Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Working On It

Still from Working On Itdirs Karin Michalski, Sabina Baumann
Switzerland/Germany 2008

Puzzlingly subtitled "conversations, performances, queer electronics", this doc is a non-linear exploration of various forms of oppression experienced by women and trans people, from gender, to race, to sexuality and a bit of class thrown in. Hey, why not? The limitations of language, the assumptions of others, and the behaviour and thoughts of oneself all come under the microscope, as well as how it is possible to subvert or invert these behaviours.

Playing with the conventions of the doc, Michalski and Baumann structured the film in two parts: conducting initial interviews and then convening a group meeting a year later. This gives the film an intriguing angle as the participants arrive in a former Berlin supermarket to reflect on their earlier words and view others' contributions. There are several shots of interviewees watching TV screens and putting up art around the space.

But the promised performances and queer electronics are downplayed. One participant dons enormous eyelashes to recite a short poem and there are a few cameos of opening cupboards and some participants screen-printing T-shirts with the slogan "identity pills".

Interviews are interspersed with these activities rather than forming a linear flow. Decrying the limitations of gendered language, one participant creates alternatives by writing sentences on a wall using new pronouns such as "sni" and "per". Others discuss the frustrations of being stared at in public and asked where they are from because they are non-white.

One interviewee declares how great it is not to be white and skinny. Still others decry the binary gender system and refuse to be categorised within it. There is a brief interlude outside the space showing footage from what I believe was the 2007 Dyke Trans March in Berlin as rain-soaked marchers hold up signs.

Without captions or a voiceover, the film is a bit of a challenge as one struggles to see how it holds together. The interviewees are quite interesting but without knowing even their names (I recognised a couple of familiar faces from the Berlin art/music scene), it's hard to get to know them. A few clues are offered in the interviews, as some participants refer to their jobs or to confronting specific prejudices, but this is by no means uniform.

There is very little group discussion, which is a pity. Once the participants are gathered in one room, one expects more interplay but this is limited to about one minute of conversation and some intrusively shaky camera work. Perhaps this is some self-referencing comment on film-making? Then Rhythm King and Her Friends perform a song and drive off on a motorcycle while wearing bear heads (much of this footage appears in the video to "No Picture of the Hero!" but I am not sure which came first). Then the film ends. Most odd.

Nonetheless, I quite like the ambition and artfulness of the film, and its attempts to link many expressions of behaviour outside the norm. As one participant says, queer was an attempt to make heterosexuality not the norm.

Working On It screens at Frameline 32 on 21 June in San Francisco.

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