Berlinale Forum: Reframing Landscapes of Violence
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, this year the Berlinale’s independently organized Forum sidebar put together a retrospective of films derived from its inaugural edition. Bringing the Forum’s 1971 program back to the big screen saw films like David Larcher’s Mare’s Tail (1968), Howard Alk’s The Murder of Fred Hampton (1971), and Alexandr Medvedkin’s Happiness (1935) screen alongside new works from directors like Radu Jude, James Benning, and Laura Huertas Millán. This desire to mediate between the past and the present was a recurring theme at this year’s event, with numerous films in the program articulating the existence of historical trauma by drawing attention to alternative memories of the past.
This attempt to bridge the gap between past and present was best observed in the latest film by German director Clarissa Thieme. Back in 2008, Thieme travelled to Bosnia-Herzegovina to film “What Remains” (2010), a cinematic memorial of the empty spaces left behind after the Bosnian War. Composed of long static shots of landscapes where war crimes were committed, the film contrasts the quiet serenity of these spaces with the memory of the atrocities that occurred there. The film screened at the 40th Forum, and ten years later, Thieme has returned with What Remains / Re-Visited (2020). Equipped with ten billboard-sized stills from her earlier trip, Thieme heads back to the same locations to see what, if anything, has changed.
By and large, buildings are static entities, and do not move, but by holding these photos up to the camera, Thieme not only shows how they age and decay, but also the way history shifts around them. In some of these locations barely anything is different, but in others, war-scarred homes have been knocked down to make way for new structures to occupy the skyline. This use of comparative photography not only allows the viewer to observe changes in time, but also the interaction between violence and constructed environments. However, as the film moves to more populated areas, it’s what’s happening outside the frame that becomes of greater interest.
The arrival of Thieme and her team prompts the curious locals to ask questions about the project. “Things are changing,” insists one man whilst he waits for a bus, “but it’s happening slowly.” Elsewhere, a woman approaches Thieme to ask for a copy of the photo, as it contains an image of her recently deceased mother. Some of these conversations lead back to the war, but most evade the topic entirely — except one woman who recalls how she avoided certain death because she was picking her children up from school in a neighboring town. “You can re-build houses,” she tells Thieme, “but you can’t bring back people.”
The Forum has cultivated a reputation for programming formally radical films with a political dimension, something epitomized by Ana Vaz’s “Apiyemiyekî?” (2019). How the past — and particularly the colonial past — haunts the present has been a recurring theme in Vaz’s work, and her latest is no different, a turbulent montage of images and sounds that develops into a forensic study of how the military dictatorship in Brazil was responsible for the genocide of the indigenous Waimiri-Atroari tribe. The film opens in Vaz’s home city of Brasília, before embarking on a journey deep into the Amazon. She travels along the BR-174 highway, constructed by the Military Junta to industrialize the rainforest, and which resulted in the mass execution of the indigenous population. Vaz overlays images of the highway with the nearby river, tracing the residue of the military dictatorship in a gesture towards its role in shaping the Amazonian landscape.
Vaz is travelling to meet with Egydio Schwade, an Indigenous rights militant who collected an archive of over 3000 drawings by the Waimiri-Atroari tribe during a literacy project. Motivated by a desire to construct a collective visual memory of the genocide, Vaz’s film was produced as part of a series of works dedicated to establishing a critical cosmology of the Brazilian military dictatorship. The film merges black-and-white 16mm footage with tinted film stock to help blur the line between the personal and the collective, with the material density of these images complementing the rough-hewn drawings of the Waimiri-Atroari. The most persistent question posed by the tribe is: “Why did Kamña (“the civilized”) kill Kiña (Waimiri-Atraori)?” with their drawings often depicting the “civilized men” carrying knives and rifles, or flying the airplanes used to drop napalm on the rain forest. By animating these drawings and transposing them onto the landscape, Vaz underlines the importance of memory as an organizing principle, and its role in combating the amnesia surrounding the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Brazil.
Elsewhere, Argentinian director Jonathan Perel opted for a more direct approach to reframing the atrocities of his country’s military dictatorship. Corporate Accountability (2020) is comprised of 32 static shots of factories, each captured from the front seat of a stationary car. The film is a travelogue of all the companies mentioned in Corporate Accountability in Crimes Against Humanity, a collection of 25 case studies made by the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights about the repression of workers during the military dictatorship. Observing these workplaces like a private detective on a stakeout, ready to switch on the ignition at any moment and flee the scene of the crime, Perel treats his camera like a stills photographer would treat theirs, looking at the world through a series of immobile setups. But the rustle of the wind and the motion of people or cars within the frame interrupt this stillness, suggesting the film is not just about looking at the past but also the present and the future.
Perel’s approach might be disarmingly simple, but his ambition is nothing less than epic. Breaking the silence, Perel reads excerpts from the report as these haunting, precisely choreographed tableaus appear onscreen. Detailing how the corporations who owned these factories were major beneficiaries of the dictatorship’s economic policies, Perel aims to expose how these companies — many of which are still active — are accountable for the murder and disappearance of hundreds of politically active workers. Eventually common features emerge, as it transpires that many of these companies shared information and resources with the military, persecuted union members, and were complicit in the transferring of hundreds of millions of dollars of private debt to the state.
Perel’s previous films, such as 17 monumentos (2012) and Toponimia (2015), are characterized by a strict adherence to a structural approach of rigorously naturalistic shots of architectural spaces and landscapes. However, where these films cultivated a quiet space for the audience to pause and interrogate the atrocities committed by the dictatorship, the decision to include a voiceover feels almost anachronistic compared to the minimalism of the director’s previous approach. But with each passing account of torture, murder, and disappearances, it becomes clear this was a decision driven by an ethical imperative and a strongly held belief that this information can no longer be ignored.
Suggesting the past is constantly in flux, and the truth a transitory and unattainable notion, these three films demonstrated the potential of the moving image to unsettle hegemonic accounts of history, and use memory to reframe the way we interact with landscapes marked by violence.
Top image: Jonathan Perel’s Corporate Accountability
The 50th Berlinale Forum took place between February 20 and March 3.