HotDocs2016: Random Acts of Legacy and No Cultural Value
Screening together, the documentary short No Cultural Value and the feature Random Acts of Legacy are both acts of preservation, capturing and presenting works in other visual mediums that might have otherwise been lost or remained largely unseen. In doing so, both movies assert their subjects as artworks worthy of attention and discussion.
No Cultural Value offers intriguing glimpses of the strange cement sculptures and some of the paintings of Armand Lemiez, a solitary farmer who lived in Grahamdale, Manitoba, for much of the twentieth century. The title comes from the province’s negative assessment of Lemiez’ works after he had bequeathed them to the province near the end of his life. Despite the efforts of a few locals to try to preserve his works, many of the statues that litter the remains of Lemiez’ rural lot have fallen into ruin. The statues are strange, somewhat unrefined representations of apes, dinosaurs, and people. For example, in one statue an ape with glasses comments on income tax; in another, a sasquatch grabs at an indigenous woman, who pulls away. In voice over, a recording of Lemiez (who died in the 1980s) describes that she doesn’t want to be with the “monkey” and laughs.
No Cultural Value is an intriguing short doc that only starts to scratch the surface before it ends. To director Mike Maryniuk’s credit, No Cultural Value conjures wonder for sure. The film, particularly the opening, contains many eerie shots of Lemiez’ sculptures, the camera tilted up and sometimes tracking by as a starry night sky time-lapses behind the strange figure. In a few spectacular shots, Maryniuk captures the stunning Northern Lights as well. Some details and the comments of various people (albeit with little introduction) are conveyed through voice-over (probably obtained over the telephone), and we get some titles relating snippets from local news reports, but all the titles are in a horror-movie eerie-green font that creates an atmosphere but does not help to distinguish the information. Overall, Maryniuk makes his case—I want to see more of Lemiez’ works—but I also wanted to know more of the details of Lemiez’ story.
Random Acts of Legacy is an absorbing, quietly stunning, and, I would venture to say, important feature documentary. Director Ali Kazimi (who is also a professor of Cinema & Media Arts at York University) obtained some old 16mm home movies of a Chinese-American family (the Fungs) who lived in Chicago during the 1930s and 1940s. Functioning as the narrator, Kazimi informs us that moving images of non-white people from early in the century are very rare. Random Acts of Legacy explores the home movie findings, and interviews a few living family members. A cousin and one of the daughters in particular provide much of the commentary. Kazimi restored the footage and has now preserved the film digitally.
A documentary showing old home movies sounds a bit boring, but the material Kazimi discovers contains several different and equally compelling threads. First, Silus Fung, the father who made the home movies, is something of an amateur filmmaker. His daughter reports that he was always making these movies. Kazimi notes how Silus lights interior scenes and stages certain activities, such as children popping up for a birthday surprise. Kazimi also notes Silus’s command of film grammar, composing reaction shots in camera and never crossing the axis.
Silus Fung as amateur filmmaker is just one of the film’s interesting themes. Another is Silus’s obsession with the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Silus’s wife is also a fascinating and pioneering figure. Silus was a commercial artist and couldn’t provide enough for the family, so his wife started working in the emerging insurance industry, and she worked her way up in the company to eventually become a vice president. The home movies paint rare portraits of not only an unconventional career dynamic in a mid-twentieth-century marriage, but also a middle-class Chinese American family in a time when most Chinese Americans worked in laundromats and restaurants. Related to the family’s uniqueness is the Fung’s active involvement as Chinese Christians; the grandfathers on either side were ministers, one Baptist, the other Presbyterian. The result is a film that is noteworthy not only for the footage being preserved and showcased, but also for the genuinely compelling and unique lives the footage reveals. The film only drags a bit near the end, and for the most part there’s enough compelling material to have put together a documentary on just one of these threads.
What emerges is a great example of identity politics done well. Kazimi offers attention to how race, class, work, religion, and other cultural markers shape how identities are projected and perceived in society, but it is done in a way that is not reductive or presumptive. In general, the film is more fascinated with the idiosyncratic lives being documented than with crafting an overt and easy consumable political message, like too many documentaries today. The Fungs frustrate both the narrow categories of mid-century America as well as many of our own twenty-first century assumptions about the past, which makes the film a moving testament to the uniqueness and complexity of human identity.
Neither documentary offers very substantial criticism of their artistic subjects, but both films implicitly evaluate and examine their subjects. Maryniuk’s short is essentially a counter argument to the claim contained in its own title, asserting Armand Lemiez as a folk artist worthy of our interest and preservation. Maryniuk made this aim clear during the Q-and-A after the film. I would have appreciated a few more comments in the film about the art being presented though. At one point, we are offered a tantalizingly brief discussion of several paintings charting evolution (from an ape on all fours, to a walking ape, to an erect human, to a nuclear bomb, and then back again to an ape on all fours), but most of our views of the sculptures and paintings only intrigue and do not offer analysis.
I have already mentioned that Kazimi offers some discussion of Silus’s style in his film, and he discussed Silus’s pioneering handheld camera work during the Q-and-A, pointing out that Silus’s camera movements are happening in an early period that rarely used hand-held cameras. Kazimi also pointed out a tracking shot of the daughter going to school, which Fung must have accomplished from his car while his wife drove. In addition to offering fascinating insight into the life of one Chinese American family, Random Acts of Legacy might also be our first view of a pioneering twentieth-century amateur filmmaker.
No Cultural Value (2016, Canada)
Directed by Mike Maryniuk
7 out of 10
Random Acts of Legacy (2016, Canada)
Written and directed by Ali Kazimi
9 out of 10