By Monica Delgado
In this article I have grouped films seen in the Berlinale’s Forum Expanded and Encounters section, beyond their postulates, since although almost all are supported by premises, theses or concepts of a political or social nature; they explore various expressive options confronting presumptions or canons of the audiovisual language itself. Quoting Wallace Stevens or Hollis Frampton, tracing the spatial route between a volcanic eruption and stellar immensity or attending a lunar rite in the midst of the waves, they intertwine various creative outings with certain notion of déjà vu.
The opening minutes of Rock Bottom Riser could be reminiscent of the explorations of Werner Herzog in Into the Inferno mixed with the poetic and essayistic tone of recent works by Ben Rivers (especially Look Then Below). A scientific and ethnographic plane appears, as in with Rivers, but what Fern Silva ends up offering is a fascinating magma for a return to myths and ancestral wisdom. But, to enter this millenary universe, Fern does not resort to common places, since it would have been easy to appeal to exotic shamans and rites to exalt that return to ancient systems of learning and knowledge.
With this first feature film, after a well-known career in the making of short films, Silva extends the spirit and nature of his previous works such as Ride Like Lightning, Crash Like Thunder (2017) or The Watchmen (2017), explorations on the matter of romantic landscapes of the so-called Hudson River School, in one, and in another, on the spatial dimensions of the panopticon and the opportunities to escape from it. Fern delves into visual and sound modes to establish connections between diverse cultural, architectural, scientific, ethnographic or artistic backgrounds crossed with much more powerful natural or social dynamics, which end up transforming everything, like the hypnotic lava that Rock Bottom Riser opens.
In this film, Silva takes us into the Hawaiian ancestral imaginary and its correspondence with its astronomical worldviews or knowledge, which differ with the will of the most sophisticated discoveries. The first scenes that refer to the Mauna Kea volcano, attractive and dangerous, beautiful and challenging, are associated with a contemporary fact: the installation of a state-of-the-art astronomical observatory in its vicinity. With much irony, Fern provides clues not only of this historical or environmental incoherence, of the little confidence in the knowledge of millennial men, but also of some kind of frivolity, like in that scene where students listen to a song by Simon & Garfunkel ( I’m a rock), as a means of confirming this disconnection with nature. A song lyric that talks about how loneliness is almost the same as being a rock or an island, when the images shown by Fern reveal a vital, enraged, powerful world.
Fern places various elements to talk about the periods before and after the colonization of Hawaii, which also translate into the presence of this scientific observatory in a land considered sacred by the communities. For this, Fern supports his film in an oscillating argumentation, which is precisely refusing to follow the pattern of logical methods, to propose a sensitive route, full of opacity, textures, colors, where there is even room for splendid vaping competitions (quite hilarious as well) as a vanishing point. How to speak of scientific decolonization if one appeals to a methodology of rigid hypotheses and results? For this reason, Rock Bottom Riser achieves its purpose: to recover the magic and ancestral wisdom from the ritual character of the images, without rules or marked causalities.
Minjung Kim is a South Korean visual artist based in the US. The red filter is withdrawn (Le-deu-pil-teo-ga Cheol-hoe-doeb-ni-da, 2020) is her four short film, and was featured at the Forum Expanded section of Berlinale. In this work she addresses a clear relationship between celluloid, spatial simulation and some historical events on Jeju Island (such as those experienced as part of the colonization by Japan or the 1948 uprising). But this correspondence between present and past, between vestige and landscape, and between what is palpable and real in the cinematographic experience are taking a better conceptual form with some metatextual quotes from Magritte and Hollis Frampton.
The synopsis of the festival indicates that this short is inspired by the thesis of La Condition Humaine, the second painting on this subject made by René Magritte in 1937, and that it expands the notion of concealment in part of his work. This painting shows a specific space (a view, a frame, an extract of the landscape seen from a window or door) that is extended through another painting, which appears on an easel. Magritte thus shows his idea of substitutions (which appears in other paintings) as a strategy to show elements that would supply reality, at the request of minds or spectators who are incapable of accessing things and require mediation or simulation. “Art to paint is an art of thinking” once said the painter liked within the surrealist movement, and with these optical games, of substitutions, he proposed a way of challenging the act of seeing and the function of painting as revealing of the world.
In an interview given to Desistfilm in 2017, Minjung Kim mentions that she was interested from her previous shorts in the materiality of film strips, in their essential linkage of footage (length) and time. In his 2017 short, (100ft), he reflects on the physical length of the film and that tangibility related to its duration as a unit of measurement, which is evident in the footage of a little over three minutes (a single roll of film). In FOOTAGE, a short from 2015, also the reissue of 16 mm frames is considered from its short duration, from the unit of measurement, and from the compilation of captions in different books, which account, in turn, of the difference between female feet (of a fetishistic and sexual nature) and male feet (for scientific or sporting purposes). Some of this appears in The red filter is withdrawn, an essay that weaves together Magritte’s idea of substitution as a visual experience of the denial of the real, and some phrases from Hollis Frampton’s A Lecture (1968), as a dissertation on materiality of the frame (framing, what is left inside and outside of it). The frame is also understood as a unit of measurement.
Starting with the quotations from Frampton’s A Lecture (1968) (even the English short’s title is taken from there), and appearing as subtitles or intertitles, Minjung Kim moves these theses into tangible terrain: views from forts or bunkers used in the conflicts with Japan and in the subsequent uprising before the separation of the two Koreas. How to “frame” memory? How to determine what will last in a frame? Questions that emerge from these images, which, as in Magritte’s painting, seem to overlap to give other evidence of what is not wanted to be seen. As Frampton explains, the film as a confined space. And it is from the figure of the rectangle (what the projector light transmits, what we see in the écran), that defines the sensitive experience of cinema. “We do not see anything other than what is inside that rectangle.”
In The red filter is withdrawn, Minjung Kim poses this figure of the frame or rectangle but, as in Frampton’s words, from its materiality, its relationship with bodies, as frames products of a physical and artisanal contact from the editing work, palpable and thorough. “Films are made of footage, not the whole world.” Framing in its selective, effective character and appeal to the senses when it occurs as an interaction, here as an exercise in memory and against history.
The Coast by well-known Indian photographer Sohrab Hura, seen in the Forum Expanded section, is an immersive, slow-motion (at least most shots are) record of a holiday that worships tides, waves, and lunar climates. Men, women, girls and boys in a kind of choreographic baptism at night, in a social and religious festival in some region in southern India, in Tamil Nadu.
The short film is divided into two marked parts, and loses a little the physical or modeled intention of bodies in enjoyment and rites towards its second half, especially because Hura decides to complete the vision of the place with scenes of fairs, in avenues or neighborhoods to fulfill an ethnographic fee. And rather, at the beginning, and with the help of two types of soundtrack, of electronic music as a mantra, it is composing these human landscapes, of bodies subjected to the cadence or violence of the waves, in a hypnotic penetration from a cult and delivery plan.
The most attractive thing about The Coast is the intention of abstracting these bodies from this liminal position, located between the land and the sea, being observed in this affront against nature, in order to confirm a devotion or tribute to some deity. And Hura’s position is to capture gestures, surprises, even fear, since it is likely that many who enter the sea will not return.
This observation of Hura, slowed down by bodies in trance, fakirs and devotees, is giving a physiognomy to the sense of religiosity, here expressed in total surrender without fear, of small immolations before the immense sea, at times compassionate and ally.
In 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, the Brazilian artist and filmmaker Ana Vaz gives an account of the results of a workshop with high school students at a school in Portugal. Beyond the pedagogical process that appears in this work, which could even be seen as a commission, Vaz is unlearning ways of seeing, to take another perspective from the same vision of the students around the cinematic experience.
Taking as a starting point a poem by Wallace Stevens (and which gives the film its title), the filmmaker shows the decisions in the staging, in the shots and frames made by the participants in the workshop, accompanied by reflections in a voiceover on the way they understand cinema and its possibilities of representation. And it is there, between that record and what we see, that Vaz’s gaze emerges, as mediator and editor of all this new sensitivity behind the camera. These thirteen ways of seeing a bird as an entity that registers everything are somehow replicated in the rhythm, in the episodic or from the intention of the haiku of Stevens’ poem. Brief reflections on the everyday and on the impossibility of capturing the invisible.
In the manner of what we have mentioned about Holly Frampton lines above, in this short by Vaz, the premise appears that “the camera is the body”, as an entity fused with the gaze and perspective of the person who records or signs, but from a passion, from an even existential need, as an extension of life. But also, the camera as part of the bodies that expand above all experiences of senses, both from the school context, and from the initiatory adolescent imaginary of the consciousness of the world.
Although 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird departs a bit from Vaz’s recent works, where there is an evident intention to challenge colonial discourses and imaginaries, which sustain history and other sociocultural processes, here it is committed to deepening reflections on the nature of record, about the act of capturing time, but also about the impossibility of cinema to transmit the exactitude of the real, where the senses are delivered to another type of suspension.