Bright Lights Film Journal

Onward and Inward: On the 2007 Thessaloniki International Film Festival

“Each work limns a moral dilemma that has no discernible answer.”

Images from the modern battlefield flood our vision daily: men and boys armed to the teeth, the disfigured bodies, the bloody detritus scattered along pavement or down a ravine. What is harder to see, and comprehend, are the internal political and ideological clashes that often give rise to these horrors. This “battle from within” is the intriguing subject behind a slate of films screened at the 48th Thessaloniki International Film Festival in November 2007.

Under the heading “Contemporary Wars” in the festival’s new Focus section (launched in 2006), curator Konstantinos Kontovrakis brought together eight disparate films whose “common denominator,” as he explained, “is the struggle with oneself, the locus where the greatest wars take place; the self as victim and/or victimizer.” He is true to his word: despite covering a wide range of styles and themes — from a political mockumentary to a disturbing portrait of religious dogma — each work limns a moral dilemma that has no discernible answer.

Exemplifying souls in torment is Israeli filmmaker David Volach’s My Father, My Lord (2006). Loosely framed on the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac, My Father takes us into the hermetic world of an orthodox Jewish family living in Jerusalem. The father, Abraham, is a respected rabbi; his wife, Esther, is an obedient follower of her husband and religious law; and their young son, Menachem, is a sensitive boy curious about life outside his window. The tension of the work lies in the subtle ways in which Menachem’s curiosity is met with his father’s resistance; he believes the boy must submit unflinchingly to the tenets of their religion, as he himself does. But Menachem’s nature forces him down another path.

My Father opens with a series of hushed, softly lit interior images that suffuses the film with an almost ethereal atmosphere. We see Abraham buried behind religious texts at the dining room table, reading and murmuring to himself while Menachem dutifully looks on. Esther peers in from the hallway and, like a good servant not wishing to disturb, she gently steals away. This muted rhythm is the stuff of their everyday lives, and Volach accents the tone with lovely close-ups: spilt tea on a saucer, the play of shadows on the kitchen wall, a dove, the careful cutting of an apple. Small disruptions in this idyll come in the form of Menachem’s typical childhood questions: “Do animals have souls?” All is calm until a family trip to the Dead Sea changes their lives irrevocably.

At the beach, the camera captures the intensity and vastness of the landscape — the sere hillsides a perfect contrast to the deep blue of sky and sea. Religious men and boys in various improvised swimming costumes — no Speedo briefs here — are seen playing in the water and along the shore. The women, dispatched to a separate area, are well out of sight. As his father goes off to pray, rebellious Menachem follows a rivulet of water that leads into the sea in the hopes of catching a fish. Volach chooses this moment to abruptly and dramatically switch camera angles, pulling back from intimate observation to dispassionate observer (an omniscient God?). In a static long shot, and with Menachem off camera, we watch as the men race back and forth from their prayer group to the shore, our sense of foreboding increasing with each passing minute. By nightfall, a helicopter pulls Menachem’s limp body from the sea.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Abraham struggles to accept that his son’s death was God’s will. His grief-stricken wife, however, finds no solace in religion, and in the devastating last scene, her rebuke of her husband, and of God, is clear. Sitting in the balcony of the synagogue, Esther slowly knocks the prayer books one by one over the ledge, battering her husband, who is sitting at a table below, with his sacred texts.

“I wanted to explore the contrasts between a child’s natural curiosity of the world with the perplexities of religious belief,” explained Volach during a brief interview. “The father is a loving person, but his religious ideology blinds him. And this is the tragedy because life cannot be reduced to a text. People are sweet; it is dogma that has no authenticity.”

Volach’s insights are rooted in his own background. Born and raised in the ultra-orthodox Lithuanian Haredic community, in Israel, he studied at the famous Ponevezh Talmudical Yeshiva. At 25, he left his family and religious life and moved to Tel Aviv to study film, beginning his long process of secularization. My Father is his first film. (Thematically, it references the first episode of Kieslowski’s Decalogue.)

At the other end of the stylistic and narrative spectrum is Danish filmmaker Morten Hartz Kapler’s faux documentary AFR (2007). Ostensibly a film about a gay love affair that leads to the assassination of the Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (who in reality is very much alive), it is actually a wicked satire about the media’s power to distort and citizens’ refusal to question.

Weaving archival news footage with newly shot material in a cinema verité format, Kapler, who casts himself as Rasmussen’s assassin, shows that so-called “evidentiary truths” can easily be created where none exist. One of many examples is a clip of the co-founder and leader of the far right Danish People’s Party, Pia Kjaersgaard, who says “and he was gay; everybody knew that.” Within the context of AFR, it appears to line up with the story. In reality it is a news clip of Kjaersgaard referring to the assassination of gay Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002.

Oddly enough, even though Kapler informs us at the beginning of AFR that everything we are about to see is a fabrication, the film manages to instill doubts nonetheless. And what, then, does that say about truth and human nature?

A narrative/documentary experiment, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Strange Culture (2006) relays the terrifying story of artist and political activist Steven Kurtz, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In May 2004, Kurtz, a founding member of the Critical Art Ensemble, was preparing an exhibition on genetically modified food for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Only days away from shipping the completed exhibit, Kurtz woke up to find that his wife and collaborator, Hope, had died in her sleep of heart failure. A distraught Kurtz called 911, but when the paramedics arrived and noticed petri dishes of bacteria and other scientific paraphernalia, they called the FBI. Within hours, Kurtz was suspected of bio-terrorism, removed from his home, and his wife’s body taken for an autopsy. Although the bacteria Kurtz purchased on the Internet was harmless, and it was later proven that his wife died of natural causes, he and his collaborator Robert Ferrell, a genetics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, were charged with federal mail and wire fraud. Kurtz is now awaiting trial and faces up to 20 years imprisonment.

Because Kurtz is forbidden to discuss the facts of the case, Leeson inventively re-creates the events using actors (Tilda Swinton and Thomas Jay Ryan convincingly play Hope and Steven). At times, the actors shift out of character to discuss their own thoughts about the case or to interact with Kurtz, who appears in the film. Other times they address the audience directly. Archival news footage and interviews with artists about the risks they face in doing nontraditional work adds to the collage, and the alarm. Indeed, the film’s house-of-mirrors construction reflects the FBI’s frightening manipulations in the actual case.

In the end, Strange Culture becomes an urgent warning about the current political and judicial climate we inhabit and its threat to freedom of expression; a warning, Leeson concludes, that we ignore at our peril.

Pitting the weight of history against modern-day longings is German director Robert Thaleim’s And Along Come Tourists (2006), a spare and tender portrayal of a young German conscientious objector who fulfills his alternative military service at Auschwitz.

Sven (Alexander Fehling) is sent to work in the youth hostel and teaching facilities of the former concentration camp. He is also charged with assisting the curmudgeonly Mr. Krzeminski, a Polish Christian and former inmate who has remained at the camp since its liberation. Krzeminski earns his living by repairing suitcases for the camp’s museum — suitcases taken from Jews on their arrival at Auschwitz. As Sven’s stay progresses, he begins to contemplate the opposing realities around him: Auschwitz as the site of unspeakable inhumanity and the sleepy Polish town; a tourist stop and a memorial to slaughtered millions; his compassion for Krzeminski and love for a Polish girl and a growing awareness of his own small role in preserving history.

“The heart of the film is not constituted in historical events . . . but in the effects of the past on the everyday life of people,” is how Thalheim describes Tourists. In this subtle work, he manages to confront history while exploring the contradictions and fragility of memory.

Two films that dovetail with the theme of hidden wars are Spiros Stathoulopoulos’ PVC-1 (2007) and Invisibles (2007), a series of documentary shorts by five directors: Mariano Barroso, Isabel Coixet, Javier Corcuera, Fernando León de Aranoa, and Wim Wenders.

Shot in one continuous 85-minute take (Stathoulopoulos operated the Steadicam as well as directed), PVC-1 is based on true events. In rural Columbia, a woman and her family are the victims of a sadistic burglary. The criminals fit a plastic explosive device around the woman’s neck and threaten to blow her up unless they get ransom money — money the family insists it doesn’t have. Unfolding in real time, the film perfectly captures the woman’s desperation and horror as she frantically searches for help. Stathoulopoulos, who is half-Greek and half-Columbian, has created a compelling work that highlights the rampant terrorism that many Latin Americans live with daily. PVC-1 took second prize in the Festival’s International Competition section.

Shot on location and focusing on five humanitarian causes, Invisibles throws light on conflicts that most people would rather not think about: the systematic rape of women and girls caught in the crossfire of warring factions in DR Congo; young boys who live in fear of being kidnapped by one of several rebel armies in Uganda; children dying of a preventable disease in the Central African Republic; the wrenching civil wars in Latin America. Invisibles gives those otherwise condemned to silence a voice that will not easily be forgotten.

As a postscript, the Festival’s tribute to William Klein, one of the grandfathers of in-your-face filmmaking, brought together several of his political and unorthodox films, including his documentary Muhammad Ali: the Greatest (1974). It’s still the best doc (to this reviewer at least) about Ali and the American zeitgeist of his youth.