Despite the emotional laceration they inflict, films such as Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark have been amongst the most challenging of recent years, effecting a certain flaying alive of spectator sensibilities (in the case of Dogville, it seems American sensibilities are in Lars’ sights). Any objection to the manipulative qualities of these films – perhaps born out of the essentially manipulative Dogma ’95 – only serves to draw me into their questioning of what cinema should and should not do, demonstrating that debate over how the newest art should define itself still rages.
This debate is by no means new: Dogma may have been a shrewd movement, a kind of faux-declaration, but it was also downright Aristotelian in its idea of forcing the spectator through an emotional mangle. Nor was it new when it engaged André Bazin – perhaps the most influential film critic, responsible for inspiring a revolutionary generation of directors, the French Nouvelle Vague – in his essays on the nature of cinema, which pose the moral question of what form cinema should take.
For André, cinema reached the apotheosis of its expressive capabilities in 1946, with Roberto Rossellini’s Paisà. This film assured the director’s title as the father of neo-realism and inspired André’s essay ‘An Aesthetic of Reality’, which, like Lars Von Trier’s films, explores cinema’s ability to make reality signify. Composed of six discrete views of post-war Italy, Paisà (meaning ‘Fellow Countrymen’) follows people – abandoned American soldiers, partisans, families – in their journeys through a no-man’s land. The neutral tone of the film – ‘the impassive lens’ – was revolutionary, moving away from editorial conventions, which André saw as cutting up and digesting reality on the spectator’s behalf. Rightly, André identifies this aversion to didacticism as a reaction against the limits imposed on reality and its expression under fascism. Paisà is a film about freedom: freedom of representation but also, and perhaps most interestingly, freedom of interpretation.
Appropriately, Paisà is being shown as part of a series of films complimenting this year’s Oxford Amnesty Lectures. Although chosen for their representations of displacement, asylum and migration, films such as Three Colours: White (1993) which is the least heavy-handed of Kieslowski’s trilogy, often veer into an exploration of themes such as freedom, identity and love. They are perhaps most interesting in their different, often fantastical approaches to reality.
Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (2000), for example, is an unassuming but great film, taking a very real situation and transforming it into a modern fairy-tale. Tanya and her son, Artiom, arrive from Russia, supposedly to a new life with Tanya’s British fiancé. They are soon abandoned and quickly escorted to a centre for refugees with pending Home Office applications in Stonehaven. The monolithic tower block that provides the pair with temporary shelter initially becomes a form of prison, then a purgatory where Tanya feels she is being punished for her ‘sins’. Such connotations develop, until gradually the film emerges on the other side of realism, the bleak landscape becoming resonant with emotion. Tanya’s growing love for bingo-host Alfie provides us with a sense of her identity – her being – which takes us as close to the reality of her situation as any ‘objectivity’ ever could.
The interplay in this film of reality and fantasy is perhaps most clearly expressed through the use of an abandoned boat. At first, the film appears simply to come across this boat, stranded on the sand. Of course we identify it with Tanya’s own sense of abandonment, but it is presented merely as fact. Later, however, it is lifted into significance, becoming the means by which Tanya is rescued as Pawel rejects the reality of her situation, allowing her the freedom of fantasy in an exhilarating representation of escape.
Neo-realist films, inspired by Roberto Rossellini, often used ‘real people’ as actors – something Michael Winterbottom does in In this World (2003), a depiction of human-trafficking notably absent from the OAL’s series. In this film, Michael blurs the boundaries between art and life, following two Afghan refugees on their journey to the UK, using raw, documentary-style footage. It is, perhaps, the nature of the subject matter (immigration) which makes this technique so unsettling: we are constantly forced to ask ourselves if the situation unfolding is real and, on a certain level, we must realise that it is. Michael plays with our reactions in this film, and it is the rigorously intellectual nature of this manipulation, especially when compared to the ‘purer’, emotional landscapes of films like Wonderland, Jude and The Claim, that marks this British director as one of the most important film stylists of the moment.
Like Stanley Kubrick, Michael is an experimental filmmaker. Refusing to limit his output with questions of what cinema should do, he makes full use of the medium’s ontological relation to reality to create different worlds, which reveal what it can do. In this World poses questions about the relationship between art and reality at once political and aesthetic. It (like Dogville, it seems) would have made a great addition to the OAL’s already thought-provoking series of films.
Movement of the people: Displacement, asylum and migration in the cinema is now showing. For further information visit: www.oxford-amnesty-lectures.org