In mid-October, slender, elegant pink flamingos appeared on the walls of buildings in the monumental and austere centre of the Austrian capital, announcing the imminent opening of one of the city’s most important cultural events: the Viennale. Anticipated with excitement and growing curiosity, the 2018 edition of the Vienna International Film Festival was an important turning point in the history of the event: this year, Eva Sangiorgi took over as the new Artistic Director.

The Viennale, an international non-competitive film festival that massively mobilises local audiences every year, has acquired international cult status over the last twenty years for its cinema programming. Singular, rigorous and inquisitive, the program has continuously included forgotten gems of film heritage, remarkable specials and highlighted young upcoming talents. Lisandro Alonso, Miguel Gomes and Albert Serra, just to name a few, took their first steps at the festival.

The name and fame of the Viennale are linked to the figure of its historical Director, Hans Hurch, who ran the event from 1997 until last year, when he prematurely passed away. Taking back the reins of a prestigious event like the Viennale was no simple task. Building on her experience as head of FICUNAM in Mexico, Eva Sangiorgi has managed to find a good balance between the traditional, long-tested structure of the Viennale and the need to make changes. She brought a breath of fresh air to this edition, creating fruitful new synergies with institutions that have always collaborated with the festival, but this year were integrated more organically and consistently throughout the event. For the first time, the famous “invisible theatre” of the Filmmuseum Austria did not limit itself to only projecting films of the festival’s Retrospective – this year dedicated to The B-Film: Hollywood’s Low Budget Cinema, 1935-1959but also opened its doors to regular festival screenings. Sangiorgi and Michael Loebenstein, the new Director of the Filmmuseum, have established an excellent partnership that promises interesting surprises for the future.

The overall structure of the festival program is traditionally composed of a main section, a showcase for the most notable feature films of last year, a section for short films, a series of monographic programs and two programs organised in collaboration with the Filmmuseum and the Filmarchiv. It has not undergone significant changes apart from no longer separating out fiction films from documentary films. All are now included, without any categorisation, in the Features section. News from the Archive, a new sidebar inaugurated this year, and designed to present rare films that have been restored over the last year, reflects Sangiorgi’s interest in preserving cinematographic heritage.

With a measured tone, but not without emotion, Sangiorgi opened the event at the Gartenbau Kino, with Alice Rohracher’s Lazzaro Felice (Happy as Lazzaro). In her speech, which ended with some highly political reflections, the new director clearly outlined the trajectory of the programming, explaining its crucial idea:

The motif of this edition of the Viennale plays with the nature of cinema, pushing out from the margin to emphasise the importance of what surrounds the frame. Cinema expands from a glance, a gesture, an image, an idea. (…) At the same time the tension with the border underlines the existence of a point of view, of a perspective. In this spirit the programming celebrates the brave authors for their discourse and their aesthetic exploration (…).

The constant tension between the image and its margins, its limits, its border, clearly becomes the metaphorical field of an aesthetic and political reflection whose topicality imposes itself as evidence. Along this boundary, at times as taut and profound as a barricade, at other times porous and indistinct, a series of filmmakers aligned themselves like tightrope walkers ready to face and contend with its dilemmas. Ultimately the border is a margin not only separating an interior from an exterior but also the visible from the invisible. Cinema makes the invisible visible. From this dialectic comes their discourse, their artistic commitment understood as both an aesthetic and ethical task; in other words, their point of view. On the edge of my visions, this nebula of meaning has taken me back from time to time, from one film to another, like so many different pieces of the same puzzle in progress….

 In Les Unwanted de Europa by Fabrizio Ferraro the existence of a real border leads to a reflection on the meaning of history and human existence. Choosing to follow the footsteps travelled in 1940 by two contemporary migratory flows moving in opposite directions, on the same ridge of the Pyrenees that separates Spain from France, Ferrero succeeds in creating a space-time short circuit that refers directly to the present, without ever seeking an explicit connection. While the Spanish republicans sought shelter in France in vain, various groups of Jews tried to reach Spain in the hopes of being able to embark for more distant and safer destinations. Among them was Walter Benjamin. Les Unwanted de Europa imagines the last days of the philosopher’s life, his tiring journey towards salvation and, finally, his decision to stop, forever.

Les Unwanted de Europa (Fabrizio Ferraro)

What we see happening on the screen is anything but an attempt to fill a biographical gap in Benjamin’s life; Ferraro’s approach is concrete, grounded, in constant dialogue with nature and feeding deeply on its humus. Before setting down his camera, Ferrero walked these routes in the Pyrenees for years. He trod the path from the sea, skirting the vineyards, snaking through the trees, up to the top, as the refugees from France and Spain had done many years before him. In his film, he invites us to wade with all our senses: the sound of footsteps on gravel and, above all, the sound of the breathing of those who have trouble climbing the paths, create a powerful synaesthesia effect. Choosing a terse bright black and white for day, dense and textural by night, and playing on the alternation between wide shots and close-ups, Ferraro creates a calm and sensitive elegy, imbued with humanity: the border between one country and the other becomes the border between life and death, between the contingency of being human and the human being’s vain longing for transcendence. There are no quotations from Benjamin’s work in the film’s dialogue, yet the lines recited by the actors are of a rare authenticity. It goes to the brink, to the fringe of history, to an extreme limit at which, from time to time, we find ourselves, without being aware of the edge of a chasm.

There is no progress. Alas! No, these are all ordinary reprints, repetitions. (…) Always and everywhere, in the terrestrial camp, there is the same drama, the same set, on the same narrow stage, played by a noisy humanity, infatuated with its own grandeur, believing itself to be the universe and living in its prison as if it were a vast immensity, only to sink all too soon along with the globe that has borne the burden of its pride with the most profound contempt.

These thoughts, expressed in voiceover by Benjamin’s character in the film, fit perfectly with the message of the Viennale’s trailer: The Boy Who Chose the Earth, conceived this year by Lav Diaz. Invited by Eva Sangiorgi to be the patron of this edition, the Filipino master has staged a courageous and essential act of resistance in what is undoubtedly the shortest work in his filmography. In a near future, the earth is now definitively doomed to entropy; one hurricane after another assaults the planet and submerges it. In a room alone, a boy studies, reads, and makes plans for the future. Ignoring the letter from his father inviting him to join him on another planet, the boy decides to stay.

The Boy Who Chose the Earth (Lav Diaz)

This same aching sense of an ineluctable repetition of the course of history inspired Lav Diaz to make his latest film, Season of the Devil, a musical. It is in fact a funeral march for the Philippines. The story, set during the period of martial law decreed by Marcos in 1977, is nothing more than a screen, a double to speak about the present: for Diaz, the recent appearance of Duterte on the country’s political scene is the unequivocal sign of a cyclical repetition of the same events in the history of the Philippines; a story made up of tyranny, manipulation, vicious crimes, soulless torturers and countless innocent victims. In Season of the Devil, the pain of this fact is turned into a song and during the film, the song becomes a cry, a warning, an invitation to resistance. In the film’s dual world the dialogue is replaced by a cappella songs: the heroes move forward along a thread of poignant and nostalgic songs, painfully reiterating poetic verses, while their executioners pronounce endless nonsensical refrains, made up of incomprehensible words, hypnotic slogans of a fascist ideology that can be imposed only through the constant conditioning of the other. Like a via crucis, a path of suffering, the film is punctuated by the subsequent death of all those who do not side with the militia.

Lav Diaz’s camera, firmly and consciously anchored to the ground, expresses the director’s stance. The fixed frame, which characterises his aesthetic universe, is never anodyne, but becomes the privileged container for a vision that reveals the meaning of the hidden and submerged history of an entire people; he isolates the event to finally shed a light on it. “Every filmmaker is responsible for the aesthetic language he uses. Mine is an aesthetic of responsibility for the society in which I live: I use cinema to talk about my fellow citizens,” said the director talking to the public in Vienna.

Resistant to editing cuts, the unusual length of these frames opens up the channel for a privileged communication with the spectator and creates an all-inclusive time-space of compassion. In a theatre of the eternal return of the identical in the history of the Philippines, Lav Diaz’s stationary framing makes the invisible visible.

Equally concerned by the political situation of his country, Turkish director Gürcan Keltek, one of the In Focus directors at this edition, chooses, not without personal risks, to confront the issue of ethnic and social minorities. For Keltek, the border outlines the perimeter of an open-air prison; drama and trauma play in his work within the “frame” of a country. Like a topographer, Keltek explores the dark spots of Turkey’s recent history and dives into the “other side” of the official discourse to highlight injustice and abuse. In Koloni (Colony, 2015), we are on the island of Cyprus, divided in two by the Turkish invasion of 1974 and on a quest to identify human remains buried in mass graves. In Meteorlar (2017), we are in Kurdish territories, bringing back to life the testimonies of a village bombed by the Turkish army.

Constantly questioning the meaning of territory and the exercising of political and military power, Keltek’s approach is far from being an overtly militant one. In the 52-minute Colony, his camera travels through the air over Cypriot land. It rises and observes the surrounding nature with wonder and curiosity. It goes first to the mountain tops, explores the sky, then returns to fathom the beauty of a stream, a shining polished stone, the luminous leaves of a tree, finally fixing on the wrinkles of a face, the ruins of a house and the dust where, forty years after the occupation of the northern part of the island by the Turkish army, the inhabitants of the island are still looking for the remains of their loved ones, buried in mass graves. The constant tension between nature’s indifferent beauty and the pain of mourning is heightened, at regular intervals, by the recurrent image of a huge Turkish flag drawn on the side of a hill that shines at night with a thousand lights. The obsessive buzz of electricity in the soundtrack covers the sound of wind, reminding us that Cyprus’ recent history turns – inexorably – on this pivot.

Koloni (Colony, Gürcan Keltek)

Keltek goes deeper with his aesthetic and political discourse in Meteorlar (2017), his first long feature film. Through a myriad of images of different origins reworked in black and white, in wonderfully textural abstract – sequences filmed by the director himself, interviews conducted by the filmmaker Güliz Sağlam, Russian TV broadcasts and numerous anonymous videos shot in Kurdish territory – Keltek traces out an unprecedented cartography of the Kurdish issue in Turkey. But this research does not remain flattened within the context of reality. Political engagement and the denunciation of oppression are filtered through the elegy of a poetic language that increases their reach immeasurably. Ranging from the heights of Mount Nerat where mountain goats are targeted by fierce hunters, to the plains of the Kurdish cities attacked by the Turkish army and ending with a meteor shower in the fields of south-eastern Turkey, Keltek’s camera scrutinises and explores the space with the precision of a microscope and the depth of a telescope, offering us a political discourse that leads to a philosophical meditation on human nature.

 While in Gürkan Keltek’s films, a dialectic between territory and border assumes all its importance in the relationship with a cosmic dimension, another filmmaker In Focus, Roberto Minervini’s work on the “margin”, is, on the contrary, defined through an authentic hand-to-hand combat with reality. Deeply rooted on the “other side”, Minervini’s cinema is an uncompromising exploration of a social and political “out of frame” world.

While Minervini’s origins and place of birth are Italy, he chose the United States as his adopted homeland and decided to settle in Texas. After making his first three films, the so-called “Texas trilogy” ­– The Passage (2011), Low Tide (2012) and Stop the Pounding Heart (2013) – Minervini moved his field of action to Louisiana, one of the poorest states in the country, and more precisely, Bawcomville, a derelict neighbourhood of West Monroe, where he shot The Other Side in 2015. In his latest work, What You Gonna Do When the World’s on Fire?, he filmed what he defines as “the other side of the other side”: the African-American ghettos of New Orleans.

The program dedicated to Minervini was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the highlights of this edition of the Viennale.

Having come to Vienna to present his films, the director inspired a massive wave of emotion; his incendiary and passionate speeches made the event. He immediately declared that he wanted to be an “open book” for the public, offering all his thoughts and experience with astounding generosity. Those fortunate enough to be there will long remember this strong and exceptional human experience.

As he himself explained, plumbing the depths of the territories on “the other side” was not a simple choice for him but a real existential necessity. In this sense, The Other Side is his most paradigmatic work. After working on his previous films with a semi-documentary approach, in The Other Side, he decided to shoot what was happening before his eyes without any mediation. His working method is immersive and total. In order to shoot, Minervini had to abolish any distance, any barrier between himself and his characters. Before beginning the shoot, he spent months and months with his protagonists, Mark and Lisa, a couple of junkies from West Monrovia, working to create a relationship of friendship and complete trust. The immediacy he finally imparts, with the couple’s intimacy and that of their entourage, is simply disarming. His approach is telluric, carnal, made of sweat and blood.

The camera sticks to their bodies, and like the needle of the syringe, slides under their skin. The Other Side also includes some very raw scenes involving sex and drugs but it is not merely reduced to this; with every frame we feel a respect and empathy that excludes any value judgment. Pushed out into the margins of society, Mark, Lisa and their companions acquire a visibility here, a space in which to speak, and moments of dignity. Then, more than two-thirds of the way through the film, we see a sudden change. Making a 180-degree turn, the camera focuses on the other side of the coin: in Texas, paramilitary groups of anti-government militias organise themselves against the state. Orgies of rifles and bodies, macho rituals, car demolitions; Minervini films everything. He films it and tries to understand; his cinema is deeply political because it is, first and foremost, humanistic.

L. COHEN (James Benning)

A final, crucial step in this journey along boundary lines, both real and symbolic, defined by the infinite dynamics of the space in- and off-frame, is the latest film by James Benning, L. COHEN, definitely the most extraordinary sensorial experience of the Viennale. There are directors who can change our vision of what a film is, of what cinema is capable of doing; in this sense, with his work on the meaning of the duration of time, and his exploration of American politics, culture and history, James Benning is one of these directors.

A single rigorous framing, a stationary wide-angle shot and a duration of 48 minutes define the visual layout of the film. Benning places his camera in the middle of a field in Oregon; for the duration of the film, the point of view remains unchanged and there are no cuts. During the first long minutes of this film, it is difficult to discern the reason behind his choice of shot, which does not seem to reveal anything extraordinary but, on the contrary, seems to purposely be showing a very ordinary landscape: on the somewhat barren ground, in the foreground, on the right of the screen, we glimpse some tufts of grass, a dried-up bush, and the outline of a threshing machine. Our field of vision is bordered on this side by a road and two electric pylons that can be made out in the distance. On the left of the screen, two rusty barrels and a small yellow basket on the ground stand out not far from the observation point. The background of the image is dominated by the snowy peak of Mount Jefferson. Throughout the duration of the film, all the elements in this scene remain motionless. The smallest detail can be scrutinised and elements in the frame scanned several times vainly searching for a sign, a clue, the very slightest change. A constant dialogue is established between the circumscribed space of our vision and an incommensurable off-frame from which a persistent and disorienting buzz engulfs us in a state of growing apprehension. This is how it is in the beginning, at any rate. To say or reveal any more would mean destroying the magic of this experience. Benning invites us to participate in a sensory journey that requires absolute concentration and the ability to put ourselves in unison with time. Our reward is an experience that is completely out of the ordinary, a powerful cosmic epiphany, a moment of absolute grace in cinematographic art. With L. COHEN, James Benning touches the sublime.

Vienna International Film Festival
25 October ­– 8 November 2018
Festival website : https://www.viennale.at/

About The Author

Maria Giovanna Vagenas is a curator and film critic based in Paris.

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