Essay: Narjes Torchani
The Rise and Fall of Intentions
Since the birth of the first moving images, filmmaking and intention were linked to each other. First there was the intention to capture a moment in time, like no art or technique did before, then the will to document, then to entertain, and when cinema became an art, through editing and narrative experimentations, intentions and motivations took endless directions, as countless as the innumerable films made to this day. The evolution of documentary practices can be taken as an example of the various ways directors translate their intentions into a mixture of image and sound. A film title is the first message a filmmaker addresses to the viewers. It is like a condensed statement of intent. It can be part of the director’s approach, it can be a selling argument, or even worse, a manipulative one. The only way to know is to go beyond the title and give the content a close look. The way each director approaches and films his protagonists is a key element to fulfilling his narrative intentions. Those can be fixed from the start or can slowly emerge and mature trough the filmmaking process.
WESTERN ARABS by Omar Shargawi (Panorama Dokumente) is one such film where nothing is left to chance. The main reason behind it is that the film is about the director himself and his family. Before the shoot, the director knew exactly what to film and where to go with it. He knew what he wanted to say and show. He brings the viewers on an intimate and personal journey, with non-chronological editing, based on images filmed with two different shooting techniques. The director used monologues to openly evoke his feelings, filmed in steady shots, inside his car, presenting moments of lucidity. He also establishes a parallel between these scenes and family gatherings that end up in violent fights or exchange of insults between the family’s men. The latter scenes are edited following a deconstructed structure that expresses his internal confusion, the reality of his family, and symbolising the chaotic state of the world. In this way, he succeeded in being open about his intentions and faithful to himself, his protagonists, and the means of expression he chose lead to transparency toward the viewers.
However, other directors are not guided by a specific starting intention, and build their approaches responding to what comes along. Meeting and filming their protagonists is in itself a journey. During the Berlinale Talents discussion of “Mining for the Real: Researching Docs”, director Nicolas Geyrhalter, whose latest film EARTH screens in Forum, underlined that making documentaries is dealing with a continuously changing act of creation: “You can’t expect where the filming goes. When producers say that this is not what they ordered, I answer that this is documentary!”. On the same page, director Manuel Abramovich, whose BLUE BOY premieres in Berlinale Shorts, explained in the “Better Be Careful: Intimate Dialogues” session at Berlinale Talents that he lets himself go with what the life of his protagonists offer him. He is honest with them by reminding them that his film is going to be a construction of their life and reality. “In my films I always show the viewer that this is not reality, that it is constructed,” he adds. This way, he guarantees a transparent intention towards his characters and his viewers, reserving himself the indisputable right as a director to expose his own point of view in the film.
Expressed intentions are not always reflected in a director’s movie or filmography. Sometimes, films reveal a conflict between apparent intentions and unconscious ones. In his documentary AFRICAN MIRROR, Mischa Hedinger exposes ethnographer René Gardi’s case. “In Switzerland, a country without its own colonies, travel writer, photographer, filmmaker and public speaker René Gardi (1909–2000) shaped a whole generation’s image of Africa”. Filming what he called “primitive” tribes mainly in Cameroon, Gardi was taking his research seriously and Hedinger showed how he made huge efforts to build a bridge to Africa for his people, through conferences, television shows and meetings with youth. Nevertheless, he made a one way bridge, as he never gave voice to the people he filmed. He also filmed them mostly from a distance, observed as if animals in a zoo. The only scene where he interacts with them is when they genuinely help him carry his film equipment and he admits in the voiceover that he takes advantage of them. Through the film, his discourse about them was full of contradictions. He called them “free from the burden of civilisation, very organised and family oriented”, but when the French colonisation occurred, René Gardi adopted the colonisers point of view in considering themselves better than the Africans– he called them his “friends”, while simultaneously referring to the African tribes he filmed with pejorative expressions like “savages”. During long scenes, he would film French colonisers explaining why they are better than the Africans. René Gardi deeply believed in the relevance of his ethnographic mission, but his approach only considered his white European viewers. He never thought that his protagonists were concerned or that they must be included in his narrative process. He considered them as research objects, not human beings.
Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese’s MOTHER, I AM SUFFOCATING. THIS IS MY LAST FILM ABOUT YOU has the longest title of all the Berlinale films this year. Beyond this catchy phrase, the anti-colonial intentions expressed by the director during the Q&A of his film are in contradiction with the content of his movie. He bases the film on a monologue that expresses a love-hate relationship with his mother and motherland, but his words, especially in the last part of the film where he describes how happy he is, well received and fulfilled in his new life in Berlin, reiterates a classic colonialist discourse. There are a few films in this year’s programme made by filmmakers from the global South who are based in Berlin or other European capitals, made with international funds, and are mainly about their personal journeys. Their filming experiences can lead to visually strong movies, except that their film’s form often betrays their de-colonial discourses.