Mads Brugger, Bound fo the Land of the Politically-Correct, with The Ambassador

Documentaries: From IDFA to Sundance

As the year of film festivals gives way to a stampede of hype for annual awards, eyes are now directed toward the Sundance Film Festival. Having been at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, I got an early view of some documentaries that will be at Sundance.

The doc that opened IDFA and should entertain or infuriate the crowds in Park City is The Ambassador, a mockumentary in which the filmmaker Mads Brugger, the John Stewart of Denmark, plays a scammer who buys a Liberian ambassadorship to the Central African Republic. He pretends to be opening a factory outside Bangui, the capital, in which pygmies will make matches – I’m not kidding, and the drunken launch party for that project is as strange a bacchanal as I have ever seen on the screen. But Brugger is really buying access, certified by an alleged Liberian corrupt-ocracy, into the halls of power of a failed state that just happens to be sitting on vast mineral riches. (I’m not talking about Utah or New Mexico as the failed state, but the Central African Republic.) From the frying pan into the fire?


Africa Is the Smoking Section -- Director Mads Brugger Lights Up in The Ambassador

The Ambassador isn’t your typical mockumentary – if there is such a thing – because most of the people in it don’t know it’s a ruse. Think of it as Borat or Colbert with a killer instinct, on alcohol levels that only a Scandinavian could endure. It will test your sense of humor. I can already imagine letters from earnestly indignant NPR listeners who are troubled by it. This is not a film for the sincere of heart.

The humor aside, people in the Southwest will recognize aspects of La Conquista, the conquest after conquest after conquest that you see in former colonies. In the Rockies, it was territory, then mining, then energy, with plenty of overlap throughout. In the former colonies of Africa, you can apply that sequence, and add war in some of its most savage forms that we’ve seen. Is this a subject for jokes? I’m sure a panel will discuss that question to death.


Filmmaker Emad Burnat and a Friend Check If Their Camera Works in 5 Broken Cameras

Also at Sundance is 5 Broken Cameras, a Palestinian film by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi (funded partly with Israeli money) that proves that you can make a documentary with the humblest of technologies, as long as you’re willing to replace those devices when they’re destroyed in confrontations with Israeli soldiers.  Emad lives in the village of Bilin, near Rammalah on the West Bank. Land that belonged to people of the village for centuries is seized to make a wall separating the Rabs there from a settlement nearby – to protect the settlers from Emad and his unarmed family and friends – and Emad gets a camera to document it all, just as his son Jamal is born. He replaces his camera four times to record the fate of his home and friends. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to replace his children, but he does lose friends in protests against rough security measures justified by the Israeli government’s promise to keep the settlers secure. Contradictory? Consider the premise of the film, that cameras must be sacrificed again and again as they witness the process of destroying a way of life in the West Bank.

Thanks to C-Span, I recently saw the parade of Republican presidential aspirants before a gathering of prominent Jewish Republicans – minus Ron Paul, who doesn’t approve of giving piles of money to Israel. They pledged to visit Israel – Mitt Romney said it would be his first foreign trip if elected.  I hope they also visit Bilin. 5  Broken Cameras will give them a preview. (Full disclosure – I program part of the Haifa International Film Festival in Israel, and I am a frequent visitor to that country.)

A doc at IDFA which is at Sundance 2012, but which I did not see is Putin’s Kiss, by Lise Birk Pederson of Denmark. It received a prize at IDFA, and has already achieved a goal that will elude most of the films at Sundance, a commercial distribution deal in the US. Here’s the slick trailer that makes the film about a Putin cheerleader’s disillusionment look like a thriller – The Girl with the Putin Tattoo?


Masha, Once a Putin Stalwart, Yearned to Be Among the Russian 1% in Putin's Kiss

Here’s an interview with Lise Birk Pedersen from IndieWire.

A Sundance 2012 documentary which wasn’t on the IDFA program but sold briskly there, according the people selling it, was Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present. It’s hard enough to film a bio-doc about a living artist that composed of anything but admiration. Consider the museum world. Organizing an exhibition of a living artist doesn’t provide much critical analysis.  This is Marina according to Marina, an elegantly-shot chronicle of the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, larded with archival footage, but an infomercial all the same.


Star Power - Marina Abramovic Is Nothing If Not a Box Office Attraction

The documentary follows the contours of the “making of” film found in the dvd release of a movie. Most budgets for major architecture projects include such a film, and the artist Christo has documented all his projects in films with the director Albert Maysles. Versions of this genre, less than a half-hour in length, are now a regular component of art exhibitions. Will people pay to see feature exhibition docs? Ask the Abramovic fans who waited in line for the privilege of paying to see Abramovic in person or to walk between two nude Abramovic minions. Those who couldn’t get in now have a second chance.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, directed by Matthew Akers, produced by Jeff Dupre, and funded by HBO (among others), has greater ambitions.

The luminous cinematography and year of documenting Abramovic reflect a sizable budget – more than $1 million. Abramovic’s works available at the Sean Kelly Gallery at the Art Basel Miami Beach ranged from 65,000 to 85,000 euros.

Abamovic, filmed while preparing her MoMA retrospective, voiced her own ambitions to the camera. “Performance has never been a regular form of art – it’s been “alternative” since I was born. I want it to be a real form of art before I die,” she said. “Excuse me, I’m 63 – I don’t want to be alternative anymore.” She turned 65 this month.


Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present - The Naked Truth?

Audiences may disbelieve that the strappingly toned Abramovic is as old as she is, and “alternative” is an odd fit for an artist who trains her team at a Hudson Valley manor, arrived at MoMA for her live stare-ins in a limousine and dressed for her marathon gallery sittings in couture gowns of red or white.

The documentary revisits Abramovic’s early years in Yugoslavia, where her parents were anti-Nazi partisan heroes from World War II, and young Marina paraded nude for art student peers with a five-pointed star (the symbol of the Communist Party) carved into her belly.  Footage also shows her performing violent slap-fests with her ex-husband Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen), who rhapsodizes about those days when the film reunites the couple.

Despite its elegant look, the film remains a promo for Abramovic – not necessarily a liability commercially. Abramovic hype forced MoMA to turn away huge crowds and bolster security to shield the artist from tearful fans.  Competition this season could come from Pina!, Wim Wenders’s 3-D elegy to the late choreographer Pina Bausch (1940-2009), who shared Abramovic’s taste for sado-masochism.  Yet Abramovic is alive and poised to promote the documentary.  Somehow I expect that we’ll see a performance in Park City.

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