Full Frame: So what is an "experimental documentary" anyway? | Film Spotlight | Indy Week
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Full Frame: So what is an "experimental documentary" anyway? 

Still from The Lanthanide Series

Courtesy of Full Frame

Still from The Lanthanide Series

Life is messy. Interrupted by memories, distractions, mistakes and boring passages where little happens, it's not experienced in a neat, comprehensible line. But you wouldn't necessarily guess that from watching documentary films.

Many of the documentaries at Full Frame this year adhere to a tidy chronological form. Biographies march through birth, childhood, adulthood and death. Historical docs walk us through events from start to finish. In an even voiceover, a narrator frames it all: the archival footage, the slow zooms into historical photographs, the talking-head interviews with experts and participants. Roll credits.

You can mess with that formula, but don't expect Oscar nominations or phone calls from American Masters for an experimental documentary. In fact, "experimental" almost seems to be a bad word in the documentary world. It's conspicuously absent from the descriptions of the formally unconventional films at Full Frame. Instead, code words appear.

The "elliptical meditation" Devil's Rope (April 10, 11 a.m., Cinema 1 at the Carolina Theatre) allows the complex story of barbed wire to accumulate gradually rather than spoon-feeding it through a pat narrative. Kings of the Wind & Electric Queens (April 10, 11 p.m., Cinema 3 at the Durham Convention Center) turns a carnival in India into a "menagerie of sensory stimulation." Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (April 9, 10 p.m., Cinema 1) roughly cuts together home movies, animation, journal excerpts and interviews into an "audiovisual collage."

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Filmmaker Erin Espelie—whose THE LANTHANIDE SERIES (April 11, 10 a.m., Cinema 1) might be the most experimental work at the festival—can rattle off the ways documentarians depart from the safe-for-PBS norm, as her film employs them all.

"One is experimentation in form," she says. "Another is experimentation with the delivery of content, how information is conveyed. A third is how different or surprising the information can be in terms of jumping between realms of ideas. And a fourth element is how one shoots."

Espelie, an instructor in Duke University's Experimental Documentary Arts graduate program, made a nonlinear video essay that devotes a chapter to each of the 15 lanthanide elements on the Periodic Table. Also known as the rare earth elements, the lanthanides are essential to cameras, microphones and anything with a screen, as well as to the precise polishing of glass lenses.

For Espelie, each element serves as a departure point for thoughts about vision, memory and human understanding. She weaves together vintage educational films about glass, documentary footage of mines and shots that use an iPad's surface as a reflector, referencing ancient obsidian "black mirrors" that purportedly enabled people to see into the future.

"I'm really interested in thinking about the materiality of what is doing the recording," she says. "But also I'm thinking about that metaphorically, about how screens are really starting to control the boundary of our perceptions of the natural world."

Sometimes, experimental documentary trends catch on. Espelie tags "sensory film" as a breaking one, exemplified at Full Frame by Kings of the Wind & Electric Queens as well as Graminoids (April 10, 10 a.m., Cinema 1), an unnarrated, six-minute visual experience of wind blowing grass.

Originating from Lucien Castaing-Taylor's Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University, the style replaces narration with right-in-the-action footage (tiny GoPro cameras have been a revelation) or simply presents raw footage as a proxy for direct experience. Leviathan, a 2012 film about the fishing industry by Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, stunned critics with its visceral, immersive camerawork.

"All documentary—whether you're making a talking-head, traditional, structured film that's Hollywood-based, or you're making an experimental or sensory film—they're all trying to establish some sort of truth," says Durham-based filmmaker Jeremy Smyth.

With his twin brother, Brendan, Smyth made the experimental documentaries Por Dinero and Rice for Sale, the latter telling the history of Bali in 10 wordless vignettes. The Smyths aren't showing at Full Frame, but will screen their films in their Unexposed film series at the Carrack on April 27. They call themselves experimental documentarians, but not when submitting their films to some festivals.

"Sometimes, if you tell them it's experimental documentary, they assume that it's not true," Brendan says. "People are scared about that word." If they say their film is experimental, people at screenings might assume a skeptical posture before the lights go off. But if they simply say it's a documentary, then people engage with it, their idea of the genre expanding to make room for the Smyth brothers' unconventional structures.

Both Espelie and the Smyths cite the legendary Errol Morris as an important influence. Morris' career-launching 1978 doc Gates of Heaven, about the relocation of a pet cemetery, is showing at Full Frame (April 12, 10:40 a.m., Durham Arts Council). Unnarrated, the film consists solely of interviews with pet-owners and the cemetery manager, sometimes shot from odd angles, or from very far away.

"Something as simple as not having a medium-wide shot makes me want to see that movie, just to see what the hell he's doing with the camera," Brendan says. "Why is it like that? That's experimental film—you ask questions about techniques and structure and form. Then you're getting beyond whether it's a documentary or not."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Shattered mirrors"

  • We speak with Duke's Erin Espelie, whose film The Lanthanide Series premieres at Full Frame.

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