In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

By Gareth Evans

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Work presented at the 53rd Oberhausen International Short Film Festival raises profound questions about the nature and role of the contemporary moving image


… the seeing, which wants to feel more than it sees
Jorie Graham, from Futures

It is the ordinary that is the miracle.
Ordinary love and ordinary death,
ordinary suffering, ordinary birth,
the ordinary couplets of our breath
ordinary heaven, ordinary earth.
– Siberian poem, quoted in 100 Siberian Postcards, by Richard Wirick

A young woman, alone in the snowbound forest, is killed by a bear. Her father, made another person with grief, waits in the forest to kill the bear who killed his daughter. To kill any bear…*

Qu. What is film for, what is the moving image for? How and why is it at work in the world?

At Oberhausen, perhaps the most catholic, most exploratory of the international benchmark film festivals, these concerns are primary frames within which, every May, international, German and specialist programmes are assembled, rather than more or less interesting afterthoughts prompted by a more or less successful screening. Voiced or not, they exist as a vessel within which numerous titles – documentaries, narrative fictions, artists’ pieces, hybrid works shot on various media – are presented.

Qu. Is truth relative? Is beauty relative? Is all value subjective?

The festival, which operates an international distribution wing, is also a marketplace. It makes available screening copies of every film submitted into the open competitions. This now totals more than 6000 titles annually. Regardless of quality or relevance to Oberhausen’s agendas or philosophical position, these works can be viewed in the festival mediatheque. A number are acquired annually for varying forms of exhibition.

Qu. In a world overwhelmed by image – perhaps a tsunami of image via every platform, perpetually and in all geographies, actual and virtual – who bears responsibility for those images? The maker, the distributor, the viewer? Who keeps watch at the gate of transmission? Who dwells on the threshold of reception? In whose name do they speak?

A car by a road, in uncertain light. Hand held visions of generations in uneasy dialogue. Hints of sacrifice, of disappearance among the roadside trees. A father and a son looking at each other to see themselves more clearly…**

Qu. How does an image become investigative? Moving beyond presentation, however necessary, into offering itself as a question…? 

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If we keep asking questions, do we avoid answering them, or are we trying to find a new way of thinking, by pursuing questions to their conclusion, as children do when they keep asking why? As David Bohm noted, answers are not solutions if they are given without the mode of thinking having changed.

…the ground is wracked, broken, a raku glaze across all open areas, soil dry as parchment (as if it was the manuscript of a civilisation now deceased). What could grow here if this drought goes on? Faced with total excess in all production, with the decadence of exponential accumulation, with the prospect of this ‘civilisation’ consuming its own habitat, of the earth being eaten from beneath our feet, the viewer, the citizen, however focused their gaze and quest, can only glean now, scanning the stripped field for fallen heads of wheat, the yard refuse for edible produce, the channels and sites for an image that holds and can be held.

Qu. Does culture reflect or make its times and the values of those times? Does it do both?

Don DeLillo has written that the terrorist has taken the place of the novelist as the shaper of a society’s awareness of itself. What if some art then, knowing this or not, perhaps feeling it in the air, offers a kind of terrorism in return, an assault on forms of meaning and beauty, on experienced truths, as a means of claiming a rapidly failing attention?

In a short form – a poem, a story, a painting, a drawing, a film – there is nowhere to hide. And, it must not be forgotten, all short forms are also long forms, for better and for worse.

Qu. Which leading chain store would manufacture the Emperor’s New Clothes today?

The writer, commentator and, crucially, storyteller John Berger (a storyteller embodies history and hope, the future: what happens next…) once told of his hope that behind every sentence he wrote or spoke there would lie, explicit or not, an awareness of the conditions in which the majority of the world’s people live and the procedures that enforce their dispossession. So he could write about a tree, as in Brecht’s “what times are these…” (from For Those Born After) because, I believe, he had earned the right to think about the tree and because the tree – and his thinking on it – was part of the solution.

An age that revels in irony as the escape route out of commitment will always dismiss the lack of irony as naïve, rather than as the expression of a clarity (but not the erasure of a mystery) that it increasingly is. This ‘naivety’ now effectively offers a perspective of opposition or at the very least an attempt briefly to balance the scales.

A youth in a room. A tight knot, tension in him like a gathering storm. His parents making love in the long afternoon of older age. Parental duties. The son, wired, entering his father’s space of music to challenge his skin, his breathing. Then collapsing, a column of tears, onto the father’s chest. The room enduring around them…***

Qu. Which images earn the right to be seen? Which have an inevitability, the pressure of inescapable making, behind them? What images have an internal logic, a green rigour that might withstand storms in the way that a sapling can, when all the rigid oaks around it fall?  

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This architecture is not made in the materials of the medium but it does withstand the dissonance and lacerations, the deliberate fragmentation and disintegration, the narcissism (that is, an evasion of the deeper self) and arrogance; in short, the myriad abuses that other works might seek to impose on the medium as a whole. This architecture is a faith first and last. A belief in an order that endures. In a lived redemption (not a manufactured template closure). For this writer, on this writing afternoon, it is best visualised in the withered tree, watered by a silent boy, during the final frames of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.

Qu. Should a maker craft all their own work? If they appropriate images, are they ethical in their re-treatment of the living, the dying and the dead within each frame? What is their priority?

Ian Penman, writing about Robert Frank’s photographic work, observed that three forms of time – and therefore place – operate in those of Frank’s pictures which exert unusual force on the viewing eye and mind. The fleeting human life, whatever its pursuit, is found within larger human constructions – buildings, organisations, structures – which, in their turn, unfold within the greater arenas of the landscape, the weather, the sky and its reach. It could be argued that almost every image made in an inhabited open area fulfils this remit. But it is the profound and felt understanding of time and its manifestations, its relation to itself that fuels an image in its journey from sight towards insight. The knowing that things will pass, knowing what is at stake, what matters… Knowing the price to be paid.

In this way, the moving image that is most moving is always seeking to visualise the unseeable. To translate it, to bring it back across.

Qu. What is art for, any art? Should it aspire to a reason beyond its surface, gleaming or tarnished or both? should it operate as a beacon, a path, a roof, a talisman? Should it conjure spirits?

Simone Weil believed that “absolute attention is prayer.” Prayer demands first and foremost of the person praying. Who is to say what is ‘right attention’? If we make demands of others, first we must demands of ourselves, as makers or respondents. We should demand horizons, not retreat. We should act in place and with purpose (the image as settlement and pilgrimage, hearth and heath); trusting, against the distraction and restlessness of the age (and its accompanying aesthetic) in the evidence of our eyes and the threaded dance of experience with time. We are not seeking a hierarchy of truths, rather a faith indelibly fused, here, with a faith in film. A common index of being.

The three films referenced (please allow this writer only to name what helps) speak in different tongues. They vary in finish and format, in narrative means and scale of making, in degrees of ‘fiction’ and fact. But they share more than what separates them.

– They speak to, and across generations and the borders of generation and decay.
– They speak to the cycle of things, from the personal to the familial, the social to the metaphysical.
– They offer genuine witness to the trials on which they look.
– They ask, who are we? How are we to be, in ourselves and in our relation to others?
– They tell of truths beyond the truth of their tale.
– They, together, travel a path, from the forest to the road to the room to the soul.
– They are not products but processes, investigations without easy resolution but complete.
– They are intimate, specific, open, ambiguous. They embrace the mystery.
– They live inside the ceaseless moment of the moving image.
– They live.

Life first then the image


Endnotes

Les Jours (Maxime Giroux, 2006, Canada) 24 mins

** The Letters (Unwritten) (Becalelis Brodskis, 2007, UK) 13 mins; www.brodskis.co.uk

*** Dad (Daniel Mulloy, 2006, UK) 8 mins; www.sisterfilms.co.uk


Visit www.kurzfilmtage.de for full details on the Oberhausen festival and related activities. This piece could not have been written without the always timely and provocative interventions of the Oberhausen project into the moving image realm. What they present raises fundamental issues about the audio-visual landscape, for which this writer is grateful. Special thanks go to Lars Henrik Gass and Sabine Niewalda for their generosity.

Images by Tereza Stehlíková.