still from the doc "End of Time" in the "Stranger Than Fiction" series at the Film Center. Image: 04: Bodhgaya, India. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Grimthorpe Film
‘Stranger Than Fiction’; ‘Jean Rouch: The Ethnographer as Auteur’
When: ‘Stranger,’ Friday to Jan. 31; ‘Jean Rouch,’ Jan. 13-31
Where: Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State
Tickets: $11; students, $7; members, $6
Updated: February 5, 2013 6:09AM
Documentary films get a double bill here in January. Although non-fiction fare is screened year-round at the Gene Siskel Film Center, its annual “Stranger Than Fiction” series showcases the genre with several Chicago premieres.
The lineup kicks off Friday with “Perseverance: The Story of Dr. Billy Taylor.” Co-director Bob Hercules and the title subject, a onetime University of Michigan football star, will appear. Other films in the series range from the idea of time in the cosmos to a Thunderchief jet moved to downstate Illinois for a war memorial.
Eight works from the oeuvre of a pioneering French filmmaker are slated for “Jean Rouch: The Ethnographer As Auteur,” starting Jan. 13, also at the Film Center. Rouch’s “Chronicle of a Summer” (1961) inspired “Inquiring Nuns” (1968), an early work of the Chicago film coop Kartemquin.
“The documentary field has been booming for some years,” said Barbara Scharres, director of programming at the Film Center. “There are so many extremely important films on extremely important issues, and you simply can’t show them all, and there isn’t an audience for them all. What I’m really looking for every year are documentaries where each one stands out in some particular way. They demand to be seen.”
Scharres selected some films for their emotional impact. One is “Honor Flight” by Dan Hayes, who filmed Stars and Stripes Honor Flights from Milwaukee to Washington, D.C., on which elderly vets visit the National World War II Memorial. “I think this one is going to have many people in tears,” she said. “I never really thought that World War II veterans would feel overlooked. It’s their reaction that calls up the reaction of the audience.”
Tears of exasperation may be elicited by Peter Nicks’ “The Waiting Room,” which chronicles the personal tales and paperwork at the overcrowded Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. “This is the kind of film that can change the way you feel about public policy,” Scharres said.
Other films are pushing the limits of documentary style in some way. “The most adventurous is ‘The End of Time,’ which is more in the tradition of the European essay film, with amazing images used as the platform for philosophical research,” she said. In this documentary, director Peter Mettler (“Petropolis”) searches the Earth for scenes of nature in motion to illustrate notions of time.
Jean Rouch (1917-2004) is acclaimed in documentary circles for his collaborative cinema-verite works that mix fact, fantasy and fiction. For its series, the Film Center will sample his earlier, more straightforward documentaries shot in West Africa, including “Les Maitres Fous” (1954) and “The Lion Hunters” (1964), as well as the self-conscious “Chronicle of a Summer,” made with sociologist Edgar Morin about a “strange tribe” of Parisians, mostly on the left.
Rouch humors and provokes in “Little by Little” (1971). Damoure Zika from Rouch’s “Jaguar” (1967) runs an import/export company in Niger. He travels from Ayarou to Paris to study the natives there. The resulting film anticipates the trans-cultural effrontery of “Borat.” Zika asks puzzled Parisians if he can measure their heads and count their teeth, in the way that European anthropologists traditionally examined Africans. “Parisians really aren’t good looking,” he concludes.
When Rouch visited Chicago in 1973 for an international anthropology congress at the University of Illinois, he enlisted a local filmmaker as a guide. “He wanted to experience Chicago, and he had me take him all over the city,” recalled Judy Hoffman, who now teaches documentary filmmaking at the University of Chicago. “ ‘Get me away from this academic conference,’ he’d say, so I would take him to Maxwell Street.”
He was drawn to 16 musicians who gathered weekly at Wise Fools Pub on the North Side. During his stay, Hoffman helped Rouch plan a documentary about the Dave Remington Big Band. “It is a tribe of ‘sympathique’ people utterly enjoying the fact they are together for this ritual,” stated Rouch at the time. “Remington, the Band and audience are not only to be the object of the film, but are already directly involved in the entire filmic process,” wrote Hoffman in a grant proposal to the Illinois Arts Council.
Though that film was never made, Rouch’s legacy endures. His signature scenes, writes Paul Stoller in “The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch,” still “challenge us to decolonize our thinking, to decolonize ourselves.”
Bill Stamets is a free-lance writer and reviewer.