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Tobias Hering: “It’s nothing new for film to react to different practices regarding images”

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The interaction between film and contemporary history forms the core of the series “Umbrüche: Film als zeitgenössischer Akteur” (Upheavals: Film as a contemporary actor) at the Zeughauskino, Berlin. Films often have a lasting impact on the making of history by putting an event in a comprehensive context, examining it from different temporal perspectives and providing images that become anchored in the collective memory. An Interview with Tobias Hering, the curator of the series “Upheavals: Film as a contemporary actor”.

Which criteria are being used to select films for the series?

Each programme of the series is supposed to function as a kind of case study. This is not a question of completeness but of distinctive contemporary events in which film has played a significant role – for instance in creating memories.

Tobias Hering; Photo: André Sousa

How do films influence the course of history?

Thomas Harlan’s documentary Torre Bela (1975) had a direct impact on the depicted plot. The film is about the local population’s occupation of a large estate after the Portuguese “Carnation Revolution”, and the development of a socialist cooperative. Harlan repeatedly emphasised that the film had created a reality which would not have existed if it had not been shot at the time. For instance, the presence of the camera reinforced the authority of the spokesman Wilson. Furthermore, Harlan worked behind the scenes to ensure that the Revolutionary Council authorised the occupation, and this process can be seen in the film. This meant that the film crew was able to work in peace – there was no danger of the army intervening.

Clip from the film “Torre Bela” (1975) by Thomas Harlan

In Linha Vermelha (2011), José Filipe Costa investigates the stories and myths surrounding Harlan’s film and reinterprets some of them.

Trailer for the film “Red Line (Linha Vermelha)” (2011) by José Filipe Costa

Film creates identity

How does a collective experience become a film?

A striking example of this is Mueda: Erinnerung und Massaker (Mueda: Memory and Massacre) (1981) by Ruy Guerra. A public re-enactment of the June 1960 massacre carried out by Portuguese soldiers against the people of Mozambique was filmed in two days. This documentary film with a fictionalised plot was debated controversially for a long time because the director did not want to tell a simple hero’s tale. Instead, he shows the re-enactment as part of a culture of remembrance. For Guerra, it was not so much about propaganda-like interests as about the problems associated with defining a new post-colonial identity and the writing of history. The film’s release was delayed significantly because the state leadership recognised the film as a powerful instrument but was unclear about what it was actually communicating,.

Cinema versus internet?

How do images created against the backdrop of today’s technology differ from those that pre-date the digital era?

Events such as the “Arab Spring” have not only been recorded by the internet but have also been influenced by it: Images can be produced and distributed very quickly. That changes the structure of the events, the structure of stories and of memories. The live images also crop up in the cinema, changing the aesthetics of film.

Photo: (c) DHM / Dan Bereiu

Reacting to different practices regarding images is nothing new for cinema of course. It used to deal with art forms such as photography, theatre and painting. The development of a reflexive distance to the idea that “suddenly everything’s new” is something that cinema can appreciate.

What role does technology play in creating a public sphere and for the conception of story-telling?

At the start of the “Arab Spring”, everyone was surprised by the sheer quantity of live images doing the rounds. In the year that followed there were many films and works of art that were exclusively derived from these images: People published their internet diaries, video artists treated the pictures from YouTube or other internet sources as found footage material. That’s fairly new – in some cases it’s interesting, and in others it’s banal.

When film festivals started to focus on the “Arab Spring” in autumn 2011, it became clear that it would not be possible to live up to the expectations of real-time film productions: There was a change taking place, but not in image. Political filmmakers in particular did not shoot films themselves on Tahrir Square in Cairo.

The revolution is not complete

Films from the time after the “Arab Spring” tend to deal more with the uneasiness that whilst a lot happened, not much if anything at all has changed to this day. The beautiful Egyptian feature film Coming forth by day (2012) by Hala Lofty takes place completely in an apartment at the beginning, like many films from before the revolution. Admittedly the windows are open and one can hear the city, but one starts to sense that the revolution has fallen far short of delivering on all its promises. “Umbrüche” also offers the chance to make such “before and after” comparisons.

Photo: (c) comingforthbyday.wordpress.com

What significance does cinema have after the leap into the digital age?

Cinema continues to play an important and independent role. Its temporality is not the same as that of uploads and mobile phone videos which can be sent back and forth via Bluetooth. But more than anything the audience’s emotional relationship with pictures has changed. Audiences today are much more saturated with visual impressions, they have higher expectations both in terms of content and politics, they feel well-informed but are often biased because not everything can be seen after all. This makes the work of filmmakers particularly difficult – they feel compromised because of pre-conceived opinions that have nothing to do with the reality that they perceive.

Tobias Hering is a film curator and journalist. He co-organises the film series “Umbrüche: Film als zeitgenössischer Akteur” (Upheavals: film as a contemporary actor) at the Zeughauskino in Berlin in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut.

Stefanie Zobl
conducted the interview. She lives in Berlin and works as a freelance journalist for Deutsche Welle television, Reuters TV and fluter.de.

Translation: Jo Beckett

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
April 2013

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