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Ewa Szabłowska’s top 10

12/07/19
Autonomous, dir. Ian Henry
Recommendations by Urszula Śniegowska Marcin Pieńkowski TOP 10

The selector for the New Horizons International Film Festival, Ewa Szabłowska, recommends the following films from the festival program.

The flora and fauna of New Horizons

The Flower

dir. Mariano Llinás

As the title suggests, La Flor resembles a floral ornament, labyrinthine like the prose of the great Argentinian writers Borges and Cortázar. Composed of three parts, eight episodes, and six stories lasting almost 14 hours, the epic and absurdly ambitious La flor was one of my most surprising film festival experiences. The plots branch off into surreal digressions intersected by poetic interludes; sudden twists arise, along with moments of meta self-awareness. Staggering in its exuberance, this flower is completely intoxicating—like a gluttonous sundew, as it absorbs every film genre typically reserved for B movies.

I Was at Home, But...

dir. Angela Schanelec

Awarded a Silver Bear for best director, I Was at Home, But was undoubtedly the most-talked-about—and my favorite—film in this year’s Berlinale competition. Nature provides only a framework (but a meaningful one nonetheless) for situations experienced by urbanites. Berlin is perhaps not some awful urban jungle but, as a manmade landscape, a space of reason. As the protagonists enter into green spaces, we know that they are delving into the world of nature: of instincts and raw emotions. The animal silhouette that opens and closes the film is a disconcerting clasp fastening together the world of human passions. It brings to mind the pyramid of animals from the fairy tale about musicians from Bremen, as well as, to a certain extent, the work of Joseph Beuys. Exactly what it means is something viewers will have to figure out for themselves. Schanelec says: “I would like us to be able to transpose the way in which we observe animals to interpersonal situations on-screen.” Incredibly emotional and romantic to the core, this is, at the same time, a really funny movie.

Olanda

dir. Bernd Schoch

I have a genuine weak spot for this film, with its many layers and looped structure like a network of mushrooms. It is a circuitous record of the rhythm of everyday life in the forest, a meta-analysis of the relationship between local economies and global consumption, and a mushroom trip through the magical Carpathian forest in audiovisual form. The whole is a synthesis of mycological mythology: “They dream and grow. Animals and plants belong to the world of mystery as much as they do to the world of science. A species of a third kind, ruling over a distinct kingdom. In comity with trees, they send out secret messages. They are at the same time a drug, a poison, a medicine and a food.”

The Grand Bizarre

dir. Jodie Mack

A cinematic postcard from a trip around the world—through oriental bazaars, city marketplaces, and beach stalls. Like in a kaleidoscope, we see items put up for sale flapping about in the wind: colorful scarves, rugs, and motley clothes. Laundry flutters on balconies, upholstery is reflected in car mirrors, curtains flicker in windows. Psychedelic patterns and colors of fabrics and come to life. Like in the fairy tales from One Thousand and One Nights, they lead the enigmatic life of magic objects. In semantic terms, the words “animation” and “animism” are very similar. Their root is anima, meaning the soul. Animism, the belief that non-human people have a soul, is one of the pillars of magical thinking about the world. And when I watch Jodie’s Mack animated film, I start to believe that objects really do lead their own parallel lives. Imagine an avant-garde version of Toy Story.

Aren’t You Happy?

dir. Susanne Heinrich

An artificial rather than a natural habitat, where green loses out to shades of pink. If plants appear in this ecosystem, they do so in the form of photo wallpaper or fashionable, leafy prints on fabrics and photos. The exception is basil on the windowsill—a universal symbol for urban gardening. A return to nature is synonymous with drinking a green cocktail, and babies are confusingly similar to rubber dolls that can cry. Nothing beats a glittery unicorn, however, as an environmentally friendly way to get around the city. This a world of artificial fish, rubber duckies, and pink flamingos (made of sponge, of course). A natural environment for the Instagram age in which melancholy girls await the end of capitalism—and we’re right there with them!

Autonomous

dir. Ian Henry

This is what life is going to be life after the apocalypse. I’m a walking prototype,” says radical performance artist Petr Davydtchenko, whose three-year artistic survival project was an act of opposition to technocracy and an attempt to create an alternative to the global system of consumption. During the three years he spent in the woods, he gave up shopping and relied entirely on what was discarded from civilization. Is it a provocation or a radical proposal from somewhere on the continuum between profound environmentalism and alter-globalist guerrilla warfare? Is it proof, as suggested by the title, which makes reference to behaviorist Frederick Skinner’s concept of human autonomy, that it is not our surroundings that enslave us but only our mental limitations? Without giving away too much, imagine a completely different kind of food chain.

Owner’s Portrait

dir. Joaquin Maito

Somewhere beyond the borders of the map, there is an island without people, money, or work. It is inhabited by a population of cats that issue anarchist proclamations that spread throughout the world by means of antennas left there. When their messages reach urban-dwelling dogs, a rebellion ensues among domestic animals. Joaquin Maito’s film may look like sci-fi, but it’s a film essay that portrays capitalism as seen through the eyes of animals. The world looks familiar but otherworldly at the same time. Nothing is unambiguous: Everyday objects look disturbing, sounds reverberate in a different way, and public space is organized according to incomprehensible rules.

Zombi Child

dir. Bertrand Bonello

How should we classify zombies? Dead or alive, human or beasts? They don’t fit the natural order, but they also don’t belong in a bestiarum of mythical creations like unicorns, Medusa, or Pegasus. Their status is very uncertain. In his impressive giallo-style horror, Bertrand Bonello shows us the first “medically confirmed” case of zombification from 1962. He demonstrates how Haitian voodoo, a syncretic, Christianity-tinged blend of various African animistic cults, was a response to the slave trade—The radical liberation and appropriation of bodies and souls that takes place through the use of intermediary bodies from the animal world.

Sophia Antipolis

dir. Virgil Vernier

Sophia Antipolis is the name of a futuristic utopia built on the French Riviera in the 1970s. Intended to be a French response to Silicon Valley, it has become a tourist and technological curiosity. For Virgil Vernier, it is not so much a symbol of modernity and progress as an emblem for moral decline. In the scorching Mediterranean sun, among the steel and glass of this anti-city, (human) nature goes up against technology in a very pessimistic take that echoes Ballard. “A sense of loneliness in relation to the endlessness of time and space, biological fantasies and attempts to read complicated codes in the form of empty swimming pools and abandoned airports, but above all a resolution to break with deepening psychological entropy and to form a personal alliance with the invisible forces of the universe.” This fragment from J.G. Ballard’s short story “Voices of Time” could also be a review of Vernier’s film.

Animus Animalis

dir. Aistė Žegulytė

In the art of taxidermy, there are only two criteria that matter: the animal has to be in a natural pose, and it has to look alive. Enticing us in museums of natural history and hunting display cases alike can be found graceful stags, lurking alligators and pheasants with a piercing view through glass eyes—behind which is human pride. The objectification of animals (both living and dead) is just as ruthless as humankind’s domination of nature. Ideologically, Žegulytė’s film has much in common with Agnieszka Holland’s Spoor and Ulrich Seidl’s Safari. Visually, it’s reminiscent of a baroque still life—life itself, and even the denial thereof.

Horned cattle deserve a special mention. Cows and bulls appear in so many of this year’s films that they’re impossible to miss. In Carlos Reygadas’s Our Time, they are a metaphor for suppressed aggression; in the Brazilian film Homing, the rodeo stands in for the struggle between humans and nature.

In John Skoog’s Ridge, the mysterious disappearance of cows from the Swedish countryside is a flashpoint and the impetus for an inspection of the area. In Monos, on the other hand, a cow named Shakira joins a group of child guerrillas.


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