On the films I saw in Isola
Venice June 10th 2007 Dear Nika,
You asked me to write you something about the films I saw in Isola. I think it’s a wonderful festival made by people who really care about cinema. Here are some of my thoughts:
Daratt / Dry Season (2006):
Mahamet Saleh Haroun makes fables about broken transmission, about what it is to grow up in a world of absent fathers and a society imploded by years of civil war. It is storytelling at its most beautiful, direct and fragile.
Somewhere, in a village in Chad, a voice on a radio announces a government amnesty for the criminals of the civil war. And Atim, a boy -not yet quite a man – is handed a revolver by his grandfather to go and kill the man who killed his father.
Daratt poses the question how to grow to adulthood, amid a legacy of revenge and the enormous injustice of a government, which forgives war crimes, ignoring those who suffered. I’ve rarely seen a film convey so well the determined and constant rage on a boy’s face, the long hot hours working in the bakery, his hatred and desire for revenge growing stronger as it starts to mix with a kind of love for the baker – his father’s killer.
One of the most beautiful things about this film is the way it has been filmed by the young Ethiopian cinematographer Abraham Haile Biru at times almost like a documentary so that it sometimes feels as if the characters have merely stumbled into the reality set before us: the scenes in which Nassara, the baker, goes to pray or the opening shots of Atim’s village (an image of trees filmed with intense immediacy) and which remind me of a film shot by Pasolini in Sana’a, in the space of a morning, with a similar tenderness.
There is a scene on a bridge at night which shows all Daratt’s hidden complexity. Atim stands in a red shirt with a white flowered pattern – it is the first time one really notices how beautiful he is – about to shoot a bullet into the emptiness. Everything is silent. A man approaches, asks for a cigarette, moves on, and as the camera turns to watch him leave, it reveals he is a soldier with a leg missing. Suddenly in the pitch darkness, it is as if for a moment we are drawn into the black hole that preceded this – the atrocities latent in the film. How to pick up the pieces and learn to live together again when you’ve been abandoned by history, by the world, by your fathers?
Mahamet Saleh Haroun’s films are hymns to life and people’s stubborn determination to continue. Daratt is one of the most poignant films I’ve watched about what it means to kill a man.
Harvest: 3000 Years (1976):
The camera follows a man as he abandons his work in the fields and runs, runs barefoot, zigzagging over fields to the landowner who is waiting on the road to ask a pointless question. The landowner scolds him and drives off, a servant running behind, and the man has to run back down to the fields again. The camera follows him, pulls away, moves back over the landscape, as the field he is ploughing becomes merely a beautiful dark abstract square, almost a satellite shot, retreating.
This film, about the hard life of peasants, working under a cruel and exploitative landowner, contains some of the most beautiful camera movements I have seen. It was shot over two weeks in Ethiopia during the last days of Haile Sellasie’s regime, with the sound of warplanes overhead, and has the urgent beauty of something made in a specific historical window of time that will not come again.
There is something in the slow necessity with which Haile Gerima films his country and his people for the first time that reminds me of the films of Lav Diaz, as if at every point he is saying: “This is my landscape, my people – their faces, the way they walk, the way they eat, the way they sing.” Images, filmed almost like a silent movie.
There is real social rage in Harvest 3000, part of its fabric not theoretical or dogmatic: The conversations and songs of the wise and intelligent “fool” Kebebe, whose land was stolen and who refuses to give in; the girl cow herder who dreams of rebellion: “I’m a girl, I’m sick of it. Even if I’m a woman, I won’t submit, I’m not afraid.” She runs down the hillside lamenting her fate, like a modern day Antigone and drowns trying to save her cattle; Her brother’s exclamation as he leaves: “I thought the exploitation was limited but it is everywhere.”
I have the feeling one needs to watch this film many times, like those paintings, books, films, one returns to across the years and which open themselves to you gradually and accumulatively, always offering a new way in.
Filmed in a small village in the Northern Italian Alps, where the local dialect, Plodar, is disappearing, Bellavista is a film not just about a dying language but about life dying, everywhere.
Peter Schreiner’s approach to filmmaking reminds me of some of the films I love by Michael Pilz: as if, with his camera, he creates a space for the characters to exist, setting up the condition for things to be, while he withdraws to the sidelines. It is a way of filming filled with gentleness and respect and which give us back time and space: to look at things that will not come again.
In the discussion in Isola, Schreiner said: “I think everything in life is going away, everything, not only the language, not only the dialect.” But Bellavista is full of hope for filmmaking and our need to find new ways.
Thank you for your kind invitation.
All my best wishes,
“On the films I saw in Isola” : Letter to Nika Bohinc by Laura Waddington, Ekran Magazine, Slovenia 2007