The story follows the journey of a police van as it travels through the riotous streets of Cairo during the chaos of 2013. The van becomes filled with people from all sides; Muslim Brotherhood protesters, anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters and everyone else caught up in between.
The van becomes a microcosm of Egyption society, and like Egyptian society, it is fraught with divisions and violence. As the van moves along, picking up young and old, male and female, the heat inside rises. At one point it becomes so hot that the people trapped in it risk suffocation — a frequent occurrence during the revolution.
Those inside the van, like the audience, have no idea where the van is going. Limited to the tight, crowded view from the inside with only the narrow windows and grate in the roof providing glimpses to the world outside, we feel as powerless and apprehensive as the characters. The van moves relentlessly on, pelted by rocks, targeted by shooters, and rocked by protesters and helpers, even though there seems to be no destination. The prisons, after all, are full.
Egypt, like the van, is undergoing a violent upheaval, and the people in it have no choice but go with it. Families are split up, friendships broken, and new alliances are formed. In the end, however, all descends into turmoil, confusion, and tragedy.
Berlin’s second STATE Festival, which brings together leading scientists, innovators, social-scientists, artists and members of the public to explore one topic took place recently at Kühlhaus in Gleisdreieck. The topic in question was emotions.
Emotions are a fundamental part of being human, and our understanding of them not only illuminates our experiences and interactions but also raises important questions about our growing reliance on machines and the nature of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
We often think of emotions as immaterial and internal, but the festival demonstrated how physically palpable and measurable they are. Adam Anderson from Cornell University’s Department of Human Development and Human Neuroscience Institute talked about how our sight and emotions are linked. Emotions, like colour, are created by the visual regions of the brain and everything we see is affected by emotion.
The Festival’s screening of Stefan Sagmeister’s The Happy Film, in which the prominent designer embarks on a navel-gazing journey in the search of happiness confirmed the strong link between the body and emotion. Sagameister pursued happiness using three methods; meditation, therapy and drugs – and drugs was the most effective. The chemical changes they affected in his body made him deliriously happy to the point of falling in love and almost getting married within a matter of weeks.
The link between the emotion of love and physicality was put to the test at the festival’s interactive Sniff and Date session, in which participants did an aerobics session, captured their sweaty scent on a small patch of material, then sniffed out a potential partner. Although smelling numbered patches of sweat felt dubious, it worked! I matched with a lovely Romanian artist with whom I had a lot in common. Yes, it was a woman, who was there with her boyfriend, but it was nice to have a drink with her.
In such social situations, the hormone oxytocin plays a big role. It helps in social bonding, sexual reproduction, birth and nurturing as well as increasing the recognition and mimicry of facial emotions. Neuroscientist Sebastian Korb explained how he used electromyography (EMG) to detect facial mimicry which is so fast and subtle that it is difficult to inhibit. Facial mimicry is important to social interaction as it is key to feeling empathy (therefore procedures such as Botox, which restrict people’s facial movements, impact their ability to empathise).
As we become more dependent on technology, the ability of machines to understand and respond to our emotions will become more important. The Android game Emotion Hero demonstrated what computer recognition of facial emotion could look like. Naturally, this led to questions about whether machines would eventually be able to experience emotions themselves and what the implications of this would be.
If machines could feel, would they be granted the same rights as people? As it stands, scientists use the human brain as a model to make intelligent, self-learning robots. Of course, companies like Nvidia, Google and Intel are nowhere near creating something as powerful as the brain with its 100 billion neurones and 250 billion synapses, but the possibility is on the distant horizon. Toby Walsh, one of the world’s leading experts on AI, said he did not think the Singularity – the point where robots overtake humans – was coming any time soon.
Still, the warnings of prominent people such as Stephen Hawking, who said AI “could spell the end of the human race” and Elon Musk, who compared developing AI to “summoning the demon” were at the forefront of many discussions. Clearly, AI and its implications must be thought about. In fact, people are already thinking about it, but they belong to an elite with commercial interests. For example, those developing the self-driving car are already making ethical decisions such as who the car should kill or injure in certain crash situations.
One of the most interesting interactive sessions was the critical thinking workshop AI Ethics and Prosthetics run by Marco Donnarumma, an artist who explores human-machine corporeality. The conversation took interesting turns, exploring questions from “Would you live with an autonomous prosthesis?” to “Where does the fault lie if a machine is responsible for killing a human?” The conversation raised more questions than answers, highlighting the complex nature of this crucial time in human history.
What was unique and fulfilling about this festival was how it hit all senses – with music, sound, visual art, films, talks, discussions and physical activities. It stimulated anxiety about a machine-filled future, passionate debate, and joy at the meeting fascinating minds – an important, emotional experience.
Of course, he’s right. Berlin is a city of pallid men with thin mustaches who take themselves very seriously, artists dressed in black, and cavernous buildings where people from around the world come to be creative without worrying about paying the rent.
The film focuses on one building in particular – the Glass House, based loosely on the Parisian house of the same name and the group surrounding Andre Breton that gathered there. It starts just after the death of one their members, Jacques Vache, and the arrival of Lexia, a troubled artist. Lexia stirs up tensions between Andre, the writer who runs the house, and Tristan, who plans to violently disrupt a pop artist’s upcoming show.
Between these two plots is the art; late night photo sessions, poetry readings, games to access the subconscious, a man wearing a pig’s head saying ‘I am bored.’ These scenes are both ridiculous and magical, stylistically shot by cinematographer Michal Englert, and wonderfully scored by Daniel Wohl. But while the artists are frolicking, the bills are piling up. They risk losing their space, which provides an apt comment on gentrification in Berlin but also pulls the film in yet another direction.
The number competing story-lines and characters leads to a lack of focus. Who, exactly, is Lexia, and what does she represent? What are the relationships between these people? What is the role of art in our world? These questions are touched upon but never fully explored. Similarly, the film seems caught between its own surrealist elements and its traditional narrative drive, never fully embracing either.
Elixir looks fabulous and has some funny moments, but, like the surrealist movement of the 1920s, ends up feeling fractured.
When someone first told me about this Berlin film shot in one continuous take, I flat out refused to see it. It will be rubbish I said. How is it possible to make a good film in just one take? Editing exists for a reason you know. And so on…
Then, more people talked to me about it, and I decided to go along and see what all the fuss was about. Yes, I am easily persuaded. It has led to many bad decisions. The muttered answer to my mother’s question, “If everyone jumped off a bridge would you do it too?” was always, “Yeah, probably.”
Luckily, seeing Victoria was not a bad decision. In fact, it turned out to be a unique and powerful cinematic experience.
The film opens with strobe lighting, pumping music, a camera pushing through a crowded dance floor until it settles on a girl dancing with abandon – in ecstasy or agony? It’s hard to tell.
This is Victoria (Laia Costa), a young Spanish woman who ended up in Berlin after realising she hasn’t got what it takes to be a professional pianist in the highly competitive world of classical music. Now, she works at a cafe in Mitte during the day, and parties at night.
As she heads out of the club, she encounters four young men; Sonne, Blinker, Fuss and Boxer. They are Berliners, who can’t get into the club. They invite her to accompany them so she can see the ‘real Berlin’, which, as Sonne (Frederick Lau) puts it, ‘Isn’t in the clubs, where any Spanish person can get in.”
Victoria goes along. Like me, she is easily persuaded. We follow with a sense of trepidation: Do these boys pose a threat, or will they be some fun company for this lonely girl?
They turn out to be a good bunch. The dialogue is funny, with that quality of long nights and early hour conversations. But the film continues to play on that edge between lightheartedness and darkness. Like when Victoria stands too close to the edge of a rooftop. She is exhilarated – young and free – but she is also reckless. After all, the pianist dream she has been training for since childhood has been taken away, leaving an abyss.
All this sets up her character for what follows: Victoria is drawn into a criminal plot with the boys. Although this provides a welcome spike in pace and tension, it introduces a few implausible plot developments and characters – most notably the villainous mastermind, who looks like he got lost on his way to a James Bond film set.
This is where the power of the single take works its magic – the camera relentlessly pulls us along – we, like Victoria, have little pause for doubts or distractions. We’re along for the ride whether we like it or not. That tension, between everything turning out fine and everything being damned keeps us engaged. We are rooting for these characters. Inevitably, however, the plot twists towards a final, dark ending after a fatal police shoot out.
Throughout all this, the camerawork, by Sturla Brandth Grøvlen who won a won a Silver Bear at the Berlinale for his extraordinary artistic contribution for work on the film, is stunning – not to mention the tireless work of the talented actors. After two hours and twenty minutes, when Victoria finally walks away from the camera, leaving us behind, we feel the ache of separation. We want to continue, to see where she will go, what she will do.
The main character of the film, despite its title, is not Victoria, but Berlin, where the action plays out – from techno clubs to blocks of flats, spätkaufs to car chases along Zimmerstrasse. However, the city is not just a setting – it is the basis for the film’s preoccupations and themes. What is the ‘real Berlin’ and how is it changing?
The last image, of a Spanish girl walking past a Rolex shop towards a horizon towering with cranes at the dawn of a new day, holding a bag of money in her hands – hands that used to make art when she played the piano but are now stained with the blood of Berliners – speaks for itself.
Filmmaker Ismar Badzic and musician Sam Hanlan have recently come up with a way to reboot the postcard, from a physical card with a limited choice of landmarks on the front and limited word-space on the back that takes ages to arrive, to a digital, audio-visual experience.
And the first AV postcard is from Berlin!
What do you think? Does it capture Berlin better than a traditional postcard?
To explore the individual sounds, images and interviews that make up this postcard, and for more information, check out the Audio Visual Postcard website.