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in Filmmaking
on Jan 18, 2011

Definition of HETERODOX
1: contrary to or different from an acknowledged standard, a traditional form, or an established religion : unorthodox, unconventional

2: holding unorthodox opinions or doctrines — Merriam Webster Dictionary

There’s a funny responsibility that comes with inaugurating an award.

That’s what I discovered during the creation of the first Cinema Eye Heterodox Award, sponsored by Filmmaker. The award will be announced tonight along with all the other prizes at Cinema Eye’s Museum of the Moving Image ceremony, and if you haven’t heard, here’s an excerpt from the press release:

“Filmmakers have always been at the forefront of raising important questions about the construction of truth, but the borders between fiction and non-fiction film are both slippery and oft times guarded with provincial and outmoded thinking,” said Cinema Eye Co-Chair Esther Robinson, “The Cinema Eye Honors hopes to puncture this border, by honoring a narrative film that best illuminates the beauty and importance of creating new territories of cinema – inhabitable by both fiction and nonfiction films alike.”

2010 was a year filled with debate over issues of “what is real” in documentary film. Three of this year’s Cinema Eye nominees – THE ARBOR, CATFISH and EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP – were among the films that spurred animated conversations and raised provocative questions about the very nature of the form. But these discussions were not limited to films classified as nonfiction. Ranging from fiction films set within documentary milieus to films whose directors incorporated true biography and personal experience into their storytelling, films on both sides of the fiction/non-fiction divide stood out for their bold choices.

Said Scott Macaulay, Filmmaker Magazine Editor, “The critic and theorist Walter Benjamin once wrote, ‘All great works of art either dissolve a genre or invent one.’ Filmmaker Magazine is honored to celebrate with Cinema Eye the five narrative films this year that have most adventurously burst through the boundaries separating art and life.”

So, if this was to be an award given to a narrative film by a documentary organization, what types of criteria should be considered in the deliberations? As we deliberated on both the nominees and the winner, we were aware that this award is an early step in, if not defining a new genre, than elucidating for both filmmakers and critics the non-fiction strategies available for use by dramatic storytellers.

The nominees for the first annual Heterodox Award include films that embrace non-fiction strategies in divergent ways. Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio’s Alamar, the story of a father and son on a trip to a Mexican fishing village, has a cinema verite style and a tale drawn from the lives of its on-screen characters. But the film is loosely scripted and clearly directed, with Gonzalez-Rubio shaping his narrative for dramatic effect. If it were a novel, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture would be noted for walking the line between fiction and memoir. It features characters based on her life and that of her mother’s and sister’s. Dunham stars, as does her real mother and sister, but, once more, the film is clearly a dramatic fiction… even if the real-life correspondences create a fascinating blurring of character, person and persona. Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill also features real people, this time drawn from the neighborhood that is both the film’s shooting location and subject. And Porterfield employs a documentary, first-person interview device, as a way of explaining these characters to us. More importantly, though, by allowing his subjects to shape the film’s narrative, he surrenders some of the authority customarily seized by narrative fiction filmmakers to embrace a more collaborative style in which the subjects are acknowledged as storytellers too.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is described by the director as a “personal diary,” one that brings in the history of its northern Thailand region, its culture and folklore, as well as the films that he watched growing up as a child. Shot in different styles, it embraces the logic of a dream in its incorporation of personal and historical narratives. Telling a tale that traverses the human, animal and mineral, Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte is, like many of the films here, deeply informed by the life rhythms of its setting — in its case, a town in Italy’s Calabria province. Deliberately and patiently assembled from footage that is in many cases observational recordings of the town’s animal life, Le Quattro Volte tells a rich story even as it moves away from conventional (i.e., human) notions of character and dramatic conflict.

Five very different films, yet all of which reflect on place, biography, and real-life in different ways…. I’d write more, but to do so would be cribbing the words of our jury (Astra Taylor, Joshua Marsden, Yance Ford, Julie Goldstein and Ross Kauffman), who deliberated and selected the prize. Their thoughts on these films as well as this confluence of documentary and fiction narrative can be found in the Spring issue. And check back later tonight for the Cinema Eye Awards.

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