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.

News from Home – Chantal Akerman (1977)

I’m slowly but surely diving more into Chantal Akerman’s filmography. I believe that her work contains a lot that I have been interested in throughout the past years, and it might be worth looking at it in more detail over the coming months and years. News from home, released in 1977, is a sort of follow-up to Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) in that it continues to follow Akerman’s contemplative aesthetics. In some ways, it is a soothing film. The images of New York in the late 1970s are accompanied by a voice over of Akerman herself, reading letters she had received from her mother. The concept is very simple, but effective (affective?).

While we see images, often via a static camera, of cars driving up and down the streets of New York, or people walking the streets, or even people in diners as seen through windows, we hear the written words of Akerman’s mother, always worried, always concerned, always tired. She speaks about her health, needing medication again and again, and the difficulties they have with their shop in Belgium. It appears to be quiet, and Akerman’s mother often evokes that she’s either bored at work because nothing happens, or anxious precisely because of this. It means tighter finances. And yet, she makes a great effort at supporting Chantal in her adventure in becoming a filmmaker in the US. She sends money and clothes, always anxious whether her letters or packages are received.

The voice over is often drowned out by noise in the streets or in the metro. You try to listen, but there is little point. You can catch mere glimpses of what is said, if at all. It is realism that Akerman attempts to pursue here. Cities are noisy, cities are loud, deafening the people who live in it. We become accustomed to it and no longer notice it…until we spend a few hours in the countryside. The approach of letting the spoken word disappear in the noise of city life is very poignant, especially given that the film was made in the late 1970s and it’s so much worse today.

I became very quickly an admirer of Akerman’s shots in the metro stations; beautiful and enigmatic, just like life. What these shots meant to me was much more complex than what the actual images show. These images are images of time, and not just of slowness, but of time the way Chinese, for example, see it. Time not as consisting of only a single pace. Time is complex. Time consists of slowness and speed, of emptiness and fullness, of idling and of doing. At those metro stations people come and go. They wait for the next metro that takes them to another place, that takes them through space. We see them wait, we wait with them, and at some point the metro comes rattling into the station. It’s speed that we perceive. People leave the metro cars, people enter the metro cars. It’s bustling for a few second, and then everything quietens down again. Slowness and speed…the complexity of time portrayed in a single shot.

There is another aspect that I became aware of, and I’m unsure whether this has been written about before. If someone were to ask you what the film was about, what would you respond? We can all describe the film, describe what we see. But what is the film about? Perhaps this isn’t important. At the same time, the indistinct feeling , this not so very clear orientation of where we should go, again speaks for complexity in simplicity.

Did Akerman make a film about New York at the end of the 1970s? One gets a glimpse of life in the city throughout the film’s running time.

Did Akerman make a film about her mother? Maybe. Her written words are the images’ second layer. They give a characterisation of Akerman’s mother, but perhaps also of any mother, worried about a child abroad, in a big city, far away.

Did Akerman make a film about herself? That is possible, too, especially if one considers that she herself is involved (via voice over), reading personal letters she has received and filming the city she now lives in.

Did Akerman make a film about us? Maybe. Everything is possible in this film. Akerman keeps it simple but open. It’s a film that wasn’t finished by herself or the editor. It is finished when it meets its viewer, and when the viewer decides what s/he sees, what s/he wants to read into the images before his/her eyes. Only then News from Home is complete. Only then do we see just how complex simplicity can be.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

My, my, my…another strong arthouse film this year. And another one which is too good to be written about, if I’m honest. There are films which cannot be described in words. Sebastian Mez’s Postcards from the Verge (2017) is one of those films, a film that, like postcards, takes you on a journey into a different land. That land or these lands, to be correct, are Israel and Palestine.

The film starts with a black screen and no sound. After a while, the image of a fire burning in the far background of the black frame shapes up. The camera remains with the fire, lingering on it, focuses on it. This very first shot gives us an idea, a feeling, of what the next seventy odd minutes will be like: they will invite us to observe, to be in the very moments the director proposes to be in.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

Mez’s film consists of chapters. Each chapter has a very specific aesthetic, especially visually. The first chapter stunned me because it felt as though I was looking at something through a third eye. The frame was structured in such a way that it gave the impression of an eye through which you observed, in wide angle shots, the landscape of Israel and Palestine. The director uses a stark black-and-white contrast for most of his frames, a contrast that is, for someone who loves black-and-white photography as much as I do, a real pleasure to look at. It’s the sort of visual aesthetic that makes my heart jump.

For a very long time in the film, there is nothing but images. Mez shows us the landscape of conflict, a conflict that has been ongoing for several decades, and which seems to find no end. There is one frame that struck me. It was a landscape shot, a slow pan, if I remember correctly, but perhaps my memory tricks me. What is important is that there is a tank in that landscape and because of the director’s use of high contrast black-and-white, you don’t see it at first. To me, this is a very good depiction of this conflict. Violence, and everything that embodies it, has become part of the fabric of those countries. Wherever you go, there is military; in the streets, at checkpoints, etc It has become normal, and no one sees it anymore. Just like you might not see the tank in that very frame because it is no longer standing out in a region that is in constant upheaval.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

At some point a voice over comes in. The voice over disrupts the contemplative nature of the images and comments on the conflict. But it’s not going into details. It’s a simple observation: “I think peace will be difficult to find because we want the same thing. The Jews want Al Aqsa to destroy it and build their own temple on it, and the Arabs want Al Aqsa to pray.” The viewer is left with this thought, an idea that seems viable but that goes beyond the complex political circumstances that we have come to know. It is an observation from the inside, with a take on the conflict that goes beyond the violence that saturates our thinking.

Mez lets us alone with this thought, and continues his visual journey through the landscape of conflict – in a letter boxed super-wide angle (does that even exist?), for example. The effect of this is interesting. The wide angle allows us to breathe. We can easily shift around our gaze on a horizontal axis. At the same time, however, the letter box around the image contracts it. It limits our gaze on a vertical axis. And the (metaphorical) vertical axis is the one of feeling and experience (if we think back to Maya Deren’s thoughts on the subject). A contracted vertical axis in a film about a conflict where feelings are numbed…

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

Which brings me to the film’s fourth chapter, titled Vivid Memories. Overall, the film is like a photo album, and this becomes most evident in Vivid Memories. The frames are almost still images. Or perhaps they are still images. Or maybe Mez uses super slow-motion. In any case, these images are an embodiment of remembering, of vivid memories, just as the title of the film’s chapter proposes. The frames felt like memories. They reminded me of parts of Chris Marker’s La Jetee. There is something tangible in those images, often dreamlike, blurry at first, then becoming clearer with time.

With Postcard from the Verge, Mez has created lasting images, postcards that stay with you. The final chapter of the film speaks about silence. In fact, it doesn’t. This chapter is quiet, almost completely silent…

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.

Osmosis – Nasos Karabelas (2016)

!!! This film is available on tao films until the end of March 2017 !!!

And there he stands, a ruin forgotten by everyone – and more so by himself than by any other. He isn’t moving, nor is he sensing anything.  

Nasos Karabelas’s Osmosis (2016) starts in a bleak tone. The deep male voice reminiscing about the self is captivating. Usually, it is images that don’t let you go, images which you must keep looking at. In Osmosis, it is the sound, the voice, which holds you captive. You cannot not listen. Karabelas’s piece is deeply philosophical, underlined with a minimalist mise-en-scène, which, at times, brings forth striking frames.

What is osmosis? It can be a process of absorption, a process of assimilation. What happens to the self in the process of assimilation? It may, by way of assimilation, become nothing. The person begins to feel lonely in a vibrant community because something of him/herself got lost in the process of assimilation. It is this loss that, to me, is very important in Karabelas’s film. I might sound contradictory when I say that the film is characterised by nothingness and emptiness while previously having mentioned the strong presence of a voice-over throughout. But these two don’t have to cancel each other out. On the contrary. The voice-over highlights emptiness, nothingness, the search for something, the burden of loneliness.

He stands on the threshold of nonentity like someone without sense of himself, disenchanted by everything within a world where nothing is lovable. He passes into death already dead, tasting all the abhorrence and the denial of living.

Karabelas said in an interview with tao films that he didn’t want to give answers with this film. He wanted to pose questions, and this he does. Osmosis is a film that despite its slow pace does not allow the viewer to simply sink into his/her chair. If you let the film happen to you and focus on the voice-over, you fill find your thoughts wander. It is not a film which you can simply “accept”. Osmosis needs to be dealt with, enquired, questioned.

The film’s aesthetics help with this. Karabelas uses a simple grey to black-and-white tone. The frames are empty. The unnamed protagonist is often only a dot in a vast landscape. Or a figure of sorrow in nothingness. At times, I even wondered whether he needed to be there, whether this destitute existence would have perhaps been stronger without him, to reinforce the idea of emptiness even more.

All he sees is distaste, and that disgusts him. He feels the anguish. But he’s always there, he can’t but be there. The wait makes him languish.

In a way, Osmosis could be a parable for the modern world experience. It is not a secret that people consider life today as bleak, full of problems, destruction and destitution. Of course, this isn’t a general sensation, but it does exist and it’s not rare. Karabelas explores this feeling very effectively and asks us to follow him through the mind of his protagonist.But who is this protagonist? Is he a man as shown in the film? Or does he stand for a much wider, much larger entity?