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Berlin 2016: Flashing the Present

At which point does the present become a past? When the film ends, when the titles roll and historicize all information linked to a specific work through tons of descriptions? A moment when each character is indexed, connected, linked to its human representation. But then, film is eternal. Did you ever watch your favourite films of a festival several times? And what is the history of a single work within a festival? How many of our little gems have been lost on the side of the ever-moving festival highways? After days and days, months and months, years and years of screenings, many expressions seem to have disappeared, rarely to be recalled again. Even more seem to have been lost than cherished. In this sense, archival work could be considered subversive: against the speed of exhibition, against the pressure to set preferences.

While I prefer to counterbalance the oversaturation of festival programs socially, some of my colleagues have developed a feverish addiction to lists and notebooks that keep every film, every screening venue, copy source and screening time properly in place to be recalled in the right moment. When curating themselves for example.

To present something in our present often comes along with an expectation to be aware of the past. A principle of expected awareness that has, obviously, found its way into the program structure of countless film festivals, in the form of retrospectives. Alexander Horwath, the current director of the Austrian Film Museum, once referred to Walter Benjamin when asked about his relation to the past: "[...] Benjamin's imagination of the hisorical that appears and reacts with the present, creating a flashing image. Impressions of the past that have the potential to vehemently criticize what is currently considered as progressive and popular." Creating such flashes amongst contemporary images, how alluring! Against a historical background, contemporary voices in filmmaking are rarelly granted the historical authority to actually criticize the present, as a certain temporal distance, a critical distance might be necessary to do so. But then, avant-garde, a term obsessed with the capability of an artist to supass the intensity of the present and question it aesthetically.

How could any filmmaker surpass contemporary conditions, while being dependent on systems like Berlinale that are not only reproducing, but creating market expectations with their inherent premiere politics?

As a curator of the Berlin Critics' Week as well as a critic, my intention for this piece was to discuss the new film by Philippe Grandrieux Malgré la nuit. But then, how can I discuss this film freely after we screened it ourselves and made our decisions how to approach it?

There is obviously an obligation and mutual respect that is created when artists, as well as their strategists, offer their work to a specific venue or event. And there is also a strong set of expectations involved. The premiere service provided by routine festival venues and exhibition spaces often comes in combination with a mixture of respect and selflessness expected from curators. Or you are as big as Berlin International Film Festival, Toronto, Cannes, Locarno, and the likes – a position that in many cases allows to dictate conditions. But still, expectations from all sides are clear. There is rarely a common ground or a set of rules that allows to radically question what has been programmed within an individual event.

Death in SarajevoDeath in Sarajevo 

A situation that is essentially different when approaching older works. A situation that was, for instance, different in underground cinema, an artistic as well as curatorial practice that was often inseparable, free of market logics. Under the circumstances we are facing now, how can the curatorial practice linked to contemporary cinema create flashes? And are flashes, irritations of our selves through an external quality, not what the presentation of art is often based on?

How can the practice of self-revelation, cultivated through art, be answered by a curatorial self-revelation? Is it self-revelatory to express that I would have gladly shown the only Berlinale film I had the chance to watch at Critics' Week? It would have been my pleasure to defend as well as question it. Eldorado XXI by Salomé Lamas feels to a large extend conceptualized and strict. But still, it finds moments that feel open, organic. And the film embodies a flash, when its eternal shot of abyssal gloominess opens up into a radically different impression. Even within a strongly conceptual structure, obviously there can be openess, freedom, surprise. Having experienced the second Berlin Critics' Week, this balance emerged once more as extremely challenging and, for that exact reason, more than exciting.

Irritation happens, when our coordinates are unbalanced. A thing that we face when we become close – with another, with a moment. When an external migles with our internals. After our screening of Malgré la nuit, nobody was able to articulate: neither Philippe Grandrieux, nor actress Ariane Labed who had just experienced the final work for the first time – nor us who wanted to explore abstract ideas of seduction through art.

Sometimes it must be hard to love a critic. But we can become weak together. And does in our weaknesses not lie the cradle of our greatest powers? "Don't scorn love. Promise me that you will never scorn my love. It's all I've got."

Dennis Vetter
For Dennis Vetter seeing the world through film has always been a necessary process. He seeks to explore this relationship in independent writing, research and curating. Along with co-founding the online publication NEGATIV (www.negativ-film.de) in 2010 and being closely involved with the Japanese Film Festival Nippon Connection (www.nipponconnection.com) until 2012, he became a board member of the German Film Critics Association (www.vdfk.de) in 2013, then a founding member and programmer of the re-established Berlin Critics' Week (www.wochederkritik.de). He is currently working on a publication on Japanese documentary cinema, to be published in 2016. He is based between Berlin, Frankfurt and Leipzig.


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