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June 18, 2008

The Way South, 1980-81

verslesud.gifThe coronation of Queen Beatrix on the eve of May Day in 1980 provides a salient point of departure for Johan van der Keuken's The Way South, a cultural interrogation into the intertwined sociopolitical landscape of immigration, dislocation, underprivilege, and class division. Continuing on the prevailing theme of economic disparity between the continental north and south (in such essay films as Diary, The White Castle, and the The New Ice Age), van der Keuken encounters his first destination within a short distance from his home in Amsterdam, where a unused office building on Kinker Street has been converted to a communal squat by activists (who see their action as a pragmatic solution to the affordable housing shortage by making use of existing real estate that would otherwise remain unoccupied). Facing an imminent siege by riot police to force their eviction, the squatters discuss the logistics of their staged resistance, from rounding up volunteers for round the clock sentry duty to guard the main entrance, to installing reinforcing screens in order to thwart a surprise intrusion from unsecured windows. Intercutting a shot of the activists protesting in the street with footage of a public rally celebrating the country's liberation in 1945, van der Keuken presents the activists' defiant expression of freedom within the irony of self-imprisonment that reveals their idealistic act of resistance.

Van der Keuken captures a similar image of imposed occupation at a nearby church, where a group of Moroccan migrant workers have assembled to seek refuge while awaiting their deportation, having lost their jobs as a result of stricter guidelines governing immigrant labor (one that also levies the restrictive requirement of having continuous employment under a single employer as a means of providing a loophole to deny access to social services). Spending a final night at the church before their expulsion, the immigrants sleep in communal beds under panels depicting the Stations of the Cross, implicitly linking the sorrow, isolation, and sacrifice that also mark their uncertain plight.

The problem of assimilation is also implied in the profile of Goutte d'or in Paris, the oldest immigrant community in Europe, where the idea of impermanence and transition embodied in the names of boarding houses such as Hotel du Progrés collides with the reality of a fourth and fifth generation ethnic African population continuing to reside within the same community (a social immobility that is also reinforced in the portrait of a construction worker and his wife who, despite having lived in France for over 45 years, are still considered immigrants). Focusing on the everyday routine of Ali, a disabled former car factory worker who has been taking clerical correspondence courses in order to find a new way to make a living after his accident, van der Keuken reveals the intrinsic racism that continues to exist behind the ideal of social inclusion, where a constant police presence can be seen from his apartment window, and he is compelled to carry his disability and residency papers at all times in case of "random" identity checks.

The myth of post-colonial integration revealed by the experiences of Goutte d'or's residents also resurfaces in Rome, where an octogenarian widow, Nonna Rosa - the daughter of an Italian father and Eritrean mother - talks about her transient life between Eritrea, her homeland, and Italy, her country of citizenship. Displaced by fascism, racism, British territorial expulsion, apartheid, decolonization, and finally, Ethiopia's annexation of Eritrea in 1962, Nonna Rosa's life has been marked by perpetual exile, struggling to bridge the two cultures of her identity only to belong to neither.

In the village of Calabria in Locri, a Catholic priest, Father Natale, exposes a different kind of institutionalized oppression, defying the thinly veiled threats of a mafia don who lords over the small town with the silent complicity of the local church. Establishing a clothing factory cooperative to provide jobs for the poor (and stave off the lure of organized crime), Father Natale sees a correlation between the church's increasing inability to attract young men into the priesthood and its perceived culture of corruption. Concluding the chapter with a montage of gravestones from villagers who were killed by the mafia, van der Keuken wryly reinforces the macabre connection between the church and organized crime through the mutual commerce of death, and the tragic dignity of ennobled resistance.

The moral cost of the illusive pursuit of wealth is similarly reflected during the observance of the Feast of Sacrifice in Cairo, where a family's financial ability to provide sacrificial food itself becomes a status symbol. Offering alms to the poor - who are often found living inside family vaults (connected the parallel image of the Kinker Street squatters) - in exchange for prayers for the souls of lost loved ones, van der Keuken illustrates the conflation of economy and spirituality in the meaning of sacrifice. Framed against the television broadcast of an imam preaching against the perils of following "desires" that is ironically being shown simultaneously over multiple televisions at a shop window display, the imam's call for solidarity paradoxically reflects the self-inflicted fragmentation of society as well (a man-made division that is also symbolized by a prefiguring shot of pedestrians cutting through un-reinforced sidewalk barricades in lieu of crossing at street corners). Concluding with an incisive, tongue-in-cheek montage of a manually operated waterwheel (that evokes a recurring image of Sisyphean ritual), peanut farmers (harvesting to the radio broadcast news of the U.S. presidential race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan), brick loaders (a metaphor for Cairo's economic transformation literally being carried on the backs of workers), and repeated shots of graffiti that alternately read "No Future" and "Carry On", van der Keuken's expressed desire to touch reality also suggests a quixotic quest to transcend the bounds between the figurative north and south, to dismantle the artificial notions of privilege and exclusion, and consequently, find the root of our common humanity.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 18, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Johan van der Keuken


June 12, 2008

H story, 2001

Hstory.gifInasmuch as Alain Resnais's Hiroshima mon amour examines the impossibility of translation in articulating the weight of tragedy, Nobuhiro Suwa's H story also aligns with Arnaud Desplechin's Playing 'In the Company of Men' in illustrating the inherent limitations of adapting source material to convey the essential story. The ambiguity of language is foretold in the film's silent, establishing shot of Suwa and lead actress Béatrice Dalle discussing the staging of a hotel room scene - an image capturing the (apparent) mutual understanding between actress and director that is subverted with the introduction of sound, revealing the voice of an off-screen translator mediating their conversation and the presence of a second actor, Hiroaki Umano, waiting for direction nearby. Structured as a day in the life chronicle of the filmmaking process as Suwa and cinematographer Caroline Champetier attempt to shoot a faithful adaptation of Marguerite Duras's screenplay in a way that consciously rejects the facile restaging of sequences from Resnais's iconic postwar film, H story is also a layered reflection of a younger generation's sense of incomplete and disconnected history. This estrangement is captured during a conversation between Hiroshima native Suwa and writer Machida Kuo who is visiting the city to research the life of a hibakusha artist for possible inclusion as a character in his latest novel. For both Suwa and Machida, the bombing represents a distant, intangible history, dislocated from a geographic and moral sense of place.

Interweaving episodes of the difficult film shoot with Dalle's increasing sense of disconnection in the unfamiliar city, the language barrier is shown not only as a symptom of transplantation and distance, but also as a byproduct of its construction, a problem of textuality that is reflected in her continued struggle with the unnatural patois of Duras's precisely crafted, poetic screenplay. In a sense, Dalle's gravitation towards singular images of the bombing rather than large-scale panoramas during a recounted trip to a war museum alludes to her difficulties with the script, where the attention to the form of the language supersedes the content - a rift between reality and its representation. This rupture is also mirrored in Dalle's restlessness during a trip to a Hiroshima bombing memorial-themed art museum with Machida, where personal expressions of tragedy have been sublimated (or more appropriately, buried) within the public exhibition of commissioned works. Moreover, with the idea of transforming untranslatable tragedy into free-form sculptures and pop art, Suwa revisits an earlier theme in an episode between Dalle and Umano at a riverbank where the two pass the time during make-up by sharing an anecdote about the nearby river as the site where the bombing victims, suffering from thirst and the heat, had once sought relief by drinking the water that had been poisoned by nuclear fallout. Framed within the context of the tragedy-inspired art objects at the museum, the incongruity of their casual conversation serves as an incisive interrogation of society's tendency towards the aesthetization of horror, where suffering is lost in the abstraction of the spectacle.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 12, 2008 | | Filed under 2008


June 5, 2008

State of Weightlessness, 1994

state_weightlessness.gifFilmed after the dismantling of the Soviet Union at a time when the U.S. space station project (then called Freedom) that had been championed by Ronald Reagan was similarly facing its own crisis of survival after a series of deep budget cuts (partly in response to shifting political considerations and administrations), Maciej Drygas's The State of Weightlessness is a clear-eyed, thoughtful, and articulate survey of the human cost of the Cold War-fueled space race, and the moral vacuum left in the wake of geopolitical upheaval. Incisively opening to the recorded audio transmission between an unseen cosmonaut (perhaps aboard the Mir space station) and ground control as he positions the microphone near areas around his heart in an attempt to amplify his heartbeat for the remote listener, the cosmonaut's long distance health checkup also becomes a metaphor for Drygas's examination on the current state of a people's disoriented collective consciousness as Russia dramatically transformed from communist state to federal republic. Framed as a candid discussion on the exhilaration, difficulties, adaptations, and dangers inherent in manned spaceflight (and in particular, the long duration mission tours of duty necessitated by the launching of the Salyut, then Mir space stations) with a diverse cross-section of participants from the Soviet space program - cosmonauts, scientists, physicians, surviving family members, and medical experiment participants - the film also reveals the moral consequences inherent in the politically motivated pursuit of technology.

In one interview, flight engineer Georgi Grechko (the first person to conduct a spacewalk outside an orbiter) reflects on his adventurous spirit colliding with the realization of his own mortality following a near-death experience during re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere - an incident that invokes the specter of Soviet hero, Vladimir Komarov, whose death from a failed parachute deployment during landing would come to symbolize the human toll exacted in the noble (and politically mandated) pursuit of space exploration. A similar spectacle is forged in the aftermath of the Soyuz 11 crew's ill-fated homecoming - the elation over the first successful mission to the Salyut space station upended by the discovery of the crew's accidental exposure to the vacuum of space during undocking and separation. In each case, the propaganda value of a hero's welcome would be transfigured into an equally potent rallying cry for perseverance and solidarity with the national space program, capitalizing on a public outpouring of grief and sympathy. In another interview, Mir cosmonaut Aleksandr Laveykin expresses his disagreement with pioneering rocket scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's comment that human destiny lies beyond Earth's gravity, remarking that humanity will always harbor an inviolable emotional connection with the idea of home and will always strive to return, a sentiment that is similarly expressed by veteran cosmonaut Valeriy Polyakov (who has logged more than 670 days in space during two Mir missions) who describes his own thoughts during landing as those disconnected from fundamental questions of life and death (and history), and instead, were filled with the idea of savoring the simple gestures of being human - a glass of wine, a cigarette, his wife's embrace.

However, the toll of spaceflight is not only relegated to the memories of increasingly forgotten, conquering heroes, but also in the damaged lives of many anonymous, medical experiment participants like Yevgeni Kiriushin who was subjected to a research study that simulated the effects of long-duration weightlessness. Recounting bouts of depression, alcoholism, broken marriages, and other manifestations of psychological damage that continue to plague fellow research participants long after the end of the clinical studies, and punctuated by a visit to a colleague who sustained irreversible neurological damage, Kiriushin's testimony is a sobering reminder of the murky ethics, institutional cruelty, and callous indifference that underpins the myopic, zealous pursuit of these milestone achievements. Returning to images of a deserted, post-communist Baikonur Cosmodrome as a cosmonaut - unable to return home - listens to his wife's comments on the turbulent changes sweeping the country (and reassurance over his enviable distance from the sociopolitical maelstrom), the stark contrast reflects the moral question posed by all human endeavor - where conscience is a surrogate force of gravity - suspended between heaven and earth, humanity and history.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 05, 2008 | | Filed under 2008, Maciej Drygas