Now that we have to maintain physical distance, our experience of cinema has become a solitary delight. But in this time of confinement, we can find our cinephile community in the non-endemic space of the online environment. In the next weeks, Sabzian will select three films a week, available on online platforms. You can find more information about our online selection here.
We start our fifth week’s online selection with Johan van der Keuken’s four-hour epos, Amsterdam Global Village (1996), which is now available as VOD on Tënk. JvdK’s work has a great influence on Sabzian’s editorial staff, as his practice of documentary filmmaking is strongly intertwined with his writing and thinking on cinema. Writing as a preparation or exercise of the shoot, as a presence during the process of creating, but also as a way to better understand the manifold medium of film, as an attempt to situate his practice. His writing was at the same time blatantly straightforward and of a high-level precision. Sabzian recently published a new translation, ‘From a High-Flying Airplane,’ in which he approaches editing in a multidimensional way, watching a timeline as from an airplane. In Amsterdam Global Village, JvdK does not make a simple portrait of his hometown, but tries to “construct a city, using fictional and documentary techniques,” in which his constructivist view of reality becomes visible.
The oeuvre of English filmmaker John Smith can be seen as a continuous endeavour to exert the power of editing, pulling apart image and language, or creating rhythmic consolidations. The short film The Girl Chewing Gum (1976) is available for free on the website of Tate Modern. According to Smith, the film “draws attention to the cinematic apparatus by denying its existence, treating representation as an absolute reality in its own right. It achieves this by using a voice-over to subvert the reading of the image, marking the beginnings of my ongoing love/hate relationship with the power of the word.”
Recently, MUBI has made Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (1992) available online, in stunning quality. During the pandemic, you can access the online collection by signing up for free. In the words of Hans Hurch: “A dress fluttering in the wind, a voice bemoaning the death of an innocent woman, a wall of stone with a broad plain stretching deep below it toward the sea, a hand straightening a veil, sunlight on the sandy ground. It is all there in this wide non-hierarchical ensemble of forms, shaped and unshaped, free and equal under the heavens. Nothing need mean more or stand for something else. It is the anticipatory glimpse of a world where ‘nothing is done for acquisition.’ That is the concrete dream that moves this film, and all films of the Straubs to this day.”
Amsterdam Global Village (Johan van der Keuken, 1996) | Watch here
The Girl Chewing Gum (John Smith, 1976) | Watch here
Die Antigone des Sophokles nach der Hölderlinschen Übertragung für die Bühne bearbeitet von Brecht 1948 (Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, 1992) | Watch here
In this documentary on the international city of Amsterdam, the director has taken a careful look at a variety of the city’s inhabitants, tracing their activities and roots out into third-world countries and regions and back to the city again.
“Iemand heeft eens gezegd dat als je iets over Nederland wilt zeggen, je in het buitenland moet beginnen. Dat is ook zo. Om goed te kunnen zien is een spanning nodig tussen heel dichtbij en heel ver weg staan. Alleen dan kun je scherp waarnemen.”
Johan van der Keuken
Serge Toubiana: Is Amsterdam Global Village intended to be the portrait of a city? Can one in fact portray a city?
Johan van der Keuken: I don’t think you can portray anything, but you can build a city through film, using both fictional and direct cinema techniques, which I purposely blend. The constructivist concept is very important to me. At the end of the film, there is a dedication to my friend, the writer Bert Schierbeek, who died this year. Bert Schierbeek wrote: “I always felt that life was made up of 777 stories going on at the same time.” So I thought we could do 777 four-hour films about Amsterdam, even if it’s a small city. But you have to make choices, take risks. When you film you have to disregard certain realities in order to recreate something physical on the screen. In that way, it’s impossible to portray a city.
Serge Toubiana in conversation with Johan van der Keuken1
“Voor Amsterdam Global Village wilde ik [...] midden in de ruimte staan, of met de camera om de mensen heen draaien, er direct op af gaan – en daaruit volgde de vorm. Toen ik er goed over nadacht, begreep ik dat ik voor die directe werkwijze altijd een onderliggende structuur nodig zou hebben. Dat was in dit geval de cirkelvormige grachtenstructuur van Amsterdam. Ik heb me de film voorgesteld als een lange reis door de vier seizoenen, in navolging van de cirkelvorm die door de Provo-beweging, rond 1965-66, het magische appeltje werd genoemd: Amsterdam als magisch centrum van de wereld. In mijn hoofd heb ik dus de contouren van dat magische appeltje gevolgd en dat bracht me bij de figuur van die doorgaande beweging waarin ik steeds, als dat mogelijk was, met de klok mee draaide.”
Johan van der Keuken2
“Amsterdam, global village toont Amsterdam niet alleen als een hedendaagse mondiale verzamelplaats, maar verbindt het heden ook met het verleden door een 83-jarige joodse vrouw op te voeren, die samen met haar zoon zijn onderduikadres in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen opzoekt. In de oorlog zat hij hier gedurende drieëneenhalf jaar, gescheiden van zijn moeder, ondergedoken. Van der Keuken: “Dat is de kleinste reis in de film, maar die is net zo compleet als welke reis naar Azië of ander ver gebied dan ook.” Behalve het onderduikadres in Zeeuws-Vlaanderen bezoeken moeder en zoon ook hun vooroorlogse woning in de Transvaalbuurt, die zij in de volledig veranderde wijk maar moeizaam terugvinden. De woningen zijn gerenoveerd en hun oude huisnummer bestaat niet meer. Van der Keuken: “Zij maken niet alleen een fysieke maar ook een mentale reis, omdat zij zoeken naar wat er nog is. Hun vroegere buurt is veranderd in een allochtonenwijk; in hun oude woning woont een Surinaamse vrouw met haar kinderen.” In de woning vertelt de oude vrouw over het vooroorlogse joodse leven en het afvoeren van haar echtgenoot naar Westerbork, waarna zij hem nooit meer terugzag. Had zij hem na moeten reizen, vraagt zij zich af. Aan het slot van deze episode zegt de luisterende Surinaamse tegen de oude vrouw dat zij begrijpt wat zij voelt, omdat zij in Nederland drie jaar gescheiden heeft geleefd van haar kinderen, die in die tijd in Suriname verbleven. Van der Keuken: “De vergelijking gaat volstrekt mank, maar het is haar waarheid en haar manier om begrip te tonen. Je kunt eruit leren dat mensen zich altijd maar voor een deel kunnen inleven en dat deel moet je gebruiken. Totaal begrip is er nooit.””
Jos van der Burg3
- 1. Johan van der Keuken, “The Flow of the World: Johan van der Keuken’s Amsterdam Global Village,” interviewed by Serge Toubiana [Original text: Serge Toubiana, “Le monde au fil de l’eau: entretien avec Johan van der Keuken: Amsterdam Global Village,” Cahiers du Cinéma, 517 (1997)].
- 2. Johan van der Keuken, Bewogen Beelden, “Amsterdam Global Village” (Breda: De Geus, 2001), 88-89.
- 3. Jos van der Burg, “Johan van der Keuken: Afstand scherpt de blik”, De Filmkrant, 2010.
A short film in which a director's voice appears to be directing all the action on a busy London street.
“The major part of this week’s show is by a young film-maker who is something of a ‘new face’. Though he has shown a film in a group programme at the Co-op before, and one of his films, Associations, was recently seen on BBC2’s ‘First Picture Show’, this is the first chance to look at a number of his films in one go. His work is extremely interesting, accomplished, and has a surprising variety. As well as Associations which weaves a complex game of word-image puns with entertaining wit, he will show William and the Cows, one of the most surreal films I have ever seen; Leading Light, a rather fine short film about sunlight, artificial light, and exposure levels; and Subjective Tick-Tocks, about measured time, rhythm, and camera movement. The programme will have the first screening of his newest film, The Girl Chewing Gum, which promises to be as good viewing as the rest ... A lively show full of ideas.”
Malcolm Le Grice1
“The films of John Smith create a world from the “simple” experiences of living, breathing and being a filmmaker or artist in a particular place and time. Smith’s often humorous films produced over the last 30 years have inventively documented and probed his immediate surroundings, often not even moving much beyond the front door of his various abodes in a small area of East London (predominantly Leytonstone). Nevertheless, it would be wrong to describe Smith’s films as overly delicate, preciously insular or purely personal – assignations that the previous description might suggest – as his work sees within the minutiae of familiar surroundings a range of philosophical, aesthetic, technical and quotidian challenges and revelations that extend far beyond the realm of much other comparable cinema. [...] In film after film, Smith explores the cracks within and the tribulations of the world he confronts everyday, taking a closer look at and often transforming (verbally, associatively, just by observing from a different angle) things like a pane of glass, the discolorations of a mouldy ceiling, a hospital water-tower, the archaeology of an ancient toilet, an old shepherd’s proverb, or a work he was unhappy with some 20 odd years before. In the process, he makes us look more closely, not just at his films and the cinema generally, but our own surroundings, the everyday world that engulfs us but that we probably routinely dismiss as a suitable subject for contemplation, art and imagination.”
“Believe it or not, I was really surprised to discover that the people in the background were being directed in their actions. Even the dog was instructed to piss up a lamp-post. Until then, I had assumed that extras in street scenes were real passers-by going about their business. I was already a filmmaker and I thought to myself how naïve I had been about the ‘realism’ of fiction films. The Girl Chewing Gum came out of the shock I felt at the power of the illusion of cinema.”
“In The Girl Chewing Gum a commanding voice over appears to direct the action in a busy London street. As the instructions become more absurd and fantasised, we realise that the supposed director (not the shot) is fictional; he only describes – not prescribes – the events that take place before him. Smith embraced the ‘spectre of narrative’ (suppressed by structural film), to play word against picture and chance against order. Sharp and direct, the film anticipates the more elaborate scenarios to come; witty, many-layered, punning, but also seriously and poetically haunted by drama’s ineradicable ghost.”
“The Girl Chewing Gum offers a playful yet trenchant exploration of the role that language – and particularly voice-over – plays in the production of filmic meaning and asserts the absolute impossibility of immediacy and neutrality. But despite its anti-illusionist criticality, the film remains deeply engaged with narrative and humour, two terms not often associated with British avant-garde cinema of the 1970s. Indeed, it was Smith’s concern that the film might be taken simply as a joke that led him to conclude the work with several humourless minutes, what he has referred to as ‘thinking time’.”
Nick Bradshaw: The unedited aspects seems quite radical not only in the context of your earlier works, but also given how heavily processed TV has become.
John Smith: They’re wilfully simple. I’ve got myself into trouble at film festivals when I’ve won prizes for those films, particularly in Cork when I won the main prize for Museum Piece. I had to make a speech, and I said that it gave me particular pleasure to get a prize for this film because I’m a great believer in economy, and this film cost €7, or the price of one DV tape. And afterwards I had so many really angry young filmmakers coming up to me, saying ‘I borrowed £10,000 to make my film, and yours is a load of shit!’
John Smith in conversation with Nick Bradshaw6
- 1. Malcolm Le Grice, untitled film listing, Time Out, 5–11 March 1976, p.64.
- 2. Adrian Danks, “On the Street where You Live: The Films of John Smith”, Senses of Cinema, 2005.
- 3. John Smith, on Truffaut’s La Nuit américaine (1973), in Catherine Elwes, “Trespassing Beyond the Frame”, in Mark Cosgrove and Josephine Lanyon (eds.), John Smith: Film and Video Works, 1972–2002, Bristol 2002, pp.65–6.
- 4. A.L. Rees, A Directory of British Film & Video Artists, 1995.
- 5. Erika Balsom, “The Girl Chewing Gum, 1976 by John Smith”, Tate Research Publication, 2015.
- 6. Nick Bradshaw, “John Smith: of process and puns”, Sight and Sound, web exclusive.
A fearless Antigone, refusing to allow the dishonored body of her murdered brother Polynices to be devoured by vultures and dogs, defies the Thebian tyrant Creon by burying him.
“Of all Straub-Huillet films, I remember Antigone as the one most at peace with itself, in all its details. Or rather: in all the instances we pay attention to its so-called details. In all its well-ordered structure and, at the same time, incoherence. Because, despite the film’s obvious overall monolithic quality, while we are trying to follow its words – and usually fail due to its powerfully lyrical Hölderlinesque language – we keep paying attention to detail. The strangely billowing garments, the oily quiver of the olive leaves in the wind and the idiosyncratic chant-like intonation. And its eccentric rhythmic phrasing, which suggests that the language we are hearing, that what is being said and, even more so, what is not being said, is being made up there and then.”
“Antigone incorporates in many ways the return to mythic origins suggested by films such as Moses and Aaron or From the Cloud to the Resistance. It returns to the aesthetic origins of contemporary film and theater in its use of the visual simplicity of the silent cinema and the staging of Sophocles’ play in a Greek theater of his era. It also returns to the mythic origins of civil society in the death of the heroic individual: Antigone’s voluntary self-sacrifice parallels Moses’ sojourn in the desert and Empedocles’ plunge into volcanic fire. And its visual images, like its language, straining to be both German and Greek, mark the border between Europe and the other continents: the “African sun” shines on Sicily, as Huillet has put it.
Danièle Huillet’s love for the light and landscape of Sicily, the fascination with the Teatro de Segesta (a Greek theater in Sicily dating from the fourth century B.C.E. and one of the best-preserved Greek theaters of antiquity, discovered by Straub/Huillet some twenty years earlier while scouting locations for Moses and Aaron) led her and Straub to conclude their ten-year consideration of Hölderlin while returning to Brecht’s political aesthetics. Brecht’s version of the Hölderlin Antigone translation is rather obscure among his works and seldom performed, but Straub has emphasized that the text is “very much Brecht,” including some of the strongest writing he ever did for the theater.”
“A dress fluttering in the wind, a voice bemoaning the death of an innocent woman, a wall of stone with a broad plain stretching deep below it toward the sea, a hand straightening a veil, sunlight on the sandy ground. It is all there in this wide nonhierarchical ensemble of forms, shaped and unshaped, free and equal under the heavens. Nothing need mean more or stand for something else. It is the anticipatory glimpse of a world where “nothing is done for acquisition.” That is the concrete dream that moves this film, and all films of the Straubs to this day.”