Tense: Past, Present, Future

in 50th Viennale - Vienna International Film Festival

by Diego Brodersen

It may sound like an obvious remark, but lately there have been quite a few movies that look back into the past in an effort to try to understand our present a little better. Certain political and social experiences that have left a very strong impression in the collective memory are at the main core of much contemporary cinema, in the realm of the fiction film as well as the documentary. Meine Keine Familie, directed by Paul-Julien Robert, a film which received its world premiere at the Viennale–and hasn’t yet received an international title–does exactly that, from an extremely personal perspective. Suggesting a private exorcism of sorts, the film’s absolute protagonist seems to be the family that the filmmaker never had. Paul-Julien Robert was born and raised into the Friedrichshof, the biggest commune in Europe, founded by the Viennese artist Otto Mühl in the early 70s.

That Mühl served a seven years prison sentence as a sex offender in the 90s, after the commune was closed in 1991, is one of the many facts that the film uses as a way of connecting and discussing past and present ideas of sex, identity and, above all, the idea of family.

Meine keine familie uses archive material-–some of it never seen before–as a counterpoint to the recent encounter of the filmmaker with many members of the commune: in front of the camera, Robert meets with some of his “fathers” and many of the former kids that were raised in the controlled sphere of the Friedrichshof. But the main dramatic and narrative axis of the film is the relationship between Robert and his biological mother. And that’s where the public and the private, the personal and the collective, come into a powerful tension with one another; as the documentary reaches its final reels, it becomes evident that the sounds and images of Meine Keine Familie are more and more interested in the deep psychological (or spiritual, if one prefers to put it that way) Meine Keine Familie, but also, possibly, its main flaw: ultimately, it surrenders its intentions of trying to understand what happened, what has changed in the world in the last decades, and directs itself into the less ambitious and more comfortable zone of the family psychodrama.

In the opposite temporal direction, using the present as its main background to think about the future, Tomorrow (Zavtra) is centered in one of the many activist groups in contemporary Russia. Voina (literally, War) is one of them, a street-art collective famous in Moscow and St. Petersburg for their public interventions designed as symbolic acts to wake the consciences of their fellow citizens. One of the most famous of these interventions, which closes the film, was the painting of a huge cock in the Liteyny drawbridge in St. Petersburg.

Other actions were baptized with such attractive names as “Humiliation of a Cop in His Own House” and “Dick in the Ass”; interestingly, the latter included the participation of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevich, future members of Pussy Riot. Tomorrow, a second feature-length documentary by director Andrei Gryazev, utilizes a dirty and direct style that resembles the first films of the Danish Dogma, alternating-–sometimes indistinguishably– between a classic straight cinema register and the creation and recreation of scenes, using the subjects as actors playing themselves. Reality and fiction are thus completely indivisible, one of the many exciting aspects of a movie whose main goal is to put the spectator in an uncomfortable situation and, from there, provoke an intellectual reflection. Given the actual situation in Russia, with the Putin government entering a control-freak phase of cultural and social issues, Tomorrow is indeed a very relevant piece of work. The question still remains: will the world change again?

Edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum