The sensual, muscular level of a documentary is often overshadowed by theme, style and ethical issues. At Doc Fest 13 in Thessaloniki Steffen Moestrup tried to focus on the bodily aspects of the screened documentaries.

Steffen Moestrup
Regular critic in ModernTimes.review and NY TID, the Monthly Norwegian newspaper. He is also doing his PhD in Aarhus, Denmark.

To find yourself at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival is indeed a bodily experience.
Every day you watch 7-10 documentaries mainly dealing with the sadness and misfortunes of this world. You feel a physical exhaustion in your body. You become dizzy, confused, even worried. But it is more than that. Some of the films are actually embodied experiences in themselves. Film is moving pictures. Moving because the technology itself is a series of still images moving next to each other. But film is also “moving” in a different meaning of the word. The pictures move us. But what kind of movement takes place?
Think of touching a stranger’s hand in a bar late at night. Then think of the memory of this. Where do you sense the memory? In you mind, in your heart or perhaps most of all in your hand.
The place where the action was embedded. I believe the same happens when we see a film. Films are said to be an escape from reality. Even documentaries have been accused of this. To me this is a problematic statement. Film might be an escape from reality but it is never an escape from your body. You carry your body with you and it is through the body that you become immersed in the film. At the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival I saw a number of films which in different ways both dealt with the body thematically and also had a bodily effect on me which I will now try to explain.

Kinbaku

The first film I would like to mention is Kinbaku– Art of Bondage (Kinbaku – Sielun solmuja) by the Finnish director Jouni Hokkanen. The film is a highly stylistic and impressively made study of the Japanese bondage tradition known as kinbaku. Hokkanen’s method is by no means a journalistic examination of the tradition attempting to uncover the hows and whats of this fascinating erotic practice.

The film is rather a sensitive and seductive exploration with an open mind and body. We are treated with gorgeous scenes in golden colours depicting a man tying up a young Japanese woman. Elaborate details are revealed and yet much is hidden from our eyes. We are in forbidden territory and much is left to the imagination of the viewer and his or her own method of immersion. Much of the film deals with skin and texture. The rope against the skin. The tightening of the rope and the effect this tightening has on the skin. The pressure and the release. The pain and the joy. The marks left on the skin and the changing facial expressions on the girl as the rope is tied in ever more complex ways around her naked body. The film does have some controversial statements about the nature of the Japanese woman’s desire to be tied – and this desire’s connection with the lack of attention and tenderness in Japanese society.

Kinbaku

But the images in the film showing the art of bondage make it clear that there is a mutual respect and understanding between the tier and the tied. This is not sadomasochism but rather an enthralling erotic form of communication. Watching these images of skin and texture made me feel the film on my own skin.
The life of my cells seemed to connect with the life of the film’s skin cells. Not just the skin of the protagonists in the bondage sequences but with the actual skin of the film itself. In her important contribution to the theory of embodiment in cinema, Jennifer M. Barker writes: “We exist and move and feel in that space of contact where our surfaces mingle and our musculatures entangle.”1 A way to mingle with a film is through the skin which is exactly what happened to me when watching Kinbaku in Thessaloniki. Rather than trying to go beneath the surface of the story and attempting to understand the tradition and its background, I remained on the surface of things. Observing the texture of the skin. Not only observing but becoming immersed in an almost erotic way. Being touched by the film’s skin in the same the way a stranger can touch your skin in a bar late at night. According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty ideas about touch, skin and flesh do not just form a biological element but a way of being in the world, a way to perceive the world.2 It is a reciprocal relationship between an animate body and an inanimate object. There is definitely a connection between viewer and film.
Another film at the Doc Fest 13 which also worked in an embodied way was Jan Tenhaven’s Autumn Gold (Herbstgold). The film portrays a series of athletes between 80 and 100 years old who are preparing for the Track and Field World Championships. In doing so it seems as if they are trying – and often succeeding – to postpone their death. Early in the film we see a 93-year old man exercise. He lifts himself up on a metal bar and we see the musculature of his body being stretched. As he lifts himself up we hear a penetrating squeaking sound made by his body.

This sound connects directly to the bodies of the viewers in the theatre. We feel his exertion in our bodies. Several times during the screening I found myself moving parts of my own body. I wriggled my feet. I bent my knees and moved my lower leg back and forth. At one moment I almost felt like getting up and start to do stretching exercises. I was reminded of my own body watching the bodies of these old – very old – people. I was reminded to use my body. To not let it fade. This is a way of getting immersed in the film which differs from when we occupy ourselves with the narrative, visual or aural levels of a film. The film deposits itself in our body and we have a deeper understanding of the bodies on screen because of this embodiment. The last film I will deal with this time is Odette Orr’s documentary debut Beating Time which tracks the life of 29-year-old Avi Kremer who is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS) and told that he only has four years to live. Avi does not intend to surrender to death. Instead he initiates an impressive endeavour to strengthen research in ALS and hopefully find a cure before his life runs out. The film is life-affirming but constantly overshadowed by death and dying. As viewers, we are positioned very closely to Ari. We witness and feel his slow deterioration. His legs giving up and forcing him into a wheelchair. His mouth being unable to physically create the words he wants to speak.

Autumn Gold

We practically xperience the flowing of the blood in his veins and his chaotic nervous system. Again, I suggest that this film works strongly in an embodied way. While Kinbaku mostly worked on the level of skin and Autumn Gold primarily dealt with the musculature of the body, Beating Time perhaps most of all is about the visceral. It’s about heartbeat, nerves and blood, so the film addresses the viewer in a more internal way than the two other films mentioned here. This is not to say that Beating Time necessarily makes a deeper and more lasting impression. Just that it works on a different bodily level than Kinbaku and Autumn Gold.
Dealing with the body and embodiment while experiencing film is still a somewhat neglected and mysterious position in film criticism and film studies. This seems odd to me. Of course the body has an importance when watching film. Just think of the goose bumps induced by horror films, the arousal when watching pornography or the tension in the stomach when watching thrillers. I believe much is still to be learned about the connection between film and body. Especially when it comes to documentary film where the triangle of on-screen body, film body and viewer body is an almost totally ignored aspect.

1 Barker, Jennifer. 2009. The Tactile Eye – Touch and the cinematic experience. Los Angeles: university of California Press.
2 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1997. The visible and the invisible: followed by working notes. Evanston: Northwestern university Press


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