‘Documentary Voices’ series at BAMPFA spans time, place in pursuit of cinematic truths

Three young men riding their skateboards through the downtown of an urban city.

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“Documentary Voices,” the latest film series at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, engages with a cinematic subgenre that is often overlooked and relegated to the boring, formulaic or predictable. This series, however, proves these categorizations wrong. The selection constituting the first half of the program features four movies that vary greatly in all aspects, from the temporal to the spatial and even to how they address the form of documentary. In all their differences, however, there is still a common thread that unites these films and their ultimate goals — to capture some distilled version of the truth, ephemeral as that may be.

“Minding the Gap”

In 2018’s “Minding the Gap,” skateboarding serves as the background for a film that is a deeply introspective look at the ways in which the past influences the present. In the film, director Bing Liu follows the lives of two of his close friends, Keire Johnson and Zack Mulligan, whose collective love for skateboarding in their suburban town is a form of sustenance. Liu’s own life is also addressed in the film, as he moves from behind the camera to become a subject, challenging the nature of the documentary form itself. This film is deeply emotional, navigating discussions on racism, histories of abuse, the aftermath of intergenerational trauma, toxic masculinity and socioeconomic struggles. It’s an incredibly moving film and a rare documentary in which the mission of the film is as deeply emotional and invested as its candid footage is. It’s also a precise documentary, much like the skateboarding that serves as its conduit, balancing tension and heartbreak with breakthroughs and success, imbuing a genuine sense of care to its subjects. With a combination of archival footage, interviews and skating videos, this documentary is a poignant, seamless look into the ways in which people cope with histories of trauma and abuse, and it explores how friendships and once-seemingly unbreakable bonds can be tested.

“Dusk Chorus”

In 2016’s “Dusk Chorus,” eco-acoustic composer David Monacchi sets out to complete a task that is rapidly becoming more and more urgent — capturing the soundscapes of the most biodiverse places on earth. Trekking through the untouched rainforests, Monacchi attempts to capture the sounds of the flora and fauna of these at-risk environments, preserving the evolutionarily honed compositions of natural sound. The film is minimalistic in dialogue but includes an amazing sonic background with Monacchi’s recordings. This naturalistic soundtrack produces a dense foliage of sound, with each buzz and crackle of the forest drawing your ears to attention. It’s a true testament to what is at stake of being lost in these vulnerable places, where gaps in the soundscapes indicate the ways in which primary rainforests have already been decimated. This film is a wake-up call in showing how rapidly industrialization and human impacts are shaping the soundscape, and it is simultaneously alarming in the sense that it calls attention to a metric of decimation that many probably aren’t even aware of. As the soundtracks of our greatest natural environments quiet, so will our ability to understand them, and this documentary does a precise job of calling attention to this loss.

“Out on the Street”

“Out on the Street” is a 2015 documentary presented with little context or explanation. It’s a tough film to watch — not in terms of its actual content, but in its complete absence of exposition. The documentary takes you right into the world of its chosen subjects, though we don’t know who these subjects are or what they are doing. The entire source of the action is the back-and-forth between a group of men, who act out different scenes amid the sparse scenery of a rooftop. The men, who are actually conducting a group acting workshop, change characters and roles from scene to scene, acting out scenes of police brutality, interrogation, corruption and power dynamics. Interspersed with taut, grainy footage of an actual factory, the documentary traverses the length of reality and theatrics, blurring the lines between what may be actual dialogue and what may be scripted or improvised. As the men come in and out of their created scenes, they also contend with issues of power and perceived power, and how these imaginary scenarios may cross over into reality. One of the men perhaps sums up the point when he at one point refers to a protest as “Egypt in miniature,” offering a larger commentary on the purpose of the documentary itself.

“De Cierta Manera”

It’s almost taboo for a documentary to cross over into other genres — there’s a certain formula prescribed to how we typically view the form. The 1974 film “De Cierta Manera,” or “One Way or Another” when translated to English, directly challenges this view of the documentary format, interspersing fictional narrative into the recorded “real-life” footage it captures. At the behest of visionary filmmaker Sara Gómez, the film weaves in the fictional tale of lovers Yolanda and Mario amid analyses and commentaries on the state of life in Cuba shortly after the revolution of 1959. The film largely contends with the rapid “development” of the country as a whole at the expense of some of the nation’s poorest areas and the ways in which society and the state tried to deal with this dislocation. The film deconstructs what the documentary can be, not only combining fiction and reality but also by including the typical English voice-over along with improvised dialogue and scripted dialogue. It’s a view of Cuba that is completely unique, and that makes for an incredibly compelling film that contends with major social issues, such as women’s rights, cultural traditions and displacement while also challenging what may be considered “proper” documentary form.

Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].