Michael Glawogger’s Untitled (2016)

(…) the question of what constitutes freedom seems to be at be at the heart of the film, how the will to preserve stifles freedom and how, as Glawogger puts it, “the death of freedom is the fear of death.”

***

Untitled is a documentary film comprised of footage shot by Michael Glawogger and his cinematographer Attila Boa, and later edited and pieced together by Moniki Willi, who also incorporates some written excerpts from Glawogger’s travels that he left behind. The film is formally comparable to Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson (2016) in that both films are patchwork meditations on the nature of existence, life, death, and responsibility. The sort of questions you think about when analyzing a totality, usually made in retrospect, or at the conclusion of an encounter that merits an evaluation of worth or value.

Johnson is still alive. She considers Cameraperson a memoir, a record of her experiences travelling abroad for her work. What we see are the fringes or scraps of what she caught on camera, presumably left out of the final cut or otherwise ripped from some other grand narrative, and instead relegated to the junk heap of mere personal memory, connected to these other scraps through, namely Johnson, but also the uncanny (perhaps deceptive) universality of sadness, suffering, and joy. There is also a dimension to Johnson’s work that wrestles with the ethical position of the cameraperson much like the dilemma presented by the “pacifist war photographer.”

I digress. Cameraperson has a vision tethered to the 25-year filmmaking career of a particular woman, whose voice we hear constantly, whose mother and child we see through the lens of her camera. It’s a highly personal work, even though it is also about a boxing match in Brooklyn and a Nigerian midwife. There is the sense that we are witnessing the formation of an individual.

Untitled, on the other hand, was created posthumously. We see scenes from the Balkans, Italy, Northwest and West Africa jumbled together, a net cast out long in the middle of the ocean, images without referents save the narration of excerpts from Glawogger’s diary as curated by Willi. This film is like a novel without a clear narrative, at times merely a subset of impressionable scenarios, like a soccer match of 1-legged players or a field of donkeys in heat, that Glawogger hones in on as he struggles in his personal writings to make sense of, or rather, find a way in which these images debunk, reaffirm or complicate what he has taken to be true throughout his life.

This also begs the question of how exactly the distinction between fact and fiction unfolds.

Willi’s selection of Glawogger’s diary entries correspond to some of the places and communities we visit in the film, and often these narrations are beautiful explanatory pieces that illuminate the underlying psychologies of the subjects at hand. But how we can trust Glawogger’s insights? Is there not something violent about the imposition of logic and meaning onto lives that he merely observes, while the subjects are altogether silent and ripped out of their specific countries and histories by the stylistic exclusions of the film? Perhaps. These colonial parallels are unsurprising, but I like to think there is something very self-aware about this film, that in fact wants us to abandon our fixation with whether what we are being offered is fully “true.”

That being said, there’s nothing fake about what we’re seeing in Untitled; there’s no performance being orchestrated for the camera, so much as perhaps a hint of self-awareness by the subject of being observed and recorded. Ultimately the narration tells a story, and whether this story is completely accurate is beside the point. It’s as if Glawogger didn’t want to inform us, so much as introduce discussion questions as we float from scenario to scenario, our minds occasionally probed by Glawogger’s own, potentially flawed, potentially discerning records. I believe this also explains the lack of captions indicating where exactly we’re being taken. During my screening, I was particularly frustrated with being unable to identify where and what I was looking at. But I’ve come to appreciate this creative decision because it salvages the film from being easily absorbed as a token of travel fetishization, the stuff of Netflix travel and food programs, readily accessible images that can be stockpiled into your catalog of found objects and to-do’s. The film strives to stay light on its feet, and I find that it succeeds in being the sort of film described in the opening sequence as Glawogger’s ultimate desire: a film “proceeding without aim. Drifting with no direction except one’s own curiosity and intuition.” This can be said for the sequence of events and locations as much as the manner of interpretation, the way the film is approached and processed.

My memory of the film is invested in a few poignant images. Lit cigarettes as stand-ins for candles at the gravesite of family members lost in the civil war. A child carelessly hammering away at a nail placed precariously in a stump between his exposed legs. Seeing the live birth of an animal is always impactful for me. I find it so estranged from the at this point culturally padded notion of baby human birthing, with its heterosexual demands and extended family baggage, or the noticeable absence thereof. This is the second time I’ve been taken aback by the on-screen birth of a baby goat, the first being the second cycle of Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, in which the death of an old shepherd is followed abruptly by the descent of an infant baby goat to the ground from his mother’s body. In Volte as in Untitled, the infant goat comes into this world as if from nowhere. Arriving unexpectedly and suddenly, at its weakest state, and thrust into an existence that nearly never acknowledge its entry. These new beings almost always come into this world with a look of pain, despairing at what to do in this new place in this unbearably weak physical form. In Untitled, a mother goat gives birth in the middle of a sandstorm, after a particularly exalting foray into a meal of garbage with the rest of the herd. In a mid-range shot, we see the baby goat and some gooey accoutrements spill out of a dull-eyed mother as sand or dirt whips around them, browning the screen. The new goat, frail and sticky, bleats madly as it tries get on its feet, as if on stilts. The last shot of this spectacle is presumably a herder crouching with the infant goat wrapped up in his jacket as the storm passes through on its way to another place.

There is so much ceremony around child-rearing for humans. Animals don’t choose to get pregnant. It is incredible to see birth come about without agency and responsibility, so much as a simple fact of nature.

Ultimately the question of what constitutes freedom seems to be at be at the heart of the film, how the will to preserve stifles freedom and how, as Glawogger puts it, “the death of freedom is the fear of death.” The harm of seeing everything in terms of its ending, and the dangers of succumbing to that crippling fear of coming anywhere near a full circle of existence seems to be something Glawagger took to heart, something that compelled him to create and write and film till the end. Untitled is I suppose a sort of memoir– we see what Glawogger once saw and we hear what he once wrote– but ultimately this film is not for him, it is for the viewer. Because if anything, Glawogger didn’t care what we could learn about him, but rather, how his worldview could help us learn at least a little about ourselves.

PS: I want to hate the title. I’m sure Glawogger would’ve given it a proper title, but I suppose its fitting given the circumstances.

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