.
Somewhat more conventional, though still intellectually engaging, was Fatal Assistance, Haitian director Raoul Peck’s astringent polemic dealing with the disastrous aftermath of the earthquake that ravaged his country in 2010. Directing his ire specifically toward the supposedly well-meaning NGOs and aid organisations who clamoured to help Haiti, but ultimately created a bureaucratic clusterfuck of epic proportions, Peck interrogated authorship of a different kind: the right of a country’s natives to determine their own policies and futures; to tell their own stories. (For the furthering of diverse narratives in cinema, surely this right to indigenous authorship applies even, perhaps especially, to the likes of Oppenheimer’s venal charges in The Act Of Killing).
Peck’s major formal flourish was to layer the film with two competing voiceovers; one, female, the regretful testimony of a failed, fictional aid worker; the other, male, an omniscient chronicler of woe. As a conceit it was only partially successful, but imbued the film with a yearning, otherworldly quality many other such tales of national and institutional of misery lack.
The small selection of documentary cinema on offer at the Berlinale raised intriguing questions about the nature of authorship. Yet, as Portrait Of Jason showed with brutal grace and intelligence, these textual schisms have existed for a long time. As such, it’s testament to the skill and searching intelligence of directors like Oppenheimer, Christlieb and Peck that documentary filmmaking is still being pushed in vital and challenging directions.