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The current boom of the documentary genre needs to be observed closely from at least three spheres of visual production; television, film and art. Each one of these spheres generates its own particular products, within well-defined territories, while the interrelation and fluidity of the genre often traverses frontiers, moving from one to the other.
The documentary has become the artistic genre that best reproduces the contradictions of representation in late postmodernism. Its bonanza has a touch of the times, its ascent seeming to signify a systemic need that is as yet indiscernible.
My interest in exciting audio-visual material led me to the cinema to see Searching for Sugar Man by Malik Bendjelloul, in the end winner of the Oscar for best documentary. Going to see a film the day before the Hollywood gala, without even knowing it was nominated, seems a sure guarantee for critical objectivity. First off, the surprise was finding the small cinema was fairly full. Next, the projection began, and from the very first bars, something didn’t quite work. Searching for Sugar Man narrates the figure of Rodríguez, or Sixto Rodríguez, a singer songwriter who at the beginning of the sixties could have been one of the very greats, like Bob Dylan or maybe even reaching the status of the Rolling Stones. But he wasn’t. However, for strange reasons that aren’t quite clear, Rodríguez achieves huge success in South Africa during the Apartheid, becoming quite a symbol for Afrikaners. Rodríguez never knew about his great success in this country, and after the resounding failure of his first album in the United States, he returned to his job as a builder, with the mysticism and austerity of a street poet. The incredible but true story about Rodríguez is real and captures the public with its humanity and charisma. .
The form consciously employed by the director seems something akin to a false documentary. As it progresses it increasingly becomes more of a rockumentary. And here the problems begin: there is such an elaborate filmic language, such an aestheticized production and excessive commercial ambition that the possible history of Rodríguez ends up being consumed and reincorporated into the mainstream, revisionist bandwagon. Huge aerial panoramic views of cities, sunsets, digital animations and a dishonest mania of removing colour from digital images, are just a few of the sins that denote the anxiety to colonise the brain and heart of the spectators. This production ruins what on the other hand seemed like an argument with possibilities.
While the irritation of the yours truly grows in crescendo, lthe audience abandons itself to the songs and dominant aestheticism. There is not one unscripted element in this film that could open a breach where a breath of fresh air could seep in. While the enthusiasm of the “investigators” and South African fans seems pulled from a casting,the figure of Rodríguez succumbs to the greatest manipulation. Only the archive material from a tour of concerts by the singer in the African country, at the end of the nineties, manages to break the manicured and disguised treatment.
The first part offers clues about an investigation worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Who is Rodríguez? Did he really, as the South African legend says, commit suicide in a concert, by setting himself alight? Did he shoot himself in the head on stage? This is the most suitable part for the cognitive mapping typical of the documentary genre. Then it is demonstrated that the genres are only at the service of the directors and that their talent, and that of the scriptwriters, can breathe life and soul into a narration, in non-fiction as much as in fiction. (Zodiac, 2007, by David Fincher, comes to mind, quite a complex case surrounding the identity of a real character, however, treated as if it was fiction).
But apart from the forms, there is in Searching for Sugar Man a symptom true of a contemporaneity, such as our own, that doesn’t tire of discovering and rediscovering those forgotten chapters of another History: the discovery of someone who could reign but who chose the wrong life. Today this cultural historicism functions as a strategy to make anything that has not yet been exploited, consumable. Hordes of professional scriptwriters and amateurs, across the world, work untiringly to hit upon that story that is not totally familiar to the masses. It could be a musician, an artist or any episode from the past that returns. It doesn’t matter. That same night, having watched Searching for Sugar Man I found out that it was nominated for an Oscar, and immediately I intuited the imminent result. The Academy by instinct doesn’t usually get it wrong.
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world" (John Le Carré)