A Prayer for Nettie

1995
33:00

Truth and lies. Documentary and fiction. Distance and obscenity. Tenderness and cruelty. Donigan Cumming moves tirelessly to and fro across the thin dividing lines between these concepts. He likes to provoke us, to keep us uncomfortable. A Prayer for Nettie, the first of his films, marks the transition from photography to video. In fact, Nettie has long been his favourite model; here he devotes an elegy to her. She was still alive when he began to film her in 1993. An ordinary still image suspends her life, making her look like a recumbent figure on a tomb. At this point the mourners, captured in their home but associated with Nettie through the editing, can come in. One of them stands out especially -Albert, who hardly knew her. In the midst of his declamations Cumming gets him to perform a parody of a detective film. Are we watching a tragedy or a comedy? The film-maker does not choose. Although the protagonists are in an ongoing performance, a strong sense of emotion is felt throughout the film. While there is no explicit link between these figures, the deed of record staged by Cumming nonetheless brings them together in a virtual community. From now on it is to the latter that he will be devoting himself, from film to film.

Bertrand Bacqué, Visions du réel, 2002 

(translation: Kevin Whiteley)

Cut the Parrot

1996
40:00

In his first film, A Prayer for Nettie, Donigan Cumming had placed Albert at the heart of the posthumous tribute to Nettie, his former model. One year later, he composed Cut the Parrot, a new requiem intended for Albert, who also died amid total indifference. As in his previous film, the film-maker gathered a series of eulogies in honour of the deceased from the people, some close and others not so close, who were emotionally affected by his death. But this film differs from the previous one in that it seems to be based not only on respect but also on an intense anger. Several times Donigan films his own face and angrily tells about how he was informed of Albert's death or about his visit to the morgue to identify the body. From then on the principle behind his cinematographic quest seems clearly exposed: no life, however marginal it may seem, should end in such a way, without any consideration. Through their testimonials that contribute to giving a meaning to Albert's life, to saving him from the common grave, these fragile characters who express their fondness reveal their own grace, like the epileptic woman who sings Que sera with such intensity.

Yann-Olivier Wicht, Visions du réel, 2002

(translation: Paul Belle)

After Brenda

1997
41:00

An alcoholic and potbellied fifty-year old, Pierre Lamarche has lost everything: accused of rape by Brenda, the woman he loves, he finds himself in the street after a spell in prison. Obsessed by his ex-lover, he suspects her of sleeping with the neighbours and taking up prostitution.

Confiding his misfortunes to the camera in the same way as he would submit himself to therapy, Pierre considers himself rather like the producer of a film on his life. A real ham actor, he gets into his stride and lavishes his tale with exaggerations and spicy details. For his part, Cumming directs his makeshift actors, sets the scene and provokes encounters as the master of ceremonies of what he himself describes as a lowbrow novel. Using a complex narrative technique, he juxtaposes on Pierre's tale his own remarks as well as a second, more morbid story, quite distinct from the first and told by a character who a priori has no connection with the principal drama. Here the documentary flirts clearly with fiction: each character plays his own role, including the filmmaker: shrewdly, he collects the scattered fragments of this affair rather in the same way as a detective, enters apartments and leaves after recording on the video tape miscellaneous exhibits - Brenda's knickers... - and pieces of indecent evidence. In its sordid yet humorous dimension, After Brenda reveals an elliptical and explicitly manipulated reality. Disconcerting at first sight, this film is nevertheless a mirror image of Pierre's life: an ordinary mixture of established and fantasized facts.

Sophie Guyot, Visions du réel, 2002.

Erratic Angel

1998
50:00

Are erratic angels fallen angels? When we meet forty-eight-year-old Colin, the main character of the film, he is walking under the flyover of a motorway. He is on foot while those who play the game by society's rules whizz by a few feet above his head at the driving wheels of their Cadillacs. He dropped out long ago and lives alone forgotten by his family. He used to be a junkie and an alcoholic, now he is a marginal and develops analytical and self-justifying arguments which sometimes turn into a flow of jumbled words. Cumming introduces us to the everyday realities of this character with honesty. Filming on his own in video, he takes a different approach from the usual portrait, he doesn't magnify anything, nor does he idealise, he simply shows the raw truth: nakedness, destitution, lies, but also regrets, tenderness or the expression of common sense. Sequences follow showing each detail of Colin's life in the manner of a rigorous Perrec who from the description of a pile of objects or from a haircut sketches the main events in a life. This research is rendered sensitive through a formal approach using a steady cam and which allows Cumming to let his eye wander. Without distracting from speech the hand directs the lens beyond the face to enrich the word with shots that step out of sequence, out of the frame, and to where reality is shown as it is. This reality sometimes makes one feel uneasy but this uneasiness is the strength of erratic angel.

Yann-Olivier Wicht, Visions du réel, 1999

Karaoke

1998
3:00

Donigan Cumming calls Karaoke a "moving still". In fact, the motion in the three-minute shot that this film consists of almost comes to a halt. In close-ups, Cumming shows the face of an old man lying stiffly on a bed, his eyes closed. He swallows with great effort. The camera then moves slowly along his body to his feet, then back to his face. The man swallows again, and it is only then that the viewer notices that this second segment of the shot is the same as the first, only now running backwards. The shot has come full circle, and the back and forth motions override each other. Thus the continuously advancing filmic image reveals itself to be an optical illusion. Cumming also calls filmic representation into question in the relationship between image and sound. When the camera zooms into the open mouth, a song can be heard from off-camera as if the old man were singing karaoke, yet his lips do not move. In Karaoke, the image and sound don't allow themselves to be united, except for the point where the old man, as if in step with the music, gently moves his feet: an ironic punch-line in Cumming's complex film about filmic deception.

Elias Schafroth, Visions du réel, 2002

(translation: Douglas Heingartner)

Four Storeys

1999
3:02

In this film, which consists of a single sequence shot, Colleen's face invades the screen. This woman, who was to be the main figure in Donigan Cumming's If only I the following year, traces in a few modest sentences the path of a life in which love proves to be a knife and heroin leads to self-forgetfulness. The strength of this confession lies in the quietness with which it is uttered. The facts seem to be horrifyingly and implacably logical when expressed in this way, without any passion or anger. With surprising solemnness Colleen recalls what prompted her to attempt suicide. "I was petrified", she says on two occasions to justify this final intent of self-destruction. If only I was to reveal the paralysis this woman suffers from and was to lend a new meaning to this simple word: petrified. Four Storeys was made from the perspective of a video installation called Moving Stills and it raises a series of questions about the documentary recording of a personal statement. The distancing effect of this chapter contrasts with the raw appearance of some of the sequences that are shown simultaneously. This confrontation of styles invites us to reflect critically on the form of the images we are offered. 

Yann-Olivier Wicht, Visions du réel, 2002

(translation: Kevin Whiteley)

Trip

1999
2:11

The city is grey; it bathes in the usual muffled roar of traffic, sirens and horns. Among the bushes stiff from the cold, their branches caught in ice, the camera wanders forward. The wandering is restless. The walker will never be seen. Yet his presence is remarkable: his steps, his breathing, and his onomatopoeias reveal it in a sonic close-up. The subjective image closely examines the branches, marks brief pauses, continues on its way, and explores the alleys of this sort of labyrinth. The images in light suspension contrast with the staccato tramping of the footsteps on the frozen snow. Suddenly the walker stops. The camera sweeps over space. It is searching. The picture is slowed down, almost frozen. The stroller - undoubtedly Donigan Cumming - holds his breath. Anxiety peaks. Then the camera moves back. The search resumes, never to end. The anxiety persists, mysterious and penetrating.

Trip is a short fragment of Cumming's work but it is also a metaphor. That of a frantic and, as suggested by the title, hallucinatory search in a maze from a glacial age.

Jean Perret, Visions du réel, 2002 

(translation: Paul Belle)

Baby Jesus

1999
3:02

It's Christmas night. Pierre, the principal protagonist of After Brenda by the same author, lies in a deserted corridor. Accompanied by a bottle, he cries out his solitude, his despair, and sends a prayer to Christ.

One can sum up the plot of Petit Jésus in this way. But what does the viewer actually feel during the three minutes this film lasts? First of all, embarrassment and awkwardness. Cumming films his character in close-up, his nose is running and we almost feel like laughing, so grotesque and at the same time so pathetic does the scene appear. The inflated choirs of the music (that from Once Upon a Time in America) add distance and lend a comic effect to the whole thing. Nevertheless, something else emanates from this tortured man who is pouring out his woes. Something universal stemming from the tragedy of the human condition.

Where does this impression come from? Perhaps, beyond the troubles and misfortunes laid bare by this wretched man, from the fact that the camera openly and steadfastly focuses on him, when the natural impulse would be to look away. And also from the fact that the time obstinately drags on and the character asserts himself with all his density and lyricism. Something happens and profoundly moves us. No matter what Pierre did before. He becomes an icon of dereliction. And we completely lose any tendency to laugh.

Bertrand Bacqué, Visions du réel, 2002 

(translation: Angela Bennet)

Shelter

1999
3:22

An old man has been hit by a car and is now huddled in a bus shelter, where Donigan Cumming has stopped to talk to him. It's cold, and he can't move his legs. He has been married for forty-five years, has two children, fights with his wife, and believes in God's help. All this we learn from the soundtrack of Shelter. On screen we see only wavering, semi-abstract images: the asphalt floor of the bus shelter, a fragment of a hand, a fluttering scarf.

Cumming's work often provokes the viewer with its intimate, even intrusive gaze at sickness or aging. Shelter provokes in a different way, by refusing to show us anything of the encounter the film is supposedly about. A further provocation is Cumming's seeming callousness: he responds to the man's apparently real troubles as if they were a scene from a Western ("you can't shoot straight when you're like this"), and eventually just walks away.

This off-screen encounter, enigmatic at first, can be read as Cumming's critique of the role of both film-maker and audience in the conventional documentary portrayal of the disadvantaged. For a limited period of time we visit those less lucky than ourselves, turn them into characters in an imagined script, and ultimately abandon them to return to the safety of our own lives.

Marcy Goldberg, Visions du réel, 2002

If only I

2000
35:00

After having been for a long time a photographer of the human body, Donigan Cumming has for the past five years turned to the cinema. His films are uncompromising portraits of people whose lives are painful ordeals, if only i features Colin, the ange of Cumming's previous film, Erratic Angel. Colin has taken into his home Colleen, a woman who "fell from the nest" on a day when suicide seemed the only way out. She is now confined to a wheelchair. Cumming narrates the start of her new life. The film's title is taken from the opening sequence, in which Colleen goes over her past: if only I had not left my husband, if only I had not become attached to that other man.... In this way she proceeds to rewrite her whole story or, as she says, her tragedies. How does Cumming achieve such a feeling of trust that a single question of his is sufficient to bring Colleen to tell, apparently calmly, about so many violent experiences such as addiction, incest and suicide? The keystone of his filming technique is the close-up, which becomes almost unbearable when a scar or a ravaged face persistently occupies the screen. For Cumming hides nothing of the day-to-day life of this unusual couple. He allows his characters' anger and bitterness to be expressed in long shots.

The appeal of this film lies not in the enjoyment of what we see but in the emotion created by the raw reality that unfolds before our eyes and the rigour with which the film-maker handles his subject. The transposition of reality into image forgoes any decorative style and becomes - literally - a language of direct communication. Cumming's cinema remains as close as possible to speech in order to avoid diluting words and eroding their meaning. His films impact us forcefully, disturb us, and his cinema - sometimes described as the "video of cruelty" in reference to the concept of the body in Artaud 's theatre -seems to take the documentary to its utmost limits. This cinema, provocative for the spectator but definitely part of a consistent creative approach, presents harsh reality just as it is. The film will leave its mark and stay with you for a long time.

Yann-Olivier Wicht, Visions du réel, 2002

Wrap

2000
3:30

Stammering in front of the lens, a man tells of a mishap. The camera records his story, framing his face from very close to, then moving slightly away, then returning to the original close-up of the opening shot. The story then seems to carry on normally. However, without any apparent cut, the scene is shown to us played backwards, then the right way round once again. The loop is repeated in this way three consecutive times, finally giving rise to a false sequence shot lasting three minutes. At the same time, the sound rapidly dissociates itself from the picture. Although at first the monologue carries on normally when the scene is shown backwards, it is subsequently also played backwards or superimposed on the direct sound. This obsessional loop finally ends with the picture suddenly freezing on the character as he closes his eyes, while the sound, completely distorted, has become inaudible. Wrap is a film that stutters. Donigan Cumming amuses himself adapting the language of cinema to his subject in an extreme way. The multiple repetitions give an unexpected dimension to the recorded document. Taking advantage of the usual codes of documentary realism, the film-maker envelops this fragment of reality with a new perspective.

Christian Bovey, Visions du réel, 2002

(translation: Angela Bennet)

Docu-Duster

2000

Donigan Cumming takes the risk of going out of frame such is his joyous desire to occupy all of the space. A prominent nose, a pallid sweaty face, he plays a terrible scene with two voices. One of them claims it is high time to go. The character, Dan, is furious and menacing. Nothing will stop him! Donigan fades into the next scene. Alice is begging Dan not to abandon her and the children. He is risking his life! "Don't be a hero!" she implores. But Dan tells her to go to the devil. Inspired by a western - 3 :10 to Yuma - it is in the kitsch melodramatic tone of a soap opera that Cumming practices excess with delight. This satire is a cruel joke. Illustrating the paradox of the actor, he plays the parts of these two characters just as much as he is them. Docu-Duster sets down his approach consisting of filming up close to men and women who are both themselves and the characters they are portraying. Here, in an archetypal role-play, Cumming exists in the painful exaggeration and redeeming truth of his real and fantasised self. He makes this legendary story of intrepid and fragile heroes his own. 

Jean Perret, Visions du réel, 2002

(translation: Paul Belle)

A Short Lesson

2000
1:18

In A Short Lesson, a one-minute film, two sound sequences in off are superimposed on the picture: first of all a dialogue from Sullivan's Travels, in which a film director hears himself being reproached for his naïveté as well as for a certain voyeurism in wanting to make a film on "the poor". There follows an anecdote concerning James Agee, the well known film critic: drunk most of the time, he fell asleep in the cinema and wrote his articles for Time Magazine on the basis of summaries provided by a friend and colleague. During this time, the camera parades its pitiless eye on the face of an old man, examines the roots of his (sparse) hair, the (greasy) lens of his spectacles, his nose studded with blackheads, the lips edged with pimples, before coming to a stop on the mouth. Detached from their natural context, these organs acquire a special status: they become individual entities, seem to possess a life of their own and bear witness by their appearance to their own decrepitude. Forced as he is to thus scrutinize this ravaged face, the spectator quickly experiences an all too understandable uneasiness. This unease, premeditated by Cumming, echoes the conversation at the beginning of the film and also seems like a riposte at those who accuse him of voyeurism. Scathingly ironic, this "short lesson" should be taken as the beginning of a discussion on the responsibility of the filmmaker, as well as on the rôle of the spectator and the critic. 

Sophie Guyot, Visions du réel, 2002 (translation: Angela Bennet)

My Dinner with Weegee

2001
36:26

In My Dinner With Weegee is not about the photojournalist Weegee but about Marty, who used to socialize occasionally with him in New York in the 1950s. Now in his seventies, Marty shares with Donigan Cumming his memories of these and other encounters with artists, writers and activists. These lively stories of the past contrast sharply with Marty's desolate old age, which is dominated by bad health, alcoholism, loneliness, and money troubles. In the film Cumming pushes Marty to reveal as many facets of himself as possible, even literally exposing himself while urinating. If, in one scene, Marty's charm shines through as he sings a few bars of a song, in another we see him groping with trembling hands for a bottle of beer.

Cumming is open about his own multi-faceted rôle in the film (and in real life?) as Marty's friend, biographer, caretaker and inquisitor. He alternately helps him take his medication, nags him about his alcoholism, and shares his own memories with the older man. In one scene he swivels the camera back and forth between his face and Marty's, turning his questions about Marty's drinking into a filmic interrogation. And at several points, Cumming recites statements about his own alcoholic past, his decision to leave the USA during the Vietnam war, and his fascination with aging, decline and loss. In spite of the stilted language and stagey delivery, these remarks amount to a confession of sorts, making My Dinner With Weegee one of Cumming's most personally revealing films.

Marcy Goldberg, Visions du réel, 2002

Culture

2002
17:04

In his newest film Culture, Donigan Cumming searches the apartment of one of his regular characters, Nelson, who is in the hospital. Filming with one hand and rummaging through drawers with the other, Cumming finds much evidence of the passage of time. Dust, dirt, and rotten food infested with insects testify to Nelson's absence from home, while pictures and memorabilia hint at episodes from his life. From behind the camera we hear Cumming's spontaneous reactions to what he finds. They range from disgust at the mess to emotion at the signs of his friend's aging and illness, and frustration at not being able to find Nelson's chequebook, which is what he is supposedly searching for.

Cumming also uncovers evidence of his role in the other man's life: many of the photos he finds are his own, and show Nelson and other recurring figures over a period of twenty years. From Cumming's off-screen comments (and his other films) we understand that many of the people in the photos are already dead. The pictures act as a kind of flashback to previous times, as well as foreshadowing Nelson's own death. Thus, Culture becomes an elegy in advance for the dying Nelson. But it wouldn't be a classic Cumming work if it weren't also a commentary on the activity of capturing other people in still and moving images. The multiple meanings of the film's title - anthropological, aesthetic and scientific-biological - hint at the multifaceted nature of the impulse to document other people's lives. 

Marcy Goldberg, Visions du réel, 2002

Voice: Off

2003
38:08

Donigan Cumming looks at the violence of time that damages the body and exhausts memories. For the main character in Voice: Off, Gerald, the illness is incurable. Two cancers are at work, one of which is attacking his throat. The first images are the irrefutable ones of a naked man who has reached old age and whose voice is failing. The capturing in real time of death at work is one of the terms of this dense and complex film. But Cumming also likes to go back in time in search of a state of innocence. In his studio he spreads out the photographs of Gerald's life. A new-born child, a little boy cherished by his mother, at boarding school, a charming teenager and a worried adult, these states confer on him different postures, different expressions, and reveal to the eyes of the filmmaker an unsuspected anguish. Among these pictures, one of Cumming himself reminds us how close he is to the family as a faithful and insistent chronicler. He holds his video camera, sticks to his subject and details the photos. With obsession he seeks for legitimacy in his approach in-between fascination with hints of morbidity and reflections of a metaphysical bent. Iconoclastic and brutal in its hurried search, Voice: Off is strangely fraternal. One scene in particular reflects this. Gerald and a friend are standing in a small room. Time stands still. Nothing happens, they appear to be waiting aimlessly. Like characters out of Beckett's works they are left to the absurd fate of humanity.

Jean Perret, Visions du réel, 2002

(Translation: Paul Belle)

Cold Harbor

2003
2:55

With Cold Harbor, Donigan Cumming uses a minimum of elements to create a powerful anti-war message. At first, the video seems enigmatic, almost abstract. An amateur Handycam moves tentatively around a hospital room, panning and zooming from the view out the window to the dark-skinned old man lying on the bed. The image is shaky, blurred, often out of focus. Off-screen, a radio or television blares the news. On the soundtrack we also hear Cumming's own voice quoting from a general's memoirs: "I've always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made." Even without knowing that the text read by Cumming is from Ulysses S. Grant's American Civil War memoirs, the carnage it describes seems senseless enough. The general's description of the battle's catastrophic outcome is soon matched by the news announcer's account of a more recent, familiar conflict. By the time we hear the words "Taliban," "Al-Qaida" and "U.S. air strikes have killed..." Cumming's critical stance becomes clear. Meanwhile, the camera moves around the old man's body as if he were an object, peering up his nose and zooming in so close that his skin becomes a pattern of pixels. Is he a war veteran? Is he even still alive? By focusing on the frailty of one man's body, Cumming reminds us that the orders generals give always take their toll in human flesh.

Marcy Goldberg, Visions du réel, 2002

Locke's Way

2003
21:00

One of the central questions of philosophy has always been: what can be known? Locke's Way provides a vivid illustration of this perennial philosophical dilemma.

In this short video, Donigan Cumming is preoccupied with the story of his older brother, who seems to have been braindamaged and spent much of his life in institutions. Cumming sifts through old family photos and medical documents, commenting on what they do - or do not - reveal. With some desperation, he asks: was Julien (nickname: "Jerry") really abnormal? If so, what was the cause? And how did this affect the rest of the family?

Cumming speaks from behind his hand-held video camera, which picks up all the movements of his body and his laboured breathing. His reaction to the enigma of Jerry is as physical as it is psychological. At times he literally runs away from the problem by leaving the basement where the photos are stored and dashing up the stairs. But each time he forces himself to go back down and tackle the material. Upstairs his reactions are rational and adult; back in the basement he descends into the emotional world of his childhood. Cumming has said that his main references for this work are the English philosopher John Locke and the French novelist Marcel Proust. Locke argued for an empirical approach to knowledge, while Proust relied on remembered experience. Locke's Way pits these two approaches against each other, but the outcome - like the question of Jerry's life - remains unresolved.

Marcy Goldberg, Visions du reel, 2003

Fountain

2005
21:55

Fountain is a film that artfully disrupts itself during its chaotic unravelling.The tired faces, the exhausted bodies, the worn voices that Donigan Cumming brings together like an entomologist exhibiting the finest items of his collection, are an insult to decorum. The damned side of societies that wallow in clean-cut aesthetics and the smooth beauty of consensual advertisement images is at the root of the film-maker's political provocations. His films tell a quite different story. But Cumming's work is also fuelled by the pleasure he draws from a certain playfulness, as he strives to become the organizer of a type of family film (his present film features characters that appear in earlier work). He takes an obvious pleasure in directing them, and including himself in the process. Facing the camera, he wishes for times that would be simultaneously both quieter and more eventful: the ideal conditions for the making of a film? Close-ups play an important role within the process, haunting the spectator with their stigmatised decay. Toothless, drooling, laughing, and stunned faces are the pieces of a human puzzle that overflow from the filmmaker's world like gushing water from a fountain. These abandoned men and women haunt his images: resorting to visual violence to express his disenchanted and fascinated vision of beings on the verge of death is the core of Donigan Cumming's moral dimension.

Jean Perret, Visions du réel, 2005

(Translation: Lia Lambert)

3

2007
3:43

Men Asleep, a dream, play a song; angel and snow, wings and flowers, money and trees; fast then slow, piano decays, laughter.

Monument

2008
5:50

Monument stages the violent death and ceremonial burial of a symbolic object. Three pallbearers are the ghosts in a cruel machine. Mangy parrots, they mourn the death of a man they never knew.

 

Pencils, Ashes, Matches & Dust

2009
1:17

Figures of otherness, somehow familiar, are layered with tracings, gestural drawings, and jewel-like colours. They form a crowd of whirligigs, dancing to a broken tune, in this palimpsest of image and sound. 

Too Many Things

2010
36:00

Obsession, fascination and confusion in a world of objects that refuse to disappear.

Exit Interview

2014
20:35

Exit Interview is a tragi-comedy about obsolescence. A shrinking community’s resident documentary filmmaker is being fired.

Out of Kerr’s Suitcase

2016
38:17

Memory in three acts. A boy opens his presents. Two men open a suitcase stuffed with photographs. An aging actress opens her heart to lost love and ancient rivalries.

 

The Seven Wonders of the World

2018
18:59

A compilation of too-close observation, animation, and stolen moments, The Seven Wonders of the World is an absurd protest smeared on the city walls. To the engineering glories of ancient civilization, this new work adds an eighth: survival at the edge of the known universe? Bare-plus life.

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