To bring films together into a cohesive and provocative curation is to open paths of communication between them, to build links where they had never before existed. By sharing a cinematic time/space that is a single screen during a festival, films which have nothing or little to do with one another begin to speak to one another, their images blend and osmose, and a vision of potential cinema(s) begins to emerge. And so it is in the second edition of the Woche der Kritik (Critic’s Week) in Berlin, which beyond fulfilling its stated purpose of opening up a cultural and critical discussion with the audience, opens up just as interesting a discussion between the films themselves, first by revivifying the practice of joining the short film to the feature, and second through a tight and lucid selection that is often missing from the big bear next door with its 450+ films a year. Each night’s selection revolved around a particular theme (Aura, Power, Seduction, World-Building, Silencing, Exhibition, Zeitgeist) with either a sole feature film, or a feature film projected with a short film.
On the first night the short documentary film, Zahra Vargas’s La fin d’Homère (Homer, Hunter’s Fate) opened the Critics’ Week with a look into life in an insular Swiss community, from which a hunter named Homer has been excommunicated for having killed a bearded vulture, an endangered and protected bird of prey. The narratives in this closed commune which emanate from the killed raptor allow us a glimpse into a history in the smallest sense possible – history as an innocuous, local, communal, tangible event. The significance of this private history (Why did Homer kill the bird? Couldn’t he have avoided it? How does he make the community look?) is transferred through the filming of the narrating villagers, as much as the stuffed bodies of their prey in this community of hunters.
The following feature, Pablo Agüero’s Eva no duerme (Eva Doesn’t Sleep), takes on History in a grander sense, following the trajectory through time and space of the embalmed corpse of Eva Perón, a socialist icon (Madonna-like, lactating to feed her people), exploring the effect of a powerful woman’s body on those with whom it comes into contact. Through a series of imagined vignettes of privileged moments in the transport of her formaldehyded corpse through Argentina (through the stories of Eva’s Embalmer, The Transporter, The Dictator), the film shows the mystical effect of the body of legend. Despite its obvious liberal take on history, the film succeeds in presenting brutal, brilliant, likeable villains (played by Gael García Bernal and Denis Lavant), yet it never has the courage to take on the History it ostensibly takes on – flippantly (and all too easily) celebrating the revolutionary passion, yet treating it as a hermetically closed past, as if History weren’t still happening in the present. Stylised as the images sometimes are, Eva Doesn’t Sleep, without the courage of politics, falls victim to the temptations of beautification and conceptualisation, and never quite reaches its full potential to take the necessary step to actually say something about history.
Yet, at least the film does attempt to take on history, something which cannot be said of Philippe Grandrieux’s Despite the Night (Malgré la nuit), an S&M melodrama with literary pretentions (but what are Büchner’s Lenz and Lena doing in this staid and affected film?) in which sex and violence exist only as an emotional present isolated from history (or as a close-up isolated from context). The characters’ reasons, past, thoughts are ignored, anything that might grant access to an understanding of the attractions of pain, submission, brutality, fear. Though Despite the Night takes a relatively measured approach to the brutality, showing without moralising, it is still never able to escape the easy clichés of the images. Grandrieux’s focus on style and aesthetics as separated from politics and meaning here comes across as avoidance of history and of ethics, of the past in which everything becomes not just permissible but neutral.
Although as can be expected, some people did walk out during the screening, in truth, the only actual shocking thing about the film is how it fails to shock despite the rubber masks, the self-inflected pain, the rape fantasies. In seeing a poeticised stylisation the images lose their capacity to transgress, and this transgression is what could have given these non-normative erotic practices their significance. For the transgression to happen, the past needs not just to exist, but to be ever-present (Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom would be the perfect example), but here Despite the Night struggles to become anything more than a film-without-History in which images like sexual practices are just a matter of taste.
Yet it is not taste that births cinema, but need. Sara Fatahi’s Coma, a very personal documentary about three women confined to a house during the war in Damascus, also doesn’t take on history or politics – not from a refusal to do so as much as an impossibility. It is as much a war film as any other, though not in the sense of soldiers, tanks, guns and battalions, more as a grand historical event lived by individuals. Not just individuals, women, living together in a house without a man. The impossibility of this mother, daughter and grandmother to look at History-in-the-making in the grand narrative sense is what in fact ultimately lends the film its honesty. They sit around the house, kill time, play cards and wait for the war to end and for the dust to settle around the folly of men (for is it not always men who wage war?) At times, with the sitting-around, complaining, coffee-making and card-playing amongst women, Coma does often feel a bit too much like an actual visit to your aunt’s house, one that inevitably drags on a touch too long. Yet, as testified by the impassioned discussion by the post-screening panel, the film at least brought forth real and provocative questions about the images of war, of Arabs, of the Middle East, and their use, in connection to politics, colonialism, the construction of history, paternalism… (The question of the night was: When was the last time that you saw the corpse of a Caucasian on television?)
Important questions, even if the film occasionally does get bogged down in the pale yellow light of the real and the serious, something which Andrzej Żuławski’s Cosmos never does. On the contrary, Żuławski’s film is all rhyme and poetry and the pleasure of nonsense. Not nonsense as in “meaninglessness” but nonsense as an alternative to the sensical, to the rational. Its form is Quixotic in the literal sense, with a hero-narrator (mad, literary, lustful) who is ultimately writing the script for the film. But what is the film about? Love and youth, perhaps mystery companionship, violence, literature, all of which builds a world (as the evening’s topical category attests) that does not yet exist without the pleasant artifice of film.
The world that Żuławski’s final film creates is one that is fundamentally cinematic, artistic, poetic, neither insisting on its real as Coma does nor claiming the mystical truth of its artistry, like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s short film Vapour does. In Vapour, a sort of fog rises from the ground, from houses, a mist obscuring architecture, history, smoke from a unidentifiable source to fill the air with its presence before being sucked back into the place from whence it came. In this silent, menacing film, as in all Weeresethakul’s other cinematic works, the mystical, the legendary is transformed through cinema into the real, and he uses cinema as an attestation for the unseen.
The film Vapour accompanied Minaev’s Blue Dress portrays a world in which the only real is the cinematic. It is Minaev’s own attempt to resuscitate his earlier films asphyxiated and buried through Soviet censorship, and the resulting film is a sort of valiant clamour to yank the products of his life’s vocation of filmmaking out of silence and oblivion. Blue Dress weaves a narrative in which a young man discovers a journal of an ex-lover of his mother’s after her untimely demise along with film canisters containing the lover’s suppressed films (in fact Minaev’s earlier censored works). The adolescent and the blue dress and the mother’s demise are but excuses to justify the real cinema – the revivification and reprojection of Minaev’s prior films, which have been eradicated from the collective memory. It is a film (of films) from a bygone time which confronts its own silencing with its presence, an act of cinema not just nostalgic, but also political, even human.
Lewis Klahr’s Sixty-Six is another film of films, but rather than woven together, the units (short films made over more than a decade) are juxtaposed, each film is a film of films, of borrowed and found images (advertising, comic books, newspapers, etc.), making reference to typologies of lost images, of obsolete aesthetics. Klahr’s is a timid and reluctant picture of objects, colours, movement (coloured buttons moving across space, collaged superheroes on tinfoil backgrounds), reworking of other images, which like so many abstractions is a flight from politics into texture. Sixty-Six is steeped in the influence of pop-culture imagery (the title is an admission if not a celebration), and although playful, curiously Sixty-Six is little match for the force of the original images it uses. It consistently drowns in the overwhelming force of these pop-culture references, and rather than succeeding to propel them into a new context which would renew their meaning (which is what these meaningless images so desperately need). Subservient to the images it attempts to use, Sixty-Six never metamorphoses into a real re-appropriation, lacking the simple political gesture that is scrawling “R. Mutt” on a urinal, and as such never succeeds in reconnecting to the world either materially or mystically, getting lost in a cinematic fantasy world, in which the images speak to other images, but never make it back to the world.
The closing topic on the final night of Woche der Kritik “Zeitgeist”, was revelatory about how this feeling of zeitgeist manifests itself (always in form, never in context) and the projection of two films which are at polar extremes can only testify.
The first, Marita Neher and Tatjana Turanskyj’s Orientierungslosigkeit ist kein Verbrechen (Disorientation Isn’t a Crime), a German short film about an activist and a journalist which may or may not have something to do with refugees isn’t so much a film as a clunky mélange between a yoga course and an improv acting class. It might have been selected as an example of all that is wrong in German cinema (it’s not a film as much as a pitch, an idea, a concept, one poorly thought out and even less well-executed), or to contrast with the feature length film it accompanied, reminding us that a film without form or philosophy is no film at all.
Yet it does have the advantage of putting into perspective 88:88, a personal film-essay remix mash-up about youth hanging out in a mostly-frozen Winnpeg; a film not always successful, but always provocative (the film’s director Isaiah Medina, whose debut this is, should only be proud of the number of outraged audience members who left the film unable to deal with its formalistic attempts at radicality). Whereas the German short is the most obvious attempt at exploiting Zeitgeist (as manifested in the all too salable ‘hot topic’) in an either opportunistic or at best maladroit manner, 88:88 is Zeitgeist. It presents the disjointed self of youth with a miscegenous aesthetic – remixed, freestyled, with form and content borrowed from hip-hop, as unsure about its own racial makeup as a Faulkner hero.
Like any live raw experiment, 88:88 fails as much as it succeeds, falling into the petty egoism of youth, repetitive gestures, wanting too much too fast. But this is not a criticism against the film. How could it be? Like punk rock, this documentary is engaged in the fundamentally rebellious act of rejection of preformatted images to see out a path of expression which would more correspond to an inner existence rarely captured or portrayed, and in that attains its contemporaneity, becomes a part of the Zeitgeist.
Woche der Kritik
11-18 February 2016
Festival website: http://wochederkritik.de/en_US/critics-week/