The Storm of Progress

“Until now, the past has for us meant barbarism, whereas the future has signified progress, science, happiness. Illusion! This past, on all our counterpart worlds, has seen the most brilliant civilizations disappear without leaving a trace […] The future will witness yet again, on billions of worlds, the ignorance, folly, and cruelty of our bygone eras.”
(From Eternity by the Stars: An Astronomical Hypothesis, by Louis-Auguste Blanqui, 1871)

Those marvellously angry words were written – in prison – by an obscure 19th century revolutionary who spent 44 of his 76 years incarcerated for one reason or another. In our times, when astronomers are finding possibly habitable planets in faraway galaxies, Blanqui’s philosophical play with infinity perhaps warrants a wry smile, yet its political and visionary sting is undiminished.

A History of Shadows

We hear those forgotten words in Les Unwanted de Europa, read in a majestic old-Europe library in 1940 by philosopher Walter Benjamin – or rather, by the character Walter Benjamin – who is trying to escape Nazi persecution and find his way across the Pyrenees. Nowadays, we are again confronted with refugees at Europe’s borders; and it seems Benjamin’s writing has never been more contemporary. It makes Ferraro’s beautiful film a perfect fit for our themed programme, A History of Shadows.

This programme, a series of films and one installation focusing on the diverse ways in which cinema deals with the past and history’s losers, takes its inspiration from film history as well as the IFFR tradition. The inclusion of The Mummy and Geschichtsunterricht, both presented in the second edition of the festival in 1973, shows that as a subject, it is nothing new under the sun.

Yet in these days of post-truth and mainstream media, it can be quite a crowd near the dustbins of history. Trolls and bots, tweeters and Facebookers, politicians and reporters, oppressed minorities and silent majorities, writers and artists: all seem to have taken a renewed interest in the past. There is something to be found for everybody – though rarely the simple truth. History will give a different answer depending not only on what question is asked, but also when or whereor how or by whom.

All films in this programme reflect on a contemporary theme, showing that the past throws mighty long shadows. These topics include historical shame and post-colonial, twentieth-century discomfort, migration, racial or sexual identity and equality, communism and neoliberalism, the unresolved trauma of war, as well as the demise of the 1960s counterculture and indeed, the idea of progress.

A Variety of Approaches

There are a large variety of possible approaches. For instance, the dramatised re-enactment of a (national) narrative is represented with Der Hauptmann and Youth. For the elegantly directed epic The Fortress, the charm lies in the stoic way it deals with “how to lose, if you know you are not going to win”? But it also points to the importance of why a film is made now. For Los versos de olvido, a timeless tale of repression and memory, the question is to realise where it was made.

Classics such as The Sun Shines Bright, Kirmes, Only Yesterday or El desencanto, not only take us away from humdrum reality, but also question the inevitability of our contemporary convictions. As does Lucrecia Martel’s masterpiece, Zama, taking the viewer deep into the timeless problem of identity and place; or its remarkable distant cousin, Lamaland (Teil 1) in which Pablo Sigg continues his work with the last descendants of a nineteenth-century Aryan colony in Paraguay.

As for the documentary approach, A History of Shadows presents the interesting case of a filmmaker revisiting his own film. Jörn Donner’s Fuck Off 2becomes a remake of his 1971 classic, Fuck Off! – Images from Finland, scrutinising not the just the idea of progress, but creating a fresh look at the lay of the land by dusting off his own questions and political convictions. The personal urge to use the filmmaker’s camera as modern day confessional to face repressed memories and talk about a traumatic past can be felt strongly in Il risoluto, in Angkar, and Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?

The process of reconstructing a lost past through film can be seen in Four Parts of a Folding Screen. Or in The Ashes and Ghosts of Tayug 1931, where we are introduced to a filmmaker who researches the Tayug uprising in the Philippines in 1931. The events of that year are imagined as a retro silent film; the story of the first journalists researching this subject, while visiting the uprising’s leader in the 1960s, is also done as if ‘at the time’. This programme was initially called ‘History for Losers’, and this it is indeed: a gift of the filmmakers to the people who lost their own history.

Changing the Past

Finally, this programme includes works whose meaning evolves from the ‘unconscious’ documenting, registering, and preserving nature of film and the camera, such as La película infinita, constructed from unfinished Argentinean features. Or an entertaining eye-opener from Italy, a montage film focusing on the year 1977: ‘77 No Commercial Use. The moving image appears to be frozen in time, yet it can never remain the same. This is the subject of the masterful, pioneering work of Yervant Gianikian & Angela Ricci Lucchi. Journey to Russia. Their installation presented in TENT during IFFR, is a monumental research into the remains of the Russian avant-garde of the 1920s and 1930s, and a work that they started in a different time.

Back to Walter Benjamin: "It is more arduous to honour the memory of anonymous beings than that of the renowned. The construction of history is consecrated to the memory of the nameless.” It is no simple task to change the past, and to correct its injustices. But if there is progress, it lies in this effort.

Curated by Gerwin Tamsma and Gustavo Beck.

Thanks to Sara García Villanueva, Kim Haery, Shelly Kraicer, Inge de Leeuw, Olaf Möller, Roberto Turigliatto, Robert de Rek, Julian Ross and Eva Sangiorgi.