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Doc Fortnight 2024: The Axis of Big Data, Preemptive Listening, Small Hours of the Night, Silence of Reason

Two men in straw hats walk through a rice field.The Axis of Big Data

MoMA’s annual Doc Fortnight begins as the Berlinale winds down, allowing the fest to grab freshly premiered titles from there, Rotterdam and Sundance (from the latter, opening night selection Realm of Satan, Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat and Black Box Diaries). This year’s 23rd edition has 13 features, six shorts and three “evenings with”; I was able to sample about half of the work one way or another.

Days after Zhou Tao’s The Periphery of the Base Berlinale premiere, his conceptually immaculate The Axis of Big Data makes its North American premiere here. The milky grey background of the opening title card is revealed to be the shell of a server as the camera slowly moves left, establishing a visual premise: Shooting within a data center in China’s Guizhou province, Tao’s perceptibly handheld camera looks out a window at the surrounding fields. His astonishingly sharp digital zoom lens stops whenever he happens upon a subject—mostly solitary elderly laborers, broken up by the odd pair of chickens or solitary goat. Because of the distance at which he’s shooting, Tao’s camera executes movements that are physically smooth-ish but also tentative lest the pans become too jerky, while presenting the illusion, minus a single hard cut, of one unbroken shot. But unlike the “bet you can’t guess where the seams are” mechanics of a super-production like 1917, Axis doesn’t actually try to create the illusion of a single unbroken shot. The long-lens shooting technique regularly renders grass and tiny bodies of water into blurs of pure color that, once the pan has reached the other side, can be used to stitch together disparate shots. The weather might change entirely from sunny to foggy in the process, unifying otherwise disparate shots into a simulation of unbroken geography. Besides night/day and weather discontinuities, there’s a tinier tell: tiny black smudges, presumably somewhere on the lens, whose positions on the screen change from shot to shot and speak to different capture times. 

Those passing subjects gaze curiously at the camera as they go about their business, in ways that suggest neither consent nor hostility, just awareness that they’ve been captured. The effect is like watching a Google Earth photography session in real time, incidental contacts occurring within the structuring prompt of a quasi-survey. If this is all more admirable than fun, there’s both pleasure and rigor in the unexpected shifts of weather and subjects in this original experiment in faux-unified seamlessness. Though there’s speech but no subtitles in Axis, its theoretical orientation comes through loud and clear—surveillance stored on servers, surveillance practiced via camera, the limits of both. The only overtly visible cut is during a zoom that moves in so far that once the recognizable world has disappeared, all we see is the repeated image of a square that looks like a sensor chip, as if the camera had peered so far into the outside world that it had no choice but to turn back on itself. 

Aura Satz’s Preemptive Listening is full of theory, explicitly articulated by both the filmmaker in voiceover and guest subjects who offer different vantages on the conceptual ramifications of sirens, but its biggest impacts are entirely visceral. This world premiere is a feature-length culmination/compendium of a multi-year project—a tricky form for gallery artists which can suffer from pacing disparities and transparently yoked-together rhythms, but Listening plays well throughout. More importantly, it sounds great; in the process of filming siren sites around the world, Satz commissioned music from 20 artists that kicks off with a contribution from Laurie Spiegel (assembled from, per the end credits, “astronomical planetary data, electronics”) which plays over artfully aggressive drone footage of sirens around the world. Drones descend slowly towards them, rise up away or circle from the side, moving in a counter or synchronous direction with the mobile ones; in all these variants, the effect is destabilizing, accompanied by music that works the sub-woofer out. A particular highlight is a typically massive organ-and-bells performance from Sarah Davachi over footage of the gigantic cooling tower of a soon-to-be-demolished coal-powered plant in England, sonic and visual giganticism paired in effective tandem. 

The opening voiceover initially situates the history of the siren in relationship to the 20th century, the initial titles written in language that will be very familiar to anyone who’s spent a lot of time around grad school and its discontents. (“Over 20 collaborators were invited to reimagine the sound of the siren, to think of it as a prompt: a call to attention, a call to action, an instruction towards the possibility of future.”) There’s only so much patience I have with this kind of linguistic framework, even (or especially) when applied to climate change, something I gloomily care about a great deal and the film’s increasing focus, all those alarms metaphorically applicable to our long-term (?) future. When Arturo Escobar, a professor of anthropology, asks “How are emergency and and emergence related?,” it was hard for me not to think that the obvious answer (they share the same Latin root) was probably not what’s desired, and settled in for the usual verbal game-playing. I was, nonetheless, illuminated by unexpected sights like a wall of flashing siren lights going off, seemingly for installation-based purposes (turns out that’s a longevity testing shelf), and heartened to hear so much music of a kind I normally abuse by drafting it for ambient working background purposes, and which I kind of depend upon for daily existence, given bass-shaking, foregrounded vitality on a proper set of speakers.

Fresh from Rotterdam, Daniel Hui’s Small Hours of the Night slides in under the theory that anything derived from reality—in this case, a trial about the defacement of a tombstone—can be drafted into the hybrid nonfiction category. (That also includes premiering short Moon v. State, a new motormouth monologue from James N. Kienitz Wilkins). This uber-formalist 16mm work stacks up binaries: woman (Yanxuan Vicki Yang) vs. man (Kasban Irfan), prisoner/activist vs. interrogator/authority, night vs. day. Maybe I was just especially rusty that morning, but I found the film’s political/historical framework (outlined here) to be barely parsable in real-time, even more so as the film goes along and the two characters switch power positions and identities, Persona-ing their way through Singaporean history. The first 35 minutes are Small Hours’ most compelling, a sort of exercise in black-box-theater via 16mm compositions. Hui points the camera up at an overhead ceiling lamp, opening and closing the iris to heighten and diminish the grain around it, or studies a window with rain streaming down three separated panes; in close-up, one of them looks suggestively like the optical soundtrack of a film strip. These kinds of experiments are near to my heart, and while they’re not entirely discarded when the film switches from soundstage darkness to diametrically opposite blown-out light, I found myself less compelled when that happened almost entirely for formal reasons.

In training its attention on the Foča rape camps, Kumjana Novakova’s all-archival Silence of Reason is almost certainly the movie I’ve seen that uses the word “rape” more than any other, drawing upon the testimony of women raped by Serbian forces from 1992 to 1994 during the Bosnian war. Title cards towards the end explain that until the trials that occurred after this incident, sexual violence and rape were viewed as inevitable by-products of armed conflict; the testimony of the women involved, in the context of a war crimes trial, changed that and helped atrocities be identified as such. The collective testimony is primarily represented as on-screen text laid over a CRT’s resting blue-screen, broken up by the occasional VHS vertical roll and footage taken for, or shown during, the trials themselves.

Despite Novakova’s high-minded purpose, I found myself instead thinking about the tropes of contemporary nonfiction production, where for the past decade-ish it’s felt like not a single first-person nonfiction filmmaker can get through a movie without including ’90s home movies from their own childhood, and as a result of which the nostalgically-motivated simulation of VHS viewing has become a trope all of its own. Novakova’s aim is 100% more non-nostalgic, almost Brechtian as testimony is either silently presented onscreen or, very occasionally, spoken in recordings that sound flanged and pitch-shifted to alarmingly high, tinny levels. At 64 minutes, the film also represents another common dilemma, padding itself out to feature length with an end credits sequence that runs just around 10 minutes—the better to list the provenance of every single piece of testimony, thereby giving the archive due weight, but it’s also clearly a way to get past the 55-minute mark.

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