Wordless Poetics

in 63rd International Film Festival Mannheim-Heidelberg

by VK Joseph

Around the world, film festivals are celebrations of cinema: a meeting-place for filmmakers, film enthusiasts and film critics to encounter and experience the cinema. At each festival we search for the works of masters, the cinema of new filmmakers, and the experiences, sounds and film languages of different countries. Around 1200 film festivals worldwide refer to themselves as “international.” According to the director of the Mannheim-Heidelberg festival, more than 100 of these festivals take place in Germany alone.

Every festival gives us the energy to travel and experience the explosion of visual culture. Films from different places and cultures work best when they can touch a large number of people at the same time, in the same place. The film sends the audience on a discovery together, confronting them with the same story, thoughts, visual rooms, ideas and hopes. This is the cinematic experience, a dark room which promotes a special kind of disorientation. A space which creates a big window to the world, open to everyone present.

At Mannheim, we watched the debut films of talented directors. The directors of the films in competition are newcomers, and the festival selection committee searches for talented filmmakers from the farthest corners of the world.

In this festival, the most remarkable thing I experienced was the ambience: the calm, quiet, enthusiastic and disciplined participation of the cineastes who eagerly flock to the cinemas and wait in line.  The slogan of the 63rd edition of the festival was “celebrating film”, and I think we really did celebrate each and every film in competition. Out of the thirteen films in competition, more than half were deeply poetic and crafted with the brilliance and confidence of masters.

The Azerbaijani film Nabat by Elchin Musaoglu won the most awards, including the FIPRESCI Prize, although it did not receive the International Jury award. It is a poetic film with political images of life, resistance and death. The director of the film was quoted as saying that “good film creates beauty”, and this is what he does in Nabat, create beauty and add to the ever-growing visual culture.

This is the politically narrated story of a lonely old woman who resists the invasion of warring forces in her quiet village. Nabat and her bedridden husband live on a small remote farm in a hilly region of Azerbaijan. At the beginning of the film, the camera opens our eyes to the passing of time as we witness her long and exhausting journey into the village and back, just to deliver milk.

From beyond the mountains, we hear the sounds of war. Villagers are forced to leave their homeland by military forces. When her husband dies, Nabat is alone with her memories of her late son and of life as it used to be. The director never explicitly shows war and its associated confusion; instead, he tells the story through well-crafted images. He sculpts space and time with carefully chosen natural landscapes.  For example, at the start, we see Nabat walking along a silent road alongside a tree full of ripe apples. In a later sequence, she walks along the same road but the apples are no longer on the tree – they are scattered on the road. With this silent image, the director alerts us to the passing of time.

Another of the nightly battles leaves its mark in a different way. In the morning, Nabat walks along a road delivering milk. We see smoke ascending from ruins, destroyed power lines,  spilled milk on the floor, and an abandoned dining table with leftover food. Evidently, people have been forced to evacuate without notice. Now only Nabat remains, as a silent spectator and victim of the war. She decides not to move from her home. As night falls, she lights oil lamps in the abandoned houses to revive a little of the village’s former vibrancy. She searches for the photo of her dead son in an abandoned studio. The things people leave behind in abandoned houses tells the story of their village. Nabat feels a tenderness towards photographs of unknown youth and the fallen sons of the village. In the houses there are more images, such as a poster of Che Guevara or Marilyn Monroe, and pictures of cats.

Nabat knows she is walking close to death. There is no food or human presence around, only a she-wolf who wanders through the village. In the final sequence we see Nabat taking a bath, dressing up and sitting in front of her house, enjoying the snowfall. On the wall there are photos of herself and her husband, separated by an empty space reserved for her son’s picture, which has never been found. In the final shot we see the same wall with three photos, the picture of Che Guevara now substituting for her son’s. Through the thick snowfall we see the uniformed military occupying the village. Director Elchin Mussaoglu has created a nearly wordless, deeply poetic film about life, resistance and death, in which pictures speak much more meaningfully than words.

The Estonian film In the Crosswind by young director Martti Helde is wonderful, in its stylistic and structural experimentation and its visual inspirations. The film takes us back to a dark time in history when innocent people cried for justice and freedom. Between 1941 and 1953 Joseph Stalin had many people deported from the Baltic states of Estonia , Latvia  and Lithuania  to Siberia. Among them was Erna Tamm, a philosophy student and happily married young mother of a little girl. Together with other women and children, she was deported to the east Siberian gulag. Despite her hunger and fear of death, Erna never abandoned her longing for freedom and her hopes of one day returning to her home country.

The film tells her story based on journals, letters, archival material, drawings and photographs. This description might suggest a conventional film, but in fact the sad story is told in a very fresh way. There are startlingly beautiful black-and-white visuals of dazzling splendor, and a subtle alternation between two- and three-dimensional images. The camera guides us through these sculpted moments of history.

The film sculpts time and space in an unconventional way, experimenting with structure and framing. Movement is frozen within the frame, allowing the movement of the camera to do the work of creating time and space. A new cinematic style is created via framing and voiceover. As the camera pans to scan the victims of the deportation, we see abandoned rooms, people standing at train tracks, and others working in the snow-covered land and forests: a static and unchanging reality. The director also visually expresses the realities of different linguistic, national and cultural identities, as well as sub-nationalities. This well-structured film makes us experience the pain of losing loved ones and gives us the hope that we may meet them in another season of crosswinds and dreams.

There were other films in competition which were equally dynamic and vibrant, such as 23 Seconds, Farewell and All Cats are Grey. But due to space limitations, I’ll leave those brilliant works for another time.

Edited by Lesley Chow