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Above us, About us: Two new documentaries from Rotterdam

IFFR / This year‘s film festival in Rotterdam unveiled several documentaries and shorts, amongst them Above Us Only Sky – a calming exercise in intellectual and sensual stimulation – and Pelourinho: They Don't Really Care About Us, which proved to be a rough, angry gem of a picture.

While its feature-length fictions can be of bewilderingly variable quality, January’s International Film Festival Rotterdam regularly unveils several documentaries and shorts (especially towards the experimental end of the spectrum) which prove to be among the year’s best come Christmas. The 48th edition of the event, held in the Dutch port city from January 23 to February 3, once again yielded a rich haul of international titles whose apparently brief running-times concealed rich and complex content.

Himself a born and bred Rotterdammer, 49-year-old visual artist Arthur Kleinjan was represented by the 28-minute Above Us Only Sky, a Dutch-Czech co-production which exists in conventional filmic form and also as a three-channel video installation. His screenplay’s starting point is the 2010 eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, whose ash-cloud resulted – as Kleinjan’s unidentified narrator notes – in the most serious disruption of European air travel since World War II.

Recalling the impact of this geological phenomenon on his own travel-schedules – he ended up having to take a train from Brussels to Prague – the narrator goes on to accumulate an episodic, low key, cumulatively enthralling tale that encompasses such diverse figures as John Lennon, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Czechoslovakian novelist Bohumil Hrabal. He defines his own method thus: to compile «a story that consists of real, chance events… I will just respond to whatever story delivers itself to me.»

Above Us Only Sky is cine-flanerie of a high order

The film is a web of idées fixes, at the centre of which lies, somewhat randomly, the figure of Vesna Vulović. A Yugoslavian air stewardess who pursued that line of work to facilitate travel to the United Kingdom, home of her beloved Beatles, Vulović achieved an unlikely kind of fame in 1972. She was the sole survivor of a plane explosion and crash over Czechoslovakia, falling 10,160 metres without a parachute (this remains a world record). She suffered serious injuries – including a fractured skull, three broken vertebrae, broken ribs and both legs, and a fractured pelvis – but recovered and lived in good health for another 44 years. Three years after her death, the latter is now commemorated as a kind of guiding spirit for Kleinjan’s free-roving speculations.

«Essay cinema» of a witty and informative nature

Spoken by Marc Sabat – a Canadian composer based in Brazil – Sabat’s text is curious, erudite, quizzical, navigating geography, culture and history by means of elegantly interlocking tangents. This is «essay cinema» of a witty and informative nature – who knew that Wittgenstein, for example, «inherited one of the largest industrial empires in Europe» thanks to his steel-magnate father Karl? Rather in the vein of UK-dwelling German writer W. G. Sebald and English architect-turned-filmmaker Patrick Keiller, Kleinjan is genial company over the course of his film’s running-time; indeed, there seems no reason why his divagations and digressions couldn’t be extended further to feature length.

Above Us Only Sky by Arthur Kleinjan

It certainly helps that Kleinjan has such a strong eye for composition, place and detail, making superb use of drone cameras – near-ubiquitous in documentary cinema right now – to convey the haunted, hardscrabble majesty of the long-disused Kladno steelworks in the Czech Republic, a key element in the Wittgenstein family’s businesses and sometime workplace of Hrabal. And airy, ruminative and calming exercise in intellectual and sensual stimulation, Above Us Only Sky is cine-flanerie of a high order, quietly profound in its implications and overall an excellent example of the short(ish) documentary form.

One of the most remarkable American lives

If Above Us Only Sky sprawls languidly, Akosua Adoma Owusu’s Pelourinho: They Don’t Really Care About Us is an exhilarating seven-minute sensual assault of a movie, an urgent and vibrant dispatch that bridges both time and space in service of a bold, simple concept. The sole Ghanaian production in a festival which ranks among the most globe-embracingly diverse events of its scale and type, Pelourinho is part of an on-going series of socio-historical investigations by Owusu, a 35-year-old Ghanaian-American born in Virginia and mainly based in New York where she teaches at Pratt University, Brooklyn.

As her own website bio puts it, Owusu’s praxis «addresses the collision of identities, where the African immigrant located in the United States has a ‘triple consciousness‘. Owusu interprets W. E. B. Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness and creates a third cinematic space or consciousness, representing diverse identities including feminism, queerness and African immigrants interacting in African, white American, and black American culture.»

Pelourinho, They Don’t Really Care About Us by Akosua Adoma Owusu

Her starting-point in Pelourinho is a 1927 letter from the aforementioned Du Bois ­–  the seminal and pioneering African-American author and campaigner – to the Brazilian embassy in the USA. The letter was sparked by what was perceived as a policy of exclusion designed to keep American «negroes» from entering the South American country (apparently there were worries that some kind of stealth colonisation was being plotted from Washington).

Featuring rousing extracts from the propulsive Jackson anthem on its soundtrack, Pelourinho, is a rough, angry gem of a picture

Du Bois was later to experience severe travel-related bureaucratic difficulties of his own, after the US government confiscated the Massachusetts-born citizen’s passport in 1951. This prevented him taking up an invitation to attend Ghana’s independence celebrations in 1957, but three years later he had recovered his passport and made his first visit to the new republic. In 1963, by this point 95 years old, he actually became a citizen of Ghana – his homeland having refused to renew his passport – and he died there soon after, completing the final chapter in one of the most remarkable of American lives.

In Owusu’s film, extracts from the Du Bois’ 1927 missive, and the official response (which asserts a right to refuse entry to those who may endanger «public order or national interests»), are read out while the screen reverberates with 16mm footage shot in the district of Pelourinho, the old historic centre of Salvador city (population three million, full name São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos), capital of the northern state Bahia.

Irresistible percussive rhythms

This rough-edged neighbourhood achieved a measure of world fame in 1996 when Spike Lee and Michael Jackson filmed the video for the latter’s hit «They Don’t Care About Us» there. Owusu’s cameras – the grain of their 16mm a world away from the slick Hollywood-style professionalism of Lee and company – trace the enduring remnants of Jackson’s visit, with the late King Of Pop’s face and likeness prominent in countless kitschy forms. These include a life-size cardboard cut-out of the icon on the balcony of a two-story blue-fronted edifice known locally as the «Michael Jackson House» (Casa do Michael Jackson) which featured prominently in the video and has since then proved a reliable tourist magnet.

Here is one American «negro,» the film ironically implies, whose arrival in Brazil was a cause for enduring celebration rather than alarm (though his choice of favela backdrop did eventually trigger dismay among the authorities, worried about the possible negative impact of such publicity.) Featuring rousing extracts from the propulsive Jackson anthem on its soundtrack, Pelourinho, edited by the enigmatically-monikered «King Z», is a rough, angry gem of a picture. It treats serious – and very topical – socio-economic matters of visa-complicated immigration, prejudice and cross-cultural communication with focused concentration, truly bracing economy and irresistible percussive rhythm.

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Neil Young
Neil Young
Young is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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