Courtisane 2016: Building blocks / cooking up festival narratives

Some ideas conceived due to this year’s Courtisane Festival

How are spectators responsible for their own and very particular reception of a film? This is, to some extent, the question that underlies my entire manner of thinking, living and navigating through cinema. This year finally allowed me to attend the Courtisane Festival in Ghent, where Marc Karlin was one of the figures around which they constructed a series of British films that aimed for an essentially different (cinematic) representation of political ideas. Where the majority of films usually meet the viewer in the space between, one of the most committed films that played at the festival, 36 to 77, did not aspire in any sense to trick the viewer with illusory cinematic devices. The film only wanted to give the nightcleaner a voice, and nothing but that. So instead of what we grew accustomed to, the makers refuse to compromise the voice they attempt to give to the people. Already while viewing it, I repeatedly wondered: ‘’Did I ever see a film with so few non-negotiable images?’’

This being my debut post for Jugend ohne Film, I am happy to begin with a festival that distinctly reminded me of 25 FPS in Zagreb, Croatia. Both festivals are small, each with their own group of long-time attendees, who are far from unknown to the leading programmers. This therefore allows for at times bigger risks and space for marginalized voices, whereas the bigger festivals usually are forced to somehow compose programmes of which the purpose can be communicated more easily.

One of my favorite discoveries turned out to be Luke Fowler, artist in focus together with Michel Khleifi. The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott clearly shows the influences of both Gregory J. Markopoulos and Robert Beavers, as the latter is a close friend of his. It is a grand work, difficult to describe, as it encompasses an endless amount of audiovisual tracks. Or should I say a junction of highways? It contains plenty of parallels with Marc Karlin’s For Memory, which was also shown at this festival. It even borrows the main character, Marxist historian Edward Palmer Thompson, and some of its actual material. After the screening of For Memory many people complained that it started concretely, but dissolved into something that lacked conclusion and substance. I would rather opt for a different approach to an inherently complex film, since in my opinion, complex issues cannot be expressed by the mere employment of banal means of communication, and thus, representation. The Poor Stockinger, on the other hand, contains a kind of rhythm which simply would not be interesting in the case of Karlin’s film. The composition of a film that aims to embody certain political ideas, should not consider making it more viewable if it won’t contribute to the conception of these ideas and corresponding images. Especially if raising class consciousness is its only goal.

While Courtisane has an emphasis towards these films, an attendant has the equal possibility to choose and select according to his or her own appetite and need. Therefore, if one does not want to commit to ‘’a certain kind’’ of films, and as a consequence also to a specific temporal timespace that exists from the beginning of a festival to the end of it, one is free to shift. But the undersigned did not do so. I agreed to let it live its own life, which bears an effect one cannot do over after the ‘’expiration’’ of that exact timespace.

That Fowler is an excellent curator himself, proved the selection of films he composed, which consisted out of eleven films that somehow shaped or inspired his current practice. One of the most exciting one’s is Warren Sonbert’s Friendly Witness, an excruciating mini-cycle of energetic films that seamlessly thrilled the audience with its fragments that, as no other, could make a young viewer trick into believing that cinema has everything (not ‘’a lot’’) to do with life, while of course the opposite is true. Or, as Jean-Marie Straub fittingly said: ‘’Cinema contains a lot of life’s elements, but has nothing to do with life itself.’’

That also goes for the film that ended this selection, namely Beaver’s First Weeks, which is a reportage of Fowler and his wife Corin’s first child during its first weeks. As Beavers said: “Call them spontaneous or occasional films. I did not know if I would show this publicly when I filmed. The gift was Luke Fowler suggesting that I film his and Corin’s first child, Liath, while I visited them in Glasgow. The images are left in the order of filming, and the editing is only a few excisions.” But it was clear during its five minutes of runtime, that it remains a deliberate creation, and that the lifelike elements are extremely apparent, which is as much a construction that has nothing to do with actual living as any other film.

First Weeks, Robert Beavers, 2013
First Weeks, Robert Beavers, 2013

The most fascinating film seen on the last day, Jeune femme à sa fenêtre lisant une letter, is the first film by Jean-Claude Rousseau, and has been deemed important and formative by a lot of Francophone filmmakers. Unfortunately, it did not yet get a proper release on dvd or blu-ray. This year it was shown as part of Mierien Coppens’ programme, a young filmmaker from Brussels, featuring his own film, Un Seul Visage. Jeune femme is a film that almost naturally stays with every viewer, since it does something extraordinary, seldomly seen in cinema: expressing that there are as many feelings possible as there are shots. Take, in this instance, a room. A simple room in which Rousseau manages to alter it into an entire landscape. This is just as easily applicable to a larger context, namely, Paris itself. Or rather: as many experiences of Paris as there are Parisians. That cinema makes this possibility a tangibility, is a striking and crucial self-realization for any filmmaker. Afterwards, the fact that he remains so respected, did not strike me more than natural.

Perhaps the programmers also made this scheme with its relatively young audience in mind. To work towards a narrative that can almost self-educate the viewer if seen in a particular order. One building block topping the other. At least that is the feeling that stays with me in retrospect. In multiple ways highly rewarding, and indeed, as with the single shot or single frame: it is that which simultaneously (be)comes before or after every individual screening that gives a festival its necessary rhythm to rise above the level of mere solidness.

Jean-Claude Rousseau and Mierien Coppens
Jean-Claude Rousseau and Mierien Coppens