IDFA 2019: Of Warriors Past and Present
At the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam, a meeting point for film and market folk from all over the world, plethora is celebrated, diversity warranted and options encouraged. While the breadth of its program offers a maze into which one may easily find oneself lost in a state of indifference, I quickly arrived at the point where my actual work as a critical spectator began, the digging for gold. Some of the biggest sparks at this year’s festival flew off the strand “Re-releasing History,” a program focusing on films made with archival material, home movies or found footage, and revisiting historical events in personal and public areas.
Featured in this program is 1982, a film by Lucas Gallo about the Falkland Islands/Las Malvinas War of the same year between Argentina and the United Kingdom. In this century-old conflict dating back to Spanish colonialism, and the subsequent declaration of Argentine independence in 1818, the archipelago was reasserted under British rule in 1832. Tensions about independence swelled up again after the 1960s and the key figure of military repression, president Leopoldo Galtieri, ordered its invasion to boost his low favorability among the population. Using excerpts from the popular TV program 60 Minutos, we follow the media campaign run by the military dictatorship during their 74-day invasion of the territory. 60 Minutos, an American creation later sold to many countries, was known for pioneering the techniques of investigative journalism—including hidden cameras, home visits and re-edited interviews. By reassembling the show’s video footage around these events, Gallo dissects the strategies of the propaganda ordered by the junta and used to seduce a mainstream audience into supporting the ruling regime’s stance in the conflict. Highlights include the declaration of war by Galtieri in a dimly lit corridor in the national palace to a handful of reporters, recalling Libyan leader Muammar Al-Gaddafi’s bizarre final appearance holding an umbrella while getting into a car; a visit to the islands and interviews with soldiers, checking on their morale in the cold weather, where nobody seems to have a clue on what is going on; a donation appeal supporting the campaign and a scathing monologue by the host’s reaction on a British radio broadcast, delivered with teary-eyed pathos.
The use of mass media as a common strategy of authoritarian regimes is the basis for analysis in 1982. Although Gallo attempts to refrain from expressing a personal opinion by not siding with either party, he does include images of British reactions, though only briefly: A vox pop interview on Westminster Bridge and the conclusion of the conflict by the reoccupation by British forces and the appearance of their triumphant prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. The subsequent ousting of the military dictatorship by the Argentinian people marked an end of authoritarian rule in the country.
Movements of a Nearby Mountain (recently featured in a retrospective of Sebastian Brameshuber’s films at Anthology Film Archives in December 2019) is the most arresting work in the overall program. A car parts salesman and mechanic by trade, Cliff buys up chassis, tires, and automobiles in the area of Kapfenberg, Austria, historically known for its steel industry. Against the backdrop of the Styrian mountains, he fixes them up in his warehouse (once a wire factory) to make a living. His daily work includes pulling apart cars (sometimes with household tools, like a bread knife) and wrapping motors in cellophane and preparing to deliver them in his van. “If you don’t work, you never eat” says Cliff, expressing his pragmatic life principle.
Exchanges with potential buyers hold something poetic, truthful. Brameshuber draws a parallel between Cliff’s work and a folk tale of the nearby mountain (Die Legende vom Wassermann): A waterman who is thought to be in possession of great treasures is captured by village folk. To escape his prison, he negotiates with the villagers and lets them choose between a golden foot, a silver heart, and an iron hat. They choose the hat and the waterman promises them never-ending iron ore from a nearby mountain. The tale speaks of work and wealth in perpetuity but also about its violent side, the hard labor and the irony that nothing can be eternal in the face of mortality.
Cliff’s repetitive work equally expresses its economic potential and the exhaustion of resources that nourish it at the same time. When he departs on a business trip to his native Nigeria, he tells of the auto industry in decline, of his work slowly coming to an end. Cinematographer Klemens Hufnagl accentuates the scenery quietly. His camera movements and framing observe Cliff and his surroundings not as a voyeur but rather approach his actions with complicit curiosity. The editing connects images of Cliff’s professional work with his everyday life, for example when he washes his car with a bucket and then his clothes in another scene. Brameshuber and Cliff had already met for the former’s 2014 short film Of Stains, Scrap and Tires. Super 16mm images from it are also used here. Against the digital color palette they evoke the feeling of layers of time, a different level of temporality.
Another film concerning a reunion with a prior subject is Eva Marie Rødbro’s I Love You I Miss You I Hope To See You Before You Die, featuring in this year’s exceptionally eclectic First Appearance competition. Rødbro, known for her portraits of youth, be it a young man with ADHD roaming restlessly through the streets of Copenhagen in Dan Mark (2014) or recording the invincible power of early adulthood with a group of hedonistic young women ready to party in We Chose The Milky Way (2015), here reconnects with Betty from her film I Touched Her Legs (2010). There she visited a group of Southern teens enjoying their youth in Brownwood, Texas: hanging out in backyards, at pool parties, dancing, drinking, and driving around aimlessly at night. A decade later Betty,
Visually, the film is a hell of a ride: Rødbro’s and Troels Rasmus Jensen’s rough and shaky handheld camera gives the filmed cosmos something gritty and real while the quickfire editing recalls zapping between TV channels, dictating a vigorous rhythm. Flashbacks to an earlier Betty giving birth or lying in bed with her newborn strike a chord with the depicted present and illustrate the progress of time. A sometimes soberingly frank but a powerful and tender portrait of family life, I Love You I Miss You articulates the fight for survival and the notion, as Wilma puts it, that “Nobody likes life every day, but every other day. You gotta do it.”