Calling All Prosecutors

It was unexpected, and yet so predictable. The 2011 Arab revolutions seemed to come out of the blue, and yet they made perfect sense. The repressive regimes of the Arab world had long been living on borrowed time.

Although different in each country, internal security forces were a key element of regime power most Arab countries. The “mukhabarat” (intelligence) was a term that instilled fear – and sometime derision – throughout the Arab world. Some were more effective and more brutal than others, but all spied on their own citizens rather than on foreign governments. In every country the word “mukhabarat” meant not torture and often disappearance.

As the 2011 revolutions spread from country to country it became clear that “mukhabarat” had lost their power. People were fed up and in their demonstrations for
democracy and human rights, they had defeated fear. They had tasted freedom.

If there was one country in which the citizen might be forgiven for not following the pattern of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya, that country was Syria. As brutal as the mukhabarat was in all these regimes, the Syrian mukhabarat were qualitatively more so. And the regime had shown itself willing to go to great lengths in putting down oppositions, shelling and destroying large parts of the city of Hama in 1982 to squash opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood.

But the Syrian people demonstrated in massive numbers in support for democracy and an end to the regime. In response, the Assad regime unleashed unprecedented violence, including an expanded and intensified system of torture and disappearance through their prison system. This was not war against Islamist or terrorists, as the regime often claims, but it was a war against political, domestic opposition. And it continues. Thousands remain in Syrian prisons.

Evidence. The documentary film Syria’s Disappeared documents this war against the pro-democracy activists that has continued throughout the civil war. Director Sarah Afshar, formerly of the BBC’s Newsnight and Panorama news programmes, has drawn on the mountain of evidence being collected about the treatment of detainees in Syrian prisons to produce a devastating indictment of the Assad regime.

Despite the mountain of evidence, there is, in the words of one of the legal experts interviewed for the film, “no court to take it to.” Syria is not a state party to the treaty of the International Criminal Court and the Security Council has not been able to agree to refer a case against the Assad regime to the ICC (Russia and China vetoed the attempt to do so).

Still, there are possibilities to pursue cases against regime officials in national courts. The film documents the beginnings of what is almost certain to be an expanding attempt to prosecute regime officials for the widespread and systemic torture and murder which they have overseen. It is in telling the legal story (never easy in a documentary) that the film may have its biggest practical impact. The Case Against Assad is an important contribution to building the momentum towards those cases going forward in countries such as Spain, Germany, Sweden and wherever perpetrators or victims can be found. It is also a film which documents an attempt at trans-national criminal litigation of a sort that new to many prosecutors but which is necessary for countries to avoid becoming safe havens for war criminals.

Syria’s dissappeared should be mandatory viewing for all of those concerned about human rights or the Middle East. As a documentary, the film is excellent. Oslo Dokumentarkino must again take credit for beating NRK and other channels by showing this important film at Filmens hus in Oslo in October. But this is a film made for TV and it should be show to a wider public on Norwegian television.

Despite the mountain of evidence, there is “no court to take it to.”

As a historical record the film is almost hard to believe. It is impossible to put into words the suffering this film attempts to document. The scale of criminality is mind-boggling and horrific. But for those with any familiarity with the pre-revolution human rights record of the Syrian regime, the patterns of abuse described in Afshar’s film are all too familiar. In fact, the patterns of repression were there long before the revolution of 2011 sought to put an
end to them. Instead of responding to popular protest by moderating its repression, the Assad regime pushed it to industrial levels of cruelty. Syria’s Disappeared is a description of what happens when a vicious system of repression is mobilized as part of what amounts to a war against a large part of a regime’s own population.

The systemic horrors of crimes against humanity are clearly visible in bodies of the victims. It is there, too, in documentation that such systems tend to produce – photos, memos, emails – that have been collected, collated and are now available for prosecutors willing to pursue regime officials.

Testimony. It is there also in the testimony of survivors and the families of victims who campaign today for world attention to the fact that thousands of detainees remain imprisoned in these factories of torture. The film is well paced and weaves the first hand testimony with the legal analysis of the experts attempting to bring cases to court. It is to her credit that Afshar allows as much time as she does
for the voices of the victims to both account for what has happened and to put forward their own definitions of what might amount to justice.

«The scale of criminality is mind-boggling and horrific.»

For the rest of us, it is hard to ignore the visual parallels depicted in this film which are all too reminiscent of images which emerged from Nazi Germany, or the camps which arose during wars of the former Yugoslavia. In both cases, post-war tribunals sought to prosecute the perpetrators once the camps had been shut down. In the case of Syria, we face the dual challenge of freeing the thousands of prisoners still inside Assad prisons and at the same time preparing the cases against those most responsible for the crimes committed. The Case Against Assad is an important contribution to both efforts.


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Gay in the Time of Late Capitalism

Schöneberg, Berlin, 1977. Ancient and strict Athenian gods warn a young man: “You! You told me you have been in a public toilet!” “I think you called it a ‘pick-up place’. And that you fucked a stranger in the ass there! And you even found it extremely satisfying!” “I find this to be totally objectifying and alienating.”

The boy answers the gods rudely: “Have not you ever been fantasizing about being fucked by a big dick without all the usual ranting first?”

The Greek gods can’t believe their own ears, and they are certainly also a bit envious: “This is completely shocking! Have you never heard of tenderness and equal relationships between men? Is that not what you demand?”

The audience at the night club Schwuz laughs at the god moralists. It is also not that long ago since Summer of Love created warm sensations in many a gut in the Western world – when the, at the time, left-wing had not yet been able to become the sexual-political knipeonkel.

It is the idealistic theater group Homosexual Action Westberlin who has made the theater piece the scene is taken from. The young members of the HAW meet every
Sunday afternoon to discuss homosexuality and capitalism, with the belief that it is possible to defeat this unfair economic system together with ordinary workers.

The group turns up with its own gay unit in the many demonstrations made by the left-wing in West Berlin. Always just in front of, or right behind, the anarchists – the only ones who really accept them. Many of the other “lefties” grab the flyers out of their hands.

HAW soon realize that their “federal fellows” are just as prejudice as the right-wing and the bourgeois: for straight people of all kinds, being gay is not political, but rather something private and pervert – just like the Norwegian AKPml considered homosexuality as a “civil deviation”.

My Wonderful West Berlin is a cinematic journey in what did not become Hitler’s dream, Germania, but rather the opposite – Gaymania. It travels from the hornyness and joy of the 60s, through the 80’s Aids disaster, to our present-day adaptability. The director, Jochen Hicks, depicts the decades when homosexuality went from being a disease and a personal problem to a quality one can be proud of and likes to talk about on television.

The economic growth of the 1950s had created a generation of youth that was not only educated, but that also had the opportunity to create a space to share experiences, where they, together, could determine who they really were – and not who the parents meant that they should be. They had money between their hands and were able to experience what freedom is in its essence: to be able to choose. A whole new world was created.

Going into the age of individualism, there were only three places where you could fully live out your homosexuality: Berlin, Amsterdam and Cologne. Thus, young men went to the big cities to have a gay (“fun”) time. In Berlin, the venues were often hidden inside the ancient half-ruins of World War II. Here you could dance with other men, something that was forbidden in Hamburg and Munich. “I had 50 marks when I arrived in Berlin,” Rene Koch says, a make-up man, stylist and one of My Wonderful West Berlin’s narrators. Soon he got a job at Kleist Casino, where the cash was flowing.

That women could have sex with each other without men participating, seemed odd to most people. Thus, anti-gay laws, like the German paragraph 175, did not include female homosexuality, which was similar to the Norwegian paragraph of law. Though the women followed eventually. They quickly made their own groups when they discovered that the gay guys were exactly the same sexist alfa men as their hetero brothers. “For all men, sex is the first priority,” one of them says. Once, some of the guys in HAW painted dots all over the Sunday meeting room. The commentary from the lesbians in the theater group was clear: “You’re even more patriarchal than those others out there!”

Hick’s film also captures the many gay films made in the city from the 70s onwards. When I attended the Berlin Festival as a filmmaker myself, I funnily enough, met several of the now pretty old directors the film mentions. One of these, Wieland Speck, the powerful head of the Panorama section during the Berlinale, created both films and porn when he was young, the latter to fund his films. He has now become a gray-haired man who answers the following to the question of what the state of him and sex is, these days: “Very little. I was not interested in older guys when I was young – so I do not see myself as a sex object anymore.” The gays of the 50s did not get a place at the film school in West-Berlin – nor did celebrities like Lothar Lambert, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Rosa von Praunheim. Von Praunheim’s film It’s not the homosexuals who are the perverse was canceled before it was going to be broadcast on German television but rather got it’s premiere at the Berlinale in 1971.

Freedom to be something else is the sum of the first decades of My Wonderful West Berlin. Unlike today, the gay struggle seems to have decayed into a desire to live as close as possible to the hetersexual norm. The old heterosexual formula “one wife, two children, three rooms and four wheels” has been exchanged for “one man, one shared lover, two bought children, six rooms and eight wheels”. Normality, just like the petty bourgeoisie sees it, has become the purpose of life itself.

The gays in Berlin, on the other hand, founded “gay communes” in the 70s – collectives where anything was aloud, everyone slept with everyone and the world was a little freer. “I do not do anything political these days. I focus on my homosexuality”, says a man in the opening part of the film.

Something else that has changed, even for an old radical like myself, is an acknowledgment that previously seemed impossible. One of the creators of HAW, Wolfgang Theis, puts it this way: It was capitalism that liberated us. Capitalism needed our hedonism and shopping. The fact that the gay movement was to become part of the labor’s struggle, was just nonsense.

The best part of Jochen Hick’s directing is that he, today, lets us meet the same men and women that we saw in the first ruffled amateur movies made 40–50 years back – those who survived the Aids, the disease that stole their boyfriends and friends. The fear of becoming old and unattractive has not changed over time. The ancient Greek gods were most of all sour because they did not get anything, up there in the kingdom of heaven.

In one of the movies we get to see parts of, Taxi Zum Klo (1980), a young man drives around in a sports car, eternally on the search in a Berlin vibrating for the one who has the youth’s capital to offer: “I wonder how it is going to be when I grow older. Will I still feel so restless? I hope the pension allows me to buy myself a young boy. Because I do not want to be one of these old pissoir sluts.”


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Lida

Lida

Anna Eborn

Sweden/Denmark, 88 mins.

Yes: Documentary is Cinema. Where the best directors know what they are doing. Have chosen a form for what they want to tell. Before shooting. This is what Swedish Anna Eborn has done with this gem of a documentary film. She is working with video and with 16mm film, she has created a superb sound design and used music so it matches the sequences. The critic has no objections!

… an extraordinary cinematic interpretation of something ordinary. No, Lida Utas Andreasdotter is not an ordinary person, but her story, her destiny as a victim of geography and the related events of war and ddeportation have been told about many times before.

She lives with her family as a child in Zmiivka (a former Swedish colony) in Ukraine. During WW2 the family is deported by the Germans, they go to Germany, Poland and after the war they are sent to a camp in Siberia. She comes back to Zmiivka and has stayed there since then. She gave birth to four boys, two of whom died as children, the two others live far away from their mother, as does her sister. There is no contact between them.

The film brings them together. On film. Not in reality. Lida is a great storyteller – in old Swedish. She remembers her childhood, the director brings it to life, and we get a good insight to the old people’s home, where she stays, where she has a male friend, from where she goes with a younger friend Lucia to the cemetery and to the kiosk and to visit other old women, who remember some Swedish. You have to be “always funny and cheerful until the ass lies in the grave”, as one of them says. Anna Eborn has been filming for years. She went to see Lida’s son Arvid to show him footage of his mother, she went to see the sister Maria, she brings them together – it is painful for them to remember. But there are also, of course, the joyful moments from childhood, and they are interpreted in the film. A film full of magic cinematic moments and love and respect for Lida; her family and their story. As simple as that.


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Hasidic Community

TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers calls One of Us a “documentary thriller” in programme notes for the film. The description couldn’t be more appropriate. This suspenseful, gripping, and incendiary film by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Detropia, Jesus Camp) pulses with urgency as it chronicles the plight of three New Yorkers. The trio of subjects are individuals trying to extricate themselves from the suffocating insularity of the city’s Hasidic community. The need to escape is immediately palpable in this riveting film that is shot and paced to convey the tensions of a Hollywood white-knuckler, but the suspense can be overwhelming when realizes that the stakes are real.

Etty, a woman in her early thirties, describes being married at the age of 19 for a life that stripped her of opportunities and agency. She describes a repressed life spent birthing child after child, essentially serving little function other than being a uterus as she delivered her seventh baby before she was 30. Etty loves her children, though, and the interviews that Grady and Ewing get with the subject show an earnest and anxious desire to
save her children from the life she knows awaits them if she raises them under Hasidism.

Luzer, an actor in his late 20s, tells about leaving his wife and children to pursue his dream of being an actor. When movies and television aren’t permitted in Hasidism, his flight reveals the extent to which people live double lives and assume the burden of acting out their desires in secret for fear of being caught. The film shows seven years’ worth of footage of Luzer documenting his path to a free life as a creative, cornering the market for Jewish and Hasidic characters after discovering the wonders of the Internet. (As a side note of Twersky’s success, his work as an actor includes the Canadian drama Felix & Meira, which won Best Canadian Feature at TIFF and was our 2015 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Language Film.)

One of Us by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing

Ari, 18, is a victim of sexual abuse. He struggles with addiction by consequence and seeks rehabilitation, which includes saving himself from the lifestyle he uses drugs to escape. His childhood trauma speaks to the deeply rooted institutional conservatism in Hasidism since his abuse at summer camp is overlooked by elders with paltry excuses (“He fell on you!”) that perpetuate the status quo.

The notion of “status quo” becomes significant in One of Us as Grady and Ewing introduce a legal standard that institutionalizes the repressive norms of the Hasidic community. Fear and alienation become unbearable as the three subjects literally risk every aspect of their lives in order to escape. What the filmmakers uncover is a community of unilateral control.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the directors of the documentary One of Us

Pro-Trump signs and news snippets situate the plights of the characters with America’s own return to a conservative regime dominated by a subcultural fight for survival. While Trump’s Presidency is white supremacy’s last stand, One of Us reminds audiences that Hasidism grew out of the Holocaust when the lives of millions of Jews were lost and the culture as a whole was targeted for extinction. The doc captures the complexity of this society that exists as an inherent call for preservation but violates the rights of its members by clinging to ideals that society more broadly has outpaced.

The less one knows about a film like One of Us the better since the tension and the reveals communicate the suspense and anxiety these characters experience every day. The filmmakers smartly take a lesson from their Jesus Camp days, however, and capture Hasidic community in all its conservatism and complexity without insisting that their lifestyle is the only way to experience proper religious beliefs. Judaism remains a key factor in the film as Etty, Ari, and Luzer grapple with the implications of their choices. Faith provides a much-needed glimmer of hope to their stories.


Previously published in POV. Stay tuned with povmagazine.com for an interview with Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing when One of Us comes to Netflix later this fall.

 


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Tenderness Among Strangers

Toward a Common Tenderness

Kaori Oda

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Japan,

My first expectations turn out to be completely wrong. Kaori Oda is not a cinefile, according to herself. I’m becoming curious about this shy Japanese who’s filming in Bosnia. The recordings are not what you’d expect from the war-torn Balkans. The camera dwells on the face of a gipsy man. Lengthy close-ups while the director’s Japanese narrator voice ponders about understanding and giving something back.

I’m becoming fascinated. How has this closeness to this group of people that in Eastern Europe is generally regarded with distrust, fear and distance according to others, come about?

Contrasts. Kaori is filming effortlessly, as if she’s a family member. She moves in for a week, receiving and sharing care and tenderness in the warm closeness expressed by the images. This contrasts with scenes early in the film, where an older Japanese woman turns away from the camera. The woman is filmed from up close, but a certain distance is always present. In some scenes she laughs or smiles. Yet at the same time no closeness or warmth is being expressed. Kaori tells of the emptiness after the first, all too private film she made, and about her mother’s brutal reaction. About disorientation, about choosing Sarajevo and its film school. About the attraction towards a place far from home, and the possibility of learning from her mentor in filmmaking.

The mentor’s name is never mentioned. The mythical Bela Tarr ran film.factory in Sarajevo until the funding ended in 2016. Most of his films have been unavailable. Lengthy takes and a fondness for evocative, apocalyptic moods are his trademarks.

Disheartened uninspired filmmaker?  Kaori Oda doesn’t follow closely in the footsteps of her mentor. The first, fading recordings of an elderly man and a party with a fairground carousel are not eye-catching. She’s neither motivated nor all in. And she openly tells us so.

Her filming is without direction, lacking in passion. Her project is not clearly defined; the recordings that she shows us are confusing. What motivates her? What’s her method? Is this the randomly collected recordings of a film school student? Even so, Kaori’s project is intriguing. Her shyness is stands out, as does her ability to be tenderly taken care of.

«The recordings are not what you’d expect from the wartorn Balkans.»

In one small episode, she tells us that as she finds inspiration to film, the camera battery is discharged. The voice-over continues accompanied by a black screen.

For a long while, the narrator’s voice that keeps it all together is gone. The camera is fascinated by mining headlights that dazzles parts of the image. At times everything seems blurry. Occasional glimpses of miners, machines and turfs. The endless shot takes us deeper and deeper into a dark mine. Then finally the narrator’s voice is back. The picture gets clearer. We get to know the people, and not just their backs. The references to Tarr are obvious.

A couple of sequences later, we get to share in the filmmaker’s ambivalence towards the long, blunt shot. Suddenly we’re out of the mine, and join the workers as they watch the footage of themselves. So far in the film, we’ve followed Kaori meticulously fighting with herself to get engaged in something to film. Now that she has found it, it’s as if the audience is left out. As Kaori decides not to show any additional material from the mine; I as a spectator feel I’m being pulled out. At the same time she talks earnest about what we won’t get to see more of. The apocalyptic universe in the glowing darkness of the mine that I long for is replaced with a dull break room in flat light.

The turning point. My patience as a spectator is coming to an end. Then comes the confession. Kaori receives a grateful response from one of the miners and suddenly opens up. We are affected by her heartfelt redemption. The contact with the filmmaker and her project is re-established. Her search for acceptance and closeness moves us. What has previously been merely hinted doesn’t just shine through – it sparkles.

An unspoken need is being verbalized. The search for acceptance that she’s been carrying with her ever since the long journey from Japan began is now becoming the foundation of the film. Nevertheless it’s not until the end of the movie – as I read about the use of materials from other and incomplete films in the credits – that I understand the context. This film is structured out of a need to recreate the path towards redemption and acceptance.

Insufferable along the way? No. Demanding yes, but fascinating as well. Somewhat undefined. A musicality that goes beyond her fine sense of soundscape. A cinematic sensibility that creates pleasure – in spite of unmotivated parts and incoherent, confusing themes. Is it the filmmaker’s personality that carries this? Her authenticity keeps much of interest alive.

At close range. Kaori receives letters and drawings from a younger member of her family. She films close up, as through a binocular or a camera obscura – the same move that started the film. Kaori now admits that her cinematic spark is in the closeness. Kaori’s remarkable strength is her exceptional closeness to strangers. Her mother on the other hand is mercilessly distant towards Kaori. She is close up with her camera, but she never surmounts the cool distance created by the mother.

«My patience as a spectator is coming to an end. Then comes the confession.»

In the final sequence, she reveals to us the damage her mother causes by refusing to accept Kaori. She elaborates on the hurtful experience after coming out as homosexual in her first film. She admits that she has used the camera as a weapon – but I disagree. Her camera and her contact with those in front of it – except for the mother – are empathetic. She moves past the empathetic and further into the realms of caring and tenderness. The response she gets from other people gives her the strength to move on.

She describes the camera as an instrument of understanding and being understood. The one that she wished would understand and accept rejected her brutally.

She has found her way through the various film footage – in order to share with us the path to renewed courage. It’s about the upsetting effect of having revealed private secrets on film. But it’s also a film about the search for closeness and acceptance that is eventually answered in the company of strangers in mutual tenderness.


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Kitchen Sink High Conceptualism

The New York-based artist, photographer and videomaker is previously known for works that deal with the uncertain boundaries between the “Private versus Public”, i.e., the private versus the public sphere. Silver has been represented at what one would call elitist venues – including MoMA, Tate, Berlin, London and the Moscow International Film Festival. Additionally, she is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Visual Arts at Columbia University.

Ambitious and arrogant? An empty luxury residence is presented in single shots and compiled video triptychs onto a black background. The section is small at the start, before it turns large. Video is being assembled with text. The video section changes within the image, skipping from one side to another. The text is supplemented or repeated by different voice-overs.

The lack of connecting narratives or a red thread creates a distance. At the same time, the overloaded and ambitious bombardment of text and images requires a lot of attention. Silver doesn’t care if we follow or if she takes up too much space. Nor does she care whether the editing, the lighting, the selection of filmed objects or text fragments keeps us interested. A tension occurs in the dissonance between the various elements.

In her insistent belief in the excellency of her own project, she creates a dynamic that offers an entrance. As a spectator, I give in, involuntary and impressed. Captured by the fact that she doesn’t open up to the slightest doubt. Silver works in a monumental way. Not only in terms of ambition, but also in terms of the conceptual interweaving of elements. She works on fine-tuning her inter-conceptual narrative rhythm and her video triptychs.

Seductive, self-ironic, meaningful. The stringency of the numerous triptychs has its own massive and seductive quality. As three coherent units in time with various cuts they both deepen, enrich and elevate each other. The synergy effect of the assembled video footage elevates them from being just observations and objects to become a higher, more striking expression pointing beyond themselves.

The single cuts do not hold the same vitality. It is in the multifaceted that Silver shines – also in a textual manner. She talks about a child’s experience of pain, and further about how a child learns that a cat also feels pain. She makes the spectator aware of the small nuances through an ever-insisting dissonance between the narrator and the text. Or maybe the nuances are not small at all?

«She places intimate everyday objects next to the big questions, social commitment and a trembling conscience.»

Tragedy versus statistics. Early in the film, she takes a leap. A child’s death is a tragedy, thousands of children’s deaths are statistics. Silver asks: “Is there sorrow in knowing one has profited at the expense of someone else?” The answer is a straight forward “No”. Immediately followed by the compulsory and worn out “I feel gratitude”. But with the subsequent sluggish and overstated “Thanks”, the humor becomes clear. It is the humour that shows the way to Silver’s standpoint. She ironizes over her own affiliation to the privileged class, using arbitrary humour and clever assemblies to balance her project.

A Strange New Beauty by Shelly Silver

At the same time, Silver is able to thematize aggression, war and exploitation, while keeping the visual within a luxurious comfort zone. An elaborate iron gate is shown in different sections. A crowded walkin-closet in triptych shots. Ditto marble sinks with golden taps. Silver uses the house as a metaphor. The house has openings. Thus, the house can be entered and this makes it vulnerable. The home – the female safety and the bastion – is, through Silver’s editing, made as vulnerable as the female body. Silver addresses a highly current topic with an unfamiliar and new approach. Her compiled project that at first seemed irritating and self-absorbed to me, I now rather experience as having a bold freshness that offers new opportunities. Silver’s perspective opens up too many layers of reflection, and her inexhaustible confidence and play space in this project, is inspiring.

A Knausgård move. Half-way through the film a change takes place. Worn out children’s shoes and knotted belts are being filmed. Close-ups of dirty dishes. Silver has clearly managed to make an act of genius which corresponds to that of Knausgård. Triviality is being taken to a higher level. Forgotten socks. Worn out pink plastic sandals. A stained bathrobe thrown onto an exclusive bourgeois staircase. A forgotten razor next to a dirty mirror. A lined up, alienated mop. Things most women stay away from in their work if they want to achieve serious positions in society as open-minded and socially critical debaters.

A Strange New Beauty by Shelly Silver

Silver continues in a professional manner. She places intimate everyday objects next to the big questions, social commitment and a trembling conscience. She is like an alchemist mixing elements to create a new higher, wiser entity. The work offers a meditative experience along the way. The start is a bit uneven and the form requires, as mentioned, time to get used to. But eventually, Silver shows off her skills, orchestrating the pace of the different sections that fly across the screen. She triples her own triptychs. Plays them like piano keys. She has multi-faceted voiceovers who work both with and against each other. The audacious use of sound includes roaring, orgasms, moaning, crying and punishing whipping. A solid sequence is birds first at rest and then escaping accompanied by the sound of a chasing helicopter.

Nailing it. The use of compiled sound in an original way, and humour, keep the film from moving into pomposity. Thus, by applying a fragmented and stringent style, Silver can place war, plunder and poverty in a relief next to the lavish interiors and exteriors. The many shots of the automatic watering systems in the gardens of the houses have speed, power and empathy. In other, minor observations there are meeting points between the private and the aggression that apparently is kept safe outside. This is seen in a triptych consisting of a plastic gun, a well-used target and plastic sandals. Silver is a confident conductor of her own elements. She knows how to keep her own project on a tight rope. She makes up for the lack of humility with other moves. Three times, personal questions that lead to a bad conscience and sense of inadequacy, are being answered with a straightforward “No”. Shelly Silver’s irony nails the expected response by those she addresses.

 


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Men made Machines

Machines

Rahul Jain

India/Germany/Finland 2016, 1h 11min.

Director Rahul Jain’s camera travels around in a maze of machinery, dye, and fabrics. We witness workmen as they dye, fold, mix, wash, relax, eat and rest. Every now and then, the observations – always noise, usually motion – are intercut with brief interviews where the men, mostly migrant workers from other states, talk about their work, wages, poverty, lives, and the hopelessness of their situation. But, this is not a matter of exploitation, assures one of them.  It is not always obvious what the men do and how their manual work contributes to the entire process. Often they seem mere extensions of the machinery they work with, a cog in it. They are subjected to the pace and rhythm of the machines, helping to fold the fabric, moving a mixer around, or attending to the unwinding of large textile rolls

The parallels with Michael Glawogger’s work, most notably Megacities and Workingman’s Death, are obvious. Not just visually but also thematically. In the opening shot of Machines, sparks from an oven dance around a labourer who seems to scrape remains from an oven floor. The film ends with similar images. These could have been taken from either Megacities or Workingman’s Death. The camera  roams around, getting lost between machines and fabrics in long takes, observing the textile rolls and the workmen from a subjective point of view. There undoubtedly is a system to all this, as a worker tells us, though it probably takes years to master. Of course, the abominable working conditions these men are subjected to is a theme. It is not just the physical labour, but also the working environment and lack of protection when working with chemicals or near gigantic machines during their 12-hour shifts. A young man is literally caught falling asleep while manning one. The approach to the workers as individuals, coupled with the aestheticization of the working place, is reminiscent of the Austrian filmmaker’s work. Mechanical processes, the combination of soft colourful textiles, steel machines and concrete floors, the physicality of muscled bodies, sweat and dirt, as the camera tries to catch the repetitious movements and rhythms of the place.

An exception to these grim dark images from the factory’s bowels are shots, silent and in slow motion, of a number of men on a rooftop, wrapped in colourful fabrics and throwing these up to wave in the wind. It provides them everything they do not have ‘downstairs’: colour, grace, light, dignity.

In the film’s second part, the poetry largely disappears as Jain moves into the upper world. It reminds us there is life beyond the industrial quarters: a meeting room where trade is conducted; trash being dumped outside; an interview about the difficulties of unionising the labourers; an interview with the boss who, although a worker says he never comes around, keeps an eye on things via surveillance cameras and voices a keen idea about why paying his employees more is a bad idea (it makes them too relaxed and they would only spend it on tobacco and alcohol), and, at the very end, a gathering of men, farmers who argue they need factory work because of failed crops and who question the filmmaker about his motives: why does not he help them get 8-hour shifts? Jain implicitly affirms there is nothing he can do by returning to the underworld. 

 The title can be seen to have a double meaning. Just like Glawogger seemed to suggest, with Workingman’s Death, that it was not the workman who dies but rather his profession, so Jain seems to suggest that the title does not so much refer to the huge factory machines but to the labourers themselves. Men once made machines but now the machines make men. Jain is of Indian descent and the film’s press kit states he used to get lost in a similar factory owned by his grandfather. Jain trained in California and Machines is funded with German and Finnish money. In that same press kit, the sales agent is quoted as saying: “In its thematic relevance and artistic aspiration, the movie should also be seen as a beacon of a young and emerging Indian documentary scene, and can pave the way for broader awareness of Indian film, and especially documentary making in the West.” Watching Machines, considering its production and remembering Glawogger, I can but see a Western eye not quite getting to grips with globalization.

 


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From the Communist Regime

«The Greatest Sin Is Cowardice.» With this quote from Michail Bulgakov, Oleg Sentsov closes his final speech at the trial. Sentsov, a film director and Maidan activist born in Ukraine was charged with leading an anti-Russian terrorist movement in Crimea during the events following March 2014. Renowned filmmaking colleagues such as Agnieszka Holland and Wim Wenders, as well as the European Film Academy, campaigned for his release, but in August 2015, a Russian court in Rostov-onDon sentenced him to 20 years’ imprisonment in Siberia. In this documentary, Askold Kurov investigates the context of the trial.

Kurov’s prime source of imagery was found footage. He employed recordings from Sentsov’s own films, various media representations of Sentsov and of the historical events underlying the trial, as well as his family archives. Among
the photographs in the Sentsov family album, there is, as his mother joyfully comments, “Sentsovs first photogram”: an aerial shot of his pet dog. “Or a cat,” remarks the mother. Indeed. Depicted from above, any domestic animal looks like as an oval-shaped stain. Only representations from the side give enough information to make the represented recognizable, not because of some intrinsic ingredient of the representation but because we have learned so. This is a textbook demonstration that images are not things, and the awareness that the way we see things has been historically, socially and culturally contingent is an underlying premise of this film.

Truth and Justice. Askold Kurov graduated in documentary filmmaking at the Marina Razbezhkina Film School in Moscow. In 2012, together with other nine colleagues, he spent two months filming people, their conversations, rallies, victories, and defeats ahead of the presidential election. Thus they created a chronicle of Russia’s winter protests with a telling name Winter, Go Away! (Zima, ukhodi!). His next film, Leninland (2013) was a documentary on the abandoned Museum of Lenin in the village Gorky, near Moscow, while the Children 404 (2014) documented the consequences of the Russian law that forbids “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors,” obliging parents and friends of gay kids to tell them they are sick, sinful and abnormal. Officially, these teens don’t exist and if you search for them on the Internet, the “Error 404” message occurs. The focus on human rights issues and social conflicts in contemporary Russia makes Kurov one of those contemporary documentarians who, regardless the risks, keep the publics aware of the controversies of the contemporary world. As traditional popular media and social media immerse in the pursuit of popularity and political games, the work of these filmmakers is ever more important, and also ever more difficult. The Trial and the destiny of Sentsov testify to that.

This autobiographical aspect of The Trial further complicates the task of balancing between the elusive nature of human communication on the one hand and the pursuit of truth and justice on the other. Kurov is dealing with it with cold and precise mastery. Throughout the film, same issues appear several times, and topics repeat. Every time they are treated from a different perspective. This strategy is most visible in dealing with the lead subject, the director Sentsov himself. The viewer gets the opportunity to look at him from various angles: his own words, his old and recent media performances, his films, his enemies and friends, his lawyer, cousin, mother. The film is structured as an investigation, almost as an attempt to uncover a hidden, potentially terrorist face of this comic-book artist turned businessman turned storyteller turned filmmaker turned political activists Sokurov.

While most of the time the underlying ambiguity remains hidden, it comes to the fore in the dialogue between film director Aleksander Sokurov and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, where it is not even clear what the crimes committed by Sentsov are in the first place. Sokurov: “I beg you, a film director should be battling me at film festivals…”. Putin: “He has been convicted not for his body of work, but for a different role… He dedicated his life to terrorist activities.” Sokurov: “This was the gravest political collision. How could a common person, a young man… understand complications of the political moment?” Here, Sokurov might be referring to the activities of Sentsov after Russia seized Crimea in April 2014, when he started helping Ukrainian soldiers and their families – actions that, from Russia’s point of view, might be viewed as terrorism while Sokurov is trying to present them as a misjudgement of a complex historical moment. President Putin, however, refuses even to discuss it: “It is not about his views… It is about his intentions and preparations for wrongful acts the results of which our citizens could have suffered.”

The cynicism gets even more obvious when Sokurov starts begging Putin to suppress justice: “It is Russian and Christian way to hold mercy higher than justice. I beg you… Please.” To what Putin replies calmly, with a smile, defending the law: “We can’t act Russian and Christian in this situation without a court judgment.” The court, as one learns during the film, judged that Sentsov is a terrorist on the basis of extorted confessions and his film collection, among them Soviet director Mikhail Romm’s antifascist classic Ordinary Fascism (1965). 

Power. We – while watching the film, and Sokurov, Sentsov, and Kurov in their everyday practice as film directors – are dealing with a particular form of power. Slavoj Žižek defined it as the “immanent cynicism of power”. It developed during the communist regime, and at that time, already, it posed a serious challenge to those who wanted to oppose it, because it has criticism incorporated within. One of the initial modes of criticism applied in this situation was speaking between the lines. Bulgakov was a master of this. In his closing appeal to Russian citizens to avoid cowardice, Sentsov is speaking between the lines too. Not Kurov. But his classical documentarian approach is facing the same challenge as speaking between the lines: can it efficiently criticize power that is immanently cynical?


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The China Hustle

You saw The Big Short, right? Of course you did. And you came away with two thoughts: they ought to do something about this, and they won’t.

Welchil get ready to think those thoughts all over again when you see Jed Rothstein’s brisk new doc The China Hustle.

In case you’ve forgotten, short-selling is what happens when investors figure out that stocks are overvalued: they borrow shares in the company in question, sell them at the current rate, release a report showing that the company is overvalued, watch as the company’s value plummets, and pay for the shares they’d borrowed at the newly tanked cost, pocketing almost all the money they made in the initial sale as profit.

In 2008, the overvalued stocks were subprime mortgages and most of the investors were Americans. Today, according to the investors and experts in Rothstein’s film, the investors are Chinese firms trading on US stock markets. (Those experts are led by investor-activist Dan David and include a number of other short-sellers as well as, amusingly, former general, presidential candidate and investor Wesley Clark throwing a temper tantrum.) They have managed to do that through “reverse mergers,” processes in which defunct but still technically registered US companies like, say, Nevada silver mining companies “merge” with Chinese companies, which take over their stock market registrations.

The China Hustle Director Jed Rothstein

These companies look legit – they all appear to be audited by one of the big four accounting firms – but as soon as you dig, you figure out they are anything but. For one, they are all audited not by, say, PricewaterhouseCoopers’ head U.S. office but by the company’s China division, which, the film suggests, may have paid off to overvalue their assets. The China Hustle goes out of its way to explain that things just plain work different in China. In the absence of a strong legal system, it’s basically the Wild West.

But in fact, you don’t need to even go to those lengths to figure out that they’re bogus. What The China Hustle’s investors do is just go to China and look at what the companies are actually doing. Unsurprisingly, they find that a paper company listed at over $100 million is actually a two-bit operation with broken machines, just a few employees, and one delivery a day – about a tenth of the business they would have to be doing to be worth that much.

It’s not just China that’s the problem, of course. Take American regulatory bodies. They are not actually entrusted to come up with the numbers themselves – rather, they just look over what companies send them and then sign off. They don’t have the staff or, probably, the mandate to do anything more than that.

The China Hustle Director Jed Rothstein

The result: regular people lose lots of money and, as we see on a drive through Dan David’s hometown of Flint, Michigan, lives and livelihoods are destroyed, all while bankers and CEOs get off with severance packages running worth tens of millions of dollars. The ending montage, cynically but truthfully, shows that nothing at all has changed.

Basically, we’re all living in an economic nightmare. But we knew that, right? I look forward to seeing The Big Short 3 at TIFF 2019.


Previously published September 2017 in Canadian magazine POV.


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