By Julian Ross
Our relationship with news media is changing. Our ability to record image and sound on our mobile phones has meant all of us can now be reporters. And in turn, such developments have changed the language of authenticity for news corporations, who now welcome home-movie aesthetics for the delivery of their stories. When a bystander captured the police murder of Eric Garner on his phone, the video felt all the more real because of the familiarity of the mobile vertical frame and the realisation that any of us could have borne witness to the event. In attempt to stay meaningful in our contemporary image-obsessed culture, the news has saturated its stories with images regardless of their relevance. Any of us with a BBC app would know half the videos are eventless recordings of crowds or landscapes. Yet, this illustrates how visual culture responds to our shifting relationship with truth.
Recent popular culture has played on our cynicism against what we are told in the news, which was once held up as the beacon of truth. John Oliver and Jon Stewart have built careers on undermining news stories by questioning their presentation for comedic effect. Both David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) and Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (2014) reveal news stories as constructions, showing their fictional characters create them to fulfill personal agendas. But this is all old news. Since the age of the newsreel, filmmakers have appropriated, parodied and countered the ways in which news is presented on moving image platforms. International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), in its 27th edition, dedicated its sidebar ‘Paradocs’ to highlight how the structures of news media have found their way into cinema.
To lay the grounds for the festival theme, Dutch artist Aernout Mik was invited to present one of his rare forays into documentary, Raw Footage (2006), a two-screen video installation. For Raw Footage, Mik pulled together discarded rushes from the 1990s wars in former Yugoslavia to build a vision of warfare from materials usually left unseen. Rather than the sensational tendency we often find in war reportage, Mik reveals another side to the truth of war that involves people waiting for action. Presenting a collection of images abandoned in news media reports, he also asks us to consider why a particular shot didn’t make the cut. The experience of viewing Raw Footage becomes an exercise in familiarizing ourselves with the construction of news.
The contemplative approach as a response to news storytelling is at the heart of many of the films chosen by Aernout Mik, who was invited to make a selection of films on the theme to present at IDFA. While the recent documentary Abendland (Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 2011) observes various activities in Europe at nighttime, Clemens Klopfenstein turned his nocturnal gaze onto the inaction of cities around the world in Story of the Night (1979). With the figures barely recognizable as human in the fuzzy 16mm black-and-white frames, Klopfenstein observes purposeless movements of people like ghosts in the dark. While the film is shot in 150 urban locations around the world, the static shots avoid any landmarks or monuments that allow us to identify the places, quietly countering presentations of the city in the news.
Another ally of Aernout Mik’s counter-news style is the much more recent Maidan (2014), a documentary on the protests of Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) of the past year. While the protests only hit the headlines at times when clashes turned violent, Ukranian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s camera stays with the protestors through the months of routine singing and simply being as two humdrum but crucial acts of solidarity. When violence does erupt halfway, the camera remains calmly static, treating all matters of carnage in the same way it patiently studied the moments of inactivity. Loznitsa’s ethical and considered approach to filming violence sharply contrasts with the inane attractions to brutality in modern media.
Outside of Aernout Mik’s curated section, Paradocs programmers screened Ming of Harlem: 21 Stories in the Air (2014), a real-life tale strangely reminiscent of the fictional Life of Pi. In 2003, New Yorker Antoine Yates was arrested for recklessly keeping a Bengali tiger and alligator in his Harlem apartment. While news cameras emphasised the eccentricities of Yates, British filmmaker Phillip Warnell provides an impressionistic portrait of the man as he reminisces on his intimate moments with the beast out of the backseat window of a moving car. Asking no questions, Warnell allows his protagonist to speak as he feels in a quietly sober approach that counters the targeted questions of news reporters, some of which feature as archival footage in the film.
As part of the annual Amsterdam Art Weekend that coincides with IDFA, Paradocs brought together three programmes of works by artists based in or studying in the Dutch capital. Among these, Yael Bartana’s True Finn (2014) touched on the theme of the festival in the most unique way. Appropriating reality TV shows rather than news stations, Bartana invited eight Finnish people from different backgrounds to live together for a week to discuss national identity. As each of them ruminates on what being a Finn means to them, what becomes clear is their differences, underlining an impossibility of assigning definitive features to national identity. Although meant as a critique of the increasingly expanding rightwing Finnish political Perussuomalaiset (translated to True Finn), the film is subversive on a broader scale. True Finn asks us to be aware of the pitfalls of making assumptions on individuals based on racial and national backgrounds when they’re factually listed on the headlines.
Bringing us back to the found footage method of Aernout Mik’s installation was the incredible 13-minute short, Moments of Silence (2014). Swedish directors Lars Bergström and Mats Bigert gathered an array of material from news reports around the world that broadcasted memorial services marking a sign of respect for the dead after a tragic incident. Creating a montage of solemnity from a breadth of incidents – ranging from 9.11 memorials in Washington, Holocaust memorials in Israel and one-minute silences in the wake of Japan’s 2011 earthquake – Moments of Silence is a testament to the power of unity at times of trauma. Once again, the moments of society coming to a halt provide a counterpoint to the lack of contemplation allowed in the speed of news delivery. Yet, Moments of Silence is not just a criticism of news media. More than that, it celebrates its possibilities – not only for its ability to document but also to transcend the locality of a moment, allowing us to participate in the commemoration from beyond the screen. Shouldering both a critique and an appraisal, Moments of Silence is one of the most profound engagements with news media as it stands today.