At ISHS 2018, we are happy to offer you a film programme, which focuses on comedy in documentary filmmaking. The programme is curated by Dr. Carlo Cubero, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Tallinn University. Here is an introduction from Carlo himself (scroll below for the programme):
What’s Funny in Documentary?
Humour has had an ambiguous role within the history of documentary filmmaking. On the one hand, documentaries have relied on humour since their earliest days (consider some of Edison’s films here). The first anthropological films (see samples of Haddon’s footage here) may not showcase an explicit comedic intention, but the footage takes an ironic tone when we learn that the material was re-enacted for the camera and that the individuals involved were acting under Haddon’s direction. I speculate that the reason for the masks in that footage is to hide the laughter of the subjects as they parade in place. Another classic example is the ouevre of Jean Rouch (see his profile here and here) where humour is oftentimes evoked by subverting conventional documentary forms. More recently, there is the record of some of the most commercially successful documentary filmmakers of the 2000s, Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock to name a few, who were successful in their usage of comedic narrative devices.
On the other hand, documentary is hardly thought of as a comedic form. The popular imaginary associates documentary with the opposite of comedy, i.e. the tragic, solemn, intellectual, sober, objective, pedagogical, the urgent, a rational conveyor of information. For many of my cinephile friends, documentary carries associations with journalism, activism, research, and documentation. It is expected to be grounded in some kind of empirical reality. As such, it stands in opposition to the fanciful, fantastical, and escapist subject matter and approach.
The popular imaginary, thus, has developed a view of documentaries as being informative, objective, and appropriate materials to show in classrooms to convey information to students. I remember being shown documentaries in order to be taught about animal behaviour, astronomy, Ancient Rome, and sex. The kind of documentaries that I was exposed to carried a “truth-value” of sorts, comparable with scientific texts and research-based information. Along the way, documentaries became appropriate references to validate a particular point of objective information.
At the same time, and perhaps paradoxically, documentary is also connected to an expectation of conveying a political message or propaganda. This expectation is implicitly reproduced by the US film industry and validated through its awards. A cursory look through the list of Oscar winners in documentary (see the list here) shows a preference for films that address political issues and crises, which are contextualised within a specific ideology. These political expectations have their precedent in the British Documentary Film Movement (ca. 1926 – 1946), which saw in documentary the possibility of creating a lyrical and poetic cinema for democratising purposes. They also have their precursors in state-sponsored propaganda films produced in Germany and the USSR before WWII. These films, particularly those produced in Nazi Germany and during the early Soviet period, contain innovations that are held as canonical in contemporary documentary practice.
In this environment, humour and documentary may appear incompatible. Humour suggests farce, silliness, contradiction, fakery, escapism, performance, mockery, etc. Humour requires a display of vulnerability which does not sit well with the political, pedagogical, investigative, and propagandistic intentions that have dominated the understandings of 20th century documentary productions.
This programme intends to examine the role and value of humour in documentary filmmaking. It aims to consider the revolutionary potential of humour in documentary and oppose the view of humour as escapist, non-productive, and conformist. Rather, it will consider humour as a result of creative practices that subvert conventionally accepted narratives and ideas pertaining to documentary, civic action, and understanding the human condition.
The programme intends to consider the different ways in which humour presents itself as a liberating ideology; an ideology that views with contempt singular understandings of the human experience, that sees irony and parody as tools of the weak, as the means of empowering the individual through optimism, as a means to foster empathy and tenderness towards others. In effect, the programme will explore how humour makes us human and how to tell that story.
June 29 (Friday)
11:30 – 13:00
Director: Matthew Lancit
2011 | 87 min
Shooting location: Cameroon
“If Woody Allen sought out to make an ethnographic documentary in Cameroon, the result would probably be something like Funeral Season by Canadian director Matthew Lancit. Here, the filmmaker stages himself, sometimes to the point of burlesque, in the skin of a foreign explorer seeking the remains of his own dead ancestors and his own rituals. By stepping in front of the camera with self-effacing humour, Matthew Lancit takes the risk of exposing himself. A documentary in which ethnography is flipped on its head.” (Jury of Traces de Vies Recontres du Film Documentaire)
Funeral Season takes the viewer through the red dust of Cameroon’s laterite slopes and into the heart of the Bamileke country, where one funeral flows into the next. These death celebrations provide an opportunity to see elaborate costumes and masks, festive songs and dances, and lavish feasts, while illuminating the communal links which bind the Bamileke as an ethnic group and society. Along the way, the director befriends his guides and becomes increasingly haunted by memories of his own ancestors. At times, the dialogues alienate him from the locals; at other times they bring the two closer together. Like the dead and the living, they belong to two different worlds often mirroring each other.
There is a lightness to be found in this subjective ethnographic film which imaginatively and symbolically turns the gazes of two different worlds upon each other.
👁 Watch trailer
Director: Valeria Luongo
2017 | 19 min
Shooting location: Mexico
Mexico has recently been proclaimed the country in the world with the highest consumption of soft drinks. Based on a mix of fiction and reality and realised in collaboration with the characters, the film traces the experience of Omar, “El Jarocho”, and his daughter Brisa. It investigates their relationship with soft drinks and the “strategies” they apply to avoid health problems.
Who Cares About Caring?
Director: Amaranta Heredia
2017 | 26 min
Shooting location: Greece
Northern Greece, summer 2016. The self-organized group Posvasimotita visits Posidi, a camping site by the beach, like they do every year. Prosvasimotita is a grassroots disability group based in Thessaloniki. They are fellow activists on vacation, enacting in their daily practice the type of society they aim to build.
This documentary is about caring, how care makes us family, and how the filmmaker can be part of that process. Disability is not used as a metaphor, but as a tool to re-think normativity and vulnerability, and to create more inclusive communities. In a society where we are constantly expected to be independent, this project advocates for autonomy and interdependency, trust and intimacy.
👁 Watch trailer
Director: Andrei Dascalescu
2016 | 80 min
As miners in the Romanian town of Petrila go down into the mine for the last time, artist and ex-miner Ion Barbu is working on his mission: preserving Petrila’s coalmine as cultural heritage. But in accordance with EU agreements on the closure of the mine, the authorities are committed to demolishing it completely. This would bring an abrupt end to a history with which the mining community still feels a deep affinity, but one that doesn’t appear to interest the politicians in the slightest. Barbu refuses to back down, doing all he can to keep the memories of the mine alive. He covers the mine buildings in murals and organizes performances, street protests and an underground theater festival. His resolve is a match for that of his opponents, and his art, which samples freely from art history, is charged with an absurdism well suited to the situation. Nonetheless, his actions prove to be more than just a frivolous protest; they become a channel for the collective mourning of a redundant industry.