By Monica Delgado
A new (online) edition of Berlin Critic’s Week (Woche der Kritik) took place from March 7 to 27. Woche der Kritik is organized annually by the German Film Critics Association (Verband der deutschen Filmkritik), within the framework of the Berlinale, in order to contribute to the debate on cinema.
In this 2021 edition, directed by Denis Vetter, double programs of films and conferences were proposed, with a specific agenda or theme, such as coherent action versus a cinema of incoherence, proposed in his keynote debate on two dates relevant to the current context, where concepts such as the autonomy of cinema, political correctness and cancellations, or cinema seen from militant and activist interests, are still very much current topics.
Beyond the dialogues, urgent and opportune to think and rethink critical work, I am interested in addressing the reflection the role of criticism from curatorship or programming, that is formed from tension or dialectics. The selection of films, both of long and short format, in double programs -as has been the case for some years this week- makes it possible to identify certain stylistic or aesthetic elements put into dialogue or correspondence, but also to make visible possible tensions or discussions about different points of view, places of enunciation and representations distilled in these works.
In the Facing Traces program, two films came together, the feature length El cielo es rojo (2020) by Chilean filmmaker Francina Carbonell, and the short film by Indian-American artist and filmmaker Suneil Sanzgiri, Letter From Your Far-off Country (2020) . Both works establish a memory recovered or reconstituted from the archive material, from vestiges that return the opportunity to resist injustices, to confront absolute truths. In Carbonell’s film, the underlying topic is atrocious: the film gathers videos from surveillance cameras, photos and testimonies, as well as court reports and sentences, to question a ruling that reduces criminal responsibilities in a fire with more than 80 deaths in a crowded prison, in 2010. The setting is the San Miguel prison in Chile, a space which is entered and registered, to attest the precarious situation, but also to invalidate any hint of a panopticon in a saturated, impoverished environment, where the police or other control establishments seem to have little interference.
Carbonell shows the evidence in detail, that is, her documentary is not a mere vehicle to show this fire as an accident, but rather she undertakes a task to report a crime against humanity. Her resources are a kind of “habeas corpus” sustained in images that were manipulated by the police, in the gaps of the judicial files, where the deceased prisoners and their families seem to be outside any idea of ??justice. Thus, the prison appears as an extension of policies that punish oblivion, or as a product of opportunistic and dehumanized private management strategies. Although the film needs shocking moments to achieve a confrontational effect, especially in the observation of details of bodies and victims, there is a direct intention to show an inhuman system that does not fulfill a social function, but rather an annihilating end.
While in Letter From Your Far-off Country, filmmaker Suneil Sanzgiri also resorts to the archive, but for a more intimate, but no less political, execution. From the epistolary tone, the director proposes a return to the figure of a relative, a Marxist leader, in times of territorial struggle in Kashmir. He takes inspiration from a letter from the writer Agha Shahid that tries to renew his family bond – new, recreated – with Communist Party activist and trade unionist in Maharashtra, Prabhakar Sanzgiri, whom he did not know.
The film begins with digital mountains that reflect a space that no longer exists, like the character that Suneil Sanzgiri wants to recover. Using a montage like a collage, with WhatsApp images and daily records of cities and towns, temples and streets in 16mm, the filmmaker assembles an idea from memory, which is at the same time a question of activism and manifestos lost in time. Unlike Carbonell’s film, the memory in Sanzgiri’s short works as a space to be elaborated from scratch, that is, in the absence of more exact records of the relative and his activism, an appeal is made to show a way out, from a eclectic and fluid form: the physiognomy of memories.
Although the relationship of style in both films, from the documentary plot, the investigation and the reconstruction of history and memory from archives is evident, it could be said that there is an ethical aspect in the approach, both from the question of identity, such as creating a more just and proper territory from the exodus or exile. Putting them in dialogue allows us to recognize this diversity and creative decisions of their authors, despite geographic and political differences.
In another way, in the Playat program, a different exercise of correspondence between films appears. Both the Cambodian short Sunrise in my mind (2020) by Danech San, and the Mexican film Fauna (2020), by Nicolás Pereda, propose ties from a policy of acting. From these two fictions, the characters that are designed from metatextual discourses, especially in Fauna, allow us to explore style maneuvers and games based on dialogues, and of course, the use of ellipsis as a vital element in both works. The gaze of the filmmaker Danech San rests on the mood, dispassionate tone with echoes of some Tsai Ming Liang’s characters, while in Pereda’s film, the development of the characters seems to be in an abyss, a story within of the story, to account for an inextricable relationship between truth and fiction. Also, both films test realistic representations (although everything looks stylized), to account for climates, strange environments.
While the program that make up the comedies Dracula Sex Tape (202o) by Canadian Olivier Godin and Red Post on Escher Street (2020) by the famous Sion Sono, seeks to provoke a dialogue between two criticisms. Both films, also with metatextual intentions, question the agency of the characters, as a game very much in the line of Pirandelo with his characters in search of the author. If in the feature film by Sion Sono, the extras rebel against their status as eternally ignored in the history of cinema, in the short by Godin, a character calls into question the musings of a filmmaker who wants to adapt Dracula to different sensibilities (necolonial and of political correctness) of new times. Irony and self-confidence.
This curatorial exercise of the Berlin Critic’s Week from the processes of criticism, in the selection and dialogue of films, allows to measure the temperature of positions and functions of the writing or reflection process, and puts it in relation to different cinematographies and from authorial voices in times when more meetings of this type are necessary. A curatorship not to affirm, but to question. An uncomfortable position.