Erase and Forget (Andrea Luka Zimmerman, UK, 2017)

Blogpost, British cinema, Uncategorized

Andrea Luka Zimmerman is clearly one of the most important voices in British contemporary cinema and perhaps art more generally.

Her Taşkafa, Stories of Street (Turkey, 2013) is a fascinating investigation into the lives of street dogs in Istanbul – a precursor to Ceyda Torun’s Kedi (Turkey/USA, 2016), and in some senses unjustly overshadowed by the latter, charming though that film is.

Meanwhile, Estate, A Reverie (UK, 2015) is – alongside Enrica Colusso’s Home Sweet Home (UK, 2012) – one of the most important investigations into the condition of housing in contemporary London, focusing especially on the displacement of long-term estate residents for the purposes of renewed property development (which is perhaps a euphemistic way of saying gentrification).

With Erase and Forget, Zimmerman provides us with an investigation into the life of Bo Gritz, a former soldier who supposedly is/was the real-life inspiration for John Rambo, the maverick soldier who is the central character of such films as First Blood (Ted Kotcheff, USA, 1982), Rambo: First Blood Part II (George Pan Cosmatos, USA, 1985), Rambo III (Peter MacDonald, USA, 1988) and, latterly, Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, Germany/USA, 2008).

However, where we might expect something go an aggrandisement of heroism and service to and for one’s country, instead we have really a quite extraordinary investigation into something like post-traumatic stress disorder (I say ‘something like’ because it is not revealed ay any point whether Gritz has been diagnosed).

Zimmerman’s film is not simply remarkable for having access to a remarkable figure. Nor is it simply remarkable for having been made on a shoestring.

What equally makes Zimmerman’s film remarkable is how its lack of budget is in fact one of its chief virtues, rendering Erase and Forget not just a powerful documentary, but also in many respects a work of art. That is, it is not simply the film’s content that is remarkable, but also its form.

To describe the film’s form, I am going to use the term non-cinema.

To describe a work of cinema as non-cinema may sound like the sort of thing that a wankstain academic who has nothing to do with their time but invent poncey-sounding terms would come up with in order deliberately to confuse people and in the process endeavour to use that confusion as a way of making the reader feel stupid and thus the author to seem clever.

Perhaps it goes without saying that this is not my intention – even if, as a feeble-minded human being, this ends up being the result.

But in a bid to stave off that result, let me do my best briefly to explain what I mean by non-cinema.

By non-cinema, I mean a set of values that typically are not found in cinema, and which perhaps are antithetical towards – not because one cannot find those values in certain films, but because those values do not conform to the drive for profit that is at the heart of cinema (and capitalism more generally).

The drive for profit (rather than, say, subsistence) requires permanent growth, which can be achieved in large part through (and thus in some senses logically demands) exploitation.

Exploitation requires humans to consider each other not as humans, but as things or objects or units of production – with my profit being predicated upon my ability to yield ever-greater production from my workers/units of production, while at the same time trying to reduce how much money I spend on protecting and ensuring the health and safety of my workers/units of production.

What is true of workers is true of resources: since profit is my over-riding goal, then I must find not the best but the cheapest way of creating products. In considering my raw materials and my workers as merely things, they become objects that are deprived of humanity.

A capitalist society, then, is a society in which we see people not as people but in some respects as symbols or as objects. This creation of people as symbols de-realises or dehumanises them (they’re just a symbol, so you can do with them what you want). It also creates separation where otherwise there might be connection.

That is, capitalism and its necessary exploitation leads to the creation of class divisions (rich and poor), as well as to the concept of (private) property (this is mine and not yours), which in turn leads to an ethos of selfishness and not sharing, and which in turn is linked to the idea that the self is a sovereign entity that does not rely on, want contact with, or which depends upon others, but which is entirely able to live on its own.

In the language of Simon and Garfunkel (and against John Donne), it is to say: I am a rock, I am an island. In the language of Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is say that I am self-reliant. And in psychoanalytic terms, it is to create a phallocentric society, in that the individual stands like a hard, solid cock, not interesting in touching of making love with someone else, but interested in pumping and pounding the other – i.e. once more treating them like an object.

This is, then, the world of patriarchy, and it is also the world that, during the onset of neoliberal capital in the 1980s saw mainstream films characterised by the hard, phallic bodies of action stars like, precisely, Sylvester Stallone – who killed other human beings with impunity and without remorse (in the sequels if not in First Blood, as director Ted Kotcheff pointedly remarks).

Not only is the cinema of capital a cinema that reflects this hard-bodied, phallocentric outlook, then. But perhaps cinema, in being a medium that almost as a matter of course turns human beings into symbols dancing around hieroglyphically on a screen, is also inherently capitalist.

More than this. For, as we are encouraged to respect the rich and to disrespect the poor, so does the separation of humans into classes not just involve a separation, but also a hierarchisation (rich above poor, both socioeconomically, morally, and on nearly every other level that we can think of).

More still: not only are we are encouraged to respect the rich and to disrespect the poor, but we also are encouraged to respect richness and to disrespect poverty. That is, I do not respect the other as a human, but I disrespect them because they are poor (or I want to steer clear of them since they might contaminate me with dirt, disease, bad luck, and so on). That is, I see the other not as a human who to be poor, but as an incarnation of poverty. That is, I see the other not as a human but as a symbol. That is, the symbol becomes more real than the actual human. That is, symbols become the measure of reality more than reality becomes the measure of symbols (we consider humans to be inferior because they are poor, rather than considering poverty to be an inadequate concept since it discourages us from seeing the poor person not as poor but as a person).

Finally: as we see rich humans as being better than poor humans (and as everyone therefore pursues the goal of becoming rich, or special, or famous, or phallcentrically like a hard cock to be admired), so, too, do we see rich images (images that require a lot of money to create) to be better than poor images (images that are made on a shoestring).

If this is true (or if we allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that this claim has some truth), then the idea behind saying that something is non-cinema, then, is because it ignores or critiques capitalism, or it tries to find another way of depicting the world that is not capitalist. If cinema is capitalist, then non-capitalist cinema has to be something that cinema is not, i.e. non-cinema.

Put differently: while rich images might be created to critique the system of rich images as being inherently superior to poor images (as rich people are perceived as inherently superior to poor people as a result of the separation of rich from poor that was a necessary result of exploitation, which was demanded by the relentless pursuit of profit), it seems unlikely that, as rich images, they will do anything other than reinforce the idea that we should only look at rich images.

So, if you want to create images that challenge the system of validating only rich images at the exposed of poor images, then you have really to create what Hito Steyerl might term poor images. Or you have to create non-cinema.

Kedi opens with an aerial shot of Istanbul taken from a drone. Taşkafa, meanwhile, opens with a handheld shot of a dog lying in the street, its paws in the air in a heliotropic trance.

Where Kedi‘s opening shot suggests power and mastery through its technologically-enabled overhead drone shot, Taşkafa suggests something much more pedestrian and poor. Indeed, the opening shot of Taşkafa sees the camera film the dog for a bit, then approach it to reframe closer up – and then approach and go round the other side of the dog to reframe it again.

Rather than appearing as if made without effort (the drone shot from Kedi), Taşkafa makes clear the work that has gone into its making.

While the film is obviously made up of symbols (since it is a film), Taşkafa at least goes to the effort of demonstrating in its opening shot, though, that we are seeing nothing more than symbols, and that these are constructed. In revealing its own process of creation, the images from Taşkafa do not arrive as if fully-formed and perfect (like a god), but as imperfect and human. Taşkafa demonstrates its humanity from the get-go – in the process using symbols to undermine the system of symbol creation that is cinema.

In being a ‘poor image,’ Taşkafa runs the risk of alienating its viewers, since they may not like poor images – in a way that is similar to how they do not like poor people. But at least  in the process, the poor image points out to to the alienated viewer how their dislike of poor images expresses little more than their own prejudices and a subservience to phallocentric power – on an ideological level even if not on a physical level (it is common enough for poor people to dislike poor images, precisely because they are ashamed of poverty, a shame brought about not least as a result of being treated like a part of society of which to be ashamed; perhaps inevitably such tastes can veer towards the ‘gauche’ as any and every sign of wealth, be it sophisticated or crass, is better than a sign of poverty).

But perhaps enough explanation of non-cinema and discussion of Taşkafa. For this blog post is about Erase and Forget, and thus should do justice to that film by properly giving it its due.

In being a film about the real-life John Rambo, Erase and Forget is clearly in some ways about cinema – or about the way in which cinema reinforces a masculinist, hard-bodied sense of separation, individual heroism, personal sovereignty and violence.

And yet, Erase and Forget also in some senses deconstructs that myth, allowing us to see not just Gritz as a performer of ultimate masculinity and, quite specifically, as a symbol of American heroism.

Instead, we see a remarkable portrait that goes beyond the cinema of Rambo – and into the non-cinema of a human being. As cinema is part of a system that replaces humanity with symbols, Erase and Forget tries to replace symbols with humanity.

Gritz is an inspiration to children who want to grow up to be like him. That is, Gritz clearly is understood by many people as a symbol.

And yet, Zimmerman then includes in her film a sequence in which she plays back an encounter between Gritz and two young men who wish to follow in his footsteps – only for Gritz to comment while watching the video that these kids are wasting their time as they will only get killed in combat and/or scarred irreversibly by their otherwise-desired experiences of war.

This moment is significant in at least two ways.

Firstly, it undoes the myth of violent heroism, suggesting that war as a process of ensuring separation between countries is in some senses futile.

Secondly, it does this by showing Gritz watching a video of himself at a moment that we have already seen as a part of Erase and Forget. That is, akin to the opening shot of Taşkafa, Erase and Forget shows its own process of being made, thus also undercutting the very process of symbol-making that is cinema itself.

What is most remarkable is that in being so honest about its own imperfections – in being a human cinema – Gritz allows himself to become more human, too.

That is, Gritz clearly develops a close and trusting relationship with Zimmerman, such that he is willing at times to let his guard down and to express his disillusionment with war and perhaps with various other aspects of contemporary life more generally.

In other words, in not treating Gritz as a symbol (which is how most people do treat him, including his lovers from what Gritz says), we get the most remarkable aspects of this film, namely access to intimate parts in which Gritz is not necessarily not performing, but in which he offers to us a performance that is different from the one that he is carrying out most of the time as a war hero.

It is important here to emphasise that Gritz is not consistent. That is, Zimmerman’s film does not show us the ‘real’ Bo Gritz that lies underneath the ‘fake’ Bo Gritz that walks around performing heroism and/or performing being a war hero.

Indeed, if the film did this, it would not demonstrating that symbols are constructed as simply trying to replace one symbol with another (this symbol of Gritz is the ‘real’ one).

If the film is to deconstruct the system of symbols as a whole, then it has to show the many Gritzes alongside each other: he is all of these different sides to his personality, and he is inconsistent, and sometimes he does believe in his heroism and at other times he does not. And sometimes he seems to prefer to recount his life as if he were a legend, and sometimes he feels sorry for himself.

It is not in his singularity that the humanity of Gritz will emerge. It is precisely in his plurality, his multiplicity, his complexity. And it is not that the film will give us the full complexity of Gritz. In some senses, cinema, as a system of symbols, cannot achieve this. But rather than presenting us an incomplete picture as if it were the complete picture, it can make clear that we are seeing is incomplete. It can point to the outside of cinema, to the human, and thus be (or at least point to the realm of) non-cinema.

The Bo Gritz story is truly remarkable, with the man having played a role in Vietnam, Panama, the Middle East, Ruby Ridge, and more. He is a man who has struggled with life – having attempted suicide at one point and being surrounded by violence at many points (with a violent death also taking place during the film’s making).

Zimmerman’s film is all the more remarkable for not shying away from this complexity, while also embracing its own limitations (being self-conscious – including by having the film’s original images feature alongside images from various Rambo and other films – but taking low-grade DVD-rip YouTube images from these films, thereby creating a shift in image quality in the film, again bringing to mind/making the viewer conscious of the how we somewhat arbitrarily put out faith in rich images more than we do in poor ones).

Gritz is a fragile human being. But in showing his struggle with reality and with himself, the film highlights the very impossibility of being human in an era when we are supposed to see each other and to turn ourselves into symbols. Since the human is inferior to symbols, we are encouraged to hate ourselves and our human aspects, and to eliminate them for the purposes of being only symbolic or existing only in the symbolic realm.

Rather than pick apart Gritz’s possible insanity, then (in the sense that Gritz is inconsistent), Erase and Forget instead takes us into that insanity, depicting how a certain kind of schizophrenia is the logical result of an inhuman world in which to be human is shameful. It does this by itself being a ‘crazy’ film – perhaps in some ways not even a film at all (not a ‘proper’ film made with a ‘proper’ budget).

[In this way, there is some resemblance between Erase and Forget and William English’s recent It’s My Own Invention (UK, 2017), which likewise takes us into insanity not in a bid necessarily to bunk or to debunk it… but show it as a kind of logical extension of a world where humans suffer from the collective insanity of mistaking symbols for reality.]

Zimmmerman’s refusal to buy into the language of symbols makes Erase and Forget about the most human, if non-cinematic, piece of cinema going…

New Beg Steal Borrow documentary completed

Beg Steal Borrow News, New projects, Selfie

Selfie, the new documentary/essay film from Beg Steal Borrow, has been completed.

The film, which is comprised almost uniquely of selfies, was shot predominantly in February and March 2014. It combines footage of its maker, William Brown, at home and at work during the shooting period, as well as in locations as diverse as Basel, Paris and Seattle.

The film is an investigation into selfie culture from the inside: it attempts to understand the selfie and selfie culture by taking selfies – rather than hypothesising about them from the outside. Or, as the narrator puts it in the film, the way to understand the selfie is to be like Seth Brundle in The Fly and to self-administer the treatment!

William Brown takes a selfie in his film of the same name.

William Brown takes a selfie in his film of the same name.

Selfie features brief glimpses of various Beg Steal Borrow collaborators, including Kristina Gren (En Attendant Godard, Common Ground), Hannah Croft (En Attendant Godard), Grace Ker (The New Hope) and Annette Hartwell (The New Hope).

The film also features sequences involving filmmaker Andrea Luka Zimmerman (Taskafa: Stories from the Street, Estate: A Reverie), Spanish actress Eulalia Ramón (Goya in Bordeaux) and more.

It also involves a voice over that considers the obsession with self-recording to be a virus. Perhaps the biggest epidemic of the contemporary world. Given that the word selfie enjoyed a 17,000 per cent increase in usage in 2013 alone, the film is certainly a timely meditation on a contemporary phenomenon.

The film will be submitted imminently to film festivals – as will Ur: The End of Civilization in 90 Tableaux and The New Hope, the latter of which goes into post-production imminently. Look here for imminent screenings (or contact William Brown if you are interested in showing or seeing the film elsewhere).

Notes from the LFF: Taşkafa: Stories from the Street (Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Turkey, 2013)

Blogpost, European cinema, Film reviews, London Film Festival 2013

Taşkafa: Stories from the Street is ostensibly a film about street dogs in Istanbul. It consists of interviews with residents of the city – who talk about the role and meaning that the street dogs play in their lives – as well as the reading by John Berger of extracts from his novel, King, which, in Zimmerman’s own words, is ‘a story of hope, dreams, love and resistance, told from the perspective of a dog belonging to a community facing disappearance, even erasure.’

Made for a tiny budget, Taşkafa is a wonderful example of what we might call democratic filmmaking. That is, the film seeks to explore the ways in which human society – in this case the city of Istanbul – often seeks to exclude from its reality – here, dogs – that in fact are a core part of that society’s ecosystem.

That the dogs form a core part of Istanbul’s ecosystem is made clear by the testimonies of many of the city’s dwellers. And yet, as we hear from numerous Istanbulites, we get the impression that these humans, too, might be on the verge of exclusion. In other words, what is true of dogs and other animals – that some humans seek to exclude them from their lives for the sake of a ‘sanitised’ (bourgeois?) existence – seems also to be true of people.

In other words, while ostensibly about street dogs, then, Taşkafa is really about the drive to exclude certain ‘undesired’ aspects of society from our spaces – and all in the name of ‘progress’.

As such, the film is a passionate defence of what we might term ‘the people’ – but with people here extended into the realm of people and their confederate animals, with whom we share our existence.

Given its emphasis on people and a desire to include that which is otherwise excluded, it is important that Zimmerman’s film gives voice to people – and gives screen time to dogs – who can tell their own story or show their existence.

Zimmerman has written about how films should be collaborative and communal – a perspective I tend to share. This means that her work is not far from Gilles Deleuze’s understanding of ‘modern political cinema’ – a cinema comprised of ‘intercessors’ – people who come in and tell their own story, with or without embellishment and/or exaggeration, and who thus shape the film with, perhaps even instead of, the so-called auteur.

And thus, since time is the focus of Deleuze’s study of modern political and other ‘time-image’ cinemas, we can understand that Taşkafa is also really about time. It is about the need for the world to allow people to live at their own pace, and not to be coerced into leading their lives following the beat of a particular (for want of a better generalisation, capitalist) drum.

A film made under the dictates of profit and production value is always already taking part in this ‘capitalist’ process of homogeneising time, of making all humans march to the same rhythm (this militaristic image is intentional). And so it is also important that Zimmerman is working outside of the confines of the film industry qua industry.

There are nonetheless some issues. These centre around the question of ‘where do we stop?’ By which I mean to say: one of the Istanbulites in the film says that we should do no harm to plants or ants – in addition to dogs. Or rather (for my memory is not exact), if we cannot but occasionally do harm to plants and ants, then we should at least recognise their part in our ecosystem, the importance that even these overlooked elements play in our lives.

And yet Taşkafa seems to stop at dogs (and cats) – and we are not asked (not specifically, at least) to reflect on the provenance of the meat that we see some people offer to the dogs. Is to eat meat to be harmful? Or is it that – beyond good and evil – we can eat meat, but we should be respectful of where it comes from? That is, we should give thanks to life – in all of its forms – meaning that we are now on ground similar, in the smallest type of film, to the ‘lesson’ offered in James Cameron’s Avatar (USA, 2009), the biggest type of film.

(Perhaps it is okay to like Avatar, but the issue is whether you can get beyond its insistent fast pace and its high production values and learn also to love Taşkafa, for the latter forms an equally important part of the mental, cinematic and perhaps material ecosystem that is our world. And if you cannot love Taşkafa, too, then you are potentially lost.)

And if we opened up our inclusive love for the world to ants and plants, then surely we must also to air, that which helps sustain and constitute us, and also then to mere matter for it is that from which we are composed, and thus also to antimatter, for antimatter is also real, simply it ‘exists’ at a different rhythm to matter itself. We need to push as far as we can go – this is my argument in Supercinema – in order to lead an ethical existence based on what we might call ‘withness.’

Finally, given his own views on the cruelty and indifference of nature, I wonder what Werner Herzog, to whom Zimmerman makes reference in her essay on Open Democracy, would make of Taşkafa? Does it romanticise its canine brethren (too much)? I’d like to think not, but I am interested nonetheless.

Taşkafa is a beautiful film – about much more than street dogs, as this blog post has hoped to suggest (and this is without going into the specificities of its being a film made and set in Istanbul, for which oversight on my part, apologies). It is wonderful that the LFF chose to programme it. It would be great to see more films like it…