The Long, Long Fortnight

This year's documentary fortnight at the Museum of Modern Art has been supersized. It's a month long. Sort of a two-for-one sale, I guess. No problem there. There are plenty of documentary films out there worth seeing, and this may be your only chance to see some of them. Given the dilemma of the 65-minute film -- where can I show this? It's too long for TV and too short for theaters -- don't expect many of these titles to show up in theaters or on PBS. I have only seen two of the films being shown in the series, but one of those two is well worth a visit.

In the past 25 years or so, there has developed an entire approach to filmmaking that some critics are calling, for want of a better label, “contemplative cinema.” (In the past month this group of films has been the subject of an absolutely terrific blog-a-thon, which can be found here.) It is sort of an outgrowth of the austere and rigorous style of Robert Bresson and Carl Dreyer, among others, and is characterized by long takes, miminal soundtracks with an emphasis on natural sound, and the pre-eminence of landscape as a way of establishing mood (sometimes to the exclusion of the human presence). As a way of making fiction films, it has proven extraordinarily fruitful, with directors as varied as Wong Kar-Wai, Andrei Tarkovsky and Carlos Reygadas as exemplars.

It would seem, on the other hand, an unlikely style for documentary film. But “In Search of Happiness,” a new Russian documentary that will playing the documentary fortnight, proves that assumption wrong, and delightfully so. Alexander Gutman, the film’s director, decided to profile the surviving members of the Waldheim collective farm in Birobidzhan, once the “Jewish Autonomous Region” set aside by Stalin as an ostensibly Jewish homeland. Of course, Birobidzhan was a poisoned chalice. The land was swampy, mosquito-infested and incredibly remote. Yet many Jewish communists took Stalin at his word, including Boris Rak, who is at the center of Gutman’s film. Rak is a tough old bird, a farmer and a diehard Communist who still owns and works the land around Waldheim.

Gutman structures the film around a dialectical tension between the inhabitants in the midst of their daily lives – a violin teacher with her pupil, another teacher showing her students relics of the early days of the collective farm, Rak bantering with his wife, reminiscing with his grandson, arguing with a labor contractor – and the landscape that surrounds them. The result is an unusual film in which mood trumps reportage, and the mood is a strange sort of mellow despair, a gentle melancholy that feels entirely appropriate to its subject.

Sonia, a new documentary directed by Lucy Kostelanetz, is a look at a fairly underexplored moment in Jewish history, the role of artists in the Russian Revolution and after. Sonia Dymshitz-Tolstaya was a gifted painter who turned her back on her family’s wealth (and Jewishness) to throw herself into the artistic avant-garde of pre- and post-Revolutionary Russia. Her stubborn commitment to artistic experimentation made for an uneasy marriage with her equally powerful attachment to the ideals of the Revolution. Needless to say, she soon found herself on the outs with Stalin, although she managed to stay out of the gulag. Kostelanetz tells her story in a laborious, exhausting manner, reluctant to omit anything yet unwilling to make the overall significance of her protagonist clear. The result is 45 minutes worth of material rattling around inside a 90-minute film.

To see the whole schedule of the Documentary Fortnight, go here.