“Catharsis in Fiction”
Alice Lovejoy (University of Minnesota)
It’s useful to begin a discussion of The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear with its centerpiece scenes. In these, against the pockmarked wall of what might be a warehouse, a succession of young women and men fidget nervously as director Tinatin Gurchiani’s offscreen voice questions them about their lives and hopes.
These scenes are casting calls that Gurchiani held throughout Georgia, and with their one-sided conversations and invisible interlocutor, they recall films such as Kiarostami’s Homework or Ten, largely fictional works structured by documentary techniques. They also echo a motif in recent East Central European documentary (whose network of funding and mentorship agencies helped support Machine): a form of portraiture in which subjects pose, self-consciously and snapshot-still, for the motion-picture camera. Like those in Peter Kerekes’s 66 Seasons or Michael Glawogger’s Workingman’s Death, Gurchiani’s “portraits” claim the documentary subject as at once an historical actor and an actor tout court. It is no surprise, then, that fictional strategies are as central to her film as they are to Workingman’s Death, which revels in the aesthetics of staging, or 66 Seasons, whose reenactments invite the film’s subjects to reckon with their complicity in historical events. Machine, however, suggests the inverse: that the film’s young protagonists are the twentieth century’s casualties, deprived of their parents’ and grandparents’ historical agency, yet subject to their choices.
This points to a frequent observation about this film: its indistinct, almost dreamlike quality. With its single title card and few visual or sonic indications of place, Machine suggests a child’s sense of geography, and its few mentions of history or politics require research or foreknowledge. Although Georgia’s separatist region of Abkhazia, for instance, is familiar from recent news cycles, it’s the Abkhazian War of 1992-1993 that forms the harrowing background to one interviewee’s story.
History, then—although omnipresent and structuring—mostly buzzes in the film’s background, just out of reach. And just as its interview scenes rarely expand beyond a medium-long shot, Machine is principally concerned with its protagonists’ inner lives. These occupy the same generic borderland that the film cultivates so carefully: Aspirations to the fiction of acting bring young Georgians to Gurchiani’s auditions; the long biographical disquisitions that the director elicits spark the staged scenes that follow.
This fluidity shifts in the film’s two final vignettes. In the first, after a student actor’s wrenching encounter with her estranged mother, we watch her transported by her work in a puppet theatre, whose black backdrop reveals none of the blemishes of the warehouse wall. And in the soliloquy that follows, a young man rails against life, a comedy “created to ensure that when the tragedy becomes so terrible, so unbearable, and so difficult to comprehend, that you would rather laugh.” If his speech returns the film to its opening scene—in which an interviewee, asked to cry, laughs instead—it also suggests that there is catharsis in fiction, a pole toward which, we realize, Machine itself has traced an arc.
“The Big Play Called Life”
Ilona Hongisto (Macquarie University)
In her debut feature documentary, Tinatin Gurchiani explores the Georgian landscape and the lives of its inhabitants through the dramatic device of casting. With the aim of investigating what it is like to grow up in the region, Gurchiani puts out a casting call for young adults aged 15 to 25, who believe their life stories are interesting for film. These audition scenes then merge with observational sequences of everyday situations in the lives of the individuals who responded to Gurchiani’s call.
The film’s initial starting point – lives that are interesting for film – feels uncomfortable in the audition context. Accounts of special skills and everyday practices worthy of being filmed are prompted by questions posed from behind the camera, as if the filmmaker was somehow in possession of prior knowledge as to what counts as interesting. The auditions come with a sense of having to prove one’s worthiness.
However, as the documentary progresses this premise becomes less prevalent. The auditions turn into instances of talking about injustices, obsessions, love and the future. The differences between the individuals become more pronounced and their life stories begin to take shape beyond the imperative of being exclusively interesting for film. Or, put differently, what is deemed interesting is now discovered in the everyday instead of preconceived notions of how one should be.
This change of impetus comes forth in the editing of the film. The beginning abides by a structure where observations of the everyday follow the audition scenes in the manner of verifying or visualizing what was delivered before. Further along, however, we are introduced to the everyday before the audition scenes. Here, the everyday is detached from a verifying function and it becomes expressive – and, indeed, interesting – in itself. Playing with a dog, running errands, spending time at a club, making a phone call and meeting a long-lost parent constitute a convoluted affective landscape of growing up in the former Soviet Republic. Because of this shift, the audition scenes start to feel less prescribed.
The textural nuances of the depicted scenery are also foregrounded by the multiple forms of travelling with which the documentary weaves together lives across Georgian cities, mountains and villages. The conjugation of auditions, everyday events and travel position Gurchiani’s film next to Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (1993) where she captures the beginnings of the post-Soviet transition period with a meticulous montage of stillness and movement. Akerman’s pacing captures the unpredictable momentum of the transition period, whereas the rhythm in Gurchiani’s film draws attention to the ways in which life is offered to the purview of film.
Thus, in a manner loosely reminiscent of Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear works on the fine line between lives voluntarily lived for the camera and lives evaluated by the political and cultural apparatuses of which the camera is a part. This is what makes Gurchiani’s documentary simultaneously spellbinding and uncomfortable.
In the final scene of the film, a young man performs an intense monologue. Head tilted slightly forwards, he looks to the camera and states that life is a big play where instances of comedy dot the tragic period of suffering called life. As his solemn performance continues over still frames of the individuals we have encountered throughout the journey, the documentary asks the viewer to consider why some lives are deemed more worthy than others.
3 thoughts on “January: The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear”
I’d like to respond to Ilona Hongisto’s suggestion that “The film’s initial starting point – lives that are interesting for film – feels uncomfortable in the audition context. Accounts of special skills and everyday practices worthy of being filmed are prompted by questions posed from behind the camera, as if the filmmaker was somehow in possession of prior knowledge as to what counts as interesting. The auditions come with a sense of having to prove one’s worthiness.” Indeed, what I found most interesting about this film were the “auditions,” which raised provocative issues in relation to the very idea of asking someone questions – a practice central to many documentaries. In terms of its power dynamics, the “audition” seems to lie somewhere between the interrogation (which suggests complete imbalance of power) and the interview (which can suggest greater parity). Here, the subjects do seem to be asked to justify their presence before the camera in terms of being “interesting for film,” which is a very strange requirement. Obviously, documentary subjects do require what Bill Nichols has written about in terms of “magnitude” in order for the film to have interest for a wide audience, but usually the selection of subjects happens offscreen or before shooting. Asking the film subjects to establish the “magnitude” of their own lives for others feels somewhat unfair. Of course, we all think we are fascinating. But this film’s structure (not unlike certain reality TV) highlights the potential embarrassment of finding out others may not find us so. At the same time, I liked most of the interview scenes, especially the use of long takes that allowed us to get a sense of the the subjects’ speech and pauses – even if we don’t speak their language and the film provides relatively little context for understanding their stories. However, I could not tell if the filmmaker/interviewer’s seemingly interrogative tone was self-reflexive (a critique of documentary interview form?) or simply a function of being the one behind rather than in front of the camera.
What the film does best is to roll its structure back upon itself (something like the language signs used by the aliens in Arrival). When we get to the just-barely-acted sequences at the end, we are reminded of the just-barely-non-acted nature of the “auditions.” We are also shown that we are not in position to make that distinction. That the film is in Georgian – a language that very few of its viewers will be able to speak – enforces this ambiguity. Ultimately, this raises the issue of the contemporary relevance of the distinction between acted and non-acted. Does it matter if the people auditioning are actually acting or if the estranged mother is actually the young woman’s mother? Are we with Robert Flaherty visiting Georgia or are we assured that we are not because we are seeing the rehearsals for a largely fabricated “Nanook?” (And yes, Flaherty lives as in the eagle contest in The Eagle Huntress, which appears to be obviously staged unto Disneyness and yet is taken be so necessary by those writing about the film that I haven’t seen anyone question its veractiy.) So I would love to hear why the old distinction between acted and non-acted continues to matter – not just metaphysically but to documentary itself. Why do we care if these people are characters or (however we constitute it) “themselves?”
In a world of fake news with real consequences it is ever more consequential to distinguish acting from non acting. Not to insist that documentary offers something other than fiction is to give up a critical means of understanding our social and historical world.
Documentary relies on the integrity of its makers in an effort to discover illusive, contested, but knowable truths.