Too Many Pictures, and Not Enough Attention — FIFA 2013 — Montreal
The top prize at this year’s International Festival of Films on Art went to a film that warns of image overload, given the over-production of images as digital cameras and mobile phones record them. The effect, we don’t need to be told, is that anyone linked to these technologies risks being mired in a swamp of images. And most of us, it suggests, will never be competent swimmers.
In an Ocean of Images (Dans un Ocean d’Images) by Helen Doyle, a Francophone Canadian, posits the obvious unavoidable truth, that a picture plague threatens to drown us. Once that point is made, Doyle turns to pictures that shouldn’t be part of that vast mulch, and to strategies by photographers to ensure that those images are not forgotten. There are still pictures that tell important stories – from Iraq, Algeria, Cambodia, and everywhere else.
Geert van Kesteren, a Dutch photographer who covered the Iraq War and the civil wars there that followed, assembled pictures from that time in a book entitled Baghdad Calling. His goal was to remind anyone who saw the book that the people in what the US called “liberated territory” were people. In other words, the man whose head was under a soldier’s booth in a late night search was a human being – a hard truth for soldiers just out of high school who were told repeatedly that Iraqis were responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
Van Kesteren is careful not to take too much credit for the pictures that defined the war.
“There’s this myth that photojournalists are always there when this happens. It’s not true – we’re never invited into the dungeons when this torture takes place,” he says on camera, acknowledging, as professional photographers might be reluctant to do, that technology and the mania to lift oneself out of anonymity with it, can help in the reporting process, as images did in the Abu Ghraib scandal. “Here it was the soldiers themselves who couldn’t resist to make pictures of their own abuse, and thought it was a joke to send it to each other.”
It’s not over. “1.8 billion mobile phones were sold last year – a trillion pictures were taken,” Van Kesteren notes.
Stanley Greene, another photographer put himself in the place of the consumer/generator of images: “I had a birthday cake, I got a new car, and by the way, I tortured these people who bombed the World Trade Center.”
Greene, who photographed in Chechnya, spoke about the aftermath of bombings, in which the instantaneous transformation of people into human scraps made those casualties seem as generic as the infinite flood of digital pictures.
Other photographers, neck-deep in images, turn those pictures into works of art to prolong their power to communicate. Sounds like McLuhan – when an object ceases to have a significance, it either fades into extinction or becomes a work of art. Like so many worthwhile films at FIFA, In an Ocean of Images, this powerful Canadian contribution to the McLuhan legacy, seems unlikely to be overexposed in the US.
This year’s prize at FIFA for best portrait went to Sol Lewitt, a feature-length doc by Chris Teerink of the Netherlands. Mondrian was a crucial inspiration fo Lewitt (1928-2007), one of any reasons why the Dutch have taken to him. So was Edward Muybridge, for the multiplicity of perspectives that he observed, Lewitt says in a rare interview.
Sol Lewitt was a man who did not want his work to be defined by his biography. He did not sit on panels, because he felt that he did not think fast enough to be of much use on them. He avoided openings of his own exhibitions. He gave much of his work away, including the drawing of a near-imperceptibly sloping line that was drawn pursuant to his instructions and installed at great effort in a phallic hulk replicating the silo of a windmill that Aldo Rossi designed at the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht, Holland. Reflections on and by Lewitt punctuate the filming the the Bonnefanten installation. (We’re told that Lewitt’s wall drawings began with diagonal lines that he made while waiting to change plains in Amsterdam.) “I don’t want to become a personality, because my art has nothing to do with that. I don’t even want my picture to be used, because it has nothing to do with my art,” he said to the late Paul Cummings in an interview for the Smithsonian Oral History of Art project. To a great extent, he succeeded. The filmmaker could find only one photograph of Lewitt.
The Dreams of William Golding by Adam Low marked the centenary of the author of Lord of the Flies, which now has some ten million copies in print. William Golding (1911-93) is not as popular these days as Ayn Rand, but his look into human capabilities for cruelty and the abuse of power are a far greater warning than Rand’s alarm about the evils of altruism and its stifling of creativity. Remember Abu Ghraib? Those kids were just out of high school.
Golding wrote Lord of the Flies as a schoolteacher in Cornwall. He knew the boys in his school, we are told, and we’re told that the horrors of his tale of boys marooned on a tropical island are, among other things, rooted in a special awareness that came from experience. The documentary also takes us to World War II, when Golding commanded a ship with a rocket launcher that mistakenly bombed a Dutch town from which civilians had not been evacuated, as part of a softening operation before an attack on Antwerp. The civilian deaths would always haunt Golding, who drank heavily, feared criticism and never strayed far from themes of isolation, humiliation of the weak, and the dark side that he believed was in everyone. It wasn’t paranoia. Even when Golding won the Nobel Prize, a Swedish judge took the liberty of offering a minority opinion to attack Golding’s work. “We didn’t win a war, we just finished it,” he said in a television interview about his experiences in World War II.
Raised as an atheist by his schoolteacher father, Golding became a devout Christian (although he never took the sacraments) — religion seemed to address his apprehensions about human excess. Democracy was also a source of fear – a pretext and a license, in his novels, for bullying the weak. Golding is anything but fashionable these days; still required reading, I hope. Try to find this film.
In a section at FIFA devoted to films about cinema, Il Etait Une Fois, Le Marriage de Maria Braun (Once Upon a Time, The Marriage of Maria Braun) was one of six films from a series made for French television which looks back at classic films with interviews with filmmakers and critics. This series is co-produced by Serge July, the former editor of the leftist Parisian daily, Liberation. If only the many unemployed newspaper editors out there in our country could produce something this valuable.
If the 52-minute tv doc on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s masterpiece, directed for Arte France by Francois Levy-Kuentz is any indication, Il Etait Une Fois… is a series that aims at an audience with more than a fifth grade education. As with most FIFA films from France, it won’t end up on a US cable channel. Let’s hope that film students see it.
Back to Fassbinder (1945-1982), who appears in the film in one interview and in a notorious sequence berating his mother in Germany in Autumn, a 1980 film in which eleven German filmmakers searched for the roots of terrorism in the Nazi past and the country’s Cold War economic recovery.
As cast and critics take us into the production, which was haunted by suppressed memories of the 1930’s and 1940’s, archival footage of the ruins of German cities gives way to images of prosperity built with American money and military support. Maria is played by the Fassbinder star Hannah Schygulla, who looks like Hilllary Clinton as she speaks in French in the film. Maria’s husband is missing in action as Fassbinder’s story opens. Amid the ruins, she’s a determined survivor who battles and compromises her way into handsome clothes and an elegant house thanks to strategic arrangements with men. Survivor is a loaded term in this context.
It’s hard to imagine how influential Fassbinder was in Europe in the 1970’s until his death from an overdose in 1982. In a television interview, and they were rare, he notes the weight of his own autobiography on Maria Braun. Schygulla, who left Germany for France after making that film, says, “Fassbinder was more Maria Braun than me.”
The series Il Etait Une fois…. From Arte France also looks at The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie by Luis Bunuel and at A Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick, among others.
More soon on film on architecture at FIFA