By Pamela Cohn
In 2015, I attended the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen as a member of a seminar the festival had inaugurated a year earlier. A collaboration between the festival, LUX Moving Image in UK, and the Flaherty Seminar in New York, the Oberhausen Seminar presented itself as a loose think tank with the festival itself our main specimen of research, effectively forming a de facto focus group to reflect the festival back to itself. We were tasked with hosting the last podium session, podiums being talks and debates about various subjects of interest to the attendees – on archival work, on curation, film criticism, theory, etc. A loose poll among the thirty seminarians revealed that almost every single one of us felt we were working on the periphery of some virtual center of the film and art worlds; we not only aspired to be on the fringes outside of whatever was drawing the most attention, we could possibly make an art form out of it. These will be the people programming and writing about work made in, literally, the far corners of the world “where nothing happens”, bringing a small spotlight to films, short and long, that would otherwise languish. Thus, as a diehard Peripherian now and forevermore, I will be reporting from the fringes of the megaton Berlinale. I want to cross borders that show me more of this aching world we live in now, away from the blinkeye superficial visions from mainstream and social media. That’s where I find escapism and solace, believe it or not.
As an amuse-bouche, I started with a pre-premiere press screening from the main program of Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, a Special Gala screening, whatever that means. I guess it means it has movie stars in it but purports itself to be a quiet little indie with lots of panache, style and snappy dialogue. If you’re calling something “stylistically coherent” in the catalogue copy, well then buyer beware, I suppose. Why a talent like Coixet has adapted such a stale story for the screen, I have no idea. But it was a useful litmus of what I don’t want to be seeing here. The following day, I did see three films – two short-form, one feature – that beautifully illustrated the kinds of films I do want to see, films that take me places I don’t necessarily want to go.
The Master’s program for documentary film and video at Stanford University in California is housed within, not the film school, but the department of Art & Art History. I have seen superb short-form work come out of there for years now. The reverberation of history or various histories can inform haunted and empty spaces, spaces that allow a generous still frame with which to gaze both backwards and project forwards. One of the most exquisite films on refugee displacement I’ve seen in the last few years is Melissa Langer’s My Aleppo from the same program as Puck Lo’s After/Life, world premiering in one of the shorts programs. I bring up Langer’s film because out of this school I’m seeing filmmakers and artists with an impetus to look and listen to otherwise inhabited landscapes, to reveal the voices that inhabit them with curiosity, a long gaze, and attentive ears.
In After/Life we listen to the wild grief of a man recalling in Spanish the story of finding the remains of his brother and cousin, missing migrants that had been crossing the Arizona desert from the Mexican border and perished. That experience is the reason he is now a member of Aguilas del Desierto, an all-volunteer group from San Diego that helps recover the dead in a vast expanse of desert peppered with the detritus of military exercises and unsuccessful human crossings: an abandoned building with “US Embassy” in Arabic written on it in black paint, a disintegrating pair of jeans, oxidized shell casings, a crumpled and torn jacket, abandoned tanks, a skull lodged in the center of a saguaro. There also appears to be some sort of altar lit by the halo of a far away gibbous moon with plastic jugs of water and a sign in English, Spanish and Nahuatl that reads, “If you need help push the red button. Rescue personnel will arrive shortly to help you. Do not leave this area.” The man tells us how the thought of his brother’s final moments, the desperation that he was experiencing will never leave him in peace. As in Joshua Bonetta and J.P. Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar, it is only the searching voices reverberating across the sere landscapes in the outposts of civilization and a director’s inquisitiveness and patience that yield fresh visions of hellscapes rendered as dreamscapes.
Young Gisa’s Tutsi relatives summon him from Kigali back to the small village where he was born to help settle a long-standing family dispute in Ishimwe Samuel’s Imfura, the first Rwandan production ever to be in the shorts competition. What took so long? Any wildness on display here since the 1994 genocide is channeled into a tightly coiled passion play that expresses never-ending pain, an inability to forget, but also comfort in Jesus and prayer. There are groups that have forsaken their Muslim heritage and are born again Christians, praising and questioning with fervor a god that had clearly abandoned them once. Samuel fuses ethnographic documentary elements with scripted scenes played with dignity and moral force by what I am assuming are non-actors, natives of that land re-telling shared histories in song and poetry. As writer, director, DoP, and sound designer, Samuel – a recent graduate of Geneva University’s School of Art & Design – has made a deeply moving ode of a son’s journey to his dead mother’s village to reclaim a bombed-out house into a visually arresting internal border crossing, an elegiac ode to a silenced history.
Forum and Forum Expanded with its forty-eight year legacy has become its own robust festival residing still pretty much in the shadows of the main program, but with its own imperatives of collecting stories from the periphery. Some colleagues are always sure to tell me how underwhelmed they are by the programming. (See Coixet above.) This year, the exhibition’s theme curated by Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, expertly led by Stefanie Schulte Strathaus, is entitled A Mechanism Capable of Changing Itself, a nod to avant-garde film artist Maya Deren’s idea: “Marxism is the only theory of politics which designed a mechanism capable of changing itself – as in the concept of the withering away of the state.” And we all know our state is withering rapidly. I contend that the works presented in the Forum will retain their vitality long after the immediate “intervention” is done only for the fact that documentary forms are where the storytelling riches remain to be plumbed.
As open-ended and elliptical as Lo’s and Samuel’s works are, Palestinian artist Jumana Manna’s latest feature film, Wild Relatives, which had its world premiere Friday evening, is dense with information about her investigation delving into the journey of the world’s seed bank. Manna is a multivalent storyteller hungry to follow her obsessions down unexpected paths. She is a sculptor as well and as a sculptor does, she builds a robust framework with her films within which to tell complex stories that encompass massive themes. She has a particular talent, as well, for courting subjects, who together with her create a dimensionality to wide-ranging topics: global climate change, the movement of large populations of people displaced from their homes, the Green Revolution, and the economic and cultural ravages of an unending civil war. One man tells her, “The refugee business [building massive camps on otherwise fertile land] is more profitable than the business of planting crops.”
Manna takes us on a journey that led her from Aleppo in Syria to the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon to the Norwegian island town of Longyearbyen in Svalbard, Norway by following the trail of wild relatives, plant species genetically related to cultivated crops (made chemically) by growers the world over. Left to its own devices without human intervention, a seed can evolve in the wild, acquiring the ability to resist drought or pest infestations. When crossbred with domesticated seeds, new more robust varieties are produced. Seeing as the planet is experiencing profound climate change, the seeds’ cross-global journey acts as both literal launching point of her investigation, as well as overarching metaphor and cautionary tale. Of all the ways in which we have learned about the devastation of Syria’s civil war, the bloodshed, destruction of cities and whole swaths of the population being displaced, it is the economic and cultural violence of the land itself and the people who have tended it for centuries that has brought down one of the oldest civilizations in the world, literally scorching its own patch of earth, thus accelerating the doomsday prophesies priests and other religious leaders have been shouting from pulpits for centuries. The time is nigh as it’s never been before since our own extinction as a species is pretty much guaranteed.
Seeds of various varieties that feed the world have been in peril for a while. Underneath the permafrost in Norway (which is also irrevocably melting) lies a Global Seed Vault. From this hidden place, a stockpile never meant to be penetrated unless an emergency like a war threatened future food stocks for the planet, unlikely geographies converge. Manna subtly connects both human and scientific trails with moments of introspection, deep conversations about what present and future generations face, and the exquisite landscapes of the natural world that give up their beauty and bounty year after year. Through a doorway that looks out on a squalid little yard in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon, Syrian farmer Waleed says to his little son as he helps him put his sandals on, “Let’s go to the garden, Baba.”