How do people deal with the traces of military conflict? In often absurd ways, Belgian filmmaker Isabelle Tollenaere finds out. Her feature debut, Battles, premiering in Bright Future, explores this question through four different cases.
The film looks at how World War I munition and artillery are ‘blown up’ in very different ways in Belgium and Russia. How a bunker becomes a cowshed in Albania and a prison camp turns into a tourist attraction in Latvia.
These places are visited in four chapters, called ‘bomb’, ‘soldier’, ‘bunker’ and ‘tank’. More than simply filling in background information on each segment, Tollenaere aimed to single out these elements, isolating them from the broader context to make these almost microscopic stories all the more universal. “Together, the chapters’ war items form a sort of ghost army”, Tollenaere likes to think.
The film’s main weapon is its very idiosyncratic way of looking. Tollenaere traces the abnormal that sneaks into the everyday. In scenes of leisure and meals, it becomes apparent that the extraordinary often infiltrates the ordinary. The humorous exploration of the border between the two is well supported by Tollenaere’s distanced, long-take style. “By holding a shot just a little bit longer, it gets a staged quality, while it’s a very direct and honest way of observation at the same time”, she notes.
Rather than the impact of these remnants of war on the environment, Battles targets the human or social landscape. “Although it’s not a film that focuses on the people and their stories, it’s about their inventive ways of dealing with military traces”, she remarks. A conflict isn’t just over, but keeps resonating in all kind of ways. The segments show different manifestations of negotiations with these traces: elimination or re-enactment, or transformation of their function for practical and ‘educational’ or tourist purposes. Tollenaere aims to let the film’s meaning arise from the combinations of and parallels between all these aspects. The Russian case shows how objects can re-activate and mobilize a memory in the service of contemporary patriotism and militarization. “On that account, it’s surreal to see what happened in Ukraine with the revolution and the annexation by Russia a few months after we filmed there. We couldn’t foresee that.”
This look into the future fits the film’s merging of past and present. While images such as re-enactments create temporal ambiguity, the recurrent imagery of nature is an indicator of time as well. Tollenaere sees the wind, trees and clouds as invariable “silent witnesses” amidst the continuous change and evolution. A wisp of smoke comes past in all segments. Battles never just go up in smoke.