The third edition of the Berlin Documentary Forum did justice to the nickname of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures) in which it is held: the world, and all manner of documentary representations thereof, were its oyster. Taking place every two years at the House of World Cultures, the Forum is itself a unique kind of creature. Unlike other documentary film festivals it is a curated event featuring no competition and in fact only partially showcasing new work. Meanwhile, this year the selection of projects felt more international than at the previous editions, with individual sessions focusing on such countries as Mexico, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Iran and Japan. The Forum, which was founded by art curator Hila Peleg, bears a recognisable signature, partly due to the return of some of the curators and filmmakers. What makes the Forum stand out is its strong theoretical impulse; it not only elaborates on specific themes, but actually proposes key concepts for the analysis of documentary forms. The theoretical focus lay this year on the function of the voice. In particular, the concept of storytelling cut across much of the program, neatly bypassing the real-versus-fictional debate which dominated the previous edition of the Forum. Moreover, the concept productively straddled several binary terms of documentary theory: the personal versus the political, the historical versus the contemporary, language versus the image. For the theoretical elaboration, the characteristic format of the panel discussion with the integrated screening of film fragments stood out alongside performances, video installations and traditional film screenings.
Rabih / Yasser Mroué
The Lebanese artist Rabih Mroué, who also opened the previous edition of the Forum, was the author of the event’s opening play, “Riding on a Cloud”. This time Rabih Mroué did not take to the stage himself, and instead his brother Yasser pulled off the hour-long one-man show, which centred on Yasser’s own life story. In an audio-visual account Yasser told of his suffering from a condition called aphasia – damage or loss of language following brain trauma or disease – since incurring a head injury after being hit by a sniper at the age of 17. In a therapy of sorts suggested by his doctor in order to cure what the doctor called his “trouble with representation” he began to shoot his own videos. Combining these silent videos as well as family photos and other still and moving images, with speech, poem and song (live as well as played back from on-stage tape recording), all in Arabic with English subtitles projected on the screen, Mroué told of his grandfather’s assassination (the philosopher Hussain Mroué), then in a strange interweaving of fiction recounted such occurrences as being taught poetry at home by Mayakovsky, and finally described his return to the site of the shooting and his search for his sniper’s hide-out. Mroués’ head injury emerged as a turning point in his individual biography, to which it appeared he must return in storytelling again and again. In this opening performance, storytelling came across as an urge and a battle against the potential loss of language, functioning not only as a medium for testimony, but also a tool for moving forward.
Oral History of Picasso in Palestine
Next followed the reading of the graphic novel “An Oral History of Picasso in Palestine” by American artist Michael Baers, in which the characters, based on real life people, engage in a critical discussion of a recent “historical” event of which they were variously witnesses or participants. At stake is the loan of a painting by Picasso from the Van Abbe Museum in The Netherlands to the Art Academy in Ramallah in 2011. Onstage, real counterparts or stand-ins for the characters – the director of the Art Academy, the Dutch art handlers, a sociologist, several professors from Bizeit University in Ramallah and others – each recalled and commented on the event from their own perspective. They reflected on the gap between the value attributed to Picasso’s canvas in the West and the lack of relevance of the artefact for the Palestinian population. They reported on how the pomp associated with the opening of the painting’s exhibition seemed to do with showcasing the security efforts involved and how the grand gesture of the loan was met with the indifference, mockery or silent resistance of the local population. Further, they discussed the complexity of the initiative which seemed to both critically highlight the fact that Palestinians aren’t able to visit the art museum of Jerusalem and to confirm Ramallah as the Palestinian capital at the same time. Citing Palestinian poet Houssain Barghouti, Baers closed the session by saying that there is no vision without detail, and added that in story-telling in the digital age, noise – presumably the cacophony of conflicting accounts – is such valuable detail.
On day two the first part of the Tohoku Trilogy (2013) by Japanese filmmakers Sakai Ko and Hamaguchi Ryusuke was shown, with further screenings on day three and four, each time introduced by curator Eduardo Thomas and followed by a conversation with the filmmakers. In this documentary film project, upon which the directors embarked just four months after the earthquake and Tsunami in 2011, storytelling again features as a central trope. The directors travelled from north to south through the Tohoku region of Japan, which was hardest hit by the catastrophe, with the intention of producing a document that would counter the panoramic, birds-eye-view images of the catastrophe amassed and distributed by the media, in which the people and their experiences were all but left out. Recognising that it was impossible to capture images of the ravaged landscapes that would adequately show the destruction wrought by the earthquake, they decided instead to speak to survivors. Films one and two, The Sound of Waves and Voices from the Waves, feature interviews and conversations with survivors of different ages, occupations and from different towns. Film three, titled Storytellers, focused on the tradition of storytelling in northern Japan and portrayed a group of elderly people who actively practice the telling of old folks’ tales.
In each of the three films, storytelling features as an intimate, one-to-one activity, that takes place in the family or in one’s circle of friends. However, the films seem to imply that this act can potentially have consequences for society at large. The first film, for example, begins with a private slide show given by an elderly lady to her sister, using a series of hand-made drawings, in a traditional set-up called kamichibai. The lady recounts her experience of a tsunami when she was five years old, and of the efforts of family members to salvage themselves. The two sisters then discuss the principle of tendenko – literally “everyone for himself”, according to which in the event of a tsunami one should “forget about one’s family members”, and then reunite after the catastrophe. In a later interview a council member from another town mentions this same principle, emphasising the importance of passing it on from generation to generation. In yet another conversation, two sisters in their twenties express their hope that in their beautiful seaside town of Shinchi-machi no cumbersome break-waters will be built but that instead yearly evacuation drills should be held. Tsunamis have hit the area every thirty to fifty years, we learn at another point in the film, which is precisely when people start to forget.
Moving away from the theme of the tsunami and earthquake, the third film focuses on a club of elderly people who recount folks’ tales to each other, more often in small groups or one to one, opening the way for the final theme of the trilogy: the importance of the act of listening. An elderly lady called Kazuo Ono is shown to regularly visit each of the members to listen to their tales about evil mothers-in-law, astute wives-to-be, magic spells and talking animals. Here, as in the rest of the trilogy, the camera focuses on long uncut close-ups on the faces of the speakers, in a technique borrowed from television in which the camera faces each speaker as in fact they sit diagonally to each other, listening to each other’s voices, as their facial expressions are recorded for the benefit of the film’s viewers. In this case, the camera focuses just as much on the face of Kazuo Ono, as she listens attentively and prompts the speaker to continue, with regular remarks, nods, giggles. In the last screening, being part of the audience felt akin to becoming a group of active listeners, as if performing a useful and necessary function, giggling and laughing at the stories understood through the mediation of subtitles. At the end of the nine-hour trilogy, after the credits signalled the end of the last tale, one wanted to say: one more story, please.
On day two, the panel discussion and screening titled Indigenous Activism stood for a more directly political approach to the documentary image. The session focused on video footage filmed by Brazilian-Italian filmmaker Andrea Tonacci in the 1970s in an effort to document Native American movements across North, Central and South America, but which had lain dormant in the director’s private archive until he brought it to light in 2010. Two relatively long black and white video sequences were shown, in which two activists separately address the camera, expounding their fight for the liberation of the American Indians from state oppression. The first is Clyde Bellecourt, a founder of the American Indian Movement, speaking fervently in a small private room in front of a poster featuring himself, addressing the “Indian” peoples of Central and South America. In the second video we see the activist, theorist and artist Jimmie Durham speaking from his office at the United Nations in New York, reporting in a more moderate tone on the fight for institutional representation of Indian peoples across the continent. In the panel, which also included Jimmie Durham, curator Maria Theresa Alves, activist Ampam Karakras and art historian Richard Hill deconstructed the address of the activist Clyde Bellecourt, reading in it both the influence of New Age spirituality and a dangerous unavowed reference to Western purity myths. The panel argued that they wanted to use this unearthed material that stood for the foundational moment of Indian activism as a tool for organisation today, to which some people in the audience asked why not use more recent material? The session raised the question of the possible uses of archival documentary material, especially in cases in which it was not distributed at the time of its making. How can such material be contextualised today? Is it possible to reactivate it in a totally different historical moment, attributing a role to it that goes beyond its informative, historical value?
The last part of the day two consisted of a screening of two films by the Iranian director Parviz Kimiavi: P Like Pelican (1972) and The Stone Garden (1976) which were followed by The Mongols (1973) on day three. Kimiavi, who trained as a filmmaker in Lyon and Paris, counts as a member of the Iranian New Wave. He returned to Iran in 1969, where he started to make politically informed films that were however stylistically influenced by the avant-garde and often bordering on the surreal. Asked by a member of the audience, after the screening of the last film, why these feature films were being presented at the Documentary Forum, curator Catherine David listed two factors: firstly Kimiavi was working with non-professional actors who often played themselves, and secondly he was always implicitly commenting on contemporary political conditions and events. The first film, the black and white short P Like Pelican, looks at the character of Agha Mirza, a hermit living in a ruin on the outskirts of the town of Tabas. He is taunted by a swarm of children who regularly come to tease him, but one child promises to take him to the mysterious white bird which has landed in the town gardens. Finally, Mirza breaks his decade-long seclusion and visits the bird, but as he wades towards it in the water of the gardens’ fountain, we see short sequences showing the ruins in which he lives crumbling and turning to dust. We are left wondering whether the images are a bad omen or whether the child and the pelican have played a bad trick on Agha Mirza, luring him out of the ruins he was protecting.
The next film, the full-length The Stone Garden won the Silver Bear at the 1976 Berlinale and also tells the story of a recluse – the deaf-mute Darvish Khan living in the Iranian desert with his wife and two sons. Upon experiencing the apparition of a divinity, Darvish Khan begins to collect rocks in the desert and to hang them on dried trees, putting together a stone garden that soon becomes a site of pilgrimage. One day the older of his two sons receives a recruitment letter from the military – bad news for the family who depends on him to sustain the household. In an attempt to intervene and help the family, the local police officer tries to call through to Tehran, but the connection is interrupted, apparently as the Darvish cuts through one of the telephone lines running through the desert to collect metal rod for his stone work. Soon, the son is drafted and the old man is seen riding away with the cloaked character from his apparition. In a surrealistic, humorous style, Kimiavi’s film shows the demands of modern life as clashing with a traditional, spiritual way of life.
In The Mongols, again modernity and tradition play out against each other in the Iranian desert. A television engineer is sent from Tehran to the desert to install infrastructure for the national television network. An avid filmmaker, in a parallel plot the television engineer hires a group of men of Iranian Turk ethnicity to play the invasion of the Mongols for his personal film project. Meanwhile, the local villagers apprehensively observe the arrival of the masts and antennas, but are swiftly taken in by the wonders of the tube to the disgruntlement of the local dervish with his traditional “Tavieh” mobile theatre. In a humorous tour-de-force employing avant-garde montage, the Turk actors in Mongol attire rebel against the “cinema” by storming a gate in the middle of desert reading “Godard” on its doorbell and the engineer-director is subject to a mock-decapitation at the mast. In The Mongols, the mass media is ultimately fashioned as the new Mongol invasion. Warning against an interpretation of Kimiavi’s films as prefiguring the revolution of 1979, Catherine David sees this turn to the anti-modern as a way to criticise the Iranian regime and to critically reflect on the onslaught of modernity in Iran.
On day three a conversation was held between German filmmaker and artist Harun Farocki and film theorist Erika Balsom inside the gigantic main auditorium of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, where Farocki’s multi-part video work Parallel I-IV was being shown. Slightly puzzling in terms of the use of space was the choice to place this video installation inside the largest auditorium of the building – the “pregnant oyster’s” belly – while the panel discussions and performances had to be squeezed into the building’s exhibition gallery (the regular film screenings took place in the theatre). Farocki’s installations are known for their keen analysis and critique and not for their boastful use of space, so the exhibition gallery or special cubicles would have done justice to the work’s four small double-screens and spoken commentary. Departing from the main theme of the festival, Parallel I-IV offered no reflection on real life occurrences, but instead entailed a critique of video games as a cultural artefact of our time. In four double-projections echoing the format of the traditional art history lecture, the videos offered a commentary on realism and the use of perspective in video games, on the properties of surface structures in such games, on the conception of spatial and geographical borders and lastly on modes of interaction between avatars and the characters in the games. Taking place within the context of Farocki’s larger interest in machine-made images, and indifferent to the debates of game theory, Parallel I-IV tackles its object of enquiry from a self-avowedly external position (Farocki does not play video games, he admitted). Whilst employing the artistic medium of the video installation, Farocki’s position is in fact decidedly on the side of cinema: Parallel I-IV seems to represent both a progressive interest in computer game aesthetics and a conservative gesturing at computer-animated imagery and its industry, conveying that while they may try to surpass cinema, this won’t happen so easily.
Perhaps the most traditional part of the Forum’s program, but no less fascinating for it, were two sessions on day one and four dedicated to “German images”. The sessions, “Girls at Twenty” and “Turbines”, showcased a sample from the corpus of a state-funded research project on documentary film in the two Germanies from 1945 to 2005. Tracing the birth of the documentary genre in Germany back to the state-sponsored educational “Kulturfilm” format established in the Weimar Republic and following the methods of New Film Theory, the project analysed and organised the selected films not according to individual authors, but following technical, social and historical themes and categories. Particularly strong was the juxtaposition of films from the former GDR and FRG addressing similar themes. In the first session, two films portrayed young women in their work environments: the short film Stars (1963) by Jürgen Böttcher and the full-length Angelika Urban. Verkäuferin, verlobt (1970) by the late Helga Sanders-Brahms. While both films employ methods drawn from direct cinema, resulting in stylistically related products, the first enacts a seemingly disproportionate glamorising of the lives of the employees of a light bulb factory in East Berlin and the second offers a more sober portrayal of a young saleswoman working at a department store in Cologne. In Stars, a young “workers’ brigade” is introduced. They are no “Cleopatras, Sorayas, Bardots”, the narrator comments, but “real-life stars”. The workers are shown diligently sorting wire filaments, decompressing in moments of banter, then collectively discussing gender roles and the importance of women’s work. No individual voice stands out, no critical remark is heard. In Sanders Brahm’s film, the voice of the main character Angelika Urban alternates with the male narrator’s voice as she is shown both silently resistant to the regime imposed by the department store at which she works and compliant with consumer culture at large. Angelika Urban and her colleagues help each other out in bending the strict rules that dictate their work day and yet she chooses to spend her day off in the furniture department of another store with her fiancée. In addition to Angelika Kaufmann’s modest and articulate exposition of her working life, a trainer for the sales personnel, as well as the CEO of the Kaufhof department store, are interviewed about the working conditions of the staff, and direct recordings from the changing rooms are heard. And yet the film is seemingly impartial in showing Angelika’s own contribution to the system: “I never wanted to go to university”, “I’m not interested in politics. Men can bother with that.”
In the second session, “Turbines”, two earlier films from the GDR and the FRG showed greater overlapping: both are propaganda films aiming display examples of exceptional diligence. While in the FRG this was motivated by the effort of post-war reconstruction, in the GDR what was represented and promoted was the building of a new state. In the first film, Zehn Bauern unter einem Hut (1949) by Anton Kutter, we are introduced to a self-initiated farmer’s cooperative from a small town in the federal state of Baden-Württemberg. By joining their efforts and putting their land together, the farmers on the cooperative were able to acquire machinery, rationalise resources and work, modernise the women’s work and finally heighten efficiency, productivity and their life standards. The tone of the commentator is enthusiastic, and in the film’s 19-minute runtime we observe the changing of the seasons and the fruition of the farmers’ efforts with lush, resplendent wheat fields. Sunny days allow the farmers to make progress on the fields, but they also allow the filmmakers to shoot, given the low sensitivity of the film stock at the time. In its closing sequence the speaker of the film spares no subtlety, asking “Couldn’t this farmer’s cooperative be an example to the rest of the country?” Next, the GDR film Turbine I (1953) by Joop Huisken records the incredible diligence of a group of workers taking on the task of repairing a turbine inside a power station. The workers join in an effort to carry out the reparations at record speed, engaging in a fast identification of the problem, then sharing the cleaning, replacing, testing, adjusting, and finally succeeding in their seemingly gargantuan effort. The enthusiastic male narrator’s voice follows their progress, building up tremendous tension as he cheers the workers on to victory. Their success is crowned by the visit of a minister and other officials handing over laurel wreaths like at a sports event. In this historical overview the documentary genre appears in its various uses ranging from medium of state propaganda to vehicle for social critique.
The last two sessions of the festival centred on the Iranian filmmaker Morteza Avini. Unlike Parmiz Kimiavi, Avini was not a trained filmmaker and is not considered a member of the avant-garde. Instead, he was a trained architect who at the start of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980 took it upon himself to chronicle life at the front. This took the form of films that were broadcast regularly on national television for all eight years of the war, amongst others in two series called Truth (1980-81) and Narration of Triumph (1985-88). As the titles suggest, his documentation of the war was deeply entrenched in a religious rhetoric and narrative. Focusing not on the Revolutionary Guards, but on the Basij, the much larger paramilitary volunteer militia, coming mainly from the lower class and motivated by religious conviction as well as official benefits, his films represented death at the front as martyrdom. Meanwhile, actual death itself was seldom shown, with the films recording everyday life at the front in the last trench war of the twentieth century. However, the director’s voiceover superimposed the sober images with religious speech, repeating specific statements as in a sermon: “A nation has been chosen to set the history of the planet on the right course”. Avini was rarely present at the front himself, and in the episode from the Narration of Triumph that was screened, one sees him working and speaking at his editing table, as he laments the death of one of his cameramen. This sort of editorial idiosyncrasy as well as the characteristically long shots of the films led curator Catherine David and scholar Agnes Devictor to claim that Avini, who was himself upheld as a martyr upon his death in 1993, and who today counts straightforwardly as a propaganda filmmaker, should be reappraised by film history. In the second session, filmmaker Hamed Yousefi argued that while Avini would have considered himself a formalist in the Greenbergian sense, and while his filmmaking was influenced by certain avant-garde conventions, he was decidedly anti-humanist and anti-Enlightenment and consciously positioned himself as an outsider vis-à-vis the art and film scenes. The session introduced to a mostly Western audience a filmmaker who is very well-known and controversial in Iran, leaving open a more detailed discussion of the production context – Devictor suggested that the television series were not commissioned – as well as of the reception of his films at the time of broadcasting. Within the context of the Forum’s theme of storytelling, the example of Avini was an interesting case of a religion-shaped state narrative of war, upheld by an individual film author.
This year, the Berlin Documentary Forum presented an incredibly rich and varied program. For the first time, parallel sessions were held, so that by default it wasn’t possible to see all that was on offer. The fact that the bulk of the program was not held in the main auditorium, but spread out across the exhibition gallery and the theatre made for a slightly less intimate feel than at the previous edition, but also provided more variety in that a new room setup was conceived inside the exhibition gallery for each screening and panel. The theme of storytelling was very productive in helping to compare and contrast a great variety of works and genres. In particular the retrieval and presentation of historical films proved again incredibly relevant both in itself, and as a way to contextualise contemporary documentary practice: the war reporting by Morteza Avini could for example be contrasted with the bottom-up strategy of Al Jazeera’s more recent coverage of the Egyptian Revolution, to which a session titled “Al Jazeera Replay” was dedicated. The sheer quality of the films on show and the informal setting in which the theoretical discussions were framed made for a very successful event overall. In her conversation with Harun Farocki, Erika Balsom posed the following final question to him: what does it meant to practice image analysis via the image? The Berlin Documentary Forum 3 as a whole showed what it means to practice film and art theory by way of film and art, getting the audience together with the curators, theorists and artists or filmmakers, to really look and listen.
Berlin Documentary Forum
29 May – 1 June 2014
Festival website: http://hkw.de/de/programm/projekte/2014/berlin_documentary_forum_3/start_berlin_documentary_forum_3.php