So Far, and Still Onward

Created through collaboration with the Filmpodium, the series “Grenzgänger – Grenzenlos: Asien und Europa” (April 1–May 15, 2017) showed a wide range of both fictional and documentary films from Asia and Europe. Central to it were the borders between these cultural areas, and the encounters, fantasies, and conflicts experienced by those who cross borders.

Natalie Böhler

As contemporary events show, borders have again become a major issue. Around the world, there are diverse points of conflict between global networking, regional ties and confederations, and a reemergent nationalism. The films in this series address all of these issues through approaching them in terms of borders. The geopolitical borders between, as well as within, Asia and Europe are ambivalent: They constrict, protect, generate spaces for freedom, and may foster imprisonment or openness. In one way or another, the main figures in the films are all border crossers. Whether their journeys are real or imagined, these figures encounter cultural, linguistic, physical or psychological boundaries, sometimes going beyond them into the new and the unknown.

Thinking outside of the box

Boundary crossers’ encounters enable them to question that which is familiar and consider their background anew, and their identify can be confirmed or destabilized. Where Are You Going (Yang Zhengfan, China/Hong Kong 2016) shows the constricted view from a taxi driving to urban Hong Kong. The taxi driver’s question regarding his passengers’ destination touches not only on individual lives, but also on the city’s current political and cultural development. In We Went to Wonderland (Great Britian 2008), the filmmaker Guo Xiaolu intimately documents a meeting with her parents. For the first time, they leave their home in China to visit their daughter in her adopted home of London. Seen from the parents’ perspective, London sparks philosophical reflection about the perception of the foreigner. My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, Great Britian 1985) also shows England from the view of an immigrant. The screenwriter Hanif Kureishi complements his intercultural, gay love story with an ironic take on Margaret Thatcher. By contrast, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (Karan Johar, India 2001) depicts life in the diaspora as an escape from narrow, traditional boundaries, but as nonetheless marked by a longing for India and by isolation from family. In Stupeur et tremblements (France and Japan 2003), Japanese work culture is seen as lacking any transparency from the perspective of a Belgian woman. Her career declines relentlessly, a process accompanied by a curiously masochistic sense of amusement. Yet a positive, alternative perspective is available in Au sud des nuages (Jean-François Amiguet), where a reticent, Welsh farmer finds reconciliation with himself through a journey with the Trans-Siberian railroad.

Ideals and illusions

Encounters with what is foreign are sometimes mere fantasy. How do perception and reality diverge from each other, and what can be inferred about the fantasizer based on how he portrays others? In the children’s film Bekas (Karzan Kader, Sweden, Finland, Iraq 2012), two Kurdish youths embark for the border in order to realize their dream of living in America, their knowledge of which is only based on the movie Superman. Two films in the series have titles pointing to the topic of temporality. What’s the Time in Your World? (Safi Yazdanian, Iran 2014) features an Iranian woman who, having lived in France for twenty years, travels back to her country of origin. Encounters with former acquaintances from her earlier life evince her fragile relationship with her past. Indeed, the film’s fragmenting narration conveys the boundaries of memory and belonging. What Time Is It There? (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, France 2001) depicts two parallel lives – one in Taipei, another in Paris – that happen to connect. The main figures vacillate in thought between the two cities and time zones, with the film becoming a reflection about temporality and placelessness. The Philippine comedy The Woman in the Septic Tank (Marlon Rivera, 2011) operates on a cinematic meta-level. Three filmmakers act out a script in three different styles in order to correspond to the perceptions of the festival’s international audience. Chris Marker’s pathbreaking film essay Sans soleil (France 1983) pursues the issues of remembering and image making, transcending the boundaries between lands and continents with a global perspective.

Irreconcilable differences

Where comprehension and fantasy fail, conflicts emerge. Yet they can lead to humor, rather than murder and homicide. The satire entitled Win Win (Claudio Tonetti, Switzerland and Belgium 2013) involves an ironic, but also affectionate, take on cultural misunderstandings that occurred during a Chinese beauty contest in the Swiss canton of Jura. The Land of the Enlightened (Belgium 2016) shows how Soviet and American occupations affected a group of children in the mountains of Afghanistan, with Pieter-Jan De Pue’s film performing the delicate balancing act between documentary and fiction. In Gegen die Wand (Germany and Turkey 2004), Fatih Akin presents a couple in Berlin who, having entered a marriage of convenience, fall in love only for it to intensify further. The romance becomes a catalyst for the figures to break with their Turkish origin and reflects the instability of life away from it. Theeb (Naji Abu Nowar, Jordan 2014) presents how, during the First World War, a Bedouin youth leads an English soldier through the desert of the Arabian Peninsula. Their journey brings the young man into adulthood. In Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Great Britain and Japan 1983), Nagisa Oshima reenacts the tensions in a prison camp between the British occupants and Japanese wardens during the Second World War – a scenario amounting to a sadomasochistic power game. And finally, a black and white film shows the countless nuances in a migration story: In the animated film Persepolis (France and the United States 2007), the native Iranian Marjane Satrapi depicts her homeland’s upheavals during her childhood and how, as an adolescent, she found her way to Europe.

As part of the film series, there were many special events with members of the the URPP Asia and Europe, as well as the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies (IAOS). Tobias Heinzelmann (IAOS) provided an introduction to Theeb, and Rohit Jain (formerly of the URPP Asia and Europe) provided one to My Beautiful Laundrette. Elisa Ganser (URPP Asia and Europe) and Sabrina Ciolfi (Università degli Studi di Milano) led a discussion about the Bollywood film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham. After the showing of Where Are You Going, Andrea Riemenschnitter (IAOS and URPP Asia and Europe) spoke about the film with Helena Wu (URPP Asia and Europe) and Kiu-wai Chu (IAOS). Especially gratifying was that two directors could be won for an appearance at the Filmpodium. Helena Wu spoke with the Chinese director Guo Xiaolu, along with others, about her documentary We Went to Wonderland, and Elika Palenzona-Djalili (URPP Asia and Europe) spoke with Safi Yazdanian (What’s the Time in Your World?) about the Iranian cinema.

(This text was originally published in German in the program book of the Filmpodium. The English translation was done by Phillip Lasater.)

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, pp. 31–32)