Essays, Part 1

Do stuff and get more money for it all the time: two films on labor, fifty years apart
By Adina Glickstein
Owning the Story: Authenticity and Authorship
By Debbie Zhou
The Power of Sound: Listening to the 70th Berlinale
By Jakob Åsell
Proximity From a Distance: Collaborative Filmmaking in Arab Documentaries
By Lili Hering

Do stuff and get more money for it all the time: two films on labor, fifty years apart
By Adina Glickstein

Two films about automobile manufacturing at this year’s Berlinale track the emergence of neoliberalism past to present.

At this year’s Berlinale, the program from the original International Forum of New Cinema was re-screened in full, presenting a slate of films from 1971 with half a century of retrospect. This first-ever Forum coincided with the year that the U.S. fully abandoned the Bretton Woods system, departing from the gold standard in a shift that arguably engendered the onset of neoliberalism. Martin Jacques identifies 1972 as the year that the top ten percent of incomes began to skyrocket, while those of the lower third stagnated or fell; the establishment of the WTO, the dual leviathan of Reaganite-Thatcherism, and the push towards deregulation were all soon to follow. Against the background of the right’s resurgence, now just as before, the revolutionary threads of the sixties and seventies collected in this program offer a moment of revolutionary promise—an admirable struggle that persists under new terms despite fifty years’ frustration. Demands for liberty would soon give way to the push for flexibility, individual hedonism, and freedom-as-consumer-choice that now constitutes neoliberal ideology. Picking up on the currents of prior radicalism, the economic drive for deregulation reshaped social reality into a state of perpetual competition and self-commodification, the attitudes and affects once confined to the market becoming enmeshed in everyday life.

Naturally, the moving image was not immune. Two films about automobile manufacturing at this year’s Berlinale – Sochaux, 11 juin 68 (1970), presented in the Forum 50 program and Automotive (2020) screening in Panorama – track the emergence of neoliberalism past to present, but with a crucial emphasis that is often obscured in the contemporary discourse on “immaterial” labor. By maintaining focus on the factory, these films make clear that post-Fordism doesn’t supplant, but rather appends, earlier models. Centering on industrial production, they underscore the physicality of labor that inheres even as “work” expands outward into an array of contemporary forms. The films’ shared setting also underscores their differences, formally and politically: while Sochaux, 11 juin 68 represented a collective model of production in step with the spirit of ’68, Automotive documents the individual subjectivity that neoliberalism brought into fashion. By reading this shift as an index of the films’ disparate contexts, we might unearth the problems of individualization that must be addressed as we continue the struggle for solidarity into the future.

One key difference between Automotive and Sochaux, 11 juin 68  lies in their models of authorship. Sochaux, 11 juin 68 was produced collectively by Groupe Medvedkine Sochaux, an offshoot of the radical left-wing SLON (Sociéte pour le lancement des ouvres nouvelles) that Chris Marker initiated in 1967. The film is poly-vocal by design, its material gathered by disseminating equipment among workers at the Sochaux Peugeot factory, rejecting the common hierarchies of the production process. Groupe Medvedkine’s participatory nature is reflected in the film’s formal heterogeneity. Vérité footage of workers as they socialize between shifts conveys a sense of natural ease, never indicating the strained or surveillant work of a celebrity auteur descended from on high. One bit of b-roll witnesses the process of organizing in action as a man mills about a crowd and hands out papers—presumably advocating the strike on which the film centers—to a group ambling outside the factory. There is a uniformity to this group, a sense of one collective body: all men, standing rigid and erect, arms crossed and eyes trained downwards. One by one, they uncross their arms, glimpsing at the fliers. Some nod and smile, the stirrings of collective feeling traveling through the crowd. In an abrupt jump elsewhere in the film, newspapers, and intertitles announce the deaths of two employees in strike-related standoffs, reaction shots of their coworkers’ outrage cutting in in quick procession.

Automotive, on the other hand, abides by a more conventional model of authorship. Director Jonas Heldt signs the film under his name, also crediting himself (among others) as a cinematographer, writer, and editor. This distinction is mirrored in the film’s organization: where Sochaux, 11 juin 68  declines to focus on any single subject, Automotive consolidates its narrative around two women, two antagonistic forces. Predator and prey, capital, and labor, they form a familiar configuration of discrete and opposed individual subjects.

First, we meet Sedanur, a night shift worker whose temporary contract sorting parts on the Audi assembly line is unexpectedly terminated. “Work is a crazy system—you do stuff and get money for it all the time,” she muses as she’s pictured on the receiving end of a manicure. The film hones in on the young worker’s obsession with conspicuous consumption, Bavarian sports cars, and impractical nails that she drums on the desk of the vocational training classroom where she studies to become a certified forklift operator. Perpetual reskilling: this is the reality she’s forced to undertake thanks to automation. Over dinner, her mother suggests that she look into retraining as a kindergarten teacher.

The instigator of Sedanur’s crisis, we later learn, is Eva, a headhunter on the prowl for new Audi executives who will outline a corporate strategy for even further automation. Eva acknowledges this inevitable encroach: taking a sip from a WeWork mug, she concedes that she, too, will one day lose her job to an algorithm. In the “smart factory” that Eva is helping to build, “machines organize themselves.” Immaculate tracking shots glide through a vision of this automated future made manifest: the Audi factory in Györ, Hungary to which Sedanur used to send parts. Its interior, sexy and ominous, is all chromatic surfaces dancing in sync. Somewhere between advertisement and admonition, this interlude is set to a coarse electro-synth soundtrack, an anachronistic dispatch from the twentieth century. The fantasy of Fully-Automated Luxury Communism, or return of the Reagan-era repressed? Still employed, if only for the moment, Eva bemoans the instability—rebranded as desirable “flexibility” – that threatens her job from the relative comfort of a co-working space, palliatively generic. Under neoliberalism, neither woman wins.

In its more conventionally expository form, Automotive is a document of the economic and social shifts that have transpired in the last half-century. Its emphasis on two discrete characters, while entertaining and sympathetic, fits too uncritically into a contemporary order where “freedom” means individual liberty rather than collective liberation—a far cry from Sochaux, 11 juin 68’s portrayal of workers as a unified but multivalent body. Fifty years on, Sochaux, 11 juin 68, on the other hand, registers a revolution on the precipice of disillusion. Farocki identifies the quintessential moment of workers leaving the Lumière factory: briefly, the appearance of community flashes before us, the organized collective of workers lingering together before dispersing into public space. Sochaux, 11 juin 68 conveys this fleeting sense of solidarity, precisely the collective impulse that, for Farocki, a meaningful portrait of cinematic labor must struggle to sustain. In Automotive, this threshold has been breached, the notion of solidarity unthinkable as workers are pitted against each other, atomized individuals competing in endless flux. Still, the film is powerful in its insistence that this new model has not superseded the banality and brutality of the labor regimes that came before it. Viewing Automotive through the lessons of Sochaux, 11 juin 68, we can envision a future where Eva and Sedanur are allies, not adversaries—a collectivity that begins by shifting the blame for each of their anguish back towards the structural, rather than individual, forces that instantiated it.

Owning the Story: Authenticity and Authorship
By Debbie Zhou

Three Berlinale titles showcase the complex implications of directorial ‘ownership’ on film style and story.

Films have the sheer power to bring us into other people’s lives, to see our own lives differently, and to re-evaluate traditional truths. Who’s in charge of telling these stories, then, may play an essential part in molding what it means to create an ‘authentic’ narrative. It also poses the question as to what makes a story ‘authentic’ in the first place and the ways in which it should or can be determined. At this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, which marks its 70th edition, three films – in different sections – showcase the complex implications of directorial ‘ownership’ on film style and story.

In writer-director Eliza Hittman’s Never Sometimes Really Always (2020), which is playing in the Official Competition and had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival earlier in January this year, 17-year old teen Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) take a trip up to New York City to find an abortion clinic, after Autumn discovers she can’t have an abortion in her state of Pennsylvania without parental consent.

It’s a straightforward drama that primarily occurs over the course of two days as the girls try to navigate the system — sleeping in stations and subways overnight — but Hittman crafts this simple story steeped with a careful undertone of delicacy and vulnerability so that it never veers into melodrama or feels even mildly conventional in its depiction of such a harrowing procedure. Hittman’s previous films, Beach Rats (2017) and It felt like love (2013), both focused on adolescent identity breakdowns, and this one does too, with naturalistic attention to detail that puts it squarely inside the female gaze.

There’s no voyeurism when Hélène Louvart’s camera closes in on Autumn’s bra straps, nor when it pans down her body to her belly – even before we find out she’s pregnant. Instead, women, and their relationships with others, take a centerpiece in this film; their quiet strength takes a stronghold that renders the subject material emotionally devastating, but also humbly moving and personal.

The British-French documentary form-film Ouvertures (2019), which is playing in the Forum section, also attempts to find ways to rethink the dominant gaze, and how to decolonize the past in the context of modern-day Haiti. Split into three sections, each part relates in some way to a Haitian theatre collective, The Living and Dead Ensemble, as they dig into the archives of the successful Saint-Domingue Revolution which occurred from 1791 to 1804; rehearse Édouard Glissant’s play, Monsieur Toussant– translating it from French to Haitian Creole; and engage in candid debates about the accuracy of their history.

The film shifts from haunting voiceover of Haitian Revolution leader, ‘Toussaint Louverture’, whispering over natural snow-shrouded landscapes, to becoming a rougher, grittier social and artistic vocalization of deconstructing traditional power structures; members of the collective beat-box and rap through the streets, their words punctuating the air. It lists Louis Henderson and Olivier Marboeuf as directors and editors of the project but also credits the Ensemble as the directors and writers.

A question can be raised about the power structures that can occur artistically too: is the Ensemble’s pursuit to rethink their identities being filtered through a white lens? Interestingly, Henderson, at a roundtable with Talents Press, talked about the decomposition of authorship, emphasizing that the loss of control became the goal of the film itself: “It starts as a European gesture, but it only really gets better when that authorial control vanquishes and opens up the floor for a polyphony of voices,” he said. This acknowledgment also reflects the way the film also becomes progressively more organic and improvisational; its unrestrained, fluid insights from the collective members speak to their own creativity, memories, and culture. In a final scene, they speak of the “spiral” as a symbol for Haitian culture — the fact that certain secrets will be inaccessible to those who are outside of it: in a way, the film does the same, deep and hidden.  

Some secrets, on the other hand, shouldn’t be left unquestioned and concealed. Among the two Australian features selected in Berlinale’s 2020 program, High Ground (2020) was selected to play in the Special Gala section. The film opens with a brutal massacre of a Northern Territory tribe of Indigenous people after a police operation goes wrong. Shocked by the bloody actions of his team, veteran war sniper Travis brings Gutjuk to his station, handing him over to his wife Claire (Caren Pistorius) to raise him. Flicking forward 12 years, Gutjuk – now 18 years old – is recruited as Travis’ tracker to find his uncle outlaw, Baywara, and the wild mob who have been accused of causing havoc and murdering a white woman. The film aims to shine a damning light on a part of history that’s been mostly erased from textbooks: more specifically to rid of the colonial falsehoods that Australia was settled, not invaded, as well as the injustices of the law which favor white men.

Directed by Stephen Maxwell Johnson and written by Chris Anastassiades, High Ground – with all its sweeping shots of the stark, empty landscapes and mythological symbolism — isn’t so much successful in its pitch as a ‘revenge tale’, and rather sanitizes the horrors of white colonizers purely through an attempt to moralize certain white characters, despite more appropriately villainizing others. Here, Travis is depicted as a semi-mentor to Gutjuk, teaching him how to handle a gun – namely, that he should always be on “high ground” in order to see everything and everyone in range. Gutjuk then uses these westernized sniper ‘skills’ as an upper-ground to also control his own narrative, reversing the roles when he holds Travis hostage as a way of allowing his tribe to negotiate a deal with the local authorities. This hostage, however, is reduced to a subplot; the film becomes more of a remote outback police chase, with the focus taken away from Gutjuk and onto Travis, who must come to terms with whether he’ll side with the white authorities or help Gutjuk.

There is largely an idea however, rife in the film, of characterizing Travis and Claire as ‘white saviors’, who apparently want to do right by Indigenous people but are powerless in changing a more toxic structure. A ‘heroic’ act near the end of the film particularly plays into the thought that ‘not all white people were bad’, and centers the narrative on the couple; despite its place within what is supposed to be an Indigenous story. It detracts from any possible fleshed-out explorations into Gutjuk’s own traumas from the massacre; his relationship with his own tribe that he’s lost over time into adulthood; his anger.

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Johnson is described as growing up in the Northern Territory with both his parents, teachers at Indigenous schools. He also had a special relationship with veteran Australian actor Jack Thompson, with whom he made Yolngu Boy (2001), and who has a connection with Yolngu clans. But even despite the creative team’s best intentions and efforts in creating an Indigenous story that pays tribute to a more accurate reflection of Australian history, such that it included a senior cultural advisor, Witiyana Marika (who was also producer and actor), High Ground misses the mark in its unawareness of the story it is truly serving.

That awareness is incredibly important in dictating the debate around directorial ownership, and particularly looking at the power structures that come with, as in the cases of Ouvertures and High Ground, white creatives working with people of color’s stories and histories. It doesn’t just become a question, then, about who has the right to tell the story – but also, whether they should, and what they can bring to the table that others cannot.

The Power of Sound: Listening to the 70th Berlinale
By Jakob Åsell

What happens when – if only a flickering moment – you close your eyes and listen to the sounds echoing at the Berlinale?

A constant sizzle from the burger grill keeps me company while waiting for the next film screening. It’s my first visit to the Berlinale and I’ve given myself a mission: to close my eyes. Not that there isn’t beauty to gaze at in this cultural metropolis, nor a lack of visual splendor on the screens. But after relying heavily on stills from films for making my own program selections, I decided to challenge myself: to let my ears guide me through the rest of the festival. Striving to pay some attention to the overlooked another half of our beloved audiovisual art form and look – I mean listen  for meaning in the dark theatres and streets of Berlin.

This is what I heard: The impenetrable carpet of conversations in Italian, German, and broken English in the lines for tickets and coffee at The Grand Hyatt press center. The sudden silence inside Berlinale Palast, just minutes after the roaring applause has echoed out of a gala screening, as efficient cleaners move along the 1,750 empty seats to prepare the next screening. The lawn moweresque humming from the generator that helped project a film on the side of a building above the famous line at Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap. The tense semi-silence as the credits were rolling and crowds left the Competition screening of Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2020). Who would be the first to ask, and when – “So what did you think?” And of course, if this Berlinale soundtrack had actual songs, it would include Prince’s ”When Doves Cry” filling the crowded dancefloor of the Locarno Film Festival party, encapsulating the Berlin club scene in a cultural space that never truly left its 80’s peak – just like some of the German haircuts.

During a large international film festival like the Berlinale, with all of the major players attending, the sound is also closely connected to power. Power measured in the audible distance between its guests. During a social event, I ended up sitting across the table from the artistic director of Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. I wasn’t able to exchange a single word with him. Turned sideways from the table, he had a stream of industry people coming up to him, talking very closely, mouth to ear, which drew an invisible border between them and the rest of the table. Who gets to come that close with a question and who has to raise their hand from the back of a crowded theatre during a Q&A? The answers measure your rank in the festival’s internal hierarchy.

But on the production side of the industry, there are ways for sound to break down old power hierarchies. Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir recently became the fourth woman to win the Oscar for Best Original Score for her work on Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019). Listening to her talk on stage during an event for film composers about how sound engineers in the traditionally male-dominated craft still tend to explain to her what an XLR cable is, makes you realize that we still have ways to go for even the most accomplished women in the industry to be heard.

What is Guðnadóttir’s response to this mansplaining? “I’ve tried to be stubborn and not listen to a lot of the crap,” she replies. “Growing up in a country where a single mom was president, the thought of me pursuing whatever career I wanted felt natural to me.” Guðnadóttir has had quite an impressive year with Oscar, Emmy and Golden Globe awarded scores for both the celebrated HBO miniseries Chernobyl (2019) and Joker. Despite being a part of the department whose artistic work always gets pushed to the end of post-production, Hildur’s collaborative way of composing her orchestral score influenced Todd Phillips to flip the order of production and follow her lead. Guðnadóttir told the Berlin audience how Joaquin Phoenix’s famous dance scenes were shot using her soundtrack on set. This way, Lawrence Sher’s camera movement, and Phoenix’s very physical Oscar-winning performance moved in tune with her music. Just seeing a large number of female sound artists and composers in line to take a selfie with the somewhat shy Icelandic artist after her talk underlined her symbolic stature.

But you don’t actually have to be an Icelandic Oscar-winner to contribute to a soundtrack. I experienced this during the Panorama screening of the punky Swedish documentary portrait Always Amber (Alltid Amber, 2020), which brings its audience so close to its non-binary protagonist that the experience becomes physical. During the prolonged close-up of 17-year-old Amber piercing her own upper lip in front of a dirty bathroom mirror, the camera never lets us look away. Having hundreds of people twisting and turning in their seats hoping not to hear how the nail pierces through her flesh, the audience itself collectively completed the film’s soundtrack. “Ouch!” Amber cries as the nail is halfway in, realizing the painful consequences of her DIY-procedure, and the girl next to me mimics her experience by saying “ouch” and holding her own upper lip. The intentionally “shitty” sound quality of the film carries a promise of unfiltered presence and through the live soundtrack around me, it all became even harder to sit through.

In the process of mentally arranging all of the tracks in my Berlinale soundtrack, while paying extra attention to how the sound of an ‘80s saxophone solo fills the empty hallways of the Gleisdreieck U-Bahn station, I started thinking about what Hildur said on composing a musical soundtrack using only field recordings from a physical space. In her case: Chernobyl’s sister power-plant Ignalina in Lithuania. Her task was to portray, through the music, the invisible thing which essentially is the core of the whole story – radiation. Listening to the Berlinale for the past few days, fortunately, hasn’t exposed me to any radiation, but similarly opened my eyes to experiences and perspectives that were hidden in, or maybe by, plain sight. Whether on a screen, all around me in the theatre, or right across the table, I honestly didn’t need any knowledge of XLR cables to connect to the power of it.

Proximity From a Distance: Collaborative Filmmaking in Arab Documentaries
By Lili Hering

Two Berlinale documentaries from the Arab world serve as powerful examples of collaborative filmmaking.

Three women’s voices narrate their stories, addressing their audiences: “Dear Sue”, they say, or “Dear Sama”, often whispering over shaky images. Their names are Muna, Nardjes A., and Waad Al-Kateab, and they are filming from Jeddah, Algiers, and Aleppo. All three of them narrate their lives in places that limit their freedoms – to move, to love, to express themselves, and to make their own decisions.

Similarly, all three of them collaborated with directors set in other (more Western) parts of the world. Muna began filming after Swiss filmmaker Susanne Regina Meures searched for a woman in Saudi Arabia planning to escape the country who would record her journey on an activist chat group, which we can follow in Saudi Runaway (2020). In Nardjes A. (2020), Brazilian Berlinbased director Karim Ainouz follows the young eponymous activist during the protests that broke out when Algerian Abd Al-Aziz Bouteflika announced his attempt to reach the 5th mandate as president.

These two Panorama Dokumente entries strongly relate to For Sama (2019), the documentary that got huge attention after an Oscar nomination. Waad Al-Kateab filmed the Syrian revolution and the following siege of East Aleppo for many years before making her way to the UK, where she condensed her material into a first-person documentary together with Edward Watts. Can collaborative filmmaking enable stories to be told from regions where digital image creation is, as everywhere, widely accessible through smartphones, but their reception and distribution is not? Who do these images and narratives belong to, and who do they cater to?

In Saudi Runaway images are filmed by Muna with her two smartphones: her face and voice are the ones telling a story of living in Saudia Arabia, in a country she calls “stuck in the Stone Age when it comes to gender”, a few weeks before her arranged marriage. Yet the director is Susanne Regina Meures, and Muna is credited as a cinematographer. Set in a claustrophobic environment and filmed solely with hidden cameras, Muna depicts her daily struggles and the patriarchal suppression in images filmed through doors, windows, curtains, and the veil she is wearing. “I will try to record what I can, it will be dangerous,” she tells the camera, and through it, her audience.

At times, she addresses “Sue”, the director, directly, as if she were reading a letter to her. The voiceover narrates a dramaturgy set for the final escape, accompanied by a compliant musical score: the decision to escape during a honeymoon in Abu Dhabi, the research into flights and passports, the wedding itself, family reunions, final preparations and discussions over the phone and with herself in front of bathroom mirrors. The consequences of such an escape, and of such a film shooting, would be dire: Muna risks being imprisoned if her flight fails. But what choice does one have when the whole country is set inside a cage, the film asks? The recurring images of a bird in front of her curtained window, seemingly free, visualize her confinement. Who is in control of that narrative, actively looked out for by Meures and filmed by Muna? They shared and discussed the material at a distance over chats on social media, however, the friction between the self-told account, a few text plates contextualizing the process in the third person, and much of the editing work (signed by producer Christian Frei) poses questions on collaborative authorship – which nevertheless don’t make Saudi Runaway less powerful.

In For Sama, Al-Kateab, having worked as a journalist for many years reporting from Syria, filmed herself around her family, friends, and her home in a hospital, during everyday life, protests, and bombing. Later, the material got condensed with the aid of Edward Watts. She addresses her daughter Sama through it: it reads like a letter about her homeland, one that Sama will be able to see in lively images in many years if she wishes to. Corresponding with Saudi Runaway, it builds up to the escape from her country in a dramatic manner, all the while painting an intimate portrait. Nardjes A. tries to do so but does not develop the same proximity. “No one knows who organized the demonstrations,” Nardjes recounts in a first-person voiceover. Karim Ainouz, who had set out to film an entirely different movie in his father’s homeland Algeria, was taken by surprise at the revolt’s outbreak and the energy it created: “Some films ask to be done,” he explained.

Nardjes A. serves as a document of this specific momentum where dysfunctional systems are blown off. Ainouz states that this is “our film, not my film.” Nardjes A. joins him in expressing her thankfulness for being able to bring a part of her and her country to the festival. In this film too, the smartphone instead of a camera is said to be crucial in allowing the crew to film in the midst of the protests, becoming “more about capturing than shooting.” Nevertheless, the images’ appeal is very cinematic and the film in itself lurches at the edges of fiction. While it wishes to be Nardjes A.’s innocent companion in her fight, the director contacted an agent in order to find a protagonist to follow and ended up being referred to the café and theatre where Nardjes works, as she is herself an actress. Credits are therefore given to “casting”, and the fact that all images were not taken in a single day is not hidden yet claimed. Colour grading and sound are intensely played with, creating a poppy aesthetic that the pictures would not have needed. Inputting Nardjes at center stage and treating all other revolutionaries as props, the film’s emotions only spring through the images of the movement itself – not the protagonist it has decided on. The revolution here is not focussed on images of repression as they largely appear in the media, rather on joy and celebration as a form of protest.

Nadir Bouhmouch’s Amussu (2019) goes a similar way in portraying political activism through artistic expression. Yet the film is an actual collective experiment in guerrilla filmmaking: Formed around the protests against Africa’s largest silver mine in Imider that led to the extraction of aquifer water, drying out the region and leaving its local population destitute, The Movement on Road ’96, “a temporary film collective” as Bouhmouch calls it, turned towards filmmaking as a tool for making their voices heard. Set in south-eastern rural Morocco, Bouhmouch explains that they take all decisions collectively through indigenous methods – be it during the shooting or in the editing process. Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (Ma’a al-Fidda, 2014) by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, which played in Cannes in 2014, share their authorship with a supposed “1001 Syrians”: Out of found footage, they combine an astounding document on the Syrian civil war.

The deconstruction of authorship, in these cases from Morocco and Syria, is more elementary than the division of filmic labor in categories such as cinematography, directing, and editing. Whilst in cinema, hierarchical power structures are very much at stake, these democratic arrangements try to subvert the systems. In countries where democratic systems are in themselves shattered or at least in the process of shifting, filmmaking becomes in itself a form of civil disobedience. Saudi Runaway, Nardjes A., and For Sama can all be seen as catering to a Western audience, in a certain dramatic construction supported by music. While the creation of images has democratized enough as to enable everyone to shoot their own material, it appears that in order to successfully share the films with a large audience, many of them still have to rely on collaborative methods and foreign validation to cross borders.