Above Us All: Berlin Review

Berlin International Film Festival
"Above Us All Still"
As the world turns.

Dutch filmmaker Eugenie Jansen’s experimental 3D feature premiered in Berlin’s Generation section.

Form triumphs over content in Above Us All, an impressively realized experimental feature using 3D imagery and constantly roving 360° pans to tell the tale of a family shattered by the death of their mother. Featuring a slew of beautiful sequence shots filmed on location in Australia and Belgium, but bogged down by some rather heavy-handed fits of storytelling, this ambitious effort from Dutch director Eugenie Jansen should see continued festival play after debuting in Berlin’s Generation section. Venturesome distributors and art museums will also take notice of this rare attempt to use stereoscopic technology for something other than exploding cities and alien invasions.

From its opening scene, staged atop a hill in the Australian outback, with the camera slowly turning from left to right as it captures the gorgeous surrounding scenery, Above Us All sets itself apart as a unique cinematic experience that somewhat recalls the avant-garde work of Michael Snow, even if this is a much more narrative-bent movie.

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As one continuous panning shot follows another, we gradually creep into the life of a mixed-race family, whose Flemish father (Maarten Baes) works as an astronomer at a rural facility, while his Aborigine wife (Pearl Davern) suffers at home from a terminal disease. When she passes, the dad takes his tweenage daughter (Shayleah Sands, tough and touching -- especially when she belts out a Pink song in a later scene) and younger son (Kaleb Sands) back to Belgium, settling into the town of Ypres, which is famous for its horrific WWI battles, including one which resulted in half a million casualties.

Despite such details, Jansen – whose 2008 feature, Calimucho, toured several film fests -- is far less concerned with telling a straightforward story than with immersing the viewer in various atmospheric settings, some of which are rather breathtaking to behold. This is especially true for certain exterior shots, including one set in an Australian schoolyard filled with singing children, another in a field where a hot air balloon slowly floats away, and one well-choreographed sequence involving several giant satellite dishes straight out of Contact.

These moments are more convincing than a number of scenes where the filmmaker places her non-professional cast on rotating platforms, spinning them along with the camera as they engage in a series of weighty monologues about life, death, the spirits and the stars. Certainly, such sequences allow us to know what’s going on inside the characters’ minds, but the technique comes off as rather pretentious, overloading on expressive dialogue (from a screenplay by Kim Nierkerk and Patrick Minks) as it tries to move the plot forward.

Much better are the purely aesthetic moments where the camera -- manned by Adri Shrover, who used a 50 fps rate to get the best resolution -- simply explores the ever-changing locations, dropping in on intimate family gatherings or reenactments of the First World War. And although Jansen’s attempt to tie together some fairly big themes -- she quotes both Aborigine legend and Carl Sagan at length -- doesn’t ultimately, er, pan out, she manages to plunge us into an absorbing technological event, a sort of high-minded and obtuse art-house cousin to Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity.

Production companies: De Productie, Minds Meet, KRO Television

Cast: Shayleah Sands, Kaleb Sands, Maarten Baes, Pearl Davern, Annette Linthorst, Christian Delplace

Director: Eugenie Jansen

Screenwriters: Kim Nierkerk, Patrick Minks, based on an idea by Kim Niekerk

Producers: Rene Goossens, Annemiek van Gorp

Director of photography: Adri Schrover

Production designer: Vinz Kulik

Costume designer: Roos Smith

Editor: Nico Leunen

Sales agent: New Europe Film Sales

No rating, 99 minutes

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