In America, if two million people see a documentary, it is considered a huge success. That’s less than 1% of the population. The entire population of Kosovo is less than two million. Documentary filmmakers like to think of our films as broadly opening minds, but in America, the cultural landscape is largely set, and mainly static. In reality, we operate in a strikingly small box and have come to accept success as it is defined within those walls.
(T)ERROR is a jaw-dropping film. From the first frame, it is hard to believe what you are seeing on the screen. That feeling does not diminish as the film continues; it intensifies. I was first introduced to (T)ERROR as a work-in-progress when it was awarded the Garrett Scott Documentary Development Grant at the 2013 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. Documentary programmer Thom Powers, one of the administrators of the grant, introduced the sample. After it played, he said, “I’m going to ask the first, obvious, question: WTF?”
The subtitle of Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck comes from the handwritten label on a cassette that was part of a collection of recordings, notebooks and art that filmmaker Brett Morgen had access to for this extraordinary documentary. It’s a wonderfully appropriate title for a film that succeeds on many levels. It’s a profile of one of the most important artists of the late 20th century. It’s an experimental film that weaves together original animation with media artifacts, new interviews, audio montage, concert footage and home videos. It’s an immersive exploration of the artistic psyche and how it confronts adversity. Seeing the film presented by Morgen at the True/False Film Fest, I also came to see it as gift to a child who lost her father and whose life was a media spectacle before she was even born.
After premiering at Sundance five years ago, one of the most talked-about documentaries of 2010 was Exit Through the Gift Shop, the artist Banksy’s comic, semi-autobiographical history of street art. “It’s a masterpiece! — It’s a travesty! — It’s a master-travesty! — It’s the best documentary ever! — It’s not a documentary at all, but an elaborate prank by an insolent prankster….”
Enthusiasts and critics are chronically nearsighted. We have the tendency to deem every new twist or turn a breakthrough in the form or a masterpiece. Intellectually, we know that this is a contradiction because masterpieces are only revealed through the perspective of time. Breakthroughs cannot be recognized without the distance to see if they will persist in the critical discussion and influence conventions and practices.
Midway through Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol, I was sitting on the edge of my seat. My chin was in my hand and my mouth was slightly open. Also, I actually realized it. There was a moment during the film when I consciously thought, “How did I get in this position?” This film had hypnotized me.