The Fire Within
Hot on the heels of the year’s earlier release of Katia and Maurice Krafft — Fire of Love — comes Werner Herzog’s tribute to the volcanologist couple, The Fire Within: Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft. Compiled almost entirely from footage that the pair shot on their many expeditions to volcanic eruptions, Herzog’s minimalist archival effort envisions the Kraffts as radical artists in the arena of image-making (Katia through still photography, Maurice in film), focusing less on their devotion to one another and more on their devotion to what became their second craft. In the Kraffts, Herzog finds kindred spirits, equally though differently committed to the creation of truly astonishing images, and in The Fire Within, he achieves what any documentarian strives for: the true magnification of his subjects in every aspect of the film. Herzog is unabashedly reverent of his subjects, just as they were in the pursuit of their own art, and his respect for their work permeates every frame. With an intense attention to detail, Herzog finds common cause with the Kraffts, never seeming to impose or project meaning onto them, but instead creating an echo of their artistic and personal sensibilities in his own work.
Perhaps the most memorable sequences of The Fire Within are those in which Herzog steps back as a narrator, exercising restraint and allowing the Kraffts’ footage to speak for itself. In contrast to Fire of Love’s over-dependence on narration and constant contextualization of the Kraffts’ work, Herzog expertly draws out the commonalities within their work, the elements of humanity and nature that the couple continually returned to, collating these themes into extended sequences that capture the sheer magnitude of their subjects. Nowhere is this more evident than in a sequence set among the ruins of several eruption sites the Kraffts had visited, in which Maurice’s camera continually seeks out religious iconography reduced to detritus. The sacred symbols of Christianity are cast into the mud or else shattered by the sheer force of nature, quickly abandoned by believers who were faced with a far more pressing act of God. Here, Herzog’s title, his “requiem” for the Kraffts, is at its most poignant, questioning through their own footage what their roles really were. While the pair were, first and foremost, volcanologists, their secondary vocation in documenting these eruptions and their aftermath often led to their footage being an act of memorialization. Often arriving at the scenes of catastrophe after victims had fled or perished, the Kraffts’ footage serves as remembrance for what once was, capturing places where few others dared to step foot. It is only fitting that they are afforded a requiem of their own, and who other than Werner Herzog could be more up to the task?
Writer: Molly Adams
Mother Lode straddles a few different lines in its depiction of the grueling lives of gold miners in the mountains of Peru. For all practical purposes, it is a fiction film, co-written and directed by an Italian, Matteo Tortone, featuring black-and-white cinematography by Swiss photographer Patrick Tresch, and filmed on location in Peru — Lima and La Rinconada specifically. Despite having the pedigree of a European art film, it also takes on some of the attributes of documentary. The film follows the ostensibly fictional story of Jorge, a character portrayed by non-professional Jose Luis Nazario Campos, but many of the film’s narrative beats are taken from Campos’ real life, relayed to Tortone and co-writer Mathieu Granier in detailed conversations. It’s a heady mix of modes — emblematic perhaps of filmmakers like Kiarostami who also freely melded fiction and non-fiction — rendered here in richly textured details and starkly beautiful images. We first meet Jorge in Lima, struggling to make ends meet as a pedicab taxi driver. Tortone mounts a camera at the front of the bike, giving us an up-close and personal look at Jorge’s frustrating journeys; the bike frequently breaks down, causing him to leave customers stranded and being forced to push the cumbersome object back to his home overlooking the city. Determined to make some money to support his wife and young child, Jorge sets off to become a miner, flush with tales of striking it rich. Of course, once he arrives at the mine, the crushing reality of the dangerous job quickly becomes clear.
Tresch’s photography alternates from the bright lights of the city and chalky dirt roads of Jorge’s mountainside home to the lush, natural light of the countryside as Jorge makes the journey to the Andes mountains. La Rinconada is filmed in dramatically different fashion; trips into the mine are pitch-black save for a single light source and the dingy, gray streets surrounding the work site which house dilapidated bars and brothels. Jorge is introduced to women and alcohol, as well as the superstitions of his fellow workers. Everyone is desperate for money, leading to tall tales about the Devil and even human sacrifices to “appease” the mine. Dramatic, omniscient voice-over narration opines on the nature of good and evil, and how the lust for hold corrupts absolutely.
Tortone, in conversation with CineEuropa’s Vassilis Economou, says the film is about “the relationship between men, the Devil, and gold.” It’s ultimately this juxtaposition between harsh, quotidian reality and the more broadly mythopoetic that destabilizes the film. Indeed, Mother Lode is at its best when it focuses on the experiential details of Jorge’s day-to-day existence. Detours into metaphor and magic realism feel like intrusions from a different, less interesting film, frequently underlining or otherwise hammering home points already made clear by its visuals. Specificity is key, and while Tartone wants his film to be about all workers in a broad sense, it’s better when it focuses on Jorge specifically. Costa and Tarr have managed to make films about poverty and misery while still imposing their own sensibilities onto the material, something Tartone has yet to master. Still, these slight misgivings aside, Mother Lode is a strong film, eye-popping to look at and firm in its pro-worker convictions. It’s a fine debut for him.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Tranquility is a relative concept — inside a prison, one of the most stressful situations known to man, even the white-knuckle pressures of a professional kitchen can come as a balm. For the inmates at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan, Chef Jimmy Lee Hill’s gourmet food-tech program offers not only relief and distraction from the intensity of prison life, but a potential route towards reintegration into society through legal employment. Following Chef Hill and three of his protégés, the documentary showcases, without sentimentality, the cruel realities of the carceral system and the relentless hope that characterizes those who must exist within it.
To say that Coldwater Kitchen is characterized by hope might give the wrong impression; the film is no syrupy, inspirational confection. The men of Lakeland Correctional Facility live within the aftermaths of violent or chaotic lives, in which hope is perhaps the only means of survival left available to them. Directors Brian Kaufman and Mark Kurlyandchik do offer a sense of hope for the future in the inmates’ stories, but it is one that fully acknowledges the callousness of the carceral system. In particularly affecting scenes, both Chef Hill and his protégés separately lament that, despite the strength of the social safety net afforded to inmates by Coldwater Kitchen, when inmates are released on parole, they are forbidden contact with their mentor, right at the most vulnerable moment of their journey back to normality. For the most part, Kaufman and Kurlyandchik don’t allow their clear admiration of the program to gloss over the considerable fundamental flaws of the system, creating a film that manages to find hope even in spite of the honest truth that there is not much to be found in these environs.
The film’s emotional climax, an encounter between Chef Hill and a particularly promising though not entirely trustworthy trainee, takes a different path, following the film’s most interesting interpersonal thread to its conclusion. It’s here where the intimacies of such an intense environment are laid bare, but also where the film coalesces into something more cohesive, a statement of what it means to have agency while imprisoned, and how to begin living with the fact that, within such a system, there are places that even the most dedicated mentors cannot reach.
Most viewers, though not equipped to discern the problematics of representing indigenous communities they aren’t part of, are still able to quite meaningfully evaluate how these communities are represented. And so one may, for the Zoque people of Nuevo Guayabal, Mexico, argue against the creation and crystallization of their image by directors Tania Ximena and Yollotl Gómez Alvarado. White Night, unfortunately, embodies a general ethos of anonymity, depersonalization, and of digital alienation that reifies the margin within a still-industrial infrastructure; it’s a work of Malickian pastiche that proves derivative of what oral histories have been most frequently accused of: namely, broadening and de-particularizing their scope and subjects respectively.
The film oscillates between oneiric studies of landscape/flora and a narrative that follows the Zoque community as they unearth what used to be their town, buried under the 1982 eruption of volcano Chichonal. Through this oscillation, we are offered a sprinkling of whispered voiceovers and austere dolly-ins, while side characters repose and stare, blankly, at the lens. The atmosphere engendered, ultimately, is hackneyed: a collection of cheap and slight visual ideas cobbled together to inundate the viewer with a deeply disrespectful aestheticization of disenfranchised indigenous communities. White Night falls neatly into a category of filmmaking potentially described as “neo-ethnography,” wherein the colonial gaze has been replaced by the local yet objectification is perpetuated nonetheless. Case in point: the camera’s gaze subjects the people within the film less to conversation and more to its obsessive framing. In their attempt to rebuke how colonial subjects became educational faculties of the cameramen, Ximena and Alvarado lend themselves to failed abstraction: everyone in the frame becomes not illegible, but a mere facet of tonal experimentation. There is no intelligent attempt at converging environment and people, and what we are thus left with is a deeply uninspired reduction, sullied further by a digital sheen that wipes away any minor stab at identification.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind