Susan Morris | Reviews

Sheffield DocFest 2023: Outcasts

Outsiders and family are the subject of Sheffield DocFest films, some made by visual artists. Internationally recognized Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade, who works in “installation, photography, and video to explore constructs of love and the process of urbanization” made Out Loud. With an opening shot of a tree, line drawings and text saying “kitchen/bathroom/living room/bedroom/backyard/walls/roof/ground/life” then various emotions and other words including “shelter/place/openness/displace,” a cast of 100 homeless people, many transsexual, live on the street and form the public square into a stage in the northern Brazilian city of Recife, inspired by Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed that “use theatre as means of promoting social and political change in alignment originally with radical-left politics….the audience becomes active, such that as ‘spect-actors’ they explore, show, analyze and transform the reality in which they are living.”

Still from Hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds are two Mexican-American friends, Sylvia and Beba in border town Laredo, Texas where they hang out over the summer waiting for Beba’s immigration papers to come through. They record their lives in bingo halls, abandoned buildings, drive-throughs and supermarkets while dealing with issues of gender, identity, belonging, community and activism.

Visual artist Klaudia Kemper is distanced from her father who remained in Brazil when she was brought to live in Chile as a child by her mother, although he corresponded with her for 21 years. Bringing the Voice is her reconnection with him now that he can no longer speak or write, an irony since her psychoanalyst father specialized in the subject of language, the origin of speech and how it gives meaning. Klaudia draws the brain itself, then walks or lies down on the images while she reads her father’s letters aloud. Her father’s Modernist house in Brazil was built by his German parents who were invited by the Brazilian government to introduce psychoanalysis to the country. Drawings of the building and custom-made furniture are seen.

A fragmented collage of letters outline Elio’s progression from adolescence to adulthood in Dear Monster, the sobriquet his mother uses. He received the communications in 1965 when he was 18 years old and had moved to Turin, Italy. Letters from his parents, his friend Nino and his girlfriend Raffaella are read aloud to a collaged background of photographs, animation and other images. “In March 2020, his lifeless body was found in an apartment on the outskirts of Bergamo. Two weeks had passed since his death. The letters, photographs, magazine cuttings and home movies were stored in a shoe box.”

At the end of October people leave the Dhor Valley in the Nepalese Himalayas to avoid the harsh winter, but two elderly women have No Winter Holidays, remaining behind to caretake village properties and livestock, hired by their neighbors who have migrated for the season. The twist is that Ratima and Katima were both married to the same man simultaneously. One has even created a stone resting place and wooden footbridge honoring their husband. We see them amidst the two-story stone houses with corrugated tin roofs, some with stucco finishes and goats, cows, chickens and dogs. As their only company, the two have come to accept each other, even getting drunk together at night, in this portrait of “rivalry, loneliness, old age and womanhood.”

Justina also lives in a form of isolation with her daughter Alexia in The Castle, a large, turreted Argentinian country house in La Pampa that has seen better days. She is an Indigenous domestic who has lived there since she was five years old and inherited the pile from her employers on the condition that she not sell it. Justina can barely keep up the 12-room house with six bathrooms which is in disrepair — the roof leaks, the plumbing doesn’t work, it is overrun by plants and wildlife — so she sells off a cow. Justina refuses to rent out the house, and her boyfriend, who we only hear on the phone, continually stands her up. Meanwhile, Alexia dreams of becoming a Formula 1 race car driver, and ventures to Buenos Aires, 60 miles away, to try her hand, but is still tied to the Castle.

In Y arquitectura un sueno de palmera, Patxi Burillo Nuin, an architect and filmmaker, tries to unspool French philosopher Georges Bataille’s notion voiced in his article Architecture (1929) that architecture can exert both literal and metaphorical power in institutions like the church and state by manifesting social hierarchy and political power, i.e. that a church, for example, and a bath house can mean the the same thing in different societies. The example he chooses is the 10th century Mozarabic dwelling of San Baudelio in Berlanga in southern Spain, which is replicated in a thermal spa in Burgo de Osma in northern Spain, as well as at the Prado Museum in Madrid which houses paintings from the original site. “I try to create a fourth space on film capable of encompassing the first three and all the stories, myths and legends they contain, attempting to unravel the mystery of how the same form is able to meet certain essential human needs which time has transformed into diverse purposes, activities and uses.” We begin at the spa, built recently, featuring the same design as San Baudelio — square floor plan with a central pillar and expanding fronds. “Could a simple home, a museum and a spa share a commonality across time and cultures?” A woman addressing bathers who have come to the spa says, “The Arabs and Muslims had to convert to Christianity to be able to stay in the peninsula. A characteristic feature of that Hispanic-Muslim art certainly is the horseshoe-shaped semicircular arch...Undoubtedly, something characteristic of San Baudelio is the column that if you look at it from below it is shaped like a palm tree. And we reach the area of the pools…in the middle of the pediluvy (washing of feet). In approximately 35 minutes I will come down to let you know you have 10 minutes left.”

The Gerald J. Neufeld Funeral Home in Elmhurst is trying to cope with so many deaths during COVID in March 2020. The boxes for “Body Disposal" are labeled with “Head” at the top and Handle with Extreme Care. It’s a bleak tale in this Queens, NY neighborhood with scenes of the empty streets of New York City, even Times Square, without people or traffic.

In Razing Liberty Square, Liberty City in Miami is a Black neighborhood that was previously considered “undesirable” because it was inland away from the coastline, but is now highly desirable because it sits on ground 12 feet above sea level in this flood-prone region siting at zero. The segregated area known as “Colored Town” was a cultural center for Blacks that welcomed Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Mohammad Ali and others. It was also the site of riots in the 1980s when four white police officers were acquitted in the beating death of an unarmed Liberty City resident, so much that martial law was declared and the bridge to Miami Beach was closed. It is also the site of one of the first public housing projects in the South, Liberty Square built in 1937 and covering 9 square blocks, which is now slated for a $300 million “regeneration” project that represents “climate gentrification.” The city would tear down the existing buildings, and re-house the 700 families. However, Section 8 housing vouchers (federal subsidies to rent a unit on the private market) have been given out which has made it more difficult for those who accepted to get back into the system and is seen as a means to phase out the residents; by 2022, most families left Liberty Square with vouchers and only five have returned. A school on the property wanted to get relocated in the new development, but In the fall of 2019 a $27 million state-of-the-art veterinary clinic opened where the school wanted to be, having been told the land was unavailable. The principal asks, “animals over kids”? The new buildings (only three of nine blocks were finished as of January 2023) are shoddily built with complaints about cracks, leaks and mold. The developer is Related, and they hired Aaron McKinney, a Black man who grew up in Liberty City, who tries his best to be a go-between but finally realizes he cannot protect his constituents who have called him and Uncle Tom and quits. It’s a cautionary tale of greed over community.

Read about conflict and the arts at the Sheffield DocFest.

Films Mentioned
Out Loud, Director Jonathas de Andrade
Hummingbirds, Directors Silvia Del Carmen Castanos & Estefania “Beba” Contreras
Bringing the Voice, Director Claudia Kemper
Dear Monster, Director Stefano P. Testa
No Winter Holidays, Directors Rajan Kathet & Sunir Pandey
The Castle, Director Martin Benchimol
Y arquitectura un sueno de palmera, Director Patxi Burillo Nuin
Handle with Extreme Care, Directors Patrick Ginnetty & Bowie Alexander
Razing Liberty Square, Director Katja Esson

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media

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