Three Visions Of Apocalypse At The Ann Arbor Film Festival
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
By: Bardia Rahmani
As a global pandemic brings society to a standstill, perhaps the smallest of tragedies has been that movie theatres and film festivals have had to shutter their doors. Yet as much as we enjoy cinema in good times, we need it in bad times. The greatest films do not merely provide escape from tragedy, but confront it head on.
They record episodes of collective suffering. They force us to imagine our worst fears—and, in doing so, vanquish them. They teach us how to find meaning in pain, in loneliness, in grief, and in death.
Fortunately, many film festivals have decided to stream their films online free of charge, allowing billions of people sequestered in their homes the chance to experience stories they might never otherwise have encountered. The 58th Ann Arbor Film Festival (March 24-29) was one of the first to do so. Among the dozens of films broadcast to the world this past weekend, three feature films stood out. Each offers a radically different vision of apocalypse that speaks directly to our own troubled times.
Serpentarius (2019), an Angolan-Portuguese production, follows a young man as he roams a post-apocalyptic Africa in search of a parrot that speaks in his long-dead mother’s voice. The film is meditative and languorous—a pace befitting its subject. We see wide shots of deserted Martian landscapes, darkened cities, and coasts littered with the carcasses of broken ships. We wander through the Ozymandian ruins of towns swallowed by desert. We enter an abandoned house, its floors covered in rolling sand dunes in a scene reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. These shots serve as the hypnotic backdrop for writer-director Carlos Conceição’s thoughtful script, a winding electronic score, and enigmatic footage of the world-that-was: colonists, soldiers, and consumers, all scrambling to suck the planet dry of its natural resources.
Pervading the story is a sense of heartbreaking loneliness. The survivors of catastrophe celebrate their birthdays alone. They entertain themselves by dancing in front of mirrors. The precious few people with whom the protagonist converses are hidden off-camera—a necessary technique given the film’s skeleton crew of three people, but one that reinforces the protagonist’s sense of isolation. “In the future,” our hero muses in a line befitting our times, “we conquer our right to distance.” Yet Serpentarius offers not just diagnosis but also catharsis: while we may never escape the pain of separation, it says, we don't have to carry the burden of guilt. It is a small but potent observation, one that will resonate with those of us worrying and grieving for far-off friend and relatives, powerless to close the distance.
In two ways, however, the world of Serpentarius is not our own. First, while our cities and highways are empty today, we are not free to roam them. Post-apocalyptic films have always carried within them the fantasy of radical self-reliance, a sense that, whatever evil the end times bring, at least they will give us autonomy. But the image of Will Smith racing through the abandoned streets of New York City in his roaring mustang now feels risibly out of step with the quiet heroism of self-isolation. Second, while the protagonist of Serpentarius laments the “silence from the collapse of world communications,” our world faces the opposite horror—the unceasing scream of the Internet.
It is this horror that filmmaker Jon Rafman turns to in Dream Journal 2016–2019. The film is Rafman’s attempt to catalogue his dreams using the medium of 3D animation. The result is a Hieronymus Bosch triptych updated for the computer age. The film follows Xanax Girl and her sidekick—a baby head with goat legs—as they sleepwalk through a digital hellscape populated by, among other things, a Dalmatian-zebra-spider, a Minotaur, and a straw-haired demon. The film obeys the fluid illogic of dreams. We move through a hall of doors, pass along a Dali-esque plain of naked, impaled bodies, enter a giant burning mouth, and emerge in an underground rave. Emotions oscillate violently as well: characters laugh when they should cry, and out of the ether, screams materialize for no reason. The Y2K-era animation style, which will be familiar to anyone who has played The Sims, effectively captures the sense of incompleteness peculiar to dreams: you can describe certain bits with frightening detail, but the totality remains frustratingly beyond your grasp.
But Rafman has something deeper in mind than simply describing the uncanny netherworld of dreams. At the core of this harrowing and sometimes trying film is a concern about what the Internet is doing to our minds. As Rafman explained in a recent interview,
“The dichotomy between digital and real life has collapsed in large parts of the world… My recent videos try to capture how much the overload of digital content has infiltrated every aspect of our lives and how it shapes our perception.”
Indeed, Dream Journal is perhaps the best representation of the ongoing crisis as experienced by most people—not the healthcare professionals working around the clock, nor the victims of disease, but the masses trapped in their rooms, their only window to the outside world the screens they carry in their pockets. It captures as well as any film what it feels like to “live” in the Internet. The characters walk from horror to horror, unable to stop themselves from rounding the next corner. You watch them do it, not from any hope of plot resolution—there is none—but out of morbid compulsion, your attention held from minute to minute like a nightmarish Tik Tok binge. It is the same compulsion that drives you to click and click and click, anxiety mounting with each article, each tweet, each news update, until you become trapped in a web of your own passivity.
In one particularly disturbing scene, Xanax Girl is sitting at a desk in a tiny room, her head connected by wires to a brain in a vat. The apparatus transmits images into her skull, which she lives out for a few minutes, only to return to her isolated cell. Rafman made the scene years ago, but it feels eerily prescient of the world of March 2020—and the world of the future if we are not careful. Dream Journal begins and ends with a disembodied lament: “I wish I could sleep a dreamless sleep.” In a time of social distancing, when people have scheduled phone calls and video chats weeks in advance so that they might never be alone, I suspect that we, too, will long for the days of noiseless solitude.
The third film, What We Left Unfinished (2019), does not seem, on the face of it, a film about apocalypse. Mariam Ghani’s enchanting documentary tells the true story of five fictional films from the Afghan Communist era (1978-1990), a “golden time” in which the Afghan government generously funded the work of independent filmmakers. Ghani and her team expertly restore these films, splicing footage with interviews with the directors and actors who went to crazy lengths to make them. What emerges is a poignant testament to human ingenuity. While the Afghan government and its Soviet backers primarily sought to produce propaganda, filmmakers slyly evaded censorship to tell the stories they wanted to tell. “No one can catch a director,” one filmmaker says. “He would say one thing in his script, but film whatever he wanted.”
Of course, as the title of the documentary belies, none of the films were ever finished. Some were dropped after internal power struggles turned what was once propaganda into subversive material. But most were abandoned with outbreak of the Afghan Civil War in the 1990s. This is the apocalypse at the heart of the film: a violent paroxysm in which rockets rained from the sky and Kabul was transformed into a bloody, chaotic jungle. Targeted by the mujahedeen and later the Taliban, most filmmakers were forced to flee, hiding their negatives in a bricked-over hole covered with a poster of Mullah Omar.
It is estimated that the Taliban destroyed as many as 300 films in their five-year rule. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, the filmmakers returned to find that, miraculously, their reels had survived. Yet, their childlike joy at finding their old work is tempered with a sense of grief and loss—of the world that had been, of the films that would never be.
It has been argued that one of the things that is so jarring about the pandemic—why it feels as if life itself has been upended—is that it has revealed to the inhabitants of rich nations that they are not insulated from tragedy; that the death and uncertainty we see on the nightly news is not a fate reserved for distant others, but one that can befall us too. In a stroke, surefire plans for the future become frivolous fantasies of the past. It is a lesson that these Afghan filmmakers—men and women who poured their hearts and souls into their films, only to leave them behind—have long understood, as have the Syrians, Venezuelans, Uighurs, and Iraqis of the world. Will the realization that we are as vulnerable as them steel our hearts and turn us inward? Or will it make us kinder, more empathetic, and more sensitive to the pain of others?