“War! Huh! What is it good for?!”

  • Datum 14-04-2011
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The Ferroni Brigade strikes again. Olaf Möller programmed the retrospective ‘After Victory’ to unravel our cinematic reworkings of war. Christoph Huber reports from the trenches.

We’ve been living in times of war as long as we can think, although we often choose not to remember. Still, the movies have constantly supplied us with images of war, some more disquieting, complex and pertinent than others — even if many of those are forgotten, or half-remembered at best. As the current climate inspires a surge of war-related cinema worldwide — the amount of films made, the attention they get in media and festivals —, it seems all the more necessary to put them in a (well-)considered context, not the least because much of the surrounding mainstream discussion shows little interest in history (and paths outside the well-trodden ways of the canon).
Thankfully, the IFFR retrospective ‘After Victory’ provides such possibilities for (re-)consideration in spades, drawing the battle lines from some of last year’s outstanding war movies. While the genre has been a Hollywood mainstay for decades — after all, the term blockbuster has been derived from bombs —, its festival presence is taking on similar proportions. Just look at two big 2009 winners, both in the retrospective: Lu Chuan’s commanding epic about the Nanking massacre, nánjing! nánjing! (the city of life and death) (2009) won San Sebastian’s Golden Shell, while Samuel Maoz was awarded the Golden Lion at Venice for his lebanon (2009), an autobiographically inspired episode from the first day of the First Lebanon War, confined to the claustrophobic setting of a tank — the outside world, in which man and donkey alike may be pierced by bullets anytime, is seen (almost) exclusively through the gunner’s telescope. That’s also an apt metaphor for the movie’s own blind spots — after all, lebanon is a rock-solid piece of genre cinema trapped in a high-concept premise (which may partly account for its success).

Seen in the context of some Israeli predecessors, however, lebanon’s strengths as well as its weaknesses take on different, richer meanings. Another recent prize winner, Joseph Cedar’s beaufort (2007) tweaks classic combat movie tropes differently at the end of the same War, its director also being a veteran — while Yossi Somer served as a paramedic. His resisism (1989) presents a shell-shocked soldier in group therapy rehab back home, with the traumatized participants as an interesting mirror image of the crew in Moaz’ tank (not to mention, in both cases, of uncomfortable strains in Israel’s society). Add the still-spot-on satire of national hero worship in Yaky Yosha’s ha-ayit (1981), made on the eve of the First Lebanon War, and things get, to say the least, pretty complex.

Be warned
And that’s just one small strand of the retrospective, evoked in quite basic terms! Immediately it should be added that many historical gems in the program — like resisim and ha-ayit — probably won’t come your way again soon. (Don’t even ask about some of the rarities unearthed to unpack the earliest filmic vestiges of the Nanking Massacre). But as programmed by Olaf Möller, The Other First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Ferroni Brigade (full disclosure: I am the Other First Secretary), and thus committed to a dynamic and enlightening view on all of cinema, ‘After Victory’ also offers discovery up to the moment: Be it a recent example of non-Hollywood commercial filmmaking that — opposed to festival fodder — has a hard time of getting in cinemas elsewhere, like Florent Emilio Siri’s unflinching Algerian War tale l’ennemi intime (2007), or the premiere of vapour trail (clark) (2009) by master John Gianvito, befitting what may be the retrospective’s masterstroke, the selections around the Filipino-American war. Starting just before the 20th century, this war — although casting a shadow over Korea and Vietnam — is rarely brought up. Thus the title memories of a forgotten war (2001), but also the unusual perspectives possible: American Gianvito went to the Philippines to document the remnants of US military presence (literally deadly in the eco-disaster-case of Clark Air Base), while in independencia (2009) Filipino Raya Martin ironically re-imagines his story in the antiquated aesthetics of the American enemy (down to a newsreel) to dazzling effect. And memories of a forgotten war, itself a spellbinding stylistic hybrid, was made by Filipina-American Camilla Benolirao Griggers and Filipina Sari Lluch Daiena.
So instead of expounding further on the retrospective’s mind-blowing films, the impressive weave of their interplay or the structuring absences (most notably Hajrudin Krvavac’s 1972 — though really: eternal — partizan classic valter brani sarajavo, invoked in the selection of shorts about the Yugoslavian wars, itself an miniature model of the dialectics guiding the program), just let me declare ‘After Victory’ a Ferronian gift that may grip you mercilessly as it expands your horizons (leading you, who knows, mabye even to Valter one day). Consider yourselves lucky! And warned.

Christoph Huber

Christoph Huber (Other First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Ferroni Brigade).