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Après moi, le déluge


notes by Mariana Hristova

Après moi, le déluge

In a troublesome world like the one that we inhabit today, the apocalyptic frame of mind becomes a more or less natural part of the everyday narrative, be it politically, socially, or artistically. In this regard, no wonder that a festival so sensitive to the pulsations of the contemporaneity like International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) rightly captures the mood and transmits the overall global anxiety throughout its entire program via an all-along-the-line catastrophic feeling, escalated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and currently fueled by the omnipresent threat of nuclear war.

Even before I started watching this year’s IDFA Short Film Competition, still on a level of examining synopsisses, my eye was caught by storylines featuring disasters of all sorts. Officially classified as natural and human-instigated (depending on their causes, whether those have natural or anthropogenic origins), the disaster phenomenon is described as “a sudden calamitous event bringing great damage, loss, or destruction.” All seven short films that are featured in this text provide reflections on at least one of the formerly mentioned possible consequences of a disaster. And even though they might not be directly registering the act of demolition, the post-event deluge is inevitably present.

The focus on each film in this essay will unfold in an introspective direction – from the group to the personal experience, from the broad picture of a devastated land to the intimate portrait of a single ravaged soul, from the obvious to the least visible. Regardless of the particular artistic approaches of the filmmakers toward the topics they have chosen, each piece manages to eventually collect particles after the explosion, and dig under the mud after the flood in order to bring some hope. If not for the sake of damage control, at least for recognition of the pain caused.

Natural Born Killers

The primary association when one hears the word "disaster" is natural cataclysms. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “disaster” has its roots in the belief that the positions of stars influence the fate of humans, often in destructive ways; its original meaning in English was "an unfavorable aspect of a planet or star." The word originates from Middle French and the Old Italian word disastro, from the Latin prefix “dis-” and Latin “astro”, meaning “tar". Such a connotation introduces the role of a will from above and refers to forces beyond human influence such as divine powers or nature itself. Quite curious in the context of IDFA’s selection is that, although there are films that deal with natural disastrous processes, none of the events described originated without homo sapiens’ involvement. In our high-tech era where almost no taboos are left on human interference in the divine order, men proudly keep control of all kinds of deeds, good or bad, as if they consciously insist on taking responsibility for natural phenomenons as well.

Mountain Man’ by Arun Bhattarai is probably the most literal cinematic embodiment of this interpretation since it expresses concern regarding global warming and suggests a looming natural disaster. Its plot departs from a scene in a Bhutanese school where a teacher raises awareness among the children regarding the human role in climate change, emphasizing that they should be well informed despite Bhutan having a carbon negative label. Later on, the storyline focuses on the only glaciologist in Bhutan who goes up to the mountains while his daughter is waiting for him. The camera follows them parallelly – she worries about her dad at home and prays so that her father won’t disturb the snow lion, the mythical incarnation of the glacier, as this could provoke disaster according to local beliefs. Meanwhile, he wanders amidst divine scenery, concerned about the melting ice considered sacred by him. Up there, he notices that a rock that had always been covered in snow before, could now be seen. He also recalls how a lake caused a flood a few years prior. The snow is definitely disappearing, he concludes. Back in civilization, the daughter explains how once he didn’t talk for weeks as if he had lost a dear friend, probably because he was feeling devastated by the state of nature and the overall ignorance on the subject. Protecting the glacier is like protecting the deity for him but his helplessness in the face of irreversible processes evokes existential despair. Arun Bhattarai largely utilizes the phone-made videos that the father makes for his daughter while filming her with the same intimate closeness, almost like in a reality tv format. Such an approach allows the viewer to connect on an irrational level with the characters’ inner concern about the scary alterations in their close environment.

Achewiq, the Song of the Brave Women’ by Elina Kastler equally functions at an intuitive level by transmitting group anxiety through common beliefs and ritualistic gatherings. We’re invited into the authentic world of the Northern region of Algeria Kabylie where the Berber culture is still very much alive. People are used to the fact that life in their lands could be challenging, but things turned out particularly difficult after fires burned through entire hillsides, and even century-old olive trees perished. However, we learn this incidentally as life goes on in front of the camera, and even after the disaster, local widowed women approaching old age, sow the seeds for the next harvest while processing sorrow through singing. The folklore musical genre is known as ‘achewiq’ and it explores the big themes of life through improvisations, thus helping the women of Kabylie cope with the pain caused by unfortunate life events – children loss, depopulation of native places, cultural isolation. They also spontaneously gather in someone’s house and come up with funny amateur performances, all chuckling at the absurdity of life.
Those moments of pure joy might have been actually fostered by all the disasters they went through, including the fire, as a reminder that happiness is evanescent and should be perceived as a gift, as part of the pain back then and the one to come. Kastler captures those flying bits of life with a delicate verve without ever disclosing her presence, allowing the viewer to intimately identify with their emotional experience.

Hidden Traces of Open Violence

Is COVID-19 a natural plague or laboratory-born? Certain proofs of either version have been confirmed but undisputedly, the management of the pandemic itself caused disastrous damage also to the ones who were not physically affected by the virus.

Shrutiman Deori’s ‘My Courtyard’ explores the bowels of the Garbhanga forest in northeastern India where the Tibeto-Burman tribal community Karbi lives. Along with the captivating black-and-white portrait of the environment where domestic life and nature are merged in an organic ecosystem, we get to observe a particular family in times of COVID-19 lockdown: a single mother who talks on the phone to her older son while tirelessly working with her feet expresses her worries about the little sister. The local school has not opened for the last ten months, therefore the girl wanders aimlessly with her friends around the village – a waste of valuable time in a period of formation. Meanwhile, the son is confined in the nearby city where he went to study. “They are not old enough to make sense of the situation,” the mother says about her soon-to-be grown-up children for whom the school is the only chance to escape poverty. Not being able to study equals dropping out of civilized life since online connection back home is scarce or non-existing, and parents are not able to catch up with the curriculum. The isolation from modern life during lockdowns which for many first-world citizens might have felt like a refuge can be crucially destroying for the future of those unprivileged kids; a disastrous consequence that has been highly neglected in the managerial chaos of the pandemic.

Is war considered a disaster too? Obviously yes, since there is no way to avoid the repercussions of its declaration while its scope is all-embracing. There is no escape except the total submission of consequences, most of which are detrimental. Curfews, lockdowns, and other limitations are implemented just like in a pandemic context; recovery, rehabilitation, reconstruction, and restoration efforts might be meaningless and, in many cases, useless. [2]

In Ruslan Fedotow’s Hungarian-Belgian-Portuguese co-production ‘Away’ an insight is offered into one of the immediate ramifications after a war declaration: becoming a refugee. We observe children as the most vulnerable victims, threatened by an unfeasible future, similar to the affected minors in ‘My Courtyard’. Fedotow accentuates Ukrainian teenagers and war escapees Andrey and Alisa, who volunteer at a school for refugee children in Budapest. For all of them, home is nothing more than a memory in this critical current situation, so they paint it trying to focus on the beautiful sides and idyllic moments, in an attempt to leave tragedy behind. War scenes, however, inevitably interfere as boys play with battle strategies.

Later on, the youngsters simultaneously encounter support and opposition when presenting a protest street-art work and provoking fierce discussions for any by-passers. Their day ends by the river, in contemplation and nostalgic recollections, while trauma has yet to grow before it is ripe for the next, hopefully, soon-to-come therapeutic stage. Raw in its observation and rough in its editing, free in form and spontaneous in concept since events are yet too recent to be analyzed, the film can allow itself to only register their volatile moods and self-expressions, putting those glimpses together in authentic footage. In the near future already, ‘Away’ can certainly be seen as a memory vessel for this excerpt of time, which will facilitate а detailed overview of the current disaster happening in Ukraine through the eyes of internally distressed people with an external perspective.

An alternative point of view towards another purely human-generated much discussed and widely media-covered disaster is ‘Dust Away’ by Tanita Rahmani and Dea Gjinovci. The short features faceless testimonies by members of the Nuestros Heroes Project support group created in 2010 to advocate for the Latin American cleaners who participated in the Ground Zero clean-up after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. As they were cleaning, unprotected, life-long diseases caused by the asbestos they inhaled remained with them and no funding for medical care was provided, let alone the fact that some of them never were approved for legal citizenship in the United States. Just as they remain invisible to the general public and inexistant for the system, so they appear invisible on screen – we hear their testimonials as voice-overs only, while imagery consists of old and new film footage, photographs, and animation. Those are the secondary targets of disaster, who suffer damages post-event.

Not only victims but also disastrous events themselves can remain in the shadows. Some of them happen almost invisibly, they don’t have a huge scale but their impact is not less damaging or portentous for the communities they concern. “I can see that the wound is open and growing and its smell permeates everything that it finds on its way,” says filmmaker Ana Bravo Pérez after discovering that the Netherlands imports coal from Colombia with the sole train available in the territory of the Wayuuin, endangering the health of the indigenous local inhabitants, in order to produce electricity back in Europe. Not only are they threatened, as it becomes clear from a local woman’s testimony, but also their land’s resources are being exploited by foreigners in a way that contradicts their beliefs. The mining activity for economic purposes is like a wound that eroded people’s lives there – they were chased away from their land, the fuel burnt the mangroves, and the bowels of the earth were eviscerated as if the organs of the Wayuu land have been extracted in order to be donated to the first world, illegally.

In ‘Mother Earth’s Inner Organs’, images of the inner layers of the land are juxtaposed with experimental sequences that are reminiscent of the black mountain that Ana Bravo Pérez first saw in the Netherlands’ plain territory, a pile of Colombian coal. A hidden disaster that continues to smolder and will not be coming to an end anytime soon. Next to the negative impact on nature, this also opens up old colonial wounds. Although Colombia suffered not Dutch but Spanish invasion in the past, its land is still subject to exploitation by profit-oriented Europeans — an act that might have a long-term disastrous effect on the collective sense of self of the local people.

Desolation, Deep Down

Sometimes, beyond the material and physical damages, and long after the rumblings of the actual disaster have died down, the terrible roar continues to dig deep into the victims’ psyche and does not leave them in peace until their last hour.

Still Static’ by Adam Kaplan profoundly delves into the consequences of a sudden explosion at a gathering which provoked personal disasters by killing people and scarring the survivors’ memory and sensorium forever. The cameraman who was left blind by the blast cannot get rid of the last horrific visuals that reached his eyes: images of dismembered human bodies and open skulls. Trapped in rewinding this harrowing episode, again and again, he seems to have lost part of his personality and is unable to reconnect with the outside world, which is why he has not left his home since the accident. We also hear the testimonies of a woman who possesses a videotape from the time of the explosion. Her trauma keeps her stuck in the moment as she plays the tape every evening. In the contrast between the quiet domestic atmosphere of both sufferers’ homes converted into their shelters and the narrated monstrous phantasms that keep haunting them in their heads, lies the powerful impact of ‘Still Static’ that confirms that soul damage can be the most lasting effect of a disaster, regardless of its cause.

Opposite to the mainstream disaster movie genre according to which order and justice is always restored after a series of turbulent peripeties, the material or psychological catastrophes featured in all of these short documentaries remain unresolved and uncompensated, as often happens in life. Talking over the consequences through cinema is one of the only means of reconciliation that can be achieved at this stage.

[1] Title reference: "After me, the flood", in French, is an expression attributed to King Louis XV of France, referring to the Biblical flood and demonstrating his attitude towards governing the country. It is generally regarded as a nihilistic expression of indifference to whatever happens after one is gone, though it may also express a more literal forecasting of ruination.
[2] Sawalha, Ihab H., “Warfare as a Type of Disaster” (2022)

© Images

1 'Mother Earth’s Inner Organs' (Ana Bravo Pérez, 2022)
2 ‘Mountain Man' (Arun Bhattarai, 2022)
3 'My Courtyard' (Shrutiman Deori, 2021)
4 'Dust Away' (Tanita Rahmani, Dea Gjinovci, 2022)