Documentaries With an Autobiographical Flair
THE art of documentary appears to be taking a personal turn lately, with nonfiction films reflecting not only broad social or political issues, but also the experiences and personalities of their makers. That's the most vivid trend to emerge from this year's New York Film Festival, where several important new documentaries were unveiled.Pictures From a Revolution provides a good example. It focuses on the experiences and discoveries of Susan Meiselas, a respected photographer who visited Nicaragua in the late 1970s to capture images of the Sandinista revolution. She returned there a decade later with motion-picture equipment and two codirectors, Richard P. Rogers and Alfred Guzzetti, and together they pursued a new agenda: finding the people who appeared in Ms. Meiselas's original photos and learning what happened to them, their struggl e, and their nation during the intervening 10 years. The first half of "Pictures From a Revolution" deals very much with Meiselas's quest, including memories of her original visit and descriptions of what it was like to photograph a nation in violent upheaval. The second half is reflective in a different and more penetrating way, as Meiselas comes to terms with the ultimate failures of the Sandinista regime, and with the disillusionments suffered by a people who had hoped their sacrifices would usher in a wonderful new epoch. Meiselas has told me that the biggest challenge in editing the film was keeping its different time dimensions coherent for the audience. I can report that this difficulty has been conquered with great success, resulting in a provocative and deeply felt journey for filmmakers and spectators alike. Hopefully the team will return to Nicaragua to document the changes since today's post-Sandinista government came into power. Another work to combine political issues with a filmmaker's personal experience is Locked-Up Time, directed by Sibylle Schonemann, an East German movie director who was imprisoned in 1984 after requesting permission to leave her country. A year later she was deported to West Germany, where she lived until the German reunification. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, she returned to her former homeland and ferreted out the jailers, informers, and others who had arrested and detained her - confronting them with camera, tape recorder, and relentless questions about their role in her suffering. Pretty much everyone claims to have been "just following orders," of course, but the film nonetheless contains some amazing moments, as when one of Ms. Schonemann's captors actually tries to make a case for the unjust procedures he heartily enforced. "Locked-Up Time" is valuable as a document of the recent past, the troubled present, and its maker's own complicated feelings about her country. History mingles with cinema again in The Other Eye, about the career of G. W. Pabst, the Austrian director who made classics like "Pandora's Box" and "Diary of a Lost Girl," and boosted actress Louise Brooks to international renown in the silent-film era. Less widely known is the fact that Pabst voluntarily returned to Austria after it had been absorbed by the Third Reich, and proceeded to direct films under Nazi auspices - a career move that few would have expected from this urbane, sophisticated artist . "The Other Eye" probes this situation, and the guilt Pabst apparently felt in later years, with a seriousness rarely found in movies about moviemaking. The makers of the documentary, Johanna Heer and Werner Schmiedel, have no direct connection with the subject of their film. Yet they make it personal with their unusual directorial style, using expressionistic colors and subtle, seemingly unmotivated camera movements. The directors have told me that each of these movements has a different meaning - perhaps evoking a sense of loss in one case, or revealing a background detail at a carefully chosen moment. What fascinates me about their style, however, is its tendency to destablize and defamiliarize the filmed image during shots that might otherwise seem flatly conventional and lacking in irony. In any case, the film is exceptionally successful at bringing a little-known subject to life. CINEMA keeps the spotlight in Jacquot de Nantes, a tribute to the late French filmmaker Jacques Demy, directed by Agnes Varda, his wife of many years. In films like "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "A Room in Town," which tell dramatic stories through operetta-style music and lyrics, Mr. Demy pioneered a unique kind of cinema with roots in the dreams and fantasies of his own childhood. Combining different kinds of footage - including staged docudrama-type scenes, clips from Demy films, and shots of Demy himself near the end of his life - director Varda has forged a touching salute to a man for whom she clearly felt admiration as well as love. The focus of the movie is regrettably narrow, concentrating on Demy's passion for cinema at the expense of other facets of his life. But admirers of French film will find much in it to treasure. Not all the new documentaries are full-length movies. Shorter but well worth attention is Intimate Stranger, Alan Berliner's portrait of his late grandfather, a Palestinian Jew who numbered Egypt, the Far East, and Brooklyn among his many homes. By turns poignant, hilarious, and quietly moving, it's a fine example of cinematic ingenuity turning unlikely material (dead relative, home movies, family photos) into an absorbing and entertaining film.