By Pamela Biénzobas
Past times were always better, some tend to believe. And past images, too, many cinephiles find themselves sighing about. While such absolute, nostalgic conviction is absurd, footage shot in earlier days does offer an amazing wealth of material to revisit, which manipulated with intelligence and sensitivity may be turned into sublime new works. The 19th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (March 3-12), in northern Greece, made a case for the rich and wonderfully diverse possibilities that archive footage has to offer, showcasing some true gems within its different programs, including a tribute to Italian artists Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian.
With its meta-cinematic historiographical enterprise, Bill Morrison’s delightful Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) found the most obvious home in the Cinema section for its fascinating story of how a treasure of old Hollywood films, some of which were thought to be lost forever, was discovered buried in the former Gold rush town hub of Dawson City, in the Canadian north. The images are edited to illustrate the narration conveyed by a dense text, with such an amount of information and detail that it could have easily been overwhelming, and either boring or migraine-triggering. However, Morrison’s acute sense of storytelling, along with Alex Somers’s original score, turns it all into the most exciting drama for any cinephile, full of plot points and suspense… even though we know the outcome from the start–with the prologue of the filmmaker summing up the facts in a TV show, or by reading any description.
The choice of telling the story through fragments of films (for instance showing a fist-fight where the text is recounting a dispute, and so on) is fundamental: instead of being displayed as inert historical objects, they are once again fulfilling their raison d’être, living and breathing on the screen, inviting us to share emotions and drama; and to learn and reflect –through this concrete case of film reels stocked up and eventually used as landfill in a remote town from which the high cost meant it wasn’t worth sending them back after exhibition– about the concrete material nature of cinema (a lot of nitrate, at the time), its preservation, and how our knowledge and analysis of its determining first decades is certainly defined and diminished by physical and chemical circumstances.
The faux candid from the East
Also dealing with a piece of History, and not the lightest one, Sergei Loznitsa’s 2006 film Blockade (Blokada) was programmed by former director and TDF founder Dimitri Eipides in his Carte Blanche. With the Ukrainian-Belorussian filmmaker’s latest documentary, Austerlitz (2016), screening in the Memory/History program, the festival offered fine examples of his two distinctive approaches to non-fiction.
The latter is in his line of immersive observation through discreet, mostly steady cameras to document the present. Here, for instance, he scrutinises –and mocks, sometimes rather gratuitously– the attitude and behaviour of visitors at the former concentration camps of Dachau and Sachsenhausen, in a tension between past and present in a memorial space. A couple of years earlier, in Maidan (2014), the tension was all in the present, or actually between the present and the immediate future, as his crew immersed their cameras in a space that was so intensely alive that it was permanently struggling with death, and pointed them mostly “behind the scenes” of the spectacular events. This gesture seems to pursue a semblance of neutral recording, in which the director’s gaze and bias is effaced –whereas of course it is skillfully realising the opposite operation.
Blokada, on the other hand, is an example of Loznitsa’s other strategy to fabricate this illusion of neutral documentation, by molding a very different material: archive footage. A more recent example is his 2015 title The Event (Sobytie), about the “August Coup” of 1991 against Mikhail Gorbachev. Having followed the putsch attempt far from Russia, the filmmaker later gathered archive material (images by a team of cameramen from Saint Petersburg Documentary Film Studio, and audio from separate sources) to propose a “reconstruction” of those determining hours that changed, or at least accelerated, the fate of the Soviet Union, as they were experienced in Saint Petersburg.
The streets of the same city are portrayed in Blokada, but the procedure is fundamentally different. Instead of dealing with a brief, condensed and previously-known dramatic development that received worldwide attention and coverage, for his 2006 film about the Siege of Leningrad, Loznitsa had to dig through archives to gather footage shot six decades earlier by a wide range of camerapeople, in order to “reconstruct” the daily routines of a dreadful period that lasted years (1941 to 1944). As in Maidan, though in this case not through his crew’s camera position but through his selection of footage, he chooses to show us the “backstage” of the usual narrative about the war drama, with its grand events and heroes. Blokada is about the everyday life, about the common people going on with their business, sharing the city with other common people now lying dead on the streets. And since daily life is not silent (like the footage), but this time Sergei Loznitsa had no audio archive to try to match the images like in The Event, what he did was create a naturalistic soundtrack that melts seamlessly into a mirage of what could have been a film-journal of life under siege.
Look back, film forward
In a questionable choice of program organisation, the TDF put together an extremely short and uneven new section under the general title of Film Forward. It comprised three disparate films screened together, and two separate retrospectives proposed by other instances. The choice seemed to respond to a fear of the audience feeling alienated by films of a less conventional nature, as the term “experimental” was underlined once and again as a warning.
In the triple-bill, alongside the less outstanding shorts from Portugal A Praia (Pedro Neves) and Layla & Lancelot (Joana Linda) (which did not benefit from the program structure), was one of the festival’s most brilliant pieces: Stuart A. Staples’s Minute Bodies: The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith (2016), which has not travelled much after its première last October at the London Film Festival.
Staples, a.k.a. Tindersticks’s frontman, has worked in cinema for a long time, and is especially known for the band’s compositions for the films of Claire Denis. But he has also signed a few creations of his own, alone or in cooperation, such as some of the videos of Tindersticks’s “audiovisual album” Waiting Room. For this delicate 54-minute piece screened in Thessaloniki, other than the very few texts that give a bit of context and structure, virtually all the images we see were either manufactured (in the case of a few animations) or captured by F. Percy Smith, a scientific “enthusiast”, as Staples describes him, who in the 1920s-30s used microscopic lenses to film the “minute bodies” of nature, sharing them through a popular educational film series.
Stuart A. Staples composes with those images and with the original score created by Tindersticks (joined by Christine Ott and Thomas Belhom) and ode to the unseen wonders of nature, to the beauty of the life that strives as we naively and arrogantly foster the illusion that we rule this world, oblivious to what is so tiny that our limited eyes cannot see. Paying homage to F. Percy Smith, who shared the candid awe of discovering this microscopic universe, Minute Bodies creates a touching, inspiring and enchanting trip through the most abstract and concrete –a trip through nature and art.
Oh, barbaric world
Apart from those three titles associated in one screening, the Film Forward umbrella also comprised the retrospective Short Doc Experiments Oberhausen, from the German festival, and one of the 19th TDF’s most potent programs: a small sample of the work of Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian proposed by documenta 14 (to be held this year both in Kassel and Athens).
The brief line-up included single screenings of the short film Nocturne (1997) and of the superb features Balkan Inventory (2000), Images of the Orient: Vandal Tourism (2001), Oh! Uomo (2004) and Barbaric Land (2013), plus an introductory video with the pair presenting themselves and explaining their work in a truly open and accessible manner. Both for the first-time viewer and for those familiar with their work, it is enlightening to discover the technical procedure behind it, and see how they treat film with their “analytical camera” device: the original footage is now the object to be manipulated at the new authors’ will. They can stay on and zoom in to images, change the tempo of a sequence, introduce repetitions, colours and other effects.
Though limited, the selection gave a global idea of their practice, which is characteristically based on re-sculpting archive material. But not exclusively, as Nocturne proved. Their 18-minute short was mostly shot during the war in different parts of the former Yugoslavia, observing, or rather spying on private night-life, though it also incorporates older recordings and damaged footage of an erotic film from decades ago, as well as their equally characteristic inclusion of quotes from international literature –in this case verses by Baudelaire. These images of Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb, mostly living (and not just surviving) despite the wars that have torn the Balkans once and again, create a tension between what we know, what we see, and what we expect to see.
This tension is at the heart of their trademark usage of old footage, either anonymous or from archives, which most often convey an utterly Euro-centric and violently colonialist vision of man (such as the Italy’s intrusion in Africa in Pays Barbare (Barbaric Land) or the British arrogance in India in Images of the Orient: Vandal Tourism), and also remind us of the unspeakable brutality of war and its physical, bodily consequences.
Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi dismantle these images’ previous status as a “document” and question the hegemonic discourse that European history and present identity (as well as the European narrative of the world) are based on, through their formal manipulations highlighting its atrocities and absurdities, or confronting it with the ideas of artists and philosophers (Henri Michaux, Mircea Eliade…) either through text printed on the screen or sung dramatically.
The couple’s approach to memory is a visceral refusal to forget, to accept and to normalize a vision of history that tries to classify our abominations as unquestionable facts belonging to the past. By bringing them back to the present through their plastic interventions, by staring once again, with dignity and respect, into the eyes of those who lived and suffered, by reminding us that “documents” are fabrications, Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi reintroduce the fundamental strangeness that allows outrage and moral revolt.