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NPR Arts & Life

Two 'Genius Grants' For Women Experimenting With Documentary Film

A scene from <em>El Velador</em>.
El Velador (The Night Watchman)
A scene from <em>El Velador</em>.

Emma Miller is a digital arts intern at NPR.org and was also an intern in the summer of 2012 in the digital department of PBS' POV series, where she became familiar with two documentaries whose directors recently received "genius grants" from the MacArthur Foundation. She has these thoughts.

The 23 recipients of the 2012 MacArthur Foundation "genius grants" were announced this week. These awards provide a cool half-million dollars to individuals who have shown "extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction." No strings are attached to the money, except, you know, you're expected to keep being incredibly accomplished and talented and brilliant.

Pulitzer winner Junot Diaz is among the recipients this year, as is Washington Post editor David Finkel. But 2012 has the distinction of being the first time that not one but two documentary filmmakers have won the "genius" title: Natalia Almada and Laura Poitras both rank among the honorees.

Documentarians have won the MacArthur before. Legendary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, pioneer of the cinema verite style, won back in 1982, and John H. Else, producer of the heart-wrenching civil-rights series Eyes on the Prize, won in 1988.

But Almada and Poitras are both women, they're both alumni of the PBS documentary show POV, and they're both finding new ways to address social issues through the documentary medium. Their films have powerful messages, but they're devoid of talking heads, and they frequently blur the line between documentary and art. The fact that these boundary-pushers both won MacArthurs this year says something telling about the changing face and increasing importance of documentaries. In a media landscape where reductive sound bites and commercial interests rule, unconventional nonfiction storytellers play an enhanced role.

Almada's latest film premiered on POV on September 27. El Velador is a haunting portrait of Martin, a man who guards the mausoleums where some of Mexico's most notorious druglords are buried. As the sun sets each night, Martin arrives at the cemetery to watch over the decadent crypts with their marble floors and mosque-like facades. When the sun rises, beautiful young widows arrive with children in tow to tend their late husbands' tombs.

With the exception of radio bulletins chronicling daily death tolls, almost no one speaks in the film. Instead, Almada lingers on quiet moments and repeated gestures — a woman sweeping the floor of her husband's mausoleum, a man watering the dusty ground, a child playing hopscotch. We're left with an eerie feeling of anticipation, of claustrophobia and ritual. There's no acknowledgment that the crypts crowding the cemetery are all deadly evidence of a raging drug war — nor is violence of any kind depicted — but none is needed. By the end of the film, the gravity of a drug war that has claimed more than 50,000 lives resonates strongly.

This approach is atypical of documentaries, where emphasis is often placed on allowing subjects to give testimony — or where filmmakers make themselves players in the story through voice-of-God first-person narration (think Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man). In El Velador, Almada veers away from these conventions.

"We think if someone tells us about their lives, that's how we're going to know what their situation is, and that's how we're going to care about them," she told POV. "Once you realize that language is not reliable and that people can't really speak freely, then you have to focus on gestures and actions as a way to enter into someone's life."

Poitras, who is best known for her documentary trilogy about the post-September 11 war on terrorism, also has a novel style. She tackles broad, complex issues through an intimate study of unusual individuals — what she calls a "micro-macro" approach. Part one of her trilogy, My Country, My Country, focused on Dr. Riyadh, a Sunni physician who ran for office during Iraq's first democratic election. Part two, The Oath, centered on Abu Jandal, a chatty Afghani cab driver and former bodyguard for Osama bin Laden. The as-yet untitled third part will focus on the war on terrorism at home.

But Poitras uses techniques usually reserved for fiction: unexpected plot twists, jumpy chronology and, in the case of The Oath, an unreliable antihero as narrator and protagonist.

The results of these approaches are artistic, lyrical films, films that are suited for both mainstream and art-house cinema, but that still unpack important social issues. That's a good thing. Because as the documentary world continues to grow in influence and visibility (thank you, online streaming), filmmakers like Almada and Poitras who are experimenting with the medium in original ways can build on that momentum.

Right now, "there is a unique sense of community and artistic excitement among nonfiction filmmakers," Poitras says. "There is a feeling we are building something together — new ways of storytelling and seeing the world — that is bigger than any one film or filmmaker."

The MacArthur Foundation agrees.

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