Walden (Daniel Zimmermann)
In the first Shot of Austrian artist Daniel Zimmermann’s Walden, a camera pans from left to right in the middle of a forest. It’s still and quiet, and it isn’t until minutes into the shot that we have the first human presence. A lumbering activity is underway and we hear the hum of a chainsaw in the distance. Around the eighth minute of the shot, amid cries of timber, a tree falls, its tip just a few feet from the camera. When the camera completes full circle, the view has changed so much that we aren’t sure whether it’s the same spot the camera started at. Human action on the environment is what Walden is about, traces as it does the conversion of the fallen tree into planks and its transportation over rail, road and sea to a forest location in Brazil. Walden tangentially fits into a tradition of narrative documentaries that purport to demonstrate the workings of a globalized economy by focusing on the provenance of specific consumer goods. While its cross-continental movement is still enabled by international trade, the timber here isn’t following the regular route of imported goods. As the film’s supporting text points out, the path of the planks in Walden is the reverse of the usual trajectory of goods in a global economy. The film never reveals the mystery of why a consignment of sawn wood must move from Austria to a tribal region in the Amazon.
This refusal to explain can partly be understood by the fact that Walden also inscribes itself into another tradition. Constructed out of thirteen 360-degree pan shots of about eight minutes each, it has a direct kinship to structural films such as those of James Benning. It’s especially reminiscent of Benning’s RR in its emphasis on movement of goods described in predetermined cinematic formulae. The structure raises the questions: why 360-degree pan shots and why nine minutes? I think there are no extra-cinematic explanations to these choices and that these are foundational parameters—arbitrary givens of the problem—that are to be taken for what they are. Besides, the shots don’t exactly complete full circle, most stop at three-fourths. The duration, too, ranges from seven to nine minutes. While Zimmermann’s camera moves at a constant pace, it gives the illusion of slowing down or speeding up depending on the movement that happens along the sweep of the camera. The moving timber makes its presence in every shot either at the beginning or the end, but the milieu it’s moving through—whether it’s a scenic port city in Brazil or a tribal village in the woods—is of equal interest. The film starts and ends in the stillness and silence of the jungle while its middle section consists of constant movement, just as it begins and closes deep within the woods, with its central passages having to do with modern facets of civilization. Zimmermann’s camera always seems to be at the right place and time to capture the most interesting action in the vicinity. This aspect reinforces its pre-determined structure over its documentary aspects.
The Whalebone Box (Andrew Kötting)
For those who have seen any of Kötting’s work, the confounding associations of The Whalebone Box shouldn’t come as a total curveball. The sixty-year-old Kötting makes playful experimental films featuring friends and family that work off English folklore and geography. A frequent protagonist is his daughter Eden, an artist herself, who was born with Joubert Syndrome. Eden is both the narrator and the inspiration for this new film. Two dominant narrative strands emerge from the audiovisual thicket of The Whalebone Box. In the first, we see Eden dressed as a May Queen, seated in a forest on a fauteuil holding a hunting rifle and peering through binoculars. She is admittedly looking for a whale to hunt down. We also see her at a museum and, more frequently, in bed. Subtitles express her thoughts and dreams, which are about a box made of whalebone, an artefact she recreates in cardboard. The second narrative strand is actually about the legendary whalebone box, which was reportedly created by sculptor Steve Dilworth on the Scottish island of Harris thirty years ago. The island, we are told, is now afflicted with an unknown epidemic and the box might hold a cure. So Kötting, the writer Iain Sinclair and the photographer Anonymous Bosch set out with the box on a journey from London to the north. They stop at places of mythological import to “charge the box” with curative energy. Several shots of the film show the box on the dashboard of the group’s car or Sinclair lugging it around the English landscape. Interspersed with this journey is monochrome clips of children playing and recreating pagan myths.
Now, how much of this myth is fabricated, we don’t know (I suspect all of it is); Kötting’s rough-hewn home movie aesthetic imparts a found-footage like authenticity to it. But what is evident is that The Whalebone Box is partly a wish fulfilment project in which Kötting fashions a film after his daughter’s dreamlike fiction. He departs from the basic idea of a mysterious whalebone box and weaves in all the references that it evokes. There’s Moby Dick, for instance, which had already made its appearance in Kötting’s earlier work. The filmmaker expands on the MacGuffin with soundbites from Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, also about a box with deadly powers, and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Other references include Pandora’s box, the black box of airplanes and Schrödinger’s box containing the cat, which here stands for the whale simultaneously in “a state of being on land and returning to ocean”. The artefact the trio carries is at times swapped with Eden’s cardboard version, making clear the playful, recreative intention behind the project. Shooting in 16mm, Kötting employs an amateur film style with handheld camera and washed out colours. He quotes titles from Philip Hoare’s book Leviathan and has poems read on the soundtrack. At times, he overlays recorded speech over the same words captured on location, imparting an oneiric rhythm and texture to the film.
So Pretty (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli)
Four gender-fluid youth spend their days in a shared apartment in Manhattan. They cook, have sex, paint protest posters, make music, organize reading sessions in the park and discuss communism. Trans filmmaker Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s So Pretty presents the life of these young, queer folk as a self-sufficient world. Considering that we see it through the eyes of its participants and their friends, there’s no outsider gaze against which these lives are to be assessed. The camera often follows them walking the sidewalks of New York, this liberating gesture being a given. Their protests and the police crackdown of these protests are only suggested and remain in the periphery. Grafted on the documentary record of this everyday routine are details from the eponymous novel by German writer Ronald M. Schernika. So Pretty isn’t as much an adaptation as a dialogue with the novel. The actors of the film take turns reading passages from the book to each other. The film dramatizes what they read sometimes. Tonia, the “character” played by Rovinelli, is in fact in the process of translating the book and discusses with Franz (Thomas Love) on whether a particular word needs to be translated negatively as “coupledom” or positively as “togetherness”. At first, it appears that Paul (Edem Dela-Seshie) and Erika (Rachika Samarth) are a stable, “trans heterosexual” couple, but it soon becomes apparent that there’s no point boxing the desires of these characters. They make out and sleep with each other in every combination, their interlaced bodies on bed being a punctuating visual of the film.
Rather than the representational politics or particulars of the adaptation, it’s the film’s formal strategies that struck me the most. Rovinelli’s camera pans and tracks in extremely slow motion across the rooms, producing tableaux of people in ordinary interactions. In a remarkable early shot, six characters sit in the dining room making small talk in pairs. Some of them are off the frame, and their voices are mixed so that they vie equally for our attention. Like in a Robert Altman shot, there’s no central point of focus, and our ears and eyes shuttle from one pair to another, without every settling on any of them. In the following scene Franz and Tonia make their bed. Their heads out of the frame, our focus oscillates between the two across the vast negative space of the bed. I presume this asymmetrical manner of framing has a theoretical underpinning, but it’s also a visceral choice. Tonia suffers a heartbreak with Franz, but this never becomes a dramatic element. A long shot presents the two, now in a different apartment Tonia has taken up, cooking, doing dishes and eating in the kitchen, the tense, wordless atmosphere signalling the straining relationship. The film’s measured pace is further diluted as the relationship buckles and even more so when the police arrests Erika. The characters split up in two groups and the ambience becomes mournful. Towards the end, the film becomes a pure light-and-sound performance played against Erika’s music that mixes melody and atonality. In other words, a sustained mood piece.
Mother (Kristof Bilsen)
The Baan Kamlangchay centre in Chiang-May, Thailand, is a home run by a Swiss national for patients suffering from Alzheimer’s, dementia and related ailments. It shelters fourteen patients from German-speaking countries and employs three local caregivers. The film begins with the anguished thoughts of one of them. Pomm is separated from her husband and gets to visit her three children only occasionally. She works two jobs to pay back her debt and secure a future for her children. Bilsen’s film too juggles two narrative arcs. In the first, we follow Pomm’s routine: her comfortable rapport with her nonagenarian patient Elizabeth, her visits to her mother and children living several hours away, her interactions with her employer, her account of her father’s depression and eventual suicide, her mourning over Elizabeth’s passing, and articulations of her anxiety about her old age and her guilt over ignoring her mother. Running parallel to Pomm’s life is Maya’s in Switzerland. Maya is 57 years old and suffers from Alzheimer’s. After much deliberation and concern, her husband and daughters have decided to admit her to Baan Kamlangchay. They speak about the prejudice associated with sending your loved one to a home. Indeed, Maya’s family couldn’t be more loving. We see her daughters take her for daily walks, doing her hair and nails, preparing her move to Thailand, packing her medicines and clothes, and generally being there for Maya. Bilsen cuts between Pomm and Maya before they meet in reality, and when they do, he reinforces their almost predestined bond through a closed shot-reverse shot-reaction shot triad at the home.
Mother is evidently about caregiving and maternal affection, but it’s a detailed study in the cultural differences involved in familial bonds. Pomm is moved when she meets her mother after a while. She tells the camera that she wants to hug her, but wouldn’t dare to, given her cultural norms. On the other hand, we see Maya’s family expressing their love through embraces and kisses. Maya’s relation to her pre-teen children, in contrast, is much more intimate and physical than what Western parents would exhibit towards their adolescents. Bilsen intercuts between the two families to illustrate different verbal and non-verbal expressions of affection. Now, as an employee at the home, Pomm has to be much more physical with her Western patients, who are maternal figures to her, than she is with her own mother. This evocation of the effects of global capital on the most personal of relationships is what gives Mother its intellectual foundation. The very fact of the home being in Thailand, and not in expensive Switzerland, points to the economic underpinnings of the caregiving industry. Pomm discusses shifts and holidays with her boss, who calls his patients customers. But she is also genuinely caring of her patients. Mother doesn’t state that either capital or caregiving trumps the other. It merely throws light on newer forms of a labour that’s always been side-lined, and the contradictions that these new forms produce. Pomm reflects on the good fortune of her patients to be able to pay for the care, which she herself won’t be able to afford for her mother. In Marxist terms, Pomm is alienated from her own service, even when it doesn’t involve any means of production. What would happen to her, Pomm wonders, when she is old? Would her kids provide her the same care? If they move to Switzerland, perhaps.
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