These defiantly unconnected scenes from Europe and Africa each make a vivid impression and, almost despite themselves, add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Michael Glawogger, one of the key figures in the Austrian documentary movement, died of misdiagnosed malaria in Liberia, Africa, in 2014. The footage he filmed on his final journey around Italy, the Balkans and North and West Africa has now been edited by Monika Willi into an extraordinarily unconventional documentary. The addition of his diary entries, impeccably read by Fiona Shaw, gives it something of the flavour of a video essay, albeit devoid of the more self-evident connections that a Chris Marker or a Patrick Keiller would have imposed on it. As a title, UNTITLED might seem like a cop-out on the part of Glawogger’s cinematic executors, but Glawogger himself had always conceived the documentary with this title in mind.
The only connections Glawogger was seeking were ’movement and travel’…
The film as it stands is credited to both Glawogger and Willi: while he was responsible for choosing the subjects in the first place, it is she who has imposed the final structure. However, in avoiding obvious continuity between the sequences, Willi is clearly sticking to the spirit of Glawogger’s intentions: as a recording of his voice makes clear at the beginning of the film, the only connections he was seeking were ’movement and travel’.
Nonetheless, it is possible to discern some consistent themes within the film. As with his previous work, Glawogger focuses on the margins of society, especially those struggling to make ends meet: workers panhandling for diamonds in Africa; children expertly breaking rocks with improvised hammers; a circle of disabled footballers passing each other the ball while, in a particularly graceful voice-over, Shaw describes the idea of a future language entirely made up of great footballers’ names. There are also repeated references to ghost settlements, like the earthquake-wrecked Italian village whose former inhabitants live in the village opposite, staring into their empty old homes.
Some of the most astonishing scenes involve a group of North Africans pouncing on bags of trash as soon as the rubbish trucks deposit them in the desert and rifling through them—battling with their herds of goats as they do so—to find items to keep, sell or eat. In sequences like this, deprived of a contextualising narration or even subtitles for conversation (often there is none), Glawogger’s unwavering eye for often uncomfortable images comes into its own.
Glawogger’s diary entries talk about the difficulty of disappearing from the world…
The very vividness of these images comes with its own risk, of course. Without the patient building up of backstory and gradual accretion of detail found in, say, Glawogger’s WHORES’ GLORY, the film may end up looking merely sensationalist, the product of a first-worlder’s patronising misery tourism. But Glawogger consistently finds points of contact for the audience, like the glum girl who refuses to clap at a revivalist meeting.
When the film reaches Harper in Liberia, a once-model town rendered all-but uninhabitable by war and neglect, Glawogger’s diary entries talk about the difficulty of disappearing from the world; he wonders if Harper may be the place to do it. Given the valedictory tone of his words, and the fact that Liberia was the country where he died, it might make sense for the film to end here—which may be the reason why it doesn’t. When it does finally come to a close, the film’s non-sequiturs and occasional longueurs vanish, and the full force of Glawogger’s vision of the world can be felt.