Ethan H. Minsker’s documentary, The Dolls of Lisbon, focuses on New York City’s Antagonist Art Movement; most specifically showcasing the Movement’s project involving small dolls inspired by the Zapatista Dolls of Mexico. The Antagonist Art Movement’s blank dolls are sent to artists throughout the world to decorate or re-imagine the dolls as they see fit before returning them to NYC. In the meantime, the Antagonists put on doll art gallery shows, charity workshops or work on similar-minded projects, such as the repetition and re-imagining of a target sheet from a gun club, whereupon the head of the target is left blank for artists to fill in.
The Dolls of Lisbon is part showcase for the different artists and their dolls and artwork, and part travel film showing members of the Antagonist Art Movement as they journey to Lisbon, setting up gallery shows and workshops as they go, while dealing with the different artistic personalities that can sometimes be too friendly with the partying and a bit less friendly with the work aspect. And to the film’s credit, it’s balanced well in that regard. Had it only been about the different artists and their interpretations of the dolls, it could involve too numerous a group of subjects to care about or focus on, and become far too repetitious. Had it only focused on the Lisbon trip, it would’ve been more like being invited to a friend’s house to watch their travel video. The mix is where it works, as we see artists going about their lives juxtaposed with the resulting dolls while also seeing one very specific trip for the Movement.
That said, there are moments where the documentary seems like it would be most beneficial, or more interesting, to those with a previous knowledge of the different Antagonist Art Movement’s members and their works. Don’t get me wrong, as an introduction to many artists, it’s a nice starting point, but had I known more about many of them going in, I might have found their interpretations of the dolls that much more compelling. For example, I’m quite aware of Arturo Vega, and so I was very interested in what he was going to do with his doll (he did not disappoint).
The look of the film has a very raw feel to it, sometimes the side effect of poor audio or on-the-go Super 8mm filmmaking, but it also has some more produced ideas, utilizing stop-motion animation. It doesn’t feel manipulative in its aesthetic, however, like it’s saying, “hey, we’re artsy because we still shoot on film.” It also doesn’t feel false in the way that Jersey Shore, for some reason, likes to make footage appear as if it were shot on scratched-up, dirty film. Simply, it fits in with the aesthetic of the art showcased in the film, and therefore it all works.
In the end, the film does a great job of informing the audience about this art movement, and its galleries, workshop charity work and other projects, and it succeeds in that regard. It’s not a historical retrospective on a movement long since expired, and it’s not big on talking heads telling you about the importance of the Antagonist Art Movement. It just lets you know that they’re out there, and so are their dolls.
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