Writing in 1991 in one of the first serious academic monographs dedicated to the documentary film, Bill Nichols identified five stylistic “modes” of the documentary form: the expository (associated with the omniscient narration of newsreel films), the poetic (starting with the avant-garde of the 20s; Ivens, Grierson etc.), the observational (direct cinema, beginning in the 60s), participatory (talking heads interview style), and the reflexive.1 Nichols’ schema is certainly not without its faults, but it is useful as a starting point for thinking about the changes we have seen recently in nonfictional filmmaking. While these categories are not intended to reflect a chronology of documentary filmmaking, they do indicate a certain tendency in filmmaking practice that has developed over the years. To simplify, it seems as if the artist has entered the documentary film in recent years – she increasingly strays away from asserting truths (“this is the truth about X phenomena in the world), and instead moves towards expressing the truth as a personal conclusion (“this is what I know about ‘X’), and even in some instances as inherently limited (“what do I know?”).
We have seen this move play out in the festival circuit in recent years, with films like Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, MIFF 2012) and Gleaners and I (MIFF, 2003) achieving international success while admittedly varying in quality.2 These films are marked by the strongly felt presence of the filmmaker, as their exterior subjects – Polley’s family history in the former, the philosophy and practice of gleaning in the latter – are intertwined with the directors’ interior experiences with them. Joaquim Pinto’s What Now, Remind Me joins this list of films, and has achieved similar success. Near the beginning, the director calls it a “notebook” of a year of treatment of his Hepatitus C/HIV co-infection, but its scope is much broader: it is also a document of his home life with his partner Nuno and their four dogs,3 his friendships, a reflection on the history of the HIV virus and the fate of its sufferers, and Pinto’s life in the cinema amongst other things. The jumble of subjects is a purposeful stylistic choice that mirrors the director’s mind state during the filming process; due to his extensive treatment – some of which includes experimental pharmaceutical drugs – Pinto’s thought process and particularly his memory is disordered.
What Now, Remind Me is the director’s first foray into this personal mode of nonfictional filmmaking. Pinto is known (at least to me) as the producer and sound engineer of some of the most interesting works of Portuguese cinema in the last few decades, most notably the mercurial João César Monteiro and Manoel de Oliveira, as well as international stars Raúl Ruiz and André Téchiné. These cinematic connections and cinephilia more broadly feature regularly in the film, as Pinto reflects on his history of work in the cinema and how it has touched his life. This becomes a thematic crutch, as filmmaking becomes a way for Pinto to supplant memory and reality; one thinks back to this crystallising moment in the narration of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983):
…I remember that month of January in Tokyo, or rather I remember the images I filmed of the month of January in Tokyo. They have substituted themselves for my memory. They are my memory. I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape.
It is a moment that speaks to a whole history of reflexive documentary filmmaking, starting perhaps with Vertov and moving through Leo Hurwitz, Johan van der Keuken and a whole host of others.
Pinto’s film certainly doesn’t rank amongst the strongest of works in this personal documentary tradition. It lacks the free-spirited intellectual associations of a Marker or the space for contemplation allowed in Van der Keuken’s work. Yet it overcomes these deficiencies through the openness and even vulnerability that the filmmaker displays in laying bare his condition in such a way. Pinto films himself numerous times speaking openly to the camera while clearly suffering from the effects of treatment, sometimes struggling to stay coherent. What justifies these sequences – which could otherwise be accused of being emotionally manipulative – is its placement alongside others that go outside of his personal experience of pain, for example looking at the fate of other HIV sufferers and their myriad difficulties in obtaining treatment. It displays a refreshing antidote to filmic solipsism; a willingness to join the personal with the historical, and life to cinema.