Perth International Film Festival German documentarians taking on the world

Prallel Planes.
Prallel Planes. | © Revelation Perth International Film Festival

With ‘Parallel Planes’ and ‘The Cleaners’, Nicole Wegner, Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck typify a growing trend — of German documentarians finding their subjects abroad. Film critic Sarah Ward takes a closer look at the two documentaries screening at the 2018 Revelation Perth International Film Festival.

For her first documentary, Rostock-born, Cologne-based director Nicole Wegner turned her attention to the other side of the world. It’s a path charted by many an aspiring talent setting their sights on a career in cinema; however Wegner simply didn’t hop on a plane to Hollywood with stars in her eyes. Instead, the music curator and filmmaker worked her way around America’s independent music scene.
In Parallel Planes, Wegner meets with twelve US musicians, hears their stories and watches their gigs. Flitting from New York and Washington D.C. to San Francisco and Portland, she collates a compilation of their experiences, touring the country to piece together a portrait of music-driven dreams. More than that, as she gives her subjects room to wax lyrical and get candid about their lives, her film delves into the meaning each tries to find in their output — and tries to convey in their songs as well. Filled with separate chapters focusing on individual artists but threaded together like an cinematic essay, the end result is a snapshot of people, passions, politics and more; of everything that comprises the alternative side of the industry that Wegner’s interviewees have spent their lives loving and working within.

Making a universal racket

As seen on screen, in San Diego, Wegner hears about the electrifying influence that the Rolling Stones’ ’Start Me Up’ had on Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier. In Durham, she chats about the novelty joys of ‘Monster Mash’ with Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart. They make up just two chapters of her journey and, as Parallel Planes documents, the list goes on. From the obsessions motivating her interviewees to the struggles that come with making your own tunes, running a record label and trying to get by, Wegner’s film endeavours to capture the story behind the music. It’s a spirited, engaging and thoughtful documentary that’s aesthetically and thematically reminiscent of almost any fellow music-focused effort, but it’s one that dives deep into its specific field of interest with a wider perspective in mind.

Prallel Planes. Prallel Planes. | © Revelation Perth International Film Festival Indeed, as dedicated as Parallel Planes proves to the US indie scene at its centre, Wegner brings a universal mindset to her film. In the bright splashes of colour that comprise both the film’s opening titles and its intermittent intertitles, the documentary notes that it also travels to the German cities of Berlin, Hamburg, Moers, Wuppertal, Cologne and Dresden. As such, even steeped as it is in one particular country, the feature offers an easy yet effective reminder that the broader details discussed by the likes of Valentine Falcon, Anna Barie, Otto von Schirach and more remain relevant around the world. Parallels are easy to find, no matter where one’s watching the film from; parallels with other art forms, including the struggle faced by filmmakers everywhere, are equally apparent.

Trawling through online noise

In The Cleaners, filmmakers Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck also venture beyond their German homeland to peer around the globe — and also examine a matter with far-reaching interest. In fact, the very topic at the heart of their tense documentary is global information, and those tasked with trawling through it to decide what is and isn’t suitable for broader consumption by the online world.
First-time documentarians like Wegner, the Berlin Academy for Dramatic Arts-educated duo tackle their vastly fascinating and integral subject by similarly honing their gaze on one particular nation. In this case, they head to The Philippines, where — in dark buildings, nondescript offices and bleak cubicles — The Cleaners spends time with the Filipino workers undertaking the outsourced job of moderating online content. Workers several organisations removed from the popular social networks they’re charged with filtering through, the feature’s interviewees can publish or pull posts at the press of a button; however, to make that call, they have to view hordes of mundane and challenging content first. With some speaking anonymously, cleaners both current and former detail the difficulties and the toll of watching the world go by one tweet and status update at a time.

The Cleaners. The Cleaners. | © Revelation Perth International Film Festival A documentary enlivened by its subject matter more than its noir-like approach, The Cleaners couldn’t provide a more pertinent example of turning the micro into the macro, with the widespread applicability of the details discussed in its frames never in doubt. It’s a process that the film not only embodies, but one it also depicts. Within its equally illuminating, infuriating and dispiriting minutiae, it uses the experiences of several cleaners to speak to the industry as a whole, employs their general line of work to illustrate today’s online reality, and utilises the treatment they receive as an indicator of a world that’s more connected than ever, yet remains increasingly disconnected at a human level.

Surveying the world from Germany

With Parallel Planes and The Cleaners, Nicole Wegner, Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck typify a growing trend — of German documentarians finding their subjects abroad. In Bunch of Kunst, Berlin-based journalist Christine Franz examined the exploits of British band Sleaford Mods, while in Brimstone & Glory, Viktor Jakovleski travelled to Mexico’s annual National Pyrotechnic Festival to capture its wonders. The Poetess saw Stefanie Brockhaus and Andreas Wolff tell the tale of the first female finalist to compete in the Arabic world’s answer to The Voice. And with Casanova Gene, Luise Donschen contemplates the notion of seduction and desire worldwide, with the on-screen assistance of John Malkovich.

The Cleaners. The Cleaners. | © Revelation Perth International Film Festival As a pattern, the present situation is far from new, as the careers of directors as varied a Werner Herzog, Ulrike Ottinger, Volker Koepp, Eugen Schuhmacher and more demonstrate. It’s also hardly confined to German filmmaking, as the rest of the industry makes plain. On on the international cinema scene, German-made documentaries that venture beyond the country’s borders currently appear more numerous and popular than films that peer within. Indeed, the country’s documentarians are happily taking on the world — and taking audiences to specific places while tackling universal notions.