Critic Raphael Chipperfield on ‘Lama?’, ‘HOSANNA’, ‘El Juego del Escondite’, ‘Pebbles at Your Door’, ‘Symbolic Threats’, ‘SHADOWLAND’ and ‘Take What You Can Carry’.
Israel; someone gets a call, Cahiers du Cinema is going digital: ’so this is the end?’ Or maybe it’s a beginning?’
We watch as the protagonist flashes back to his time in the military, Pasolini’s ‘Teorema’ is showing. The crowd of Israeli youths start to play music on a juke box, it provides a new soundtrack to the strange dessert scenes. The young protagonist goes up to the screen and starts to touch the projected image of a man.
Now back in the present day, with the ease of access to films, the man, now in his 40s, brings up the image on his TV screen, then photographs it on his smart phone.
We are left with the same question; is this an end? Or is it a beginning? What is film going to look like? Placed in an Israeli context, where the incursions into Gaza and engagements with Hamas have been, is essentially a battle of information, a battle that is being fought through the dissemination of images, this little vignette about a Pasolini image passing through digital iterations; what is meaningful here? How are we to pick our way through these images…etc… becomes increasingly meaningful.
Has something been lost with the proliferation of digital image making, or was it something that was never there? What is going to happen to film, what is going to happen to the people who make film? This man’s melancholy introspection gives us no answers, seeming to end more with a question than anything else. And it’s a question that all the films in this programme respond to in different ways.
‘HOSANNA’ starts with a comparable image. A frog fills the screen, blinking, it’s throat bulging. Suddenly it is split apart by a tyre. Its skeleton instantly buckles out of it’s skin. In a fraction of a second it has become almost un-recognisable. A young boy picks it up, and when he opens his hands again the frog is alive. The story is about this Messianic child; the inversion however is that his gift only brings more suffering.
The film forgoes any special effects and all the tricks of resurrection, healing wounds, stopping blood are achieved through basic cinematic tools. A quick cut allows the director to replace the dead frog with an alive one, and because of this the life giving possibilities of the boy are imbricated and linked to filmic mechanisms; essentially it is film that is able to artificially preserve life. The image of the frog is so strong because it is gently bought back to life through film but it is also so viscerally destroyed by film. The camera watches the animal, it’s perfectly focused, the image is framed. The trained focus, the clear framing, the perfect positioning in the line of the tyre’s trajectory; there is no doubt that the camera itself hasn’t been the instigator of this death, but it does it only in order to be able to resurrect it.
Like Dennis Hopper’s un-finished psychedelic homage to cinema ‘The last movie’, ‘HOSANNA’ charts a society with a perverted understanding of death, and we are made to feel that this understanding has something to do with cinema. In Hopper’s film the society is an indigenous Peruvian one. When Sam Fuller’s film crew wrap up their latest Western and leave the area, the Peruvians have by this time seen so many people shot but bought back to life by the god like apparatus of the camera, that they construct their own…but are shocked to find that it doesn’t have the same healing effects.
The idea of preserving life beyond its natural span is used in ‘HOSANNA’. However, unlike the rejoicing that comes with Lazarus’s resurrection this rural Korean society is split apart. The problem isn’t simply that people are living and not dying, but also that people are living in a state where they still crave death but pursue it with abandon because they know it’s not lasting. Death becomes normalised, just another thing in a daily routine… And like all the films in the programme ‘HOSANNA’ shows that filmmaking doesn’t simply record and relay events, but structures the way that those events are formulated. The community in ‘HOSANNA’ is torn apart because the gift of being able to come back to life actually permeates and structures the way they live; they pursue death, they abandon themselves to excess. The ability to be resurrected destroys their lives, and there is parallel here to film-making.
‘Hide & Seek’ is split into two parts; one in which the film crew orchestrates, records, and intervenes on a childish game of hide and seek, and the second in which with much more solemnity we watch as a mother leaves the confines of the camp to search for her daughter.
Many fiction films and documentaries are challenging the way we understand filmmaking. A particularly concise example of this is ‘The Act of Killing’, in which rather than trying to cleanly access the memories of the perpetrators of mass genocide in Indonesia, the director, Joshua Oppenheimer, gives over the responsibility for representing the killings through film to the perpetrators themselves. It is a groundbreaking work of cinema because of its total acceptance of how filmmaking now works; the creation, dissemination and consumption of images has been inseparably imbricated into the reality of our lives. The proliferation of image capturing devices, the competence of all parts of society at constructing and disseminating their own image, means that filmmakers can no longer assume the position of witness. The camera doesn’t simply capture an event, nor does the camera surreptitiously steal or dispossess people of their image in the way that Frantz Fanon suggested; the camera, the image of the camera, is there in the actions themselves. Actions encompass and metabolise their own representation and dissemination. ‘Hide & Seek’, whose title not only refers to the game that the children are playing but also to the game that the filmmakers and their subjects are engaged in, is very intelligent about this. A film that bears it’s own devices, that acknowledges it’s own imprint on it’s subjects, is now much more ‘real’ than the film that purports to innocently and honestly document it’s subjects.
We return to ‘HOSANNA’’s first image of the frog; cinema challenges the sacredness of death. Cinema always runs this risk, especially now with the dissemination of brutal imagery that can be, as Susan Sontag says ‘consumed with our morning coffee’, of not allowing us time to appreciate the radical completeness of death… Many of the films that will be shown in this programme show how image making challenges, or alienates us in some way from more original experience. In ‘HOSANNA’, an unhealthy fetishistic artificial preservation of life leads to the disintegration of society, the very consistency of everyday life is destroyed. ‘Hide & Seek’ is perhaps more optimistic. The game within the camp, between viewer and viewed, filmer and filmed, subject and object comes to an abrupt end when we see the much more sinister attempt of a mother to find her lost daughter.
Both these films show that cinema changes and distorts the reality of everyday life, but they are also respectful of the line at which cinematic games end, and suffering and death begin. Yes we can talk about the role of cinema, the nature of image making, but as the image of the dead frog fills the screen we are also reminded that these games of signification always come with a risk, and at a cost.
The film starts with this apt poem; in paradise we would never love or despair…but despair is dear to us. The film recounts the life of a woman who escaped North Korea once she found out that poverty was so rife outside of Pyongyang and that she was living a privileged life with her husband and children. She leaves to Seoul where she ends up living. Unlike Pyongyang, everything is tolerated in the South. Nobody takes an interest in her affairs, even North Korean spies are allowed to move around freely; the south even tolerates it’s enemies.
‘Symbolic Threats’ pieces together in a scrapbook like way the huge media reaction to an artistic intervention in New York; the flags on top of the Brooklyn Bridge are replaced by all white replicas. The film charts the panoply of different interpretations, reactions and responses to this seemingly innocuous event. The most important moment in the film comes when Bill de Blasio’s voice plays over a black screen: A free society must tolerate art, and not decide what is legitimately part of culture. Both films stage this same dilemma in different ways and through different contexts. It is obviously true from both films that what makes these societies similar in a way is their tolerance of opposition, and even their ability to metabolise their opposition into their own system. For example; like a skilled martial artist who is able to use their opponents momentum and body weight against them, South Korea permits North Korean spies to move around freely but rather than being a capitulation to North Korean intelligence gathering it is an ideological side-step; by not providing the expected resistance to espionage the South Korean government simply allows the North an opportunity to demonstrate their aggression. This kind of tolerance, which allows antagonistic forces to interplay, is paralleled in the opening poem; in paradise we would lose hope and despair…and despair is dear to us. So, actually paradise is never going to be paradise. Homogenised paradise, in which suffering is not possible will also never allow for joy. Freedom therefore must include the freedom and even necessity for suffering and challenges.
Clearly this concept of society comes with it’s own dangers; in ‘Pebbles at Your Door’ there is the very real threat that spies will reveal the protagonists defection and execute her family; this is why her story has to be told through a retreat into the flat images of this film. In ‘Symbolic Threats’ there is the implication that the breach of security that the filmmakers exploited could just as easily have been exploited for destructive purposes rather than artistic ones. So both these films have kind of oscillating movements within them; free cultures need to be able to accept robust criticism, ideological encroachment, and they even have to apply their standards of free movement and free expression to individuals and groups who perhaps don’t personally ascribe to those values. This does leave them open to destructive potentials.
‘Symbolic Threats’ shows how the U.S.’s ideological strength is also it’s ideological weakness, but also how this weakness is in turn a type of strength; within the film’s slightly cynical appraisal of the events there is a strangely touching image; four police officers who are sent to collect the surrogate flag, not quite knowing what to do with it, meticulously fold the white piece of canvas. ‘Pebbles at Your Door’ does the same at an ideological level, but it also develops this at a very human level; the price of happiness is suffering; just like the price of a true true freedom in western liberal democracies might be the freedom that they grant being exercised against the societies that grant it.
‘Take What You Can Carry’ is a film about the dissonance between the protagonists self image and the image she feels other people have constructed for her; again this discord, this antagonism between image and reality, between expectation and it’s disappointment, is leveraged for moments of wrenching sadness. Berlin is used beautifully as a kind of liminal world, a transitory place, people stopping off, waiting, leaving… Even the first scene, a late night early morning bicycle through the streets, dirty sky, silent, no traffic, clutching a Club Mate (the Berlin party goers drink of choice) doesn’t have the kind of joyous abandon that one would hope for, and probably not what the protagonist hoped for either.
She arrives at her lover’s house. He is coded as ‘freedom’. French/ North African, he pensively thumbs the strings of a guitar, his apartment is a beautiful collection of objects, he pads around in a pair of board shorts. Here is the Berlin that the protagonist expected to find; artistic, liberal, eclectic, unkempt. She starts to pack a bag, obviously she doesn’t live here, she comes and goes as she likes. Her lover looks up from his guitar and says ‘I wish you wouldn’t just do as you like. I wish you would live with me.’ Suddenly her image of herself, her expectations of Berlin and of freedom, stutter. Freedom gives way to proprietorship, possibilities are narrowed down to a choice, responsibility looms, decisions will have to be made. She reads a letter from her mother, there are religious inflections to it; what world is this girl leaving?
The next scene is a mesmerising long take. A dance rehearsal studio, each character steps forward and introduces a theme; ‘I’ve slept with someone because they’re famous’, ‘I don’t understand the war in the Iraq’…the person then goes on to represent this confession through dance, others who feel the same way can decide whether or not to join in. It becomes a beautiful reflection on how people represent themselves, fluctuating between moments of emotional honesty and moments of awkward anxiety about how your movements will be perceived. The dancing seems to balance always between interior and exterior, between projection and reception…there is a moment of joyous, collective liberation as the majority of the group join a kind of frantic can-can to finally express their ignorance and indifference to political developments in the middle east. The girl’s turn comes; ‘I’ve never seen a dead body’, she is left to dance alone. Perhaps her desires to ‘live’, to ‘experience’, leaving her family, are fuelled by a feeling of captivity, a feeling that real life experiences have been denied to her, and her life in Berlin amounts to a desperate attempt to try and fill in those experiences she feels are missing. ‘Life’ didn’t happen to her, or around her at home, so she’s come here searching for it.
This understanding of the girl is partially confirmed in the final scene. She sits down on the bed in the flat she is sitting for the weekend, she starts to dictate her letter to herself, drawing the viewer in to her interior process of image making. This act of reading her own thoughts to herself signifies this interior/exterior split. She is constantly convincing herself, constantly receptive to exterior representations but constantly trying to metabolise that receptiveness and sensitivity into a type of indifference.
Baudriallard wrote that the U.S.A. pulled out of Vietnam but won the war. His statement was intended to explain how although the U.S. was physically repelled from Vietnam the real battlefield was the ancillary one, a battlefield of images. This notion of colonisation through representations is implicitly the theme of Porterfield’s film, one wonders what the film would be if the girl wasn’t North American, but the theme is more explicitly taken on in ‘SHADOWLAND’.
This second film, a calmly paced, exquisitely composed progression through rural America could be read as a simple homage to film; to films, filmmakers, film history and the American landscape. However, it deals with themes that many of the other films are also approaching; how representation is altering reality, how film-making is impacting the subjects it simply purports to show.
The film appears to be a trip across the United States, a kind of abstract road movie, but it is not a voyage of discovery. The credit sequence which lists the locations and the films which were originally set there, inform us that the filmmaker has visited locations that have stood in for places of otherness; foreign desserts, South East Asian forests, beaches, lakes. At once it has a very personal poignance; this idea that escape is always checked, and like the protagonist of ‘Take What You Can Carry’ this journey is actually the navigation of images of a journey, projections of escape, rather than the sort of radical freedom that we often hope for. At the same time as telling a very personal tale of frustrated discovery, ‘SHADOWLAND’ gives this a filmic parallel, shot on film, methodically framed, it ties filmmaking itself into this pattern of regression and of frustrated expectations. There is a beautiful moment in ‘Summer with Monika’ where the momentum has left the young couple’s heady escape on a stolen boat, they are tired of one another, and what they had thought of as freedom and escape starts to look mundane and contrived. The point at which we realise that the freedom that they had imagined is impossible when Monika turns to the boy and says; let’s go back to Stockholm, I want to go to the cinema. Like ‘SHADOWLAND’ the frustrated desire for freedom is one that is exacerbated by film, and as with ‘HOSANNA’, film is incriminated in the constant inability to approximate otherness, it’s a membrane between us and the deep, true experiences we crave.
Finally this short film uses this idea of re-processing to leverage a cultural critique. The American protagonist in ‘Take What You Can Carry’, arrived in Berlin already knowing what she was going to find, and this pre-detrmination, this fixation on images, prevents her from genuinely integrating. Here, exploration of the landscape is also pre-determined, otherness has been conveniently constructed and strangely it bears an American form. Of course one is never going to be able to develop an informed and genuine understanding of another person or even another place when the only lexicon you have for assembling that image is your own past experiences. American culture stitches together a foreign dessert from it’s own forgotten land. Almost like the U.S.A has become so sophisticated at fighting wars on an ideological and representational plane that it doesn’t even need to outsource it’s foreign battlefields, it does everything in-house.
Journeys, discoveries are frustrated by regurgitated film images. Our engagement with humanitarian crises are plagued by anxieties about how they should be represented, even our access to our memories is somehow mediated through assemblages, collages of images. All the films shown deal with this concept in some way, and it is something that is being constantly re-drawn with changing technologies; filmmaking permeates deeper and deeper into society, thought, relations, everything. The programme of short films takes us back to ‘Why?’; is this an end, or is it a beginning…?
Thank you, Raphael!