a lovable, meandering, documentary-as-road-movie affair
I had the good fortune to catch this at the brilliant Copenhagen Int'l Documentary Festival a couple weeks ago, so here's my extended take on it for anyone interested in this fine film.
The stated goal of Polish director Stanistaw Mucha's DIE MITTE is to ascertain the precise middle point of an ever expanding Europe. Though we do indeed get to see our share of maps and markers, produced by many a concerned EU citizen, Mr. Mucha is not interested in geography so much as a kind of anthropology. His intriguing premise is but an excuse to allow he and his film crew to film a real-life human comedy, gallivanting about Germany and everything East, visiting villages with plaques, countrysides with monuments, and townspeople with legends to sell, all proclaiming that the center lies HERE! The joy to be found here lies in its unique status as a road movie without a narrative trajectory, without an ending or completion. It is a celebration of the myriad faces the camera collects and their hopes, illusions, and good-humored resolve in the face of their sometimes tenuous everyday existence. That this journey takes the film crew as far East as Ukraine should speak volumes of not only the uncertain legacy left by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but the even more uncertain one beginning in the era of the European Union.
Mr. Mucha easily elicits bubbling enthusiasm from individuals who believe their home or community is built upon historic ground, but more impressive is the naturalism that attends his camera when the excitement cools off, as during his in-residence at a Ukrainian newspaper stand with a bemused older Ukrainian named Raja with a dry wit that observes her customers are "so serious!" And Mr. Mucha, for his part, likes to nudge around each location, not really giving true interviews a la Jean Rouch - simply letting folks talk. He gradually uncovers life's everyday ironies in issues such as the importance of homeland ('How has your life changed since your town became the center?'), religion (Raja, with a sad wag of her head, says not one person could ever tell her why it is they don't like Jews), and the spectre of Communism, but mostly leaves the uncertainties open-ended. He prefers to let the divers EU citizens - and us, as we gradually begin identification with them - muddle through it as best they can - which helps forge the slow and enjoyable rhythm of his Eastern Bloc puddle-jumping.
The inhabitants of each successive scene - Lithuanians, Poles, Austrians, Slovakians all - eventually begin to bleed into each other for the viewer, aided and abetted by the editing, which facilitates this shrinking of the filmic world, especially in the second half, as it begins to double-back on itself and flesh out earlier visuals, criss-crossing our senses, letting the diverse stories fuse into one ragged but harmonious quilt, like the EU itself. Although the eccentric Mr. Mucha might go a bit far in supplementing this strategy with an all-too eager eye for the irrelevant and the socio-politically absurd (was it necessary to visit a junkyard for televisions?), the film does begin to take on an almost existential, 'we're-in-this-mess-together' tone. It comes as no surprise, then, that the DIE MITTE ends by following a young couple and their GPS (Mucha fittingly comments he's never seen one before) deep into the woods in search of yet another central point, and the film fades to black with the words, 'Where are we?'
And it seems to me quite healing to simply acknowledge this question in times when so many people are so damn certain about everything (or perhaps that's just my Midwesterner's sensibility talking). Here's hoping it gets to you all back in the States soon. At that point, your only course of action will be to pile into the art houses and support documentary film!
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