Four key documentaries at the Melbourne International Film Festival 2015: Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands, Those Who Feel the Fire Burning, My Love, Don’t Cross That River, and She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.
Part film study, part psychological analysis, it would be difficult to argue for the separation of the two when it comes to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Based on the personal recollections of Danish journalist and close friend Christian Braad Thomsen, Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands examines one of Germany’s most lauded filmmakers. From childhood beginnings in post-war Bavaria to his untimely death at the age of 37, Fassbinder’s short but prolific 15 year career was accompanied by an extraordinary work rate as well as a hard and fast lifestyle. Providing his own theories on a selection of Fassbinder’s works, Thomsen remains a sympathetic yet objective narrator, making extensive use of archival footage to allow the German to speak in his own words. Interspersed with conversations with those closest to him, Thomsen crafts a deft psychological portrait of the director that arouses both fascination and distress upon perusal. In a recently conducted interview with one of Fassbinder’s closest confidants, actress Irm Hermann speaks frankly on their highly fractured but enduring relationship. The troubled and violent nature of their relationship has been much publicised, but the calm patience with which Hermann recounts events such as her alarming suicide attempt and Fassbinder’s attempt to adopt her child still proves to be engaging viewing.
But the centrepiece of the film remains a newly unearthed 1978 interview with Fassbinder conducted by Thomsen in a Cannes hotel room. Evidently exhausted and utterly sleep-deprived, Thomsen admits to having avoided using or even watching the footage all these years because of Fassbinder’s appalling physical state. But past the sickly complexion and greasy hair is a man surprisingly lucid in speech and thought. Speaking in a stream-of-consciousness style, Fassbinder discusses his childhood as well as his philosophies and outlooks on life. Following his parents’ divorce and his mother’s frequent absences, Fassbinder grew up around a rotating set of caregivers that offered him much freedom but minimal warmth. He remarks of having “too many fathers and too many mothers”, or in the words of country singer Kris Kristofferson—a favourite line of Fassbinder’s which he used repeatedly in his films—“freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Speaking on themes such as patricide and the Oedipal complex, the film at times veers slightly too speculatively into Freudian territory. But as an effective conveyer of one man’s psyche, it succeeds in providing an intriguing perspective into the workings of a fascinating cinematic auteur.
In an ambitious portrayal of Europe’s pressing migrant crisis, Dutchman Morgan Knibbe’s Those Who Feel the Fire Burning is social commentary in a sensory and poetic format. Stranded amidst the sea’s stormy and tempestuous waves, Knibbe’s debut feature film opens with a depiction of a wildly dangerous journey for a boatful of migrants. Brief glimpses of flashlight harshly illuminate its frightened passengers, and a young girl quietly laments that she doesn’t want to go to Europe. When a wave hits the stranded vessel and a passenger plunges into the ocean’s depths, a frantic but futile attempt to save him ensues. But as he drifts from the chaos and the sea’s muffled sounds subsume him, the scene morphs into a sprawling city landscape. At last, the migrant has arrived in Europe—not as a person—but as an invisible and omnipresent ghost.
Through an unseen protagonist’s omniscient and wandering eyes, the film examines the emotional and multifaceted nature of a critical human catastrophe. Deploying cinematography that evokes a dreamlike state, the camera swoops, glides, and weaves through the urban environment. Space and gravity are no constraints, mimicking an unseen narrator that defies all physical dimensions. Effectively balancing between existential meditations—the narrator is often full of contemplative questioning (“Is this paradise?” “What am I to do here?” “Have I sinned?”)—and depicting the sobering and unforgiving realities of life as an illegal migrant, Europe’s forgotten and invisible are brought face-to-face. Homeless migrants scour the streets for metal in exchange for spare change, crowds of young men are chased away by authorities like dogs, and overcrowded apartments teem with families crammed with both the young and old. Last year, Knibbe released a 15 minute award-winning short entitled Shipwreck which dwells on the deaths of over 300 Eritrean migrants on the coast of Lampedusa in 2013. Replicated here almost in entirety, the combination of swaying coffins, a silent police force, a swarming press, and the howling cries of loved ones left behind make for a strikingly encapsulating feature film scene that tells us to look—not turn away—at a very real and ongoing human tragedy.
Set amidst a secluded landscape of picturesque tranquillity, a frail elderly couple spend their waning moments of a 76-year old marriage in the South Korean countryside. Dressed in matching traditional attire and exhibiting more playful vigour than their appearances suggest, My Love, Don’t Cross That River documents one extraordinary couple’s enduring affections. At 98-years old, Jo Byeong-man’s raspy cough and withering physique makes clear that he’s on his final tethers of life. Nine years his junior is his wife Kang Gye-yeol, a petite old woman reluctantly preparing for her husband’s inevitable early departure. Quietly chronicling the couple for 15 months, director Jin Mo-young has produced a film that equally warms and wrenches the audience’s emotions. This interplay has resounded deeply with its home country’s cinemagoers, topping the domestic box office in its opening weekend and becoming South Korea’s most commercially successful independent film to date.
Indulging in the simple joys of one another’s existence, their affections have hardly been dampened by the ensuing decades. But as their quietly modest existence is interrupted by the 98-year old’s declining health, the tale becomes laden with sadness. The subject of loss lingers in the air as Kang recounts with deep remorse of the early deaths of six of their children. Their existing children visit them occasionally, but the looming death of a parent creates friction between siblings and emotional distress for those around them. When one of their pet dogs unexpectedly pass away, she mournfully remarks that “I was worried that Kiddo would look for my husband when he passed. But Kiddo left us first…And maybe my husband will soon follow.” But beyond the underlying sense of sorrow that pervades most of the film, the couple’s playful antics and silly affections still lends the story genuine warmth. Without overstretching, this simple family tale broaches universal themes of life, loss, and love, left for the audience to subtly peruse. Late night serenades, flower picking, and childish scuffles amidst snowfall are humorous and charming, and through Jin’s unembellished style, the couple’s natural warmth is left to blossom on screen.
By casting an eye back to the radical Sixties, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a welcome refresher on some of the great progressive achievements of the American feminist movement. In an era that brought attention to a multitude of social issues that were once marginalised, women’s groups were energised both by the philosophical resonance of Betty Friedan’s seminal work The Feminine Mystique, as well as the practical showcasing of collective power by the civil rights movement. As the film revisits norms of a bygone era, the realities for women a mere 40 years ago prove almost shocking and farcical to those accustomed to modern standards. Marriage and children were a woman’s unchallenged expectations, and appearance and appeal consistently trumped any question of skill or aptitude (one job advertisement calling for “The World’s Best Looking Exec Secy To Assist World’s Most Charming Boss”). Providing an arresting illustration of the power of social norms and conditioned ways of thinking, a series of interviews show everyday men and women at the time questioned about the growing women’s liberation movement. With responses that ranged from incredulity (“egotistical”), apathy (“who cares!”), and ignorance (“I don’t know what they’re being liberated from!” remarks one woman), it starkly highlights both the inevitable struggle which movement faced and the extraordinary nature of its progressive achievements.
Albeit well researched and entertaining to watch, the film is much more of a primer than a detailed examination of feminist history. Those with already a working understanding of second-wave feminism will find viewing somewhat elementary. But what the film lacks in depth it makes up for in scope. It examines facets of feminism that were often overlooked by the dominant white, middle class narrative, and recognises race, class, and sexuality as factors which diversified women’s experiences. Through an extensive collection of interviews with those that featured most prominently during this period, history is given a first-hand narrative. And with issues like abortion and maternity leave still fighting for legal recognition in much of the United States, the personal is still proving to be ever contentiously political.