berlinale dispatch: filming the objects of memory

First published on February 19, 2019 as part of the 2019 Berlinale Talent Press workshop.

“There is no archive fever without the threat of [the] death drive,” wrote French philosopher Jacques Derrida. The act of archiving is a response to our fear of death; it’s also a means of inflicting death, of bounding the past so we can commence a new present.

At this year’s Berlinale, a number of films contend with questions of the archive. In Forum standout HEIMAT IST EIN RAUM AUS ZEIT, Thomas Heise goes meticulously through the diaries and correspondences of three generations of his family, his genealogical narrative doubling as a history of Germany and the world. Another FORUM entry, MS SLAVIC 7, dramatizes co-director Sofia Bohdanowicz’s discovery of the letters that her grandmother, a Polish poet, exchanged with novelist Józef Wittlin after they both fled to North America during World War II. In the Panorama Dokumente selection WESTERN ARABS, Danish-Palestinian director Omar Shargawi uses home video to examine his relationship with his father and the nature of inherited trauma.

While all these films grapple with mortality—of human life, of the filmic medium, of bodies of knowledge—, some of them zero in on another question central to archives: that of the personal and the political. What is the threshold at which a personal archive becomes a political, or even historical, object? In WESTERN ARABS, that cusp is the very framework of the film, articulated by the director in its opening minutes. Over a montage of grainy, elusively discolored images of his childhood, Shargawi voices a series of introspective questions. Does he belong to both the Danes and the Arabs or to neither? Why has his father been angry all his life? Has his family inherited the violence and anguish that brought his father from Palestine to Denmark?

These are challenging questions, but the footage that follows seems to illustrate the prologue rather than interrogate it. Much of the film consists of Shargawi’s angsty back-and-forth with his father over the years, as the latter recounts his experiences of war and exile in voiceover; it’s a motif that belabors the link between the Palestinian conflict and Shargawi’s relationship with his father without ever investigating it. The film explores the director’s other questions about mixed identity and generational trauma in similarly schematic fashion. At one point, as his daughter punches him playfully in their car, he asks (a bit too pointedly): “Where do you get this aggression from?” Taken as an archive of his past, Shargawi’s film feels predetermined, leaving room for neither retrospection nor discovery.

WESTERN ARABS’ other folly is the broad and forced manner in which it transposes the director’s personal turmoil onto a generalized historical narrative. This is best illustrated by the clips Shargawi includes from his Arab Spring-set short, ½ REVOLUTION (2011): The camera pans the scenes of gore, wreckage, and police violence that surround a broody-faced Shargawi, while his father comments on the futility of Muslim-Jew hostility in voiceover. During the Q&A that followed WESTERN ARABS’ Berlinale premiere, an Egyptian audience member asked Shargawi why this footage, set evidently in Egypt, was coupled with ruminations about Palestine. Shargawi responded with something to the effect of, “Egypt, Syria, Palestine, we’re all the same, in the Middle East, suffering the same crises.” The way Shargawi dilutes the cultural specifics of his own story into a grand political narrative characterizes his film as well: WESTERN ARABS is predicated on the arrogant assumption that one’s personal archive can stand in for the historical experiences of multitudes.

HEIMAT IST EIN RAUM AUST ZEIT, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach to excellent effect. In Heise’s film, the threshold between the personal and the political lies in the granular—it is in the small, slowly-accumulated minutae of its archival material that the film achieves its most expansive scope. Beginning with the pro-Communist essays his paternal grandfather, Wilhelm, wrote in 1912, Heise creates a rich oral history of his family, composed entirely of letters, diary entries, and other correspondences. These are juxtaposed with transfixing black-and-white images drawn from both the past and the present. Sometimes he pairs a letter with a picture of its writer; at other times, the socio-political musings of his (extremely erudite and eloquent) family are combined with extended shots of quotidian life in modern-day Germany. Unlike Shargawi, Heise never explicitly announces the historical implications of the materials he includes. He simply reads them in chronological order, presenting an archive organized by dates, but not by meaning. This means that the 218-minute HEIMAT can often be an exhausting watch, with excessive information that doesn’t always make its significance immediately evident. But it’s precisely through this amorphous, detail-dense accumulation that the film attains the gravitas and scope of historiography.

HEIMAT IST EIN RAUM AUST ZEIT translates to “HOME IS A SPACE IN TIME”—a title that precisely encapsulates the nature of Heise’s filmic intervention into the archive. Most of the historical objects presented in the film are of a material nature: letters, photos, documents, and diaries. With the help of the moving image, Heise injects into them a sense of temporality. One of the film’s most striking sequences features the letters his grandmother Edith, a Viennese Jew who moved to Berlin to marry Wilhelm, exchanges with her parents. The letters start in the fall of 1941, and as Heise reads them one-by-one, the screen scrolls through the list of Viennese deportees destined for German concentration camps. When it reaches the names of Edith’s family, who were deported in July 1942 and later killed, the screen cuts to black.  Another long, single-take sequence, in which Heise reads some of Edith’s letters and diary entries, is filmed through the rain-drenched rear-window of a moving tram. The tram stops every few minutes and an automated voice announces the name of the stop, inserting an odd, spatio-temporal punctuation to the narration. These gestures force us to contend, on a formal level, with the living, breathing, and moving lives contained within Heise’s archives. When he finally arrives at the present, ending the film with his own musings on today’s economic and political world, HEIMAT’s trajectory through time—and from the particular to the historical—feels wholly earned.

Sofia Bohdanowicz and Deragh Campbell’s MS SLAVIC 7 also mobilises the archive, but in tactile, rather than temporal terms. Based on Bohdanowicz’s real-life discovery of the letters exchanged between her great-grandmother, Zofia Bohdanowicz, and novelist Jozef Wittlin, much of the film centers on the trips the fictional Sofia (played, interestingly, by Campbell) makes to the archives at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. Bohdanowicz and Campbell zero in on Sofia’s tangible interactions with the material: her hands are filmed in close-up as she feels and turns pages, the silence of the scene leavened only by the gentle rustle of paper.

The focus on the physicality of the archival objects opens an intriguing line of inquiry in MS SLAVIC 7. In monologues interspersed throughout the film, Sofia expresses her fascination with the objecthood of the letters as opposed to their content. “What does a letter mean?” she asks, and reflects on the experience of interacting with an artifact that has traversed through both distance and time. Letters, she muses, make explicit the “barest motivation to record and to communicate”—to transfer oneself onto something that one knows will endure as a memory.

Letters also exemplify the liminal spatiality of the archive, as a private communication that must traverse public spaces. The archive, too, exists at that intersection of public and private. To access her own history, Sofia must go through all sorts of protocol at the Houghton Library. When, later, she suggests to her curator aunt that she’d like to do a public exhibition of the materials, her aunt castigates her for turning her grandmother’s life into a “hobby” or “business.” MS SLAVIC 7 turns, deftly, into a commentary on the procedures of archiving—on its curiously exclusionary practices and its inextricable relations to bureaucracy—and also a subversion. Shot on video, the film becomes Sofia’s own way of getting her grandmother’s letters out of the hallowed halls of Harvard and sending them on a new journey through space and time.

 

 

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