Birds = Sparrows
War = Afghanistan
We’re looking at a marshland, moody green at sunset, our view bracketed top and bottom by wood planks. We’re looking at a beach with two scantily clad people (one thin, one fat) staring out at the sea, the image cut horizontally by a high fence. We’re looking at a large grey bird, a heron, in a parking lot. It hesitates, stops, then moves its head back and forth, it’s movements jagged but graceful. A cat crosses behind him, – will there be blood?
Landscape Suicide, Jeanne Dielmann, Shoah, these are films that leave the viewer looking, for a very long time, at what appear to be blank vistas. These are not examples of sloppy films, left flabby and quasi-unedited. In each of these films the intentionality of the filmmaker is clear: ‘I want you to look at this space, this frame, for a very long time.’ These films don’t point out exactly where we’re supposed to look in the frame, or why. Neither do they tell us what to think. The effect, if one enters into watching them openly, is uncanny. We are not, in the movies, accustomed to spending time with ourselves, our thoughts, our questions. What are we supposed to make of this time, this space – where a murder may have been committed, where this character passes her hours, days, years, where atrocities occurred and could possibly occur again.
Philip Scheffner’s new film The Day of the Sparrow/Der Tag des Spatzen offers us a series of landscapes as well as a series of questions. The one most directly and frequently asked:
Is Germany at war?
The implied question – if it is, where, in Germany, can we see, can we verify this?
The film starts with a story, told in several matter of fact sentences, of a sparrow shot down in the Netherlands on Domino Day in 1994, after disrupting the proceedings by knocking over 23,000 out of 4 million dominos. It then tells another story of a German soldier dying in Afghanistan. We then proceed to watch, over the course of this 100-minute film, a collection of German landscapes co-inhabited by birds and the German military.
At first a landscape seems mute and bucolic, until the soundtrack is filled with the sound of a low flying fighter plane. Is Germany at war? There are architectural or structural traces of the military - we see a do not enter sign, we see a radar installation, we see a modest rectangular concrete building, a guard’s station, inside a silhouette of a man turns to peer out at us. The sense is that of distance and then suddenly a slightly diminishing distance.
Then the film discovers a more human trace of this war. We hear the disembodied voice of an ex-soldier, a cook that had been stationed in Afghanistan, speaking about his exeriences. A step closer. Someone who has been ‘there.’ Later, in the only instance of on camera speech, we meet a friend of the director who has been tried and sentenced for an act of ‘terrorism’ in protest against the war. The film, the war moves one large step closer again, not only through us seeing a person directly involved, but also through raising the possibility of action – of someone doing something in an attempt to stop the war.
People talk about the end of the power of the image, the end of the documentary, the end of the camera, the over saturation of images that have become meaningless. I am of the belief that there is not a crisis in the documentary genre or in image making in general. Or if there is a crisis, the crisis is in us, the viewers, the society. We seem to be willing ourselves into blindness, into amnesia, and into a justification for our not-wanting-to-see. So it is unsettling but not surprising that we don’t value seeing and documenting. Rather than trying to look as directly as possible at what is going on around us, we have a desire not to know, not to see.
Now is the time to shoot – to preserve, to record but most of all as a tool to try to comprehend and take control over the changes going on around us. Are we at war? What is happening in this landscape? 100 minutes in a hushed cinema is not nearly long enough to ponder these questions.