Mini-journey through subversive images, words and deeds

French philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie wonders how to think in a world that is characterized by daily violence and exploitation. We could paraphrase his dilemma into “how to do film festivals in a bad world”. There have never been more film festivals. As I write this text, their numbers are estimated at nearly ten thousand events worldwide. Unfortunately, most of them follow market and neo-imperialist logic where selection and branding go hand in hand, and the motto is constant expansion. Mediocrity has become the main aesthetic standard – to risk nothing, to question anything, to cultivate maximum aesthetic and political correctness that will not intimidate and alienate sponsors or the general public and their prosaic expectations based on the widest possible consensus. Therefore, I am extremely pleased by the third edition of the UNSEEN Festival and the invitation to select a part of this year’s film program. It is encouraging that there is an initiative in the Cavtat public space that seeks to reconsider common ways of viewing and to dismantle knowledge / power. The age we live in is characterized by the abundance of shocking contradictions and tragic paradoxes we face at every turn, creating problems that burden our ability to understand and releasing forces we cannot control. In the first half of the 20th century, American thinker Lewis Mumford was preoccupied with the future of art in a world subordinated to the inordinate and one-sided development of the machine. One of his biggest problems is how we became idiots in terms of aesthetics – idiots primarily in the ancient Greek sense of being persons who are completely reduced to the private sphere and unable to communicate or understand one another. In this context, festivals should be places for the creation of new social communities and new encounters in which meanings are not primarily contained in celluloid tape or digital record but in conversations between artist and work, between work and audience, and ultimately between different audiences. In doing so, films function as bridges that connect different people, stories and fragments of culture. I invite you to join us on a mini-journey through subversive images, words and deeds. The selected films each can broaden its horizons in their own way and try to figure out what the social role of art is today.

The best short film of this year’s SFF is at the same time a feminist dedication, a performance and a portrait of contemporary Athens. In “KG”, Cynthia Madansky turns to Greek anarchist poetess and actress Katerina Gogou as a source of inspiration. Katerina Gogou was born in Athens in 1940 and committed suicide in 1993. She was and remains a key figure in the radical political and cultural scene in Greece in the 1970s and 1980s. Madansky invokes her untouchable conscience and indestructible dreamy spirit. Gogou’s collection of poetry Three Clicks to the Left meets the music records of the director’s ongoing collaborator, celebrated harpist Zeene Parkins, while the film’s language rivals’ performance as a major driving force. The second short in the program is “I Signed a Petition” by Mahadi Fleifel is a movie document of one telephone conversation. Shortly after signing an online petition against Radiohead concert in Tel Aviv, a Palestinian refugee is plunged into a panic spiral of questioning, suspicion and feeling powerless – in dialogue with a friend, he analyses the consequences of his decision to publicly support Israel’s cultural boycott. Is there such a thing as a choice for the “despised in the world” or is the possibility of being neutral just an illusion, an unacceptable luxury? Does it mean anything to sign or not to sign a piece of paper?

The best documentary film of the 12th edition of SFF is the work of French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot, for whom filming is primarily a political act. After writing a potent chronicle of the film activities of the factions of the German far left in the 60s and 70s, in the film Nos Defaites Paris high school students take on the role of cinematographer. The author will first make them to reconstruct the excerpts from the seminal pieces that commemorated Paris ’68. (Godard’s Chinese, Karmitz’s Comrades, Marker’s À bientôt, j’espère, and Willemont’s La Reprise du travail aux usines Wonder, etc.), then engage them in a discussion. Périot questions his generation’s failure to pass on the knowledge and experience of its own struggle to the younger generation. As Jean-Pierre Duteuil recently reminded us, May ’68. was by no means an accidental and inconsistent historical event, but by being reduced to a purely cultural dimension, it was emptied of its subversive content. The revolutionary thought and critique of capitalism in such historical reconstructions is regularly erased or minimized, often by silent if not active consent of the people performing them themselves. Périot also examines the future of film media as a tool for changing consciousness and for achieving social change, and the potentials and limitations of politically engaged cinema and revolutionary action. Although the title of the film sounds rather pessimistic, the film itself is not – Périot makes us embrace our defeats, rise above them, and work together to find new ways of collaborating and thinking about film and society and their intertwining. Although his quest does not end with victory, nor with the deepening of student political engagement, the end of the film still leaves much-needed hope that the fight continues – both on and off screen. 

There is also a new documentary of another well known cinematographer to SFF. Stéphane Goël, a Swiss director and co-founder of the activist collective Climage in the movie Insulaire, takes us to the remote Chilean island of Robinson Crusoe, the scene of an unprecedented utopian project. In 1877, Swiss aristocrat Alfred von Rodt bought the Robinson Crusoe island belonging to the Juan Fernandez Volcanic Archipelago. The island became his utopian “little kingdom”, and he became its prefect, the Minister of Customs and Postal Services, among others. This optimist, tireless explorer and invincible rebel has unsuccessfully piled up projects in the hope of developing the resources of this undeveloped and stripped-down piece of rock. We also get to know the inhabitants of the island today, who occupy only four percent of its total surface area. They are neither Chileans nor Swiss, but they have a strong sense of indigenous identity and aversion to everything that comes from outside. In the conditions of mass tourism, their island becomes a target of tourists, which locals call “plasticas” because they leave only a pile of plastic waste on departure. Just like in Huxley’s literary island, this isolated utopian community is being sinisterly approached by the plagues of the outside world, because like no man is an island, so in an era of globalization and the trajectories of modern capital, no island is an island in itself. While Baron von Rodt could choose to live in exile voluntarily, a life “surrounded by threats in the heart of royal happiness” (Camus) his descendants in vain seek political autonomy and struggle to preserve their way of life (though for the most part understood, their struggle for “purity” occasionally has worrying features of conservatism). Goël builds his film by linking von Rodt’s puzzling yet thoughtful letters (French actor Mathieu Amalric takes on the role of narrator and embodies von Rodt’s thoughts) and documentary images of the island’s everyday life, its desolate and magical landscapes, and equally enigmatic inhabitants. The result is a movie that thinks aloud, a movie that constantly re-examines the existing order of things.

Dina Pokrajac