© Steve Garden 2017 

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2012 NZIFF No.2

August 3, 2012

VIVAN LAS ANTIPODAS | Victor Kossakovsky, 2011  

 

The opportunity to see new work from Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky (Belovy, Sreda, Tishe!) is cause for celebration, even if the premise of his new film sounds a tad flimsy. The vivid transparency of high-definition digital imagery enhanced Kossakovsky’s understated contemplation on the connectedness, interdependence, and majesty of our planet. VIVAN LAS ANTIPODAS suggests a world without borders, where the similarities and differences between peoples, places, and all living things speak to our shared commonality and fragility. The film isn’t intended to be a grand statement à la The Qatsi Trilogy, in fact it’s at its weakest when the unchecked use of grandiose music produces moments of unnecessary overemphasis.

 

I also had concerns about the sequences in Shanghai, which have a disconcerting orientalism. Perhaps I’m being over-critical, but the Chinese were viewed at a stereotypically unknowable distance: long-range telephoto shots of hordes of commuters, or people living in decaying inner-city landscapes with whom we were offered no real engagement. The juxtaposition between the relative peace and tranquillity of toll-collecting brothers in rural Argentina with the anonymous bustle of Shanghai was striking, but facile. While Kossakovsky could perhaps be accused of overreaching at times, for the most part the weightless grace of his images spoke for themselves. If the film lacks rigour, the textural and aural contrasts, and the rhymes, reflections, and shifts in perspective offer a giddy, perception-altering view of our planet that is both philosophically and aesthetically sincere.

 

AI WEI WEI: NEVER SORRY is a documentary about one of China’s most important contemporary artists and high-profile political dissidents. It’s also about the extraordinary potential of social media (in this case, Twitter) as a powerful tool for political awareness and mobilisation. First-time director Alison Klayman recorded Ai’s activities over a 3-year period, from his campaign to generate awareness about the unreported student casualties in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (the direct result of shoddy building practices), to his arrest (ostensibly for tax evasion) in April 2011. Along the way we follow Ai as he stages his conceptually brilliant “Sunflower Seeds” installation at Tate Modern, and as he stands up to oppressive authoritarianism in China.

 

As a portrait of a person of courage and conscience the film is compelling, but there is no real critical analysis of Ai’s work or activities. Questions about his infidelities or his relationship to money, the arts economy, and the gatekeepers and high priests of the art world are largely ignored. The film ends on an intriguingly unresolved note as Ai, released from 81-days of internment, uncharacteristically declines to comment – evidently due to bail restrictions. You’ll be hard pressed to find less than glowing reviews of the film, but in fairness, Ai Wei Wei is an inspirational man. His willingness to use his art, reputation, and profile to confront oppression and encourage others to do likewise should not be understated.

 

There’s an interesting moment early in Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry where we apparently see a cat opening a door. We are told that the cat can open doors before we see a shot of it jump up to a door handle, followed by another shot of it walking out the door. We never actually see the cat open the door, but we accept it did because of what we were told, and because of the way the two shots were edited. I’m willing to accept that the cat did open the door and that the cut was purely expedient, but this observation highlights the fact that film is intrinsically a manipulative medium.

 

Ra’anan Alexandrowicz, the director of THE LAW IN THESE PARTS, goes out of his way to remind us that there is no such thing as an unbiased documentary, telling us that he will only use material that supports his viewpoint. He explains that the formal structure of the film will embody his central theme of political bias, specifically that of an occupying force (Israel) over an occupied people (Palestinians). Comprised of a series of interviews with military and Supreme Court judges who helped draft and/or enforce laws designed to deal with dissent, the film examines the efficacy of these laws by asking the men to discuss cases they have judged. If you have any doubt that justice and law have very little to do with each other, this is the film for you.

 

Alexandrowicz gradually reveals a perfect ‘catch 22’, in which no Israeli judge will question information provided by the Israeli military because to do so would undermine the system that protects them and every other Israeli citizen. It is as blatant an admission of ‘necessary oppression’ as you are likely to hear, a revelation that explains why the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is so intractable.

 

Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi’s FIVE BROKEN CAMERAS offers palpable evidence of the daily reality of the Israeli occupation. It focuses on the people of Bil’in, a Palestinian village that is being steadily eroded by encroaching Israeli settlements. The villagers attempt to maintain their faith in non-violent protest despite overwhelming powerlessness, and without allowing anger to draw them into nihilistic despair. Five Broken Cameras provides an unintended additional chill to the moral expediency depicted in The Law In These Parts. These films inform each other in ways neither could have anticipated, so it’s worth seeing both if you can. It’s also well worth seeking out New Zealander Sarah Cordrey’s 2016 film, ‘notes to eternity’, which offers an extraordinarily up-front-and-personal take on the division.

 

THE SUN BEATEN PATH | Sonthar Gyal, 2011

 

THE SUN BEATEN PATH is the debut feature of Tibetan cinematographer Sonthar Gyal. Light on dialogue, this visually accomplished account of a young soul searching for atonement is made with confident understatement. It’s a road-movie of sorts, a contemplative tale about a young man wracked by guilt and grief who attempts to exorcise his demons by trekking across a vast and arid Tibetan landscape. Eschewing human contact, young Nima can’t seem to shake the attention of an older world-wise man who takes it upon himself to keep a watchful eye on him. The reason for Nima’s internal crisis and adamant pilgrimage is slowly revealed, and the old man’s simple wisdom provides additional substance to a metaphor about the ultimate journey. Showing strong formal control and very fine judgment, The Sun Beaten Path is a strong work from a director whose films will be well worth keeping an eye out for.

 

The engaging French animation LE TABLEAU is a thoughtful parable that intellectually inquisitive children of all ages are sure to relate to. While the film embodies relatively weighty themes (the search for individual identity and spiritual wholeness, privilege and freedom, oppression and powerlessness, the controlling power of class and caste systems, superstition, misinformation, dogma, prejudice, and racism), it is in fact as light and delicious as a perfect soufflé. Charming and life affirming, the film has a vibrant visual palette that celebrates people of all ‘colours and hues’.

 

It might seem an odd choice for the director of Red Road and Fish Tank (films set in stark urban landscapes) to tackle Emily Brontë’s hysterical tale of doomed love, but WUTHERING HEIGHTS fits neatly alongside Andrea Arnold’s other work on thematic and visceral levels. In fact if anything she goes further here, particularly in the first half where you can almost smell the sweat of the horses, the mud in the fields, and the stale air in the bedrooms. Heavily dependent on others, and in no position to determine their own destiny, the options available to Cathy and Heathcliff are just as limited by economic and social constrictions as they are for the characters in Arnold’s other work.

 

Arnold’s images have great physical presence, and are perfectly complimented by the art direction, beautifully minimal score, editing, costumes, etc. Even the largely non-professional cast acquit themselves extremely well for the most part, cracks appearing only in the melodramatic moments of the second half. Nevertheless, Arnold’s elemental poetry is a wholly captivating cinematic experience, one that not only contains the narcissistic self-destruction of Brontë’s mad young lovers, but that also comes remarkably close to suggesting something ‘spiritual’ within its non-emphatic subtext. The pacing may test some, and others may have an issue with the lack of conventional period tropes, but those with a taste for sophisticated restraint are sure to be rewarded.


Apart from the annoying formal device of having something out of focus at the edge of virtually every shot (in an attempt, one presumes, to suggest a lurking cinema verite camera catching life as it happens), OUR CHILDREN is a solid and respectable attempt to deal with a subject that in lesser hands could have been very unpleasant. The denouement is handled with tact, and the film leaves more questions unanswered than it presumes to answer, wisely choosing not to offer explanations for infanticide but to instead consider the circumstances of one young mother gradually coming undone. I couldn’t help feeling that the subject matter was too much of a burden on the film, which at times felt like a superior TV movie.

 

The performances were fine, especially Emilie Dequenne as the young mother (first seen as the centtitularral protagonist in the Dardenne brothers extraordinary Rosetta back in 1999), but those from Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup were as annoyingly mannered as their self-congratulatory turns in the over-praised A Prophet a few years back. Perhaps it’s just one of my blind-spots, but I find it difficult to see passed what seems to me to be acting or directorial styles that are self-aware to the point of vanity, where we feel we are being over-sold by actors and directors trying too hard to engage our sympathies. But Dequenne judged her performance perfectly.

 

Another solid but ultimately unsatisfying film was Julian Roman Pölsler’s THE WALL (Die Wand). Featuring great acting from Martina Gedeck (a superb solo performance in what must have been a physically demanding role), this visually impressive adaptation of a famous Austrian novel from the 60s was compromised in terms of its formal potential by the profuse use of narration. According to the director, the intention was to create a platform for Marlen Haushofer’s original text, which he regards as one of the great texts in German literature. I couldn’t help wonder how different the film might have been if the verbose narration had been significantly reduced, or better still, done away with. Would that have worked?

 

TWO YEARS AT SEA | Ben Rivers, 2011

 

That questioned was answered by Ben Rivers with TWO YEARS AT SEA , a similar film in some respects (a tale about a solitary character in isolated circumstances), but entirely free of narration or scripted dialogue. In The Wall, a woman finds herself inexplicably trapped in the Austrian mountains by an invisible wall. The subsequent events align with a journal she writes during her entrapment (hence the narration), which is generously loaded with philosophical musings and observations about the meaning of existence and the human condition. Given our environmental vulnerability, The Wall is very timely and thought provoking, but the film is compromised (in my view) by the director’s fidelity to Haushofer’s novel. Of course, no text at all would have produced a much tougher viewing experience. By comparison, Two Years at Sea had a much small audience that The Wall, so I accept that while formal austerity can deliver great works of cinematic art, in can be alienating. I overheard comments suggesting that some viewers found The Wall challenging enough, so maybe that tells us all we need to know.

 

Shot on discontinued 16mm Kodak film stock, Two Years at Sea took a bit of adjusting to, particularly within the context of a festival dominated by the crisp articulation of high-definition DCP. The terrific opening shot of Jake Williams (the sole protagonist in this intelligently conceived and executed work) trudging forward through the snowbound Aberdeenshire landscape establishes the tone for this measured and contemplative film. The grungy, defiantly low-fi images were much rougher and degraded than I expected, but the film stock and the way Rivers treats it is fundamental to the meaning of the work, where the medium is to a large extent the message. Even the whir of the 35mm projector in the booth was integral. 

 

The images convey the impression of footage discovered in some forgotten archive, perhaps many years in the future when we have all become DCP projections. An ode to all things analogue, the film recalls Rouch, Eustache, and Garrel (and others), and it has an almost glacial pace that should have made it a contender for the ‘Go Slow’ section of the programme (as could a number of other films for that matter, such as The Loneliest Planet). As the themes are slowly revealed, the inherent poetry of the work comes to the fore. A key moment occurs when Jake sets out to slowly (very slowly) do a spot of quiet (very quiet) fishing. It’s an entrancing passage of existential stillness that informs every scene that follows.

 

At times, the images recall the near-apocalyptic character of early Sokurov, Tarkovsky, or Tarr, in fact the long Rembrandt-like closing shot reminded me of the final shot of The Turin Horse, with its similarly powerful, sombre implications. Two Years at Sea requires patience and concentration from the viewer. It invites us to reflect on our values and aspirations, our place in the world and our contribution to it. Only cinema this openly meditative can be this reflexive, and it’s rare to find a work with such an agenda so firmly integrated into its formal construction. While the wonders of DCP projection dominated this year’s festival, it’s telling that one of the most spiritually affecting films on the schedule was the most technically archaic.

 

Originally published in The Lumiere Reader

 

 

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