On remembrance and oblivion

Caught in time

The IFFR-programme component ‘My Own Private Europe’ offered personal films in which the protagonists are facing the past, while contemplating yesterday’s beauty.

Medium silence radio film still 3

In Roman mythology Janus is the god of beginnings and endings. He has two heads, which simultaneously look to the future and to the past. He guards the era of transition. The temple of Janus in Rome had a double door called the gates of war. This passage was always open in times of war. During peace it closed. As the empire was in constant battle, the latter was a rare occurrence, according to Plutarchus. Janus is still about in Europe. The shadow of war, as a reminder of the past and as a harbinger of the future, is always present in the consciousness of society and the individual. It specifically reveals itself in a cultural-historical sense, for example in cherishing the Forum Romanum, where no traces of the temple and passage are to be found, but everything is done to keep the presence and importance of that what once was alive.

The god of beginnings and endings defines the identity of the ‘European’, a concept with an unclear meaning. This was proved once again when the International Film Festival Rotterdam chose Europe as its central theme. In the programme component ‘My Own Private Europe’ films were shown with an outspoken vision on the character of the European. In his introduction programmer Evgeny Gusyatinskiy quotes philosopher Tony Judt, who states that Europe for the past fifteen years has been increasingly threatened by a lack of a clear vision on European culture and identity.

Judt: ‘What does it mean to be Dutch today? Or British? We are dealing with a fast process of transformation within our own communities, which causes diverse forms of doubt and worry.’ Gusyatinskiy subsequently mentions that the festival wants to cinematographically highlight the subtle differences between current images of modern Europe. Works that focus attention on individual experiences and statements should serve to test general opinions of Europe.

An interesting point of departure: how does the grand history of Europe relate to the small lives of ordinary people? What happens when Europeans are confronted with the moment of transition between different periods? The films in the programme are searching for an answer to this question. In almost all of the works the focus is on one image: a character anchored in the here and now, but with his face to the past, caught in time. As if the future can be found in history.

Artefacts from a bygone era dominate the beginning of The Mother and The Sea (Portugal, Gonçalo Tocha). Things come by like shells washing ashore on the beach of Vila Cha, the Portuguese fishing village where the story takes place. They are proof of how things used to be: articles from yellowed newspapers contain photographs of strongly built women manning Vila Cha’s barges: fishing licenses printed on brittle paper are proof of the status ascribed to women going out to sea in search of an abundant catch. Apparently the hamlet is the only place in the world where women dominated offshore fishing. But modern times are a threat to this way of life. It is a telltale sign: always yesterday, always how it used to be. An old woman framed by a window with a view of the sea says: ‘Life only lasts two days. One is already over.’ If that is the case, it is paramount to record something fundamental. The maker answers: ‘We have the responsibility to recover what has been lost. We do that by filming.’

But how to recover something that has spontaneously and irrevocably passed? An old fisherman, apparently once a master in his trade, laments nature itself. In days gone by, he melodramatically states, the beach was teeming with velvet swimming crabs. Now they have all but gone, just like these strong women who once proudly stood up to the forces of the water, even in the darkest nights. Their daughters still try to keep the memory alive, but the myth of the past seems stronger than the influence of the present. Sometimes it appears that Vila Cha’s inhabitants do not even want to create their own story by performing new heroic feats to resemble those of the fisherwomen in their memory.

Maybe the way these people revel in days of yore is a romantic thing. It might be something typically Portuguese: being absorbed in grief, dictated by time passing by. In a bewildering scene an old man on a rock is staring at the horizon, while purportedly improvising a song about the beauty of the sea. The sea is his loved one, his mistress, and his goddess who gives life in the form of food, but who also takes lives when fishermen drown. According to the poet modern times are to blame. The sea turns away from man as a consequence of pollution produced by contemporary daily life. Oh sea, how can you ever forgive us, we who once lived so pure and full of meaning. Oh sea, you are there like time passing by, you are there like the ever-present past. When the pasttakes on the form of a romantic vision, disenchantment is never far off. The fast process of transformation, which according to philosopher Judt determines the notion of being European, is not always present in the Europe themed films at the iffr. In any case the trend seems to be that people resist change per se.

When the past takes on the form of a ­romantic vision, disenchantment is never far off

Another image of Janus: in the background a satellite dish, in front a man with a transistor radio. The man with the radio looks cool; sunglasses, Clark Gable moustache and ditto smile. The boy with the dish is blurry. Irrelevant. This is a sign: in Silence Radio (France/Belgium, Valéry Rosier) the inhabitants of Carlepont, a little town in the region of Picardy, live on the threshold of a new time. But they do not take any steps towards now, let alone to the future. They do not have to. Thanks to the chansons that Radio Puisaleine’s DJ’s constantly play, like for example Les roses blanches by Berte Sylva, they can dissolve in the memories of how things used to be, when love came and went during the war. And when it didn’t the song can be dedicated to the spouse who, thank God, provided ‘fifty years of love’. These people have no use for modern media; the transistor’s nostalgia acts coercive. A clairvoyant who predicts the love life of listeners offers an ironic counterpoint. People call in to ask her how this life will end. They don’t give any name or further details. The lady behind the microphone with her stiff sprayed hair reacts mildly irritated, but without a blush continues her detailed story of how romance will triumph in the life of this specific listener. It might happen tomorrow, it might happen the day after.

It is a life filled with stagnation. The listeners sit at home in their living rooms or on their balconies staring in front of them like Clark Gable – all the things going through their minds are irrevocably anchored in the past. They are without exception people who, as someone put it, ‘have lived through the war’. A woman phones in to Radio Puisaleine requesting a chanson. The song starts: sweet sounds accompany a text about bullets and burning planes. A nightmare, it seems. But the song actually soothes her. It brings back memories of her happy childhood.

When technical problems arise with the mast and Radio Puisaleine temporarily goes off the air, Carlepont’s inhabitants get hopelessly confused. An employee, elderly like most of his colleagues at the station, shouts out as if the world is coming to an end: ‘We have no modulation!’ Existence indeed takes on the character of something finite without any prospect of a new beginning. Going back is no option either; what remains is silence. Without radio there is no life: no more requests, no more past.

Eventually a direct confrontation with the past is inevitable, if only to enable present and future to offer realistic possibilities for change instead of acting like a motionless statue in people’s lives. Judt problematizes this idea. Remembrance and oblivion sit opposite each other, but according to the philosopher both are crucial elements in the way people deal with history. Oblivion for example was crucial in creating a stable post-war Europe. But this does not offer a solution for the perpetual and growing problem of minorities in our societies. Judt: ‘As an historian I can see that forgetting works, but as an involved citizen I realise that this is unacceptable.’

The question arises whether people can’t help forgetting. Living in the now, constantly at Janus’ doorstep, creates balance, but stagnation as well. In The Reunion (Sweden, Anna Odell) the director, in her native country a well known conceptual artist, plays a double role: first as a character in a film where during a dinner she confronts her school friends with the fact they used to completely ignore her, verging on bullying. Subsequently Odell steps out of this fictional reality and we see her as the director of the film we have just watched. In this second role Odell shows her ‘friends’ – actually she doesn’t have any, because everyone hates her – the film to confront them with the ‘truth’. But they do not want the truth. They are all happy Swedes who nearly instinctively plunge into the party hubbub where they mainly tell lies about the old days. When the credits appear and Laurie Anderson sings the song Let = X – ‘I can see the future, and it’s a place’ – it becomes clear that not much people in the film want anything to do with how things really went, well knowing their former deeds will always keep a grasp on them.

If future is a place, like in Anderson’s song, it has to be made inhabitable. It appears that the Europeans in these iffr-films are unable or unwilling to do so. Maybe one is still too preoccupied with forgetting: only the past is clearly visible, present and future become ever more blurred. It is of course very tempting: to do nothing and stare backwards just like the Portuguese fisherman, who with a pipe in his mouth ponders over the beauty of yesterday’s world.


Gawie Keyser is a film critic and writer.

Image: Silence Radio, regie Valery Rosier (IFFR).