The new Artemis Projects film screening in Sydney next month:
“To arrive at a provisional assessment of a writer’s worth it is not necessary to know what or upon what he has thought…it is sufficient in the first instance to know how he has thought. Now an exact impression of this how of his thinking, of its essential nature and prevailing quality, is provided by his style. For this reveals the formal nature of all a man’s thoughts, which must always remain the same no matter what or upon what he thinks.”
‘On Books and Writing’, Parerga and Paralipomena (1851), trans. R. J. Hollingdale (1970).
Japanese master director Yasujiro Ozu’s elegance and grace is on full display in his 1953 classic, melancholic Tokyo Story. Filmed with his typical sense of restraint and simplicity, achieved in part by a mostly static frame, with the characters lovingly photographed as a series of portraits in close-up, Ozu literally and thematically pulls our humanity to the fore, amid forces larger than ourselves, in this case the inexorable march of the modern age. These portraits capture every flicker of human emotion in extraordinary nuance, ranging from kindness through to grief. One is reminded of the range of masks in Japanese Noh theatre, yet Ozu rather celebrates the unsurpassable beauty and subtlety of the human face.
In the aftermath of WW2, the modern age creates all sorts of demands on the Hirayama family, making it difficult for the grandparents, Shukichi and Tomi, to spend any quality time with their children when they finally get the chance to visit them in Tokyo. The eldest son, Koichi, takes his responsibilities as a suburban doctor seriously enough to attend to his patients rather than to spend time showing his aging parents the city. The eldest daughter, Shige, likewise has the demands of her hair and beauty business to take care of. The result is that the visiting elderly couple are left quasi-destitute in a large city, except for the fact that their daughter-in-law, Noriko, a widow of their youngest son who died eight years ago in the war (and whose death poignantly everybody prefers to justify as a prolonged absence), chooses to care for them. Ozu seems to offer Noriko as a beacon of hope, almost as an angel, in a modern world where we prefer to look after our jobs rather than one another. The actress Setsuko Hara’s performance lends Noriko charming grace, while never letting us forget that immense pain and grief lie just underneath the surface.
It is the spectre of modernism that is the true source of anxiety in Tokyo Story. Its ambassadors are steam trains and cargo boats, seemingly in perpetual motion. Ozu’s stillness is offered up as a silent protest to this ineluctable movement; he offers us a pièce-de-résistance in the form of quiet contemplation; a sanctuary into which we can for a couple of blissful hours forget the incessant pulse of our mobile phones. The old couple stand as a powerful bastion of noble acceptance in the face of change, united in their unspoken love for each other. So much so that with the death of the grandmother Tomi, Ozu seems to suggest that not only have we lost a wife and a mother, but also an irretrievable part of our humanity in the face of an unrelenting modernity.
“the poet, and even more the philosopher, in whom thought has attained such a degree that, neglecting individual phenomena in existence, he stands in wonder before existence itself, before this mighty sphinx, and makes of it his problem.”
‘On Psychology’, Parerga and Paralipomena (1851), trans. R. J. Hollindgale (1970).
Swiss director Jan Gassmann’s intimate observational documentary, Europe, She Loves (2016), is a love-letter to Europe. A camera tracks across scenes from different cities in Europe, as if seen from the back window of a passing car, celebrating the ease with which this pan-European crew can move from one city to the next. The work itself is the result of extensive collaboration between crews across five European cities: Tallinn, Dublin, Seville, Thessaloniki, and Zagreb. And the stories of the four young couples, one from each city (- The Zagreb story was left out of the final film -), unifies, rather than separates, these different cultures with their overwhelming sense of shared humanity.
This love-letter, however, is no paean, but a eulogy. Gassmann is well aware of the challenges facing Europe, and news bulletins are repeatedly used to draw attention to the various crises playing out across the EU. The couples seemingly live their microcosmic lives divorced from the broader forces at play, but in truth the macro powers assert themselves forcefully into the deepest inner sancta of these private relationships: Caro, a girl in Seville, unable to find a job amid high youth unemployment, leaves her boyfriend behind and heads out on her own towards Paris; Veronika, a Tallinn mother of two, tries to support her family by performing as a go-go dancer all night long, while breast-feeding during the day; a Dublin couple, through an overwhelming boredom caused by lack of opportunities, fall inexorably back into drugs; a Thessaloniki couple whose relationship is on the brink because the girl, Penny, is poised to leave Greece, against the backdrop of street riots.
One of the most striking things about the film is the rare intimacy with which Gassmann has been brought into these lovers’ lives, filming the couples in their most private of moments, not excluding sex. The sex in the film, far from being gratuitous, draws us more profoundly into the deep personal bonds between characters; the nuances of the various relationships explored through the slightest of body language and gesture.
Gassmann loves his characters as much as he loves Europe, and one cannot help but feel, as the various couples feel the strain between each other, the underlying angst that is simmering away in Europe’s heart. The only hope that remains is perhaps indicated in the strength of the love between the Estonian couple, who are the ones closest to healing their ruptures and forging the foundations of a shared future together.
Infused with the long shadows of the past and ineluctable reflections of the future, No Home Movie (2015), Chantal Akerman’s final film before her death at the age of 65, is at once an elegy to her dying mother, Natalia, and a profound personal confession, as the filmmaker attempts to confront the possibility of a world without her ‘maman’.
Once again for Akerman her fixation with space takes centre stage; in this film the Belgian apartment of her dying mother which feels like both sacred refuge and shadowy tomb. Filming through curtains, and repeatedly moving from inside to outside, like a moth drawn towards the light but which can’t quite reach it, Akerman constantly achieves a sense of confinement within the apartment. Her mother’s belongings and furniture become, in the typical frontal style that has made Akerman famous, relics like those found in a museum.
Akerman, as world-travelled filmmaker, cannot remain inside this space for very long. She is a figure that is always passing through, but never staying. As the title suggests, this is “No Home” for her. Her transience compounds the sense of inevitability when, in the last scene that we see her in, she takes her leave from her mother for the last time, drawing the curtains back and taking suitcase in hand. By contrast the filmmaker’s world, driven by the curiosity of an artist, opens up upon the large, rolling expanses of a desert (filmed in Israel).
And yet while Akerman contrasts the confinement of her mother against her own sense of freedom, I couldn’t help but feel that it was precisely in these spaces, in these “distances” (as she calls them in the film) that I feel her come closest to her mother. It’s almost as if Akerman has to create distance in order to draw closer to her, and in this sense I am reminded of her earlier film News from Home (1977) where she reaches out to her mother from the distance of New York. When Akerman is at home with Natalia if feels as if they talk rather than connect. As Natalia confides to her carer at one point, Chantal “never talks”, or at least “never says anything interesting”. It is conversely when they are apart that I feel the moments of greatest connection: in the way that Natalia’s face lights up on the skype screen, barely being able to conceal the joy of seeing her daughter; in the way that Akerman movingly films her own reflection in the same screen, blurring the two identities into one, her own outline woven into the eyes of her mother; or in the landscape where the two are joined together in their spiritual home, as one image suggests: two mountains facing each other, a small fault line running between them.
It’s hard to watch such a personal film. It’s even harder to watch it in light of the untimely death of its author. We still feel her presence so strongly emanating from the screen, still breathing on us like the wind that blows through the field of grass in one scene. Akerman is the tree of the film’s opening, battered by strong winds yet standing there triumphantly, surveying the terrain beneath her. In this image we can feel that she has finally come home.
In his latest film Death in Sarajevo (Smrt u Sarajevu), Bosnian director Danis Tanovic (No Man’s Land, 2002) , brilliantly confronts the “hysterical dualism” at play in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the context of its impending inclusion in the EU. This “hysterical dualism” identified by a Bosnian historian who is being interviewed in a film within the film, is most clearly expressed by the differing attitudes towards the figure of Gavrilo Princip who assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, an event considered the catalyst of the First World War: was/is Princip a “terrorist” or a “hero”?
Death in Sarajevo, loosely adapted from the play Hotel Europe by French writer Bernard-Henri Levy, in fact takes place on the centenary of Ferdinand’s death, and raises the prospect of approaching the same event in history through radically different narratives. By doing so, Tanovic invites the possibility that history in Bosnia-Herzegovina continues to be radicalised, forces behind the Balkan War of the 1990s in which the country suffered the worst casualties of all the nations of former Yugoslavia.
Set in a swish hotel in modern Sarajevo, where the likes of Angelina Jolie and Bill Clinton once stayed, as the weary hotel manager Omer (Izudin Bajrovic) informs us, Tanovic deftly uses the various spaces, to present us with an allegory of the various strata of Bosnian society, from the nightclub thugs in the basement, up to the French diplomat in the penthouse (perhaps suggesting the true influence that the EU exerts on Bosnia-Herzegovina). Above him, though, on the rooftop a Bosnian journalist, Vedrana (Vedrana Seksan), interviews a number of people for her television show, with modern Sarajevo looming large in the background, and I suspect an affinity for the role that film/television can play here, looking down from a bird’s-eye view at the big issues at play in society. Incidentally, the power of the image is alluded to at other points in the film, through the omniscience of security cameras within the hotel. It is also used as the final shot in the film.
What is striking about the way Tanovic treats each of his subjects – from the smooth-talking gangster in the basement (to whom he gives some of his funniest lines – about a worm living in shit), to Hatidza who has dedicated her last thirty years to working in the laundry, to her daughter Lamija (Snezana Vidovic) who has become a sassy head receptionist, to Lamija’s latest one-night stand, a new love-smitten sous-chef, to the wife-harried, coke-snorting security guard, to the desparate hotel manager, right up to a gun-toting Serb nationalist on the roof – is the depth of humanity he is able to infuse in each of them. Superb editing, sometimes pausing momentarily on a character as they stare wordlessly in deep thought, as if catching a private out-take, intercuts between the various characters, weaving them together into one seamless tapestry, that is a succession of narratives lived together, each unknowingly affecting the other. Long takes following one character, then surprisingly intercepting with the trajectory of another character, bears visual witness to this concept. You can’t help but get the feeling in Tanovic’s universal inclusivity, that in spite of all of his characters’ differences they are united by circumstance; by this shared, complex narrative web called History that has imprinted itself like a scar upon Sarajevo and all who live there.