The first decade of this young, nervous century may be remembered as, among other things, the documentary decade. After a couple of recent “expanded” editions, it seems only inevitable that “Documentary Fortnight,” MoMA's annual nonfiction sampling, would by a kind of meiosis now be flanked fore and aft by two other doc assortments, together billed as “Doc Month.” It's raining docs.
Thanks to the judgment of curators Sally Berger and William Sloan, however, the torrent coursing through “Documentary Fortnight” never feels like a deluge, but instead forms a well-disposed, apposite ensemble. The series steps off with two world premieres – Manfred Kirchheimer's “SprayMasters,” in which the New York graffiti artists Lee Quinones, Futura 2000, Lady Pink, and Zephyr muse on their early-'80s prime; and Jeff Sumerel's “To My Great Chagrin,” a portrait of the stand-up comic Theodore Gottlieb, a.k.a. Brother Theodore.
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Several thematic nodes emerge. One trio of films – Mohammed Ali Naqvi's “Shame,” Eva Mulvad and Anja Al-Erhayem's “Enemies of Happiness,” and Anne Broinowski's “Forbidden Lies” – considers the status of women in Muslim societies of South Asia and the Middle East, and faulty Western representations thereof. Another loose grouping traces the shadows of the past century's totalitarian nightmares – the Stalinist terror in Stuart Urban's “Tovarich: I Am Not Dead,” and the Third Reich in Marcus J. Carney's “The End of the Neubacher Project” and Peter Forgács' “Miss Universe 1929,” a series highlight presented just once, on Sunday, February 17.
A contemporary master who often composes from found footage, Forgács here devises a portrait of Lisl Goldarbeiter, a Jewish belle from Vienna crowned the first-ever Miss Universe in Galveston, Texas, in the year of the crash. Goldarbeiter's youthful deeds were captured at length on 16mm footage by her Hungarian-born cousin Marci Tenczer, an amateur filmmaker who nursed an obsessive flame for her that even the trauma of Hitler's Anschluss could barely dampen. Embers still settle somewhere within Tenczer, interviewed at age 95 by the patient, probing Forgács.
On February 20, the series hosts a special program, “CELLuloid: Cell Phone-Made Documentaries,” co-curated by Berger with Sara Rashkin, meant to assay the aesthetic bounds of the camera now in everyone's palm. What might have been a gimmicky venture in branding – recently Nokia has sponsored prizes at the Tribeca Film Festival for bagatelles improvised on company cell phones by festival jurors during their viewing chores – here promises a different experience through the niveau of participating artists, from the redoubtable cinematographer Ed Lachman to the young avant-queer lights Darrin Martin and Joshua Thorson.
But the dominant concern in this year's “Documentary Fortnight” is our beleaguered natural environment, reflecting a broad turn in media arts programming seen recently at last summer's Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, and likely only the first ripples of coming waves, as the symptoms of Earth's imbalance multiply drastically and intrepid documentarists everywhere keep pace. Eco-friendly titles in the series include Oliver Hodge's “Garbage Warrior,” Heidrun Holzfeind's “Exposed,” and Laura Dunn's “The Unforeseen.” MoMA even reprises the opinion-threshold film, Davis Guggenheim's “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Of particular interest is the feature “Black Diamonds” by Catherine Pancake, who happens to be a right-on Sapphic sister, or if you prefer, “openly lesbian.” The film observes at close range the scandalously ignored apocalypse destroying the wild heart of Pancake's native West Virginia and other sections of the Appalachian range. “Black Diamonds” relates the advent, procedures, and health and environmental impact of coal surface mining, or mountaintop removal, the sickening permutation of traditional mining that involves dynamiting the peaks off of mountains to more expediently reach veins of coal packed within.
Begun on a limited scale in the early '70s, surface mining has gradually, cancerously outpaced the digging of underground shafts in the workings of King Coal, the small, fearfully powerful bloc of corporations like Massey, Arch, Peabody, and Magnum that have raped and poisoned one of America's aboriginal treasures with near-total impunity, keeping pols, judges, and sheriffs firmly under their thumb, while colluding actively with local minions of federal agencies to flaunt statutory environmental safeguards.
Requiring far smaller, cheaper crews and producing greater yields of coal to market, mountaintop removal exponentially worsens the already pernicious cost to the environment of standard mining, adding to the scourge of miners' black lung such innovations as waste-choked streambeds and cataracts of coal slurry. Such habitat destruction is, of course, irreversible, and the web of life that arose from these forests across millennia is snuffed and buried with a bulldozer's scrape.
“Black Diamonds” is as formally plain as Pancake's protagonists are countrified. Next to the lavish digitals in Dunn's “The Unforeseen,” the expository animation inserts in “Black Diamonds,” showing for example how the rubble that was a mountain peak turns a fertile valley into a giant grave, may look no more than serviceable, but that suits a homespun project like this just fine. Pancake isn't out to dazzle, but to shake you, as the camcorder footage of peaks exploding in black plumes probably will, and to bend public momentum toward the path blazed by such organizers as Maria Gunnoe – the very image of a silent-film diva, with a hickory-smoked drawl – or Julia Bonds, alternately seen getting arrested in a civil disobedience and beaming from a dais with her fellow 2003 Goldman Prize laureates.
In 70 no-nonsense minutes, Pancake delivers a heap of troubling data along an understated yet firmly built arc, assisted in early stretches by vintage footage from Rick Prelinger's glorious stockpile, and winding up on a note of qualified optimism. While the ideal remedy is still some ways off – even a Democratic victor this November could prove unable, against the almighty carbon lobby, to impose an outright ban on surface mining – of late the tide has indeed begun to turn, with clarion rays like a March 2007 ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, upholding regulatory provisions of the Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act, piercing the haze of coal dust.