Second half of BAMPFA’s ‘Documentary Voices’ screening showcases innovations to form, storytelling

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Since January, the Berkeley Arts Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA has been showcasing films from a category of cinema that has seen a surge in recent years: the documentary. Eschewing typical subjects and traditional form, the second half of the “Documentary Voices” series pulls focus toward works that span time, place and form, weaving together narratives that have often gone unheard and unseen. There are many themes that could be pinpointed as unifying these three films, but their main common thread is the way in which they innovate the documentary form.


“Behemoth” — screening April 3

Zhao Liang’s 2015 documentary “Behemoth” is a fitting start to BAMPFA’s following documentaries, a work simultaneously sweeping, emotional and controversial. The film depicts controversial mining practices in China and Mongolia, offering a harsh critique on the Chinese mining industry as a whole. Mining has caused rampant environmental decimation in the regions where it occurs, and Zhao Liang utilizes both natural imagery — uninhabitable, destroyed landscapes — and scenes showing the human toll of this unencumbered industrial destruction. The film runs in a dystopic, cyclical manner, beginning with an explosion in a mining field and ending with an otherworldly ghost city — a vestige and symbol of the costs of destruction. “Behemoth” has been banned in China due to its critical message, but has also received widespread acclaim for its unyielding eye on the consequences of mining. Zhao Liang alludes to Dante’s “Divine Comedy” through the film in structure and narration, offering an interesting parallel to the hellish nature of the images he depicts. This film is wide in scope and scathing (?), and is an innovative look at what happens when politics, the environment and human life exist in mutually enforced peril.


“Hale County This Morning, This Evening” — screening April 10

It takes a skilled directorial hand to make a documentary be poetic without verging into the melodramatic or leaning toward a feeling of disingenuity between filmmaker and subject. In “Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” however, director RaMell Ross finds this balance, weaving together scenes and storylines with a deftness that is transcendent. His film follows members of the Black community in Hale County, Alabama, as they maneuver through small, intimate moments of daily life. The film is simultaneously immensely personal and sweeping in scope — following individual characters as they navigate life and relationships while periodically widening its vantage point to the community as a whole. Among the central narratives, there are moments of general levity, and for taking in the buzzing, humming natural landscape of Hale County itself. The film is largely hands-off, guided only by the occasional caption to identify a character, and bookmarked by occasional rhetorical questions and other thoughts appearing on screen, such as: “How do we not frame someone?” and “Where does time reside?” These brief interludes are as weighty as the film itself, complementing its small, intense moments.


“Luz Oscura” — screening April 24

“Luz Oscura,” or “Obscure Light” translated to English from Portuguese, is director Susana de Sousa Dias’s latest film that contends with Portugal’s fascist past under dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. De Sousa Dias employs images to guide her exploration of the effects of the dictatorship on Portuguese citizens, with stills complementing audio testimonies from surviving children of the state’s political prisoners. The film deals with the ramifications of the dictatorship’s ironically titled ideological policy of “Deus, Pátria e Família” and how the horrific actions of the state destroyed many of the country’s families, leading to generational consequences. Many of the images de Sousa Dias uses are sourced from the archives of the Portuguese secret police, making the film a means of recovering history while meditating on its effects on the present. Much like de Sousa Dias’ other films “48” and “Still Life” along with prominent Portuguese films such as “Sob Ceus Estranhos,” this film is a powerful reckoning with a nation’s past that is still often concealed in historical memory. The film literally puts names to the faces of political prisoners’ mugshots, giving them a voice through their descendants that was seized from them during their lifetime. This film is powerful and haunting, a deeply moving look into the ramifications of political persecution both past and present.

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