Fair Wind: Notes of a Traveller

in 42nd Rotterdam International Film Festival

by Robert Koehler

We are living in a moment of flux for the cinema, when the old order of celluloid isn’t yet dead, the supposed new order of digital is trying to assert absolute supremacy but hasn’t quite yet, when the old languages of fiction and non-fiction haven’t ceded their central place, and the new languages — among them the in-between film-cum-video, interactive media, algorithmic storytelling syntax — are transforming everything around them and still gelling. We are living in a moment of such flux that it’s possible for a filmmaker such as Bernadette Weigel to opt for something as simple and unassailable as juicing up her Super-8 camera and taking it on the road to record her adventure. In Fair Wind: Notes of a Traveller, Weigel makes certain crucial decisions that display the essence of something that seems utterly contrary to what is after all a corporate-driven move to a synthetic cinema, and to drive analog cinema off the field entirely. She chooses film. She chooses a small film format that allows the lightness of tiny video cameras but with celluloid’s rich capacity (even in Super-8, which in any case is now transferred to video, as it was projected in Rotterdam). She chooses a journey with no clear destination and only the vaguest of general directions — east, east from her Vienna home, somewhere far. “One has to be able to see the world and walk towards it”, notes Alfred Doblin in a graphic quote at the beginning of the film, which is to frame the essence of travel as a movement forward, from one spot on the world to another, the goal being the movement itself, not the end point. Weigel’s last choice is to make a film whose ending is determined by the outcome of the journey itself.

From Vienna, by tanker, to Romania (Bucharest, the town of Band, the Varatec convent where nuns ring the bells by jumping up and down with the bell ropes like children at play), to Odessa, the Crimea, the Black Sea, among Abkhazia refugees in Georgia, the lavishness of Baku, across the Caspian, and on to Aktau in Kazakhstan. And then an injury that cuts things short (proof: a shot of her foot in a cast), and back to the snows of Vienna, where things look sad and somehow pinched. And where things no doubt would look wonderful to a poor person from Aktau, but that’s travel as well: The place ventured to is always more wonderful (no matter how awful) than the place ventured from.

Weigel makes no justification or explanation for her project, apart from her stated “desire to disappear into the world”, which is what is fundamentally visualized in “Fair Wind”: She fairly stoically removes herself as much as possible from the scenes and moments she shoots, making those few bits of self-portrait all the more charming. She lives in, though not part of, a world — at least on the merchant ships she jumps on from port to port — inhabited by Lisandro Alonso’s merchant marine father in “Liverpool”. The men she films on these massive hulks give away nothing, but her filming makes it comprehensible why they chose this work. They also disappear into the world, always moving from city to city, home (as Weigel says of herself) existing solely within their own bodies. But she also directs her interest equally intensively to people on land, living on beaten-down farms, dancing in town squares, skipping along the rocky shore at Odessa, undocumented refugees squeezed into tiny apartments, children at play everywhere.

Weigel gets at the essence of this play, which is the central beating heart of her film: Play is an end unto itself, with no use, no purpose except for being in the moment — and even that is too self-conscious an attitude. Play is recovered from children’s monopolization and courses through “Fair Wind” like a life force, which partly explains the film’s extraordinary sense of pulse, rhythm, of a jazz improviser’s bead on tempi and adapting to the moment with the music intact. Play extends to the deceptively complex soundtrack, which is more or less entirely post-dubbed (ironically, the hardest kind of sound work there is), comprised of a panoply of inserted, edited, altered and tweaked sounds and sound effects. The match is deliberately inexact, only to accentuate to the attentive ear the play-like process of patching together snippets of film and sound to offer a replica of a supposed homemade road movie that’s in fact a meticulously made tapestry.

Edited by Carmen Gray