piątek, 13 lutego 2015

65th Berlinale. Chapter I: Precarious individuals vs. inhumane system

Last week my long awaited holidays finally began, but instead of indulging in blissful idleness, I chose treating myself to reveille at 7:30 AM and queuing for movie tickets. Despite of being utterly allergic to ostentatious display of splendour and flashes of newsmen cameras catching fake smiles of celebrities on the red carpet, I got shortly affected by common at this time of a year syndrome known as Berlinale Fieber. Luckily, a weekend spent at Potsdamer Platz among hordes of others suffering from this craziness was enough to regain my usual state of moderate sanity.

Aside from all the glamour, Berlinale is widely known for its engagement in political debates, showing controversial topics and selecting movies straddling the line between art and traditional cinematic forms. This year’s programme is not an exception, so forcing own way through its maze wasn’t easy. Leaving Competition with most anticipated blockbusters to holders of festival accreditations, I found Forum and documentaries from other sections much more appealing. Quick glimpse on press relations from the opening gala just reassured me, that staying out of it was a good choice. I focused my attention on movies taking up such issues as situation of refugees, LGBTQ persons, facing own countries’ vicious past, rediscovering indigenous Bolivian traditions and witnessed psychedelic trip though imaginary world of lost movies lead by Guy Maddin. Almost all of them are definitely worth wider recognition. To start with, there are reviews of two documentaries showing different approaches to the matter of refugees: “Flotel Europa” concerning Denmark in early ’90 and “Hotline” about situation in present-day Israel.  

An opening shot of “Flotel Europa” shows a woman with two young boys standing in front of big ship moored in the Copenhagen harbour, recording message to the family in Sarajevo. She reassures them, that everything is fine, but concern on her face contrasts with rather carefree teenagers’ attitude, for whom living on a boat appears to be an adventure. It’s 1992, they’ve recently arrived to Denmark to apply for a political asylum along with other people, who had to flee from territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina engulfed by war. About thousand found their temporary shelter on a huge boat called “Flotel Europa”, a facility provided by Red Cross due to lack of space in other refugee centres. Among them was 12 year old Vladimir Tomić, director of the documentary, younger son of the woman from the first scene.

Main thread revolves around his coming of age: youthful pranks, fights with friends, first drinks during hang-outs with older teenage rebels, attempts to catch attention of young dancer and classmate Melissa, dreams about becoming as brave as Boško Buha -juvenile national hero from World War II in Yugoslavia. His hopes resemble ones of other kids in Denmark. Except, that he’s not allowed to go to public school, neither his mother –to work, due to regulations imposed on asylum seekers by EU legislation.

Although not threatened by snipers, residents of the ship could paradoxically feel similarly isolated, as their families left in besieged Sarajevo. They lived in a tiresome state of limbo, unable to integrate within Danish society and had to wait months, sometimes years, for the formal asylum procedure to start. In order to prevent them to sink into lethargy, Red Cross had organised Danish classes, sport exercises, folk dance courses, concerts, theatre workshops. Due to frequent interruptions of electricity supplies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was hard to communicate with relatives by phone, so many refugees started to record excerpts of their lives on VHS tapes with simple analogue cameras and sending them to the home country.

These archival materials were used to produce visual layer of “Flotel Europa”. Tens of hours of footage gathered from amateurs and edited into lasting 70 minutes story, complement excerpts from black and white film about Boško Buha and commentary from the director. Doing so, Tomić allows refugees to speak for themselves and creates an intimate connection between them and the viewers. In a way, I felt like peeking into their personal diaries, sensed their desire to escape from despair and forced inactivity and unpretentious joy, while taking part in cultural programme. Digitalised, but intentionally left flawed, blurred or disrupted shots emphasize the authenticity and sincerity, within which lies the strength of this documentary.

Director avoids portraying his characters as victims. He brilliantly juxtaposes various individual perspectives creating a patchwork, on which serious scenes depicting worsening of living condition and longing for the country, leading to an unexpected outbreak of nationalist sympathies are alternated by numerous humorous anecdotes giving sometimes the impression, as if he would have been presenting scenes from a summer camp. Although stay on Flotel Europa stripped many of its residents from hopes (dispelling director's own youthful illusions symbolize the death of Boško), overall picture emerging from their video letters is rather positive –maybe because there was no real danger that their requests would be denied, as mentioned Tomić during Q&A after the screening on 6th of February. Nonetheless, I left the screening room confirmed in conviction, that there’s something utterly wrong with the entirety of humanitarian aid’s system, which leaves refugees completely dependent on organisations’ help.

More critical perspective on this subject presents Silvina Landsmann in “Hotline” premiered on Berlinale last Saturday. Following the activities of human rights women’s NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants from Tel-Aviv, her insightful documentary meticulously analyses precarious situation of Africans looking for political asyl in present-day Israel, who lack this sense of fragile security, granted to residents from “Flotel Europa”.

As organisation’s website reports, Israel hosts over 47 000 African asylum-seekers, coming mostly from governed by brutal dictatorship Eritrea and Sudan, who were often subjected to political oppressions or even tortures and decided to flee from their countries to avoid further persecutions. After arriving to Israel, instead of getting a chance to fill asylum request, they are automatically obliged to be detained under the Anti-Infiltration Law rooted in emergency anti- terrorist regulations enacted in 1954. In accordance to it, everyone, who illegally crossed the border, or stays in the country after his/her visa expired, officially obtain status of an “infiltrator”, classifying them as a potential threat to national security. Although Israel signed United Nation’s Refugee Convention in 1951, only 200 asylum claim cases had been examined with a positive result for applicants as till now.

“Hotline” presents a wide range of portraits of individual characters. Landsmann attentively watches enraged MPs openly admitting, that their goal is to reduce number of refugees and juxtapose them with intensive, painstaking every day efforts of Israeli activists. Her camera insightfully registers complexity of emotional reactions of refugees: relief -of those, whose sentence has been for a moment, respited and resignation -of those, who decide to return, unable to live in this state of perpetual purgatory. A contrast between active volunteers and passive, vulnerable refugees is more distinctly visible, than in “Flotel Europa”.

Whether filming daily duties of NGO’s workers, open Knesset’s sessions concerning introducing an amendment to Anti-Infiltrational Law or vehement public discussion, during which residents from south Tel-Aviv express their discontent with recent establishing settlements for African refugees in their area, Israeli director refrains from adding personal commentary. She doesn’t have to. Her shots are leading the viewer through complicated labyrinth of multi-layered institutional absurds, under the terms of which migrants are, at the utmost, tolerated and granted temporary protection, but not allowed to work legally to improve their existence, leaving him with the impression of witnessing a weird adaptation of Kafka’s “Castle”. Although Landsmann seem to take a stance of an outsider, one might clearly construed her documentary as an indictment against the Israeli politics towards refugees and bitter comment on the state of country’s alleged democracy. Are there any chances for change?

"Flotel Europa"
Denmark / Serbia 2015, 70 min
Language: Bosnian
Director: Vladimir Tomic
Trailer: vimeo.com/117721025

Israel / France 2015, 100 min
Languages: Hebrew, English, French
Director: Silvina Landsmann
Further information: https://www.berlinale.de/en/programm/berlinale_programm/datenblatt.php?film_id=201510661#tab=filmStills

poniedziałek, 19 stycznia 2015

First stroll down the lane of Berlin's sites of memory

French historian Pierre Nora observed already in 1984, that “we speak so much of memory because there’s so little of it left”[1]. According to his “Lieux de mémoire”, we’re cut off from old customs and rituals, which used to provide us sense of continuity and affiliation to the culture of previous generations. Close bond to the past has been broken, “there are lieux de mémoire, sites of memory, because there are no longer milieux de mémoire, real environments of memory”. To oppose its complete deconstruction, there is a global trend to chase after and preserve those traces, in hope of regaining the connection. In some cases it takes form of facing gloomy recesses of the inglorious past as a warning, in order to prevent it from happening again. It is strongly visible in German capital.

Berlin. There’s no other city buzzing with contemporary culture, chasing after most recent trends in science or fashion and, at the same time fixed on its difficult history, evaluating and rewriting it all the time. Cityscape reminds a tangled web of historical threads, where past and present merge and overlap each other depending on current constellation of power. It stays in state of constant flux, while one might observe countless attempts to preserve its ephemeral memories, anchor them in physical space and bring them back to Berliner’s attention. Stories are much more likely to be remembered, once there exist authentic places, where they materialize, which testify their “reality”. Stones don’t speak on their own accord, though. Thanks to effort of a vast number of eye-witnesses, politicians, professional entrepreneurs or just ordinary citizens between modern, shining sky-scrapping offices and facades of refurbished tenement houses emerge plaques, statues and buildings evoking various moments of capitals biography. Monuments glorifying former victories are adjacent to objects secreting suffering or terror. Next to museums or sculptures fulfilling exclusively commemorative function, there are many spaces serving other purposes today: shops, factories, schools or public institutions. Some of the latter caught my attention, as I was strolling through my neighbourhood recently.

AEG am Humboldthain

Former industrial estate situated between Brunnenstraße, Gustav-Meyer-Allee, Voltastraße und Hussitenstraße. This impressive complex of building designed by Peter Behrens witnessed technological development of industry at the turn of 19th and 20th centuries (there were produced various electrical devices used for household and industry, among others parts for first railways). With takeover of political power by Nazis factory played major role as armament manufacturer. To its production concern had employed forced labourers, who had been brought from occupied territories of Poland.  Poor living conditions and work over 12 hours a day under constant watch of brutal guards caused suffering and high level of mortality. In 1995 Wedding district city council sponsored a plaque dedicated to Polish forced labourers, which hangs on the wall near the entrance to the complex. Currently the area is used by Technischen Universität, business establishments and media companies (f.ex. Deutsche Welle) and is listed for preservation. Walls of clock tower adjacent to one of the machine halls covers mural painted by street artist JR in frames of his project “Wrinkles of the city” (www.jr-art.net/projects/the-wrinkles-of-the-city-berlin)

Der Wasserturm Prenzlauerberg

Located in charming, fully gentrified part of Prenzlauerberg, Kollwitzkiez is one of the oldestwater towers in Berlin (built in 1877, in use till 1952). After Nazis came to power, from 1933 to 1934, adjoining to it building Machinenhaus I (demolished in 1935) functioned as of one many “wild concentration camps”, where many communists, socialists, Jews and other groups, treated by ruling forces as a threat, were interned and killed without a trial. Later it was transformed into public green area. Today, water tower refurbished and modernised houses modern apartments and is surrounded by a playground and kindergarten. Memorial wall and a plaque remind about its past.

Bezirksamt Pankow

Built at the end of 19th century, this oppressive complex of buildings on Fröbelstraße served initially as a hospital. After the end of the Second World War, in May 1945, soviet NKWD set up in basements of House nr 3 prisons for suspected of plotting against the soviet occupation forces in a very wide sense. People were often detained after had been denounced, rarely informed about reasons of treir imprisonment, and subjected to meticulous investigation, physical maltreatment and tortures. Today, buildings host district council. The visitors can learn about its dreadful past from an information board put at the entrance to the complex.

[1] Representations no 26, Spring 1989, California

wtorek, 4 listopada 2014

Pearls of teenage wisdom -notes in the margin of "Boyhood"

I'm coming back to my own adolescence rather reluctantly. In my memories it consists of a handful of happily exciting moments, a bit bigger handful of hopelessly depressing experiences, but generally, growing up in a former provincial city in post-communist Poland in the middle of economic transition, where hardly anything culturally significant happen, was just plainly dull most of the time. Though it’s a crucial process in one’s personal development and everyone has to pass through it, I wouldn’t recollect it as extraordinary. I’ll never understand people, who are dreaming about coming back to their childhood. Pop culture’s obsession with youth is a phenomenon, which holds no appeal to me. Neither irresistible need for constant rewriting the myth of the teen years, when everything is yet to come and anything is possible, by innumerable authors or movie directors. It was one of the reasons, why I’ve been somewhat sceptical, when I’ve heard, that Richard Linklater tries to go through this issue in “Boyhood”. I didn’t rush to the cinema straight after its release in general distribution, and after I’ve finally seen it, wasn’t sure what to think.

I encountered Linklater’s works by chance, when a friend showed me “Before Sunrise” about ten years ago and observe his development with interest ever since, so, of course, I was curious about his latest production. “Boyhood” has become one of the most celebrated movies in 2014: since its premiere in Sundance, has been acclaimed by the critics, as well as by the audience from all over the world. Awarded a Silver Bear for Best Director on 64th Berlin International Film Festival, it’s already been discussed behind the scenes, that it deserves an Oscar nomination. In his movie, American director captures coming of age of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), whom we meet for the first time, when he’s a 6-year old blonde, cute as an angel kid, laying on the grass, staring at the sky and accompany him till he’s 18 and takes his first steps in college. 

Mason Jr. remains a central figure in the course of the whole story, but his closest relatives play important roles as well. So there are: his older sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater, director’s daugther), who always initiates fights and their divorced parents, slightly irresponsible weekend dad Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who tries to remain part of the family, in spite of having a constant conflict with their mum Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who, unlike the latter, tries to act more responsibly, but somehow always ends up making wrong decisions. Although the story is completely fictional, one might have an impression of witnessing a chronicle of an average white middle class American patchwork family, which makes it very easy to identify with. Events happening in the background –from discussions about the war in Iraq, through engagement in Obama’s electoral campaign, to world premiere of the latest part of adventures of Harry Potter, were also part of spectator’s own experience. A resemblance to “real” life emphasizes the fact, that protagonists are growing up along with actors.

Linklater came up with an idea for an interesting experiment, which blurred borders between documentary and fiction. “Boyhood” was filmed over 12 years, approximately once a year director called the crew in for a few days to shoot sequences, which at the end became pieces of a coherent story. Success of the project depended on all actors being able to commit to it for the whole process, which, considering, that the main part has been played by Ellar Coltrane, who, at that time, didn’t have any previous acting experience (not to mention specified life plans, since he was 8 years old) was quite risky. Viewer is not just following the development of fictional characters, but also observing physical and emotional transformations, all actors are undergoing over the course of passing time or, in case of Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, literally growing up and becoming more conscious in front of the camera. The montage reflects, in a way, work of our human memory –Linklater deliberately avoided close-cuts, which would have emphasized passing between sequences, transition through the scenes seems natural, almost unnoticeable.

I have to admit, 3 hours in a cinema chair passed very quickly. I can agree with Guardian’s journalist Jonathan Freedland, who mentioned, that “Boyhood” gives a “chance to be immersed in the quiet business of everyday life”. It’s easy to empathize with Mason and his family, but there’s something missing in the whole picture. Universal characters, which make obvious choices, lack of depth and at the end resemble sketches, rather than three-dimensional figures. Sam, once keen on adventures, as teenager would rather chase after a boy at the party, than go camping with brother and dad. Olivia seems to repeat all the time the same patterns (getting involved with guys with psychological problems). Mason Sr. is, as a matter of fact, growing up along with his kids, but at the end it comes down to fulfilling the role of responsible, having regular, full-time job, second time happily married (to a women, whose deeply protestant parents gave a rifle to Mason Jr. for his 18 birthday) US-citizen.

I’ve been a bit confused by innumerable “pearls of wisdom”, which Paulo Coelho wouldn’t be ashamed of. Like: “I wish I could use the bumpers.” –asks few years old Mason Jr. in a bowling alley. “You don’t want to use bumpers. Life doesn’t give you bumpers” –responds Mason Sr. (much more to be found on regularly updated FB page of "Boyhood"). To think about Linklater's previous movies -when in directed few years earlier "Before sunset", Celine (Julie Delpy) bit affectedly remarks "Memories are wonderful things, if you don't have to deal with the past", she gets from Jesse (younger Ethan Hawke) "Can I put it in a bumpersticker?" in response. What a pity, that his sense of slightly ironical humour no longer comes to the fore.

At some point Linklater succeeded in representing the whole spectrum of experiences and emotions, that makes up teenager’s everyday life and managed to show beauty of its boredom, but “decisive moments” are strongly exaggerated and overloaded with unbearable amount of pompousness. As long as scene, when Mason Sr. is giving life advices to his son, while pissing on a camp fire made me laugh, dramatic overtone of Olivia’s “I just thought there would be more”, as Mason Jr. is leaving to college, truly annoyed me –it just exposes the emptiness of stereotypical mother figure, whose life revolves around kids. To be honest, I would be expecting a bit more from supposedly independent movie director, who, so far, created characters more eager to challenge the system rather than just passively adjust to it. Is this a sign that he “grew up” as well?

More about the movie: http://boyhoodmovie.tumblr.com/