By Yun-hua Chen.
Doku.Arts Essaybox and Around The World in 14 Films are embellishing Berlin’s autumn cinemascape for sure, each in its own way. The former prides itself on the curation of documentaries and an impressive guest list graced by renowned film scholars in the symposium including Sarah Cooper, Thomas Elsaesser and Laura Rascaroli, whereas the latter inspires film discussion between filmmakers of major film festival films of the year and engaged Berliner audience.
Entering its 10th year, Doku.Art presented 22 new documentary and essay films from 16 countries and an international symposium. Opening with Peter Middleton and James Spinney’s Notes on Blindness, Doku.Art’s theme of the year is seeing, ways of seeing, the inability of seeing, and the gaze of the camera that changes, crisscrosses with, and enters a discourse with the gaze of eyes. The experience of blindness was re-interpreted on screen visually through fleeting colours and shapes, as well as through sounds which mark territories and directions. Beth B’s Call Her Applebroog, which documented the artistic journey of Ida Applebroog, who is the mother of the documentarian Beth B. The camera was distanced, detached, and cold at the beginnings, which almost made the mother-daughter relationship indiscernible and that between the one who films and the one who is filmed even more complex. It is through excavation of Applebroog’s art works that the intertwining relationships are deepened and reassembled. Graced by the presence of Beth B and Ida Applebroog themselves, their charm, wit, as well as the subtle and not always easy mother-daughter relationship were brought to life from screen space. It was a truly amazing experience which transcends the boundary of the screen.
The Combodian-French filmmaker Rithy Panh’s Exil (2016) can be viewed as a spiritual continuation from L’image Manquante (2013), both striving to revisit, review and record the genocide for which there are no images. In Rithy Panh’s works we can see that living is remembering; as painful as it might be, remembering is the way to approach truth. Here the young actor Sang Nan plays the role of young Panh, who was interned in Khmer Rouge rehabilitation camps from the age of 11 until his escape to Thailand four years later. The voice-over flowing with the auteur’s stream of consciousness is juxtaposed with revolutionary writings, propaganda material, film footage from that time, and Panh’s own imageries. The film revisits the experience from the eye of an adolescent, while reflecting upon it from the perspective as an adult artist who is equipped to rationalise the experience. It is theatrical, dreamy, self-reflexive, and meditative, opening up questions rather than attempting an answer. On the purely cinematic front, By Sidney Lumet of Nancy Buirski beautifully weaves together archival footage of early television works and film snippets of Lumet to investigate Method Acting, Lumet’s rehearsal-intensive way of working, his immense sensitivity towards characters and moral messages that he is concerned with – all forming Sidney Lumet’s oeuvres as a whole.
Moving to Around The World 2016, the biggest treat of the film festival was Lav Diaz’s 226-minute The Woman Who Left which was awarded with Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival. It is less than half the length of his previous eight-hour long A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery premiered at the Berlinale 2016. Watching this beautiful film on screen in Berlin was a rare and precious occasion. Shot in Lav Diaz’s trademark stylish black and white, with each frame being a photography work which deserves to be exhibited on its own, the film follows the main female character Horacia Somorostro who was imprisoned for 30 years after being framed by her former lover. Under the fake name Renate, she wanders in village streets, listens to underprivileged villagers’ stories and struggles, and observes the former lover’s mansion from a distance. Her path towards revenge seems zigzagging, but her goal remains fixed and clear. In fact, Horacia’s revenge reveals much more about the social context and human condition in Philippines rather than the mere act of revenge. Diaz’s paced tempo leaves the audience enough time to contemplate on the screen space and Charo Santos-Concio’s tour-de-force performance, as well as making sense of the social drama.
It was also lovely to watch Neon Bull at Around the World in 14 Films, which has not received as much exposure as the film deserves. Sublimely shot with a diversifying and yet balanced colour palette in North East of Brazil, it opens a new chapter in the landscape of Brazilian cinema. This is the Brazilian documentarian director Gabriel Mascaro’s second feature film. The main character Iremar works at the rodeo but desires working in the clothing industry because of his passion and talent in designing and making clothes. These are two worlds in parallel. The world at the rodeo is infused with animal smells, mud, routines and showy masculinity especially on horseback while tugging bulls to the ground by the tail. Meanwhile the world Iremar tries to enter requires creativity and delicacy in front of a sewing machine. Gabriel Mascaro’s portrayal of Iremar’s unusual soul in the surroundings of rodeo is so subtle and beautiful, and his hint of homone-infused sexual drive in the air is developed into one of the best sequence of sex that ever existed.
Ulrich Seidl’s Safari is another jewel during the festival. This time he turns his documentary gaze towards European tourist hunters in Africa. Without dictating the audience to support or denounce hunt tourism, he shoots the hunters’ expedition to follow animals, chase them, kill them, pose in front of the camera with the animals’ bodies, and talk about their thoughts freely. These hunt tourists were kept in a frame that is carefully designed and composed very much à-la-Seidl throughout the film. Towards the end of the film Seidl turns his camera towards the Africans who work in the industry, those who scout around, guide the tourists and keep them safe, as well as those who skin the animals for the tourists who want to bring their trophy home. The bitter class division between European tourists and African employees with a hint of neo-colonialism is clearly revealed in the juxtaposition between the two worlds; as the wealthy keep the head and skin which have been washed and taken care of and eat flesh of the dead animals, the locals eat the animals’ organs and keep the bones that are deemed worthless and discarded by the Europeans.
The two Romanian films Sieranevada and Scarred Hearts are also highlights of arthouse cinema of the year. Sieranevada, for which Cristi Puiu was nominated for Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, is a brilliant chamber drama. The film is predominantly shot in a flat where the family prepares for a gathering on the anniversary of a patriarch’s recent death. Food was cooked, ceremony was prepared, family gossips were exchanged, political and religious topics were discussed and sometimes in an overheated manner, but there are always some obstacles that stand between food and guests. The only two outdoor sequences in the film are both exceptional; in the first one, reminiscent of the closing shot of Michael Haneke’s Caché, the camera observes the discussion on the street with a long shot, which deliberately makes it difficult for the audience to see where the action is and what it is about. As for the predominantly indoor shots, the film’s perfectly orchestrated positioning of all the different characters and personalities as well as smooth filming of their constant movement in the confined space with a lot of shoulder-rubbing is extremely impressive.
In Radu Jude’s Scarred Hearts, based on the life of writer M. Blecher, the writer’s attempt to live life to the fullest at a sanatorium and keep the chin up is both extravagant and sad, while at the same time it is endearing to see life being celebrated under the threat of death.
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften to be published by Neofelis Verlag by early 2016.