Arte has dedicated a theme evening to five short documentaries made by well-known directors from five different countries. They were all asked to tell about themselves and where they live. The filmmakers were asked to frame their neighbourhood, its atmosphere, buildings, people and history, and they were urged to be personal. TUE STEEN MÜLLER comments on this new collection of neighbourhood films.

Anette Olsen

Script writer, webfilm producer in Safran Film and journalist based in Denmark. Former editor of DOX Magazine (2001-02 and 2004-05).

Their first reaction must have been one of joy, because an opportunity to tell about oneself with few restrictions – to go ahead, let it out, the memories and the points of view – is a one-in-a-lifetime chance. The second reaction must have been fear: ‘Is my neighbourhood interesting to other Europeans? How can I make other people care about my personal surroundings? And my film will be compared to four other films!’

The final, overall result is successful. As a theme evening, the collection of five films is well composed and professionally produced. As a viewer you are generously treated to visits to Rome, Moscow, Helsinki, Brussels and Budapest – in that order. You are informed and amused. And in some sequences, during the almost three-hour-long tour of people and places in a big Europe, you feel that an artist is addressing you. As such the theme evening concept proves that high quality can be made even if the editing in the production process is kept at a bare minimum, i.e. if the filmmakers are respected and given the freedom to treat the subject in a manner that suits their style of handwriting.

Essayist format

There is nothing new about the genre itself. Agnès Varda told about her Parisian street Rue Daguerre many years ago, and Herz Frank has described his Jewish street in Riga. There are countless filmic descriptions of cities – from Walter Rutmann and his Berlin symphony to Johan van der Keuken and his homage to Amsterdam. Talking about yourself and the place where you live normally invites a freer and essayist filmic style as you are not linked to a character-driven, dramatic storyline.

One of the main qualities in this neighbourhood series is the dimension linked to the essayistic form where the directors go for reflection instead of a pure information spread. This has given (some of) the directors a chance to rediscover and develop the art of commenting, an often forgotten element that is overshadowed by observational style. Stylistic importance is thus attached to personal texts written and read by the directors. In his film, Italian Gianfranco Pannone cleverly ponders the urbanization of former rural areas. Finnish Pekka Uotila turns this around and talks about loneliness in the countryside where an old man can die unattended. As the homeless do in Hungarian Katarin Pázmándy’s tour of the streets of Budapest where she uses the voice-off as a narrative tool in her characterization of True Life, also the title of her film.

Wonderful clichés

In general, films about neighbourhoods are so-called feel good films. You the viewer are taken to new places, shown around, introduced to new people, informed and amused. Putting all the films in the series under one hat, comparisons are obvious as well as rewarding. You get a picture of big-city life at the beginning of a new century told from a personal perspective.

From your own geographical standpoint (this article’s author is from Copenhagen, Denmark) you can cultivate your own small idiosyncrasies in terms of national sentiments. Here they come:

Gianfranco Pannone

Gianfranco Pannone unfolds a special Italian melancholy as he remembers the places near his home where Pier Paolo Pasolini shot his ”La Ricotta”. Hurrah for the music, it’s wonderful and it reminds you of Italian cinema in the fifties. And the way Pannone depicts the quarter he lives in, as in the scene of men in white undershirts just sitting in front of the bar doing nothing, is wonderful. Why should they move about in a hot summer when an Italian bar has everything they need?

Vitalij Manskij is a big, bearded Russian male who wants to peep through his neighbours’ windows according to Vertov´s theory. He stumbles around his own flat like a big bear under protest from one of his children and walks through the streets doing a lot of vox pop interviews. Inside the houses he invites us to dinners – and yes, they drink a lot of vodka. Consequently, philosophical discussions arise.

Finland’s Pekka Uotila is – from the point of view of another person from the North – very Finnish. Not much of a talker but always commenting with a subtle sense of humour, ironical, sometimes sarcastic on the subject of what it means to be Finnish.

Pekka Uotila

Tristesse is the word I associate with the film by Katarina Pázmándy. She and her characters talk a lot about what has happened ”after the change”, i.e. the fall of Communism. Not much has improved, to say the least, and some things have changed completely. A streetcar conductor remembers that the intimate relations between driver and passenger that could develop at the end of a tour are no longer possible! Now it’s money that decides the (love) life you lead.

Now it’s money that decides the (love) life you lead

The film directors with the greatest difficulties in defining their neighbourhoods are the two Peters from Brussels, Krüger and Brosens. This is very understandable, as their Brussels quarter of St. Gilles includes 99 nationalities, dirty streets, dance parties, religions – you name it… I suppose this explains why they have chosen to be present in the narrative structure and to ask the question: What is your opinion of St. Gilles? They don’t have the answer themselves, as Krüger has not lived there for very long, Brosens has already moved to Leipzig, and the people they interview have very different opinions. Yes, the film enhances the clichéd picture I already have of Brussels – a heartless city, or is it a city at all? Perhaps St. Gilles is just a village with the wrong address.

Film and television

Is it film or television? Yes, is the most relevant answer. On the one hand, these documentaries are made by film directors who know that mass audiences need some factual information to understand the time, culture and sometimes history of the city being visited. On the other, they have to respond to the generous invitation to tell about ‘My World’ by doing it ‘My Way’. In a positive way, a playful hybrid form characterizes the series where some of the directors go from the quick, vox-pop interviews in the street to more profound reflections and confrontations.

Italy’s Pannone talks to his neighbours in the street but also gets them to comment directly on the history of Tuscolana in Rome. There is a superb cinematic sequence of a landlord who is sitting, standing and hanging around the house on a hot summer day. Also superb archive material is used.

Hungary’s Pázmandy is the one who tries hardest to visualize without using interviews at all. He has chosen a style that is heavy and old-fashioned.

Manskij is the most direct and communicative adding only the old Vertov clip as a surprising piece of marvellous cinematography – the girl who blinks her eyes to avoid the sun in a way that reminds us of the movement of Venetian blinds.

Krüger and Brosens are consequently very much in the picture themselves, and they have the appearance of lost souls looking for a way to tell their stories.

Peter Brosens, Peter Krüger & Sakhya Byamba, 1999

Finally there is Pekka Uotila’s small essayist masterpiece, which I would recommend all documentary teachers to include in their repertory. It is a clever, humorous and precise description of himself, a Finnish man with a family who lives in the countryside outside Helsinki, but with a close link to the capital city. As a symbol of Finland he has chosen the sculpture of ”The Three Smiths” that symbolizes strength and the need to work in a country where light is scarce and depression is often described as the normal state of mind. The filmmaker places his camera on the square with the sculptures and sits down to reflect. The film then takes us to places in and outside the city. Uotila also uniquely interprets the notion of neighbourhood with elegance, pointing at Finland as a country that has had to balance between the big USSR and the West for decades. The method is associative: when he takes some salt from a dinner table, he continues with a story about his grandfather who loved salt and then returns to the present and poetically reflects on our existence. It’s pure pleasure once you accept this invitation to meet the Finnish soul.

The Town, My Neighbourhood and I

A theme evening produced by ZDF/Arte and Ma.Ja.De.

The Eclipse of Saint-Gilles
Directors: Peter Krüger and Peter Brosens, Belgium, 2001, 34 min

Real Life
Director: Katalin Pázmandy, Hungary, 2001, 38 min

The Vertov Windows
Director: Vitalij Manskij, Russia, 2001, 28 min

The Three Smiths
Director:Pekka Uotila, Finland, 2001, 28 min

A Trip Around My House
Director: Gianfranco Pannone, Italy, 2001, 31 min


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