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Top Ten Films (IDFA)

November 2006

Over the past 30 years I’ve seen hundreds, perhaps even thousands of documentary films – as a student, teacher, editor, consultant, festival juror, foundation panelist, programmer, critic, fellow filmmaker, friend, and film lover. I’ve been emotionally touched, physically wrenched, politically outraged, philosophically provoked, psychologically unhinged, and once even fainted (watching the forced feeding scene in Titticut Follies (1967) by Frederick Wiseman). But when IDFA asked me to put together my list of “favorite” films, I decided to go back to a time in my life before I knew anything about documentary films, a time when I was first learning about cinema, and was searching for my own voice as a filmmaker.

But first, some background. I began making films in 1973, at a university program that approached cinema as a fine art. In addition to watching films, we studied paintings, music, poetry, visual perception, and a wide range of other cultural and historical subjects. We were taught to think of ourselves as “film artists” (no one ever used the words, “producer” or “director”), and each of us was responsible for conceiving, shooting, editing, and even negative matching our own films.

My early student films were silent and painterly, reflecting my affinity for finding visual abstraction in the world around me. Painters like Malevich and Mondrian were my heroes. Over the years, I gravitated toward a more complex “collage” aesthetic (embracing artists like Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell), which led to a series of short, intensely edited films assembled from a pool of thousands of “found” and archival sounds and images. In the early 1980’s, my encounter with home movies, both anonymous and from my own family, awakened a new understanding of “the personal” for me, resulting in a series of films that explore the interconnections between family, history, memory, and identity – using my own life as a source of inquiry. If anyone had told me back in the early 1970’s that I would one day end up making films about my family, I would have laughed out loud.

Over the last 20 years, my work has been described as “personal non-fiction,” “personal essay,” “experimental documentary,” “cine-essay,’’ “autobiography” – and even “memoir.” To be honest, as someone who is always trying to break and blur boundaries, how my films are labeled doesn’t mean all that much to me. But IDFA’s invitation to present this program has made me reflect on the range of early influences on my work and has motivated me to imagine a “family tree” of films and filmmakers (my “cinematic ancestors”) whose legacy I feel intimately connected to.

A number of common threads run through this collection of films: home movies, ethnography, compilation montage, collage, exquisite photography, the combination of avant-garde poetics and documentary purpose, cinematic innovation, the (utterly seductive) genre of “city symphony,” and (especially) the power of editing. These are films that have remained deeply embedded in my thoughts since the day I first saw them. They are films that changed the way I look at cinema, the way I see the world, and the way I understand history. Seen as a group, they provide a kind of map to my winding path of self-discovery as a filmmaker. In short, these are ten films that have inspired me more than any others.

I must admit that this is not a particularly “sexy” list of films. Several of them are from the 1920’s (three from 1927 alone!); eight of them are black and white; six of them are silent. Most of them were made before I was born. All but two of the directors are no longer alive. And you may have already noticed that not one of these films is even a true “documentary,” (certainly not in the eyes of their makers). One of them is even a work of fiction -- well, sort of.

In a broad genealogy of cinema, the overwhelming majority of both documentary and avant-garde films use the camera to “record” the world unhampered by the dictates of scripted narrative chronology. It’s how and in what ways individual filmmakers choose to shape or mediate space and time, define their own sense of story, or otherwise “re-imagine” their “recordings” that makes the distinctions among them particularly fascinating. In other words: forget the labels. Great films are great films. Period.


I don’t think there’s a filmmaker alive who doesn’t remember his or her first encounter with the films of Auguste and Louis Lumière, the inventors of motion pictures. No one cinematic genre can claim exclusive right to these short, single-shot films, comprising a virtual encyclopedia of life’s simple moments. They are the first documentary films, the first actualities, the first experimental films, the first home movies, even the first small “dramas” – all in one. They remind us that the first film audiences back in 1895 jumped out of their seats in astonishment watching projected images of a train arriving at a station, because they were so shocked by the unprecedented experience of an optical illusion that mirrored reality so closely.

I too was shocked when I first saw Esther Schub’s The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927) as a young film student. Here was a genre of filmmaking I’d never known existed -- the historical compilation film, made exclusively out of existing film archives. The footage junkie in me is always stunned by the staggering array of historical imagery (supposedly gathered from thousands of sources, including footage shot by the Czar’s own cameraman – the fanciest home movies ever made!) collaged together to dramatize the story of the collapse of Czarist Russia and the triumph of the Communist revolution.

I had been studying the films of Sergei Eisenstein, when I learned that Schub had not only been Eisenstein’s editing mentor but was considered the most innovative, if not the most important, woman filmmaker of her generation. Schub might not be the first editor as director – or director as editor -- but The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty is a monumental cinematic jigsaw puzzle, whose beauty and resonance relies on the strength of historical and archival research, not to mention the patience and perseverance that go along with it. Having recently visited Russia, a country that always seems to be in the midst of transition and change, I am especially eager to see this landmark film once again.

I’ve never met a filmmaker who hasn’t thought about making some kind of portrait about the place he or she lives, loves, or was born in. Not a day goes by when I don’t wonder how I’d go about capturing a day in the life of New York City (the high, the low, the good, the bad, the sublime, and the stink -- all of it, in its multitudinous splendor) on film. I don’t do it because a part of me thinks it’s simply impossible; the New York City I know is transcendently and triumphantly unknowable. I would also never dare attempt it because the genre of the city symphony is already filled with several radiant masterpieces. And three of them (well, actually four) are on my list.

Manhatta (which premiered in 1920 with the title New York The Magnificent), a day in the life of New York City from morning to sunset (though shot over several months), seen from the visually sophisticated eyes of painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand, was the very first city symphony. Titled after an 1860 poem by Walt Whitman, some of whose verses appear as inter-titles, Manhatta is a film about seeing, framing, and transforming the urban landscape into bold, abstract, geometric compositions that become visual metaphors for the dynamism and complexity of modernism and big city life.

The next great city symphony is Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927). Ruttmann, who had been a student of both architecture and painting, found the heart of Berlin’s pre-war energy and vitality (what he called “the thousand-fold energies of a great city”) by translating the passage of time from morning to night into a series of rhythmically lyrical passages composed of stunningly beautiful imagery. I like this film so much I bought my own16mm print of it. I’ve even recycled some of its imagery into several of my own films. It’s that hard to resist.

But perhaps the most well known and most renown of all city symphonies is Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera, made a few years later in 1929. The Man with a Movie Camera is also a day in the life of a city (actually it combines footage from three cities -- Moscow, Kiev, and Odessa) interspersed with the rhythms of the life cycle, a lyrical compendium of images that move from birth to death. Not only that, but there are threads of socialist activism (Vertov’s Kino-Eye manifesto advocated a radical politics of revolution and a celebration of proletarian virtue) interwoven with an unprecedented cinematic self-reflexivity (it’s also a film about filmmaking!). In short, it’s a film that’s avant-garde both politically and aesthetically, and is as close as I’ve ever seen to a film about everything.

You cannot watch The Man with a Movie Camera without being in awe of the way it’s edited. As far as I’m concerned, it is the cinematic textbook for understanding the mathematics of montage. It reveals editing as a process of discovery, a means of creating a flow of thought, a cross between the logic of language and the energy of music. The Man with a Movie Camera unfolds as a series of visual equations, inviting the viewer to participate in the process of making all sorts of connections between ideas and images.

The Man with a Movie Camera, Berlin, Symphony of a Great City and Manhatta all showed me how one person alone with a camera could find beauty, meaning and metaphor in the urban landscape simply by immersing oneself in the flow of daily life. These films attest to the power of observation and the serendipitous joy of making discoveries “in the moment.” They made me see the city as a visual laboratory, as an unending source of small astonishments and big surprises. And when it comes to sitting at an editing table, they taught me how the big picture is often conveyed and mirrored in the smallest detail.

As these films grow older and age gracefully, the passage of time only enhances their mystique and beauty. Looking at New York, Moscow, and especially Berlin, now more than 75 years later (from the other side of history), adds layer upon layer of intrigue and meaning: we know what will be gained and what has been lost. It’s not unlike watching your childhood home movies as an adult and understanding how they foreshadow the march of time and its impact upon your life and destiny – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. By the same measure, we are now making the “documents” (and the home movies) that the future will use to reflect upon itself one day, from its side of history.

After completing my list, I realized there was an empty space on my cinematic family tree. The pantheon of great city symphonies is often regarded as a quartet, which also includes Rain (1932) by Joris Ivens, a film that’s somehow eluded me over the years. From everything I’ve read and heard about Rain, it would surely deserve to share the screen with its fellow great city symphonies. And so I got greedy. I asked the programmers at IDFA to grant me an 11th favorite film, and added Rain to the program, sight unseen. It is only a pure but magical coincidence that Rain happens to be a city symphony shot (over the course of two years) in Amsterdam, and that there’s a beautifully restored print right next door at the Dutch Filmmuseum. This gives me the chance to make a new "old friend" -- and honor our host city in the process. Perhaps the gods of cinema will pour some rain on Amsterdam the day of the screening.

You won’t hear the sound of rain in Enthusiasm, Vertov’s first sound film (actually it’s the first sound film ever made in Russia), acclaimed by none other than Charlie Chaplin as the best film of the year in 1931. You will, though, hear the sounds of trains, factories, machines, and other raw mechanical and industrial “noises,” recorded on location for use in the film. For the first time ever, sound was woven directly into a radicalized pictorial montage, but treated as equal to the image. The soundtrack is as bright as the images are loud. Like all of Vertov’s work, the film combines an abstract constructivist collage sensibility with his Kino Pravda political agenda, but also manages to evoke a truly poetic sensibility. Enthusiasm’s tour de force mastery of sound and image taught me about the power of music, the alchemy of sound/image juxtapositions, and the sheer raw beauty of industrial sounds; some music critics have even called it the precursor to musique concrète. And that’s not surprising; a decade earlier, Vertov had been conducting experiments in sound and sound recording as part of what he called his “laboratory of hearing.”


Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Jonas Mekas (along with many, many others), were early pioneers in a loosely knit community of filmmakers from all over the world alternately referred to as “avant-garde,” “experimental,” “underground,” -- even “independent” (when that word actually meant something) that derived much of its spirit from a fierce dedication to cinema as an authentic (some even said the authentic) form of contemporary modern art. They dared to see cinema as a new and uncharted frontier, a medium with its own unique qualities, free from the constraints of formula, convention, and commerce. This is the tradition that shaped my cinematic pedigree and that continues to inform my relationship to “documentary” film.

Like all movements born in a particular time and place, avant-garde cinema is a product of its connections to and dialogue with an infinite web of historical and cultural influences, but especially its sense of “legacy” from films and filmmakers of the past. In the particular genealogy of my list, Mekas knew Brakhage, and both Mekas and Brakhage knew Deren. I assume Connor knew Deren; I know he knew Brakhage and knows Mekas. Deren and Brakhage knew the work of Sheeler and Strand. Mekas and Connor know the work of Sheeler and Strand. Deren was born in Russia in 1917, the year of the fall of the Romanov dynasty. They all know (or knew) the work of Schub, Vertov, Ruttmann, and Ivens. Vertov was born in 1896, precisely at the dawn of cinema. Schub and Vertov were enemies. Vertov admired Ruttmann (but thought Eisenstein wasn’t inventive enough). And everyone knew the Lumière films.

The full range of experimental films that have influenced me is quite broad, but a select few have been especially memorable. Films like the late Stan Brakhage’s Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and Jonas Mekas’s Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1971/72) both use the camera as a tool of personal revelation. They assert the role of a filmmaker who can document intimate aspects of his or her own life -- even become the “subject matter” -- and still make work that resonates with profound humanism and universal appeal. In many ways the images in Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (like most of Mekas’s diary films) and Window Water Baby Moving are essentially modern day color home movies, distant cousins of the old Lumière actualities from the turn of the century.

Window Water Baby Moving was the very first “experimental” film I ever saw. Brakhage, who may very well be the most prolific filmmaker ever (his filmography lists more than 600 films!), filmed his pregnant wife Jane in the bathtub before, during, and after the home delivery of their first child. Hand-held and heart-felt, this silent, bloody, grainy, light-soaked film is a profound expression of love and tenderness, a supremely personal gesture made by filmmaker as father/father as filmmaker. Three decades later, in 2004, as I found myself filming my own child’s birth, echoes of Window Water Baby Moving kept swirling in my mind’s eye.

Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania is Jonas Mekas’s reflection upon the ineffable feeling of displacement: from childhood, family, friends, culture, history, identity, the landscape of memory -- and most importantly -- from his sense of self. Like all of Mekas’s film and video diaries (and much of Brakhage’s work as well), it’s about using the camera as an extension of the body, mind, and soul. The spontaneous flow of hand-held diary footage is edited in such a way as to reverberate with the fragile flood of memories it evokes –a visceral cauldron of presences and absences.

The film is composed of three sections, though I’ve always been particularly struck by the emotional contradictions of the middle part, “100 Glimpses of Lithuania,” (some “glimpses” as short as a few seconds; some lasting a few minutes), in which the formality of the numerical headings that frame each “glimpse” counterpoint the emotional complexity of Mekas’s encounter with the past. Like all of Mekas’s work, deep philosophical threads (and struggles) are woven inside every frame, every image, every story, every anecdote that Mekas utters in his poetically charged musings.

Mekas, who even to this day is never without his camera in hand, has, perhaps more than anyone else, used cinema to document his life, the times he’s lived in, the characters and relationships he’s encountered, and his unflinching passion for filmmaking. As the child and grandchild of immigrants, I too have made journeys (both near and far) in search of my own family history and the ghosts that still taunt and entice but always manage to elude. Seeing Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania back in the early 1980’s prepared me for just how emotionally fraught and complex a reckoning that might be.

Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) is the only film on my list that one might call a work of fiction. It uses many standard strategies of dramatic storytelling but subverts them with a haunting and disorienting cycle of repetition and variation. Over the years, many films have captivated me, but this film revealed the power of cinema to truly mesmerize. It is a classic example of what has been called the “trance film,” using the language of cinema to evoke dream-like (or is it nightmarish?) dislocation and mood, to cultivate and explore a landscape of potently symbolic objects, and to suggest an open-ended multiplicity of readings -- all to profound effect.

The film was a collaboration between Deren and her then husband, Alexander Hammid, shot in their own home – without a script -- over the course of two weeks. While Deren herself is the protagonist, Hammid also appears briefly in the film. Originally silent (a soundtrack was added in 1953 by Deren’s third husband, Teiji Ito), the psychological power of this dramatically enacted “home movie” continues to cast its spell. Though it’s only 18 minutes long, of all the films on my list, this just might be the one that finds its way into your own dreams.

I was two years old when Bruce Connor made A Movie (1958). I was 17 years old when I first saw it. The only way I can describe the experience of seeing it is to compare it to the first time I ate the controversial (you either like it or hate it) Japanese food called Natto – fermented soybeans. I instinctively said to myself, “Somehow the taste of this food makes sense to me. And I like it. I like it a lot.” It was as if my taste buds were designed to appreciate the flavor of natto. (Ask any Japanese person how unusual that is!)

But something like this also happened when I saw A Movie for the first time; it was if it touched me at a cellular level. The experience of seeing this 12-minute collage of found footage (newsreel and old fiction films) activated a deep place in my subconscious. I realized that my response was an intuitive recognition of my own innate affinity for the act of putting things together, of making connections, of working with archival sounds and images (lots of them!), and ultimately, toward developing an aesthetic grounded in the process – the patience, passion, and pleasure of editing.

I’m imagining an arc from A Movie back to The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty as a beautiful but wicked curve. Schub used documentary images to tell a meaningful story; Connor is using documentary images to play with and squeeze out new meanings. With an infinity of archival images at his disposal, Connor can be whimsical, controlled, or unpredictable, defying your expectations with each dynamic editorial decision. It’s an energy – and a quality – that I aspire to in my own work.


I’d like to think there’s a little piece of each of these films in what I do. My encounters with them over the years have not only shaped the evolution of my filmmaking, but also challenged me to define my own criteria for what makes a “classic” film: they’ve all withstood the test of time; they can be seen over and over (and over) again and still resonate with new discoveries, insights, and surprises; and they are all films that affirm my belief in the transformative power of art -- especially the art of cinema. And they still take my breath away every time I see them.