Changing Minds. Films reviewed: iHuman, How Holocaust Came to TV, Made in Bangladesh

Posted in Bangladesh, Germany, Norway, Unions, Women by CulturalMining.com on June 5, 2020

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

This week I’m looking at three films – from Norway, Germany and Bangladesh – all directed by women and currently playing at Toronto film festivals: Human Rights Watch, TJFF and Hot Docs. There’s a union organizer trying to change a Dhaka factory, a TV show that completely changed Germany, and how AI is changing the entire world.

iHuman

Dir: Tonje Hessen Schei 

You might not think about Artificial Intelligence much but it’s there in almost everything you do, from smart phones to social networking, to purchasing something online. We think of it as a passive device, something that makes things easier to use, a helpful program that nudges you in the right direction (You like this song? Listen to this one.) But we’re less aware of the massive amount of data AI collects about you and what they use it for. Search engines like google knows what you look at, buy, or ask about online. The location indicator in your cellphone uses GPS to know where you are at all times. Drone footage can see you, while facial and voice recognition figures who you are. Social networks like facebook can determine your politics, your sexual orientation, your income and your debt. But what algorythms do with this data is less obvious. They might bombard you with opinions they know will get you indignant, angry or agitated. Political parties can influence who you give money to and who you vote for, or to discouraging you from voting at all. The smarter AI gets, the more it can influence what you do.

This documentary, beautifully illustrated with panoramic overhead drone shots, looks at how governments, corporations and police use AI. Talking heads – investigative journalists and tech experts – explain how AI works and where it’s going. Like bizarre theories straight out of science fiction novels – can observing the facial expression of babies really determine which ones will commit crimes as adults? And should the police be allowed to spy on babies at all? Some people think so.

It also looks at politics – how companies like Cambridge Analytica already influence elections. For me, though, the most surprising scene is a clip of Barack Obama talking about the danger of deep fakes. Then the screen splits and pulls back and you see it’s not Obama at all, it’s someone else, whose voice and image exactly duplicates Obama’s. That’s what a deep fake actually is. iHuman is a disturbing but informative documentary about how AI is changing your life… and influencing your mind.

How Holocaust Came to TV (Wie Holocaust Ins Fernsehen kam)

Dir: Alice Agneskirchner

How can a four-episode TV mini-series transform the loutlook of an entire country and impact future generations? That’s what a new documentary is asking. In 1978 a TV series premiered on US TV called Holocaust. It was a drama about an assimilated, middle-class Jewish-German family during the Nazi era. Three generations of the Weiss family live in Berlin as they passively observe the shocking changes happening in their beloved land, the home of Goethe, Schiller and Beethoven. And over the course of four episodes the sympathetic main characters are systematically attacked, raped, and killed. Though popular among US viewers, many critics said it was too Hollywood, too much like a soap opera that trivializes such a grave and somber topic.

In any case, it did not change America. The country it did change was Germany. It was hugely controversial, generating massive amounts of mail even before it was aired. And when it was broadcast, in German, across the Bundesrepublic, it landed like a juggernaut in the heart of the entire nation. It wasn’t the first show about Germany’s dark past, but somehow it took an American drama to pull the wool from the eyes of a generation. Young people in the 1970s, born after the war, were stunned at what their own parents – their own country – had done. The whole country was glued to the TV each night, both for the show and the hours-long round table discussions that followed it. And the response it generated dominated magazines, newspapers, the movie industry, education and political life.

This was in the 70s, but its impact continued to this day, changing the national psyche. The documentary revisists the making of the show, talking to its producers, crew, and actors like Tovah Feldshuh, Michael Moriarty and Rosemary Harris. More than that, it talks with dozens of ordinary Germans whose lives were changed.

How Holocaust Came to TV while occasionally nostalgic, is always a deeply moving, incisive, and meticulously-made documentary.

Made in Bangladesh

Dir: Rubaiyat Hossain

Shimu (Rikita Nandini Shimu) is a 23-year-old woman in Dhaka. She’s hardworking but outspoken. She works in a clothing sweatshop alongside her best friends Daliya and Reshma (Novera Rahman and Deepanwita Martin), pushing the sewing machine pedals with their bare feet. The workers in the factory are all women, the managers all men. The T-shirts they make each day are sent abroad, bringing in huge profits to places like H&M, Walmart and Zara. But their own wages are so low, they can barely pay rent. Three T-shirts sell in Canada for what they get paid for an entire month in Bangladesh. And the company fires employees they don’t like, docks their wages, and makes them work long hours without paying overtime. But when a fire alarm goes off and the women flee for their lives they realize something’s gotta change. Shimu says it’s time to form a union. But can a poor woman convince skeptical workers, stand up to cruel bosses, and oppose corrupt officials? Or os it all in vain?

Made in Bangladesh is a fantastic drama about a young woman standing up for her rights as she tries to unionize. Shimu’s character is great – a smart, spunky self-taught woman – like Norma Rae or Erin Brockovitch – who learns her rights and won’t give up. The film is strikingly beautiful – a typical scene in the factory has everyone working on the same colour clothes at the same time, huge spools of bright green thread spinning as they sew piles of identical dresses. Shimu’s character might watch Bollywood, but this film is done in the European style, realistic but moving and inspirational. It’s about the perilous work of forming a union, but also about her home life – her husband, her friends, her neighbourhood.

I like this movie a lot.

iHuman is now streaming at Hotdocs; How “Holocaust” Came to TV is online now at TJFF, and Made in Bangladesh is opening across Canada including digitally at Human Rights Watch in Toronto; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website culturalmining.com.

Christoph Schlingensief: Approach those you fear. Films discussed: The German Chainsaw Massacre, The 120 Days of Bottrop, Foreigners Out! Schliegensief’s Container

Posted in Art, Austria, Berlin, Experimental Film, Germany, Horror, Nazi, Theatre by CulturalMining.com on May 11, 2018

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Christoph Schlingensief was a performance artist, TV producer and filmmaker known for his pranks. A Till Eulenspiegel for the new millenium. He was born in 1960 in Oberhausen, Germany and made his first film while still a kid. He became a devotee of avant garde film, music videos, mainstream Hollywood, and the New German Cinema.

His work incorporates Brechtian theatre techniques and its exaggerated, in-your-face style. In any given film you can find contemporary art, TV clips, historical footage, and even samples of his own past work, edited into the project. He became widely known in German-speaking Europe — though not outside it — for his TV shows, especially an impromptu talk show shot on Berlin’s U-Bahn. Sadly, he died of cancer in 2010 at the age of 49.

You’ve probably never seen his work, so this week, I’m going to talk about a special series of three movies now playing in Toronto, sponsored by the Goethe Institut (and co-presented by the Laser Blast Film Society and KinoVortex). There’s a look at German unification using cannibal serial killers, an epitaph to New German Cinema in the form of naked people running rampant, and a take on right-wing politcs and xenophobia using a mock reality show… that “deports” undocumented immigrants! 

The German Chainsaw Massacre (1990) (Das deutsche Kettensägen Massaker a.k.a. Blackest Heart)

It’s Germany just after the reunification of East and West. Almost everyone has moved westward, but a tiny few remain in the East. This includes the beautiful but downtrodden Clara (Karina Fallenstein) who is repeatedly abused by her drunk husband. She fights him off with a kitchen knife, jumps into her Trabant and heads for greener pastures. But little does she know, she’s going from bad… to wurst.

She meets up with her boyfriend Artur only to see a stranger slash up poor Artur’s body. And when she seeks help at roadside inn, she’s accosted by a sex-craazed lesbian dressed in black (Sussanne Bredehöft, who also plays Clara’s husband), and her equally weird colleagues. Behind closed doors they put rubber masks on anyone who stays there and brutally chops them up before grinding them into sausage. Can Clara defeat these evil cannibals? Or will she end up on someone’s BBQ?

The German Chainsaw Massacre is the second chapter of Schlingensief’s German Trilogy. It’s a genuine horror movie, but so over-the-top that you can’t take it seriously. Its actually very funny, in a disgusting sort of way, mimicking American slasher movies while also satirizing German fears of reunification. (I think it’s also a comment on how ordinary people in the East were treated like pack animals — or sausages! — to feed the hungry West German labour market.)

The 120 Days of Bottrop (1997)

Whatever happened to German Cinema? Schlingensief wants to know. Where are the great directors like Fassbinder, the stars like the beautiful Romy Schneider and 70s heartthrob Helmut Berger? So he decides to get Fassbinder’s stars back together again to film a remake of Pasolini’s most controversial movie: Salo or 120 days of Sodom.

The original film was about Nazi occupied northern Italy, where they conducted horrific S&M orgies using people as sex slaves for their entertainment. This new version, though, is a low budget German art film, and the actors only agree to come out of retirement for the chance of working with Helmut Berger (or maybe sex with the nude models.)

But professional jealousy and rivalry soon takes over, and everything falls apart. The “director” is a mock-Fassbinder complete with fake moustache, while the cast is composed of leches and divas who are going crazy, entering dementia or attempting suicide.

Can this film ever be made? And will Helmut ever show up?

This film is a panoply of meta-references to other movies. Schlingensief is there as Jesus on the cross (who a Klansman tries to set on fire) alongside medieval nuns (Pasolini-style), New York pop-art fashion (Warhol-style), with cameo performances ranging from the omnipresent Udo Kier, to Roland Emerich, Germany’s big-budget schlockmeister. Bottrop is a funny (if ridiculous) satirical look at the last gasp of New German Cinema.

Foreigners Out! Schliegensief’s Container (2002)

Dir: Paul Poet

It’s June 2000 in peaceful, culture-loving Vienna, when something unheard of happens. The conservative party forms a coalition with the ÖVP, Austria’s extreme rightwing Freedom party, headed by Nazi apologist Jörg Haider. The ÖVP is populist and xenophobic, portraying asylum seekers as drug dealers and killers (sound familiar?). That’s when Christoph Schlingensief set up a display – inside a shipping container – right beside Vienna’s Opera house, called Please Love Austria, to commemorate this coalition.

He brought in a dozen people of varied ethnicities, dressed them in fright wigs and let them live there for a week on display, in person and online, 24/7. And like the reality show Big Brother, viewers are asked to vote to evict two contestants each day. The catch is, these evicted contestants, whom he says are illegal immigrants, are led off by security guards and (supposedly) deported! And just in case you didn’t get the message, a huge white banner on the container’s roof says: Ausländer Raus! (Foreigners Out!) And Schlingensief gleefully announces the colour of the people Austrians vote to deport – dark skin first, light skin later.

Naturally, this art installation triggers extreme reactions. On the far right, people began to shout and demonstrate to deport all foreigners. Some leftists take it at face value, and attempt to storm the container to “rescue” the so-called foreigners and tear down the sign. And many in the middle hate the negative attention it brought to Austria… though it’s Austria that voted Haider in.

This documentary covers the art installation and the public reaction to it over its week-long run. And punctuated it with the media coverage it received, notably from the Krone group of wildly popular tabloids, who many blame for Haider’s election.

The show never overtly takes the standpoint of the immigrants. They’re just props in his sideshow. Rather it exposes society’s creepiest undercurrents that are usually kept hidden. And it illustrates Schlingensief’s theory that the best way to expose the worst beliefs is to repeat them out loud where everyone can hear them. The louder the better.

It’s only through exaggeration that we can show reality. This exhibit ran almost twenty years ago, but I think anyone can see that it’s more relevant now than ever.

The German Chainsaw Massacre, 120 Days of Bottrop, and Foreigners Out! Schliegensief’s Container are playing on May 10th, 15th and 17th at the Tiff Bell Lightbox as part of Goethe Institiute’s three-part tribute to avant garde filmmaker Christoph Schlingensief.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Source: Christof Schlingensief: art without borders, (c) 2010, Tara Forrest and Anna Teresa Scheer, editors, with a foreward by Alexander Kluge.

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