Archives for category: review

More than a look at the few remnants of today’s Berlin Wall, a certain documentary film evokes the spirit of change linked to that symbol of separation. Jürgen Böttcher’s documentary “Die Mauer” has captured the immediate aftermath of the peaceful German revolution in 1989 around the wall. His aesthetic brilliance adds to a discrete narration: while the filmmaker’s voice remains mostly silent, his attentive glance tells so much about moments between (almost comical) uncertainty and newly gained freedom. The pensive style of the filmic narration leaves space for thoughts. As the camera scanned the length of the wall stretching and disappearing into the nightly dark, my very own remembrances of an East Berlin childhood gradually welled up.

berlin wall thoughts documentary die mauer juergen boettcher

Glancing at this concrete wall provokes so different feelings in all of us who were separated by it. Arisen from villages, this city’s vastness makes it hard to gather and feel close to each other. A look around sometimes reminds you of how small we really are.

I saw the screening of “Die Mauer” at the Berlinale film festival in 2006, when Jürgen Böttcher was awarded with the Berlinale Filmkamera. It was this film that sparked my interest in documentaries in general. Ever since, the documentary section proved to be one of my favorites at the Berlinale.

If films crystallize our dreams, good documentaries have the power to remind us of what dreams truly are: sparkles of personal experience, mixed in with hints of our secret fears and wishful thinking.

Seeing “Die Mauer” has made me realize just how much of a dream came true for me when this hated piece of concrete came down.

A closer look on what held Vivian Maier back to publish her posthumously acclaimed street photography work unveils parallels to a very modern dilemma. To be honest, we’ve all become data junkies, aimlessly stacking digital media just as the nanny used to stack her (mostly undeveloped, unseen) visual material. Nowadays, every new app, every new technical device invites us to produce more of the global amalgamation of data junk. And yet we are rarely invited to meditate about what we produce, why we do so, and what we could renounce to do in order to focus our energy on something more worthwhile.

Learning from Vivian Maier urban street chronicle
So let Vivian Maier speak to you, a “socialist worker style” woman with her favorite hat and a shaded, enigmatic glance. Listen: she might tell you about her life, her regrets and unfulfilled wishes. She could talk about her experiences on the streets of Chicago, or maybe not, knowing her photos do the job better than words ever would.

Learning from Vivian Maier creativity imitate to learn
…maybe she wouldn’t talk to you at all. In front of the incredible audience that she got now, I guess she would rather choose to rest in amazement. Eyes intently fixed on what she never expected to happen, she would finally realize how many people are actually seeing her, speaking through countless picture frames. Whoever sees and likes Vivian Maier’s work nowadays can testify what an astounding effect a layman’s visual work can have, once it is physically there, for the world to see.
Learning from Vivian Maier creative pen and paper
Now, it’s your turn. Time to take that deep breath of self acknowledgment: If you are reading this, needless to say, you are alive. If so, you got a blissful prospect to fill, with dreams and actions as well. No matter your age and your condition, there is something essential to realize: Nobody is resourceless.
Learning from Vivian Maier creativity blogging community ressources
Even in the truthful realization of a lack lies the power to search for a compensation, for help. And there has never been a better time to search for each other, to connect and unite forces in order to get better things and projects done, better stories told. The making of “Finding Vivian Maier” is just one excellent example of it.

(Note: This 6th episode concludes the series “On Creativity: Learning from Vivian Maier”. Your comments are very welcome, I’m curious to know what you think.)

For me, the key to Vivian Maier’s story is not her posthumous success. Her visual work is there for us to see and to remind ourselves of what we care about. Concluding this, I care to give a shout-out to the many people whose talents remain locked and whose works, professional or not, remain unseen.

Learning from Vivian Maier Zeitgeist-follower needs to publish
Vivian Maier never had the chance to interact with her (potential) public, so her story is a sad one, regardless of her late recognition we are witnessing. For us, though, now is the time to publish our doings and to interact with whoever might be interested in what we do and what we like. Our lifetime is the precious moment to enjoy our own creativity. And we rarely live up to the potential of our own skills. I often notice that people don’t acknowledge their own skills because what one is able to do well always seems so normal, natural to oneself.

Learning from Vivian Maier visual talent displayed
If you want a film to make a difference in your life, put some metaphoric thought glasses on when you see this documentary. Ask yourself: “What exactly made Vivian Maier resourceless? And to what extent do I resemble her?”
Learning from Vivian Maier through metaphoric thought glasses
(tbc: The 6th episode will conclude this series.)

As in any other art business, the path to publish and gain visibility often requires faculties that are not directly linked to the art & craft a specific artist masters. So, no matter the quality of your product, you don’t necessarily know how to approach people in order to market it. More concretely: Vivian Maier had no idea how to turn a hangar full of negatives into paper prints.

Learning from Vivian Maier Archiving the essence of urban life
After developing the photos, John Maloof chose a modern way to expose her work, by putting it on tumblr and letting the internet audience decide about the quality. Positive resonance received, he probably gained enough motivation to pursue the search of suited exhibition platforms, and despite the daunting task, he finally was successful.

Learning from Vivian Maier Finding the audience
(tbc)

Can you imagine why it takes so long, sometimes, to bring your own creativity out to the bright daylight, for others to see? Might be because your creativity has grown overwhelmingly, while your knowledge of publishing techniques still equals zero. Vivian Maier’s story may be unique, but her output dilemma isn’t, at all. A nanny piling up stacks of journals for background reference, documenting the urban everyday life around her in clandestine photos. A person who remained a stranger to everyone who knew her.

Vivian Maier creativity Rolleiflex disguise
Understanding the kind of solitude that characterized Vivian Maier’s lifetime, one thing in John Maloof’s documentary portrait moved me to tears. On the one hand, consider this sheer helplessness of an unacknowledged talent. On the other, realize how a belated helping hand enabled publicity and triggered a success that Vivian Maier herself, who passed away in 2009, couldn’t experience anymore.

Learning from Vivian Maier creativity photography print teamwork
I was struck by this unexpected help of a total stranger, posthumously dedicating time and energy to sort Vivian Maier’s mess out and to dig her photographic diamonds out to the bright daylight. He explains about the division of work between photographers and photo developers, and while he mentions working his way through stacks of boxes with undeveloped film material, the load of such an unseen, unfinished legacy takes form.

Learning from Vivian Maier creativity load unseen photographic legacy
Vivian Maier didn’t keep her work away from the public eye because she didn’t want it to be seen. She lacked the means, back then, to produce her imagery physically, and professionally.
(tbc)

Searching for clues of Vivian Maier’s long time undisclosed photographic work, it would be easy to argue: “She was an odd fish, no wonder she couldn’t relate to whatsoever audiences. Maybe she wasn’t ready for it.”

Vivian Maier odd personality
But truth be told, no one of us is ready for success and public exposure until those things reach us. Excavating Vivian Maier’s unseen, gigantic body of work provides insights into the kind of barriers that can block the release of creative potential – not only in her specific case, but on a more general level as well.

Vivian Maier creativity hidden photographic work
To anticipate the most blatant difficulty of visual publishing: it usually requires professional teamwork a layman doesn’t have access to. Important transitions are to be made: for a photographer, from the adventurous on-site shooting to the more tedious task of archiving and structuring the content for publishing, followed by its promotion and release. Without these transitions from creating to administrating and releasing the outcome, a project never becomes publishable.

Vivian Maier creativity productive output chaos
As Vivian Maier’s legacy exemplifies, the problem of an isolated creation gradually blows up.

Vivian Maier creativity stacking problem
(tbc)

At this year’s Berlin film festival Berlinale, John Maloof’s documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” touched me most in my own experience of being creative. Vivian Maier is one of those antiheroes most of us probably wouldn’t have liked, had we met her personally. Many statements of people who knew her evidence what an awkward person she must have been – a gifted street photographer hidden in the body of a nanny.

Vivian Maier urban offside Chicago
Where did Vivian Maier’s clandestine visual work in the streets of Chicago stem from? More importantly, how could such a talent unveiled posthumously by the assiduous work of others remain completely unacknowledged during her lifetime?

Vivian Maier trash puppet
In the following posts I will alternate my sketch notes of the film with key insights Vivian Maier’s story provides about creative production in general.

Once again, Hong Kong film director Dante Lam turned the city itself into the main actor of his new motion picture, “That Demon Within”. His work caught my interest first in 2009, when he presented “The Beast Stalker” at the Berlinale film festival.

Hong Kong filmic tribute Beast Stalker

Despite the predictability of the action movie genre with all its exaggerations, climaxes and showdowns, I was mesmerized by the fast-paced yet precise glance on the complex, shadowy metropolis behind. No matter the rush and tricks of the antagonists, the surrounding city would outsmart them all along, watching their upcoming final collapse in a patient, threatening silence.

Hong Kong filmic tribute skyline

“The Stool Pigeon” (2011) elaborated on the topic of guilt as a driving motive for both “good” and “evil” characters, blurring this cliché distinction itself. Hong Kong movies often treat the uncanny embrace between the underworld and forces of order, where corruption and entanglement seem almost inevitable. Similar to the falling man who keeps repeating to himself that everything’s still going fine until he crashes, Dante Lam sends his protagonists towards violent collisions of interests where nobody wins, and everybody gets to sacrifice something dear. Having seen two of his filmic variations on this topic, I was curious to find out whether and how the new Dante Lam movie would handle this familiar pattern.

Hong Kong filmic tribute losing game

My first surprise already awaited in the trailer: the dramatic soundtrack and the cut remembered me of silent movies. The screening at the Berlinale enforced my impression. Some almost black and white key scenes, abrupt cuts and musical accents to emphasize the emergence of evil – it seems like the director of cutting edge action movies found inspiration in the origins of cinematography to create a fresher, less foreseeable narration.

Hong Kong filmic tribute Coolness

“In order to ease your pain, you must try to open up to the past”, says a psychologist to the main character, tormented policeman Dave. The fact that he saved the life of a criminal leader through a blood transfusion has triggered further violence in the streets, yet a bigger darkness awaits in the depths of the policeman’s own consciousness. What if looking back just reveals how little control one has over the present, haunting demons and inflicted scars in mind?

Hong Kong filmic tribute facades

Those who saw Fritz Lang’s “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse” (1933) will have a moment of recognition when the policeman faces his own, personal demon. In a story that keeps accelerating from the very beginning of the film, the psychological dimension of the crime adds a layer of suspense that the two former Dante Lam films were missing. When a main enemy lurks in one’s own mind, it is clear that it won’t be defeated with mere physical strength, technique or malice. Something needs to be confronted, even though it may be an abyss.

Hong Kong filmic tribute lesson

The scenery couldn’t be less appealing, yet it fascinates: An urban space is turned into a civil war zone by combating forces of crime and law, and the inner mind landscapes of the involved people don’t look any better. When Dave tries to calm himself down by drawing square dots on a simplistic pattern paper, he suddenly loses his patience and pushes the brush into a glass of clear water, staining it in deep dark tones. Just like the water, a stained soul won’t be easily cleared up again. This kind of lucid communication through visual metaphors characterizes asian cinema, and it clearly differentiates such an action movie from mere blockbuster entertainment.

“Do you intend to explain everything in your films?”, asks a viewer in the Q&A session following the screening. Dante Lam says yes, and effectively the puzzle gets quite complete for those attentive enough to gather all the pieces. Beside the obvious storyline, the movie outlines the difficulty of a definitive moral judgement where the personal reasons of a development become clear. I avoided the spoilers here so you will be able to see the film enjoying to put it all together, the pieces of a broken image.

The one who had asked whether everything needs to be explained sat next to me in the theater, and it was clear that he would have welcomed a story with more room for interpretations. From what I could notice, he actually missed some central points in his (first) perception of the film. Once again, a Hong Kong film director has achieved a capturing tribute to his hometown, and there is still much more left to say. Skyscraper city keeps calling out and makes me want to see its depictions in yet another good genre movie. Or better yet, to go and take a fresh look at it in real life.

Hong Kong filmic tribute: travel

One of the most attractive features of the film festival Berlinale is the rare opportunity it provides to watch films from almost any corner of the world, including countries with no film industry to speak of. My first choice at this year’s festival was “Difret”, one of the few 35mm movies ever made in Ethiopia. If you can, don’t miss the chance to see this film based on true events, portraying a culture caught in the opposite forces of traditional culture, emerging modernity and emancipation.

Berlinale film Difret Ethiopia emancipation

You will find the screening dates and a detailed story description in the festival programme. I’m going to see more films and post about it here, you’ll find my updates on this blog throughout the next week.