Open City Documentary Festival 2019 – Focus: Movements of a Nearby Mountain, Shoot a Mountain, Shoot a Man

ratio

Continuing our series of new criticism on the new films in our 2019 programme, Giovanni Marchini Camia writes on Sebastian Brameshuber’s Movements of a Nearby Mountain.

Ernst Lubitsch once said that when a filmmaker figures out how to shoot a mountain, they will shoot a man. While it’s safe to assume the classic Hollywood director didn’t have hybrid documentaries in mind when he shared this piece of wisdom, the sentiment nevertheless informs Sebastian Brameshuber’s Movements of a Nearby Mountain. Aiming to portray a metaphorical mountain much too enormous, multifaceted and daunting to be adequately captured in a film, Brameshuber trains his camera on Cliff, a Nigerian mechanic working alone in a remote warehouse at the foot of the Austrian Alps. 

In a series of quiet, unobtrusive compositions, we watch as Cliff goes about his daily routine, salvaging spare parts from derelict cars. After detaching a pair of headlights, he takes a marker and labels them with the make and model of the car they belonged to; using a rope and a forklift, he lifts a dismantled engine off the ground and wraps it in cling film as it dangles in mid-air. His movements are slow, methodical. He exudes the same Zen-like serenity as he cooks meals on an open fire or washes laundry in a bucket, hanging it to dry on a broken fence. It seems like he’s been going through these motions for years, if not lifetimes, an impression encouraged by the extreme long shots that set the dilapidated warehouse against the Alpine landscape, a box of corrugated metal dwarfed by a vast primordial backdrop. If it weren’t for the constant sounds of a nearby highway and the visitors who regularly drop by, we might mistake Cliff for a Robinson Crusoe of the post-apocalypse.

Tellingly, those who come to haggle with Cliff over the price of used tyres and twenty-year-old Volkswagens, or simply to share a cigarette and shoot the breeze, are African, Arab, Eastern European… never Austrian. But this is not the heartrending story of a refugee or an illegal immigrant that other documentaries have conditioned us to expect. We eventually discover that Cliff has been living in the country for a decade, speaks fluent German as well as English, and has a good rapport with the local authorities. Unlike his friend Magnus, a fellow Nigerian immigrant, he doesn’t harbour resentment towards Europeans. Brameshuber divulges such details sparingly, very gradually painting a portrait that results all the more evocative for its restraint. 

Uninterested in claiming veracity, Brameshuber injects fiction and fantasy into his narrative. The careful framing and blocking of the shots signal that most (all?) of the film’s scenes are staged, inviting us to constantly question the reality we’re witnessing; a myth about a magical promise of wealth is twice spoken by Cliff in voice-over, first in German and then again in Igbo when he returns to Nigeria to sell his reclaimed car parts; occasionally, the film’s digital photography gives way to segments shot on 16mm, confusing temporality to dreamy effect. 

Movements of a Nearby Mountain belongs to a rich tradition in Austrian cinema which includes the likes of Michael Glawogger, Ulrich Seidl and Nikolaus Geyrhalter, documentarians who also intermingle truth and artifice as they explore the links between globalised capitalism, ecological destruction and the legacy of Western colonialism. Brameshuber’s compatriots, however, often attempt to shoot the mountain, disregarding the man. Opting for a more gentle, lyrical and contemplative route, Brameshuber’s patience and complete eschewal of sensationalism register as a gesture of generosity to subject and audience alike. 

Giovanni Marchini Camia is a Berlin-based film critic and a founding editor of Fireflies

Sebastian Brameshuber’s Movements of a Nearby Mountain screens on Saturday 7th September at the ICA