Saturday, 4 October 2008

import/export (d. ulrich seidl, w. seidl & veronika franz)

Seidl's film arrives at the ICA on the back of some auspicious criticism, with the suggestion that the film presents a modern vision of hell. The Guardian review referenced Jelinek and Haneke, suggesting that contemporary Austria is the frontline in the crisis of the Western soul. The plot intercuts the story of a Ukrainian woman who comes to Austria to earn a living with that of an Austrian who finds himself on a trip to Ukraine, where he installs bubble gum machines in desolate corners of post-Soviet concrete existence.

The two stories counterpoint one another. Olga, in the Ukraine, works as a nurse but also as a sex worker, performing to a video-streamed camera for on-line customers, trying to make sense of the instructions which strange men bark at her in German or English. Not being altogether cut out for this, she leaves her baby and heads for Austria, where she goes through various jobs until spending the last half of the film as a cleaner in a home for the dying. Pauli, the Austrian, initially has a job as a security guard, but after being abused by a group of immigrants and finding himself in debt to various shaven-haired thugs, he joins his odious stepfather on the bubble gum trip to Slovakia and Ukraine. The narrative deliberately refuses to satisfy the audience's subliminal desire to integrate the two stories: Pauli and Olga never meet, and besides the overlap of countries, their stories remain obstinately separated.

You know, early on, as an audience member, that you're not supposed to be enjoying yourself. Olga spends a lot of time walking through frozen estates in heels pushing her baby around in a pram, and Pauli, when he's not shadow boxing at home, is trained by an overly psychotic nutter for his mundane job as a security guard. Before long, Olga is contorting naked for a video camera (and for Seidl's camera) and Pauli's getting handcuffed and soaked in beer before losing his job. The director's ambition is clearly phrased in the stark camera work and bleak set-ups: he's going to make us suffer, he's almost challenging us to sit through his 135 minute festival of bleakness.

I'm all for this kind of thing. I like to see the Western, Eastern, Southern or Northern soul dragged through the mire. Visceral realism is fine by me. But I have to confess that Seidl's attempts didn't really convince. There's a fine line between being shown the deprivation of the Western (or wherever's) soul, and being shown something that someone's trying to sell as the deprivation of the Western soul. My feeling, as Seidl's film protracted itself through a long afternoon, was that this was a case of the latter.

Two things in particular made me suspicious. Firstly, Olga, in her travels through Austria, never seemed to meet anyone even vaguely sympathetic. I dislike sentimentalism in movies, life and love; the desire to make things prettier that they really are, the need to sweeten the pill. However, as I watched poor Olga struggle, it seemed to me that I was being presented with something equally inauthentic - miserablism, if you like. Despite her amiable nature, the only person who's ever nice to Olga swiftly dies of a heart attack. She gets a job with what appears to be a single mother, in an antiseptic house of steel grey, cleaning and looking after her two children. The little boy accuses her of stealing his mobile phone, and when the mother catches her having fun throwing snowballs with her kids, she abruptly sacks her. In the old people's home, Olga's told off for fraternising with the dying by a nurse, who later attacks her in a corridor. It's fairly clear that the only reason this had been set up is because Seidl decided a no-holds-barred catfight in a dark corridor would add to the bankruptcy of the soul his film seeks to depict. The cat fight is nasty, brutish and quite long, and is there for no narrative reason. Seidl is not interested in narrative, because, I couldn't help feeling, it doesn't really suit the miserablistic perception he's promoting. Just as the lamest of Hollywood movies will demand that everything ends sweetly, ignoring character or narrative subtlety, so Seidl demands that the milk is always sour, every morning, even when the cow's been freshly milked.

Another aspect of Seidl's film is its use of location. Two locations in particular: the home for the dying, where all of the second half of Olga's story is set; and the desolate estate in Slovakia where Pauli and his stepfather go on their unlikely trip. This estate is a sea of rubbish, where every home looks like it's on the frontline in the Russian bombardment of Grozny. The inhabitants would appear to be Romany. They live in squalour and would sell their grandmothers if they could make 50 euros from the deal. The estate is clearly a real place. Seidl did his research and found it. It would appear to be one of the less salubrious corners of Europe. However, as I watched the footage, two things crossed my mind. Firstly, the truth we are shown is not comprehensive. The truths we take out of slums are no more absolute than the truths we take out of palaces - filmmakers choose to show what they want to, and Seidl wants this to look as grim as possible. Secondly, this felt exceedingly self-conscious film-making: it draws attention to itself, saying, look what we (the filmmakers) have found. This is also the case in the scenes in the death wards. Seidl shows real people who are clearly close to death, in all their pathetic, childish regression. I don't know if I'm supposed to be shocked by this, or disconcerted. In the end, I reacted by finding it funny, in the manner of a watching a child showing off. No matter how hard the film tries to show us the rawness of life, in the end it's just a film. This is not 'reality'; it's reality through a lens, selected, framed and edited.

It is, perhaps, to Seidl's credit that his film demands such a personal response. (Having said which I have a highly visceral response to things like Notting Hill; Pretty Woman or a number of other products that I find verging on the unwatchable, and no-one gives them credit for that.) However, in comparison to Haneke's work, this seems like lazy film-making. It's not hard to shock, and Seidl uses the trick repeatedly. Rather than try and convey the sickness of the soul through narrative, he does it through a succession of set-ups. Olga's relationship to the child she leaves behind seems to encapsulate the film's problems. On the one hand, it could be seen as part of her sickness that she doesn't appear to miss it; on the other hand perhaps this is just the price of our cauterised, globalised world. Towards the closing stages, the script gives her a moment where she sings a song down the phone to the child, as though wanting to allow a shard of humanity in, but not enough to deflect from the film's nihilism. In the end, it seems to me, the simple fact recurs: the audience needs to care about the characters in order to care about what happens to their souls; and for the audience to care, the film-maker has to too. Otherwise it really is just porn.

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