I’ll admit upfront that I tend to be very skeptical of personal documentaries. Sure, we all find our family histories fascinating. But why should an audience spend 90 minutes with someone else’s past, someone they’ve never met? The story needs to be compelling on its own, with a journey that delves beyond nostalgia and idle curiosity. The greatest of these are by filmmakers who walk the tightrope between documentarian and protagonist, at once framing the narrative and placing themselves at its center. Delightfully, and perhaps mercifully, this year’s Tribeca Film Festival has corralled an excellent handful.
It is perhaps no surprise that the best non-fiction film I’ve seen at the fest so far comes from Israel, the nation that gave us the best personal doc of the last decade, Waltz with Bashir. Israeli cinema in recent years has been voraciously interrogating history itself, a heavy and necessary project for a country still struggling with its own narrative. Arnon Goldfinger steps into the conversation with The Flat (image above), a picture with a modest opening that quickly thrusts into the heart of the 20th century.
Part family portrait and part detective story, Goldfinger’s project stems from the death of his 98 year old grandmother Gerda, a Berlin-born Jew who never quite adapted to Israeli life despite living in Tel Aviv for more than half her life. Instead of learning Hebrew, Gerda and Kurt Tuchler continued to correspond with friends back in Germany, including SS officer and propagandist Leopold von Mildenstein. Wait, what?
I’ll simply say that there’s everything from long-forgotten relatives, family stories left untold for decades, and emotional compromises both before and after the war. The road back in time continues to meander even as Goldfinger and his mother travel to Berlin, finding themselves in an overgrown cemetery looking for the grave of a woman they did not even know existed just a few months before. Beautifully ambiguous and intelligently orchestrated, The Flat finds humanity in places we often see as unredeemable.
Of course, personal documentaries don’t need to deal with themes as big as the Holocaust and Israeli identity to be universal. Jeroen van Velzen’s Wavumba is a simpler and quieter exploration of the past, though his framing is problematic. Childhood memories of coastal Kenya and its legends send the filmmaker back in search of visual poetry, taking to the seas with an aging fisherman and his grandson. Van Velzen’s voiceover is occasionally intrusive and almost colonial, but the images are nothing of the sort. Almost impossibly crisp cinematography is the real victory of Wavumba, bringing water and fire, octopi and mangroves to the screen with breathtaking clarity.
Heading north from Kenya, but staying in the World Documentary Competition, we find ourselves in Cairo with French-Egyptian filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh. The Virgin, the Copts and Me is a spiritual companion of The Flat. Both directors take an inter-continental journey to look into their cultural heritage, and both end up bringing their charismatic mothers along for the ride. Messeeh, however, ends up creating a more eccentric work of art. A secular Parisian, he finds himself fascinated by his Coptic Christian culture and its stories visions of the Virgin Mary, and decides to make his first feature documentary on the subject. Yet upon arriving in Egypt he runs into all sorts of problems.
As a non-believer, it’s not easy to convince religious figures to let him film in churches. The population in general isn’t thrilled either, and Messeeh ends up leaving the capital for the village where his mother was born. The Virgin, the Copts, and Me is nothing if not true to its title, wandering between many different ideas all connected by the same unfocused filmmaker. Yet this lack of focus becomes a strength with help from a late-arriving producer. The final sequence, an almost literal apotheosis of cinema, sees the villagers and the Virgin meet Messeeh somewhere in the middle of the muddle.
Lastly, Tribeca’s docs take us on a trip east from Cairo to Algiers and another 20th century saga. This time, however, there’s a bit more fun. El Gusto follows a whole community of artists, pursued with visionary ambition by director Safinez Bousbia. The Algerian capital was a cradle of music in the 1940s, a blend of traditions that led to the inception of chaabi. A mix of Andalusian classical and the popular rhythms of the Casbah, Jewish and Muslim artists created these unique harmonies and melodies in a vibrant, urban landscape. Yet it was not to last.
The Algerian Revolution began in 1954, and by independence in 1962 chaabi had been irreparably damaged. French musicians fled to Marseille, alongside Arabic-speaking Jews who had been living in Algiers since the Spanish Inquisition. Bousbia lets her subjects tell this story themselves, focusing on the personal impact of great historical conflict. And in the end, she does her best to ease the decline of chaabi with a spectacular reunion in Marseille. Much like2002’s Standing in the Shadows of Motown, the group of 70 to 100 year old men even end up on tour, bringing new life to one of the 20th century’s great musical moments. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s a clip of the El Gusto Chaabi Orchestra at the Berlin Jazz Festival.
More coverage of the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival