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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Hungers

Oslo, August 31st tells the story of Anders, a thirty-four-year-old Norwegian who has been a patient in a drug rehabilitation center near the city, is now clean, and is given permission to visit the city for one day for a job interview. The screenplay, by the director Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt, is distantly derived from a French novel by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (from which Louis Malle’s

Le Feu Follet also came). Trier and Vogt are neat and cunning. They give us something of Anders’s state of mind before he goes: he seems to practice suicide with a rock in a lake and to be pleased that he can withstand it.

When he gets to town and visits friends before his interview, he is, by what are apparently his standards, well-behaved—that is, he is laconic and fairly amiable. All of it is presented by the actor Anders Danielsen Lie in an almost private, confidential way. Yet these meetings increasingly seem to oppress him with their flatness. Increasingly we sense that he doesn’t want to get back into this banal, static world. Even a successful friend, with a pretty wife and two sweet children, confesses to him a haunting dissatisfaction. When Anders at last gets to the job interview, it fizzles. Both liberated and angered by this, he buys some drugs and goes back to the comfy rehab place.

The film shows us early some vistas of Oslo, which have an unintended effect. Those views, plus Anders’s ventures thereafter, are reminders of another work about a young man’s ventures in some of those very streets—Knut Hamsun’s great novel Hunger. Oddly, that novel helped to open up this film.

Hamsun’s narrator—implicitly himself—is a young man who wants to be a writer and who is going through terrible hardships, including of course hunger, while trying to make his way. But he doesn’t falter. Anders does. Although he has some qualifications for that job interview, he has no drive, no enabling purpose. Hence, we can believe, the drugs.

And thus, seen against Hamsun, this film becomes another in a genre that has lately swollen, from countries around the world: the story of young people without purpose, without (to put it basically) hope. Unemployment figures tell us about cruelties for people who want to work. These young people sometimes want to, sometimes feel it’s pointless. Even jobs don’t always help, as witness Anders’s friend with the children.

The total of the day’s aridities overwhelms him. When Anders goes for his interview, he apparently has a chance for the job, but he maneuvers the session to give himself the right to storm out—while the interviewer says, “I don’t get it.”

Well, we can guess at it. Hamsun’s purposeful young man had not lived in the twentieth century, a period that gave little nurture to social ideals. Perhaps the twenty-first will—we have to hope—clear the air for Anders and others.

Briskly edited and brightly shot, a documentary called Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present is a celebration. Abramović, Belgrade-born, now sixty-three and looking about thirty, is one of the most widely praised of the world’s performance artists. For forty years she has performed and been honored in much of Europe and the United States, where she now lives. An American film-maker, Matthew Akers, wanted to affirm the methods and aims of her work.

Performance art is an accommodating term: widely divergent activities harbor under it. All that can be generalized about it is that, usually, the work is actually performed by the artist and colleagues before viewers. (But it is not theater: Abramović has said that she hates theater, and she proves it.) And it is art in the elemental sense that it is being done to affect people in some way. In one sequence of this film, a nude man and woman kneel opposite each other, slapping each other’s face. Whatever it means, or “means,” this startling behavior evokes a startled reaction. Akers says that he wanted to show how Abramović and friends make people look at everything differently, shorn of past expectations. Her work thus has a certain relationship—theoretically, at least—to surrealism.

The film was made during ten months of preparation for a show at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. The members of the company, male and female, nude much of the time, perform various movements—jumping up and down with a red handkerchief, for one instance—while different curators and art critics comment on the distinctions of Abramović’s work.

All these various moments are, however, not braided into one complete work for MoMA. That show is Abramović herself, seated in a plain chair, with a chair opposite and sometimes a table. The only others of her people involved are a nude young man and woman between whom every spectator has to squeeze in order to get out. (The show ran for three months and was attended by many thousands of people, some of whom waited all night outside in order to get in.)

The room is large and has a balcony, filled with spectators. Below are Abramović and other spectators who are being allowed one at a time to sit opposite her briefly. For three months, for seven and a half hours a day, she, in a red gown, sat in her chair, while individuals sat opposite her. She was silent, so were they. Occasionally, she returned a gesture, if the other person put her hand on her heart. Once an old friend kissed her on both cheeks after sitting there a while.

One’s own description of all this as art is very much one’s own. Two factors, however, are indisputable. The attraction of this work of Abramović’s and the effect it had on spectators were fascinating. We can weigh the effect that publicity had had on them and on their varying inner states that made them want to participate. Nonetheless, it all happened, affectingly.

The second factor is the commitment of her company, their belief in what she does and asks them to do. Recently we saw documentaries about two men who are artists in an accustomed sense, Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, and the devotion of their disciples was immediately, historically credible. With Abramović, the activities are so unrelated to what has been considered art that her company’s devotion overcomes obstacles—or what might be obstacles for many of us. For me, their faith became one of her chief warrants.

Two film makers—Emad Burnat, a Palestinian, and Guy Davidi, an Israeli—have collaborated on a documentary called 5 Broken Cameras, an account of the West Bank troubles between their countries. Emad, as he is called throughout, had been a photographer who bought a video camera to record the birth of Gibreel, his fourth son. Davidi, an experienced director, cinematographer, and teacher of film, joined Emad as he progressed to record the conditions into which Gibreel was born.

The result is a bit jagged, inevitably incomplete, and in no way news-breaking: it is simply moving. The recurrent conflicts on the West Bank between aggressive Israeli settlers and Arab residents have stirred up argument worldwide, including among some fervent supporters of Israel. This film will not heal the arguments.

The action takes place in and around the village of Bil’in, where Emad and family live. (How they live is an unanswered question. Emad says he lives off the land—although the only crop we see is olives, and Israeli advances are diminishing those orchards.)

The villagers march often in protest against the Israeli barriers and walls, but they are always beaten back by soldiers. Violence flares: there are deaths. But Bil’in keeps protesting through the years; Israel—although we know that Israelis themselves are divided on this matter—stands firm. In fact it advances, erecting more housing projects.

Emad’s camera is destroyed by a gas grenade. During the next five years, four more of his cameras are broken: one of them is actually shot. Each time a new camera is given to him, its source undisclosed, although Davidi may be suspected. All through the film we see Gibreel blossoming while the conditions of his life at best stay the same.

One event we don’t see is a car crash in which Emad was severely injured. He himself tells us—he does the voice-over—that he was taken to a Tel Aviv hospital, and that if he had been taken to a Palestinian hospital, he would not have survived. The crash evidently had something to do with an encounter at the barrier.

This oddly collaborative film is valuable if only because it illuminates one sector of the anguish that can easily be set aside as we concentrate on the politics involved. Apartment houses versus olive trees. That—the film’s base—is to put matters too simply but not forgettably. The picture will be shown in the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer.

This article appeared in the July 12, 2012 issue of the magazine.