Berlinale 2020: Art Expands the View

Films in this year's Berlinale Forum and Encounters sections borrowed from the visual arts to expand their narrative possibilities.
Ela Bittencourt
Above: Light in the Tropics
One moment in Paula Gaitán’s seventh feature, Light in the Tropics, which premiered in Berlin in the Forum section, contains a visual key to the entire work. It’s an inverted image of the vast landmass, created by the camera obscura. Gaitán’s ambitious project draws not so much on literal parallels as loose continuities between the environs of contemporary New York and the Hudson Valley and Brazil’s Mato Grosso, including Pantanal, and up the Xingu River, into the Amazon. That continuity between two vastly distant locations is established mostly through the experiences of the areas’ indigenous communities. It’s also a connection that envisions a symbolic line leading from today’s artists—particularly a young sculptor featured in the New York part—to the expedition by the Russo-Prussian doctor, Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, and his artsy stragglers, into the Amazon, in 1824. The varied group included the Swiss-French inventor, Hércules Florence, who discovered photography independently, three years before Daguerre.
Gaitán shot a Kamaiuará village in 1988, for her splendid 16mm film, Uaká. This time, partly amidst Kuikuro indigenous people, she submerses us not just in the region’s flora and heat but foremost its sounds. Gaitán, who has repeatedly explored music, from a clip of the popular Brazilian singer Elza Soares, to a hybrid film, Subtle Interferences (2016), which explores the work of the American experimental composer Arto Lindsay, creates an elaborate soundscape, with the help of sound designer Tiago Bello, that beautifully conveys how the sounds of nature lend themselves to classical music. The swamp is a site of multiple revelations—and for Gaitán, through her own experiences of the Xingu, of illumination. But in the key image of a photographic camera, we also glimpse Gaitán’s stylistic concept. Her film is a series of overlaying tableaux, rather than a progression of narrative blocks. It is a radical structure more akin to visual arts than to narrative cinema, a form that aptly places it in Berlinale Forum’s programming—the last screening of Gaitán’s film, in fact, closed out the Forum section.
Above: Isabella
To a lesser extent, such structural remix is also present in Isabella, the new venture from the prolific Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro that, while fragile in places, points to an exciting new direction. Piñeiro has been devotedly bringing Shakespeare’s plays to the screen, filtering them through his unique, discursive style. In most cases, Piñeiro’s Buenos Aires friends—though lately, some also moved to Berlin and New York—gather to enact the plays. Meanwhile, the texts also open up correspondences with the protagonists’ lives, particularly, endless amorous entanglements, questions of gender, power, and artistic production, so present in the bard’s oeuvre.
This formula is largely unaltered in Isabella, which premiered in Berlin in the Encounters competition. The pregnant Mariel (the always refreshing María Villar) finds herself in financial straits, having to ask her aloof brother, Miguel (Pablo Sigal) for a loan. Meanwhile, Mariel has a chance to audition for the part of Isabella, in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and starts to rehearse with her actor-friend, Luciana (Agustina Muñoz). The Shakespearean play touches upon the questions of compassion, and of loyalty and love, despite moral disapprobation. In a parallel vein, Mariel herself must negotiate her complex feelings towards her brother, her fears of rejection, and later, her sense that she’s been betrayed by Luciana (who winds up getting the part). The narrative unravels rather quickly, and in the complex scenario Luciana and Mariel are eventually reunited, once again offering each other a second chance—at creation, and friendship.
But underneath this plot, Piñeiro introduces a new, exciting element—that of color, as a subjective element, which carries emotional and psychological weight and associations. What do colors make us feel, and exactly how do they induce such feelings? It’s a worthy question, and many, from Byzantine painters to Goethe and to then conceptual artists, have considered it. Piñeiro breaks up parts of Isabella by ever-changing panels of color, some vaguely reminiscent of the rigorous monochromatic experiments of the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. In other parts, however, color is more decorative, as it often the case with, let’s say, Pedro Almodóvar, and a sensual rather than cerebral pleasure. And although Mariel is an artist—we see her painting rocks and installing a light-piece with color variances—there is no conceptual engagement with color throughout, which one might expect, either from Mariel herself or from Piñeiro, as the artist behind the scenes. It may be that, in this first reiteration, the narrative framework overpowers the experimental gesture, still to emerge in subsequent works.
Kill It and Leave This Town
Above: Kill It and Leave This Town
Color and line are the organizing principle of the deeply affecting experimental animation, Kill It and Leave This Town, by the Polish animator Mateusz Wilczyński, which also premiered in Encounters. Though in this case the experiment doesn’t lie in the narrative mode—unlike Gaitán’s bricolage and Piñeiro’s fragmentation, Wilczyński’s telling unravels in a fairly conventional way, as a story of one protagonist’s regrets over not caring for his mother, against a backdrop of his alienating city (Łódź). Yet Wilczyński’s method—his gestural lines and sketches—are themselves fragmented, suggestive and fluid. His animation has the rawness of George Grosz’s inter-war grotesques, severe yet, at times, bawdy, often revealing gaps, showing cardboard, cracks, swaths of blank paper, in a state of permanent disintegration. In Kill It and Leave This Town, the achy magical-realism of Marc Chagall meets the adult edge of William Kentridge.
A conceptual framework, albeit purposefully unwieldy, also governs Orphea, a new feature by the German filmmaker and writer Alexander Kluge and the Filipino poet and prolific digital filmmaker Khavn De La Cruz, which knocks about parts of colonial and modern history - particularly Nazism and world wars - with a scrappy ferociousness of Bertolt Brecht. Although the remix is not always to clear philosophical effects, and without substantive exploration of the Philippines’ occupation during WWI. Kluge and Cruz reimagine the ancient myth, with Orpheus metamorphosed into a blond, waifish female rocker Orphea Jesus (Lilith Stangenberg), and Eurydice into a male Filipino muse. Kluge and Cruz focus almost all their attention on Orphea, who, in her quest for her beloved, braves a multi-space obstacle course that looks like she’s trapped inside a cluttered video game rather than on actual locations. Kluge and Cruz use the methods of remix, collage, and installation—distorting planes, overlaying screens—more common to the visual arts, while some of Orphea’s frequent interludes have her performing atonal operettas. One might call Orphea a loud, hell-bent, digressive mess, but it’s by far the most radically satisfying one, and the freshest, I’ve seen this year at Berlinale. Whereas quite a few seasoned auteurs, such Abel Ferrara, Philippe Garrel, and Christian Petzold, have made this year’s line-up seem a bit weary, in places dangerously bloated with stodgy ideas, Kluge and Cruz keep their curio madcap framework light, and run with it—at times, faster than we can keep up.


Paula GaitánMatías PiñeiroMateusz WilczyńskiAlexander KlugeKhavn de La CruzFestival CoverageBerlinaleBerlinale 2020
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