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Rotterdam 2010: Inside Their Heads

Films by John Torres, Abel García Roure, and Vladimir Perisic.

One of the last films I caught at Rotterdam was one I wish I had caught first: John Torres's hallucinatory Refrains Happen Like Revolutions in a Song.  Fall asleep after a late night talking and reading Philippine history and myth, thinking about pretty girls, the languor of the countryside, and why on earth digital photography has to look so damn crisp, and your mind, jumbling with half-ideas and partial suggestions, the conclusions of which are lost in nocturnal miasma, might dream up something like Refrains. A young woman wanders  through the film, uniting disparate footage, melding what looks like travelogue diary records by the filmmaker with cryptic re-enactments of both fictionalized Philippine myths and fictionalized Philippine history, edited as dreams-within-dreams, history-within-the-present, myths-within-history, history-within-dreams, and so on, a cinematic take on Escher-Borges-Resnais if, again, the result was dreamed or hallucinated rather than thought-out, detailed, recorded, and strictly constructed.  Need I mention, too, that the movie is pure tedium and purely gorgeous?  Torres shoots in smudgy, flat, low resolution digital video, in long, minutely wandering takes.  I wish he used a tripod more often to anchor the frame's jitter, but it is impossible to ignore the startling, earthy and humid look to the picture, extending to an extreme degree, in collusion with wandering, presumably improvised dialog scenes (many of which, apparently, are in a language Torres doesn't speak and have been subtitled with text unrelated to the conversations, creating another splintering dream element to the story) holds the viewer in a limbo at once anchored to Refrains's pictorially tactile Philippine islands and floating in the video's cobweb-head story flow.

While the Torres video was a testament to the alternate worlds cinema can create, Abel García Roure pursues the alternate worlds the mind can make.  What begins as a documentary a psychiatric ward in Barcelona takes an unusual and unexpectedly philosophical turn in A Certain Truth, which played in the Rotterdam sidebar dedicated to the film program of the Pompeu Fabra University.  As Roure’s camera covers patients, doctors, and the facility, it is gradually drawn to one Alberto, a schizophrenic who has been successfully treated enough to allow him to live at home, where a social worker has to check up on him to make sure his medication is working and that Alberto will continue to get psychiatric checkups at the hospital.  At first these visits seem routine—Roure expanding the range of both the schizophrenic patient and treatment facilities outside of the hospital walls.  But soon Alberto, who has an unique ability to normalize his paranoid alternative worldview, discussing it calmly and rationally, begins to become distrustful of his treatment.  He draws his social worker into extended debates on what is causing his schizophrenia and what bad or good effects his treatment has.  The catch is that the social worker’s institutional explanation sounds just as conspiracy-like and fallacious as Alberto’s schizophrenic interpretation is if we didn’t give science and social institutions the benefit of the doubt.  Roure stages all this without voiceover or explanations, letting develop a conversational battle contesting two fundamentally different but superficially similar interpretations of the way the world around us functions.  By letting Alberto explain himself, hold his own, develop his character and his philosophy and then letting it become the focus of the film, A Certain Truth does more than explore schizophrenia, it reveals and questions the way people are able to share the same world inside and outside their heads, and with that sharing communicate and live comfortably—or uncomfortably, even violently so—by themselves and with each other.

The legacy of cinematically stripping away and abstracting the most violent and tumultuous national history has continued strong after Kiju Yoshida's Coup d’état, including, for example, Aleksandr Sokurov's films on Lenin, Hitler, and Emperor Hirohito.  Yet both Yoshida and Sokurov detail the fog of war that exists beyond empowered individuals in their country's history.  Vladimir Perisic's similarly historically minimalist Ordinary People, as the title implies, focuses on the average individual.  As such, we get less of an echo chamber than those filmmakers' claustrophobic visions, and something closer to the subtle precision, quiet grandeur, and false humility but earnest modesty of the aesthetics of Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso.  Perisic's debut film, which presumably takes place during the Yugoslavian war, bares evidence less to historical eventfulness or context—what is going on where and why during this conflict—and even less to characterizing a near-mystical interiority of its quiet protagonist (a quality shared by Yoshida-Sokurov).  Both history and the moral behavior of its participants is, in Ordinary People, treated as studies of vacant places and fleshy, obedient bodies in sectioned off, but always continuous spaces.

It is always interesting how something so specific as cinematography, which very rarely can deny that something photographed is that thing photographed, can, in the recording of simple elements, details, render greater things, overviews, stories, totalities, abstract and cryptic.  In Ordinary People, a small squad of soldiers is taken to an isolated and abandoned complex deep in the Yugoslav countryside to perform the executions of anonymous civilians who are bused in under guard throughout a hot day.  The only hint of an outside world or the status of anything is a radio broadcast talking of martial law and winning a fight with the terrorists, which plays out over the long foresty bus ride the soldiers take away from their anonymous barrack routine to what quickly becomes an equally routine day, as executioners.  Realism of the photographed is not realism of the scenario; for as much as we notice the way light plays over faces, or the way someone smokes, Perisic specifically abstains from details of military realism—note the soldiers' lack of equipment and their C.O.'s look of genre cliché rebel leader—and an absence of story realism—dead bodies are left in a field but new victims never notice them; no victims attempt to plead, struggle, or escape—all suggesting a simplified and allegorical approach.

The focus is on a new, innocent enlistee who first rebels against the order to kill and then predictably becomes enthused.  The clean, focused attention to the delineated geometry but abandoned feel of the film world, Perisic's appreciative respect for his actor's face, and the stripped, contextless nature of Ordinary People suggests a continued number of directions the film could take, spatially, violently, ideologically, morally, psychologically, cinematically—any direction really, as the scenario is a starting node on a map, the style and introduction to an idea.  Yet the film never seems interested in the possible complex nuances around every corner, and instead pursues the minimal minimum, when the development of a callous on our hero's triggerhand, and his eventual fatigue after killing so many people is as deep as Ordinary People would like to push its exploration.  Its clarity and unpretentious use of an appealing, contemporary art-house style makes for a welcome, unobstructed and uncomplicated look at a person in some places, doing some things, most of them immoral, but the contests of ideology internalized by Yoshida's 1973 film, or the path and process of an Alonso film like Los muertos or Liverpool lend those clear surfaces turbulent undercurrents Ordinary People is sorely lacking.

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I thought “Ordinary People” was a great debut from a director with a point of view. One of those films that slowly gets under your skin and grows on you – like that callous on Dzoni’s hand. No notes on another great Serbian film that played at the fest? “Stara skola kapitalizma/Old School Capitalism” by the venerable old master Zelimir Zilnik.
Hi Bobby, thanks for commenting. I’ll definitely be on the look out for more films by Perisic, it was a strong debut. I didn’t catch Old School Capitalism, what did you think of it?
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Classical Zilnik. By that, I mean a fiercely anti-traditional and oppositional film, in regards to mainstream cinema. The use of the camera as a scalpel to peel away layers of society for examination. A focus on domineering social systems and the effects they have on human beings. The use of documentary material as the jumping off point for dramatic situations featuring real people playing themselves. A stripped down style utilizing digital video, available lighting, and “impoverished” production values. Zilnik’s been scratching away at the surface of the things that afflict society for some time now. This film fits right in line with his entire body of work. It’s got his great sense of humor as well.
It sounds great, I’m sorry I missed it!
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I hear there’s a chance it will play at Rooftop Films in New York City. I don’t have specifics though.

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