Documentary History Science
A Humbling Short Film Visualizes the Breathtaking Magnitude of 13.8 Billion Years of Cosmic Existence
The human conception of time is limited. We often think in hours, days, and years, units of measurement that are comprehensible when considering our lifetimes or those of generations past. Even decades and centuries, though, are only a minuscule fraction in the timeline of the universe and are wholly inadequate when assessing a nearly 14-billion-year history.
A new short by Alex Gorosh (previously) and Wylie Overstreet (previously) helps to visualize the immensity of cosmic creation beyond the clock and calendar. Four years in the making, “To Scale: TIME” takes the filmmakers to a 4.3-mile stretch across the arid Mojave Desert, where they install small lights to create a timeline of human civilization and the broader universe. Augmented with visuals of galaxies and historical events, the resulting work captures the magnitude of 13.8 billion years and is an awe-inspiring reminder of how small humans are in both time and space.
Watch the humbling film on YouTube, where Gorosh and Overstreet also share a making-of video that documents their process. “To Scale: TIME” is the second project in the duo’s series of model-based works and follows their striking visualization of the solar system.
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‘Then Comes The Body’ Follows the Nigerian Ballet Academy That Stepped into the Global Spotlight
In June 2020, a clip of the then-11-year-old Anthony Mmesoma Madu dancing in a rain-soaked courtyard made the internet rounds. The video shows the young student gracefully performing on wet concrete, presumably demonstrating what he’s learned from Leap of Dance Academy. Located in Ajangbadi, Ojo, a suburb of Lagos, Nigeria, the ballet school garnered global attention after that viral moment, including from prestigious organizations like the American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, celebrities like Viola Davis, and the broader public.
A new documentary titled “Then Comes The Body,” directed by Jacob Krupnick of Wild Combination, pulls back the curtains on the genesis of the academy and follows its students, sharing their stories as individual artists and what it means to be part of a community with grand ambitions.
Established in 2017, Leap of Dance is the creation of Daniel Ajala, who began running the school out of his home as a way to offer free instruction to those who might want to pursue ballet as a profession. “I wanted, more than anything, to give that opportunity to those younger than myself so they wouldn’t miss their chance like I did,” Ajala said in an interview, noting that, since ballet isn’t widely practiced in Nigeria, he learned from YouTube. “It was too bad that I was as old as I was when I realized I wanted to dance.”
Krupnick first found out about the school and Ajala when much of the world did: with that first video of Madu. “Dance and movement are central to a lot of my films, and I always have an eye out for stories and collaborators that make me curious,” Krupnick says. “I’m a White filmmaker, and a theme that I’ve explored in my work is how it feels for non-White people to enter spaces where they haven’t historically felt welcome.”
After getting in touch with Ajala and learning more about his story, Krupnick traveled to Ajangbadi, where he spent time with the students in their neighborhood and learned more about their practices and dreams. This became the origin of the short film, which was created in partnership with Lagos-based producer Damilola Aleje. Showing the dancers atop yellow vans, moving in the streets, and teaching each other, the documentary offers insight into the immense impact of a single school. Leap of Dance, as the trailer shares, has already helped secure scholarships and performance opportunities for many involved, including Precious Duru and Olamide Olawale who, along with Ajala, narrate the film.
Premiering this June at Tribeca Film Festival, “Then Comes The Body” is an encouraging look at the power of expression and community and asserts that, as Ajala says, “ballet is here to stay.” (via Kottke)
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In Killian Lassablière’s Short Film ‘Kukeri,’ a Centuries-Old Bulgarian Tradition Wards Off Evil Spirits
“Evil is when we don’t want to be together… This is what we do: we banish it so that we can all be together, all equal,” says one of the subjects of Killian Lassablière’s short documentary “Kukeri,” a movingly atmospheric portrait of a centuries-old Bulgarian ritual. Part of The New Yorker Documentary series, the film highlights the cultural practice from the perspective of its participants, known as Kukers, who describe the roots of faith, community, and family that draw them together each spring to ward off evil spirits.
During the annual event, dancers don elaborate animal skin garments, intimidating masks, and huge bells around their waists to appear spectral and huge. For those who participate, it is a calling with mysterious, spiritual ties. “It was innate for me, and it kept growing over the years,” one narrator says. “No one can say why they dressed up as a Kuker for the first time. It has been passed down from generation to generation.” Lassablière focuses on the custom’s ancestral and future appeal, as children dance with their parents and look forward to being able to dance with the big bells.
See the entire film on The New Yorker’s YouTube channel, and find more work by Lassablière on his website. You might also enjoy photographer Charles Freger’s portraits of Kukers and practitioners of similar Eastern European traditions.
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Documentary History Photography
‘A History of the World According to Getty Images’ Challenges the Power Structures Inherent in the Capture and Control of Footage
When a creative material’s copyright lapses, it enters the public domain, which means it is no longer subject to trademarks, patents, or intellectual property rights. No individual, company, author, or artist owns it, and it belongs to the public. If this is the case, why is some public domain footage so expensive? This is the question at the core of Richard Misek’s short film “A History of the World According to Getty Images” in which he explores how historically significant footage from newsreels, government agencies, and pioneers of film are “held captive” behind paywalls.
Beyond the history contained within the images, Misek examines footage itself and what happens after it’s captured. He focuses on Getty Images, the world’s largest commercial archive, challenging its control over public footage, which it only makes available through steep licensing fees. In the case of The Miles Brothers’ iconic short film “A Trip Down Market Street,” which captures downtown San Francisco just days before the devastating 1906 earthquake, the film was digitized in 2016 by the Prelinger Archive and made available for free, while Getty charges hundreds or thousands of dollars for the rights to use the footage, depending on its intended use.
Misek parses the unequal power dynamics inherent within capturing life and major events, in addition to the barriers to accessing that footage today. “Newsreel cameras document power, but what strikes me most from my exploration of the Getty Archive, is how much the act of filming itself is an expression of power,” Misek narrates. He points out that footage shot by the government, like the first atomic explosions at Bikini Atoll in 1946, enters the public domain immediately, but that NASA is the only federal agency that releases directly to the public. Misek paid to us use six of the eight full clips in the film, which he sourced from various collections to find the best price.
Whenever I search a news archive, I always hope I’ll find some images that aren’t about power. And once in a while I do. But by and large, the past offers no surprises. As it is the source of all the inequalities and injustices that still exist. That’s why I made this film. Its aim is not only to share images’ stories, it’s to release them from captivity.
By paying to use the full clips, Misek slyly adds previously inaccessible images into the public realm by claiming no copyright, making the film available to stream online and download in full for free. You can find more of his work on Vimeo and his site.
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Art Documentary History
Duct Tape and Dreams: The Wild History of SFMOMA’s Famous Soapbox Derby
Art can have many purposes—to be beautiful, to teach, to make us feel—but sometimes, art is just for fun. Such is the case for SFMOMA’s Soapbox Derby, a raucously creative race that sent dozens of artist-designed cars barreling through the streets of San Francisco in 1975, 1978, and again last April.
The idea originated with Bay Area sculptor Fletcher Benton (1931-2019) back in the 70s when he proposed that the museum commission a competition to make art fun and accessible to the public and to provide local artists with funding. SFMOMA agreed to the project, and more than 90 artists were tasked with designing racers and trophies. Rules stipulated that the cars “must coast, that they must not exceed the dimensions of six feet in width and seventeen feet in length, (and) that the vehicle contains an adequate steering and braking system.” Plus, the works should be cost-effective, and the museum offered $100 per car and $35 for trophies.
Thousands of viewers lined the 800-foot winding slope of McLaren Park’s Shelley Drive to watch artists like Ruth Asawa, Carlos Vila, and the collective known as Ant Farm compete. Racers were varied in subject matter and material and included vehicles shaped like bananas, sneakers, enormous hands, and a yellow No. 2 pencil, the latter of which was built by Richard Shaw, the winner in the “Fastest Looking” category of the legendary 1975 competition and the only alum in the 2022 revival.
Shaw features in “Duct Tape and Dreams,” a short documentary produced by SFMOMA and Stink Studios about last year’s event that follows artists as they construct their cars and sail down the hill. After studio visits and glimpses into the construction processes, race day is a riotous, high-energy event that sees a range of mishaps and successful descents for designs like Windy Chien’s rope dome (previously), a googly-eyed backhoe by Girl’s Garage and “Succulent Sally,” a car covered in native plants made by a team of the city’s gardeners.
Capturing the streets lined with spectators, the documentary is a reminder of what life was like before digital connection became ubiquitous and that art can be both playful and foster meaningful connection. “Art is not just in a white cube,” writes Tomoko Kanamitsu about the derby. “It can be a car made of bread that disintegrates halfway down a hill on Shelley Drive. Art can be anywhere and everywhere.”
SFMOMA hasn’t yet announced plans to host another iteration, but you can brush up on your derby history by watching “Duct Tape and Dreams” and diving into the photo archive in the meantime.
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Art Craft Documentary
A Book and New Documentary Explore the Possibilities of Ink-Making in Urban Environments
Jason Logan’s entry into ink-making started with a black walnut tree he encountered while biking through a local Toronto park. After gathering the fallen seeds and bringing them home, he boiled the green nuts until they produced a rich brown pigment. Now nearly ten years ago, this moment became the catalyst for what’s grown into an expansive network of projects exploring the possibilities of color and foraging in the most unlikely spaces.
Logan founded The Toronto Ink Company in 2014 and began to create pigments from materials gathered around the Canadian city, including the aforementioned black walnut but also street detritus like cigarette butts, soot, and rust. The idea was to create more environmentally conscious products and extend foraging into urban environments. “You start seeking out hopeful green spaces under a highway overpass or in a back alley,” Logan said in an interview. “A rusty nail becomes a possible ink or a penny with greenish oxidation on it.”
These discoveries led to Make Ink, his 2018 guidebook for scavenging with recipes and tips on creating pigments at home. Organized by color, the 192-page volume encompasses history and science and focuses on the alchemy behind his work. The book is also the predecessor to the artist’s latest project, a feature-length documentary that delves into his harvesting and production process.
Currently screening in Canada, The Colour of Ink follows Logan as he gathers organic and human-made substances and transforms them into usable goods. Featuring artists and writers like Margaret Atwood, Kōji Kakinuma, and Heidi Gustafson (previously), the film highlights the connection to the earth and emphasizes the lively qualities of the material. “The ink I make is unpredictable. It’s fugitive. It’s on the run,” Logan says in the trailer.” “What I’m hoping to do is draw people’s attention to minute differences.”
Pick up a copy of Make Ink on Bookshop, and follow Logan on Instagram for updates on additional documentary screenings, which are likely to happen in Tel Aviv, Hong Kong, and throughout the U.S. in the coming months.
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Editor's Picks: Documentary
Highlights below. For the full collection click here.