Although Prix Arte does not sound as stylish as Oscar, the European Academy Awards, too have an excellent reputation in the filmmaking community. Held already for the 24th time on Saturday, December 3 in Berlin, the presenting ceremony will include awards in the category of documentary film. While waiting for the name of this year’s winner, you can watch the winning film of 2009; The Sound of Insects: Record of a Mummy
Swiss director Peter Liechti received the European Academy Award “for the skillful exploration of minimalistic means to create an extraordinary visual story between life and death.” The fact that the award went to a filmmaker-experimenter who resists any categories, presenting demanding works to the viewers, proved to be a rather daring step on the part of the jury; especially as there were more viewer-friendly films, including activist Burma VJ or the formally masterful film Cooking History. by Slovak director Petere Kerekes. Instead of Kerekes’ military cooks, it was rather a protagonist who willingly starved himself to death that won the favour of the Academy in the end. Symptomatically, this was a year after the global crisis broke out, as if “saturated” Europe got shrouded in the black thoughts of self-examination.
Educated in art history, Liechti conceived his film essay as a very loose and original adaptation of a short story by Japanese Masahiko Shimada My Dear Mummy, which is said to be based on a real story of an unusual and very cruel suicide. The terse and stern text by Shimado was captured by an equally stern and minimalist montage of images and sounds, cyclically repeating several basic motives in a monotonous, fatalist rhythm; an autumn forest, raindrops running down a transparent plastic surface, people disappearing behind the windows of trams passing by in a grey anonymous town, an omnipresent sound of insects; then nothing but wind, rain and silence.
Dying by starvation as well as the 90-minute film length can both become tedious so that the anonymous protagonist has to sigh (in the voice of Liechti’s kindred filmmaking colleague Peter Mettler); “It’s boring just to think about death all day long.” The viewers, too, may be tempted to think the same about the slow and unusually stern film. However, they should keep in mind that what they’re watching is not a documentary; and, to a certain degree, not a film at all.
In fact, Peter Liechti is not a documentarist. Neither is he a painter, art historian or filmmaker. He is something in between. This became obvious as he made the following ironical remark about his film: “It’s the documentation of a plastic tarp which is exposed to the elements over the period of a few months.” If one approached his film from the position of classic film dramaturgy, one would have to say he is right. However, then the most precious message of his works would be lost. Liechti’s collage of images and sounds has the unique character of a Buddhist koan; with its “irritating nonsensicality”, it can open the door of real knowledge in the minds of those who listen.
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