Point of Impact

Thomas Heise, Volkspolizei 1985 (Police Department 1985), 1985, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 60 minutes.

EVOKING HEMINGWAY’S The Sun Also Rises, an international crowd descended on Pamplona, Spain, late last month. But rather than for the running of the bulls of San Fermín, filmmakers gathered for a rigorously curated program at Punto de Vista, an expansive documentary festival that includes artists’ and experimental moving images. Last year, budget cuts forced the formerly annual event to go biennial, and this eighth edition is the last to be programmed by artistic director Josetxo Cerdán. Taking its name from Jean Vigo’s notion of a “documented point of view,” the intimate festival tends toward challenging nonfiction work that examines its subjects while pressing the limits of the genre itself. The festival’s ethos was best evinced by a work-in-progress screening of Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, in which the order of the much anticipated three-part film was altered last minute and played from Final Cut Pro.

A palpable through-line of the festival was the study of people’s relationships to place, a particularly central concern in Eric Baudelaire’s The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images. Baudelaire’s work turns the theory onto the theorist, using filmmaker and Japanese Red Army member Masao Adachi’s fukei-ron ideas of landscape as a formal apparatus through which Adachi’s own story—as well as that of Red Army member Fusako Shigenobu’s daughter May—is explored. Their narrations are heard over Baudelaire’s Super 8 images of present-day Beirut and Tokyo. Employing the film stock’s propensity for nostalgia, these images conjure Adachi’s two-hundred-plus film reels that were destroyed in the 1982 Siege of Beirut, and simultaneously question their capacity to “reflect the image of power in society” as Adachi’s theory postulates.

Also in competition was Kevin Jerome Everson’s The Island of St. Matthews, a work that considers the residents of Westport, Mississippi, and the surrounding waters of the Tombigbee River. We see the workings of the Columbus Lock and Dam, re-creations of river baptisms (which Everson underwent as a child), and the river in the wake of a water-skier. In the solemn tolling of the church bell and the viola that mournfully repeats the same notes, we feel the despondent echoes of all that was lost in the Mississippi flood of 1973.

In the special section, jury member J. P. Sniadecki’s Yumen, a collaboration with Xu Ruotao and Huang Xiang that premiered earlier in the month at the Berlinale, also ruminates on the delicate bonds between people and their landscapes. The now-defunct oil town of Yumen in northwest China and its barren, postindustrial terrain is imbued with melancholy and magic through an eclectic mix of C-pop and striking images that border on sci-fi. Subverting the bleakness that the decrepit buildings and hollowed earth command, the protagonists persist with artistic expression—dancing in the empty, hoary gorges, and painting swaths of expressionistic line portraits on the crumbling walls of past prosperity.

Receiving special jury mention, El Modelo, Germán Scelso’s polemical portrait of a disabled beggar on the streets of Barcelona, parses the current socioeconomic struggles within Spain. Jordi, who suffers from cerebral palsy and has limited use of his left arm and leg, begs for money from the racially diverse clientele at the Internet café where Scelso works. Jordi puts his disability to his advantage, stipulating cash, alcohol, and intimate details of the filmmaker’s sex life in exchange for being the film’s subject. Scelso parallels Jordi’s self-aware and exploitative approach with his own provocative form—his crude depiction is seen in the use of extreme close-ups of Jordi drinking beer and smoking cigars; he’s even shot from above a toilet stall while urinating, with the filmmaker entering just after the act to take down the hidden camera. Questions of class, race, religion, economy, and politics cumulate in stark interviews with Jordi, and climax when he stands naked before a projected image of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

The festival highlight, though, was Thomas Heise’s eleven-film retrospective, which ranged from Why Make a Film About These People? (1980), a film he made as a student in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), to his most recent, Consequence, which looks at the 24/7 operations of a small crematorium. His singularly incisive portrayals of the lives of those from the former GDR is neither nostalgic nor pointed—he reveals the people in relation to their circumstances without reducing his subjects to symptoms of political turmoil. Heise chronicles several members of a family over nearly a decade in Newtown (The State of Things) (2000) and Children. As Time Flies. (2007). In Police Department 1985 (1985), Heise observes the ins and outs of the Berlin People’s Police Department. Fassbinderesque mise-en-scènes of officers watching the USA v. GDR hockey game in a rec room adorned with gaudy floral wallpaper are contrasted with long tracking shots of Berlin-Mitte streets and the recordings of police statements: A woman describes her domestic abuse incident and a man, arrested for trespassing, explains that he just realized that these walls were meant to contain them, not to keep the “others” out.

The eighth edition of Punto de Vista ran February 19–24, 2013.