A glimpse, a flicker, through the bars into the world outside, a world unknown. So begins a string of five documentaries scheduled consecutively (with one fiction film inserted therein) in my #LFF2017 itinerary. Newly enrolled on a journalism course at City, University of London, I have expected to face similar unknowns since my move from Belfast to London, but the only thing truly unfamiliar to confront me thus far has been the workload, and that’s only my own doing. Seeing two films a day, for me, not only involves actually watching them, but attending their post-screening Q&As, reading up on them online, and then writing and submitting these dispatches to our beloved AD editors. Such is the burden of the ardent, fervent, financially-irresponsible cinephile.
Just my luck that my laptop goes down mere minutes before the films start. Not that I’ll necessarily need it tonight – though it’d definitely come in handy – but that I’ll have to wait until tomorrow to get it fixed, and then who knows how long after before I get it back. This might have been impetus for my boyfriend to buy himself a new laptop, months after his conked out, but sure he’s at home anyway, laptop-less all 12 days as I swan around the cinemas of Central London, so I doubt he cares much. I enter a world unknown, an evening (and a subsequent morning) myself shorn of my second brain, fifth limb, and last tether to society
Those first world problems have rarely seemed so pronounced, watching Joshua Bonnetta and J. P. Sniadecki’s El Mar La Mar. Central Americans cross the inhospitable Sonoran Desert to cross from Mexico into the U.S., their journeys of hope blighted by the politics of hate, a culture of mistrust, and a landscape of unthinkable indifference to human life. Arid, awesome panoramas stretch out to horizons leading only back around, and around, desperate survivors of groups dwindling unceasingly in number spending day upon day on routes that don’t exist, travelling closer then further then closer then further to a destination of yet more unknowable strife. Bonnetta and Sniadecki detach dialogue from image, image from context, context from reality, verbal barrages of profanity and hostility over a beautiful scene, despondent declarations of hope and courage stripped almost bare over a desolate scene. The Sonoran is shown as a dumping ground for human despair, its deep black nights stranding the viewer with nothing but narration for solace, and even then there’s precious little of that.
Co-director Bonnetta, here making his debut film, was in attendance for the Q&A afterwards; his colleague, Sniadecki, who hails from Harvard’s famed Sensory Ethnography Lab, was not. One detects in the film the convergence of two distinct though complimentary artistic styles, as the former director specializes in experimental art, the latter in social science. This is a more stylistically diverse film than the SEL normally produces, manifested technically in the choice of film: 16mm, the celluloid creating a sense of distance between audience and film’s facture, a critical sense of reflection thereby encouraged. Bonnetta described how both he and Sniadecki are process-oriented filmmakers, working with their materials as essential tools in the conceptualization of their features; 16mm rejected any spontaneity in their approach, entailing a need to combine all stages of production, pre- to post-, editing as they shot, writing as they filmed. Yet El Mar La Mar is far from a clinical, overly didactic piece of rigid pretension – we heard of the directors’ gradual discovery of the project as they immersed themselves in its locales on a drive from New Orleans to the West Coast, speaking with border officials and learning more about these migrant journeys across this most unforgiving terrain.
The choice not to sync image with sound in the testimonies of those featured in the film was born out of these officials’ willingness to speak but not to be recorded doing so, a technique adopted for the work entire as a means of challenging the traditional representation of these border-crossing regions, with Bonnetta and Sniadecki rejecting all potential temptation to turn it into a HBO-style ‘manipulative’ documentary. Perhaps one audience member might have preferred a bit more manipulation, as he complained of ‘scenes being dragged out for artistic purposes and thus losing their power’. Bonnetta explained of his intention to illuminate the U.S. policy of ‘prevention through deterrence’, making the only open border areas a practically fatal wasteland for all those attempting to traverse it. There was a sense of endlessness only achievable through long shots of little-to-no action, a mood of contemplation with nothing to contemplate but misery and likely death. Regardless of whether one agrees with director or viewer on this matter, you know you’ve fucked up when your interviewee responds to your question with “Let me just explain the film a little to you…”
There are few, if any, cinemas in London in such an attractive location as the Institute for Contemporary Arts. It’s not solely a cinema, as its name might suggest, but this is the sole reason I have frequented it over the past few years at the London Film Festival. One feels positively regal approaching the ICA, whether descending past the Edward VII Memorial Statue and the Duke of York Column, or through the Admiralty Arch from Trafalgar Square, or even just taking The Mall from Buckingham Palace and walking alongside St. James’s Park. This being the end of another stressful day, I’m looking weathered, feeling wretched, and smelling worse, but they let me in nonetheless to catch a screening of Untitled, from another duo of directors: Michael Glawogger and Monika Willi.
Glawogger set out, some years back, to make a documentary about nothing in particular, just whatever he came across in his usual ethnographic travels. Filming in Liberia three years ago, this legendary filmmaker contracted Malaria. He never left the country, never completed filming on the project, never lived to see it reach cinema screens. His long-time editor Monika Willi, best known for her work on Michael Haneke’s films, collated his footage into something close to what he might have intended, fulfilling her usual role as editor, only now assuming more of a directorial role over the film – indeed, Untitled credits both Glawogger and, in her first such notice, Willi as directors.
Might Untitled have been better as a fully-finished product? Need it? Is it not fully-finished already, a vision of incompletion that is complete in itself all the same? It is, as such, wholly useless to speculate over such matters, as Untitled exists only as it does, a thrilling, vibrant film brimming over with life – the kind of life that springs from worlds unknown to the middle-class, largely white Western audience who will inevitably end up its primary audience. Glawogger finds colour, shape, and movement – always movement, a feverous rush from one astonishing situation to the next, until a pause in the action might interject, a visual and aural silence to steady the film, to invite the viewer to reflect, a glorious little gift of breathing room from Willi. Workers work, as ever with Glawogger, freedom denied them by unseen systems instilling fear and desperation; what we see is a grand net result, the trash thrown out at the end, and the sorry citizens of the world left to pick it up for sheer sustenance. Glawogger moves as his subjects do, ever moving along roads, often following animals in transit; here, we too are animals, unspeaking, unthinking, just reacting. Figures fight in the pale sand, a man stretches in public showers, children mount piles of garbage alongside goats, foraging for whatever they can find. The footage is completely remarkable, its assemblage inspiring. What a statement, what a tribute, what a film!
Everything runs in London, all through the night. You’re never nowhere, and never alone. But a long day ending with yet more movement is, although convenient given this city’s excellent public transport facilities, just so exhausting. And then, you do it all over again. One finds respite where and when one can in a place like this – thankfully, everything runs in London, so you’ve every opportunity to do so. For routine-oriented folk like myself, this is a blessing as much as it is a curse. Tomorrow, the documentary onslaught forges ahead unabated, with two more titles: Faces Places from JR and La Légende Agnès Varda, then Emmanuel Gras’ Makala.
Eight days in, four to go. You still reading? You’re my favourite