ALLAN BERG NIELSEN POSTS IN COLLECTED ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS
BALTICUM FILMFESTIVAL (1999)
1990-1999. Nine years of week-long sessions of film and television in Gudhjem, and the tenth festival rapidly drawing nigh. Crème de la crème. Reminiscing: High points? Of course, but how many, and which ones? The prize winners, perhaps. But no, it’s not easy to remember, the competitions never were very important at the festival. Many other factors impel one to return, an absolute necessity. For the tenth time running. The fact that the festival’s old-fashioned severity and humanistic responsibility are natural elements to these serious men and women arriving in groups with rolls of films under their arms and cassettes in their bags. Each time bringing the results of their research from the past year. Statements on how far things have developed. Maybe it’s still like that. The event is both a film festival and a convention of “scientists”.
Things have really been humming during these years. The political struggles, the new opening, the retrospective studies, the extent of the crimes and identity of the traitors. We also got to know each other. Personally and professionally. They saw the Western violations of intimacy and aesthetics. Like master craftsman Henrikas Sablevicius said to me one day about a Danish film that in Copenhagen had been referred to as a beacon of the new documentarism, “It hasn’t even been cinematographically processed; it hasn’t even been edited.” and the two photographers who worked on the film were even genuine Andreas Fischer-Hansen students from the Danish Film School, the editor was one of the budding at the time talents from advertising films, today a downright renewer of cinematic dramaturgy.
In return, we saw their shyness and classic refinement. Whenever I watched the retrospective screenings, these glimpses into the wonderful film culture of a foreign country, I saw the old aesthetic virtues still being upheld. Like the architecture of their old cities, stubborn classicism. Sablevicius’s own works are a good example. (Photo: Henrikas Sablevicius on the set)
In this sense, every title in the nine festival catalogues helps depict the very essence of the festival. In this sense, everything is interesting, and from a cinematic historical viewpoint, it is an extremely important collection. An imaginary museum whose pieces were intelligently and discriminatingly selected during those turbulent years.
But since I must choose, I lean back and think, In Gudhjem, was it really the grand, epic works that are foremost in my memory. Tremendous narratives which left me spiritually satiated. Filled to the brim. Enough nourishment for many days, for the next segment of my life. They live on inside, these narratives. Years later.
I select three works, hesitate, and take one more. Afterwards I discover they’re not the great works after all. Even though others were longer, perhaps weightier and more typical, I love these four. One film from the West, three from the East.
(From Tue Steen Müller, ed.: Balticum Film & TV Festival 1990-99, translation and language editing: Stuart Goodale. Baltic Media Centre, 1999)
THE SECOND UNDERSTANDING
Pirjo Honkasalo: Mysterion, 1992.
She leaves the city and arrives in the country. She is in a dark picture with artificial light, moving toward dawn, it seems, and real light. A modern woman surrounded by technology. Plagued by trauma, she comes to the old-fashioned women, surrounded by the results of their manual labour, liberated by their insight into art and faith.
The beginning is clear, and the introduction takes a long time. I see this woman’s face as she travels from her flat in the city to the convent in the country, while the monologue of my inner voice tells me that an existence so bound up in death as hers seems to seek change out of necessity. And I know the essence of the next ninety minutes in front of me. One and a half hours in the cinema confronted by great documentary images: The course of the year and some of the fates in Pyhitsa Convent in north-east Estonia.
The film is about life in this orthodox convent, home and workplace for 160 nuns. A Western director has moved into this foreign Eastern area, isolated for a long time, very unfamiliar still.
I met Pirjo Honkasalo at the third festival. Later on, I inevitably discovered she was a big name. In 1994, she participated with Tanjuska ja 7 perkelettäI (Tanjuska and the 7 Devils). In 1998, her Indian film, Atman, won the Amsterdam competition. For me, however, this series of cinematic studies into the world of faith, into the power and beauty of religious devotion started on a late May evening in 1992 at Gudhjem Kino filled with the singing of nuns. I think it’s the first time they hear themselves sing, these two enthusiastic women sharing a headset. Listening to the recording made by the sound director.
The opening scenes of the film show winter farming chores, while the last shows the movement in darkness at a nun’s burial ceremony with procession, song and candlelight. The cycle of seasons reflected in the changing farming tasks interweaves through the narrative line with the life story of some of the women. “Do you know how good the death of a nun can be?” is the last sentence, and I remember the long, meticulous documentation of the ordination of the young women. A life between these poles connected to acts like the slapping of grain into warm soil in spring or the shearing of sheep on a bright day in early summer. For the harvest, they are assisted by machinery and men from outside the convent, but they manage the horse-powered ploughing themselves. The tremendous high point is a windy, bitter-cold winter day when they are gathered in a group out on the ice-covered lake with sledges. They saw out blocks of ice so large as to almost defy the effort and convey the blocks back to the ice cellar at the convent.
The return to spring is linked to the film’s third narrative element, which is the visit to the holy well with its miraculous powers. The series of spiritual ceremonies are juxtaposed with the physical farming tasks, the religious ceremonies are incessantly surrounded by choral singing in a comparable seasonal cadence.
In the middle of the film, the sixth of twelve elements describes a threat to the women’s lives. The convent is located like an island of purity and tranquillity in a giant, polluted area. Poisoned soil, poisoned water, devoid of all life: The world of industry confronting the world of farming, machinery and manual labour. The world of men confronting that of women. Principles in opposition. Sister Naemilla tells about her sister whose husband is an alcoholic. She admonishes her sister to keep silent and endure. She herself intends to purify the world, to tidy up. No work is too sordid for her.
Marcel Lozinski: Po zwiestwie (Poland After the Victory), 1996.
“Did you see that?” asked my colleague as we sat in the video bar at the Købmandsgården pension and started to watch Marcel Lozinski’s television film Efter Sejren (Poland: After the Victory) together. No, I hadn’t seen the five seconds he was talking about. I had looked down for a split second to make a note. Since we were the only ones using the video machine, we rewound it to watch again: During a demonstration in Gdansk, a solitary man tries to stop a military truck by standing in front of it. It keeps going, however, and runs the man over. He disappears under the vehicle, doesn’t reappear. His mutilated body must have been caught between the pairs of wheels, because a second later it falls off, appears on the street. Lies there.
Shaken, we continued watching the film about Poland’s most recent history at that time. And we knew that’s how things are at this festival in particular. Serious issues. We had seen the shooting of photographer Andris Slapins by Russian black berets as he filmed their attack on the Ministry of Interior in Riga. We watched a man, who we become acquainted with in the film, set fire to himself in a desperate protest against a repressive regime. The early years. Now it was our seventh time at the festival.
One of the prize winners from the year before, Polish film director Marcel Lozinski, was again attending the festival, again with a masterpiece a retrospective, critical, recapitulatory television documentary. A discipline that film professionals apparently master due to their ability to infuse everyday television journalism with some kind of personal filter and, simultaneously, a certain languid quality whose insistence is inescapable because it infects the audience with artistic strength alongside journalistic lucidity. Emotional capacity shoulder to shoulder with intellectual analysis. Lozinski’s film is an overwhelming experience of the march and teachings of history that bears comparison to Juris Podnieks’ End of Empire from 1991 about five years of Russian history with perestroika that ends with the five-day coup in August 1991. The two television series superbly compliment each other, both telling in spite of their various approaches the same story: These years of the dismantling of the communist regime. Both films are founded on an attitude of portent, responsibility and sadness.
I asked Katarzyna Maciejko-Kowalczyk, the film’s editor, about the scene with the demonstrator who is run over and killed. She verifies its authenticity. They found the scene in the archives during their investigations. The scene dates from 1982 during the insurrection. ‘Jaruzelski’s War’ she called it. The few seconds were intended to introduce a retrospective montage of the years dealt with by the film, from 1989 to 1995. The one-hour film is the fourth episode in a series on Poland’s history following World War II made by Lozinski for La Sept ARTE. The series inevitably appeared on Polish television, creating a stir and greatly affecting many Poles. “We’re still divided into two separate camps,” the editor said, “The communists and ‘us’, as we refer to the now very divided section of the population that overthrew Wojciech Jaruzelski’s regime.” In her opinion, the events depicted in the film are objective enough so everyone can nod in ‘Yes, that’s-how-it-was’ agreement. “But our observations are clearly based on ‘our’ left wing attitudes. We just don’t refer to ourselves that way in Poland. ‘The Left’ is a concept, which like the past has been tainted by the communists. So we refer to ourselves as ‘The Centre’.”
But Lozinski sympathises with the left wing of the Solidarity movement, the circles surrounding former minister of labour Jacek Kuron, he shares their view of society. The charismatic, articulate Kuron is the film’s obvious hero. He is a recurring member of the series’ panel of raconteurs, all of whom are social critics whose insight makes for rewarding listening: Their candid opinions are far removed from the empty rhetoric of politics.
That year, the former communists regained momentum, and it was time to examine the state of affairs. Poland: After the Victory makes an impressive contribution to this process. It is a splendid, extremely important document, an intelligent, penetrating summary generously presented to us for an hour in the video bar in the lounge of the Gudhjem pension.
INVESTIGATING AND REVENGING THE CRIME
Herz Frank: Ebreju iela (The Jewish Street), 1993.
The camera from high above shows me Riga. The city set in its landscape. I’m drawn closer, zooming in on roofs and individual buildings. Ending with the synagogue, the one from back then. The camera dwells on the inscription on a stone tablet: ‘Forever remember our Parents, brothers, sisters and children murdered and burned by fascists in the year of 5701. Let their Souls be bound securely in the Bundle of the Living. For Jews of Riga Ghetto, the Martyrs of Faith’.
Herz Frank outlines the story. The Russian occupation, then the German. The latter called a liberation by some, but disavowed by the film. It describes new suppression. The Latvian flag was removed everywhere, the picture shows the arrests being made, and the director comments in his voice-over “Like in all Times they started with Temples”. The synagogues burn. The investigation concentrates on the fate of the Jews. “I am intrigued by the secret, mysterious nature of Jewry, by its Biblical origins,” he writes in the catalogue. “In the course of the millennia, this was the source of energy for our forefathers. It helped the Jews to survive many catastrophes. Perhaps that is the lesson taught by the history of the Jewish people: How one survives under catastrophic conditions. Perhaps this is the fate that has haunted the Jews an ancient symbol of the destruction of mankind…”
Above an expansive landscape of Riga’s ghetto with the catholic church on one side and the evangelical church on the other, the voice tells us (which I perceive to be Herz himself) that over there near the horizon above the neighbourhood is Rumbula, Riga’s Babyi Yar, as he puts it.
The Christian churches confine and guard the ghetto; the elements in Herz’s analysis summarise the analysis’ accusations in quiet ascertainment. No reason to shout any more; just adding these local facts to what I already know is enough. And I nod to myself in the cinema’s darkness, the placement of the churches, yes, the Babyi Yar massacre, yes.
The film is a description of the director’s investigation. He methodically works his way toward the appalling knowledge of what happened and toward understanding the inevitable fate of the Jewish people. I follow him from witness to witness, archive document to archive document. As the film gains insight into these shocking events, so do I.
I am witnessing the director’s personal project. I see him in the picture holding the camera on his shoulder. (A big one. This is before the compact DV’s were introduced and laid the foundations for the video note, the cinematic outline.) He is the one looking up facts in the stacks of books in the beautiful Jewish library in Stockholm, opening the archive cartons.
On the trip through the worn streets and dilapidated buildings of the former ghetto, we enter back courtyards and outbuildings. At one spot, a surprising artefact in the middle of this story’s monuments. A suitcase is brought out from an outbuilding. I see that the suitcase’s owner is Adele Sara Wolff. Her name still clearly painted on the suitcase. What happened to her? This object from the past crystallizes the recollection of this overwhelming sequence of events into one tangible moment. ‘Museum pieces are memories’ as Danish painter Asger Jorn once said. This festival is continually teaching me that this remembrance process is existential. This film, too. Sara Wolff was one of thousands from many countries who were brought to Riga to die.
One of the witnesses in Herz Frank’s investigation is novelist and physician Bernhard Press. He wrote the book Judenmord in Lettland 1941-1945 (The Murder of Jews in Latvia, 1941-1945). I meet him together with the director and his film on this guided tour through uncluttered landscapes, but at a point in time when I have become disoriented and have entrusted everything to my guide. Press talks energetically as he stands in some kind of corridor that wanders off into darkness, and I hear his story in one of the condensed sequences of this narrative dramatisation. When Press was a young man, he escaped from Riga’s ghetto before the extermination, but after the Russian’s occupation of Latvia, and ended up in Gulag. He worked as a doctor in a Siberian prison camp where he met a man who had been put there because he was a nazi collaborator. The man suffered from paralysis in his legs and had given up all hope. Press, however, got him going, planned a physical training program and built a special wheelchair for him. After this the man improved. Press tells that “after a month or so he started walking with a stick. When I asked him, ‘Why are you imprisoned?’ he answered, ‘Because I shot those hooked nosed.’ He meant Jews. What does a Jewish doctor do in this situation? I kept treating him. What else could I do? I couldn’t violate my Hippocratic oath, so I took revenge in a childish way. When he was released from the camp as a disabled man, he went to his relatives somewhere in the East. He asked me to give him a letter for his future doctor. I wrote something on a slip of paper and sealed it in an envelope. It said, ‘Your paralysis is God’s punishment for your sins.’ A Jew’s revenge.
THE SORROW OF REACTION
Audrius Stonys: Antigravitacija (Anti-gravitation), 1995.
This Stonys film was made using the prize he received in 1992, the Felix Prize, for the best short film in Europe, Neregiu Zeme (World of the Blind). It was shown in Gudhjem that same year. In 1995, he returned with the result, a film about our longing to overcome what keep us on the ground.
For a long time, Stonys had wanted famous Lithuanian cinematographer Jonas Gricius to photograph a film for him. He finally succeeded. And what wonderful pictures! We are moved into the beautiful old tradition of large black-and-white 35 mm film sequences where every shot is considered down to the last detail. Stonys subsequently pursues this artistic deliberateness by putting every single scene into a perfectly harmonious context, whose authenticity I thoroughly accept. A soundless work. I have rarely experienced a film that leaves me so utterly incapable of objecting, of imagining other solutions. This film is definitively finished.
But what’s it really about? Like his previous films, Stonys portrays empathy. At the 1991 festival, he brought his film from 1989 called Atverti duris ateinanciam (Open the Door to Him Who Comes). Like Neregiu Zeme, it is photographed in the same dignified and old-fashioned manner, 35 mm film, black and white, features shared by subsequent films. With Harbour from the 1998 festival, he finally brings colour into his meditation on body and water. The film’s setting is public baths. Its plot is purification. It also describes a pastor in a remote parish who is visited by people, from large cities too, because of the peace of mind and answers the big questions he gives them. The other film portrayed people without sight in a world of sounds and dim contours, and changing degrees of light and darkness. Reflecting, almost wordless, states of mind. Dreaming, they yearn for existential relics. Dismal tones, will the project succeed?
Stonys’ manuscript for the gravitation film demanded that the crew had to shoot sequences for at least a year, because as a matter of course the scenes jump from snow-covered landscapes to sweltering village streets in spring, from spring floods to a sleigh in crunchy frost. And the young director pulled the fine old cinematographer, who here made his first documentary, up to heights, on roof scaffolding, on high railway bridges and at the very pinnacle of church towers. Because the pictures must show us how the world looks from these man-made structures reaching to the heavens. The film’s heroine is an old woman who forces her way up the longest ladder I have ever seen to the tip of the spire on the village church. At the very top she gazes out on summer landscapes. The next clip shows us, very correctly, the scene from her angle, but now it is in the bitter cold of winter. She climbs up there all year round. We don’t know why, she does it out of necessity.
CENTRAL AND EASTERN EUROPE (2017)
Three children sitting on a sofa. The girl recounts their dreadful experiences from the war in Kosovo. A Jewish doctor takes revenge on a Nazi collaborator. A six-year-old boy equipped with a wireless captures comments from people in a park. ALLAN BERG NIELSEN highlights three documentaries from Hungary, Latvia and Poland, films that reflect our world and deal with strong themes and the memory of History.
In recent years, the documentary film has grown into great classic art in my consciousness. It deals with profound themes, profound feelings. Therefore, I must apply profound words from my European background. In my opinion, this is what we have to offer the global community alongside the many calamities. So this short essay will deal with profound words. I want to link them to three films I have seen, enjoyed and thought about.
These films were made in an era when things were really humming: political upheaval, new opening to the East, retrospective studies, the extent of the crimes and the identity of the traitors. (Modern Times, ed. 2017)
Ferenc Moldoványi: Deca-Fëmijët (Children, Kosovo 2000), Hungary, 2001
Children, Kosovo 2000 is the title of the film. Two years ago, a girl is making dough in a room of a rural house in Kosovo, then she puts the dough aside to rise. She walks out the door that is allowed to swing all the way open before the cut. She and her two younger brothers walk down the road through the village. In the next scene, they sit anxiously on a sofa in a damaged room. Then they tell what happened:
Interviewer (off): Do you remember that day?
Interviewer (off): Were you with your brothers?
Interviewer (off): Would you tell me about it?
Girl: If you ask me questions.
Interviewer (off): What were you doing at that time?
Girl: When we returned from the convoy we settled here, We were in this room. The Serb soldiers arrived. Dad was lying on his couch. We were outside. I was the only one who was outside, the others were in the house. Three people came and told me in Serbian to stop. Three times. I did not stop. My sister came over and warned me they might shoot. Then I went onto the porch. They ordered me to go in. I didn’t want to. Finally I did. My little brother (she looks at him) came in and told my father lying here, the militia were looking for him. Dad went out. I was watching. The Serb militiaman asked him if he was a terrorist. Dad said he wasn’t. ”Terrorists have lived here,” the Serb militiaman replied. Dad said he didn’t know them. ”Aren’t you one of them?” the Serb asked. Dad said he was no terrorist. ”Never mind,” the man said, ”Go over there and raise your hands.” We all left the house. Dad raised his hands, and the Serb shot him with his machine gun. Blood streamed down his legs but he was still standing. We ran away. My sister remained. Then the three men grabbed my sister and took her in here… When it was over they asked her what her father had done. She said he’d done nothing. She collapsed onto her father’s body, his blood was on her face, his body had been shot to pieces, his bowels were out. We covered him with a blanket, except for his face so we could see it…
The entire sequence of the three children on the sofa is unbroken. She is crying all the while she tells the story. Her oldest brother is also crying, while the youngest only feels dread. I see it in his eyes that he averts from the camera all the time. The scene continues after her testimony, and she cries for such a long time that I discover and understand its relief.
The most important aspect of documentary films is their presence. In a presence as great as this, I have brought it as close as possible to a point of pain in the history of our part of the world. A major event, though one of thousands. An event more important to remember than countless international conferences put together.
I see she is wearing fingernail polish when she hides her face in her hands. She is seventeen years old, she is washing clothes outside in the courtyard in the next scene. Sunshine and bird songs. Timor Szemzö’s music takes over. The solo rises above the orchestra. Elegiac. In his filmic work, Ferenc Moldoványi has mounted the children’s testimony as the central images in a triptych of landscapes and depictions of everyday life facing a sacred concert in a darkened church interior of our times. Just as medieval altarpieces focused the prayers about human suffering in front of a singing choir of believers. The filmic works are the altarpieces of our era in front of a modern, sceptical silence.
Herz Frank: Ebreju iela (The Jewish Street), 1993
The camera from high above shows me Riga. The city set in its landscape. I’m drawn closer, zooming in on roofs and individual buildings. Ending with the synagogue, the one from back then. The camera dwells on the inscription on a stone tablet: ‘Forever remember our Parents, brothers, sisters and children murdered and burned by fascists in the year 5701. Let their Souls be bound securely in the Bundle of the Living. For Jews of Riga Ghetto, the Martyrs of Faith’.
In The Jewish Street Herz Frank outlines the story. The Russian occupation, then the German. The latter called a liberation by some, but disavowed by the film. It describes new suppression. The Latvian flag was removed everywhere, the picture shows the arrests being made, and the director comments in his voiceover, “Like in all times they started with temples.” The synagogues burn. The investigation concentrates on the fate of the Jews.
Above an expansive landscape of Riga’s ghetto with the Catholic Church on one side and the evangelical church on the other, the voiceover tells that over near the horizon above the neighbourhood is Rumbula, Riga’s Babyi Yar, as he puts it.
The Christian churches confine and guard the ghetto; the elements of Frank’s analysis summarizing their accusations in quiet ascertainment. No reason to shout any more; just adding these local facts to what I already know is enough. And I nod to myself in the cinema darkness, the placement of the churches, yes, the Babyi Yar massacre, yes.
The film is a description of the director’s investigation. He methodically works his way towards an appalling knowledge of what happened and towards understanding the inevitable fate of the Jewish people. I follow him from witness to witness, archive document to archive document. As the film gains insight into these shocking events, so do I.
I am witnessing the director’s personal project. I see him in the picture holding the camera on his shoulder. (A big one. This is before the compact DV’s were introduced, laying the groundwork for the video note, the cinematic outline.) He is the one looking up facts in the stacks of books in the beautiful Jewish library in Stockholm, opening the archive boxes.
On the trip through the worn streets and dilapidated buildings of the former ghetto, we enter inner courtyards and outbuildings. At one spot, a surprising artefact in the middle of this story’s monuments. A suitcase is brought out from an outbuilding. I see that the suitcase’s owner is Adele Sara Wolff, her name still clearly painted on the suitcase. What happened to her? This object from the past crystallizes the recollection of this overwhelming sequence of events into one tangible moment. ‘Museum pieces are memories,’ as Danish painter Asger Jorn once said.
One of the witnesses in Herz Frank’s investigation is novelist and physician Bernhard Press. He wrote the book Judenmord in Lettland 1941-1945 (The Murder of Jews in Latvia, 1941-1945). I meet him together with the director and his film on this guided tour through uncluttered landscapes, but at a point in time when I have become disoriented and have entrusted everything to my guide. Press talks energetically as he stands in some kind of corridor that wanders off into darkness, and I hear his story in one of the condensed sequences of this narrative dramatization. When Press was a young man, he escaped from Riga’s ghetto before the extermination, but after the Russian occupation of Latvia, and ended up in Gulag. He worked as a doctor in a Siberian prison camp where he met a man who had been put there because he was a Nazi collaborator. The man suffered from paralysis in his legs and had given up all hope. Press, however, got him going, planned a physical training program and built a special wheelchair for him. After this the man improved. Press tells that “after a month or so he started walking with a stick. When I asked him, ‘Why are you imprisoned?’ he answered, ‘Because I shot those hooked nosed.’ He meant Jews. What does a Jewish doctor do in this situation? I kept treating him. What else could I do? I couldn’t violate my Hippocratic oath, so I took revenge in a childish way. When he was released from the camp as a disabled man, he went to his relatives somewhere in the East. He asked me to give him a letter for his future doctor. I wrote something on a slip of paper and sealed it in an envelope. It said, ‘Your paralysis is God’s punishment for your sins.’ A Jew’s revenge.”
Marcel Lozinski: Wszystko sie moze przytrafic (Anything Can Happen), 1995
In Anything Can Happen, Marcel Lozinski takes his six-year-old son to the park and asks him to ride around on his push scooter and occasionally stop at the benches and start talking with whomever – mainly elderly persons – is sitting there. The film crew follow him around recording the interactions from a great distance without being seen. Six-year-old Tomek is equipped with a small, wireless microphone and has received general instructions as to what he should do and what he should talk with the people about. Otherwise the boy improvises the conversations.
One smiles and laughs during these all told nineteen conversations that in their childlike wisdom wonderfully cover many serious human problems. This is first time I have ever seen the hidden camera technique used for anything but making the participants look ridiculous to the audience. This film does exactly the opposite: it reconstructs personal dignity.
It starts with a refusal. The young main character – easy to spot in his red jacket – has to give up and continue riding his push scooter along the footpaths in the park. Between every bench encounter, he is accompanied by a Strauss waltz on the soundtrack as he rushes along, giving the viewer a few seconds to think about what has just been said. The first, however, is the rejected advance.
The next person in the series lets the child talk, but does not give him seriousness and truth in return. Wants to playfully tease him instead: “My name is Don Juan,” he answers when the boy asks. This arouses wonder as it sounds French to the boy, who is unfamiliar with the famous seducer. But he accepts it as a reply. “My name is Tomek Lozinski,” he doesn’t try to conceal anything by contrast. I am who I am. The son of a famous filmmaker. Currently making a scene in his next film. This is the world of candour and reality. This is how we use films here.
The introduction continues in the fourth conversation. Though Tomek doesn’t know who Don Juan is, he is quite adept at flattering a woman: “You are very elegant,” he says to an old, well-dressed lady, and she instructs him in her technique of how to match the colours of her outfits.
The ingenious dialogue – which must have been fashioned during the editing of many metres of footage from the nine days of improvised shootings – continues embroidering in its own Socratic style. There are nineteen conversations in all on being a child and an adult, on the war, on the length of life, on love, divorce, sickness, poverty, money, sorrow and death.
In the nineteenth conversation, an old man describes the sorrow he feels over the death of his wife. And about the significance of her memory. He still feels he is together with his beloved in the rooms at home, and Tomek acknowledges that his mother felt the same way when grandfather died. And the little boy quiets Death, “If someone dies, it doesn’t mean you will never see her again. Perhaps Death will stop,” – and he explains by holding up his flat hand in a stopping gesture – “and life will return. It might happen!” Anything can happen.
(From: Film art / DOX magazine , April 1, 2002 / Modern Times, 2017)
A CINEMATOGRAPHIC POETESS
Ada Bligaard Søby: American Losers, 2006
Translation into English: Nell Nielsen
I have had occasion to see Ada Bligaard Søby’s film which lasts just under one hour. I am impressed. I cannot bring to mind a more convincing début film in all the years I have been involved with documentary films.
I would like to explain why in a kind of review. It starts with the very first scene. With a glance to the camera, the main character, a woman, invites us to follow this story. Of course this is quite simple and innocent – and it works. We follow willingly. This provides an effective framework.
The next move is of a literary nature, a written sign, white capitals on a black background. Kimberle was born in Arkansas. Then a still from her box of photographs. Then the next sign: She is my best friend. Then back to her archives, then film and inserts behind the sign, illustrating quite simply: She grew up in the Bible Belt. This is how this introductory text is mounted, and then the other player is presented immediately. The director makes absolutely sure that these two are kept in perfect balance and thus we come to expect – and so it proves to be – that this balance between the two separate stories is held throughout the film. Kevin was born in California / He is also my best friend / When I met Kevin he was a bartender / and a high school drop out / He lives in the woods north of New York City / Kimberle lives in New York City / She is 37 years old / (just as the piecing together of the archive material and inserts simply and directly supports the written signs, so does the music, then at this point the vocals come in to sing, telling a story which has never been told..) / Kevin writes / he is 41 / In the fall of 2005 I decided to go make a film about them and their lives / American Losers /
This is a subtle text about two biographies in balance and about a storyteller and portrait photographer and her deliberations: this is not about winners. The montage presented before the title contains all the elements and the whole story in a way. The title gives away the conclusion. I can hardly wait. I must watch this film..
And so I concentrate. What is it about this film? The genre I define quickly, it is film documentary far removed from journalism. The attitude is artistic. The content is more difficult to pin down, it is a mixture of biography, tragedy and comedy, and it borders on a short street musical when we consider the music that comes in at crucial moments. The method is that of a travelogue, and post Chatwin conversations and interviews are added, all of this in direct cinema style but not classical. Here we have the camera as one of the players, the third character. The film is garnished with an abundance of pictorial material, personal archive material and lyrical filming supplying the inserts. The tool is often that of a collage, but as an entirety it is, for the whole hour, a melancholy personal essay about a large ruling culture and about two different and yet so similar attempts at liberation within its dominance.
And it is the story line of the film, a journey along these two lifelines over a period of weeks in the autumn of 2005 as well as a number of flashbacks in the form of statements and archives, which make up the biographies. Two very ordinary stories, so that all kinds of involvement are possible. There is no room here for inquisitiveness, here we just have touching charm and lots of opportunity to fall in love. Ada Bligaard Søby has done detailed research, worked professionally and has ended up with an extremely distinguished cast. Just as one chooses one’s friends. And she has also worked with a manuscript (on paper or in her head) which reveals so much with deep feeling – a manuscript as simple and controlled as the subtly constructed introductory text. Her camera work appears impulsive but is competent and tasteful. It leads me through exteriors and into rooms which together form a set-design I personally find worth revisiting. It is very beautiful. Those who are more knowledgeable than I will probably feel the same way about the music which in itself seems to paint a picture of the USA. Chosen according to the different musical tastes of the characters, I suppose. That would be logical in this carefully planned piece of work.
The dramaturgy is simple, keeping to the style of the introductory text once again. Two journeys in the lives of two people in New York and the nearby area, but yet conclusively outside it.. Edited as parallel stories, but with a twist! They remain separate, remain in an endless constant balance and only the third party, the camera and its voice, keeps them together and shows them to us: look, a lovely couple, aren’t they? But how will their story end? I am so worried.
Ada Bligaard Søby has, on closer inspection, created a very complex piece of film work with apparent lightness. Hard work and concentration have been required in order to ensure that we, the audience, are not forsaken for a second, but that we experience the seriousness of it all as a game of life.
And this was just the first really big film from this cinematographic poetess. We have more, many more, to look forward to! (ABN, review, Sep. 7, 2006)
THE MANIFOLD NATURE OF LOVE (2006)
Pernille Rose Grønkjær: The Monastery, 2006
Tue Steen Müller: On September 21st the awarded Danish documentary masterpiece – after having toured the world – premieres in Danish cinemas. From the DFI magazine FILM (53, November 2006) we bring this extract of an article, written by blog owner Allan Berg Nielsen:
“Mr. Vig, Matushka brought an icon for you…”
“This is an icon for you. It’s our present for you. To start a monastery here.”
“I like that. I like that one. I like that one very’ much. Oh, it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.”
“You can kiss it.”
“Oh, thank you very much…”
Amvrosya, a nun, and Matushka, her superior, have arrived at Jørgen Laursen Vig’s castle and he reverently admires the icon they have brought him as a gift from their monastery in . He makes the sign of the cross, he praises the beauty of the artwork, he is sincerely pleased. But he does not kiss the icon. He does not submit to its holiness. He wants to transform his castle into a Russian-Orthodox monastery with Amvrosya’s help, but he balks at making the final commitment.
Later in the film, when several nuns have moved in, a procession is organized. Reluctantly, he joins in. He sees that the whole castle has been redone and incorporated into the holiness he invited in but whose consequences he had not quite foreseen. They fix up the room he set aside for a chapel prior to their arrival, but now Vig says it has to be a temporary arrangement. No, Amvrosya explains, once the chapel has been consecrated it can no longer be changed.
Vig has come a long way toward holiness in the three renunciations of the monastic vow. For 86 years he has lived in chastity, he clearly leads a humble life of poverty in the ramshackle castle. But he cannot submit to obedience; devotion is his trouble.
Grønkjær’s film is about this holiness.
LANDSCAPE AND CHAPEL
The Danish landscape around the castle is beautiful and the camerawork eloquently describes this beauty. Beautiful, too, is the Russian art that, first in the single icon given to Vig, then in volume, gradually fills the chapel with fragrant, coloursaturated imagery captured by the camera in long, caring shots. The iconostasis, a sacred backdrop for immersion in the readings, is depicted against the seasonal changes of the landscape as Vig continues his free life. Both are depictions of beauty, the Russian art in the chapel against the Danish countryside outside in the gardens and the fields. Nature and culture, the prayer hours and the seasons, winter scenery and the iconostasis, the nun’s kitchen and Vig’s library. The secular and the sacred. Grønkjær’s film details two different kinds of beauty. Like Vig, it cannot choose one over the other, depicting them side by side, closely cut’ together.
Sexuality is for making babies, Vig says. For a few weeks, a few times in a lifetime. Yes, he had a love once a very long time ago, but since then that side of life has been covered by other passions, studies, books and travel, a series of projects, culminating in the foundation of the monastery. Love – he doesn’t know much about it. Sure, he has had the feeling, he has loved.
The film is not content to leave it at that, however. The nature of love is multi-faceted and inclusive. Vig does not elude it in the long run. A warm relationship evolves between him and Amvrosya. He falls asleep during prayer. With the book in his lap. The book he has begged so to get, the book he labours at harder than any physical thing in the house is his entrance to the world. Now he has fallen asleep and gently she walks over and turns the page to the current place in the prayer. He wakes up and sees that he is keeping up. It is a gentleness that does not call attention to itself. With caring and respectful resolve, she serves him his meals at a table in the kitchen. He maintains his status and dignity. He is worth loving.
The third actor in the film, the filmmaker with her camera, becomes entangled in a relationship of complex fascinations. The camera gazes at the old man with increasing tenderness and, for his part, he draws the filmmaker into all his deliberations, talking to the camera as if that were the most natural thing in the world. In their long conversations, the small instrument is a prosthesis for memory that, in eagerness and engrossment, is more easily overlooked than a pad on a stenographer’s knee, the black octave of note-taking.
Grønkjær’s film charts the manifold nature of love.
Grønkjær shot all the footage herself from the first time she met Vig in 2000. For a while, she lived in a trailer at Hesbjerg, tracking the changing light and endlessly shifting colours of the landscape as a backdrop for the old man’s daily life and all his scattered attempts at maintaining his property, which had long since gone to seed. She had a camera on permanent loan from Zentropa Real, while tenaciously, though unsuccessfully, seeking funds for her film. She did not have a lot of footage to show yet. Consultants and editors told her no. Apart from the essential equipment deal, she had no backing. Still, there was a freedom in this phase. She could spontaneously pursue any inclination. Her shooting schedule had no limits. Five years passed this way, as she slowly accumulated footage. Like Vig, she was working on a project most would have abandoned. Vig understood her. He had been working even longer on his own project.
The presentation of the icon at the nuns’ first visit is a key scene. Another comes later on. Vig is in front of the greenhouse, hoeing. From behind the camera, the filmmaker asks him:
“Why is it so interesting to have a monastery here?”
Vig answers: “It is an old ambition of mine to leave a legacy. That’s a banal thing, of course. One would like to do something that persists – it is an ambition.”
“I don’t get it,” the filmmaker challenges.
“I don’t get it,” she repeats.
“You don’t get it?”
He looks up from what he is doing.
“You don’t want to make a film that becomes part of history, a documentary?”
“Um, yes,” she admits.
“You want to make something of quality. There you go.” And he continues his gardening. “There you go,” he repeats and crouches to deal with a weed.
TODAY, NOW… (2018)
Viviane Candas: A Possible Algeria, 2016
Translation into English: Sara Thelle
The film is built upon the voice, the director of the film’s own voice. It tells the story. I always like that, it is honest, it is literary, closer to writing. And Viviane Candas’ voice makes me feel safe and makes me listen, even though what it tells me is horrifying. Next, her film builds on the archive material, a rare collection of historical footage edited together with a private archive. I almost always like that too, at least when it is done in a poetic construction like it is here, and not as a pedantic communication of a curriculum. In Candas’ work, this material is the very connection between the history of the world, the history of Algeria, the history of France and the biography of Yves Mathieu. He was Viviane Candas’ father, French as she, but deeply connected with Algeria in the country’s fateful hour. The narrative of the film is embedded in the two lines of the title, A Possible Algeria: The Revolution of Yves Mathieu, and in the contrast between society/nation/people and the individual lies the existential drama and the reflection on the nature of identity. Finally, the film is built on Candas’ uniquely sensitive and honest interviews with a few of the story’s key figures, which in the literary spirit of the film are more searching conversations than factual question/answer scenes. The heterogeneity of this material testifies to a long-standing collection of footage for the film, and it is linked by vignettes from the research travels in a reconstruction that has a fixed visual uniformity which works as a refuge for reflection. But curiously, these vignettes do not function as the “now” of the story. The present of the film is the voice of Candas narrating, and the protagonists leading the conversation in the interview scenes, where the director’s voice is usually cut out, and yet in a strange way she is still very present. The conclusion of all this results in me really meeting these people, and the encounter with an old Ahmed Ben Bella is an emotional shock. This is the present of the film, here is world history itself present in this fragile body that speaks of itself as a socialist. Today, now …
The war in Algeria was a French matter, as I remember it, and the war was the brutality of the French military. I read about Djamila Boupacha in the Danish periodical Perspektiv, a specific quote from her during the trial, her important testimony, is still locked in my memory, still shaking me, because I remember how it was with me and the knowledge of violent brutality back then. She was always Picasso’s drawing, but it was not about Picasso, it was her. She, the model imprinted on the small portrait drawn after a photograph, was stronger than the artist, in a way opposite Guernica, who was always the famous painter more than the wretched city. I read Simone de Beauvoir’s novel The Mandarins about the French Intellectual Left in the 1940s, on the circle of Camus and Sartre. And I read about the war and about General Jacques Massu and his paratroopers’ victory in 1957 over the FLN Resistance in the capital, which he tore up with arbitrary arrests and brutal interrogations and systematic torture. It was The Battle of Algiers, which in 1966 also became a film by Gillo Pontecorvo with Jean Martin in the role of Colonel Mathieu, who is probably a portrait of General Massu, a feature film in black and white documentary style with amateurs straight in from the street in most of the other roles. The mimic documentary quality of Pontecorvo’s film is so astonishing that Candas has been able to use scenes from it as part of her archive material, for example the execution scenes.
The opening sequence, the first images: the bridge with the cars in the mountain landscape, the roads seen from the car, the railway station with the train on a regular day, the style of the images as a whole and their particular technical quality define the time of the film as present, right now when these images where filmed, and right now where I am experiencing it, recalling the story of Algeria’s war of independence as scattered fragments bound in the films, photographs and documents from the archives, which are consistent layers in the architecture of the film: its past.
The participants in the conversations are in this now, the director’s voice is in this now, the scenes of the vignettes are this now, thereby framing everything with the present, also the layers of the archive footage, which through the superb editing work is writing the film’s past. It is the fragile images of the memory, the fragments of the past, to which the voices add details. To all the terrifying events. But also adding clarifications, about what really happened: the guillotine in the prison yard; the execution of an Algerian resistance fighter; how an exit at a main road holds the information about the way in which Yves Mathieu in all probability was murdered, a circumstantial evidence indicating that this was possible, such as the car wreck was found. It is a film about memory based on archive material more related to Chris Marker’s Level 5 (1997) written in the present of the editing room, with its minimal and indistinct but utterly decisive archive scenes and photos; and it is related to Emile de Antonio’s Millhouse (1971), made solely on archive clips and, as I remember it, written in the past tense as a form of serious entertainment, while Chris Marker’s film is a moral philosophical task in the present tense, precisely like the core of Viviane Candas’ oeuvre, which is a similar obligation for me, a challenge to my thoughts, precisely what the festival Docs & Talks where the film is screened is intending.
Candas’s film does not document this brief but violent chapter of Algeria’s history, rather her film is documenting a qualified thought about this period in history, a thought qualified by the memory of a state leader, the memory of a minister, and a daughter’s remembrance of her absent father. She now needs to share their memories, in order to understand her well-ordered fragments as historical knowledge, to come to love her revolutionary father, who was far away and buried in work, understand him and love him unreservedly now, despite him having been dead for many years. She stands in the present with the plate with the grave inscriptions in her hand, considering the right lapidary summary of this person’s life.
The subtitle of the film is La révolution d’Yves Mathieu as I read on the screen after the title sequence. This is a couple of days ago, and I only now begin to understand the importance of the title as a whole. I am ready to watch this remarkable film again, ready to listen to Rasmus Alenius Boserup’s introduction and to his conversation with Viviane Candas in Cinemateket at the Docs & Talks Film and Research Festival.
Photos: Yves Mathieu and Ahmet Ben Bella
http://www.filmkommentaren.dk/blog/blogpost/4151/ (Filmkommentaren, le 4.2.2018)