Rotterdam Dispatch 3: The Risk of the Filmmaker

by robbiefreeling
January 28, 2008 4:40 AM
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Standing at the front of the theater before the screening, they look nervous and don’t have much to say by way of an introduction. When the applause erupts they look slightly embarrassed because they haven’t yet earned the audience’s approval. For filmmakers premiering their first work, and especially for those who are making their first forays into feature-length fiction films, the debut screening can be especially nerve-wracking. But this is, as Peter Forgács puts it, "the risk of the filmmaker," turning a private and sometimes obsessive endeavor into public spectacle, and laying it before the mercy of an audience that’s probably seen it all. It’s a courageous move. We applaud the filmmaker for simply showing up, for taking the risk. And if we’re lucky, we’ll be treated to something we’ve never seen before.

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Rail Road Crossing (Pas a nivell, Pere Vilà, Spain)

The risk taken by Pere Vilà is evident from the start: with a budget of 30,000 Euros, he dared to shoot Rail Road Crossing on 35 mm film, which, for him, was the only way it could be done. Working on a shoestring, his small crew and cast traveled throughout Catalan and made use of whatever was there: locations, extras, and occasional actors. In one scene, Marc, the young man who’s taken an unusual job shuttling tourists to and from the beach, picks up a Dutch couple who chat away merrily. Their conversation, a rare burst of dialogue in an otherwise reticent film, isn’t subtitled; it was only after the screening that Vilà learned what they were actually saying, thanks to the Rotterdam audience (amusingly, they weren’t talking about the film, but of the plans for their next winter holiday). That he could put so much faith in the unknown is rare and remarkable, and it speaks volumes about his calm, open approach to filmmaking.

Filmed in Vilà’s native Catalan and based largely on his own experiences, Rail Road Crossing loosely follows Marc the summer after he graduates. Not yet sure of what he wants to do, he takes a seaside job and moves in with his grandmother, the only person who seems to understand that he’s not quite ready to face the world. Rail Road Crossing’s pace is slow, with long, lingering shots that seem to absorb the heat of the Catalan summer. Like its protagonist, the film drifts on a giant inflatable mattress in the water and coasts on a bicycle headed downhill; it’s not in any hurry to get to where it’s going, wherever that is. When Marc’s asked about his future, he can only think as far as the next few hours—he’s going to town to get some photographs developed. Vilà’s realism has a light touch, a slightly absurdist quality that’s attentive to Marc’s missteps. One entire sequence is devoted to him as he eats a potato wedge that’s too hot, and though unnoticed by his family members, we see his grimace after each bite, his determination to make it through, and then the final, sad victory of the potato, still on the fork, being laid down on the plate. Perhaps the most wonderful image is that of Marc floating on the water, disconnected from everything and everyone, lazily snapping pictures of the jet-skiing tourists. For him, this summer may just last forever.

Much of Rail Road Crossing/ was shot in the home of Vilà’s grandmother. When she passed away last year, Vilà realized he knew little about her, who she was or what her life had been like. Yet if the scenes between Marc and his grandmother are any indication, it matters less to know about the person than to know the person, deeply and fully. In this way Rail Road Crossing is a dedication, not only to Vilà’s grandmother but also to the gradual transformations of adolescence.

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Own Death (Peter Forgács, Hungary)

As the title might suggest, Peter Forgács’s Own Death is a risky proposition, a taut and uncompromising examination of a fairly uncomfortable and difficult subject. The text, adapted from the short story of celebrated Hungarian author Péter Nádas, delves deeper than most, constantly turning over the medical and metaphysical details of one man’s near-death experience. It’s dense and prismatic, and however slowly it’s read in voiceover, or whatever phrases are selected to appear onscreen, one viewing (and one reading, I would imagine) can hardly do it justice. If “the complexity of the text demanded a new language,” as Forgács remarked in the Q&A, the filmed stills and sequences, together with found home movie footage, make up its alphabet.

Forgács, a documentarian and media artist, is best known for his work with found materials. In Budapest, he founded the Private Film and Photo Archive Foundation, a collection of amateur footage culled from Central Europe during the Nazi era, and in over thirty films and videos he’s “reorchestrated” the home movie material to tell alternative versions of their often troubling history. Besides being a fiction film, Own Death marks something of a departure, leaving aside the larger questions of the past to focus intently on the personal. The voice guides everything—images, music, and pacing—and it’s a “narrow” path, as Forgács puts it, and the sinew of Nádas’s prose is especially lean. Yet the strongest elements in the film rely the least on the words: found footage remnants of a man leaping nude in a field, or a child swinging around in a towel offer a needed reprieve from the unrelenting text. In those moments, the narrator holds his breath and we are the ones who breathe, taking in images that can’t necessarily be accounted for, but are beautiful to behold. They widen the narrow path by granting us a sense of other people: their memories, their lives, their perseverance.
—GENEVIEVE YUE

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