Zurich Film Festival 2021: Lifeworlds in the Anthropocene

Katinka Corts
6. October 2021
Film still from Ascension

This year's film festival in Zurich was probably marked — from an international point of view — by THE event after the Corona year: the premiere of the new James Bond film. On a national level, however, the film Und morgen seid ihr tot (And Tomorrow We Will Be Dead), a hostage drama by Swiss director Michael Steiner, is important. It recalls the incredible story of Daniela Widmer and David Och, who were kidnapped in 2011 while traveling through Pakistan and surrendered to the Taliban. Both were held hostage for eight months until they managed to escape. Widmer and Och, whose account of their experience serves as the basis for the film, also attended the premiere. In the film, Sven Schelker plays Och, who already masterfully portrayed Bruno Manser in the film of the same name two years ago. Morgane Ferru, who is particularly well-known from German productions, plays Widmer. Distributed by The Walt Disney Company (Switzerland), the film will be released in Swiss cinemas on October 28, 2021.

What is also interesting about the ZFF are the numerous niche films and documentaries that will not make it to the big cinemas. They are important, eye-opening and leave a more lasting impression than all the glossy films. Three films that revolve around very different lifeworlds are presented here. All of them are united on a meta-level by the question of how people live and want to live: what happiness and fulfilment mean to them. These documentaries from Russia, India, and China differ not only in their style and visual language, but also in the feeling you have when leaving the auditorium.

Beyond the White: Russian no-man's-land on the White Sea

Mighty nature and the small human being set against it: In Beyond the White, Evgeny Kalachikhin (*1982) takes us to the White Sea, high up in the north of Russia. At the southern end of the Kola Peninsula are the villages of Tetrino, Chavanga, and Kuzomen, where a few dozen people live in their traditional log cabins amidst breathtaking scenery — but also completely isolated. In each of the villages there are numerous decaying buildings whose former inhabitants either moved away from this solitude a long time ago or passed away.

The film tells a lot without really describing anything. As a viewer, you take part in people's everyday lives, in extracts, but you don't really get to know anyone. You don't learn the name of the woman who radios the weather data to the control center every morning at 6am. You don't know whether the children in the villages attend school. Nor do we learn what keeps people in this rugged area or what has brought them and their families there. All those who can be seen have learned to live with untamed nature — without modern infrastructure and almost forgotten by the regional administration. When the coastline, which is poor in vegetation, and the underlying peatlands burn one night, the inhabitants extinguish the fire with salt water, which they get from the shore in tin buckets. Trucks bring firewood, petrol, and food via the only unpaved road in the region. Kalachikhin used means and shooting styles that are usually found in feature film shooting — the shots seem very poetic and full of atmosphere, yet without easing the barrenness. His aim, he says, was to show people surrounded by nature and also to emphasize that nature is more important here than human beings.

Looking at this from our orderly and organized world, one is struck by how little the people living there seem to need to be happy. They take care of the half-derelict cemetery, where logs — with crosses of the Russian Orthodox Church — are buried deep in the sandy soil. Those without electricity bake their bread in a stone oven or cook on a small gas cooker. The old fisherman, who has laboriously mended and spread his long net, finally catches a few herrings and says to his friend: "Oh, we can be so happy that we have a boat with a motor! Our fathers had to row."

Film still from Ascension
Ascension: What life and becoming mean in China

After this tranquil film, the following one is a stark contrast, characterized by hustle and bustle and noise. Although one is already familiar with the images from numerous photos and film clips, it still seems strange to see people of all ages working like machines. In her film Ascension, the Chinese-American director and producer Jessica Kingdon, who lives in New York, takes a look at the working conditions of the people in her home country and their opportunities for social advancement. In three parts, one gets to know the different class levels: Initially it is about the work in the factories, then about the education of the middle class and finally about the elite, who have become familiar with wealth and service personnel since their financial advancement.

Sayings like "Work hard and all wishes come true" or "Be a good example" are emblazoned on posters in China and coax people to serve as factory workers, manually printing toothbrushes, labeling bottles, assembling binoculars and putting together Christmas trees from plastic parts. Scouts from the big companies also recruit day laborers for such work, who gather in car parks every morning. They shout "Sitting in job available" or "Free Wifi" into their microphones and give those who choose them a slip of paper for the bus that will later take them to the job site. Wherever demand is growing, China provides a supply, one realizes yet again. Two workers talking: "You don't count the hours you work. The boss counts the hours and then he pays for as many hours as he sees fit." Everyone seems to be inspired by the idea: If you work hard enough, you can move up the ladder. Whether electronic parts, jeans or sex dolls — Kingdon's collage of images takes us into the world of modern factory work and shows us mass consumption in times of globalization. In 2017, Filmmaker Magazine included her in the list of 25 New Faces of Independent Film, and in 2020 she was listed on the "40 under 40" list for DOC NYC. In a recent interview, Kingdon said a friend described the film as "an acid trip version of The Economist magazine's Focus on China issue". Jessica Kingdon sees China as a stage for universal questions surrounding the paradox of progress as it transitions from what was once known as the world's factory to one of the largest consumer societies in the world. No pain, no gain. Dreams are undefeatable. 

Film still from Invisible Demons 
Invisible Demons: Health as a function of poverty and wealth

Change of lifeworld: India. We are in New Delhi, it is June, the temperature in the city is 49.2 degrees Celsius. The wealthy live in air-conditioned interiors—moving between flat or house, car, office and haute couture shops every day. The poor move around in smog-polluted air, pray in the sewage-saturated river, or sort rubbish at one of the gigantic landfills. In the outdoor space of New Delhi, the issue of poison is omnipresent; eye irritation and lung diseases are the order of the day. With his film Invisible Demons, director Rahul Jain (*1991) moves in the young "cinema for the climate" genre. Jain grew up as a privileged "air-conditioned child," as he himself admits in the prologue. Born into a wealthy background, he was later able to go abroad and study film and video at the California Institute of the Arts. When he developed the idea for the film, New Delhi was once again considered the world's most polluted city. Rather than on a global scale, Jain wanted to show the issue of climate change in a more personal context — and his hometown seemed like the ideal backdrop for the subject. The viewer experiences the film ambivalently, seeing fantastic images while knowing that the foam on the river and the flickering of soot in the air document the damage done to the environment. Throughout his film, Jain intersperses scenes with weather presenter Divya Wadhwa of NDTV (New Delhi Television), the pioneer of independent news broadcasting in India. The spherical images are thus underpinned with hard facts that drive the drama of the situation home and bring it into reality. Filming, meanwhile, was not easy in the city of 30 million inhabitants and 3.5 million cars: The crew spent about half of each twelve-hour shooting day in traffic.

"Monsoon was a source of celebration. Now it turns into an epidemic."

Film quote from Invisible Demons

Some of the pictures shown are familiar, others are not. Drinking water is brought to suburbs by tankers because there is no water supply. Elsewhere, a servant waters the lawn of a roof terrace. If it does not rain for a long time, the streets become dusty and the air gets stuffy. When the longed-for monsoon rains start, the soil is too dry to absorb the water and large parts of the city drown in the floods. When the water recedes, diseases spread — the houses are then fumigated with chemicals to prevent epidemics. The same happens with the parks, where greenery is not to be infested by vermin. The film begins with a shot lasting several minutes showing a view across an idyllic city park. From the background, a gardener with a portable sprayer works his way through the greenery, step by step, leaving behind a toxic, opaque cloud. Again and again, Jain lets people have their say, contributing a small piece of the puzzle to the overall picture: The taxi driver talks about his child with respiratory disease. A vendor explains that the use of pesticides doubles his yields and earns him more money. Growth was good, but at what price, the director asks at one point in the film. And Divya Wadhwa explains that in New Delhi, 10% of deaths are directly attributable to air pollution — more than to accidents and terrorism. In 2015 the WHO listed the world's most polluted cities — 10 of the top 15 were Indian cities, with Pakistan and Bangladesh in between. The citizens surveyed complain that politics is supposed to serve the people, but fails to do so. From election to election, politicians promised water supply, clean air and a solution to the waste problem — but after the election, all that is forgotten. In the epilogue, Jain speaks again. He asks, as the camera drone slowly moves away from one of the landfills, showing the sheer height of the mountains of waste: "If this is development, what would a world without development look like?"

Individual insights, uncertain outlooks

Secluded life in Russia, exuberant development in China and environmental disaster in India — three very different snapshots of the Anthropocene by young filmmakers. Those who submit to (healthy!) nature and who live in harmony with it may live a modest life, but they seem to be more grateful and content. Those who submit to consumption and the things that surround them will not find peace and will remain in the constant pursuit of possible advancement. At the mercy and victims of this situation are those who do not live of their own free will in places where their health is constantly at risk, without being able to change anything through their own efforts. Happiness and fulfilment are different for everyone. After the first film, it may be the certainty of living in a functioning country. After the second film, one may have a deeper understanding that consumption cannot lead to happiness. And after the third, it is probably simply a gratitude for being able to see blue skies and smell fresh air.

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