“Your TVs at home are all fake because there are no real people on your TV. Here, the people are made of flesh and blood.”
In Leonard Retel Helmrich’s powerful film “Promised Paradise”, the main character, Agus, an Indonesian troubadour, pokes his head through a cardboard box, a pretend TV, to remind local children of the reality behind the violent images the media has made banal.
A wind-up toy represents Bin Laden, a cereal packet becomes the World Trade Centre as he re-enacts 9/11, to give the images meaning again. Agus’s crude means indicate how the world of illusion can make us realize the truth more than any amount of sophisticated imagery. If you care about ‘flesh and blood’ you will care about its representation. You question clichés till they bleed.
How can filmmakers recollect the suffering of flesh and blood? How can they explore it without sensationalism? This, for me, was a central theme in the films I saw in this inspiring festival, which, as always, nourished the need for discussion, questioning, complicity.
The selection of films at Visions du réel is put together with a love of the form that is visionary, never complacent. Festival director Jean Perret calls it a “Festival of the real” and recognizes how representations need to be questioned, boundaries pushed. In addition to documentary, the selection included video art, fiction films and photography. There were powerful masterclasses with Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh and Israeli Avi Mograbi, but space and time were also given to young filmmakers from all over.
In the “All About Me” section, young Japanese filmmaker Miki Setoguchi creates an illusory world to deal with the very real loss of her mother. She uses a raw, visceral mixture of film, performance, stills, and animation to ‘face’ her dead mother (“Mother of the Mother and also the Mother of the Mother’s Mother and her Daughter”).
When her mother was terminally ill, the filmmaker was a child and had to live with her grandmother. “Since I don’t have a mother, I don’t have a place,” she whispers in the narration. Maybe she finds her place in the film itself with its intimate, stifling world of plants, mirrors and strange creations made of unnameable fish. “Is this my mother, my beautiful mother?” the voice whispers. Not only the illness has ravaged her, the daughter’s anger has, too.
The grotesque and erotic co-exist in a disarming way. High heels stand on a liver, squelching it; tentacles of an octopus combine with chicken bits to create a monstrous foetus. Such bizarre scenes express her dislocation of emotions but the wittiness in the imagery hints that the film is a way of playing with the darkness, of partly mocking the melodrama of loss.
It is a film made from the consciousness and sensuality of the body. In the discussion between the Japanese and Swiss filmmakers also participating in this section, another young filmmaker, Haruyo Kato, talked of how she wanted to make work with the “sensation of skin”. The audience burst into spontaneous applause. You can’t disagree with skin.
A more disturbing work engaged with the body’s memory is Polish video artist Artur Zmijewski’s “80064”. The film takes place in a tattoo parlour where the artist meets with Josef Tarnawaa, a 92-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. Josef recounts his camp experiences and relates how his number was initially tattooed. The filmmaker stands over him and explains how he wants to “renovate your tattoo” – an agreement had already been made to make the number clearer. “It’s not necessary,” Josef Tarnawaa says. “Why are you imposing this burden on me?” But Artur is persuasive: the number is re-tattooed.
In this mundane world of the tattoo parlour, the brutality of the camps is re-enacted, the shame of the perpetrators somehow shared in this act of creating and watching the work unfold. It is an unsettling film where the very act of transgression becomes the content of the work. The artist talked afterwards of how he felt the benefits gained by watching the film “outweighed the ethical questions”.
Although I disagreed with his stance, it gave rise to complex, dark questions about our role as filmmakers in dealing with the memory of suffering. Something became engraved in the mind: an uncomfortable complicity with the initial act, a sense that we are not allowed to be just innocent onlookers. In the end, though, what remained for me was not the barbaric history represented by the initial tattoo itself, but the questionable re-creation of pain in any individual for “the greater good” of art.
Such disconcerting work needs debate out with the gallery context and its place at the festival allowed the audience to engage in heated discussion. Again and again at “Visions du representation”: form.
Some of the short films by Israeli Avi Mograbi also use the border between video art and documentary to avoid the clichés of narrative-based work. In his inspiring masterclass he talked about his continued resistance to Israel’s occupation in his work and how he has decided to stay in Israel because we “cannot escape from who we are.”
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