Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Invisible Frame

Tilda Swinton with the director

THE INVISIBLE FRAME                                           B-                   
Germany  (60 mi)  2009  d:  Cynthia Beatt

The mechanism of this repeated journey afforded us the opportunity to meditate freely on the whole concept of borders, history, adaptation, natural cycles of development and a host of other conceptual and existential territories.

—Tilda Swinton

Cynthia Beatt is considered a British director, as she studied there, but was born and raised in both Jamaica and the Fiji Islands, residing in Berlin since 1975.  She collaborated earlier with actress Tilda Swinton on an experimental documentary photo journalistic essay called CYCLING THE FRAME (1988) where Beatt followed Swinton with a hand held camera while traveling the entire length of the Berlin wall, which was just under 100 miles, as they were only allowed to observe East Germany by photographing what they could see by peeking over the wall.  The actual border between East and West Germany, which was covered in minefields, was closer to 860 miles.  Today, this rarely screened document would be viewed as a historic time capsule.   Having grown up in a former British colony, Beatt was particularly sensitive to the annexation of East Berlin, as the view of East Germans became that of an inferior second class people, whereas before the wall, they were all Germans.  Beatt got the idea after living in Berlin for 12 years above an old factory near the Potsdamer Platz where she could view soldiers in the guard watchtower from her window.  The Wall was her neighbor, not just an inconvenience, but a restrictive spiritual entity, a constant reminder of a divided city where anyone wishing to get to the other side would be shot on sight.  Built in 1961, visited by President Kennedy, after more than 2 and a half million citizens fled from East Germany to the West, eventually losing too many of their skilled workers, so they closed down the borders and constructed a restricted area military wall overnight.  No official figures were kept, but it’s estimated that more than 1200 East German citizens were killed attempting to escape after the wall was built, where Chris Guefrrey was the last official casualty who died in a hail of bullets while trying to flee.  Afterwards it was learned he was under the impression the shoot-to-kill order had been revoked.  He was not the last East German killed however, as a victim known only as Frank M. was found in the Oder River near the German-Polish border just two days before the Berlin Wall fell.    

Marking the twentieth anniversary of both the original film and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this largely wordless 60-minute film was shot in June, 2009 using Hi-8 film while the director rode her bike with one hand and carried the camera in the other, attempting to follow the route of where the wall used to be, which was obviously difficult at times, as Swinton likely took a few wrong turns, often standing at a crossroads staring at a map while no one stops to offer any assistance.  At times she ran into dead ends, where locked gates or fences had been constructed, and she often ended up in the middle of a heavily wooded forest area, where at one point standing next to a lakeside retreat, a bystander points out that West Germans were only allowed to swim halfway across the lake.  Since no wall exists, there are double brick cobblestones that remain visible on official asphalt roads, but she spent a good deal of time on German bike paths, which are away from German roads and thoroughfares, leaving her out in open countryside regions for a good deal of her journey, where at one point she rides past an inexplicably gorgeous poppy field.  Still, there was evidence of guard watchtowers along her path, as she did visit the memoriam built at the suite of Chris Gueffrey’s death.  The film is mostly a free standing visual essay of Berlin today, where Swinton rides by immaculate flower draped houses built in high rent districts, but also passes by graffiti laden factory districts and remnants of former tenement buildings, eyesores that are now dilapidated and boarded up with plenty of broken windows.  Often, where the wall used to be has been replaced with newly constructed housing developments, where it’s easy to get confused, wondering what used to be there.       

Swinton adds her own spare, personally written inner narration which has poetic overtones, offering views on borders, walls, and freedom, often lapsing into an existential reverie, pondering to herself, “East, West, does it matter where I am anymore?”  Oftentimes she weaves back and forth straddling what used to be the border, while also stopping along the way at pastoral sites, where we see her reading Hans Fallada’s book Alone in Berlin or checking out the street signs for Karl Marx Straße while occasionally electronic music from Derek Jarman collaborator Simon Fisher-Turner adds a quiet poignancy to her otherwise wordless ride that at times resembles a ghost trip, as she’s conjuring up thoughts and images from a world that no longer exists, still haunted by fragments of memory.  Perhaps a fault of the film is relying too exclusively on the viewer’s historical recollections, as the film offers little help.  Thinking about it afterwards, this is really a cyclist's film, perhaps incomplete unless seen from a cyclist’s perspective, like over here:  Bicycle Film Festival at this site:  George the Cyclist, as they're the ones who would truly appreciate a film that is exclusively shot from the perspective of a rider on a bicycle.  As this film suggests repeatedly, cyclists have no narrations or things explained to them when they’re on their bikes, and oftentimes outdated maps are of no use either.  This film replicates the sightline and the virtually-always-alone mentality of a cyclist, where their chosen interactions with strangers are completely random.  There were many walkouts, but they were strictly people who aren't used to seeing a near wordless film, who need an explanation to what they're watching, but that's actually one of the features of riding a bike, in addition to being one of the true pleasures of this film.  That’s the real freedom. 

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