Posted: February 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Berlinale 2010, Filmmakers | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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.

Cinema City

Posted: February 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Berlinale 2010, Screenings | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

A strange decision for a film festival, but aside for the obligatory duties connected with having a film here (note to self: show up for own screenings) I’ve decided to privilege live people (friends, panels, film events with people attached) over sitting in a dark room watching flickering images.

In this way I was happily swept into a panel discussion on the ongoing project CINEMA CITY, represented at the festival by several films and a series of installations dotting the city.  A multi-disciplinary, multi-year research project, it maps the interplay between Bombay, cinema, history, imagination, desire.

The panel was moderated by Nicole Wolf, a writer and academic whose specialty is Indian films, and included Madhusree Dutta, a true force of nature (there was a ripple of laughter each time she grabbed the microphone) the curator of the Cinema City project, who is also a filmmaker, activist filmmaker, researcher, producer and activist; Dorothee Wenner, filmmaker, journalist, one of the film programmers of the Forum section of the Berlinale, and perhaps the person most responsible for the current interest in Indian film in Germany today; and the architect and educator Rohan Shivkumar, among others.

There’s no way to sum up the topics covered in the panel – two things that struck me:

The impossibility of separating out the history of Bombay from the history of its cinema.  Those who wrote, the educated upper class, were not interested in the changes occurring in the lives of the populace that surrounded them.  But Bollywood was. Without Bollywood, there would be few records of the human history of its difficult modernization.  There’s no other city (over-filmed New York included) whose collective and individual imagination appears to be so tied to the way its been portrayed on film.

A woman’s voice, speaking a haunting line, imperfectly remembered, from the end of one of the short films screened:  How does desire die?  When not even one desire is fulfilled they all start to fade away. When even one is fulfilled all the others come awake….

It’s 4:26 am, far too late to be typing this.

Phantom Lady on Light Boxes: Performance Photography (Pushpamala N)

“When the film image comes alive like a planet in the night sky of the theatre, it seems to behave like a dream that our sleep projects: it releases itself from its moorings, the strings, needles, threads, and labouring breaths that have struggled to get it life. This project is an attempt to moor that image again. To also look at the labour that takes the needled thread through the cotton wad and makes a bed for fantasy.” Cinema City catalogue

Making Movies out of Sex and Life

Posted: February 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Art, Filmmakers, Screenings | Tags: , , , , | No Comments »

Last year I missed seeing Barbara Hammer receive a TEDDY (the ‘official queer award of the Berlin International Film Festival) for her moving film A Horse is Not a Metaphor. She writes in this year’s TEDDY journal how the award launched a year of celebration, which has produced a new film, upcoming retrospectives at MoMA (September, 2010) and Tate Modern (2010/2011), and a new book ready for prominent display (booksellers please note). The ending of her entry, which is true Barbara Hammer in its energy and enthusiasm:

‘Long live the TEDDY! Long live the FORUM EXPANDED, the FORUM and PANORAMA! Long live the BERLINALE! Long live me!’


Posted: February 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Screenings, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | No Comments »

Interview with Radio Eins on short films.  Before my turn with the charismatic host, Maike Mia Höhne, the tireless director of the Shorts Competition, was asked about the status of the short film form:  ‘Should short films be considered ‘real.’” She diplomatically talked about the huge amount of submissions she received and the quality and interest of her program.  (At a film festival like this, where narrative features have the privileged spot, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the amount of films in the shorts competition that aren’t ‘calling card’ films – made with no other raison d’être than to gain the director the budget to make a feature.  I think of this as the disease of (spread by?) most film schools.)

I took the chance, at the end of my interview (I’m learning the benefits of holding on to a microphone when one is handed to me) to risk the prediction that the traditional feature film form (unless one is working in James Cameron steroid 3-d) is on the wane and that the short film is in its ascendancy, what with YouTube, Vimeo and David Lynch ranting about the dangers of watching a feature film on a cell phone (with an official or non-official iPhone tag and ending with a nice use of the word Fucking)
Then the interview was over and the booth was filled with familiar but unrecognizable pop music.

I’m not saying that these short films will necessarily all be good films, but this idea/formula that an optimal film is 86 minutes seen in a dark cinema where the popcorn costs $6.00 and the plot is developed in the first 10 minutes (etc) may no longer hold.  I’m pretty sure that Hollywood is running scared.

An observation – a wide range of budgets and shooting formats evident, and much of the festival is being projected digitally – a far cry from the not so distant past when ‘film’ festivals wouldn’t consider screening a video, or a film for that matter, unless it was on 35mm.

Some things are changing quickly and some things are not changing quickly…

An image of the main table of the temporary stall set up in the lobby of the Arsenal Theater by B-Books, a wonderful Berlin bookstore (and publisher).  All interesting filmmakers.  All men.

Watching a film far from home…

Posted: February 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Screenings | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

After a series of delayed and canceled flights, I arrived in Berlin thinking that traveling like this is both exhausting and questionable.  Yet after the screening of 5 lessons last night (sold out audience of 500, the magic of a large film festival) I realize that the process of making a film isn’t completed until I voyage with it. I’m thinking about:

The position of the viewer – how a  film tries to/positions the viewer in different ways (insider/outsider/voyeur/participant/implicated/fly on the wall/passive/active)

The position the viewer wants to be in (hard to fight this)

Is there a way to get around an audience’s tendency when watching films that are not set in their own backyards and in their own language, to watch with a passive/removed curiosity? (A desire to be educated, or perhaps titillated?)  This question is increasingly important, in these times of economic (etc.) interconnectedness.  In 5 lessons, I try, using a profusion of voices, of  I’s, Us’s, We’s to complicate this.   Does it work?  There was one comment from the audience last night on the globalization of gentrification, so this part may have hit home.

I was glad to hear the end chorus (which I had originally wanted to repeat ad infinitum) YOU ARE A PART OF IT, filling the space, first in Cantonese then Mandarin then English, and finally in a mess of all three.  Missing was German.  A fantasy idea – not completely impractical – to make a different edit for each screening.

Above, an off-topic image taken at breakfast which I shot thinking of Ed Bowes and Vermeer.  Is the light softer in the Netherlands?

International Premiere at Berlin Film Festival

Posted: January 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Screenings | Tags: , , , , , , | No Comments »

5 lessons and 9 questions about Chinatown will have its European premiere at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival, Shorts Competition in February 2010.  For more information visit the Berlin Film Festival website.