Robert Kramer Retrospective


Robert Kramer’s Doc’s Kingdom, shot in Portugal in 1986/87 was a transitional film, an intense and open interrogation about the cycles of life and work, leading up to a new period in Robert’s career and, first of all, to the absolute masterpiece that is Route One/USA. Beyond the strict opportunity to pay a tribute to Robert, beyond the opportunity given by (the subversion of) his title (“Doc” being the doctor character of Paul McIsaac in the movie), this quote allowed us to find in the actual film material a reference and an inspiration. A “film question” like this was indeed an appropriate reference in the course of our plans to create a new discussion forum on documentary and modern cinema.

“Doc’s Kingdom,” the seminar, had its first edition in October 2000 in a small town in the southeast of Portugal (Serpa). Its origin has been a cross over of ideas, contexts and intentions both in regard to this country and to the general state of documentary. On the one hand, by the late nineties Portugal came out of a decade of deep changes in the documentary field, revealing a new generation of filmmakers and a new synchronization with international practices. On the other hand, we felt that the structural changes in the documentary context as a whole (here as everywhere else) created a strong need of re-evaluation and interrogation of the films themselves. Drowned in quantity, documentary profited, but also started to suffer from its own success. Its very momentum was in itself a land of contradictions. As in past moments, its strength was an important resort to the renewal and shaping of cinema in general—a most needed breath of life to modern film. But the very same area where, in the past, one has often found creative impatience, variety and experimentation (in fact, the freedom that often went together with the lack of an exhibition market), now showed clear signs of standardization. Above all, the financial resources of the television frame obviously started to reveal themselves as a corset and a modeling force. Accelerated changes were happening: what did they really mean?

The plans for the new seminar arose from this awareness, as well as from the coincident interest of our two international partners—the European Foundation Joris Ivens and the États Généraux du Film Documentaire in Lussas, France. Thus, joining the efforts of the Portuguese documentary association AporDOC and the City Hall of Serpa, the group set up a different kind of gathering, aiming to complement the numerous existing festivals as well as the more explicit training events. Doc’s Kingdom Seminar was intended as a mixed, relaxed forum, where some (not too many) relevant films would be shown, and where they would be discussed in a cumulative group experience. Our attention was centered on strong examples (not quantity), and on film language, rather than the more usual recent concern with production or distribution issues.

Born as a genuine international venture, the gathering ran for five days and provided the exhibition and discussion of 21 films out of 13 countries, from western and northern Europe to Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Russia, Cambodia or Brazil. The selection of titles was based on their representativeness of different language paths and, secondly, on the balance between major documentary careers and starting ones. Long standing acclaimed authors (Kramer, Van der Keuken, Robert Frank, Pelechian, Coutinho. . . ) as well as younger major ones (Dvortsevoy, Pedro Costa, Jia Zhangke. . . ) were included. Each standard journey contained viewings and then crossed dialogues between two or more filmmakers, preceded by introductory talks by researchers and followed by open debate. Many authors were present (Dvortsevoy, Rithy Panh, Pedro Costa, Pierre-Marie Goulet, Daniel Nguyen Van, Danielle Arbid, Stojkovic, Evelyne Ragot, Kanerva Cedestrom, Pierre Primetens, Marie Clemence Paes), along with special guests and researchers (Erika Kramer, Serge Meurant, Jean Breschand, Thierry Lounas, Emmanuel Burdeau, etc.). Joining around one hundred seminar participants, they helped us to explore the present paths and challenges of documentary film, as well as its place in modern film as a whole.

The Doc’s Kingdom seminar will happen again in Serpa next September 2002. Together with the other founding entities, we are glad and honored to announce that the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival will join us in the next issue, bringing its invaluable experience to our gathering. In the meantime, we are also happy to bring our brief collaboration to Yamagata/2001, helping to organize a “Doc’s Kingdom journey” here, precisely in the same year of another great tribute to Robert Kramer. Questioning the world through films and questioning films: is there a better tribute to him—the man and the filmmaker?

José Manuel Costa

Film archivist, teacher at the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and researcher on documentary studies. Vice-president of the Cinemateca Portuguesa and member (and former president ) of the Excutive Committee of the European Film Archives Association. Author of monographs on R. Flaherty, J. Ivens, F. Wiseman and new Portuguese documentaries, among others.

• Robert Kramer Retrospective | FALN | In the Country | The Edge | Ice | People’s War | Milestones | Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal | Guns | A Great Day in France / Birth | As Fast as You Can | Fear | Doc’s Kingdom | Route One / USA | Dear Doc | Berlin 10/90 | Video Letters: Robert Kramer and Stephen Dwoskin | Leeward | Point de départ / Starting Place | Walk the Walk | The Coat | Ghosts of Electricity | SayKomSa | Cities of the Plain | Against Forgetting