Documentaries come in many shapes and sizes. Most are about biographical, whether that be other people or organisations (like say Grizzly Man; Man on Wire; or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room). Rarely are they about the autobiographical, unless it is an attempt to use their experiences to promote a cause, like Al Gore or Morgan Spurlock.
Two films at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival are the exception to this rule. Both deeply personal and both about love, although in very different ways.
What is this Film Called Love? is Mark Cousins’ latest film after the epic 15-hour The Story of Film: An Odyssey. It is the polar opposite of such a film in scale and ambition. It opens with Cousins explaining he has three days in Mexico City alone, and that he has decided to cut himself off from the world, but record what he is doing on a tiny, mobile-phone sized camera (the same ones he gave to the children in Iraq in My First Movie).
Early on he decides to print off and laminate a picture of Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian director of Battleship Potemkin, and bring it with him as he walks the streets of the most populated city in the Western world.
As he walks along he starts to imagine conversations with the deceased director in his head, he imagines what places Eisenstein must have seen when he shot a film there many years before. He wonders what he would make of things as varied as mobile phones, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the grand cathedrals of Mexico City.
Interspersed with all this are Cousins’ own thoughts as he sees an old woman struggling with her bags; remembers the time a few weeks earlier he stripped naked in the valley of the gods; and sees a fly teetering on the edge of a bridge above some heavy traffic. It’s at this point he quips:
This started out as a film about nothing, now it’s a film about less than nothing, a fly.
This line kind of sums up the film. It’s a film about nothing, or less than nothing. Yet, more simply it’s just living in Mark Cousins’ head for three days, seeing what he sees, walking where he walks, and allowing ourselves to think as he thinks.
A deeply personal film, which despite its self-centredness is never boring. Spending time with Cousins is reminiscent of spending time with Herzog in his documentaries. Both have a way of thinking and expressing themselves quite different to the norm. At times their ideas and expressions sound crazy, yet it’s that intelligent kind of crazy you can’t help but engage with and reflect upon.
What is this Film Called Love? is not an easy-sell, but for those willing to give it time, joining Cousins on his strange and glorious journey of self-discovery should provoke similar strange and glorious thoughts on our own discovery of the self.
The second very personal documentary I saw was Future My Love by Maja Borg. It’s a film which cleverly balances two strands. The first is a poetic message to Borg’s ex, as she tries to come to terms with their separation by revisiting Jacque Fresco, a subject in her previous documentary, Ottica Zero.
Fresco takes up the other strand. He is a ‘futurist’ who believes society is fundamentally broken and instead of dreaming up inventions that make lives better on an individual level, we need to start over and use technology to design a society that works for everyone, not just the fortunate few.
Borg’s choice of subject is certainly interesting. Fresco, now in his nineties, is a passionate, articulate interviewee. And his opinions, while far-fetched do have a certain appeal to them. The problem comes in that Borg seems uninterested in conducting interesting interviews like Herzog or Theroux might, interviews which really get to the heart of their subjects and reveal things only they as interviewers could reveal.
So after thirty minutes, I felt like I got everything Fresco was saying and had to listen to him witter on for another hour about essentially the same thing. Fresco is not the only person Borg interviews, but most of the others have little extra to offer and as such the film meanders more like an art project than a narrative.
The poetic messages Borg narrates to her ex have a little more weight to them. Her reflections on love and the future are honest, reflective and seem to build a lot better than the rest of film. Nevertheless I suspected after thirty minutes of Future My Love I would be offered little new, and for me this proved to be the point.
While its subject-matter is well chosen and there is a lot of thought put into the film, as a documentary I don’t feel Future My Love works; as an art project however, it has merit. But I feel its lack of cohesion and direction overall holds it back from being something much better.