Credit: DOCNYC
by InRO Staff Featured Festival Coverage Film

DOC NYC 2022 — Dispatch 2: Wisdom Gone Wild, Our Movie, A Witch Story

November 18, 2022

Wisdom Gone Wild

In Wisdom Gone Wild, Rea Tajiri returns to the subject of one of her earliest and best-known works: her mother. That earlier work, History and Memory, cycled through and interrogated a select number of images based on the limited artifacts and memories that Tajiri’s mother Akiko retained from the period that she was forced to live at Poston Internment Camp. While haunted by what it couldn’t show, the mid-length video was, structurally, a coherent and straightforward work. 

Strawberry Fields, Tajiri’s single fiction feature, approached the same subject at one step removed. Through the construct of a rebellious road trip, a band of outsiders carrying a homemade bomb make an un-premeditated stop off at Poston. The site of memory can then be judged as a place to be destroyed, abandoned, or voided out, all set to a slowcore soundtrack by Sooyoung Park’s Seam. Bearing the hallmark signs of a first film, Tajiri, whose film followed road movies by Gus Van Sant and Gregg Araki but wasn’t assured a similar level of distribution, never got a second shot, and instead has since worked exclusively in non-fiction, on corporate and academic projects. 

Wisdom Gone Wild is her most ambitious work since that mid-’90s emergence. Akiko, we quickly learn, is no longer Akiko — not to herself, anyway. She’s been diagnosed with dementia, and responds only to Rose Noda, a combination of her assimilated first name and an old, discarded family name. For Tajiri, the film then becomes less an opportunity to understand her mother through this diagnosis or the chronological effects of age, but an attempt to keep pace with the narrative leaps and associative complexity of her mother’s thinking. 

Tajiri’s film hews closer to what could be considered an archival record compared to something like Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie, or even Sofia Bohdanowicz’s Never Eat Alone. She accompanies and stabilizes her images with an NPR-esque voiceover, though this is at least deployed sparingly. And she also provides terms by which to navigate the film: copious date-stamps, source notes (for slide-enlargement montages), and chapter headings. 

She also leads by impressing us with the image of her mother as a patient, though one with little interest in being treated this way. Not only does Rose speak, especially when she has a witness, with enmity and refusal of everything from Tajiri’s tone of voice to the act of visiting a doctor, she also addresses the camera, asking Tajiri to not “take my picture,” hiding her face, even kicking at the lens while lying in bed. 

Tajiri contextualizes these scenes, shuffling chronologies and revealing hidden information, as well as adapting in the moment as a behind-the-camera performer, in ways that intentionally never resolve: if in some scenes Rose’s autonomy is clearly violated, in others we see the shift between actor, scold, and fabulist that doesn’t radically change over the decades of material Tajiri assembles. While she doesn’t dwell on it quite like how she did in her earlier work, the question that hovers over this evident strain between the two is the same for Tajiri: what does she not know about what happened at Poston, and how did it change her mother? 

Tajiri’s voice, which alternately assumes an informative dispatch, a child-like innocence, and an uncertain, near-desperate demand, at one point tries to communicate some of her intent to her mother. Off-screen, she prompts Rose to take the camera from her hands, to look through the viewfinder as long as she wishes. The footage that results, dispersed throughout the runtime, is the most literal attempt here at a mutual contract between the two. But Rose’s brief trace of authorship can’t hold: these are all Tajiri’s choices, even as they act as her most sustained invocation of an inimitable voice beyond her own.

Writer: Michael Scoular

Credit: DOC NYC

Our Movie

Diana Bustamante‘s Our Movie casts a peculiar spell; an essayistic documentary of sorts, it’s constructed entirely out of archival Columbian broadcast news footage from (roughly) 1988 to the early 1990s, tracing several years of massive social upheaval as a wave of extreme violence grips the country. There are cartel massacres, political assassinations, and sectarian killings, all processed through fuzzy, decades-old images from cathode ray tube TVs. As an act of collective remembrance, Our Movie is opaque yet instructive, somehow simultaneously specific and opaque. In an interview with Filmmaker Magazine, Bustamante references trauma but also traza (memory) — she states that “the film is full of ghosts.” As a repository of a kind of cultural memory, what better medium than TV? 

Bustamante organizes the reams of footage at her disposal into various sections; the film begins with the kidnapping and killing of Inspector General Carlos Mauro Hoyos Jiménez, then segues into the assassination of presidential candidate and staunch cartel enemy Luis Carlos Galán, before then moving on to the assassination of another presidential candidate, Carlos Pizarro Leongómez, in 1990 (at least one of these events has been dramatized in an episode of Netflix’s cops vs. drug dealers show Narcos, albeit to drastically different effect). Between these peaks are a series of smaller movements, where Bustamante emphasizes a series of repeating images that testify to the sheer numbers of killings happening during this time. There’s a long montage of coffins lined up at funeral homes and cemeteries, each one an ornate tomb containing an extinguished human life. She occasionally singles out eerie, almost abstract items, little totems left behind like shoes or other personal items. One particularly distressing sequence simply edits together various crime scenes awash in blood, be it smeared on walls, pooled on the ground, or in long streaks where bodies were obviously dragged away. 

This is all viscerally disturbing stuff, a sensation only accentuated by the matter-of-fact delivery of nightly news anchors. It’s remarkable to witness how little the formal attributes of the network news broadcast have changed over the years. Minus a few hairstyles and the glitchy, pixelated quality of old video cameras, this could all be taking place on TV tonight, as we speak. Bustamante also exerts her authorship in interesting ways, occasionally showing the same scenes from different angles (she obviously gained access to different takes from the same broadcasts) and repeating key images in stuttering patterns. It’s a useful reminder of the hands of the artist at work, even when dealing with footage that hasn’t originated from them. 

Conceptually, the film separates itself from similar-ish works by Sergei Loznitsa and Adam Curtis through its tunnel-like insistence on documenting a fairly narrow period of time; this isn’t a survey of an entire decade nor a specific community, but instead a mass exorcism of sorts. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, specifically Book 4, titled “The Part About the Crimes.” There, Bolaño attempts to impart an identity to the hundreds of women killed at the U.S./Mexico border by creating brief, imagined biographies of each one and, most importantly, naming them. Bustamante does something similar, albeit in an admittedly different way. But in sharing her attempt to organize and process her own memories of this time period, she’s also demanding that her audience feel the sheer weight of all this death and violence. As she says in the same Filmmaker interview, “I am interested in digging into the deepest meaning of the images, to remind us that this happened to us, as a generation and a people, and that we have lived for years insensitive to pain, after a long hyper-exposure to violence that makes those images lose their meaning to us.” That interest is evident in Our Movie, and Bustamante’s skill in executing her vision results in a truly remarkable film.

Writer: Daniel Gorman

A Witch Story

The Salem witch trials are a historical event rife with modern retellings and reimaginings, from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and its various screen and stage adaptations to the Witches of Salem miniseries, to even more tangentially related interpretations like Alix E. Harrow’s Once and Future Witches or Disney’s Hocus Pocus. It’s safe to say the Salem witch trial canon is a crowded one. And yet, documentarians seem to have avoided the topic; outside of a few History Channel episodes and fairly obscure films marketed toward high school history teachers, few have delved into the trials in documentary form. Yolanda Pividal’s A Witch Story seems positioned to fill that void.

There’s no doubt that the premise is promising: Alice Markham-Cantor is the several-times great-granddaughter of Martha Carrier, one of the women killed during the witch trials. In a narrow context, A Witch Story is the tale of Markham-Cantor revisiting her family history and trying to learn more about what happened to Carrier. Taking a broader view, the film is an examination of persecution and historical narratives we’re told about women. Folding in Silvia Federici, the founder of the International Campaign to Restore the Memory of Women Executed for Witchcraft, the trio’s goal is to “challenge historical and political preconceptions, allowing for new narratives to emerge, and spur action to address the witch hunts of the present while honoring the victims of the past.” Sadly, then, A Witch Story does none of that.

From the beginning, the film struggles to justify its chosen medium. Throughout A Witch Story, Pividal mixes footage of Markham-Cantor and Federici with her own multimedia art, using literal thread to weave her story. But while this manages to create a workable structure, it does nothing to account for the footage of Markham-Cantor just wandering around in a forest, sometimes touching trees. There’s certainly something of a cinematic personality expressed in such images, but it never feels organic to the material at hand, simply a little flourish to suggest a pensive character that never really takes root.

But where A Witch Story most damningly fails is in its approach to narrative. Pividal and crew introduce multiple ideas that would make for engaging storytelling, but follow through on exactly none of them. During one conversation, Markham-Cantor states, “I think that Salem is not just the story of a witch hunt, I think that it has much more to teach us about how to stop them,” but this idea, a key point in the film’s description, is never really developed to any degree. A deeper dive into Federici’s work would seem an easy, built-in solution to this problem, but conversations with her remain basic and superficial. At another point, Markham-Cantor expresses interest in exploring the fact that while rich and poor people alike were accused in Salem, only the poor were prosecuted — but once again, it never goes any further than mere introduction of ideas, its 70-minute runtime offering little space with which to flesh out much of anything. A Witch Story proceeds to end with footage of protests, which Pividal seems to believe is enough of an answer to the film’s dangling questions. 

The result of all this lack of follow-through and reluctance to delve deeper into ideas is that Pividal’s film feels stilted and disconnected, its sections never joining with any purpose or even engaging with each other to any edifying ends. While A Witch Story introduces several threads that could make for interesting viewing if handled with more care and craft, it only ends up succeeding in tying a tangled knot, leaving viewers with little to work both visually and intellectually.

Writer: Emily DuGranrut

Credit: DOCNYC

The Return of Tanya Tucker

Anyone who has seen enough music documentaries probably has a pretty good idea of what The Return of Tanya Tucker would be before going in — docs that follow still living figures too often come across like softball hagiographies rather than portraits of living, breathing, complex humans. But much to its credit, that’s not what this film is at all, as director Kathlyn Horan eschews the typical talking head aesthetic for a fly-on-the-wall look at Tucker’s 2019 comeback album, While I’m Livin’, which was her first original album since 2002.

Tucker, a country music giant who all but disappeared from the music industry for nearly two decades, is an undeniably fascinating figure, and while The Return of Tanya Tucker does explore the hardships that led to her stepping back from public life, it’s primary focus is on the recording of While I’m Livin’ with Brandi Carlile, whose advocacy helped sell the album and return Tucker to country music stardom. The resulting collaboration is riveting stuff to behold — Tucker’s raspy twang sounds careworn but more soulful than ever, and her ability to communicate through music shines in even the most casual of conversations.

It’s precisely that sense of intimacy that really defines the film, allowing the audience to sit in on these conversations and recording sessions to not only better understand the process, but the artist herself.  And while the film misses a few opportunities to dig deeper into the hardships that Tucker has faced over the course of her career and which grafted onto her the “bad girl” image that has been ever-present to her public persona, the lack of traditional interviews gives the film a greater sense of verisimilitude. Here we have a beloved star who was essentially discarded by the industry, one she’s been a part of since she was a child, making a grand return with the help of an artist she helped inspire. It’s a compelling story both narratively and emotionally, and Horan wisely lets it speak for itself, allowing viewers to casually occupy the film’s charged space. 

To that end, Return’s lack of formality feels purposeful and truthful, an affecting conduit that allows the audience to feel like a participant in Tucker’s comeback story. But one need not be familiar with Tucker or her career to understand what an achievement it is for a former child star who has been through as much as she has to have turned out so seemingly well-adjusted, and remained so beloved by a fanbase in spite of industry indifference. The Return of Tanya Tucker’s title, then, is something of an undersell: this isn’t just another “making of” music doc, but rather a moving portrait of an artist reborn.

Writer: Mattie Lucas