Berlinale 2020: Political Landscapes

Three incisive landscape documentaries about collaboration with a dictatorship, coal power plants, and the scattering of the Berlin Wall.
Daniel Kasman
Three key films at the Berlinale take the form of landscape documentaries made in the Americas, and as such make the unavoidable point that you cannot film the land without engaging in a nation’s politics. This is most clear in the direct accusation made by Jonathan Perel’s vividly unsettling Corporate Accountability. The director films through his car window the exteriors of various companies, flourishing or defunct, across Argentina that had deep ties to the country’s dictatorship. As we watch the images of company plants, gates, and signage, all seemingly shot in the dusk or dawn, with a sinister, insomniac color palette and framing that suggest an imminent need to flee the scene, we hear Perel in voiceover recount details from a report put together by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights.
His voice tells us of union repression, military collaboration, torture, and disappearances. The term “victims of crimes against humanity” is repeated often, always with numerous counts. Likewise repeated is how in exchange for such collaboration, the companies variously saw reduction of workforce, the advantageous movement of debt from the private sector to the government, and increased profits during the dictatorship. Each scene starts with a corporate logo, followed by a unsteady, several-minute-long shot of a company exterior and a title card of the location. Each shot is accompanied by details that are presumably researched and factual, but whose specifics quickly get overwhelming, especially in their similarity, and blur into a gestalt sense of complicity. (Though the report states that the term complicity does not suggest the depth of collaboration.) Soon, we catch on: In this film, a shot of a company means culpability. Another scene means another guilty party. Perel’s evocative film suggests that direct accusation is either impossible or would be futile, and this clandestine cinematic approach is all that may be available. It does indeed seem futile in the face of the blank monumentality of these companies’ public presence, a continuous and scarless facade behind which is implied extreme depths of betrayal and denial.
While Corporate Accountability cleverly resembles a compendium of surveillance footage—a mash-up of amateur detective work and official reports—Lynne Siefert in her debut feature Generations follows a track more familiar to the art-house: The stoic, minimalist landscape work of James Benning. (The great American structuralist is also premiering a film in the same Forum sidebar.) Shot on 16mm, Generations is made up of thirteen single shots of coal power plants across the United States. No commentary is provided and the locations—including commissioning date, operators and owners—are not disclosed until the credits. Contemplation is the purpose here, rather than Perel’s curdling glare; this is a more benign approach to filming the land, but based on this work Siefert has a great eye for compositional harmony and color serenity, which makes for a paradoxically relaxed experience of observing the terrifying domination these hulking plants have over the frame and the surrounding landscape.
The coal plants dwarf the humans and their petty activities nearby, like swimming and golfing, as superfluous when compared to the mighty scale of the buildings. People and their homes are so small and seemingly so unaware of the power plants that they appear as if mirages, seen by us distant observers but invisible to those nearby. The plants subsume the image and the landscape. Where their power goes is kept mostly out of the frame; we are subjected to the presence of power generation rather than its effect. Questions of environmental impact are here purely the domain of aesthetics—the immense scale Siefer conjures and how it interacts with what remains in the image through her framing—and of whatever substance might be spewing from various powers, steam or poison. The celluloid the film is shot on is keeping with the film’s project of paying subtly critical homage to these goliaths; all commissioned between the 1950s and 1980s, their age and in many instances obsolescence is well-tuned to the old school warmth and grain of the 16mm. (Several plants are noted as being decommissioned in 2019, presumably during the film’s production.) To shoot such a topic digitally, as Benning did in Ruhr (2009) would be to render something old new; Siefert goes the other way, underscoring her subject’s lack of a future—and perhaps that of the landscape—by enshrining it in the beauty of film.
The American Sector
Another film that uses celluloid to match the age of its subject is The American Sector, by Courtney Stephens and Pacho Velez (the latter of which co-directed the Sensory Ethnography Lab documentary Manakamana). Like Siefert, these two rove around America looking at monuments: in this case, the bizarre phenomenon that parts of the Berlin Wall are being displayed in locations ranging from a private home in the Hollywood hills and a subway station in Chicago, to a family-owned restaurant, a Miami street corner, the United Nations, and in the George H.W. Bush Presidential library, among many other eclectic appearances.
Hunting them down, filming the monuments as they exist now and in their frequently anomalous surroundings, and sometimes talking to tour guides, owners, or random passers-by, The American Sector captures the material legacy of history dispersed and appropriated. Some guardians or visitors to the wall know the history and import well; others, like two students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, aren’t familiar and in fact are suspicious of the display seemingly so irrelevant to their campus life. We see old values as well as new meanings and contexts laid upon the reinforced concrete—their symbolic value representing “freedom” is frequently cited. Not nearly as rigorous (or stripped bare) as Corporate Accountability or Generations, or for that matter, Manakamana, this documentary takes the scouting or reconnoitering quality of the Argentine film further, cross-blending environmental study with tourism and even historical exposition by visiting museums and through home videos lent by a happenstance interview. While Perel and Siefert’s films point their keen eyes on purely local phenomena, The American Sector serves as a wry and roving survey of the way Americans view the world outside their national boundaries.

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Festival CoverageBerlinaleBerlinale 2020Jonathan PerelLynne SiefertCourtney StephensPacho Velez
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