(Un)ethical Cinema

The Work of Cyrus Frisch

(1) Blackwater Fever (Cyrus Frisch, 2008)

Recently, three films by Cyrus Frisch have become available through Video on Demand: Why Didn’t Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan (2007), Blackwater Fever (2008), and Oogverblindend [Dazzle] (2009). Upon the release of the latter film, de Filmkrant wrote that the Netherlands had “at least one director who has a disdain for conventions and fully seeks controversy.”1 Among Frisch’s admirers are Gaspar Noé and Guy Maddin. The director is currently working on Finally! How a Piece of Wood Managed to Save Us All [working title], part of a comprehensive and ambitious project to address world problems through a series of narrative features. He claims that this latest endeavour marks a departure from his previous work, which had established him as a provocative filmmaker. In anticipation of the World Problems Project, now in the pipeline, the present article offers a sketch of a filmmaker who once believed that the best way to initiate a debate on ethics was to operate unethically.


When Cyrus Frisch made his first short films at the NFTVA (Dutch Film and Television Academy), he had hardly any familiarity with the film industry. He had mostly seen “mediocre” American psychological dramas and was unfamiliar with European “art” cinema; the only film to have truly inspired him was Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986), due to its combination of oppressive despair and exciting eroticism.2 However, Frisch was also convinced that surpassing Lynch was possible. His benchmark was the legend surrounding the short film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) by the Lumière brothers. The story that viewers ducked under their seats in fear of the oncoming train, thinking it would crush them, was the ultimate sensation for him. In a column for VPRO Gids in March 1997, he wrote:

When a film is full of tension, we reassure ourselves with the calming words: “It’s just a movie.” That’s when the medium loses its greatest charm. Film is no longer an overwhelming experience. Will it ever be again … or will it?

The ideal and revolutionary film Frisch had in mind would evoke emotions among the viewers so extreme as to be beyond understanding. He did not simply want to depict these emotions on the screen – on the contrary, that would result in a tearjerker (melodrama) or a fearjerker (horror). If characters cry or get scared, ideally, then, the audience would undergo the same emotions. Frisch did not aim for such correspondences between the film and the viewer, as those emotions are too predictable. He wanted to captivate the viewer without there being a familiar dramatic structure undergirding the film. Extreme emotions in the audience are usually not evoked through its identification with characters. Rather, what is required is an unorthodox approach, usually fuelled by cinematic means – camera work, editing, art direction, atmosphere, rhythm. If, among viewers, negative feelings like anger or despair ensue, so be it; at least these emotions, unlike cheerfulness and pleasure, linger longer and stimulate thought.

The often misunderstood crux of his work is that people assumed that Frisch was trying to elicit shock reactions, but feelings of discomfort were not his goal, but rather a means. Inasmuch as Frisch provoked the spectator, that emotion had to make viewers realize how they make “amoral decisions” in daily life. The ‘story’ is not in the film but rather lies in the rapport between film and viewer: the viewer should feel compelled to do something with the strong emotion that has been elicited. Or as Frisch himself observes: “Only when you dare to engage in unethical behaviour yourself, can you provoke discussion about ethics.”3 The filmmaker had no set ideas about his approach, however. Film had to go beyond “it’s just a movie,” a far too comforting notion – but how, exactly, is this to be achieved? Frisch’s way of filmmaking was a form of investigation: at once exciting and revolting.

Frisch’s research was not to the liking of the then-authoritative NRC/Handelsblad film critic Hans Beerekamp. When Frisch was nominated in 1992 for the Grolsch Film Prize for upcoming talent based on his four student films, Beerekamp referred to the first of these short films, De kut van Maria [Maria’s Cunt] (1990) – starring Arnon Grunberg, later to be famous as a prolific writer – as a “scandal-seeking short film” that “indulges in graffiti-like behaviour and unsavoury scenes”. Frisch, an “agent provocateur without much talent,” believed he must “shock the public with sex, vomit, and toilet scenes.” Also taking aim at the other three student films – Welcome 1 (1991), Screentest (1992) and Welcome 2 (1992) – Beerekamp characterized Frisch and his feelings as “pitiful”. The critic described the graduation film Welcome 2 as “decadence without style. It’s like someone is stirring in their own poop. It’s not inspired by cinephilia or other examples, it’s reinventing cinema as a form of self-pity.”4

Frisch could not leave the criticism unchallenged, although he realized that he was choosing a narcissistic route – as if to confirm that filmmakers are indeed “ego-trippers”. He affirmed, as it were, Beerekamp's observation that Frisch is trying to reinvent cinema as a form of ‘self-pity’, which would be the title of the latter’s 1993 film. According to Frisch himself, the film is “70 minutes of suffering,” and the viewer who managed to sit through Zelfbeklag [Selfpity] had a chance to win a real prize consisting of 15,000 guilders, by means of scratch cards distributed in the cinema. 

Frisch, who appears on screen for about 50 minutes, performs a tormented performance as a “director”. A repeated sing-song voiceover, pronounced in a sharp tone, reiterates the words “self-pity” resonantly while the camera slowly zooms in on Frisch against a blue-and-white background. We will see Frisch in various guises. He sighs and groans while we are given an extreme close-up of his mouth; his face is overexposed in profile; he slaps his naked torso with a flat hand; he attempts to drown himself by shoving his head into an aquarium, Beerekamp’s destructive review glued to the bottom of the fish tank. Beerekamp himself was game enough to act for about twenty minutes in the film as “the critic” for a bottle of whisky, and he is allowed to turn on the projector, after which a beam of light shines on Frisch. We also see fragments of the panned short film Welcome 2. Beerekamp is often fully visible, but other times he appears in close-up. He occasionally speaks sentences drawn from his review, but he also reflects on his role as a critic. He has to engage with the movie, but what if he fails to understand the filmmaker because the latter has his head underwater or does not in fact want to be understood? At the end of Selfpity, Frisch, completely naked, begins to wail, more and more ecstatically, in English: ‘I guess you’re right / I’m just a spoiled little guy / who wants your attention / I need your attention / I try to be good / to make a good film / I really tried / I’m sorry.’

Frisch realized that his Selfpity was not an important film. He called it the most boring movie ever made and said that while “3,000 kilometres away people are shooting each other,” here films are being made “that are totally irrelevant”. With Selfpity, he chose a form and structure that seemed to fully confirm Beerekamp’s assessment of him. Yes, look at this pathetic director, what an exhibitionistic wimp, does he have anything substantial to say, does he want to be understood at all? He is practically asking to be criticized, isn’t he? But Selfpity also shows how words can hurt, how they can break someone, even if that someone is just a “spoiled kid”. And so the performance of “the director” in this teasingly “boring” movie boomerangs back to “the critic” in a suit, a man who in turn begins to look like an arrogant authority, especially when an extreme close-up shows a pimple near Beerekamp's mouth.

As a result of the surprisingly positive reception to Selfpity, Frisch sharpened his thinking about form, style, and genre. The revolutionary-ethical film he envisioned simply could not be 100% fictional. Fiction has a built-in buffer that holds viewers at a safe distance through their awareness that what they are seeing is not real. In turn, documentary is essentially a recording of reality that is too reliant on chance and randomness to be surprising. According to Frisch, viewers could be deeply moved and provoked only by a “hybrid form”: “a fictional narrative in which everything happened for real”.5 It was therefore important that, as a filmmaker, one had to be present with one’s camera when staging situations that transgressed what is conventional or, if you will, appropriate. Only when confronted with something unheard-of do viewers display a range of unpredictable emotions, ranging from confusion to anger. Frisch could not foresee those emotions; he could not anticipate what directions his viewers’ feelings would take. But, in his eyes, the provoking of intense emotions represented a necessary steppingstone to the re-establishment of ethical boundaries.

(2) Vergeef me (Cyrus Frisch, 2001)

I Shall Honour Your Life… ; Forgive me

Frisch was offered an opportunity to test ethical boundaries when his neighbour Hans Saaltink suffered a heart attack. A former film teacher, Saaltink had acted as a mentor, telling Frisch that when it comes to filmmaking, there are no limits. Frisch’s video camera recorded how Saaltink’s large body was carried away, how the deceased’s family and acquaintances emptied the house, and how his corpse was burned in the oven. The criticism of Ik zal je leven eren … [I Shall Honour Your Life …] (1997, 32 minutes) ranged from its dismissal as “disgusting trash […] of a sensation seeker” (Van der Put) to its being praised as a “touching document” (Van Bueren) and a “respectful tribute” (Provaas).6 The latter judgement may sound positive, but it is too sweet a compliment. If Frisch really wanted to explore ethical boundaries, more would have to have been at stake. He would have had to throw himself into the fray – an imperative that can be explained by the distinction that Slovenian cultural philosopher Slavoj Žižek makes between morality and ethics.7

To argue that morality involves symbolic importance, Žižek gave an example from his high school years, when a classmate said he could not write an essay on topic X. The teacher threatened him with a failing grade but decided to give the boy a day’s extension to submit the assignment. The next day, he turned in a blank sheet. The pupil had thus put himself at a disadvantage, but he had also earned newfound respect from his friends at school. So, in exchange for his failing grade, he received recognition for being a tough guy. Ethics goes one step further than morality. For Žižek, Antigone, the main character in Sophocles’s classic tragedy, is the quintessential ethical figure. While according to the edict of her father, Creon, her brother Polyneices must serve as carrion for birds of prey because he is considered a traitor to Thebes, Antigone believes that his body must be buried anyway – period. She buries her brother herself but is widely condemned for showing respect to a traitor by giving him a proper burial. The community finds her act unheard-of and indecent but, from a philosophical point of view, her action is ethical because she is steadfast, without gaining any symbolic or strategic advantage from it.

If Frisch’s goal was to “expose unethical things”, then, by his own account, he must himself act unethically and be cast out like a jerk.8 In this regard, Frisch positioned himself as a filmmaker in the tradition of Antigone, who ignores the community’s prevailing laws and must, as she well knows, pay the price of excommunication. Exemplary in this regard was Frisch’s act of walking around naked with a camera amid Ajax supporters celebrating the team’s Champions League win in 1995. The mood among the fans turned aggressive, with supporters destroying an ice-cream cart and attacking Frisch with its remnants. Frisch felt it was fundamental to make himself unbearable in the crowd to ensure that the aggression directed toward him was not fake. He acted to arouse authentic anger that produced exciting scenes because he had lost control over events. Viewers could react to the images made by thinking him an idiot who provoked just for the sake of provocation itself. They subsequently ignored Frisch’s work because they found it irrelevant or pitiful. Viewers could also react by thinking him a lunatic who had pulled off a fun stunt.

He was once invited as a guest by Call TV, a programme on the commercial television station Veronica, to talk about “the boundaries of reality TV”. Frisch had told Call TV’s makers that he would be pushing those boundaries live during the broadcast. Since causing a commotion was in the line with the programme’s template, which relied on viewers calling in, he was more than welcome to do what he liked. Frisch’s behaviour was downright impossible, but his presence was nonetheless tolerated. In fact, the show’s makers even pretended that their guest’s behaviour was a setup that Call TV had sanctioned in advance. When he realized that he could not push the boundaries of reality TV in that way, he left the broadcast. Ironically, his departure sparked anger on the part of Call TV’s boss: Frisch had taken control of the situation, which incidentally marked the “boundaries of reality TV” after all. For Frisch himself, such actions could only be productive once they caused real discomfort – discomfort beyond the playful commotion that Call TV regularly relied on. Through his behaviour, viewers would have to reflect on how they themselves relate to a confusing and mentally aggressive situation people would rather ignore. 

Frisch’s film Vergeef me [Forgive me] (2001) opens with a messy-looking interview with Frisch, in which he mentions the numbness that comes with watching images of violence on the 8 o’clock news or images of a surgery that you can unsuspectingly stumble upon while zapping through channels. Frisch wonders who exercises the “goddamn” right to confront innocent television viewers with these kinds of horrible images. Angered by this state of affairs, he announces that his film goes over the top, beyond ‘any acceptable limit’. Immediately afterwards we see a fragment from Faust (F. W. Murnau, 1926), in which Frisch assumes the role of a director who conducts himself like a devil. He had closely bonded with several people struggling with all kinds of problems: severe addictions, physical disabilities, personality disorders. With these individuals he had made the short film Geen titel [No Title] (1998), shown at the IDFA (International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam) three years before Forgive me

Frisch justified his project by pointing out the exploitation of guests on programmes like The Jerry Springer Show. The conversations there often derail into verbal and sometimes even physical aggression, but is there enough care offered afterwards for the guests? Such a programme then easily becomes “monkey watching”, as with the AVRO television program Paradijsvogels [Birds of Paradise] (1992-1996), where so-called remarkable people were allowed to explain their logic of living and ways of life. The programme was framed in such a way that viewers were more likely to judge that logic to be eccentric and irrational. Unlike such programmes, Frisch wanted to show his “actors”, whom outsiders felt were less self-sufficient, in their strength. He believed that his sympathy for his “actors” was conspicuous. When he began making the stage production Jezus/Liefhebber [Jesus/Lover] (1997) with them, one of the house rules, read aloud, stated that viewers should try not to laugh at these people. This request elicited a range of responses from the audience: from wonder and emotion to discomfort and laughter, possibly as a reaction to discomfort. The atmosphere at the performances, where the “actors” received hardly any instructions, only changed when they started drinking and using drugs. “Then there is only a black hole of misery”, said Frisch, adding that this is no reason to “say that I am insensitive”.9

Apart from critical voices in the press about “impotent engagement” and navel-gazing, the reception was quite favourable and Jesus/Lover became a cult phenomenon. Regarding the theatre performance itself, Forgive me shows little more than a few scenes of derailment (a naked Nico; a long zoom on slimy vomit from Chiquita’s mouth). In the film, we also see a television fragment in which fellow filmmaker Johan van der Keuken and presenter Hanneke Groenteman approvingly cite Frisch’s “integrous” and “loving” approach. The filmmaker himself is visibly uncomfortable. How can there be such a mild, nice judgement on a project that should have gone well beyond the limits of acceptability? In the second half of Forgive me, he wants to know from his actors, especially Chiquita, if they feel exploited: not only by newspapers that write about them in terms of “degeneration” and the “broken lives of a bunch of crazies” but above all by Frisch himself, who had them play roles like “puppets on a string”. Wasn’t it true that they had become mentally confused because he had them play roles that clashed with their real-life personalities? Or, in the only words we hear from Sylvia Kristel in a short cameo on behalf of Chiquita: “I got the feeling that I was losing myself, reduced to [being] an actress in my own life.” When Frisch asks Chiquita about beautiful memories, we see that he is giving directions to his crew, which calls into question the interest he purportedly takes in his “actors”. Had he not manipulated them into doing things that were performed only because they thought he wanted them to, like Chiquita baring her breasts for him? And when Achmed sometimes asked that the filming be stopped, the camera often kept rolling. In short, was Frisch not mainly a devil, who had flattered his own ego “by inflating their suffering into beautiful 35 mm images?”

Forgive me concludes with a question from the director himself: how did I conduct myself? Did I act more sincerely than Jerry Springer or the makers of Birds of Paradise had? But if the director seems to be in doubt about his own contribution, how should the viewer relate to that uncertainty? A straightforward answer is difficult: in a project like this, there are explicitly two Cyrus Frisches involved. There is the private person Cyrus Frisch, who has described himself as a “good housefather” and claims to care about the world’s suffering. Yet when we see Cyrus Frisch at work, giving instructions to his “actors” as in Forgive me, he is a character. The private person can be honest and caring, but that does not matter with regard to the reception of the work. When people direct their anger at Frisch, they take the private person to be indistinguishable from the character – and the latter is flawed. As a character, he takes on the role of a master manipulator in the hopes that people will see through his false tricks and understand how he is manipulating his actors. If viewers become angry at the game he plays and are disgusted by his scheming, they will ideally begin to see how the images disseminated through (mass) media are also manipulative, engaging in their manipulations via similar mechanisms.

A good example of one such dubious mechanism can be found in the seemingly honest IKON documentary Dood op verzoek [Death on Request] (Maarten Nederhorst, 1994).10 A man has indicated his desire for euthanasia, and a camera crew visits him after he has seen a doctor who is willing to potentially grant the request. But once the crew has set up for a film shoot, can the patient still say, “Well, upon further consideration, I would rather not be euthanized?” The documentary may have been made with the best of intentions, but the patient may have unintentionally felt pressured, and Frisch noticed that no one brings this up. Dood op verzoek leaves out the uncomfortable question of whether it is ethical to invade this patient’s home with a camera crew. Frisch attempts to expose such a mechanism by behaving conspicuously as an unethical manipulator in his role as filmmaker, as the character Cyrus Frisch.

(3) Oogverblindend (Cyrus Frisch, 2009)

Blackwater Fever; Why Didn’t Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan; Oogverblindend

Frisch’s subsequent films continued to build on discomfort in an inevitable and astute manner. The most concrete example here is the controversy surrounding the multimedia theatre production Ik ben bang [I’m Scared] (2001) at the prestigious Toneelgroep Amsterdam, for which Frisch was approached as guest director by Ivo van Hove, who had regarded Frisch’s Jezus/Liefhebber [Jesus/Lover] as an extremely impressive stage production. As part of I’m Scared, Frisch had filmed a short road movie Weg naar de hel [Road to Hell] in consultation with Van Hove, which would be released in a longer version years later as Blackwater Fever (first at a festival in 2006, then as a cinema release in 2008).

The movie opens with a short monologue while the screen is still black: “When I look at myself in the mirror, I see a man who watches others perish. I have the guts to look but not to do anything. […] When I look in the mirror, I see a murderer.” The voice belongs to a Western man (Roeland Fernhout) driving an open American car through America, or at least we see signs indicating Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Only later does it become apparent that there is also a passenger, a sleeping woman (Ellen ten Damme). But the journey imperceptibly turns into a trek through African deserts. Along the way, the man observes all kinds of woes and distress around him, but does he really register them? Is he not too numb to perceive such suffering? Later he will say that he is almost blind in his left eye and near-sighted in his other eye, minus 4. When he does not wear his glasses, as is the case when an African man speaks to him, his point of view shows only a vague blur. Or has his judgement been impaired because he suffers from “blackwater fever”, a form of hallucinatory malaria, which occasionally causes the woman to take the wheel from him? He is so numbed that he fails to notice the woman being raped by three men, shown as a vague blur in the background. He becomes overwhelmed by emotions only when he arrives in a setting that is an exact replica of a photograph that Frisch had seen in the newspaper of a looted village. Finally, the man picks up a baby abandoned to its fate and has a genuine crying fit. This scene is done in one take, but Fernhout wants nothing more to do with Frisch after the shoot, as he found the latter’s methods cynical and sick – a judgement he will later soften. According to Fernhout, Frisch made everything so poignant in the replica of the looted village he had come to view it as indecent exploitation of suffering. Fernhout withdrew from the theatre performance and the other five actors followed suit. Frisch would appear solo on stage for I’m Scared and deliver a monologue about the accusations made against him, which were made as well by organizations such as Novib and Doctors Without Borders.

Frisch had noticed his tendency to shut himself off from images of famine when he was suddenly confronted with them (by changing the channel or closing the newspaper). For the play and film, he wondered: what if viewers were slowly prepared for a “situation of emaciated bodies”?11 Will that lead to tears, as happens to his protagonist, or will we remain unaffected? At the premiere of Blackwater Fever, the former Dutch Minister of Development Cooperation Jan Pronk said, in his opening speech about the film, “You can look at disaster from a safe distance, but the journey of the two is depicted in such a way that as a viewer, you are gradually ‘sucked into’ the car”, and the fever sets in. “That is oppressive” and led Pronk to a “feeling of despair”, just as the protagonist in the long, final scene is broken. Just before the end, the impression is given that the woman gets shot in the head. Just before and immediately after the killing, the man looks straight into the camera, his eyes in  extreme close-up – and this was not on Frisch’s instructions, as their working relationship was too disturbed at that time. But such a shot is highly unusual in fiction films, because the character is making a direct appeal to the viewer. Frisch himself felt addressed in this “heartbreaking beautiful moment” as if the actor were asking him, “What have you made me do?” That strengthened the feeling of despair he experienced.12

Although Pronk expressed his hope that if you were struck by watching the film about the “blackwater fever”, you might feel compelled to do “something”, however modest, his perspective is fuelled by a certain frustration. This seems inevitable as the (stream of images about) reality is simply too disconcerting and complex to be able to support any sort of lofty idealism. For this reason, confusion took precedence in Frisch’s work over the false appearance of solutions. This is also evident in the film Why Didn’t Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan (2007). In almost every publication (including this one), it is noted that this is probably the first feature film to have been made with a mobile phone (first a Sharp 902, then a 903). But more essential than this feat is Frisch taking on the guise of a Dutch war veteran who is so traumatized that he sees danger everywhere.

Apart from a trip by plane to a rainy hilly landscape, he goes outside only rarely, either riding his bike or walking around in pointed boots. However, most shots are taken from within his apartment. The images are blurry due to their low resolution; the filming is unsteady and the editing is rather abrupt. The scenes show, among other things, a visit to a museum with macabre-looking art, a couch being lifted over a balcony, and the arrest of a shoplifter, as well as disturbances and fights in the street. We see road workers laying cobblestones, these images interspersed with shots of (Afghan?) youths throwing stones, perhaps memories from his time in Afghanistan. Strikingly, it is precisely these shots that are razor-sharp, as if his experiences as a soldier cannot be removed from his retina. The war has distorted the observation skills of the traumatized veteran. If the recordings he makes in his immediate surroundings are not clear and not well heard, it remains unclear whether this is due to his paranoia or to the opaque reality itself. He does not know exactly how to interpret what he is seeing, but for us, an overarching narrative context is missing. Through him, we perceive a fragmented reality, which makes us wonder about the reasons behind police violence against young people from the neighbourhood with a migration background.

At the end of the movie, the veteran ventures outside and deposits a trash bag of unknown contents, as we hear from the station’s announcer, at Amsterdam’s Central Station. In the final shots, we see large plumes of smoke above the station. Did the veteran want to make a statement in response to the growing intolerance he saw around him? Conflicts, such as those between police and youth, seem to arise out of nowhere, creating a paranoid atmosphere. Viewers can only escape this paranoia by wondering how they have been manipulated throughout the film: what sneaky cinematic tricks does this almost dialogue-free film use to try to confirm the ex-soldier’s fear that things have really gotten bad in the Netherlands, perhaps as bad as in Afghanistan?

Like Why Didn’t Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan, Frisch’s film Oogverblindend [Dazzle] (2009) is – more out of principle than necessity – a low-budget production. Why make expensive films when that money could be used to address people’s needs and alleviate their deficiencies? For Blackwater Fever, he went to Namibia, but he no longer wants to fly with a crew. With the increased quality of digital cameras, he no longer needs to shoot using more expensive 35mm film, as he had done for Forgive me. Why shoot helicopter shots when you can film on the street or at home? The script for Oogverblindend first served as the basis for a play in 2005, as a rehearsal for the film. In the digital film, shot from an apartment, the actress Georgina Verbaan would reprise the lead role. Throughout the film, she talks on the phone with the suicidal surgeon Bruno in Buenos Aires, whose voice was lent by the late Rutger Hauer for his first major role in a Dutch film since Spetters (Paul Verhoeven, 1980).

The surgeon calls Kyra from Argentina for Christiaan, but he is not there. She does not hang up and the conversation turns into a confession. She is confused because she does not know how to relate to needy people on the street. What should you do when you see a homeless person going crazy from the cold? Why does he not go to the shelter, allowing you to ignore him? The homeless person’s presence in public space burdens her with a guilty conscience. The doctor dismisses her guilt complex and thinks that she's fishing for sympathy. But then he begins to talk about the horrors he has seen while carrying out his professional duties, such as a mutilated woman with open intestines. The dying woman tried to apologetically smile, as if to say: sorry for this horrible sight. Her “terrifying smile” is a turning point for Bruno: he can no longer pretend to look at things with a distant-professional gaze. He then talks about his involvement during the Dirty War in the late 1970s. He had to give prisoners purportedly calming medicine, but it turned out to be a narcotic, which knocked those taking it unconscious; afterwards their bodies were dumped into the sea. His sense of guilt has grown and now is utterly overwhelming. He has now himself taken medicine that will soon put him to sleep forever.

The plot is dominated by their spoken words, but visually we get all kinds of images that are constantly changing in status. These can be shots of Kyra's interior; they can also be shots from outside Kyra's apartment, such as the circles of rain in the canal; they can be Kyra's memories, such as shots of the freezing homeless person; we get archival footage, including the wedding of the then Dutch crown prince Willem-Alexander and Maxima (a reference to the Argentine regime her father belonged to), and when we get shots of an empty hospital corridor, they seem to be mental representations of the listening Kyra as the doctor talks about his work. But the link between sound/text and image is often more enigmatic: when talking about the mutilated patient, we see a man by a pile of garbage.

The dying doctor remains a voice throughout; his field of vision is never shown. It could be that his words are an imaginary voice in Kyra's head, just as she fills in the images in his narrative. He then functions as an amplified version of her nagging feeling that she lacks compassion for the poor and needy. The doctor initially had too little compassion for patients or prisoners, but his guilt complex over his passive attitude has caught up with him: what he used to suppress has now become fatal for him. Listening to the real or imaginary doctor, Kyra begins to realize that she must do something and come to terms with her sense of guilt. However, the confusion about what to do is still too great, which is underscored by the unstructured flow of images and difficult-to-determine ambient sounds.

Like Frisch's earlier films, Oogverblindend is confusing because it can only be told in a confusing manner. His cinema was based on the assumption that our engagement falls short of coping with the suffering in the world. And to address this pressing but unavoidable problem, aesthetics had to be subordinate to ethical issues. Frisch sought to address ethical issues by confronting viewers with what appears to be unethical: putting drunk “actors” on a theatre stage, provoking football supporters' aggression, creating unfounded connections from a paranoid mind, and blaming homeless people for “polluting” the streets because they deprive you of the right to look away. But looking away may exact its price, sooner or later.

When Oogverblindend was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival, Frisch was introduced as the “most socially engaged filmmaker in the Netherlands”. While the designation was an honourable one it felt, for Frisch, like an extra responsibility to bear. Until then, his work had mainly revolved around the question of how we relate to the suffering of others, including the images that display that suffering, but he decided to raise his level of ambition. The long preparation should pay off in a film project that presents solutions to global problems. His upcoming film Finally! How a Piece of Wood Managed to Save Us All is meant to provide the starting point for the realization of this ambition.

(4) Why Didn’t Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan (Cyrus Frisch, 2009)

  • 1Niels Bakker, “‘Wat moet je met alle misère?’ Cyrus Frisch over Oogverblindend,” de Filmkrant 313, september 2009.
  • 2Ian Kerkhof and Stella van Voorst van Beest, “Interview Cyrus Frisch,” Blad Filmacademie 1991.
  • 3Marijn van der Jagt, “Zo goed mogelijk Jerry Springer nadoen: Regisseur Cyrus Frisch wil goed over de schreef gaan,” de Volkskrant (28 augustus 1998).
  • 4Hans Beerekamp, “Filmer Paul Ruven toont gejaagde gedrevenheid,” NRC Handelsblad (30 september 1992).
  • 5Jerry Goossens, “Echt gebeurd: Leven en werk van Cyrus Frisch,” Het Parool (19 september 1998).
  • 6Bart van der Put. “Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, supermasochist,” de Filmkrant (februari, 1998); Peter van Bueren. “Nederlanders op filmfestival blijven meestal in marge,” de Volkskrant (3 februari 1997); Gabriëlle Provaas. “Gastcolumn Skrien: Gaat over lijken,” Dagkrant Filmfestival Rotterdam 1997.
  • 7Slavoj Žižek. The Fright of Real Tears: Krzysztof Kieslowski between Theory and Post-theory. London: BFI, 2001.
  • 8See Goossens.
  • 9Ibid.
  • 10Lonneke Kok, “Een film met een angel,” Theatermaker (november 2001).
  • 11André Waardenburg. “‘Die beelden zijn te erg’: Cyrus Frisch over wereldleed,” NRC Handelsblad (8 juni 2006).
  • 12Ibid.

Image (1) from Blackwater Fever (Cyrus Frisch, 2008)

Image (2) from Vergeef me (Cyrus Frisch, 2001)

Image (3) from Oogverblindend (Cyrus Frisch, 2009)

Image (4) from Why Didn’t Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan (Cyrus Frisch, 2009)

Three of the films discussed, Oogverblindend, Why Didn't Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad in Afghanistan and Blackwater Fever, can be rented on the Vimeo On Demand-page of Cyrus Frisch.

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.