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Berlinale 2017 – Forum: Images of the World

El mar la mar (Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki, 2017)

‘Forum’ is short for ‘International Forum of New Cinema’, the most playful/daring section at the Berlin Film Festival. While not drawing as much spotlight as the official competition, it does offer many more surprises – and together with ‘Forum Expanded’, which contains films as well as installations, they offer to spectators a wide range of audiovisual experiences. ‘New’ might be a misleading term, since even what we (still) call avant-garde has a rich, century-long tradition behind it, but the films in this section certainly profit from being framed in a festival context which urges viewers to receive them with heightened senses.

Speaking of traditions, the Berlin-based Heinz Emigholz continued his ongoing project, started in 1984, ‘Photography and Beyond’, which foregrounds architecture through cinematic means. Bickels [Socialism], 2+2=22 [The Alphabet], Dieste [Uruguay] and Streetscapes [Dialogue] were all playing in Forum. Having only managed to see Bickels [Socialism] during my stay in Berlin, I felt it to be simultaneously very precise, as a chronicle of Samuel Bickels’ increasingly reputed work, and subliminally familiar, after growing up in Romania, a country which was totally reshaped by Socialist urban planning and then faced a toilsome economic and architectural post-revolutionary transition. Correspondingly, Bickels’ modernist communal buildings in Israel and Brazil are the concrete legacy of certain historical ideas that have since fallen out of favor. Apart from the inevitable degradation brought on by time, some of them are (or seem to be) abandoned, but even so, Emigholz’s attention to detail and the vividness of their surroundings make each of these near-ruins into a very imposing presence. Others, notably the São Paolo 1953-built Casa do Povo, are still in use, and it’s a virtue of the director’s signature style that the community seems a by-product of the building – in a reversal of their usual hierarchy on screen, where architecture is a mere background to human interaction.

Bickels [Socialism] (Heinz Emigholz, 2017)
Reversal in its more ephemeral form is also to be found in a medium-length film in Forum Expanded, One Plus One Makes a Pharaoh’s Chocolate Cake by Marouan Omara and Islam Kamal. This might seem like a regular music documentary about the meeting of two artists planning a collaboration, except that every scene has a comment (credited to the female artist’s business manager) about why it shouldn’t be in the film. It’s certainly a more immersive storytelling technique, challenging viewers to read the situation against the grain, although in all fairness the larger themes of the film – such as whether artistic collaboration is possible between two artists with vastly different backgrounds, based respectively in Switzerland and Egypt – remain underdeveloped due to the randomness and fragmentation of the VHS footage.

Serce Miłości (Łukasz Ronduda, 2017)

‘Forum’ also proves that there are so many films about couples that are not quite romances – maybe they’re the exact opposite. Łukasz Ronduda’s A Heart of Love (Serce Miłości) is another incisive depiction of two artists, whose on-stage and in-couple performances are a sensuous mix of passion and self-harm. With so much screen time split between two characters, it’s tempting to project specific psychological traits on both, though the film doesn’t necessarily define them beyond basic impulses (i.e. the push and pull of their relationship) and surface demeanor (they are both exquisitely self-conscious) – except for letting their art speak for them. The young Zuzanna Bartoszek (Justyna Wasilewska) suffers from an abundance of auto-immune diseases, the most obvious of which prevents hair growth, a feature of her body that she chooses to conquer through fashion style and a general aura of seductive boldness. Wojtek Bąkowski (Jacek Poniedziałek) seems to suffer whenever he doesn’t have a microphone around, or isn’t touched by the muse on any given day. In the relatively prosperous Polish film industry, the team behind A Heart of Love are established names: Ronduda’s previous film is Performer, a vaguely fictionalized (or, in any case, vaguely illusionist) account of performance artist Oskar Dawicki’s life, with Dawicki himself in the lead role; screenwriter Robert Bolesto has recently adapted a best-selling novel into multi-awarded and cherished The Last Family. Like many artist biopics, A Heart of Love places emphasis on their love lives, but its behind-locked-doors intrusion is less than showing fictitious scenes of domesticity and more like taking a peek into Andy Warhol’s factory. Fittingly, it ends with a performance.

Elise Girard’s Strange Birds (Drôles d’oiseaux) has a 27-year-old protagonist who just moved to Paris, where she falls strangely in love with a bookstore owner who is five decades her senior. It’s a very literary film – the two discuss the relevance of writers’ gender or the reluctance of Parisians to read actual books – and, ultimately, it pulls off such a tenuous premise by avoiding classical film style. Their sapiosexual exchanges aren’t as much dramatized as effectively written, either on notes or in voice-over, which means that the film is left with enough visual matter to show the protagonist strolling through Paris for much of the time. Their dynamic is also explicitly the reversal of their biological ages: the old man is moody and childish, while she is even-tempered and patient; their mind-romance seems to make her grow younger. A similar chance encounter is at the heart of Jang Woo-jin’s Autumn, Autumn, where a man and a woman are first shown together during public commute and appear to be a couple, only to later reveal themselves as fresh acquaintances; while having a meal together, they both share memories and impressions that they somehow can’t find space to articulate in their private lives and are much easier to share with a relative stranger.

somniloquies (Verena Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2017)

Two documentaries presented at Forum 2017 borrowed heavily from the toolkit of avant-garde film : somniloquies by Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor (whose most acclaimed film together is the 2012 Leviathan) and El mar, la mar by J. P. Sniadecki (following his 2014 The Iron Ministry) and Joshua Bonnetta. somniloquies mimics the slippery, foggy texture of a dream, while the camera gently lingers over what eventually turns out to be blurred-out fragments of naked sleeping bodies, lit in chiaroscuro. Sometimes erotic, occasionally repellent and most often confusing (What exactly are we seeing? Is that a bent knee of an armpit?), these bodies are as disconnected to waking life biology as dream figures that could perhaps feature in a sleep-talker’s tales. The voice on the soundtrack belongs to songwriter Dion McGregor and is recorded in his sleep – his very coherent (in a surreal way) dispatches from the dream world provide the narrative segmentation of the film.

El mar la mar (Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki, 2017)

El mar, la mar shows the Sonoran desert with all its poetry and dread – especially the latter, for anyone willing to cross it to get from Mexico to the United States. Testimonies of – clearly heard, but not seen – border guards and desert dwellers, talking in either English or Spanish, are included between or during landscape shots, which is one way to suggest that the desert is larger than individual escape stories or tragedies. One disembodied voice, speaking in Spanish, observes that you don’t get lost in the desert because you can’t see too far ahead, but because you don’t know where you are; the film further reveals that guides leading illegal immigrants through the desert aren’t always there till the end of the journey. The fear of straying aimlessly voiced by the traveller finds a visual rhyme later in the film, in a long shot of a landscape at night traversed by a lone figure with a flashlight – in this shot, there is nothing obstructing the view but distance itself, and there is no simpler way of suggesting that the desert is so much larger than any individual wanderer can explore. The film could be drawn in a vast imaginary constellation including Matthew Heineman’s 2015 Cartel Land and Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light, which place hot topics in a very concrete context to the point of shifting focus away from both sides of the debate, to an entirely new angle. It’s hard to make the case for El mar, la mar as a political film without seeming to over-interpret, but since it’s set along a very disputed border and has harrowing stories to share, it would be naïve to see it as a purely formalist exercise. The humanitarian check-your-privilege implication behind it is that people are born tragically unequal due to their times, location, and the killing weather on their path.

This is, nonetheless, a very subtle conclusion that the filmmakers want to reveal to us in a 90-minute audiovisual experience rather than argue towards in a more linear (i.e. easily digestible) manner. Static shots of desert remains (clothes, plastic religious objects, glasses, cars) alternate with unsettling imagery of nature, in vivid detail and immersive sound, urging spectators to gather clues on what crossing the desert implies. The final part is in black and white and contains a melancholic voice-over, reading passages of poems by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. It’s a kaleidoscopic film, piecing together evidence of many different journeys, building an image of the Sonoran desert as a concrete and unforgiving environment rather than an ideological battleground. If form follows function, artists need a diversity of forms to prevent the whole of human experience from getting leveled out. Leave it to the ‘International Forum of New Cinema’ to prove that point.