I am embarking on a journey to Poland to visit a rather unusual festival. Camerimage 1)See www.pluscamerimage.pl in Lodz is, to my knowledge, the world’s only major film festival to shine the spotlight on the cinematographer. I am curious; as the editor of DOX, I am used to placing the emphasis on the documentary’s content rather than its form.
I arrive safely at Warsaw airport from Norway. As an invited guest, I am met by a chauffeur, but told to wait three hours for a few other people. Habitually impatient, I decide to take the bus to the festival city Lodz. In the bus I unexpectedly discover that the passengers are film students from Denmark and Norway on a mandatory study trip. Small world. One of them has just filmed Blood in the Mobile 2) See latest edition of the magazine DoX. www.dox.dk, and bloodinthemobile.org in Eastern Congo, travelling to the mines, located in inaccessible areas, guarded by armed paramilitary groups – where children dig for the metal that ends up in our mobile phones. Admirable indeed, but most violence and poverty – stricken areas are witnessed by the majority of such students on TV- screens. I ask them: what is it like being film students? They are so young that it is really a question of experience in “seeing” reality – as graduation films are often regarded as the world from an exclusively “grown-up” perspective. On the bus, they agree that you have to travel around and experience things … The enthusiasm is there, and headphones on, they gaze out of the bus windows at Poland’s grey, impoverished landscape. Two hours later we arrive in the film city, Lodz.
But whereabouts in the actual city are we? I hold the map at an enquiring angle, pointing at our current location. The bus driver points to somewhere far beyond the map’s edge – he cannot speak a word of English. The festival must be miles away. I go to take a taxi but here the driver points stammeringly towards the street corner; the festival building is just 300 metres away! Polish turns out to be impossible to learn – I remember “dzień dobry” (good day), but have to give up on “dzięki v… ” (thank you) after the fourth attempt.
CAMERIMAGE IS AN impressive festival; the atmosphere is rooted in Eastern Europe, the professional level high. Here it is typically the cinematographer who is applauded when the end credits roll. The festival seminars focus on lighting, editing, camera use, and panel discussions, but also more theoretically on the relationship between word and image.
Here in Lodz, awards are conferred for the lifetime achievements of directors like Terry Gilliam (Monty Python …), Volker Schlöndor ( The Tin Drum, Homo Faber) and Terry Sanders ( The Legend of Marilyn Monroe and the Iraq film, Fighting for Life). Inside the festival building large honorary portraits of photographers such as the Swede, Sven Nyquist (1993) and Pierre Lhomme (Camille Claudell, Cyrano de Bergerac) are hanging. Scenography and cinematography charts also cover the walls. Down the street, the city’s film museum 3)See www.kinomuzeum.pl is showing the exhibition Roman Polanski Actor. Director. Polanski, known for amongst other things, Chinatown and The Pianist is presented through the use of new archive material – they have hung 200 international film posters, as well a multitude of photographs from film takes or friends. The festival is also showing the film Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired by Marina Zenovich – the documentary believed by many to have led to the world famous filmmaker’s arrest in Zurich, and subsequent hand-over to the US. Polanski had previously found himself in a grey area, where he developed an obsessive interest in adolescents – whether or not he drugged and raped a thirteen-year-old at the peak of his career in the US in 1977 is currently under deliberation.
“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” is the documentary believed by many to have led to his arrest.
Directors like Martin Scorsese and David Lynch defended him. I turn a couple of corners and arrive at Lodz’s renowned film school, where the aforementioned Polanski, Andrzej Wajda and other famous directors were educated. In fact, the first year is devoted to learning Polish. A previous student from Denmark (now the director of a film being shown at the festival) tells me that one starts from scratch; it’s really tough – many “welfare” Scandinavians have had to give up their studies and go home. Her professor (and “saviour” as she calls him) tells me that they most definitely do not distinguish between documentary and fiction – quite simply you learn how to make quality films. They talk about film rather than TV journalism and reportage. He recommends the film From Dusk Till Dawn, the school’s project on student films that uncover Lodz as a city. The project is in the process of turning into a collaboration whereby several film schools lm their city throughout the course of a day.
Well, how do you make your name as a filmmaker today? It can be down to luck: the famous film editor Thelma Schoonmaker tells us, in a seminar here at the school, how she met Martin Scorsese at a summer school in 1970s New York. She had not really thought about working in film but became his permanent editor from Raging Bull (1980) and over the following 16 films (including Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York and The Aviator). Personally, I wonder what made Scorsese choose Pietro Mascagni’s melancholy music for the accompaniment to Robert De Niro’ role as boxing world champion – the music gives us a premonition of his fall from grace. She tells us that they used the roars of both elephants and lions in the background of the soundtrack during the boxing ring scenes, and also that Scorsese often had five musical alternatives for each individual scene! Then she goes through the world of silent film, from Eisenstein onwards, to demonstrate how talented filmmakers must look to film history to gain knowledge. You learn filmmaking only by seeing what others have done before you.
I MAKE MY WAY BACK to the festival area, taking Schoonmaker’s advice I watch several films, but I also meet people; well-known filmmakers who keep coming back here. For many, the meeting-place aspect is the most important. Volker Schlöndor tells me with a smile of his films’ parasitic relationship to Günther Grass, and about how he and his previous wife, director Margarethe von Trotta, used to work together. It gets late; there is an overloaded banqueting table and dancing. Later on that night, I wander between the dilapidated buildings back to the hotel. A couple of hours later in the night, another Norwegian starts making his way back to the same hotel, loses his bearings and asks three men for directions. They chase after him, knock him to the ground, steal his passport and money – and threaten him with a gun before taking his jacket and melting back into the night. The next day, thanks to the gracious assistance of the festival and a couple of hospital visits, the cinematographer manages to introduce his Norwegian film, albeit with somewhat swollen features.
As a Norwegian, I also see that there are some Norwegian documentary films at the festival: like Yodok Stories, Control and Blood and Honour – the latter is the award-winning film about the boxer Ole Klemetsen.
But enough about boxers. I go to see the Schlöndor retrospective: In Death of a Salesman (1985) Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich play father and son. This is an intense film from Arthur Miller’s novel, filmed on a theatre stage. Filmed theatre affords at least the same level of empathy, although this is theatre within four, not three, walls. It centres on the American dream of achieving prosperity, a dream the father is not able to realise, but wishes desperately for his son. It ends with suicide, insurance money and a graveside critique of the subjugation brought about by the father’s delusions.
This same American Dream has also left its mark on the city of Lodz. Most of the old clothing factories have been rebuilt into offices and shopping centres – my personal festival-guide Jarek drives me to a project valued at 300 million Euros. At roadsides and crossroads he continuously points out freshly restored ex-factory buildings. Historically, two filthy-rich men each owned a factory complex – one of which was called “Manifaktura”. They started with nothing, became wealthy and built mansions for themselves; and apartments, schools and hospitals for the workers and their children.
These old factories now form the construction site for an enormous conference centre – designed by Frank Gehry – which will eventually also house the festival. Lodz will have its very own “Bilbao”. The Mayor of the city has guaranteed almost 2 million Euros during the construction period. I have never seen a more enthusiastic and voluble man on stage during a festival opening ceremony…
Lynch himself has his headquarters in an ostentatious suite of the Hotel Centrum
Paradoxically, David Lynch – another critic of the American Dream – is involved in this construction project: Lynch is actually building his “David Lynch Studio” here. Over the last decade, he has repeatedly come back to Lodz, which he calls “a dark and gloomy city”. He made parts of the film Inland Empire here with several Polish actors; some takes were even filmed at the aforementioned magnate’s Manifaktura. Lynch’s new 800 000 Euro studio is being constructed at Polish rates with five floors – it will cater for post-production, sound-mixing and may also accommodate an entire symphony orchestra for live sound projects. Welcome to Lodz! Lynch himself has his headquarters in an ostentatious suite of the Hotel Centrum, yet another of the old square communist buildings here. Just so you know where to stay if you are using the studios… The festival is also showing Lynch’s more recent Interview Project 4)See interviewproject.davidlynch.com a short, episodic, everyday portrait of Americans from across the US; people who are randomly chosen to talk about their lives – the goal is to capture on screen the malaise of the working class.
BUT BACK TO Arthur Miller and the American Dream. I meet 79-year-old director Terry Sanders to talk about his films, like The Legend of Marilyn Monroe (1964). He was given the task of making a documentary about her in the immediate aftermath of her death. He used archive footage, conducted interviews with people who knew her and chose John Huston (who had o en directed Marilyn) as narrator. In the film, the glory days of her career are behind her when she sings “Happy Birthday, Mr President” to Kennedy, or when newspaper headlines reveal that she is being sued for failing to appear on the set. We also follow her childhood in several foster homes, the nude calendar, the alcohol problems, the unmade bed in which she died. She wanted to be wanted. Her last husband, Miller, only managed to publish one book during the years they were together.
Sanders is also known for a couple of documentaries on the fading of cultural expression; both our paper-based cultural heritage and digital Internet culture (where formats age and lose legibility). Another documentary about the past is his film about the Vietnam monument. These documentaries work like reminders of memories. And it is precisely about fading memories that I am thinking en route to Lodz’s famous Second World War Jewish ghetto. How can this be visualised? At that time over 200 000 Jews were imprisoned in the ghetto – just 4000 got out alive. Most were deported from the old railway station nearby. My guide and I make our way there. I enter one of those old cattle cars into which Adolf Eichmann (from a documentary I had just seen) ordered the doomed consignment. Alongside the roads to the station, the old, hand-written lists of deportees are visualised next to photographs of Jews enslaved in the running of Hitler’s war machine. I film and take photographs, just like the small group of present-day Jewish tourists, at the memorial.
So, what function does filming, photographing memories, actually perform? We walk over to the Jewish graveyard and I busy myself with the lens between graves and gravestones. I film and take photographs. A crooked gravestone in front of a lopsided tree. The spacious mausoleum of the man responsible for Manifaktura. Further on between the trees there are greys, moss-greens, leaf-greens, grass-greens. The nuances of colour, the coarse surfaces of stone, concrete and steel. Monuments over the dead. Toppled gravestones. The graveyard’s scenography is played out here, sheltered by the shadows of drooping trees. I walk backwards, extricating myself from two flowers on a gravestone and almost falling into an unused mass grave – but my guide shouts a warning. Then we make our way out of the grove to the big field full of unidentified corpses from the war-time ghetto, all nameless and faceless bodies – killed by the disease and starvation-ridden ghetto. In contrast to the mausoleums and the grand gravestones, the yellowish grassy field is visualised by nameless tin plates, arranged symmetrically across the field.
BACK AT THE FESTIVAL I meet a cinematographer: Luis-Philippe Capelle has 70 films to his credit and is the head of Imago, the network of national cinematographers’ organisations. He nods eagerly in response to my question about whether cinematographers are frequently being overshadowed by directors. And what about his own “reality”? Capelle will soon be going back to Iraq where he will be driven around in an armoured vehicle, under military protection – primarily to prevent him from being kidnapped.
Then I think about another kind of reality – what happens to the language of film when new technology changes the way we work? This applies to Capelle, as well as to Schoonmaker and Sanders: I asked all of them what will happen to film language, recollection and memories with the third format after film and TV – the new small- screen format brought to you by low-resolution YouTube and iPod and iPhone? Could this demand less detailed images and the increased use of close-up shots? Has sound become more important due to the use of ear-plugs? Could our recollection become more fragmented as a result of numerous, small and fleeting images? No, they had no thoughts on the subject; they would rather be regarded as conservative due to their love of the large screen format.
THERE IS A SHARP contrast between the dream-like tableaux of the cinema screens and the reality of Lodz’s surroundings. The old city trams from the 1950s are still proudly used here. Many people cannot aford to renovate the facades of their buildings and often put up permanent horizontal safety-nets on the second floor to catch the plaster and debris before it hits you on the head. All around you catch glimpses of modernised factories and buildings, and hyper-modern shopping centres – so there are still some carpenters in Poland after all. But what does the visual signify now; the grand facades or for that matter film’s colourful representations? One of the seminar themes here poses the question: Are pictures really worth a thousand words? And why am I carrying my video camera around with me all the time, is not my writing – or for that matter, reality itself – enough?
Reality closes in fast: I turn into a side street on my last evening only to be almost bowled over by a group of four men who come storming out of a building towards a waiting car. I witness the violent arrest of a giant of a man whom the police attempt to get into the backseat of an unmarked police car. They do not manage – he is too big and struggling too hard. He has to be lifted virtually horizontally into the car. All of a sudden, I notice several vigilant armed men in bullet-proof vests around us. The atmosphere is tense, weapons are held at the ready. I am caught off-guard, open- mouthed, my camera remains in my shoulder bag and everyone disappears before I get the chance to think of grasping for my camera.
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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