Wylie Writes @ Ulrike Ottinger in Asia

All of us should occasionally stop and consider how lucky we are to have the TIFF Bell Lightbox.  On top of the populist arthouse fare that populates the majority of their schedule, the Lightbox occasionally introduces a brand-new audience to underrated, underappreciated, or simply underseen filmmakers.  The latest addition to this tradition is the Goethe Institute-curated mini-retrospective, Ulrike Ottinger in Asia;  a program of four features, three of which are Ottinger’s celebrations of various Asian cultures (the fourth is a documentary about Ottinger).

Some of our readers may remember Ulrike Ottinger’s cinematic work.  She is a true renaissance woman, dabbling in various forms and media – from TIFF’s Queer Outlaw Cinema exhibition which took over the Lightbox during the Derek Jarman retrospective.  Ottinger’s Freak Orlando and her segment of Seven Women Seven Sins played on a loop in one section of the gallery and gave a clue as to her visual style while refusing to give away her diversity as a filmmaker.  The films presented in this mini-retrospective are almost incomparable to works like Freak Orlando or even each other, and yet, there is a hint of campy inanity and cinematographic genius that gives them away as her works.

The three Ottinger features presented in this program are Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989), Exile Shanghai (1997), and Under Snow (2011).  Under Snow will be followed by Ulrike Ottinger: Nomad from the Lake (2012), a documentary about the German filmmaker directed by Brigitte Kramer.

Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia is the only narrative in this program, following a train full of metropolitan women for an hour before they are taken prisoner by a Mongolian princess and her people.  If you remember Freak Orlando, you will remember Ottinger’s disinterest in narrative: the first act consists of these women, among them the goddess of cinema Delphine Seyrig, discussing a variety of matters as their train travels through Mongolia, before the setting changes to the lush greenery of Mongolia itself.  What you will get here, in lieu of traditional narrative, is beautiful music – both European and traditional Mongolian – and even more beautiful imagery;  whether the untouched landscapes of Mongolia or the performance pieces that make up a large segment of the film or even the general mise-en-scene from shot to shot.  It should also be noted that one of the great strengths of the Mongolian scenes is the pure, anti-colonial gaze that the film is shot from.  Even though Ottinger is a European filmmaker, her gaze never dominates the people she is filming;  allowing them, for the most part, to exist as they are and tell their own story, sometimes to a fault.  I see it almost as a duty to warn potential viewers of a scene where a sheep has its heart taken out of it while still alive: the scene is not exploitative or played for a reaction, but it is still rather upsetting.

Under Snow is a documentary about Echigo, a Japanese province that is pretty much always covered in snow.  This documentary is mostly an excuse to shoot snow-covered landscapes (perhaps not a great selling point for the people of Canada at this time of year) and the people of the city.  With the calm English-language narration and traditional Japanese music in the background, this could be mistaken as a calming, experimental documentary by anyone.  What gives its creator away is the inclusion of two Kabuki performers who wander the city and take the role of observers, avatars for the audience, while slowly becoming much more, taking part in the festivities and creating some of the most enticing imagery in the doc.  The Ottinger films in this program could likely be best described as an acquired taste, but these two are definitely recommended acquisitions.

Brigitte Kramer’s Ulrike Ottinger: Nomad from the Lake is a standard documentary about Ottinger with plenty of talking heads and other standard documentary fare.  That being said, if you find yourself falling in love with her works, this documentary does work well as a post-screening Q&A, since Ottinger appears herself, as well as a resource for her other cinematic works, including a variety of the stranger excerpts from her career.  This documentary isn’t a must-see, but it could work well as an establishing device.  The takeaway here should be that Ottinger is one of the greatest voices of German and world cinema, as well as one of the most important voices of feminist and queer cinemas.

Ulrike Ottinger in Asiaa is not to be missed!


The films featured in the Goethe Institute’s Ulrike Ottinger in Asia series screen on Thursday, March 1, Tuesday, March 6, and Thursday, March 8 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. For information about the movies (including showtimes and online purchasing), click here!

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