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Berlinale 2017 – The Therapeutic Power of Representation in Cinema

I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016)


Representation might seem just another buzzword or commercial hype. Movies like Hidden Figures (Theodore Melfi, 2016) and Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, 2016) are praised for their important representations of female, gay and black experiences while tap-dancing La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016) gets derided for its whitesplaining of jazz-history and ignoring the gay community in L.A. Yet, representation is not only about changing the power balance, giving soft power to minorities. It’s also a therapeutic, healing process for groups of people who have been kept off-screen for decades. It’s about those groups taking their identity back.

At this year’s Berlinale, I Am Not Your Negro and Casa Roshell – two remarkable documentaries that don’t seem to have anything in common at first glance – invited an exploration of identity construction in and through cinema. Both can be seen as a tool of exploration as well as an example of healing representations in and of themselves.

“The moment you were born, since you don’t know any better, every stick and stone, every face is white, and since you have not seen a mirror, you suppose that you are too. It comes as a great shock around the age of 5 or 6 or 7 to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians — when you were rooting for Gary Cooper — that the Indians were you! It comes as a great shock to discover the country which is your birthplace, and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not in its whole system of reality evolved any place for you.”

– James Baldwin (Debate against Buckley, Cambridge, 1976)

This excerpt of groundbreaking African-American author James Baldwin talking patiently and articulately to his predominantly white audience in his debate against Buckley in Cambridge features in Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, shown to a predominantly white festival audience at the Berlinale 2017 – the image on screen echoing reality. Peck’s documentary is based on James Baldwin’s notes on the history of the United States through the experiences of his three friends, historical figures all: Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Baldwin explored black representation in cinema in detail in his essay ‘The Devil Finds Work’ (1976). Herein he talks about the films he saw growing up and how these films made him understand his country, white people etc. Indeed, our own understanding or construction of reality is mediated and therefore resides somewhere between the imagined and the real. We know that what we see in cinema is fiction or in the least somewhat manipulated to fit the story, yet we encapsulate it into our system of reality, in our understanding of how the world works and who we are within that world. This paradox of mediated authenticity results in the intertwining fictional and factional make-up of our system of reality. Cinema echoes the real and in turn the real becomes an echo of cinema.

Peck’s cinematic form exemplifies this statement as he is constantly playing with the boundaries between fiction and reality. As Samuel L. Jackson’s verbalizes Baldwin’s words, an eclectic and contrasting ensemble of images enfolds on screen. Props are rightfully due to Peck’s brilliant editor Alexandra Strauss for the tightly knit result. Fiction and reality are explicitly intertwined by the visual combination of crackling historical footage from the 50s and the 60s with fragments of Hollywood films, high-definition shots of today’s world and footage of riots. He even dyes the blurred smartphone footage of the 2014 Ferguson riot in a black-and-white to enclose it in the flow of horrifying images of the teenage Dorothy Counts walking to school in a mob of white schoolmates or the video of Rodney King being beaten by the police, exemplifying how the total sum of experiences and imagery on screen we see during our life creates our own personal constructed reality.

That’s why, to understand your own identity, you are inclined to resort to images to express yourself – basically the core of cinema. Baldwin talks about his understanding of the world as two levels of experiences, summed up in images: “Doris Day and Gary Cooper, two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen”, on the one hand, and “the tone and the face of Ray Charles” on the other hand; the latter being “the subterranean, indispensable and denied experience.”

Baldwin refers to the problem of the absence of representationAlthough it should be noted that I Am Not Your Negro cannot be reduced to one theme. As Peck explained to the audience in a Q&A following the screening: you cannot read Baldwin, you have to study Baldwin. Every sentence has meaning, contains a philosophy. right there. What if there is no echo of yourself on screen? Sociologist George Gerbner understood the absence of representation or the underrepresentation of a group as a “symbolic annihilation”. By not representing a group of people in cinema, by denying them a place in the fictional world, they are denied a place in their own constructed reality. They are robbed of their own sense of identity and existence.

How one builds one’s own identity is indeed a very interpretative process of presenting and representing. To understand this process of identity creation, we can look at one particular scene in the documentary Casa Roshell by director Camila José Donoso, capturing one night in the Mexican transgender club Casa Roshell. The documentary starts in the dressing room where the men are transforming themselves into women. In this scene,  Donoso craftily uses the mirrors in the space; she never films the trans women in this transforming sphere directly, only on the face of the mirrors or even in the reflection of one mirror in another. This play of reflections can be seen as a visualization of identity construction. As we imagine how other people view ourselves, we immediately make an assessment of this view and thereby adapt our self-image to how we believe others value us. The other is our looking glass self, the mirror through which we view ourselves. The image that we see of ourselves in the mirror defines how we see ourselves. The same identity construction happens through the cinematic experience.

Casa Roshell (Camila José Donoso, 2017)

Herein lies the therapeutic and healing power of representation on screen. I cannot understand the experience of the black, gay man in the row behind me as he watched I Am Not Your Negro, nor can I feel the emotions of the young trans woman with the dreadlocks watching Casa Roshell. But I do remember my own sense of healing after the screening of A Requiem for Mrs. J. (Bojan Vuletić, 2017) and my anticipation for one of the headlining films at the Berlinale: Ana, mon amour (Călin Peter Netzer, 2016).

Both films deal with the theme of mental illness. Bojan Vuletić portrays the final week in the life of a woman suffering from depression, the titular Mrs. J., preparing for her suicide on Friday, the days mercilessly counting down. Călin Peter Netzer, winner of the Golden Bear in 2013, tells the story of Ana and Toma. Ana suffers from severe panic attacks leading to difficulties in the couple’s relationship. As a sufferer from panic attacks myself since the age of 17, I was mostly excited about the latter. Yet it was A Requiem for Mrs. J. that truly touched me. The difference between the two lies in whose voice is represented. Ana, Mon Amour is told from the point of view of the male counterpart Toma, as we see him struggle with Ana’s illness. Ana is reduced to a passive body in the background of Toma’s journey. The focus of A Requiem for Mrs J. on the other hand, is the one suffering from mental illness herself. The reactions of her environment are also a big part of the film but we experience all of it through her eyes. This difference exemplifies the thin line a director has to tread when handling a delicate subject. Denying Ana’s experience by presenting it through her boyfriend’s eyes, almost amounts to a symbolic annihilation.

The audience at the screening of I Am Not Your Negro and Casa Roshell was notably more diverse than at the other Berlinale screenings. This in itself shows the power of these films. After both documentaries the directors took the time to have a Q&A session with their audience. The people in the audience who were represented on screen were prominently the most vocal. Moreover, before asking a question, they all took the time to voice their own identity in correspondence with what they just saw on screen: “as a gay, black man myself”, “as a transgender woman myself” was a mantra spoken by many. These healing representations resonated with them: they were the ones being represented for a change, their identity was held up in front of them as a mirror and they could recognize themselves, look at themselves from every angle and then make their own judgment in the director’s and audience’s eye. They took their identity back and in consequence regained their voice.