Visitor – Sebastian Cordes (2018)

“It is said that man has always wandered. Out of need or curiosity, across deserts and oceans.”

This is how the new feature film by Danish director Sebastian Cordes begins. After his Bolivia-set A Place Called Lloyd, which is currently running on tao films for free, Cordes took a journey to the island of Chios, Greece. As he states at the beginning of his film, the years 2015 and 2016 were seminal in the European consciousness. Indeed, they were. They will remain with us for years to come, perhaps especially for me as I’m originally from Germany and my country was the only one that had heart enough to open the borders. The German chancellor paid dearly for this, politically, which is still difficult for me to grasp. You don’t have to agree with a politician, but you can agree with another human being on helping other people to find refuge, people who flee from war, from certain death, people who have lost their home, possibly even their entire family.

This background represents the core of Cordes’ Visitor. Set on the island of Chios, the director films life on the island as it is, an obscure parallel world of normality for the local population and an extraordinary world for those who have landed in Chios, “where Turkey is always at the horizon”. A static low level shot that shows a police car on the right hand side and the raging sea on the left opens the film visually. The shot sets the tone of the film. Its emptiness, its anonymity, is something that will return over and over again throughout Visitor. The raging wind, too, is always present, right at your ears, in the weeks before Christmas. Not much later, there is a poignant shot of a stone wall. A very simple shot. There is nothing beautiful about it. It is a wall, nothing more, nothing less. Water flows underneath it. The waves push the water onto the land, right underneath the wall. “No borders” – this is what’s written on this stone wall, stone, which stands for harshness, hardness, durability, for a definite attempt to keep other people out of your territory. It is this phrase that dismantles the wall. Two words: No borders.

Visitor is an observational documentary. It is self-reflexive. It is contemplating itself and what is happening around it. Time and again, Cordes cuts to a black screen and makes us think about who we are. Visitor poses the question of who the visitor is which Cordes names in the film’s title. First of all, the viewer is at all times aware of the director’s presence. He’s got a shadowy presence in one shot. In another, we can see (parts of) him at a restaurant. Cordes doesn’t hide his presence. He’s the visitor, he’s the person whose “body is blue eyes white skin”. He’s the one who shoots the footage, who assembles it and who tells the story of life on Chios. But this isn’t the whole truth, the full meaning of the title. What are the refugees Cordes is, except for the very end, filming only from the distance, the refugees who have an absent presence, an almost haunting presence throughout the film’s running time of just over an hour?

One of the defining responses to the refugee crises in Europe was that countries expected the refugees to keep moving on. No country wanted to shelter them permanently. The response, not new at all, sadly, is at the core of Anna Seghers’ novel Transit, which is set in Marseille just after German troops have invaded France. Transit painfully shows that the whole idea of giving refuge to someone is to help him or her to move somewhere else. The novel is a representation of the inhumane treatment of those who flee from persecution. It is all encapsulated in the attempt of getting a visa to stay in Marseille: you can only stay if you prove that you’re leaving again. The situation Europe faced in 2015 did not change anything in our response to something we had seen and dealt with before. Cordes’ film title makes a point, a point that you might not see at first because you consider the director as the only visitor present in the film. But Visitor also speaks of the “visiting” refugees, of temporary shelters, temporary safety, and the expectations that they just move on. It doesn’t matter where to, as long as they do not stay in “our” country.

Poignantly enough, Cordes includes a shot of the shopping window of a transit ship agency. Transit – keep moving, keep moving. Don’t stay, don’t stop. There are shots of the open sea interspersed with more static and empty shots; a contrast which Cordes creates deliberately. The raging sea, the wind in our ears – this is it, this is movement, this is a continuous forward movement. But where should those people go if no country wants them? 

“My body is not the capsized boat in the open sea, the stillness when the sea again falls still.”

Voice-over parts like those cut through the narrative like a sharp knife. While at the beginning, the question could be whose body the voice-over speaks of, it becomes inevitably clear in the course of the film that this body is our body. Cordes not only speaks of himself here. This has a larger, a more wide-ranging meaning. He tells the story of those who died, those who suffered on their way to a hoped-for refuge. He tells the story of who we are not, because we are the “blue eyes white skin”. We are the privileged, those who look at refugees from a safe distance, possibly sitting in front of our telly on a sofa, with the radiator on full blow so that we don’t get cold.

Visitor becomes a real force towards the end, really bringing home the idea of visiting, the idea of repetition, in particular when the director speaks to an old woman who was aged 5 in 1940 when she suffered from hunger and cold, just like the refugees do now as a result of war. History repeats itself. History doesn’t move forward in a linear fashion. History is an eternal circle of repetitions. What has been, will be again. What we have seen in the past, we will see again in future. The only question is when. But there seems to be little doubt about the actual occurrence. And yet, with this rather bleak feeling that I had at the end of Visitor, Cordes did something. He added hope. Two refugee children making faces for the camera, laughing, playing around. There it is, this hope that I had been missing throughout the film. There it is, in the face of children who have been through so much, who have, in some cases, seen more than one of us does in his/her entire life. But hope is not lost, Cordes tells us, which makes Visitor an important film to see this year.

A souvenir from Switzerland – Sorayos Prapapan (2016)

!!! This films is available on tao films until 31 March 2017 !!!

In 2015, Europe saw a huge influx of refugees from Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan – countries that had become more and more dangerous, and too dangerous for some people to be able to survive. Especially in Europe, the year 2015 will be remembered as such, and, to many, it will be remembered as the year humanity failed. Refugees were treated like potential terrorists, they were locked up in camps, shot at at borders. It was a year of numbers. The famous one million that has “flooded” Germany, for example. But what is going on behind those numbers, who are those people who flee their home, not willingly, but as a pure attempt at survival, putting themselves at risk, knowingly, by choosing an unsafe boat trip across the Mediterranean, organised by corrupt smugglers?

I was surprised to see Sorayos Prapapan’s film, which deals, beyond the surface, with exactly this. I had seen the Thai director’s Boonrem before and was taken by how the young filmmaker places emphasis on detail, on observation, and on exploring a character’s mind. His short film A souvenir from Switzerland is different in that it is, first of all, a documentary. Or is it? In some ways, it is. In others, it is more a personal description of the director’s trip to a film festival in Switzerland. The film opens when he is back home. But we don’t see Prapapan, nor the friend who visits him. Instead, the director uses almost cliché images of Switzerland he has shot during his trip.

Voice-overs are pretty common in film, and it is a method that guides this film, too. However, I’m not too sure whether we can speak of a voice-over here. The film made me question the term. I don’t think it’s applicable to A souvenir. To me, the term voice-over suggests that the real action happens in the image. This isn’t the case here. Prapapan creates the action in his words, and I do believe that the voice is the guiding principle, so why do we not speak of an image-over? Yes, I’m going wild with thoughts now, but I genuinely believe that the term voice-over is limited and that A souvenir might just be the right starting point for rethinking this.

If I compare the film to the other five films we offer on tao films, then I can easily say that this the film in which the least happens. If you wait for visual cues, for some sort of action in the images, you will be disappointed. A souvenir asks you to listen instead, and it tests your patience. The film is based on a conversation between the director and his friend. Prapapan tells his friend about Switzerland, the way the people live in that country, and how expensive it is. It is a normal conversation which you would not consider as worthwhile putting on screen. But if you’re an attentive listener and an engaged citizen, then you reconsider your position.

Prapapan brings a souvenir from Switzerland with him. For his friend. A gift. The title suggests another aspect of the word “souvenir”, namely a memory. In the second half of the film, the director mentions an Afghan filmmaker friend of his. He met him by chance, and he was taken by what he told him; that he became a refugee and is now seeking asylum in Switzerland. The souvenir from Switzerland becomes a story of an unfortunate artist who had to leave his country because he spoke up against oppression. This is the souvenir that Prapapan really takes homes with him. Interestingly, he never shows the Afghan filmmaker. The choice is deliberate: this is a film not only about this particular filmmaker, but about many thousands of people who were forced to leave their country. A souvenir from Switzerland tells the story of one specific person, but renders it universal by using absence as the main aesthetic formula.

A souvenir is certainly minimalist. It is an improvised piece that developed out of the director’s encounter with his friend. Yet, it is a contribution to the current developments and puts the spotlight onto the person, and puts aside the numbers that have been so prominent in writing about refugees.

Ta’ang – Wang Bing (2016)

I’m on a Wang Bing roll at the moment. I have finally found the time to see his work, and all kinds of things run through my head at the moment. Ta’ang, un peuple en exil, entre Chine et Birmanie is Wang Bing latest film. Again a documentary, a form of cinema he is specialised in. Again, it is a political film. Again, he gives those on the margin of society a voice.  In Ta’ang I can see his patience for just being with his “subjects”, for listening, for waiting. And I haven’t even seen his 14-hour masterpiece yet.

Ta’ang is part of a growing work on refugees. Only recently have I seen the Berlinale winner Fire At Sea by Italian director Gianfranco Rosi, a film set on the island of Lampedusa. There is also Mediterranea by Jonas Carpignano which comes to mind, equally a depiction of refugees in their search for a safe place, away from war, away from oppression. There is a refugee situation over on the other half of the planet, too, but this is hardly ever mentioned in our spheres. Wang Bing’s new film, as one example, is a look into a fraction of what is happening daily on the border between Burma and China.

Wang very much relies on our interest and openness. Similar to Lav Diaz, he gives us very little background information about what we are about to see. There is a short text at the beginning of the film, but it gives us the basics. Nothing more, nothing less. If you want to engage with the film, you need to do more than see the images. You see what you know, it is said. If you don’t know anything about the Ta’ang, the images will give you little information about them. They are, as I have already noticed in Wang’s Fengming, rather dispassionate. The director refrains from framing scenes in a certain way in order to make you feel something. I could be wrong, of course, but I can’t help the feeling that this is the most neutral documentary I have ever seen. Nothing is ever entirely neutral. Not even a documentary, which, I believe, is supposed to show its subject unbiased. But Ta’ang gets pretty close.

Wang and Diaz are very much alike, but the bias is one thing which differs in their films. I see this clearly only now that I have dived into Wang’s films. In certain cases, such as parts of Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), Diaz follows a very similar path. He tries to be as objective as possible. As he said in an interview somewhere, he wanted to be journalistic in his depiction of the aftermath of typhoon Reming. But he did construct a feature film around the event in the end, which has implications on how the viewer reads the material. And then there is a shot in From What Is Before, a low level canted angle, something I had never seen before in Diaz’s work. A canted angle is never neutral.

You won’t find this in Wang’s Ta’ang. The camera tends to be on eye-level with the subjects it films. There aren’t any fancy aesthetics. If you love the photographic frames in slow films the way I do, you will be put off by the film’s look. But this brings me back to what I thought was important in terms of Fengming and her testimony: every aesthetical decision is an ethical decision. Rosi’s Fuocoammare aetheticises suffering and death. This isn’t the case with Ta’ang. You won’t find pretty frames. You won’t find something aesthetically pleasing. Wang shows the situation as it is: dirty, ugly, a disgrace. The Ta’ang are forced into nomadism. They left their homes in winter 2015 as armed conflict broke out in the border region between Burma and China.

What we see is their daily life. These refugees either sit and wait in makeshift tents until they can go back home. Or they move from one supposedly safe place to another all the while we hear gunshots and artillery fire in the background. I would say that a good half of the film is set at night, around a camp fire or candles. Or even torches. Maybe it only felt as if half of the film was set in the dark. Which brings me to an interesting difference between Wang and Diaz. Ta’ang‘s two-and-a-half hours feel incredibly dense. It felt more difficult to sit through them than through eight hours Lav Diaz. I had a similar impression after Diaz’s Storm Children which was much shorter than his usual film work. But it was a documentary, and an over two-hour long documentary without even a loose narrative but a simple depiction of daily life puts your patience to the test.

This isn’t a bad thing at all. I find it quite an interesting thought that feature films are easier to sit through. We’re habitual people. We’re used to a narrative. To sit through eight hours is hard work, but as long as there is a narrative that progresses and you have something that vaguely resembles a three-act structure, it is doable. As I keep saying, for most Lav Diaz films I didn’t mind the running time at all. Wang Bing seems to be a wholly different arena in my slow-film engagement. His films seem to come even closer to real life, both in terms of time and story. Besides, you’re stuck with the images of, say, a woman boiling potatoes. Because Wang does not focus on pretty shots, there is nothing you can admire while the actual action happening in front perhaps bores you. You have to stick with it. Several slow-film directors give you this “escape”, if you need it. Wang forces you to be with the characters, to be with their plight.

I start to become a fan of Wang’s work. His films are challenging, more than other slow films I have sat through. But this is precisely why they make me curious. Again, just as with Diaz’s work, I’m not sure I’ll be able to explain what I feel intellectually, but there is something that I’ll try to follow the next time I’m watching a Wang Bing film. There is something somewhere. I just don’t know yet what it is.

Havarie – Philip Scheffner (2016)

What does the word “havarie” actually stand for? Originally, it is linked to ships, speaking of accidents, emergencies, and shipwrecks. But we can draw the circle a bit wider and think for a moment about the effects of the refugee crisis on Europe. What is going on here? Are we seeing the “havarie” of Europe? How about the “havarie” in people’s minds?

Philip Scheffner has created a multi-faceted film, if you’re willing to see beyond the slowed-down image of refugees in a boat. A video clip of 3:36min, extended to a ninety minute film – Havarie is a remarkable hybrid of film (or should we perhaps say image?) and radio drama. The visuals change only ever so lightly throughout the film’s running time. After a while, if you give yourself into it, if you really let go, you start to hallucinate. The almost stop-motion like movement of the image facilitates a hallucinatory state of the viewer. Seeing the same thing with little difference for such a long time is not much different from the position the refugees in their boat are in. Water is the only element that surrounds them. It all looks the same, and it must play games with the refugees’ minds. This is exactly what Scheffner achieves in the viewer’s with his slowed-down image of a tiny boat in the middle of a blue nowhere.

havarie_01_web

I mentioned earlier that at times I had the feeling that the film was a form of radio drama. In a way, this isn’t too farfetched. Of course, the hypnotic image of refugees in a boat is important for the filmic structure. Yet what I found most expressive were the sounds, the voices, the stories told in the background. Havarie is more than just about a slowed-down image, although this may perhaps be its most characteristic attribute when written about. It’s like Lav Diaz’s films being reduced to their length. Havarie tells stories, and these stories are not only directly linked to the refugees in the boat. This is one of Scheffner’s achievement: the focused story of refugees trying to make their way to Europe (to Spain, to be exact) becomes a wider story of conflict in Europe. I remember the crew of a cargo ship. Men from different regions of the world, even from the Philippines, speak about the political situation in the Ukraine; an almost forgotten conflict that is still burning with no end in sight. The conversation between the different crew members on the audio track of the film is a reminder that what we see (and I mean, see – I mean the image) is not just 15 refugees in a boat. It is only a small part of a larger puzzle. A puzzle of conflicts, not just in the Middle East, not just in Europe, but worldwide.

havarie_02_web

Scheffner also gives voice to the man who has filmed the video clip the director used for his film. Terry Diamond, a northern Irish man with a strong accent, describes events in Belfast in 1976, which caused the death of, among others, a young thirteen year old boy, Brian Stewart, who has become for Diamond a symbol of the conflicts in Northern Ireland. You can hear the pain in his voice while he remembers the events. These memories of “Western” events are interspersed with the story of an Algerian man and his wife, who is in France; “the sea separates me from my wife”, he says. And then there is a young man they call Wallace, because he’s the brave one, trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life. In the end, what the film shows is that these stories are no different from one another. They’re human stories, and their geographical origins are of little interest. Their origin is the human being. This is what counts, and this is what people sadly forget. We all have the same dream: a better life, without war, without violence.

Scheffner’s Havarie is a must this year, if you have the chance to see it, not only because it’s dealing with a timely subject at the moment. In fact, it is a timeless film. Whether you show the film this year, or in twenty years – Havarie won’t lose any of its importance.