Andreas Weiland

"GREEN THOUGHTS / Bastions-Garten Eichstaett": A Film by Karin Mels, 2008

Prior to seeing ‘Green Thoughts,’ I did not quite know that the genre could exist in this way – but it does exist: the poetic documentary.*  Karin Mels’ poetic documentary about a performance conceived and staged in the botanical garden of Eichstaett by the Belgian artist Alain Verschueren conjures up dreamlike memories of a small Baroque garden visibly inserted in the cityscape and the surrounding landscape. It starts out with a long, quiet, motionless take of a well which lets us see its water fountain spring up, again and again, for a considerable length of time; and this view, evocative of life springing up, of a beginning and new beginning, recurs two or three times (though more briefly) later on as one of the filmmaker’s ways of realizing a rhythm, a structure that is free and light. Quietly, lightly, carefully, she then zooms in on a situation, in the garden. But by and large, and gladly so, to zoom is not her major way of working. It is clearly apparent once, in the beginning, and this constitutes an approach, a way of entering, from outside, from a distance. 

In terms of colors, the film seems to make the greens more green, the reds more pink, the blues lighter; it creates an atmosphere of enchantment, the impression of seeing a garden that is more magical than anyone who has entered it, like me, on a day in fall, would expect. But her time of course is summer, and maybe the Eichstaett light in summer added to that effect. Also, I felt that the people move just a little bit faster than they would do in reality – there is a slight, almost unnoticeable acceleration that adds to the impression of the dreamlike, the unreal. And for one moment I thought even I was watching a submersed garden, in some kind of sunken city, a mythical Atlantis or Vineta. 

Karin Mels does not rely on sharp cuts. Her rhythm depends on soft fade-outs followed by sudden beginnings of a new view. This is neither the much too soft change from sequence to sequence that you are not supposed to notice (a method that the better commercial directors of Hollywood have developed in the past and still master with great perfection) nor the ‘constructivist’ break that comes abrupt like a sharp turn of an argument. The film seems to swing if not oscillate, in its particular rhythm, between long shots and something that is almost a close-up, but not quite that close. Between watching the people move in a magical greenery as if in a labyrinth – a garden you can meander through as if lost, doolhof they would say in Flanders, Irrgarten, in Germany, meaning, a garden to ‘err’ in, erring around.  And then, on the other hand, a tender way of watching a random selection of individual people or  small groups of people, especially those particularly involved in Alain Verschueren’s contribution to the ‘Hortus project’ – figures appearing as if out of paintings by Rene Magritte, wandering around aimlessly, it seems, or trancelike, dreamlike, enchanted; their head immersed or sunk in an ‘oasis’ of flowers,  green plants that appear inside grid-like, open or transparent boxes,  structures fancifully constructed which are carried on the shoulders of these camouflaged walkers.

We see some young volunteers change the load of this equipment, passing the flowers or green plants that will camouflage their heads, from one pair of shoulders to the next, and the camera catches the act, briefly, lovingly, almost in passing, with no intention to unduly intrude. These are small, momentary, fleeting impressions, quietly incorporated into the stream, the flow of a movie that, by its intimate rhythm, does not create an advertisement for what otherwise might be seen as a performance based on a clever idea, a performance referring above all to itself, a ‘happening’ just  happening to take place in a public garden  or part of a public garden. Which – should we see it like that -  would be a misconception, a misunderstanding both of the performance and the film, as an autonomous work of art, that sprang from the garden performance while trying to capture it.  As I see it, the film, which in its own way is very much like the performance, integrates the entirety of the space. It transforms the space, the plants, the colors and forms of the garden. It integrates the surrealist figures of the immediate participants of the performance  into what has become, quite suddenly, an all but cold and rational garden dreamscape, together with its accidental visitors who, in their own way of moving through the baroque garden have become unwitting participants of the performance they believe to watch. It is a transformation that is no doubt part of Alain Verschueren’s concept. And here, it is brought about above all by the filmmaker’s  way of making a ‘poetic documentary,’ rather than by their own acts and intentions.
Of course, the filmic act of capturing a ‘reality’ that brings about such a metamorphosis, such a transformation, cannot be regarded as  ‘objective’ and therefore the film is not a ‘documentary’ in the strict or conventional sense of the word. Nor could we dare to see it as a documentation of the sort that can be seen very often on television, one of these films that are usually overly burdened with ‘commentary.’  This film refrains from verbal commentary entirely (and also from the temptation of adding a documentary sound track featuring voices registered by microphones that could have been placed on site). Instead, it relies on a somewhat minimalist, softly swinging, unobtrusive music the movement of which does not run parallel to the rhythm of fade-outs and new beginnings –  Karin Mels’ specific way of cutting her material. And yet, it enhances the impression that you are entering, that you are looking at, a different world, a world of surrealist nature and of people wandering through it as if awake and yet in a dream-like state.

Tielt-Winge, Nov. 8, 2008

* Of course, in other ways, others have displaced the frontiers of documentary filmmaking in their own ways. It is enough to remember films like Nuit et bruillard, or Sans Soleil.