It’s hard to pin down exactly why some films feel like poverty porn or ghetto gazing while others, like this one, are able to translate something more. Last week at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival (HSDFF)—America’s oldest non-fiction fest—Something Better to Come received special jury recognition for best international film. Many of the other films followed the familiar script of showing the indomitable human spirit in the face of extreme obstacle. Take, for example, the story of Queen Mimi about a nearly 90-year-old homeless woman living at an L.A. laundromat, or The Seventh Fire about youth on a Native Reservation striving to avoid the trap of drugs and gang violence.
Documentary film descriptions often use the word “dignity”—they’re about showing human dignity, they vaunt, in the face of dehumanizing conditions like poverty, war, famine, and homelessness. According to 20th-century Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht, the problem with doing this is that it can suggest that suffering ennobles; it can insinuate that the worse the difficulties, the better the person becomes. The dilemma here, if you’re interested in alleviating the conditions that cause suffering in the first place, like Brecht, is that, for the viewer of a more comfortable class sitting in a theatre watching the story, this ennobling can function as an excuse for inequality. I remember as a kid, watching Oprah Winfrey interview a homeless teenager who got into Harvard, and being disappointed, and maybe even slightly jealous, that I would never get to be the image of tenacity and perseverance that this young woman was on my TV set. While stories like this one might purport to be raising awareness, often in the way they’re framed, they suggest an inherent value in suffering which lets the viewer rationalize (perhaps irrationally) the conditions spurring this suffering in the first place.
If we return to Brecht’s line of thinking, the problem stems from creating an emotional response in the viewer rather than a critical one. To do the latter, he insists, a work should be formally alienating. There're a few moments in Something Better where the fourth wall breaks; at one point, a man on the landfill talks directly to Polak behind the camera telling her she needs to stop filming. You’ve filmed enough, he says. There’s another moment when Polak’s hand reaches out from behind the camera to give a needle to a man with a pussing wound on his hand, presumably some sort of medication to stave off infection. Thank you, Hanna, the man says. These moments work to remind us that there’s someone behind the lens. Emphasizing the conditions under which the moving images were constructed works against the viewer getting swept up in the story. So does the scrappy filmmaking Polak employs. A camera jerk or jostle here and there have the same alienating effect of puncturing the artificial world of the narrative. Polak’s never showboating as a director, either, it’s a well-shot film not in spite of but because she never foregrounds gratuitously beautiful cinematic shots before the urgency of the story.
The DSLR revolution and the accessibility of large-censor cameras has meant the ubiquity of “cinematic” images in low-budget documentaries. Sometimes, this can translate into a certain crispness that doesn’t always sit well with social issue stories. Polak started shooting Something Better in 2000 before these cameras and aesthetics became dominant. There’s less of a concern with the older kinds of cameras that images of suffering will look “too beautiful.” However, ultimately in this film, there’s a desire to change the present conditions in the filmmaker that shines through in the film. Though you don’t see it on camera, at the screening at HSDFF last week, Polak noted that she was also bringing medical supplies and food to the people living at the landfill. She was talking children to orphanages. As well, she had an apartment in Moscow in which she was taking in homeless children both from the landfill and the streets. The same humility, humanity, and practicality Polak imbued in person is present in her film. Perhaps, it’s this heart that prevented her film from becoming merely poverty porn more than the formal choices, or maybe it’s a mix of both.
Director Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s The Seventh Fire was one of the most visually arresting at the festival, marked by shallow depth of field, wide landscape shots, and a yellow-green-blue color scheme. It characterized the stylish aesthetics that are becoming more and more dominant in post-DSLR era of independent doc. filmmaking. Riccobono’s film wallowed in the drugs, crime, and gang culture on an Ojibwe Reservation in Minnesota, following two men striving to escape the prison cycle. There were a few, but still a few too many, shots that lingered on burning furniture on the front lawns of res. homes. In these moments, the forlorn res. conditions take on a strange and alluring air. While I think it’s a strong film telling a valuable story, I do think it’s worth questioning the dominance of these kinda of overly cinematic documentaries. I like them, but I’m in turn skeptical of my own predilection.
The hybrid doc is becoming more and more common and probes similar questions when it comes to the intersection of aesthetics, art, and activism. HSDFF, though devoted to non-fiction film, was not without at least one entry which combined narrative fiction with documentary filmmaking techniques. Stranded in Canton, directed by Måns Månsson and Hongqi Li, used the scripted story of a Congolese businessman struggling to close a T-shirt deal in Guangzhou, a Chinese port city northwest of Hong Kong, to illustrate true-to-life realities of China-Africa trade. The film is beautifully shot. There’s an angsty romanticism not unlike The Passenger or Lost in Translation to our protagonist Lebrun navigating the foreign city, whether he’s singing karaoke or playing badminton (poorly) at the park. There’s a slow burn to the narrative arc—nothing much happens other than conversations about how nothing much is happening to the T-shirts in a shipping container which Lebrun hasn’t paid for yet.
In this case, it’s not a Dickensian story like Something Better to Come, which illustrates the conditions at the Moscow landfill, so the balance between beauty and abjection is different. But perhaps more pertinent, hybrid docs suggest a different relationship of power between those behind and in front of the lens than traditional non-fiction films. The on-screen subjects are not merely bodies under a microscope but active collaborators in the construction of the story. And in cases of hybrid documentaries that depict tragic circumstances like Antoine Bourges’s East Hastings Pharmacy—a Canadian film from 2012 which constructed semi-fictionalized skits featuring real-life addicts—this active participation can resist the irksome quality of poverty-porn documentaries.
But there’s something else going on when you watch one of these genre-bending films. You’re constantly trying to decipher what is real and what is staged. While they’re often more stylish and more cinematic than a traditional doc, their play with genre foregrounds the formal techniques of filmmaking. Rather than being swept up in the story, the viewer becomes more conscious of a scene cut together with shot-reverse-shot because we are not conditioned to seeing these sorts of formal elements combined with a true-life story. Perhaps, as these hybrids become more and more common, this distancing effect will disappear. We’ll get used to them. For now, though, they’re able to achieve a mix of cinematic style and formal alienation.