Sebastian Brameshuber on Movements of a Nearby Mountain

By Andréa Picard

Movements of a Nearby Mountain screens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Thursday, December 12 as part of MDFF Selects: Presented by Cinema Scope and TIFF.

Winner of this year’s Grand Prix at Cinéma du Réel as well as a clutch of other international prizes, the third feature by Austrian filmmaker Sebastian Brameshuber is a rare gift. Movements of a Nearby Mountain is, on the surface, a portrait of Cliff, a 35-year-old self-taught mechanic who spends most of his time alone refurbishing and disassembling cars in order to sell the parts in his native Nigeria. Cliff’s outsized garage lies at the foot of the Alps near the famous Erzberg mine, where, as the famous “Waterman” legend has it, iron ore would reign eternal—that is, pre-Industrial Revolution.

But Brameshuber’s film is no ordinary portrait, nor is it an expository documentary about globalized exchange, migratory movement, or the labyrinthine hierarchies of clandestine and systemic economies. Rather, it is a mysterious and entrancing look at a life in motion in a dreamlike and surreal space, one marked by solitude, the gestures of work, and a plethora of tools and tires. Absence permeates the proceedings, whether it be the eponymous (and anthropomorphized) mountain, or traces from the past—such as Cliff’s former colleague Magnus, who reappears from a previous time, or the paintball field which used to face the workshop, in a dichotomy of work and leisure that was not lost on Brameshuber, who explores the surroundings with compositional exactitude, wonder, and consideration for deeper implications ranging from the materialist to the mythic.

Movements of a Nearby Mountain has a graceful pace and remarkable elegance, ensuring that we look closer at the details of Cliff’s life: his movements, his words as much as his silence, the theatricality of his setting, and, above all, his tenaciousness and drive (pun intended). The film’s complex layers (which are belied in part by the deceptively simple structure) are both implicit and explicit to the frame of the film, with time eliding any notion of “fixity.”

Cinema Scope: “What’s your production date?” Just kidding! I like how Cliff confronts a potential buyer with this question, which says so much: about his sense of humour, his deft negotiating skills, how time leaves its marks, how we ascribe value. I wonder just how solitary Cliff is, given the ease with which he interacts with others? He’s clearly charming and thoughtful, which obviously helps him in his business…

Sebastian Brameshuber: Cliff has been doing business since he was a kid. He takes great pride in his business acumen and negotiating skills, and rightfully so. I’d say he is a solitary character, someone who had to learn to be on his own, to trust first and foremost in himself. He does spend most of the day alone in his workshop and literally calls this place “home,” because that’s what it feels like to him. But he is not lonely or socially isolated in Austria (anymore), and of course you can feel it and, even more so, hear it, most obviously when he speaks German in the regional Styrian dialect which he couldn’t have learned in solitude.

But I wasn’t interested in doing a well-rounded biographical film about him: rather, I wanted to explore the intimacy which unfolds in portraying him exclusively in an environment which one could call his “professional environment,” but which ultimately turns out to be so much more than that. The choice of which aspects of a life to show and which ones to leave out is maybe similar to choosing the right distance of the camera to the person you are filming: it is not by simply moving closer to, or using close-up shots of a person that you actually get closer to this person, but by remaining at a certain (respectful) distance which makes you feel that you want to get closer to someone. You get to see a fragment of someone’s life, but then again, when can a film ever show you more than a fragment? Every human being is a mystery, and I don’t want to pretend the opposite. At the same time, I feel that by going deep rather than wide, the film reaches beyond a particular life, thereby touching on questions of human existence. If at the end of this film you feel like wanting to know more about Cliff, I think it has achieved more than I could wish for.

Scope: How did you first meet Cliff? What drew you to make a film about him and his activities?

Brameshuber: We first met back in 2012 during the shooting of my previous feature, And There We Are, in the Middle. Andi, one of the teenagers in that film, went to play paintball on the site, and that’s how I got to know Cliff, but also Magnus and a few other guys who were working there at the time. The barbecue which Cliff uses in this film for cooking and for warming his hands on cold mornings is the same that Andi and his friends use in my previous film for warming up after their paintball game. One thing that immediately intrigued me, even before getting to know Cliff better, was the juxtaposition of a game world and a working world, of leisure and necessity. I studied stage design, and I felt that this was a “scenography” emerging from the everyday, which could be interpreted with the tools of cinema in order to reveal the narratives and metaphors inscribed in this space, somehow in a reverse attempt relative to the process I was initially trained for. I exchanged numbers with Cliff and returned about a year later to shoot a short film as part of my studies at Le Fresnoy in France, Of Stains, Scrap and Tires. But Cliff and his colleagues weren’t as present for the shooting of the short film as they initially said they would be; there was a certain mistrust on their part in my filmic endeavor, and not enough time to overcome it. Cliff and his colleagues are present in the film, but I wasn’t able to carve out much of Cliff’s and the other two guys’ individuality. Thus, for the short film I focused more on the above-mentioned “scenography.”

But one thing that became apparent in the exchange with Cliff and his colleagues was the hardship of the business and the increasing difficulty to make profits, to earn a living. At the end of the shooting, Magnus painted over and thus erased his phone number at the entrance to the garage, a gesture he performed with a casualness that struck me: for one, because it meant that he was ending a many-years-long chapter of his life; but also, because it marked a new chapter in the history of this garage. By the time the short film was finished, Cliff was the only one still working there. I guess this was a decisive moment to do another film with him. It impressed me that he had the guts and nerves to continue with this business, against all odds. A few months later, the paintball field closed down as well. It became quite silent in and around the garage. I frequently came back to hang out with Cliff, he liked the short film when he saw it at the cinema, his initial skepticism had therefore passed and he was up for collaborating on a film that would centre around him.

Apart from Cliff being a charming and thoughtful person, what impressed me as a filmmaker was his solitary presence in this space which obtained an almost theatrical, performative quality. This is due to the dimensions of the space, a single person working in it, and the relative silence. But it is also the very particular and steady pace at which Cliff moves and performs his work. I felt that time and space in this garage obtained an almost tangible quality in his presence, as if there was a slight shift in the space-time continuum. It made me receptive to the sometimes surreal moments and details that emerge from everyday life and routine in this garage, even if at first glance it is defined by its materialistic qualities. Working out this dimension in the film, it becomes a universe in its own right: more real than reality, yet stranger than fiction.

Scope: His garage looks like a ruin of sorts. What was it in its previous incarnation, and how did Cliff come to appropriate it?

Brameshuber: It used to be a factory for the production of cables, but it was abandoned many years ago. The region of Upper Styria is Austria’s “rust belt.” The mining of the nearby iconic and legendary Erzberg (“ore mountain”) and the attached metalworking industry have been defining this region for centuries, providing relative wealth and secure jobs. But with the shifting to a post-industrial society, with other countries producing the same raw materials and products cheaper, with machines and algorithms replacing human labour, many of the factories had to close down or, in the case of this particular enterprise which actually still exists, build a new factory to increase productivity to be able to compete on the world market. So while the mining workers from Erzberg have disappeared, and along with them the blue-collar workers in the adjoining industries, Cliff has appropriated one of the ruins of this past era and with what he does, he interestingly remains in a line of business that is not foreign to this site and region. When Cliff takes apart a car with rudimentary tools and physical force in order to extract something precious, it also evokes images of mining work. Or, to put it another way, it is a space where the echoes of the past resonate exceptionally loudly since Cliff has appropriated it. He came to this region as part of a distribution plan for asylum seekers, and he decided to stay.

Scope: The film consciously, elegantly, and intelligently plays with time, ellipses, and a-linearity as if geological and mythic time are all-abiding, and yet, the changes in the landscape are physical markers of those transitions. What was the timeframe in which you shot, and can you discuss your approach to representing a period of time that is both specific but also open? Or did this structure emerge during editing?

Brameshuber: The film was shot within six months, starting in summer and ending in winter, but there are a few shots and sounds that I recorded earlier, during the shooting of the two previous films I mentioned before, and which I recycled for this film. On the one hand, there was the myth of the discovery of Erzberg which alluded to an eternity, the promise of everlasting iron, but at the same time the site where I shot is full of traces, permeated by a strong feeling of transience. Along with the actual changes—Magnus quitting the business, the paintball field closing down, Cliff being alone now, the changing seasons—the different layers of time weere omnipresent, so to speak, almost imposing themselves onto this film. In particular, I wanted Magnus to reappear, since in a way he triggered the making of the film when he painted over his phone number. I thought of him as a sort of memory for Cliff, someone who isn’t there any longer physically, but who is still part of the history of this place, also very concretely, as traces of light on celluloid strips which I had shot there a few years earlier. Just like the weather-induced outlines of the tires that were once stacked on the paintball field as cover for the players.

I tried to break down the different time levels in one particular scene and more or less obviously point out that this could be anything from the past, the present to the future—or perhaps everything at once, an uncertain time in times of uncertainty. We see Cliff and Magnus, who apparently observe and comment in Igbo, their mother tongue, on a paintball game which we can only hear from offscreen; they’re daydreaming of expanding their business if the paintball field closed down. When Cliff receives a phone call, the popping of the paintball game stops abruptly, it turns very silent and the camera slowly starts moving of its own volition towards where Magnus was standing, but he isn’t there any longer; nor is there anyone on the abandoned paintball field, and when the camera has turned a full 360 degrees and reaches Cliff again, he is still negotiating the buying of a car in broad Styrian dialect, his figure getting smaller and smaller as he walks into the cathedral-like garage.

The paintball sound of this scene originates from the past: it was recorded for my previous film. It is a detail, and, of course, the sound does not reveal this fact. Nevertheless, I think that such decisions radiate into the film and are constitutive to its inner cohesion. But it was important to me that the “ghostly” dimension doesn’t turn into something too obvious or pretentious, to maintain an equilibrium between the material and the immaterial dimension. A jury has coined the term “magical materialism” with regard to my film; I quite like it. In the treatment which I initially presented to the funding bodies, I talked of “magical pragmatism”; I guess at that point I was thinking more about my attitude when shooting the film and not yet about the result.

For the editing, which was equally important, I had the privilege to work with Dane Komljen, a Berlin-based filmmaker from former Yugoslavia, with whom I studied at Le Fresnoy in France. Dane, who I guess needs little introduction as a filmmaker (All the Cities of the North, 2016), is also a very gifted, sensitive, and precise film editor. Many of the structural decisions and strategies on how to further deconstruct the linearity of the everyday perception of time emerged during our editing process. The more the overall structure of the film emerged, the more it was possible to add more layers and to increase the complexity of the composition. Dane had a very sober look at all the existing footage; unlike me, he neither felt attached to nor detached from any scenes or shots. For example, he encouraged the use of the material, which I shot myself in summer, before I continued to work with my longtime collaborator behind the camera, Klemens Hufnagl. Even if I wanted to, I had a hard time embracing this footage because I felt my camerawork wasn’t good enough. But Dane kept insisting that it was okay, and that the three different sensibilites of camerawork in this film would ultimately yield something interesting, since the part in Nigeria was shot by German DOP Jenny Lou Ziegel, who also did a great job. I also knew that I would use fragments of the Super 16mm footage which was shot a few years earlier for my short film, but I didn’t find the right place for it until a very late point during the editing, when the overall structure was pretty much there and when those shots could actually gain a function beyond aesthetic reasons and add something to the “story” of Magnus’ reappearance—and thus reached a function and beyond aesthetic reasons.

Scope: The sound design is equally compelling and complicit in this approach, when, for instance, the summer cicadas reappear in winter as a soft snow falls. The blurring of time is also sonic.

Brameshuber: It’s beautiful how you point to the analogy between a sonic and a visual texture. At the same time, this sound also works as a counterpoint relative to the image. The question of how to work with the sound arose first from the night shots and Cliff’s voiceover telling the legend of the Waterman. Later it extended to the use of the Super 16mm shots, which should stand out [from] the rest of the film and for which we wanted to leave the synchronization between image and sound behind for a moment. We tried a few different sonic strategies during editing, but the most simple proved to be the most efficient and elegant, which was to extend the original sound from the previous scene over the Super 16mm shots. Similar to the use of the recycled Super 16mm images, I felt that the use of sound other than the original sound needs to be more than merely a sound effect, rooted in a function relative to the overall functioning of the film: [it needs] to further indicate the deconstruction of the linear passage of time. One very early morning, the film’s sound recordist and sound designer Johannes Schmelzer Ziringer recorded the distant sound of one of the large steel factories in the region, which lay behind our motel: a very gentle and even noise which became the sonic base layer for several shots and scenes. We also worked with a foley artist in order to increase the acoustic presence of Cliff and everyone but Magnus, for whom we used the exact opposite strategy and kept only his voice in order to emphasize his ghostly (non-)presence.

Scope: Why was it important to go to Nigeria with Cliff instead of leaving the place of origin (his) and final destination (for the car parts) unseen? How many times did you go, and what was it like with him as your guide?

Brameshuber: It was in fact one of the questions I wasn’t able to answer for myself until the point when we had actually shot there and tried it out in editing. My fear was that it could feel like a homecoming for Cliff, and I wanted to avoid that at any cost. So it was clear to me that there won’t be any scenes with his family or friends, and that the film couldn’t change its overall tone in Nigeria. Before we went there, Cliff told me on several occasions that he no longer felt like he belonged there. When we were there, his feeling also reflected in his changed body language and the way he dealt with other people. In the scene where he arrives at the spare-parts market he is not driving himself, like in the rest of the film, but someone is driving him, he gets out of the car from the passenger seat. I found that very interesting and revealing: it added a layer of complexity to his character in this film, and I considered it worth introducing.

In a way, this sequence in Nigeria, particularly its beginning at the spare-parts market, breaks the spell of the film for a moment, and I think that’s important. Cliff may be operating on the periphery of the capitalist system and global trade, but the modes of operation and imbalances are pretty much the same there as well. There may be another form of necessity or urgency, but there is nothing innocent about what he does, and I think you could forget that if the film had stayed exclusively in the garage in Austria. I also think the sequence in Nigeria adds something with regard to the question where one feels at home, and that home isn’t necessarily linked to the place of one’s origin, but is, as one great contemporary filmmaker has recently put it, a space in time.

We were in Nigeria for about two weeks with Cliff for the shooting. All in all, it was a good experience to be there with him, and to get to know the places and some of the people he had previously mentioned to me. But for him every trip to Nigeria is also stressful, because many people there, not just his family members, have high expectations of someone who lives in Europe. Our presence sometimes amplified this effect, so we had to take it into consideration when scheduling our shooting. It was important not to strain Cliff’s patience, nor the patience of the other people around us. Two and a half years prior to the shooting, I went there for two weeks together with the production manager for Nigeria, Chukwudi Anyanwu, a friend of mine who also lives in Vienna and works here for the UN. I had never been to Nigeria nor any other country in Africa before, so I wanted to get an idea of what it is like and what was waiting for us, see the places where we could shoot, etc. Since the financing of production took a while, there was quite a large time gap between the preparation and the actual shooting. But this didn’t actually effect our shooting.

Scope: The “wheeling and dealing” that takes place in Cliff’s garage is met by somewhat (charmingly) blasé banter by his clients, yet one senses so much of the politics of the region is conveyed through these brief exchanges. Were these a result of long-term observation, or were they more spontaneous?

Brameshuber: With a few exceptions, I knew the clients coming to Cliff’s garage, because most of them are more or less regular customers who I had met before. The scenes and dialogues and what they convey developed spontaneously, so to say, but I had heard all of it before. It repeats itself almost every time and with almost all of Cliff’s clients, because “wheeling and dealing” is also a game: it follows certain rules, and one strategy is to bring into play your own unstable economic situation or that of your country. Those arguments and counterarguments obviously refer to a (sometimes harsh) reality, too, but there is a playful pattern and rhythm to it. One thing which I found interesting about all that’s going on in Cliff’s garage is that it does not only relate to the economic North-South divide, but also to the West-East divide within Europe, respective to the European Union. The border with Hungary is not even 100 kilometres away: an economy that is very underprivileged in relation to Western Europe begins there, and many people in Hungary depend on the discarded goods from across the border. It is sometimes too easy for Austria [and] Western Europe to look to Africa and to outsource the attention on economic inequality to a distant continent, as if that were no longer the case in Europe. My point is not to weigh one against the other, but it makes a difference if an audience has to relate to something nearby as well.

Scope: The European Union is an increasingly complicated and fractured territory, and Austria has not been as open with its borders as some other countries. It’s also not as multicultural as many other major centres in the EU. While your film avoids all didacticism (and judgments) and resonates on both a more mysterious and humanist level, surely you must have had trepidations going into the project? You’ve mentioned finding the right respectful distance. How did you find it, above spending time with and gaining Cliff’s trust?

Brameshuber: The European Union is a very complex construct; I think it would be beyond the scope of this conversation to go in more detail into this subject. Austria is definitely a less multicultural society than France, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium… What these countries have in common though is that they, unlike Austria, were colonial empires with colonies in Africa and elsewhere. It is a paradox of history that these countries today have a more open and visibly more multicultural society—at least on the surface, in the urban centres. Immigration from Sub-Saharan Africa is a comparatively recent phenomenon for Austria. In all of the country, but particularly in the rural regions, and thus also where Cliff lives, there are very few people of colour, and he has experienced a lot of racism. I got to know Cliff as someone who can take a lot and who, despite everything, has kept an amazing and admirable openness. I didn’t approach the gaining of his trust as a project, though. After we jumped in the deep end with the short film, it was a relatively slow and steady process to getting to know each other. That being said, we were also “business partners,” since Cliff was paid as an “actor” on both the short film and the feature. But I think he would agree, too, that our personal relationship outgrew our business relationship over the years.

Scope: I like how you describe Cliff’s everyday space as a “scenography.” The garage is very much a microcosm—one of work, but also the comforts of daily rituals around food and grooming set against both a dusty workshop and pastoral bliss—amidst car parts that double as furniture. With the plastic wrap that renders certain parts strange and surreal and Cliff’s solitary and resourceful existence, it is hard to resist a certain “last man on earth” fantasy trope, which lends itself to the extremes of our times. Were you influenced by any works of literature or films as you were working on the film?

Brameshuber: There is certainly a dystopian dimension inherent in the film, but there was no particular reference in literature or film that I had in mind. I think the entire set-up of the film, respectively the real situation to which the film refers, communicates from the beginning with layers of our cultural memory that evoke associations of that kind. I have often wondered how myths or epic stories arise, about the true events or people that underlie them. For me there was an epic potential in terms of Cliff’s story and the work he does in that place. Using the legend of the discovery of Erzberg in the film was a way to emphasize this aspect. In terms of reference, I appreciate a lot the photographs of Helen Levitt, her eye for the casually surreal and theatric that emerges from everyday street life. One of her photos, “New York (Boy Bending Over),” has for me a particularly interesting relationship.

Scope: There are many ways to interpret the film’s lyrical title, Movements of a Nearby Mountain. What does it mean for you?

Brameshuber: I guess I like it because it opens up a range of possible perspectives on the film. Setting a mountain in motion is almost a contradiction in itself, yet the literal movement of the nearby Erzberg in the form of the refined raw materials that have been extracted from it and that now move through the world, e.g., as cars, would be one way to think about it. But the title also alludes to the deterritorialization of raw materials, goods and men alike, to the dilemma of the Anthropocene, to geological and mythological time relative to human time scale, etc. The view of a mountain can be a reminder of our ephemeral existence on this planet. Perhaps geological time is too difficult for humans to grasp, perhaps we quickly attribute an eternity to something because it gives us the feeling that our existence would also last longer. Maybe the same feeling can also apply in the opposite direction, and we destroy what’s eternal in less than a human lifespan, because neither a mountain nor geological time shall humiliate us. Erzberg has become a victim of the Promethean energy of humankind, and millions of years will be razed to the ground in a few decades of industrial exploitation. And yet the mountain which is so present in the title is hardly visibly in the film. For me, the title also reflects one of the general strategies of the film, namely to work with omissions as something that is as constitutive of the film as what is shown. I recently learned that it is impossible to photograph a black hole, but it is possible to photograph the dust and gases attracted by it and describing its contours. It made me think about my film. The mountain in the title provides a certain metaphorical centre of gravity, but one which is only defined by what surrounds it.