A documenta side trip

Europe is filled with summer film festivals, starting with Cannes in May and ending with Venice in late August and early September (my final destination on this trip).

In between festival-going, there’s always some time to travel. I usually take the time to visit family, but also to build links for Northwest Film Forum with other film organizations in far-flung parts of the world.  In 2011, it was during my trip to Rotterdam and Berlin that I went to Riga to meet the Latvian Film office, and connect with some local filmmakers. This year it was too tempting not to take a similar side trip.

Every five years, for one hundred days (yes you read that correctly – you think SIFF is long?), the sleepy town of Kassel, Germany becomes in the IT place of the international arts community. This year is the time when Kassel transforms itself from the “Capital of the German Fairy Tale Route” into documenta, the capital of international artists.

It’s one of the few art festivals that really makes a place for cinema – a sidebar program, with its own brochure and everything! How could I resist, sweating it out (there’s no AC here anywhere), with the new guard?

As with most art festivals, artists are given space to dream, and dream they do. One of the most outrageously conceived projects at the festival is Catalan filmmaker Albert Serra’s opus, The Three Little Pigs.  The title is an ironic reference to three very relevant moments in the construction of Europe, as incarnated by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Adolf Hitler, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder.

The project is 200+ hours long, and documenta screens a pair of two-hour sections of the project daily. The Three Little Pics is thick with spoken text, sourced from diary material written by these three little men of Germany. Unfortunately, the film isn’t subtitled (how could it be, it’s mostly produced earlier that day!); instead, English speakers are given photo-copied pages of the source material and clip-on lights to follow along.

Fortunately, Serra doesn’t allow his actors too much leeway, and as with most of his work, he holds the camera still for long periods of time. My strategy for viewing has been to take in Serra’s beautifully composed images for a few seconds, gathering as much information as possible, and then devouring the text before the cut. It’s an effort that seems to be paying off.

Serra, whose previous works include an adaptation of Don Quixote (Honor of the Knights) and the three Kings text from the Bible (Bird Song) – both previously screened at the Film Forum – is the king of taking epic, mythic texts and flattening them like a pancake. While The Three Little Pigs is far more verbose than his usual work, it still deflates what could be quite volatile text into painterly images that say more about cinema and photography than they do about the actual texts of these. . .ahem. . .gentlemen.

Serra also introduced a screening of films he curated about or by Salvador Dali (not surprisingly a hero of Serra’s). The introduction included a tale about an attempt of Dali’s friends to get him to take some LSD. The story goes that Dali refused multiple times, first by saying he had naturally been experiencing this kind of high for 20 years previous, then by saying he just didn’t want to do it.

Finally, an angry Dali responded to this attempt at peer pressure by shouting, “Dali isn’t hallucinogenic, Dali is hallucinogenius!” Serra’s anecdote really set up the kind of self-aggrandizing, illuminating banter forthcoming in the work. We saw Dali wielding a brush as he spoke highly of himself in the third person: it reminded me of the Bob Dole appearances during his presidential campaign, only Dali’s brush was of course Dole’s pen.

This kind of self-importance made plenty of sense when you consider the curator, Serra himself, was quoted several years ago declaring that he was the best filmmaker working in Spain…

So much more to digest here at documenta, including works by Apichatpong and Tacita Dean, but I’ve barely scraped the surface, and the festival is already in day 73! More to come: now it’s time to hit the art and cinemas in earnest.

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