Friday, January 27, 2012

Dispatches from Rotterdam: Anna

How to encapsulate - let alone assess or explicate - the sprawling, nearly four hour long documentary Anna? Well to start with it's helpful to note that, title aside, the documentary makers are only tangentially interested in Anna; the young drug addict taken off the streets by one of the filmmakers in an act that is initially, ostensibly charitable. Instead they're more interested in the social issues that Anna's situation represents; particularly those that might be termed "hippie concerns", such as the nature of institutionalised community versus that of self-constituted community and how best to reject the former.

However they are not at all successful in dealing with such issues in the ways we might traditionally measure documentaries’ success. Aesthetically Anna is a complete, unmitigated failure. In formal terms the cameraman rarely attempts to do any more than frame each speaker’s face in a tight close-up - and he struggles to manage even this basic task.

Structurally it feels like an initial, very rough, cut. There is some organisation, around both thematic concerns and temporal periods, but describing it as loose would be generous. Furthermore individual scenes are allowed to go on far too long - long after characters, such as the endlessly flippant, bourgeoisie lawyer have been established; or conversations, such as a rambling, surface level discussion amongst hippies, have run their course. More irritatingly scenes are often context free: a long scene in which Anna attempts to dial a number neglects to tell us who she is trying so desperately to get in contact with or why she is calling. The result is that the scene itself is stripped of any value beyond encouraging us to laugh at her initial difficulty with the phone or to impress us with her persistence.

Yet Anna nonetheless holds a fair amount of interest. For one thing it is an effective time capsule. Its portrait of the hippy subculture of Rome is limited in number but broad in variety: We are introduced to characters as diverse as a self-proclaimed, yet obviously mentally ill, artist; a cocky American who constantly asserts that there will be no revolution because everyone is too afraid; and a self-confident woman with a mocking laugh and a working knowledge of Marx. We also get a sense of the group as a whole: They're wilfully alienated from the rest of society for reasons they themselves only half understand, unsure of whether to rebel against it or remove themselves from it and uncertain of how to achieve either goal, or even if either goal is achievable at all.

This portrait results because, as mentioned above, the film seems comparatively uninterested in Anna herself. And yet it is in the sections that touch on her, both directly and indirectly, that the film is at its most engaging, if only because it's in these stretches that it's at its most troubling. In many ways this is the result of garden variety misogyny, as characters are allowed to ruminate on Anna, especially on her sexual life, while Anna herself is nearly completely absent and rarely allowed to speak for herself. A key example is the final scene in which her ex-boyfriend is allowed to justify his brutality in a monologue which simultaneously condemns Anna as someone who rejected all community, family and love out of hand and glosses over her significant troubles.

But such scenes are not the only offenders: The entire way in which the documentary makers take advantage of Anna is quite terrifying. While the group’s ringleader frequently encourages his subjects to describe him as immeasurably generous in taking in Anna without demanding sexual favours the actual scenes in which her initial days in his house are re-enacted show him taking advantage of her in all kinds of disquieting, sexual ways. Furthermore the re-enactions seem designed to show up Anna's naivety or to legitimise the ways in which the documentary makers exploit her.

However this ugly, misogynist side of the film is complicated in all kinds of ways. The most potent is when - in a long section towards the end of the film - a woman is allowed to accuse the key film-maker at length of having only continued to care for Anna in order to further his own film-making ambitions. These accusations are then supported by "flashbacks" in which a severely depressed Anna is treated flippantly by the film-maker.

What then, to make of the film overall? I'm really not sure. To some extent my hesitancy to apply any overarching judgement is the result of cowardice and desire to go to bed so I can prepare for a five film day. But in any case this work is far too messy and far too internally contradictory to allow any sweeping judgements. Instead it must be acknowledged to be many things: valuable, reprehensible, reflexive, uncritical, shallow, sprawling and, above all, sublimely frustrating.

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