P. Stuart Robinson (1958), is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Tromsø. He is a regular contributor on cultural events for Tromsø’s net publication, Tromsø by.
Karlovy Vary 2017: The world stands on the brink of disaster. The only answer is to stop othering. Maybe this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) can show us how?
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Afraid to break the spell with somebody we like, we talk too much and think too little before we speak. In Maryam Goormaghtigh’s documentary Before Summer Ends (2017) a young man suggests to a woman who has just performed on drums that the guitar is maybe more her thing. He was only trying to express (albeit poorly) his interest in her but, not too surprisingly, she takes it the wrong way. We know this because next we see, first, him cursing his own stupidity, and then her lamenting his obvious disdain for her drumming.
This is just one great scene among many in an impressive work of documentary narrative. For all its deceptive simplicity, it demonstrates something quite astonishing, which movies can achieve, but only at their very best.
For isn’t the real miracle of film the capacity to open up another view and give us a sense – however illusory – of seeing as others do, in a way we never considered, never even imagined? In these terms, film has perhaps never been more important than it is today. For we seem to live in fearful, mean-spirited times.
These are the days of drawing in upon ourselves, of celebrating what we know and decrying and despising what we don’t. It is the age of othering. Film cannot save us but, at its best, it can at least show the way towards the precious but dangerously flickering light of human solidarity. All credit to last week’s KVIFF then, whose own flickering screens became a sort of beacon in the gathering darkness.
Good as it may be to see the human condition and dance portrayed through the startling realism of the documentary form, what made Before Summer Ends truly great, was, as is often the case, the salience of the context. With a simplicity so deceptively hard to achieve, it paints a touchingly human portrait of three young immigrant men, belying their ‘status’ as archetypes of potentially dangerous otherness. The importance of this powerful deconstruction of an increasingly prevalent ‘threat mythology’ cannot be overstated.
What makes something ‘Other?’ Striking a discordant note somehow; failure to appear to belong. Alarmingly, The Other does not fall like a stone to the earth with relentless predictability, according to the ironclad logic of natural law. Hence, Otherness, strangely enough, is as good a description as any of what it means to be human. We are, after all, the quintessential misfit beings, alienated from our natural tiny place in the universe by a discordant and disquieting self-consciousness. This is our everyday lot in life, as portrayed in the scene of awkwardness and misunderstanding described above.
So when we react in horror or disdain to the stranger, the interloper, we effectively recoil from ourselves. It’s an hostility which verges on self-harm. Such is the nature of our perfectly understandable revulsion in the face of what it really means to be human, and it lies at the very heart of our diffidence towards others in general, and our bouts of xenophobia in particular. So, as comrade Lenin would say: What is to be done?
The festival offered no simple solutions, no politically correct platitudes for parlour-socialists-turned-woolly-liberals (well, actually, it did, but let’s be gracious and set their dubious achievements to one side for now…). What it offered most importantly was an array of divergent perspectives that might just have the capacity to awaken a deeper self-consciousness, and more or less force us to think again. Paradoxically, self-consciousness is at once the essence of, and the only solution to, the fundamental problem of being human. The ‘solution’ lies in harnessing, as fiction is wont to do, the most powerful social force known to humankind: desire.
When we truly engage with a film it is because we identify and feel the concerns – fears as well as goals – of the characters portrayed (or ‘documented’) as though they were our own. Interpersonal boundaries thus breached, we feel their pain as if it were ours. In so doing, we see how much we share, and how all those differences, which so readily command our attention, are typically much more superficial and much less important than we suppose. What I’m describing are the cognitive and emotional workings of film as a kind of ‘empathy machine’ – a phrase borrowed from Mark Cousins’s 2009 documentary essay, The First Movie.
So, for example, we might confront and really see the ugliness from which we might more typically recoil. If you had attended the festival yourself, you would know immediately what I have in mind: Vit Klusák’s The White World According to Daliborek (2017), which premiered there. Responses were mixed to say the least. The most common objections, strangely enough, were that the film was either too nice or too tough on neo-nazis.
One senses a liberal paradox at work here. We can return to these objections presently. First, let’s honour the film’s great virtue: to work against the grain of a debilitating human tendency, one we would all do well to fight to overcome. This is to recoil from the ugliness around us because we are afraid to confront and come to terms with the ugliness within.
In one way only, Klusák’s work resembles Before Summer Ends. They are both documentaries with a strong narrative shape, which push the always porous boundary between documentary and fiction. Perhaps the paradigm example of the tendency in documentary film, and certainly an inspiration to many a filmmaker, is Searching for Sugar Man from 2012, by the sadly departed Malik Bendjelloul. Like Bendjelloul, Klusák builds his narrative around a pivotal figure, but substitutes anti-hero for hero in the absurd shape of that curiously anxiety-prone white supremacist named Daliborek.
Klusák has almost mercilessly harvested Daliborek’s desire for attention. Here you can practically read the filmmaker’s zeal between the lines. One gets the impression of his subject having being tempted, and even goaded on, to really perform his white supremacist vision and stance, to the limits of, and even beyond, what he might have conceived on his own. This prompted the criticism that the documentarist had intervened too aggressively, and become a kind of agent provocateur. There are obvious ethical problems insofar as this amounts to a kind of entrapment.
The basis of this charge is really that the data is somehow muddied, compromising the work’s objectivity. The film demonstrates, however, that the narrative intervention of the filmmaker can be a powerful exploratory tool, capable of uncovering deeper truths. The filmmaker is not the only one to goad Daliborek to work through to the logical conclusions of his beliefs. Equally active in this regard is his mother’s boyfriend, who is happy to play the part of his ideological mentor. Here we witness manipulation, bigotry and hatred in action. The filmmaker may have set them in motion, but they were clearly always ready and waiting.
They are not left unopposed, however. With the help of a little background research, the filmmaker himself intervenes with an alarming on-screen revelation, that there is a significant Jewish element in Daliborek’s own family background! The all-important but elusive question is thus posed to the protagonist: ‘How does it feel?’ Is this unethical or, for that matter, unwise, if the effect is to pour oil on troubled water? Or is it a necessary and suitably dialectic engagement in a world of difficult and potentially dangerous human relationships? I’m leaning towards the latter.
Perceived ethnic difference is only one category among many. KVIFF has long sought to bridge the gap in human understanding between those with obvious physical disabilities and the ‘healthy’ majority through its ‘People Next Door’ programme. This has been a venue for the screening – or rescreening – of, among other things, some notable Norwegian films. Last year it was Bård Beien’s irreverent black-comedy-cum-disability-slapstick from 2006, The Art of Negative Thinking («Kunsten å tenke negativt»). This year it was Eskil Vogt’s complex and evocative Blind, from 2014.
The film’s protagonist responds to the personal cataclysm of going blind by holing up in her flat, apparently unwilling to leave its protective walls. Here again we get a lesson in how deceptive ‘appearances’ may be. The attachment to this seductive ‘surface world’ is ultimately a loss of perspective, a failure of imagination, and itself a kind of blindness. The newly blind seeks self-expression though her writing. This helps reveal the limits, in this case though the loss of powers of visualision, as well as the enormous potential of the human imagination.
Film can tap the powers of the imagination; xenophobia is testimony to its abject failure. Film at its best can help liberate us from unfounded fears and build bridges with those we might otherwise view with contempt or suspicion. So let’s give a big thankyou to the best of our filmmaking ‘imagineers.’
Specifically at this year’s KVIFF, the thanks (if not the prizes) should go to:
Our old friend, Mark Cousins, for narrating a wanderer’s reconciliation with the strangeness and promise of the novelty of place in Stockholm My Love, from 2016.
Alen Drljevic, for helping us comprehend the crippling and interminable legacy of organised violence through his Men Don’t Cry (2017), the story of Balkan war-veterans replaying and not necessarily healing every old wound and misery.
Orban Wallace, for his remarkable first feature-length documentary, Another News Story (2017), which managed to shine a cinematic searchlight into the complex experiential nexus of refugee, reporter and filmmaker.
Aktan Arym Kubat, for Centaur, a simple story of a social outsider in rural Kyrgyzstan, capable of giving metaphorical wings to horse and human alike, and allowing us to see both in a different way.