The Anchorage A Mini-Cine-Manifesto

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With NY Times critic A.O. Scott’s discussion of the ever evaporating line between fact and fiction in documentary filmmaking, I found myself remembering a long conversation I had with James Benning back in 2007 after our screening of his film 27 Years Later. Benning told me of a class he had been teaching at Cal Arts called Looking and Listening. Cal Arts, by the way, was the training ground for C.W. Winter co-director of The Anchoragea film opening Friday and one that certainly pertains to this post-documentary moment. Benning described specifically how Looking and Listening was a film class where no actual film was shot. It was a class that enhanced his students attention to the environment around them by asking them to heighten these two critical filmmaking senses. For Looking and Listening, Benning dropped his students off at one end of an oil field telling them that he’d pick them up at the other end. During their walk through the field, students were asked to watch and listen to everything going on around them. Additionally, Benning informed them that they had no permission to be on that field and had to talk their way through any encounter with any employee requesting they depart. The traverse of the field was followed by an in class conversation where everyone presented their findings. Benning also recently described the class in a Cinema Scope interview saying he realized that this was exactly the kind of observational approach that Henry David Thoreau had taken for an entire chapter of his book Walden; or, Life in the Woods.

Now getting back to The Anchorage, whose central character could just as easily be called Thoreauian, but from a female perspective.  The Anchorage, in a very different way from the films that Scott discusses in his article,  drifts away from documentary filmmaking, towards a nonfiction feature, but only in so much as the fiction present in the work lends itself towards a nonfictional reading. What do I mean by that? The film merely follows a few days in the life of a middle-aged woman, Ulla, who lives on a Baltic archipelago. For nearly one and a half hours we follow the most quotidian aspects of her life: a trip to the supermarket, gutting fish, swimming, walking around, cooking. And while all of these acts are indeed part of the fiction or story of the film, these same tasks are quite simply a representation of reality that are so utterly bare that I can only describe them as non-fictional.

Winter and co-director Anders Edström might suggest this is the result of their trying to create a work that was a cinematic answer to D.W. Griffiths call to action. In Griffiths final interview, his departing wisdom on cinema could be taken as a challenge to filmmaking. He stated that “What the modern movie lacks is beauty – the beauty of moving wind in the trees, the little movement in a beautiful blowing on the blossoms in the trees. That they have forgotten entirely…. In my arrogant belief, we have lost beauty.” And what The Anchorage has in spades is the wind blowing in the trees. In fact it is one of the stronger documentary elements of the film. I believe Winter and Edström were making conscious attempts to concretely bring wind as a material object to the screen along with the pastel leaves, the choppy water, and the massive volcanic rocks that Ulla crosses each morning on her way to her ritualistic bathing.

Fortunately for Seattle audiences we’ll have a chance to discuss this blurry fictional/non-fictional line in detail when C.W. Winter attends screenings this weekend. He’ll also be offering a historical perspective on observational narrative in his one day workshop Any Time Whatever: A Partial History of Looking in Narrative Cinema. I hope to see you at both. I’m sure we’ll have an engaging conversation no matter what.

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