Cinema of Switzerland


Filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard chose to end his life on 13 September at the age of 91 in his home in Rolle, Switzerland. Many of the tributes from around the world have likened his passing to no less than the death of cinema itself. The comparison has to do as much with the outsized influence that Godard has in film history as with the filmmaker’s own melancholy pronouncements about the end of the medium that he had shaped in his image for almost six decades.

Born in 1930 to a French doctor father and a Franco-Swiss mother of high-bourgeois extraction, young Jean-Luc had a childhood split between Paris and Nyon. Summers were spent in Haute-Savoie at the estate of his maternal grandparents, the Monods, in a culture of literature, sport and religion. This protestant upbringing, notes biographer Antoine de Baecque, had a marked influence on “Godard’s relation to spirituality, but also to modesty, to money, to Switzerland, to nature, to isolation and withdrawal from the world and to irreverence and iconoclasm…”

Relationship between parents soured after the war, owing partly to class difference, and the resulting tensions bore down on Jean-Luc. The boy, in the meantime, turned out to be a kleptomaniac, and his increasingly serious exploits led the Monods to cut off ties with him. (He would later be behind bars in Zurich.) This disavowal evidently left a deep scar on the teenager, who composed a passionate screed against the family, portraying them as hypocritical snakes that can never get along. Much of Godard’s subsequent life comes into relief in light of this primal domestic rupture.

As an adolescent, Godard harboured ambitions of publishing a novel with Gallimard, born of a desire to emulate the poet Paul Valéry, a close friend of his maternal grandfather’s. Literature, however, came with centuries worth of history, not to mention the approbation of the clan that had disowned him. The young man thus abandoned the idea, frequenting instead the film clubs of post-war Paris, cinema offering an illicit passion and education disapproved by his family.

It is at these screenings that Godard struck up friendships with other young cinephiles who would constitute the posterchildren of the French New Wave: François Truffaut, Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette and Claude Chabrol. Despite great difference in tastes and temperaments, the group was united in its impatience for literary-minded French cinema and a penchant for Hollywood films, which were being dumped en masse into Parisian theatres after years of wartime hiatus.

Godard and his cohort gorged on these transatlantic works, as well as on silent classics at the Cinémathèque française curated by Henri Langlois. At the renowned film magazine Cahiers du cinema, where all of them soon found a place, they defended popular Hollywood movie directors as authors worthy of not just their literary counterparts, but the pantheon of Western literature. Indeed, Godard’s first review for Cahiers, on an American melodrama called No Sad Songs for Me (1950), invoked no less than Plato and Stendhal to make its case.

Unlike with literature, though, Godard found in cinema a young form of expression not yet ossified into Art, without the baggage of legacy or the anxiety of influence. “With writing,” the filmmaker would later remark, “I have a pointed sense of inferiority, which I don’t have at all with cinema.” Films spoke through and to reality; as a medium coming into being, cinema was the privileged witness to the century it was coterminous with. It could show, as Godard put it, “boys and girls as we see them in the real world.”

Boys and girls, not men and women. The importance of youth to Godard’s early work, and to the New Wave in general, cannot be overstated. Cinema was a young art, but it was also an art of the young. In Masculine Feminine (1966), Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is at a movie theatre with his girlfriend Madeline (Chantal Goya). As he sees an older couple on screen involved in miserable rituals of submission and domination, Paul muses: “At movies, the screen would light up, and we’d shiver. But more often, we’d be disappointed, Madeline and I. The images seemed old and flickery. Marilyn Monroe had aged terribly. We were sad. This wasn’t the film we’d imagined, the perfect film each of us carried within, the film we would like to have made, or perhaps even to have lived.”

In contrast, Masculine Feminine, and Godard’s other features set in Paris, capture the precise textures and moods of being young in the City of Lights. Cafés, bars, dance halls, pool clubs, parking lots, publicity hoardings, laundries, photo booths and theatres dominate the imagery and the soundtrack, to the point that the films become documentaries about the city at a particular point in time. This tendency to be in unceasing communion with the world around him remained intact all through Godard’s professional life. “There is in him the constant, almost diehard and touching wish to be contemporary,” writes de Baecque, “He has a sometimes unhappy, but always sensitive relation to the present of his time.”

This wish is manifest most directly in the filmmaker’s turn to radical politics at the end of the sixties. With its ambivalent if sympathetic portrayal of the fledgling Maoist movement, La Chinoise (1967) captured the foreshock of the historical events of 1968. But the film was, excoriated by the far-left for its hesitations and Godard deemed “the stupidest of all the pro-Chinese Swiss.” The director recanted, pulled down the shutters on filmmaking and embarked on a process of re-education. He dissolved his individual identity in filmmaking collectives and let himself be guided by the voices of the next generation. For the second time in his life, he burnt all his bridges to begin anew. In her memoirs Un an après (2015), actress Anne Wiazemsky tenderly describes this acute spiritual crisis that drove her then husband onto the streets to jump barricades or exchange blows with the police.

The Maoist experiment, however, came undone along with the dreams of a generation. Following a near-fatal motorbike accident in 1971, Godard was forced to reassess his priorities. The time of collectives officially over, he moved from Paris to Grenoble with his third partner Anne-Marie Miéville, with whom he lived in Rolle until his death. In the new city, Godard began again from zero, as he often did, finding new inspiration in video technology. The period also marked his ‘return’ to fiction filmmaking, resulting in a series of sumptuously photographed films that are nevertheless coloured with a bitterness about the end of utopian aspirations.

The crowning achievement of this period, though, was the eight-part video work, Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-98). Pillaging from hundreds of films, paintings and literary texts, and expanding on the lectures he had given in Montréal, Godard offers a dizzying personal meditation on the history of cinema and its relation to the world. While the global film fraternity was celebrating the centenary of the medium with consumerist cheeriness, Godard’s project mourned its death, its missed opportunities and its tortured relationship with the horrors of the twentieth century. In its philosophical scope, in the erudite, far-reaching associations it draws from its juxtaposition of image, text and sound, Histoire(s) remains unmatched in the annals of the seventh art.

Cinema, to be sure, hasn’t died with Godard, but it would be hard to deny that it has become significantly poorer. Not only did Godard’s work span the whole spectrum of filmmaking practice — commercial, experimental, documentary, amateur — but it also helped place cinema at the forefront of the story of art. Even in his final years, the filmmaker never ceased to interrogate the world through images. He was working on two new films when he decided to end his life by assisted suicide. “He was not ill,” reported someone close to him, “he was simply exhausted.”

The last minutes of his last feature film, The Image Book (2018), thus constitute a fitting coda. In the film’s final words, uttered over a black screen, Godard repeats to a coughing fit a quote from Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance (2005): “Even if nothing turned out how we’d hoped, it would not have changed what we’d hoped for.” This is followed by a long, mute excerpt from Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir (1952), which Godard once called the greatest post-war French film: a masked old man dances himself into exhaustion and collapses on the ballroom floor. Let us hope that the music goes on.

 

[First published in Frontline]

How does one begin to speak about Jean-Luc Godard, the Swiss filmmaker who chose to end his life on Wednesday at the age of 91? Or more precisely, which Godard does one speak of? The renegade critic at the iconic film magazine Cahiers du cinéma who championed directors working at the lower depths of the Hollywood studio system? The young independent filmmaker who inspired, and continues to inspire, generations of movie brats with an astounding series of insouciant, dynamic and self-aware works, starting with Breathless (1960)? The angry Maoist who quit filmmaking in the late sixties to work in anonymity within various political collectives, most notably the Dziga Vertov Group? The melancholy recluse who, alongside his partner and filmmaker Anne-Marie Miéville, experimented with video and made one of the greatest cinematic works of all time, Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-1998)? Or the Old Master who continued to shake up the film form in the first two decades of our century, with a series of mournful, caustic digital essays?

If Godard has taught us anything, it is that we can begin anywhere. Beginning anew, restarting at zero, is a theme that had characterized Godard’s entire professional life. His films from the 1990s onwards are shot through with a lamentation about the premature death of cinema, the snuffing out of its possibilities by commerce and art. Yet, Godard was never a purist and he embraced most every technological development — lightweight handheld cameras, television, analogue and digital videos, 3D stereoscopy, smartphones and even Instagram — at a time that these were seen as inimical to cinematic practice. Godard’s body of work is defined by such ruptures and recommencements, so much so that they become its defining elements.

It may be odd to talk about the body of work of a filmmaker who hated careerism and couldn’t perhaps be bothered less about his legacy; he was, after all, working on new films at the time of his death by assisted suicide. Yet as a colossus of twentieth-century art, he casts a tall shadow. Godard’s legacy would be secure even if he hadn’t made a single film; his passionate, typically epigrammatic film criticism, published in English as the book Godard on Godard (1986), has countless imitators, but few equals. Filmmaking, he famously remarked, was criticism by other means. His reflexive and densely allusive films are shining instances on the medium’s capacity to reflect not just on itself, but on its relation to history and the world. In Breathless, a celebrity writer is asked by the journalist-heroine what his ambition is. He replies, “To become immortal, and then to die.” Has Godard achieved that? As a lifelong contrarian and a master of cryptic aphorisms, Godard would have no doubt had a zinger in response.

 

[First published on Cinema Express]

The word on the street is that the Ticinese town of Locarno, Switzerland, comes to life only during the international film festival before returning to general cultural dormancy. The high-profile event appears in August like a planetary body, absorbing the local infrastructure and economy into its orbit; businesses are decked in the festival’s trademark yellow-black leopard patterns, gymnasiums are turned into movie halls and publicity hoardings look to cinema for inspiration. It’s indeed hard to divine the nature of the town underneath this two-week masque.

The town, however, has its own ways of asserting its identity. If the festival dominates the visual landscape of Locarno, the soundtrack remains very much of the place. Motorbikes with infernal exhausts, Sisyphean workers dragging heavy trolleys up cobbled pathways and helicopters and ambulances zooming in and out of local hospitals are constant reminders of the presence of a thriving and often abrasive local life.

The helicopters and ambulances are also reminders of health and sickness, which Locarno, despite its paradisiacal landscape ashore the Lake Maggiore, seems animated by. It isn’t just in the fact of the pandemic, which belies the unmasked crowds in the town and the nation’s now-lenient health regulations. It is also in that Ticino is a pharmaceutical hub, a detail reflected in the proliferation of hoardings for drugs and health insurance.

Medicine, disease and death, as it happens, are also recurring elements in the films of Douglas Sirk, who received a monumental 43-film retrospective at the festival. Once an accomplished theatre director at the heart of the modernist movement in Germany, Sirk left for the United States in 1937 for a chequered career in Hollywood. It was in the 1950s, when he collaborated with Universal Pictures, that Sirk made the series of lush melodramas that he is most known today for.

Curated by Bernard Eisenschitz and Roberto Turigliatto, the retrospective allowed audiences to not just observe the evolution of Sirk as a film artist, but also find underexplored cross-currents between different phases of his career. As a result, the hard-edged mystery movies he made in the 1940s come across as containing the seeds of the later melodramas, just as the melodramas pick up disturbing undercurrents from the crime pictures. At the very least, the retrospective should prove instrumental in nuancing the existing critical line around Sirk as a maker of Technicolor weepies.

“As far as I am concerned, heaven is stingy,” Sirk once said. In Alexander Sokurov’s Fairytale, the marquee entry of the competition section of the festival, four political figures from the twentieth century try to see if they can get an entry into heaven. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini and Churchill find themselves in a purgatory in this hypnotic if elusive work. They make petty quips about each other, encounter doppelgängers and reflect on the tragedies they have presided over. Drawing from both classical painting and AI-based imaging technology, Sokurov’s digital chamber drama is designed like a historical fever dream, only that the twentieth-century slumber isn’t over yet.

Fairytale beholds the world’s horrors from a melancholy, even amused distance, but the wounds are still raw in Jan Baumgartner’s The DNA of Dignity, a moving documentary about the work of forensic scientists involved in identifying victims buried in mass graves during the Balkan War. They excavate bones, assemble what remains of them into a skeleton, carry out DNA tests to ascertain identities and hand over the remains to grieving families, who haven’t had closure despite the end of the war. Baumgartner’s film is a fascinating picture of the how the abstractions of science eventually take form as human stories. Its success in finding the right tone and distance for a subject as grave and delicate.

“The war was first fought with bombs, since then it has become silent,” recalls one bereaving mother in The DNA of Dignity. The notion of war as a permanent condition, a state of mind courses through Azerbaijani filmmaker Hilal Baydarov’s Sermon to the Fish. A traumatized young soldier returns to his village after the war to see it empty and desolate. Baydarov weaves this premise into a spare landscape film in which spectacular vistas of barren countryside are punctuated by human figures prostrating or scrunched up, rarely showing their faces. The film’s greatest idea involves a photobombing dog.

Locarno’s own landscape is more modest. Hemmed in by mountains, the town comes across as intimate, almost claustrophobic. The festival venues are located a few minutes from each other, a fact that makes encounters with acquaintances and friends pleasurably inevitable. The steep, narrow lanes of the town that house countless restaurants all flow into the Piazza Grande, the massive open-air screen at the heart of the festival.

Film festivals like Locarno are, however, paradoxical things. As beacons of film culture, they are supposed to allow audiences to get a sense of cinema’s future and past. Yet the ideals of a festival often come crashing against everyday realities of participating in it. Subject to unending screenings and conversations, the mind wanders, the films bleed into one another, frequently losing context. The movies seek to take the viewer on journeys to far-flung worlds, existing and imagined, but the physical reality of spectatorship resists this easy transportation. The sweat on your back as you settle down into your seat, the fight to get a half-decent meal between screenings, the inexorable gravity of undone laundry all never fail to remind you of the here and the now.

Moreover, the glut of films can result in an audio-visual bulimia at loggerheads with the goals of a festival. The state of confused reflection that challenging films leave you in are, unfortunately, washed away in the stream of thoughts that the next work provokes.

And the Locarno film festival is known for its mix of traditional and challenging programming. If the films playing at the Piazza Grande draw non-cinephilic audiences from across the region, the works premiering in competition tend to be at the vanguard of cinematic innovation. Last year, the festival, in fact, dissolved “Moving Ahead”, a sidebar devoted to more experimental fare – a bold decision that may yet prove controversial. The result of the move was that this year’s Cineasti del Presenti, a section showcasing work from early-career filmmakers, was dominated by features that may have otherwise been relegated to the experimental segment.

As part of its Green Project, Locarno also designated a Green Leopard award in 2022, intending to honour one feature that “best reflects an environmental theme.” The recipient of the inaugural edition of this award was Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Matter Out of Place, a remarkable work tracing the journey of objects not native to the environment they are found in. Shot in about ten locations from around the world including Nepal and the Maldives, the film looks at the human-generated waste at various corners of the planet. Like much of Geyrhalter’s work, Matter has neither voiceover or interviews, with the viewer trusted with the task of navigating through the film’s implications.

Matter juxtaposes the work of waste management personnel from around the world, but it does not offer glib answers about their relationship. Geyrhalter insists that his films are not activist, rather documents for future archives about how humans lived in this particular point in history. Indeed, the images in his new film are clear and sharp, but they are productively ambivalent, suspending the viewer in both amazement and repulsion at mankind’s capacity to generate and manage vast amounts of garbage in the remotest stretches of the earth. Beauty and ugliness coexist in Matter Out of Place, which has the capacity to sharpen our ecological consciousness more thoroughly than most cine-pamphlets can. It’s an essential work.

 

[First published in Mint Lounge]

 

Crisis unites homes. If the pandemic has forced us to reassess the terms of our relationships, it has also perhaps sharpened our sensibility to the frailties of the body and the mind. That is, at least, the impression one gets from the recently concluded Visions du Réel documentary festival in Nyons. Several works that premiered at the event find expatriate filmmakers returning home, often obliged by aging and ailing parents, to capture less-than-flattering aspects of family life, elevating them into subjects worthy of cinematic consideration.

To be sure, there is nothing sordid about My Old Man, in which director Stephen Vit accompanies his successful salesman dad, Rudi, on his last business trip to China. Rudi works at a large multinational firm and is about to retire after 43 years of service. A Canadian by birth, he lives with his wife in a lush corner of Switzerland that one of his clients calls “paradise.” As a young man, though, he was a perennial globetrotter who always came home “smelling of airplanes and hotel rooms.” His retirement thus offers Stephen a chance to understand the remote figure of his childhood.

Rudi’s retired life, which his son documents on his yearly trips home, is the stuff of middle-class dreams: health, affluence, real estate, recreation. There is obviously some restlessness and boredom stemming from Rudi’s sudden loss of purpose and some discord with his wife born of his mean streak. There is also a degree of malaise in the couple’s (re)adjustment to life under a single roof after decades of virtual singledom. But the existential crisis and marital breakdown that Stephen forebodes, almost hopes for, never materializes. Yet, as his father watches old home movies on VHS tapes, something like the regret of lost years traverses his teary face. Rudi has become old.

When Peter Entell began documenting his father Max in Getting Old Stinks, the latter was already over seventy-five. An American settled in Switzerland, Peter filmed his father on his annual stateside trips over fifteen years until the old man’s death in the early 2000s. But the filmmaker didn’t revisit the footage until 2021, when he was sixty-seven years old himself, the age that senior Entell had his first cardiac arrest. For Peter, then, the film is something of a meditation on his own aging, and its title appears to reflect his feeling about the process.

The filmmaker assembles his material chronologically in a repeating structure. In each variation, we see Peter and his three elder siblings travel from all over the world to visit their father at an assisted living facility in California. The occasion is Max’s birthday and the family goes to lunch at a Chinese restaurant, gathering at the same table and ordering with the same waiter. They all wish the old man, read fortune cookie predictions and make jokes about it. After a few cordial hours back at the old-age home, they bid farewell. These variations are bridged together by old family photographs, with voiceover by Peter addressing the film to their absent mother who never had the chance to grow old.

Over the course of fifteen years, we see Max deteriorate from a sharp super-senior who trots out songs from memory to a frail figure who is hard put to recall his wife’s name. A favourite poem that he recites turns from a token of his charm to a test of his memory. The children, too, grow old, yet the jokes on the lunch table remain the same, becoming quainter with each passing year. A longitudinal study of the Entell family’s annual ritual, Getting Old Stinks is a poignant document about the ravages of time on human bonds.

When Humaira Bilkis, the director of Things I Could Never Tell My Mother, returned home to Dhaka after her studies in India, she found her once-liberal mother Khaleda transformed into a devout woman after a pilgrimage to Mecca. Where young Khaleda wanted her daughter to grow up to be a painter, she now repudiates images. She laments the fact that her daughter makes films, collects old photographs, stays out late and, most importantly, refuses to get married. It is left to the viewer’s imagination how she would react if she learnt that Humaira has a Hindu boyfriend in Calcutta with whom she has trysts in a friend’s apartment.

Khaleda’s constant sense of disappointment and maternal failure weighs heavily on Humaira. When the pandemic hits, the filmmaker is obliged to take care of her ailing parents, forced to live with all this corrosive emotional furniture. Her response? To film her life, to turn the overly familiar into something akin to a “text” that could afford her the necessary distance. It is telling that the relationship between mother and daughter is at its most cordial when Humaira is away on work in Japan and makes video calls to Khaleda, telling her of the freedom women that enjoy there.

All through, Humaira imagines her romance in terms of the love poems her mother wrote as a young woman. In turn, she narrativizes her mother’s life through the images of her film. In Things I Could Never Tell My Mother, art becomes a mediator in family life, the crutch using which individuals tolerate one another.

Filmmaker Wenqian Zhang’s mother is worried about her daughter’s future too in A Long Journey Home. Like Humaira, Wenqian has completed her film studies abroad and has now returned home to mainland China. Her mother’s worries and appeals notwithstanding, she doesn’t yet want to get married to her boyfriend (and co-producer), Yue Huang. She says she doesn’t believe all that much in marriage.

For good reason, since her own parents are an irreparably damaged couple. After a series of failed business ventures across the country, Wenqian’s father Bo is now a stay-at-home husband mistreated by pretty much everyone around. His wife belittles him at every opportunity, even hitting him at one point. His brother-in-law insults him for owing money. Even his parents-in-law, who live in the same house, use him to run errands. A pitiful figure, Bo seems the quintessential product of patriarchal pressures on men. The most tender scenes of the film feature Wenqian lending a sympathetic ear to the broken man, who is in turn more understanding of her feelings and aspirations than her excessively pragmatic mother.

Wenqian composes the film as a series of static shots, all of which are interesting in their studied composition and some of which are downright dazzling in their use of off-screen space. This formalist reserve allows her to describe the domestic space with fluency and provide us a glimpse into the relative affluence of the Zhangs.

Located at the farther end of the class spectrum, the family of Elvis A-Liang Lu, director of A Holy Family, is something you might imagine having seen in a Tsai Ming-Liang film. Laconic to a fault, his father is an incurable gambler who cannot keep away from the numbers racket even when he is dying of cancer. His mother is a perpetual sufferer who walks up and down the stairs to maintain the home shrine. His brother fashions himself as a spiritual medium, relaying concerns of paying customers to a pantheon of gods. On the side, he grows cash crops on a small patch of land subject to the vagaries of weather. The whole family seems to have surrendered its future to faith and luck, which are at times indistinguishable.

It is perhaps not surprising then that A-Liang left for Taiwan as a young man to determine his own life. His mother calls him home at the beginning of the film, broaching the subject of her death, audibly making him uncomfortable. Over the course of A Holy Family, A-Liang changes from a seemingly indifferent son to someone with pangs of guilt over ‘abandoning’ his family. Like with Humaira Bilkis, filmmaking here serves as an instrument of reconciliation with the family. A-Liang’s lot is unhappy in its own way, but his film is bracing in the way it transforms this unhappiness into a graceful portrait of a modest family playing with the cards it has been dealt.

[First published in News9]

In comparison to its documentary and animation counterparts, the slate of nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Films cuts a sorry figure. Racism, patriarchy, ableism are formidable villains embraced for their dramatic potential, turned into reliable strawmen and dutifully slain for liberal edification.

The least contentious of the nominees, Martin Strange-Hansen’s On My Mind (2021) contains no villains as such. There is certainly a greedy bar owner (Ole Gorter Boisen) who tries to palm off expensive whisky on our protagonist Henrik (Rasmus Hammerich), but even he redeems himself at the end. The bulk of the film is a single scene at the bar where Henrik tries to convince the owner and his wife (Camilla Bendix) to turn on the karaoke set so he can sing Elvis Presley’s Always on My Mind for his wife — a song that, he says, makes the soul fly. And he only has fifteen minutes to do it. The film’s strong point is this theatrical integrity of time and place, thanks to which it is able to set up fine passages of tension.

The time pressure also creates a mystery around Henrik, who is something of a poet. He is not a great singer, but the song has a great deal of meaning for him. In the film’s opening scene, he is seen breathing heavily at the window, his exhalation creating fog on the pane. He later makes a lyrical observation about it. Henrik’s existential outlook, combined with the information that he is on borrowed time, invites the supposition that he is on death row, but the mystery is resolved differently. Compared to the critical bite that the other nominees have, however, On My Mind is practically harmless.

Towering far above its competitors is Kristen Dávila’s Please Hold (2020), a Kafkaesque parable of a man arrested without charge and faced with a lifetime in prison. The tale is timeless, but the setting is an unspecified future in which automation reigns supreme. On his way to work, Mateo (Erick Lopez) is arrested by a police drone and sent to a detention facility run by a private company called Correcticorp. There are no human personnel at the complex, with everything from catering to legal services carried out through voice-commanded AI systems, all of it charged to the prisoner’s bank account.

The film may present a dystopian fantasy, but its projections are based on questions around technology and industry that are all very current: the removal of the human element from value judgment, the commercialization of personal time, the judicial fallout of machine errors, the romanticization of hand-made objects and the conception of legal process as service. These are philosophical ideas that you might find on The Guardian’s science pages, and the success of the film lies in synthesizing them into an alarming vision of the future.

Please Hold works as well as it does because it pitches this cautionary tale about technology — software, hardware, beware! — as a dark comedy rather than drama. Mateo struggles with the computer in his cell to find a lawyer to help him, but his mounting frustration cannot be taken out on the computer screen, for it is his only chance at freedom. On his prison walls, he scribbles what may be the final words of many of us when trapped in such a future: “read the fine print.”

The Long Goodbye (2020), starring Riz Ahmed, was made as an accompaniment to the actor’s album of the same name. It is understandable then that the film’s thrust is less dramaturgical than musical. Directed by Aneil Karia, it begins with scenes from a middle-class desi household in suburban Britain. An extended family prepares for a wedding: girls gossip as they put on mehndi, a couple is playing a quiz game, Riz is learning some dance moves from a nephew, blocking his father’s view of the TV. Such episodes of curated chaos, marked by accumulating friction between characters, are familiar to us from the films of Gurinder Chadha or Mira Nair.

But The Long Goodbye shifts gears when assorted armed men, clad in black, storm the house. “It’s happening,” Riz shouts, as if this invasion were long coming. It would be no spoiler to say that the family is dragged to the streets and shot as neighbours watch the horror from behind their windows. The film breaks away from its realistic description as Riz, having survived the massacre, begins a monologue in verse. His rap, a number called Where You From, speaks of his complicated identity as a brown Briton. This is slam poetry made film and the lyrics are the kind that make Twitter go into a tizz. Viewer mileage, though, would depend on their appreciation for lines like “Yeah I make my own space in this business of Britishness / Your question’s just limiting, it’s based on appearances.”

Tadeusz Łysiak’s The Dress (2020) and Maria Brendle’s Ala Kachuu – Take and Run (2020) are products of arthouse melodrama at its high academic stage. Both films offer non-normative subjects as points of identification — a working-class woman of short stature in the former, a young woman from rural Kyrgyzstan in the latter — and make us see the problems that they face because of their identity. The style is naturalistic, the filmic expression restrained and the meaning largely presented through symbolism. Cinema, in this scheme of things, becomes what the critic Roger Ebert called “empathy-generating machine.”

Even so, The Dress comes across as a rather cruel work. Protagonist Julia (Anna Dzieduszycka) is a small person who performs room service at a small-town hotel in Poland. A frustrated virgin, she makes up for her inexperience with world-weary chain-smoking. There’s another compensation at work: as someone who has lost the genetic lottery, Julia spends all her free time playing slot machines at the local bar. She faces discrimination and bigotry every day, but chooses to stay in the town and “teach people a lesson.” Her desperation results in a funny scene of flirtation where she dares an interested truck driver to take the next step.

Except for one shot of her walking with the trucker, Łysiak films Julia mostly at eye level or in isolated shots such that we don’t see how short she really is. Her periodic conversations with an older colleague (Dorota Pomykala) are a welcome relief from her disappointments. But the film keeps insisting that Julia is an incomplete woman, doomed to look yearningly at perfect feminine bodies or vent that she’d rather be a “normal woman.” It takes her through one insult after another, as though these were the only experiences available to her.

The longest of the nominees, Ala Kachuu furnishes its main character a little more manoeuvring space, but its distortions are equally telling. Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova) is an aspiring young woman from a traditional rural family. She wants to continue her studies in the city, but her parents want to marry her off. She flees the village and takes up with Aksana (Madina Talipbekova), another single young woman whose rejection of tradition has brought disrepute to her family back home. In the city, Sezim is kidnapped by a band of men and forced into marriage. Worse, her parents accept this union and abandon her to fate.

Ala Kachuu demonstrates the perils of bringing an unreflective Western perspective to bear upon non-Western phenomena that it doesn’t have the necessary intellectual wherewithal to grapple with. Picking an extreme case within the practice of bride kidnapping, the film takes the easy out way by dramatizing the struggle of an modern-thinking individual against reactionary upholders of tradition. The film may bring more attention to the bride lifting, but what it does first is to reinforce its prospective audience’s ideas of itself and the world.

 

[First published at News9]

The history of battle,” wrote Paul Virilio in 1984, “is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception.” Examining the relationship between war and images, the French philosopher advanced that, through the ages, victory in an armed conflict has always been a matter of perceiving and representing enemies and enemy territories; that, in industrial warfare, “the representation of events outstripped the presentation of facts”. He continues: “Thus, alongside the army’s traditional ‘film department’ responsible for directing propaganda to the civilian population, a military ‘images department’ has sprung up to take charge of all tactical and strategic representations of warfare for the soldier, the tank or aircraft pilot, and above all the senior officer who engages combat forces.”

Virilio’s analysis has only become more accurate with time. A few years ago, MIT developed a camera that can look around corners — an invention that has obvious military application. In March this year, the U.S. Army publicized their goggles that allows soldiers to remain inside their armoured vehicles while being able to see everything happening outside. To be able to see the source of danger without exposing yourself to it — the Rear Window principle — is already a battle half-won. Photography and filmmaking have therefore increasingly been at the centre of contemporary military strategy.

The work of German filmmaker Harun Farocki (1944-2014) has, over decades, thrown light on the profound, multi-layered links between war, photography and cinema. His films echo Virilio in demonstrating how, in modern warfare, terrains are mapped out in extensive detail, combat tactics are thoroughly simulated in software and variables of battle are controlled to such a degree that the actual field operation simply becomes a logistical formality. In such an asymmetric war, the side that controls machine-filmed, amoral and objective images of a region is one that has already conquered it. To see is to capture.

Two films screened at the recently concluded Visions du Réel festival in Nyon imbibe the spirit of Farocki’s work and explore the intersection between images and war with great cogency and rigour.

Directed by Massimo D’Anolfi and Martina Parenti, the Italian feature War and Peace lives up to the ambitions of its lofty title. The opening part is set in a film archive, where researchers study footage from a “forgotten war”: the Italian invasion of (current-day) Libya in 1911. Perhaps the first war expressly filmed for public consumption back home, the clips show soldiers advancing in the desert and or assembled outside captured sites. These films, we are told, played a part in creating the fiction that was unified Libya. As it did elsewhere under various imperial film units, cinema here served as a colonizing force, with the power of writing history residing with those who wield the camera.

The second segment of the film parachutes us into a crisis unit in Italy that helps locate and repatriate civilians and military personnel stuck in war-torn areas around the world. More than a century since the Libya invasion, technology has now democratized image-making. Even the “enemies” have the means to fashion their own narrative through film. Thanks to global media and the internet, these images of war can now be produced, distributed and immediately seen across the world. We observe experts at the crisis unit investigating and interacting with these videos to navigate the chaos of the present. It’s effectively a battle for the control of future history.

Production and control of images of war is also the theme of the third part of the film, set at a French military academy. A new batch of recruits in what Virilio called the “images department” is being trained in the techniques of photography, visual composition, voiceover commentary, live telecast and filmmaking. At the end of the course, a whole combat operation is simulated in the campus for these trainees to shoot and edit into a wide-screen Hollywood-like movie, as though the primary goal of war was to fabricate images, “representation of events” outstripping “presentation of facts”.

War and Peace nevertheless concludes with a reflection on cinema’s power to prevent history from falling into oblivion. As footage of post-war devastation and testimonies of Holocaust survivors wash over reel cans, we realize that while cinema may not have been able to forestall historical tragedy, as Jean-Luc Godard lamented, its true mission may simply be to pick up the pieces, to preserve the memories of the victims of war. And that perhaps is the only way cinema could film peace.

Bellum – The Daemon of War deals with similar ideas as War and Peace, but weaves them into human interest stories. Made by David Herdies and Georg Götmark, the film follows three subjects living at different corners of the world: an engineer in Sweden, an American photographer working in Afghanistan and an Afghan war veteran in Nevada, USA. They don’t meet one another in the film, but their lives are all shaped by war and Western attitudes to war.

Fredrik Bruhn, the Swedish engineer, is involved in designing an AI-powered military drone that will take autonomous decisions on bombing a perceived target — a game-changing invention that will eliminate the need for any human intervention in combats. Bill Lyon, the war vet suffering from PTSD, has trouble reintegrating into civilian life and hopes to go back to the front, not just for the money, but also to regain some semblance of normalcy. Paula Bronstein is a photojournalist from the East Coast who covers the aftermath of the Afghan war. We see her directing her subjects with makeshift lighting, wandering the streets of Kabul coaxing children for a pose or signing photo-books at her exhibition back in the United States.

Bellum emphasizes that these are nice people. Bruhn is a doting father and a science enthusiast. Bronstein is empathetic and wants to put a human face to the fallout of the war. Despite his hatred for the conditions in Afghanistan, Lyon too is a loving husband. Well-meaning though they might be, it becomes apparent that their life and work are marked by a certain guilt surrounding the fact of war. This is evident in the case of Lyon, who has seen his friends and colleagues die in the field, but Bronstein’s own activity may not be untouched by a liberal sense of culpability about her country’s interventions in Afghanistan. Bruhn’s efforts to eliminate the human factor of war, too, is an attempt to eradicate feelings of guilt about liquidating an enemy, which, the film’s narrator notes, is the only real restraining force in an armed conflict.

Elsewhere, the narrator remarks that armies don’t use just cardboard silhouettes for target practice anymore, but well-defined human-like figures, such that soldiers find themselves in a situation as close to real life as possible. Lyon drives past a large military facility in Nevada, where a life-size replica of Kandahar was set up. Such hyper-realistic simulation environments, which were the subject of Farocki’s four-part Serious Games (2010), are ultimately designed to blur the boundary between reality and fiction and to have combatants take one for the other.

It’s judgment that defeats us,” says an embittered Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando) at the end of his famous monologue in Apocalypse Now (1979). What Bellum points to us is that this judgment, this human fallibility, is the variable that technology seeks to eliminate from the equation of war, seeking to forge amoral killing machines that will, somehow, do the “right thing”. In this mission, these two films show us, cinema will be always on the side of the powerful.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

In addition to the historical upheavals it has already produced, it would seem that the COVID-19 pandemic has also forced us to renegotiate our understanding of the real and its many opposites. It’s then bitterly appropriate that the Visions du Réel film festival, which seeks to showcase newer perspectives in international documentary practice, is among the first film events to go completely online following the restrictions imposed by the outbreak.

The epochal nature of this shift cannot be overstated. Film festivals are spaces that do more than bring audiences in contact with films and filmmakers. They connect audiences to themselves, to the reality of the place around them, to its economic and social machinery. That Visions du Réel, which traditionally takes place every year in April in Nyons, Switzerland, is no more anchored to a geographical location, and is instead accessible to viewers from around the world, themselves severed from their immediate reality, is some kind of a metaphor for the times we live in.

This dialectic between indoors and outdoors isn’t new, it’s intrinsic to film experience. The darkened hall of the movie theatre is an escape from reality that promises a return to reality in newer forms. It’s a flight away from community that’s predicated on communal participation. Speaking of his dislike for watching films at home, the French critic Roland Barthes wrote, “not enough of a public, not enough anonymity”. As audience, we are trained to overlook this contradiction, to not even recognize it as such. The current confinement, on the other hand, obliges us to take note of it by forbidding our access to the social dimension of moviegoing.

Speaking to this historical moment, numerous works at the 51st edition of Visions du Réel exhibit a yearning for the social. Many unfold in self-contained worlds with no exit to external reality. Public spaces, random encounters and a desire for community pervade this year’s offering. It’s less that the films, made before the outbreak, were prescient, than that the ongoing crisis has alerted us to a fundamental loss, sharpening our sensitivity to these tendencies, which will only be strengthened in the coming months.

 

Among the finest films at the festival, the medium-length feature Pyrale, made by Roxanne Gaucherand, is the one that most resembles the prevalent state of the world. On a basic level, the film is an intimate documentary about a box tree moth infestation plaguing certain areas of the Drôme department in France. The way the filmmaker photographs these millions of butterflies, rife with sensual shadows and backlighting, imparts the work the texture of science fiction. Superimposed on this composite is a story of burgeoning desire, in which a teenage girl discovers her love for a friend just when two are bound to be separated. With great feeling for the region, Gaucherand paints a moody, melancholy picture evoking the end of the world, where romantic longing comes across as a force of redemption.

In Unusual Summer (Kamal Aljafari), the urge to reach out to others takes the form of CCTV tapes that the filmmaker’s father left behind after his death in 2015. The tapes are from the summer of 2006 and were used record the parking spot outside his home to see who’s been breaking the car window. Despite the dramatic promises of the CCTV aesthetic and the location of the house in a crime-ridden area, what we get in this film are quotidian incidents, sightings of neighbours passing by. This transformation of private surveillance footage into a session of window-watching and people-spotting produces a sense of community and forges a relation of inheritance between the filmmaker and his father, the only two people to have seen these tapes.

A pressing feeling for connection equally runs under the placid surface of Intimate Distances (Phillip Warnell), an uneven but thought-provoking documentary about public spaces and the anonymous exchanges they facilitate. Casting director Martha Wollner walks up and down a block in Brooklyn looking for a young actor to play the role of a criminal. While we hear her conversations through mic she wears, she and her interlocutors are filmed from such a distance that they are often dissolved into the urban landscape. What surprises us is the willingness with which the people Wollner speaks to open themselves up to her. In its contrapuntal construction, the film throws light on how the anonymity that cities enforce is also the source of potential intimacy.

The city, its design and its influence on its inhabitants is the subject of the erudite and formally-complex A Machine to Live In (Yoni Goldstein and Meredith Zielke). The location in question is Brasilia, the artificially created capital of Brazil that was designed according to modernist principles in the 1950s. Machine sees this city as an otherworldly geography unfit for human life, but also allowing the possibilities of imagining utopias, catholic cultists, freemasons, biker gangs, and Esperanto evangelists all finding a home within Brasilia’s orbit. Employing diverse modes of exposition and crisp digital photography, the filmmakers develop a visually-striking portrait of a city that has come to resemble a religious monument in itself, demanding awestruck worship and constant maintenance by people who can’t afford to live here.

The notion of a city built from nothing is also invoked by Some Kind of Heaven (Lance Oppenheim), an exploration of life in The Villages, a massive retirement community in Florida planned in the eighties. We see how the elderly are able to reinvent themselves in this place and discover newer reservoirs of inspiration, and this prompts us to question the values of the culture they have moved away from. While the film opts for a less productive, human interest angle, the question of what constitutes a community remains on its periphery, inviting us to ponder on whether a group of people with no historical ties can live in isolation from the wider world without existential repercussions.

In The Marriage Project (Atieh Attarzadeh, Hesam Eslami), on the contrary, it’s the wider world that imposes itself on a secluded populace. The community in question is a psychiatric centre in Tehran, whose director has undertaken a radical project to allow certain patients to marry each other. He believes this can help address their social and sexual needs, without running against Islamic law—a proposal his subordinates object to. We see how the discourses of religion, mental health and love wrestle with each other to exert influence on the minds and bodies of the patients. The filmmaker frames this potent and moving examination through details of her private life, trying to make sense of her own failed marriage in the process.

 

Other films at the festival grapple with the wider world in more direct ways, prying open the anxieties fostered by modern political and social life. Among the most provocative works of the festival is the hour-long Purple Sea (Amel Alzakout, Khaled Abdulwahed), comprising of video footage the filmmaker made after the boat carrying her from Syria sank near the Hellenic coast. Overlaid on the barely legible images of bodies immersed in water is a dispassionate voiceover of the filmmaker’s thoughts that she had while trying to stay afloat. Purple Sea is something of a freak work of documentary, a near-death experience that asserts the existence of those we see here in fragments as more than statistics on immigration debates. It’s a film that’s easier to appreciate than to watch.

Days of Cannibalism (Teboho Edkins) and NA China (Marie Voignier) are complementary works that reflect on the frictions occasioned by global relocation of populations. Edkins’ film unfolds as a Western about immigrant Chinese traders setting up wholesale stores in rural Lesotho. The traders are successful, but their transactional relation to the cattle they are investing in goes against the sentiments of the predominantly agrarian local population, the latter embodying a much more relaxed attitude to money. Voignier’s film supplies a reverse shot, centring on African businesswomen trying to set up shop in Guangzhou. The women scour wholesale markets and pick out quality pieces that could be exported back home, their challenge to find something of value registering as an effort to live authentically. Both films are open-ended and invite the viewer to independently consider the questions they raise.

The clash of cultures manifests on a more personal scale in Sing Me a Song (Thomas Balmès) and Non Western (Laura Plancarte). In the former, a young boy ordained for monkhood at a monastery in rural Bhutan falls in love with an escort in Thimphu, thanks to the invasive power of the internet. Foregrounding its fictional mechanism, the film functions both as a cautionary tale about the dangers of modernity and a Buddhist parable about temptation. The stakes are much higher in Non Western where Nanci, a white woman, is torn between her modern self-image as an independent academic and her role as a wife to a conservative North Cheyenne patriarch, Thaddeus. Despite itself, the film tips our sympathy towards Nanci, with Thaddeus coming across as little more than a slacker hiding behind excuses of tradition and deracination. An intriguing if opaque look, nonetheless, at interpersonal relations being inflected by American’s primal historical trauma.

 

Many of the features at this year’s Vision du Réel share the conviction that films can make fruitful interventions into reality. All of them believe that they can help us better understand the world we live in. At a time when the virus is wreaking an epistemological havoc, undoing our certainties and forcing newer insights every day, this belief can perhaps serve as our lodestar in approaching films as viewers. We are all the richer, then, for the perspectives into reality these films have to offer.

 

[Originally published at Firstpost]

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

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

 

0. 63 Up (Michael Apted, UK)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

3. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

6. Slits (Carlos Segundo, Brazil)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

8. Status and Terrain (Ute Adamczewski, Germany)

 

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

 

9. Ham on Rye (Tyler Taormina, USA)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Special Mention: Gully Boy (Zoya Akhtar, India)

 

 

Height of the Wave (Park Jung-bum)

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

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

Earth (Nikolaus Geyrhalter)

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

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

Endless Night (Eloy Enciso)

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

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

Bird Island (Sergio da Costa, Maya Kosa)

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

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

[The following is a translation I did with Andy Rector of the 14-page interview with Jean-Luc Godard that appears in the October issue of Cahiers du Cinéma]

That is what is beautiful about The Image Book. The whole life piles up. You keep everything with you.

I debuted in the second Revue de cinéma when it was with Gallimard and it was with the help of Doniol-Valcroze that I entered Cahiers little by little. Doniol-Valcroze was the son of a friend of my mother’s at the Victor-Duruy high school. I thought he received me because of that. I learnt later that he was demobilized and took refuge in Switzerland. It was my mother who got him to France, to Thonon, on a little speedboat called “the hyphen” and with which we often went vacationing in my grandfather’s property. I discovered that after Doniol-Valcroze’s death. I wasn’t against the Cahiers management at that time. He was the editor-in-chief along with Bazin. He was a “gentle man” in the literal sense of the term. I didn’t know Bazin like Truffaut did at all. I knew Bazin as the head of a communist organization, Work and Culture, just opposite the Beaux-Arts. There was a small library opposite run by a friend of Rivette’s from Rouen. It’s a story that I attached myself to little by little, not from the beginning, but there are all these stories I want to keep to myself. I was prudent like the Delacroix character. I stole some money from one of my uncles to finance Rivette’s first short film, Le Quadrille.

Whom did you feel closest to?

Rivette. Then Truffaut, but before he made Les Mistons. I don’t know if he was already married to Madeleine Morgenstern, whom I liked a lot. He’d become rich by this point. Madeleine Morgenstern’s father was the head of a distribution company called Cocinor in the Nord region and in Paris. But when he wrote “A Certain Tendency of French Cinema”, I hung out with him a lot. I wasn’t so much with Rivette. We could go see films at 2pm and leave at midnight because it was a single-admission cinema. I’d give up after an hour or two. Rivette stayed until the end. Rohmer had a different life. He was a professor and lived in a small hotel opposite the Sorbonne. His name was Schérer and he started signing “Rohmer” so that his mother didn’t know he led a dissolute life in cinema. These were three different friends. It was real camaraderie with Schérer—I still call him Schérer—Rivette and Truffaut. Schérer was one of the few who knew which woman I was in love with, and I was the only one to know that he was in love with the wife of an old head—a communist—of the CNC. Rohmer was ten years older and he was the counterbalance to Bazin and Pierre Kast. In The Image Book, I have a shot of the Liberation of Paris. We see an FFI member from behind, with a gun on his back, speaking to a woman on her knees. To my mind, this man was always Pierre Kast. I hope it’s true.

We get the feeling that you didn’t have political discussions at Cahiers at that time.

Very little. It was the cinema. Even girls were a secret. I remember a moment during the Algeria war. I was at the Place de l’Alma with Rivette. A car sped by with the “nee-naw” of the OAS siren. I saw that as a shot by Douglas Sirk. And Rivette chided me. I couldn’t see things politically at that time. The one who could easily do that was Straub, because he was there from the beginning.

 

The Image Book

“Before the talkies, silent films had a materialist starting point. The actor said: I am (filmed) therefore I think (at least I think of the fact that I am being filmed), it’s because I exist that I think. After the talkies, there was a New Deal between the matter being filmed (the actor) and thought. The actor began saying: I think (that I am an actor) therefore I am (filmed). It’s because I think that I am.”

– Letter to Jane (1972, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin)

 

“The fact remains that, thanks to machines, and in reference to the domination of the realm of images in our societies of spectacle, never have as many deaths been filmed as in the last five or six years. The corpse has become a more familiar, more ordinary image and is often not even an object of attention. A particular mise en scène, spontaneous or arranged, is needed, the shadow of a history must float over the corpse of this dead child, face against the sand, for the mediatic vortex to get going.”

– Daesh, Cinema and Death (2016, Jean-Louis Comolli)

 

“What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.”

– King Lear

 

In the beginning was the image, until it was tainted and supplanted by the word. Or so suggests Godard’s latest work, The Image Book, in which the filmmaker militates for the image against a world enslaved by words. It’s a full circle of sorts for Godard who has always alerted about the treachery of images and their power to deceive and corrupt. It’s also a full circle in a formal sense in that, after the digital cinematography of Film Socialism and Goodbye to Language, The Image Book harks back to his monumental Histoire(s) du Cinéma, and is made almost entirely of pre-existing footage and sounds. The footage and sounds, to be sure, are heavily manipulated – colour-saturated, over-exposed, slowed-down, chopped-up and noise-fed to a point of nonrecognition – but the film still remains a classical collage work deriving its meaning chiefly from the association of disparate elements rather than from the elements themselves. Montage is Godard’s primary form of thought.

Image and words: Godard’s eternal preoccupation are brought into conflict right in the first two shots of the film: a detail – the upward pointing finger of John the Baptist – from Leonardo’s painting followed by a text excerpt from Georges Bernanos’ Les enfants humiliés. As a hand goes over a reel of film on an editing table, Godard’s voice echoes: “Five fingers, five senses, five continents of the world, five fingers of the fairy. Together they make the hand. And man’s true condition is to think with his hands.” To think with his hands, by the way, is what Godard appears to be doing in the publicity spot he made for the Jihlava Film Festival: scrolling back and forth through the photos on his iPhone, as the voice-over rolls back and forth in response. And what is scrolling through a photo album but a form of ‘manual’ editing? Montage is Godard’s primary form of thought.

Five fingers, five senses, five parts in The Image Book. The first part, titled REMAKES/RIM(AK)ES pits images against words: images that speak truth, words that lie and kill. Shots of soldiers abusing a captured woman while the voice-over states that they are reviving a Vietcong combatant for interrogation. Shots of suffering and atrocity cut to Godard’s voice reading a Joseph de Maistre text hailing the divinity of war. In cinema, too, the images were mute until words came along to subvert their material, polysemous reality. Also in focus in this part of the film is the way cinema and war have fed off themselves and off one another, remade each other: Vietnam war footage, Les Carabiniers, shots of shark-faced jets from World War 2, Jaws, Blood of the Beast, images from the Holocaust. As Jean-Louis Comolli has written about at length, its precisely Hollywood spectacle that Daesh recruitment videos try to emulate and Godard acknowledges this perverse response of reality to his lament that cinema has never caught up with history by juxtaposing shots of soldiers drowning rebels in Paisan with clips of Daesh drowning its captives.

The second part of the film opens with shots from Sergei Bondarchuk’s War and Peace. Continuing with de Maistre’s text Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg, Godard overlays its potent call for arms and doomsday prophesying with images of brutality and violence fictional and documentary. Words being on the side of war, it would seem, could only be given the lie by images of war. Like Lear choosing the seductive beauty of painted words over reality, history has been led astray by those wielding power over language. As the third section of the film implies, image, on the other hand, has always stood for hope and survival. A compilation of train footage through history – rather conventional given it’s Godard – the central part of the film takes the symbol of Western technological progress and the proto-image of cinema – the moving train – and reflects on how the same entity that helped civilizations thrive also culminated in Auschwitz.

The fourth part of the film, named after Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, mounts a frontal attack on the machinations of language in the form of law. Sandwiching Montesquieu’s dreams for a harmonic state-subject relationship between Victor Hugo’s rather graphic description of state atrocities in Serbia, Godard underscores the normalization of violence and imperialism through the language of law. “The Law is always prepared to lend you a spare brain in order to condemn you without remorse,” wrote Barthes, “the spectacle of a terror which threatens us all, that of being judged by a power which wants to hear only the language it lends us.” At one point, Godard follows up a frame from Histoire du cinéma that says “montage interdit” (editing prohibited) – Bazin’s famous maxim – with excerpts from La Marseillaise and a shot from Gus van Sant’s Elephant where we see the school shooter firing at a victim in the same frame. This, perhaps, is also a joke of sorts for Godard, who was always a champion of the classical decoupage and editing in opposition to Bazin’s long shot filmmaking. As Comolli demonstrates, the “montage interdit” maxim now lives most emphatically in Daesh’s videos that show the executioner and the victim in the same frame.

The final portion, its title and some of its images drawn from Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale, trains its attention entirely on the Middle East – a subject of the filmmaker’s interest since long – albeit a fictional Middle East, a lost paradise. It’s an unusual passage for Godard, excerpting Egyptio-French writer Albert Cossery’s An Ambition in the Desert at length for the voice-over (spoken by someone else) and illustrating it with assorted documentary and cinema shots from the Middle East. The story, that of a Machiavellian emir who tries to stage a fake revolution in his oil-bereft Middle-Eastern country in order to attract Western attention, is interspersed with thoughts about the world’s political indifference to Arabs, the failures of Middle East itself to escape Western imperial forces and counter Daesh’s worship of the Word (Daesh’s production of images, of course, stems from its virulent anti-idolatry). An explanation of counterpoint in music finds echo in a title card containing the word ‘Palestine’ in Arabic and Hebrew overlapped.

Another joke perhaps: the film’s end credits roll five minutes before it actually ends. Godard, who’s regularly been said to retire since Film Socialism, follows the credits with key images from the film, now played without the context, as though to finally liberate images from the debilitating stronghold of words. “Word and image” reads the final title card, reversing the card “image and word” shown at the beginning of the film. In the film’s final words, pronounced on the soundtrack over a black screen, Godard repeats to a coughing fit a quote from Peter Weiss’ The Aesthetics of Resistance: “Even if nothing turned out how we’d hoped, it would not have changed what we’d hoped for.” The final images that follow, in turn, gives us a long, mute excerpt from Ophuls’ Le Plaisir, a masked Jean Galland dances himself to exhaustion. It’s a pure image, silent, beautiful, self-sufficient and liberated from the need to “speak up” – a return to cinematic zero of sorts that’s always been the filmmaker’s objective.

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