In the tiny village of Alzuza – once Navarran countryside, now a mere suburb of Pamplona – the museum of Basque intellectual and sculptor Jorge Oteiza sits perched with angular incongruity on a hillside, conjoining the artist’s former rustic home with architect Francisco Javier Sáenz de Oiza’s concretised reliquary: a sublimely realised milieu for the metaphysical boxes, theological furniture and other objects that constituted Oteiza’s radical pursuit of the disoccupation of space. It would not appear the most obvious of venues for a cinephile to plunder for insight into the seventh art, yet with the manifest devotion to time, rhythm and memory on display among the vast collection of works, a rather concomitant thesis emerges that yokes these seemingly disparate mediums. Not merely as loosely associative connection, either, but bound as a shared ontological inquiry. The transfiguration of matter into energy, the occasion of light as an attribute to be liberated, the enigma of perspective put into infinite prolongation: in what ways did Oteiza’s persistent inquiry not surpass even that of his admittedly high-modernist cinematic peers?
At the height of his powers (and international recognition at the Sao Paulo biennale) as a sculptor, Oteiza abandoned the medium, believing he’d exhausted a particular form of experimentation that imperatively gave rise to the artist’s civic, political and pedagogical engagement. Cinema, as a popular form, beckoned him, and though he conceived of highly theoretical scripts (and would be co-credited, ultimately against his judgement, for the realisation of Jorge Grau’s Acteón (1965), Oteiza’s excursion into cinema proved almost implausibly fruitless. Still, the notoriously irascible artist cast a heavy shadow over 20th century Spanish art and has come to haunt time-based art for good reason: his was an aesthetics of stark principle and comprehensive thinking, of which various disciplines were mere passages on a greater trajectory of religious being and the act of process. It was perversely fitting, then, that the man who scarcely made a film would be the totemic figure of the 11th edition of Punto de Vista (International Documentary Film Festival of Navarra) – the subject of the festival’s Heterodocsias program, which sheds light on Spanish filmmakers forgotten due to “injustice or oblivion” – as well as providing the conceptual framework for much of the festival’s defiant stance in the face of popular taste. It was not for nothing that Victor Erice was on hand to introduce a section of the Oteiza program, in part comprised of Super 8 footage of the artist on a family outing circa 1960 wherein the camera soon takes leave of people and begins to pan a landscape dotted with horses.
Oteiza’s fondness for the blank page found incidental expression in the prize-winning Tunisian short Foyer (d. Ismaîl Bahri), in which the director has placed a mere sheet of paper over his camera lens, a blunt mise-en-scene at the mercy of wind that more discreetly allows for diaphanous light to register in subtle shades. The less to look at, the more to hear: the camera attracts a host of onlookers who want to know just what is being filmed, only to furnish the seeming void with its own tautological answer. The conceptually slight conceit gains momentum when the police turn up and admonish the director for filming the station, only to retract their charges when they learn the director is a Tunisian who works and teaches in France, surely an ambassador of “the good side of Tunisia”. A subsequent voice can be heard contesting the presence of the police, whom he’d rather “grab….and drag down the street on a leash.” The film contains such antagonisms without being overtly political, alighting on post-colonial identity, art and the state of Tunisian society while conjuring its most profound moment through the suggestive power of sound: that of a body joyfully plunging water, an inference of a more elemental freedom or perhaps just a respite from the heat. Finally, a sliver of the screen’s frame is seemingly peeled away by the wind, revealing a mercurially fractured tableau of people and landscape that catches vision unawares.
The tone of hushed circumspection employed by Miranda Pennell in The Host belies the rather damning account exacted by her forensic approach to history, in this case the legacy of British Petroleum in Iran, which reeks of colonial hubris while the “host” nation undergoes convulsive civic and political change. Pennell’s account would be of ample interest as an historical investigation, but it is the personal nature of the story that is most compelling; the director was a child when her parents were stationed in Iran for BP, occupying a mid-century Tehranian home that becomes symbolic of outsider presence, at once innocuous and insidious. Pennell exhumes official record (BP archives) and family album (father’s polaroids) to reveal a subtle portrait of the colonial impulse in action, an historical narrative captioned by corporate rhetoric, in which a Persian apprentice “takes absorbed intelligent interest in his job.” Any class and cultural disparity to which daughter Miranda was impervious as a child now comes back to haunt her ethnographic investigation, the still eyes of anonymous workers staring through her father’s camera and back at her, beyond her, effectively rupturing the chronology of memory. Pennell’s stark methodology suggests a quasi-journalistic or even scientific approach, though this is deliberately undermined by the absence of any explicit disclosures; hers is a more impressionistic essay that attempts, among various pursuits, to account for the strangeness of staring at a photo of her mother staring at a ruin in a foreign landscape “She’s imagining another time” intones the director, “and I’m trying to imagine the time she’s in.” The Host, by merely tilting its gaze upon a Kodachrome slide, and therefore a particular patina of history, curiously implicates the parasitic nature of empire.
Pennell’s film went on to win the Grand Prize for Best Film (Official Section – La Región Central), though the running was contested by a couple of equally errant family chronicles. The debut of noted Slovak photographer and cinematographer Martin Kollár, 5 October, eventual winner of the Youth Award, is formally mounted, lavishly pictoral, but ultimately quiet where The Host was voluble. Subtitled “A Film About My Brother”, 5 October is candidly and courageously about just that, the director’s 52 year-old sibling, a grizzled and portly man whose fullsome beard barely obscures a threatening tumour. Martin parses minimal details about brother Ján’s condition through the barest of means: filming pages from his diary, which reveals the titular date of a surgery that has possibly fatal implications (scribbled in the margins of his notebook as skull and crossbones). Ján sets out on the road by bicycle for what may be his last ride, an unseen Martin in tow with camera. A tension arises from the film’s dialectical nature: that of a man with a deadline who is also free to roam, the inscrutable unease of his mind and body set against expansive landscapes that neither buoy nor betray him, and the paradoxical intimacy with which a sibling regards his own from a distance. The sense of yielding here is vested with a certain gravity, as one man submits to an uncertain future while the other attempts to find context for this ambiguity. Director Kollar’s compositions hint at a kind of mysticism in the banal, the detached irony of man-in-landscape incongruity that nonetheless retains a sense of compassion. The film often blurs the distinction of Ján as character and subject, with the ethical underpinning of Martin’s aesthetic project ingrained in the very texture of the images. Wind rippling the surface of water, while inherently cinematic, ceases to be gratuitous in light of Jan’s unknown fate. A pre-emptive eulogy of sorts, 5 October derives power from its empirical, rather than sentimental, lyricism. Ján’s nobility is channelled, and will be remembered, in the minutiae of simple gestures: the way he gathers potatoes roadside, or struggles to uncork a nice beer on a beach at dusk, or bowls a frame in a forlorn rural one-lane alley.
Eric Pauwel’s La Deuxième Nuit (The Second Night) gives intimate cinematic expression to the proverbial (and often maligned) figure of the momma’s boy, pursued with unabashed candour in this valediction to his dying mother. Pauwels recounts, in his ciné-mémoire (now part of his “cabin trilogy”), how the ten months inside his mother’s belly were “by far the best part of my life”, suggesting rather sardonically that he waited for his father to be gone that he might be born alone at peace in his mother’s arms. Pauwels, in his gravelly toned voiceover, comes to recognise life as a perpetual “second night”, a melancholic separation from which there is no hope for return, only longing and absence. Cinema, naturally, assumes surrogacy, but it too is fraught with nostalgia, indeed is its own form of it. “Today, I would like to film the world as I once saw it in my childhood,” he pines, “but that isn’t really possible. As an image gets closer to reality, it makes this reality even more real, while as a child, even as I looked closer on, I remained distant, contemplating from afar.” His mother’s imminent death is the ineluctable fate he can no longer contemplate from afar, unable to be staved off by the means of movies. Pauwels takes this inherent impossibility and makes a movie of what remains: the memories contained in old photographs, clips from films made without particular intent, of his gaze out the window “watching time and clouds pass by” (after all, what is cinema for?). The film makes a unique case for the ways in which mothers and movies confirm our presence in the world, however unmoored. At one screening, cineastes and mothers alike were moved, and the film was awarded the Jean Vigo prize for Best Director.
So it was that the festival (in its final year under the artistic direction of Oskar Alegria, who’s admittedly more poet than programmer), thematically devoted this year to the subject of flying, invariably became a treatise on the art of dying. From Volar to ars moriendi. It was only fitting that the iconic advert for the festival was a dead bird (a casualty of the office’s clean windows, whom the staff saw fit to scan in memoriam). Perhaps the spirit of such animals takes up residence in all the evacuated spaces mined by Oteiza, who would never have conceived of something so pragmatic as a birdhouse. Similarly, Punto de Vista remains conceptually porous enough in its definition of cinema to allow a little nothingness to take up residence within. A playful side was celebrated too: wilfully blindfolded in the theatre, I sat listening to a “film” narrated by children, and the flight of a red balloon has never looked the same since.
Punto de Vista – International Documentary Festival of Navarra
6-11 March 2017
Festival website: http://www.puntodevistafestival.com/es/ultima_edicion.asp