928. Unsere Afrikareise / Our Trip to Africa (1966, Peter Kubelka) - a preview

TSPDT rank #808 IMDb I'm planning to see this 12 minute film tomorrow during my lunch break at the Donnell Media Center. As this is an experimental film, I've decided to take the same approach in writing about it as my multi-part experiential account of Ernie Gehr's Still (TSPDT #853), which many of you responded to positively (including Gehr himself!). I'd might as well take this approach since, as with Still, this film is not available on DVD so there's no chance of producing a video essay.

It's ever the dilemma, deciding whether to read extensively about a film prior to experiencing it first-hand. However, in the case of experimental cinema, my experience has been that more often than not I end up appreciating the context that pre-reading provides, instead of going into a movie cold. I like having ideas in my head of things to look for, points of view that I can hold and either accept, reject or modify as I experience the film myself.

"UNSERE AFRIKAREISE is about the richest, most articulate, and most compressed film I have ever seen. I have seen it four times and I am going to see it many, many times more, and the more I see it, the more I see in it. Kubelka's film is one of cinema's few masterpieces and a work of such great perfection that it forces one to re-evaluate everything that one knew about cinema. The incredible artistry of this man, his incredible patience. (He worked on UNSERE AFRIKAREISE for five years; the film is 12 and a half minutes long.) His methods of working (he learned by heart 14 hours of tapes and three hours of film, frame by frame), and the beauty of his accomplishment makes the rest of us look like amateurs." -- Jonas Mekas, quoted here

Sounds great, Jonas. But wtf is it about?

In 1961 Peter Kubelka was asked to make a documentary about a group of Europeans on an African hunting trip. He accompanied them, recorded many hours of film and sound, and then spent five years editing this material into a most unconventional film. The result, Unsere Afrikareise, is one of the most densely packed 12½ minutes in film history, and makes truly extraordinary use of the creative possibilities of sound...

Images taken at different times and places are cut together, often on matched movements, to create momentary illusions of continuity. The images are disparate enough, however, so that the viewer is never fooled. A hunter shakes an African's hand and we cut to a zebra's leg, shaking similarly, as if the hunter were shaking it, but the hunter is nowhere in the shot. When the next shot reveals that the zebra is being skinned, we understand that while the hunter was not literally causing the zebra's leg to move, there was a deeper causal connection between the two shakes. Kubelka's juxtapositions are anything but arbitrary; they reveal truths inherent in his material. ..

What is most extraordinary about Kubelka's achievement is not the specific connections he establishes between elements, but rather the system that the entire network of connections form. Repeated viewings of the film reveal it as too multiple in its implications to be resolvable into a single interpretation. Thematic results of specific articulations are merely a few aspects of many in the film. Kubelka's almost musical form establishes a grand relation between virtually every image and sound and every other across the entire film. The resulting multitude of connections is expressive of many, rather than a few, possibilities. The viewer is ultimately led out of time, to contemplate these connections in memory, and to regard the film as if it were a monument erected as a record of civilization, not as a statement on it but as a kind of totem for it.

- from Fred Camper's description for Film Reference.com

In this 2002 interview, Kubelka talks about how Unsere Afrikareise gave him success after years of toiling in obscurity in Austria:

I decided when I was 17 years old, that I would like to make cinema. It was a vocation. I was absolutely sure that I would make cinema even if, at that time, I had seen very little of it. For fifteen years, more or less, I did nothing but think of cinema, intensely. Day and night, my existence was devoted to that. Then, in 1966, I went for the first time to the United Sates on an invitation by people like Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage, whom I had known for years. I couldn’t finish Unsere Afrikareise, because at the time in Austria, they still didn’t have the adequate sound system to do the optical sound. I had done all the creative work in Austria, all that remained was to do the final answer print. In New York, I was able, for the first time, to present personally my films. It was at the New York Film Anthology, founded by Jonas, on 46th street. It was a huge success! Other invitations immediately followed that event, one of which was at Harvard. Harvard organised a series of lectures and they invited me to speak. I told them: “Ok, I will present my films, but I will not do a lecture.” To which they responded, “If you don’t do the lecture, we can’t fit you in the programme.” I therefore accepted. Just before the lecture, I went to Harvard and they put me up in a small house where, without speaking with anyone, I prepared myself thoroughly. I was persuaded that it would be the first and last talk that I would give! But it was like a miracle: we were in the theatre of the Corporate Center and it was completely crowded! They had to transmit the sound outside to those who were waiting. I spoke for about 3 hours and 30 minutes, saying to myself: this is the first and last lecture of my life, I have to say all that I think. Even though, sometimes, I lost my train of thought, it unfolded very well. In the end, I received a standing ovation and I cried! My life had changed!

And yet, Kubelka's on-again, off-again film career has been anything but prolific: eight films that barely cover a total run-time of an hour. He has alternated his filmmaking with creative work in music, art and cooking. Here he is, quoted again from the interview, on his multidisciplinary interests:

I wanted to release myself from these definitions that one finds on the epitaphs. This act finds its origins in a problem which I always have: how to defend the individual against society, against the group. My example is to take the Lark, a bird which I love a lot. If one takes a lark and asks it whether it can sing, it will answer: “Naturally I can sing! I am a Lark and all Larks can sing!” If one asks the same question to a human being, they will answer: “You know I belong to a species which sing—because the human being can sing—but me personally I do not sing at all. There are specialists who dedicate their whole lives to the practice of singing and they do it so well that it is not worth the sorrow when I sing. Then I attend their concerts, the specialists.” It is the same thing everywhere: the normal human being is specialized and consumes the works of the professionals, the virtuosos. It is certainly not ideal. Naturally, one cannot do everything like a virtuoso. But then, virtuosity also becomes questionable. Now, I am really interested in applied arts because, before, all the arts were applied. There was not this idea of free art, aesthetics, etc, which is not completely free in any case today either. Art is useful; art should always be used for something. But the question of virtuosity, of specialization brings us to this separation between the art that everyone made, popular art, and art where virtuosity starts, the art of the artist. Now one says “Folk art” which is pejorative! When I began this act of de-specialization, I did not have very clear ideas yet, but the ideal was to become again a child who is not yet specialized and thus is open to all the possibilities that the human animal has…

It seems that simplicity, directness and utility are themes that emerge in his approaches to art, and he can be quite eloquent and evocative in arguing on behalf of these values:

There is however nothing more grandiose than a found work of art, which communicates and which I can read, but it’s creation did not have other means, nor another finality, than its own existence. If one can read the poetry in the universe as it is, it is the greatest art. But how can one communicate this knowledge to someone else? It is the first problem of the artist as we see it, the active artist who does something, from whom something is born. And perhaps the first artistic act was to do that: to create a work of art by making this gesture (he points his finger): to point your finger at something whereas the glance of the other follows this indication and understands the work which is there.

In this interview with the San Francisco Bay Guardian, he offers his thoughts on film in the digital age, and why he will never allow his films to be transferred to a digital format:

I do not allow my films to be transferred to video and shown in digital form, which means that if film goes under, I will go under with it. But I don't do this in order to go under [laughs]. I'm absolutely convinced cinema as a classic medium will stay on, because it has a heart core which cannot be replaced by any other medium.

The editing of my metric films is less arithmetic than geometric, which means I have a body contact to film, I count the frames by taking the material in my hands. There is the possibility of bringing in a body intelligence, and not just a mathematical or literary intelligence which comes from outside and does not really touch the medium. Film is culture, and it is a bending, transparent, three-dimensional object.

When you show film on a [digital] screen in a half-lit atmosphere, it is like representing a painting with postcards. DVD is fine, and the digital medium will develop and find its soul and its heart's core. But the imitation of cinema is definitely not what the digital medium can do, should do, and will do.

Overall impression:

I am very much looking forward to seeing this film, and I expect it to be an intense and densely packed array of sounds and images. Kubelka himself seems to be a fascinating and idea-filled person. I recognize the gap in our respective attitudes towards the film medium; frankly I feel a bit ashamed of my admittedly cavalier treatment of film on video and my preferences on accessibility and virtuality (as evidenced on this site) over what sounds like his very tactile, reverent and concentrated handling of the film medium. Imagine the patience it must have taken to work on a single 12 minute film for five years... Can't wait to see it.

Continue to the post-screening review