Documentaries were defined in this country as "educational films" for the longest time, largely because entire generations were first exposed to prosaic nonfiction films in grammar school. If that view still holds sway in pockets of the U.S. -- and it does, unfortunately -- we have Ken Burns' historically valuable and ponderously formulaic PBS opuses to thank.
Michael Moore's major contribution to documentary, beginning with Roger and Me in 1991, was emphasizing entertainment. Moore's work lacks, shall we say, a certain factual and chronological rigor, but by jettisoning the genre's air of solemnity in favor of an irreverent indignation he turned the masses onto documentaries and made the genre commercially and theatrically viable.
We're now at a juncture where the great majority of feature-length docs explicitly aim to be simultaneously educational and entertaining. What's missing from the scene, however -- and it may have everything to do with our narrative-driven, spoon-fed culture -- are ephemeral films that exist in a domain best described by another E-word: experiential.
Longtime San Francisco filmmaker Ellen Bruno is one of the foremost practitioners of this singularly evocative and empathetic style. She doesn't tell stories, or follow a character's journey over years or miles, or tease out both sides of a sociopolitical drama. In fact, she isn't interested in drama at all, if you mean the traditional structural elements of goal, obstacle, conflict, solution, resolution and moral.
Bruno operates in the realm of poetry, which is assuredly the road less traveled of American documentary. Although she's been making award-winning films for nearly two decades, Bruno's status as something less than a household name is self-evident when you consider that most people still think of documentaries as a delivery mode for information, not an art form (German director Thomas Riedelsheimer's Rivers and Tides notwithstanding).
Bruno doesn't come out of the usual documentary paths, namely journalism, television or political activism. Nor did she grow up with a camera glued to her waist, churning out a shelf of mini-movies before the training wheels were off her bike. She did study documentary in the top-drawer graduate program at Stanford, but only after discovering the effectiveness and efficiency of mass communication as an aid worker serving as a liaison between Cambodian refugees and American doctors in a New York hospital in the 1980s.
As both a relief worker and then as a filmmaker, Bruno's focus has been the people of Southeast Asia and the Himalayas. Her three most recent works are on display for two special nights in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts program Worlds Unseen: Ellen Bruno. The title points to one of the essential functions of documentary filmmakers, which is bringing back portraits of hard-to-reach places. But it doesn't come close to describing the scope of Bruno's work. While some filmmakers take snapshots of exotic faces, she photographs souls.
The earliest and longest piece, the 50-minute Sacrifice (1998), is a heartrending exposé in which Burmese girls describe how they were tricked and sold (often by their families) into prostitution across the border in Thailand. Leper, which runs 25 minutes, takes us inside a far-flung Nepalese village that is home to a society of outcasts. The "jha-tor" ceremony at the Drigung Monastery in Tibet, a ritual acknowledging the circle of life wherein the bodies of the dead are prepared for vultures to devour, is captured in the short Sky Burial.
You may think it slightly perverse of me to hold the film titles and descriptions until the very end. But those facts don't convey the experience of watching Ellen Bruno's films any more than the title and subject of a poem tells you what you will feel when you read or hear it. For this is the heart of Bruno's ephemeral work: Every one of her documentaries works as an opening for the viewer to enter, to breathe and to experience. They are as far from educational films as you can get.
Worlds Unseen: Ellen Bruno screens 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 8 and Saturday, June 9 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St. (at Third St.). For tickets and information, call (415) 978-2787 or visit www.ybca.org.