Doc’s Kingdom 2017: Flat surfaces and the deepest of pits

Thinking, writing, speaking. It has always been a while. Yet, these are also always ongoing activities. Is it possible that we write during the tiny moments when we do not? Are we writing while processing feelings and ideas? When we water our imaginary plants, or celebrate our birthday near a real campfire? What then constitutes that, ‘’a real campfire’’?

This question leads me back to Arcos de Valdevez, in the north of Portugal, where people come together every year at the beginning of September to discuss a matter very much related to what I was contemplating: what is documentary cinema?

From the moment one gets introduced, inaugurated, or prepared for a specific context in which multiple power structures are at play, one should no longer lie to oneself. It happens quite often that young enthusiasts, of all ages, happen to blindly believe in what is served to them. A smile is often a smile but also much more. I am now speaking about the social construction film culture is and what makes us shut our mouths. The culture of music festivals has, rightly so, been criticized properly and extensively. With many people continually asking: if something feels like an event, does that also make it true? Now, in order to get away from our preoccupation with festivalism, we naturally need alternative structures made with different aims. Doc’s Kingdom, a harmonious adaptation from The Flaherty Seminar, tries this on its very own terms, both for the sake of cinema. This year I had the opportunity to go, and did my best to reflect this model as well as I could, hopefully a bit through the eyes of the initiators, Nuno Lisboa, Filipa César and Olivier Marboeuf. Thus I will start by describing an encounter with one of them, from a reversed perspective:

It is morning. We have all spend our first night in Arcos, after we watched the opening films, discussing them too. As one of the leading organizers, I move downstairs to the hotel restaurant where breakfast is served. I am curious to hear about people’s first night and I enquire to know if they slept well. In the back, I join a young writer we have invited and we talk about Regina Guimarães & Saguenai, two artists from Porto who have been living and working together for many, many years. They voluntarily joined earlier editions of Doc’s Kingdom in the past. Yesterday evening, we proudly presented Saguenai’s Mourir un peu (1985) as the opening film, for which their daughter worked very hard to get the English subtitles ready in time. Furthermore: I speak to the writer and answer his questions regarding their working background. Then I think: there surely is one film he needs to see, to the extent that I already can sense his enthusiasm, even before he has any single notion of its existence. I tell him this and it is impossible to hide my chills.

Being a fresh participant, this was a very important moment for me. Enthusiasm in an industry – or its quirky branches – is far from a given and thus this spontaneous eruption made me more affirmative in an instant. Yet the organizers were not afraid to expound the problems of certain docmentarist issues. In other words, nobody was here for the sake of pleasing one another. People had fun and enjoyed their time, however when it boiled down to it, we were all here for the documentary cause, something that I would like to describe as an engagement with moving-image making in a sense that is in multiple ways absolutely committed to its subject matter (and everything linked). 

The theme of this year’s seminar stemmed from the following image:

 

raum


Troubled waters. Mixed waters. Strange waters. A mixture of intentions, the risk of messing it up, but without it possibly being anyone’s fault. Somehow. An image painted for the seminar, but kept devoid of information. We got to know nothing of its creator. It contains the streams of the sea, always returning to their point of departure and thus the image dissolves or returns nothing but itself. The sea as a source of clues that never stop hinting, promising, giving, like the poster.

If a slightly topical seminar is directed towards certain postcolonial concerns, you nowadays know that there are always people who appropriate these tendencies in order to find out what it has to do with them, with their lives and the way they give shape to it. How to justify this? It is something we need to do, although during this year’s seminar I noticed a particularly broad gap between those who seemed, outside of their films, still busy with justifying their endeavors through elaborate discourse, whereas others plainly stated things and spoke continually in direct relation to the film. It is not to say that the others were not, but there is a tangible difference here. It even forced me to create this opposition as an integral part of the text.

Or, as Lucrecia Martel says in this interview on her latest feature Zama (2017): ‘’You only address colonialism with solemn seriousness if you don’t experience it daily.’’ This is exactly my point. In the weeks since the seminar I kept trying to solve this puzzle that was forming in my head. This was complicated due to the fact that I appreciated films made by both sides (yes, that’s right: sides). One film was Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1983), a film that lulled everyone to a zen-like state through which we could calmly discuss the matters at hand. It was a condition many of the participants did not expect, because after all, the film tells a painful story about a black American family. How can such a film not be heavy at hand? I am sure it has perplexed many spectators since its 1983 release. On top of this, we had the crucial luck of having Woodberry himself around as a seminarian. He concisely asked and answered multiple questions, without ever overdoing it.

Then, on the other hand, there were Graeme Thomson and Silvia Maglioni, of which the programmers picked two films (without them knowing what exactly would be shown, as with all of the filmmakers invited) including the longest one of the entire seminar: Dissapear One (2015). It revolves around a group of human beings who partake in a theatre play, as performed on a cruise in the middle of the Atlantic. These people, though, are very open and fluid in their expressions, excessively so, meaning that many of the acts they perform as part of the film can be unbearable for some. This audiovisual constellation, an exploratory excavation and test of our empathy, imbued me with perhaps the saddest and most precipitous feeling I ever experienced while watching a film. This is not a judgmental remark. The film tested the flooding capacity of my emotions. As Alexander Kluge once observed: ‘’People are onlookers to their own feelings, so to speak. They stroll through a zoo, through a panopticon of feelings. That’s surely the real form of melodrama, not that we go away having learned something.’’ But beware, this is not a mere melodrama, since many people left during the film. They were bored or did not care. For me, this ambivalence which temporarily altered the atmosphere in the same sense that Woodberry’s did, albeit in a completely new direction. This exemplified that this was not melodrama, according to Kluge’s definition of the opera in general, as a power plant of emotions, since people were too irritated or distracted. It is an overabundance of affect. Not knowing what to do with it. A problem of communication.

I decided to let this and the seminar’s momentum sink. And in the weeks that passed, I watched other films. One was John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project (2013), and I want to invoke it because it is almost anti-obsessed with transposing knowledge, the ending in particular: it soothed my mind. Due to that it allowed me to breathe and think like Woodberry’s film. While, if one is acquainted with Akomfrah, one knows he could very well have been capable of justifying his discourse and of telling the importance of this or that meeting with this or that intellectual juggernaut. But somehow he resists this in this film. Somehow, anecdotes of who you know and why they matter, do not matter. It is all contained in the film itself. And this is also what seemed at stake at this year’s Doc’s Kingdom. A worthy concern.

Bless Their Little HeartsBless Their Little Hearts (Billy Woodberry, 1983)

I could have ended the text here, and this would have been unmistakably easy. Since what does a sentence with words like “worthy“ and “concern“ mean? A few days ago, I had a call with a filmmaker who attended an event that hoped to create a counter-hegemonic public sphere during and against a major national film festival. He reported, saying that it was good “for putting some issues back on the map“, which actually translates as a wish to be absorbed by the festival the organizers are trying to question. Can that possibly happen if it originates so tightly in relation to its main antagonist? As I browse through eighty-six pages of notes jotted down between the 3rd and the 8th of September, I realize that many of its intimate descriptions point, almost instinctively, to a very subjective interest. One that moves me back to my personal life and therefore to, among many other things, a projection of what documentary cinema needs. This opposition I consciously created between imagined collections of bodies, what are they but fictional? Because these sides do not exist but in my very experience of this year’s seminar, and in the many notes on participating artists who happen to be penniless rather than institutionalized.

Straub emphasized this by saying how difficult it is to describe what we see in front of us, as it exposes us too, as we try to engage in a distancing from our own emotions. An important paradox. For one due to its questioning of what work is and how to value it. For another that it cannot hide where the observator comes from. Many canonical works that stem from the established tradition of Direct Cinema provide us with a tricky idea: that the films contain elements of direct-ness as a constitutive body. That we can see all the way through to its bottom. Rerouting us to a pivotal discussion point: what is a surface? Can the sea also be flat? Flatness as full and rich as the deepest pit?

When Regina Guimarães at one point speaks about cinema, and her cinédrawing La panne des sens (2014)she utters the following: “Cinema has a draft-like quality to it, and this film is more like a drawing.” Thus she proposes something different from many of the seminar’s invited artists, namely that by deciding a priori that a film is something devoid of value, and not a commodifiable object to extract financial or sociocultural profit from. Is this not also an embodiment of the seminar’s main intent? To steer itself away from exhausted roads fortified by others? I will only find out through returning, reconsidering.

 

”You need air between objects in order to paint well like you need feelings between ideas in order to think properly.” – Joachim Gasquet

DKFeg3kXoAAGHhP

Cézanne: Conversation avec Joachim Gasquet (Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, 1990)

+

IMG_3771A doodle by Regina Guimarães, made during Doc’s Kingdom ’17, photographed on a desk in Vienna

On the time-full practice of being care-full

We Had the Experience But Missed the Meaning by Laida Lertxundi

I have never seen a single film in my life. And will probably never do so until I die.

Yes: I witnessed, I looked, I viewed and I’ve watched plenty (not to mention: ‘’glanced’’).

Since a couple of weeks, I variably started having films by five authors for breakfast, lunch and dinner (Chantal Akerman, Marguerite Duras, Sander Hölsgens, Farah Hasanbegović and most habitually: Laida Lertxundi). All were selected because I want to undergo the process similar to that of a musical diet. But instead via cinema. Meaning: I admit and acknowledge to myself that if I watch a film for, let’s say, thirty days, new insights will excavate themselves out of this repetition. The necessity to look and discern the objects in a film, instead of the hunt for its affect, constitutes your commitment to the film. It helps you to flatten these surface-leveled affects, strips them down. In light of my recent experience, it is only then that the true affect of a film can present itself.

Now, how does repetition relates itself to the work of Laida Lertxundi? Through her explorations of the mechanisms of intimacy, and its endless variations, we are constantly being put into the process of an initiation. A beginning. A reset. But a re-setting in which a deliberate repetition is detectable. So why are her films invoking unforeseen images every time you watch them? Are they not the same films?

The tiniest detail in Lertxundi’s work compressively inhibits and negotiates possible levels of differentiation. As Badiou put it in In Praise of Love: ‘’At the most minimal level, people in love put their trust in difference rather than being suspicious of it. Reactionaries are always suspicious of difference in the name of identity; that’s their general philosophical starting-point. If we, on the contrary, want to open ourselves up to difference and its implications, so the collective can become the whole world, then the defence of love becomes one point individuals have to practise. The identity cult of repetition must be challenged by love of what is different, is unique, is unrepeatable, unstable and foreign. In 1982 in the Theory of the Subject I wrote: “Love what you will never see twice.”

When I’m looking at a Lertxundi, I learn to love what is impossible to re-see. I learn to walk the streets, looking a bit more care-full. Knowing that everything I see can never be re-seen and therefore deserves my love. I would like to argue that her way of structuring films departs from a point of tight consistency. In which we are reminded, through these repetitive rhythms of singular moments, that differentiation is born precisely out of our willingness to look (back) and reflect. Her films allow one to get accustomed to what is different, unique, unrepeatable, unstable and foreign. Through her films you can learn to love what you see every day, in other words: ‘’what you will never see twice.’’

What does it mean to look and view as a filmer? Possibly, alternatively: to try and fixate a foreign moment. A patch of light, gently caressing and temporarily weaving itself through the hair of a person on the lookout of a boat, sailing. Until it fades again.

Quoting the late Victor Perkins: ‘’Significance… arises rather from the creation of significant relationships than from the presentation of things significant in themselves.’’

And since light is as much material as anything envisioned by the camera and perceived by the wo/man, the artificially constructed procedure through which Lertxundi lets me spend attention is, and makes possible, to access her films in such and such a way that allows me to realize how all the things we watch, attempt to hear, and try to feel are malleable materials that render futile the discussion whether it needs to be projected from its original format… Or not. Indeed: in the case of this filmer, the way light is captured needed to be captured on film. But even/also if we look at it digitally, her care-full attitude remains.

After I watched six of her films chronologically, with a friend whose opinion I highly value, we had a fruitful discussion since she had trouble figuring out why Lertxundi’s work provoked me so. Usually, the authors we watch vary from Duras and Denis to Costa and Godard. Apparently, there is something in these six films, or during these viewings, which in this context undermined and disrupted our shared interests and needs, as we usually besail the same stream effortlessly.

The heartbeats of her films are perhaps what make this such an important point of inquiry: you try to describe an image you see, but somehow there is struggle involved. A reluctance. Not against describing what is on-screen, nor off-screen, but against describing this heartbeat. How to measure the rhythm of a heartbeat? If we dare not even touch it with our fingers, how can we do so with our minds?

bhanuuu

Why, then, is this so? One thing is sure for me: everything our gaze crosses paths with has a place in the world as much as the object by which we, as humans, are perceived. The coherence in every aspect of Lertxundi’s imagery is perhaps what makes this tangible. Making tangible that the largest and most unbelievable differences are made slightly visible by movements that are unrepeatable and that our existences are made up of a chain of moments that are strictly not delayable and demand to be acted upon with full care and an almost dire form of attention. And that is what Lertxundi at times manages to aestheticize: a gaze and form of attention-spending that we need to continuate all our lives, but what always proves to be like lethal labor. This is, perhaps, what makes her films at once unbearable and strangely soothing.

There was a moment while writing this piece, when I stopped working it through and passed it on to my editor, he commenting that it was not as thorough as it could have been. Not critiquing on the quality of what I wrote, but mostly on what I didn’t write, on what I left out. It is very much true that this piece was by no means ready. Since without Badiou, and including a couple of pivotal sentences that stem from In Praise of Love, I would never have been engraved by her films as much as I am. This text feels as a connection of loose relationships, taking that risk. But is it sometimes not better to assist in connecting the dots, rather than forcing oneself to think of something that isn’t even there in the first place?

Perchance, the age gap shaped the difference between my reception, and my friend’s. Perchance, it did not. What is that thing, that particularity, that milks from me a thrill so very rare? Not only will I never know, but most crucially and frightening: neither will I ever see.

Cry When It Happens, perhaps my favorite, entered me as her most coherent work. Although: could it be that all of her films touch someone else, making this issue of “wholeness“ or “concreteness“ no longer as a generality, but as something really personal? That she does not want to make films that form a wholeness that speaks to us all, a universally felt wholeness, so to speak, but a fiercely private one? Redetermined via each separate film? Guiding us to a modus operandi of putting our feelings at stake. Willingly. Reminding us that we can only ever be the sum of our wing spans.

We Had the Experience But Missed the Meaning by Laida Lertxundi

We Had the Experience But Missed the Meaning

To love is to struggle, beyond solitude, with everything
in the world that can animate existence.
This world where I see for myself the fount of
happiness my being with someone else brings.
“I love you” becomes: in this world there is the
fount you are for my life. In the water from this
fount, I see our bliss, yours first. As in Mallarmé’s
poem, I see:

In the wave you become
Your naked ecstasy.*

Cry When It Happens by Laida Lertxundi

Cry When It Happens

  *A prematurely conclusive bundle of words, also by Badiou. (In Praise of Love, 2012, p.104)

Perceptible layers of friendship, or when only adults are capable of play

Oftentimes it is assumed that youthful playfulness is lost in transition

                                                                                     lost in translation

 

as we maneuver from one age category to another

 

being disciplined to play, in certain spaces and within certain time slots,

 

what does it mean to play [in high school] – what does it mean to play [on a film set]

 

Theater play? Amusement, entertainment? Latitude, range? Have fun? Compete in sport? Act; take the part of? Gamble, risk? Produce music?

Definitions too reductive. Yet they all apply.

During last week, I went to the Open Studios at the Jan van Eyck Academie, and I was lucky enough to see a good film about the important subject of kids and how we force them to play.

Flicker like Flames [sketches towards a speculative film] is a film by the British artist Sol Archer, who, during his period in Rotterdam, tried to make a film with kids from a local high school. They recorded everything themselves. Here’s to the Future is a film by the American filmer and writer Gina Telaroli. A film made with and by friends on a sunny Sunday.

The group of children don’t know cinema. Most of them will become craftsmen. Or might become drug dealers. But before that, they are still permitted to reenact masculine standards by means of remaking scenes from Game of Thrones or Furious 7. Now, they do this together and they have fun in doing so. You see them laughing, making jokes. Working as a team, as classmates, in order to reach their ‘’goals.’’ They play, that is sure. But are they, in their context, capable of playing freely?

film setFlicker like Flames [sketches towards a speculative film] (Sol Archer, 2017)

For Telaroli’s film, she invited all sorts of friends to participate in its production. Artists, critics, all sorts of people. Most of them happen to be ‘’experts’’ on cinema. Yet this film is as ‘’messy’’ as the one made by the high school kids. They try to do everything in order to not reach anything. My mom remarked: ‘’I can’t bear watching this, is this even a film?’’ She took herself to bed.

Does true play demand true work? If our mothers can’t even imagine this, I don’t want to think about all the play/work that’s still lying ahead of us. All the play that still needs to be done. To be dealt with. People always say that ‘’we as adults inevitably need to deal with doing the work and nothing but the work itself’’ but perhaps this is not work but play. What then is this? Do I have any clue of what goes through my body when I think of ‘’play’’?

flmset2 Flicker like Flames [sketches towards a speculative film] (Sol Archer, 2017)

 As was said by Thomas Henricks’ in his essay The Nature of Play: An Overview:

‘’First published in 1938, Huizinga’s work [Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture] focuses both on the nature of play and on its changing significance in European societies from the classical period to modern times. The best known element of Homo Ludens is Huizinga’s statement of five defining characteristics of play. First, play is a relatively free or voluntary activity in which people set the terms and timing of their own involvement. Second, play is distinguished from routine affairs by its absence of material consequences. Third, play is separated from other activities by its use of exotic rules, playing spaces, ideas of time, costumes, and equipment. Fourth, play is marked by the way in which it both honors rules and yet encourages transgression and disorder. And fifth, play promotes the banding together of participants in “secret” or otherwise outlandish societies.

Here’s to the Future is very true, and for many of us, confrontational. Precisely because it is ticking all the boxes of what is outlined above. To me it transposed the idea that very possibly, we should not try to ‘’re-discover playfulness’’ again. But rather: to invent it for the very first time. We see the film and we feel that we’ve been tricking ourselves. That there is nothing to retrieve. Grounded in the belief that a film set can serve as a secluded place in which we make time to strengthen our bonds. To make friends but particularly to make friendships better by allowing each other to do something with our anxieties, safely. Is this also a form of playing with fire?

 Later on, Henricks continues:

‘’Although Huizinga was committed to the idea of playfulness as a spirit or orientation within societies, he also emphasized that those same societies historically have maintained frameworks—sometimes involving carefully protected times and spaces—to encourage playful behaviors. Clearly, such is the case with “games,” which are cultural formats that help people interact in defined ways and ensure the continuity of play across time and space. Sociologist Erving Goffman (1974) called these models for behavior “frames.” In that sense, play (as opposed to work, religious ritual, “real” fights, etc.) is a broad cultural arena where people learn to recognize, anticipate, and orient themselves. And there are more specific kinds of play—jokes, daydreams, contests—that we also understand. We “play” when we participate in these cultural forms.’’

Thus I noticed that one group of filmmakers (the high school kids from Rotterdam) is functioning much more within a frame that is supposedly determined to ‘’teach them something.’’ Whereas the second (the film enthusiasts) are much more willing to ‘’learn something’’, collectively. In spite of not needing to be on Telaroli’s set, while all the kids do need to partake in Archer’s shoot. So who’s really, radically, playing?

‘’As the last paragraph of Homo Ludens somewhat ruefully puts it, play in the final analysis “lies outside morals” and “in itself is neither good nor bad.” Play pursues neither truth nor justice but is instead a fundamentally aesthetic endeavor, a set of practices that explore the meanings of experience in a wide range of scenes and settings.’’

And this was precisely what interested me about these two films. Archer exposing education’s necessary evil: cloaked as ‘’play,’’ young adolescents are slowly being taught to indeed judge and to indeed, learn how to act in a shallow resemblance of society. It is important that many of the ‘’frames’’ or ‘’games’’ that are established and played also expand beyond the schoolyard. Telaroli, on the other hand, gets rid of these important restrictions and makes thinkable and sensible a first exposure to play in adulthood, perhaps also in life as a whole. Or is it safe to say: ‘’fun’’?

Both of these films, at points, provide hints of having fun. Now, it’s about time to inject a third player: Helen Hill’s The World’s Smallest Fair (1995). Not only is this unexpected visitor crushing many of the relations that were set and developed by the other two films, but foremost she is no longer concerned with rationality. As Soderbergh wrote when he posted his cut of 2001: A Space Odyssey; The Return of W. De Rijk: ‘’sometimes you have to cross the line to know where the line is. just ask any two-year-old.’’

In Hill’s film, she and her classmates from CalArts ‘’create one square mile of cotton candy in fantastical shapes.“ And in this square mile, sounds are recorded and images are taken which were uttered in a secluded period of time. I did ask: if they are really playing, why then are they looking for these boundaries? Is it not a tool in order te retrieve the sanity required to keep going outside of this particular square? Is it not a merely functional way of appropriating our ideas of ‘’having fun’’? Just as functional as the kids from high school? My conviction is: no. The ‘’just as’’ I employed is risky, since it tries to level these two inherently different endeavors. Limiting both their distinctly alternating affects and effects.


smallestfairr2The World’s Smallest Fair (Helen Hill, 1995)

I do need to add that Hill’s film evokes a similar response among flocks of people: namely, that of the assumption that this is not a film, or cannot be taken seriously as a film, because the characters involved do not seem to be taking it seriously themselves. But who says this is so? To establish a sense of communitas, “the sense of sharing and intimacy that develops among persons who experience liminality as a group“, a lot of sacrifices are demanded from each of the individuals who agree to participate. The intensity with which I see the – here it comes – art students interact with each other in this film, must have been quite exhaustive. Now, the fact that their involvement is explicitly mentioned in Hiller’s description of the film, is not making it easier for the skeptics to open up. Anyhow: people who live in glass houses should not throw stones, so I’d better rest my case.

What all these films present, are different conceptions and executions of what we see as play and fun. But to reduce them solely as devices to get something done or to reach a different point, is inescapable. Especially in cinema, where we are almost always existing in relation to how people around us spend their time, it is exceptionally daring to try to break with this habit. We are all possibly lonely, and to move away from ourselves we need to act in accordance to others. What some of these do signify, luckily, is that we do not need, a priori, to determine and calculate their outcomes. And I guess all three films that I tried to discuss in this text make such outcomes, and let’s say it, function, rather unpredictable.

making visible layers of friendshipHere’s to the Future (Gina Telaroli, 2014)