A compilation of clips from documentaries and propaganda films shot by Dutch cameramen between 1912 and 1932 in their former colony of Indonesia, Vincent Monnikendam’s masterpiece of found-footage documentary contrasts the lives of wealthy colonial rulers, who issue orders while clad in immaculately white outfits, with the hopeless situation of the native people, victims of brutal economic exploitation. West of Sumatra, the islanders of Nias tell of Earth’s creator Mother Dao, the ever rejuvenating, the turtlelike, whose immaculate conception first begat man and woman. Taking this as inspiration for his use of dialectical techniques, Monnikendam uses a soundtrack of indigenous music and recited poetry as a sharp counterpoint to the abundant images of hardship, squalor and oppression. Susan Sontag praised Mother Dao as “a film that is both a searing reflection on the ravages of colonialism and a noble work of art.”
Focus on the Sensory Ethnography Lab
In a mere eight years, the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University has gone from an unusually ambitious academic program to one of the most vital incubators of nonfiction and experimental cinema in the United States. Lucien Castaing-Taylor established the SEL in 2006 on the premise that documentary and art are not mutually exclusive and that the intensive fieldwork of anthropology could nourish both. In practice this means rejecting the laziest devices in the contemporary documentarian’s tool kit: reductive story arcs, infantilizing voiceovers and talking heads, manipulative music cues. It also reconnects documentary to the work of such pioneers as Robert Flaherty and Jean Rouch, and indeed to the medium’s eternal promise as an instrument for both capturing reality and heightening the senses. The films in this selection, including work produced at the SEL and work that inspired SEL makers, attest to the aspirations of sensory ethnography: to experience the world, and to transmit some of the magnitude and multiplicity of that experience. Presented in collaboration with the 2014 Whitney Biennial.