It is society and not technology that has made cinema what it is. Cinema could have been historical examination, theory, essay, memories. - Guy Debord.
Because of its roots in the television industry, video, for the better part of its existence, has had a history distinct from cinema. Although vastly different than film technologically, video, from a cost and accessibility standpoint, has afforded filmmakers the freedom to experiment, critique and thereby extend the development of the documentary and experimental genres.
In fact, video is the ground upon which these two seemingly antithetical traditions have been meeting. Contrary to Debord's statement, the things "cinema could have been" have arguably come to exist thanks to technological advances in video. A case in point is the hybrid genre "experimental ethnography," a prime example of which is Ulrike Ottinger'sSoutheast Passage: A Journey to New Blank Spots on the European Map.
Berlin-based filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger is best known for several feature length fictional works considered classics of independent cinema. Madame X - An Absolute Ruler (1977);Ticket of No Return (1979); Freak Orlando (1981); Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (1984); and Johanna d'Arc of Mongolia (1989) are seminal achievements in their own right but are also central to any discussion of women's independent cinema. Her heroines hail from a pantheon of brigands, libertines, rogues, roguettes, and good ol' fashioned freaks.
Although based on playful tropes of exoticism and otherness, Ottinger's vision of female empowerment remains liberatory as stereotypes of different cultures and historical periods farcically collide to produce a trans-historical and trans-geographic feminism universal in scope.
Over the course of her career, however, Ottinger has developed an interest in cultural specificities beyond that of myth, stereotype and fairytale, leading her to produce several lengthy non-fiction works that include China. The Arts - The People (1985); Countdown(1990); Taiga (1992); Exile Shanghai (1997); and Southeast Passage. Ottinger's oeuvre now consists of almost as much documentary as fictional work. Given that her last fictional venture was Johanna D'Arc of Mongolia (1989), Ottinger's career could be described as a gradual move from one end of the genre spectrum to the other. But it is mainly in comparison to her fictional work that the non-fictional work can be called documentary, when in fact it is much closer to what Debord had in mind by "history, memory, essay," which is a perfect description of Southeast Passage.
Produced by Documenta 11, Southeast Passage was Ottinger's first foray into video. Filmsd with a mini-dv camera, it is a six hour Eastern European travelogue divided into three chapters. The exhibition will consist of three rooms, each continuously screening a chapter. The first chapter documents the journey from Wroclaw, in the Southwest corner of Poland, to Varna, a Black Sea coastal city in Bulgaria. Along the route are Vychodna, Vezy, Szeged, Timisoara, Toplet, Calafat, Vidin, Orsoja, Dulbok Dol, Dusevo, Braknica, Balcik, and Varvara. These are villages, towns, and cities in Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. The second and third chapters are devoted to Odessa and Istanbul respectively. Ottinger refers to the piece as a tapestry weaving together a number of themes found throughout her work whether fictional or documentary.
Not surprisingly, Southeast Passage begins with reference to a Russian fable, the Twelve Chairs, which Ottinger turns into a dedication to the babushka clad women she encountered in the innumerable markets.
Ottinger was instinctively drawn to such sites as impoverished Romany villages, Odessa's abandoned Jewish quarters, a seaside night club that serves as a front for the ever burgeoning Eastern European sex trade, and the Armenian slums of Istanbul. The footage, all shot by Ottinger, is nothing short of stunning. Between festivals and weddings encountered happenstance, Ottinger might casually survey the architecture only to find an outstanding example of Middle European Art Deco or an Ottoman remnant such as the heavily fortified minarettes of Bilgorad/Dnistrovskij. Touching upon folkloric documentation, Southeast Passage contains performances by Oana Kitzu, a gypsy chanteuse accompanied by a lone but lively accordion, and a Jewish theater group performing in pantomime sections from Valentin Katajew's play The Specimen. Woven throughout Southeast Passage are narrated passages of literature from Central and Eastern European intellectuals including Sandor Malarai, Elias Canetti, Manès Sperber, Isaac Babel, Imre Kertsz and Josef Roth. The Istanbul chapter features selections from the Azeri poet Nizameh and closes with a reading of Ithaka, perhaps the most well known work of Greek poet Konstantin Kavafis.
As the title suggests, Ottinger was inspired by a sense that places such as the villages and towns of Eastern Europe are "beyond the interest of the media" and therefore "at the mercy of the law of forgetting." She describes the piece as celebrating its subjects.
"Unnoticed or denied by the international gaze, invisible power structures develop that make it even more difficult for people to secure their existence. It is no longer a matter of the old "heroes of the working class" but of the new heroes and heroines in the struggle for survival, who use their great courage and inexhaustible imagination to get by."
But Southeast Passage's politics reside as much in Ottinger's formal, aesthetic choices as in her choice of subject. If the people and places of Southeast Passage are heroicized, it is through the work's monumental, six hour length. And if it celebrates its subjects, it does so quietly, with discreet dignity, through an unobtrusive, sympathetic gaze. Needless to say, when visual anthropology is conducted under artistic auspices the emphasis falls on the visual. But for artists, seeing is one thing, while believing is another. The objectivity and empiricism associated with ethnography become relative when subordinate to the camera's readily acknowledged limitations. Although there is the occasional exchange between Ottinger and local residents, the greater part of Southeast Passage's six-hour, non-narrative structure is given over to astute observations of places that are at once in transition yet seemingly immune to change. The markets of which Ottinger is so fond are without a history insofar as they represent a means of acquiring goods that is pre-capitalist and pre-communist. This despite modern packaging and the world wide ubiquity of the plastic figurine. Seeing these markets one after another harkens back to Eurasia's timeless trade routes of which Maxwell Street is merely an extension. Pork rinds, gladiolas, salt cod, tube socks, cotton candy, slacks, hammers, cigarettes, cabbage - it's an old story.