Cinema of Germany


Krabi 2562 (Ben Rivers, Anocha Suwichakornpong)

Like The Sky Trembles, Ben Rivers’ collaboration with Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong is a largely fictional, contemplative piece in 16mm and is inspired by the sights and people of the eponymous province in the south of Thailand. This work evolved out of the installation the two filmmakers developed for the Thai biennale, an event referred to in Krabi 2562. The film is a mosaic-like snapshot of the region constructed with a dozen or so characters: a mysterious tourist from another province who may be scouting locations for a film shoot, the petite guide who walks her through the history of important spots, the owner of her hotel who claims to have had supernatural encounters, the old owner of a country house she visits, the proprietor of a defunct movie theatre she finally disappears in, an ad filmmaking crew shooting on an island, and a Neanderthal couple living in the caves apparently in the same time line as the other characters. Not to mention several other outsider figures spending their summer vacation on the islands. Every one, though, seems to have some legend, story or a bit of personal history to recount.

Rivers and Suwichakornpong frame the action from a distance, with the characters of interest typically relegated to the background. Mixing interviews, vignettes of characters engaged in everyday activity or interacting with each other in refreshingly awkward dialogue and shots of the landscape, Krabi 2562 is a freewheeling work that’s always spiralling away from its ostensible plot: the disappearance of the woman. There are also a few “invented” sequences, such as a team of scientists looking for biological samples on the island. Politics is suggested through the sound of soldiers marching through the city and the film opens with an ironic-sounding scene of a school assembly where children pledge their allegiance to the religion, monarchy and the country. But these shards of information don’t necessarily fit together within a single discursive framework. What they evoke are possible histories about the region, where past and present, real and fictional, the living and the dead seem to coexist. This imaginative historiography of the film rests in an uneasy tension with its touristic aspect: though the long, meditative shots of landscapes and human activity capture the rhythm of life particular to the Krabi province, it’s not hard to see that they are also intended as promotional material for the region.

Color-blind (Ben Russell)

Shot in Brittany and French Polynesia, Ben Russell’s Color-blind opens with extreme close-ups of painted canvases that abstract figures in the painting into zones of clashing colours. Flashing on the screen are lines from a letter by Breton painter Paul Gauguin, in which the painter confesses that what appeals to him in this nude portrait of a young girl “on the verge of indecency” are the lines and forms. Speaking about his choice of colours, he adds that, in the mind of the Tahitian girl depicted, the phosphorous colours of the canvas stand for the souls of the dead. Russell’s practice has taken him to different corners of the planet and the ethical challenge in Color-blind remains the same: how does one represent the Other without exoticizing them? His response is to locate his own work critically in an uninterrogated tradition of Western representations of the Marquesas islands. But Russell’s response also involves showing the islanders as living under modern conditions and forms of knowledge. This prologue with Gauguin’s letter, setting up the theme of the outsider’s exoticization of the native, gives way to current day glimpses of the Marquesas islands: a modern music concert, commercialized dance classes, shooting of films with local men dressed in leaves, an old craftsman making a curio in his workshop. These impressions, presented without additional commentary or text, evoke an idea of preservation of tradition predicated ironically on catering to outsiders’ idea of the Polynesian culture.

Color-blind is an exploration of the history of outsider interventions in modern French Polynesian history. The legacy of French colonization is, of course, omnipresent. In a series of interviews, Russell shows a set of cards (presumably a triggering image or colour) to European and native participants, asking them to utter the first word that comes to their mind. Though the ideas are adjacent, there are important differences in nuances between the response in French compared to those in Marquesan (cf: Raúl Ruiz’s On Top of the Whale). A native tattooist talks about the outlawing of the practice by colonisers while a Frenchman expresses guilt over France’s atomic tests on the island. A German scholar discusses the work of historian Karl von den Steinen as the first written history about the Marquesas islands. A while into Color-blind, we get fades into and out of details in Gauguin’s canvases, copies of which hang in a local museum. The juxtaposition of documentary footage from the islands with representation of native bodies in these paintings throws into question Gauguin’s choices, which for all its glowing palette, seems no less colour-blind than the girl whose perception the painter presumes to be colour-naïve. It also places Russell’s own film in the outsider tradition, harking back in cinema to at least Murnau and Flaherty.

Mittelmeer (Jean-Marc Chapoulie)

French artist and filmmaker Jean-Marc Chapoulie’s Mittelmeer opens with shots of the Mediterranean Sea as filmed by closed-circuit cameras mounted on beachside hotels. The images evoke ideas of journey and mythical adventures, and the film is indeed offered as a tribute to Jean-Daniel Pollet’s Méditerranée. But these intimations of the timeless are pierced by history, the shot of a road by the Riviera calling to mind the July 2016 attack in Nice above all. Mittelmeer soon confirms the hunch as it trains its attention on the surveillance of public spaces and the public’s access to this surveillance footage. Like Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button, Chapoulie’s film politicizes the stretch of geography that summer vacationers take to be a site of fun and relaxation. The Mittelmeer in Mittelmeer is a zone embodying the conflicts of our time. It is the burial ground for scores of refugees and immigrants who try to make their way into Europe and thus a border to be surveyed and protected by the state. It is also a preeminent channel of commerce, especially for large oil companies, the movement of goods across waters being more streamlined than that of people. The same containers become housing in the strictly monitored jungle of Calais.

In this regard, Peter Hutton’s At Sea and Godard’s Film Socialism are points of reference. In one passage, Chapoulie discusses the origin of piracy in the sea, relating it with the migrant inhabitants of Arcadia and noting that it was also the origin of theatre. And so he goes, constantly hopping from one set of ideas to another, from the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in public spaces, to the revolutionary theatre of protestors in the Middle East, to the relation of crude oil to history of imagemaking, to early Lumière films of people fishing and vacationing at beaches, to an American company manufacturing a device to detect shooters based on bullet sounds, to Syrian revolutionaries taking down public cameras. To be sure, these are all interrelated ideas, and stimulating ones at that, but there’s no sense that Chapoulie is synthesizing them into an essay with a central line. He constructs the film wholly from existing footage, at times colour-manipulating it, and adds an original sound mix to them, consisting of a multi-genre musical selection and amplified sounds of actions we see on screen. Also present are three human voices. Chapoulie regularly converses with his son about the images on screen, adding an element of fatherly pedagogy and virtual family vacation to the proceedings. There’s also the voice of Nathalie, a friend-collaborator, who furnishes critical commentary and personal musings. I might be underestimating Mittelmeer, but it’s a work that should’ve been better than it is.

Years of Construction (Heinz Emigholz)

Years of Construction is the first Emigholz film I’ve seen, so I don’t have a framework to access this 29th entry in the filmmaker’s Photography and Beyond series. It’s however a very strong work on its own merit. Charting the demolition and the subsequent reconstruction of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim between 2013-2018, Years presents an architecture in flux. There’s no voiceover or text, we don’t get to know anything about the institution or the building, and the film remains vehemently fixed on the material details of the transformation. Emigholz films the building from countless number of vantage points, sometimes with a Dutch angle and always from a non-intuitive point of view. These unusual compositions, nevertheless consisting of strong, expressionistic lines, serve the same purpose as many of the artworks in the museum: to slow down our eyes and force us to reflect on the architecture which is otherwise experienced simply as a negative space to the artwork. Cutting on matching movement, Emigholz accords about five seconds to each shot, no matter the amount or importance of the details it contains. This all-levelling gaze and cubist superposition asks an ontological question: can a building be completely described? But for Years of Construction, another question lies beneath: what distinguishes a building from its surroundings?

Emigholz puts in dialogue notions of indoor and outdoor all through Years. Each of the film’s six segments begins with the museum’s “exterior”—the face it offers to the surrounding city—before moving inside. He films its façade from across the park opposite, while deep-space interior shots of the museum often show the world outside. The statues in the park don’t have the aura that sculptures in the museum have, and this idea of the museum as a context-provider is at the focus of Years. Reminiscent of Berlin in Walter Ruttmann’s city symphony, Mannheim in Emigholz’s film transforms in a manner comparable to the museum: depopulated at first, it serves as a space to be filled, just like how the photograph-like shots devoid of movement in the film’s first passage give way to the busy action of dinosaur-like machines chomping on steel and concrete. Finally, Years explores the intersection between contemporary architecture and sculpture—two domains that have swapped their classical functions—as articulations of space and volume. The museum architecture, like the modernist sculptures in it, modulates visitor movement through and around it. By familiarising us with the building over 90 minutes, Emigholz obliges us to notice it in action when the museum is finally reopened for public in 2018: the sculptures now become the negative space to the architecture.

Karl Valentin’s The New Writing Desk

Bref no. 71; March 2006

This film, Valentin’s third, runs for nine minutes and thirty-one seconds; six minutes and twenty seconds in the copy projected, not at the original speed, but at twenty-four frames/second. This makes our assessment difficult: the acceleration gives too much prominence to stylization. We notice an idea of acting rather than a body language rooted in reality. Impossible to know whether, at the normal speed, Valentin’s acting remains as rapid.

He plays a scribe, may be an accountant (Valentin also wrote the one-act play The New Accountant in 1937) or a transcriber of official documents, happily living through life’s ups and downs, who orders a new writing desk to be able to write on. He realizes the desk is much taller than his chair. He saws the legs of the desk, but imprecisely and a little too much since the desk soon turns out to be wobbly and shorter than the chair, which Valentin then shortens with blows of hammer before sawing the desk again, still too high, and using a drill to further lower the chair even though it’s on ground level. He ends up drilling through the floor and falls on the customer of a barbershop below.

It’s a very simple scenario, based on the logical and the absurd. We are reminded of Ferreri’s Break Up: all Valentin had to do was to take exact measurements so that the desk is at the correct height. But Karl Valentin (1882-1948) milks all imaginable possibilities of a thin scenario, complicating things to the maximum (he sits on the chair by stepping across) and playing ‘village idiots’ (in 1936, in The Chequered Jacket, he unintentionally sells the jacket in which his rent money was tucked away).

Valentin, or tragic misunderstanding, through the comic gloom of poverty and everyday minimalism.

Valentin’s film is based on three acts: outdoors with the delivery men, then indoors—a single long act—with the delivery men and then alone, and finally the “punchline”1 at the barbershop, where the barber is shaving his costumer with a snow-white shaving cream, both men wearing white aprons; proper white suddenly invaded by the dirty white of the dust that falls from the drilled ceiling.

You will have noticed here a theme proper to Mitteleuropa or to Eastern Europe: this scribe is the little cousin to the government officers described by Kafka and Gogol. We clearly see Germany’s mediocrity in the 1900s, reduced to the piddling existence of an impoverished petite bourgeoisie, which we will encounter notably in Murnau’s The Last Laugh. The inanity of the protagonist has to do with that of the slaves of the bureaucratic system.

 

The art of the fugue

But it’s especially Bruegel that the portrait of these physically-deformed beings evokes: the “too big/too small” dialectic that we will later find sublimated in a film made in 1936, The Inheritance (where a couple discards all its furniture before inhering those of distant relatives who turn out to be dwarfs, with beds, chairs and wardrobes of their height, which the couple have to make do with, being completely broke). Next to the tall and skinny Valentin, one of the delivery men is fat and strong, the other seems to be a midget or a kid—an alternation visible right from the first shot in the street, containing extras of similarly contrasting and extreme appearance.

The crux of the film is based on a comic succession of Valentin’s efforts to resolve problems of size. Notice that he’s almost always dressed up in a false or a clown’s nose, which tends to diminish the illusion of reality. He plays with his instruments—saw, measuring tape, hammer, drill—with an assured virtuosity in harnessing clumsiness. Valentin is a practical man, carpenter by training, who lived frugally from this profession in his last years. Objects carry a secondary meaning: crouched or perched on his chair, with a quill over his ear, he evokes an owl on a tree. He plays with his saw as though it were a lyre, a bow to launch arrows with, all of this in a record time that lets us fully appreciate the effect without it being obvious: the art of the fugue. As Isou would say, the chiselling here is as much worked on as the discrepant. All objects are off-screen. He looks for them with a gesture of the hand: this invisible and immediate proximity gives the scene a highly enjoyable, unreal dimension.

The central static shot here is, in fact, made of many successive, similar-looking takes: same axis, same lens and with the same single character. He becomes an indispensable entity, a straitjacket that we can’t escape from any more than from the rigid monotony of the empire of Wilhelm II. The character works his way at the edge of the frame, which doesn’t grow bigger or smaller with respect to him or follow his movements. There are small jumps in continuity, which makes us suspect a positive or a negative damaged over time. But now, these are normal jump cuts that play on contrasts—for example, a woman in evening dress cut to the same woman, now naked—noticeable thanks to the similarity in their contents.

It’s completely against the grammar: Breathless half a century before there was Breathless. The presence of this device can be explained by the fact that there was no cinematic tradition in Germany at that time. The first, mediocre films date from 1910. One could hence do whatever one wanted. Valentin, who started in 1912, is a pioneer and the first auteur of German cinema. And it works just fine. That encourages us to reflect on the value of classical American continuity editing: does it have an ontological value? Or does it turn out to be the simple reflection of a dominant style based on a superficial order and harmony. I lean towards the second hypothesis. We have as proof Japan, whose films constantly cut across the 180-degree line forbidden by the Yankees. Had Germany and Japan won the war, film technique would have been upside-down. Film education, also in the clutches of Wall Street, needs a complete overhaul.

It’s surprising to discover a film so dense and accomplished, so modern and revealing of its time, only four years after the beginning of German cinema. And to think that it must’ve been shot in a day or two. There is even an assistant who enters the frame for a split second; it only shows the amateurism of the shoot.

 

Clown from the cabaret

Valentin’s film art was forgotten or despised for a long time, especially by all the histories of cinema. Valentin is, in fact, one of the great German filmmakers along with Lubitsch, Murnau, Lang, Fassbinder, Syberberg and Schroeter, and better than Pabst, who made one good film out of eight, than Riefenstahl, too pompous, than Wenders, who hasn’t stopped declining in the last twenty years.

He was forgotten because he came from cabaret and theatre, where he had a crazy success. So for many, he wasn’t a real filmmaker, even if only a few of his films are based on his plays, fourteen out of fifty-one, if I’m not mistaken. The same judgment was pronounced on Pagnol and Guitry—Chapin escaped this criticism because there’s no trace of his activity in London. Notice, however, that there isn’t a word written or said in The New Writing Desk:  we just see Valentin opening his mouth frequently for inaudible monologues. The final appearance of the floor below proves that it wasn’t a sketch written for the theatre, where a collapse into another setting would’ve been ruled out. Valentin’s future work—his career extends from 1912 to 1941—certainly gives prominence to dialogue: one thinks of Beckett.

Specificity my ass. What matters is not that Valentin shuttles indifferently from cinema to theatre, with the latter preceding only by five years. What matters is the achievement of a body of work that makes us laugh, that touches us, moves us, overwhelms us, like that of Chaplin (whom he perhaps influenced), through its innovation in acting, its verve, its sense of the absurd and of repetition, its darkness and its bitter outlook towards the human condition and towards the average couple, which he created with his wife, Liesl Karlstadt. He was forgotten because he was “into” short films: fifty in all, of which twenty-nine seem to have been lost. He is the only cinema genius (outside of animation and documentary) to have limited himself to short films, with the exception of The Eccentric (1928).

His sketches for the theatre, à la Davos, à la Dubillard, à la Bedos-Robin, never cross forty pages (The Dance Hall remains the longest). Brevity is often the synonym of concision and perfection, like in poetry. The cinema often attains the highest summits (Puissance de la parole) since it frequently spans the shortest durations, which remains a form of respect towards the viewer, expressing the politeness and the humility that you mustn’t make him waste his time.

Valentin was forgotten because he worked not in noble drama, but in comedy. And the Germanics don’t have a sense of humour. Since Valentin’s retirement in 1941, there has only been one good German comedy, Satan’s Brew, made by Fassbinder. Excepting Lubitsch and Wilder, the defectors, who fall into the category of Jewish humour2, we notice the lack of humour among the “great” Germans. There is no comedy by Lang. Murnau failed with his The Finances of the Grand Duke. A country too cold for laughter, like Scandinavia, which turns out to be slightly better (Dreyer’s Once Upon a Time, Bergman’s All These Women). If the Germans had had a sense of humour, the laughable Hitler would’ve been a fiasco and there would’ve been fifty million fewer deaths.

 

1[Translator’s note] A play on two meanings of the word chute (referring to both a fall and the punchline of a story or a joke).

2Isn’t the Holocaust also the hatred towards laughter, towards a civilization based on life-sustaining humour?

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]

 

The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)

It must take a peculiar artistic temperament to follow up one of the decade’s best films with one of the year’s worst. Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die has no reason to exist except as the by-product of an old pals’ reunion. Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Bill Groundhog Day Ghostbustin’ Ass Murray play cops Peterson (!), Morrison and Robertson respectively. They are the entire police force in charge of keeping order in Centerville, a town of less than 1000 inhabitants with an overpopulated juvenile penitentiary and cemetery. The officers don’t have much to do, except investigate missing chicken and keep an eye on Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), who lives in the woods. That’s only until the town is beset by strange incidents. A practice called polar fracking has reoriented the earth’s magnetic axis, resulting in exceptionally long days or nights. Animals go missing and the dead rise from their grave. Totally ill-equipped to handle the situation, the residents succumb to the zombies one by one. The linear simplicity of structure and composition that begins the film makes way for crippling hipster irony devoid of purpose or pleasure.

Besides this airless self-referencing, The Dead Don’t Die is also strewn with plugs to other films high and low. It’s clearly Jarmusch’s “take” on the now-buried B-movie tradition: the dialogue is expressly tacky (“Next to her dead body?”), the situations derivative, and the gore overdone. The actors are conscious of being in a Jarmusch movie—a stillborn idea that’s exhaustingly reiterated. But the film is invested in nothing, not even its own existence. The subtexts of Romero’s films are spelled out to intentionally keep them at arm’s length. Climate change is played out as a never-ending joke, as is a stilted redneck character played by Steve Buscemi. The zombies are of the most unimaginative kind, roaming around chanting ‘coffee’ (yes, coffee), ‘candy’, ‘drugs’, ‘wifi’ and other easy pickings like that. Jarmusch manages to make every element a grating presence, from the theme song to Swinton’s antics as a Japanophile mortician. Only Sevigny, with her completely misplaced sincerity and a subtle sense of self-deprecating comedy, livens things up in an otherwise dead undertaking.

The Traitor (Marco Bellocchio)

In The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio recreates the story of Tommaso Buscetta, a mafia boss from Palermo who turned government informant, leading to the arrest of hundreds of other members of the crime syndicate. The film opens in 1980, the year Buscetta was allowed to flee to Brazil where he’d be later picked up to be coerced into collaboration, and follows him through his “betrayal” over the next twenty years. Bellocchio and co-writers focus on the self-perception of the protagonist as an honourable man, whom Pierfrancesco Favino portrays with solemn dignity. While the mafioso and their workers take him to be a traitor, Buscetta sees himself as the true guardian of the Cosa Nostra tradition and the people he’s denouncing as the true traitors. This self-narrativization, the film underscores, is based on a notion of masculine honour above all else: Buscetta admittedly has a weakness for women (allowing the film to include gratuitous sex scenes); he resists aging and resents his wife supporting him financially in the US, where he’s put under witness protection. He spends his old age in the obscurity of suburban middle-class life, in constant fear of a retribution that never comes.

The 79-year-old filmmaker employs his characteristic, cocky style to dramatize mafia wars. A ticker of the body count flashes on the screen with every murder. Bold, brash texts filling the screen announce important dates and events. The arrest of a boss is rapidly intercut with a trapped hyena. An impressive bombing scene unfolds as a single shot from the back of the victim’s car. But Bellocchio is most attuned to scenes with a theatrical flourish: Buscetta’s deposition and subsequent cross-examinations that were televised. Unfolding in a vast courtroom with Buscetta at its centre and peripheral cells holding the denounced, the trials are filmed in wide-angle shots and echoing sound. Like the opening of Vincere, Buscetta’s composure is contrasted with the agitated, crazy reactions of his rivals. As the denunciations become a regular affair and the public interest vanes, the trials grow modest and the judges less scared of the accused. Despite its baroque touches, The Traitor remains a by-the-numbers biopic, choosing to tread close to history at the expense of insight. There’s another character whose collaboration runs parallel to Buscetta’s, and it is offered in elaborate detail for no other reason than to blink at the audience’s knowledge of the events.

The Golden Glove (Fatih Akin)

If Lars von Trier’s serial killer movie tempered the gratuity of its graphic descriptions with a dialectical organization, Fatih Akin’s The Golden Glove drops another layer from the wall separating art and snuff. Adapted from a novel of the same name, the film follows the exploits of Fritz Honka (Jonas Dassler) between 1970 and 1975, when he murdered and decapitated women in his Hamburg apartment. Unlike The House that Jack Built, The Golden Glove makes no claims to explaining Honka: barely any detail about his childhood, upbringing or inner life. Whatever we glean about this character comes from the faithful reconstruction of his apartment from photographs: the furniture and linen hint at a lived-in homeliness while posters of naked models coexist with chubby, matronly dolls. Instead, we are presented with shots of Honka binge drinking, forcing the women he picks up on street into violent sex, killing them and parcelling their bodies. Akin films the gruesome acts of rape and murder so that the architecture distances us from the events by partially blocking our view. This considered reserve, which sometimes increases the perversity of the crimes, vanishes as the film proceeds and we are treated to Honka’s fits of rage in full intimacy.

What takes the place of individual psychology is social description. Set in the seventies in West Germany, the film—likely following the book—portrays Honka as a product of his environment. Honka is at the bottom of the social pyramid: he works dead end jobs at malls and construction sites, lives in a cubbyhole and spends his money on alcohol. His face deformed after an accident, Honka is ruled out of the dating market as well. His only social life is at the Golden Glove, a seedy joint for freaks and outcasts (any of whom could be the protagonist of the story) whom Akin describes elaborately without affection. The corpulent, old women Honka lures with the promise of alcohol are also outliers of the free market economy with no social support or means of sustenance except through abject slavery. Seeing them showing no will to live and their old bodies being manipulated and mutilated like inanimate objects is the most distressing and repulsive aspect of The Golden Glove. Consequently, it’s liberating to witness the lucky few who escape this fate, thanks either to a Christian missionary trying to “save” the Golden Glove regulars or to sheer accident: a sentiment that the film structures itself around. The uplifting image of a blonde teen whom Honka idealizes unwittingly escaping Honka closes the film.

 

Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar)

In Pain and Glory, Almodóvar lets go of the generic framework that imparted a sense of mystery and thrill to his narratives. The film is instead simply the story of a filmmaker reminiscing about his past, patching up broken friendships and coming to terms with his creative and corporeal disintegration. Weakened and frazzled, Antonio Banderas is exquisite in his role as Salvador, a successful movie director who has quit working and chooses to fritter away his time in his swanky apartment. Salvador suffers from a number of ailments stemming from his partially paralyzed back. On the occasion of the restoration of one of his older productions, he reaches out to the film’s lead actor from whom he’s been estranged for thirty years. This contact inducts him into a heroin addiction, which Salvador gladly chooses over resuming filmmaking. His heroin-induced stupor provokes memories of his pre-teen years: the suffering and hardship of his poor parents, his mother’s loneliness and resourcefulness faced with the absence of her husband and the precocious awakening of his sexuality in his relation with an older labourer he teaches. Back in the present, he meets an old lover, whom he unsuccessfully tried to save from drugs, and recounts to his doting secretary-friend his relation with his mother in her final years.

None of this information is offered as a revelation or a piece of a puzzle. Neither are they woven into a causal narrative. This lends the film a transparency and directness that critics, perhaps with justification, are quick to read as confession. The film is populated with references to the filmmaker’s life but also details so particular—his mother breaking a slab of chocolate to make a sandwich, mending a sock with an egg as support, Salvador placing a pillow on floor before bending down to access a safe—that they could’ve come from nowhere except experience. But Almodóvar avoids sentimentalism and undercuts the obvious emotions with counter-intuitive musical cues. When Salvador meets his old lover, there’s a cut across the 180° line that positions this film as a sequel of sorts to Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, heterosexual domesticity being the implied horror connecting both encounters. For the most part, though, the attention is on Salvador’s pain and physical degradation. The film opens with him suspended under water as though in a womb, and the presence of water bodies throughout the film suggests a time before birth. In that, it’s clearly an autumnal reflection on aging that appears to be favourite theme of the year.

Austerlitz

Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s Austerlitz is a typically rich and rewarding examination of the present’s relationship with the past and the commodification of history. Shot in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin seemingly over one summer day, the film centres on tourists who visit the camp either on their own or as part of a guided tour. We don’t follow particular individuals or groups, but the general progression of the film follows the guided tour from the entry to the exit. We observe them through the architectural elements of the buildings on the camp, the double framing producing a necessary distance. The sound mix is dense and complex and picks up various different voices on the site. Guide commentary and tourist chitchat, mostly in Spanish and English, overlap to produce a disorienting palette reflective of modern confusions regarding historical interpretation: a speech about the isolation chambers at the site is overlaid with a tourist speaking about his South African trip, the camp tour perceived as being in a continuum with other vacation activities.

Loznitsa shoots with long lens, which allows him to remain at a distance from the tourists, who hardly notice or pay attention the camera; it’s to the credit of camera placement that he’s still able to get such long, uninterrupted shots, which always begin after the camera has been on for some time. It is also noteworthy that he doesn’t provide us any sights the tourists themselves might be seeing, remains as he does mostly outside the buildings. Austerlitz, like Shirin, is not about the observed but the observer, not about history but the consumption of history. In fact, we are never told which concentration camp we are in; I had to look it up. As is characteristic of the filmmaker, Loznitsa’s meditative and observational film offers no informational text or voiceover, leave alone indications as to what we are to make of these vignettes. A thoroughly non-polemical work, Austerlitz trusts the audience to not only supply the required historical context to understand the images, but also exhibit the moral sensitivity needed to garner insight from them.

The tourists behave as any group behaves in a culturally-significant space. They amble around the site in grudging respect; their blasé body language makes it seem like they are in a forced school trip or a not so amusing theme park. Naturally, they are in casual summer clothes, which includes dozens of message T-shirts. (One guy wearing a Jurassic Park tee is particularly helpful to the film’s cause.) Their mass-market clothing, advertised to them as embodiments of their individuality, turns them—like all of us—into walking banners for corporate branding, and this tension between mass consumption and individual inclination is also present in the way they consume the sights of the camp. Except for a few fleeting moments of solitary contemplation, they are pulled into the rhythm of the guided tour, with its regular snack and toilet breaks. They pose at torture poles and the ovens as they would at an amusement park. Austerlitz, however, does not incriminate them or deem them shallow. It is what it is, and the viewer is free to make his own judgments about their comportment. Loznitsa’s choice to shoot in black and white, in fact, refuses the potentially jarring presence of colours at the site.

There’s clearly a sense that something is missing from the images and sounds of Austerlitz. That something, the negative space of the film, is history itself. The past in Loznitsa’s film exists in an inverted relation to the present, for what we see in the film completely belies our knowledge of the concentration camps. The somewhat frivolous behaviour of the tourists, who dawdle as though they were in a shopping mall, is a negation of the sombreness of camp life. The crowd of tourists is unregulated, moving in all directions. They enter and exit the different facilities of the camp at will. They have food and drink at hand at all times. Most significantly, they possess an abundance of recording equipment that photograph every inch of the site. In contrast, hardly any images exist of the Holocaust, this “black hole of history” in Georges Didi-Huberman’s terms, one of whose defining features is the suppression of any documentation about it. Photography is also an existential act. Photographing a monument is a testament to the photographer being present at that place and partaking in the longevity of the monument, which will no doubt outlive the photographer. In that sense, Austerlitz is a snapshot of our life today, with all its fears and anxieties seen reflected in the Holocaust.

Loznitsa’s work has consistently engaged with the way history is recorded and given shape to. It has brought to surface the intimate relation between history and theatre, between the meaning of events and their appearance. In Maidan, the theatre of revolution is indissoluble from the revolution itself. It is in the form of the protests—the choruses, the banners, the slogans—that people recognize themselves as actors of history. In The Event, the conflict between the revolutionaries’ unsure understanding of what’s happening and the narrative imposed by state apparatus crystallizes into a synthetic vision of history. Both these films centred on a collective recognizing itself through a shared revolutionary identity. In Austerlitz, the tragedy of history resurfaces as commercial theatre. The mass is no more the subjects of history but its consumers. If the Nazis benefited from production at the camps, private and public operators now profit from the mass tourism industry. It is significant that Loznitsa’s film ends with a reference to the Lumières, with the visitors leaving the camp, now a veritable tourist factory. Unlike Lumières’ workers, though, they are in no hurry to get back home. They linger and take selfies at the gate. They are, after all, on vacation. Arbeit macht frei, indeed.

Donbass

Donbass opens in what it calls “Occupied Territory in Eastern Ukraine”. Calling the region that—and not Novorossiya or Donetsk People’s Republic or Luhansk People’s Republic—makes it clear that Loznitsa’s latest fictional film is partisan. The scene is a make-up room and the actress in frame complains about the pay. A woman in military outfit barges in and evacuates the dozen or so people inside. They actors aren’t surprised and rush out as per instruction. The handheld camera follows them in long shots to a location where they wait for further indications. Following the sound of an explosion, the crew is led to the site of a bus bombing, where they enact a TV reportage. The actress pretends to be a shopkeeper who rushed to the location after the blast. Loznitsa has perhaps never been more direct. This revelation of the mise en scène of false flag terrorism and manufactured news in Russia-backed secessionist Ukraine, which boomerangs back on its participants later, spells out both the filmmaker’s sentiments and the film’s modus operandi.

Donbass is divided between “Ukraine” and “Occupied Territory in Eastern Ukraine”, but spends most of its time describing life in the occupied region. Like Loznitsa’s first feature My Joy, the film is a series of aborted vignettes, stubs that vanish after they’ve served their purpose. This employment of interruption as a stylistic element helps the film paint a mosaic-like picture of the region and liberates it from the need to give a narrative envelope to such disparate threads. After the opening bombing, we move to a maternity hospital in which the new official-in-charge denounces his predecessor’s crimes while being in cahoots with him, a drama during a Ukrainian political meet where one libelled lady pours a bucket of goo on a political leader, a reportage of people living in bunkers in the occupied territory, an anticlimactic meeting between a Christian pacifist and a newly-minted official, an ingenious description of corruption where the new army hijacks cars of businessmen and extorts money from them, a confrontation of the insurgent soldiers with a visiting German journalist whom they denounce as fascist, the punishment of an erring soldier by the rest of his regiment, assorted scenes at various checkpoints, exchanges among common people in the bus reminiscing about their losses in the war, and several other scenes and stray incidents. Loznitsa trains his attention on the power trips common people willingly embark on given the chance.

But Donbass is not some falsely-neutral study of the human condition; it clearly takes sides without reducing the complexity of the matter at hand. It is Loznitsa’s documentary eye that nuances proceedings. In the film’s most remarkable detour, we attend a partly-grotesque, partly-endearing wedding in a registrar office in the occupied region—the first wedding in the self-proclaimed Novorossiyan union. Two “revolutionaries” are getting married and their uniformed, gun-toting comrades are here to wish them. The incredible energy of the scene apart, what registers is the attempt of a fledgling nation trying to define itself through rituals and symbols: the Novorossiyan marriage certificate, the national flag, the national anthem and the patriotic hails. Similarly, in another scene, a captured Ukrainian soldier is displayed at a bus stop, where the public humiliates and assaults him. There’s a hint of sadism in Loznitsa presenting the discomfiting affair in its entirety, but the stories of the people accusing the captive of rigging mines that killed their near and dear are equally distressing. In this sequence, setting image against sound doesn’t cancel them out; it enhances their truth value. In both scenes, it isn’t clear whether Loznitsa is critical of the participants in the ceremony. His success lies in making us look for values beyond that question.

Like Austerlitz, Donbass is full of shots making and unmaking themselves: we see elements constantly filling and emptying the frame. This alternation of density and rarefaction gives the film a rhythm akin to breathing, as does its combination of highly nervous action and anodyne conversations. Despite its scattershot narrative, we are always sure of where we are and what the dynamics between characters are. This is partly because the filmmaker guides our attention by placing the Ukrainian and Novorossiyan flags in nearly every shot. Loznitsa is a filmmaker with a remarkable eye for large groups of people, and Donbass contains several shots of individuals vanishing into the crowd or coming out of it. In one scene, we see people having set up camp outside a police station, dinner table and all. It’s a succinct image of the transitional period of revolution, right in line with the film’s thematic interests. The regiment without a chief, the maternity hospital with conflicting leaderships, the army unit without official funding, all point to a nation in the process of defining itself. A country in its mirror stage of development, it could be said, if only Loznitsa weren’t such a materialist.

The SquareRuben Östlund’s The Square realizes that satirising contemporary art world is the easiest thing to do. So it makes up for it with a paralysing nuance that comes across as taking two steps forward and one backward. Östlund’s ambivalence towards his subject is apparent from the first scene. An uninitiated American journalist (Elizabeth Moss) asks the director of a contemporary art museum, Christian (Claes Bang), to explain a piece of curatorial text written in artspeak. He mumbles something about the context of exhibition, which the journalist accepts without question. The scene is supposed to be a sendup of the inscrutability of modern art, but the text the journalist reads out sounds legitimate, as does Christian’s response. This scene is followed by shots of the demolition of an old, imposing sculpture at the museum’s entrance whose place a modern work called The Square will take. This destruction is supposed to be read by us as sacrilege. But later in the film, Christian explains the meaning of The Square to his kids through family anecdote in a way that makes an authentic case for the work.

The artwork in question, The Square, I believe, is a genuinely interesting installation, and belongs to the family of contemporary sculptures that converts the hallowed halls of the art museum into a public space of confrontation. A four metre by four metre square of LED lights, it carries the following motto: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” Östlund follows up this on-screen statement with shots of the homeless in Stockholm. The blunt juxtaposition brings out the real problem with The Square and its utopian intentions: access to the museum itself is a question of social status and the mutual trust the work seeks to foster is in effect upper-class solidarity. On the other hand, Östlund refuses to see the museum or the art world as a monolith. The young marketing executives who come up with an awful, exploitative ad campaign for The Square are lampooned directly, but Christian is a well-rounded character shown to be capable of empathy and change.

Christian, though, is embedded in a power structure that he consciously makes use of. When a subordinate of his refuses to run a personal errand for him, he threatens the young man by turning it into a question of professional trust. He sleeps with the journalist well aware of the equations at play. He has preconceived notions about those living in low-income housing and doesn’t realize the implications of accusing everyone in an impoverished, immigrant-dominated apartment complex in order to zero in on one person who’s stolen his wallet and phone. At the same time, he comes out of his cocoon to own up to his mistakes and to trust others. When he loses his daughters at the mall, he entrusts his shopping bags to a homeless person. In a video-taped apology to an immigrant boy grounded at home because of his accusation, Christian displaces personal culpability into sociological abstractions, but finally takes his two daughters with him to meet the boy in person.

It would be more fruitful to see The Square not as a satire but a set of qualified observations about contemporary art and its institutions. The film understands museums as cultural establishments run like corporates needing to balance their role as proponents of progressive values and purveyors of artistic expression. When Christian is forced to give a press conference about the offensive promotional video, he’s taken apart by both socially-minded liberals and “defenders of free speech”. Christian’s existence is so sophisticated, so wrapped up in layers of irony and simulation that he becomes unable to tell the real from the artificial. He prepares his impromptu speeches in advance, even their improvisational bits. The gets taken for a ride by a con job at a public square, but is unfazed by the real violence taking place during a performance act. The Square’s single most important insight might be this: interpersonal trust in public spaces, all but killed by increased social inequality, can only resurface as parody in art museums for those with no need for it.

The most evident syndrome of this malady afflicting modern art establishments appears in a grand dinner scene in which a male performance artist (Terry Notary) wanders naked in imitation of a primate amidst tuxedoed patrons of the museum. At first amusing, his doubly-performative act turns out to be an escalation of hostilities culminating in a real attack on a woman. In this return of the repressed, the implicit social-behavioural contract of the museum space breaks down and the patrons are hard put to find an appropriate response to the aggression—a crisis paralleling the emotional violence the museum inflicts on the world around through its publicity campaign and the impossibility of the outside world to proportionally react to it.

The film’s cinematography is reminiscent of Lanthimos’ work in its unstable, dynamic compositions employing the architectural elements of the museum. Östlund’s chops as an entertaining filmmaker is apparent in the dinner scene and the thrilling sequence where Christian delivers the letters as his subordinate tries to protect their car from curious street hawks, passages pregnant with impending violence. But the film is also full of open threads and pointless sequences seemingly left loose for the purpose of ambiguity. The film maintains an air of mystery only because it constantly contradicts itself, afraid to look like a newspaper cartoon about modern art.

Western

In Western, Valeska Grisebach poses a series of interlocking power relations between characters and their communities that sets in conflict their individual selves and their group identities. Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) is part of a German crew trying to setup a power plant in the woods of Bulgaria near the Greek frontier. The raw material for construction hasn’t arrived yet arrived at the site, so the crew spends its time lazing around on the river bank, knocking down beers, hitting on women of the nearby village, plucking fruit from private compounds and generally driving around at night. The men even plant a German flag to mark out their territory. Meinhard, in contrast, goes into village to get to know the residents. Over time, he makes friends even though he doesn’t speak Bulgarian. He helps them out with building wells in the village and, in turn, Adrian, one of the villagers, lets him use his horse and even has his nephew teach Meinhard to ride.

Supposedly an ex-legionnaire, Meinhard is a wanderer with no family or home. His reaching out to the villagers is an attempt at belonging to a place and a people. But what Western demonstrates is that, connect though he might with the residents, Meinhard will never be able to escape the larger identities circumscribing his individual, personal behaviour. The villagers refer to him as the German. They bond with him through positive clichés about Germans. One of them breaks ice with him using German military anecdotes. Meinhard, in turn, doesn’t realize that his symbolic gestures of belonging—giving his pocket knife to Adrian’s nephew, taking part in gambling, threatening a local lynchpin when he roughs up Adrian—align him along certain fault lines within the community. As an outsider, he can only see the village as a monolith to assimilate into, but doesn’t realize that his status as a higher-paid, well-travelled, working-class man from a developed country situates him in a complicated dynamic with the village residents; that the welcome the villagers extend him is precisely predicated on him being an outsider.

Meinhard’s relation with the crew, meanwhile, deteriorates just as he develops a rapport with the villagers. His German colleagues don’t like him hanging out late in town, pursuing women they’re after, or preventing them from using the village’s scanty water source. Like with the soldiers from Herzog’s Signs of Life—a work that Western alludes to—their worst instincts come out when they’re subject to boredom and lack of purpose in a foreign country. One of them justifies the flag-hoisting and points out that they’re the ones helping Bulgaria develop. After an untoward, selfish incident, Meinhard warns his crew chief Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) that he’d kill him if such things happen again. Meinhard’s severity alienates him from his own kind, but his self-effacing liberalism doesn’t exactly allow him to become one with the villagers. He’s left stranded at the end, dancing alone at a country festivity in a parody of communal participation, like many a tragic hero of arthouse cinema.

Grisebach constructs her film as a series of convivial scenes of groups of people conversing over drinks and food—this applies both to the Germans and the Bulgarians in the film, united in spirit in their desire to belong to a community. The passages of the film where Meinhard spends time with the villagers are tender in their imagination of the possibility of language not being a barrier in human relations. A film unfolding at a particular place and time, Western nevertheless functions as an encapsulation of larger political drifts (and, in this, it recalls the other recent, incisive film about the crisis of the EU, Toni Erdmann): the dubious promises of mobility offered by the European Union, the transition of Bulgaria from communism to a neoliberal order, the westward migration of its citizens for better prospects, and the living echoes of German-Bulgarian wartime relationship. The focus, as with many German films, is the weight of national history on individual consciousness.

Toni Erdmann

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is what the American president would call a world-class loser: a divorced, middle-aged man living with his ailing dog, eating frozen food and making ends meet working at an old-age home. He makes occasional visits to his old mother, plays pranks and has a sense of humour only the viewer can understand. When his dog dies, he goes into crisis and flies into Bucharest to be with his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller). Ines is too busy with her consultation project that’s helping an oil giant outsource its jobs – a term that her client doesn’t want uttered. By his appearance and wilful behaviour, Winfried sticks out in Ines’ corporatized mise en scène – an endless alternation of offices and business meetings masquerading as parties – and is sent home after a costly faux pas. Out of desperation or concern – we don’t know – he decides to stay back in Bucharest and shadow every move of Ines’. The objective: to jolt his daughter out of her Hamster-wheel existence. Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann takes the familiar scenario of estranged relationships and gives it a new life by fleshing it through a series of set-pieces brimming with incident.

With his loose T-shirt, unkempt, flowing hair and split spectacles, Winfried is clearly a pathetic figure, midway between Fellini’s clowns and Lisandro Alonso’s inarticulate loners. The film doesn’t pretend that he’s any more than that. He has no self-esteem, his jokes and the schtick with the false teeth fall flat. So do his attempts at playing the wise fool, his views on what’s important in life revealed to be vague and incoherent. For Ines’ birthday, he gifts her an off-the-shelf cheese grater. It’s only partly a joke. When she’s understandably taken aback, he shows her the wad of Euro bills attached to the grater and says that that’s the actual gift. He realizes that each of the two gifts is more offensive than the other, each serves as alibi for the other. This kind of double act, one insuring against the failure of the other, is typical of Winfried, who leads a kind of ironic existence. He’s always pretending to be someone else, pretence being his way of guarding himself from hurt. In the first scene, he asks a courier to wait at the door, only to come back as “his brother” to collect the package. We see him in costume and make-up throughout the film, weaving stories about himself and others.

Pranking is the only way Winfried can keep the world and himself at bay, but it is what helps him connect with his daughter too. After he forgets to wake her up for an important dinner, Ines all but forces him to go back home. That evening, she complains about him to her girlfriends at a party when Winfried, now sporting a suit and a wig, barges in as Toni Erdmann, a high-profile “life coach”. Toni is a parody of the corporate type, the only one that Ines understands or has time for. Toni encounters Ines wherever she’s with her coterie, thus authorizing himself with all her contacts. Through the figure of Toni, Ade’s film puts in confrontation Winfried’s open approach to life with the fakery of corporate culture, both staking claims on Ines’ time and energy. While Ines’ company wants her to be more charming, throw parties to show that she’s cordial, and basically imitate real life in order to succeed in business, Toni appropriates a corporate way of being, forcing Ines’ to take responsibility for him whenever he’s around. In a spoof of “bring your kids to work day”, Ines is obliged to take her father along with her to an important meeting because he’s handcuffed her to him, a favour he returns by dragging her to a middle-class Romanian family’s Easter gathering and coercing her to sing.

The film is hence centred on Ines’ “thawing”, her movement from her self-denying role as the perfect corporate middle-manager to her role as Winfried’s daughter. Fed up with having to put up a façade, she breaks down just before her big party for her Romanian colleagues, spontaneously turning it into a prank and acknowledging her inheritance. It’s an original set-piece, moving in an organic fashion from sad to weird and finally to hilarious and Sandra Hüller aces it. As much as Simonischek’s Wilfried is a type, Hüller contained response to him saves their dynamic from becoming one. The big outburst that the viewer expects never comes and is instead sublimated in a song Ines belts out. Ade dedicates dozens of shots just to observe the unique way Hüller moves. There’s an amazing shot of her working the zipper of her dress with a fork. She often reacts to Winfried’s excesses with an inward withdrawal, with accelerated blinking and subtle inflections of her posture. Though her Ines is expected to be on top of things at office and at dinners, she proves eminently capable of tuning out of her surroundings – a nuance in performance that makes final passage of the film where she spends an extended moment with her father entirely credible. It’s apposite that the film ends with her blank stare.

Toni Erdmann comes in the long line of humanist films championing the outcasts and deadbeats – that historically-bound section of humanity out of step, voluntarily or not, with the forward march of capitalism. Ade’s film is sensitive to class differences both within Winfried’s extended family – everyone tolerates him with a plastic smile – as well as between Ines and her surroundings in Bucharest. Ines is there in Romania as part of a larger project to take it out of post-communist doldrums, to bring the country up to speed with the rest of the European Union. But the oil industry is privatized, malls are running empty and jobs are going away. Ines and her clients seem to be in a bubble untouched by these details, meeting each other at upscale restaurants and pubs far from Romanians and Romanian life. So, Winfried’s uninvited intervention also has for result the breaking of this bubble. Ade’s intelligent and empathetic film plays out in a handful of languages and is a veritable snapshot of the European Union in all its promises and failings.

You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a muscular psychological thriller, less successful than We Need to Talk about Kevin but cut of the same formal fabric, that revolves around Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran turned hitman, who specializes in bringing back abducted girls. Joe is known for his brutal but effective, seamless operation. Joe lives with his old mother in their New York home, likes a certain kind of candy and shops for his weapons in supermarket. His latest mission is to rescue the teenage daughter of the local senator who’s being held captive at a city brothel. Joe infiltrates the facility, kills the keepers and frees the girl, but she’s soon abducted again by an army of henchman sent to eliminate Joe and everyone close to him. He learns that the senator has been killed and that these men have been sent by the governor who’s running the whole racket. Joe decides to get into the governor’s house and rescue the girl again.

This is Ramsay’s first film set in New York and the milieu heightens the echoes the work gives of Taxi Driver. You Were Never Really Here is, in fact, in constant dialogue with Scorsese’s film. For one, both deal with ex-marines trying to integrate back into civil life and who experience a strong revulsion towards the condition of the city and the political figures exploiting it. Both protagonists see innocence embodied in the figure of the white, blond teenager forced into prostitution. And both films feature several shots of the lead male topless, their vulnerabilities exposed. But while Taxi Driver depicts Travis’ descent into hell rather graphically, You Were Never Really Here is insistent on eliding violence. All the violence in Ramsay’s film is only suggested, never shown. A shot of Joe punching a drug dealer is filmed from the side with only Joe visible, the viewer not allowed to identify with the aggressor but observe him from a distance. The entire shootout at the brothel is presented as CCTV footage cut to “Angel Baby” in monochrome and without a single violent visual. Joe’s final raid at the governor’s house is implied through tableaux of the aftermath.

But the more crucial reversal with respect to Taxi Driver lies in the film’s treatment of masculine self-image of the hero. Travis counters his powerlessness in face of the inhuman machinery of the city with a bloody fantasy of triumphal reassertion. Like many of Scorsese’s films, Taxi Driver plunges the viewer right into the lead character’s mind-space and lets the viewer sort out the implications. Ramsay’s film, on the other hand, affords the viewer a distance. Joe has glimpses of a childhood memory flash by now and then: his psychotic father brandishing a hammer, looking for his mother hiding under the table, while kid Joe stands helpless. This helplessness is reinforced in another series of flashing images: his inability as a soldier to prevent the murder of a girl by a teenager over a chocolate bar. This fear of having inherited his father’s toxicity and his repeated inability to save women under duress feeds into his anxiety as a rescuer of abducted girls. Joe’s (unintentionally humorous) self-flagellating reproaches of being weak is a far cry from Travis’ putting up news items lauding a local hero. The fount is corrupt: the men have failed, it’s up to the women to save themselves.

Like in Kevin, Ramsay appropriates horror movie tropes, employing them to illuminate urgent, personal concerns. Ramsay’s associative editing, which connects different elements of the film in unusual, subconscious ways, isn’t as visceral as it was in Kevin, perhaps because the flash inserts are all neatly tied to Joe’s war trauma, but it’s still uncanny in the way it’s hinged on flinch-inducing sensations: sand on feet, candy in mouth etc. You Were Never Really Here invokes film history without that awareness weighing down on it too much. The spirit of Hitchcock’s Psycho looms large and is pertinent given Joe’s obsession with cleanliness and his tortured relationship with women, his mother in particular. There are also recalls from The Searchers, Le Petit Soldat and Kevin itself. A man Joe fatally wounds holds his hand during his final moments, an existential truth that reappeared in cinema the following year, more successfully and less preciously, in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, another film about a resentful ex-serviceman trying in vain to get back to normal life in a city that doesn’t make it easy.

2015 was a fine period for me. I went to the Mumbai Film Festival, something that I’d been meaning to do for some time now. I could also go to Experimenta to meet and interact with several interesting artists and curators. I wrote a little more at this blog than I had last year and I also started a blog in French that I hope to write more for in the coming months. I watched fewer films and read fewer books than any of the preceding few years. (I had read more books and seen more movies in the first 6 months of 2014 than I did in the whole of 2015.) Yet, I had a much more wholesome experience these past 12 months. For one, abstinence made movies better, providing me the necessary mental space to deal with them more meaningfully. But more importantly, my rejection of the voracious cinephilia that I was practicing helped me better integrate the films I watched with real world experience and further disabuse myself of the notion that cinephilia is a worthy activity in itself. As a result, I could give films their proper place in my life – an act of relegation that ironically made them more valuable. I think I harmonize myself better with the world around now, which I am convinced is what any ‘-philia’ worth its salt should ultimately be about. I look forward to further cutting down on films and books the coming year.

The year was full of surprisingly good films. Besides the following list (strictly consisting of works that world-premiered in 2015), I was really, really impressed by the masterfully-directed Carol (Todd Haynes), the nervous energy-dynamics of Standing Tall (Emmanuelle Bercot), the perspective-bending Scrapbook (Michael Hoolboom), the structural intelligence of Interrogation (Vetrimaran) and the fascinating image-making and commentary of The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos). Other films I liked very much are The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg), Masaan (Neeraj Ghaywan), My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin), My Mother (Nanni Moretti), Night Without Distance (Lois Patiño), Results (Andrew Bujalski), Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino) and the three cine-essays by Mark Rappaport.

 

1. Francofonia (Aleksandr Sokurov, France)

 

FrancofoniaAt a time when Daesh funds itself by trafficking cultural artifacts and Europe announces asylum for threatened art works, Sokurov’s marvelous, piercing film offers nothing less than a revisionist historiography of art itself. For Francofonia, History is not the content of art but its very skin. Museums flatten time, and justifiably present their contents as the highest achievements of a culture, obfuscating, in effect, their history as objects involved in power brokerage, class conflict and market manipulation. Sokurov’s film flips this perspective inside out, identifying art as being frequently the currency of diplomatic power possessing the capacity to purchase peace and as being instruments in service of totalitarian collaboration. Napoleon, who made art the object of his wars, perambulates in the Louvre alongside Lady Liberty Marianne, personifying the antipodal instincts of not only this emblematic institution, but also of European civilization itself. Sokurov’s complex film, likewise, holds together with great equanimity and curiosity antithetical views of museums, acknowledging simultaneously their timelessness and particular historical meaning(s). Francofonia poses questions about nationality, ownership and, really,  the value of art and leaves your head whirling with its far-reaching implications, making sure that you will not approach art the same way again.

2. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium)

 

No Home MovieThe jeu de mots in the title says it all. Not only is this deeply death-marked, Ozuvian film an unordinary home movie, but it is also a film about not having a home. Composed of footage shot in the filmmaker’s mother’s Brussels apartment and recorded video-conference sessions between the two, No Home Movie contrasts Akerman’s professional nomadism with the perennial confinedness of her mother Natalia. Between Chantal’s constant off-screen presence and Natalia’s self-imposed captivity (within the apartment as well as the computer screen), between Here and Elsewhere, lies the film’s true space – a part-real, part-virtual space of filial anxiety and affection. Akerman’s matrilineal counterpart to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014) investigates heritage and origin as the director meditates on what she has inherited from her mother – a reflection that continuously brings Akerman back to an examination of her own Jewishness. A document of physical decline and decline of the physical (“Je t’embrasse” over Skype), the film crystallizes a collective Jewish narrative of eternal exile through the personal history of the director’s mother, while vehemently refusing to reduce the unique being of Natalia Akerman the individual. Akerman’s harrowing swansong is cinema’s own Camera Lucida.

3. Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)

 

TaxiTaxi opens with a shot of downtown Tehran photographed from the dashboard of a car. Announcing Panahi’s first cinematic outdoor excursion since his house arrest in 2011, this shot sets up the dialectics that would define the film: home/world, individual/social and freedom/captivity. Through the course of Taxi, the spied-upon filmmaker drives around the city in the guise of a cabbie, chauffeuring clients-actors from various strata of the society, and realizing a pre-scripted scenario with them whose urgent, didactic purpose can’t be more obvious. The Iranian state has forged a private prison for Panahi from the public spaces of Tehran, allowing him a mobility and false freedom that’s regulated by its watchful eyes. Panahi turns this power dynamic upside down, transforming the private space of the vehicle into a public space for debate, discussion, instruction and critique. Watching the film, I was constantly reminded of that saying beloved of Wittgenstein: “It takes all kinds to make a world”. Panahi’s very presence in the film – his image, his voice – becomes an audacious act of political defiance, a gesture of tremendous existential courage that stares at the possibility of death floating in the air. Taxi makes cinema still matter.

4. The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán, Chile)

 

The Pearl ButtonA beautiful marine cousin to Guzman’s previous film, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button turns its attention from the arid stretches of the Atacama to the waterfront and ice field of Southern Patagonia. Threading metaphor over metaphor, the director fashions a typically associative, richly suggestive essay film that turns the nature documentary form on its head. Guzman’s film plumbs the depths of the ocean, trying to uncover traces of suppressed, unseen history embodied by countless “missing people” – a project that derives its impetus from the filmmaker’s bittersweet childhood experience of the sea. Despite Chile’s economic indifference to its 4000-kilometer-long coastline, he notes, the sea has been indispensable those in power, serving first as the entry point of the European invaders, who wiped out the Patagonian natives, and then as the dumping ground of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime. Guzman teases out the different values that the sea holds for him, the autochthons and the Chilean state, in effect politicizing and historicizing that which conventional wisdom takes to be apolitical and ahistorical: geography and the perception of it. The result is a film of immense poetry and horror – a horror that only poetry can convey.

5. Shift (Alexandra Gerbaulet, Germany)

 

ShiftThe most impressive debut film of the year, Alexandra Gerbaulet’s ambitious, intoxicating Shift excavates the evolution of her hometown, Salzgitter, along with that of her family with archaeological care and scientific detachment. In Gerbaulet’s heady narration, anchored by a powerful, quasi-declamatory, rhythmic voiceover, Salzgitter’s transformation from a Nazi mining stronghold and concentration camp, through a waning industrial hub and to a nuclear waste dump parallels the gradual disintegration of the Gerbaulet family under the weight of unemployment, sickness and sexual repression. The filmmaker closely intercuts photographs and diary entries of her mother with impersonal material from popular and scientific culture, weaving in and out of both registers with ease. Gerbaulet’s film is literally an unearthing project, as the director scoops out the various historical, political and geographical layers of this war-weathered city whose tranquil current-day model housing sits atop a makeshift Jewish graveyard consisting of camp workers buried using industrial debris. “Man gets used to everything, even the scar”, declares the narrator bluntly. Shift unscrambles such a habituated view of things, observing the tragicomic tautologies in which history revisits the city. The more you dig, it would seem, the more of the same you get.

6. A Century Of Energy (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)

 

A Century Of EnergyOne of my favorite films of the year is a commercial for a major power corporation made by a 106-year-old artist. Manoel de Oliveira’s last work of his 84-year long career revisits his second film White Coal (1932), a documentary about power generation at the Central Hydroelectric Plant at Ermal, Rio Ave, founded by the filmmaker’s father. The silent film is projected indoors as a string quartet and a trio of ballerinas interpret the film in the space before the screen. Oliveira moves beyond the primary purpose of chronicling the evolution of renewable energy in the past century, charting the evolution of cinema itself during this period. Splicing together shots from the older films with images of the same locations today, he synthesizes a densely dialectical film that brings into dialogue silent movies and talkies, film and digital cinema, youth and old age and power and grace.  Part tribute to the legacy of his father, part meditation on his own long life and transformed perspectives, Oliveira’s film is celebration of the beauty of forms, natural and man made, whose final shot – ballerinas moving like little windmills at the crack of dawn – captures something like pure energy – a supremely befitting parting shot.

7. Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, USA)

 

SpotlightThomas McCarthy’s dramatization of Boston Globe’s exposé of child abuse in the Church is a robust, smart procedural that is less about picking apart the Catholic establishment than about elucidating the epistemological processes of the Information Age. Set at the transitional period between print and online news media, the film underscores the soon-to-be-outmoded physical nature of journalistic investigation. There are no antagonists of the traditional kind in Spotlight. The only obstacles to the knowledge required to carry out the exposé are the numerous procedures and institutional protocols that have for objective the protection or publication of information. It is telling that the entire film is about a pack of newswriters seeking information that’s already out in the open. What’s more, the film recognizes that the Spotlight team’s attempts to mount an institutional critique is itself inscribed within kindred ideological biases, operational strategies and structural iniquities of Boston Globe as an institution and that the metaphysical crisis that their story can potentially wreak amidst readers is but similar to the disillusionment the newsmen experience vis-à-vis their Protestant weltanschauung. With relatively uncommon formal and ethical restraint, McCarthy crafts an arresting film about how a society’s narratives are made, predicated they are as much on the dissemination of information as on their marginalization.

8. The Event (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia)

 

SThe Eventergei Loznitsa’s formidable follow-up to Maidan (2014) furthers the earlier film’s exploration of the aesthetics and mechanics of revolution, capturing a people coming together to make sense of a political limbo. Without context or a framing perspective, the film drops us straight into the streets of St. Petersburg just after the attempted reactionary coup d’état in Moscow in 1991. Confusion and mundanity – not heroics and determination – reign as we observe the formative process of a people’s movement and the imagined/imaginary social glue that causes individuals to cohere into a group. State apparatuses compete with each other for imposing a narrative onto the events, while the very toponymy of the city becomes an ideological battleground. Working off priceless archival footage, much of which is incredibly reminiscent of the filmmaker’s own cinematographic style, Loznitsa provides an invaluable glimpse into the unfurling of history, chronicling how numerous banal, unsure gestures and actions snowball into Historical Events. If Eisenstein’s better-than-the-original recreation of the October Revolution was the abstraction of materialist history into ideas, Loznitsa’s film, taking place at the same Palace Square 63 years later, rescues history from the reductions of ideology and brings it right back into the realm of the material.

9. In Transit (Albert Maysles & Co., USA)

 

In TransitA remarkable American counterpart to J. P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014), In Transit unfolds predominantly as a series of interviews with a mixed bag of travellers on board The Empire Builder, a long-distance passenger train running over 3500 kilometers and spanning almost the entire width of the United States. The accounts of passengers seeking out professional and financial breakthroughs evoke the pioneer myth hinged on a “Go West” imperative while the stories of those aboard in search of their ‘calling’ demonstrate the essentially spiritual, even religious nature of their pilgrimage-like journey. The diversity and range of the interviewees and their interactions help the film depict the train as a miniature America, à la Stagecoach, and carve out a quasi-utopian space in which members across class, race and gender divides get an opportunity to converse with each other without personal baggage. Nonetheless, In Transit is less a cultural vision of a possible America than an existential meditation on what makes people embark on these journeys. One elderly war veteran remarks that he’ll never be able to see these plains again. To cite John Berger, “the desire to have seen has a deep ontological basis.

10. Wake (Subic) (John Gianvito, The Philippines)

 

Wake (Subic)One of a piece with Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010), Wake continues its precedent’s important investigation into the ecological consequences of the presence of America’s largest military bases in the Philippines during most of the 20th century. Like Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), Wake is guided by the spirit of Howard Zinn’s approach to history and sketches an economically-founded account of US-Philippines political and cultural relations – a history that seems to be have been lamentably wiped off from the Filipino national consciousness. Gianvito juxtaposes images from the Philippine-American war with current day images from the contaminated Subic naval base area, suggesting, in effect, the poisonous persistence of an agonizing, unacknowledged history. Wake is imperfect cinema – unwieldy and resourceful – and employs fly-on-the-wall records, talking heads, on-screen text, photographs and news clips to mount a potent critique of a historiography defined political amnesia and economic opportunism. More importantly, it is a necessary reminder that imperialism is not always about presence, action and exercise of power but sometimes also about the refusal of these very elements, that history is not only a matter of events but also processes and phenomena and that geography is always political.

 

Special Mention: Chi-raq (Spike Lee, USA)

Experimenta

The ninth edition of Experimenta, the now-biennial experimental and avant-garde film festival of India helmed by Shai Heredia, took place between 25th and 29th of November in Bangalore. Besides the international competition section, the roster consisted of sidebars on the politics of film form, the materially violent personal films of Louise Bourque (curated by Lauren Howes), the digital-video and television-based experiments of Bjørn Melhus (himself), the tranquil cine-haikus of Helga Fanderl (herself) and contemporary Indonesian (Akbar Yumni) and Filipino experimental cinema (Shireen Sono), each of them introducing me to unexplored territories of the avant-garde. The festival also sought to respond to the recent happenings in the country and show solidarity with the student protests at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). Three realizations from the festival:

  1. Although a forward-looking curiosity to explore what the formats of the new century have to offer finds a salutary counterpoint from a tendency to militate for film (Melhus’ cinema, always in conversation with the latest technological developments, and Fanderl’s Super-8 partisanship that includes the act of changing-reels as part of the presentation), the exigencies of festival programming and the ease of breaking in to the filmmaking scene has, at least in this festival, rendered digital video ubiquitous (only 4 of the 30 films in competition were made on film, and these too were projected digitally).
  2. Dictatorship and state repression, for better or worse, continue to be very productive frameworks to work within and supply artists with perennial inspiration. The Philippines has come a quarter century since the Marcos regime, Indonesia’s been recovering for 17 years since Suharto’s fall and Thailand’s reeling from last year’s military coup. The films from these countries in the festival all respond to them in ways direct and oblique.
  3. Apichatpong’s opened a Pandora’s box.

(The following are some notes on 23 of the 30 films in competition. I could not see the rest and will update this post if I get to see them any time soon.)

 

32 AND 4 (Chan Hau Chun, China, 2015, 32min)

32 And 4Chan’s diaristic digital work is divided into chapters named after family members and unfurls as a process of piecing together of familial history. Through various confrontational interviews with her mother and father, the filmmaker attempts to understand their failed marriage, her strained relation with her step-father and the violence that has structured them both. Chan’s decision to put her entire life-story on film is a brave gesture, but the film closes upon itself, satisfied to be a melodrama valorizing personal experience over broader frameworks. (Consider, in contrast, the rigorous domestic formalism of Liu Jiayin or the socio-political tapestry of Jia Zhangke’s early work.) Chan misses the forest for the lone tree. Winner of the Adolfas Mekas award of the fest.

BEEP (Kyung-man Kim, South Korea, 2014, 11min)

BeepBeep assembles anti-communist propaganda material from the 60s and the 70s commissioned by the South Korean state that was based on the mythologizing of a young boy, Lee Seung-bok, slain by North Korean soldiers. With the unseen, absent boy-hero at its focus, Kim’s film depicts the dialectical manner in which a nation defines itself in relationship to an imagined Other. Kim makes minimal aesthetic intervention into the source material – our relation to it automatically ironic by dint of our very distance from the period it was made in – restricting himself to adding periodic beep sounds to the footage, producing something like a cautionary transmission from another world.

BLACK SUN (Truong Que Chi, Vietnam, 2013, 12min)

Black SunBlack Sun opens with a composition in deep space presenting a metonym for a country in the process of development: high-rise buildings in the background as a pair of actors in period costumes rehearse a scene in the foreground. In a series of Jia Zhangke-like vignettes of Saigon set in middle-class youth hangouts scored to pop songs and television sounds, interspersed with images of a metamorphosing city, we see the distance that separates art from reality and the middle-class from the changes around it. The film culminates in a complex, home-made long take following the protagonist across her house and out into the terrace, where she dances, presumably to the eponymous song.

CLOUD SHADOW (Anja Dornieden & Juan David Gonzalez Monroy, Germany, 2015, 17min)

WolkenschattenThe most challenging and elusive film of the competition I saw is also the most hypnotic. Cloud Shadow gives us a narrative of sorts in first person about a group of people who go into the woods and dissolve in its elements. The film is obliquely a story of the fascination with cinema, of the trans-individualist communal experience it promises, of the desire to dissolve the limits of one’s body into the images and sounds it offers. With an imagery consisting of sumptuous tints, and nuanced colour gradation and superimpositions, the film enraptures as much as it evades easy intellectual grasp. The one film of the festival that felt most like a half-remembered dream.

DOG, DEAR (Luca Ferri, Italy, 2014, 18min)

Dear DogFerri’s teasing, playful Dog, Dear appropriates the filmed record of a Soviet zoological experiment in the 1940s in which scientists impart motor functions to different parts of a dead dog. In the incantatory soundtrack, a woman – presumably the animal’s owner – repeatedly conveys messages to it, with each of them prefaced by the titular term of endearment. Ferri’s film would serve sufficiently as a blunt political allegory about the dysfunction of communism, but I think it’s probably fashioning itself as a metaphysical question: the dog might well be kicking but is he alive? His physical resurrection will not be accompanied by a restoration of consciousness. He will not respond to his master’s voice.

ENDLESS, NAMELESS (Mont Tesprateep, Thailand, 2014, 23min)

Endless NamelessPut together from footage apparently shot over twenty years at a Thai army officer’s residence, Tesprateep’s film shows us four conscripts working in the general’s garden. We witness their camaraderie, their obvious boredom, the empty bravado in entrapping small animals and intimidating each other. The misuse of power by the officer in employing these youth to mow his lawn reflects a broader militaristic hierarchy, as is attested by the youths’ casual violence towards the animals and their brutal torturing of a prisoner. Endless, Nameless recalls Claire Denis in its emphasis on military performativity and Werner Herzog in its juxtaposition of idyllic nature and seething violence, all the while retaining an immediate critical concern.

FICTITIOUS FORCE (Philip Widmann, Germany, 2015, 15min)

Fictitious ForceIn Fictitious Force, Widmann incidentally poses himself the age-old challenge of ethnological cinema; how to film the Other without imposing your own worldview on him? The filmmaker smartly takes the Chris Marker route, avoiding explanatory voiceover for the rather physical Hindu ritual he photographs and instead holding it at a slightly mystifying – but never exoticizing – distance. Widmann’s film is about this distance, the chasm between experience and knowledge that prevents the observer from experiencing what the observed is experiencing, however understanding he might be. Fictitious Force’s considered reflexivity carefully circumvents the all-too-common trap of conflating the subjectivities of the photographer and the photographed.

FISH POINT (Pablo Mazzolo, Argentina, 2015, 8min)

Fish PointFashioned out of footage that the artist shot during his visit to the titular natural reserve in Ontario, Fish Point comes across as an impressionist cine-sketch of the locale. The film opens with Daichi Saito-esque silhouettes of trees against harsh pulsating light – near-monochrome shots that are then superimposed over a slow, green-saturated pan shot of a section of a forest. This segment gives way to a passage with purely geometric compositions consisting of alternating browns and greens and strong horizontals and verticals. Forms change abruptly and tints become more diffuse and earthly. We are finally shown the sea and the horizon, with a rough map of the area overlaid on the imagery.

HAIL THE BODHISATTVA OF COLLECTED JUNK (Ye Mimi, Taiwan, 2015, 7min)

Hail The BodhisattvaA music video for a song that reportedly riffs on a holy chant and the traditional cry of the local ragman, Ye’s film starts out with shots of old women and men lip-syncing to the titular melody before turning increasingly darker. The rag picker of the poem progresses from accepting material refuse to buying off diseases, emotional traumas and even intolerable human characters. Ye builds the video using shots both documentary and voluntarily-performed that portray everyday life in Taiwan as being poised between tradition and modernity. The junkman of the film then becomes a witness to all that the society rejects and, hence, to all that it stands for.

IMRAAN, C/O CARROM CLUB (Udita Bhargava, India, 2015, 14min)

ImraanSet in a suburban Mumbai slum, Bhargava’s film takes a look into one of the reportedly many carrom clubs in the area where young boys come to play, smoke and generally indulge in displays of precocious masculinity. Where Imraan, the 11-year-old manager of the club, seems reticent before the camera, his peers and clients are much more willing to perform adulthood in front of the filming crew. While some of them are acutely aware of the intrusive presence of the camera, urging their friends not to project a bad image of the country, the film itself seems indifferent about the ethics of filming these youngsters, asking them condescending questions with a problematic, non-committal non-judgmentalism.

MASANAO ABE – CLOUDGRAPHY (Helmut Völter, Germany, 2015, 5min)

CloudographyVölter’s visually pleasing and relaxing silent film is a compilation of scientific documents of cloud movement over the Mount Fuji recorded from a static observatory by Japanese physicist Masanao Abe in the 1920s and 1930s. Abe’s problem was also one of cinema’s primary challenges: to study the invisible through the visible; in this case, to examine air currents through cloud patterns. The air currents take numerous different directions and these variegated views of the mountain situate the film in the tradition of Mt. Fuji paintings. The end product is a James Benning-like juxtaposition of fugitive and stable forms, a duet between rapidly changing and unchanging natural entities.

MEMORIALS (Korou Khundrakpam, India, 2014, 25min)

MemorialsThe most narrative film of the competition, Memorials situates itself in the tradition of 21st century Slow Cinema with its elliptical exposition, stylized longueurs, (a bit too) naturalistic sound and its overall emphasis on Bazinian realism. A young man revisits his father’s house long after his passing and starts discovering him through the objects of his everyday use, while a dead fish becomes the instrument of meditation and grieving. Though rather conventional in its workings, Memorials offers the details in its interstices fairly subtly and touches upon the usual themes of inter-generational inheritance and posthumous rapprochement, while also gesturing towards a necessary break from the past.

NATEE CHEEWIT (Phaisit Punprutsachat, Thailand, 2014, 20min)

ExperimentaPunprutsachat’s work is a straightforward document of the protracted rescue of a water buffalo from a man-made well on a sultry summer afternoon by dozens of village folk. Shot with a handheld digital camera and employing mostly on-location sound, the film presents to us the efforts of the villagers in chipping away at the edifice, restraining the animal from agitating and finally allowing it to go back to its herd. Natee Cheewit attempts to encapsulate the idea of eternal struggle between man and animal and, more broadly, between nature and civilization. The remnants of the demolished pit and the dog wandering about it are reminders of this sometimes symbiotic, sometimes destructive interaction.

NIGHT WATCH (Danaya Chulphuthiphong, Thailand, 2014, 10min)

Night WatchNight Watch is reportedly set in the days following the military coup in Thailand in May, 2014 – a period of state repression dissimulated by triumphalist propaganda about reigning happiness. Chulphuthiphong’s debut film showcases one quiet night during this period. Jacques Tati-esque cross-sectional shots of isolated apartments and office spaces show the citizenry complacently cloistered in their domestic and professional spaces, much like the sundry critters that crawl about in the night. Someone surfs through television channels. Most of them are censored, the rest telecast inane entertainment.  Night Watch underscores the mundanity and the ordinariness of the whole situation, which is the source of the film’s horror.

REPLY; REPEAT; REPEATED; DELETE; FAVORITE; FAVORITED (Ouchi Reiko, Japan, 2014, 6min)

reply repeat repeatedA rapid editing rhythm approximating the audiovisual assault of the information age, a visual idiom weaving together anime, pencil-drawing and Pink Film aesthetic and a soundscape consisting of reversed audio and noise of clicking mice and shattering glass defines Ouchi’s high-strung portrayal of modern adolescent anxieties. In a progressively sombre, cyclic series of events, a teenager navigates the real and virtual worlds that are haunted by sex and death around her. Ouchi’s pulsating, mutating forms and her preoccupation with the hyper-sexualization of visual culture are reminiscent of Nobuhiro Aihara’s work and the spirit of Maya Deren also hovers above in the film’s centralization of the female body and mind.

SCRAPBOOK (Mike Hoolboom, Canada, 2015, 18min)

ScrapbookOne of the high points of the festival, Scrapbook consists of videograms shot in 1967 in a care centre in Ohio for autistic children with commentary by one of the patients, Donna, recorded (and curiously re-performed by a voiceover artist at Donna’s request) in 2014. Donna’s words – indeed, her very use of the pronoun ‘I’ – not only attest to the vast improvement in her personal mental condition, but also throw light on the psychological mechanisms that engender a self-identity. For Donna and the other children-patients filming each other, the act of filming and watching substitutes for their thwarted mirror-stage of psychological development, helping them experience their own individuality, reclaim their bodies. Bracing stuff.

SECOND SUN (Leslie Supnet, Canada, 2014, 4min)

Second SunCanadian animator Leslie Supnet’s hand-drawn animation piece is an extension of her previous work First Sun (2014), with the monochrome drawings of the latter giving way to bright primary pencil colours. Like its predecessor, Second Sun extensively employs basic geometrical shapes to represent cosmic phenomena and is scored to an exhortative percussive soundtrack hinting at a ritual, a summoning. The figures move strictly horizontally or vertically on checkered paper as though underscoring their mathematically precise cyclicity, with the central solar circle spawning clone stars, moons, planets and an entire solar system. The overall impression is that of witnessing a trance-inducing cultic invocation.

THE ASYLUM (Prapat Jiwarangsan, Thailand, 2015, 10min)

The AsylumAccording to the program notes, the project brings together a real-life DJ who has lost her job after the coup d’etat in 2014 and an actual illegal immigrant boy from Myanmar at a secluded pond in the woods to allow them to do what they can’t in real life. We see the DJ perform for the camera, talking with imaginary strangers, giving and playing unheard songs, while the boy is content in tossing stones into the moss-covered pond. Like a structural film, The Asylum, alternates between the DJ’s ‘calls’ and the boy’s quiet alienation, taking occasional albeit unmotivated excursions into impressionist image-making, to weave a vignette about ordinary people made fugitives overnight.

THE BACKYARD (Yusuf Radjamuda, Indonesia, 2013, 12min)

The BackyardA Kiarostami-like narrative minimalism characterizes Radjamuda’s naturalistic sketch in digital monochrome of a lazy holiday afternoon. A young boy perched near the window of his house engages in a series of self-absorbed activities, while actions quotidian and dramatic, including a hinted domestic conflict, wordlessly unfold around him off-screen. A series of shallow-focus shots rally around a wide-angle master shot of the backyard to establish clear spatial relations. Literally and metaphorically set at the boundary between the inside and the outside of the house – home and the world – Radjamuda’s film is a pocket-sized paean to childhood’s privilege of insouciance and to the transformative power of imagination.

THE LAST MANGO BEFORE THE MONSOON (Payal Kapadia, India, 2015, 19min)

THe Last Mango Before The MonsoonThe shadow of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work is strongest in Kapadia’s three-part work about the cycles of life, death and reincarnation and the interaction between mankind and nature, between the real and the surreal. Set in various regions of India and in multiple languages and shot predominantly between dusk and dawn, the film has a beguiling though mannered visual quality to it, with its appeal predicated on primal, elemental evocations of the supernatural. While Kapadia’s superimposition of line drawings on shot footage to depict man’s longing for and transformation into nature demands attention, the film itself seems derivative and a bit too enamoured of its influences.

THEY’RE NOT FAVA BEANS, THEY’RE SCARLET RUNNER BEANS (Tânia Dinis, Portugal, 2013, 10min)

Fava BeansA potential companion piece to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014), Dinis’s digitally shot home movie unfolds as a commentary upon itself. Consisting of scenes from the everyday routine of the filmmaker’s animal-loving grandmother, overlaid with a spontaneous conversational commentary on them by Dinis and her rather talkative and humourous granny, the film is partly a tribute to the latter personality and partly a reflection on the capacity of cinema to preserve memory of people, time and place. Like in Porumboiu’s movie, cinema furnishes the possibility of continuity between generations and the opportunity to meditate on the similarity and difference between them.

WHAT DAY IS TODAY (Colectivo Fotograma 24, Portugal, 2015, 13min)

What Day Is TodayAt least as formally innovative as Rithy Panh’s The Missing Image (2014), What Day Is Today, made by a young film collective from Montemor-o-Novo based on testimonies from older compatriots, digitally carves out from newspapers and newsreels human figures that act out the history contained in them. Charting the course of Portugal from the fascist period, through the Carnation Revolution and up to its Eurozone woes, the film depicts a nation which overcame oppression, poverty, superstition and inequality only to lapse into a passive consumerist catatonia, in the process abandoning the vision of the revolution and letting itself be hostage to a host of external economic forces.

WIND CASTLE (Prantik Basu, India, 2014, 14min)

Wind CastleWind Castle opens with a complex composition made of an unfinished (or destroyed) building behind a burnt crater, with the moon in full bloom. We are somewhere in the Indian hinterlands, a brick manufacturing site tucked inside large swathes of commercial plantations. Basu’s camera charts the territory in precise, X-axis tracking shots that form a counterpoint to the verticality of the trees. Noise from occasional on-location radios and trucks fill the soundtrack. A surveyor studies the area and trees are marked. ‘Development’ is perhaps around the corner. But the rain gods arrive first. Basu’s quasi-rural-symphony paints an atmospheric picture of quiet lives closer to and at the mercy of nature.

(Images courtesy: Various film festival websites)

Transmissions

 

A man putting off a cigarette on his wrist, midwives being trained to handle childbirths with a plastic baby, an actor roleplaying as a traumatized war veteran with the help of a virtual-reality software, visitors at a Vietnam War memorial in Washington caressing the engraved names of the deceased, a group of architects discussing how to maximize the amount of time a buyer spends in a shopping complex, a mock Iraqi village set up in California with Iranians and Pakistanis intended to train American GIs. These are but some of the unmistakable images from the films of German documentary filmmaker Harun Farocki, who passed away last week at the age of 70. Farocki’s output, which spans the genres of filmic essays, Direct Cinema documentaries and multi-screen installations, is among the most intellectually piercing and artistically rich bodies of work made in the last 50 years anywhere in the world.

Born to an Indian father and a German mother in 1944, Farocki was taken at a very early age to the work of Bertolt Brecht, who, along with Theodor Adorno, had a deep impact on his filmmaking style. As a student, he was actively engaged in the student movement in West Germany and was, as a result, rusticated from the film academy. Inextinguishable Fire (1969), which Farocki made during that period, contrasts the horrifying effects of Napalm B on the human body with the amoral, scientific detachment with which it was developed in the laboratories of the Dow Chemical Company. This phenomenon of the alienation of labour from its products – the defining characteristic of industrial era – and the absence of individual moral accountability in hierarchical corporate capitalism haunts the entirety of his 45-year working life.

A lifelong Marxist, Farocki examined the ever-changing face of industrial production, continuously investigating what exactly constitutes such production and what labour means in an age in which the boundary between productive and not-productive work has become fuzzy. His last, unfinished installation project, Labour in a Single Shot (2011-2014), which consists of a collection of shots showing people at work in 15 different cities simultaneously projected on 15 screens, probes into this shape-shifting nature of labour and its increasingly invisible place in the scheme of things.

Such a desire to get to the heart of modern capitalist practice is also what informs the series of observational documentaries – fly-on-the-wall films in which the filmmaker abstains from intruding on what is being filmed and instead simply plays the non-participative spectator – which Farocki made from the 90s onwards. In these works, we typically see a group of white-collar workers coming together to conceive and realize a project, such as the construction of a mall, the forging of a deal between an investment company and a startup, training of interview candidates or the design of a new corporate office space. As they unfold we are made privy to something that is all too elusive in the technocratic society of ours – the presence of rational, human decisions underpinning the actions of systems larger than them. In these sound-proof rooms of glass and steel, we witness the crystallization of an entire socio-economic climate around individual choices – the materialization of ideology in the realm of the visible.

This constant osmosis between the domain of ideas and that of real things is a theme that binds all of Farocki’s work. These films recognize the progressive abstraction of tangible things into intangible notions – the translation of use value of commodities to its market value and the subsequent transformation of hard money to vague stock market numbers – and the continuous virtualization of the real. They throw in relief the fact that, in the sphere of production and marketing, material things are merely temporary containers in which one abstract idea (the idea of happiness and satisfaction for the consumer upon buying the product) is realized before it is converted to another (the advertising image). Taken together, these films form an elegy for materiality, a testimony to the loss of tactility of objects.

Nowhere else was this loss as sharp and complete as in Farocki’s own professional practice, in which he had to move from working with film stock, to shooting with analog video, and then to making films with digital cameras. The increased digitization of shooting, editing, storing and distributing of films, for Farocki, rhymes with the increased depersonalization of manual labour. Data from the real world is stored as electrical charge in computers, then abstract images are formed out of these charges and finally the real world is reshaped with these very images, thus closing the loop. The pre-existing filmic material used in Farocki’s films – surveillance videos, engineering models, reconnaissance footage, and scientific data feeds – attest to the centrality of machine-captured images in military, economic, social and legal processes today: supermarkets are architected according to the walking patterns of consumers, defense strategies are planned out based on video game designs, psychological traumas are treated with virtual-reality games and prison facilities are controlled and regulated through interactive CCTV setups.

The image, of course, is the primordial object of study in Farocki’s films. These works delve into the history of modern image making – from the diminishing perspective of Renaissance architecture which anointed sight as the preeminent sense to the flattened images of aerial photography that gave birth to both Cubist art and wartime telecasts – to explore how the cinematic image has time and again been the tool of choice for subjugation and how it has unwittingly played its part in the concentration and abuse of power. “The history of battle is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception”, wrote Paul Virilio. Farocki’s films echo this observation and demonstrate how, in modern warfare, wars terrains are mapped out in amazing detail, war strategies simulated through software and variables of battle are controlled to such an extent that the actual war simply becomes a logistical formality. In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is the one that conquers it. To see is to capture.

Farocki’s cool, composed essay films remind us of the treachery of images, sure, but also keep pointing us to their possibilities and their liberating power. These works move beyond analyzing our extremely visual, late capitalist culture through its advertising images alone and reveal the epochal shift that machine sight has brought in every sphere of existence. One of the greatest strengths of these films is their genuinely open-mindedness towards the rapid transformations that mark our post-ideological age. Though they certainly take a political position, they are not monolithic, leftist diatribes perceiving every change as a machination of the powerful that leaves no scope for resistance. Neither pessimistic nor triumphalist, Farocki’s films distinguish themselves with the untainted curiosity and the openness to change with which they attempt to make sense of the time we live in. The same could be said of Farocki.

(For The Hindu)

Experimenta 2013

By the time I got to know the details, I’d already missed half of this year’s Experimenta, India’s most prominent experimental film festival founded by Shai Heredia in 2003. This year’s edition was impressive not only in its expansiveness, being categorized into competition section, country focus, artist talks, live performances and artist profiles, but also given that it was entirely crowd-funded, which surely calls for some cheers. I congratulate Experimenta and wish them bigger successes in the years to come. Here are some notes on exactly one half of this year’s fest.

 

INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION

(Curated by Anuja Ghosalkar)

 

MOUNT SONG (Shambhavi Kaul, India, 2013, Video, 9min)

Burning StarShambhavi Kaul’s elusive, melancholy and richly atmospheric film starts with images of storm inside an artificial jungle. We don’t see the storm, just the idea of a storm, which is befitting for a film that traces the elements that constitute a sensorial experience, as when watching a film. Gliding through what looks like haunted, dilapidated sets for a Chinese martial arts movie, Kaul’s film preoccupies itself with pure form, such as the amorphous outline a wisp of synthetic smoke, visceral, staccato edits between shots and the mysterious interplay of light, dust, colour and camera movement, under the veneer of an abstract genre piece located somewhere between Masaki Kobayashi and Tsui Hark.

BURNING STAR (Joshua Gen Solondz, USA, 2012, Video, 4min)

Burning StarModest in scope yet hypnotic in effect, Solondz’s 4-minute animation in colour is admittedly a dedication to the artist’s father who apparently wanted him to “make a more colorful work”. Colourful, it certainly is. We see a twelve-sided star, alternatively imploding and exploding in dazzling primary colours, with spiky patterns that complement its periphery moving towards and away from the star’s pulsating core, which serves both as the visual and true center of the symmetric image. The soundtrack dominated of what sounds like radio interference, reminiscent of Peter Tscherkassky’s work, attains a musical regularity that makes the film easy to groove to.

PLAY LIFE SERIES (Ella Raidel, Germany, 2012, Video, 11min)

Play Life SeriesRaidel’s four-part study of performativity in the visual media begins with a rigged-up sword fight between two actors suspended on ropes in the woods – a scene that is soon revealed to be a part of a film shoot, prompting us to reflect not only on the artificiality of the fight, but also the film crew itself. This Brechtian gesture of exposing the inescapable element of performativity that marks all filmmaking becomes the organizing principle for the rest of the film, which emphasize the artificiality of earnest forms – melodrama, music videos and even everyday confrontations – by creating an ironical distance between them and the audience through the presence of a film crew – hardly experimental.

PARTY ISLAND (Neil Beloufa, France, 2012, Video, 9min)

Party IslandPerformativity and ritualized interaction are also at the heart of Beloufa’s raunchy video work that is set in an artificial, back-projected beach, where a bunch of actors stiltedly playing vacationers go through the codified rituals of vacationing, socializing and seducing. More interesting than its ham-fisted, part-Surrealist illustration of the sexualization of images and the subliminal representation of sex through phallic imagery are its formal pleasures – its tableau-like arrangement of actors in a claustrophobic setting, the equally suffocating chopped, restrictive images, the double framing of actors through geometric shapes, the intuitive, tactile editing pattern and the intriguing interaction among multiple visual planes.

BLACK POT AND MOVEMENT (Chaoba Thiyam, India, 2013, Video, 13min)

Black Pot And MovementA simple, direct and even schematic equivalence characterizes Thiyam’s modestly but precisely named film – that between the fabrication of the eponymous black pot and the formulation of a new movement by a pair of dancers. However, like its title, Thiyam’s sepia-tinted film is entirely materialist in approaching this comparison, striking an equation between the pliant material using which the pot is made and the equally malleable bodies of the performers. The juxtaposition between the rhythm of repetitive labour and dance movements also attempts to collapse the gap between the artist and worker figures – a chasm that artists have always struggled with.

ASHURA (Köken Ergun, Turkey, 2012, Video, 22min)

AshuraOne of the more assured and less academic entries in the programme, Ergun’s compilation of vignettes from Ashura Day – the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, in the Battle of Karbala by minority Shia population in the outskirts of Istanbul – is a sketch of collective mourning, a reflection on the cultural regulation of expression of grief. Through an unforced collocation of theatrical religion and religious theater, the film demonstrates how heightened, artificial, popular forms become the most cathartic form of communal grieving and, in a general sense, how art’s purpose of embodying and representing collective apprehensions still remains central.

BLOOD EARTH (Kush Badhwar, India, 2013, Video, 40min)

Blood EarthSquarely located in the now-too-recognizable genre in Indian documentary of partisan filmmaking against the repercussions of globalization, Badhwar’s film is an account of the reactions of the residents of Kucheipadar village in Odisha to the acquisition of their bauxite-rich land by mining corporates. Shinsuke Ogawa it isn’t, but Blood Earth’s documenting of the often-glossed-over fault lines in a popular movement gives it a transparency frequently absent in its contemporaries. Its best moments, however, are completely apolitical: a protracted, fixed-camera shot of a room full of noisy, convening villagers that results in strange visual patterns over time and a Daïchi Saïto-esque tracking shot of roadside plants that delightfully takes the film for two minutes into a non-representational realm. Winner of the Adolfas Mekas award of the fest.

A+ (Nobu Adilman, Canada, 2012, Video, 6min)

A+Commissioned by the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto, Adilman’s charming, humourous and even suspenseful short video, scored to a guitar solo, presents us glimpses from the meticulously maintained, hand-written film-viewing diary of super-cinephile Moen Mohammed spanning the year 2011 (inferred from an entry on Trash Humpers), consisting of movie names, year of release, director name and grades. The result is not only a straightforward documentation of the tastes of one Antonioni-loving, Godard-disliking film buff, but also an indirect snapshot of the boons of new millennial cinephilia which facilitates the viewing of such a vast, variegated repertoire of films within a short period of time.

TRAVELS ABROAD (Karl Mendonca, USA, 2013, Video, 7min)

Karl MendoncaMendonca’s petit film diary was shot in 8mm apparently over six years (go figure!) and charts the filmmaker’s return home from New York to India. We see the filmmaker’s ride back home through the eyes of an outsider, his (grand?) parents and his trekking into the local woods presented in a typical home video aesthetic, sometimes presented in time lapse. Marked by circular motifs, Travels Abroad is a self-proclaimed exploration of themes of migration, identity and belonging, but, in actuality, it never rises about its home movie banality and accomplishes little more than what any everyman equipped with a video camera flying back home would have shot.

PULSE (Anuradha Chandra, India, 2013, 16mm, 15min)

A sketch of Rotterdam in 2008, Chandra’s 16mm project presents out-of-focus, low frame rate, time lapse images of the city and its environs that are abstracted till the limits of perceptibility. Owing to high exposure times, people, vehicles, seasons and the time of day are abstracted out and the residual record of static structures underscores the strongly geometrical nature of urban constructions. These images, frequently dominated by a single saturated colour, carry a tension between movement and stasis. On a level, Chandra’s film is an Impressionistic portrait of a city (with pointillist images) that explores how far a geographical entity can be visually abstracted so as to retain its identity.

DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (Joe Hambleton, Canada, 2012, Video, 8min)

One is reminded of Chris Marker, especially the melancholy Level Five (1997), while watching Hambleton’s refreshingly widescreen structural film that employs a repeating element – the camera looking through the windshield of a car rolling on a highway before slowly zooming out and refocusing onto an object fixed to the car ceiling – while a voiceover recites what sound like diary entries of a gamer wandering internet message boards. We are in the far future, it would seem, and the current day objects – joysticks, electronic toys and other curios – in the car appear like shards from a past. The result is a meditation on memory, a reflection on how geography and everyday objects bear the trace of history.

ANOTHER COLOUR TV (The Youngrrr, Indonesia, 2013, Video, 9min)

The Youngrrr Collective’s simple and amusing critique of the isolation of the middle class from history would perhaps have been more effective as an installation, wherein the contrast between the two sections of the screen we see – a mute assortment of various local TV telecasts serious and frivolous and the reverse-shot of a middle-class household hooked to soap operas, ‘reality’ television and religious sermons and literally imprisoned within the frame of the television – would have been even sharper when placed face-to-face. Nevertheless, by locating tawdry television productions alongside their passive consumption and internalization, the film brings to surface the artificiality of the family’s time together and the ideological-mediation of their private conversations.

NEW HARVEST (Pallavi Paul, India, 2012, Video, 11min)

A discordant combination of talking-heads interview of a politically dissident poet, educational documentary about the desire of scientists to alter nature’s rhythm of day and night and morsels of letters real and imagined between two writers shot in digital video with harsh light sources that form deep chiaroscuros, Paul’s project revolves around things utopian – ideal yet impossible – images unmade, roads not taken. The segments or the fragments of narratives within each are linked by a dream-logic which suggest a impossibility but seem to look forward to a future where these dreams might be realized. The outcome is a set of vague stabs at anarchist political hopes.

ARS MEMORATIVA (Scott Miller Berry, Canada, 2013, Video, 20min)

Ars MemorativaArs Memorativa – Art of Memory – refers to the methods and techniques we use to remember things, but in Berry’s four-part examination of audiovisual media as incubators of personal memory, it also points to cinema as the preeminent art of memory, of remembrance. Amalgamating analog and digital video, celluloid and audio recordings, whose scratches, smudges and crackling noises, in their own way, act as traces from the past, the film partly ruminates on the purpose of cinema as an authentic document, as evidence of a person’s existence. Berry’s film is a modest reflection on how home movies, music records and photographs, after a person’s passing, develop the quality of preserving the history of the person’s life.

 

SPECIAL FOCUS: JAPAN

(Curated by Chris Gehman)

 

GESTALT (Takashi Ishida, Japan, 1999, 16mm, 6min)

With a beguiling organ-driven soundtrack, Gestalt impresses us with the transparency its of intention, as the title makes clear, and the single-mindedness of its approach. Ishida’s delectable study in 16mm of the malleability of our perspective of space, apparently achieved by continuously repainting the walls of a room, founds itself on the interaction of various geometric and non-geometric motifs that make the space appear alternatingly two and three-dimensional. The effect is to continually keep altering our impression of the room space, and in critical theoretical terms, to undermine the artwork’s interpellation of the viewer as a subject and to destabilize the Albertian perspective on which his/her relationship with the image is based.

A FEATHER STARE AT THE DARK (Naoyuki Tsuji, Japan, 2003, 16mm, 17min)

In the dream-like way normally unrelated objects segue into each other, Tsuji’s hand-drawn illustration of a made-up Creation myth reminds one of the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, and perhaps even the works of Dali. Tsuji’s method involves drawing with charcoal on paper, photographing the result, erasing the plate and redrawing the next frame. The result is that the each frame carries a trace of the previous and, consequently, the film chronicles its own history, its own making. Tsuji’s drawings are unrealistic, disproportional, undignified and composed of fluid forms that throw his method into sharp relief. The outcome is closer to sand animation than traditional drawing

YELLOW SNAKE (Nobuhiro Aihara, Japan, 2006, Video, 10min)

Pitched between non-representational and traditional 2D animation, Aihara’s purposefully unwieldy video work, made 5 years before his demise in 2011, consists of two distinct visual planes – a periodic flux of semi-representational figures (bottles, fingers, planets, doughnuts) progressively growing in size to give an appearance of coming out of the screen (and hence the appearance of three-dimensionality) and a realistically drawn two-dimensional yellow hand with a pointed index finger that keeps poking into this swarm of monochrome objects – laid over a discordant soundscape. Mischievous and gleefully indulgent, Yellow Snake, if not anything else, is a reflection of the artist’s own playful relationship with his drawings.

MY TOWN (Tomomichi Nakamura, Japan, 2007, Video, 17min)

A mélange of even wider variety of animation techniques marks the quasi-Cronenbergian My Town, which draws from low-resolution photography, stop-motion animation, commercial anime drawing and video game graphics on which rudimentary pencil sketches without much foreshortening are overlaid, which, in essence, inscribes two-dimensional objects in three-dimensional space. Nakamura’s part-science-fictional part-fantastical narrative seemingly about a virus outbreak, an ensuing nuclear war and the eventual wiping out of humanity is distinguished by its soundtrack – a combination of drum beats, electronic music and low-frequency noise – and its cinematic approach to space – its simulation of film camera and its depiction of flat objects in three-dimensions.

SPACY (Takashi Ito, Japan, 1981, 16mm, 10min)

Intermittently stitched together from hundreds of photographs taken inside a gymnasium exhibiting these very photographs, Spacy is a structural study of cinematic space that creates a mise en abyme of photographed spaces into and out of which we move until we are no longer sure of which ‘level’ we are in. Despite the rapid stream of images shot at us, our focus remains firmly fixed at the geometric center of the image around which the configuration of represented space changes continuously. This trait, along with the absence of any vertical camera movement and the many levels of space negotiated, places the film alongside contemporary First Person Shooter games like Doom.

ZONE (Takashi Ito, Japan, 1995, 16mm, 13min)

Ito’s intense and claustrophobic piece, positioned between postmodern music videos and generic horror, shows the reanimation to life of a headless man wrapped in gauze and tied to a chair in a room populated by mirrors, a bandaged toy truck, a masked figure with light sources on him and framed photographs of eerily empty locations. Rife with movement – pleasing lateral tracking shots, time-lapse photography, reverse video and stop-motion animation – Zone plays on Kracauer’s idea of cinema as resurrection of dead objects from the ghastly stillness of photography. Ito’s psychologically motivated film is closer to classical Expressionism than his earlier structural work.

JAPANESE KITCHEN: THREE STORIES (Tabaimo, Japan, 2000, Video, 9min)

Japanese KitchenA more traditional style, closer to commercial Japanese animation, marks the three-episode Japanese Kitchen, which presents sketches of a housewife trying to imitate recipes shown on daytime television. The manner in which the banality of the situation is superimposed over chilling body horror – beating small men and women in a mixer to produce babies, deep frying the male brain and seeds that have people crawling out when soaked in water – betrays a trace of populist horror cinema, television and literature. Tabaimo’s tongue-in-cheek triptych – commissioned for television whose audience is the very subjects of her film – proposes tantalizingly easy and morbidly humorous solutions to the demographic problems of Japan.

INCH-HIGH SAMURAI (Tanaami Keiichi and Nobuhiro Aihara, Japan, 2007, 16mm, 8min)

Inch-High SamuraiOne of Aihara’s last films, Inch-High Samurai is admittedly a tribute to and a re-imagination of a popular manga series the directors used to read as kids that presented the adventures of a Samurai measuring an inch in height. The difference is that this film taps directly into the libidinal foundation of the manga and crystallizes the sexual and violent forces brimming beneath. Hyper-kinetic, raunchy and decidedly over-the-top, the film opens with drawings of various body parts floating on the sea from where the little phallic Samurai begins his extremely telescoped set of frenzied adventures that is, quite literally, the stuff of wet dreams.

CHILDREN OF SHADOWS (Naoyuki Tsuji, Japan, 2006, 16mm, 18min)

A ghastly spin on Western fairy tales, especially Hansel and Gretel, Children of Shadows is a tale of survival and growing up that is constructed with fluid, curvy and continuous forms that facilitate and highlight Tsuji’s charcoal on paper approach. The artist uses his POV like a moving camera and negotiates a three-dimensional space even when he abstains from providing a stable reference as in traditional drawings which makes it tougher to judge location or proportion. The movement of characters is slowed down, as though traversing an oneiric space, there is an affinity for closed forms and the humour is black and the drawings joyfully vulgar.

GOD BLESS AMERICA (Tadasu Takamine, Japan, 2002, Video, 12min)

Takamine’s God Bless America gives us the artist and his female assistant sojourning inside a red-walled studio while working on a massive lump of clay present in the center of the screen and the room. We see them pass 18 days working, eating, socializing and having sex in time lapse while the clay head is moulded in such a way that it appears to sing the titular hymn in real time. If this construction of twin time frames within a single film derives from music videos, the integration of the work of art into lived-in space derives from architecture, where it becomes an object to be experienced intuitively by habitude instead of through active contemplation.

 

ARTIST PROFILE: JACK CHAMBERS

(Curated by Lauren Howes)

 

HART OF LONDON (Jack Chambers, Canada, 1970, 16mm, 79min)

Stan Brakhage called this final film of Canadian visual artist Jack Chambers, who died of leukemia in 1977, one of the greatest films ever made. Chambers’ predominantly found-footage film exhibits touches of Brakhage’s own work, especially Dog Star Man (1961-64), in its use of roving secondary exposure, image overlaps, negatives, faster frame rates and high-velocity montage and its partly phenomenological approach to images. Opening with footage of a deer hunt – an event that would haunt the entire film – the first section of Hart of London is scored to the sporadic sound of the elements of nature and engages with visuals of architecture and everyday life in London, Ontario, superimposed with a negative that results in stereoscopic images at certain points, and, at times, abstracted away from photorealism to the point where we only observe black dabs on a white screen. Towards the midpoint, the film moves away from superimposition towards montage as the primary technique for meaning creation. It is from hereon that the film crystallizes its exploration of the cycle of life. Images from a slaughterhouse are intercut with those of a baby, dead sheep fetuses are juxtaposed with a human newborn. The architectural marvels of the first segment are responded to in the second by destruction and demolition of buildings, which become as much a spectacle as the former. On one level, the film is certainly an indictment of human egotism, which places humanity at the center of the universe and deems it as being the prime mover of all things. But it is also a meditation of humanity’s ceaseless capacity to learn, endure and survive and the film abounds with symbols of birth, rebirth and resurrection. This view of humanity from a detached, godlike-perspective takes the film closer to the oeuvre of Artavazd Peleshian, whose ultimately hopeful view of life, Hart of London echoes, however less emphatically.

 

ARTIST PROFILE: PANCHAL MANSARAM

(Curated by Shai Heredia)

 

INTERSECT (Panchal Mansaram, India, 1967, 16mm, 6min)

Panchal Mansaram was already established as a collage artist when he came to cinema and this transition is evident in the approach to his material in Intersect, which mashes footage shot during his interactions with Satyajit Ray, Ravi Shankar and Marshall McLuhan with excerpts from TV and radio commercials. “East and West are becoming like each other” goes one stray audio bite. Evocative of the many fine experiments at Films Division – yet not as pointed or as rigorously thought out – Intersect was completed after Mansaram’s emigration to Canada and reflects the director’s own transnational status – an autobiographical element which he explored further in his mixed-media installations.

DEVI, STUFFED GOAT AND PINK CLOTH (Panchal Mansaram, Canada/India, 1967, 16mm, 16min)

An assortment of impressionistic vignettes from the city of Bombay – a place that Mansaram calls “collage in motion” – strung together by the pervading presence of the beautiful lady of the title, her stuffed goat and a piece of pink cloth, this 16mm quasi-Nouveau Realist project tries to comprehend a city partly through its extraordinary human specimen, decrepit objects and familiar images. Some passages of the film, scored to a mix of flute, trumpet and percussions, seem straight of a René Magritte tableau in the way they piece together completely dissociated commonplace objects, even though this disruption of everyday logic seems less like an ideological intervention than a gleeful vagrancy of a mischievous imagination.

REAR VIEW MIRROR (Panchal Mansaram, Canada/India, 1966-2011, 16mm, 13min)

45 years in the making, Rear View Mirror spans the entire career of Mansaram as a filmmaker and opens with the voice of the artist reciting a piece of autobiographical information. Seen through the eyes of two young tourists entering a city on a horse cart, the film unfolds as a kind of ‘re-entry’ into and ‘looking-back’ at his life in India, especially his early years in his hometown of Mount Abu in Rajasthan, suffuse with reds, yellows and browns. The images of the convivial atmosphere at the local fete is complemented by sundry images – spiritual and profane – from the city linked together by the director’s characteristic sense of humour.

 

ARTIST PROFILE: AKBAR PADAMSEE

(Curated by Lalitha Gopalan)

 

SYZYGY (Akbar Padamsee, India, 1970, Video, 6min)

Bombay-based abstract artist Akbar Padamsee made his transition to cinema with the help of ace cinematographer K. K. Mahajan and was apparently held in high regard by Mani Kaul. A product of the short-lived Visions Exchange Workshop (VIEW) founded by Padamsee as a platform for enabling interaction between painters and filmmakers, the soundless animation Syzygy begins with basic geometric figures moving on the screen in regular patterns. With mathematical regularity, these figures morph into word grids and number lines representing distances, which in turn, gradually, give way to more complex intersection of line segments – mazes, meshes and networks. The resulting images bear similarity to the works of Mondrian and Kandinsky and serve to illuminate emotional correlatives to purely aesthetic forms such as the sense of spaciousness and liberation offered by a diagonal line slashing across a matrix of verticals and horizontals. Despite its ostensibly stream-of-consciousness approach, all the images have a regularity, harmony, and balance which throw light on Padamsee’s structured and perhaps even classicist thinking process.

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