Conversation with Lisandro Alonso

Lisandro2

In the context of a retrospective program dedicated to the work of Lisandro Alonso (8 – 16 NOVEMBER 2018, Brussels), after a screening of ‘Jauja’ (2014) on 8 November. An initiative of CINEMATEK, Cinea and Courtisane, in collaboration with the Embassy of Argentina in Brussels and Instituto Cervantes.

La Libertad: the title of Lisandro Alonso’s debut film can also be used as a fitting description for his approach to cinema, one that allows him to follow cinematic paths that aren’t paved with convention or certitude. Instead, The Argentinian filmmaker prefers to intuitively venture forward from the desolate hinterlands that he encounters on his travels to the outskirts of so-called “civilized” life: the endless barren pampas in La Libertad (2001), the swarming green jungle in Los muertos (2004), the frigid snow country of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago in Liverpool (2008), the immense, surreal desert landscapes of the Patagonia region in Jauja (2014), and even the shadowy bowels of the Teatro San Martin in Buenos Aires in Fantasma (2006). Every film’s meticulously filmed setting plays a fundamental role as the backdrop to the wanderings of a solitary, taciturn figure, whose inner life and social history remain shrouded in mystery. The reticent figures drift through frontier places where different worlds come together, where nature and civilization meet, different eras collide, memory and history, fantasy and reality coincide and become entangled, giving Alonso’s cinema a fable-like dimension that seems to shift in complexity and density.

From the circularity of La Libertad’s portrayal of the Sisyphean life of a lumberjack and the linearity of an ex-con’s downriver homeward voyage in Los muertos to the tangential shift in point of view from a sailor to a farmer in Liverpool: for every new film, Alonso finds a new freedom, driven by a searching energy that leads him time and time again towards uncharted territories. His latest film, Jauja – the result of his first collaboration with a writer and professional actors – follows the ever-widening orbit his films have been tracing even further into the register of myth. Starting with a text that refers to a place in Inca folklore, a “mythological land” which men “tried to find but got lost on the way to that earthly paradise,” the film gradually mutates into a hypnotic, trance-like odyssey during which all boundaries between the real and the unreal dissolve. With every new venture, Alonso seems to ever more radically engage with the essential pursuit of his cinematic quest: to leap into the unknown in order to rediscover freedom.

Anne-Marie Miéville retrospective Brussels 04 > 30/10/2018

LE LIVRE DE MARIE dancing

“The love experience will be reshaped into a relationship that is meant to be between one human being and another, no longer one that flows from man to woman.”

This quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, which adorns the end of Lou n’a pas dit non (1994), encapsulates the essence of Anne-Marie Miéville’s quest, which is driven by a universal, imperishable question: how to live together? The same film illustrates par excellence how her singular trajectory finds its way through art history in all its forms, from the sculpture of the mythical couple of Mars and Venus, which occupies a central place in the film, to an extensive pas de deux from Jean-Claude Gallotta’s Docteur Labus that expresses a broad palette of friction and tension between a man and a woman. Again and again, the possible relationship with another is examined as a constant field of tension between stasis and movement, between silence and speech.

Miéville’s delicate study of the challenges of communication and the trials of love is already central in her first short film, How Can I Love (a Man When I Know He Don’t Want Me) (1983), whose title is extracted from Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones (1954). The theme of Carmen doesn’t accidentally recall Prénom Carmen (1983), a film for which Miéville herself provided the screenplay to Jean-Luc Godard, her companion in life and work since they collaborated on the film that would become Ici et ailleurs (1973-‘76). But whilst Prénom Carmen revolves around the unrequited love of a man for a woman, the roles in How Can I Love are reversed. A reversal, as Alain Bergala has remarked, that changes everything, not in the least as seen in the mise-en-scène that reflects the desire for togetherness as a permanent arena in which men more often than not shield themselves, incapable or unwilling to open up to a possible dialogue.

The figure of the man who has lost his confidence in the potential of discourse returns in Le Livre de Marie (1984-‘85), in which a marital separation is portrayed with remarkable elegance and precision from the perspective of the young daughter, who expresses her resistance to the parental drama with the help of language, music and dance. In Miéville’s first feature length film, Mon cher sujet (1988), the power of word and song is employed by three women of as many generations — grandmother, mother and daughter — to acquire a place in a world where women are expected to share everything while men tend to flee from every commitment to share. Also in her following film, Lou n’a pas dit non, it’s the woman who, by exploring various forms of expression and creation, paves the way for a possible exchange, in a perpetual movement of approach, confrontation and reconciliation.

How to give shape to commonality in difference? In Nous sommes tous encore ici (1996), originally devised for theatre, this question is approached using extracts from the work of Plato and Hannah Arendt that resonate in the life of a couple played by Jean-Luc Godard and Aurore Clément, who unmistakably evokes the presence of Miéville. In Après la réconciliation (2000), Godard and Miéville themselves act as two of the four characters involved in philosophical reflections on the powers and limits of language and the challenge to learn to live together with someone else who will always remain a stranger. Sometimes brutal and confrontational, then tender and comforting, Anne-Marie Miéville’s work continues to trust in “the love we are struggling and toiling to prepare the way for, the love that consists in two solitudes protecting, defining and welcoming one another”. (Rilke)

Apart from the films by Anne-Marie Miéville mentioned here, the programme also contains a selection of the work that she accomplished with Jean-Luc Godard, from the films that they produced between 1973 and 1979 under the name Sonimage to Miéville’s collaboration in Godard’s self proclaimed “second life in cinema” and the series of video-essays that they made together from the end of the 1990s onward. Full programme can be found on www.courtisane.be.

An initiative of CINEMATEK and Courtisane, in collaboration with Le Service de Culture cinématographique (SCC). On the occasion of this program, Courtisane, Sabzian and Cinematek have collected a series of writings and interviews in a small-edition publication (French / English).

DISSENT ! Ruth Beckermann

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12 September 2018 20:30, Het Bos, Antwerp

A conversation with Ruth Beckermann, preceded by a screening of Waldheims Walzer (The Waldheim Waltz) (2018, 93′).

“When I looked at the material I shot 30 years ago, I was shocked. Had I really forgotten how easily emotions can be stirred up against others and used by populist politicians? In ‘Waldheims Walzer’ I attempt to analyse what was going on back then, things which seem all too familiar in our present day of Trump, Kurz & Strache and other masters of alternative facts and populism.”

“Waldheim no, Waldheim no” shouts a crowd in the center of Vienna in 1986. Ruth Beckermann was one of the activists trying to prevent the election of Kurt Waldheim and documented the political events with her camera. More than 30 years later she goes back into her own archive and additionally uses international TV-material to analyse this turning point in Austrian political culture. The film shows the tangled web that former UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim became ensnared in by concealing two years of his wartime biography. It shows the swift succession of new allegations by the World Jewish Congress against him, the denial by the Austrian political class, the outbreak of anti-Semitism and patriotism, which finally led to his election. Austria was highly successful in practising the deception on itself and the world that it had been the first victim of the Nazis. Despite the fact that a whole generation knew the truth, this image of innocence was serially reproduced in official speeches, books and Heimatfilms. This film shows how deeper-lying levels of consciousness slowly carve out a path to the surface. Narrated by Ruth Beckermann, The Waldheim Waltz sets the Waldheim affair in a bigger international political context, yet 30 years on, it is dauntingly timely.

An initiative of Courtisane & De Imagerie, in collaboration with and supported by Austrian Cultural Forum Brussels, Goethe-Institut Brussels and Bozar Cinema.

In the context of DISSENT!, an initiative of Courtisane, Auguste Orts and Argos.

Soft Notes on a Sharp Scale – The Rambling Figures of Mani Kaul

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Programme presented in the context of the Courtisane festival 2018.

“I feel I have one relation with Bresson, another with Ghatak. But there is a wide difference between the two. It is strange that I have a relation with two persons so contrary in disposition. I am often trying to figure out how to strike a chord between the two. I have absorbed both of them.”

How can one mention Robert Bresson and Ritwik Ghatak in the same breath, let alone blend them into one single cinematic vision? While the films of the first are most often associated with constraint and rigor, those of the latter are generally identified with sensuousness and exuberance. While one aspired to free cinema from the influence of theatre, the other hinged his cinematic endeavors on his experience with the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Yet for all their differences and peculiarities, Bresson’s ascetic studies of penance and grace and Ghatak’s epic tales of displacement and dispossession seem to have at least one thing in common: a profound impatience with the conventions of dramatic plot structure. It is this impatience that has fuelled Mani Kaul’s ambition to pave his own path through the world of cinema, one that has guided him towards the study of other forms of art, notably of the Indian traditions of Mughal miniature painting and Dhrupad music. In these traditions, Mani Kaul (1944- 2011) found something that he wished to transpose to cinema: an abjuration of the notion of convergence that is ubiquitous in the Renaissance period in western art, in favor of a logic of dispersion and elaboration, as exemplified by the improvisation upon a single scale in Indian Raag music, able to transform a singular figure into a concert of flowing perceptions.

Perhaps this particular attention towards subtle shifts and unfolding movements can be traced back to Mani Kaul’s childhood. As a young boy growing up in the city of Udaipur in Rajasthan, Kaul was suffering from acute myopia, which for a long time he assumed as a normal mode of vision. When he finally saw the world through his first pair of glasses, he would time and again get up at the crack of dawn to see the city come alive before his eyes in a continuous play of light and colour. Right from his early documentary Forms and Design (1968), which sets up an opposition between the functional tools of the industrial age and the decorative forms from Indian tradition, Kaul made it apparent that he was interested in the possibilities of form over functionality. In his first feature film, Uski Roti (1970), inspired by a short story by Mohan Rakesh and the paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil, he pared down plot and dialogue to a bare minimum while emphasizing the experience of time and duration and blurring the distinction between the actual and the imagined. With this radical departure from the prevalent cinematic norms, Kaul established himself as one of the protagonists of the so-called “New Cinema Movement,” alongside notable colleagues such as Kumar Shahani, John Abraham and K.K. Mahajan, who had also studied with Ritwik Ghatak at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune.

The focus on process rather than product was also central to the work of the Yukt Film Cooperative that was set up by a group of FTII graduates and students in the mid-1970s, in response to the state of emergency that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared across India. Kaul, by then a renowned filmmaker, collaborated on their interpretation of Ghashiram Kotwal (1977), based on a popular Marathi play of the same name, which draws out sharp parallels between that dark period of repression and the authoritarian Peshwa regime that ruled over western India on the eve of European colonization. Although the film might appear like a deviance in Kaul’s trajectory, its mixture of history and mythology, traditional folk forms and complex visual structures, also brings into focus some of the concerns that are central to his cinematic research. His study of Indian aesthetics, folk art and music would become more prevalent in subsequent documentary features such as Dhrupad (1982), focused on the legendary Dagar family of musicians, and Mati Manas (1984), about the ancient tradition of terracotta artisanry and the myths associated with it. By that time, Kaul had begun his studies of Dhrupad music with one of the members of the Dagar family, Ustad Zia Moiuddin, and derived a number of cinematic approaches from this musical idiom. As critic Shanta Gokhale has noted: “Classical Indian music is to Mani Kaul the purest artistic search … Just as a good musician has mastered the musical method of construction which saves his delineation of a raga from becoming formless, so a good filmmaker has a firm control over cinematic methods of construction and can therefore allow himself to improvise.”

Towards the end of the 1980s, Kaul found another gateway for his cinematic search in the literature of Dostoyevsky, of whom he adapted A Gentle Creature and The Idiot. Twenty years after Bresson adapted the first story into Une femme douce (1969), Kaul made his own version with Nazar (1989), whose concert of exchanged glances and delicate gestures unfolds like a musical performance sliding from one note to another. While fine-tuning the process of precise preparation combined with an embrace of the dissonant and the aleatory, Kaul ventured to let his compositions drift ever further away from linearity and unity, allowing for the expression of multiple flows. “A film should not replicate the rhythms of daily life,” he would say, “it should create its own rhythms.” Mani Kaul kept on pursuing his explorations until his untimely death in 2011, leaving behind a wealth of films and writings which unfortunately remain all too invisible to this day. This program wants to pay homage to his work by not only showing a varied selection of his films but also by tracing a lineage that extends from his mentors Robert Bresson and Ritwik Ghatak to the recent work of Gurvinder Singh, one of the numerous filmmakers who continue to gracefully prolong the singular legacy of Mani Kaul.

Full programma can be found on www.courtisane.be. In collaboration with the Essay Film Festival in Birkbeck, with the support of the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC), Cinemas of India and Films Division. This program would not have been possible without the help of Gurvinder Singh, Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Arindam Sen, Ricardo Matos Cabo, K. Hariharan, Gurudas Pai, Surama Ghatak, Matthew Barrington.

On the occasion of this program dedicated to the work of Mani Kaul, Courtisane has collected a series of writings and interviews in a small-edition publication.

DISSENT! Wang Bing

IMG_5979_web (c) Michiel Devijver

29 March 2018 18:00, Minard Ghent, in the context of the Courtisane festival 2018.

“I think that the most interesting thing to do in films is not to create a story – in any case, I’m not the kind of filmmaker who sets out to create one. I prefer to look at people. If you look at an interesting person for a while, then you will realize that in that person’s life there is a very interesting story. When I meet someone and his or her story really attracts me, then I decide that I would like to make a film about him or her. When I decide that there’s something really beautiful about that person, and that his or her life really touches me, is the moment when I want to film.”

At the turn of this century, Wang Bing entered film history when he boarded a freight train with a small rented DV camera and started filming the snowy landscapes of the industrial district of Tiexi in northeastern China. For the following two years, the former photography and art student documented the decline of the district’s state-owned factories, tirelessly following the remaining workers in the corridors and expanses of the complexes. Out of the three hundred hours of footage, he created the monumental West of the Tracks (2002): a three-part, nine-hour document of China’s transition from state-run to free market economy, and the ensuing desolation of the working class that makes way for an expansion of cheap and precarious labour. From then on out, Wang Bing has continued to chronicle the everyday lives of those who find themselves in the margins of society amidst the vast and rapidly changing landscapes of 21st century China, unveiling what all too often remains invisible under the guise of its “growth miracle” and its willful cancellation of historical memory.

Driven by an unceasing desire to film and to discover, Wang Bing never ceases to explore new places and situations, allowing himself to be led by chance encounters and the epiphany of the unexpected. From the Tiexi district, he moved his centre of activity towards the northwestern regions of China. In the Gobi Desert, he worked for several years in secret on The Ditch (2010), his only fiction feature to date, which recounts the struggles to survive in Jiabiangou, one of the labour camps that were in use during Mao Zedong’s Anti- Rightist Movement in the years from 1957 to 1961. More southwest, in the province of Yunnan, he documented the lives of a broken, impoverished farmer’s family in a small mountain village in Three Sisters (2012) and the inmates of a decrepit mental hospital in ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), before following refugee families fleeing the ongoing civil war in Myanmar in Ta’ang (2016) and travelling with migrant garment workers to the southeastern city of Huzhou in Bitter Money (2016). Within this internal geography, long-term projects are alternated with more modest but no less powerful ones. During the production of The Ditch, for example, Wang Bing recorded in barely one take He Fengming’s startling testimony of the persecutions that she and her family endured throughout the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution. While filming Three Sisters, he met two adolescent boys whose daily experience of ennui and repetition in a cramped factory-owned hut he captured in a handful of fixed long shots. And in the course of documenting Huzhou’s urban world of sleepless sweatshops and labourers, Wang Bing spent a week along the desolate shores of the Yangtze River in order to film the last days of Mrs. Fang before she passed away.

From the brutal conditions of modern-day slavery to the barren vestiges of disappearing histories, from youngsters squandering their time to elderly in the face of death, from the industrious to the recumbent, the striking oppositions and reversals in Wang Bing’s work are also accompanied by a common perseverance: a determination to extricate from the core of exhaustion the ultimate fragments of the possible. Carefully navigating his camera through the encountered spaces, respectfully juggling the balance between distance and proximity, he patiently searches to capture the actuality and capacity of people who could be identified as seeming to experience little more than “bare life”. Instead of enclosing those ignored by the radar of History in a confined framework that supposedly befits their miniscule lives, he chooses to give them time to exist, opening up their lifeworld in order to affirm how their bodies, voices and gestures, too, have a story to tell.

In collaboration with CIFA (Chinese Independent Film Archive), KASK / School of Arts and Cinematek, with the support of the Department of Chinese Studies, Ghent University.

Special thanks to Zhang Yaxuan and Xu Lin.

On the occasion of this program dedicated to the work of Wang Bing, Courtisane, Sabzian and Cinematek have collected a series of writings and interviews in a small-edition publication.