- Criticism, or engagement
By Tara Judah
When Alice followed the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole, she found a series of great and terrifying treats. To assist her on her journey, she needed potions, cakes and a little from both sides of the mushroom to help her grow and shrink in sync with the route she’d taken. When we watch films, we willingly jump down such a rabbit hole, only we call it ‘suspension of disbelief’. And, like Alice, we don’t do it alone. We need the ideological and aesthetic tools to help us move in sync with the filmmaker’s vision.
This is why film exhibition needs film criticism. During the Berlinale the two exist together, alongside but outside of the official festival. Conceived of in 2014, by the German Film Critics Association, Woche der Kritik was born from a frustration with the industry. Calling on critics to take up activism in academic pursuit, they wrote and circulated a manifesto before launching the now established programme of annual screenings and discussions.
I attended three of seven events, all included critical introductions and post-screening discussions between filmmaker(s), critic(s) and other artists. The sessions were lengthy and more cerebral than the bog-standard cast and crew or filmmaker Q&As that we call “eventised cinema”. Still, the sessions were far from elitist and, even with their high-minded approach and intent, retained a sense of naiveté, such that any philosophical contemplation without conclusion might.
Attending with curiosity for the concept more than the content, I found myself exploring cinema that I know, if otherwise contextualised, I would have dismissed. I was also confronted by and had to engage with ideologies that don’t necessarily square with my own – something I’ll admit I rarely do. The benefit was a much needed, and politically timely, lesson in the value of a multiplicity of perspectives. Chiefly, what I found was that the discussion was often far richer than the films themselves.
Writer-director Eduardo Williams’ The Human Surge (2016) was difficult to engage with; the handheld camera work is shaky and unfocused, the POV ventures into naturally (read poorly) lit spaces and Williams completely refuses to construct seamless linear progression, which is obfuscating but also gives way to a fascinating concept: that reality resists our attempts to understand it. Though the film itself isn’t remarkable to my mind, what viewing it in this context has achieved, is: the panel put forward the idea that the aesthetics of mainstream documentary realism are in conflict with a counter-cinema that is proving – through style rather than exposition – that its constructed narratives hold a greater visual truth than the established category and modes of representational documentary.
So, while the evening’s curated notion of ‘Future’ didn’t really resonate with me, various ideas in the discussion did – like Dutch film critic Dana Linssen’s brilliant connection between the film’s POV and quantum physics. And, while I found the links between Williams’ film and fellow panellist Armin Linke’s photography – of which we were only shown one image – confusing, the inconclusive nature of much of the discussion was, for me, a welcome alternative to mainstream film criticism and review culture, which so often likes to think that its job is to funnel or condense the meaning of artworks into singular viewpoints or personal opinions. In short: I liked the openness of the approach.
On the contrary, the second evening’s umbrella term, Scope, owing to its illusive and effusive definition, absolutely resonated with me and became something I wrote about for the Woche der Kritik blog, free of my pursuance of commentary on their platform. This is, I believe, another admirable aspect of their critical project: inviting international critics, free from editorial constraint, to contribute to the discussion through independent writing that is then published on their official blog.
The third event I attended, though it was the least enjoyable viewing experience I had, was even more beneficial as an exercise in pushing the boundaries of my cinematic engagement and in strengthening certain threads in the tapestry of my critical acuity. I didn’t just dislike the feature film shown, it felt like an act of violence. And I didn’t just think that the links between short, feature, topic and panel discussion were confusing, I thought they were tenuous and contentious, too. Still, there was value in learning from writer and curator Julian Ross about the “Roman porno” genre of Japanese films (aka: Pink films). There was also value in hearing Peaches talk about how humour invites people in and yet, watching this feature, Aroused by Gymnopedies (Isao Yukisada, 2016), she was disturbed by the laughter it elicited. I agree.
One of the requirements of a Roman porno film is that it has a sex scene every ten minutes. But the sex scenes in this film were violent. The women rarely consented to the act and, even when they seemed to, were still not visibly enjoying themselves; the titillation was built on their resistance. For me, this was rape culture as narrative entertainment and watching that is an act of violence. Though the programmers behind Woche der Kritik include women, Peaches was the only woman on the post-screening panel. Neither Peaches nor Ross spoke in defence of the film and both found it problematic. They also agreed that the film didn’t represent punk or, as the evening was themed, Breakout, in any way.
Then, when Peaches announced a mic drop and left the space, I did too. The power to leave a space is always in the hands of the viewer/critic/artist/et al. In the days following the screening I also entered a series of discussions – both online and in person – with one of the programmers. And, though I am assured that the film choice was defended by at least one female programmer within their group, my opinion has been in no way swayed: what I watched was violent and unnecessary. I don’t know that I swayed the opinion of anyone else, either, but my voice was heard, discussion was engaging and always respectful.
Operating outside of and in direct counter to the mainstream of the Berlinale, Woche der Kritik offers space and time to a medium that is built upon those proportions so that it can exact its engagement more effectively. And while the titles and categorisations which are so often the work of marketing and publicity (hoping to give us control over complicated ideas) have no place in an open critical discussion, in my opinion, the titles did at least act as provocation for disagreeing with the discourse(s) they were born of.
Much like the many and varied characters Alice encounters in Wonderland, all the way from the cheeky Cheshire Cat to the cruelty of the Queen of Hearts, criticism isn’t always one’s best friend. But, even if it is obfuscating like the Caterpillar or drunk on its own intent like the Dormouse, it is there to enrich the experience of exhibition, which makes it crucial to the ecology of film culture.