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How MoMA’s 2017 Doc Fortnight Speaks to Our Current Times
February 15, 2017 by Emma Drew
Many yellow figures. Mountain background, near a road.
Big target balloons
Through the Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film. 2017. USA. Directed by Sam Wainwright Douglas. Photo by Michael Lundgren, courtesy of Postcommodity.

As this year’s guest curator, the keen eye and years of experience of award-winning video-maker and MFA Art Practice and MFA Computer Art faculty member Kathy Brew are on full display at the upcoming Doc Fortnight 2017: MoMA’s International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media, which runs February 16 – 26. Brew’s career has spanned independent documentaries, Public Television productions, and experimental work; her curating, programming and writing bridges the worlds of media, film and contemporary art. Whether as artist or ambassador, as with her direction of Thundergulch, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s new media arts initiative in the late 1990s, she has been “paying attention”—an understatement on Brew’s part—“to the ongoing development and evolution of media and new media over these past 20 years.”

With more than 30 nonfiction features and shorts from around the globe, the annual Doc Fortnight brings together world-premiers and veteran artists, vérité camerawork and ambitious storytelling experiments. Below, Brew goes into further detail about the concerns of the festival and several of the films being shown.

SVA Features: How MoMA’s 2017 Doc Fortnight Speaks to Our Current Times
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What do you think is compelling about this kind of programming and this festival specifically?

For me, truth—non-fiction, reality—is as compelling, if not more so, than fiction. And these days, documentary/non-fiction filmmaking has become more and more popular and is such an interesting genre, with so many different styles and ways of telling stories.

What’s unique about Doc Fortnight is that, since it’s beginning in 2001, the founding principle has been to explore the cross-fertilization that exists among experimental, fiction, and non-fiction films; these works can enrich our understanding of an increasingly complex world, and yet do so in more aesthetic and creative ways.

What were some of your aims as a curator this year? How did you find these films and videos?

I wanted to be sure that the program was very diverse in terms of styles of non-fiction films presented, as well as having a good representation of stories from around the world by both established and emerging filmmakers.

[We found the films] a number of different ways. My colleague, David Neary, the festival manager for Doc Fortnight, did an excellent job by starting to outreach for films from around the world. With the Internet, it’s quite easy to find films that are new and may have been recently presented at other festivals that showcase documentaries. Doc Fortnight doesn’t have an open call, but many filmmakers are aware of the annual series, so we also receive submissions coming directly from filmmakers. I found some titles that we selected—Plastic China and Machines, our opening night film—from the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam, one of the largest, if not the largest, documentary festival on the planet.

I also became aware of a film that wasn’t showing at IDFA but the filmmakers were there and sought me out for a meeting. They told me about their new film, Through the Repellent Fence: A Land Art Film, which sounded like a natural, especially to show at MoMA. What began as a documentary on the “land art” movement in the U.S. soon evolved to focus on Repellent Fence—a temporary, two-mile-long art installation that intersected the U.S./Mexico border in October 2015, spearheaded by Postcommodity, an activist/art collective consisting of three Native American artists (who will be in the upcoming Whitney Biennial as well.)

I solicited directly some of the specific titles that we are showing, either through reaching out to other colleagues in the field or directly to the artists. I knew that I wanted to have something that was more “experimental” and using “new media” and so I contacted Paul Kaiser, whose work I’ve been familiar with for many years. I made a studio visit with him and became aware of the 3D film collaboration that he and Marc Downie, the duo behind the Open Ended Group, created with avant-garde film luminaries, Ken & Flo Jacobs. Ulysses in the Subway is basically a picturing of sound in 3D, presenting Ken’s journey through the New York subway where voices, footsteps, a steel-drum performance—all is transformed into grand visual renderings through the use of a sound-analysis algorithm.

And the shorts program presents the work of a SVA alumnus, Dustin Grella (MFA 2009 Computer Art), whose work I have been aware of for quite some time. I asked Dustin to submit some of the shorts from his Animation Hotline series for us to consider and a nice sampling of those short works are being shown before Ulysses in the Subway. There are many more examples!

A young mother sadly looking at a mountain of trash
A still from Plastic China. 2016. China. Directed by Jiu-liang Wang.

I see that this year’s festival highlights themes of justice and advocacy, whether the selections’ stories and subjects are overtly political or not. What role can non-fiction filmmaking, as form and genre, play in times like these, of “alternative facts” and post-truth?

Documentaries that are addressing social issues can help illuminate and inspire people to more awareness and even action. And in this political climate, there are many films in this year’s Doc Fortnight that very much speak to our current times and cover a broad range of social issues. Some such titles include: The Revolution Won’t Be Televised (political protests against a corrupt government in Senegal); Acts & Intermissions (Emma Goldman’s fight for social justice, brought forward to today); Gaza Surf Club (a new generation’s attempt to transcend the political tragedy in the region); Rabbit in the Moon showing with Far East of Eden (both works addressing the racism that has impacted the Japanese American immigrant communities, which is particularly timely now, given the new administration’s attempted new immigration policy); Irrawaddy Mon Amour with Half a Life (LGBT issues in Myanmar); Las Letras (erroneous imprisonment of an indigenous Mexican professor); and Tell Them We Are Rising (a look at the history of black colleges and universities that helped redefine what it means to be black in America).

How does curating and programming like this fit in with your own film- and video-making?

Being both a filmmaker and a curator/programmer gives me an interesting vantage point from which to look at work. And of course having the opportunity to look at current work in the field from a global perspective informs my own thinking as a maker. As I tell students, one of the best ways to learn about documentary filmmaking is to watch lots of documentaries. You can get all kinds of ideas of strategies and techniques for your own work.

Doc Fortnight takes place at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street. Many of the films have multiple screening times and dates, as well as scheduled post-screening discussions with filmmakers. For more information and the full schedule, click here.