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March 2008 Archives

March 25, 2008

Springtime: Three Portraits, 1976

springtime.gifA muted, yet provocative composition on the changing face of the labor movement - or more appropriately, its immobility - in Western Europe in the 1970s, Johan van der Keuken's Springtime: Three Portraits articulates the struggle of the working class under the protracted climate of an austere, stagnant global economy (stemming in part from the OPEC oil crisis) and industrial recession through first person testimonies and quotidian observations of society's increasingly fragile and economically vulnerable middle class. This sense of work time as stasis is prefigured in the opening shot of an impressive wall clock in the suburban home of unemployed garment factory foreman, Joop Uchtman in Den Helder who, despite his productive working relationship with the factory seamstresses under his supervision, was laid off during company downsizing, as local industries sought to shrink their higher waged domestic workforce in favor of overseas outsourcing as a means of reducing operational costs and retaining global competitiveness. Threading through Uchtman's alternately expressed pride at his work (and implied humiliation at having to become dependent on the state and his wife) and anxiety over the repercussions of his inability to find a new job on his young family, with his all too familiar daily routine of reporting to the labor office in person to confirm that he has not secured a job and is eligible to receive unemployment benefits, and seeking advice from a friend on the merits - and illusion - of enrolling in state-sponsored vocational retraining, the recurring image of the clock becomes, not only a metaphor for the bureaucratic rituals of his vain search to find a job, but also reminder of his expiring state-assisted benefits, the dream of a comfortable middle class life being slowly swept away with the swinging of the pendulum.

In Frankfurt, the intersection between past and present, history and memory is embodied in the establishing shot of social activist and former teacher, Doris Schwert listening to a reel tape recording of her father's wartime testimony as a partisan rebel and political prisoner who fought against the Fascists in Germany and Spain in the 1930s and 40s. Instilled with her father's socialist ideals of solidarity and worker empowerment, Schwert's student radicalism and subsequent political engagement as a young teacher had drawn increasing concern from school administrators and West German officials who saw her ties to the communist party as tantamount to an act of ideological sabotage in the waging of the Cold War. Contrasting the images of protest graffiti demanding the reinstatement of the blacklisted, left-leaning teachers at her former school with recruitment posters tacked near empty classrooms that paradoxically tout equal opportunity to job seekers even with such insidious former affiliations as the Nazi party and wartime service in the SS, van der Keuken presents the idea of work time as historical recursion, where lessons from the past are whitewashed and reinvented to conform to the sociopolitical and economic expediencies of an amnesic present, a sobering reality that is punctuated by the chapter's concluding, intercutting shot of a confectionery store window display that is lined with premium chocolate Easter baskets and archival footage of a postwar Frankfurt street in ruins, the metaphoric resurrection of a national soul, fueled not by moral enlightenment, but exploitation and consumerism.

The near wordless Amsterdam closing chapter chronicles a day in the work life of metal worker, Jan Van Haagen, from his early morning suburban commute on his bicycle, to the bellowing of a factory horn that signals the official start of the work day (a sound akin to an air raid signal that also recalls the image of wartime Europe introduced in the Frankfurt chapter), to the union-synchronized meal break, to a passing anecdote of a senior co-worker's health problems that led to an early death after refusing to use an exhaust hood during welding operations (in favor of the company's earlier policy of instituting milk breaks as a means of bolstering employee health after working with hazardous materials), to the closing of the workshop in the afternoon. As in the Den Helder chapter, the clock becomes a recurring motif, marking through the workers' prescribed labor and break schedule with the monotonous ritual of fabrication and assembly. Framed against the image of a constantly turning exhaust vent on the facing wall of the building, the juxtaposition between the factory clock and the exhaust fan illustrates the idea of work time as a cultivated environment for social as well as technological progress, a humanization of industrial production.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 25, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Johan van der Keuken

March 17, 2008

The Power of Emotion, 1983

power_emotion.gifA subtly interconnecting mosaic of staged vignettes, non-fiction footage, archival prints, and found film excerpts, Alexander Kluge's The Power of Emotion is an organic, densely layered meditation on the intangible (and often irrational) essential mechanism of human emotion. At the core of Kluge's exposition is the interrelation between two disparate observations: 1) that objects, in their materiality, are the opposite of emotion; and 2) that emotions, by nature, search for a happy ending. The illogical nature of emotion is wryly illustrated in a chapter entitled The Shot in which a woman, Frau Bärlamm (Hannelore Hoger) testifying at an inquest over the apparent shooting of her husband, trivializes the gravity of her actions as an unmotivated compulsion, thereby frustrating the judges' attempts to find some psychologically motivated, extenuating circumstance that could help thread together the gaping holes in her story and resolve the case. Similarly, the disconnection between logic and emotion ironically plays out in In Her Final Hour..., when the victim, still harboring wounds from a badly ended love affair, refuses to condemn her attacker and unintentional rescuer following her opportunistic violation in the midst of suicide attempt, arguing that the emotional damage she suffered from her lover's rejection inured her from the trauma of the subsequent attack.

Motifs repeat in unexpected, yet coherent ways. The traditional construction of operatic tragedy inherent in Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto and Aida causes Kluge to observe, "In all operas dealing with redemption, a woman is sacrificed in Act V". The tragic irrationality of human despair during a high-rise building fire evokes the confusion of languages (and consequently, the confusion of emotions) created by the Tower of Babel, and is subsequently revisited in the chapter, The Opera House Fire, where a fireman, fascinated since childhood by a stage prop, sneaks into the burning building to catch a glimpse of its contents, the Holy Grail embodying the elusive quest. A woman's (Hannelore Hoger) eccentric, Chaplinesque appearance during an undefined interview is similarly reflected in a prostitute, Betty's (Suzanne von Borsody) excessive makeup, each suggesting the commerce of created desire. A tradesman's detailed explanation on proper bolting technique (itself, a crude visual metaphor to a woman's expressed wish to be handled by her husband as if he were a "repairman") resurfaces in the unusual weapon used during a robbery, representing both an object of fetish and an entwined fate that binds Betty and Schleich - the professional burglar who buys her freedom - to each other.

In the chapter The Power Plant of Emotions, Kluge expounds on the early images of music as the crystallization of grief (in the actual footage of a memorial service attended by Helmut Kohl), examining the role of opera in nineteenth century society as a medium for harnessing emotion: a projected scale reduced to the level of the personal (most notably, in the tragedy of the century old war between the Egyptians and the Ethiopians that is distilled to the triangular conflict of Aida). Juxtaposed against the construction of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London as a showcase for the Great Exhibition of 1851 that will display a collection of valuable, cutting edge products from around the world, the correlation between the opera house and the Victorian-era Crystal Palace reflects their intrinsic connection between the physical and the ethereal within the mindset of colonial (and Industrial Revolution) era contemporary society - a corrupted convergence of dissimilar ideals that is embodied in the opera singer's alchemic quest for eternal life in Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Case. In essence, the opera house and Crystal Palace have evolved into figurative temples that, like the Tower of Babel, reach towards the false idols of manufactured desire. Framed against the fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace and short circuit fire of the opera house, their destruction becomes a metaphor for the redemption of emotion - disconnected from the material pursuit - a dismantling of the fifth act.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 17, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Alexander Kluge

March 8, 2008

2008 NY African Film Festival Line-up


The program for the 15th annual New York African Film Festival has been announced, and the opening night selection is the latest film from venerable independent filmmaker Charles Burnett entitled Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation, a biography of Namibia's first president and South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) leader, Sam Nujoma. The program runs from April 9-15 at the Walter Reade Theater, and continues through May at the French Institute Alliance Française and BAMcinématek.

Film Society of Lincoln Center (Walter Reade Theater)

Africa Paradis (Sylvestre Amoussou, 2007) screening with 1961 UK archival footage, Sierra Leone Independence - Africa Paradis seems to be following in the same vein as Pierre Yameogo's Me and My White Pal (featured in the 2005 NYAFF) on the plight of illegal immigrants, from the upended perspective of Europeans as illegal immigrants in Africa.
Fri Apr 11: 7:30 p.m.; Tue Apr 15: 7:45 p.m.

Shoot the Messenger (Ngozi Onwurah, 2006)
Thu Apr 10: 7:45 p.m.; Sat Apr 12: 9:30 p.m.

Ezra (Newton I. Aduaka, 2007) - A fiction film on a young man coming to terms with his experience as a child soldier during the protracted civil war in the Sierra Leone.
Wed Apr 9: 5:15 p.m.

Goodbye Mothers (Mohamed Ismail, 2007) - An examination of the peaceful coexistence between Muslim and Jews during the "Black Years of Emigration" in 1960s Morocco.
Sat Apr 12: 1:15 p.m.; Tues Apr 15: 5:30 p.m.

Juju Factory (Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda, 2006) - A film that explores the unreconciled history of Belgium's colonial past through the exoticization of contemporary Africa.
Thu Apr 10: 10:00 p.m.

Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation (Charles Burnett, 2007)
Wed Apr 9: 7:30 p.m.

Brothers in Arms (Jack Lewis, 2007) - A portrait of South African activist, Ronald Herboldt, who became the only African to participate in the Cuban Revolution.
Sat Apr 12: 7:30 p.m.; Tue Apr 15: 9:30 p.m.

Black Business (Osvalde Lewat-Hallade, 2007) - Known for her human rights-themed documentaries, Lewat-Hallade's film focuses on Cameroonian families who are still searching for information on their missing loved ones who disappeared during a government campaign in the 1990s.
Thu Apr 10: 5:45 p.m.; Tue Apr 15: 3:30 p.m.

Iron Ladies of Liberia (Daniel Junge and Siatta Scott Johnson, 2007) - A chronicle of the first elected female president in Africa, Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's first year in office following a fourteen year civil war.
Thu Apr 10: 1:15 p.m.

Cuba: An African Odyssey (Jihan El Tahir, 2006-2007)
Sun Apr 13: 9:30 p.m.

The African Slave Trades: Across the Indian Ocean (Diane Seligsohn and Richard Rein, 2007-2008)
Sat Apr 12: 5:30 p.m.; Sun Apr 13: 1:30 p.m.

Meteni: The Lost One (Wondessen Deresse, 2002) screening with Awaiting for Men (Katy Lena Ndiaye, Belgium, 2007)
Sat Apr 12: 3:30 p.m.; Tue Apr 15: 1:30 p.m.

Baa Baa Black Girl (Gül Büyükbeşe Muyan, 2007) screening with Bushman’s Secret (Rehad Desai, 2006) - Muyan's film is an examination of the legacy of slavery in Muslim countries from the perspective of descendant Afro-Turks who continue to face discrimination and social stigma decades after the abolition of slavery in the Middle East.
Wed Apr 9: 1:30 p.m.; Sun Apr 13: 3:30 p.m.

Fantôme Afrique (Isaac Julien, 2005) screening with This is My Africa (Zina Saro-Wiwa, 2008)
Fri Apr 11: 5:45 p.m.; Sun Apr 13: 7:45 p.m.

Meokgo and the Stick Fighter (Teboho Malatshi, 2006) screening with Bunny Chow (John Barker, 2006) - Malatshi's New Crowed Hope entry, Meokgo and the Stick Fighter was featured in the 2007 NYAFF Young Rebels shorts program, a sensual, gorgeously shot tone piece where imagination, humanity, and desire intersect in the austere grace of an eternal, unforgiving landscape.

Russian archival footage: Independently Guinea, The President of Guinea in the USSR, and Hello Guinea
Wed Apr 9: 3:45 p.m.; Sun Apr 13: 5:45 p.m.

French Institute Alliance Française

Buud Yam (Gaston J-M Kabore, 1997)
Tue May 6: 12:30 p.m.; 7:00 p.m.

Sarraounia (Med Hondo, 1986)
Tue May 6: 4:00 p.m.; 9:00 p.m.

Muna Moto (Jean-Pierre Dikongue-Pipa, 1974)
Tue May 13: 12:30 p.m.; 7:00 p.m.

Ali Zaoua (Nabil Ayouch, 2000)
Tue May 13: 4:00 p.m.; 9:00 p.m.

Barra (Souleymane Cisse, 1978)
Tue May 20: 12:30 p.m.; 7:00 p.m.

Drum (Zola Maseko, 2004)
Tue May 20: 4:00 p.m.; 9:00 p.m.

Homage to Ousmane Sembène - A tribute to the late filmmaker that includes a screening of Mamadou Niange's work in progress film, In Memory of Ousmane Sembène, Sembène's first film, Borom Sarret, and a panel conversation.
Tue May 27: 7:00 p.m.

Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAMcinématek)

African Shorts Program with Mama Put (Seke Somolu, 2006), Meokgo and the Stick Fighter (Teboho Malatshi, 2006) and Menged (Daniel Taye Workou, 2006)
Fri May 23: 6:50 p.m.; 9:15 p.m.

Les Saignantes (Jean-Pierre Bekolo, 2005)
Sat May 24: 6:50 p.m., 9:15 p.m.

Juju Factory (Balufu Bakupa-Kanyinda, 2006)
Sun May 25: 2:00 p.m.; 6:50 p.m.

Growing Stronger (Tsitsi Dangarembga, 2005) screening with A Love During the War (Osvalde Lewat-Hallade, 2005) - Dangarembga's Growing Stronger was one of my favorites from last year's NYAFF (screened in the Women of Zimbabwe shorts program), a profile of two African women from opposite ends of the social spectrum living with HIV: a working class woman, Pamela Kanjenzana and former model and AIDS activist, Tendayi Westerhof.
Mon May 26: 6:50 p.m.; 9:15 p.m.

Clouds Over Conakry (Cheick F. Camara, 2007) - This was the opening film for the 2007 NYAFF, a nuanced look at how tradition and modernity often tenuously coexist in contemporary African society.
Sun May 25: 4:30 p.m.; 9:15 p.m.

Posted by acquarello on Mar 08, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Quick Notes