One of the continent’s liveliest mid-size festivals, the Crossing Europe in Linz started in the early 2000s and fused together its titular theme with increased national and supranational public funding for cultural activities that build bridges between different regions. Always in touch with social and political trends and changes that have been engulfing Europe in the 20-odd years, it has created several non-competitive strands to address these issues. One of these sidebars is Architecture and Society.
Curator Lotte Schreiber dubbed this year’s section «Land for Us All!», referring to living spaces in the widest sense rather than just architecture or urban planning. It consists of four films that can be roughly split into two main oppositions: organic v. mechanic or individualistic v. collective. This multi-pronged dialectic reflects the often chaotic nature of the present cultural, political and economic discourse in which values tend to be shoehorned into black-and-white boxes through the increasingly polarised sphere of public opinion. Resisting such simplifications, Schreiber has created a programme that is complex, bumpy and irregular: it may initially look like a poorly wrapped present with sides poking out each and every way, but once you open it, you realize it tells a convincing story and poses many interesting questions.
Let’s start with Valeria Mazzucchi and Antoine Harar’s 60-minute documentary The Spark (Switzerland/France/Italy), which falls on the crossing between the organic and the individualistic. It concerns the area around Nantes, where farmers have been blocking the government’s attempts to build a new airport since the 1970s. The film, however, starts in 2018, after the airport plan has finally been dropped and the region is now populated by many activists and anarchists from all over France who have been joining the farmers in protests. The film doesn’t specify a timeline but the several interviewees seem to have arrived in the early 2010s. They have come up with a form of communal living, by building huts and cottages and creating gardens where they grow food for their own needs, but also with the intention to share it with others in need. Now they are facing the danger of eviction – after the hot issue of the airport has been dropped, the government will not just let some random people use an area that can be exploited, taxed and sold to investors.
This rag-tag group of 20- and 30-somethings clearly represent a generation brought up in middle-class families. They are well-educated, believe in social equality and are concerned about the environment, and this alternative way of living makes them feel they are making a difference. But their Apple laptops and smartphones, dreadlocks and undercut hairstyles clearly show that 3individualism is a value that was strongly instilled in them in their childhood. This interior clash of upbringing and trying to make sense of the new reality and attempting to change it is, ironically, reflected in their conflict with the police at the end of the film. This story of hope ends in a disappointment, but the film supports the idea that is also present in other titles in the selection: just like freedom or justice, unregulated communal living is an ideal that can never be fully achieved but is always worth striving for – this is how changes happen, very slowly and gradually, with many setbacks along the way.
Conversely, the cooperative Casa delle AgriCulture in Castiglione d’Otranto in Lecce region of South Italy in Alessandra Coppola’s collective-organic documentary La Restanza (Italy/Belgium) is a result of the efforts of local 30-somethings. The concept of restanza, which combines terms for «stay» and «resilience», as theorised by the Italian anthropologist Vito Teti, means choosing to stay in a place in a conscious, active and proactive way by actively guarding and developing it. So here we have a group of people who refused to leave for big cities in the North in pursuit of money and status and instead decided to try and improve their present reality. Even though the film often feels overlong and meandering, we get closely acquainted with the protagonists and witness authentic lives of families from the Italian South. Nonnas cooking tomato sauce, old men sitting in a sunny town square, an old lady telling one of the protagonists that country life is too much work and she would never go back to it, reminding us of the generation – and, indeed, civilisational – gap.
The film shows us a lot of hard work: digging, sowing, reaping, saving the wheat from incoming rain as it is laid out on the terrace of a townhouse. The protagonists are a lively bunch, with an invincible southern spirit, but they are also realistic. It turns out that they can get a credit to buy a stone mill by mortgaging three salaries to an ethical bank. This apparent contradiction in terms, like unregulated communal living, can be considered another ideal. Even after they have bought the stone mill, which ensures the best quality of organic flour, these hardworking people will still face numerous obstacles stemming from the free-market ideology.
The Art of Inconsequentiality
This is one of the topics that co-directors Jakob Brossmann and Friedrich von Borries mash into The Art of Inconsequentiality (Germany/Austria), an individualistic-mechanical meta-film. Here, the setting consists of just three rooms. A film crew is shooting a scene in a dining hall, where an arrogant, chain-smoking, bespectacled man and a woman wearing a business attire and typing on a laptop are trying to get the wording right for a portfolio for the «Museum of Ecological Art». The large table in front of them is covered with leftovers of food and wine, bringing to mind Bunuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. In the adjoining kitchen, four people are sitting. Even though they seem to be playing roles of cooks and waiters, are not just actors: one is an art critic, another a theatre director from Burkina Faso, another is an environmental professional and the fourth one is Milo Rau, the Swiss director famous for his interventionist stage plays and documentaries such as The New Gospel.
The «fiction» scenes are intercut with interviews with the «cast» and mutual interviews of the two directors in the make-up room. They discuss the intersecting issues of ecology, equality, success, responsibility, sustainability and social justice in a highly intellectual way, making the film a true polar opposite of La Restanza. It is at times a thought-provoking mish-mash of ideas put together in a typically Germanic, dialectic and heavily formalistic manner, but mostly it feels like a not very successful exercise, with the directors admitting to the camera they have not achieved what they set out to do, in a sort of a self-fulfilling alibi. However, the film is the one among these four that vocalises the central definition of ideal in this text.
The most muddled of the ideas is in the title: an ideal of inconsequentiality as a way to live ethically. One of the characters says, in the future, it will not be important what you do, but what you don’t do.
A Pile of Ghosts
Future, and time itself, seem inconsequential in A Pile of Ghosts, a docufiction hybrid by the Singapore-based Austrian director Ella Raider which is set in Chinese replica cities of European historic sites, also seen recently in Sean Wang’s IDFA entry The Marble Travelogue. Ascetic, artificial and quiet, the film falls into the collective-mechanical category by the virtue of its approach and our awareness of the Chinese anti-individualistic culture. However, the true inhabitants of these cities are not people at all, but ghosts, just like the buildings themselves. Looking at the life-size model of the Eiffel Tower in the mist, surrounded by empty streets, no one can imagine they are hearing the street accordion music that typically accompanies images of Paris. When the camera pulls back and we see that the Sphynx is located at the end of a tarmac road, we realize these made-in-China monuments are just approximations of architectural works that lose their signifying qualities once they are removed from their setting: ghosts of their original shapes.
Likewise, the two main protagonists are a woman who is an actress and a realtor and a man who is a hotel owner and wants to be an actor. They seem to have started a relationship, and their movements and wardrobe are reminiscent of those of the heroes of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, which, coupled with the lack of any visible emotions, intensifies the eerie feeling of emptiness.
«Land for Us All!» programme seems to show that there is actually no land for anyone except for faceless corporations and corrupt governments. However, the increasing number of activist and investigative environmental documentaries on the festival circuit, and more impactfully, on TV and streaming services, also proves there are individuals and collectives who are not afraid to strike back and who imagine and implement new ways inhabiting spaces, even if they are outnumbered, outgunned and ultimately defeated. But that’s exactly how ideals work.