This past weekend saw the 2018 version of the Iowa City International Documentary Film Festival, sponsored by the University of Iowa and directed by Emily Drummer, with collaboration by Film Scene, the UI Dept of Cinematic Arts and a host of local sponsors. This year’s festival featured six separate competitive programs with nearly three dozen total films, all staunchly within the parameters of the festival’s mission statement to present short films that “complicate and expand upon conventional approaches to nonfiction and documentary.”
Wow, did they ever.
Fans of Ken Burns or the History Channel may be surprised to learn that documentary need not use identifiable source material, feature identifiable settings or really even present much illumination about its ostensible subject. We heard panel discussions suggesting that everything from the Avengers movies to video pornography can reasonably be considered to share at least some aspects of the documentary genre.
Joshua Gen Solondz gives us a short erotic film involving ghosts, inspired by a paranormal experience with his mother’s ghost a few weeks after her death two years ago. In maybe the most obvious nod to tradition, Mike Rice gives us Paragon, a kind of nostalgic historical film in 16mm about the fortunes of a Massachusetts fishing town through the lens of Paragon Park, its regionally famous amusement park, and the carousel that is the park’s only surviving relic.
Not part of the competition, the festival’s opener on Thursday night was the longer form El Mar la Mar which, despite its title, has really nothing to do with water, but rather with the ocean-like expanse of the Sonoran Desert and the experiences of Mexican migrants attempting to cross it. Part ethnography, part activism, part nature film, Joshua Bonnetta and JP Sniadecki create a pastiche of ghost stories told in voice-over, documents of migrant activity such as abandoned carpet shoes, dolls, and water bottles, 17th century Spanish poetry and astonishing visions of the weather in this forbidding territory.
The festival’s overall winner was Kevin Doherty’s Flat Pyramid, a 12 minute film and former video installation which uses as source material promotional videos from assorted pyramid schemes developed in the context of the 2008 financial crisis. As some of this material has been re-enacted for the film, Flat Pyramid shares all these directors’ emphases on documenting a particular period in time rather than contextualizing the events that caused it in any objectively narrative way.
As varied as these films are and the approaches and concerns of their respective directors, all of them share some commonalities that do put them in the company of more traditional documentaries. While some of them contain self-referential themes and ideas (what movie doesn’t), none is truly about the director telling a story, but rather the director as reflecting social or historical currents or issues in a particular moment. All of these films also share the documentary’s concern for the passing of time, including Steve Jobs’ voiceover describing the transition from the “TV age to the computer age” in Erin Espelie’s A Net to Catch the Light (a rather disturbing commentary on how technology is changing our very ability to see, a theme of understandable concern to any filmmaker).
All these artists are also concerned with process — a focus of nearly all the post-program discussions — and with the seemingly infinite decisions which current filmmaking technology puts in front of directors. Modern documentarians also seem still to retain a love of the older technologies. Many of the films in this year’s festival were originally shot on film, or even, as with Deborah Stratman’s light-hearted portrait of the weather-driven inconveniences in a small Yukon town, on Super 8 and subsequently transferred to digital or even shown in 16mm, stretching the technical limits of the Adler building’s screening rooms.
This year’s was the fourth version of the ICDOCS festival. Judging from the quality and diversity of entries, there will be many more to come.