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Berlinale 2015. Correspondences #8

Adam Cook writes on a new short film by João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata, and this year's Forum Expanded exhibition.

Dear Danny, 

I'm glad you speak of the small things that stand out, separate from the overall quality of a film. In a festival drowning with content, sometimes it's hard to remember the particular details that struck us, especially in the late-going where we find ourselves now. In Werner Herzog's Queen of the Desert, a film otherwise lacking the filmmaker's eccentric touches, a short sequence involving a vulture is the best in the entire picture. Known for his penchant for filming animals, and moreover, filming them with a strange, alien gaze, Herzog brilliantly stages a romantic scene between Nicole Kidman and James Franco. The couple are climbing a winding stairway to the top of a tower (which Franco's character describes as being a place where the dead are brought), and waiting for these whimsical lovers is an intimidating vulture chewing on hot, rotting flesh. The abrupt cut from their faces to the feasting creature is startling, and Herzog characteristically lets his fascinated camera dwell on what is in front of it. Cutting back to our heroes, Franco declares: "I want to kiss you," (eliciting laughter from the audience) before deciding that perhaps it may not be the best spot. They then flee the tower into the expanse of the desert abyss, a rare Herzog crane shot follows them, and frames them as foreign objects embraced by their sandy surroundings. It's a moment with a David Lean sense of spectacle, and displays Herzog at both his sweetest and most grandiose. At the time, I thought it to be a turning point for the film, but unfortunately Queen of the Desert soon returned to its entirely adventureless and dangerless state, making it all the more disappointing in the end.

I regret that I haven't been able to attend many short films this year. I don't discriminate between the lengths of films and often times the works made in short form can take more chances, and be just as, if not more, interesting than the features. Luckily, I have one such film to report on: a documentary called IEC LONG by Portuguese filmmakers João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata. The duo return to Macao, the setting of their recent films The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012) and Red Dawn (2011), and make what for me is their most creative work in the Chinese city once occupied by the Portuguese. The subject is the "Iec Long Firecracker Factory," one of several such factories that contributed to Macao's biggest industry of the first half of the 2oth century. Footage of lights and money gives way to extraordinary shots of a mass of firecrackers set off in the night. Long takes allow the excitement, noise, and beauty of the activity to dictate the film's mood. Then we visit the now abandoned factory, joined by a voiceover from an old man who once worked there as a child as he describes his experience and the working conditions:

“I first entered the Iec Long Firecracker Factory led by my father. Times were difficult and children had to help support their families. It was tradition, it was like that back then... And it still is in some regions of China. Some of us were only six years old... It was hard work... It was dangerous work, there were many explosions. There were lots of dead people, many of whom were children, and dozens were injured. Throughout the years, many people died... I lost many friends. Yes, these memories haunt me like ghosts.”

This is interspersed with black and white Super 8 footage of a young boy, the ghost of a child worker seemingly "haunting" the now desolate spaces of this factory. Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata skillfully (especially with the film's alternately abrasive and muted soundscape) evoke a lamenting tone for the exploited and underage labourers that populated Iec Long, as well as the countless people injured and even killed by accidents in this dangerous workplace. Structured in such a way that the film changes gears several times, engaging the viewer and asking of him or her to re-evaluate what they're watching, IEC LONG is moving, immersive, and surprising in a way that few films at this year's Berlinale were, and represents a new artistic direction for these directors, who prove they have much more to find in this singular setting.

Specific details from failures worth remembering, short films outweighing their lengthier counterparts, and now continuing along these alternative lines, I'll tell you about the Forum Expanded exhibition, held in the Akademie der Künste. In previous years, the exhibition has served as a highlight of the festival, not just the works contained therein but also for the unique spaces that housed them. Sadly, I was not as taken by either this time around. Myriad film and digital video works (many of which are quite long, and couldn't possibly all be watched in their entirety in even a less cluttered festival schedule!) awkwardly clash in the Akademie, with overlapping sounds working detrimentally against one another. One interesting piece on 16mm was unwatchable thanks to radiant sunlight glowing through conspicuously uncovered windows (or was this the point...?). I'm not entirely grumpy, as two works really struck me, and I'll stick to only mentioning those. Firstly: two shots from Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably (1977) alternate in an endless loop in Arthur Tuoto's Je proclame la destruction. The first shot is of a militant political speaker shouting out the words that form the piece's title. The second is of the film's protagonist (not) reacting in a crowd of activist young folk. Once you start watching, it's difficult to break out of this loop, even as a spectator. The shots mesmerize in their repetition which seem to temporally bend and flex concurrently with your evolving observations. The bold declaration of the speaker loses its meaning (if it ever had one to begin with) as you hear it over and over ad nauseam, and the cycle of speaker and listener seemingly trapped in their one-way discourse (and never freed to action beyond these frames) effectively articulates and emphasize a pre-existing notion in Bresson's film.



Secondly: Michael Snow's brilliant "three-dimensional sculpture" entitled Taut (2012) was even more striking. The piece takes place in an artificial classroom setting (pictured above in its Toronto installation) with desks, chairs, and a chalkboard which doubles as a screen that holds incredible photographs taken from the "Black Star Collection (archived at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto) of news photographs (demonstrations, rallies, riots, confrontations, etc.)." The photographs are displayed for varying lengths and then noticeably swapped out by hand. The shape of the "screen" distorts the photos, making it appear as though they squeeze in and out of their placement. Depending on where you stand, and where you fix your gaze, different geometrical juxtapositions of the projected image and the furniture/objects it drapes make for playful visual fun that stimulates the eye for probing these images which would make for fascinating material on their own.

I'm sorry to have missed The Pearl Button, your words make it sound like something I would have really appreciated. However, I must say that at this year's Berlinale I find myself more satisfied than I've ever been at a film festival. I don't think the programme is necessarily better than my previous years, but I'm willing to say I've gotten more adept at knowing what to attend and what to avoid. My stringent self-curation may not be such an accurate representation of the programming overall. Built with selections from the Competition, Forum, Forum Expanded, and Retro sections, my assembly of viewing choices reflect my taste more than any sort of curatorial vision from the Berlinale. What is the curatorial vision of Forum? Of Panoroma? I can't even say. An impression of identity is only softly felt in light of the excess of films and the seeming absence of thematic and stylistic ties binding them.

The more confident I am in my choices, though, the more I fear I may be taking less chances. What is the ideal viewer, the ideal critic, at a festival? What is my responsibility? Is it to seek pleasure where I'm most certain I'll find it, so I can report back and advocate for as much as possible, even if it may be predetermined or at least predictable? Perhaps I should be turning over more mysterious stones in my hunt for great cinema... But ultimately I think a happy critic is good (or at least "better") critic, and retreating to the 35mm prints in the retrospective is the most surefire way to ensure I'm just that. I'm excited to read about the rest of your discoveries and your pleasures, be they known or unknown. I hope to read your thoughts on films we've seen in the "Glorious Technicolor" program. I'll save my own for my next (possibly final?) entry, but for now I'm happy to just bask in my as of yet unarticulated devotion for a masterpiece by Delmer Daves that stands as my most treasured viewing at this year's Berlinale. I hope you too can tell me of such cinephilic highs!

Enthusiastically,
Adam 

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