Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sonata by Aparna Sen, India: 2017

The reason why I think it is important to talk about the films by Aparna Sen is simple: her films and especially her recent films made in this decade are an impressive demonstration what cinema is still capable of. Despite all obstacles of our time, the fast moving public world of cinema, the lack of diversity in the selection of the mayor festivals - her creativity remains unbroken. That she has not got the recognition for her more recent films is nothing less than a shameful injustice.
Her latest film Sonata is for me another example why I consider Aparna Sen as one of the most sophisticated film directors of our time – and not only in India.
Sonata, a film which Aparna Sen called a “chamber piece”) offers just in the first 10 minutes more cinematic ideas and poetry than another “chamber piece like for example Louis Malle´s My Dinner with André in its full length.
The space where Sonata takes place (a big apartment in Mumbai) is from the first shot a pure cinematic space. The film is based on a play but it is an adaption for cinema like only Aparna Sen is able to do in modern cinema. Anywhere between Ozu, Dreyer or Hitchock´s finest “chamber piece” Rear Window, Sonata stands for a another kind of pure cinema.
How the two main characters are placed in this apartment, how they move in it or how they define or redefine it as their private space has indeed to do with the virtuosity how people in their interiors are revealed in films by John Ford or Yasujiro Ozu. How they claim their place in Sonata in this place is often as well an analogy how they define their place in the world. The apartment in Sonata has it´s barriers from the world but as well openings through which it is connected with it. The every day sounds from the streets are invading this private room. Some windows appear like screens and they are the visual pendant to the soundtrack. The inside and outside are interfusing each other.
The dialogues between Aruna (Aparna Sen) and Dolan (Shabana Azmi) are dealing at the beginning with every day matters and often mutual bantering. It is clear, this two women know each other for a long time. They share this apartment for 25 years. They know each others weakness. Sometimes they make jokes on the other´s cost about gaining too much weight, about the sexuality of two unmarried women and it can be from time to time as cruel like between the aging gentlemen in Ozu´s last films.
How they move differently in this apartment tells a lot about their relationship but as well about their different characters. Dolan actually owns this apartment. While Dolan is often walking around, sometimes even dancing, Aruna prefers a certain place on her desk writing on her computer , framed by big book shelves and her music collection. She is reserved, often retrieved in herself. Dialogs and actions reveal something about the characters but give also hints about what they hide. And even when they try to banter each other, there remains a strange contrast between elements of comedy and the awareness of vulnerability. We get small ideas about their losses and fears.
But Aparna Sen also introduces her characters in another way. We see often how they gaze around, or how they gaze at others. What does it tell about us when we gaze at the screen? What does it tell about the characters when they gaze at each other or at other persons? Aparna Sen´s cinema is always a cinema of glances. Once in this film, Dolan and Aruna are looking out of the window into a neighbour´s apartment. There is a lonely woman they have observed very often. They talk about the strange woman´s loneliness with a certain distance but one feels there is a connection between what they see and what they are. The window is one of the many hidden imagined screens in Aparna Sen´s films and these screens are often like mirrors

A third woman arrives for a visit, Subadhra (Lillete Dubey), a journalist. She is a younger woman and the only woman of this trio who is in a relationship. Behind sun glasses she covers bruises - her violent boyfriend has beaten her. Even though these are three distinguishable characters, they also represent different options of a human life. They drink wine and spend some time with laughter together. When Subadhra finally leaves , there is an echo left on the two unmarried woman who will question each others place in this world. A human life in a film by Aparna Sen is often composed of different options by different characters. It is a bit like with “the beings of time” in Marcel Proust´s On the Search for the Lost Time. Life appears here as a sum of an endless chain of decisions.

How explicit Aparna Sen uses the designed apartment as a cinematic space is evident in many aspects. This space changes often between the emphasis of the illusion of spatial depth and the reminder of the flatness of the film image. When the three woman are sitting on the couch, the space is contracted. In another shot the space is extended in three dimensions. Aparna Sen´s playfulness with revealing these limits and options of cinema is one example for her formal richness.
In the first shot of the film the space of this apartment seems clearly represented. It looks easy to find one´s orientation. But after a few cuts and different shots, we are nearly confused. There are doors which remain closed to us and from different perspectives this apartment looks much more complex than the opening shot suggests. How we define our orientation in this piece of cinema, how Aruna and Dolan define and redefine their place in the world is revealed in pure cinematic esthetics.

Only a few other characters have short appearances, a friend Mira who has chosen a female identity after a gender reassignment is only visible during a skype-conversation and during a mysterious phone call. A drunken man in front of their house and finally the former lover (Kalyan Ray) of Aruna is visible in the only flashback in this film. There is a strange contrast to the real time image of this skype conversation and this engrossed image of a memory.

Sonata offers as well one of the most sophisticated sound tracks in Aparna Sen´s work. The interweaving of every day sounds in the apartment and the street noise from the street separate and connect at the same time the apartment with the world. The music score by Neel Dutt is another aspect of this playfulness which reminds me in Ozu´s last films. We remember when Aruna listens to Beethoven´s Moonlight Sonata. If I am not mistaken it is after this moment when Dutt´s music begins. First paraphrasing, later adapting certain moods in this film like for example a frolic dance by Shabana Azmi. But sometimes the music appears suspended in air between authorial music and a strange mysterious melancholy which is hard to describe but which will be confirmed at the tragic and disturbing end of the film. In contrast to the characters, Dutt´s music seems to move independently from the laws of time and space.
After all what I hear, read and see, the conditions for cinema in India different from the commercial Bollywood industry is not very convenient at all. That applies for the the contemporary masters of this country as much like for new talents, not to mention India´s disastrous handling of its own film heritage. This is one reason more to consider each new film by Aparna Sen as a precious gift to cinema.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Notes on a cinematic journey called Ashwatthama, by Pushpendra Singh, India: 2017

I see the curious rapid change of the light and shade, I see distant lands as real and near to the inhabitants of them as my land is to me.”
( Salut Au Monde from Leaves Of Grass by Walt Whitman)

The beginning of this film is like a birth. Before the first light appears we hear a woman talking to her son. She tells him the story of Ashwatthama, a tragic character from the Indian mythology, who was cursed and became an immortal but lost soul. I am not familiar with the Indian mythology which varies from region to region in this complex culture of the Indian sub continent. But I have already a guide which will lead me through this film which will open my eyes and my ears, the curious and open hearted boy Ishvaku who is discovering the world around him. The film is like discovering another world manifested in 2 hours film.

The film is shot in Black and White. Only very few hint´s give an idea that the film is less engrossed from our time than we might think. Only very short colored moments interrupt the atmosphere of the film. They appear like subtle distortions in the space time continuum of the film´s universe.
I remember a shot near the beginning. Ishvaku is feeding the pigeons in the backyard. The backyards is closed by walls. Behind Ishvaku we see a window which leads to the world outside the barrier. The boy is totally absorbed by his action, like I am absorbed by the rich texture of this image. After a while , Ishvaku goes to the entrance of the house and disappears inside this entrance which is hardly more visible than a black spot in this image. For a moment, the camera stays with us and the pigeons in this backyard.
The vision of this piece of world does not seem to be forced at all. It is one of many moments in this film which demand nothing else than attention but it rewards you with a celebration of cinema as the art of seeing.
There is this strong feeling for confidence in cinema, confidence in what the filmmaker has seen, confidence in the apparatus which recorded it – and finally confidence that these images will unfold their intensity and often breathless beauty by themselves.

There must be a relation between the many stories told by the characters to each other and how the film´s narration creates a whole universe of stories which define a culture but also a human life. This collecting of vocally told stories is interwoven the film´s visual and audible narration. The smallest moments, seemingly non events are beside tragic moments which appear as not emphasized. The emotions which will be nevertheless evoked as the film proceeds are the results of attention, of experience and not formed by forced dramatic storytelling. But especially in its nearly shy reservation, the film often appears to me this “sense of wonder” like the time when I discovered cinema for myself.

In its dynamic between intensity and a nearly minimalistic reluctance, Ashwatthama recalls in me the journey I had with the films by Taiwanese Hou hsiao Hsien, especially with Hsimeng Rensheng (The Puppet master, 1993). In Hou´s work there was a movement from explicit autobiographical inspired films to a quest for history and culture of Taiwan but as well a quest for finding his own specific vision of cinema (evident in his famous extreme long shots). In another kind but with an equal intensity, Ashwattham has the range between personal memories, a precise look to the part of the world the director comes from but as well an own unique vision of cinema.

A brief look back to February 2014 where Pushendra Singh´s first long feature Lajwanti had its world premiere at the Forum of the Berlin Film festival. It happens seldom in my life time that a debut of a new talented filmmaker caused so much expectations for the near future. Legendary film debuts from the history of cinema like the ones by Satyajit Ray, Terrence Malick, Orson Welles or Aparna Sen happened either before my life time or outside of my awareness. With , one of the two finest films I saw at this festival in the last 12 years, I witnessed such a revelation.

After the house is attacked by bandits, Ishvaku´s mother is killed and he moves with his father to relatives. This is one of the few but pointed tragic turning points of this film which create a new situation for the protagonists. A place in the world is lost, a new one has to be found. When they arrive at their new home, the protagonists and the film spend time with mourning. As I said earlier I have not understood all codes and rituals, this is a moment which affected me a lot. The impact of the loss of a beloved person is caused by memories of my own close persons or in so many moments I have seen in the films by John Ford, Yasujiro Ozu, Hou Hsiao Hsien, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Terrence Malick or Satyajit Ray.

The interiors are often sparsely lighted. The interiors are places of shelter and privacy. The implicitness of light our eyes are used by so much bad television features where we always see everything is now suspended. As films often pretend there is a a definite place in the world. True cinema and especially films like Ashwatthama suggest to find a place in the world is a permanent search.

In an interview Pushpendra Singh tells about how he developed the film with inspirations from own memories. Some characters are based on close relatives. Singh has really lived in the region where the film takes place. Even without having read this interview, one can get the an idea about this film in many moments as felt memories. But Ashwatthama also offers something like an ethnographic look to its own culture. The universal and the personal, the prosaic and the poetic are often evident interwoven in single moments. There is a small moment when a young woman, the eldest cousin of Ishvaku combs the boy´s hair. Both are looking into a mirror. They look at themselves. It reminds me in some moments in Lajwanti when we see Sanghmitra Hitaishi´s character looking into a mirror. This is a strange revelation to look at people who are looking at themselves. As we trying to get an image of this world and its people visible, we have to realize that these people have already an image of themselves which is not necessarily identical with our image of them.

The more the film proceeds the more we are absorbed by this look to a piece of the world. There are often recurring motives, family meetings or reunions of this community sitting around a campfire and listening to musicians who perform their songs.
The specific sense of time seems to be adapted from the specific sense of time only children have. The world as an endless huge and rich stage of wonders even though from time to time interrupted by momentous events. Some times the plot seems to melt away and than it comes back with silent but painful fierceness.
Sometimes I feel like talking again and again about so much single moments to articulate this specific “sense of wonder” I experienced. The more the film proceeds, the more I feel - despite its often seemingly non events or especially because of it – what I will call a poetic breath. Some times we are absorbed by what the images present and than the awareness of the artist and this apparatus called cinema reappears and with it the cognition that cinema is especially because its ability to create an artificial memory – cinema is desperate and heartbreaking resistance against death and caducity.

There is one unforgettable moment which is representative for the film´s spirit and the delicate style the film is made with. As much as the characters are absorbed by their world and their actions it does not mean they are always accepting their fate without reluctance. The scene , I want to refer is not only a foreshadowing of a tragic event, it is also a striking moment when these children are confronted with invisible and nameless borders. During the film Ishvaku has developed a strong bond with his deaf cousin Laali, a girl who is about the same age like him. They often stroll together through this stony and sparse landscape. One day Ishvaku is sent to school. The relatives decide that Laali shall go too. The school scene seems to be made in one long shot. The perspective is the one of the children who are sitting in front of the teacher, the board and the desk. The seemingly impassive camera evokes a strong sense of power and the little children bodies are exposed to the moody upright standing strict teacher. The view is bouncing to the wall with the board and the teacher and the wall. When the teacher learns of Laali´s deafness, he chases the two children away. The insulted children leave the school and the frame. The fact that the echo of their humiliation the insult of discrimination is left to our imagination. For a moment we remain in this picture looking at the children exposed to this teacher and the wall. For a moment the eyes are prisoners in this room. How the cruelty unfolds in this one moment is intense and afterwards a heartbreaking nearly traumatic moment.

We have seen Laali and Ishvaku discovering the endless world, now witness how they
bounce against meaningless man-made borders.
We gave seen them walking through ruins which are almost in the process to migrate into the landscape they are once built on. It is an image presenting fugacity of human cultures. It evokes a muted melancholy in me. Where it comes from, I can not tell. More and more cracks appear in this world.
The elder cousin who was supposed to be forced into an arranged marriage, has escaped. She resists and disappears. A woman is beaten. The world- or better - the world defined by men with its rules and its order unfolds its complex ambivalence.

Ashwatthama, this kaleidoscope of people , stories and landscapes appears to me as a miracle which does not really stop when the two hours film have ended. It continues to have an effect in my memory. Just the kind how characters are entering a frame and leaving it, stays with me. Sometimes the combination of image and sound widens the world, sometimes image and sound reveal its borders. The visible and the invisible can be experienced similarly. I have no idea which moves me more, the stylistic and daring consequence of this film or its incredible delicateness.
And it is one of theses films I have a hard time to let it go. And yes I have to remember again Walt Whitman´s imagined journey around the world in his poem Salut Au Monde.

Ashwatthama is sone of these cinematic miracles which refer to the great past of cinema but at the same time to its future. The film is still new and still on its journey through film festivals. From time to time, cinema needs a radical redefinition such as Ashwatthama to move forward.

There are these two precious gifts, Pushpendra Singh gave to cinema, the one is Lajwanti, the other is Ashwatthama. Now it is turn of what we call the public world of cinema to proof if it deserves these gifts. About one thing I am absolutely sure – I can´t imagine a near future of cinema without Pushpendra Singh.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Friday, February 23, 2018

Notes on Garbage, by Q, India: 2018 – or how to place a provocative Indian film in an India-phobic film festival, Berlin Filmfestival VIII-Panorama

Indeed, Garbage is an interesting film which evokes a lot of questions but last but not least it´s presence as the only Indian film this year is also symptomatic for the recently rather India-phobic attitude of this festival, very few exceptions included. This inscrutable ignorance of one of the most interesting film country in the world was only interrupted in the last 10 years by rare masterpieces like Vilhir (The Well, Generation 2010) by Umesh Vinayak Kolkarni and Pushpendra Singh´s Lajwanti (Forum 2014)

Garbage by Q (Qaushik Mukherjee), is a film which hardly will pass the outmoded Indian censorship board for getting a theatrical distribution in India. It is partly because of it´s revealing of graphic violence and partly because of it´s open attack on hypocrisy of the dominating Hindu-fundamentalism in contemporary India.

My relation with this film is conflicted even though I still think one of his previous films Gandhu was an important and fresh new voice in contemporary Indian cinema. Q´s wish during his introduction that the audience “shall suffer” under this “joyless and sad film” was for my side fulfilled - at least for me. Since Pasolini´s Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, I have not seen a film (commercial splatter excluded) which reveals so much concision of human bodies, bodily fluids and torture. If Pasolini´s film was reckoning with the Italian fascism, Garbage refers obviously with the present violence in India, partly based on it´s conflicting attitude towards sexuality supported by a right wing and Hindu-fundamentalistic government. If a film wants to provoke that is not necessarily a bad thing. Garbage openly refers to contemporary India. The short living world press has already forgotten horrible events like the genocide in Gujarat and most recently a wave of raping cases. The most known among these cases, the barbaric rape of a young woman in December 2012 changed almost over night India´s rating as a relative safe tourist country into the rate “critical”. For now the exposure of violent, sadistic and masochistic acts in Q´s film is at least understandable. How extreme and excessive one can find that, is another field. But one question remains, the question if it is necessary to shock or torture to approach a certain understanding or even compassion for the victims of violence? Q rather follows the way of Pasolini or Fassbinder in his bold language, while other talented contemporaries from Q´s generation like Konkona Sensharma in her A Death in the Gunj (indeed a total different film on violence and gender identity in India) seems to follow a path between the formal elegance of Hitchcock and Mizoguchi or Pushpendra Singh with Lajwanti whose way of cinema is between the minimalism or petry of Ozu, Straub/Huillet, Renoir and Ford.

It is true, Garbage belongs to the diversity of contemporary Indian cinema. But as it is the only Indian film shown this year selected by the so-called biggest International Film festival that is quite a problem for me because the vanity of this festival imposes that it´s selection is representative for world cinema. This is of course the problem of the festival and not the the problem at the film at all.

The girl who is kept as a slave by the taxi driver (who is a Hindu fundamentalist and a sexual perverse at the same time) is the perfect mediator between the film and the audience. Her chains are visible. Our chains only evident in the film´s bold language, it´s montage and aggressive sound design. For both of us, the slave girl or the audience – there is no way to escape from this film. If her presence evokes empathy or is she just a fellow inmate, that is again another question. My reason not to put Q in the same category like Shekar Kapur and his horrible Bandit Queen or Nagisa Oshima´s awkward overrated Ai no Korida (The Realm of Senses) – both films are speculating only on the sensationalism of the audience - is the access offered by the character of this slave girl. We are captured with her – and she can be read as an agent or even as an Alter Ego of Q himself. As conflicted my relation with Garbage is, I put him in case of doubt rather in context with this despaired almost unbearable but thoroughly honest film by Pasolini.

Despite my discomfort with this film it belongs to the endless discussion of contemporary cinema because it causes a lot of questions about esthetics of cinema, what to and how to show explicit violence or sexuality in cinema or not. The so-called “most political” film festival in the world was here rather inconsequent if not cowardly. They had the option to select Garbage for the competition. But they shifted it instead to the the Panorama, the most disputable and most shapeless section in the long history of this festival. The Panorama is like a black hole – if good or bad films, most of them disappear soon from the public memory. It is symptomatic for the inconsequence of Kosslick´s populistic policy. The irony is hiding a film like Garbage in the Panorama is like a foreboding the film´s fate if it it will be confronted with the equally dubiously institution called Central Board of Indian Cinema.

Rüdiger Tomczak
Fri, 23.2, 20.15, Cubix 7
Sat, 24.2, 22.45, Cinestar 3
Sun, 25.2, 16.00, Zoo-Palast 2

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Notes on Retablo, , by Álvaro Delgado-Aparicio L., Peru:2017,Berlin FilmfestivalVII.-Generation

First of all this is a film, framed often by doors and windows and it offers some time a glimpse to the eternal world and sometimes to a world defined by frames and borders.
At the beginning a group photo of some villagers will be made. The father, a respected artisan who makes altar pieces for churches and little figures made out of clay for tourists has blindfolded his son who is now describing the group of villagers in details to test his visual memory. The colours of their dresses, the woman with the baby in her arm, he recalls details he need for creating an effigy of it. In this very first shot one gets an idea of Aparicio L,´s visual sophistication.

Retablo is not only a film in pure film images but as well a reflection about film images as well. To experience glimpses of reality and to look at the reproductions of it, this is a theme which goes through the whole film.

Subtle but consequently the film leads image after image to the transformation of a contemplative world in the Peruvian Andes into a nightmare of violence and discrimination caused by a man made society. Segundo and his father do not create only well crafted altarpieces for the church and souvenirs for tourists but as well miniatures of tiny little clay puppets based on real villagers. The photo shot in the first scene is the model of a composition of many tiny clay puppets, arranged like on a miniature stage and framed by a wooden box. There is one of the visual most impressing moments of the film: the father and Segundo contemplate their work of art. We see them open the wooden box, their eyes in amazement. Behind them a window framed the landscape and it is like we see both of them staring like on a imagined screen and at the same time we stare over them to another screen. A crossing of two glimpses in different directions. The characters and we, each of us witness how someone sees something. Retablo is indeed a film about seeing.

Retablo seems to be a film about two possibilities of cinema, the recording of a real piece of the world but as well the ability to create a reproduction of it. The impressing cinema scope photography between open landscapes and the emphasis of frames (the image format but as well doors and windows) and sometimes the ensemble of clay figures framed by the wooden box like a stage, always gives a hint to cinema itself. The old utopia of cinema to enable us to discover the world or “to define one´s own image of the world” stays here in contrast to a society which insist on archaic, patriarchic and stiff images of the world.
The actor of the adolescent Segundo, Beyar Roca supports the visual virtuosity of this film. As he mostly remains silent, his questions, doubt and his conflicted and confused emotions are all reflected in his stoic facial expression. It seems to be almost part of this wild and sparse highland environment.

The permanently increasing tragic tone of the film is caused by the father´s secret homosexuality. Once uncovered, he is almost beaten to death by some villagers. His wife abandons him, most of his work is destroyed. The miniature of the village community made out of this tiny clay figures now appears as a hateful, angry and violent mob, the treacherous security of a community turns into a nightmare.

Retablo is a film about freedom but as well about its limitations, both visible in the things the film reveals like houses, doors, - and window frames or animal compounds but as well perceptible the film´s visual concept. Cinema seems sometimes breaks out of this borders and sometimes it reminds us painfully in the existence of these borders we are exposed to.

At the end we are literally left in these borders. Segundo leaves his house and his village to find another place to live and to perform his craft. We are literally left behind into the darkness of the abandoned house when he shut the door from outside, a darkness which is the final caesura between the film and the end credits.

Retablo, the first film by Peruvian Álvaro Delgado Aparicio L. Comes as close to a masterpiece as a first film of a young director can be. For sure, this is one of the finest new films I have seen this year at the Berlin Film festival – and like it happens so often to me – by a fortunate accident.

Rüdiger Tomczak

ScreeningSat, 24.2, 11.00 Cinemaxx 3

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Notes on Premières Solitudes (Young Solitudes) by Claire Simon, France: 2018. Berlin Filmfestival2018-VI.-Forum

It happens not too often in these last years of the Berlin Film festival but it still happens. You see a film without any expectations and to have chosen to see just this very film is often accidental. Such “accidents” are during a festival often the most rewarding. That happened to me just last year when I saw a documentary in the Generation section called Loving Lorna by Annika and Jessica Karlsson. The few information I had from this film sounded interesting to me and I had no idea that it turned out to be one of the most beautiful films I saw last year. And this is still one of the very few advantages of film festivasl.

Premières Solitudes consists mostly on conversations between young students at the eleventh grade of a secondary school in Ivry sur Seine,one of these prosy suburbs of Paris.
Two or three of them meet on a place they feel comfortable with and talk about their lives, their relationship to their parents, love and what they want to do in the future. Most of them are children of divorced parents. Some of them like a young woman born in Nigeria lives with a foster mother. The presence of the camera seems to increase the relaxed atmosphere. Each of the young protagonist feels free what to tell and how. The places where they meet are like niches, places at least one of them likes. One of the miracles in this film is that these conversations seem never forced. As sober and prosaic the film´s initiation point is, it develops later into a little universe of human life with all their stories.

The presence of these young people leads a life of its own. I assume they do not just follow only the filmmaker´s concept, they also perform and it seems they retain the control about what they give away from their privacy and what not. Some very few shots display the landscape of this environment, small traces of nature in this mostly very boring suburb. From time to time the camera finds glimpse of beauty, engrossed places where some of the protagonists are seen often when they meet and talk.
The spirit of security and freedom the film evokes might be fleeting and often in contrast to the awareness that these young people have hardly a chance to talk like that at home with their parents.These fragments of human life appear more and more like landscapes. Except some few moments when nobody speaks, one feels the presence of the camera. But mostly the spectator seems to forget it´s presence like the protagonists.

Days after I have seen this film, my mind is still full of their stories. Claire Simon created a strange
zone where the spectator like the protagonists can move freely. How big the quantity of stories and information really is, I realized long after I have seen the film.
The restraint formal concept of the film or even the illusion of the absence of any formal aspect is of course delusive. The film´s point of view avoids to impost itself as wiser than what it reveals. This point of view gets finally wiser through the experience it makes with this piece of world and as the film proceeds and as the result of experiences it learns permanently. The film beneficiates itself from moment to moment. It is almost like I have seen a film is arising in front of my eyes.
The old problem of documentary which deals with real problems is that one wants to learn as much as possible from these people but at the same time there is the privacy of real people to protect. In Premières Solitudes, it seems the protagonists take this decision in their own hands.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sun, 25.2, 12.30 Arsenal

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Notes on Les Rois Mongols (Cross my Heart) by Luc Picard, Canada: 2017, Berlin Filmfestival2018,V.-Generation

Compared with the more consequent auteurist cinema of Kamila Andini´s impressing Sekala Niskala (The Seen and the Unseen), Luc Picard´s Les Rois Mongols looks rather like mainstream and comes close what we consider as a typical children film. But I am fine with this, the children, - and youth section is always interesting in it´s diversity. Side by side one can find conventional storytelling (which is not by nature a bad thing) and rather experimental cinema like the film by Andini, I mentioned.
Picard refers in his film to a chapter in French-Canadian history which is still hardly known outside of Quebec. The film takes place in the 1970s in Montreal. A radical leftish movement for the independence of Quebec leads to violent confrontations with the central government of Canada. One of the most famous French-Canadian novel, Bonheur d´?ccasion by Gabrielle Roy takes place in St. Henry, a former slum quarter in Montreal during World War 2.
In the 1970s, Montreal was still dominated by the poverty of the french speaking working class. I have a soft spot for this part of French-Canadian history. The 1970s was the time time when a lot of my friends in Quebec lived their early childhood, youth or their live as young adults. My head is full of their stories. My late friend Claude Forget, an activist for Independent cinema told me about this time when Montreal was dominated by soldiers and tanks rolling through the city under Martial Law. My different friends told me a lot what it means to be French-Canadian. A cinematic time travel taking place in a city I often visited can´t leave me indifferent at all.
I even recognized some of the French pop songs used in this film, songs my friends loved in their youth. The main theme of the soundtrack appeared to me as a theme of one of these Quebecer folk songs which can be tracked down to the songs, the first French settlers brought to this once new world.
The Uproar in the 1970s was a big crack in the Canadian union and it is visible until today. In Picard´s film it goes even through families. Forty years ago, Quebec is still beaten by poverty, the social conscience was almost a monopoly of the Catholic church.

The two families, the film is telling about are consequently members of the working class. The young girl Manon´s family is affected by the deadly sickness of her father. The mother is unable to cope with this and Manon´s brother will be sent to a foster family. What will happen with the adolescent girl remains unclear. The other family, is even more split. It is the family of her cousin, a teenage boy, a little one and a grown up young man who sympathizes with the radical group FLQ (Front for the Liberation) and that brings him in conflict with his father. As much as the films spins it´s fiction from this background between drama and elements of a crazy comedy, the fiction sometimes correspondents with the historical background and sometimes it peels away from it. That is necessarily not a disadvantage of the film. During watching this film and days after it, I felt I had two films in my heart, a film about a historical problem which is not solved today and a narration about individual characters exemplary for the forgotten and nameless people who were exposed to the impact of history. Do these two elements are going always together? Probably not, but the tension between history which had an impact on this culture and the conventions of mainstream storytelling is at least interesting. The film has an unusual bitter end anywhere between Chaplin´s Modern Times and Truffaut´s The Quatre-Cent Coups. The characters who suffered under historical circumstances are fading away in their anonymity this injustice of history.
When the film in it´s last moment gets finally rid of all it´s fiction, the after taste of unsolved and unprocessed history – than it appears not anymore as mainstream or conventional as it looks on the first sight.

Rüdiger Tomczak

To speak about the slightly rising presence of French-Canadian cinema on the Berlinale, I can´t hesitate to recognize an irony. If they were some films who broke ground for a wider interest in this very interesting film region than it was some films screened in the last 11 years by true independent filmmaker like Catherine Martin, Richard Brouillette, François Delisle or Chloé Leriche (whose Avant Les Rues was screened at the Generation two years ago).

Wed, 21.2, 15.30, Filmtheater am Friedrichshain
Fri, 23.2, 16.30, Cinemaxx 1

Monday, February 19, 2018

Notes on 11x14 by James Benning, USA: 1977, Berlin Filmfestival2018-IV.-Forum

Cinema can tell stories or just evoke them depending on the imagination of the spectator. Between this very simple statement there are numberless shades of grey. In the Forum-program (the festival presented a restored version blown up on a 35 millimetre print) one can read: “11x14 is film theory in images.”
The more films we see the more books on film we read, over the years a certain accumulation about cinema is approached.
But what is this knowledge actually worth it if it is not paired with impartiality, a fresh mind which still preserve a certain kind of openness? Some years ago, I watched with a friend Benning´s RR, film composed of long static shots about trains passing by. Suddenly a person from the environment of my family came to my mind, someone who has nothing to do with art, avantgarde,- or experimental cinema but who is a passionate lover of everything which has to do with railroad or trains. I can imagine that he would have enjoyed the film at least as much as I did.

The screening of James Benning´s first long film 11x14 is not just a rediscovering of a part of film history but it seems to me as an audiovisual quest for the reason why we love watching films and what fascinates us that we can´t stop staring at the screen. Knowledge is a good thing as long as it does not interfere with a certain curiosity.

There is a long shot taking place in a local driving train on the way over suburbs to a big American city. I felt it was about 8 to 10 minutes long. If there was a cut between this long moment, I have not recognized it. We see a person dozing in front of the front window of this rail car. We can hardly recognize more of this person than a shadow. The front window becomes a screen itself and we see for now nothing else than the landscapes passing by: industrial regions, suburbs. The noise of the rail car sliding on the rails is omnipresent.
At first it looks like a visual demonstration of André Bazin´s thought that the apparatus and the filmmaker retreat in front of what they reveal, the piece of the real world displayed on the railcar´s front window. On the other hand it appears to me as poetry not far away from this long Bob Dylan song which appears at least twice in this film.

I have often thought and occasionally written about the affinity between the mechanical aspect of analog cinema ( both for recording and projecting) and trains, especially in the films by Ozu. Despite the differences in scenes for example like the famous train sequence in Ozu´s Banshun, the train scene in Hitchock´s North By Northwest and their different dealing with time, these moments came back to my mind. While Ozu´s and Hitchcock´s montage creates an artificial time, Benning uses a piece of real time. But despite these differences, all three train moments are intense and unforgettable. The windows of this train finally reveal a piece of world beyond the frame of the film.
The late 70s in Benning´s 11x14 is for me less abstract than Ozu´s post war Japan of the late 40s or Hitchcock´s thriller of the late 50s, because it takes place in my life time. It gives me an idea about time which has passed long ago within my existence.

Cracks in walls and buildings are visible. The noise of trains sliding on their rails is almost an acoustic memory of mine in the 1970s, signs of the fugacity of buildings and machines. The film itself seems like a laborious restored and preserved ruin. The sense for the mortality of all things, which is now nearly disturbed by digital image making devices, is very special here. This is another analogy I often thought the chemical memory of film and the biochemical of living beings.Once recorded the whole art, poetry and idea of a film like 11x14 is depending on the matter on which it is recorded like a human memory from a living body.

Another moment of this film stays with me. It takes place in a kitchen of an elderly couple. On the left side of the frame we see the woman making the dishes, on the right side the man is sitting on a table. Right in the middle of the picture, we see a corridor which leads into the “depth of the image” Another person is sensible at the end of the corridor, probably taking a shower in rooms which are hidden in this shot.This shot emphasizes at the same time the flatness of the film image but also its ability to create an illusion of space. In the same shot the film is what it is but also what it can evoke.

Film keeps time captured like amber”, German filmmaker Winfried Junge once said. The sentence in mind makes each moment in 11x14 unforgettable.

For minutes an image does not show anything but a big factory chimney which is blowing huge masses of smoke into the air. Again the Bob Dylan song. At first it seems like an endless loop of one of these “empty shots” of Ozu but the longer this moment lasts the stronger my feeling for its transience increases. Even though this shot seems to get rid of all traces of “meaning”, it seems very precious to me.

Young people enjoy a picnic in a park. On a big field, we see a combine harvester. This is a film where even the small transitions between every shot is memorable.

And often the films appears to me as a composition of recorded memories as authentic as film can capture memories.

The Austrian Film museum in Vienna restored this film in collaboration with the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin.

Rüdiger Tomczak