Avant Avant-Doc: Painleve goes to the Woman’s Building
March 12, 2009
I’m stuck in Peoria. Really. Trying to get home for my daughter’s birthday dinner (I failed. argh) after participating in an invigorating conference that attended to intersections of avant-garde and documentary film and was organized by a hard-working team of grad students at the University of Iowa. While the whole day of talks that I attended was impressive and edifying, I want to highlight a few presentations that introduced me to new work, and new ways of thinking about documentary, which is always the hoped-for take-home from a conference. Alive Lovejoy presented three historical moments from her extensive research into the experimental documentary production of the Czech and Slovak Lands: an amazing body of diverse, complex, and unique films, formed before, in, around, and after multiple regime changes, that used a range of documentary practices to evoke subtle critiques (often expressed within the aesthetic not the rhetoric of the frame) of lived situations. Dennis Hanlon introduced me to several radical uses of the sequence shot (long take) by Latin American documentarians, the Bolivian, Jorge Sanjines, in particular, who invested in imagining the incorporation of indigenous interpretations of time into his documentary practice. And James Cahill introduced me to the strikingly weird docs of Jean Painleve, a French surrealist, who used scientific and medical documentation to evoke the sexual and psychic undertones of the natural world.
Interestingly, terms Cahill mustered to make his argument about Painleve will end up well serving my project on the Woman’s Building, albeit from different angles and hisorical moments. Using John Grierson‘s terminology about lower and higher categories of documentary (the former being footage of people, places and processes, the latter interpreting these brute documents through rhetoric or artisty), Cahill suggeseted that Painleve does both through surrealist additions and the “suggestive shimmying” visible within Painleve’s erotically clinical shots. Similarly, I will attempt to argue that the unedited documentation of women’s building processes are a form of lower and higher documentary: a careful and thoughtful body of work that is structured and theorized through a format and politics of simple documentation.