Blog #8/20 – Woche der Kritik 2020: Losing All Sense of Rule
By Hugo Emmerzael
Silvia Maglioni and Graeme Thomson’s Common Birds captures the process of two severely indebted men abandoning their assigned posts in civilization. They seek to find refuge amongst the birds in a forest, somehow still unharmed by the human condition. And just like the wanderers at its center, this film also refuses to adhere to what we’d call conventions or norms. It’s a film that replaces a traditional economy of visual, written and spoken language for its own set of gestures. It has found its own dialogues between images and words, bodies and places, fantasies and realities.
The almost wordless journey to the mythical forest has traces of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966) and Teorema (1968), in the sense that they’re all allegorical and fantastical expressions of desperation and displacement. These road-movies-of-sorts are highly charged parables that reflect on economic depression and political oppression. As in Pasolini’s films, the journey in Common Birds can be seen as a refusal to stand in line with society’s picking order. Though tragically, yet unsurprisingly, the final destination comes with its own set of complications: the forest actually hosts an alternative world where other forms of language and communication are used, which are circumscribed by just as many possibilities and shortcomings as those of the bankrupt city.
Common Birds suggests that escaping from any kind of structure will always bring you in the fold of another. So the actual intent of the journey should reside in the process of creating distance. It’s distance that gives one the ability to explore, compare, and critique. Or as French filmmaker and critic Jean Epstein has put it: “[i]n a universe where everything moves and changes, one risks losing all sense of rule, apart from those laws defining this mobility and change.”
Woche der Kritik is all up for change and mobility and willing to take such risks. It takes pleasure and pride in losing the sense of rules. That’s why Common Birds is such an effective text to describe what it feels like to be in the Hackesche Höfe Kino during this insular program. At the risk of sounding sentimental, it truly feels like a refuge from a certain big film festival happening around the same time in Berlin.
Wanderers to Woche der Kritik will find a distant place where conventional notions of cinema are continuously challenged, attacked, defended, and critiqued. It’s a brave venture towards new possibilities of screening, watching, and discussing film that interestingly also has learnt to embrace its own rigidity and limitations. Naturally, finding new words for new images is hard, and sometimes the programmed events of Woche der Kritik fall short in that regard. However, the ultimate allure of these events is that they open up spaces where you’re allowed to fail, where you may leave frustrated, and where you can agree to disagree, or disagree to agree.
Case in point is the surprise film that screened after Common Birds as a sort of reactive double bill. Bruce McDonald’s Pontypool (2008), chosen by the five-person Austrian curatorial group Diskollektiv, is a Canadian film that’s also preoccupied with breaking down norms and tropes, stemming in this case from canonical North American genre cinema. The horror-ish film about a radio team in a small town in Ontario facing the possible outbreak of a virus radically diverges from Common Birds, but shares similar notions about the inescapability of language and the inevitable poisoning of society through mass communication.
But in the post-screening debate, sharp questions arose about the pairing of Common Birds with Pontypool. Was the latter, a mishmash of genre tropes and critical thought, not respectable enough for the former, a more experimental experience that’s not so easily captured in words? In his blog piece, Girish Shambu notes how this line of thinking can devolve into a binary opposition between high and low art, which prompts the important questions: what wandering films and thinkers were even allowed in the refuge of Woche der Kritik and why?
To steal from the lingua franca of the program: Woche der Kritik prefers to auto agitate. The selection committee has programmed films, debates, and speakers that often intentionally clash. The philosophy is that the agitation will reveal new complications, and out of these complications new ideas will arise, resulting in different perspectives on cinema and criticism itself. It’s important to note that none of these complications have to be solved, as Anuj Malhotra begrudgingly witnessed during the inaugural debate. The films in Woche der Kritik don’t need to be fixed. Rather, the pairings of films and debates should be compared to the process of drilling peepholes in them, allowing for different insights and first steps towards other forms of spectatorship.
The debate after the screening of Entire Days Together and Faith managed to achieve these goals in a more satisfactory manner. The evening titled Collapsing Distance featured two documentaries that maintained a delicate balance between distance and intimacy. With a commendable awareness of what frames can simultaneously reveal and keep hidden, Luise Donschen’s Entire Days Together captures fragments of daily life in a school for children with autism. The screening of the film was preceded by a valuable quote from Donschen, cited by host and moderator Dennis Vetter, saying, “Intimacy is a state of deepest connection that knows nothing of the possibility of its violation.”
Whereas her film honors these principles, Valentina Pedicini’s Faith seems to frustrate them. In its portrayal of an Italian sect—a curious hybrid between a Christian cult, a crossfit gym, and a new age dojo—the film is as much a fascinating examination of concepts like community, family, and lineage, as it is a confrontation with the patriarchal power structures that weaponize and exploit these concepts. The post-screening debate found illuminating and useful ways to bring these disparate films together by examining the proximity of the films in relation to their subjects. Donschen’s strategy is to leave plenty of space for the characters to convey a form of emotional proximity. Pedicini’s modus operandi can almost be perceived as invasive, as it is her goal to deny the sect master his power and to film against his patriarchy.
Other evenings had less fruitful debate prompts. The usability of a notion like beauty was easily dismissed by critic and programmer Dennis Lim in a discussion after the screening of Sebastián Lojo’s Los Fantasmas and Garrett Bradley’s America. Surely, both films are beautiful in their own regards, but what does it even mean to find something beautiful? Instead of drilling holes in the films, the panelists refused to even pick up the tools to explore this subject a bit further, leaving the audience indeed a bit agitated. Film critics Xanaé Bove and Neil Young had the most concrete falling out with their fellow spectators when they discussed the double bill of Leonor Teles’s Dogs Barking At Birds and Jung Hyuk-ki’s My Punch-Drunk Boxer. These coming-of-agers, hailing respectively from Portugal and South Korea, share a disdain for gentrification and a nostalgia for far-flung passions, but diverge in their tone and stylistic approach. Yet, Young and Bove were quite eager to box them into well-established genre formats and formulas, leaving not enough space for other critical approaches.
These are but a few of the many examples that highlight the multiplicitousness of this program. There’s certainly no right or wrong way to engage with a film, but the main challenge of Woche der Kritik is to compile programs where debates don’t end up being so intractable or affixed that they smother the possibility of a multiplicitous discourse. It’s no coincidence that this year’s conference theme was Cinema Plural: A Conference without a Theme. This resulted in a plurality of topics, concerns, and demands that raised awareness about the fragile state of arts, ethics, politics, cinema, and cinephilia in our contemporary landscape.
We’re indeed in a universe where everything moves and changes. To try to get a hold of it all is almost a futile undertaking that will surely overwhelm anyone trying to do so. Which is where Epstein comes into play again. To borrow his words as a kind of inconclusive conclusion:
“The scholar, the philosopher, and the cineaste all wonder with deep worry what the power of the mind will be in worlds where permanent structures that seem necessary to any kind of knowledge are loosening, dissolving, and fading away.”
With them, the spectators of Woche der Kritik can wonder along.