1395 DAYS WITHOUT RED – Review by Tanner Tafelski, New York University

1395 DAYS WITHOUT RED - Review by Tanner Tafelski, New York University

On opposite sides of a vast, barren street, groups of people stand idly. They stand just out of view from the main street and in the shadow of buildings towering over them. Dressed in muted colors of grey, black, and olive green, these people wait, bracing for something. A woman with blonde hair musters up some courage and darts out, crossing the street. Her action sets off of a chain-reaction in which people dash across the street – some going one way, others going the opposite way. Who are these people? The walking (sprinting) dead? Lost souls scurrying from sidewalk to sidewalk? No, these are the citizens of Sarajevo, and this is a film by Šejla Kamerić – 1395 Days Without Red.

Trained as a graphic designer and working predominately as a multi-media artist, 1395 is the first feature-length film by Kamerić. Despite the foray into a different medium, 1395 concerns the historical event that Kamerić lived through as a young girl and which manifests throughout her work – the Bosnian War. More specifically, this film is about her home city, about the Siege of Sarajevo from the perspective of the present.

Beginning on April 5th, 1992 and ending on February 29th, 1996, the siege lasted a total of 1,395 days, leaving about 10,000 people dead or missing in the city. The red in the film’s title refers to the lack of colors the citizens wore while walking through a main street nicknamed “Sniper Alley,” where sharpshooters perched on building tops and shot anything that moved. In  1395 Days Without Red, the main character is a young woman (Mirabel Verdú) moving from East to West Sarajevo, through Sniper Alley, just like the other people dotting the empty sidewalks, pathways, alleys, and streets around her. Concurrent with the street walking are shots of an orchestra rehearsing the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique in a spacious building.

The conductor in the symphony scenes, Ari Benjamin Meyers, said in an interview with Artangel that Kamerić plotted out the route Verdú takes through Sarajevo, “but the way she would walk, how fast or slow she would go, how she was breathing, her attitude would be based on music; everything about that walk was in one way or another based on music.” Synching movement to music, and by extension, music to the city,  1395 Days Without Red is some sort of city symphony.

Think of the handful of canonical city symphonies though –Berlin: Symphony of a City, Man With a Movie Camera, and Manhatta – this trio embody the joie de vivre, the rush of city life and modernity with music. 1395, however, does something different. This is not a symphony celebrating the city, but one that indicates a shadow overcasting it of an unspeakable and unforgettable trauma. Indeed, as the orchestra plays snippets of the symphony again and again, one gets a sense of the scars reopened daily for citizens walking streets that once soaked with blood. Stepping on shattered glass, seeing bullet-riddled walls, running across streets — repeat.

A turn occurs in the film though; the music seeps into Verdú as she hums a few notes of the symphony during her sojourn through the city. Now the music seems the driving force, the catalyst for perseverance. It’s preparation for “survival as a mental game,” a line Kamerić recited to herself during the production process. Or maybe it’s a piece of mental music.

– Tanner Tafelski
New York University, Cinema Studies

Introductions and Reviews of Films by University Students

Introductions and Reviews of Films by University Students

For the second year in the row the Disappearing Act festival gave an opportunity to American students to explore contemporary European films from up close. Visit the section Film Reviews on this blog and get a taste of this year’s student reviews and introductions, which for the first time included not only students from New York area universities, but also contributions from students from Austin, Texas and Kansas City, Missouri.

(pictured: Austin Kim introducing the screening of CORPO CELESTE; photo by Sven Buehrer)

ATTENBERG – Introduction by Christoph Rainer, Columbia University School of the Arts

ATTENBERG - Introduction by Christoph Rainer, Columbia University School of the Arts

Despite the extremely difficult times for Greece, the small country has managed to gain a lot of international attention for its fresh contemporary cinema. The press already talks about the so-called Greek New Wave that some critics also regard as ‚magical formalism’. This movement was mostly initiated by one film: Dogtooth whose unique and challenging narration caused an immediate stir among press and audiences around the world. The film won Cannes’ Certain Regard Competition in 2009 and was later nominated for an Academy Award for the best foreign language film. It quickly became a cult film and a vital sign for the contemporary Greek cinema. The director, Giorgos Lanthimos, who also has a role in Attenberg, went on to make the equally acclaimed Alps, which ended up winning the screenwriting award in Venice in 2011.

Both of those game-changing films were produced by Athina Rachel Tsangari, who not only has a reputable producing resume, but is also an incredibly talented director herself. Tsangari directed Attenberg – an eccentric, emotionally quiet coming of age story in the midst of an industrial town that bears no hope of any kind for the 23 years old, detached Marina. With her father already on deathbed and a physical disgust for her own species, Marina goes through her tedious day to day routine which also covers various animal impersonations and synchronized dance interludes with her only friend, the promiscuous Bella. Between those poetic moments she simply roams through the desolate backdrop of the film: a place called Aspra Spitia (Greek for “white houses”), which was built by an aluminum mining company in the 60s and designed as an urbanist utopia. This industrial ghost town, where the director spent some of her childhood years herself, provides a depressing, vaguely science fiction setting.

Even though Attenberg makes no reference to the current economic and political crisis in Greece, the factory-landscaped world of the film beautifully illustrates a sense of stasis reflecting the contemporary national mood. It depicts a reality in which religious and secular structures of meaning have collapsed, in which motivation and hope is nowhere to be found, but in which life must nonetheless go on. Or to put it in the words of Marina’s father, a dying atheist architect who stands for a generation that once believed in the prosperous future of Greece: “Sometimes I think we are only building ruins!”

The nature documentary filmmaker, David Attenborough, who is also the approximate name giver to this film and a huge influence for Athina Rachel Tsangari, puts it quite beautifully in the film: “when we look into a gorilla’s eyes, there is a deeply meaningful and mutual understanding!” With this anthropological compassion Tsangari focuses the lens at Marina. We look into her apathetic face and deep into her passionless eyes and feel a meaningful connection as she struggles with those eternal subjects of Greek tragedies: death and sex.

The overwhelmingly withdrawn lead actress Ariana Labed, whose role not only looses her virginity, but also her father, received the Volpi Cup award for best performance at its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2010. The film went on to an intense festival run and received numerous more awards worldwide. As desolate as the economic situation in Greece is at the moment, as exciting is its cinematic output that conquers film lovers all around the globe within the last years. We wait eagerly for the next chapters of the Greek New Wave!

– Christoph Rainer
Columbia University School of the Arts, Film

DIAMOND FLASH – Introduction by Javier Loarte, Columbia University School of the Arts

DIAMOND FLASH - Introduction by Javier Loarte

As you all know the situation in Spain is a bit tricky. And regarding the film industry is even trickier. It doesn’t happen like in other European countries where film is seen by a vast majority like a Cultural Heritage that must be protected. Spanish cinema has no support from a big part of the country to whom is not reasonable that the film industry can be state supported. This comes from issues about history and national identity that are still bleeding us but more recently from when the Iraq war was starting: Spanish government, which was conservative, supported the US, Jose Maria Aznar was proud and ready to join Bush and Blair in their Iraqi adventure. That same month, the Goya Awards Ceremony (that is the Spanish equivalent to the Oscars) turned into a heavy vindication against the government. Since then, the film industry, with all its differences and nuances has been portayed as being a bunch of reds that don’t deserve money from the state. With this background, two years ago, the conservative party got back to power and using the economic crisis as an alibi cut almost EVERY cent for the film industry.

Under these circumstances it was a miracle to make a film in Spain in 2011. The writer and director of Diamond Flash, Carlos Vermut, coming from the world of comics, used 30 thousand dollars he earned from creating an animation series to make this film. The average cost of a Spanish film is around two million euros. But before jumping into the unknown and making the film by himself he had tried the usual way: he sent the screenplay to three producers, he waited a month and didn’t get even an answer. So he decided not to wait. He saved on art direction and crew members and gave priority to the story and the actors. He even became the Director of Photography of the film to save the last penny. But if this film is here today is not because it only cost 30 thousand dollars. This movie is here today because it is a great film.

The lack of support gave the filmmaker the freedom needed to make such a film possible. More technical quality would have required more money. More money means more investors and more investors mean more opinions. Opinions bigger than a guy in his late twenties with only a 3 minute short film in his pocket.

He made a casting through the internet. He posted an ad on the web and actors would send him tapes with scenes. Among all the candidates the director contacted 7 of them for each role and then held a more conventional casting to choose the final cast. One of the most amazing features of this film is the discovery of unknown actors that together give the best ensemble performance seen in the last years of Spanish cinema.

Maybe the most interesting thing of the film we are about to see is that it is almost impossible to classify. A puzzle whose different pieces create diverse layers that give the story a hypnotic quality where you are going be constantly challenged. Because first things first, this is not an easy movie. It’s demanding. It’s going to ask you to be active, smart, playful. It is a great journey, and as every great journey there is a price to pay.

It’s difficult to guess where this movie is going to take you. The pleasure is to keep your eyes opened and LET-YOUR-SELVES-GO.

– Javier Loarte
Columbia University School of the Arts, Film

DREILEBEN – Introduction by Jordi Wijnalda, Columbia University School of the Arts

DREILEBEN - Introduction by Jordi Wijnalda, Columbia University School of the Arts

“August 17th, 2006. 2.35pm.

Dear Dominik, dear Christian,

What interests me in cinema is the seduction to pay attention (…)
The camera’s eye turns the familiar world into an alien place that one sees with a clarity never before experienced, for once uninvolved.
The camera doesn’t take sides: people and things are treated equally, the human being is viewed like an animal, a house, a cloud (…)
One wants to understand, to read, but one knows one will remain alien and, thus, oneself.
(…) I see a realistic aspect in this: the human being as opaque surface is an everyday experience. We can’t know what the other person is thinking. (…)
We drown in false life and strained superficiality.”
“Fifty minutes later:
P.S. Yes, Dominik: a lack of humor. And also of lived life. Characters who have a body, a tongue, and a dick. And as far as I’m concerned, there is also a lack of shooting from the hip. (…) Speaking very generally, what I miss in German cinema, across all the camps and perhaps even in current films, is understanding of human nature, directors who are able, from the topography of actions, glances, and gestures, to grow a character who speaks his own language (…) and who in the end is not only credible, but also surprises with his abysses, individuality, and wit. (…)
One way or another, this is the horizon I want to ride toward. To make a film like Young Mr. Lincoln…

– Christoph”

 

What I just shared with you is part of the lengthy email correspondence between Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhäusler, the two of whom are stalwarts of the Berlin School: the most critically acclaimed entity or movement within contemporary German cinema. In many ways, the Berlin School resembles the French New Wave: a group of former and current film critics and scholars embarks on a cinematic discourse about the current state of their country’s cinema. Every film they make is an addition to the ongoing debate about the future of filmmaking, and an expression of personal theories and philosophies. Yet, gradually, this freeform pinball game between filmmakers is being pigeonholed by critics and audiences into a tangible and easy-to-define “style”; the Berlin School being defined by its “observational, cool minimalistic” style. What was supposed to expand narrative possibilities only ended up “narrowing the gaze”, according to Dominik Graf.

Graf, born in 1952 and a respected figure in German TV, is the eldest of this trio, and predates the emergence of the actual Berlin Film and Television Academy (DFFB). Petzold, born in 1960, is often seen as one of the Berlin School’s pioneers and a DFFB student. Hochhäusler, born in 1972, has made his mark through founding the important German film magazine Revolver.

The mutual concerns and sharp disagreements that came to the fore during this trio’s email correspondence in 2006 resulted in Dreileben, a trilogy of feature films that would take the same setting: a small town in Thüringen, the heavily forested and almost mythical “green heart” of former East-Germany, so radically different in its development over the past fifty years than the western part of the country, almost frozen in its transition somehow. The films further share a plot comprised of an escaped sex offender and killer. Funded by German television – a recipe for artistic blossoming, if I may remind you of TV-funded productions like Carlos, La meglio gioventù and, the Red Riding trilogy – it allowed the three directors to give their two cents on the state of German cinema while also negotiating each other’s positions in that very cinematic landscape. The three films are wildly different in style and approach, challenging in form and content, and an altogether riveting display of filmmakers who try to get something off their chests.

Not too long ago I had the pleasure of living in the south of Germany for two months while working on a short film. I am originally from the Netherlands, and people often think that there is some sort of “Nordic wash” that includes my home country, Germany, Denmark, and any other neighboring country that has tall blond people and endlessly grey winters. What I experienced was something else than the world I grew up in: the mountain air is crispier but the skies are darker; the light creates deep shades of grey, green, brown and white; certain places are caught in some sort of timelessness; and the people use their language in such a precise and effective way that it would be unnerving to most jabbering Dutchmen.

This is the world in which you, ladies and gentlemen, will be immersed for the next four-and-a-half hours. I encourage you to watch all three parts, since the overall effect will be so much more than just the sum of their elements. Amidst these three very idiosyncratic filmmaker perspectives, you will find, I think, something very relevant and truthful about one of the most complex cultures in modern-day Europe. Thank you very much, and enjoy Dreileben.

– Jordi Wijnalda
Columbia University School of the Arts, Film

MADE IN ASH – two more reviews from students at University of Texas

MADE IN ASH - two more reviews from students at University of Texas

MADE IN ASH - Review by: Abigail Weil, University of Texas at Austin

Iveta Grofova’s Made in Ash is a powerful portrait of a powerless woman. Using documentary-style photography and novice actors, Grofova depicts the harsh economic and cultural conditions facing the rising generation. The heroine Dorotka sets out a hopeful and optimistic young woman, but, like another Dorothy, comes to yearn for the home that she left behind.

The film opens with Dorotka’s high school graduation, a moment pregnant with hopes and dreams, and her wish for a dress that makes her look like a princess. But her family cannot afford such luxuries, nor can they afford to support their now grown daughter. At her family’s insistence, Dorotka leaves for the Czech Republic, hoping to find the lucrative work that her small Slovakian town cannot provide.

Unfortunately, Ash is no Emerald City. Not only does Dorotka fail to find any more substantial options than those at home, but she also now lacks the support and protection of her family and boyfriend. As she continues on an increasingly desperate path, it becomes clear that Dorotka’s life will never be a fairy tale. But neither, in Grofova’s nuanced film, will it be a morality tale. Made in Ash does not seek to instruct, but rather to expose. Alternating moments of humor and pathos create a complex picture of one woman’s life, powerfully portrayed by Dorotka Billa in her debut performance, and probably the lives of many women like her.

 

MADE IN ASH – Review by: Jacob M. Heiling, University of Texas at Austin

Shot in an almost documentary style, this film follows an eighteen year-old Romani girl through her struggle to support herself as a foreign worker in the Sudetenland. Overall it is a tale of anxious hope which deteriorates into desperation. Though the film delves into the grim realities often faced by poor immigrant women, it is not without humor and does not feel as unbalanced as similar films often do. Friendships that develop between Dorotka and the other young women with whom she works and lives are believable and lend depth to a story which might otherwise feel one dimensional. This film handles a tough subject well, leaving the audience feeling as if they have seen snapshots from reality.

THE BOY WHO WAS A KING – Review by Ian Brydon, New York University

THE BOY WHO WAS A KING - Review by Ian Brydon, New York University

Bulgarian native and writer-director Andrey Paounov is an acclaimed figure in recent documentary filmmaking. His films, all produced in his homeland, tell the stories of determined individuals who represent a local community in an increasingly international sphere. His first documentary, Georgi and the Butterflies (2004), shares the dreams of one man to organize a collectivized farm, threading together themes of sanity, compassion, and optimism. The Mosquito Problem and Other Stories (2007), his next film, follows the exciting journey of a hopeful town towards a nuclear future and all its inherent global implications. Paounov was awarded the Silver Wolf at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam for Georgi and the Butterflies, and such attention has allowed his works to screen at such competitive festivals as Cannes and Toronto, where his most recent film, The Boy Who Was a King (2011), premiered.

The Boy Who Was a King proves Paounov is capable of tackling increased scope, as it documents the socio-political rise and fall of one man over seventy years, from the rumblings of World War II through to today. The provocative title refers to Bulgaria’s controversial but widely recognized Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, one time king and later prime minister of the country. Born into Bulgarian royalty in 1935, Simeon would ascend the throne at merely six years of age, when his father died of surprising heart failure, to rule a country at war and allied with Hitler’s Nazi Germany. Shortly thereafter, when the Soviet Union invaded Bulgaria in 1944, Simeon and his family were exiled, not to return to their home until the late 1990s. A newly liberated Bulgarian people called for their rightful king to regain authority, voting him their prime minister and making Simeon the first figure ever to lead a country from atop a once monarchal but eventually democratic political structure.

Paounov tells Simeon’s tumultuous story of royal rise and decline through archival images and video of Simeon’s childhood reign and later democratic campaign, as well as numerous vignettes symbolizing or addressing national understanding of his authority. One sequence following the taxidermy of a royal coyote reads as a metaphor of Simeon’s followers, preserved over time and resistant to change while awaiting the return of Bulgaria’s legal king. More personal interviews with rural, common Bulgarians reveal, however, the controversy over Simeon’s legacy and public image. While most accounts proliferate adoration for the young king before his exile (indeed, Simeon is sure the USSR did not execute him in fear of violent revolt by the Bulgarian people for a beloved youth at that time), there remain scenes of contemporary units, such as Bulgaria’s dwindling Socialist Party, that demand Simeon’s repeated exile after his recent return. There are also numerous instances of unrestrained support for Simeon, Bulgaria’s child king or “doll king,” as some refer, including images of his face tattooed on supporters’ limbs or a dedicated fan who mails him pocketed suits designed from estimated measurements.

Overall, Paounov does not shy from presenting Simeon’s opposition or over-enthused supporters in the film, though it may be hard to argue that The Boy Who Was a King is attempting objectivity. The inquisitive and sympathetic tone Paounov employs in his exploration of Simeon’s life is reasoned with the extraordinary circumstances under which Simeon was thrust into power. Simeon himself is careful to mention various times that the “circumstances of life” influenced his political involvement, not personal scheming or planning. But it is challenging to break from this compassionate approach to Bulgaria’s most-recognizable politician as Paounov avoids detailing Simeon’s actual politics. We are left without the specific actions of his time as prime minister, besides improvement in public relations, to comprehend how a portion of Bulgarians would turn on their idol and demand his resignation so quickly.

Nevertheless, The Boy Who Was a King provides a fascinating, non-fictional tale of one man and how his relationships with numerous sectors of the Bulgarian people have informed international perceptions of a nation for many decades. Themes of destiny, relativity, and patrondom arise in an interesting reflection on national and personal identity and how they intertwine.

– Ian Brydon
New York University, Cinema Studies

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