Turkish filmmaker Doga Kilcioglu's Kamerayla Izdivac (Married to the Camera) won the much-coveted audience award at this year's Dokufest. The award was calculated from votes cast by the general audience. It's a very meaningful award to any director and Kilcioglu's film is certainly a crowd-pleaser.
Made for television and commissioned, in part, by ARTE/France, the film focuses on the unknown faces that make up the audience of a hugely popular show in Turkey called "Marriage with Esra Erol." A take on The Dating Game, the aim is to match-make in front of the camera and get people married as quickly as possible (and not always for love). The film also follows some of the contestants, ranging in age from early 30s to 75. In one hour's time, the filmmakers capture a rich and multi-layered world that reflects the riotous warp and weave of a very complex and complicated culture.
What's so enjoyable about the film is that everyone on camera, both those that create the show and those that provide the Greek chorus commentary, i.e., the audience members, is willing to reveal and talk about the absolute fakery and artifice that goes into making a television show that means to take a nation by storm in a very competitive medium where everyone is gunning to out-sequin and out-spangle the other shows that rely on both staged audience participation and the cult of personality of their hosts. Without the audience, it's an empty exercise and they are encouraged to participate, schooled by the crew in the ways in which they can become celebrities, too--and possibly find a bride or groom of their own!
In the opening scene, a restless mob of spectators stands in the hallway, having been kept waiting an exceedingly long time to get into the studio, their bags and bodies searched as if going through airport security. One of them shouts impatiently, "Let us in! We aren't terrorists! We're the audience!!" To my mind, one of the best movie lines ever. (Pictured above, sophisticated but superstitious hostess, Esra Erol, praying backstage before the show. Her dream is to become her country's Oprah.)
For this piece, which she co-edits, Kilcioglu (pictured) partners with her brother and producing partner, Can Kilcioglu, who does wonderful camera work; soundperson, Ögünc Hatipoglu; and co-editors Pierre Haberer and Cem Yildirim to create absolutely wonderful vérité, the camera stealthily capturing subjects in incredibly funny and unguarded moments--that is, when they're not directly engaging with the camera since most have become super savvy in the ways of entertainment. One such unguarded moment which made me laugh out loud was when the president comes to visit a houseful of women to listen to their grievances and to "acknowledge their oppression." One of the regular audience "plants" for the show is also a campaign worker and organizes citizen meetings with campaigning or elected officials. (Television = Politics--one nonexistent without the other.) The consummate politician walks through the door and someone shoves a child in his arms as flashes frantically pop away. He grins for the media's cameras, but it is Kilcioglu's camera that lingers to capture him practically dropping the little girl to the floor when the lights go off, his smile simultaneously cascading to a frown of annoyance. Married to the Camera is a delight from start to finish.
Romanian filmmaker Alexander Nanau's The World According to Ion B. (a co-production with HBO Romania) won best film in the Balkan Documentary Competition, the jury noting that, "the director's filmmaking skill merges seamlessly with the character he portrays, leaving no opportunity wasted in the telling of his story. It is a deeply intimate portrait told with a grace and humor that won us over unanimously." Nanau's portrait of late-to-the-dance art celebrity, Ion Barladeanu, is indeed, full of grace, the most graceful aspect, at least to this viewer's mind, the relationship between subject and filmmaker. The partnership in making a personal cinematic portrait of an individual is everything in documentary, the energy exchanged between subject and filmmaker through the agency of a camera lens a mysterious and alchemical process that is either successful--or not. When it's not, it's obvious. When it works, it's great. But when there is a profundity that goes deeper than merely capturing a story, it is transcendent and makes for an exhilarating journey for the viewer. And that doesn't happen very often. (I saw one other film at Dokufest where this is also the case which I will talk about very soon.)
The fact that Nanau accomplishes this in just 61 minutes is remarkable, the economy of scale between meaningful dramaturgy and high emotional impact impeccably balanced--please take note all you "feature-length" filmmakers!!
In 2008, when the filmmaker discovers him, Ion B. is still living on the streets, or more precisely in the back alley of an apartment building in Bucharest, a place he's called home for over 20 years, taken in by the building manager and kept like a pet in the backyard. Ion B. is also a drunkard and as his story unfolds, we learn little by little why he felt the need to anesthetize himself from his past. In these alcohol-infused years, Ion has created an astounding body of work, making 900 brilliant drawings and collages dating from the 70s to the mid-90s. In one of the most affecting opening scenes in recent memory, as Ion is addressing Nanau's camera, telling him that he'll "die where he lays in an alleyway, a drunkard and a useless piece of junk," someone from an upstairs window starts throwing their trash down onto the street, the detritus falling several stories and crashing loudly onto the ground around Ion where he lolls on his pallet. This, we learn, is the genesis of his art, the flotsam that people discard.
Then Dan Popescu comes along, a young successful art gallery owner who recognizes the absolute goldmine in Ion's work and goes about marketing his discovery to the art world. "We'll have a normal artist / gallery owner relationship," he tells Ion. Yet, there is nothing "normal" about this man's life and he would never in a million years be able to insinuate himself into the art world no matter how hard Popescu tries to pull a My Fair Lady number on Mr. B, a new set of choppers notwithstanding. There are many humorous scenes that transpire from this (seemingly) mutually beneficial relationship, but time after time, Ion is unwilling or unable to play along. He doesn't want to understand his work in the context of Warhol and Otto Dix--he doesn't know who they are and he doesn't care. When they read the culture section of the local newspaper together, which bestows the title of "Forefather of Pop Art" on Ion, he asks Dan what Pop Art is. When Dan tries to explain the late-60s, early 70s art movement, he also notes that during that time, Romania was run by dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, who blocked any information from the West. Ceausescu damaged Ion's life in many ways, as he did most of the population of his country, and the artist used the image of the dictator in his art quite a bit. We realize that he would probably be a dead man if his art had been "above ground" at the time. Ion's own father, a communist activist and leader and Ceausescu supporter, in fact, at one time had Ion and his brother arrested. But instead of engaging in any direct (and exceedingly painful) discussion of his former life before coming to Bucharest, Ion rubs his bushy eyebrows and proclaims, "I really need to get a haircut today."
I won't describe the entire journey this film takes (one of the stronger sections is when Ion returns to his native village of Zapodeni after a 17-year absence to confront his past), but by the time the film finishes, Ion B. is a very famous art star, showing at the Basel Art Fair in 2009 where the word "genius" is pronounced by one pretentious art denizen; his works are exhibited in London together with works by Andy Warhol (who?) and Marcel Duchamp; and in February of this year, he had his first solo exhibition at the Anne de Villepoix gallery in Paris. What's even more encouraging, however, is that after a decade of not making anything new, he's created 160 new collages.
As for the "normal artist / art gallery owner relationship"? I hear there's a lawsuit brewing, big surprise.