Documentary film, that hardly identifiable mode of cinematic praxis, has, since the turn of the twentieth century, been experiencing a rebirth. After a brief period of mediocrity and stagnation, which captured most auteurist documentary production in the nineties, non-fiction approaches have recently returned in all their irrepressible richness – not least thanks to the democratization brought about by digital technologies and the Internet. A particularly intense process of revitalization has been taking place in the niche experimental terrain that has usurped the position of investigative journalism (due largely to the slow disintegration of news media and traditional print). Today, fifty years after the epochal May ’68, political, militant, committed, rebellious and radical activist documentary lives a thoroughly renewed life, proven particularly vital by the resurgence of formats until recently considered hackneyed, obsolete, forgotten or surpassed. Filmic pamphlets, polemical films, cinemas of propaganda and agitation (in the Soviet context also known as agitprop), but most prominently the renowned newsreel – recognizable by its observational, objectivist method, by its treatment of topical societal problematics and by its episodic, often weekly or monthly recurrence pattern – have recently emerged into full swing, occupying a privileged position in heavyweight film festivals and prominent media platforms. The outburst of engaged newsreel production has, with cineastes such as Travis Wilkerson, Sylvain George and Jem Cohen, been especially lively in North America and France, but the local, Slovenian scene has not lagged behind its more visible Western comrades in the slightest.
The Newsreel Front – an informal dissident gathering of interchanging filmmakers, sound artists, theoreticians, and connoisseurs of avant-garde history under the coordination of Nika Autor – has, with its modest but invaluable array of cinematic breakthroughs, proven exceptional in our domestic context. Ever since her short-length debut Report on the Situation of Asylum Seekers (Poročilo o stanju prosilcev za azil, 2010), but especially after the six-minute Solidarity (Solidarnost, 2011) – a contemporary remake of Joyce Wieland’s eponymous film from 1973 – and her feature film on the unbearable existential conditions of migrant workers, In the Land of Bears (V deželi medvedov, 2012), Autor’s images have successfully imprinted themselves into the lineage of modern European cinematic militancy as one of its most innovative instances. But the artist’s explicit affiliation with the tradition of global newsreel practice has only become explicit with the thirty-minute Newsreel 55 (Filmski obzornik 55, 2013), which utilizes archive footage to memorialize the intransigence of workers’ and antifascist movements in the Maribor region of Slovenia. The title, as theorist and occasional Newsreel Front collaborator Andrej Šprah explains, “originates from the pragmatic fact that, between 1946 and 1951, 54 cinematic newsreels were produced in Slovenia; Autor thus continues the tradition at the exact point where it ended six decades ago.”
But in the hands of Autor, the form of the institutionalized, state-sponsored newsreel – a didactic, even authoritarian “means of systemic indoctrination” – undergoes a radical transformation. A strong oppositional, critical disposition already plays a role in Newsreel 62 (Obzornik 62, 2015), an archaeology of the intersections between Yugoslav communism and the contemporary reality of Syrian refugees, but the most complete actualization of the Front’s anti-capitalist struggles comes in the form of last year’s thirty-eight-minute Newsreel 63 (Obzornik 63, 2017), first presented as an installation at the recent Venice Biennial, and awarded with the inaugural Found Footage award at Rotterdam International Film Festival this February. The film departs from a one-minute clip of two refugees, squeezed in the undercarriage of a moving train towards Ljubljana, and develops an investigation into the social and philosophical import behind the railway and its appearances in global cinema. Autor’s latest effort, in addition to its passionate investigations into film history (especially Hollywood slapstick comedies, which often take the train undercarriage as their setting), is marked by a ruminative, reflexive, and at times contemplative tone. Newsreel 63, centrally structured by its first-person essayistic voice-over, thus embodies, in the words of Serbian film thinker Pavle Levi, “a montage-driven, archive-based compilation film, packed with rhetorical provocations. However, it exhibits a strong desire never to let its viewers forget that the cinema by definition operates in the realm in which the objective and the subjective phenomena are complexly intertwined.”
Here, let us remind ourselves of A Week with Azar (2018), a short essayistic experiment by the young Iranian author Tara Najd Ahmadi. Through complementary first-person principles Najd Ahmadi proves that expressive, individual narration need not be followed by a clouding of political sharpness. Quite the opposite: in the artist’s transformation of some of the principle stratagems of essay cinema, it is precisely the personal dimension which guarantees success with interventions into a concrete, material context, and thus also success with pursuing documentary truth – however raw, uncertain or painful it may be.