This entry was posted on February 9th, 2018

By Tara Judah

Western is provocative enough. But preceding the screening I attended at IFFR, Jessie McGoff’s subtle but strong video essay gave it an extra dose of intensity.

‘What can be said of manifest destiny today?’ She asked.

What, indeed.

Though the video essay revealed very little, and though McGoff had admitted that making it about a film with so loaded a title was a challenge, her short, sharp prompt before the feature was powerful. It had me mulling over the big stuff, like the impact of economic colonialism and how it might perform as contemporary nostalgia for the act of colonisation. Already the scenario pulsed with violence.

Moreover, McGoff’s question about manifest destiny conjured up notions of empirical virtues, an understood to be ‘just’ mission, and a belief paramount to faith that destiny not only requires but justifies one’s actions in duty. The provocation doesn’t simply homage cinematic tropes of the genre, it goes further. Beyond cinema history, and the colonial history upon which genre cinema is built, the term also alludes to impassable barriers and throngs with privilege and power.

Transposed from the West to a small town in Bulgaria, where a group of German construction workers are tasked with building a water power plant for the locals, Western is far from a frontier film. Still, it dredges up the past with aplomb. It begs us to think about global histories of oppression as if they were a palimpsest at the bottom of a well. In this way, when Meinhard is shown how to cut off one water supply to privilege another, we are asked to think about how any one conflict becomes the most powerful in our memory and minds. From colonial rule to the rise of Nazism, as well as its legacy across Europe and with contemporary right-wing revivals, all the way to the economic borders that reinforce or simply outline geographic, linguistic and cultural difference, Western knows there is a hierarchy in remembered violence.

The viewer is free to associate at will, but even free thought is subject to the pervasive entitlement of systemic patriarchal rule.

The success of the film, and indeed the video essay that accompanied it, then, is not that it points to the inescapable scale of systemic oppressions and historic violence by drawing comparisons between American colonialism and the disparities in economic development across Europe. Instead, it is in how it shows that real life imitates art and that the violence of cinema extends beyond the parameters of the screen. It is deep set in our imaginations and memories, now.

A major theme at this year’s festival, through various strands, was that fiction is a more powerful tool than reality, especially when it comes to how we consume images. In fresh-from-Sundance documentary debut from writer/director duo Hans Block and Moritz Risesewieck’s The Cleaners (2018), this was explored via the online interfaces through which we exchange and examine our humanity, namely YouTube, Facebook and Google. With a different aesthetic but aligned agenda, this was also explored in Ewa Banaszkiewicz and Mateusz Dymek’s examination of awareness and self-reflexivity, deftly handled through blending participatory, reflexive and performative modes of documentary filmmaking to create a sort of collage approach to truth and authenticity in My Friend the Polish Girl (2018).

Fiction primes us for engaging with reality.

Valeska Grisebach knows this. Narratively, Western mirrors its mode: when Meinhard finds himself in a bind, without language to assist, he uses storytelling to appease the seemingly hostile others. Whether the story he tells is ‘true’ or if it has no basis in reality at all is irrelevant: storytelling saves his bacon.

In this way, in the film, we are constantly faced with conflicting and exaggerated stories, each available for their own interpretation. The most significant of which is an early encounter between the German men and a local woman, which can be read with varying degrees of violence, depending on the reader. This scene, which takes place early on in the film, gets right to the heart of what Grisebach really wants to say – or at least what she wants to ask: how do we interpret the stories we read onscreen? What if the Western is played for entertainment but is exploitative at its core? Is it the writer or the reader who is responsible? Such contemplations are bold and brave as they force us to look – not to the history of the western for clever nods, winks and references, but to ourselves and our modes of viewing, to consider how fiction impacts reality, and vice versa.

So, when McGoff’s question about manifest destiny appeared on screen, it also pointed a finger directly at the critic. It asked something about the narrative of dominant readers who disseminate their own agenda in reading and reviewing films.

‘What can be said of manifest destiny today?’ She asked.

What, indeed.