Der Standpunkt der Aufnahme – Point of View
“Der Standpunkt der Aufnahme – Point of View” was first a 10-week screening program at cinema Arsenal in Berlin (October and November 2010), which got subsequently continued in irregular intervals. In 2014, a book by the same name was published by Archive Books, a collection of essays by the artists and filmmakers whose work had been presented in the series.
With films and videos by: bankleer (Karin Kasböck & Christoph Leitner), Paul Carpita, Raphaël Cuomo & Maria Iorio, Haile Gerima, Jean-Luc Godard, Raphaël Grisey, Charles Heller, Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub, Brigitta Kuster & Moise Merlin Mabouna, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Elke Marhöfer, Chris Marker, Jordane Maurs, Jonas Mekas, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Joanne Richardson, Marta Rodriguez & Jorge Silva, Mikhail Romm, Jean Rouch, Christoph Schlingensief, Bärbel Schönafinger/kanalB, Philip Scheffner, Merle Kröger & dogfilm, Sidney Sokhona, Bouba Touré, Sarah Vanagt, Videoladen Zürich.
Foreword to the book, Der Standpunkt der Aufnahme – Point of View
Perspectives of political film and video work, edited by Tobias Hering, designed by Chiara Figone (Archive Books, Berlin, 2014)
“Placing the camera means to have already taken a position on the cause,” Zurich video activists write in a text grappling with their role in the confrontation between the “youth movement” and the police in the “hot summer” of 1980 (1). The article is an after-the-fact reflection on the activists’ own conduct on the streets and on the ways in which this conduct changed during and because of the events. It is about getting active with the video camera—a tool that was relatively new at the time, but that had already acquired the reputation of being a “weapon.” What do you do with the camera and what does the camera do with you? The text observes how one’s position in regards to what is happening changes the moment the camera intervenes; how one’s own perception changes as well as how one is perceived by others. This piece of writing is not only political because it concerns a conflict with elected representatives and the state, but also because it draws a connection between the activists’ own behavior and motives and the conflicts within a local community. It is not primarily the topic of the reflection that makes it political, but the way this reflection is carried out.
One result is a clarification of the starting point: Placing the camera means to have already taken a position on the cause. Where one places the camera, what one films, and from which point of view—all of this matters. The authors identify the wide-angle lens as the “filmic means of expression for this movement,” not only because it allows those with the camera greater mobility, but also because they see its technical features—breadth, depth, dynamic range—as being in line with the character of the youth movement. This line of thought discovers analogies and charges technical terms with political significance. But if the use of the technology itself becomes an articulation that counts as a political position, then this technology has also brought something inevitable and obligatory into play, and this stands in the way of the notion of a certain freedom: the freedom of the subject, no matter how involved it is, to determine the degree to which it will allow itself to be co-opted. There is such a thing as a political use of the technology because the technology itself has a way of using its users.
Jean-Marie Straub reverses this relationship yet again: The shot (or the camera angle) is the result, and the placement or “viewpoint” is what one looks for in order to achieve that result. This involves “driving around a lot.” “One can only film what one has seen, and one can only have seen something when one has gazed long enough.” The camera, he says, was never a weapon, nor was it a paintbrush. And the inevitable thing one finds by driving around is not technology, but history.(2)
Points de vue
When, in 1983, Serge Daney published La rampe, a selection of articles he had previously written for Cahiers du Cinéma, he grouped the texts according to phases he identified in hindsight(3). It was not until I was editing this current volume that it struck me that the three essays by Daney we are republishing (on films by Straub/Huillet, Antonioni, Ivens, Sokhona) all derive from the phase he titled “Points de vue.” This could be taken as a confirmation that the question of the viewpoint and the positioning of one’s own gaze are invariables for someone interested in the politics of filmmaking, and that the three texts were thus well-chosen. In his short, retrospective introduction, however, Daney is extremely critical not only of a certain kind of militant and engaged filmmaking, which he situates in the first half of the 1970s, but also of the way in which film criticism at the time—ergo, including himself—related to it(4). At the heart of his criticism lies, precisely, the term “point de vue,” which, he writes, functioned then as a kind of magic formula (mot-mana). In its worst meaning it stood for a political stance that a filmmaker was to bring with him and which was then to express itself in his work: the ideological version, in other words, of the inevitable and obligatory, the extra-filmic marking of a standpoint as a place where the filming subject had only to report to duty.
Luckily, however, Daney writes, the “point de vue” dice were loaded and could also roll another meaning, if the concept was applied to the practice of filmmaking and meant the positioning of the different protagonists in front of and behind the camera in the complex web of agreements, promises, and expectations, of power relationships, class affiliation, bodily presence, and forms of representation. It is this meaning of “points de vue” that continued to fuel the critical discourse for some time, according to Daney, and it is also in this second sense that the Zurich video activists’ notion of “placing the camera” is to be understood. Nevertheless, Daney’s look back is sobering. He describes how an engagement with the politics of point of view gave way to questions of the morality of filmmaking, which, in turn, narrowed into an anxious striving for veracity and transparency. Soon the “radical-regressive” demand came to be made that every film ought to always have the collateral effect of being a documentary of its own conditions of production. By the end of the “militant phase,” according to Daney’s reading, the political had become primarily a matter of not compromising oneself.
A certain skeptical relationship to its own practice still characterizes political film and video work to this day. The consistency, however, with which the conditions of production themselves again and again become the object of films should first of all be seen as evidence of critical reflection continuously reimposing itself into practice. The reason for this is less a questionable devotion to the tradition of self-criticism, but rather the fact that the conditions of production and distribution of film and video usually point to a technico-economic complex, which, while eagerly striving to integrate “political content,” only tolerates criticism as long as it leads, one way or another, to the accumulation of capital. I have the feeling, however, that the disillusionment and disappointment about political filmmaking’s maturing process expressed in Daney’s look back in La rampe has its reoccurring cycles as well, and it may well be that we are currently in another phase in which reflecting on this work generates more open questions than it does programmatic claims.
The “Standpunkt der Aufnahme ‒ Point of View” film series begun in the fall of 2010 at Berlin’s Arsenal Cinema is dedicated to such a process of reflection.(5) The question guiding the program, “What does it mean today to make films and videos politically?” does indeed contain—besides an allusion to Godard’s programmatic distinction between “making political films” and “making films politically”—a certain note of indecision, or a late awakening to a long overdue reflection. If these nuances remain palpable, they are primarily to be attributed to me—to the soul-searching of a curator and writer who routinely uses the word “political.” “What makes a work political and what makes you so sure that that is important?” The film series is an invitation to film and video makers whose work I value because I see in them a particular kind of becoming political that interests me: they allow us to feel the sting of the old, unanswered questions while at the same time giving these questions a new vocabulary. It is an invitation to see and to discuss together what is political about our own work, what such an aspiration feels like in practice, and what expectations it encounters in the audience.
This audience remains a small one. I reflected on this hardly surprising fact (the film series is shown in the Arsenal Cinema’s smaller theater which seats 75, a comfortable fit) a while ago in an article published in the weekly newspaper Der Freitag under the title “Die Abwesenden und wir” [The absent ones and us]. My starting point in this piece was the—long since habitual and thus, as I said, unsurprising—fact that events which by definition claim to concern everyone tend to take place for a small, interested, usually quite homogenous segment of the public, thereby exacerbating even more the dilemma of the far-reaching depoliticization of events consumed on a mass scale. The biennales, workshops, and showrooms where things are allowed to get political seem to me to be an expression of a crisis of criticism rather than to provide a suitable space for it.
The rhetorical maneuver I permitted myself in the article, confronting “us” with the phantom of the always larger group of absentees, bothered some of my readers, including some of those featured in this volume. I was trying to make a point that would function as a spur, one that I too would feel, or whose sting I wanted to admit to myself and to others. I wanted to be able to write that the absence of the many others among the few in attendance remains an “unhealed wound,” and that this is why there is always the sensation of “phantom pain” in the spaces we have created for political film. “Someone is missing, in this case many. There should be 50,000 of us, but there are only 25.”
When Robert Schlicht during the final editing of this preface commented that the sting was crying out to be pulled, it became clear to me that the absent ones that leave me no rest are not so much the ‘uninterested masses’ in the multiplex next door, but rather those to whom our work is dedicated. The tremendous difficulty, possibly the paradox, and sometimes the failure of this work lies in the fact that its very urgency is constituted by the absence of those it is concerned with: The excluded, the unwanted, the uncounted, the unreconciled, who precisely are not in attendance when decisions are being made about them (and to whom we, depending on the constellation, also belong). There are many reasons why someone may not be present when things get political at the cinema (or elsewhere), and these reasons are often intimately wrapped up with the reasons that make it possible for others to become political and to do political work. This means that the question of the sting is a variation of the fundamental question: resign oneself, find a niche, or remain unreconciled, in the open. To pull the sting can mean at least two things: to make the blister pop, or to find a peace and quiet that will always look suspiciously like anesthesia. It may be that the art of the political (or is it the dilemma of political art?) consists in developing the integrity that would allow us to “serve reality with a judgment that doesn’t submit to it,”(6) as Robert Schlicht puts it at the end of his essay in this volume.
Like the film series, this book is the result of a gesture, which curators refer to as carte blanche. It was not about having different authors provide the content for a line of argument I had secretly already worked out, but rather about individually inviting them to distill a question from their own practice that they would like to reflect on in print. A general interest had already taken shape as the result of the film series we had worked on together; some of the participants were also connected to each other through previous collaborations or informal exchange. And so this preface ends here, at around the point where the authors set to work, a process that only became a shared one again at a later stage, when the editing began. What came together in this way—a dialogue in a shared space that felt its way more than it was blind, that listened more than it was silent—is presented here as an unpredictable collective work.
It’s too early (or too late) anyway, in this preface, written last, to describe common threads or suggest approaches to reading. The preceding index makes some recommendations in this regard; it is meant to sharpen awareness, highlight points of contact between the pieces, or simply multiply the entryways into this book. It may be surprising that many authors’ reflections led them to critical self-assessments and that, as different as these might be, their cumulative effect is the jagged line of a fracture, where something old comes to an end and something new begins. This book ends, by chance more or less, with a thought from Avery Gordon that seems to mean precisely that. I will go ahead and quote it here so that it can be read the second time as a happy déjà vu:
No one likes to hear the old words and the new ones haven’t arrived. And yet, many of us already do and are certainly quite capable of living in the world we’d rather have than the one that dominates. That world and its mode of expression and representation awaits more of our attention.(7)
Translated by Millay Hyatt
(1) The “Zurich Opera House Riots” on May 30th and 31st, 1980, were part of a longstanding conflict, repeatedly also waged in the streets, over the use of public funds and the preservation of self-organized spaces resisting the city as capitalist machine. The form and content of this conflict shaped the political climate in Zurich and other Swiss cities into the late 1980s, and the Swiss “youth movement” was, not least, also an important impetus for the “video movement,” the founding of video collectives and workshops all over Europe. The text quoted here by the Videoladen Zürich collective is reprinted in this volume, following the preface, and appears here for the first time in English translation.
(2) See the conversation between Jean-Marie Straub, Elke Marhöfer, and Mikhail Lylov in this volume.
(3) Serge Daney, La rampe, Paris: Collection Cahiers du cinéma-Gallimard, 1983. Many of the articles in this collection have been translated into English and are available online here
(4) Daney, La rampe, p. 49 ff.; in English here
(5) The “Standpunkt der Aufnahme – Point of View” film series was initially conceived as a two-month program at the Arsenal Cinema in Berlin. On nine evenings between October and December 2010, the following film and video makers presented their work: Joanne Richardson, Charles Heller, Elke Marhöfer, Sarah Vanagt, bankleer (Karin Kasböck and Christoph Leitner), Brigitta Kuster, Raphaël Cuomo and Maria Iorio, Bärbel Schönafinger (kanalB), and Merle Kröger, Philip Scheffner, Jörg Heitmann, and Ed van Megen (dogfilm). Since March 2012, the series has continued at irregular intervals with new guests as well as some of the above artists returning with their most recent films.
(6) See Robert Schlicht, Film as Show Trial, in this volume.
(7) See Avery Gordon’s piece, Who’s there?, at the end of this volume.