Forum catalogue review

Of bird watchers and other incidental proceedings
Text by Nicole Wolf, published in the Forum catalogue

The day of the sparrow could be any day. Sparrows are in fact very close to us. They mostly stay where people are. But not every sparrow triggers the outraged and threatening reaction sparked by the one that on November 14, 2005, fell victim to the gambling and television spectacle of Domino Day in Leeuwarden, and henceforth becomes an affair of state.
Day of the Sparrow begins with physical exertion. First the sparrow that slams into an obstructing windowpane, which it doesn’t perceive as such, then the carefree sparrows indulging in their daily baths in shallow water.
Day of the Sparrow is thus an animal film and, true to its genre, follows birds to their habitats, providing insight into their territoriality. It takes us to the meanders of the Mosel River, little villages and forests behind hilly fields in the Eifel region, flowery meadows, tranquil lakes in the woods, long sandy beaches and the open Baltic Sea, as well as to cities like Bonn, Berlin, and Leeuwarden. We often peer at length into multilayered wide open spaces and sometimes into the sky – but before the screen can turn into an abstract, idyllic landscape painting, a specific detail draws our attention or the film cuts to a precise close-up of a flock of birds or a Tornado fighter plane landing. The observer must often wait patiently in ambush and, following ornithological practice, pay as much attention to sounds close by as to distant ones; maybe also like the soldier lying in wait for the enemy - but that was another time.
Gradually, an alongside, behind, in front, or in between develops. Ground that must not be tread, films never made, peripheral talk, questions and answers, about war, security, militarization, peace, participation, remaining silent, acting, and Afghanistan. Image and sound work together and against each other; concentration, friction; steadily and accumulatively our senses get confused. Without spectacular images or dramatic climaxes, the continuity of inconspicuous but precisely placed and constantly observing camera glimpses and of the sensitive build-up of a fragmentary but pointed net of thoughts and perspectives creates a tension and intensity that holds our breath, similar to the fixed attentive when a house of cards is set up. A cinematic surplus arises, the wonderful excess that we can experience when cinema is at its best; perhaps it can momentarily be circumscribed with thinking and seeing from the margins, a cinematic experiment in showing what cannot be enunciated.
The simultaneity of the death of a sparrow and of a German soldier in the Afghanistan war and continuous, seemingly coincidental overlaps, result in a well-conceived balancing act that never embraces unexpected parallels in interpretation, but unobtrusively and yet fundamentally questions our perception. Neither the potentialities disclosed by the occasionally silent long shots, nor the possibilities of being very close by ever pin down anything concrete. The insistence on silence, observation, persistent listening, and the offer to let our habitual perception run off the tracks lead to a cinematic openness that enables a shift in perspective. The relation between observer and observed blurs, also because the option of remaining external and uninvolved is denied, despite us looking from the distance. When the camera thus targets two soldiers of the Bundeswehr, Germany’s army, who slowly pace off their perimeter behind fences and, observing, consider whether these are intruders to be taken seriously; then this situation contains far more layers than gaze and reciprocal gaze could describe.
If the crisis of documentary film means that no new pictures can be made, that no really new stories can be told anymore, and that in the age of constant media confrontation with conflict zones we have lost our capacity for empathy because we have no relationship to the object of attention, then the Day of the Sparrow is a calm, insistent example of how documentary film, at any rate a particular documentary film, is precisely what can grow beyond the description of the world as we are able to see it today. If in the act of viewing the film produces the experience of a corporeal alienation effect in relation to familiar landscapes and confuses our embedding in certain pictorial, auditory and sensual contexts, then this carries the fascinating potential of the politics of aesthetics that might be the condition of political thought and action.
The use of the personal also receives a shift in the film; it is never employed as an entry, a legitimization, or a means of identification but nevertheless becomes part of Merle Kröger and Philip Scheffner’s carefully crafted script. Ways of questioning, political strategies, and chosen positions for the recording of images and sounds can be experienced as inhabited ones and hereby enable also the spectator to shift perspectives within and through the film. Perhaps she briefly feels like the gray heron, slowly moving across the street between the parking cars, self-confident in the stillness of the nocturnal city, but not for a second taking its watchful eye from the fundamental fragility of its surroundings.
In the end we are confronted with vital questions of taking action and how acting is tied to seeing, seeing to understanding, understanding to closeness, and closeness to involvement – or how we relate to what disturbs our peace seemingly only from afar.
Nicole Wolf, Berlin, January 2010