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Two new short films from Rotterdam

Above Us Only Sky / Pelourinho: They Don't Really Care About Us
Regissør: Arthur Kleinjan Akosua Adoma Owusu
( Nederland, Tsjekkia / Ghana)

THE ROTTERDAM FILM FESTIVAL /  This year's film festival unveiled several documentaries and short films, including Above Us Only Sky and Pelourinho: They Don't Really Care About Us, which turned out to be a rough staple of a movie.


While the festival's fiction films can be of confusing variable quality, this year's international film festival in Rotterdam revealed several documentaries and short films (especially in the experimental part of the spectrum) that may prove to be among the best of the year. Event 48. edition, which took place in the Dutch port city of 23. January to 3. February, once again presented a rich catch of international titles, which despite seemingly short duration concealed both rich and complex content.

Story as a magician

The 49 year old visual artist Arthur Kleinjan, himself born and raised in Rotterdam, was represented with the 28 minutes long Above Us Only Sky – a Dutch-Czech co-production which is presented as both film and video installation. The starting point of the action is the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyafjallajökull in 2010. The ash cloud from there resulted in – as the film's narrator notes – the most serious obstacle to European aviation since World War II.

While recalling the impact of this geological phenomenon on his own itineraries (he was forced to take a train from Brussels to Prague), the narrator continues to assemble an episodic, dimmed and increasingly gripping tale, which includes such diverse characters as John Lennon, Ludwig Wittgenstein and the Czechoslovak novelist Bohumil Hrabal. He defines his method as "gathering together" a story made up of real, random events [...]. I simply want to respond to any story that presents itself to me. "

The film is a web of obsessions, with the character Vesna Vulovic rather randomly placed in the center. This Yugoslav flight attendant was eager to make it easier to travel to Britain, the homeland of her beloved Beatles, and won a rather peculiar form of fame in 1972. She was the only survivor after a plane exploded over Czechoslovakia: Vulovic fell 10 meters without parachute (this is still a world record). She suffered serious injuries – including a fractured skull, three broken vertebrae, broken ribs and both legs and a broken pelvis – but recovered and lived on for 160 years. Three years after her death, she is now remembered as a kind of guiding star for Kleinjan's free-roaming speculations.

Spiritual and informative

Narrator voice belongs to Marc Sabat, a Canadian composer living in Brazil. The text is strange, learned and mocking and connects various geographical, cultural and historical touchpoints in an elegant way. This essayistic film is both spiritual and informative: Who knew, for example, that Wittgenstein "inherited one of the greatest industrial empires in Europe" thanks to his father, the steel magnate Karl? Like the UK-based German writer WG Sebald and the British "architect-who-became-filmmaker" Patrick Keiller, Kleinjan is a brilliant traveling companion as long as the film lasts. And there doesn't seem to be any reason why his crunch and digressions should not be extended to an entire feature film.

Catchy excerpts from the hilarious Jackson anthem on the audio side make Pelourinho a rough, angry clenodium of a movie.

It goes without saying that Kleinjan has such a strong eye for composition, location and details. Using drone cameras, which appear to be a regular in documentary film right now, he reproduces the majesty of the long-lost Kladno steel mill in the Czech Republic – a cornerstone of the Wittgenstein family's business empire. As a floating, pondering and soothing exercise in intellectual and sensual stimulation Above Us Only Sky a flurry of higher order, quietly deep in its implications, and at all a prime example of the rather short documentary form.

A remarkable American life course

If Above Us Only Sky spreads out slowly, is Akosua Adoma Owusus Pelourinho: They Don't Really Care About Us an enlightening seventh-minute sensual assault of a movie. Pelourinho is the only Ghanaian production of the festival, which is known for being among the most global film festivals of its scope and type. The film is part of an ongoing series of sociological and historical studies conducted by Owusu, an 35 year-old Ghanaian-American born in Virginia and primarily resident in New York, where she teaches at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Her starting point in Pelourinho is a letter from the influential and pioneering African American author and shareholder WEB Du Bois which he wrote to the Brazilian Embassy in the US in 1927. The letter was spurred by what was considered an exclusionary policy aimed at preventing American "Negroes" from entering the South American country (there was obviously concern that some form of sneak colonization was being planned in Washington).

Pelourinho: They Don't Really Care About Us Director Akosua Adoma Owusu

Du Bois, who was himself born in Massachusetts, would later face serious bureaucratic difficulties due to his own travels after the US government confiscated his passport in 1951. This prevented him from accepting an invitation to celebrate Ghana's independence in 1957, but three years later he had his passport returned and visited the new republic for the first time. In 1963, 95 years old, he finally became a citizen of Ghana after his own homeland refused to renew his passport. Shortly thereafter, he completed the final chapter of one of America's most remarkable life courses.

In Owusu's film, excerpts are read both from Du Bois' letter from 1927 and from the official response (which claims the right to deny access to those who could jeopardize "public order or national interests"). The reading takes place while the canvas shows an 16 mm recording from Pelourinho district, the historic center of the capital Salvador in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia.

A faithful tourist magnet

This messy neighborhood achieved some world fame in 1996 when Spike Jones and Michael Jackson filmed the music video for the latter's hit "They Don't Care About Us" there. Owusu's cameras – grainy 16 mm footage, far from Lee's slick Hollywood professionalism and companionship – document the remains of Jackson's visit. The face of the deceased pop king is presented in countless kitsch-like shapes – including a cardboard image of the full-size icon on the balcony of a two-story building, locally known as the "Michael Jackson House" (Casa do Michael Jackson). The house played an important role in the music video and has since proven to be a faithful tourist magnet.

Michael Jackson

Here is an American "Negro", the film ironically implies, which, after arriving in Brazil, is celebrated instead of causing alarm (although the choice of background caused dissatisfaction with the authorities, which feared the possible negative effect of such publicity).

Catchy excerpts from the fierce Jackson anthem on the sound side make Pelourinho to a rough, angry clenodium of a movie. It addresses serious – and very topical – socio-economic issues related to immigration, prejudice and cross-cultural communication in a very focused way.

Neil Young
Neil Young
Young is a regular film critic for Modern Times Review.

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