#18 Mahagonny

22 January – 2 February 2003

In his introduction to the program guide, Simon Field sets out an ambitious agenda for the Rotterdam Film Festival. Borrowing from the name of the recurring Festival debates he writes: “Every festival should ask itself ‘what (is) cinema?…” The question is at first tedious, like the introductory lesson for first-year film theory (the one after which half of the students leave). But Rotterdam’s audiences are hardy types. They greet the heaviest of philosophical questions with enthusiasm, and bundle themselves up warmly while waiting in the cold for tickets. They respond emphatically to what they see – laughing, clapping, and walking out of the theater. It is in the response of the audience that you begin to perceive the heart of the question: what is cinema but the experience of cinema? Through the viewer’s eyes you catch a cinema reinventing itself, continually reborn. To ask what is cinema is, in an instant, to catch a glimpse of something passing blurrily before you.

In this particular moment the field was as vast as it’s ever been and with over 500 films screened in a period of 11 days, festival-goers were faced with the maddening task of choosing among them, by whatever methodology – talking with other attendants, selecting films at random, hoping for films not yet sold out. The result was an act of navigation; each person’s own answer to the question of what is cinema.

The dialogue I heard at Rotterdam concerned itself with the language of cinema, or how we talk about things. With the insistent weight of current events, the Dutch general elections, the Columbia tragedy, and President Bush’s State of the Union Address all taking place during the course of the Festival, it seemed fitting that so much emphasis be placed on documenting the real. This year’s experimental and crossover art Exploding Cinema program, “[based upon] TRUE STORIES,” featured not the documentary film but the problem of documentary film, that is the problem of representation. The tension in its title (always present in parenthetical or bracketed statements) erupts from the gap between what happened and what happens again, re-presented in a different state. “The history of testimony,” Jacques Derrida says in the biographical Derrida (Kirby Dick & Amy Ziering Kofman, 2002), “excludes the intervention of the recording device.” Derrida himself struggles with the presence of the recording device, hiding as much as he tells, visibly withdrawing into the private life that he so openly (but distantly) describes. In one scene, seated with his wife Marguerite, he denies the possibility of a full answer as to the question of how they met. “You’re not going to get very much out of us,” he laughs. In this moment, it is not only the facts of the event that obscure its meaning, but his refusal to give entry to the camera. Even later, upon viewing footage of the same scene, he marvels at the “incredible confidences” shared between him and his wife.

De l'autre côté

Chantal Akerman joins the conversation with De l’autre côté (2002), a study of the heavily patrolled US-Mexico border and the disruptions across it. The film takes three forms, one as a feature-length film and two as installations. One installation combines all three: projected on a gallery wall, it displays the projection of another film onto a billboard somewhere in the stark American Southwest, presumably near the Mexican border. The billboard projection begins at dawn. The image within travels from the driver’s seat along a westbound US highway. Akerman reads two passages, alternating each with an infrared surveillance shot of captured Mexicans, viewed from a distance, anonymous white bodies on a black landscape. As the day brightens, the image fades. The story of what truly happened, if it can be glimpsed at all, vanishes with the light.

The Lost Film (2002), by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joriege, North Circular (2000) by Mark Lewis, and Daylight Moon (2002), by Lewis Klahr, suggest that the only way their stories can be told is through cinema. Journeying to Yemen where a copy of their film had mysteriously disappeared, the two Lebanese filmmakers of The Lost Film search through a country where film viewing is considered by many to be a sin, and the few cinemas that remain in existence grow fewer every year. Hadjithomas and Joriege film every moment of their trip, from the airplane safety card to the image of a theatre manager shyly backing away from the camera. It grows increasingly clear that they are less concerned about their film than the land in which it was lost, so hostile to the recorded image. Speaking over the images, they remark that they were unable to return after the events of 9/11, and in a way their regret is an expression of a lost country, a land now impenetrable to film. The final irony comes in the delivery of cut scenes, saved by the censors, the only traces of their film to have remained. North Circular involves a dramatic zoom into the window of a distant and mostly abandoned building. A Wavelength with wings, the film employs the camera as its principal actor, gliding into view of a miniscule spinning top. Daylight Moon is a series of animated and cut-out scenes that also reveal something of an embedded narrative. Set against a grid pattern background, the textures of fifties domesticity, the images bear symbolic weight: a safe, a car, a radio. Classic Hollywood movie voices play on the soundtrack, and are then broken. There is an implacable feeling of nostalgia, or the trapping of the personal within a highly structured network of consumer products. The safe, the car, and the radio become totemic, the signs by which a culture identifies and amplifies itself. With the final image, a human figure emerges from the shadows, hunched over on the hood of the car. It is a revelatory moment, though slight, and through it all else is seen and retold.

Several films dramatize the way in which cinema could intervene in a story not to obstruct it, as with Derrida or De l’autre côté, but to affect the outcome of its events. Onibus 174 (2002), by José Padilha, depicts the succession of events leading up to the seizure of a public bus in Rio de Janeiro in 1990, and moreover the media’s role in the tragic outcome of the situation. The commentary, composed of interview with SWAT operatives, policeman, witnesses, hostages, and sociologists, among others, continually touches upon the presence of the media in helicopters and on foot. Live coverage meant that everyone was watching and judging the actions of the police and moreover, it meant that the terrorist, a street kid with nothing to lose, could broadcast his own kind of message. “You think this is a movie?” he demands out the window, while inside he insists that to stay safe, the hostages continue to act desperate and afraid. But at the point when the terrorist leaves the bus (or, as it were, the stage), the play-acting is definitively and gruesomely over.

Kobayashi Takahiro’s Home (2001) illustrates a different kind of intervention: the filmmaker travels home to a terminally ill grandmother, a manic-depressive mother, and a reclusive brother to, as he puts it, save his family with his camera. The task is formidable, to say the least, and as Takahiro admits, he can’t face it without the camera. After an incident in which his mother begs him, sobbing, to turn off the camera, he turns it on himself to question whether he is helping at all. His touch is sensitive, caring, but above all else resolved, and he returns to her to gently explain that he will not stop filming even if she asks him to. The camera, as the program notes describe, “opens an air hole for the deadlocked family.” Takahiro begins a dialogue with his brother who miraculously changes from an unresponsive presence behind a locked door to a son who, speaking to his mother, promises to stop beating her. In the film’s final moments the brother, who has secretly taken hold of the camera, films a parting remark. He explains himself lucidly, though with pain, and the event of recording, of being heard, gives him the impetus to reenter the world after five years of seclusion. Looped as an installation, Angela Ricci Lucchi and Vervant Giankian’s Terra Nullius (2002), which refers to the label “No-man’s land” given to Aboriginal territory in Australia, has a similar project of restoring, through cinema, a presence otherwise denied. Through footage of early British settlers tending ostrich farms and building cities, alongside scenes of Aborigines in western clothing wielding boomerangs and attempting to kindle a fire, Terra Nullius weaves a story of erasure and denial back into the documentary footage of the time.

Psalm III: Night of the Meek

The backward glance is literally scratched into films such as Phil Solomon’s Psalm III: Night of the Meek (2002) and Cécile Fontaine’s Boy’s Best Friend (2002). In Psalm III: Night of the Meek, images of film monsters – Frankenstein, the Golem, and M, among others – ripple and fade against a windy soundtrack. The celluloid has seen violence done to it, and seeing it is like watching film stock that had been trampled and buried in the ground: zombie film, literally. Boy’s Best Friend similarly breaks down a shooting lesson, a man teaching a boy to shoot a rifle, posed as “the solution to juvenile delinquency.” It’s like watching it all go wrong, but in present time. The film buckles and warps, eating away at the side of the instructor’s face and washing away his words. These films feel like relics, revelatory objects of warnings viewed too late. The centrifugal force of Leslie Thornton’s Paradise Crushed (2002) tells the story of life on earth rapidly dissociating through a haunting accumulation of children’s stories (the darker ones made by children themselves), accounts of nuclear burn victims, atomic bomb explosions, and the shattering impact of sound on matter. As one scrolling line of text reads, “a certain bird with bright eyes, mistaking the light for its mate, rose up and suddenly struck the sky.” It is a loss of innocence, but of a particular and violent nature: Thornton’s own father and grandfather were both involved in the Manhattan project and could find few ways to speak to each other in those terms. The culpability stems from inside, at the center, and radiates outward.

Tu, sempre (2002), by yann beauvais, reads backward through a catalogue of voices, both written and spoken: text streaming backwards, forwards, up and down, and in three languages. The film maps out a linguistic terrain of HIV/AIDS discourse and in doing so, reshapes the history of awareness and understanding of the disease. The result is visually polyphonic, though what emerges are the voices of the previously unheard: the others bound to “absences repetés.” Given room to speak they overwhelm one another, multiple voices sounding at once, and together they insist that the history of HIV/AIDS that we came to know was never the only one. Yet changing our understanding of the disease does not reduce its toll. Like tombstone epitaphs, the figuring of language suggests that the bodies are long gone and the voices we hear are merely echoes of those that were or might have been.

With Current (2001), a short video and installation piece by Brian Doyle, history is likewise re-registered, though in this case it appears as a prefiguration. Shot during the 2000 Yankee ticker-tape parade in New York City, the film features a flurry of paper caught in a storm in lower Manhattan: toilet paper caught on skeletal tree branches, cyclones of paper funnelling up to the sky, no people whatsoever. Though the film was shot a year prior, the eerie, desolate images of Current fix themselves within the context of our memories of 9/11. Current resists being understood as anything other than the uncanny echo of an event yet to unfold. Circling Zero: Part One, We See Absence (2002) is different. It goes straight to the heart of that connection, the true camera-eye of not a filmmaker but a witness, or a participant in the tragic events of 9/11. Ken Jacobs and his family document what they see, refusing to edit footage so as to keep the eye open, registering the immediate shock and its gradual ebb into grief. Unlike the polished and repetitive news footage we have become accustomed to seeing, Jacobs’ footage is like the first few moments: jaw-dropping shock, absolute silence. He wanders through lower Manhattan filming police barricades, signs posted for missing relatives, and candlelight vigils. This is a story that is not glossed over into a panache of heroes or memorials, but one told raw, from the inside, which is to say that it is not a story at all. As I was leaving the theater following the screening, the Canal+ team, who had earlier passed out cards for the audience to rate the film, attempted to collect the card from a woman in front of me. “I can’t give you this,” she said. “How could I rate a film like this?”

Ken Jacobs’ son Azazel offered a different view of New York with Nobody Needs to Know (2003), a story about a struggling actress trying to figure it all out. With a playful narration and drifty, poetic scenes, its spirit is a throwback to the heady downtown Bohemia captured in Robert Frank and Albert Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (1959). Simon Pummell presented an exhaustive catalogue of film history with Bodysong (2003). Charting the major categories of birth, growth, sex, violence, death, and dreams, the film (and companion website) flips through archival footage, home movies, scientific videos and all forms of moving images to present (no less than) the universal human experience. More than the heterogeneous juxtapositions and musical cues, which often feel superficial, it is the images that speak for themselves, reveling in their own moments. Another nod to film history, Go West, Young Man (2003), by Peter Delpeut and Mart Dominicus, celebrates the grandeur and laments the un-magnificent fade of the American Western. The most telling scene occurs at John Ford’s Point in Monument Valley, Arizona, where a gaggle of tourists, mostly European, have gathered to marvel at the site of their imaginations, born in such films as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Stagecoach. The moment is distinctly odd in the way that the majestic John Ford’s Point of Stagecoach could never have allowed for a group of tourists wearing cameras and shorts: their adoration of the films excludes them.

Meanwhile a Butterfly Flies

Perhaps the fondest homage paid was to Jonas Mekas in Julius Ziz’s Meanwhile a Butterfly Flies (2002). In contrast with the guarded Jacques Derrida, who admitted to wearing different clothes for the shoot, Ziz shows Mekas in the lonely late hours of his editing studio, accordian in hand and joyfully singing. Mekas, who filmed much of his life in his signature diary films, enjoys a candid intimacy with Ziz and the camera, dancing in front of a hat at Anthology Film Archives (“that’s how we support avant-garde cinema – hard work!”), putting an ear to the snow in his native Lithuania (“now I am home”), and musing on his life in film (“cinema is my five continents”). Meanwhile a Butterfly Flies is a testament to motion, the ways in which even the smallest event can touch everyone and everything, and Mekas, the grandfather and keeper of American independent film, is ever buoyant in this loving portrait. Another giant of American avant-garde cinema, Harry Smith, made his mark with the newly restored #18 Mahagonny (1980), a film in four mirrored frames set to the Weill and Brecht opera of the same name. Mixing stop-motion animation, odd diagonals of passersby on Manhattan streets, portraits, and a gusty German score, Smith delivers a delirious, drunk and rowdy palette of acoustic and visual noise. Prior to the screening, the director of the Harry Smith Foundation, Rani Singh, read from one of Smith’s grant proposals for the film, in which he declared his intention of “translating the opera to a universal script based on the aspirations of people of the earth together.” The bold words were met with lively applause, and the crowd stayed equally responsive through the entire three-hour film. Ian Helliwell’s Chromaburst (2002), a hand-painted film reminiscent of Chagall’s stained glass windows and Agustin Gimel’s 1305 (2001), a pinhole view of a pulsing blue ocean intercut with flashes of lightening, were likewise stunning testaments to the purely visual pleasures of cinema. Nathaniel Dorsky took that experience to a spiritual level with The Visitation (2002), a gentle meditation on the marvels of ordinary life: light weaving through a lawn sprinkler, travel across a shower curtain, and the slow unveiling of the moon.

At the true heart of Rotterdam, then, lies not theory but the true appreciation for cinema in all its forms. Two breathtaking CineMart Projects, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Heremakano (2002) and Dagur Kari’s Noi Albinoi (2003) tell familiar stories in completely surprising ways. In each the narrative unfolds through a series of simple gestures, and set against the dramatic climates of the African desert (Heremakano) and a remote Icelandic fjord (Noi Albinoi), they are ordinary and allegorical all at once. Stephen Kijak and Angela Christlieb’s eccentric and endearing Cinemania (2002) chronicles the lives of five cinephiles in New York City, detailing their eating habits, scheduling predicaments, projection gripes, and all aspects of a life dedicated entirely to cinema. The documentary veers dangerously close to making a spectacle out of its characters. “Who would want to live in this reality?” they ask, a question ripe for psychoanalysis. But when two of them sit down to watch a classic Hollywood musical, laughing and wiping away tears, you know that the center of this film is not character study, but the love of cinema. In such moments they are like every member of the (Rotterdam) audience. What makes them fascinating is not their neuroses but, in the context of a festival, the way the problems they regularly face mimic ours: what films to choose, when to eat, etc. The irony, however, is flung back to the filmmakers themselves. After all, as one character explains, “we’re the people that these great films are being made for.”