Self-Reflexive Stories: On Video Surveillance

in 66th Berlin International Film Festival

by Dana Duma

The 66th edition of the Berlinale started with the new self-reflexive movie signed by the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! (off competition), a light satire of Hollywood and its obsessions. The all star comedy (starring George Clooney, Josh Brolin, Scarlet Johansson and Tilda Swinton) announced a self-reflexive tendency of the programme, further developed in other ways by interesting films included in different sections.

If Hail, Caesar! is mostly about the film industry, the other two movies I would like to signal, which are among the best titles from the Panorama, are focused on the relationship between camera and reality : Aloys, the debut feature from young Swiss director Tobias Nölle (The FIPRESCI Award for this section) and While the Women are Sleeping, and the Japan-set and produced film from renowned Chinese-American, Wayne Wang. Both of these include elements of detective narratives and revealed themselves as multi-layered stories of a wider interest. The reality viewed through the camera lens seems to be ”more real” or more significant than reality itself in both of these films where the protagonists are not cinema professionals.

In Aloys, the hero (or more appropriate non-hero) is a young private detective whose life fell apart after the death of his father who is also an associate in their agency specialised in surveilling adulterous couples. Aloys spends many hours following people involved in hidden love affairs and tapes their dates in order to  provide grounds for divorce. He seems quite satisfied with this activity that requires him to stay invisible and admits it provides some voyeuristic pleasures, To film other people is my job…but to watch the films again is a hobby”. The situation radically changes when, after a night of hard drinking, he discovers his camera and tapes were stolen and a mysterious woman calls him, claiming she is spying and filming him. The shift of the focus from „the ones  being followed” to the „man with the camera”offers an interesting approach to the trope of „a film within a film”, oftenly associated „to the consideration of a surveillance.. an investigation, or a plot”, as Gilles Deleuze states in”Cinema.Time”. Aloys activates the two first quoted functions and self-reflexivity appears as a tool of self-investigation, helping the isolated detective become aware of his loneliness and fear of involvement in relationships.

While the Women are Sleeping is more focused on the voyeuristic dimension of filming. Inspired by Jose Marías` short story, the film transfers the narrative from Spain to Japan, on a beach resort where a succesful novelist with writer`s block spends a weekend with his wife. They meet a strange couple with an intriguing relationship formed with Sahara, a 68-year-old man and his outrageously young 19-year-old lover. The man with a dark past (as suggested by the interpretation of the director-actor “Beat“ Takeshi Kitano, a specialist of Yakuza representation) confesses his strange hobby: each day he tapes his lover while she is sleeping. He does it to capture „the innocent beauty” that cannot last forever, but also to have ”a record of her last day” because he is sure she will betray him and force him to kill her. Although very efficient in creating suspense, Wang`s movie is not centered on thriller devices, but on the obsession that the writer develops for the mystery of the couple`s relationship. This further fuels his inspiration for the novel he will publish one year later. As he proved in collaborating with the novelist Paul Auster when he directed Smoke and Blue in the Face, Wang displays a special sensibility for literature. In the self-reflexive and meta-cinematic While the Women Are Sleeping he explores the writing process and the impact reality can have on it. This subtle examination matches the stylish look of the movie. As with Aloys, the interest of the film is increased by the meditation of the camera, a dangerous tool in our neo-surveillance society, where everyone can spy on others.

Edited by Tara Judah