A thematic line running through many of the films in this year’s International Short Film Festival Oberhausen is the inherent materiality of cinema: the objects and bodies immortalized by the act of filmmaking, a desperate yet hubristic gesture which is, as Tarkovsky put it, a “harrowing preparation for death.” The ephemeral is celebrated in film—gestures, moments, glances, events—but to film life is to film death too. And this act of immortalization, the immortalizing of the image through filming (temporarily at least, before the bits and bytes dissipate before the cellulose faces, before the hard drives fail and the DCPs become unreadable) preserves the material world like naturalist specimens in tinted formaldehyde.
Bodies are filmed; objects, animals, organs, light and texture. Yet no matter how much of the inner world is stripped away, this cinema of matter only urges the creation of spiritual link to the eternal through the manifestation of the physical.
This link between a material nature and mystical path is simply put, a recognition of our mortality. Ubi Sunt (Salomé Lamas), shown in the International Competition, borrows its title from the Latin meditation on mortality: Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt? ("Where are those who were before us?"). Indeed, where? And here the question is double in this documentary about incarcerated youth—quite literally, where have these prisoners disappeared to?
A female interviewer bluntly questions off-screen the youthful detainees: “Do you regret? Will you change? Why did you do it?” Disparate dispassionate voices of adolescents resigned to their fate answer, the sounds overlaid by an oddly composed mannerist image: two mirrored figures in chairs (interviewer and interviewee?) sitting across from one another in a darkened room with floating balls of algae in lieu of heads, almost as if the absurdist spheres of squishy sea-matter could once again renew our ability to listen to that which we think we have already heard.
The combination of dispassionate voice with constructed image is a technical attempt to confound the cheap pathos so often exploited in social documentary, a technique to avoid the conundrum of self-righteousness through pity. The film is compassionate without seeking to be charitable—charity establishing an imbalanced relationship of power between filmmaker and pitiable subjects—whose foundation is a faith in being better than those who are incarcerated. By doing so, Ubi Sunt skirts the pitfall of literal documentary films which attempt to take an activist perspective on the incarcerated.
The prison of these kids (never shown) is as metaphorical as it is real. In Christian theology, prison has always been a metaphor for life on this world, the liberation thereof is the purpose of life’s work. The quirky mannerist images that accompany the speaking voices—the strange figure interviewing itself, the body buried under sand on the beach upon which a bouquet of white lilies emerges as dusk falls—hint towards an otherworldly existence: the passing of the body from this world to the next, a metaphor perhaps of the hope to escape from their literal incarceration
The body is a cage, to quote the Arcade Fire, and yes, one in which death is inherently contained. Sandro Aguilar’s cinema, showcased in this year’s Oberhausen, manifests a macabre fascination with death centering around the human body worthy of the romantic English poets. The flesh on display is a part of Aguilar’s cabinet of curiosities comprised of macabre objects and life-forms traditional to these chambers: insects, fish, jellyfish dragonflies, formaldehyde organs, dripping water—all signs of Vanitas borrowed from a painterly tradition of still life, all shot under glass, in close-up, vistaless and in excruciating detail. By observing from so close the material qualities of death are emphasized, the pores and cracks and imperfections are revealed, and the fragile and ephemeral existence of matter is exposed. Mortality resides in the macro.
The carefully composed soundtracks of Sandro Aguilar’s films are made up of disturbances, drones, drippings, industrial gratings, bodily rubbings, and the flapping of a dying fish’s tail on an aluminum table. Each sound is an isolated element of rawness (one can almost see the individual tracks interweaving) as if they too were preserved in formaldehyde, like aural specimens.
Gritty, grainy, dark, humid, his camera ceaselessly looks at these material markers of time, of which the body and its mortality is the strongest. Sandro Aguilar’s cinema is entrenched in the material, in the textural, yet there is a lack of mass. Very much like a cabinet of curiosities his films are fascinating and grotesque collections of singular elements in which death is ever-present, but how does it affect us? In his stylized celebrations or perhaps obsessions with objects, the insufficiency of the material is eluded. It is all brutish texture and guts, dirt and teeth, overdone with the serious, a collection which is just an ensemble of diverse parts.
In Qui (“Late Summer”, Cui Yi), the winner of the International Competition, mortality is indicated not by material signs of death but by the circularity of time. The film begins and ends with the setting of plates, the refilling of the dishes for the audience in an old Beijing theater. The entirety of the performance is condensed in ten minutes in a single a full frontal one-shot. Everything, from the title of the film, through the theatrical event itself, to the generational spread of the spectators (parents, children grandparents) embeds the film in the cyclical. Nothing that happens is singular, and all events return time and again—essentially a ritual. And like all rituals, the theater event here depicted does away with the individual to privilege a practice. Lives come and go, but the summer theater continues for eternity, the continuity of the act beyond a single generation or generations. The time of culture is circular and not linear, even if the temporality of the individual is but a straight line towards the grave.
And it is this voyage to the grave (and its memory) that Unfinished Business (Bojan Fajfric) alludes to, in a portrait of an artist who dies of a stroke in his final moments while attempting to put in order his life’s work, a valiant folly at best. In showing the aging artist in the pleasure and vigor of his ripe old age, with a mind alive we see him catalogue his life’s work, how much more bitter is his end and his frailty as he crawls across the paint-stained floor of his studio.
Images of his death and work, memories his wife and grandchild are interrupted by interludes by an equally ancient drummer snapping away at a snare with a nimbleness that would shame drummers 50 years younger.
In his dying throes all that was vital becomes brutal, all that was beautiful and strong turns ugly and weak. The old artist crawls across the stains on the floor which are the mark of accumulation of a life’s work, dragging his body across the frame, helpless yet still alive, on his way out form the world as we all shall be.
We prepare for death in making art, in cataloguing our lives, in resisting and ignoring, but whatever it is, death is always beyond the horizon of comprehension, an unexplorable region, which can only be breached by stories in the world of the living.
How to Reach God Through Proper Exercising
Death cannot be explained, or elucidated, but maybe it can be hinted at through metaphor, as is done (tongue in cheek at times) in How to Reach God Through Proper Exercising (Gabriel Herrera Torres), also in the International Competition. The film takes places in a sports center for adults, and the camera is set up as a half-accidental witness, waiting for its characters who never really center themselves in the frame, content to move among the world already prepared for them.
In the opening shot a dozen figures crisscross a football field at night with flashlights in hands—a concerted search for something, but what?
It is never clear in this metaphysical mystery, in which a man tells a dream about not being able to tell the difference between his daughter and others because he has become colorblind, and cannot differentiate the red VCR that represents his daughter in a dream from the green ones. His story evolves, becomes a meme, passed from mouth to ear of the middle-aged men on this amateur basketball team—passed from mind to mind with small alterations like a game of telephone, until it ends recursively, in the dream itself, in which the original storyteller cannot recognize the difference between two uniforms he is handed, red and green. When he realizes that the dream he thought he had dreamt is the moment itself, it begs the question: what is the dream?
In the closing image, as the medley of figures continue their search into the night, each one running along in a random pattern across the illuminated pitch, with clarity it dawns upon us that although we may live together, when we die it is always alone. And life might be compared to an exercise, one which serves no purpose other than the exercising itself.