Saturday, March 28, 2020

History Is a Place in Time and Space

A few weeks (and a lifetime) ago, I wrote about Heimat Is a Place in Time, the latest film from German documentarian Thomas Heise. It is a dazzlingly beautiful black-and-white meditation on the impact of the past century on one German family. Of course, "one German family" encompasses many families and touches on the lives of hundreds of others with whom they came in contact. If that weren't clear from Heise's film, it certainly is now for those of us sitting at home glumly waiting for something to change globally and locally.

One thing that is happening at home is that Heise's film is available for streaming through Sunday, April 5, at

At the time, here is what I said about the film for Jewish Week:

History moves slowly on the macro level. Yet, history is composed of those thousand tiny moments that, as individuals, we experience as fleeting, ephemeral. This tension is nearly impossible to express in film and yet film is by its very nature the most likely vehicle for examining the seeming paradox. There have been documentary films that have fruitfully tilled this soil, although the means they utilize will almost always consign them to “difficult-movie Hell.” An obvious example would be Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s masterpiece of historical contemplation, a film that moves deftly between the personal, the global and the meta. Of course, the film is almost ten hours long. It needs to be.

Heimat Is a Space in Time, a non-fiction essay film by Thomas Heise, inverts Lanzmann’s filmmaking practice, but it’s also a huge brick of a film, nearly four hours long and, like Shoah before it, Heise’s film is a powerfully immersive experience in which a viewer’s initial impulse is to resist its whirlpool-like pull. (It may be useful to read Heise’s title ironically; “heimat,” could be translated as “homeland” literally, but it has a barnacle-like layer of associations that that sometimes hearken back to Nazi-era nostalgia for blood and soil.)

Like Lanzmann, Heise eschews newsreels and other overt trappings of a film set in the past. His approach to the relationship between image and sound is much more oblique as he traces the lives of three generations of his family through diaries, journals, letters and documents. The only voice we hear is his own, reading from the various texts. The images, almost entirely shot in black and white, have a more indirect relationship to the soundtrack than in Lanzmann’s interview-driven film. One result of that change is that – especially now that almost all the witnesses to the murder of Europe’s Jews have themselves died – the testimony drives Shoah with the result that it becomes a film whose central subject could just as easily be memory.

Certainly, Heise’s family history, which involves several generations of intellectuals, Communists, Jewish-Gentile marriages, persecution by the Nazis and the Stasi in turn, is as dramatic and historically revealing, as many of the stories Lanzmann recounts. Heise’s stories are not, perhaps, predicated on human memory, relying on the more indirect human capacity for recording events.

But Heise is drumming away, slowly, inexorably but almost imperceptibly over the film’s running time, at something else, perhaps at time itself. The visuals of Heimat Is a Space have great beauty, but more than that, they possess a startling tactility. They have an overwhelming sense of three-dimensionality with the result that his extended portraits of all-but-abandoned farm land, shattered roadways, deserted forests lead us into a different reality, a sense of time as moving at an unnaturally slow pace.

In an e-mail interview last week (elegantly translated from German by John Barrett), Heise responded to a question about the film’s bleak imagery.

“[W]ith some luck, nature will re-emerge in our wake,” he wrote. “A nature that we roughly know or perhaps in another form. Forests or something similar is conceivable. That’s a source of hope. I don’t see anything bleak in it. I’m interested in learning about it. Perhaps, it is a way of looking at something that will come in the wake of humanity, of looking at its vanishing traces.”

Heise is, himself, something of a remnant of a vanishing family. He wrote, “I’m probably the last in the line, officially speaking.”

He responds to that reality with a certain dry, wry wit.

I wasn’t in a position to make the film at an earlier stage,“ he wrote. „Even though it hurts, that’s a fundamental fact. In order to be able to excavate something, it must have died out beforehand. I’m an archaeologist who’s digging up my own ruins. The archaeology of real existence.“

Given the film’s length, its rich tapestry of image and sound associations and its dazzling, highly satisfying structural complexity, Heise made a lot of directorial decisions on the fly.

“The film had occupied my thoughts for over twenty years and my life revolved around it, although I was only aware of about half of the material that I ultimately used in the texts in it,” he explained.
He recalled an entire year spent transcribing the texts that would form the basis for the narration, keeping that wealth of material in his head, “the lot of it, every last sentence.” He added, “It was buzzing like a beehive.”

Yet he had no shooting script to speak of.

“The fact of the matter is at the time of filming none of the images we created had a specific place in the film,” he wrote. “I was unsure whether they might appear in the beginning, at the end, halfway through the film, or perhaps not at all. That means that I’m making something that is mostly intuitive, where possible, akin to self-contained short scenes, each like a short film in itself, which don’t seek to follow the other short films. And all the other self-contained scenes do likewise. That means we’re producing something akin to building blocks, with which I can then later assemble that which I want to show. On top of that, we have to deal with the filming conditions. At the [railroad] shunting yard in Vienna, for example, that entailed a two-day shoot. The images shot there contain every conceivable movement of the train-wagons: close-ups, long shots, tracking shots. These reveal without context, which the public later comes to understand by dint of the narrated texts; in themselves they demonstrate the frictionless, unswerving functioning of a machine.”

At first glance, “Heimat Is a Space in Time” may seem more like a Rube Goldberg device, but as the film unspools and its careful mosaic of images and words accumulates, a viewer gradually realizes that his machine is a work of “frictionless” beauty, daunting perhaps, but inexorably, hypnotically involving.

Thomas Heise

That interview was considerably longer, more detailed and instructive than I had space for. Happily, there is no need for a limit on space in a blog. What follows is the e-mail interview in its entirety.

I found your film dazzling and its sheer complexity thrilled me. Talk about the process by which it was made. How much of it is the result of spur-of-the-moment decisions or improvisation? How much of the structure did you have in mind beforehand? There are some recurring images which really struck me – the car-carrier train(s) which show up repeatedly, for example.

I can hardly depict “from the outside” the conflicting situations that can be put down to instinctive decisions that were made amidst all the contradictory ideas and plans during the film’s preparation, shooting and editing. The film had occupied my thoughts for over twenty years and my life revolved around it, although I was only aware of about half of the material that I ultimately used in the texts in it.

I spent an entire year transcribing the material with a student of mine, Georg Oberhumer, an expert in German studies. All the letters, diaries, notes, all the slips of paper that I had retained. In all, there were forty large files, obstinately arranged in chronological order. Along with photos and documents. A huge pile, and it was in my head as we embarked on filming. I carried that pile around within me, so to speak. The lot of it, every last sentence. It was buzzing like a beehive. It was strange when the shoot got underway, for we didn't have any fixed shooting script. During the early stages, we had the blindly adopted visual props: the crowd scenes at Ostkreuz Station in Berlin, for instance, which I had shot for this film ten years ago, but without knowing exactly what I was to do with the takes. Or, there was the railroad shunting yard in Vienna, which we had determined as a shooting location, and where we had our first two days of filming in February 2018.

The fact of the matter is at the time of filming none of the images we created had a specific place in the film. I was unsure whether they might appear in the beginning, at the end, halfway through the film, or perhaps not at all. That means that I’m making something that is mostly intuitive, where possible, akin to self-contained short scenes, each like a short film in itself, which don’t seek to follow the other short films. And all the other self-contained scenes do likewise. That means we’re producing something akin to building blocks, with which I can then later assemble that which I want to show. On top of that, we have to deal with the filming conditions. At the shunting yard in Vienna, for example, that entailed a two-day shoot. The images shot there contain every conceivable movement of the train-wagons: close-ups, long shots, tracking shots. These reveal without context, which the public later comes to understand by dint of the narrated texts; in themselves they demonstrate the frictionless, unswerving functioning of a machine. Creating that image was the assigned task for Stefan. Functioning like clockwork, unstoppable, mostly without people. We executed all of this very objectively. In general, these sequences appear either between or after the narrated texts. In the final third of the film’s final-cut a man appears on the railway tracks in a shot filmed at night and vanishes into the distance. He is holding a long iron bar in his hand with which to uncouple the train carriages of a slowly moving train. The camera pans as the shunting wagons roll toward it and onward as far as the summit of the hump and beyond. We then hear the account of my arrest in October 1989 until a long shot of the entire shunting yard taken at night. Wagons rolling parallel, stoic and isolated on different tracks, while the narration goes: “Stop saying ´‘we,’ said one of the interrogators; just say ‘I.’”

Some other scenes were coincidental discoveries that we came across by the wayside. The shots, for example, with Little Red Riding Hood in the forest, the buckled highway and the huge wind turbines. I hadn’t a clue what we were going to do with the Little Red Riding Hood images. We came across those steel figures and the sign in a forest in Brandenburg not far from a castle of Bettina von Armin, in which I had been as a child. Many years previously, Bettina von Arnim had allowed the destitute Grimm Brothers to live in the castle and they are said to have discovered and written down the story of Little Red Riding Hood in that area.  Apparently, someone from that small village has now come up with the idea to install these figures in the middle of the forest, and to present them in an artistic manner, if I could call it such.

As a matter of fact there is the sign with a notice “According to legend, here stood Grandmother's house.” Though it’s not certain at all.  It was supposed to be there once upon a time. And behind the sign lies the forest and no trace whatsoever of the house. It’s quiet there, with only strange bird twitters and the rustling of dry grass to be heard. Amidst all of this those steel figures of a forester, a wolf, and a grandmother, and finally that of Little Red Riding Hood. In the long shot she appears like a maiden in a fairy tale, apart from the clumsy painting. In the close-up we discover that Little Red Riding Hood has the face of a boy. And at that moment in the film appears the photo of the little boy with the German flag: that’s me. That’s when the film really starts and continues until the narrator states loud and clear the word “I.”

Little Red Riding Hood’s boyish face fascinated me. And that the forest remains indifferent about the fact that nothing remains of the Grandmother’s conceivable house. That’s what the film is all about, about that which endures, that which is blown away, and how it affects us.

The film’s approach to its subjects is oblique, and the running time may prove daunting to most moviegoers. Obviously you were aware of that throughout the filmmaking process. How do you reconcile yourself to that knowledge? Is there some level on which you find yourself thinking, ‘well, they wouldn’t let me show my earlier work under the GDR, I guess this one will have almost as trouble finding an audience?”

While I understand your question, I can’t think about it in those terms. The film’s duration is something that arises from the work itself, at first over the course of the editing process. We might revise its duration during the process. Initially, I had assumed that the film would be about two hours long, and it was planned with this in mind. Even the number of shooting days was thus limited to twenty-eight days. I never thought about the audience. I was preoccupied with how the idea could be implemented and whether I would succeed in reducing the whole thing to a conclusive concept in terms of content and form, the concept being the finished film. It’s truly existential: I’ve now got to do something which I don't yet know what it will be. Everything else comes at a later stage.
Heimat is a Space in Time is not a film for major cinema chains that change their weekly program and with popcorn and all the rest. Still, the attendance figures for the film in the art-house movie theatres are actually good, not to mention the positive audience reactions. The film has been presented at many festivals worldwide; it has received numerous large and small awards, it has been screened in China and South Korea. In Japan it has received coverage in the press and people are interested in it. It has been sold to RAI, the Italian national broadcaster. Apparently, viewers do read subtitles for three-and-a-half hours. It will also be broadcast on German television and moreover at prime time and without any interruption. That said, documentary film, and especially such fragments of time, work when they have something to say. If they are good, they can endure a long time and can also find their audience over time. Precisely because they are raw fragments that are not easy to absorb. They’re challenging, one doesn’t digest them so easily.

Documentary films have lasted longer than the country in which they were made. Following the collapse of the Berlin Wall audiences could watch those films I was unable to screen in public during the lifetime of East German state. That didn’t harm the films the slightest. I have a very long, albeit biologically limited, breath. Yet, the films are still here and continue to be screened.

In other interviews you’ve noted that you are essentially the last member of the family still alive. (Am I correct on this?) What made you decide to make the film with everyone else gone? Is it a film you wouldn’t have felt you could complete if your parents and brother were going to see it?

Where does the family begin, and where does it peter out?  These are decisions to be made. As far as the Heises are concerned, I’m probably the last in the line, officially speaking. In any case, I’m not aware of anyone else. I still have a few relatives in the U.S.A. and in England, but I’m the last of the Heises. I wasn’t in a position to make the film at an earlier stage. Even though it hurts, that’s a fundamental fact. In order to be able to excavate something, it must have died out beforehand. I’m an archaeologist who’s digging up my own ruins. The archaeology of real existence.

Your formal choices fascinated me. There seems to be a dialectical tension at play in the apparent alternation of lateral and vertical tracking shots. Was that deliberate?

That’s what film editing is all about. Montage brings a film to life. It’s akin to a score one composes.

The use of natural sound is also striking. What were you looking for on the soundtrack?

That’s a great question: what were you looking for on the soundtrack? I had a wonderful collaboration with the sound engineer Johannes Schmelzer, an Austrian jazz musician. I’m truly happy to have met him. At the Berlinale some years ago he asked me if he could work on the sound for me. That was a good idea.

I would often send him out into the surrounding countryside, away from the camera position. And then he would disappear into the landscape and come back at a later point after having recorded some wonderful sound-takes. Creaking trees, or some bird or other. He immediately grasped how image and sound are separate entities. His sound-takes impart something distinct, entirely independent of the visuals in the film.

To return to your question, what was I looking for? Silence. Just as we don’t use any imaging techniques, there are none, or hardly any parallel sounds that are synchronized with the image. What we see is a reality being forged. We can also filter out strange things within this reality. Cars are a case in point. At a very early stage I noticed that practically no motor vehicles appear in the film, with the exception of the shots taken through the steamed-up window inside a tram in Vienna and at a street junction on the Schönhauser Allee in Berlin. Aside from those, no cars are to be seen. We only see them as products being transported about on trains. Nor is the din of road traffic to be heard. In our daily lives it’s an ubiquitous presence in our ears, but not in this film, where it’s scarcely noticeable. What we were seeking to do was to induce something that would stagger one’s perception of reality. It’s akin to that sign in the forest in the film’s opening segment: Something isn’t quite right. Care is called for. The rhythmic tones of the shunting yard, the rustling grass, the animal sounds, the wind turbines, the wind, a few drops of water, paper, the occasional airplane, creaking trees, clanging steel. These are the sounds. Mostly very subdued, you tune into them and listen. The film’s only loud sequences are those with the clanging steel that steamrolls everywhere and that song by Marika Rökk from a musical comedy dating back from 1944:

Don't look here, don't look there, just look straight ahead,
And what e'er may come, don’t lose your head

Not only are the sound takes excellent, but Martin Steyer's sound-mix is equally so. There’s also the sequence with the snow-covered cars in Mainz, even though that’s a real-life scene using original sound. It’s a short film about love during the Cold War. Any of these men appearing in that sequence could have been Udo.

The natural and man-made imagery are both pretty bleak; the film’s visuals seem to consist largely of decay, detritus, desolation.

Do you think so ...? It’s somewhat akin to Little Red Riding Hood: with some luck, nature will re-emerge in our wake. A nature that we roughly know or perhaps in another form. Forests or something similar is conceivable. That’s a source of hope. I don’t see anything bleak in it. I’m interested in learning about it. Perhaps, it is a way of looking at something that will come in the wake of humanity, of looking at its vanishing traces. One of my favorite shots–– if I can put it that way––is the “drinking paradise” with the snowman behind the window, looking out onto Bahnhofstrasse. Who would conceive of such a setting? Steven King? Also, the cryptic runes with the “number one son-of-a-bitch.” Or, that ingrown bank at the lakeside. I've never seen anything like that. That is the small bathing beach with the gnarled oak trees, where, as children, we always used to swim in summer. In the lake with a dead sheep in it and a wary swan. I didn’t make any of that up: it was exactly like that.

There is also a noticeable absence of human beings, except in extreme long shots or masses of people who we see only briefly. Would you talk about that juxtaposition with the texts which are intimate and very personal?

First of all, it’s difficult to have an off-voice for long periods in a film. The images distract one from the text if too much is happening in them. That said, however, a text quickly becomes annoying, for it in turn distracts from the image. It was a crucial decision to do everything with one single voice and not to sub-divide the texts between different actors. Initially, I had assumed that an actress would narrate all the texts. I had a message for the camera crew that the film should have the rhythm of a solar eclipse. That is a calm, but yet very compelling and fluid movement. One can’t interrupt it, one can’t stop it midway, one can’t escape it. That is also the tempo we used for the camera pans, and in the transversal movements, as well as the speed of the train-wagons. This peculiar pace and absence of human beings create a space that enable audiences to follow the texts. Or, that’s what I assume in any case.

When filming got underway, we set aside two days sets  in order to technically familiarize ourselves with the setting at the shunting yard.  Once I got down to editing the rushes, however, I didn’t start with the film’s opening section. For I didn’t as yet know what that might be. We started editing the sequences after a hypothetical unknown first third of the film, after Germany had been liberated. That is the section with Rosie’s story about her first-ever love affair in the winter of 1944/45 during a skiing vacation, her depiction of Dresden in the wake of aerial bombs attacks, and finally her complicated relationship with Udo across the different occupation zone borders in occupied Germany. It starts at the point when they first get to know each other in 1948 and culminates with their separation in 1952. A first great love, told as a self-contained tale. And in-between lots of other love stories involving Rosie and Udo and finally one that endures. Rosie’s diary comes to an end at this point. As do Udo’s letters. Udo talks to Rosie, while Rosie talks to herself. This was fascinating and at this juncture we started seeking out the form for the film; we were in search of the dialogue between image, text, and sound. The at-times grotesque love stories, coupled with the protagonists respective reflections on the situation in the world, their commentaries on films and books were enlightening and not lacking in humor. At the same time, their stories furnished a precise image of the characters, as well as the prevailing historical circumstances. We edited the sequence without thinking about what would come beforehand or afterward. That’s when we started to work with the landscapes. With the letters that glide through the images like railway carriages. It begins and ends in the snow, and the whole thing with the men in Rosie’s life is still not clear. Whereupon a new love comes in the night and two sons are born. They depict a worldview and clobber each other warily. I narrated all the texts as a dummy in our cutting editor’s child’s room, whenever we needed to make some headway. I stuck with this procedure throughout the entire editing process: there were no separate voice recording sessions and the constant use of the child’s room. Udo’s endless love letters, my mother Rosemarie’s rueful monologues in her diary.

The opening landscapes in this episode were shot in the countryside in Saxony, not far from the where the original events occurred. Whereas the diary speaks of night, the visuals show icy snow-laden landscapes in daylight, with glistening clouds. Thereafter, we increasingly adopted this approach in how to structure things. On completing the section that focused on Udo and Rosie, we viewed it: it was a good hour-and-a-half long and it became clear to us that filming would take significantly longer than we had planned and calculated for. We decided not to worry about it, however, and just to keep working away on it, section by section. Our approach was somewhat archeological in that we were putting together broken fragments. Over time it was interesting to discover how and when a particular episode started and how and when it ended. We would then continue with the preceding section, with the love story between Udo and Rosie as a reference in the back of our minds. Basically, just as with the filming process, whose sole guide was that vast referential pile from the transcripts in my head, there was no shooting script. Yet, there was enough resonance space in which to keep discovering things, spaces, and landscapes that coherently fell into place in this pile. Some of them even became a vantage point.

The visuals are stunning. Tell me about the decision to shoot in black-and-white and about your cinematographer.

In the past I also liked to shoot in black-and-white. It transcends all prevailing trends. It creates a distance to the object; it clarifies matters and can be imbued with great beauty. That’s enough. Particularly in winter. I really wanted snow, so that’s why we shot the film in February. I love the winter light. The numbing frost in February 2018, from which we suffered a lot in the open countryside, was a lucky break for us. The ice crystals. It’s not all in black-and-white, however. The film begins in color. A few official documents, such as the I.D. cards and the transport lists are also in color. Some of the few photos as well. And the painted image with the bearded man, the German flag and the huge paws that appear after the credits. My brother Andreas made that in 1961. The man with the big paws in it is Walter Ulbricht, who was the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany. My brother and I were in the children’s section of the party’s youth organization at the time.

The cinematographer is Stefan Neuberger, from Bavaria. We first got to know each other in 2014 at the Volksbühne in Berlin, where I was working jointly with Robert Nickolaus and Stefan on a larger-scale installation for its centenary celebrations. Robert, with whom I had previously worked in Mexico and Argentina, brought him along. He had just become a father and needed more time with his wife and their newly-born twins. Stefan and I quickly got on very well at work; he is my first Bavarian friend and a very precise worker. He lives with a Swedish woman and has a relationship to the North like I have to the desert. That has worked out well and we’ve been working together ever since. 

To what extent were you raised with a Jewish identity? Did it come into play in making the film?

I knew what the film is about, and it’s not Jewish identity. The filming had nothing to do with that. Not for me. The film is about my identity. 

I don’t know how a German viewer would respond to the film but for a Jewish-American like me the constant presence of trains in a German setting can only have one significance. Given your family history, I’m guessing that’s not an accident.

I can understand that quite well, but its significance is only one of shifting references. The shunting yard demonstrates a functioning system in action, in which connections are made or severed, and then put together one again. Biographical trajectories run parallel to one another; they intersect, meet, and separate once again. There’s a figure of speech in German about someone’s “facial features being derailed.” Generally speaking, that means that they have lost their shape. A life, too, can go “off the rails.” Wheels steamroll for victory. They can be deployed to take one on a journey or for deportation. The preceding text, such as Wilhelm’s homework essay from 1912 in this instance, furnishes the subsequent images of the tanker trains at night a meaning, namely that of war. The public knows that it erupted shortly after he wrote that essay. They might, however, just view the sequence as oil or fuel being transported by train. They will draw their own conclusions. Not one single piece of correspondence is associated with the shunting yard. That was important to me. It’s the transport lists that glide through the images like an endless train.

The living people going up and down the stairs at Berlin’s Ostkreuz station in the second section about Rosie and Udo correspond to those on the lists of deportees in the opening section, on the anticipated lists of the dead of those soon to be murdered. By contrast, the correspondence from the Hirschhorns to Edith and Wilhelm in Berlin corresponds to the voices of all those being deported in that scene. Just as Udo’s letters and Rosie’s diary represent the potential voices for the people rushing at the station.

Ultimately, the film suggests a certain sad resignation about the future. Are you pessimistic about the future of Europe? Germany?

A degree of audacity is required to be optimistic about the future. I haven’t in any way given up. We are, probably much more than we are willing to realize, living through a fundamental metamorphosis or a state of upheaval. That’s what interests me.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Can somebody please clean up this mess?

Got the new issue of Variety today and the theater owners are going through what the venerable trade paper calls "an existential crisis." One executive -- obviously a baseball fan of my vintage -- says that the 2020 box-office figures will "be a giant asterisk," and that the year is essentially a total loss. Coming after two years of declining box-office figures, that is not good news for the majors. They're counting on 2021 tentpoles to revive the takings -- Avatar 2, Spiderman 3 and a bunch of other Marvel and Marvel-type movies. Needless to say, this fills me with something less than eager anticipation. 

Unsurprisingly, the theater chains are looking at the streaming services with undisguised loathing and who can blame them. Once breached, the wall separating theatrical release from at-home viewing will not be easily rebuilt. I suppose one could make the argument that it's the tentpole spectaculars that will put fannies in seats since these films stand to lose the most impact when viewed on even a 48-inch screen.

I would argue that intimate dramas and comedies and documentaries actually lose more on the small screen. Having repeatedly had the experience of seeing a film in both formats (prepping for a class or a film club screening), I can tell you unequivocally that the loss of detail and nuance between the video screen and the projected theater experience is damning. You just lose too much and in films that live and die by their details, behavioral or design, are damaged badly. I suppose that when you've seen as much as I generally do in a year, you learn to compensate while watching, but that's an absurd way to watch and judge a work of art. (Besides, how can you imagine what you can't actually see?)

That said, there aren't a lot of alternatives right now, unless you live in a movie theater and have a projectionist on staff. So unless you are a studio executive or live in the White House, it's stream or die.

Coming soon to a screen (and blog) near you

Here are some more alternatives for the rest of us that are worth keeping in mind while we're confined to quarters.

Cinema Tropical, the excellent distributor of Latin American film, is offering a veritable film festival of new movies on their website. I haven't seen the new titles yet, but if they're handling the film you can expect at the very least a challenging experience. 

Documentary Educational Resources has a library of hundreds of non-fiction titles. They are offering  unlimited streaming access to a curated selection of free films – a mix of new releases and classic titles for free home viewing through June 1. Go here and enter the code WFH2020.

Thomas Heise's brilliant Heimat is a Space in Time is streaming on line through April 5 at This is a film I will say more about shortly.  

Likewise, Pedro Costa's Vitalina Varela, another definitive example of the power of so-called slow cinema that is avalailable today from Grasshopper Film.

Obviously, there will  be more to follow, but I expect to post on the Heise and the Costa tomorrow, right after my first-ever experience of a Shabbat morning service on-line. I may even talk a bit about that!

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3

Which is, of course, the title of a song by Ian Dury. Dury had polio as a child and spent his entire life dealing with the after-effects with a mixture of poetic smarts, mordant, scathing humor and unconcealed rage.

I was thinking of him throughout the running time of Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, a magnificent new documentary film by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht, available for streaming on Netflix. The pairing of Emmy-winner Newnham and LeBrecht, who has lived with the effects of spina bifida since birth, gives the film a unique combination of technical precision and cool authenticity that few non-fiction films about people with disabilities have had before.

The title refers to a rather jury-rigged summer camp for teens "with handicaps", Camp Jened, which ran in the Catskills not far from Woodstock, NY, from 1951 to 1977. LeBrecht was a camper there, a precocious, smart-mouthed kid with a winning smile and long hair. At Jened he fit in perfectly with a deliriously assorted collection of teens with cerebral palsy, blindness, and polio.

Photo: HolLynn D'Lil/Netflix

For most of the film's first half, it appears to be a memorial to the defunct camp with wonderfully assembled ancient video footage and interviews with other former campers and counselors. And if that were all the film was, dayenu, it would have been enough. Even now there are too few films on the subject told from the inside out, as people without disabilities still grab the right to speak for those with, and the kids are engaging and funny. My own summer camp experiences, albeit more conventional, date from roughly the same period and one of the delights of the first half of Crip Camp is how little the Camp Jened experience differs from my own summers -- unrequited sexual longings, lazy summer days and lousy sports performances.

Of course, the differences are beyond significant. As each of the interviewees testifies, the camp experience represented an unprecedented opportunity to meet and bond with other adolescents who had similar experiences of marginalization and disempowerment.

That is where the film makes a startling but sterling pivot, as those "kids" grow up to be adults fighting for the rights that society long has denied them. Focussing on several of the long-time activists, the film traces the rise of the disability rights movement from its first stirrings as a by-product of '60s counter-cultural politics to a full-fledged and increasingly visible group of advocates who would not be silenced. As the film shows, the progress made in the Carter Administration, over the wishes of Joseph Califano, Carter's secretary of health and human services (although the title was still health, education and welfare back then), led directly to the Americans with Disabilities Act a decade later. The battle with Califano receives a lot of screen time but it deserves it.

Judy Heumann Today with Co-Directors of Crip Camp, Jim LeBrecht and Nicole Newnham
(Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

Crip Camp manages to tell this often complicated story clearly, lucidly, while also touching on the unique problems of the individual participants as they begin to deal with issues of sexuality, aging and health. It is impossible to watch this film and not think about how seldom mainstream cinema has touched directly on these issues. Putting aside the work of people like Stephen Dwoskin, Reid Davenport, Jen Brea, Jason DaSilva, and the opportunities provided by the RealAbilities Film Festival, we are still being bombarded with the likes of Rain Man and Sam I Am, artificially sweetened junk-food movies that add nothing but condescension to a national dialogue about disability. In their own patronizing way, they aren't that different from Trump mocking people with disabilities. (It should be noted that the film was made by a new production company headed by Barack and Michele Obama.)

Jim LeBrecht, besides co-directing Crip Camp, has frequently addressed these issues. I recommend this piece on the state of documentarians with disabilities, an excellent supplement to his equally excellent film.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Another Unexpected Source of On-Line Film

As long as we are all stuck at home -- and I think we may well exhaust the vaults of many cinematheques before the situation changes -- we might as well see a movie. Many movies. Many movies from many places. For example, here are a couple of resources that are worth bookmarking.

By now, thanks to Bong Jun-ho, even non-cinephiles have tumbled to the joys of films from South Korea. Thanks to a strongly protectionist attitude towards film exhibition, mandating that a fairly high percentage of first-run films be locally made, the South Korean industry has thrived, producing a stream of highly intelligent filmmakers for many decades. If you want to dip into that stream all you need to do is to go to YouTube where the Korean Film Archive provides a huge selection -- over 400 titles -- of restored or new films from below the 38th Parallel. The collection goes back to the 1930s, including a wide range of genres and most of the highlights of the nation's recent film history.

Choi Eun-hee and Shin Sang-ok with their, uh, pal Kim Jong-il.
(Nice to see the Kim family's taste in clothes and haircuts hasn't skipped a generation.)

If you are deadset on mastering Korean cinema as a whole, you can find five of the best North Korean films on line as well. After all, Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong-un's predecessor and father, was the author of numerous works of film theory and personally modernized the North Korean film industry (principally by kidnapping South Korean director Shin Sang-ok and his wife Choi Eun-hee, a popular star of the '60s and '70s. And we thought the old seven-year studio contracts were tough.

Meanwhile, Back in Wuhan. . . .

This is one of those rare, odd opportunities that only cinema can provide. One of the current films that is streaming on-line, Diao Yinan’s hypnotic neo-noir The Wild Goose Lake, is set in the city of Wuhan. I’m assuming that – unless you have been living under a rock – readers know that Wuhan is where the COVID-19 pandemic started. So here is a chance to see a bit of the town that unwittingly (and, I’m sure, unwillingly) plunged us all into this mess. Diao’s movie also gives a not-too-startling insight into the extraordinary powers of local and national government in the People’s Republic of China that made it possible for Prime Minister Xi to strong-arm inhabitants into a lockdown more severe than any imagined in all but the most rabid fever dreams of the US Department of Justice.

This man (Hu Ge) is dangerous

 That said, Lake is a dazzlingly colorful (literally and figuratively) glimpse of the small-time underworld of the region, an efficient and yet langorous thriller with unmistakable echoes of early Wong Kar-Wai and High Sierra. Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge in a drily commanding performance with echoes of Robert Mitchum) is a highly skilled thief and organizer recently released from prison and returned to Wuhan. His crew offend another outfit and find themselves drawn into a conflict that is to be decided by “the Olympic Games of Theft.” The ones who can steal the most motorbikes in an evening willb e given control fo prime territory. But this promising premise is kicked to the curb almost immediately when Zhou’s adjutant is killed. Wanted by the police for a cop-killing, Zhou now finds himself caught between a veritable army of cops and numerous former colleagues who are after the large reward on his head. Complicating matters are the absence of his wife (Wan Qian) and the presence of a mysterious and helpful hooker (Gwei Lun Mei), who has been sent as a go-between. Diao draws cunning parallels between the underworld and police organizations and methods that Samuel Fuller would have been proud of.

This woman (Gwei Lun Mei) is too.

 Diao tells the story in a complex but rewarding flashback structure that leads viewers through some wildly staged set-pieces, from a professional clinic in cycle theft that turns into a sparky massive brawl, to a surreal street fair that include a group dance by locals wearing neon trimmed shoes. When most of the glowing feet turn out to belong to cops, that sequence takes on an even more bizarre air.
Underpinning the action scenes is a beautifully choreography of surveillance and encounter, worked around Diao’s cunning sense of nocturnal screen space and his elegantly worked out script with its themes of trust and betrayal. Surprisingly, the last third of the film takes on a stoutly feminist subtext with the two women in Zhou’s life bonding, not over the reward money but through a shared commitment to the criminal’s personal legacy. 

About half-way through the film Diao slows the pace to soak in the watery atmosphere of Wuhan, a town noted for its many lakes (including the eponymous one). Suddenly his green-neon-tinted cityscapes take on a more pastoral, if  rundown, air. The result partakes of the fractured romanticism of Wong and the American noir classics, achieving a translucent balance between genre violence and slow-cinema wistfulness. It doesn’t make Wuhan look appealing, but the result is impressive.

Tribeca 3: Pride in the City

Tribeca has always been a film festival that focused on diversity and inclusion, from its beginning in 2002.  This year has been no exceptio...