Wild Blue, Notes for Several Voices (2000). Thierry Knauff’s unique and evocative filmic language of poetic imagery and sensorial polyphony is further developed in the sublime, dense, and haunting hybrid documentary composition, Wild Blue, Notes for Several Voices. An early image of a combat boot footprint and subsequent image of painted hands against the walls of an African mudhut symbolize Knauff’s theme of the destruction of natural order caused by the imprint of human intervention. By presenting a series of serene and indelible international images of everyday life against harrowing and deeply disturbing testimonies by multicultural female voices describing acts of inhumanity, atrocities, and terrorism, Knauff achieves a sense of visual texture and instinctual cadence that reflects on the dichotomous coexistence of beauty and savagery in contemporary civilization.
With the privilege of participating in a subsequent informal Q&A session with the filmmaker, I had the opportunity to ask Knauff a few related questions on the function of repeating the 35 mm film footage with subsequent, lower resolution (and often magnified) video image in the film. Knauff explained that his intent was not only to achieve compositional texture to the same image, but also to reflect on the delicate interrelation between awareness and a kind of myopia that results from being too close to the subject. As a result, Knauff presents the repeated video images as approaching an impressionistic, contextually ambiguous (the resolution systematically degraded in each image transfer to a different visual medium), and dissociative level of recognition. In illustrating the indefinable balance between spectator and participant, Knauff further poses an important and socially relevant question on the role (or complicity) of media in perpetuating violence through the repetition of the innately disturbing images.
Iran Veiled Appearances (2002). Composed of a series of diverse, and often contradictory images of mundane rituals of everyday life juxtaposed against historical footage of protest and revolution in Iran, Thierry Michel’s Iran Veiled Appearances is a compelling and insightful documentary on life in modern-day Iran 23 years after the Islamic Revolution. The film opens to the disturbing image of a funeral ceremony for poet, writer, and free expression activist, Mohammed Mokhtari, who is subsequently revealed to have been the latest in an ever-growing series of mysterious disappearances and deaths of prominent and outspoken intellectuals, presumably assassinated by the Islamic militia. Michel presents two images of Iran: the first, traditionalist and passionately committed to the ideas of martyrdom for the Revolution and allegiance to their religious Guides (often espoused by the older generation); the second, increasingly modern, free thinking, and ambivalent over the direction of the country’s future. By illustrating the generational and ideological division inherent in the theocratic society of contemporary Iran, Iran Veiled Appearances becomes an understatedly powerful document of a country at the cusp of profound change.
From the Other Side (2002). A young man stranded in a Mexican border town recounts the vivid and tragic story of his older brother who crossed the border with a group of illegal immigrants into the U.S. only to wander for days in the disorienting wilderness – each night piling together for warmth and protection, and each morning, fewer and fewer survivors emerging from the huddled mass – until everyone eventually perished in the harsh and unforgiving desert. Faced with a stringent border policy that reinforces patrol of the traditionally urban, highly populated crossing areas of San Antonio and San Diego, desperate undocumented aliens have been undertaking increasingly dangerous – and often fatal – attempts to cross through rural, largely uninhabited areas and vast, inhospitable deserts in search of economic opportunity. Although the first half of the film is encumbered with overly repetitive, extended sequences of the ubiquitous, formidable border, the latter part of the film, punctuated by a deeply moving expression of gratitude to the film crew by a group of destitute, stranded immigrants hoping to send word of their plight to their families after being abandoned by their paid smugglers, illustrates the filmmaker’s profound affection and concern for these marginalized, and often dehumanized, people. In the end, Akerman’s visually rigorous, alienated, and uncompromising image of arid and barren landscapes in the film illustrates, not a geographic location exploited for illusory dreams of a better life, but a senseless and unforgiving trail of human desolation.
Gbanga-Tita (1994). Defined by Thierry Knauff as a purely cinematic “moment of grace” (during his introductory remarks on the films being presented), Gbanga-Tita was initially shot as footage for his ethnographic film on the Baka pygmy of the Equatorial forest in South-East Cameroon, Baka. The film consists of a single unbroken close-up shot of Lengé, a tribal Ancient and taleteller, as he engages the young people of the village in a solemn chant that recalls the tragic fate of ancient children whose lives were lost to the river in pursuit of a mythical calabash called Gbanga-Tita. At the age of 43, Lengé is the eldest member of the tribe, and the last taleteller among the indigenous people of the region. The film is a poignant glimpse of sacred tradition, ethnic legacy, and cultural extinction.
Anton Webern (1991). Thierry Knauff’s impressionistic and emotionally lucid film, Anton Webern is a poetic and allusive biography of the early 20th century Austrian polyphonic composer Anton Webern. Entirely devoid of narrative dialogue, Webern’s life is representationally articulated through expressive, isolated shots of Webern’s hands: his early childhood development as a pianist, his tutelage under famed twelve-note composer Arnold Schoenberg, his abbreviated military service in World War I due to poor eyesight, his diversified work as musical conductor and German lieder composer, the loss of his beloved son during a train strafing attack in World War II, his creative persecution and political disfavor under Nazi Germany, and finally, his accidental death in exile at the hands of American occupied forces in Austria. Anton Webern is a challenging, but instinctively cohesive film on creativity, artistic passion, and the tragic consequence of turbulent history.
Klinkaart (1956). Paul Meyer’s short film, Klinkaart, opens to the image of two sisters attempting to retrieve a fallen fruit drifting downstream of a river. The older sister then joins the other women from the village as they walk to the brickyard for her first day of work: removing the clay bricks from forms, laying them into endless rows to dry in the sun, returning the emptied forms to the brickmaker. Inevitably, the young woman is confronted with the sad reality of the tedium and drudgery of her unrewarding, monotonous vocation, and the unwelcome harassment and abusive behavior of other workers. The film evokes the spare and austere cinema of Robert Bresson, particularly Mouchette and Au Hasard Balthazar, in Meyer’s parallel imagery of humanity and animal exploitation, from the distinctive footsteps of wooden clogs striking a brick paved road that is reflected in the clacking of horseshoes, to the crosscutting sequence of the young woman exhaustedly toiling in the sun with the horse pulling the clay cart.
From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom (1960). The title of Paul Meyer’s compassionate, sincere, and deeply personal feature film on immigrant labor, cultural assimilation, and exile, From the Branches Drops the Withered Blossom, is a line from a poem by Salvatore Quasimodo pondering the inevitability of change. Initially commissioned by the Ministry of Education to promote the integration of immigrant children into the Borinage school system, the film evolved into a cultural portrait of the increasingly desperate plight of the immigrant population, as the area’s primary commerce – the mining industry – fell to economic hardship, mass layoffs, and plant closures, and rendered the lives of these children more uncertain and hopeless. The film is highly reminiscent of Italian neorealism in its depiction of the working class: the familial bonds of Luchino Visconti in Rocco and His Brothers, the bleak, natural landscapes of Roberto Rossellini (such as the hot springs of Voyage in Italy), and industrial decay of Michelangelo Antonioni (particularly Red Desert). As in Klinkaart, Meyer employs parallel imagery to illustrate both real and surrogate families created by the work camp community, and is especially evident in the contrasts between the itinerant (and seemingly fragmented) Domenico and an underemployed Italian miner who sent for his large family to resettle in Borinage despite financial hardship and lack of employment opportunities.
Hop (2002). The divisive issues of immigration and social integration are also in Dominique Standaert’s visually resplendent, whimsical, and affectionate film, Hop. In the opening scene, Justin (Keita Kalumba), a young immigrant from Burundi, tells a fantastic tale of the pivotal role of the African pygmies in the defeat of the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, during the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome. Hannibal, according to the resourceful young man, enlisted the aid of the pygmies after learning of their magical ability, called Hop, to exert control over the mighty elephant. Hannibal’s military strategy is widely successful until the pygmies discover the destructive, environmental toll of the devastating war and abandon Hannibal’s campaign against Rome, precipitating his defeat. The folktale would prove to be a source of inspiration for Justin as he hatches a plan to reunite with his deported father (Ansou Diedhiou), enlisting the aid of a crotchety, but goodhearted former radical named Frans (Jan Decleir) and his devoted housekeeper, Gerda (Antje De Boeck). Although the film strains credibility in a few places, Hop is an admirable and technically adept effort for Standaert, whose genuine compassionate for the plight of his characters and gentle humor pervade the film’s well-intentioned soul.
Acquarello, 2002 [reprinted]