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September 2006 Archives

September 16, 2006

À la recherche du lieu de ma naissance, 1990

birthplace.gifChanneling a similar wavelength as Chantal Akerman's recurring themes of identity, parental silence, and haunted memory, compatriot filmmaker Boris Lehman creates an equally melancholic and autobiographical self-confessional essay film in À la recherche du lieu de ma naissance, a resonant and intimate exposition on the indelible legacy of Nazism, the diaspora, the Second World War, and the Holocaust on the psyche of the postwar generation of displaced European Jews. Opening to the image of Lehman's seemingly innocuous, off-camera request to an accommodating clerk at a Swiss registrar's office for proof of his birth, the film is a broader examination of the intersection between personal and cultural history, as the task of obtaining a reissued birth certificate itself sows the seed of creative inspiration: a point of departure towards the figurative reconstruction of one's unremembered moment of origin. Returning to Lausanne over forty years after his birth, Lehman's self-reflexive autobiographical reconstructions - depicted through re-enactments, archival footage, family photographs and correspondences, interviews with interned (and subsequently resettled) exiles, and surrogate representations of rites of passage - subvert the notion of personal history and instead, converges towards an examination of a suppressed collective consciousness.

From this perspective of estranged history and unwitting, self-inflicted cultural amnesia, Lehman's diaristic exposition transforms into an integral question of identity: what does a birthplace signify when the physical location has been disconnected from the emotional idea of one's home, when the destination is only a momentary passage, a transitory refuge from an obscured, forgotten (or suppressed) memory that reflects the trauma of exile...the very impossibility of home? At the heart of Lehman's elusive quest is the assembly of inherited artifacts, second-hand testimonies of survivors, and even the observation of religious rites into a reconstruction of personal memory that reveal an underlying sentiment of disconnected heritage. Deeply rooted in a sentiment of a silenced history - a metaphoric erasure of the past that has been engendered by his late parents' own reticence over the trauma of their displacement during the war years (and eventual permanent exile), first, during the Nazi incursion into Poland, then subsequently, from their adopted home in Belgium during the occupation - Lehman's journey become a search for the invisible, a struggle to assimilate and contextualize the unregistered memories of a suppressed past into the unreconciled reality of a present day consciousness:

Painfully, I realize that my parents forgot me. They never talked to me, never told me about their lives because talking was not possible for them. In taking refuge in their silence, they walled me up in mine. I am a prisoner of my own memories. But the few that I have oblige me to invent rather than relate. All that's left of my parents, a few photos in an album that I can't or don't want to decipher. Do I recognize myself in these pictures?

Challenging even the most seemingly trivial fundamental foundations of his identity based on materials and interviews he has gathered surrounding his parents' life during the war years - a letter of safe passage to a Lisbon port in Portugal in order to board a ship bound for Bolivia that his parents had never undertaken, perhaps, because of his imminent birth (and that, as Lehman would surmise, turned out to be a moment of serendipity in avoiding the inevitable encounters with the waves of Nazi war criminals fleeing to South America); a tongue-in-cheek survey of the common variations and "misspellings" of the surname Lehman that suggest (whether consciously or unintentionally) an obfuscation of culture and ethnicity; an interned prisoner and exile who has kept a suitcase of war "memorabilia" (false documentation, censored letters, photographs, testaments given by refugees who had been delivered into the hands of the Germans by "neutral" Swiss government officials) that prompts the filmmaker to question if his birthday is indeed even his own actual date of birth and not a product of the false paper trail created to evade Nazi persecution across Europe - Lehman returns full circle to the idyllic - and poetically homonymic - Lac Léman (Lake Geneva) that his mother once crossed in the days before his birth. Concluding with the recounted mythical tale of a wandering hermit who once traversed the entirety of the city in reverse, only to end his inscrutable venture by turning back at the shore of the ubiquitous lake, the enigmatic image also reflects the interconnectedness and self-reflexivity of Lehman's journey: a search, not only to understand the circumstances behind his parents' uncertain lives as refugees that led to his wartime birth in a foreign land in 1944, but also for the very nature of the process of memory and its sublimation into the human consciousness by which it shapes and defines our own identity, where the void of its absence becomes as formative as its haunted - and inescapable - persistence.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 16, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Boris Lehman

September 10, 2006

Seagulls Are Dying in the Harbor, 1955

seagulls.gifIn hindsight, the expressionistic collaborative feature Seagulls Are Dying in the Harbor by Flemish filmmakers Roland Verhavert, Ivo Michiels, and Rik Kuypers proves especially suited as a milestone film for Belgian national cinema, carrying the international distinction as the country's first feature film to be screened at the Cannes Film Festival. Set in postwar Antwerp, the film evokes the profound melancholy and bittersweet loss of innocence of René Clément's Forbidden Games in its depiction of the friendship between a pair of unlikely kindred spirits trying to make sense of their upended (and uprooted) lives in the forbidding, and increasingly alien urban landscape of postwar Belgium: a nameless, seemingly undocumented drifter (Julien Schoenaerts) and former German war camp prisoner desperately seeking passage out of the country, and a neglected, French-speaking orphaned girl named Gigi who has been adopted by an older, emotionally distant Flemish family (perhaps out of potential financial gain from an undisclosed inheritance) whose only glimpse of freedom comes from the stolen moments enabled by her adoptive older sister who exploits her afternoon playtime as a chaperoning ruse to rendezvous with her lover. Eschewing the inevitable sentimentality of the "little girl lost" premise of Forbidden Games, the film instead reflects the unsentimentality and cynicism of Europe's postwar lost generation, where the inhumanity of war and instinctuality for survival have metamorphosed into social indifference, cruelty, exploitation, hedonism, and self-absorption.

But beyond the film's noteworthiness as a trailblazer in the history of cinema (as well as its incisive, broader commentary on the human travails of war), the film is also a unique and intimate window into the country's indigenous experience, not only with the isolative reality of cultural pluralism in contemporary Belgium, but also with the collective toll of occupation, displacement, and exile caused by the war. Intrinsic in this process of reconciliation with history is the legacy of occupation on the national psyche - first by Germany, and subsequently (albeit obliquely), by the Allied liberators stationed to secure the borders and assist in the country's reconstruction - a trauma that has further estranged an already culturally bifurcated country from its own sense of national identity. Within this framework of dispossession and figurative erasure, the characterization of the enigmatic, anonymous, multilingual everyman becomes an ideal representation on the country's struggle with its own sense of sovereignty and identity in light of an increasingly fractured and fragile national unity and economic decimation. Moreover, in capturing the pervasive national sentiment of profound disorientation through expressionistic imagery (most notably, in the atmospheric, noir-like texture of the opening sequence that establishes the film's sense of imbalance), stark and desolate, yet oppressively claustrophobic industrial landscapes (that prefigure Antonioni's psychological landscapes), and acute angle dolly crane shots (especially in the repeated image of the city street through the increasingly distant perspective of a moving structural elevator) that figuratively reflect the unnamed drifter's estrangement from his native community in the aftermath of war and occupation, the filmmakers transform the interiority of one person's struggle into a broader metaphor for a country's soul searching, implicitly correlating the drifter's moral dilemma with the societal estrangement of cultural division. In juxtaposing a sense of disorientation with the crisis of imposed (and suppressed) identity, the film articulates a compelling and impassioned cautionary tale for the preservation for the country's indigenous, plural identity through tolerance, self-respect, and the restoration of humanity.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 10, 2006 | | Filed under 2006

September 3, 2006

Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, 2001

hidden_smile.gifNearly twenty years after Harun Farocki paid homage to the profound influence of Straub/Huillet's cinema by filming their exhaustive rehearsal process during preparations for the shooting of their film Class Relations for the documentary Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet at Work..., Pedro Costa captures their equally exacting process of editing their feature film, Sicilia! in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?. Indeed, as Farocki's film intrinsically captures the filmmakers' working methodology through the framework of his own recurring themes of automation and systemization of processes (even as they apply to the human process of creativity), so, too, does Costa's film illustrate the particularity of their methodology through his own characteristic preoccupation for capturing the allegorical in the quotidian. Curiously, inasmuch as both films capture the rigorous and deliberative nature of their creative process, it is only through the complementation of both films that the nature of the Straubs' collaborative process begins to truly emerge - a portrait, not of inequitable roles of visionary and confidante (as implicitly suggested in the Farocki film as Huillet's role during rehearsals is seemingly reduced to that of advisor and clap board simulator), nor implementer and consultant (as illustrated in the Costa film where Straub is shown to be the intrusive, occasionally tangential, gregarious observer - and comical counterfoil - to the more focused, serious-minded, and methodical Huillet who is editing the film), but rather, as equally creative contemporaries with instinctively defined, yet interactive roles throughout the filmmaking process: one, more conceptual and abstract, the other, more pragmatic and methodical. Ironically, this tumultuous, often colliding process of interactivity itself between theory and application, idea and implementation reflects the complex, yet delicate alchemy of the medium itself, a creative struggle that is articulated by the roguish Straub's impassioned commentary on the subordination of form over idea in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? that is integral to the realization of their aesthetic.

The form of the body gives birth to the soul. I've said that a hundred times. ...When someone says, 'Yes, the form, it's the form, the form, never mind the idea', that is a sell-out. It's not true. You have to see things clearly: First, there is the idea, then there is the matter, and then the form. And there is nothing you can do about that. Nobody can change that! ...And through this work, the struggle between the idea and the matter, and the struggle with the matter, gives rise to the form. And the rest is just filling material. ...The same goes for the sculptor. He has his idea and gets a block of marble and he works the matter. He has to take into account the nervures in the marble, the cracks, all the geological layers in it. He just can't do whatever he wants.

This intrinsic "struggle with the material" that defines the process of creation also serves as an allusion to the hidden smile of the film's title. In an illuminating sequence during the editing of a train conversation scene in Sicilia!, Huillet attempts to convey an actor's unarticulated, knowing smile - an illustration of his realization that a passenger seated across from him lied about the nature of his employment - by finding an appropriate intercutting image from their brief exchange. But how can this uncaptured, hidden smile be revealed when the facial expression itself does not manifest in the any of the shot footage? Poring over each frame in search of the indefinable glint in the actor's eye in search of that fleeting image that betrays his disbelief to no avail, their strategy is then to abruptly truncate the shot at the final syllable of the passenger's staccatoed delivery such that the consequence of the lie does not dwell on the prevaricator's image - and implicitly suggest his deliberation over the ramifications of his own statement - but rather, on the delayed response of the listener to suggest his evaluation (and dismissive deduction) of the passenger's seemingly incongruous statement. It is this process systematic refinement - a struggle with the intrinsic properties (and inherent limitations) of the given matter to create implication through elision that is also reflected in Straub's subsequent exposition on the aesthetic evolution of their cinema.

Most of us begin with a cliché - not always, but most of the time - and that's fine but you have to look at it from all sides and clarify it. So you start with the idea of a discovery, showing a mountain without the window, without anything. A torn curtain. Then you ask yourself, but why? It will inhibit the viewer's imagination instead of opening it up and you say to yourself: 'Yes, after having filmed Mount Thebes in Moses and Aaron, after having filmed Mount Etna, Mount Sainte-Victoire, why add another one?' And so you renounce slowly. Then one fine day, one fine day you realize that it's better to see as little as possible. You have a sort of reduction, only it's not a reduction - it's a concentration and it actually says more. But you don't do that immediately from one day to the next. You need time and patience.

As the filmmakers alternately engage in recounting personal anecdotes, gentle natured marital sparring, and professional ruminations over their collaborative cinema, what emerges in Costa's reverent and understated portrait is an affectionate, humorous, and indelible image of profound kinship and creative symbiosis - an idiosyncratic, modern-day love story that fuses passion with politics, creativity with conviction - told from the privileged intimacy of irascible, enduring romantics, intellectual peers, social activists, obsessed cinephiles, ageless idealists, and innovative, mutually-inspiring artists.

Posted by acquarello on Sep 03, 2006 | | Filed under 2006, Pedro Costa