Arts

Doc Talk

Ethnography, sports, terrorism, and, yes, cats

Cat Video Fest will screen at Kendall Square Cinema and Coolidge Corner Theatre.
Oscilloscope
Cat Video Fest will screen at Kendall Square Cinema and Coolidge Corner Theatre.

With films like “Leviathan” (2012) and “Manakamana” (2013), Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab has expanded the range and form of documentary film. An alumna of the program, Laura Huertas Millán applies this experimental approach to social, political, and personal issues in her short films. “La Libertad” (2017) explores the meaning of freedom as experienced by indigenous artists in Oaxaca, Mexico ; “jeny303” (2018) intercuts the story of a transgender drug addict with shots of an abandoned building in Bogota; and the intimate and operatic “Sol Negro” (2016) features Millán’s own aunt, a talented singer struggling with mental illness. Challenging, inventively structured, and visually striking, these sui generis works will make you look at documentaries, and the world, in new ways.

Millán will also be presenting Acts of Seeing/Acts of Freeing, a program of short films by various filmmakers. It includes her own “La Laberinto (The Labyrinth),” from 2018, which is about an abandoned mansion built by a Colombian drug kingpin as an exact copy of the one on the 1980s TV series “Dynasty.” The film intercuts images of the gutted, moldering duplicate with clips from the actual show and it’s hard to say which is creepier.

“La Libertad,” “jeny303,” and “Sol Negro” can be seen at the Harvard Film Archive on March 4 at 7 p.m. The filmmaker and Cecilia Barrionuevo, artistic director of Argentina’s Mar del Plata Film Festival, will participate in a postscreening question-and-answer session.

Go to library.harvard.edu/film/calendar/march19.html.

Score bored

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At the beginning of Corneliu Porumboiu’s “Infinite Football” (2018) the filmmaker interviews Laurentiu Ginghina about a painful incident in 1987 that determined the course of his life. 

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While playing football (or soccer, as it is known in the United States) in a skating rink he was trapped in a corner with the ball as 10 other players surrounded him and tried to steal it. A savage kick caused him terrible pain, but he continued playing. At the end he was walking so slowly he missed the bus and he had to limp several kilometers to his home. 

The leg was treated but continued to bother him. It turned out to be a fractured fibula, was treated again, and didn’t heal right (for more on Romanian health care watch Cristi Puiu’s 2005 black comedy, “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”). The lingering injury disqualified him from his dream job as a forest ranger. So he tried to find work in the United States and European Union and failed. He ended up in a bureaucratic position where his duties included stonewalling a 92-year-old woman who had been trying to get her land back since the overthrow of communism 27 years earlier.

All this time, though, he had been working on new rules for the sport he still loves even though it ruined his life. However each of his revisions of the game presents new flaws that call for another revision, and so on, ad infinitum.

Ginghina’s futile obsession and his sad-sack history of mishaps, poor choices, and bad luck leading to a soul-destroying job in which he makes other people unhappy becomes a screwball metaphor for recent Romanian history, perhaps for all history. His story unfolds slowly but with unexpected twists in Porumboiu’s deadpan, absurdist account. It’s a nonfiction variation on his ruefully hilarious satire, “12:08 East of Bucharest” (2006), and is a reminder of the dark genius of Romanian filmmaking at its best.

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“Infinite Football” screens at the Museum of Fine Arts on March 8 at 4:30 p.m., March 10 at 1 p.m., March 16 at 3 p.m., and March 20 at 6 p.m.

Go to www.mfa.org/programs/series/infinite-football.

Family fanaticism

A surprise nominee, Talal Derki’s frightening and tragic “Fathers and Sons” did not win the best documentary feature Oscar (the winner was “Free Solo”; I guessed “RBG”). Perhaps in part that was because hardly anyone saw it. You can make up for that omission when the DocYard screens it on March 11 at the Brattle Theatre.

Derki, a now-exiled Syrian filmmaker, made his debut feature, “Return to Homs” (2013), about rebels in that city battling for freedom against the armies of Bashar al-Assad . His second film tries to understand how that idealistic revolution became hijacked by Islamist terrorist groups. To do so he won the confidence of one such jihadist and, with amazing courage, lived with him and his family for two years. Derki focuses on the rivalry between his host’s two preteen sons, one of whom shows signs of cowardice and bullying that seem likely to develop into zealous sadism, while the other, less keen on the struggle, just wants to go back to school. Their father endures the same anxieties about his children that all parents do, except he also beheads people. Infuriating and fascinating, the film is an enlightening exercise in empathy and horror.    

“Fathers and Sons” screens at 7 p.m. The filmmaker will participate in a postscreening question-and-answer session via Skype , with Harvard professor and documentary filmmaker Robb Moss as moderator.

Go to www.brattlefilm.org/2019/03/11/of-fathers-and-sons.

No hard felines

Sometimes the news is so bad and the world seems so horrible that the only recourse is another viewing of Ceyda Torun’s “Kedi” (2016) or watching a cat video online. If you’re a fan of the latter, the Cat Video Fest compiles a sampling of some from the past year.

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Perhaps the first clip is the best: a cat with its face pressed against a screen door with terror in its eyes as an owl perched on the porch rail looks ready to pounce. 

On second thought, that’s kind of horrible. How about the one about the blind cat? It’s uplifting, but when you come down to it, kind of sad. 

And then there’s the one that seems at first like a bouncy musical look at the numerous feral cats of Greece. But it turns dark as it points out that many of these cute kitties will be the victims of cruelty, ill health, and starvation. It ends with a pitch for donations to a neutering program.

For the most part, though, the videos are funny and endearing. Who wouldn’t be tickled by the spectacle of a kitten doing cartwheels in front of a mirror or two felines trying to figure out a metronome? Even killer beasts like lions and leopards can be adorable when they demonstrate that, regardless of size, no cat can resist a cardboard box. And if these snippets don’t do the trick, there are always baby sloths.

Cat Video Fest screens on March 4 at 7 p.m. at the Kendall Square Cinema and on March 6 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner. 

Go to www.landmarktheatres.com/boston/kendall-square-cinema/film-info/catvideofest-2019 and www.coolidge.org/films/catvideofest.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.