Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 22, 2019 12:04 pm 
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In dedicated pursuit of a tarnished childhood idol

Swiss filmmaker Anja Kofmel blends dreams and reality skillfully in her documentary, Chris the Swiss, which explores the memory of a childhood idol who always haunted her: her cousin Christian Wurtenberg, who died mysteriously in Serbia in 1992 at the age of twenty-seven when she was only ten. He was glamorous to her, handsome, energetic, puffing cigarettes. He sought danger and his adrenaline craving led him to cross the borders, it seemed, between war correspondent and outright mercenary, then wind up strangled in a cornfield. As a child, she had found him dashing and attractive. As an adult, his life still haunted her (as it did his brother and parents) and led to this imaginative and absorbing film.

To unearth what may have happened to cut his young life short, Kofmel does what a good documentarian does: she travels to the site, films and interviews, unearths documents. But the Yugoslavia wars as well as the nature of her cousin's demise are dark and mysterious, and she supplements her more conventional explorations with her own excellent black-and-white animations, in which her cousin appears as a haunted-eyed young man with a striped scarf. Like Ari Folman's 2008 animated docu-memoir Waltz With Bashir (NYFF 2008), Kofmel uses her drawings to evoke a violent period with no direct photographic record of the protagonist's participation, as well as her own complex feelings early and now about him; but in her case she weaves in a full-fledged film documentary as well, nicely creating a sense of the interplay between history, found documents, memories, and personal feelings - because the Child Anja is a frequent figure in the animations. (She has cited Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing as an inspiration for her recreations.)

Matthew Heineman's recent feature film A Private War, which recreated the life of war journalist Marie Colvin (played by Rosamund Pike), brought vividly to mind how such writers skirt on the edge of self-destruction in their "adrenaline junky" chase for the ultimate story. But Colvin, though she made it only to the age of fifty-six, put a distinguished career behind her. Christian Wurtenberg was too reckless and immature and too unlucky. He did not go the conventional journalistic route, he fell in with dangerous company, and he didn't make it half that far.

Kofmel makes her film not only an exploration of her memories and her idol but a superb re-exploration of the violent chaos of the Yugoslav Wars her cousin dashed into. He took a train to Zagreb, entering a no man's land, and she recreates this both with animation and a film of her own train journey.

Chris entered this violent, dangerous war, and began reporting on it for Swiss German radio. But later, there is clear evidence that he joined the PIV ("International Platoon of Volunteers"), a shady group of international mercenaries. There was a precedent: a decade earlier, at only seventeen, he had briefly joined a South African apartheid trained militia in Namibia, suggesting he had a thirst for fighting and violence, politics be damned, as well as for dangerous reportage.

When Chris joined PIV, his journalistic colleagues were saddened and disturbed by the news of this turn. He claimed he was involved only to gather material for a book, but it's likely he became complicit in ethnic cleansing. The key figure here is Eduardo Rozsa-Flores, aka Chico. a journalist-turned-mercenary who commanded the PIV. Stephen Dalton, who reviewed the film at Cannes for Hollywood Reporter, describes Flores as "a dangerously authoritarian Colonel Kurtz type." He was an unsavory yet charismatic character, and one can understand the young Chris' attraction to his toxic energy amidst the madness of 1991 Croatia.

Whether Chris was murdered at the order of Chico himself as a spy along with his friend the British photojournalist Paul Jenks or died in an enemy ambush as he claimed can probably never be known. Kofmel is unable to interview Chico because he was shot dead in 2009 while planning the assassination of Bolivian president Eva Morales, having returned to violence after a period of pursuing a career as a writer and actor. There is footage, which we see, of Chico, in military garb, saying Chris "lagged behind and was ambushed."

Kofmel interweaves footage of herself interviewing former volunteers who now live in Croatia and exploring the snowy landscape with her animations imagining how her cousin's uneasy relationship with Chico and his mixed platoon, which one of the vets of another unit tells her included some real professional soldiers who knew their stuff with "some real bloody idiots." Chris stood out because he wasn't a butcher or even a soldier in any way, just a "nice guy." But sometimes the weak member of a unit is the first to be turned into a butcher - to prove himself - before the whole unit gradually become butchers, according to an informant. What he was like then Kofmel explores in interviews with two friends and fellow war journalists, Austrian Heidi Rinke and Julio Cesar Alonso.

Dalton feels that the film's pure documentary elements are weaker than its imaginative animated ones, leaving too many unanswered threads dangling. In her Cannes review for Variety, Jessica Kiang in contrast sees this film as "if anything. . .liberated from being a slavish work of investigative journalism and free to develop into a more compelling and artistic hybrid of memoir, biographical documentary and general discussion of why young men feel their pulses quicken at the idea of fighting in a foreign war." I agree with Kiang: the film richly brings up the historical context while never ceasing to be an exploration of necessarily complex personal feelings about a lost relative. As such it is unusually satisfying and thought-provoking.

Chris the Swiss, 90 mins., had a work-in-progress showing in Zurich in Jan. 2018 and later won the Filmpreis Stadt Zürich. It formally debuted at Cannes Critics' Week in May, and showed at the animation fest at Annecy and at Locarno, Adelaide, Mill Valley and Sevilla. Screened for this review as part of San Francisco 2019 Berlin & Beyond.

Berlin & Beyond showtime:
Thu. March 14, 2019 6:00 p.m.
Goethe-Institut, San Francisco
San Francisco Premiere


©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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