This year, IDFA presents a focus program that explores our relationship with the abstraction of the future, looking at the how the documentary form – frequently preoccupied with images and narratives of the past and the present – can focus its gaze forward in time. Matt Turner reflects on this tool of cinema to open up this space for reflection.
In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, a short essay written in 1986, Ursula K. Le Guin proposes that the earliest human tools were not weapons (“things to bash and poke and hit with, the long, hard things”) but vessels (“the thing to put things in, the container for the thing contained”).
With this shift in perspective, human life begins not with aggression and dominion but with compassion: gathering, storing, and sharing rather than maiming and killing. Extending this theory to storytelling, Le Guin quotes Elizabeth Fisher’s claim that “the first cultural device was probably also a recipient”, making a case for the carrier bag as the ideal narrative structure: not a linear and propulsive line but instead something messier and more multidirectional. “The natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack” says Le Guin, and like novels, films can be receptacles too. This idea offers one way to think about the connections between the films included in ‘The Future Tense’, comprising films that use the past and the present as a prism for peering into what possibilities the future may hold. Like Le Guin’s alternate vision of the novel, these are films with a carrier bag form, wherein the various elements are held together “in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.” Not just vehicles for narratives, together these films create more open-ended, non-linear spaces in which ideas, arguments, and emotions can bounce freely around.
Most documentaries concern themselves, to varying degrees, with the past. But as Alisa Lebow says: “if documentary is already a kind of fiction, then why should it relegate its explorations of the world to the past and present?” The films included in ‘The Future Tense’ often mix tenses, moving between past, present, and future perspectives, sometimes speaking of––or speculating about––things yet to come. Four of the films do this using prophet-like subjects that seem to exist almost outside of time. In Raoul Peck’s Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1990), the filmmaker narrates events with foreknowledge of their conclusion, conveying an omniscient perspective whilst still speaking in a present tense. In the film, independence leader Patrice Lumumba, assassinated in 1961, is reanimated three decades after his death. “The prophet foretells the future, but the future has died with the prophet,” says Peck. “Should the prophet be brought back to life again?” Lumumba is Peck’s attempt to do exactly this. Weaving in his own experiences to fill the gaps in the archive, Peck reframes the past in order to reveal the fallibility of historiographical practices and the unreliability of dominant narratives, creating a counter space to hold partisan, embodied forms of testimony and record. Viera Čákanyová’s Alda (2009), which features a woman foretelling her own demise, is somehow similar. Mrs. O is suffering from dementia. With Čákanyová’s help, she uses a handheld video-camera to craft a first-person video diary addressing her future self from beyond the grave, detailing her daily life whilst also acting as a memory aid and a source of mental focus. Free of any linearity, the film acts like a bank of achronological memories, creating a people’s history centred not in grand world-historical events but in mundane reality: a pixelated, scattershot vision of a person “trying to put [her] mind together” that serves as a lasting living document of the sort of ordinary life that society might normally disregard. Even after Mrs. O’s mind has faded, her footage keeps her memory alive. As Peck says in Lumumba: “everything passes, the image remains.”
Both travelogues of sorts, Kidlat Tahimik’s Perfumed Nightmare (1977) and Peter Brosens and Turmunkh Dorjkhand’s State of Dogs (1998) also have prophetic figures at their centre. In Perfumed Nightmare, Tahimik stars as a version of himself, telling a tale of a Filipino jeepney driver brought to Europe and the U.S by a wealthy American businessman who employs him as something of an envoy. On arrival, his enthusiasm turns to disillusionment as he comes to understand the distance between the West’s projection of itself and the reality of life there. In an imaginative, ingenious, irreverent film, Tahimik uses absurdist humour to illustrate the perils of globalisation and consumerism, positioning himself as a sort of totemic comedic figure so as to mask the wry spearing of American imperialism and European colonialism that his film contains. In State of Dogs, the prophet is a canine, one of many strays ordered to be shot by the government of Mongolia. In the film, the dog’s soul floats over the sites of his lifelong memories, narrating the sights he sees and assessing the state of the nation. Featuring supernatural elements, the subtly surreal film layers mythology and folk storytelling into a more straight-laced ethnographic format to create a composite that sits somewhere between narrative fiction, oral history, and travel documentary. Both Perfumed Nightmare and State of Dogs use a narrative skeleton as something from which to depart, a pretext providing a means of bringing an array of philosophies and provocations into confined collision.
Other films in the strand are fixed in a more immediate present, surveying current day occurrences to see what may come next. Two connected titles––Abbas Kiarostami’s Homework (1989) and pseudo-sequel Ashkan Nejati and Mehran Nematollahi’s Tonight’s Homework (2021)––show this most directly. In both films, schoolchildren are interviewed about their homework, an innocuous seeming subject that provokes answers that paint a vivid picture of Iranian society of the time. In Homework, poverty is widespread and the children are uniformly struggling. Parents who are overstretched and undereducated often subject their children to violence. Thirty years later, in Tonight’s Homework, a more stratified society produces a different picture. Some children boast about the wealth and support their parents provide, others detail the same destitution described in Kiarostami’s film. “The situation is different now”, says a child interviewed in Homework who reappears as an adult in Tonight’s Homework. For some this is true but others find that progress has passed them by. In both fixed-format, container-like films, a microscopically-focused structure produces macrocosmic results. Questioning focused on one element of a single system produces a broader portrait of a society at two distinct junctures in time. Watching them together, these simple questions seem to invoke greater quandaries that go without asking. How will this gulf between the rich and poor develop? What sort of planet will be there for the children of tomorrow to inherit?
The children in Juan Vicente Manrique’s Don’t Worry (2021) have more pressing concerns. Employed as soldiers in a citizen’s militia, they are seen learning how to defend their township from the local cartel forces that pose an ever-present threat. The film has no interviews or narration, only a series of observational sequences over which play and combat become increasingly indistinguishable. No words are needed for the state of things to be made clear. This is a vision of a world-to-come where violence is so normalised that children as young as five are taught to kill by a squad leader who himself is only fourteen. Depicting a different subject in a similar style, Harun Farocki’s How to Live in the Federal Republic of Germany (1990) also builds a thesis without needing to state anything explicitly, creating a picture of the bureaucratic (in)efficiency of West German society through patient observation and careful sequencing. Across 32 scenes showing training facilities or instructional classes, Farocki examines how every action or eventuality can be practiced and prepared for, from interview-skills to road-crossing, childbirth to striptease. Watching so much artifice in sequence, life itself starts to feel like a simulation. This never ending production line of mechanised preparation only serves to illustrate the inability of the institutional apparatus to make any effective provision for the unpredictable experience of lived reality. All four of these present-tense films feel like carrier bag fictions, regionalised contemporary slices that suggest possible global futures. Each film presents a projection of a select subsection of a society, but the unfolding relations reveal more than what is visible in the moment.
Set within a speculative setting, confronting a metaphorical Doomsday Clock countdown to humanity’s self-destruction, that Yael Bertana’s Two Minutes to Midnight (2021) creates a context that is more like a parallel present than a far-flung future. A film made out of a series of public performances, it shows the deliberations of a fictitious government run entirely by women, mixing in actors playing cabinet members with real experts tasked with advising them about what to do about a nuclear threat from a rival head of state. Despite their commitment to disarmament, facing apocalypse the group finds it difficult to stick to de-escalation, showing how, even with the best intentions, a failure of imagination in the present can impede material change for the future. When one advisor suggests that assassination might be the best action she is quickly shot down, yet despite this, Two Minutes to Midnight feels like a film about the limits of liberalism in the face of rising international fascism and impending human extinction. In a state of desperation, the most radical calls for action seem the most convincing.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens (2016) suggests that it may already be too late to act. Featuring tableaux-like images of ruin, the film cycles through scenes of a world without humans. In man’s absence, built structures have crumbled into beautiful disrepair and new organic growth has sprouted in place. These images are presented without comment or context, leaving a viewer to interpret them as they will. The obvious interpretation seems apocalyptic. Different to places where humans have never been, these are spaces where people once were but are now not, giving the images a ghostly absence; traces are still perceptible of a presence that has died, left, or simply faded away. Also made of images of depopulated spaces, Miko Revereza and Carolina Fusilier’s The Still Side (2021) uses a similar mode as the one seen in Geyrhalter’s film but shifts the tone, veering more towards something like wonder. Supposedly set on an island off the coast of Mexico, the film features shots showing creatively-framed elements of an abandoned waterpark and holiday resort, interrupted by mock tannoy announcements channeling voices of the place’s imagined past alongside musings from the two co-directors speculating on the site’s possible futures. Both films feel like carefully constructed dioramas, snow-globe spaces that show environments without people: still, eerie, but strangely serene despite their desolation. A third landscape film, Zhao Liang’s I’m So Sorry (2021) features humans but makes the argument that the planet might be better off without us. A treatise on the misguided promise of nuclear energy and humanity’s propensity towards self-destruction, the film adopts an almost eulogic form, mourning planetary destruction from the perspective of a ghostly protagonist who at one point states that “we can no longer believe that in one hundred years, human society will be beautiful.” The suggestion is that while we must alter our ways in order for our remaining time on earth to not be short-lived, there is little evidence in history that this change is likely.
Conversely, both Jumana Manna’s Wild Relatives (2018) and Deniz Tortum and Kathryn Hamilton’s Our Ark (2021) details attempts to preserve existence. Wild Relatives looks at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a library in which seeds are deposited in order to be preserved and protected so that a duplicate of each seed is retained even when international supplies are squandered or depleted. Our Ark looks at a sort of digital equivalent, observing a company working towards producing 3D mapped replications of every animal in the world. Both films show how these projects, however well-meaning, are compromised somehow. Wild Relatives follows a seed across its journey to the vault, showing the web of geopolitical complications that arise within globalised agricultural networks and how ill-equipped this project is with addressing these issues. Our Ark considers the ramifications of the digital-era impulse to make electronic approximations of every material artefact, both living and dead. In both films, the projects they take as subject matter are launching pads for broader essayistic explorations, raising questions that go necessarily unanswered. In Our Ark, the filmmakers instead posit an alternative answer in the form of a theory which offers an unexpected conclusion. These replications are no less real or fake than anything else in the universe, as, per the film, everything is part of a simulation which is itself one of many. If documentary is, as Max Pincker says, not a way of depicting reality but of “coming to terms” with it, “a way of doing, engaging and creating that embraces the multiple and mutable realities of our world”, then Our Ark is a good example of this, using its subject as a starting point for contemplation, drifting from documentation into increasingly abstract theorisation.
With its mix of tenses, Virna Molina's Portraits of the Future (2021) is a future film tethered to the present. Molina’s pandemic-period film flits between rumination about the nature of the past, present, and future to tell a story fixed in a specific labour struggle in a set period of time. Making a record of the continuing efforts of a group of women railway workers in Argentina, Molina finds her project destabilised by the pandemic. From this stuck position, she makes a film about stasis, speculating about the future of the planet from this point of interregnum, weaving the story of the workers into a splintered narrative of global capitalistic strife. In what could also be a mission statement for the strand, Molina says at one point that filmmaking “allows us to travel to the past, question the present, and portray the future,” and her film, a grab-bag of ideas, provocations, and prophecies, exploits this temporal fluidity. Like many of the films in the strand, the subject here is almost secondary, a prompt from which to explore ideas that are broader than any single event, individual, or issue. In The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Le Guin concludes that her proposed form of fiction, which favours the accumulation of additive supplementary material over specific conflict or incident, is a style that embodies a “strange realism” befitting a “strange reality”. “Science fiction” she continues, “is a way of trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this vast sack.” The films of The Future Tense are not, however, science fiction in their form - instead they are documentaries that put a wide, future-oriented lens on the world to work out what might be going on, both now and in times yet to come.