directors lounge screenings
tom atkins blues
Thursday, 26 May 2016
Alex Ross, a filmmaker from the UK who has lived in Berlin since 1993, presents a common story of neighbourhood displacement in the heart of Berlin. Or, we could also describe it, an amiable tale of Prenzlauer Berg from a time almost forgotten. Shortly after Reunification, when most of the houses are already refurbished, the Spätkauf (late-night convenience shop) still provides a place you could call a home, or a community. Alex Ross mixes narrative feature with documentation, not only by including intermittent interviews, but also short scenes which actually occurred in one way or another in the same shop. And he possibly brings his own stories into the film, from a time some time ago when he worked at the very same Spätkauf, shortly after finishing film school in Bournemouth, when he was fresh in Berlin and trying to settle in.
When (in story time) the supermarket suddenly announces it will be staying open until late at night (as it did in reality), the little shop loses its customers and the protagonist his meaning of life. Progress takes its toll. In real life, the shop was converted into a café, which still exists today, while the supermarket (Kaiser's) closed down a few years later.
At the beginning of the film, all the setting indicates fiction: the intro before the title, the dramaturgy with the separating couple at the beginning, the music, the voice-over, the rhythm of the cuts and the action. Alex Ross clearly and visibly comes from narrative filmmaking, and it is even more surprising that the recurrent interviews not only fit in so well with the narrative, but that the boundaries between what is fiction, story and what is documentary become more and more blurred over the course of the narrative. Not many filmmakers are able to merge the genres so seamlessly, but Alex does so, even though the editing seems to make a distinct difference between interviews and narrative, and further between first person voice-over and "third person" diegesis.
Ross tells me that he thinks the reason for being so successful with the documentary aspects and the mix between actors, amateur acting and spontaneous acts was that the people all knew each other from the shop. The setting became real, as the film crew was running the shop during the shooting. This also meant that the shooting had to be interrupted if a paying customer came in requesting a beer or half a kilo of tomatoes. More challenging even must have been writing the script on the go, instead of having it ready before the shooting started. The whole improvised setup, however, led to a creative instinct not only on the part of the director (and leading character in the movie), but of everybody involved. And it allows for a beautiful aspect of the film, namely the transparency of the characters: many of the small scenes have their effect not because they are played flawlessly by great actors, but because their characters are so credible.
On the one hand, the film tells of a very recent past, when Prenzlauer Berg started to change its character from creative, punk and East German bohemian milieu to a more posh middle class one. On the other, it is a very common story of gentrification repeating itself again and again, and happening in Neukölln right at this moment, and will as long as the city shows more interest in attracting the affluent urban class instead of protecting neighbourhoods and communities. At the same time, the film never ceases to portray the even smallest character with love and humour, and for that, one could almost say, it is a rare example of a narrative without extras. "Tom Atkins", the main character, in turn, is the only one going through a psychological transformation in contrast to being characterized by all his peers as the one who never changes. But even in his worst misanthropic moments, his character is balanced with a soft loving humour. Finally, the only man playing a major role in the movie who does not appear on the surface and thus would seem not visible is the cameraperson Martin Parry. According to Alex Ross, it was his humour which opened everybody's heart and made it possible to create those very moments of instinct which allowed everybody to play their part as convincingly as they did.
Original English-German with English subtitles. Curated by Klaus W. Eisenlohr. The director will be present for a Q&A.
Directors Lounge http://www.directorslounge.net
Directors Lounge (Kenton Turk) interview with Alex Ross