Diego Ongaro moved from Paris to New York to a tiny burg in the Berkshires before he found his subject. A local logger with a lot of wear and tear and craggy character, Bob Tarasuk plays himself in Ongaro’s debut feature, “Bob and the Trees,” enacting stories from his own life, with just a little creative nudging from Ongaro. The film may not quite qualify as a documentary, but it has the look, grit, and substance of one. Drawing from the stuff of life, Ongaro gently shapes it into the eloquence of art.
The films he’s selected also draw on life, two of them leaning to the side of fiction, two others leaning more to the side of fact.
Stolen Kisses (1968)
Many auteurs embrace an alter ego to enact a version of their autobiography on the screen. In the case of François Truffaut, the doppelganger was Jean-Pierre Léaud, who portrayed Truffaut’s nom de film, Antoine Doinel, in four features and one short film over two decades. “I was fascinated by the fact that you could watch Doinel/Léaud grow up on screen from adolescence to mid-30s,” writes Ongaro. “Here he works as a private detective and falls in love with the woman he is investigating, played by the sublime Delphine Seyrig. It transports you back five decades to the equally sublime Paris of 1968.”
The Gleaners and I (2000)
If documentaries are a kind of found art, then Agnès Varda’s collage of variations on the title occupation is a consummate example of the genre. In it she explores the concept of gleaning, from those who collect what remains in the fields after harvest to filmmaking itself. “Varda narrates as she collects anecdotes and figures her story out, even incorporating into the film a sequence that was shot inadvertently when she forgot to turn off her camera,” Ongaro writes. “It is as much a self-portrait as it is a look at the fringe of society and how much we waste, an ode to meandering and telling a story in the most original and simple way.”
Lance Hammer’s minimalist melodrama takes place in the Mississippi Delta and features characters played by local non-actors in a cryptic tale that is both moodily realistic and eerily mythic. “ ‘Ballast’ was a punch in the guts for me,” says Ongaro. “The veracity of the cast and the organic approach to narrative inspired me to make ‘Bob and the Trees’ in the same manner. The film’s ethereal beauty and realism haunt me still.”
Happy People, a Year in the Taiga (2013)
The legendary Werner Herzog did a bit of gleaning himself when he stumbled on gorgeous footage of trappers in Siberia by Russian filmmaker Dmitry Yasyukov. He edited some of it together and added a voiceover narrative to create this collaboration. “They live as if in the Middle Ages, unaffected by modern technology or troubles,” writes Ongaro. “I love how film can discover new places and different ways of life, and this takes us far away from our metropolitan lifestyles.”