Imaginations of the Real

Ten acclaimed Austrian documentary filmmakers will be the subject of a special series starting Sept. 10 at the Filmmuseum

A scene from Pripyat, a documentary by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, to be screened on Sept. 24 at the Austrian Film Museum | Image: Austrian Film Museum

In 1993 a short film On the Road with Emil by the Kitzbühl born Hubert Sauper, was shown in Vienna’s Künslerhauskino.  It was a wonderfully poetic, yet melancholy documentary by the then 27 year old filmmaker about life on the road with a circus. Yet this audience of mainly film students thought little of it; so few were surprised when Hubert Sauper, who had just finished studying at the Film Academy, moved to Paris.

Sauper did not wholly relinquish his contacts with Vienna, however, and could be spotted now and again especially at the time of the Viennale. And then four years later, in 1997, he was back, ill , weary and suffering from malaria.

He was also editing a film. Shot in the Congo, it would be called Kisangani Diary, and it went on to win ten awards from juries around the world, making it one of a growing list of acclaimed films by Austrian documentary filmmakers that will be the subject of a special series, “Imaginations of the Real, Ten Austrian Documentaries” Sept. 22 to Oct. 6 at the Austrian Film Museum on Albertinaplatz.

The series, presented as part of the tenth anniversary celebrations of dok.at an association of Austrian documentary filmmakers, will include several name films like Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Pripyat (Sept 22,) and Michael Glawogger’s Megacities (Sept. 24), but will also present lesser known but important work by Ulrich Seidl, Egon Humer, Michael Pilz, Peter Schreiner, Arash T.Riahi,  Gerhard Friedl, Anja Salomonowitz and Ruth Beckermann and will grant, most importantly, a chance for the audience to discuss the growing success of the Austrian documentary with the filmmakers themselves.

Hubert Sauper is, in a way, emblematic of the commitment of these filmmakers. Kisangani Diary was not an easy film to make: Sauper had gone to the Congo with three cameras: The first had been confiscated, the second demolished by the army; so it was with the third, a tiny home video camera, that the film was made. He had filmed scenes from refugee camps that many claimed didn’t exist. The post production process wasn’t easy either, and the film was completely re-edited and even its title changed (it was originally called The Congo’s Left Foot).

Kisangani Diary made possible his next film Darwin’s Nightmare, five years later; that among many awards won the “Cesar du Cinema” in 2005. If the former was difficult to make from a psychological standpoint, the latter was a logistical nightmare. It also put Sauper himself in danger, as it exposed the manner in which the arms trade has been instrumental in the rape of Africa. The film spurred passionate discussion at the premiere, some saying it gave them nightmares, and others arguing that the beautiful photography was ill-fitting to its theme while still others said that without it the film would have been unbearable.

An indictment of western resource politics, it thus came as a surprise when it was nominated for an Oscar as Best Documentary in 2006. Trouble makes don’t often win awards. Yet even without the honors, it would rremain one of the most powerful and important films of the last decade.

For a small country, Austria has produced a disproportionate number of ambitious documentary filmmakers in recent years, willing to tackle big, important, global themes. In addition to Hubert Sauper, the list includes increasingly well known names, like Erwin Wagenhofer, Michael Glawogger and Nikolaus Geyrhalter.

If Hubert Sauper is a selfless idealist, Vienna native Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 38, is positively self-effacing, and his eye-opening film about food production, Unser Täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread) premiered to little comment.  The film showed the reality we willingly choose to ignore, with powerful, stark images of the industrialization of modern food processing, and if we are what we eat, by implication the dehumanizing of modern life. While Sauper uses a direct, highly personal approach, Geyrhalter prefers a respectful distance and his images can seem cool and detached in comparison. This has as much to do with the fact that he comes from photography as it does with his personality.  His faith is wholly in the image.

What both he and Hubert Sauper have in common with the Graz born Michael Glawogger, 51, is remarkable courage. All three are willing to take personal risks and all three have risked their lives to make their films, including climbing down the shaft into a very narrow, very dark and very frightening Russian mine to make Michael Glawogger’s film Working Man’s Death. Yet however dangerous this was for the team, it was nothing compared to the danger they faced when they climbed on-top of a ship being demolished by Pashtuns in Pakistan.

What the three have in common with Erwin Wagenhofer is an interest in global issues. Born in Amstetten, just west of Vienna, Erwin Wagenhofer, 49, studied technology and electronics before moving on to film. Since then he has made two very important contributions: We feed the World, about the food industry and the timely Let’s Make Money about international finance that have received international acclaim (The FIPRESCI European Film Critics Award and the Amnesty International Human Rights Prize for We Feed the World, Award in 2007, the German Documentary Film Prize for Let’s Make Money in 2008) and have become cult favorites among globalization activists.

The new dynamism in Austrian documentary filmmaking, as in the recent spate of awards for feature filmmakers here, has caught some by surprise. Perhaps it shouldn’t have; there are others.

“Austria is not alone in having a strong documentary scene. Switzerland has one too,” said Austrian documentary filmmaker Doris Kittler in a recent interview. But the reasons are harder to find.

“There is no easy explanation for this phenomenon,” she went on. “It is certainly not on account of the wonderful conditions!”   Financing is hard to come by and there is little interest from Austria’s National Television, the ORF.  “Funding criteria are laborious, paralyzing artists,  and anything but helpful.”

With all the difficulties, however, documentary filmmaking has become a worldwide trend, a desire for a voice in global issues that seem increasingly elusive, and an antidote to the vacuousness of Hollywood, filling a gap left by the decline in quality broadcast television news.

“Fifteen years ago, nobody could imagine that there would be a huge audience for documentaries,” Kittler said. It is the medium where she finds her inclinations and skills best meet.  For her, the direction is clear: to continue to make documentaries despite the poor conditions, “out of passion”.

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