Open City Documentary Festival

24th–30th
April 2024
across London

Rebekah Rutkoff on Robert Beavers’s The Sparrow Dream

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Rebekah Rutkoff writes on Robert Beavers and weaves together objects, places and themes from a range of his recent films which are screening at this year’s festival.

In November of 1970, three years into his new life of European itinerancy with Gregory Markopoulos, 21-year-old Robert Beavers made a note: “When in the U.S. I hope to begin a project that will gather the American and European parts together.” Almost half a century later, he has realized this early intention. The Sparrow Dream (2021), the sixth film Beavers has made since completing his My Hand Outstretched cycle, moves between Berlin, his primary home since 2011, and Massachusetts, his 1949 birthplace. Living spaces alternate: in Berlin, the Kreuzberg apartment Beavers shares with his partner, the German filmmaker Ute Aurand (we see and hear her — working, speaking on the phone, tending flowers, embraced by the filmmaker); in Massachusetts, the Falmouth house where Beavers’ mother once lived (her absence felt in shots of a red chair, its shape moulded from use) and her new nursing home (she sleeps, her hand covered by her son’s). But the film also dwells in larger-scaled surrounds — Massachusetts South Shore commercial landscapes, Spandauer Damm in Charlottenburg. Along a Tiergarten path, we see Aurand’s walking shadow. The filmmaker’s intermittent voiceover engages transit philosophically (“Fatherland, motherland, birthplace. In one place, speaking of another. In one time, speaking of another.”) alongside birdsong and late Ravel fragments.

Two lamps (one in Falmouth, its twin in Kreuzberg) composed of glass stones casts jewel-shapes on the wall. They call back the title container of Pitcher of Colored Light, Beavers’ 2007 portrait of his mother in her Falmouth home. Viewers might recognize objects from Pitcher in this new film — a rooster lamp, hanging origami — as well as the arms-uplifted statue of The Suppliant (2010): Beavers visits another version of the same Greek figure, this one in Leopoldplatz. The Sparrow Dream is braided from events of personal return — to the Weymouth lake of Beavers’ childhood, to the site of the final shot of his 1970 Berlin film, Diminished Frame (a spiked gold milestone ball), to the illustrated pages of a first book (The Adventures of Odysseus & the Tale of Troy), to elemental memory (“I have been calling to the next world ever since I was a child”) — but not exclusively so. A second statue — representing a Korean War veteran — in East Weymouth enlarges the film’s perspective on national return. Alongside the many American flags in the film (literal ones, flying, and images of them: on a bedsheet and a red truck), the statue conveys the filmmaker’s distance from his place of birth as well as the violence of that place.

The Sparrow Dream is a film less of documented return than of lyrical binding. “What holds it all together?” Beavers asks. Return is self-assembly as much as geographical visitation, an ongoing effort of re-gathering and re-attachment from the raw material of objects, history and memory. Repeated shots of Beavers lighting a furnace in his Berlin apartment convey the daily risk of loving labours as well as the warmth generated by them. An unfamiliar directness marks The Sparrow Dream, as if the restraint and slant of so much of Beavers’ work has been, for now, set aside. Even a dream the filmmaker recounts in his voiceover — one that occurred upon his return to Berlin from a trip to the U.S. — conveys the chime of clear message. “I dreamt that I was speaking to a sparrow and that she told me her name.”


Rebekah Rutkoff is a New York-based writer. She is the author of The Irresponsible Magician: Essays and Fictions(semiotexte, 2015) and the editor of Robert Beavers, a collection of writings by and about the filmmaker (Austrian Film Museum, 2017).