Berlinale. Philip Scheffner's "Day of the Sparrow" Review

Berlinale 2010

I expected very much from Philip Scheffner’s new essay, particularly after his brilliant Halfmoon Files (2007).  A documentary filmmaker as well as video and sound artist, Scheffner is known (at least in Europe) for his precise and politically strong filmic reflections upon our contemporary world. Day of the Sparrow starts with an amazing shot of sparrows jumping from the bottom to the top of the frame like strange objects thrown by an invisible hand. Then starts the story of a famous Domino Sparrow. On one day of November 2005 the American press reported with noisy anger what had happened to an innocent sparrow, shot dead in the Dutch Hall of records:  the careless animal had destroyed with a single wing beat a patient construction of 23,000 dominos. A true crime: the one time only fall of the dominos was to be recorded for a famous TV show.  Scheffner sets out for a search for clues: on that same day of November 2005 died the 18th German soldier in Afghanistan.

Scheffner acts and films as a birdwatcher: patient, exacting, with an attention to movement and speed, and the spirit of a gentle yet committed  observer. His search takes him to the NATO bases in Germany and to German military operation centers, while letting us hear the voices of birdwatchers, ex-soldiers in Afghanistan, witnesses (like the “killer” of the Domino sparrow, threatened by more than a 1000 e-mails), amateur and professional pilots. No interviews, no talking heads, but a subtle combination of landscape, sound and voices. All seem to have long since understood how birds can be dangerous to planes, though planes occupy their skies, like an army of machines.

Pilots know how to “read” a landscape: as birds do, so also does the military. Landscape as strategy. Halfway through the film comes both a direct question and a negotiation: is Germany at war because of its presence in Afghanistan? Can the filmmaker obtain the permission to shoot in military compounds and bases? Reproducing his absurd yet significant phone conversations with German Army PR officers (who eventually denied all permissions to shoot), and listening to the voices of ex-soldiers, Scheffner creates a calm yet powerful contrast between idyllic landscapes and the reality of foreign politics. Then comes a final episode: three friends of the filmmaker are arrested by the police because of their activism against the intervention in Afghanistan; they are condemned to prison after a long process. They are all birdwatchers and pacifists.

Scheffner’s film is part of what could be called a tradition. A German way to make documentaries that takes from philosophical essays and beliefs in filmic expressiveness rather than in the fake didactics of TV programs. In Scheffner’s case, the framing is the key: long takes where the “event” is never at the center of the frame, except if the “moving creature” is a bird, but on the right side of it; therefore inserting each small and precious action into the reality where it happens, making it a true dramatic event that breaks all appearances (of calm, of banality, of contemplation).  When filming from planes or observing landscapes, the filmmaker composes living maps of “Germany at war” when completed by the soundtrack. The day of the sparrow, when a soldier died for unclear causes and unexplained policies, is also the day when a question came to one’s mind: how can war and peace can be seen through cinema. Not exhibited, not told, not staged nor demonstrated, but simply seen. Felt, understood, thought upon.

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