Prayer and Gymnastics
In “Tibet Revisited” documentary filmmaker Manfred Neuwirth
shows just how much the cultural conflict in the Himalayas has stepped
up over the last few years. And in the process he succeeds again in
producing unforgettable moments of cinema.
Moments in the cinema that are unforgettable seldom happen. But
there are some. It was like that with “Tibetan Recollections”,
a travel journal by Manfred Neuwirth made in the middle of the Nineties.
Views of landscapes alternated with impressions of everyday life,
including one scene where Chinese soldiers in combat kit disperse
a demonstration. Then, right in the middle of the film a laughing
extended family suddenly appears in the middle of enjoying a picnic.
“Tibet Revisited” the most recent work by the Austrian
filmmaker that was premiered this spring at the Diagonale, is a
loose successor to the work made ten years ago. The cultural conflict—the
new film shows this clearly—has only got worse in the meantime.
“Lhasa,” said Neuwirth in conversation, “is really
completely Sino-cised, Tibetan are clearly in the minority.”
Nonetheless, in almost every sequence the enormous presence of traditional
spiritual life can be felt. One shows a few believers who, on their
way home from work, prostrate themselves in front of the Dalai Lama’s
former palace while on the street behind them there is a continuous
flow of pedestrians and cyclists; mopeds and small cars.
Neuwirth, who is no mere formalist, nevertheless treats form in
his films very consciously. “Tibet Revisited” consists
of a series of tableaux vivants separated by black frames where
each of the 28 takes is shot with a fixed camera and lasts exactly
three minutes. There is no commentary. While television continuously
uses up images and combines them randomly with sound in order to
simultaneously deliver licence payers with an interpretation of
the world, the filmmaker lets the images and sounds that he finds
speak for themselves.
Whether they “pass the test” depends, finally, on the
viewer. With a radicalness that is otherwise used by only the American
avant-garde documentarian James Benning, Manfred Neuwirth commits
himself to a “ contemplative montage”. Whoever engages
with the film really learns to see in the cinema. That also marks
the main difference with “Tibetan Recollections” that
worked with certain very small shifts between image and sound. The
effectively un-reworked sequences in “Tibet Revisited”
have this inherently built in, as the continuous blare of severely
damaged radio speakers in the marketplace or the ringing of a mobile
telephone during prayers testify. “When so many different
times and cultures collide there are naturally developments that
are exciting both from the images as well as sound,” says
Neuwirth. “For example, it gets louder and louder. That’s
why the impressions from the area round Lhase are more strongly
defined through the soundtrack because advertising and with it this
„big city“ sound has clearly established itself.”
The diverse conflicts between traditionally influenced ways of life
and a strongly impinging modernity is reworked into the order of
the tableaux by the filmmaker in a way that is both sovereign and
subtle. Praying in front of the palace is preceded by a scene in
which employees of a Chinese concern perfunctorily go through their
early-morning gymnastics. In the streets of Lhasa jeans, Coca-Cola
and pop music bear witness to the progress of globalisation; in
the country it is above all the new factories, surfaced roads and
continuously increasing traffic.
Even stronger are those images which cannot be decoded quite so
simply. One of them shows a monastery which is only recognisable
as such by the chants of the monks coming from outside the image;
another, completely hypnotic image, shows nothing more than a millstone
turning regularly. One doesn’t need to know it is an archaic
piece of equipment and has, in addition, immense cultural meaning
(“it is grinding barley, the main staple food of Tibet,”
says the filmmaker) in order for all the senses to be engaged by
the rhythm of this droning movement. “Tibet Revisited”,
like all of Manfred Neuwirth’s films, rejects artificial didacticism,
his argumentation is one of form, of concentration, of poetry. He
is not concerned with illustrating some theory or other nor to present
himself as a globe-trotting adventurer. His work has only peripherally
to do with the home-grown wave of documentary filmmakers and much
more with cinema à la Benning or Romuald Karmakar.
With its last sequence, a travelling shot through the countryside,
the film unexpectedly takes off. Foreign trucks thunder along a
road lying bared to a glittering highland light while native traders
unfalteringly chug along the edge of it with their archaic companions.
An unforgettable moment.
Michael Omasta, Falter