The history of documentary filmmaking is bound up with notions of ethnography, the work of Robert Flaherty serving as a pioneering and critical example. With such influential films as Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana (1926), Flaherty used cinema to understand people unlike himself and relate what he’d learned to a general audience. Many have critiqued Flaherty’s work over the years, specifically with regard to its underlying assumption that the subjects needed a third party to document them. (There’s also the issue of Flaherty fabricating certain aspects of Eskimo life in Nanook, but that’s another kettle of fish.) Still, the ethnographic approach can generate insights that a firsthand document might not. An outsider’s study of a group of people can contextualize behaviors and rituals in universal terms; it can also have the effect of making the subjects seem exciting and new. As contemporary filmmaker Ben Russell has demonstrated in his work (Let Each One Go Where He May, Good Luck), ethnographic filmmaking techniques can seem positively avant-garde when employed imaginatively. This lesson also comes across in two artful new documentaries screening in Chicago this week, Bettina Perut and Iván Osnovikoff’s Los Reyes and Roberto Minervini’s What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? Both films play up their outsider perspectives to provocative, sometimes beautiful results.
In Los Reyes, the feeling of being an outsider is effectively doubled, as Perut and Osnovikoff consider adolescent skateboarding culture in Santiago, Chile, from the point of view of two homeless dogs who live at a skate park. The movie is as much about being a dog as it is about being a skateboarder, as the filmmakers present the latter as they may be perceived by the former. Nearly all the conversations in the film take place offscreen; when people converse, the directors present close-ups of the canine subjects or what they imagine the dogs are looking at, like stray tennis balls or crawling insects. Similarly, the film’s sense of time is organized around what people might consider minor events but which are clearly important to dogs (playing fetch, finding new objects to chew). The Parque de los Reyes comes to seem like a paradise for animals; the movie demonstrates a sense of wonder that dogs might experience during playtime. The human subjects, on the other hand, generally seem unhappy: some of the teenage boys we overhear talk about getting kicked out of their family homes, while others sound as if they’re happy only when they’re stoned. Yet the dogs and people share an appreciation of the park and a sense of community with the skateboarders who congregate there.
Los Reyes is a charming, calming film, though it’s also somewhat one-note; the filmmakers capture the dogs’ experience so evocatively in the opening scenes that the remaining passages feel like vamping on a theme. At the same time, their meditative approach teases out an array of interesting metaphysical questions. To what extent does location shape behavior? What does happiness mean to an animal? Is there a sense of liberty that comes with homelessness? Chola and Football, the two canine protagonists of Los Reyes, are charismatic figures on which to hang these questions. Communicating a range of emotions, they keep the film from feeling too studious. Perut and Osnovikoff, for their part, employ a range of devices to connect viewers to the dogs’ perspective and render it consistently surprising. The directors’ use of extreme close-ups can be disarming; sometimes they fill the entire frame with a paw or nostril to convey how content the dogs are to be alive. Other impressive images include a mud-caked tennis ball and spiders crawling on blades of grass. Much like the way the dogs’ happiness provides counterpoint to the human subjects’ frustration, these rapturous and contemplative shots offset the unfeeling coldness of the construction sites and high-rises surrounding the park.
The cinematography of What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire? is as impressive as that of Los Reyes. Shot in stark black and white, the film feels like something old and recently recovered even though it’s all about contemporary American society. This sense of recovery is fitting, as several of the subjects make a point of exhuming the past. One of the film’s three narrative threads concerns the New Black Panther Party of New Orleans, which resurrects the politics and activities of Black radicals of the 1960s and ’70s to confront systemic racism and classism in present-day America. Some of the most memorable scenes of What You Gonna Do show the Panthers delivering meals to the city’s homeless population and comforting a family whose home has been defaced by members of the KKK—passages of kindness that generate sympathy with the subjects.
Minervini alternates scenes of the Panthers with portraits of a woman named Judy Hill, an ex-convict who’s recently opened a bar, and two boys named Ronaldo and Titus, school-aged brothers who are learning to navigate playtime and familial responsibilities in a dangerous neighborhood. Like Los Reyes, the structure of Minervini’s film feels intuitive and poetic; the progression doesn’t feel tied to events so much as to the spirit of lower-class Black New Orleans. That spirit is communal in nature, as What You Gonna Do shows repeatedly how the subjects rely on one another for moral support.
Minervini is a white Italian filmmaker who’s lived in Texas for a number of years, and while the subjects in What You Gonna Do are open and sincere, the director’s point of view, on the whole, feels detached. The actions presented here seem less like the will of the subjects than like rituals or socially defined behaviors. Sometimes Minervini’s slant adds to one’s sense of the community under consideration; the scenes of people singing in groups are especially moving, as they point to a shared cultural experience that holds the people together. At other times, the charisma of Minervini’s subjects is powerful enough to cut through the ethnographic vibe, as when Judy comforts a victim of sexual violence by sharing her own history of abuse or when Ronaldo searches frantically for his younger brother in a freight yard when the latter disappears for too long during a game of hide-and-seek. Moments like these suggest the fruits of an ethnographic approach: that out of a spirit of academic curiosity a genuine human connection might form. v