BAMPFA’s ‘Documentary Voices’ highlights authentic, artistic excellence

Illustration of the landscape of the Scottish islands
Armaan Mumtaz/Senior Staff

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In the newest iteration of its annual film series “Documentary Voices,” the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAMPFA, celebrates recent international documentaries now available for at-home viewing. The films explore history and the contemporary, and this season, the movies are vivid and immersive; they’re capable of transforming the blanched walls of one’s Berkeley apartment into the vibrant foliage of Puerto Rico (“Landfall”) or the Indigenous lands of Caru (“Guardians of the Forest”). The series boasts four unique features — “Landfall,” “The Two Sights” and two documentaries made by Indigenous filmmakers, “Guardians of the Forest” and “Bicycles of Nhanderu,” which are available to rent as a double feature. As each film creatively distills its kernel of reality, it cleverly modulates conventions of documentary filmmaking.

“Landfall”

In her documentary “Landfall,” director Cecilia Aldarondo takes viewers on a sobering journey through Puerto Rico as the island reels from Hurricane María’s devastation. The film doesn’t sensationalize the disaster — notably, there are no fearful, frantic shots from the real event. Instead, Aldarondo constructs complex and varied portraits of the communities impacted, capturing the magnitude of a collective struggle through frequent wide shots of vast, often-empty landscapes. In the sturdy and capable hands of cinematographer Pablo Álvarez-Mesa, the land itself becomes a character, suffused with life and emotion. The visuals take on the quality of still-life portraiture as honest, almost haunting voice-overs relay the exhaustion of recovering from María.

There’s a quiet fury in the camerawork that comes to a boil as the film becomes a tale of neglect: what happened to Puerto Rico was a tragedy, the film argues, but the real disaster was the inaction that followed. Alongside the images of young activists calling for the Governor Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation and rural farmers struggling to provide for their families, the film depicts the ugly efforts from self-proclaimed “benevolent” rich people who attempt to transform Puerto Rico’s crisis into their own economic advantage. There’s a particularly powerful scene where a local activist draws connections between the wealthy cryptocurrency promoters and the looming shadow of colonization.

Through its contemplative, unhurried pace, “Landfall” incorporates archival footage to stitch together a story about the tense relationship between the United States government and Puerto Rico, which predates the trials of María and the Trump administration. The film leaves no room for doubt that these issues will not disappear, and that respect and economic support are overdue for the people of Puerto Rico.

“The Two Sights”

Off the coast of Scotland, on the Outer Hebrides islands, there are few people rumored to possess an ability called “the second sight,” where a person can see some kind of image that portends what is going to happen in the future. Joshua Bonnetta’s enchanting documentary “The Two Sights” explores the stories of those who have inherited this elusive, enigmatic gift. The movie lasts a mere 90 minutes, but the camera takes on an otherworldly quality that eclipses the viewer’s preoccupation with time and temporality as the film goes on.

“The Two Sights” obscures Scottish cliff sides and distant fields into hazy, dizzying spaces. As a soothing voice tells a story about a mother or neighbor, the camera revels in the deep blues of a shadowed vale or a nearby town shrouded in fog. Some of Bonnetta’s finest work in the film plays with water and reflection. There’s a gorgeous shot where the soft glow of a streetlamp turns falling raindrops into flecks of gold; the ocean rushes and ripples, the few silhouettes of people are warped by their watery reflection, creating an ephemeral and surreal environment, as if the film exists in the liminal space between life and death.

Bonnetta never spoon-feeds the meaning of his film to the audience, and often challenges viewers to make their own connections about the story they’re hearing and the scene they’re watching. The diegetic sound — perhaps, a sharp, staccato crackle of fire or the shrill quack of a duck — emphasizes how the second sight may be related to our own relationship with the land. In its misty and ethereal milieu, “The Two Sights” seems to give viewers the alluring idea that they too may harbor the second sight.

Maya Thompson covers film. Contact her at [email protected].