The finely scaled body of a green serpent coiled against a white background adorned the posters across the capital city of this year’s Vienna International Film Festival. More than mere ornamentation, it is an image meant to symbolize the renewal process of the festival shedding off old skin, while maintaining a continuity to its past under the still relatively new artistic direction of Eva Sangiorgi, who took charge of the festival early last year. It suggests the Viennale wanting to definitively emerge out of the shadow of Hans Hurch, who ran the festival for twenty-one years until his unexpected death in June 2017. No doubt, the reputation of the Viennale as a sensitively and concisely curated bastion of a particular cinema, one that is at once political, formally explorative, and fiercely resistant to the self-satisfied middlebrow, is much the doing of Hurch’s work and temperament as artistic director. Its identity also firmly resides inits dedication to continuously nurturing filmmakers who operate at the far margins of the film industry And by no means does it appear—judging by the previous two editions—that the festival under Sangiorgi will distance itself from such practice or undergo some sort of radical severance from its spirit of giving peripheral figures in cinema the center stage.
On the contrary, this year’s Viennale had the feel of being dominated by peripheries, with many of the films that I saw showing people and geographies that remain largely unseen not just in mainstream movies but on a daily basis. For example, the elderly head-scarfed woman Khadija (Saadia Bentaïeb) in Bas Devos’s beautiful Ghost Tropic, who after falling asleep on the last evening subway on her way home from her job as a cleaning lady, has to complete her journey homeward on foot through the scarcely populated Brussels outskirts, a trip that takes her all across town and throws her into contact with other strays of the wintry night: a security guard, a gas station attendant, a disparate gathering of people hoping to catch an afterhours bus—all nighthawks who are forced out of economic necessity to work long remote hours. Shot on Super 16mm in a warm nocturnal grain and often captured in extended Steadicam shots, the Brussels cityscape is turned into a network of connecting outer roads, tunnels, parking lots, and industrial parks; the kinds of non-places that you never actually go to but are always passing by. A film as gentle, sad and empathetic as an Edward Hopper painting, it is the perfect companion to From Tomorrow on, I Will, directed by Ivan Marković and Wu Linfeng, a work also attuned to the way urban spaces and architecture shape our emotions of social inclusion and belonging. Set in one of the newly developed neighborhoods of commerce in Beijing, it follows the lonely routine of Li (Chuan Li), a socially and economically marginalized worker from the countryside, who shares a single bed in a cramped basement flat with a roommate whom he hardly sees. Employed as a night watchman at an office building, Li is perpetually framed behind the slick glass walls, doors, and long reflecting corridors of his shadow-swept workplace. During the day he is dwarfed by the alienating 21st century verticality of the built urban space around him, such as the artificial nature parks, the shopping malls of immaculate sameness and the construction sites that are encircled by 3D rendered posters of what is to come, images of a future city that do not include Li.
But to return to the idea of continuity and change at the Viennale, what is special about this festival in particular, aside from its mindful assemblage of diverse films that speak to and reflect each other across the program, is its continued relationship to individual filmmakers (avant-garde, experimental, non-narrative, choose whichever nomenclature you prefer) to the point that their work has become an essential component to the very DNA of the festival itself. And two filmmakers whose cinema over the years that have become an indelible presence not just at the Viennale, but also deeply embedded in Vienna’s cinematic landscape are James Benning and Jem Cohen, both of whom screened new films this edition.
In the case of Benning, whose entire digital archive is housed in the Austrian Film Museum, an institution that has become a primary locus for engaging with the Midwesterner’s oeuvre in the form of restorations, DVD and book publications, along with many premiers, his film Two Moons—a title emblematic of Benning’s decades-long practice of collecting and recording counted phenomena—is another addition to his grand project of showing us what we can learn about the landscapes we inhabit through attentive observation and listening. Shot as a commission by Vienna’s Naturhistorisches Museum, the second time such a collaboration between the filmmaker and the museum has occurred after the 2014 film Natural History, it is a documentation of two moons rising—gibbous and full—on two consecutive nights on November 21 and 22 in California. A film that beams out a soothing aura of immense calm and beauty, it is not the first time that Benning has directed his camera towards the sky: Think of works like 10 Skies (2004), Farocki (2014), and more recently L.Cohen (2017). But whereas those films captured the ineffable poetry of twirling clouds in a light shifting sky or the astounding sight of a total solar eclipse over the expansive flatness of the American terrain in Oregon, here Benning has focused his vision solely on the moon’s (and by extension the Earth’s) trajectory across his precisely chosen frame. The result is not a romanticized portrait of the moon as a faraway place as it so often is in the popular imagination, but as a body that is as much a part of our planet as the earthbound landscapes that we live and breathe in.
The first shot of the gibbous moon, lasting roughly twenty minutes, begins with a pale blue sky with cirrus clouds thinly stretched across its firmament. As the clouds begin to dissolve and attain a pinkish tint as dusk approaches, the moon slowly rears its egg shaped form out of the bottom right of the frame, journeying at a hesitant rate towards the center while the light of the sky begins to dim at a remarkably fast rate. While this seemingly ordinary occurrence is unfolding, we hear a whole array of sounds bleeding into each other suggesting an urban environment: an unending flow of traffic, car horns, police sirens, traces of music, the drone of airplanes. There is the constant unrealized expectation that we’ll see the miniature silhouette of an airplane or a helicopter glide across frame, and when two birds do dart across the shot just as the final wisps of daylight are erased by the full ascension of the moon, the effect is nothing short of breathtaking. Other equally fortuitous moments occur, such as when a thin horizontal band of cloud slices across the bottom half of the moon, a wholly unintentional film reference evoking Luis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou (1929).
The second shot of the full moon the following evening is no less extraordinary, with the sky transformed into a black canvas that is soon illuminated by the formidable entrance from the bottom left of the frame of our lunar satellite. It is on the surface similar to the first shot, but much is also different: a slightly later time of day, the altered way the cloud formations are caught in a continuous play of obscuring and revealing the moon’s glow; the constant hum of traffic of the previous evening now lessened allowing for other noises to emerge, like the rustle of tree leaves in the wind, the faint sound of birds tweeting, the sudden revving of a single motor, and eventually the distinct sound of human voices talking in the dark. The camera may be directed skywards tracking the moon’s ascent into the night, but what the film does, through its sounds and their suggestions, is emphasize the fact that we are firmly planted on Earth. In listening closely and generating associative images out of the non-manipulated soundtrack that Benning recorded on-site, you begin to see your own imaginary landscape, as it gathers definition, spreading out in your mind’s eye, so that while gazing for nearly an hour at the moon you never felt so much at home.
The consistent programming of the work of experimental documentary filmmaker Jem Cohen at the Viennale too is a kind of axiom of the festival. Supported over the years by Hurch, there is a way in which this diarist of city peripheries and the discarded minutiae of the everyday has become ingrained into Vienna’s cultural-scape, not least because of his 2012 Vienna set feature Museum Hours, an outsider’s city symphony intuitively tuned in to the touch and feel of the place during the cold lonely dimness of winter. Cohen’s new short, Makeshift (For Mekas) is also a symphony of sorts, a quiet and moving cine-memorial not just to Jonas Mekas, who died this past January at the age of 96, but also an homage to his spirit as a both a mentor dedicated to recording the fleetingness of the passing moment and a guardian of the cinema of the margins as embodied by his establishment of Anthology Film Archives in New York’s Lower East Side. The title refers to the makeshift memorial to Jonas that graced (and still does) the entrance of Anthology on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 2nd Street, a bricolage-type sculpture of flower bouquets, candles, celluloid strips, watercolors, drawings, and other objects of remembrance, to which Cohen’s film is now a tender addition.
Opening with a shot by Cohen of a sprightly old-aged Mekas clothed in his trademark blue cotton workman’s jacket, flat black cap, and the ever-present camera in his shaky hand recording friends as he stares smilingly at the display screen, the film is partially constructed out of on-screen text detailing Cohen’s distant encounters with Mekas over the years, and his memories of visits to Anthology as a young filmmaker. Silent black and white images from Alexsandr Dovženko’s Soviet film Earth (1930) of close-ups of dangling peaches, windblown wheat fields, sunflowers and tractors—images of nature and farming that also abound in Mekas’ own filmic work—are re-contextualized here as the haunting images from a dream, as Cohen describes being overcome by sleep during the affordably cheap “Essential Cinema” screening of the film at Anthology. Further allusions to sleep crop up in Cohen’s text wherein he remembers the late Peter Hutton, another filmmaker of landscapes and cities, telling an Anthology audience that it was okay if they fell asleep during his films. Sleep, dreams, the cinema: all mediums for channeling the departed and which Cohen achieves here with a remarkable simplicity.
Fluidly drifting between textual anecdote, and archival materials of Anthology schedules, Cohen cuts to footage he gleaned from his wanderings around the environs of the cinema in October 2015: street musicians on 2nd Avenue, a pair of shoes in the middle of the pavement, the dingy entranceway of an apartment building, a pot of sunflowers, graffiti reading “I Loved New York,” and a construction fence with a poster of a 3D rendered graphic of a new residential building—the latter being images of a neighborhood in the throes of aggressive urban re-development, with Anthology acting as cultural bulwark against the onslaught. After a sudden geographical shift to rural images shot in Mekas’s native Lithuania, the film returns to him surrounded by companions, the camera that is usually in his grip now replaced by a Corona beer, and as he notices Cohen’s camera trained on him from across the room there appears a sudden gleam in his gaze, a subtle wink of his eye as Mekas raises his drink in salute to the younger disciple and in farewell to us.
Working in the same peripheral territory as Benning and Cohen is Portuguese filmmaker Sílvia das Fadas, who was the subject of one of the festival’s “Monographs,” a new retrospective section dedicated to mining the poetics of a living filmmaker through an extensive engagement with their work. The programming of das Fadas represents a summarization of the Viennale’s ethos of providing a platform for filmmakers laboring away at the solitary edges of the film industry, and another sign of the festival continuing to cultivate new relationships with emerging voices of the contemporary avant-garde.
A graduate of the California Institute of the Arts—an institution that counts Benning and Thom Anderson as amongst its teachers—das Fadas’s cinema is defined by a resistance to the notion of reality as a finished state, wherein the past lies inert, the present is frozen into a condition of rigid inalterability and the future is a series of predicable and inevitable outcomes. Her films deal in showing alternative histories that unlock the possibility of creating new presences, films that reveal the magic behind the fabric of the seemingly real. They have a delicately touchable quality akin to silk, and the tactility of her work is in no small part to her working exclusively in 16mm with a Bolex camera, the fruitful beginnings of which are already on view in her black and white short, Magiae Naturalis (2011). Accomplished entirely through in-camera editing, a close-up of gloved hands against a background of shrubbery opening the 15th century book Magiae Naturalis to the chapter on mirrors sets in motion, like a paper flower that gracefully unfolds once dipped in water, an oneiric succession of images and superimpositions of symbolic-laden objects that are held up for us to behold: a light bulb, an hourglass, a crystal ball, sunflowers, and champagne glasses, resulting in a lithe image-dance of reflecting surfaces that becomes an enchantingly compact self-reflexive experiment on cinema’s ability to curve and manipulate the light of the world as it enters the camera’s lens. The hypnotic weightlessness of das Fadas’s images that appear to slowly detach themselves from the screen and float into your hands is further visible in her short Picking Oranges (2012), a self-described postcard to the Cinemateca Portuguesa in Lisbon after her move to California to attend CalArts. A sun-dappled shot of das Fadas reclining against a wooden bench, her eyes closed in sleep with the chiaroscuro of shadowed branches on her face and a pile of oranges in her lap is followed by daydream-like images of her walking towards the camera in an orange grove to the beat of Woody Guthrie’s folk tune “Tom Joad” and her voiceover: “I will pick oranges in California after watching The Grapes of Wrath at the cinematheque,” a line she repeats in Portuguese and English like the chorus of a song. Close-ups of oranges dangling from trees and hands pulling the fruits off branches seem to dissolve into immateriality as the images begin to literally jump and stretch. Displacing past and present, reality and illusion, the film becomes like a piece of music that enters the body, an incantatory chant that lovingly evokes the zeitgeist of 1930s Americana: the Great Depression, the cinema of John Ford, and the optimism of an entire class heading west for a better future in a time of failing capitalism.
Das Fadas also invokes the ghosts of that period of American history in her photo essay film Square Dance, Los Angeles County, California 2013 (2013), wherein images of leisure are re-imagined as expressions of political dissent. Shots of photographs taken by Farm Security Administrator photographer Russell Lee of a square dance party in McIntosch County, Oklahoma in 1939 are combined with the soundtrack of protest songs of that time and a recording of poet George Oppen reading his poem, “On Being Numerous,” thus creating new contexts of already existing works of art. The fictional encounter between the photographs of rural folk made to look like they are dancing to protest music along with the poem create a rupture in the order of things, with das Fadas simultaneously breaking down the inherited telling of history and opening up the possibility of its rewriting. Lee’s photographs are thick with the aura of that period; the frozen faces, gestures, and clothes of the people pictured emerging like phantoms from the dark back of time into our present. The feeling of looking at specters gazing at us from beyond the grave is enhanced by the dance of leaf shadows that das Fadas filmed in her backyard, and projected onto the photographs. Eschewing the nostalgic, the film is more an intervention into the illusionary finality of history, freeing up the bonds of past and present in order to create new potentials for the future, one where the collision between political action and popular art is a living possibility.
Das Fadas continues her cinematic excavation of alternative possibilities for society in The House Is Yet To Be Built (2018), a travel diary that documents her visit to five monuments of personal utopia built single-handedly by radical artists whose architectural visions-turned-reality defy the surface of the world. Her most complex work in the program, it is made up of an intricate tapestry of on-screen text of each monuments’ origins, non-subtitled recitations of writings by left-wing intellectuals, among others Berthold Brecht, William Morris, and Simon Weil, field recordings of sounds unique to every location, and of course, the images themselves, which show how these architectural dreamscapes live and breath in the landscapes they inhabit. Divided into five chapters, with one for each structure, her method is characterized by a slow approach, her camera lingering, encircling, collecting and recording the textures and forms of these magnificent man-made creations, charting a cinematic blueprint of each place, showing how they exist in their natural environment, or rather how they clash against the easily defined geography of fields, parks and gardens they sit in.
Prefaced by a reading of a Berthold Brecht poem, “Counter-Song to the Friendliness of the World,” a call to action of sorts against the status quo, das Fadas invites us to roam these zones of rebellion, to patiently look and listen to her findings, whether it be the terrifying sculptures of creatures and animals built by Niki de Saint Phalle at her Tarot Garden that emerge like nightmares or hallucinations out of the surrounding Tuscan landscape; the peace of the light emanating from William Morris’s Red House, with its stained glass windows of angels and walls of painted murals depicting medieval scenery; or the elaborately painted tombstones that describe the lives of the departed at the so-called Merry Cemetery in northern Romania, a place of final rest without hierarchies of class or gender and founded by local artist Stan Ioan Pătraş. With every shot das Fadas rebuilds the structures we are seeing, fragmenting the monuments into individual parts and piecing them together little by little, mimicking the same fractured process that was a part of their construction. Her camera tenderly picks out details and surfaces: the wild swirls of sandstone that makes up the material of Ferdinand Cheval’s Ideal Palace in France, or the otherworldly shaped masses of flint rock that Robert Garcet used to build his Tower of the Apocalypse in Belgium.
Alongside the audio recorded on-site by das Fadas at each place—a soothing flow of wind, rain, birds, cicadas, frogs, the wind in the trees, bursts of thunder—she has also included archived sounds of labor, such as hammering, cutting, chopping, chipping and carving that evoke both the manual craftsmanship that went into the construction of these monuments, as well as the handmade craft of das Fadas’s own work with film. Like this quintet of rebels, das Fadas uses the available materials of the present world, in her case celluloid, to probe the possibilities of resistance that lay buried underneath the visible strata of reality.