Non-Fiction at BAMcinemaFest 2019: Constructing the Myth of the Self
BAMcinemaFest programs some of the most striking independent films made by US-based filmmakers, and with time it has shown how the landscape of the industry has changed, from the inclusion of filmmakers from different genders to the showcase of immigrant directors (each year from more countries) who are taking their culture and experience to the audience. But, above all, this year’s programming has shown that the best way to project those new identities and voices is through non-fiction, particularly how that kind of film language helps create the idea of the self — whether it be self-worth, self-projection, or cultural identity.
That last example is represented in Juan Pablo González’s documentary Caballerango (2018), filmed in the small town of Milpillas, where a horse wrangler recently committed suicide. At first, the film makes it seem like an anecdote, something the departed young man’s father tells in passing, and eventually the narrative grows as more people are interviewed, the camera directly pointing at them as they go about their work or pastime, the voice of the director quietly moving towards what he wants to know: how does death loom over the town? It’s obvious that the suicide has bigger repercussions on the community; we hear about other deaths, a massive protest/procession in the public square, the overall feeling that modernity is slowly taking over the rural terrain.
In many ways, Caballerango aims for a community portrait that starts with the personal and slowly moves to the socio-political aspects of living in an isolated place. It first tries to capture the identity of the work done by the horse wrangler in the context of Mexico’s culture — how the job passes down from generation to generation — but eventually it turns into the experience of how that identity is changing. Through various points of view and interviews, we see how death signals something more, the dark clouds approaching, the dread and grief that casually sets on everyone’s face. How an interviewee describes finding the body of the deceased caballerango seems to indicate the end of that way of life, and hopefully, the start of something new.
Much more playful, original, yet equally somber at times, Andrew Hevia’s Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window (2019) is the sort of non-fiction film that catches the eye of programmers and critics. Taking place during the 2016 Art Basel in Hong Kong, the movie puts the viewer in the perspective of the one who’s filming, akin to a first-person videogame, in which the narrator says things like, “an artificial sun woke you up every morning,” and leads you into the life of the filmmaker, who’s tasked with following an artist that won’t participate in the film. This is a film about having no subject, about searching, and in that, it creates the identity of the main character (“you”) through that Brechtian separation (I’m not me, I’m you), and the overall “fish out of water” feeling when you are in a place where you don’t know the language everyone’s speaking.
There are many codes inserted into the language of Leave the Bus Through the Broken Window that makes you perceive the way in which Hevia is fictionalizing his stay in Hong Kong throughout the fair. For example, through the narration, we know about his life before arriving in Hong Kong, about his past and current romantic partner, but we also see recorded images of that moment shot in the same style, indicating the way in which the film was constructed post-Hong Kong. Yet, even if it’s a film about the search of a structure, Hevia does end up meeting and filming some of the artists that are exhibiting at the fair, and it’s bold how he chooses those that work with more classic expressions of art, like painting or sculpture, instead of exploring the world of inter-medial art, which would be the obvious choice in such a technologically advanced landscape as Hong Kong. The film’s appeal and humor resides in one moment when the narrator says, “a collector is a storyteller,” hence, the filmmaker is a collector of images, happenings, and the art that surrounds him. It is only later that the collection itself becomes a narrative, the one we’re being subjected to.
On a far lighter note, Jay Giampietro’s “Best Picture” (2019) is a six-minute documentary that glimpses at an Academy Awards viewing party taking place in a fire station. The host, film buff Sam Juliano (an enthusiastic 64-year-old man with a thick Brooklyn accent), welcomes everyone by telling stories about how his family adopted the latest animal in their house: a rooster. The faces of the people watching the Oscars telecast become the protagonists alongside Sam, who seems continually baffled and disappointed by the “upsets.” It’s a specific look at someone who’s forged his identity around the things that he loves, and building his relations (both to family and friends) around that passion. Giampietro sneaks enough inserts of people yawning to signal that there’s a tongue-in-cheek attitude to the whole endeavor intermingling with an admiration for the passion on display.
Maybe the most important film in the program, however, is one that inventively represents creating and seeing an identity: Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s So Pretty (2019). All of the film’s characters are queer, and most of them are trans, people who aren’t playing those roles but live them. The film’s spine is the adaptation of a German novel of the same name written by Ronald M. Schernikau. In one of the first scenes, we see the director, who plays both the role of Tonia and herself, confronted with the idea of translating and making a performance out of the novel. She reads from the book, which describes the same image that we’re seeing. The film evolves from the constant readings to the way in which these characters live in the same house (for example, the shower curtains are transparent) and the protests they attend, not as a way to charge the movie politically but rather to convey that this is part of their daily life.
The interplay between the novel, the “plot” of the film, and what happens in the lives of these struggling young people isn’t exactly clear. What’s more enchanting is how the film spends idle time with the characters, and how it tries to move beyond the first “pretty” impression. But it’s this initial encounter that’s the most difficult; the film does linger on the bodies of the trans characters, but in a way that suggests that they are shown because they are beautiful, that they need to be seen more often, especially in such a naturalized context, and it’s difficult because one needs to move beyond trans bodies. Nevertheless, it’s their faces, flickering in the darkness at a rave or a concert, their naked bodies embracing each other, that say everything left unsaid. They say whatever it is that the novel doesn’t manage to portray. In a way, a new gaze is being projected, a new way of shouting, and through the baring of these bodies, projecting that these identities are valid and existent.
BamcinemaFest 2019 took place between June 12 and June 23.