The Frames of Representation (FoR) film festival, celebrating its third edition this year at the end of April at London’s Institute for Contemporary Art, is chiefly concerned in showcasing new works of independent cinema that operate within a field of seeming polarities: between fiction and non-fiction, the real and the imagined, the periphery and the center. They are films that exist at the edges of documentary and fiction—that murky territory where one form bleeds into the other, thus opening up spaces that are both aesthetic and political by posing questions about the practices of representation. This year the festival is framed by its theme ‘Landscape,’ a fruitful topic capable of activating multiple meanings and for being perennially relevant: after all, we all live bounded by landscapes. They are the air we breathe, the houses we live in, the neighborhoods, cities and countries we call home. Landscape, in this sense, is both a collective and personally produced space where past historical and individual conflicts continuously play themselves out, with cinema becoming an instrument used to explore these sites of tension in a rich variety of ways.
Portuguese filmmaker Salomé Lamas returns for the second time to FoR with her new essay film Extinction, an oneiric and moody black-and-white travelogue across the political borders of south Eastern Europe, that elusive appellation whose borders have seen seismic shifts throughout the past century. The protagonist of the journey is a young man named Kolya, a loyal citizen of Transnistria, also the narrative locus of the film. A communist state that broke away from Moldova in an armed conflict in 1990, Transnistria has remained an unrecognized territory by the international community, including the United Nations. You won’t find it on any maps, nor mentioned in any history books. Effectively, it is a country that doesn’t exist. Accompanied by the film crew, Kolya for the first time navigates across the troubled borders between Transnistria, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine and Bulgaria, passing through onerous checkpoints, braving bureaucratic stringencies, encountering different states of mind. “I don’t have an easy relationship with borders,” claims an unidentified female voiceover—a kind of inner voice of Kolya—and neither do the filmmakers. Relying on a lean degree of artifice, the film includes several staged encounters between Kolya and actors declaiming speeches on USSR history: the gulag camps in Siberia, the famine in Ukraine under Stalin, the eventual dissolution of the republic and the problematic spawning of new nation states. The image that emerges out of this Sebaldian wander through memory is a landscape of collapsed histories, peripheral border wars, zones of surveillance and paranoia bearing out traces of the failed Soviet Union. The film is full of creepy crackled voices and hisses over feedback that imitate the sound of illicit listening in, eavesdropping on conversations that we shouldn’t be hearing—conspiratorial soundscapes about Putin, Russian, the KGB, troops in the Crimea. One of the most memorable moments in the film is when Kolya visits a derelict communist monument atop an isolated peak in Bulgaria. The monument, a UFO-like concrete piece of failed architecture, hovers outlandishly above the landscape like a haunting apparition from the past, a physical manifestation of the trauma of the region. Kolya wanders its decaying damp interior, with its murals of communist iconography peeling away, to the soundtrack of dissonantly eerie opera music. It is in dreamlike, patently stylized sequences such as these that Extinction works most effectively as a meditation on the ground zeros of history.
Established artist Xu Bing turns to cinema with his debut feature Dragonfly Eyes, a narrative ingeniously pieced together exclusively from surveillance footage throughout China. While the tale itself contrived from the footage is a somewhat floundering melodrama about the troubled romance between two people, Quing Ting and Ka Fe, with familiar critiques on violence, status, and celebrity culture, the brilliance of this film lies in its form. With different strangers ‘cast’ to play the same characters, Xu creates entire scenes by selecting and collating snippets of disparate footage recorded across time and sculpting them into cohesive sequences. Slowly emerges a supra-landscape of total surveillance where every waking moment is recorded, time-coded, and catalogued. Contemporary life becomes a terrain unprotected from the gazing eye. These cameras, already adept in the visual vocabulary of storytelling, placed high above us, are performing cinema, voyeurs continuously transforming what they record. The familiar becomes suddenly strange and uncanny when viewed on a surveillance screen and lifted from context: a banal shot of a street at night becomes a site of threat, or a shot out of the front window of a vehicle from a GPS camera becomes a part of a car chase.
An altogether different geography may or may not be under surveillance in Braguino, directed by Clément Cogitore. Images of blurry lo-fi video footage of people in a forest, possibly being spied upon, the sporadic drone of static while a man describes a dream in Russian: mysterious, unsettling. Then the spectral appearance of the shadow of a helicopter over a drift of clouds; the clouds recede to reveal the vast expanse of the taiga in a sea of pines. So goes the enigmatic opening of the film set in the hinterlands of Eastern Siberia, revolving around the titular Braguino family and their embroiling feud with the neighboring Kilines family on opposite banks of a river—both members of a sect of the Russian Orthodox Church, who have been living there isolated from society and the law for over 40 years. Sasha, the patriarch of the bunch, is a lanky shaggy haired woodsman, with a missing front tooth; yet a face born out of the place, his hands as knotted and calloused as the landscape. The taiga is beautiful; it breathes and is as inextricably present as the desert is in a John Ford film. Together with his family Sasha has created an idyll, living an ecologically sustainable existence off the land, until encroaching poachers from ‘the city,’ whom he believes to be allied to the Kilines, threaten his community. Soon he begins to suspect the Kilines of spying on his family using computer transmitters, as well as poisoning the dogs. Paranoia permeates the atmosphere; helicopters appear in the sky turning the space into a site of fear and tension, with the forest populated by a lurking invisible enemy. Existing along the lines of documentary and drama, Cogitore’s obvious intimacy and closeness to the family brings to mind the work of Italian filmmaker Roberto Minervini, whose own quasi-documentary/fiction work with fringe religious communities in Texas, has invigorated the docu-drama genre. At times the camera feels like an anthropological eye hovering unobtrusively in the background, for example, in one long sequence where Sasha and his son shoot a bear and then proceed to methodically dismember it. But Cogitore pushes hard on the side of drama, especially using sound and music to craft deep pools of suspense and unease. Many times the camera catches furtive glimpses of the Kilines family across the river, their children staring back at us in a kind of Western style showdown. We are never really sure how much of the threat from the other side is real, or how much has been manufactured by the tools of cinema.
Another documentary about a family on the margins of society is Rosa Hannah Ziegler’s Familienleben (Family Life), an up-close portrait of a dysfunctional family living on a dilapidated farm in the outback of Saxony-Anhalt in East Germany. The family is the mother Biggi, her two teenage daughters Saskia and Denise, who’ve been in and out of childcare, and her temperamental ex-husband Alfred. Together, the four, along with their dogs and horses, form a self-isolating nucleus flawed from the moment we first see them: painterly dawn shots of the environs around their farm give way abruptly to a heated argument between Alfred and Biggi, with the camera kept at a safe unassuming distance. And it is in the insistence on sustaining that distance throughout that we are able to fill that space with a deeper and emphatic understanding for these clearly flawed people. Slowly we adapt to the rhythm of their life on the farm, observing each character in their performance of daily tasks: from farm work to texting. Each of the four of them seems to occupy their own pocketed space sealed off from the rest. Again, the same type of closeness between subject and filmmaker along with a seeming authenticity is at play here that we find in Minervini’s work. Alfred, emotionally and as we later find out physically abusive, wants to transform their land into a Wild West town; he sports a straw cowboy hat to show for it. He dreams of an imaginary landscape, while Biggi just wants to provide a suitable and stable place for her children with what they have. Neither seems possible since the house they live in, along with the empty shell of a barn are more like arenas wherein they fight out their emotional battles rather than potential sites of reconciliation.