Digital Witness: DOXA 2020

By Jana Rankov

In this drawn-out period of isolation, the DOXA Documentary Film Festival has thankfully joined the ranks of festivals that have moved their program online. Naturally, this changes how we consume the films. We will not watch them together, spellbound in a dark theatre, but at home, within 24 hours of purchasing our tickets. These films come to us from a time before. Before quarantine, before the climbing global death toll, and most of all, before we got so disturbingly used to it all. They do not, however, read to us like relics from an earlier time; instead, they share our trepidation for the future, proving that what lies ahead will be determined not only by the outcomes of the pandemic but also by the pressing issues that existed before this all began.

In his debut feature, maɬnitowards the ocean, towards the shore, Ho-Chunk avant-garde filmmaker and SFU professor Sky Hopinka retells the Chinookan story on the origin of death while documenting the realities of Indigenous life in the Portland area. The liquid soundtrackunderwater recordings, the sounds of a waterfall in a rainforest— surrounds interviews with Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier, both expecting parents, as they reflect on their individual expressions of indigeneity, be it through the performance of rituals for Sahme or the meaning of growing out ones hair for Mercier. These overlapping elements of małni unfold amidst the ocean and forest of the Pacific Northwest; you can practically feel the perpetual wetness that always seems to be in the air here. By integrating the myth into the film, and letting it exist alongside accounts of contemporary Indigenous voices on the soundtrack, Hopinka illustrates mythology’s unique relationship to time; it is both alive and growing through the making of his film, yet stands outside of linear time.

Where małni engages with a timeless narrative, Ariel Nasr’s The Forbidden Reel attests to cinema’s ability to act as a discrete cultural time capsule. In following Afghan Film’s attempt to digitize their extensive archive, Nasr also chronicles the lives of those who shaped the country’s film industry. A young woman chooses a husband on the basis of his willingness to let her act on screen. A director leaves the comfort of the studio to shoot for the resistance on the warfront and escape the communist regime’s artistic censorship. And a group of employees at Afghan Film risk their lives to save the country’s cinematic treasures from the Taliban. The films created along the way burst with innovation; through their improvisational means, they preserve aspects of the Afghani national character and prior socio-political realities. The active need to digitize these works thus gestures towards a necessary resurrection of the country’s collective memory.

When Mariam Ghani, a social activist and artist (and daughter of current Afghan president Mohammad Ashraf Ghani), says that an archive “can seal off these histories and keep them until the moment when it’s safe to look at them again,” she may as well be speaking to Bojina Panayatova, the director of Je vois rouge, who propels herself into a taboo past in an attempt to build a future unriddled by shame. Bulgaria’s unwillingness to confront its socialist past is sharpened to a point in a documentary that is part family drama, part detective story. Panayatova tries to make sense of her family’s travel, opportunity, and grandfather’s Mercedes—impossibilities for most citizens of the Soviet era—while engaging in increasingly heated fights with her parents, illustrating that the Iron Curtain cannot be drawn so easily for those that lived half their lives behind it. The ever shifting aspect ratio of Je vois rouge (academy ratio for archival images, widescreen for contemporary footage, and an intimate split-screen for the family’s Skype calls) belies an evolving and ongoing struggle with generational culpability. Does upholding a system make you as guilty as those that erected it in the first place? As decades of film footage and generations of media are amassed and contrasted in order to investigate both national and personal history, the question of moral responsibility becomes irresolvable and any attempt at answering it is relegated to the future.

While Panayatova, Hopinka, and Nasr tease out threads of the past and attempt to stitch together a variety of alternative futures, other filmmakers choose a more direct approach. To Iiris Härmä, we have run out of time for this kind of equivocation. In Who Made You?, he addresses our need to solidify a moral code that translates ambiguity into absolutes. In search of a just society in the “third phase of AI,” children speak to robots and Härmä to computer scientists and legislatures while a self-identified cyborg shows the audience how he can send his sense of colour to space through an antenna implanted in his head, which translates light to vibrations. Through these interactions, uncomfortable traces of our present come to the fore. Is the “digital self” not just a responsive compound of our numerous, heavily curated social media avatars? And are sex robots, unflinchingly filmed, not too close to comfort during an international lock down, where our computers mediate our intimacy with one another? Härmä’s plea for governments and corporations alike to make the code for ubiquitously utilized AI public is both a futuristic call to action and an overdue confrontation with humanity’s past moral failings. 

Truth or Consequences takes us further forward still. In the film’s universe, commercial space travel has already begun, and those who populate the titular New Mexico town have become breathing archives—not just of their lives, but of terrestrial existence itself. Through inserts of a digital, distorted spacewalk and of our planet in various states of life and decay, director Hannah Jayanti creates an alternative timeline that feels increasingly real. For the duration of her film, she forces us to live in a reality where we have given up on our planet, a fact poignantly exemplified by Beverly, an old woman who, for the brief moment she appears on screen, smokes a cigarette while hooked up to an oxygen tank (her wristband reads: “Do Not Resuscitate” ). Truth or Consequences stands as a powerful corrective to the recent wave of Hollywood films that tell us to leave behind a doomed Earth in search of a better existence (for a select few) elsewhere.

The most visceral act of time travel, however, can be found in Pier Kids, which follows the lives of a few young people who spend their days on New York City’s Christopher Street Pier. One of these Pier Kids, Casper, is alive, and then he isn’t. His death is introduced into the film with an abruptness that befits the loss of a young life. Even though the precarity that comes with being homeless and subject to police brutality is continuously re-iterated, the intimacy of director Elegance Bratton’s camera lets the kinship and joy of being black and queer dominate the film. Bratton refuses to define these lives along the lines of struggle and hopelessness, and makes sure that the audience knows why Krystal, a young mother and beloved sister, responds to the common question of “where do you see yourself in a few years?” with “Alive”. 

Alongside films that examine our past and foray into alternative futures are those that somehow reach into the reality of 2020. This is the accomplishment of Cecilia Aldarondo’s Landfall, which focuses on Puerto Rico in the time between Hurricane Maria and the 2019 protests that toppled the region’s government. To see the sight of face masks at these demonstrations is, given our current situation, nothing short of surreal. Just as not wearing a mask to protect yourself in 2019 was itself a form of privilege, not having to fight your government tooth and nail for basic human rights in 2020 is one, too. Reducing Landfall to a trick mirror of 2020, however, would disparage Aldarondo’s powerful and layered account of life in Puerto Rico post Maria. A series of juxtapositions lay out the circumstances that led to the protests: abhorrent wealth and communities rebuilding from the ground up, the veiled rhetoric of imperialism and the passionate rebuttals of young activists, the evident corruption of the government and the hope of the citizenry. Viewed digitally in the summer of 2020, Landfall collapses the space between past and present, and pulls the two eerily close.

Written by Jana Rankov

Recent UBC Film Studies graduate. I'm currently aiming to become a Jack of All Trades when it comes to film, to understand it from all angles. Writing about film is a passion of mine, be it academic, analytical, a review or comedic.

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