ULRIKE OTTINGER - CINEMA WITHOUT FRONTIERS
Born in Germany, Ulrike Ottinger moved to Paris when she was 20, where she joined the French artistic scene of the 1960s. Returned to West Germany in 1969, she takes part in the newly formed underground movement. Her first films, made in close collaboration with actress Tabea Blumenschein, are punk, feminist, queer, with surreal, naughty accents. Dating from this time, the festival selection proposes the director’s first two features, both works of fiction, “Madame X – An Absolute Ruler” (1978) and “Ticket of No Return” (1979).
As she advanced in her career, Ottinger constantly questioned the borders between fiction and documentary, directing a first travel documentary in mid 1980s (“China. The Arts – The People,” from 1985), and subsequently returned only occasionally to fiction films – with actors and pre-written scripts -, yet every time combining fictional elements with other, purely documentary ones. Most of the films made by her in the last four decades are travel documentaries, wherein she captures not only people and their specific customs from all around the world, but, every time, she frames what she shoots in fairy tale covers, giving the stories she presents a mythical aura. The fact that the majority of her subjects come from places traditionally regarded as exotic by Western cultures – Japan (“Under Snow,” 2011), the Siberian taiga (“Taiga,” 1992), the frozen territories of Alaska, inhabited by the Eskimo descendants (“Chamisso’s Shadow,” 2016), or China (“China. The Arts – The People” and “Exile Shanghai,” 1997) – makes the viewing experience of these films similar to the ones from childhood, when we are initiated, through stories, into all kinds of remote rituals and beliefs.
Oftentimes, in her trips, Ulrike Ottinger tends to film women she listens to, whom she watches tenderly and observes during their daily activities. In this sense, her filmography works as an album of extremely complex and varied feminine/female figures. “Countdown” (1990) and “Southeast Passage” (2002), made in former European communist countries, are relevant in this regard. In the first of the two she observes the German society after the fall of communism, in the months prior to the West-East reunification, while the second one is a journey through several South-Eastern European countries, most of them formerly communist, and all of them parts of long gone empires, Ukraine, Turkey, Hungary, or Romania, the latter seen shortly before its adhesion to the European Union - which for a native viewer constitutes a fascinating trip back in time. Whether she films cultures which are similar to or radically different than her own, Ottinger regards them with fresh eyes and reveals them in spectacular light not through the unusual character of the themes she proposes, but through the profoundness of the meditation on them, by overlapping times, histories, and perspectives which render unsuspected meanings to them.
“Paris Caligrammes” (2020) is also the most straightforwardly autobiographical documentary in Ulrike Ottinger’s career. Recalling the years of youth spent in 1960s Paris, before her return to Germany and the start of a career in cinema, this most recent film of hers includes topics which are already familiar to the director’s oeuvre admirers, yet it offers – once again – fresh forms and manners to reactivate the ramifications of the past.