Today’s Most Revolutionary Documentaries Are Being Made by a Group You’ve Never Heard Of

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Photo: Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab

With this week's Sound and Visions series, Vulture explores the future of movies and the movie industry. We hope you’ll plug us directly into your cerebral cortex.

The most exciting documentary films being made today come not from a brand-name auteur or even some up-and-coming, Sundance-anointed visionary. Rather, they come from a place called the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, which sounds more like somewhere an ophthalmologist might send you than a source of great filmmaking.

Less a lab and more a collection of like-minded individuals, the Sensory Ethnography Lab’s (SEL) first widely distributed release was the experimental documentary Sweetgrass, an observational, immersive, quietly lyrical portrait of a 150-mile journey involving a group of Montana cowboys and a massive herd of sheep, directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash. The film didn’t contextualize; it didn’t feature talking heads; it didn’t try to inform, as so many nonfiction films try to do. Rather, it just let us soak in the experience of this grueling, majestic journey.

And at a time when experimental documentaries are lucky if they can get a screening or two in an actual movie theater, Sweetgrass had a remarkably successful theatrical run. “Lucien gave me a call one day,” recalls Ryan Krivoshey, head of acquisitions for Cinema Guild, which released the film. “He was somewhere with the French director Claire Denis, who had recommended us based on how we had handled her film 35 Shots of Rum. He told me about the film. I took it home, watched it, and it blew my mind. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before.” Cinema Guild wound up releasing Sweetgrass in more than 150 U.S. cities, often selling out. It ran in one Montana theater for two months, Krivoshey recalls.

Castaing-Taylor was also co-director (along with Véréna Paravel) of last year’s mind-blowing Leviathan, a frantic, beautiful, at times terrifying portrait of commercial fishing in the North Atlantic. While Sweetgrass eavesdropped on conversations that the cowboys had with one another, Leviathan was nearly wordless. It consisted of wild, seemingly impossible images: The filmmakers dunked and dragged their waterproof digital cameras in the ocean, capturing vertigo-inducing shots, glimpsing flocks of seagulls overhead in between breathless surges of waves; they placed cameras among growing stacks of dying fish; they tethered cameras to sailors’ helmets, masts, and pretty much anything that could bear it. Blood, guts, eyeballs, waves, boots, steel, and wood; the film was a striking collage of elements. Again, Cinema Guild released it. Again, audiences flocked. Festivals and critics were smitten. Folks from Hollywood reportedly contacted the filmmakers, looking for information on how they had captured certain effects.

Could the SEL be a model for a new kind of filmmaking? More and more budding filmmakers are taking affordable GoPro cameras and seeing what kind of images they can capture with them — attaching them to bikes, placing them on consumer drones, jumping out of airplanes with them, etc. “For a lot of people, these films are their first experience with experimental cinema, but they’re so impressed by it all,” says Krivoshey. “And I think that will have an enormous effect. Who knows what other films these people will see, and in some cases make, after seeing these films?”

But the unfiltered feel of SEL films is not achieved easily: It’s a product of academic rigor and a dedication to fieldwork and observation. The Lab was founded at Harvard in 2006 by Castaing-Taylor, an anthropologist by training. It’s an interdisciplinary program that admits around ten students a year, with a course called Sensory Ethnography. There are a couple of editing rooms that belong to the SEL, as well as equipment filmmakers can check out to take to distant corners of the world.  

Many members of the SEL do fieldwork for years in specific regions and seek to create works that convey the lived-in experience of those worlds in all its complexity and wonder. Director Stephanie Spray, for example, spent years working with the communities in Nepal that are depicted in this year’s Manakamana, in which the camera remains fixed inside a cable car that travels to a mountain temple, staring into the faces of the passengers — some tourists, some pilgrims, some, well, goats. It was, perhaps, the most mesmerizing film of the year. Another veteran SEL member, J. Sniadecki, has lived in China and made numerous works there, including the stunning People’s Park, co-directed with Libbie D. Cohn.

Experience is a word that comes up quite frequently in discussions about the SEL. “Our experience is made up of different things, and sensory ethnography allows us to explore those experiences in ways that are different from what has become conventional in journalism and documentary,” says Ernst Karel, who now manages the SEL and did the sound on Sweetgrass, Leviathan, and Manakamana. (He also creates stand-alone audio works of his own; the SEL supports more than just movies.) “We embrace the open-ended nature of sensory media, because that open-endedness reflects the messiness of lived-in experience.”

“Who are we to try and package someone’s life, as if we know who they are?” Spray adds. “I’m always thinking about the ethics in image-making. And different people have different ideas about what ethical filmmaking is. Some people who see Manakamana say it would have been nice to know what these people onscreen were thinking, as if that would describe all their experience — but it doesn’t, really.” Indeed, the beauty of her film — and pretty much all the SEL’s films that I’ve seen — is that the movies transport you without presuming to give you the full picture about their subjects’ lives. They preserve a certain mystery, even as they exploit it.

The SEL’s own approach to its work is often grounded in theory and academia. But the audiences flocking to these films aren’t academics, nor are they critics. So why are they coming? “Maybe it’s a reaction against all the shim sham and glim glam of so many contemporary documentaries,” speculates Karel. “I was on an airplane recently, looking at the docs that were available, and it’s all so overproduced. Everything is given a glisten, with all these extra effects. It may be that people recognize the pleasure in not having those kinds of effects.” He notes that in SEL films like Leviathan and Manakamana, “your eyes have the freedom to wander all over the screen. It’s not directing your attention too much. That may be part of why Leviathan is such a powerful experience. We don’t always have an hour and a half of attentive, nonverbal consciousness. Not a lot of people will even listen to music for an hour and a half nonstop. Nonetheless, we’re totally rapt.”

Quite aside from the fact that they’re endlessly beautiful and fascinating, the SEL’s films also connect us back to something elemental about the promise of cinema. Many of the earliest movies in history were “actuality films” showing the viewers of the late 1800s and early 1900s glimpses of what lay beyond their narrow field of experience. Cameramen traveled the world capturing sights, or they mounted cameras on subway trains, or they experimented in other ways. In a world increasingly cluttered with images, it has been assumed that we no longer need the movies to give us these kinds of experiences anymore. The success of the SEL’s films — not just in theaters, but on home video and iTunes and elsewhere — suggests that we still do.