It Shows Death at Work

in 61st Berlinale - Berlin International Film Festival

by Silvia Hallensleben

A funeral procession, filmed from the local spire high above. The man being interred is the local parish priest. His death half-way through hits the film audience hard, the charismatic man being one of the protagonists of a documentary that pays tribute to their futile resistance against another loss.

Tom Fassaert’s An Angel in Doel (De engel van Doel) deals with the case of the moribund Flemish village of Doel, which is threatened with destruction by the enlargement of the Antwerp harbor. Just a handful of old inhabitants hold out in their terrace houses amid the demolition diggers. Shot in almost static, carefully composed black and white, the film is a haunting requiem for a doomed world.

An Angel in Doel was one of the not so many highlights of this year’s Berlinale Forum. If Fassaert’s picture is all documentary old-school, Cheonggyecheon Medley: A Dream of Iron (Cheonggyecheon medeulli) shows the training of filmmaker Kelvin Kyung Kun Park at a US design college in every second.

In his first feature film, Park takes the changing of a town quarter as occasion for a film essay that is almost overloaded with multiple layers of visual and acoustic information such as sound design and animation effects. The place is Cheonggyecheon, a district of Seoul with small manufacturing iron shops founded after the Second World War. Park intersplices work routines with archival pictures of Korea’s industrial history and an authorial commentary which circles around national and personal trauma. In this way, we learn quite a lot about the problematic Korean identity, but too little about the place itself. We can see that Cheonggyecheon is disappearing, but the director seems not really interested in the reasons for this.

For six years Fassaert and his team filmed in Doel. Thomas Imbach collected messages from his answering machine for seven years for Day is Done. The visual accompaniment to this soundtrack comes from views out of his studio window onto the surroundings of the Zurich freight terminal in an expansive urban landscape. While in the courtyard under the windows shops and clubs slowly develop, the messages on the answer phone stage a life constructed around the absence of the author. A sudden and painful gap in the film texture is caused by a death, and under the accelerated fast-motion clouds new high rises proliferate in the sky. Day is Done shows brilliantly how the raw material of life is turned into a cinematic narrative continuum by the means of artistic concentration.

More minimalistic are the twenty cigarette smokers James Benning arranges in a linear line of mini portraits in his typical manner in Twenty Cigarettes. After a long period of abstinence this is the return of the human subject to the work of the Californian filmmaker, which poses interesting questions concerning the control of staging. But also a central issue here is time and its transience. What Jean Cocteau stated about cinema in general applies to documentary even more sharply: It shows death at work. And you don’t need nicotine for that.