Transcending confinement

    • Festival
    • November 23, 2020
    • By Ela Bittencourt

    In Maria Alvarez’s Le temps perdu a group of elders meets regularly at a café in Buenos Aires to pore over the novels by Marcel Proust. Before long, someone notes that Proust barely left his bed. While confinement spells doldrums for some, it was clearly no match for this ardent mind.

    This message recurs in the Kammerspiel Pathway, featuring directors who conjure magic from sparse ingredients. Most films take place in delineated spaces, sometimes a single room. While some touch upon claustrophobia, many brim with a thrilling sense of reimagining form. They remind us that in cinema, as in all the arts, limitation can be a strength.

    In Alvarez’s film, magic emanates from prose. One reader confines that he can’t walk past the Colon Theater, where he worked for thirty years, without feeling Proustian. His world has shrunk but art offers a reprieve. The camera captures the bustle outside the café. Inside, it opens onto imaginary vistas of Proust’s Paris and the readers’ delectation in their own past.

    Sometimes cinema stages its magic openly. In the short Facunda, Marta Romero observes her grandmother’s daily routines confined to the apartment and the street below. But rather than taking a fly-on-the-wall approach, Romero gives her grandmother deliberate instructions and so demasks her film as a conceit. The “show, don’t tell” mantra gets upended. In return, the notion of ordinary life sheds its habitual trappings.

    In the short film Hello Grandma, Kamila Chojnacka films herself and her husband and baby while isolating through a Covid-19 outbreak. The story revolves around Chojnacka’s repeated phone calls to her grandmother, who breaks social-distancing rules, though she also obsesses about her death, often tragi-comically. Chojnacka wields the camera as an essential extension of herself, refusing to put it down, against her husband’s protests. What is the meaning of privacy when it’s always exposed, he seems to ask? But Chojnacka’s absorbing film can be said to offer a counter-argument: Isn’t the burden of women’s housework and childrearing even less visible now? And isn’t film meant to make us feel seen and less alone?

    A window onto the world and the past

    A number of films in the Kammerspiel Pathway demonstrate that it’s still possible to encounter the world and others while staying put. In Thomas Imbach’s masterful second feature, Nemesis, shot entirely from his balcony, the world outside is loud, disruptive, yet mesmerizing. Imbach points his lens at the train station in Zurich that’s being demolished to build a police station and a prison for refugees. For seven years, Imbach follows the demolition and building process, as well as the lot’s reincarnations, as a haunt for artists, protestors and lovers seeking privacy. Imbach’s collaging of 35mm footage is cinema at its most mesmerizing. Changes in speed and layered sound design make routine construction seem as if a prelude to an apocalypse. Machines roar, metal beasts poised for Armageddon. The film also betrays a Proustian vein, as Imbach links the site to his family’s past in the voiceover. Meanwhile the words of asylum seekers help to frame the station, Europe’s connective point, in contrast with EU’s closing off.

    Nemesis hints at geopolitical violence. Gianfranco Rosi’s hypnotically claustrophobic El Sicario, Room 164 (2010), on the other hand, recaps it. The titular sicario, a hitman for a Mexican drug cartel, meets Rosi in a motel room in an unspecified location. We can’t imagine the full horridness of sicario’s deeds, his identity a secret and his face hidden under a cloth, but he makes schematic drawings in a notebook to walk us through his story. These become the only vestige of bodies disappeared without a trace and mighty cartel bosses. The room acts as a confessional, and yet, even in this sheltered space, we experience the horror of looking back.

    The desire to account for the past also fuels Hala El Kouch’s poignant debut, The Perfect Picture. El Kouch films conversations with her parents to bring everyone closer by confronting the truth. At the film’s core lies a hurtful incident that made El Kouch angry and resentful. Addressing the camera and each other, the family engages in a dialogue that keeps breaking down. Thanks to El Kouch’s confrontational, obsessive approach, the result is a gripping psycho-drama. It reminds us, with no small humility, that if cinema is a window, sometimes it opens a crack before it promptly shuts again. Cinema, just as real life, is bound by endless contingencies.

    El Sicario and The Perfect Picture are haunting because their protagonists’ anguish points to trauma that happened off-stage. As in a Greek tragedy, we’re witnessing the aftermath. But sometimes what’s left out of the picture can be a vehicle for situational comedy. It’s what happens in Marc Isaacs’ mockumentary, The Filmmaker’s House. At the film’s start, Isaacs' home seems like a curious gathering spot for his Hispanic cleaning lady, Muslim female neighbor, an Eastern-Europe homeless man, and a working-class Brit. Isaacs prods his subjects on their innermost feelings eliciting fraught confessions. But the more he lifts a veil onto this purported microcosm of the contemporary British society, the more spurious his efforts appear to be. Isaacs uses the documentary’s power to build trust to then flip on its head the notion of cinema as a window onto reality. But the result isn’t derisory; instead, it elicits awe for cinema’s persuasiveness.

    What time builds and destroys

    A number of films in the Kammerspiel Pathway encapsulate the uncanny sense of time passing. In Havog Hagopian’s evocative short, Storgetnya, the dark tunnels of an Armenian salt mine are an unlikely stage for a ping-pong match. It’s part of a therapy that respiratory patients undergo in the mineral-laden air. Hagopian’s camera luxuriates in murky scenes, in which the patients’ fate takes on a metaphysical aspect. “Life passed like a dream, just that,” says a middle-aged patient, as if echoing a famous Spanish play.

    Life’s passing is the subject of Dan Wei’s stark, black-and-white documentary, The Ark, in which a Chinese family keeps vigil at the hospital bed of a beloved grandmother, while the Covid-19 pandemic rages in Wuhan and around the globe. Alarming news seeps in via television and iPhones, but is drowned out by the immensity of grief. While it exposes moral doubts and fraught medical bureaucracies, plus patients’ vulnerability, on a deeper level, The Ark is about the slow acceptance of time’s inevitable toll.

    Time is the unaccounted protagonist in Bill and Turner Ross’s hybrid extravaganza, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, an ode to their favorite bars. Regulars gather at The Roaring ‘20s to bid goodbye to their staple dive. Across the land, small businesses are failing, gobbled up by corporate sprawl, neighborhoods gone bust. But inside, for a single night, the barman turns out drinks, men and women dance and confine in each other, brawl, and nap on the beat-up couches. The images are slightly ruddy, like pinched flesh, so close sometimes the camera seems to get under the protagonists’ skin. In this heat, anxiety and sorrow creep in: tales of divorces, past wars, veterans soured on agitprop, actors who dread failure. More than these individual stories, the bar vibrates with its own pulse — first giddy with anticipation, then increasingly delirious, and only then languid, bottomed-out and sobered. By the time the partygoers are spewed out into the harsh glare of morning, it’s as if a different era had dawned. We may not be so lucky to experience this feeling so soon while the pandemic lasts, but the Ross Brothers have built a time capsule so intoxicating and fluid it makes you want to linger in its thrall. The credits always come too soon.

    Ela Bittencourt is a critic and cultural journalist, currently based in São Paulo. She writes on art, film and literature, often in the context of social issues and politics.

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