By Dennis Vetter
“Have you ever experimented with looking at an objective thing like a tree without any of the associations,
any of the knowledge you have acquired about it, without any prejudice, any judgement,
any words forming a screen between you and the tree and preventing you from seeing it as it actually is?”
J. Krishnamurti, “Freedom from the Known”, Chapter 11
A Serbian woman sits in the car with her friends. She’s a filmmaker. The other two form an experimental pop band. A fight is taking place. A psychological fight, grounded in their shared history and friendship. There could be peace, but why should there be? For them it seems fun to fight, it’s by far not their first conflict in the film. Their fights provoke unexpected situations, unexpected realities. Ivana the Terrible (Ivana cea Groaznica) seems destined to fight: against her friends, against her family, against herself. Way earlier in the film her grandma offers advice, as she always does: “Sometimes you have to pretend that it’s all right”. In that moment, Ivana is immobilized by a panic, a fear that steals her breath. She is afraid to suffocate under the pressure of being a Serbian filmmaker in Romania. Only gradually she regains her freedom of movement, culminating in this car ride during which things are said that cannot be taken back. Coming home to the small city of Kladovo forces Ivana to face what she had been trying to flee: her own biography and, subconsciously, the death of a friend.
Ivana Mladenovic’s cinematic suggestion is one of a permanent presence, a never-evading gaze, a constant flow of thoughts, an unraveling and blurring of the real. Her family performs as a family: a group sharing rituals, love, dispute, a sense of the past and of a collective all-day life. Ivana tests their identities, their performances, their narratives. As constant force of irritation she keeps playing around with the presence of her camera, without ever touching or addressing it. A film which could be fictional, and probably is, but never fully, never essentially. Somehow a smartass film which demonstrates a deep knowledge about the ‘screen’ of words and knowledge mentioned by Krishnamurti, about preposessions and their relations to individual freedom. Ultimately a film mentioning Krishnamurti, through the words of a funky Romanian rocker: in the car scene, as a mere sidenote, yet as existentialist credo of what has been seen before: “The tree is not the thing!”. Eventually a film which knows about the strategies of manifestos, facing its viewers in the very last moment – then the credits roll and offer a glimpse into the structures behind it.
The film is screened in Locarno, during the 72nd edition of its festival – one of the largest events worldwide dedicated to what might be deemed formalist cinema. 72 years, more than the lifetime of some. Outside of the cinema, young and old film professionals discuss the circumstances of filmmaking here and now. Questions are raised: towards the new festival director Lili Hinstin, towards the new selection, the legitimacy of visions, the eclecticism of the retrospective, and of course towards the systems behind all this. Ivana and her film are presented as new forces of world cinema, under the label “Cineasti del presente” – the most stimulating section this year. What would it mean to perform as an ‘Ivana’ here, during this event? To subvert the roles assigned to everybody? To throw away badges and collars or have everybody invent their own personas? To highlight conflicts and mislead conversations, unjustified euphoria and cosmic disappointments? To question the politeness which dominates all such events and leaves some filmmakers in the dark about what their films imply. To embrace the magic moments, to keep them with a camera or make them even possible through its presence? No one films here, in Locarno. Instead, people talk.
Conversations are the currency of such a festival. At least the ones on stage are filmed to bridge the distance of viewers to the stage, in cinemas which are ridiculously large but rarely lack intimacy. The screen remains the focal point in most cases, no matter how distant and conceptual it might shine in the light of the films. Dimensions play a role, the idea to let individuals be absorbed by a massive cinematic experience. Peculiar statements are made, and this is a quality: a character like Pedro Costa returns to the festival after four years, with his film Vitalina Varela, to be awarded again, this time with the main prize. Days before the award he performs what is expected of a radical filmmaker confronting the present. He is outrageously self-absorbed yet remarkably plays with the ways of introducing a film on stage.
John Waters chooses the last days for his appearances. Next to his films he presents his anecdotes. No less radical than Costa but with a disarming softness and seeming lack of arrogance. His rhetorics stand in stark contrast to his outrageous cinematic achievements in which shouting unfolds as the dominant mode of expression. Divine’s appearance in Female Trouble raises similar questions as Ivana’s performance in her own film: both try to capture an essence through ironic transformations of the real and from time to time demonstrate a profound sense of seriousness. “Who wants to die for art”, Divine asks in the central scene of the film (the late showdown between her and the audience), then shoots the first hippie to get up.
In the competition film Les enfants d’Isadora, Damien Manivel also shoots the audience. But tenderly, while they merely perform as themselves. Another invisible camera, the fourth wall is barely touched during this years’ festival. Manivel shows a small group, similar in size as the hippie audience in the John Waters film, but much less extroverted. A cultivated art audience, witnessing a dance piece. Intimate eyes, some focussed, some holding back, some reflecting, some carefully mapping movements. Heads leaning on hands. Then one massive face, quietly crying with tears on the cheeks. The camera stays with a singular human being, maybe woman, maybe man, the only one who is not white. After roughly an hour of rehearsals and choreographed movements, negotiations of dance as art and art as life: Manivel’s camera refuses to show anything of the stage performance, but instead seeks out a private performance, a private space, introduced by transitions through a city and its lonely alleys. The person leaves the space of art to encounter its very questions back home, during a melancholy night. Her movements seem endlessly painful after the lightness of the dancers before. Manivel is awarded the ‘Leopard for the Best Direction’, because his film decidedly transgresses beyond the limits of his oeuvre.
While Manivel moves away from what he knows other films move towards familiar visions: A Febre from Brazil uses widespread techniques to highlight a Brazilian situation. This film couldn’t have been made in the country a couple of years ago, a veteran producer from the area mentions. A very valid statement, for many reasons. The cinema industry there has evolved. Productions travel the world more easily, Cannes has just witnessed a Brazilian Palme D’Or. Brazlian filmmakers are now part of the international conversations about the state of cinema. A Febre draws a full circle by adapting conventions of European festival cinema for a local discourse, catering to international audiences. Long shots, the softness of the woods against the clear lines of containers. Muddy colors, timid film festival cinema colors. The indigenous man Justino suffers from his work-life balance, from a loss of tradition and identity. A mysterious fever haunts him, wild dreams sneak into his days and nights. The rainforest is transformed and consumed by capitalism. The film is a co-production of the Hubert Bals Fund run by the Rotterdam Intl. Film Festival. Under Jair Bolsonaro Brazilian cinema might have to become even more transnational. A schizophrenic cinema. An exile cinema. Bolsonaro has taken over the screens at home, his current performance leaves no doubts, no room for ambivalence or debate. His dictatorship demands the death of politics.
One Locarno filmmaker finds the political where it first is not expected, yet omnipresent: between the trees and their territories. Amongst ghosts and coincidences, in caves. Truong Minh Quy’s The Tree House (Nha cay) elegantly questions visual as well as political regimes to find emancipatory insights in the free floating aspects of the moving image. A slight shift of time marks what could become critical distance: From 2045, 26 years from now, a man ruminates about his memories of a remote community in Vietnam. Seeing any trees as they are seems impossible in this film, as the camera is marked as a tool of supernatural perception. Negative images indicate how any absence becomes a presence. In the negative image colors explode. What vanishes here is first and foremost the notion of classical cinema. Like in Med Hondo’s West Indies, screened in this year’s retrospective of Black Cinema. In his film, time is just one layer of the world, instead of duration he presents a hyper-mobility, a kind of time-travel, a simultaneity. Under these conditions, class becomes a mere aspect of spacial arrangement. Stirring dance choreographies outline the history of French colonialism and slave trade from the beginnings until the very present. He leaves no doubt that current struggles for freedom within Black diaspora communities are still essentially intertwined with a long history of oppression. Hondos film could serve as counterpart to The Tree House in its theatre-inspired, barely cinematic arrangements. Yet both exemplify a certain essentialism, rooted in the unique potential of cinema to overcome the limitations of time and space – they share an ambition to see beyond or through the reality of situations and the hegemonies inscribed in them.
After leaving the screening of such a film, the future seems more inaccessible for a moment. The main speculative question in Locarno: which direction will the festival be able to take with its former director carrying his taste for cinema as well as his selection committee to Berlin? Will the adventurous films of Locarno travel to Berlin with Carlo Chatrian? There is a hope for continuity: the section “Signs of Life” has transformed to “Moving Ahead”. The same, but different. Ralf is one of the remarkable characters appearing in the section’s films. An outsider living in Spain, beyond concepts of time and far from any notion of clarity: “They’re terrorists against our future life,” he claims in one of his many monologues. Who “they” are and what they want? It seems he couldn‘t care less. His paranoia needs no details. Ralf’s gibberish inspired filmmaker Lukas Marxt (Imperial Valley) to create a free form cinematic proposition: Ralf’s Colors (Ralf’s Farben) could be considered a Dadaist experimental film. The young filmmaker is stunned by his subject Ralf, yet ambitious to emancipate himself from him and find a cinematic answer to his absurdist rhetorics. To consider the film a mere illustration might be valid, but still too far from appreciating the complicated signals it emanates. Ralf is a dictator, but one to abolish any sense of order.
To see the essence of the tree, free of all knowledge and prejudice, liberated from the past – it still requires the capability to recognize and to understand what a tree might be. Ivana’s film ends with a bird, by the way – maybe a frequent inhabitant of trees, but without the intention of staying longer than necessary. The bird, up in the sky knows how to deal with a lack of breath and heavy heart. It can consider the tree from the sky: “This air is not for breathing, this air must be sung.”