Cinema of Ukraine


Build the Wall (Joe Swanberg)

Why would Joe Swanberg, 39, feel the need to focus on the aging pangs of a fifty-year-old? Perhaps the precocious auteur, who had a body of work by the time he turned thirty, feels professionally, mentally much older than he actually is. Or perhaps forty is the new fifty. In any case, we are far from the interpersonal dynamics of Drinking Buddies (2015). Kent (Kent Osborne), who is the anchoring perspective of the film, is set in his ways. He is turning fifty, a fact he isn’t particularly fond of, and is having an old flame Sarah (Jane Adams) come over for his birthday. Unfortunately, another friend Kev (Kevin Bewersdorf) invites himself over at the same time, insisting that he will build the stone wall in Kent’s garden that he has long promised and that he will be as discreet as possible about it. Kent tries in vain to dissuade Kev because he has made romantic and work-related plans with Sarah that he doesn’t want to upset. But even Sarah occasions deviations from Kent’s routine; she gifts him a new vacuum cleaner he had made clear he doesn’t need. In a scene that’s literally a boner killer, he interrupts sex with Sarah only to get hung up on a shower curtain she keeps dislodging everyday. Kent’s mounting exasperation doesn’t derive as much from not ‘living in the moment’ as from the frustration of his wholly reasonable desire to keep his life simple and organized.

All of Kent’s expectations are thwarted: he falls out with Sarah, who ends up helping out Kev with the wall, around which a veritable community takes shape. The narrative partly hinges on the comic reversal that the over-serious, self-parodical, lone wolf Kev ends up forging a more wholesome relation with others than the sensitive, laid back Kent. But Swanberg doesn’t milk this scenario for its third-wheel comedy. (All the characteristically uncomfortable humour stems, instead, from Kent’s days out with Sarah.) He is rather interested in exploring the contours of romance at an age where you possibly expect to be accepted as you are. There is, equally, a simplification of form evident in the film, which runs for less than an hour. To be sure, scenes are still constructed around improvised acting and predominantly natural lighting, but there is an economy of exposition that feels positively mid-to-late career. With an exception of a pan shot here, a handheld shot there, most of the film unfolds in static shots, with the director occasionally drawing us in to the conversations using tighter setups. The more explicit flourishes, like cutting on sound cues, are muted by the overall austerity of the film. The film is set in a lush, wooded corner of Vermont and its meditative pace is redoubled by the natural expanse of the region. Swanberg also sets a series of formal counterpoints: intense, lone outdoor activities (wall building, axe throwing, woodcutting) that sublimate domestic frustrations, harsh sounds of sawing and stonework piercing the sylvan silence, and Kev’s DIY documentary sequences interspersed with Kent and Sarah’s fumbling. He perhaps forces the issue a little towards the end, but a shot of Kent in a jumpsuit sawing wood on his birthday is poignantly emblematic.

Coronation (Ai Weiwei)

A documentary on Wuhan’s COVID-19 outbreak made by Ai Weiwei: fair to expect that the artist’s iron fist will come down hard on China. It indeed does, but it’s the velvet glove that comes first. Coronation opens with overview shots of Wuhan’s impressive skyscrapers and advanced highways. Two people drive into the cordoned-off Hubei province and are interrogated by cops at the border. When they do manage to get in, the region registers like a ghost town from a modern horror movie, with no gas station open for hundreds of miles. They somehow make it to their home in Wuhan, only to find the fish in their aquarium dead. Ai constantly shuttles between such personal accounts of the lockdown and a macroscopic view of state-controlled healthcare and funeral activities in the province: treatment of patients on ventilators, extremely strict safety precautions followed at a hospital, song-and-dance exercises for patients that instruct them in best hygiene practices, construction of sprawling health facilities overnight, the equally rapid evacuation from the facility, package and delivery of the ashes of the cremated to the bereaved. A good part of the footage is slick, employing zany camera setups even in highly-restricted locations. Working from Cambridge, UK, Ai doesn’t reveal how he commissioned/obtained all this material (some of which were already circulating on the internet), nor does he get caught up with ethical questions such an approach raises. By all appearances, it’s a supremely efficient machinery that we witness in Wuhan. At times, Ai overlays these images with an 8-bit musical tune, as though to suggest the state’s video-game-like approach to problem solving. But the critique in these ‘macroscopic’ project remains muted as the sequences retain a Wiseman-like surface level neutrality.

The critical burden is, instead, placed on individual testimonies: a delivery man who is stuck in Hubei and is unable to return home, a lady who couldn’t see her father-in-law after he was diagnosed with the virus and died, patients at the hospital who claim they are being retained even after recovery just for image management purposes, a man who is prevented from collecting his father’s ashes without being accompanied by a ‘work unit’ in charge of his father’s case. A humorous sequence features an old woman, once a diligent middle-level executive in the Party, who fully trusts her government and refuses to consider information that might upset this faith. Earlier, workers at the hospital reception ask the cameraman to show only positive images of Hubei and to avoid emphasizing the outbreak. What emerges from this composite portrait is a sense that the source of China’s greatest strengths—executive efficacy, responsiveness, technological progress—is also the source of its more worrisome qualities—citizenry that lives in fear and denial, complete control over private data, an autonomous political will. Of course, none of this is news to anyone, but the personal testimonies introduce a grain of resistance that cuts down the stakes to human level. As the young man who is trying to recover his father’s ashes says, “one can’t just vanish silently in this world”.

A Shape of Things to Come (Lisa Malloy, J.P. Sniadecki)

Sundog (an inspiration for McConaughey’s Moondog in The Beach Bum?) is an elderly white recluse who lives somewhere near the Mexican border in a desert stretch of Arizona. He resides in his barely recognizable trailer, around which a tiny ecosystem has sprouted. Several cats live with Sundog, who also rears a battalion of pigs with great care. With his rifle, he hunts boars to feed himself and the cats. At one point, we see him catch toads, wash them and extract glue from their feet, which serves as smoking material once it’s dry. Save for a series of grunts and chortles, he doesn’t speak to the camera. At times, we see him calling someone, presumably his son, asking him to come over for a visit or pontificating on the state of things. This stilted exposition device, combined with the filmmakers’ decision not to be seen or to interact with Sundog, reveals a slight fictionalization at work. Like wildlife photographers, Malloy and Sniadecki are discreet, content in filming the old man in his routine. Almost exclusively, they photograph him in very tight shots such that we hardly get to see his immediate surroundings or even his actions. This, combined with the shallow visual field, inhibits our vision and produces a sense of unwelcome, suffocating intimacy. This way, the film dislodges Sundog from his environment while also avoiding picturesque images of the desert.

The film naturally calls to mind another fly-on-the-wall portrait of a recluse, Wang Bing’s Man with No Name (2009). But unlike Wang’s film, A Shape of Things to Come has little anthropological or philosophical inclination. Its attention is more on the human-interest story offered by the person of Sundog. Moreover, in contrast to the hermit in Wang’s film, Sundog is not a ‘primitive’, ‘naturally’ independent of human communities. He is, in fact, a sophisticate, an emissary from the countercultural movements of the seventies, who has deliberately removed himself from society. He wears jeans, has a mobile phone, drives a pickup truck, purchases books at the nearest shop from time to time, and listens to music on the radio. He even goes to the local concert, where he dances. He doesn’t need to be on his own; it’s a choice. Interspersed with vignettes from Sundog’s routine are images of military presence: A10s flying over the desert, border patrol presumably monitoring illegal migration, incongruent surveillance towers scanning the desert. Increasingly bothered by this ‘encroachment’, Sundog decides to take out a couple of towers with a powerful sniper rifle, and becomes something of an eco-terrorist in the process. As its title indicates, the film proposes Sundog’s story as one possible sign of things to come. I am not entirely sure if there’s any significant ideological inference to be made from Sundog’s actions. They could as easily represent a form of redneck libertarianism as much as a militant environmentalist consciousness. This is where the filmmakers’ refusal to intervene, either within the film or through a framing commentary, arguably hurts the work.

A Night at the Opera (Sergei Loznitsa)

The protean, prolific Sergei Loznitsa makes his documentaries using one of two kinds of material: original footage shot on location or archival footage. Considering his recent projects, I find that films fashioned out of Loznitsa’s own stock tend to be markedly superior to his found footage work. In both cases, the filmmaker assembles his sequences without any voiceover commentary and with hardly any on-screen text. The construction has a tendency to be deliberately diffuse, with shots of extended lengths furnishing very little narrative material at first glance. This approach turns out to be quite productive in the “original footage” films such as Maidan (2014) and Austerlitz (2016) because the impression of a synthesis at work is more evident. What is possibly also helpful is that what we see in these films doesn’t come with a received narrative, which means that the viewer is expected to do more work in negotiating with them. On the other hand, Loznitsa’s found footage projects, like The Event (2015) and State Funeral (2019), by the weight of their subject matter, greatly limit the number of ways the viewer could approach them. For instance, the latter film consists of a veritable onslaught of state-sponsored pageantry at Stalin’s funeral whose meaning is exhausted even before we are through with the film. There’s hardly any ‘justification’ of why one shot was selected over another or why the film lasts as long as it does. With Loznitsa vehemently refusing any discursive framework, the viewer is no more enlightened or surprised than at the beginning of the film, save perhaps an admiration for the enviable access that the filmmaker has to archival material.

I won’t push this objection too far, for it can be made to almost any found footage work. Moreover, The Event demonstrates why even such an approach can be illuminating in light of current global crises such as the one featured in Maidan. On the other hand, Loznitsa’s new archival work, A Night at the Opera, is another baffler. For just under twenty minutes, we see the who’s who of international politics and culture trickle into the Garnier Opera in Paris. The timeline can be roughly pegged at the late fifties, or the early sixties, but it isn’t clear whether the footage is of one single event or many. The VIPs arrive at the entrance, greeted by teeming fans, pose for the press and enter the opera. A few stray, intimate moments capture a smiling guard or little girls anxiously waiting with bouquets, but for the most part, it’s a high-society affair. After the national anthem, we see a telephoto sequence of a prima donna performing to great applause. As the film ends with images of the Parisian public celebrating on the road, I wondered what to make of it. The sole emotion the work evoked was the pathos inherent to all archival footage: a sense of death at work, all the pomp and power leading to the grave. Like those aristocrats in Russian Ark (2002), indulging in one last flourish before the fall, the top bananas at the gala affair seem ready to be culled by time. It’s a melancholy feeling, but it’s hard to deny that it’s also the product of laziness. With the absence of any knowledge about the Garnier Opera during the fifties or any accompanying text to ‘pin down’ the context, the material we see seems no more special than what you might find in the Agence France-Presse vault. That may not be Loznitsa’s problem. But then, maybe it is.

Austerlitz

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

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

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

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

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

Donbass

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

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

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

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