Returning for its seventh edition after a three-year hiatus, the Greek Film Archives’ Athens Avant-Garde Film Festival proved an ambitiously programmed event taking place over ten days almost entirely within the Archive’s two cinema spaces. The festival catalogue offers a broad and rather particular interpretation of “avant-garde film”: movies that try to “overturn conventions and systems in cinema world-wide”. A clearer sense of the festival’s aims might be gleaned from the description of it as a place where “cinephilia is cultivated in its most multidimensional form”. Whether or not the resulting program strictly represents the most “multidimensional form” of cinephilia, it is impressive nonetheless, boasting retrospectives of Roberto Rossellini, Pedro Costa and Harun Farocki, a competition section suggestively called 2Narrate or Not, another section devoted to contemporary Greek cinema, a strand called Film Fronts focusing on innovative new first features, and special screenings and events featuring such figures as Nikos Koundouros, Laura Mulvey and Ken McMullen. The enjoyment of this fine lineup was enhanced by a convivial atmosphere of the sort sometimes found at small festivals, where opportunities for encounters and conversations can occur more readily than at larger, more anonymous events. And, small scale or not, there was much that I regretted missing due to schedule clashes or simply to the fact that I was able to attend only five of the festival’s ten days.
The Rossellini retrospective, showcasing the Italian restorations of ten films undertaken as part of the so-called “Rossellini Project”, provided a welcome opportunity to catch up with his slightly macabre and thoroughly delightful comedy fable The Machine That Kills Bad People (La Macchina ammazzacattivi, 1952). Often seen as an anomaly in Rossellini’s career for its fantastical storyline and consistently comic tone, it was actually shot in 1948 just after Germany, Year Zero (Germania, anno zero), the devastating conclusion of his postwar trilogy. It was then abandoned by the director to be finished by other hands and finally released four years later. Given that Rossellini’s reputation as one of the giants of neorealism was at its height in the late ’40s, before his films with Ingrid Bergman led to him being accused of betraying the perceived movement’s ideals, The Machine That Kills Bad People is very striking for its critique of the distortion of reality inherent in photographic representation. Its central conceit is a photographer endowed with the power to kill people by re-photographing photos of them. Before dying, the victim assumes the posture he held in the original photograph, leading to some startling and memorable visual flourishes. The most pointed example is an unpleasant character who was snapped in Fascist uniform under that regime, giving the roman salute. Dying in front of an aghast crowd, arm upraised in this forbidden gesture, he is buried in a coffin with a special extension to contain his now intractable appendage. At the film’s conclusion, the dead are magically brought back to life and the notion of sorting out the world’s problems by killing all “evil people” is definitively and jovially rejected. The warning is clear: life flows on, people are multifaceted, and the error of fixing them in one moment, one posture, one image, in a mortal gesture of self-righteous moral judgement, is sinful. This is a cautionary tale that could have been designed for those who place too blind a faith in cinema’s dangerously seductive capacity for capturing an apparent objective reality. The image, ultimately, tells its own stories as the world flows messily around it.
However, even with the passage of sixty years, the preoccupation with capturing the “Truth” seems largely unchanged. During the exceptionally lucid Q&A sessions Pedro Costa gave after the screenings of his two major films In Vanda’s Room (No Quarto da Vanda, 2000) and Colossal Youth (Juventude em Marcha, 2006), he expressed his impatience with recurring questions about the documentary veracity of his visionary portraits of the impoverished inhabitants of Lisbon’s Fontainhas neighbourhood. One audience member asked if he saw these films as Italian neorealism, to which he replied: “Yes, they are Italian neorealism. And also science fiction and horror.” Shot with minimal resources over long periods of time and working closely with his non-professional cast playing versions of themselves, Costa’s starting point would seem to be docudrama. Yet these profoundly strange, claustrophobic films carve out an uncannily interiorised, liminal territory that is unique. As their lead characters hover suspended in loss and addiction, their neighbourhood is subject to demolition, lending this environment an aura of doomed unreality that chimes with their alienation. Indeed, by the time of Colossal Youth, the ageing lead character Ventura appears to have almost become a ghost himself: resistant to occupying the newly built flat (depicted as a blank void of oppressively white walls) that the authorities are pressing on him, the physical world seems to have withdrawn from him, leaving him lost and adrift in a private zone of memories and hazy relationships. Costa’s admiration for the tenebrous cinema of Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur is a far more apt point of reference here than any variant of neorealism, certainly inasmuch as the direct replication of external reality can be taken as one of its tenets.
Hard to enter and far harder to shake after viewing, these cloying, monumental and richly troubling works’ gradual abjuration of documentary cliché ultimately dignifies their characters, saving them from the fate of becoming social specimens before the patronising camera of an “objective” filmmaker. Yet still, at least during the Q&A, the ethically pertinent question returns: what was Costa’s relationship to them, how closely do these films represent them as they are? His elegant reply was that he depicted what they chose to show him of themselves, while looking at them as an artist whose primary aim was to make a good film. He described the films as being a bridge between him and them. And everything he didn’t or couldn’t know about them was the water that flowed under the bridge. This seems to me a useful way of looking at films where fiction and documentary cross, or at what has become known as “creative documentary” in general.
Although falling on the documentary side of this divide, Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s magnificent Leviathan (2012) could also be described as “neorealism-science fiction-horror”. Shot entirely at sea during nighttime, mostly in high winds and rain, this visceral plunge through the brutal, exhausting business of trawler fishing was shot with small, waterproof cameras. These are often attached to the fishermen as they slide and struggle around the ship, or put amongst masses of dead fish slithering around the deck. They are also set plunging and spinning above and below the roiling sea’s surface until ocean and sky become virtually indistinguishable, with only flocks of white seabirds giving a hint of what’s above and what’s below. The film’s unstable imagery, which frequently comes close to being pure colour, light and action, is set against a raging void of pure black: black water, black sky. This immersive, hallucinatory work might well convey the rigours of the life it is drawn from, but its sheer ferocity and lack of human identification until late in the film suggest something more abstract: a darkly lyrical vision of existence as a frenzied struggle of energies in a turbulent vacuum.
Leviathan also marks the most advanced use of the aesthetic possibilities of digital filmmaking that I’ve yet seen. Neither competing with film, nor presenting new breakthroughs as interesting for their own sake, it combines technical mastery with a visual conception that would be unthinkable without digital technology. Even the film’s high-contrast visual texture has a particular beauty that is distinctively digital.
A more human-scale maritime documentary is From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf (2013) by Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran of the Indian art collective CAMP. This film is built upon a relationship the artists formed with sailors who crisscross the Arabian Sea, from the Gulf of Kutch to the Persian Gulf and back, on wooden vessels carrying goods and livestock. Although Anand and Sukumaran provide some framing images, the film is almost entirely assembled from footage shot by the seamen, for the most part on mobile phones. As they travel, they capture snippets of their lives to be sent back to family and friends by boats passing in the opposite direction. Anand and Sukumaran’s work is mainly as editors, weaving this personal documentation gathered over four years into a graceful and surprisingly exhilarating tapestry of details of life at sea. There is no narration and we don’t follow the story of any sailor in particular. Rather, an impressionistic collective portrait is allowed to emerge from video shot on several ships. One striking element is the musical soundtrack: the sailors often score their clips with contemporary Arabic and Indian pop songs, which become an integral part of the film, increasingly driving its rhythm as it unfolds. The apparently unassuming manner in which the film is constructed almost belies the wealth of documentary detail about this precarious form of seafaring and trade that it contains. As Vassily Bourikas, programmer of the Film Fronts section in which it played, astutely pointed out: the film’s images ultimately draw attention to the elements of a life at sea that those living it choose to highlight.
Another documentary in the Film Front section was critic Gabe Klinger’s Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (2013), a portrait of a friendship. Klinger described this dialogue between an established indie filmmaker and a pillar of contemporary experimental cinema as a sort of cinephile’s utopia, a rare example of understanding and appreciation between commercial and avant-garde film. Beyond a shared love of baseball, the film’s structure compellingly proposes strong mutual concerns in their work that might not be immediately apparent, most notably the passage of time. Thanks as much to Klinger’s sharp arrangement of clips from both men’s films as to the consistently engaging conversation of his subjects, Double Play becomes, more than anything, a meditation on ageing.
The other two films in the Film Front section were both deep immersions into cryptic and intensely personal worlds that embrace a rough-hewn, hand-processed celluloid aesthetic. They were also both outstandingly good.
Spanish artist Alberto Gracia’s The Fifth Gospel of Kaspar Hauser (O quinto evanxeo de Gaspar Hauser, 2013) is possibly the most idiosyncratic take yet on the much-filmed legend of the German youth who claimed to have grown up in captivity, completely isolated. Gracia uses this premise to create an autobiographical fantasy, less a narrative than a fragmented series of dreamlike episodes. His Kaspar Hauser is schizophrenically split into five separate figures: a self-flagellating dwarf, a young woman, a sailor, a brute and a seedy, badly shaven, heavily smoking incarnation of Batman. In his Q&A, Gracia said that what interested him was trying to imagine the world through Kasper Hauser’s eyes and investigate how humans communicate outside of language. Part of this investigation involves the postmodern absurdity of run-down pop culture archetypes going to seed in a timeless, isolated forest clearing. But the film’s real strength lies in its richly textured physicality, into which he plunges these archetypes, depositing them in very earthy bodies and then plunging these into the mud and fog of a savagely naturalistic imaginary realm. Without language, bodies remain: there are animals and meat, wood, damp, rot, insects. The physicality of the celluloid itself, emphasised through numerous “imperfections” in the image, compliments the vividly evoked rustic environment. The long passages spent in its contemplation might be reminiscent of such familiar East European masters as Sokurov and Tarr, but the surprising shifts in tone and abrupt transitions between sequences are entirely Gracia’s. It should also be mentioned that the hypnotic atmosphere he conjures owes much to his excellent sound design.
Gym Lumbera’s Albino (Anak Araw, 2013) was almost certainly the best film I saw at the festival. The debut feature as director by Lumbera (cinematographer to, amongst others, Raya Martin, John Torres and Sherad Anthony Sanchez), it was made in response to his moving from the rural area where he was born to the city. According to him, it was made for his child, to convey the essence of their region’s history. It riffs on the story of an albino who believes his father to have been American and tries to learn English from a dictionary, while masses of people seem to be on the move, threatened by strange events. This black and white film, with its high contrast hand-processed photography, seems to belong to a timeless zone of local memory: not quite archive footage, not quite home movie, but hand-made and stemming from a specific regional culture, like shared childhood experiences of history recounted. Its mostly frontally framed images are like old photographs in a family album that we are invited to look at; yet, instead of having them explained to us, we are able to share their resonances without fully understanding them. This sense of each image being like a separate photograph, or illustration in a children’s book, is heightened not only by the early cinema-style emphasis on the shot as self-contained entity, instead of on smooth continuity between shots, but by the equally fragmented use of non-synch sound. Each piece of sound comes in like a record being played alongside the film, its starting and stopping highlighted by complete silence on either side of it. The imagery is oneiric, surreal and often humorous but seems to possess a significance that would be immediately clear to the people it concerns. To the rest of us, these visions of white animals, obscure disasters, funerals, resurrections, crowds moving in unison like Ruizian zombies, guns fired at obscure targets, anxious gatherings at the sea’s edge and similarly portentous sights more than hint at a melancholy past of colonialism and uncertainty. And the long passages where the camera fixes on pages in a Tagalog-English dictionary make explicit the concern with modes of communication between the local and the foreign, as if travelling or wandering between them. Wandering like the bewildered groups of walking people and the other images of journeying that haunt the film, including journeys between this world and the next.
The only Greek film I managed to see was To The Wolf (Sto Lyko, Aran Hughes & Christina Koutsospyrou, 2013). This downbeat docudrama about the ravages of the crisis on a remote rural community is impressive for the dignified and unpretentious distance it assumes in respect to its characters. Its even pace, alternating between vignettes of the lives of increasingly impoverished farmers and the harsh beauty of the wintry landscape, builds to a climax that is powerful without feeling manipulative. In complete contrast, Júlio Bressane’s Sentimental Education (Educação sentimental, 2013) is a delightfully free, whimsical romp from a cinema marginal veteran who has lost none of his individuality or inventiveness. A solitary teacher’s seductive relationship with her handsome young student is visualised in a series of increasingly surprising cinematic flourishes that build into a genuinely feverish, low gravity rush of stylised eroticism. Witty, unsettlingly peculiar and sometimes just plain willful, it emerged as the festival’s most overtly pleasurable film.
The 7th Athens Avant-Garde Film Festival proved a stimulating and eclectic event. It will be interesting to see how this festival develops in future editions, but the quality of films selected and the approachable atmosphere that it generated are signs of considerable potential.
Athens Avant-Garde Film Festival
17-27 October 2013
Festival website: http://aagff.tainiothiki.gr/en/