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Berlinale 2019: Documenting Change

Heinz Emigholz charts the destruction and construction of a museum and Delphine Seyrig & Carole Roussopoulos pioneer feminist video-making.
Delphine and Carole
Alongside Angela Schanelec's I Was at Home, But..., the Berlinale is premiering new work by another stalwart practitioner of a highly individual film language. German filmmaker Heinz Emigholz has made what seems to be the final entry in his long-running, multi-film series of documentaries devoted to architecture, which has included such films as Sullivan’s Banks (2000) and Perret in France and Algeria (2012). (MUBI presented a retrospective of some of these films last winter.) Part of a greatly ambitious, international, multi-architect project of cinematic surveys, Emigholz’s beautiful new film, Years of Construction, is a gesture of powerful summary for the series, as it charts the destruction of a building and the creation of a new one.
Commissioned by Kunsthalle Mannheim for this purpose, we get to see this through Emigholz’s characteristic gaze: no voiceover or text explanation, and favoring still shots on tripods that fleetly move from composition to composition, sound to sound, to give a sense of space and form, and where both exist in time and the surroundings. First we explore the building as it is in 2014—the 1909 original and 1983 extension—and then watch the 2015 destruction of the newer building, followed by several years of the construction, culminating in Emigholz and his camera returning to explore the exterior and interior of a new edifice that inhabited the same space we experienced years in the past mere minutes ago. The effect, as is common in the director’s architecture films, is tranquil and hypnotic, though neither without its violence in composition or juxtaposition nor without a touch of humor. Above all, the thrill of the film, if I may describe so tranquil a film as thrilling, is the grandeur of a camera roving a space in time again and again through the years, and in so doing, through editing, itself constructing an architecture of cinematic space. We build the building in our mind’s eye, shot by shot, then see it taken apart in the same way, then build from fragments and scaffolds discernible, usable space, and the finally repeat the mental construction anew again with the final (for now) new museum. Not only a record of literal architecture, Years of Construction is also a film of marvelous psycho-geography, using the confluence between the two-dimensional cinema screen and the audience’s experience as a worksite at which to dismantle and reconfigure the world.
A more straightforward but no less powerful documentary presented at the festival is Delphine and Carole, a portrait by Callisto McNulty of the collaboration between Swiss video artist Carole Roussopoulos and the iconic art-house actress Delphine Seyrig. This new film is being shown at the festival at a time of an institutional effort here as elsewhere to bring long overdue attention to the work in cinema produced by women, including the retrospective at the festival of German films directed by women between 1968 and 1999. Delphine and Carole is likewise accompanied by two films made as part of Roussopoulos and Seyrig’s collaboration, Be Pretty and Shut Up! (1976), directed by Delphine and shot and edited by Carole, S.C.U.M. Manifesto 1967 (1976) directed by them both, and Maso and Miso Go Boating (1976), directed by the Les Insoumuses collective including the two women.
Best known for her roles in Last Year in Marienbad and Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, Seyrig met Roussopoulos in the early 1970s at a class on video making that the director was teaching. A pioneer of French filmmaking on video (supposedly she bought the second-ever video camera in France; Jean-Luc Godard bought the first), Roussopoulos practiced and taught a use of the new technology—highly mobile, cheaper to use, and with a more direct relationship between maker and subject—that was activist and political in nature. In their collaboration, she and Seyrig made essential and interventionist videos during the height of second-wave feminism in France, documenting protests and rallies as well as critiquing television broadcasts, politicians, and the status quo.
McNulty pays eager and infectious homage to the two women in her portrait, which is a mix of direct interviews with Roussopoulos, who died in 2009, explaining her history with video and her experience working with Seyrig, and of archival interviews of Seyrig, mostly from French television, where she is confronted for her public feminism and very ably justifies her stance and expands upon her opinions. Mixed between are clips from Seyrig’s films, especially those working with female directors, and wonderfully forceful, angry and playful footage from the videos she and Roussopoulos made together. (One essential clip is of a conversation between Seyrig and three directors she worked with, Marguerite Duras, Liliane de Kermadec, and a baby-faced Chantal Akerman.) This documentary not only introduces and contextualizes the under-known but crucial creative and political contributions made by two immensely talented women in the field of video, but most essentially the film is also inspiration for the power of cinema, and particularly how cheap, mobile and flexible filmmaking—video then, digital now—can be used as an expressive tool for advocacy, documentary and change.

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