Gazing at an image of oneself, whether still or moving, is an uncanny yet often illuminating experience, an opportunity to see oneself as others see you. So it is with recent documentaries made in and about the United States by filmmakers from abroad, and inspired by the turbulent events of the past eight years. Nonfiction filmmakers overseas, particularly in Europe, have been closely observing U.S. influence abroad and the American experience here at home.
Technology and warfare, the strong arms of American power, figure prominently in this series, most especially in Hartmut Bitomsky’s B-52. As with American nonfiction filmmakers, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a topic of particular interest. Swiss filmmaker Heidi Specogna’s poignant The Short Life of José Antonio Gutierrez offers a strong example of a documentary that recovers and recounts an urgent and powerful story seemingly overlooked in this country. Perhaps the cruel ironies of Gutierrez’ life and death are more readily apparent to someone who can look at them from an outsider’s perspective. At the same time, Jean-Luc Léon’s gently humorous The Lapirovs Go West reminds us that immigration can sometimes be a comic, rather than a tragic, experience.
All of these documentaries are united by the fact that they were funded entirely or in part by ARTE, the Franco-German cable network that has become, in the seventeen years since its founding, as major a force in film production in those two countries as the HBO network in the United States.
Whether they are imaginative history lessons (Bob Swaim’s France Made in USA, William Karels’ Dark Side of the Moon) or darkly poetic ruminations on the American landscape (Chantal Akerman’s South), these disparate documentaries offer the rare cinematic pleasure and insight of allowing us to reflect upon the sight of ourselves as seen from afar.
This program is co-presented with the Goethe-Institut Boston and the Consulate General of France, Boston. Special thanks to Detlef Gericke-Schönhagen; Karin Oehlenschläger, Goethe-Institut Boston; Brigitte Bouvier, Consulate General of France, Boston; the Foreign Ministries of France and Germany; Andre de Margerie and Annamaria Lodato, ARTE.
Directed by William Karel, Appearing in Person
France 2002, video, color, 52 min. French with English subtitles
Determined to film key scenes of Barry Lyndon entirely by candlelight, Stanley Kubrick sought out NASA’s permission to use a one-of-a-kind lens developed for filming in outer space. Inspired by this obscure moment in film history, William Karel fashions a dark re-imagining of the U.S. space program that draws from recent conspiracy theories a vein of black comedy worthy of Dr. Strangelove himself. Loading his film with hidden reference to the films of Kubrick and Hitchcock while turning to such surprising witnesses as Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld, Karel has fun with the deadly serious topic of U.S. military technology’s role in U.S. image-making.
Directed by Hartmut Bitomsky
Germany/US/Switzerland, 35mm, color, 122 min. German with English subtitles
Designed at the very beginning of the Cold War as a high-altitude bomber capable of delivering nuclear weapons, over the subsequent decades the B-52 became a symbol of American military might and technological prowess. In this experimental and provocative documentary, Hartmut Bitomsky examines the aircraft as an embodiment of contemporary American culture, using the B-52’s singular history to meditate on half a century of American technology at war and its representation. Best known for his documentary essays examining such icons as the highway, Bitomsky here examines the costly bomber as both a historical object and a cultural symbol, interweaving archival footage with interviews with devoted B-52 crew members, as well as artists and museum staff who grapple with the iconic war machine’s usage and influence.
Panelists Dominique Bluher, Hans-Robert Eisenhauer, Pierre Chevalier, Tom Koch, Jean-Luc Leon, Ross McElwee, Denise Dilanni and William Karel will discuss the European and American perspectives on the production and distribution of documentaries on television.
Directed by Heidi Specogna
Germany 2006, video, color, 90 min. Spanish and German with English subtitles
Heidi Specogna’s potent documentary painstakingly recounts the story of the first U.S. casualty of the Iraq War – a young man from Guatemala named José Antonio Gutierrez – by tracing his voyage from Guatemala to Iraq, by way of the United States. Gutierrez’s compelling, and compellingly sad, story is recounted largely through interviews with acquaintances of the young soldier that together suggest how Gutierrez’s case embodies the complexities of two topics central to the U.S. today: immigration and American foreign policy. Preferring to methodically follow the traces of Gutierrez’s life, Specogna lets audiences draw the larger conclusions for themselves, offering her film as a kind of remembering, and mourning, of a young man whose life might otherwise be lost to history.
Directed by Chantal Akerman
France/Belgium 1993, video, color, 65 min
French with English subtitles
Originally conceived as a meditation on the beauty of the American south and inspired by her love of William Faulkner and James Baldwin, this documentary by Chantal Akerman was radically transformed by the lynching of James Byrd, Jr., a black man, in Jasper, Texas, which occurred only days before filming began. Journeying from Virginia, down through Georgia, and across to Jasper, South investigates the Texas community and its brutal crime with the same classically composed imagery which Akerman used to examine such distinct places as Eastern Europe (D’est) and the U.S.-Mexico border (From the Other Side), documentaries united by their notable use of hypnotically long travelling shots often filmed from a car or a train. In South, Ackerman’s austere and exquisite camerawork hauntingly and horrifically retraces the route along which Byrd was dragged to his death.
Directed by Jean-Luc Léon, Appearing in Person
France 1994, video, color, 86 min. Russian, English and French with English subtitles
In 1981, French documentarian Jean-Luc Léon began filming a Soviet Jewish family on the eve of its emigration to the United States, following the three Lapirovs—father, mother and son—from Moscow to Los Angeles over the course of several years. The resulting film is often as comic as it is moving in its quiet observation of the family, as culture shock gives way to assimilation. Despite their travails, the Lapirovs display remarkable aplomb, landing on their feet and seemingly close to the American dream. A return trip to the Soviet Union provides both the film’s frame and an occasion to reflect on what has been gained, and lost, by emigration.
Directed by Bob Swaim
France 2007, video, color, 53 min. French with English subtitles
The French perspective on the ongoing love/hate relationship between the U.S. and France is the subject of this lively whirlwind tour of American influence on France in the second half of the twentieth century. Bob Swaim compiles compelling archival and eyewitness evidence of the pervasive Americanization of almost every aspect of postwar France – from cinema to music to agriculture to domestic architecture – thus providing an insightful context for both the gradual shift from the pro-American sentiments just after World War II to the vociferous anti-American protests that grew more pointed in the following decades.