The Panorama Section: Out of Frame By José Carlos Avellar

in 57th Berlinale

by José Carlos Avellar

The long prayer ceremony, the men sitting or knelling on the floor, swaying back and forth, chanting and reading the Koran, eyes closed, an ecstatic expression, in Takva: A Man‘s Fear of God (Takva), by Özer Kiziltan, could be seen side by side with the also long eating ceremony in the poor house where Jessica refuses the food, goat meat, in Happy Desert (Deserto feliz) by Paulo Caldas. One film helps to understand the other, because they belong to the same family. Both scenes look like a documentary fragment imported by the fiction, thanks to an extension in time and to the absence of a clear dramatic action in front of the gestures the characters are doing.

Where classic cinema tends to use a documentary support as a background to the things the heroes are making in the front of the picture, where films used to concentrate the attention in the central characters, fading the context where they are, precisely there, the Turkish production and the Brazilian-German co-production concentrate the eyes in this part of the picture usually out of focus or out of frame. Those scenes are in the beginning of the two films. In Takva: A Man’s Fear of God we keep hearing again and again and again the prayer ceremony, seeing the thirty-year-old Muharren in an Islamic monastery in a neighborhood of Istanbul. In Happy Desert we keep seeing and seeing and seeing the mother making the dinner, seeing the cutting of goat beef, cooking in the small kitchen and bringing the plates to the table in the poor house of a village on the São Francisco River, Northeastern Brazil. And just after, the more silent eating: the sixteen-year-old Jessica refusing to eat again the same food she has everyday, the stepfather saying nothing but eating, and the mother after a empty time asking the daughter why she refuses to eat.

The spontaneous dialogue between those films was maybe the best of the Panorama section of the 57th Berlinale. The different stories appear in a similar narrative structure.

There was another almost so special dialogue between the films Vacation (Ferien), by Thomas Arslan, and Alice‘s House (A casa de Alice), by Chico Teixeira, two family stories based on low-key dramatic events, on a refusal of any melodramatic element, on a documentary heritage on the camera work, and on a kind of whispering structure that refuses the presence of a musical comment.

The camera in Vacation is standing and quiet: the characters come in and out of the visible field; many scenes happen only partially inside of the space the audience is looking at. A big family: the grandmother, the mother, Anna, her son (Max), her husband (Robert), her two sisters (Laura and Sophie), the husband and the two kids of Laura, and the girlfriend of Max, all together for summer holidays in Anna’s quiet and remote country house surrounded by a forest, someplace not so far from Berlin. A big family but almost all the time, they are all apart living their life: we do not see the personages together in any scene, in a single space, in a same frame.

The camera stood still because all around the family looks quiet and peaceful, just like the frame. Part of the scene happens out of the frame because the quietness is just a way of putting the problems out of frame. The emotional explosion, when it came, is an almost nothing: for no reason, the wife’s sudden angry response to the husband — that is, the reason it is out of frame, in a certain way will stay out of the scene, even when she presents an explanation for her behavior.

Alice’s House is almost the same in a different way: the camera is constantly in the hands of the cameraman, not running, jumping or moving as usual, but trying to stand still. This not entirely quiet quietness is the best way to show what happens at Alice’s home. She is a woman around forty-years-old working as manicurist and married with a taxi driver; three sons — the older making his way in the army, the two younger boys just going around. The family lives in a working class neighborhood in São Paulo, in the apartment of Alice’s mother, Dona Jacira, who is hearing and talking only with the radio. She is the one who takes care of all at home, cooking, washing and cleaning. And, most importantly, it is maybe possible to say that the grandmother also takes care of the camera, that, like her, observes the scene in a silent manner, almost not looking at the action but paying attention to the expressions and reactions of the characters just after what happened just happened out of frame.

The hand-held camera of the film keeps focused a long time on the silent tired face of Alice, on the shamed face of the man that came to ask Alice to forgive what his daughter just did, or in the hands of the grandmother discovering the picture of a half naked teenager when she is washing Alice’s husband clothes. In this calm hand-held camera, a brief moment of losing control for an almost nothing: just because the sons are fighting for a not so important question, Alice became crazy and turns the house upside down. The nervous breakdown of Laura in Thomas Arslan’s film and of Alice in Chico Teixeira’s film are both visible actions, but also a visual out of frame, because the real question they are suffering then does not have a direct relationship with the small event that provokes the emotional explosion.

There is no music at all in Vacation and Alice’s House, and a very discreet one, an almost silent music, in Takva: A Man‘s Fear of God and in Happy Desert. The films also have a common presence of a documentary influence — that is: they are fictions, and they are not pretending to be anything they are not. Something they learned in the documentary way of working make them cut the narrative in an unfinished open moment (they show us a fragment of a bigger story: the most clearly dramatic actions are out of the frame). They are mostly interested in showing the context where such characters and actions took place (a point we have had chance to discuss with Walter Salles and Peter Cowie who were talking in the opening of Talent Campus about what makes a political film — to show the personage in the context they are).

The prayer in the Turkish monastery as the silent dinner in the house on the São Francisco River’s village could look like something taken from a documentary. But the contrast, color and formal deformations during Muharrem nightmares or the extreme, strong deformation, the visually violent close-up that shows the stepfather violating his stepdaughter reminds us that we are, without any doubt, in a fictional world. Many other examples, like the visual effects of wide-angle lens in Happy Desert and the visuals of a mostly dark light in Takva: A Man‘s Fear of God, put an emphasis on the fact that the film makers are speaking about a real and concrete question, but they are not only presenting the question, they are representing it, showing it through a critical looking glass.

At the end of Özer Kiziltan’s film the central personage is as lost in the middle of the prayer in the monastery in Istanbul as much as the young prostitute of Paulo Calda’s film. Muharrem is terrified and crying, not knowing what to do with the phantom woman when she jumps from his nightmares to the real life in the door of the monastery. Jessica becomes mute and without action in the German winter (“the sun in Germany is like the lamp on the refrigerator,” said her friend when she was still in Brazil, “make light but do not warm”), feeding the goats in the Zoo, sitting speechless on the bed of her apartment looking at the grey and cold street outside.

Each one in its own way, the Turkish and the Brazilian/German film are discussing the same experience. Kiziltan tell us the story of a simple man trying to truly live according to the requirements of a religious life: Muharrem is afraid of marriage and sex, his life is a short way from home, monastery and work, and when, because he is simple man with a solitary existence made up of prayer, the leaders of a religious group offer him a job as rent collector for the monastery properties, with new clothes, a car with a driver and a cell phone, he experiences conflicts he can’t understand through his religious beliefs. Caldas tell the story of a simple 16-year-old girl that after being violated at home decides to become a prostitute. When a German tourist decides to bring her to live with him in Berlin, Jessica’s experience became almost the same the one experienced by Muharrem, that one day was taken from a lonely religious life to deal with things outside the monastery.

Both characters, even right there, in the center of the scene, start feeling they are totally out of frame.