A man wanders through a landscape ravaged by surface mining. He wears a helmet and a white suit that fits tight to his body. Is he an extra-terrestrial? An astronaut? A revenant from an Andrei Tarkovsky film? It’s impossible to know for sure – nor can it be discerned where the man comes from or where he is going.
Sieniawka, the debut film by Marcin Malaszczak and part of the 2013 Forum programme, opens with images that defy classification. There’s too much of the past in the landscape for this to be a future scenario, and the opening anyway turns out to be only loosely related to the rest of the film. For after this sequence in no man’s land, Sieniawka switches settings to follow the residents of a psychiatric hospital in a Polish town whose name gives the film its title. As can be easily gleaned through research, the town is not far from the German border. The hospital is a place that carries a burden – the German occupiers ran a work camp here during the Second World War. It was only in the 1960s that the site became the “Hospital for the Treatment of Mental and Neurological Disorders and Alcoholism”. Creating a portrait of an institution was not Malaszczak’s intention; he embraces instead the hospital patients’ symptoms and pairs them with his own ideas. In lengthy tracking shots, the film explores what drives the men who live in this place: how they play the accordion, chew their fingernails, grill sausages, smoke. In one scene, they play tennis with neither ball nor rackets, which is reminiscent of a similar scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966). Marcin Malaszczak seeks out a film historical context and combines his documentary gaze with a predilection for metafictionality. In another scene, the men visit a cinema falling into ruin – a distant recollection of times in which there was still a belief in the collective, in cinema and its function in providing meaning and edification.
Is Sieniawka a feature film or a documentary? “I wouldn’t want to categorise it”, Malaszczak said in an interview with film critic Matthias Dell. “For filmmakers, for the work itself, the distinction doesn’t matter. These categories are only necessary when you’re applying for funding, when you want to work in the system. Then everything has to be labelled. The same applies to most festivals.” 1Matthias Dell, Marcin Malaszczak: “Nur Beobachtung ist zu wenig” (“To merely observe is too little”), in: “taz. die tageszeitung”, 5.6.2014, www.taz.de/!5040783/, retrieved on 7.1.2018 The International Forum of New Cinema is one exception, as it often presents films that don’t fit neatly into either feature or documentary categories. The advantages of such hybrid forms are readily apparent. Not everything that can be documented takes visible form. Many things exist without a material face: thoughts, dreams, ideas, illusions, yarns, hallucinations, symptoms, plans, obsessions, the broad terrain of what Robert Musil referred to as “Möglichkeitssinn”, a sense of possibility. Just as the first scene of Sieniawka depicts a landscape in which surface mining has brought what’s inside the earth to the surface, hybrid forms tease out and render visible that which lies within – within the mind, within the imagination.
In this context, I am reminded of a classic of ethnographic film, Jean Rouch’s Les maîtres fous (1955), which was shown at the Forum in 1981. Many ethnographic documentaries, especially those from the same period in which Rouch’s half-hour, 16 mm piece was made, are content to observe everyday routines, classify objects, ascribe people clearly circumscribed roles and explain all the behaviours they observe against this backdrop. They tend towards a positivism that has its origins in the racist scientific scholarship of the 19th century and tirelessly reinforces the dichotomy between the civilised and the primitive. Les maîtres fous was different. Jean Rouch accompanied Nigerian migrant workers in Ghana who escape their demanding existence by withdrawing into the forest, where they perform a ritual that transports them into a state of trance. Traditions passed down over generations commingle with the workers’ concrete experiences of living in a society marked by colonialism, for the deities that take possession of the men and women during the ritual are archetypes of British colonial officials and generals. One of the men is even possessed by a railroad spirit. First of all, this means that social power and powerlessness become re-distributed in states of trance, that is, when the individual steps out of themselves. Furthermore, while rituals may have been taking place for centuries, they are still perfectly capable of adapting to new circumstances and realities. The easy opposition between a developing Europe and an archaic Africa thus becomes obsolete. Ultimately, Rouch’s footage makes clear that people, are so much more than the actions they perform, the objects they create or the roles they assume, whether in the hinterlands of Ghana or the streets of Paris. Above all, they are also beings with tremendous powers of imagination.
There are numerous other examples of directors who attempt to document what belongs more to the subjunctive than the indicative and the Forum programme is filled with them. These filmmakers continually explore new possibilities to mix staging and documentation. In Vaters Garten (2013), Peter Liechti tells the story of his middle-class, petite-bourgeoisie parents by using rabbit hand puppets as stand-ins, thus representing on screen what is not spoken of on camera. In Jaurès (2012), Vincent Dieutre observes refugees who have made a temporary home for themselves beneath an elevated metro line in northeast Paris from a distance, inserting animation into the documentary footage and musing aloud with Eva Truffaut on love and its fleeting nature. In Fotbal infinit (Infinite Football) (2018), Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu pulls off the paradox of prosaic eccentricity. The film, which comes across as a documentary not least due to the regular appearance of the filmmaker on screen – who is then credited in the film’s closing titles with “Screenplay and Direction” – weaves together two strands that appeared separately in Porumboiu’s earlier works Al doilea joc (The Second Game) (The Second Game, 2014) and “The Treasure” (2015): obsession and a penchant for football. Porumboiu follows a middle-aged civil servant who has got it into his head to establish a new kind of football, namely one in which the playing field is more strictly subdivided than is currently the case. The players are supposed to run less as result, and the ball is to be passed around more rapidly. This protagonist fails to find acceptance for his ideas, making him come across like someone following in the footsteps of Don Quixote, only that he is not battling windmills in his Romanian town, but rather offside rules on the football pitch.
Viennese director Ruth Beckermann, a master of open, essayistic forms, focuses on the correspondence between Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann in Die Geträumten (The Dreamed Ones, 2016). The film documents these compelling texts by embedding them in staged scenes. Two young “narrators”, played by Laurence Rupp and singer Anja Plaschg, read the letters aloud in a recording studio. During breaks, they discuss everyday things. At times they seem to put themselves in Celan and Bachmann’s shoes and take on their roles completely, at others they are at a total remove from the two writers, from their voices, from their experiences. One of the reasons why the relationship between Celan and Bachmann was so complicated is that both were in the grip of dealing with the aftermath of National Socialism. How could they not be? Celan survived the Shoah, while a large portion of his family had been murdered by the Nazis; Bachmann’s father was a member of the Nazi Party. When they first met, the war had only been over for three years.
During one of their cigarette breaks, Rupp and Plaschg are sitting outdoors, at one of the rear exits. Rupp looks at the tattoos on Plaschg’s arms. The young woman says that the lines don’t mean anything in particular. It stands to reason that film critic Bert Rebhandl wrote of this scene that the seemingly innocuous interaction has much more far-reaching connotations: “For the musician, her tattoos are an intentionally meaningless cipher, yet the survivors continue to bear the symbol that links them to the deaths of those who did not escape for the rest of their lives”. 2Bert Rebhandl: “Das ewige Thema. ‘Judenkind, Flüchtlingskind, Wirtschaftswunderkind’: Die Identifikationen von Ruth Beckermann”. In: Alexander Horwath, Michael Omasta (Pub.): “Ruth Beckermann”, Vienna 2016, pp. 7-33, here p. 33. There is something here, something from the present, from the staged portion of the film (albeit with the help of a real-life tattoo), that reaches back into the past: a thin piece of connective tissue, indistinct and hardly resilient, but a connection nonetheless.
Creating such subtle interrelationships between the imaginary potential inherent to the material and the imagination directors brings to the table themselves requires a well-honed sense of intuition. There is otherwise already a risk of drifting into the speculative. Somniloquies (2017) by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, for example, dares to go further. In this film, the two filmmakers, central figures in the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University and veterans of the Forum programme with their 2012 Leviathan, use audio recordings from Dion McGregor (1922–1994), a songwriter who spoke in his sleep. Far more extensive than the mumblings of most sleep-talkers, McGregor’s nightly monologues narrated his dreams in their entirety. As he slept, he would deliver stories of giants and dwarves or of a vivisection being performed on him, all with startling clarity. To the sound of his voice, the viewer sees shots of nude bodies drifting in blurry, soft focus, often in close up, bathed in warm light against a dark background, sometimes swallowed up by the darkness. A total of twenty-six sleeping people were filmed, as we learn in the closing credits. At times the limbs of their bodies are recognisable, sometimes not; proportions shift constantly. It’s often difficult to tell where one sleeping body ends and another begins. A sinister quality emerges when dreams of violence and sexuality segue into scenarios that could be from the mind of David Lynch. When the camera purposely goes in search of the sleeping bodies’ genitals at such moments, once even capturing an erection, one has the impression that Paravel and Castaing-Taylor have exhausted their material’s potential for creating effects and are now subjecting it to their own imaginary world.
While the previously cited films reap benefits from the imagination of the subjects they create portraits of, other works challenge the imagination of the audience. One striking example is Thomas Heise’s Material (2009). In this nearly three-hour-long collage, Heise assembles previously unused footage shot in East Germany in the 1980s as well as the period shortly before and after reunification. He refrains from any kind of direct commentary or explanation, a tactic likely also to be familiar to viewers of his other films. Scenes of forced evictions of squats in Berlin-Friedrichshain are presented alongside scenes from the Berliner Ensemble theatre, where preparations for a performance of Heiner Müller’s “Germania Tod in Berlin” have stalled. In the streets, people unused to speaking in public now seize the opportunity, however difficult it might be; Communist Party officials express doubts in the rhetoric they’ve internalised; prison inmates in Brandenburg look directly into the camera and reflect on the social upheaval underway and how they are cut off from it within the walls of their cells. These scenes are ordered in a way that replicates the openness of the situation of that time. Material breathes an air of the contemporary into this historical moment in order that the possibilities inherent to it, which are now gone and buried, may again come to light. Though 20 years lie between Heise’s montage and the moments captured on film, the situation remains as contradictory and unpredictable as it was back in 1989. By decoupling what happened from that which came later, Heise shifts the actual course of events into the background. The viewer is able to imagine what it meant for the people in those situations to lack any certainty about their outcomes. This implies that even if they seem inevitable from today’s perspective, the historical changes of that era lose any such inevitability in Material. The more the film hones a sense of the possibilities in that upheaval, the more it calls into question the seemingly unavoidable sequence of events it brought in its wake (reunification, Deutsche Mark, privatisation, etc.). This, in turn, is the beginning of politics: when one can imagine things being different from what they are, one can accept things as not being inherently so, but rather changeable.