Tibet Revisited

 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

Tibet Revisited

 
Manfred Neuwirth
 
Tibet, Österreich 2005, 86 min, no dialogue

Prayer and Gymnastics
 
In “Tibet Revisited” documentary filmmaker Manfred Neuwirth shows just how much the cultural conflict in the Himalayas has stepped up over the last few years. And in the process he succeeds again in producing unforgettable moments of cinema.
Moments in the cinema that are unforgettable seldom happen. But there are some. It was like that with “Tibetan Recollections”, a travel journal by Manfred Neuwirth made in the middle of the Nineties. Views of landscapes alternated with impressions of everyday life, including one scene where Chinese soldiers in combat kit disperse a demonstration. Then, right in the middle of the film a laughing extended family suddenly appears in the middle of enjoying a picnic.
“Tibet Revisited” the most recent work by the Austrian filmmaker that was premiered this spring at the Diagonale, is a loose successor to the work made ten years ago. The cultural conflict—the new film shows this clearly—has only got worse in the meantime. “Lhasa,” said Neuwirth in conversation, “is really completely Sino-cised, Tibetan are clearly in the minority.” Nonetheless, in almost every sequence the enormous presence of traditional spiritual life can be felt. One shows a few believers who, on their way home from work, prostrate themselves in front of the Dalai Lama’s former palace while on the street behind them there is a continuous flow of pedestrians and cyclists; mopeds and small cars.
Neuwirth, who is no mere formalist, nevertheless treats form in his films very consciously. “Tibet Revisited” consists of a series of tableaux vivants separated by black frames where each of the 28 takes is shot with a fixed camera and lasts exactly three minutes. There is no commentary. While television continuously uses up images and combines them randomly with sound in order to simultaneously deliver licence payers with an interpretation of the world, the filmmaker lets the images and sounds that he finds speak for themselves.
Whether they “pass the test” depends, finally, on the viewer. With a radicalness that is otherwise used by only the American avant-garde documentarian James Benning, Manfred Neuwirth commits himself to a “ contemplative montage”. Whoever engages with the film really learns to see in the cinema. That also marks the main difference with “Tibetan Recollections” that worked with certain very small shifts between image and sound. The effectively un-reworked sequences in “Tibet Revisited” have this inherently built in, as the continuous blare of severely damaged radio speakers in the marketplace or the ringing of a mobile telephone during prayers testify. “When so many different times and cultures collide there are naturally developments that are exciting both from the images as well as sound,” says Neuwirth. “For example, it gets louder and louder. That’s why the impressions from the area round Lhase are more strongly defined through the soundtrack because advertising and with it this „big city“ sound has clearly established itself.”
The diverse conflicts between traditionally influenced ways of life and a strongly impinging modernity is reworked into the order of the tableaux by the filmmaker in a way that is both sovereign and subtle. Praying in front of the palace is preceded by a scene in which employees of a Chinese concern perfunctorily go through their early-morning gymnastics. In the streets of Lhasa jeans, Coca-Cola and pop music bear witness to the progress of globalisation; in the country it is above all the new factories, surfaced roads and continuously increasing traffic.
Even stronger are those images which cannot be decoded quite so simply. One of them shows a monastery which is only recognisable as such by the chants of the monks coming from outside the image; another, completely hypnotic image, shows nothing more than a millstone turning regularly. One doesn’t need to know it is an archaic piece of equipment and has, in addition, immense cultural meaning (“it is grinding barley, the main staple food of Tibet,” says the filmmaker) in order for all the senses to be engaged by the rhythm of this droning movement. “Tibet Revisited”, like all of Manfred Neuwirth’s films, rejects artificial didacticism, his argumentation is one of form, of concentration, of poetry. He is not concerned with illustrating some theory or other nor to present himself as a globe-trotting adventurer. His work has only peripherally to do with the home-grown wave of documentary filmmakers and much more with cinema à la Benning or Romuald Karmakar.
With its last sequence, a travelling shot through the countryside, the film unexpectedly takes off. Foreign trucks thunder along a road lying bared to a glittering highland light while native traders unfalteringly chug along the edge of it with their archaic companions. An unforgettable moment. Michael Omasta, Falter

28 Shots from an occupied country
 
Manfred Neuwirth’s formally strict but extremely eloquent film document “Tibet Revisted” at the cinemas.
 
After someone has been on a journey they usually prefer to talk about themselves. In the post-journey reports and picture documents that are then shown the concern is less with what happened or what the state of things is and rather more about why the traveller with his specific mental state perceived something as he did. The Viennese video maker Manfred Neuwirth knows about limitations of this nature – especially when they apply to a country that is so hedged with romantic interpretations of such urgency and with such good intentions as Tibet is.
Neuwirth, who ten years ago filmed “Tibetan Reminiscences” confronts the normal wide-screen slide show with a Dalai Lama lecture to follow with a formally strict but extremely eloquent film document. “Tibet Revisited” – 28 mostly static shots each around three minutes long: children at play. A roller-skating rink, a town gate and, finally, a travelling shot into a deceptive, interchangeable nowhere. The three minute duration per shot sounds longer than it really is though. First of all one has to get oriented of the wealth of detail in the individual shots and the original sound that goes with them and, in the end, one still isn’t completely “in the picture” especially against the background that Neuwirth uttered taciturnly at this year’s Diagonale: “This is a film from an occupied country”.
 
“Tibet Revisited” is, in actual fact, less of an analysis of a precarious political and social situation and more of an exercise in more precise perception. A magnificent little film that shows in the “foreign” and unfathomable which clichés are taxed in describing one’s own position.
Claus Philipp, Der Standard 17./18.12.2005

A Journey of Delight in Seeing.
 
28 quiet shots each precisely three minutes long: this is how Austrian media artist and filmmaker Manfred Neuwirth sees the world that he knows. It is nevertheless seen completely without prejudice and with wonder. As Neuwirth shows it, present-day Tibet is a country split between spirituality and banality: everyday life within the temple complexes has, of course, the same value as the bustle in the entertainment centre. Neuwirth does not explain nor comment on anything, he only shows without translating the words he captures, without emphasising the political subtext of his images. The freedom he creates for his viewers like this is unprecedented. “Tibet Revisited” is not so much a meditative as a sensually challenging film, a musical without sets, players and a score; a journey full of delight in seeing and consisting of tremendous images and sounds.
Stefan Grissemann, profil

Secrets without exoticism
Manfred Neuwirth’s "Tibet Revisited".
 
The uncut shot is one of the strongest devices in documentary film making. The contact with the subject, the world in front of the camera, is intensified by insistence. Current documentary “hits” try to make you forget this: anticipatory compliance with an alleged TV span of attention is an enticement to reduce scenes to the allegedly “best moments”. This can be seen in the Oscar favourite, a documentary about dance school competitions, Mad Hot Ballroom. It doesn’t just appear to be an advertising film for the schools, it also compromises the best moments. When in the dialogue between learning children social or cultural insights surface, they do so as quick-witted sound bites. With this condensed “entertainment” form one learns almost nothing about the surroundings or the tensions which generate them.
 
So the first scene of Manfred Neuwirth’s fascinating new document Tibet Revisited works like a balsam: a fixed frame showing a piece of a trampoline on which children and jumping and playing. No commentary, no explanation, three minutes of life in Tibet. Insights are left up to the viewer. 27 further, fixed, uncommented 3-minute takes follow: an exercise in concentration. This
 
Scenes of unusual contemplation such as the grinding, rapidly hypnotic mantra of a regularly turning millstone) alternate with some that unobtrusively and clearly capture the tensions in modern Tibet. In front of the former palace of the Dalai Lama believers repeatedly throw themselves to the ground while the mobile phone of a passer-by rings. Before that: the employees of a Chinese business concern doing their morning gymnastics.
 
The richness of Tibet Revisited is not only due to the dialects of the shots but also the sublime beauty of the selected images and, above all, sound. When, at the end, there is a wonderful overland travelling shot—with the camera mounted firmly on the car—it is not only an ecstatic experience of movement but also a reminder how fleeting and various the previous impressions were: offering secrets without exoticism.
Christoph Huber, Die Presse 05.12.2005

Manfred Neuwirth undertakes another of his fascinating filmic expeditions: a profession of faith in concentration which is an invitation to reconsider perception.
 
Images that make you dizzy: a group of young men jump around on a checked, multi-coloured trampoline, shout, laugh, yell into a camera which is immobile, which observes without emotion, registers activity almost dispassionately. Minute after minute. Until the images seem to disassociate from the what they represent, till the colours surge, the stubborn naturalism leads into a magical realism that permeates the self-evident nature of common perception. In 28 strict tableaux shot with a fixed camera the Viennese documentary and experimental film maker Manfred Neuwirth captures everyday Tibetan life in his most recent film in an extremely reduced form which he transforms into non-reductive expressiveness. When Neuwirth—sometimes with the proximity of a microscope and sometimes from further away—films human and natural activities, what grows out of his quasi-ethnological gaze and his profession of faith in concentration is a shimmering kaleidoscope of Tibetan facts that oscillate between millstones that turn like prayer wheels and blaring market loudspeakers, burbling water, machines and people. The wealth of variation in the images—which include the modern as well as the traditional—prevents them lapsing into the purely meditative, into an exotic, rose-tinted monkishness. These images are—sometimes more, sometimes less—also always political, they show concretely how it is to live in this country. And in addition the images are intensely cinematographic. Neuwirth presents his tableaux in Cinemascope which lends the everyday images an immediate artificiality simply from the format and intensity of colour and makes out of the documentary film and avant-garde one. Here the crystal clear surround sound also plays a role. Its spatial sound illuminates not only the images themselves but also their obverse, what is alongside, what is unseen. Because Neuwirth surrounds his images with a black shaded—one is tempted to say veiled—frame, the film is given an enchanting, dreamlike aspect: the commonplace, filmed rather objectively, reveals a suggestive splendour in fugitive colours and forms that might be a door to another world whether it lies in the Himalayas, in Vienna or simply in the eyes of the viewer.
Sebastian Hofer, Ray

Tibet is small, impassable and poor. There are no endless sandy beaches, no deep blue sea and no “wellness” landscapes. But Tibet is a dream destination for thousands nevertheless, even though only a few of them can turn their dream into reality. But that is not so important. Tibet is the promised land of the spirit and the soul; there is, probably, redemption there. It is a land close to the hearts of many even if they have never seen it with their own eyes. The Austrian media artist and film maker Manfred Neuwirth has seen Tibet, and more than once. Around a decade after his filmic travel diary, Tibetan Recollections, he re-works his intimate relationship to this far-off country of contradictions. And just like the unassuming visionary American filmmaker James Benning, Neuwirth uses a very strict formal device to increase the effect of the content: in a total of 28 takes, each with a completely fixed camera, he shows scenes from Tibetan everyday life. And these 28 panoramas come together during the film into a compact whole – a coherent portrait of a land shrouded in mystery and its people – without esoteric spectacles and Buddhist fandom; without cultural cultism and political polemic. Neuwirth allows the pictures to speak for themselves. In the final analysis they have enough to say.
Gini Brenner, Skip 12/05

Ten years after his "Tibetan Recollections" director Manfred Neuwirth has again visited the country. In “Tibet Revisited” he captures life in and around Llasa in 28 scenes. The fixed camera communicates a very personal picture of daily life in Tibet showing the conflict between tradition and modernity. But the soundscape speaks louder than the images and breathes life into them. If you like exploring new (spiritual) worlds then “Tibet Revisited” is the right place for you.
Christina Mondolfo, Wiener Zeitung

In 1995, with "Tibetan Recollections" Manfred Neuwirth presented his very personal form of a filmic travel diary: 35 equally long, static camera shots in slow motion which sought after the magic moments of everyday life. With "Tibet Revisited" he returns to the starting point of his journey again.
 
He has developed his aesthetics in the second and third part of his "[ma]-trilogy" which in 1998 took him to Japan (manga train) and in 1999 to the Lower Austria of his childhood (magic hour). With "Tibet Revisited" Neuwirth takes viewers back again into a multi-layered perceptual world with an expanded world view.
 
An illuminated kaleidoscope of everyday impressions from Lhasa and the surrounding area, a diverse spectrum of optical and acoustic snapshots in widescreen format and surround sound: market and street scenes, crowds and landscapes, religious rituals, handcrafts and free time activities.
 
The 28 equally long sequences form a unified—although no longer artificially slowed—contemplative flow of images and sound that reflects on changes in Tibet under Chinese occupation. The links between the individual shots can be related to content or form, a motif, a sound, a movement or even just the mood of the light or a feeling.
 
Children at play, for example, are followed by close-ups of traditional dice games, a turning millstone takes up the movement of a roller skating rink that precedes it, a rushing stream that flow of a crowd through the bazaar. And from time to time the connections between the scenes is as delicate as the string on the paper kite that flies previous to the scene of a competition between shadow-boxing monks. Neuwirth presents magic moments en passant – not only in far away Tibet.
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