Cinema of Austria


2019 was a special year for me. I came back to cinema in an abiding way after a break of over three years. It was also this year that I quit my day job to write and translate full time, even if it has mostly been for this site. This second innings of my cinephilia has been more guarded, and I find it hard to be excited about watching this or that film, even if it’s by a favourite filmmaker. Part of the reason for this change, I think, is that I don’t repose as much faith in the taste-makers I was earlier guided by (major festivals, branded auteurs, critical consensus). This has weakened, if not completely collapsed, the structure in my mind of what constitutes important cinema of a particular year. Adding to this is the fact that the way I react to films has changed. In my writing, I see myself responding to certain aspects of a work rather than forming strong opinion on its overall merit. As a result, I’m as stimulated by lesser works with strong moments or ideas as I am by expectedly major projects. Whether this breaking down of hierarchies is a sign of openness to new things or a symptom of waning faith, I don’t know.

            The state of affairs in the world outside cinema hasn’t been easy either. The staggering return of the politically repressed around the world has found an expression in some of this year’s films too (Zombi Child, The Dead Don’t Die, Atlantics, Ghost Town Anthology, Immortal). Personally speaking, the increasingly dire situation in India hasn’t been without its influence on the way I relate to cinema. The brazenness of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has now paled in comparison to the mind-numbing institutional violence towards the ongoing protests against the act. Looking at videos of police brutality on my social media feed, I wondered, as anyone else involved in matters of lesser urgency must have, if writing about cinema at this point even had a personal significance, leave alone a broader, social one. The directness of the videos, the clarity of their meaning and the immediacy of their effect made me doubt whether cinematic literacy—contextualization, analysis, inference, interpretation—was a value worth striving for. Weakening of convictions is perhaps part of growing old, but it makes writing all the more difficult. Every utterance becomes provisional, crippled by dialectical thought. I don’t have a hope-instilling closing statement to give like Godard does in The Image Book, so here’s a top ten list instead. Happy new year.

 

0. 63 Up (Michael Apted, UK)

 

1. The Truth (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan/France)

 

While multiple films this year about old age have presented it as a time of reckoning, Kore-eda’s European project The Truth offers an honest, rigorous and profoundly generous picture of life’s twilight. In a career-summarizing role, Catherine Deneuve plays a creature of surfaces, a vain actress who struts in leopard skin and surrounds herself with her own posters. Her Fabienne is a pure shell without a core who can never speak in the first person. She has written an autobiography, but it’s a sanitized account, a reflection of how her life would rather have been. “Truth is boring”, she declares. Responding to her daughter Lumir’s (Juliette Binoche) complaint that she ignored her children for work, she bluntly states that she prefers to be a good actress than a good person. Behaviour precedes intent in the mise en abyme of Kore-eda’s intricate monument to aging, as performance becomes a means of expiation and a way of relating to the world. A work overflowing with sensual pleasures as well as radical propositions, The Truth rejects the dichotomy between actor and role, both in the cinematic and the existential sense. In the end, Fabienne and her close ones come together as something resembling a family. That, assures Kore-eda’s film, is good enough.

 

2. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

 

The across-the-board success of Parasite invites two possible inferences: either that the cynical logic of capital can steer a searing critique of itself to profitable ends or that this twisted tale of upward ascension appeals to widely-held anxiety and resentment. Whatever it is, Bong Joon-ho’s extraordinary, genre-bending work weds a compelling social parable to a vital, pulsating form that doesn’t speak to current times as much as activate something primal, mythical in the viewer. With a parodic bluntness reminiscent of the best of seventies cinema, Bong pits survivalist working-class resourcefulness with self-annihilating bourgeois prejudice and gullibility, the implied sexual anarchy never exactly coming to fruition. He orchestrates the narrative with the nimbleness and legerdemain of a seasoned magician, the viewer’s sympathy for any of the characters remaining contingent and constantly forced to realign itself from scene to scene. Parasite is foremost a masterclass in describing space, in the manner in which Bong synthesizes the bunker-like shanty of the working-class family with the high-modernist household of their upper-class employers, tracing direct metaphors for the film’s themes within its topology. It’s a work that progresses with the inevitability of a boulder running down a hill. And how spectacularly it comes crashing.

 

3. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

 

Vitalina Varela is an emblem of mourning. In recreating a harrowing moment in her life for the film, the middle-aged Vitalina, who comes to Lisbon following her husband’s death, instils her loss with a meaning. It’s a film not of political justice but individual injustice, the promise to Vitalina the that men in their resignation and madness have forgotten. It’s also a bleak, relentless work of subtractions. What is shown is arrived at by chipping away what can’t/won’t be shown, this formal denuding reflective of the increasing dispossession of the Cova da Moura shantytown we see in the film. Costa’s Matisse-like delineation of figure only suggests humans, enacting the ethical problems of representation in its plastic scheme. The film is on a 4:3 aspect ratio, but the viewer hardly perceives that, the localized light reducing the visual field to small pockets of brightness. Vitalina is a film of and about objects, whose vanishing echoes the community’s dissolution and whose presence embodies Vitalina’s assertive spirit. Her voice has its own materiality, her speech becomes her means to survival. Costa’s film is a vision of utter despair, a cold monument with an uplifting, absolutely essential final shot. A dirge, in effect.

 

4. Bird Island (Sergio da Costa & Maya Kosa, Switzerland)

 

The bird island of the title is a utopian place, a refuge for those wounded or cast aside by modernity. For sixty minutes, we are invited to look at five people working silently alongside each other in a bird shelter, tending to birds dazed by the airport next door. They don’t ask where these birds come from, nor do they expect them to leave soon. They simply treat the feathered creatures, re-habituate them into the wild and set them free. The reclusive Antonin, the new employee, is one such bird too, and his social healing at the shelter is at the heart of the film. Bird Island is full of violence, natural and man-made, all of which it treats with stoic acceptance, but it’s a work primarily about the curative power of community, the capacity for individuals to coexist in mutual recognition of each other’s frailties. In that, it’s the Catholic film par excellence, an allegory of the origin of religion. It’s also an exceptionally relaxing film to look at. Observing the participants absorbed like Carthusian monks in their individual tasks, even while working in a group, places the viewer on the same meditative state.

 

5. Heimat is a Space in Time (Thomas Heise, Germany)

 

Without question, Heimat is a Space in Time is the best 3½-hour film of the year. Heise’s sprawling experimental documentary uses largely personal documents—letters sent between family members, handed-down private documents—to evoke a broad history of 20th century Germany. As a narrator reads out the exchanges—Heise’s grandfather trying to reason with the Nazi state against his forced retirement, heart-rending accounts from his Jewish great grandparents describing their impending deportation, letters between his parents who were obliged to be in two different places in DDR—we see quotidian images from current day Germany and Austria, urban and rural. For Heise’s family, always made to justify their own place in the country and to never truly belong, the Germanic idea of Heimat seems positively a fantasy. While he reads out his great grandparents’ descriptions of their increasingly impossible conditions of living, Heise presents a scrolling list of Viennese deportees prepared. We try to look for the inevitable arrival of their names in the alphabetical list, our gaze forever deferred. When they do arrive, it feels arbitrary. In other words, what we hear could well be the story of any of the thousand preceding names. Perhaps all of them.

 

6. Slits (Carlos Segundo, Brazil)

 

A worthy heir to Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Slits draws its inspiration from quantum physics to explore patently human concerns of loss, grief and memory. The uncertainly principle it offers is a choice between being in this world, awake to the problems of living, and finding meaning in the elsewhere. Physicist Catarina (Roberta Rangel) makes ‘sound-photos’ to study quantum the properties of light. She makes extreme zooms into a digital image to perceive the noise issuing from particular coordinates. These ‘dives’ enable her to listen to conversations from another space-time. Grieving from the loss of her child, Catarina unconsciously attempts to find closure through her research. But trying to inspect the surface of things from too close, she loses sight of her immediate reality; trying to find solace in the objectivity of science, she ends up rediscovering the great lesson of 20th century science (and cinema): that the observer influences the observation. Shot in high-definition digital video, Slits is to this new format what Blow-up was to photography. It locates in the trade-offs of the medium—between details and stability, between richness of palette and noise—visual correlatives to its key idea of quantum uncertainty. A brilliant, sophisticated work of politico-philosophical science fiction.

 

7. Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, UK/Austria)

 

Of all the recent classical Hollywood riffs in mind, none reinvigorates the B-movie tradition as intelligently or potently as Little Joe. Hausner’s modernist creature feature is a monster movie unlike any other: the dangers of the genetically-modified “happiness” plant that biologist Emily (Alice Woodard) develops is exposed early on, and there’s no triumphal reassertion of mankind to counter its menace. What we get instead is a protracted, total submission of individuality to a hegemony of happiness. Little Joe is many things at once: a multi-pronged attack on the wellness industry straight out of Lanthimosverse, the difficulty of being less than happy in an environment that demands you to be constantly upbeat, the fallout of women artists trying to expunge their maternal complexes in their work and of mothers having to lead double lives. Hausner’s camera appears to have a mind of its own, settling on the space between people, which is what the film is about: the culturally mediated relations between individuals. It’s notable that the titular plant reproduces not biologically but culturally. With its terrific score and work on colour, Hausner turns the cheesecake aesthetic of the film against itself. The result is a film of unusual intellectual density and formal frisson.

 

8. Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski, Germany)

 

In Status and Terrain, the German obsession with documentation and due process is called to testify to the dialectical process of historical remembrance. Adamczewski’s gently moving camera surveys the length and breath of public spaces in the Saxony region, once a Nazi stronghold, now seemingly anaesthetized under liberal democracy. Official communication, bureaucratic reports and private testimonies read on the voiceover incriminate the buildings and monuments we see on screen, revealing their role in power struggles through the ages. Just as the documents vie for a narrative on the soundtrack, ideologies once thought dead and buried surface to stake their claims on the urban landscape in the present. Adamczewski moves through 80 years of German history non-chronologically, the collage of information pointing to the living, breathing nature of political belief systems. Nazi detention of political opponents in concentration camps, Soviet retribution and blindness to victims of persecution, rise of neo-fascist groups post reunification and the historically indifferent, bulldozing force of current-day neoliberalism play out on the surface of seemingly sedate cities and towns. Status and Terrain is a sober, bracing examination of the manner in which prejudice becomes writ, which in turn becomes history, but also of the way in which this history is contested.

 

9. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina, USA)

 

The premise is a throwback to the clichés of the eighties: a group of teenagers at a suburban school prepare for their prom night. But in Taormina’s sure-handed treatment, this banal event assumes a spiritual dimension. In the film’s cubist first half, different groups of boys and girls make their way to the restaurant-turned-dance hall, where they will take part in rites of initiation into adulthood and experience something like a religious communion. And then, right after this VHS-ready high, a void descends over the film, turning its raptures into a mourning, not for those who have left this small-town existence but for those left behind: disaffected youth drift about the town or going through robotic social rituals, devoid of magic or warmth. It’s a work evidently deriving from personal experience, but one that’s refracted through a formalist lens. The strength of Ham on Rye is not the depth of its ideas, but the vigour of its prose. Taormina’s manifestly personal style emphasizes the surface of things, the idiosyncratic shot division focuses on gestures and minor physical details to construct scenes, and the eclectic sense of music imposes a global consciousness on a narrative that is otherwise extremely local.

 

10. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (Frank Beauvais, France)

 

“Cinephiles are sick people”, said Truffaut. Frank Beauvais agrees. Following his father’s passing and a breakup, Beauvais shut himself up in his house in a trou perdu in Eastern France, and watched over 400 films in a period of seven months. Out of this glut, this sickness that Beauvais calls ‘cinéfolie’, came Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream, a film about looking, made wholly of clips from these 400 movies. Through a rapid, self-aware voiceover, the filmmaker reflects on his self-imposed isolation, his panic attacks, the poverty that prevents him from changing his lifestyle, his complicated feelings towards with political action, the conservatism of those around him and his relationship with his parents. Beauvais’s film is a record of his malady as well as its cure. In its very existence, it demonstrates what anyone sufficiently sickened by cultural gluttony must’ve felt: that the only way to give meaning to the void of indiscriminate consumption is to produce something out of it. Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream is not just a cinephile’s film, filled end to end with references, but the preeminent film about cinephilia, the solipsistic hall of mirrors that Beauvais breaks down and rebuilds inside out.

 

Special Mention: Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, India)

 

 

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann)

In the first shot of Austrian artist Daniel Zimmermann’s Walden, a camera pans from left to right in the middle of a forest. It’s still and quiet, and it isn’t until minutes into the shot that we have the first human presence. A lumbering activity is underway and we hear the hum of a chainsaw in the distance. Around the eighth minute of the shot, amid cries of timber, a tree falls, its tip just a few feet from the camera. When the camera completes full circle, the view has changed so much that we aren’t sure whether it’s the same spot the camera started at. Human action on the environment is what Walden is about, traces as it does the conversion of the fallen tree into planks and its transportation over rail, road and sea to a forest location in Brazil. Walden tangentially fits into a tradition of narrative documentaries that purport to demonstrate the workings of a globalized economy by focusing on the provenance of specific consumer goods. While its cross-continental movement is still enabled by international trade, the timber here isn’t following the regular route of imported goods. As the film’s supporting text points out, the path of the planks in Walden is the reverse of the usual trajectory of goods in a global economy. The film never reveals the mystery of why a consignment of sawn wood must move from Austria to a tribal region in the Amazon.

This refusal to explain can partly be understood by the fact that Walden also inscribes itself into another tradition. Constructed out of thirteen 360-degree pan shots of about eight minutes each, it has a direct kinship to structural films such as those of James Benning. It’s especially reminiscent of Benning’s RR in its emphasis on movement of goods described in predetermined cinematic formulae. The structure raises the questions: why 360-degree pan shots and why nine minutes? I think there are no extra-cinematic explanations to these choices and that these are foundational parameters—arbitrary givens of the problem—that are to be taken for what they are. Besides, the shots don’t exactly complete full circle, most stop at three-fourths. The duration, too, ranges from seven to nine minutes. While Zimmermann’s camera moves at a constant pace, it gives the illusion of slowing down or speeding up depending on the movement that happens along the sweep of the camera. The moving timber makes its presence in every shot either at the beginning or the end, but the milieu it’s moving through—whether it’s a scenic port city in Brazil or a tribal village in the woods—is of equal interest. The film starts and ends in the stillness and silence of the jungle while its middle section consists of constant movement, just as it begins and closes deep within the woods, with its central passages having to do with modern facets of civilization. Zimmermann’s camera always seems to be at the right place and time to capture the most interesting action in the vicinity. This aspect reinforces its pre-determined structure over its documentary aspects.

The Whalebone Box (Andrew Kötting)

For those who have seen any of Kötting’s work, the confounding associations of The Whalebone Box shouldn’t come as a total curveball. The sixty-year-old Kötting makes playful experimental films featuring friends and family that work off English folklore and geography. A frequent protagonist is his daughter Eden, an artist herself, who was born with Joubert Syndrome. Eden is both the narrator and the inspiration for this new film. Two dominant narrative strands emerge from the audiovisual thicket of The Whalebone Box. In the first, we see Eden dressed as a May Queen, seated in a forest on a fauteuil holding a hunting rifle and peering through binoculars. She is admittedly looking for a whale to hunt down. We also see her at a museum and, more frequently, in bed. Subtitles express her thoughts and dreams, which are about a box made of whalebone, an artefact she recreates in cardboard. The second narrative strand is actually about the legendary whalebone box, which was reportedly created by sculptor Steve Dilworth on the Scottish island of Harris thirty years ago. The island, we are told, is now afflicted with an unknown epidemic and the box might hold a cure. So Kötting, the writer Iain Sinclair and the photographer Anonymous Bosch set out with the box on a journey from London to the north. They stop at places of mythological import to “charge the box” with curative energy. Several shots of the film show the box on the dashboard of the group’s car or Sinclair lugging it around the English landscape. Interspersed with this journey is monochrome clips of children playing and recreating pagan myths.

Now, how much of this myth is fabricated, we don’t know (I suspect all of it is); Kötting’s rough-hewn home movie aesthetic imparts a found-footage like authenticity to it. But what is evident is that The Whalebone Box is partly a wish fulfilment project in which Kötting fashions a film after his daughter’s dreamlike fiction. He departs from the basic idea of a mysterious whalebone box and weaves in all the references that it evokes. There’s Moby Dick, for instance, which had already made its appearance in Kötting’s earlier work. The filmmaker expands on the MacGuffin with soundbites from Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, also about a box with deadly powers, and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Other references include Pandora’s box, the black box of airplanes and Schrödinger’s box containing the cat, which here stands for the whale simultaneously in “a state of being on land and returning to ocean”. The artefact the trio carries is at times swapped with Eden’s cardboard version, making clear the playful, recreative intention behind the project. Shooting in 16mm, Kötting employs an amateur film style with handheld camera and washed out colours. He quotes titles from Philip Hoare’s book Leviathan and has poems read on the soundtrack. At times, he overlays recorded speech over the same words captured on location, imparting an oneiric rhythm and texture to the film.

So Pretty (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli)

Four gender-fluid youth spend their days in a shared apartment in Manhattan. They cook, have sex, paint protest posters, make music, organize reading sessions in the park and discuss communism. Trans filmmaker Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s So Pretty presents the life of these young, queer folk as a self-sufficient world. Considering that we see it through the eyes of its participants and their friends, there’s no outsider gaze against which these lives are to be assessed. The camera often follows them walking the sidewalks of New York, this liberating gesture being a given. Their protests and the police crackdown of these protests are only suggested and remain in the periphery. Grafted on the documentary record of this everyday routine are details from the eponymous novel by German writer Ronald M. Schernika. So Pretty isn’t as much an adaptation as a dialogue with the novel. The actors of the film take turns reading passages from the book to each other. The film dramatizes what they read sometimes. Tonia, the “character” played by Rovinelli, is in fact in the process of translating the book and discusses with Franz (Thomas Love) on whether a particular word needs to be translated negatively as “coupledom” or positively as “togetherness”. At first, it appears that Paul (Edem Dela-Seshie) and Erika (Rachika Samarth) are a stable, “trans heterosexual” couple, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s no point boxing the desires of these characters. They make out and sleep with each other in every combination, their interlaced bodies on bed being a punctuating visual of the film.

Rather than the representational politics or particulars of the adaptation, it’s the film’s formal strategies that struck me the most. Rovinelli’s camera pans and tracks in extremely slow motion across the rooms, producing tableaux of people in ordinary interactions. In a remarkable early shot, six characters sit in the dining room making small talk in pairs. Some of them are off the frame, and their voices are mixed so that they vie equally for our attention. Like in a Robert Altman shot, there’s no central point of focus, and our ears and eyes shuttle from one pair to another, without every settling on any of them. In the following scene Franz and Tonia make their bed. Their heads out of the frame, our focus oscillates between the two across the vast negative space of the bed. I presume this asymmetrical manner of framing has a theoretical underpinning, but it’s also a visceral choice. Tonia suffers a heartbreak with Franz, but this never becomes a dramatic element. A long shot presents the two, now in a different apartment Tonia has taken up, cooking, doing dishes and eating in the kitchen, the tense, wordless atmosphere signalling the straining relationship. The film’s measured pace is further diluted as the relationship buckles and even more so when the police arrests Erika. The characters split up in two groups and the ambience becomes mournful. Towards the end, the film becomes a pure light-and-sound performance played against Erika’s music that mixes melody and atonality. In other words, a sustained mood piece.

Mother (Kristof Bilsen)

The Baan Kamlangchay centre in Chiang-May, Thailand, is a home run by a Swiss national for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia and related ailments. It shelters fourteen patients from German-speaking countries and employs three local caregivers. The film begins with the anguished thoughts of one of them. Pomm is separated from her husband and gets to visit her three children only occasionally. She works two jobs to pay back her debt and secure a future for her children. Bilsen’s film too juggles two narrative arcs. In the first, we follow Pomm’s routine: her comfortable rapport with her nonagenarian patient Elizabeth, her visits to her mother and children living several hours away, her interactions with her employer, her account of her father’s depression and eventual suicide, her mourning over Elizabeth’s passing, and articulations of her anxiety about her old age and her guilt over ignoring her mother. Running parallel to Pomm’s life is Maya’s in Switzerland. Maya is 57 years old and suffers from Alzheimer’s. After much deliberation and concern, her husband and daughters have decided to admit her to Baan Kamlangchay. They speak about the prejudice associated with sending your loved one to a home. Indeed, Maya’s family couldn’t be more loving. We see her daughters take her for daily walks, doing her hair and nails, preparing her move to Thailand, packing her medicines and clothes, and generally being there for Maya. Bilsen cuts between Pomm and Maya before they meet in reality, and when they do, he reinforces their almost predestined bond through a closed shot-reverse shot-reaction shot triad at the home.

Mother is evidently about caregiving and maternal affection, but it’s a detailed study in the cultural differences involved in familial bonds. Pomm is moved when she meets her mother after a while. She tells the camera that she wants to hug her, but wouldn’t dare to, given her cultural norms. On the other hand, we see Maya’s family expressing their love through embraces and kisses. Maya’s relation to her pre-teen children, in contrast, is much more intimate and physical than what Western parents would exhibit towards their adolescents. Bilsen intercuts between the two families to illustrate different verbal and non-verbal expressions of affection. Now, as an employee at the home, Pomm has to be much more physical with her Western patients, who are maternal figures to her, than she is with her own mother. This evocation of the effects of global capital on the most personal of relationships is what gives Mother its intellectual foundation. The very fact of the home being in Thailand, and not in expensive Switzerland, points to the economic underpinnings of the caregiving industry. Pomm discusses shifts and holidays with her boss, who calls his patients customers. But she is also genuinely caring of her patients. Mother doesn’t state that either capital or caregiving trumps the other. It merely throws light on newer forms of a labour that’s always been side-lined, and the contradictions that these new forms produce. Pomm reflects on the good fortune of her patients to be able to pay for the care, which she herself won’t be able to afford for her mother. In Marxist terms, Pomm is alienated from her own service, even when it doesn’t involve any means of production. What would happen to her, Pomm wonders, when she is old? Would her kids provide her the same care? If they move to Switzerland, perhaps.

Height of the Wave (Park Jung-bum)

In Park Jung-bum’s Height of the Wave, a cop Yeon-soo (Lee Seung-yeon) is posted to an island village. She’s going through a divorce and finalizing her settlements through a lawyer. On the island with her is her teenage daughter, who is evidently upset at not only the divorce, but also the isolation unwillingly imposed on her. Yeon-soo is doesn’t speak much and holds the world at a sceptical distance. She’s also depressed. On her first day, she visits the village dentist for some anti-depressants. The mayor of the village is also present at the clinic, and he complements the officer on her shampoo when he invites her to a welcome party. At the party, Yeon-soo notices two young men cajoling a woman, Yea-eun (Lee Yeon-hee), and whisking her away into the dark. The officer follows them, not sure if it’s romance, coercion or prostitution she’s witnessing. The threesome gives enough clues for Yeon-soo to suspect the latter and she pursues the case: Yea-eun forced into underage prostitution by her guardians with full knowledge of the village council. This spells bad news for the mayor, who’s trying to make the island a special destination for tourists. He gathers the stakeholders of the village—all men—to derail the investigation.

Park’s film is a story of three women: Yeon-soo, who experiences sexism at all levels of society despite the power vested in her, Yea-eun, an abject victim who has been groomed into a life of abuse, and Yeon-soo’s daughter, who’s dealing with her own deracination. Save for a dim-witted young boy with rudimentary conscience, every man in the village is guiltier than the other, seems to have his own reason. Yea-eun’s uncle and guardian, who is courageous enough to challenge the mayor in his plans for the island, remains a silent accomplice in his niece’s prostitution. Like the child in Loveless, Yea-eun runs away into the woods and the entire village goes up the hills to look for her. But it’s Dogville that’s a more relevant touchstone here. In Park’s disturbing, cynical view, it takes a village to abuse a child. His idea of this village, whose children kill ants in a vicarious fear of outsiders, is a place close to nature both in its austere beauty and murderous violence. On the other hand, we never get to understand Yeon-soo’s grief outside of her divorce. Her peculiar gestures—burying a toaster her ex-husband gifted her daughter, opening and closing doors constantly in wait for her missing daughter, kneeling in the woods crying—reinforce her suffering without explaining them. Outside of a few long shots of high physicality, the film mostly runs on auto-pilot with a gawking shoulder camera. The cold winds, the muted colour and the faded anoraks suggest a sullen atmosphere, but the hills, beaches and jungles aren’t put to particularly interesting use.

Earth (Nikolaus Geyrhalter)

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Earth begins with an announcement that “humankind is the most decisive geological factor of our time” going by the volume of top soil our kind displaces every day. Geyrhalter charts these massive changes effected to the surface of the earth at seven sites across two continents: large-scale sand mining in California to make way for new townships, the construction of a 22-kilometer long tunnel through the mountains between Austria and Italy, strip mining for coal in Gyöngyös, Hungary, extraction from a marble quarry in Carrara, Italy, the dynamiting of mountains for copper ore in Minas de Riotinto, Spain, damage control of nuclear waste stored in underground salt mines in Wolfenbüttel, Germany, and open pit oil mining in a First Nations reservation in Fort McKay, Canada. Geyrhalter’s MO throughout the film is the same. A drone shot of the site from an extreme height introduces each section. Shots of men at work are interspersed with interviews with them. The filmmaker questions them about their work, its end use, its physical and moral limits, their feelings towards their job, the impact of their work on the environment, and the ethical quandaries, if any. There are patterns in the answers too. The men and women recognize that their activity might be harmful to the environment, but they declare that it’s their job, that someone else will do it if not them, that we can’t help but continue if we want to progress.

Geyrhalter captures breath-taking images of the mining sites, images that seem otherworldly in their desolate beauty. The geometric forms of the Carrara marble quarry or the vast craters of the Gyöngyös mines make for awe-inducing spectacle comparable to those in Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death. But Geyrhalter’s perspective is not Marxist; his focus is not on the workers or their alienation from their work. The mostly male interviewees, in fact, assert their passion for their job, the adrenaline rush it induces. Where the emphasis lies, instead, is in mankind’s incredible constructive capacity as well as its ultimate frailty, the two in constant conversation with each other. Looking at the gargantuan mining sites with huge moving parts, one wonders at their construction, but also at the fact that any of the ant-like workers in the vicinity could be killed were a tiny part of the facility to fall on him. Geyrhalter’s film pits man’s massive machines against the earth, which here takes on a human quality. One interviewee talks of the mountain’s virginity, another laments the hurting of “Mother Earth”. The serial explosives that are used to clear the way produce ripples on the land surface, making it look like human convulsions. Geyrhalter, who has produced and directed dozens of documentaries, doesn’t swap out nuance for quick judgment, though his sympathies are evident in his choices. He gets enviable access to private sites, which is perhaps why the last segment in Fort McKay, where he has no permission, sticks out, spells out as it does the film’s themes and proclivities.

Endless Night (Eloy Enciso)

I watched Galician filmmaker Eloy Enciso’s Endless Night in a state of anxiety. My mind was awash with news from the anti-CAA protests all over India and the brutal police response to the protestors. Given its story about a fascist regime’s crackdown of dissidents, the poisonous nationalism of those in power and the apathy of those on the right side of the government, the film should have spoken to me at this moment. But it was the opposite that happened. Enciso deliberately strips the narrative—set during and after the Spanish Civil War—of its particularities in order to impart a universal, contemporary significance. He takes an admirable, Pedro Costa-like distance from the political, which keeps the viewer at a critical distance. I could, however, not get rid of the feeling that, despite its unique stylistic choices, Enciso is leaning back on established arthouse shibboleths, both formal and narrative, to evoke pre-determined responses from the viewer. And I wholly accept the possibility that this suspicion of mine could be the product of the gap between the urgency of the situation around me and the film’s meditative treatment of a similar subject. In other words, I can’t be objective about this film. But then, what is one ever objective about?

I also suspect the structure of Endless Night is derived from the opera; an opera reimagined as a Sharunas Bartas elegy for the Spanish Republic. Divided into three acts, the film begins with an overture in which two mendicants, presumably acting as a Greek chorus, talk about the changing times. In the first act, we are introduced to various figures in the village: Falangist businessmen, relatives of resistance fighters, a mayoral candidate of the village and the powerful of the region who discuss the state of things over a game of cards. In the second, we get testimonies by those who were incarcerated or persecuted. Much like in Seven Years in May, a woman by the fire recounts her prison experience in a long shot. “Though you may forget, the body keeps its own memory of the torment”, says another. A soldier in the Franco army confesses his true sentiments. In the third act, the resistance fighter who has been the loose connecting thread of the narrative wanders the jungles, seemingly being pursued. As the camera focuses on his hands and feet moving over rocks and leaves, letters of the incarcerated are read in the voiceover—it’s not clear whether the film is conflating two time lines of the “protagonist” or creating a mosaic of dissident experiences. Endless Night becomes increasingly sparse in terms of action and dialogue, coming almost to a standstill in the final passages where the hero strikes pensive poses in artfully lit night time shots. In the first two acts, Enciso obsessively avoids shots with more than one actor, his compositions presenting profiles or three-quarter medium shots of performers interacting with off-screen characters. These stretches evoke John Ford and Manoel de Oliveira in equal measure, while Straub becomes a reference point in the third act.

Bird Island (Sergio da Costa, Maya Kosa)

It is perhaps owing to the same anxiety that I found watching Bird Island a supremely relaxing experience. Shot charmingly in 16mm in academy ratio, the film is a loosely fictionalized documentary set in a bird shelter, somewhere near the Geneva airport I’m told. Antonin is a young man who has been posted at the shelter as part of his rehabilitation programme following a long period of ailments and surgeries. At the facility, he assists Paul, who is responsible for breeding mice to feed the birds at the shelter, which arrive there presumably after being dazed or disoriented at the airport. Also present at the site are veterinarian Emilie, first-aid giver Sandra and keeper Iwan. We follow the work of the shelter’s staff in measured, long shots sewn together by Antonin’s voiceover: Emilie operating on injured birds of prey, Sandra reintroducing the operated birds into a life in the wild, Paul teaching Antonin the nitty-gritty of breeding mice and killing them. Antonin is reticent and timid at first, and his integration into the small community of the shelter parallels the reintegration of the injured birds into the wild. “Some birds prefer security to freedom”, observes Antonin about one feathered friend that decides to stay back at the shelter—a comment equally true of the humans here.

Bird Island considers with equanimity the violence inherent in human and natural processes. The mice are bred to be killed, but their meat saves the lives of the injured birds. The dazed birds, themselves, are collateral damage of technology and progress, which are also what enable the shelter. Birds are trained to hunt mice before being set free, but some of the escaped rats attack the birds fatally. This adiabatic exchange within nature, the cycle of hurting and healing, is signalled by the closing images of the film’s two halves. In the first, a heat map left behind a dead mouse on a tissue paper slowly vanishes. In the second—the last image of the film—we see the dazed owl, now cured, in similar infrared imagery, flying away. These serious themes, however, never come in the way of the film’s essentially calming quality. Bird Island is, at heart, about a helpful, soft-spoken, decent community that accepts its members as they are. The members like each other’s presence and are indulgent towards each other’s failings. They don’t discuss past or future, or anything outside of work. “Paul is like a chosen one”, notes Antonin, “he poses no questions about his work.” This utopian quality of accepting birds and people as they come, and letting them go if they want to, is in stark contrast to real communities, which are predicated on shared history and shared future. Everything about Bird Island is clean and simple: the soft-lit compositions, the spare dialogue, the sporadic flute melody that forms the only soundtrack, the narrative sparsity and the acting, which here is just being. And this Rohmerian clarity and simplicity calms your nerves about the state of the world—which is what the subject of the film is.

That Which Does Not Kill (Alexe Poukine)

That Which Does Not Kill does not label itself beforehand, nor does it reveal its modus operandi right away. What it does offer is a series of talking heads, men and women, young and old, black and white, straight and queer, in intimate, homely décor, captured in simple, shallow-focus camera setups. In the first interview, a very soft-spoken girl of about twenty describes her memory of an assault: a man forces himself on her, yet she goes back to his house and they sleep together, and again a third time. The girl is soon revealed to be an actor and her testimony, a text given to her by the filmmaker for preparation. This text serves as a foundation for the rest of the film and the interviewees, all of them actors, narrate details from it as though from personal experience. The women interviewees speak from the perspective of the girl while the two men in the film stand in the shoes of the aggressor. We never know what part of their testimonies comes verbatim from the text, what is imagined and what is a direct expression of the actors’ own experience. Some of them evoke very specific memories, like particular colours or sounds, and some others break down. They step out of character at times to talk to the filmmaker behind the camera, but even so the boundaries are blurred. We aren’t quite sure where the text ends and personal memories of trauma begins.

At the heart of the text is the conundrum of why the girl responded positively to the man’s advances, why she went back to his house after the assault, and why she slept with him a third time. The question baffles the actors at first too, but getting into their role and approaching it through the prism of their personal experience, they understand her actions as a way of returning to a primal scene in order to set a derailed life straight. They characterize this as a shift from feeling shame (of being a victim) to identifying guilt (on the part of the aggressor). The testimonial text, consequently, moves from being a site of mistrust to a space for trust and solidarity. In doing so, the film probes the limits of empathy, conceiving it as a quality that’s not innate, but learned through performance and an active task of interpretation and imagination. An unmistakably post-MeToo film, That Which Does Not Kill problematizes the sureties surrounding sexual violence and trauma. It invokes involuntary excitation, proposes voluntary bondage as a reversal of powerlessness and acknowledges the inevitable contradictions in the memory of trauma, while also asserting the impossibility of forgetting such a corporeal experience. These are issues already part of the discourse, and perhaps the film breaks no new ground there, but it deserves credit for the way it frames the question of public response to survivor testimonies.

Movements of a Nearby Mountain (Sebastian Brameshuber)

Cliff (Clifford Agu) has an eye for old cars. He lives and works alone in an abandoned warehouse in the outskirts of a mining town somewhere in Austria. Like a hunter disembowelling his prey, he dismantles turn of the century models in his warehouse, selling refurbished units for cut rate to local customers or shipping spare parts to Nigeria. Sebastian Brameshuber follows Cliff’s life over several months, observing him working at length, cooking, fetching water, washing clothes, bargaining with customers, chatting with a Nigerian friend of his and driving into town to spot old cars to place his visiting card in. Cliff’s customers are invariably immigrants from Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary or Romania. Neither Cliff or his clientele speaks proper German, and communication happens through a mixture of broken German, English and sign language. While Cliff’s warehouse lies in the penumbra of modern European Union, the shipment of spare parts from Germany to Africa traces a reverse movement of goods in globalized economy. Cliff’s is a life on the margins of capital, in the shadow of the wealth inequality that enables a thriving automobile black market. Even so, he says to his friend that things aren’t as good as they were ten years ago when he moved to this country, and reflects on the possibility of returning to Nigeria to ply taxies.

            Movements of a Nearby Mountain recalls Wang Bing’s Man with No Name in the disengaged manner in which it describes a life in solitude. Like Wang’s modern caveman, Cliff leads a very functional life revolving around business and sustenance. His only social life is in the conversations, perhaps imagined, he has with his Nigerian friend, with whom he observes the paintball arena opposite his warehouse. But unlike the man with no name, he seems to be free of aesthetic or sexual needs, outside of a comment about a pretty girl here or a song hummed there. He feeds a cat in the facility and shaves, but that’s all the outward-oriented gesture we see. More than Wang’s, it’s Flaherty’s Nanook that serves as a reference point here. Brameshuber, however, is confident that Cliff’s situation is self-explanatory and needs no description or context. Though there’s no interaction of the subject with the camera, his film is clearly collaborative and fictionalized, as is evidenced by the decoupage in which Cliff walks into spaces in which the camera is already setup. Besides, the filmmaker has Cliff narrate a legend about the region in which a water sprite promises the inhabitants an endless supply of iron ore in the surrounding mountains. Whether or not the promise was true, Cliff’s dwindling prospects seem to suggest a glass ceiling on the ladder to prosperity.

No Data Plan

No Data Plan (Miko Revereza)

Miko Revereza’s No Data Plan opens with the shot of a train pulling in to a station. The large crowd waiting for this trans-American Amtrak train is mostly coloured. Texts, written from the filmmaker’s perspective, appear on screen. We are told that Revereza’s mother has two phone lines, one without a data plan, in order to steer clear of immigration authorities. We learn that Revereza has been living in the US without papers and is bound to be shipped back to the Philippines if arrested. The entirety of No Data Plan consists of Revereza’s journey on this train over the next two days, even though we never know why he’s undertaking it. The “narrative” unfolds on two fronts. The images are resolutely anti-picturesque, anti-expository. Revereza focuses on the textures of the train: used trays, ketchup sachets, candy bars, sweaters, sunshine and shadows, promotional posters, seat covers, the space under the dining table, assorted luggage, dirty windows and the logos on them. He gets down at every station, filming passing trains or people waiting to receive visitors. There are bits of ambient dialogue captured, and Revereza makes a couple of phone calls and talks for a bit, but there’s no interaction with any of the other passengers. The focus is not on the bounty of the American landscape or the cross-section of the American population on the train, but on the banality of the transit, on Revereza’s disaffected drifting across states in anxiety about the border patrol showing up for an ID check.

The on-screen text, on the other hand, tells the story of the filmmaker’s mother: her past as an immigrant housewife with no life outside home, her affair with a taxi driver, her eloping with him to Nebraska with Revereza’s knowledge, and her current life on the road. The text and the images work dialectically, producing a portrait of (paperless) immigrant life. Like Revereza’s noteworthy short film, Disintegration 93-96, No Data Plan is a film about losing one’s roots, and Revereza’s seemingly purposeless transit scans as the fallout of a disintegrating family. Other obvious points of departure are J.P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry and Albert Maysles’ In Transit. But the thrust of Revereza’s less sensual, less sociological film—a low-key elegy for a paradise lost—is existential. There’s always the risk of exhibitionism when a filmmaker plants himself so firmly at the centre of his work as Revereza does here. This looming authorial presence in No Data Plan, however, is closer to Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film than, say, Kim Ki-Duk’s Arirang. Revereza’s decision to document his life as an illegal alien, to upload it onto social media and make films out of it is a choice that serves to assert a selfhood that official documents deny.

Searching Eva (Pia Hellenthal)

When Searching Eva opens, we hear ASMR-like reading of chatroom messages about sex, abuse and guilt: some of them grateful and appreciative, some others judgmental. The voice is that of the addressee, Eva. She looks twenty-something, but that’s about everything we can determine about her, for Eva defies definition: she is nothing fixed. Eva has a widely followed online presence, which serves as a rallying point for people feeling alienated from social, sexual norms. On the voiceover—presumably addressed to her followers—Eva recounts events from her life: modelling at the age of 13, her neglectful parents, her sexual exploitation by boys and old men alike, her part time sex work, her desires and diary entries. These chat sessions, seen on screen from time to time, alternate with intimate vignettes from her life: Eva in the shower or in bed with men or women, running free on the subway, moving houses, drifting from one European city to another, going to parties or taking drugs. The generally affectionate images are in contrast with the sordid details of her life. Eva spends time back in Italy with her mother, who takes pictures for her Instagram. She has a warm dinner with her father and his new family. The contradiction makes us wonder whether what we hear in the voiceover is the truth.

The answer is immaterial since, for Eva, identity is malleable, self-determined and entirely arbitrary; a prison to be escaped. Throughout Searching Eva is a suspension of the distinction between performing and being. Eva believes that you are what you pretend to be. She hails from a working-class background, but rejects the idea of fixed work or career, choosing to engage in an activity that will help her survive as long as possible without worrying about money, namely sex work. This sex work is just another facet of what she is, not something that defines her. Looking for apartments, she casually tells one of the current occupants that she’s a sex worker, to her interlocutor’s total disbelief. She services men as part of her work, but sleeps with women “in real life”. In her thorough rejection of biologically, socially determined identities, she inspires her followers (in remote European towns) who feel trapped and suffocated by their body, their sexuality, their past, their environment, their work. The film too never quite fits into the traditional documentary mould. Though leading a transparent, publicized life, Eva is continuously aware of the camera’s presence and sends our voyeuristic gaze back to us. But despite its stark self-reflexivity and multi-mode exposition, Searching Eva doesn’t forestall the feeling that it takes some self-congratulatory pleasure about its own open-mindedness, that if Tumblr had a movie version, this would be it.

Safari

Markets don’t pass judgment on the desires they satisfy.

– What Money Can’t Buy (Michael Sandel)

 

At first glance, neither does Safari. Ulrich Seidl’s remarkable, disturbing film accompanies a German-speaking white family on their big game-hunting trip in Africa. Each member of the family leads an outing in which they track down an animal on their wish list, shoot it, exchange congratulations, feed it its notional last meal, prepare the dead creature for the photograph and pose with it. Interspersed with these hunting scenes are interviews with the family members, who speak about topics ranging from their ideas about and feelings during hunting to their preferred choice of weapons and animals. There are also comic interludes with an elderly white couple relaxing at the same facility. If Safari’s subject and quasi-structuralist approach is reminiscent of Hatari!, it’s because Seidl’s film uses the same alternating pattern as Hawks to closely interrogate the notion of a group of white people hanging out in the African wilderness as something more than just Christian men and women enjoying their God-given right.

A more pertinent kinship, however, is with fellow Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka’s 1966 experimental travelogue Unsere Afrikareise. It appears that much has changed in the game-hunting scene in the fifty years since Kubelka’s film. The industry’s more organized, with licenses for hunting ranches given to private players, including European settlers. There’s no interaction with the locals necessary anymore, every detail of the tour having been prearranged as part of the package. Most importantly, the technology has improved: rifles are now mounted on tripods instead of the bare shoulders of accompanying Africans. The rifles themselves have become more accurate, resulting in fewer shots fired and cleaner kills—a moral and aesthetic question as much as technological, since it avoids the unseemly sight of animals suffering long because of low-grade ammunition and bungled shots. But where Kubelka’s work sets sound against image from the get-go to subvert the original meaning of these sounds and images, Seidl remains much more withdrawn, presenting the hunting scenes largely as they happen in real time.

Seidl’s film has been called a documentary, but there’s ample evidence why that label doesn’t wholly stick. The hunting scenes that we see are fly-on-the-wall documents in which none of the participants recognize the presence of the camera, even in passing. Their voices and the sounds of the environment are captured in a hyper-realistic sound mix that could only have been possible with elaborate preplanning. Unlike in Kubelka’s film, it’s never clear if an animal has really been shot or if the camera’s recoil and the gunfire are manufactured. The interviews and the shots of the elderly couple are frontal tableaux typical of Seidl, and possess a carefully crafted vertical symmetry and a horizon way above or below the median. Seidl is interested in the process of game-hunting, its technique, its rituals, the social and psychological stakes in it for the participants. A large part of the film involves the hunters tracking, holding their breath, waiting for the animal to be at an appropriate spot and shooting range. There’s a tension between movement and stasis within the hunting episodes as well as between these passages and the interviews.

Safari doesn’t overtly take a moral stance here. In fact, it gives the family members, the elderly couple and the ranch owner, another German, sufficient scope to present their point of view. Their testimonies are frank; they don’t claim their actions to be morally defensible but they do evoke nuances of game hunting that often gets lost in passionate outrage against the practice: not just the economic benefits to host countries, but also the fact that the animals they target are invariably old alpha males that obstruct younger males from breeding and need to be put down in any case. The ranch owner invokes the problems of doing business in a recently-liberated African country as a white man, the importance of game-hunting to conservation as well as the necessity for humans to be mindful of their impact on the environment. Except for the elderly couple’s well-meaning racist comments, the film diminishes none of these testimonies and invites its audience to cut the Gordian knot itself if it wants to. The very presence of Europeans in Africa, lording over its animal resources thanks to the fruits of capitalism, produces an afterimage of colonial history that need not be overemphasized. Additionally, the family we see is a typical bourgeois unit, the patriarch overseeing each hunt and the son inheriting the practice from his father.

Instead, Seidl shifts the rhetorical responsibilities wholly on to the film’s editing: alongside the field trips and interviews are extremely graphic scenes of the killed animals being skinned, dismembered and disembowelled by the local African employees at the ranch. Everything about the hunt so far was “neat”: the shooting was done from a distance under guidance with one clean shot, the stuffed heads on the ranch owner’s walls are spotless as though they were ordered off a catalogue, even the transport of the bodies was taken care of by the tour operator. But the process of the dead animal becoming a trophy is anything but clean. These passages, in which African men take the animal apart with axes, saws and kitchen knives, serve as the underbelly to the more sanitized image of game-hunting the white people of the film experience. The very choice of including these images constitutes a stand against game-hunting; it de-aestheticizes the practice in the same way the revelation of the mechanism by which cultural objects are produced distances their consumer. The sight of a wobbly giraffe neck is a psychologically-potent undermining of the phallic force of the rifles.

Seidl’s interest, as in Paradise: Love, is also in the ways the tourism industry has inflected the traditional relationship between the Western world and the Global South. In this light, the people in the film make up a microcosm of the workings of multinational capitalism: the European ranch owner caters to his European clients while outsourcing the “back-end” operations of the service to Africans. The final section of the film turns to Africans who live with their families on the ranch in huts. They pose for Seidl’s camera holding smoked meat and other products of the animal they’ve just treated. It is plain that Safari intends this to be a contrast, but here it runs the risk of reproducing the discourse it seeks to overturn. The Africans, it appears, are the only ones really close to nature, the only ones engaged in hunting for the purpose of sustenance. They eat meat and exotic roots for the camera without a word, enjoying the fruits of their unalienated labour. Despite Seidl’s motivation, these tableaux echo the noble savage myth in their refusal to make it a more participatory affair.

On the other hand, these shots of the locals do throw into question the market-driven argument that game hunting improves the financial situation of the host countries. The money, clearly, hasn’t trickled down, the cosy bungalow of the ranch owner being a far cry from the ramshackle huts of the locals. The idea that sacrificing a few animals for the greater cause of preservation and human well-being rests on the belief that a monetary value could be ascribed to lives of these animals. In an early scene with the old couple, the man names various animals available at the resort for hunt while the lady reads the price per unit of each from the catalogue. A while later, the family lists out the roster of their favourite rifles as well as the animals on their bucket list. The success of Safari lies in its non-polemical invitation to reflect on the limits of markets, on our basis for ascribing values to things and beings. For, as Sandel has demonstrated, once moral questions are formulated in economic terms, it’s a slippery slope of brute logic.

Based on a True Story

[Possible spoilers ahead]

Delphine (Emmanuelle Seigner) has had a success with her new novel, Vienne la nuit, and fans are queuing up to get their copies autographed. They have all been touched deeply by the book and believe that it speaks to their own personal problems. Unnerved by this unsolicited responsibility, and the series of poison letters she receives for having made money out of her family’s story, Delphine retreats into a shell, unable to write anything anymore. She meets the mysterious, charming Elle (Eva Green), her “biggest fan”, who casts a strange spell over her. Elle helps Delphine with her work, sorting her notes and giving her suggestions, and starts occupying an increasingly large place in her life. She disparages Delphine’s ideas and insists that Delphine must not give into the demands of what her editors want but write her great, “hidden book”. Delphine doesn’t resist the takeover and instead sees Elle as a potential subject for her next novel. What ensues is a tug-of-war between Delphine and Elle to unlock each other’s history. That description might make it sound like an arthouse cliché à la Persona, but Polanski’s circular film treats the obvious symbolism directly, without conceit, and steers clear of the lures of psychological interpretation.

Based on a True Story is an adaptation of Delphine de Vigan’s 2015 novel of the same name, reportedly an autobiographical work. A viewer of Polanski’s film can well imagine the extreme self-reflexivity of the book: here’s a novel about an author who withdraws into herself for four years following the success of her latest book. In 2011, Vigan wrote a personal book about her mother’s suicide and it took her four years to come up with Based on a True Story. She is married to the literary journalist François Busnel who, just like his character in the book, was mired in controversy for interviewing Vigan on his own show and who was traveling the USA interviewing authors at the time Vigan wrote this book. Elle (L. in the book) urges Delphine to reject fiction, dive into her memoirs and write about her own life, but Delphine argues that even autobiography needs a perspective and is, in the final analysis, fiction. The solution to Vigan’s problem of perspective is the character of L./Elle, who gives concrete, personal form to Delphine/Vigan’s memories.

Surmounting creator’s block by representing it is not new even to cinema – Fellini did the same thing in 8 ½ – but the special force of Vigan’s material comes from the social commentary it derives out of the situation. Vigan’s/Delphine’s creative paralysis comes from the conflicting demands society makes of her as a woman, an artist and a woman artist. L./Elle is the ideal version of Delphine, always perfectly groomed and dressed, capable of saying no to her editors and publicists, turning up to events she’s signed up for, rejecting the need for male companionship, and even burning down the house with her abusive father. She is a ghost-writer, which means she doesn’t ever have to burden herself with book tours, speeches and signing sessions, and can therefore concentrate on her writing all the time – a luxury that Delphine can only dream of. Delphine, on the other hand, is in a relationship with a famous journalist whose company she increasingly looks forward to. L./Elle’s self-confidence and unapologetic career-focus is in contrast to Delphine’s jealousy over her boyfriend’s courting of American authors and her guilt of ignoring her children. On screen, this pits Green’s impeccable elegance and command of space against Seigner’s maternal clumsiness and vulnerability.

Needless to say, Polanski’s adaptation – the very intention to adapt – unmakes the vertiginous mise en abyme the book constructs with Vigan at the epicentre. Even worse, the story of a middle-aged matron (played by Polanski’s wife) being supplanted by a younger, more beautiful woman introduces an uncritical element of male fantasy into the film, especially bothersome considering the filmmaker’s history. The film nevertheless works as a dramatization of the creative process, reimagines as it does the quotidian artistic dilemma of what to write about and whom to write for as a ghost story. We are not sure who is haunting whom, with Delphine trying to get into Elle’s head to mine material for her book and Elle taking over Delphine’s life to instruct her on what to write. Delphine keeps getting complimented for capturing her reader’s minds so accurately, but it is Delphine’s whose mind-space is constantly conquered by her reader-subjects. The artist writes on the world, but the world writes on the artist too, dissolving the boundary between the two. It’s truly the death of the author.

A few years ago, when I heard Haneke was making a film about the internet, I expected what we got from The White Ribbon and Amour: a declarative statement about the dangers of the digital age and its capacity for abetting evil. But Happy End is more open, more suggestive than the conclusive theses that were Haneke’s previous two films. To be sure, there’s hardly anything spontaneous about the new film and its shot compositions are still very calculated, perverse in their vehement disavowal of violence, but the manner in which information is presented or withheld forces the viewer to actively stitch the pieces together to understand what’s happening. Even when the final picture emerges, one is not entirely sure if all the behavioural details, choice of shots or narrative information have been accounted for, which makes for a summary that’s far from decisive.

Michael Haneke’s Happy End, an oxymoron if there ever was one, is set in Calais in the northern extreme of France and centres on an upper-class white family that owns a public works construction business. The grouchy head of the Laurent family, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) suffers from dementia and wants to kill himself. His doctor son Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz) is married but is having a kinky online affair with another woman. Georges’ daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) heads the business one of whose sites her bumbling son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) manages. Following an accident at the site, in which a worker is seriously injured, their business comes under the risk of government sanction. Meanwhile, Thomas’s daughter Eve (an incredibly precocious Fantine Harduin) from his first marriage is forced to move in with him following her mother’s death. Present in the outer orbit of the Laurents are housekeeper Rachid (Hassam Ghancy), his family and the many refugees of the Calais jungle waiting to get across the channel.

None of these character relations are clear until late into the film. The Laurent family is given to us in shards, as though like pieces of a broken mirror. They appear to be representatives of an old order, the haute bourgeoisie, now crumbling under the weight of political and technological turmoil. Georges the patriarch has lost his mental faculty and thus economic power; he wanders the film looking for ways to die. In an interesting scene, he’s on his wheelchair in an impoverished part of town, having forgotten his way home. Amidst deafening traffic noise, he speaks to a group of male refugees, who don’t understand why he’s willing to give them his watch in exchange for information. Waning under his mother’s supervision, Pierre feels emasculated. Thomas doesn’t really believe in marriage anymore. Eve is out poisoning herself and other people. At the eye of it all is Anne, trying to unsuccessfully hold this European union together.

Numerous instances of digital media feature in the film. Eve records her life with her smart phone and sends the recordings to friends. She watches videos of YouTubers discussing their personal lives. Thomas’s affair takes place entirely on phone, e-mail and social media. This increased publicization of private lives, which Haneke clearly sees as dangerous, is contrasted with the infusion of the public affairs into the Laurents’ private lives. Their business is troubled by strikes in Scotland. The government is grilling Pierre to trace possible negligence as the cause of the accident. At Anne’s all-white engagement, Pierre brings in refugees from the area and creates ruckus. (Not that he’s the voice of the marginalized, he simply uses them as bugbear). The family members love each other, but you sense that it’s the wealth that ultimately holds it together, the stability of the family dependent on the stability of the capitalist social structure they represent. Happy End is Haneke’s vision of post-Brexit Europe.

Paradies: Glaube (2012) (Paradise: Faith)
Ulrich Seidl
German/Arabic

 

Paradise - FaithUlrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith (2012), the second film in the Paradise trilogy, could be seen as a complement to its predecessor Paradise: Love (2012). While in Love, Klara (Margarethe Tiesel) tries to overcome a spiritual crisis through sex, here Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter, in an intensely physical performance that rivals Tiesel’s brilliant portrayal) supplants physicality with Faith. What the previous film did with love, Faith does with religious belief, charting one person’s attempt to find Faith in a world that increasingly thwarts it. More precisely, the film refracts this quest through an Existentialist prism, producing a portrait of the search for meaning through Catholic values in a world where they have been rendered invalid.  Like Klara, Anna Maria discovers that Faith, which is considered a private commitment, is invariably shaped by the social and political systems they are practiced within. Seidl’s film subtly plays with our judgment of the central character and dodges any easy association of her character with her belief system. The contradiction between her catholic principles and her demeanour with her estranged Muslim husband (Nabil Saleh) is less an indication of the fickleness of her Faith than a demonstration of the difficulties of having Faith in our times. The film has been characterized as a comedy in some critical quarters and that very classification speaks volumes about our Enlightened epoch, in which irrational faith can’t be anything but a fodder for laughter. Seidl’s clinical detachment – typified by his head-on compositions where characters come across as subjects in a behavioural study – from Anna Maria’s rituals is genuine neutrality rather than condescending irony. For an unprejudiced eye, all her actions – be it the self-flagellating routine or her insistence that non-Catholics are leading a sinful life – would appear as gestures as valid, understandable and worthy of empathy as Klara’s attempts at finding love.

Die, die, die, 2012! Besides being a period of personal lows, it was a bad year at the movies for me. Not only did the quantity of the films I watched come down, but the enthusiasm with which I watched, read about and discussed films plummeted. That the amount of good films made this year pales in comparison to the last doesn’t help either. Not to mention the passing of Chris Marker. Unlike the years before, there are barely a handful of movies from 2012 that I’m really keen on seeing (most of them from Hollywood). The following list of favorite 2012 titles (world premiere only) was chalked with some struggle because I couldn’t name 10 films that I loved without reservations. Here’s to a better year ahead.

 

1. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada)

 

CosmopolisSurely, it takes a bona fide auteur like David Cronenberg to locate his signature concerns in a text – such as Don Delillo’s – that deals with ideas hitherto unexplored by him and spin out the most exciting piece of cinema this year. Holed up in his stretch limo – an extension of his body, maneuvering through Manhattan inch by inch as though breathing – Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) comprehends the universe outside like cinema, through a series of moving images projected onto his car windows. Why not? This world, whose master he is, is experiencing the epistemological crisis of late capitalism: the increasing abstraction of tactile reality into digital commodities. Packer, like many Cronenberg characters, is more machine than man, attempts – against the suggestions of his asymmetrical prostate and of the protagonist of Cronenberg’s previous film – to construct a super-rational predictable model of world economy – a project whose failure prompts him to embark on an masochistic odyssey to reclaim the real, to experience physicality, to be vulnerable and to ultimately die. At the end of the film, one imagines Packer shouting: “Death to Cyber-capitalism! Long live the new flesh!

2. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)

 

Holy MotorsUn chant d’amour for cinema, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is an ambitious speculation about the total transformation of life into cinema and cinema into life – the death of the actor, audience and the camera. The European cousin to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Carax’s return-to-zero work draws inspiration from the process of film itself – death, resurrection and persistence of vision – and takes cinema to its nascence – fairground attractions, popular theatre and zoopraxography – while opening up to its future possibilities. Uncle Oscar (Denis Lavant, the raison d’etre of Holy Motors), like Cronenberg’s Packer, cruises the streets of Paris in his limo in search of purely physical experiences – a series of performance pieces carried out solely for “the beauty of the act” – only to find that the city is a gigantic simulacrum in which everyone is a performer and a spectator (and thus no one is) and where the distinction between the real and the fictional becomes immaterial. At the very least, Holy Motors is a reflection on the passing of “things”, of physicality, of the beauty of real gesture, of the grace of movement of men and machines.

3. differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey, France)

 

Differently, MolussiaNicolas Rey’s third feature, consisting of 9 short segments (reels, to be precise) projected in a random sequence, is a radical project that re-politicizes the cinematic image. Not only does the randomization of the order of projection of the reels circumvent the problem of the authoritarianism of a fixed narrative, it also exposes the seam between the semi-autonomous theses-like segments, thereby making the audience attentive to possible ideological aporias that are usually glossed over by the self-fashioned integrity of filmic texts. Furthermore, the existence of the film in the form separate reels is a breathing reminder of the material with which it was made: 16mm. The persistent dialectic between the visual – shots of highways, industries, farms and modernist suburban housing in the eponymous fictional city registering the sedate rhythm of everyday life – and the aural – snippets of conversations between two politicized industrial workers about the invisible tendons that enable a society to function smoothly – strongly drives home the chief, Althusserian concern of the film: the essential unity of the various, seemingly autonomous, strands of a state, contrary to claims of disjunction and autonomy.

4. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)

 

TabuA film that is reminiscent of Weerasethakul’s many bipartite films, Miguel Gomes’ singular Tabu, too, works on a range of binaries – past/present, youth/old age, city/countryside, abundance/scarcity, modern/primitive, colonizer/colonized – and sets up a conversation between the carefree, profligate days of the empire full of love, laughter and danger and Eurocrisis-inflected, modern day Portugal marked by alienation and loneliness. The opening few minutes – a melancholy mini-mockumentary of sorts chronicling the adventures of a European explorer in Africa with a native entourage –announces that the film will be balancing distancing irony and classicist emotionality, donning an attitude that is in equal measure critical and sympathetic towards the past. In Gomes’ sensitive film, the heavy hand of the past weighs down on the present both on aesthetic (silent cinema stylistics, film stock, academy ratio, the excitement of classical genres) and thematic (collective colonial guilt, residual racism, punishment for forbidden love) levels and this inescapability of the past is also functions as (sometimes dangerous) nostalgia for the simplicity and innocence of a cinema lost and an entreaty for the necessity of exploring and preserving film history.

5. Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl, Austria)

 

Paradise-LoveWhat partially elevates the first film of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy from its rather undistinguished concerns about emotional alienation and old age loneliness is the nexus of intriguing cultural forces that it brings into the picture by having a relatively affluent, 50-year old Austrian single-mother (Margarete Tiesel, in a no-holds-barred performance) indulge in sex tourism in Kenya along with five other women friends. The result is a rich, provocative negotiation along class, gender, race and age divides that upsets conventional, convenient oppressor-oppressed relationships. In doing so, the film wrenches love from the realm of the universal and the ahistorical and demonstrates that between two people lies the entire universe. Seidl’s heightened, bright colour palette that provides a sharp chromatic contrast to the bodies of Kenyan natives and his confrontational, static, frontal compositions (Seidl’s nudes are antitheses to those of the Renaissance), which make indoor spaces appear like human aquariums, both invite the voyeuristic audience to take a peek into this world and place it on another axis of power – of the observer and the observed.

6. With You, Without You (Prasanna Vithanage, Sri Lanka)

 

With You, Without YouSri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s exquisite, exceptional adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Meek One (1876) aptly locates the Russian tale of matrimonial discord between a bourgeois pawnbroker and the gentle creature he weds within the ethno-political conflict between nationalist and rebel factions of the country. Unlike humanist war dramas that, often naively, stress the underlying oneness among individuals on either side, Vithanage’s intelligent film underscores how the political haunts the personal and how the tragic weight of history impacts the compatibility between individuals here and now, while deftly retaining Dostoyevsky’s central theme of ownership of one human by another. Though liberal in narration and moderate in style compared to Mani Kaul’s and Robert Bresson’s adaptations of the short story, Vithanage, too, employs an attentive ambient soundtrack that counts down to an impending doom and numerous shots of hands to emphasize the centrality of transaction in interpersonal relationships. The metaphysical chasm between the possessor and the possessed finds seamless articulation in concrete sociopolitical relations between Sinhalese and Tamils, between the army and refugees, between the poor and the wealthy and between man and woman.

7. Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Kong)

 

WalkerThere has always been something intensely spiritual about Tsai’s films, even when they seem to wallow in post-apocalyptic cityscapes and defunct social constructions. In Tsai’s hands, it would seem, an empty subway corridor shot in cheap digital video becomes the holiest of spaces ever filmed. Walker, a high-def video short made as a part of the Beautiful 2012 project commissioned by Hong Kong International Film Festival, crystallizes this particular tendency in the director’s work and centers on a Buddhist monk played by Lee Kang-sheng (a muse like no other in 21st century cinema). As the monk walks the hyper-commercialized streets of Hong Kong at a phenomenally slow pace for two days and two nights, his red robe becomes a visual anchor in stark contrast to the greys of the urban jungle and the blacks of people’s winter clothing and his very being, his eternal presence, becomes a spiritual grounding point amidst the impersonal hustle-bustle of this super-capitalist Mecca. Part performance art with a gently cynical punch line, part an exploration of the limits of DV, Walker is a deeply soothing and often moving work from one of Asia’s finest.

8. Celluloid Man (Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, India)

 

Celluloid ManMoving unsteadily with the help of a walking stick, the 79-year old founder of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), P. K. Nair, despite himself, becomes a metaphor for the state of film archiving in the country. It is of considerable irony that, in a nation that prides itself for its rich cultural heritage, film archiving is considered a useless exercise. During the three decades that Nair headed the NFAI, he was instrumental in discovering the silent works and early talkies of Bombay and south Indian cinema, including those of Dadasaheb Phalke, the “father of Indian cinema”. Celluloid Man, bookended by scenes from Citizen Kane (1941), draws inspiration from Welles’ film and sketches a fascinating if reverential portrait of Nair constructed from interviews with international filmmakers, scholars, historians and programmers and curiously hinged on the fact of Nair’s “Rosebud” – ticket stubs, promotional material and assorted film-related curios that the man collected during his childhood. Shivendra Singh’s film is a irresistible romp through early Indian cinema and an endlessly absorbing tribute to a man who is fittingly dubbed the “Henri Langlois of India”. To paraphrase one of the interviewees, Phalke gave Indian cinema a past, Nair gave it a history.

9. Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

 

Laurence AnywaysAlthough it might appear that it is perhaps the hollowness of Xavier Dolan’s previous feature that makes his latest, 160-minute music video look like a cinematic coup, Laurence Anyways really does succeed in accomplishing more than most of contemporary “LGBT-themed independent cinema”. While the latter – including this year’s Cahiers darling – almost invariably consists of realist, solidarity pictures that use social marginalization as shorthand for seriousness, Dolan’s emotionally charged film takes the game one step further and probes the inseparability of body and character, the effect of the physical transformation of a person on all his relationships – a transformation that is mirrored in the flamboyant, shape-shifting texture of the film – without sensationalizing the transformation itself. Rife, perhaps too much so, with unconventional aesthetic flourishes and personal scrapbook-ish inserts, the film rekindles and enriches the youthful verve of the Nouvelle Vague – a move that should only be welcome by film culture. If not anything more, Laurence Anyways establishes that critics need to stop using its author’s age as a cudgel and look at his cinema du look as something more than a compendium of adolescent affectations.

10. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA)

 

Moonrise KingdomLet me confess upfront that putting Wes Anderson’s (surprise!) whimsy, twee and self-conscious Moonrise Kingdom in my year-end list is less a full-hearted appreciation of the film than a confession that I find Anderson to be an important voice that I’m genuinely keen about, but can’t entirely celebrate. I don’t think I’ve seen any film that employs so many elements of industrial cinema yet feels meticulously artisanal, a film that, on the surface, seems to (literally) play to the gallery yet is so full of personality and one that is oddly familiar yet thoroughly refuses instant gratification. Moonrise Kingdom appears to have every ingredient of an obnoxious family comedy, but the unironic, straight-faced attitude and the single-minded conviction with which it moulds the material into an anti-realist examination of the anxieties of growing up, alone, is something not to be found either in cynical mainstream cinema or in the overwrought indie scene of America. Anderson’s neo-sincere film is, as it were, a classicist text couched within a postmodern shell, an emotional film without affect. Paper blossoms, but blossoms nonetheless.

 

Special Mention: The Queen Of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, USA)

 

Instructions For A Light And Sound Machine (2005)
Peter Tscherkassky
Silent

 

Instructions for a Light and Sound MachineAustrian experimental filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky has the most bizarre working method I’ve come across. He apparently only works on found footage which he doesn’t merely reuse. Using a specialized laser beam, he transfers the images partially from the footage onto a fresh stock, working painstakingly on a frame-by-frame basis, leaving certain areas of the latter unexposed. In other words, he literally ‘sculpts’ his film from the raw footage he gathers and gives them a whole new appearance and meaning. One could say that he is essentially responsible for every single speck present in the frames of his films. This fact is of utmost importance since the medium is the message in his 16-minute wonder, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine (2005), a work that packs a wallop like a few films do. That Tscherkassky chooses Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), for his project is vital. Like the Kinski-esque man in it who steps in front of the camera to gaze into it, the Leone film is a self-conscious masterpiece that keeps the narrative to its bare minimum, dissolving the genre and asking us to see through its own construction (If he was allowed, Leone would probably have included the boom mike in the frame as well). Like the Italian film, Instructions is a work that has both narrative and formal concerns, but it goes one further in the way it calls attention to its narrative, its aesthetic and its medium, all at once. And how often do we see experimental films being made in 35mm CinemaScope?!

Instructions consists of a bunch of shots from the Leone film, almost all of which deal with Ugly/Tuco (Eli Wallach) running – for the treasure and for his life. Tscherkassky takes the shots through his elaborate transfer process, extracting, distorting, stressing and degrading them. Sometimes he repeats, reverses, negates, overexposes and overlaps the shots, creating a highly familiar yet vastly different stream of images. The soundtrack, likewise, is a dense collage of diegetic sounds and extra-textual mechanical noises. We hear a clamorous storm of bullets, the hum of a rickety projector, the footsteps of the characters, alarming wail of sirens and other cyclic machine sounds put together by Dirk Schaeffer. Instructions begins with a man – the surrogate audience – opening a window and peering into the horizon through his telescope. An exposed ellipse reveals to us that it’s Tuco arriving on a horse. Soon there are bunch of these ellipses as if a crowd of such men has gathered. We are soon thrust into a duel, bullets fly by, the image jars and switches between negative and positive, with lots of flickering of image and sound. The violence in film parallels the violence on film and, somehow, the latter prevents us from enjoying the former. The film is, hence, also violence on us, an assault on our senses. It’s sadism that’s being exhibited on every level – not just the filmmaker’s, ours too. By exposing the process of the film running, we are made to notice the politics of the narrative, of the form and of the material itself.

Instructions for a Light and Sound MachineTscherkassky seems to have found an apt metaphor for the filmmaking process in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. An actor in a film dies at the end of each frame only to be born again in the next, like how Blondie (Clint Eastwood) – the director stand-in – surrenders Tuco to the sheriff for hanging only to save him again. This seemingly never-ending cycle of death and resurrection pervades the entire film as Tuco becomes the Sisyphus-ean man caught in the loop of film, never being able to escape the tyrannical circle. In the final scene, he finds himself in a cemetery full of graves, which might all well be his own. He runs from one grave to another trying to find the one that will redeem him. But what he does not know is that he is not in control of his situation. It is Blondie who makes him run from one grave to another. It is Tscherkassky who makes him run from one direction to another and back. Tuco tries to evade death by trying to jump onto the next frame and perhaps even out of the film, to no avail. He is puppet in the hands of the filmmaker who distorts Tuco’s figure to give it a phantom-like appearance, as if the man is on fire. Tuco vainly attempts to enforce his reality, to free himself from the machinations of the narrative, the filmmaker, the audience and the projection system. But, even after the ‘Finish’ frame has arrived (which is immediately juxtaposed with the ‘Start’ frame), he is still running, wandering the limbo between life and death, never to see real light.

Instructions is a meditation on the nature of film and its relationship to cinema in this world of digital video. Tscherkassky’s film is highly rooted in the ontology of the material using which it is made and this inseparability of the movie’s medium, aesthetic and content is what gives the work its special significance. In the director’s own words: “I attempt to create art works that can only be made with film. In other words, if there were nothing other than the computer, hard disk and magnetic tape, then these works would simply not exist”. More than anything, Instructions illustrates how the film medium is inherently a vehicle of personal expression and how it bears the authorial stamp more deeply than any other modern medium. A scratch on a piece of film denotes human authorship while a smudge on a piece of digital video does not. The scratch – be it a conscious distortion on the part of the filmmaker or a folly of the projectionist – proves and particularizes the existence of the piece of work in the real world. It stands witness to the human elements of the cinema enterprise – from the production of a film to its exhibition. It’s an existential question of sorts for the work being created, like for Tuco here. The medium of the work has to be palpable and has to be subject to physical impairment in order for it to testify its being. May be that’s why the combustion and destruction of film stock always has some romanticism associated with it. The death is what establishes its existence.

Instructions for a Light and Sound MachineA digital smudge, on the other hand, could happen anywhere within the production, distribution and exhibition systems. It might just be the corruption of a few thousand bits of data. It might purely be the work of a malfunctioning storage device. The smudge makes a film metaphysical by refusing to acknowledge its being in the real world (Tscherkassky’s film, in a way, could be read as an assault on digital video by film). In a sense, it sweeps the work off ground and makes it a bunch of floating images that find their meaning only in the minds of their beholders. Consequently, it is both interesting and problematic when one watches Tscherkassky’s film on the computer or on a DVD system. For one, the basic significance of the whole film is lost. It digitizes the analog. One is never sure if a particular defect in the image stream that we see is a part of the original film or a result of the inefficiency of the video encoder used. This additional dialectic goes to the extent of inverting the filmmaker’s and the spectator’s relationship with the film. The work ceases to be a set of instructions ‘for’ a light and sound machine and becomes a set of instructions ‘from’ a light and sound machine. We stop being the authors and the critics and become the passive screen on which the film projects itself back, assaulting and deceiving us with its glitches. Thanks to the proliferation of online video sites, we have managed to mass produce, more rapidly than ever, what was essentially to be found on a single reel of film. As Godard said, what we see is not even a copy of a reproduction.

In his seminal essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935), Walter Benjamin optimistically examines how the invention of film (more or less coinciding with the birth of psychoanalysis) changed the perception of the world at large and redefined the function of art. He argues that cinema, by its inherent necessity to be reproduced on a large scale (owing to the sheer amount of financing that goes into it, unlike other arts), destroys the aura – to use Benjamin’s terminology – around a piece of art. The question of authenticity of a work of art, in such a case, becomes irrelevant. Thanks to such mass production, a work of art is no more the centre of the world that connoisseurs must travel miles to see. Art is now delivered at our doorstep, so to speak. It frees cultural expression from the confines of an arthouse by making it accessible to a large part of the public, hence making the perfect tool for political mobilization. He writes:

Mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility. From a photographic negative, for example, one can make any number of prints; to ask for the “authentic” print makes no sense. But the instant the criterion of authenticity ceases to be applicable to artistic production, the total function of art is reversed. Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice – politics.

This invalidation of the question of authenticity by mass production, far from being a death knell for the arts as some purists may cry, obviates the need to own and collect works of art. Mass production, on the most basic level, thus seems to override socioeconomic disparities, freeing art of the classism and elitism inherent in a ritualistic approach to it (One could dig a little further to see the underlying contradictions within modern, assembly-line production and marketing). This liberation of the arts rings truer in the world of video streaming and peer-to-peer sharing, where even collection of reproductions of work of art, like DVDs, has become a futile exercise (the ritualist cinephile’s last hope is, then, boasting about the number of films she’s watched). So a work of art, essentially, is stripped down to being about its ideas and emotions and our responses to them than about its authenticity, ownership and geographical location.

Instructions for a Light and Sound MachineNow, one could argue that films such as Tscherkassky’s (and others’ such as those of Stan Brakhage, which literally have its author’s signature imprinted), which thrive on the existence of a physical medium, only bring back the ritual culture generally alien to cinema (The tendency is also manifest when certain experimental films are auctioned for tens of thousands of dollars and even in certain tenets of the auteur theory). But one could also say that it’s their way of asserting their individuality amidst the ruthless homogenization of commercial cinema, over the effacement of a personal vision by the financial objectives of studios (Tscherkassky’s is very much a work of Second Cinema). Instructions, in particular, resorts to this ritualism only to illustrate the tyranny of film, the olden days when the author could make his material transmute on whim and even impart a part of his personality to his film. Not anymore. Authorship can no longer exist on the frame, only within it. As far as the physical medium goes, the author is dead now, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The film even seems to look forward to a newer, less egotistic cinema as suggested by the strange overlapping of ‘Start’ and ‘Finish’ frames. Now that Tscherkassky has mourned the death of the despotism of film, it’s time for some filmmaker to celebrate the democracy of digital video.

 

(You can watch the film here. The password to the video is “theauteurs”.)

Workingman’s Death (2005)
Michael Glawogger
Pashtu/Yoruba/German/English/Ibo/Indonesian/Mandarin/Russian

We imitate the figures and pose like the soldiers and our ancestors up there. We think these poses look really funny and avant-garde.

 

Workingman's Death - HeroesMichael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death (2005) is the kind of film that helps illustrate why an authorial viewpoint is so important in documentary filmmaking. More than anything, Glawogger’s film suffers from the absence of a voiceover. This occasional pseudo-neutrality and non-involvement of the filmmaker is troubling precisely because it runs the risk of alienating the subject from the filmmaker. When you set out to make a documentary on the lives of the oppressed and unprivileged, there are only two ways you can take. One, you film their situation from at a considerable distance, clinically analyzing the causes of their misery and, preferably, pointing out a way out of it. Or two, you go up, close and personal, empathize with them, understand them and document their condition as you would your own, always being critical of what they are going through. Merely gawking at their wretchedness, in the name of neutral observation, amounts to nothing more than crowding near a man run over by a car. Filmmakers such as Pedro Costa have tried to resolve the deadlock between the imperative to avoid exploitation of one’s subjects and the need to document their living condition by, as Michael Sicinski sharply notes, making them active participants in the creative process, by fictionalizing the documentary with the consent of its participants. What this effectively does is that it gives a voice to the subjects, as if they are expressing themselves through the film incidentally organized by the director. Additionally, other filmmakers like Werner Herzog (who has done some atrocious things as well) continually (and, some might say, overbearingly) intrude on their subject’s space – interrupting them, commenting upon them and essentially reducing what they’ve shot to the level of found footage – and hence display a deep personal commitment towards the topic at hand.

What is interesting about Workingman’s Death is that it assumes all the above attitudes in turn. There are phases in the film that are simply brilliant, some interesting, some insipid and some plainly worthy of contempt. There is nothing you learn from the film that’s not summed up in its title. What one expects from it, then, is to study the politico-historical reasons for the eponymous demise of the worker and what it means to the proletariat today. And the film starts on the right note. As the title credits play, we are shown a collage of news reels and archival footage, all depicting workers doing various strenuous activities, cut at a rapid pace reminiscent of the early Soviet films. Likewise, the soundtrack is a patchwork of drilling noise and ominous percussion-heavy music. This prelude ends with a clip depicting a pair of bubbling Soviet workers pledging that they will mine an amount of coal that is much more than is expected from them in a single year. They are filmed with the camera pointing upwards towards them. Following this, Glawogger cuts to the present, to the image of a tired worker, whose face is covered with coal dust, posing for the camera. An on-screen quote from Faulkner reads: “You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours — all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy”. The contrast that the subsequent image – a wintry, deserted townscape – provides to the preceding montage is jarring and drives home the point right away. That the town is in Ukraine – an erstwhile member of the Soviet Union – only reinforces the central idea, which is the failure of the Utopian socialist dream of the omnipotent worker.

Workingman's Death - GhostsHeroes’, this ironically titled and finely directed first part of the film, is set in Donbass, Ukraine, a former mining hub of Soviet Russia, and follows the working routine of a bunch of freelance miners who gather the last pieces of coal left in the mountains. We are told that the government-run mining industry has been shut down and these workers have been left with no choice other than to form small groups, dig out whatever coal they can, sell them and share the profits. Glawogger intercuts these snippets of interviews with a piece of propaganda that details Andrey Stakhanov’s record-breaking stint at the same mine in 1935 when his team collected 102 tons in a single shift, virtually triggering off the Stakhanovite movement. The image of charged workers carrying their drills over their shoulders like rifles and marching forward, heaving their chests and singing under the open sky stands in stark opposition to these handful of miners crawling in a mineshaft that is hardy a couple of feet high and which could collapse on the slightest of errors. We realize how the image of the worker as envisioned (and perhaps constructed) by the Stalinists became more of a self-deceiving prison than a liberating guide for the common worker (an idea that was superbly explored in Makavejev’s Man Is Not A Bird (1965)). Glawogger enters the mine along with the workers, crawling about just like them, to document them (It is an achievement that the movie is shot in film and not in video, which would have been logistically easier). It’s a Herzogian moment no doubt, but to bring in an auteurist dimension would be to undermine the vision of the film, which is nearly what Glawogger himself ends up doing later in the film.

We are also shown the women in the area, who, too, make money by mining and whose camaraderie reflects the men’s. They are more cynical about education and believe that they would have ended up at the same position even if they had gone to college. They laugh at the idea that a faith in God might save them. Perhaps this gender equality is all that remains of the socialist dream. The workers are no more the all-powerful beings in control of the machinery they operate and the nature they exploit. They are now gleaners squeezing every ounce of coal they can out the nearly exhausted mines. The 102 tons of coal that Stakhanov mined in a single shift has become the stuff of legends, much like Stakhanov himself. They are less like Stakhanov and more like Sisyphus – mining to live and living to mine – with seemingly no way out of this wearing circle. Much like the mythological hero, these people seem to have come to terms with their condition. Glawogger, too, ends the section on a note that isn’t much different from how Camus concludes his essay: “…one must imagine Sisyphus happy”. For the first time in the film, we see something that’s really cheerful – a wedding. The couple and their friends celebrate near the Stakhanov statue at the centre of the town. They have bonfires. They leave. Lest it should become a gesture of complacence, Glawogger signs off with the image of the Stakhanov statue standing alone in the wintry night, with the bride’s headwear hanging from his left arm – the answer to a question that will be asked at the end of the film.

Workingman's Death - LionsGhosts’ is shot in Kawahljen, Indonesia, where we see a group of workers chip away large chunks of Sulphur from a valley and carry them all the way to a factory where they get paid. Although the section stands in contrast to the claustrophobic undergrounds of the previous segment, it is equally suffocating to see these workers gagging themselves to avoid getting poisoned while mining these pieces of Sulphur. Glawogger directs the segment with traces of fiction, including what appear like rehearsed conversations and with dynamic camera movements which are simply too beautiful for their own good. There is even a thread consisting of what seems like a gay couple, which is clearly ridiculed by the other workers, that throws light upon the hierarchies of marginalization. We are also shown tourists who visit this breathtaking valley and have themselves photographed along with these workers or temporarily assuming their roles. These tourists humour the workers, treating them condescendingly. One of the workers even talks about a French woman who wanted to kiss him. Evidently, Glawogger is criticizing these middle-class folks for their hypocrisy and for glamorizing what is essentially a life of ordeals. The irony here is that Glawogger does the same thing later in the film. However, there is one sequence which shows one worker selling a improvised Sulphur curio to the tourists at exorbitant prices. For a moment the film attains remarkable density where, for once, the basic human elements of the film are not overshadowed by class-level analysis. However, the political context in this segment is weaker as compared to the previous segment. For one, there is no reason why the film must be set in Indonesia. The only reason for this deadly routine of these workers that we can think of is globalization. But unlike in ‘Heroes’, that connection is not stressed upon one bit (apart from the fact that one worker is wearing a football jersey!).

But it is in the third and fourth segments that the film really plummets. The middle section, ‘Lions’, takes place in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, and inside a slaughter-ground where hundreds of cattle are sacrificed, skinned and processed every day. Glawogger shows us all the killings in fine detail, without any restraint, spending considerable time chronicling the process of slaying, skinning and roasting the animals and lesser time talking to the people who do that. Of course, the reference point here is Franju’s Blood of the Beasts (1949, from which shots are borrowed by Glawogger for the title sequence), where the director took us through a graphic tour of Parisian slaughterhouses, revealing the opaqueness of our morality, among other things. But the subtle difference between the stylistics of Glawogger and of Franju reveals a world’s difference between the attitudes of both the filmmakers towards the killings. While Franju assembled the clips and provided a voice over that built on the material, Glawogger seems to treat the footage of the slaughter as an end in itself. As a result, Franju’s film became an analysis that based itself on the everyday work at the abattoirs whereas Glawogger’s film seems as if it merely wants to record workplace details (and possibly pass itself off as a “mature” film). The shots of animals being slit become the only destination for Glawogger here since his relationship between the people who carry out this task remains tenuous, at best, in this segment. The workers at the slaughter grounds mark the severed heads of the cattle they’ve slain so that they can reclaim them later. They ward off each other so that their share is not taken away. As indicated by the title of the segment and by its visual scheme where the workers appear nearly buried beneath the chunks of meat, Glawogger is actually comparing them with a pack of lions fiercely holding on to what they’ve hunted – quite a reproachable comparison I’d say.

Workingman's Death - BrothersThe fourth part of the film, titled ‘Brothers’, sees the film shift base from Africa back to Asia, this time to a shipyard in Gaddani, Pakistan. We witness workers dismantling large ships, piece by piece, where one false move could result in death (In fact, all the workers shown in the film stand on the verge of death. They risk their lives in order to survive). The group consists of a large number of native and immigrant workers – perhaps from Afghanistan – who help and motivate each other at the workplace. They pine for their beloveds, whom they get to see only during the year ends. We also get to see one photographer who visits the shipyard, offering people a chance to get photographed with a rifle for ten rupees. Are we supposed to pity these workers that they are misguidedly revering terrorists? Or are we supposed to see how deep the Islamic resistance to westernization goes? Glawogger doesn’t answer, and perhaps rightly so. The problem in this section, however, lies in its aesthetics. Glawogger shoots the dismantling work from various angles and distances, creating a symphony of destruction. He uses ultra slow motion and lets us see every speck of dust that rises as the pieces fall. The sense of awe near completely undoes the drudgery that we are witnessing. That Workingman’s Death is shot in film makes it all the more beautiful and hence very objectionable. But that is not the biggest flaw of this segment.

There is no apparent reason why both ‘Lions’ and ‘Brothers’ should be shot where they have been. The slogging that we witness at both the shipyard and the slaughter house is neither geopolitically specific nor a result of global politics. As Michael Atkinson says, there is no reason to believe that it the condition of these workers would have been much better during some other century (the film is subtitled “5 Portraits of Work in the 21st Century”) or if they were in some other country with similar political climate (one worker in Nigeria says that they would be better off if their country allowed them to export meat – a statement that called for further examination, even if it seems shortsighted). Perhaps Glawogger’s exploration is metaphysical rather than political, but the fact that he sets the film entirely in socialist or third world countries throws that argument into question (I guess it would have done the film some good had there been a segment chronicling workers living in developed countries). Moreover, three of the five segments document certain religious practices of the workers, two of which involve animal sacrifice. In all the three segments, the workers have a deep faith in God, deterministically accepting what God has preordained for them. The suffering is taken as a given and some of them are even proud of what they do. Perhaps they find solace and meaning in religion. That all the three countries are Islamic is somewhat troubling (the film was made in 2005 – a time when the demonizing of Muslims was at its peak), especially given that Glawogger could have chosen any three countries for his purpose since there is nothing very specific about Nigeria, Pakistan or Indonesia that he underscores.

Workingman's Death - FutureHowever, the film comes right back on track (or should I say, west of the track?!) in the final segment – the shortest and the best – of the film, “Future”, set in Liaoning, an industrial town in northeastern China. The segment opens with a bunch of men writing text on a platform at the town centre, moving backwards (Mandarin is written vertically), with what looks like volatile ink. The soundtrack plays the voice of chairman Mao extolling industrial workers. The point is clearly made: everything that we see and hear is transitory and is a relic of the past. This phenomenon of getting trapped in failed visions and unfulfilled promises of the past is what forms the central theme of ‘Future’ (in contrast to the disillusionment of ‘Heroes’). The focus soon shifts to the workers in the smelting factories of the township. The workers who are interviewed seem to have deep faith in their country and what it is doing for (and to) them. They acknowledge that times have changed, but retain that by equipping the factories with newer technologies, the nation could be back on the path of progress. These interview snippets are followed by a short conversation with a couple of youngsters standing near a people’s monument, located in the town, depicting workers enthusiastically toiling around a giant statue of Mao. The youngsters tell us that they like coming to this place and getting themselves photographed while assuming the poses of their ancestors. Of course, this attitude seems indicative of the workers as well, who insist on repeating rhetoric of the past even when the nation has moved into a market economy like the west.

There is also an epilog to the film, set in Duisburg-Nord Country Park, Germany – once the Duisburg-Meiderich Steelworks. The factory is evidently in a deplorable condition. We sense that only the phantom of the smelting plant remains. Kids have infested the rusted factory premises, hurling water balloons at each other. As night falls, we see teenagers making out. A narrator gives us the history of the smelting factory and what became of it later: “Then came the last shift. But not the end; rather a new beginning. The smelting plant was transformed into a unique leisure park. When night falls in Duisburg, the blast furnaces flare up. In neon green and fantastic colors. ARTificial light in the truest sense.” We realize that the factory was closed down, but we wonder what happened to the workers. Glawogger, meanwhile, seems to be wondering what happened to “the worker”. May be that’s what he was trying to ask – however objectionably, however inconsistently – throughout the film. As the attractions at the park wind down, as the teenagers and kids move out, as the neon lights fade to black, the manager at the theme park asks a question (which also happens to be the final line in the film), in the public announcement system, whose answer was already given by the image of the solitary statue of Andrey Stakhanov standing in the snow in the first segment: “Have we left anyone sitting in the dark?

Next Page »