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For the first 30 years of his career, filmmaker and theatre director Thomas Heise — whose acclaimed works include Fatherland, Neustadt (Traffic Jam – State of Affairs) and My Brother We’ll Meet Again — has produced an oeuvre rooted firmly within his home country, offering fragments of a documentarian whole mirroring Edgar Reitz‘s fictional-feature universe of the German heimat. His first significant foray abroad, in the Argentina-set 2011 piece Solar System, has seemingly whetted the veteran auteur’s appetite for casting his glance abroad — and thus arrives, three years onwards, Staedtebewohner, a documentary about a juvenile prison in Mexico City.
Heise might have left Germany for his latest film, but Germany remains very much visible in it. Bertolt Brecht‘s poems feature prominently in the film, whether through a voiceover at the beginning of the film or delivered (in Spanish) by one of the inmates Heise has chosen to focus on. Veering away from the norm of depicting Latin American correctional services facilities as gaudily-colored centers of sweltering bedlam, Heise’s slow-moving, black-and-white camera work — a style similar to the one deployed by Wim Wenders in Wings of Desire — has transformed Mexico City’s San Fernando jail into an ethereal theater for recovering, young souls hoping for a new future.
A beautiful and revealing account of confused young men confined in institutions managed by heavily-armed personnel possibly none the wiser about life beyond work — Heise has spliced in a scene of guards venting anguish about their pay and their leave schedule — Staedtebewohner is artistic enough to open more festival gates after its latest shows in Vienna (where more screenings will follow in a Heise retrospective at the Austrian Filmmuseum) and Leipzig.
The German title of Staedtebewohner translates as “city residents”. It’s a useful pointer in understanding Heise’s agenda in portraying his subjects as part of a collective whole — of the prison population, or society in general — rather than estranged individuals whiling their time away in frustration and fury alone. Interestingly, the San Fernando Community — as it is officially called in a move to emphasize its difference from jails for adults — appears more tranquil a place than the rumbling streets outside; the film begins with a series of shots of deserted country roads and then traffic-packed urban streets short of the humanity on offer inside the prison.
Out of San Fernando’s hundreds of teenage inmates, Heise zeroes in on three: the soft-speaking 19-year-old Samuel, who claims to have been framed for murder and says he aspires to become “good at many things” when he gets his parole; Ever, who is candid about the melee which led him to shooting someone dead and now spends time discussing the Bible with a couple of preachers visiting the prison; and Irving, shown lying on a grassy lawn in the prison and telling his visiting father his fears of “his people” deserting him while he serves his sentence. (Hilariously, his father’s parental advice about pursuing forensic science as a career somehow morphed into a tip about which parts of the human body are the most vulnerable to a physical attack.)
Irving’s time in the sun is part of the norm rather than an exception in Staedtebewohner. There were the odd glimpse of inmates being herded from one room to another, but mostly everything’s calm, serene and convivial — even the meticulous security checks for visiting relatives appear to be lightly done. Set during the Christmas and New Year holidays, the film unveils the institution as akin to a playground for picnicking families, shown through panning shots of the bustling courtyards.
Robert Nickolaus‘ cinematography remains pristine throughout, with Bowen Liu‘s orchestral score propelling the proceedings into an operatic level: more than just a documentary about teenage offenders, Staedtebewohner could be perceived as a piece about angels awaiting their time to return to grace. Whether all this light and optimism is all concocted with irony in mind is a question though: the Brecht poems — especially The Fourth Psalm, as recited by Ever on screen — is drenched in dark cynicism and a resignation to fate. Maybe that’s the dark future these young men will have to face when the real world finally beckons — but that’s all beyond the institution and Heise’s remits here.
Venue: Vienna International Film Festival
Production companies: Thomas Heise, Konrad Wold Film University Potsdam
Director: Thomas Heise
Screenwriter: Thomas Heise
Producer: Thomas Heise
Director of photography: Robert Nickolaus
Editor: Mike Guergen
Music: Bowen Liu
International Sales: Deckert Distribution
In German and Spanish
No rating; 82 minutes
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