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By Andrés Duque
Be uncomfortable; be sand, not oil in the machinery of the world.—Gunter Eich
Following the 2011 edition of the Punto de Vista International Documentary Film Festival—to which I had been invited to screen my film Colour Runaway Dog—it was announced that, due to austerity measures imposed by the current Spanish government, the festival would be closed indefinitely. This prompted the local film community, together with hundreds of filmmakers around the world, to sign a petition urging the Council of Culture of Navarra to save the festival in light of “its cultural relevance in the international film scene.” This worldwide outcry compelled the council to reconsider the fate of the festival, despite the serious budget cuts that would have to be made to keep it alive. Though the festival was saved, it would also have to adapt to new economic realities: until further notice, it would have to transform into a modest film seminar that would alternate with a smaller film-festival venue. In 2012, the first seminar—a discussion between French filmmaker Sylvain George and Malaysian filmmaker Amir Muhammad—was attended by more than 300 people. Taking place under the shadow of the economic crisis, the seminar brought some optimism to the filmmakers, film critics and cinephiles present, both the discussion and the critical counter-cinema of George and Muhammad serving up a healthy dose of cultural activism.
In these last two years, there has been more attention paid to the Spanish independent film scene in all its forms (fiction, non-fiction and animation) than ever before—primarily due to the emergence of several new filmmakers who, expressing the general feeling of dissatisfaction that rules the Spanish film community and in reaction to the economic crisis, have positioned themselves outside the industry and the film schools. The increased audiences at Punto de Vista are another manifestation of this new spirit of change. Those who have attended the festival in its past editions have been introduced to many great filmmakers; this year’s complete retrospectives devoted to Brazil’s Eduardo Coutihno and Germany’s Thomas Heisse follow on past showcases of works by such important figures as Jem Cohen, Barbara Hammer, Alan Berliner, Audrius Stonys, Rithy Panh, John Gianvito, Lourdes Portillo, and younger filmmakers like Raya Martin, J.P. Sniadecki, Ben Rivers, and Ben Russell.
I can only express my gratitude to the people behind the festival for giving us the opportunity to see some of the most subversive works in the non-fiction field. The above quote from Gunter Eich—frequently cited by the late Amos Vogel—could well sum up the philosophy of the festival. What is the function of cinema but to make us experience the limits of our realities? That being the case—and given how the new digital technologies have been challenging or overturning certain of the medium’s paradigms in recent years—my report below will focus on some of the films at this year’s Punto de Vista that threw cinematic concepts into disarray.
When I first read Victor Kossakovsky’s advice for beginning filmmakers, one precept that especially stuck in my mind was “Documentary is the only art where every aesthetic element almost always has ethical aspects, and every ethical aspect can be used aesthetically.” (This advice ends with an emphatic phrase: “Maybe nice people should not make documentaries”—a provocative idea that tears down the principle of good intentions that all beginners expect to hear and put into practice.) Kossakovsky’s lesson is that we should always have a critical attitude towards all of our filmmaking decisions because they are so closely tied to the ever changing fields of technology, media, capitalism, globalization and government policies—each of which, in their different ways, conspire to regulate our being.
Speaking eloquently to this was Germán Scelso’s tellingly titled El Modelo, which caused a foreseeable controversy at its screening at Punto de Vista (though it later received a Special Mention from this year’s jury) due to its flagrant foregrounding of the unequal relationship between the filmmaker and his subject. Scelso’s film centres on Jordi, a handicapped beggar whose participation in the film is conditioned by his financial dependency on it: an almost daily handout from Scelso, duly recorded by the filmmaker, buys Jordi’s time and trust as the film is put together. The conversations between the two quickly leave all inhibitions behind. Their discussions about sex, nudity, alcohol, money, social inequities and human hypocrisy are direct, forceful, and brutally honest—all culminating in the final sequence where Jordi, after mutual agreement with Scelso, poses naked in front of a wall on which Scelso projects an image of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man (a common icon on euro coins), while on the soundtrack we hear Jordi reading from an anarchist pamphlet. Quasi-parodically presenting himself as the model of the exploitative filmmaker, Scelso gets right to the heart of his major theme: that societies cannot organize themselves without power, persuasion, or violence, and that we as individuals are ultimately unable to choose which forces will affect us.
If Scelso’s strategies of fictionalizing the real are conceived and resolved in situ, Virginia García del Pino’s aestheticization of a homicide trial in The Jury results from long reflection over her material. Again, we are participants in a scabrous reality and a radical film experience: keeping her camera trained on the jury box as the jurors listen to the proceedings in the trial of a man who stabbed his girlfriend to death, García del Pino rigorously frames certain of the jurors’ faces, her distance from them necessitating her to use a digital zoom that blurs and pixillates their features, making them more mysterious and unknowable. What is truly ominous, however, is the directly recorded soundtrack, on which the prosecutor, defense counsel and judge describe the crime with such painstaking detail that it would border on the absurd if it were not so frightful. The combination of obstructed visuals and chillingly crystalline sound gives the film a strangely hypnotic effect: we feel uncomfortable and are tempted to leave the theatre, but at the same time we are seduced by the gruesomely logical and methodical nature of the proceedings.
German filmmaker Christian von Borries, one of the jury members this year, presented his two films thus far, The Dubai in Me (2010) and Mocracy – The Neverland in Me (2012), the likeness of the titles accurately reflecting their similarity in form and content: both are reflections on the “dream of globalization” and the political aspect of images (again, the ethical aspect becomes the aesthetic, and vice versa). Von Borries is a montage filmmaker, and so his materials for subversion are editing add-ons or plug-in effects: The Dubai in Me uses motion-graphic texts reassembling Blade Runner’s typography, car sequence-shots that are similar to the virtual itineraries of video games, images that the filmmaker shot on location, footage from the online platform Second Life, and material gathered at Dubai’s Cityscape real-estate fair in 2008. The film is constantly asking: How does one make a film about Dubai? How to escape from its virtuality, how to represent the reality that is hidden to us? If the city’s imperfections are corrected digitally and all social sectors work without resistance to the construction of a dreamlike city, then what is the purpose of the real Dubai? Or as the director puts it: “When representation becomes the real, why should the real be constructed?”
Cinema’s greatest challenge right now should be to find answers to new problems, like how to represent a world based on an overabundance of images, the society of information, the mobility of multiple screens, and the schizophrenia of a globalized capitalist system. Certainly, schizophrenia seems increasingly connected to the modern world and the contemporary globalized screen culture. Capitalism follows a schizophrenic logic that at the same time calls forth its own resistance; as Gilles Deleuze put it, “Surely a true cinema can contribute to giving us back reasons to believe in the world. The price to be paid, in cinema as elsewhere, was always a confrontation with madness.” The future of the image acknowledges that there is no safe or morally superior position from which we can resist. Instead, we discover the need to develop multiple forms of resistance from within the system, while always running the risk of being even more overwhelmed by its logic.