Dec 2017

Exposing Antiziganism through Remediation

Investigation into a Xenophobic Murder in Revision (2012)

by Maria Hofmann

Abstract: Racist attacks against immigrants and refugees are on the rise in Germany; they are, however, not a new occurrence. In 1992, two Roma men were shot near the German-Polish border, presumably in a hunting accident for which the two German hunters never faced legal consequences. Twenty years later, Philip Scheffner’s documentary film Revision (2012) reexamines the case and its circumstances by interviewing officials, eye-witnesses, and families of the victims. While this approach at first sight resembles the traditional format of rectifying past events of social injustice by uncovering the truth, Revision goes beyond the mere recovery of facts.

I argue that, instead of presenting one true version of the case, it rather confronts the audience with the scope of possible stories that are shaped by personal perspectives, memories, and social conditions. This is achieved by the use of different strategies that reveal, and, at the same time, add layers and layers of mediation. I will analyze the remediating strategies employed in Revision, and show how they expose this almost forgotten case not only as a symbol of systematic antiziganism and xenophobia in Germany, but also as an example for the interconnected relationship of memory, media, and their representation.

 

 

In 1992, two Roma men were shot near the German-Polish border, presumably in a hunting accident for which the two German hunters never faced legal consequences. Twenty years later, Philip Scheffner’s documentary film Revision (2012) reexamines the case and its circumstances by interviewing officials, eye-witnesses, and families of the victims. While this approach at first sight resembles the traditional format of rectifying past events of social injustice by uncovering the truth, Revision goes beyond the mere recovery of facts. I argue that Revision uses specific aesthetic strategies to address the state of mediation and remediation in this particular case in order to reconstruct the systemic societal reasons for this event.

One famous example of a previous documentary film investigating a criminal case is Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line from 1988. At the time of its release, The Thin Blue Line offered a ground-breaking new perspective on the possibilities and impact of documentary film by investigating a murder that had happened 12 years earlier with the alleged murderer already behind bars. The Thin Blue Line made it possible for the case to be re-opened, and it saved the convicted Randall Dale Williams from the death sentence. Furthermore, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas claims that it “introduced many thematic and stylistic elements that have since become commonplace, not only in other documentary feature films but also in related areas such as television documentary” (109) with e.g. the use of re-enactments and the depiction of material evidence. Like The Thin Blue Line, Revision centers around interviews with people who have not been interviewed for the official investigation. The Thin Blue Line incorporates these interviews to either bring facts to light that give a different account of the events or to reveal certain witnesses as liars. Both aspects contribute to the film’s overall goal to give a different, more truthful version of what had happened. With new information being given, the re-enactment of the shooting changes to represent different versions. (Heller-Nicholas 111) In Revision, the purpose of the selection of interviews is far more unclear at first sight. One example are the interviews with the victims’ families that do not have any valuable information to contribute to the criminal case. They do, however, make up a large portion of the first part of the film. Here, it becomes apparent that Revision is not simply and solely interested in finding the truth in the sense of factual evidence of the case. What happened that night is quite clear from early on with more and more details getting filled in over the course of the film. Instead of pursuing a correction of a legal ruling, Revision focuses on the variety of different narratives, on a multitude of possible perspectives. This is further emphasized by the interview of an eye-witness that can tell exactly what had happened with the two victims in that night. This could be assumed to be the core element and climax of the film as the quasi-confession of David Ray Harris is in The Thin Blue Line. In Revision however, this interview is not given more weight than any other, no special space is reserved at the end of the film, no climactic importance given to this piece of information. It has the same weight as the interviews with the families that, despite their lack of new facts, have a central role in contributing to the multi-faceted circumstances of a case like this. Here, the depiction of the two dead men as members of a family is important, the consequences of their deaths not only for their wives and children back in 1992 but also on their lives today, the further impact on the next generation. It reminds the viewer that any event is always embedded in a complexly mediated system rather than completely isolated and detached as a news podcast or a legal case might make it appear. The film approaches this single event from a myriad of different possible perspectives which becomes clear in the reoccurring theme of the ‘beginning of the story’ which is set up by Scheffner’s first voice-over:

The film begins with the end of a story. A story with many beginnings. For me it begins with a radio traffic message. In 1992 in Germany, two years after reunification. “Due to a fire on the Berlin-Szczecin autobahn, the German-Polish border crossing is temporarily closed. Traffic is held up for 3km.” For a family from the city Craiova, the story begins much earlier: In 1989 in Romania, shortly after the revolution. For another family from Alba Iulia, the story begins 1991. In Romania with pictures from Germany.

Over the course of the film, the viewer hears different versions of the events of this night:

Nadrensee, North East Germany, June 29, 1992. Two farmers discover something lying in the corn. On closer inspection, they recognize two human bodies. They drive towards the village to look for help. Behind them, the field is in flames.

On June 29, 1992, two people are shot in a field close to the German-Polish border. […] On June 29, 1992, Edache Calderar is shot in a field close to the German-Polish border. The second body is identified by relatives currently at the refugee centre in Gelbensande near Rostock. His name is Grigore Velcu called Parizan, from the city Craiova in Romania. […]

On June 29, 1992, Eudache Calderar and Grigore Velcu are shot in a field close to the German-Polish border. […]

Different words all describing the same single event reveal how the choice of words informs our perception; e.g. when a report uses the names of the victims, it ensures that the viewer perceives them as people rather than anonymous entities, and enables us to empathize with them, and to sympathize with the families. At the same time, the fact that different words can be used to describe the same occasion emphasizes that all descriptions are always the result of human narrativization bound to interpretation, purpose, and goal of the speaker. It is important to point out that this multitude of versions all exist simultaneously without one being more viable or more truthful than another. While The Thin Blue Line’s changing reenactments represent a truth-finding process at the end of which one – the factually most accurate – version emerges, Revision’s approach is more interested in the multitude of versions itself. I do not argue that Revision’s program is to advocate for postmodern relativism in which truth is irrelevant altogether. Instead, the film reflects on the complexity of a case deeply embedded in a system of mediation (of which Revision is part as well) that goes well beyond the concept of only one true descriptive story. In order to enable the viewer to judge or intervene, the film forces us to work through this complexity by making us aware of the multitude of simultaneously valid truths.

This multitude also emerges from the various people in the interviews which Revision highlights by framing them differently. When Scheffner interviews officials, such as lawyers, forensic examiners, policemen, they speak from a different social role than family members. Consequently, the families are interviewed as a group rather than individuals; a circumstance on that one of the sons also comments; he expresses the wish to be interviewed separately. Additionally, the family interviews take place in their homes; they are surrounded by their personal items, and wear everyday clothing. In contrast, the interviews with the officials take place in their professional workplace with the interviewees sitting behind their desks surrounded by items that underline their professional capacity. An especially illustrative example is the figure of Romeo Tiberiade who is interviewed once as the officer for Roma affairs in the district council of Dolj, and once as a former asylum seeker in Germany talking about his personal experience.

Figure 1. Interview with officer

Figure 1: Interview with officer for Roma affairs Romeo Tiberiade

Figure 2. Interview with former asylum seeker

Figure 2: Interview with former asylum seeker Romeo Tiberiade

This separation between personal and official space exists in regard to the content but is visually emphasized outside of the interview framing as well. Interviews alternate with silent shots of the windows in the rooms where the interviews take place. Many of the windows in Germany go out to nature settings, one can see trees with green foliage, while the windows in Romania show courtyards, other houses, the village, people.

Figure 3: Window in Germany

Figure 3: Window in Germany

 

Figure 4: Window in Romania

Figure 4: Window in Romania

Naturally, this separates the lives of people in different cultures, social roles, and countries which reminds of the complexity and multiplicity of a case such as this one, and in what kind of various spaces it continues to have meaning. At the same time, Revision stands out by not showing and reproducing certain negative stereotypical representations of Romani people that are common in media. (Novoselsky) Revision consciously avoids these images dominated by connotations of dirt, filth, and chaos, and instead gives the individuals space for their perspective. By doing so, the film reacts to a visual but also verbal media situation in which people are reduced to negative stereotypes as Scheffner himself found when the two men had only been characterized as human traffickers. (Kassler 25)[1]

At the same time, the visibility of the window’s frame and the reflection of the glass (see fig. 3 and 4) highlights the window’s function as a separator between the inside and the outside. Even though the transparency of the glass creates a link between the two, it is only ostensibly permeable but ultimately represents a physical barrier, just as media grant us access to remote spaces while the medium itself confines this perspective. This reminds the viewer that even though Revision presents stories, and narratives from various angles, the ‘truth’ as a whole can never be conceived.

The direct use of the camera in the film also contributes to that reminder. In one instance, Scheffner and his camera man try to capture the exact visual conditions the hunters must have experienced when they shot at the two men.

Figure 5: Recreation of light conditions

Figure 5: Recreation of light conditions

The viewer learns that they made sure that the light conditions exactly matched the night of June 29 1992 to understand if the story of the hunters claiming they thought they were shooting at boars is plausible. In the off, one can hear the two men discussing the adjustments of the camera to imitate the scene in front of their eyes as closely as possible; one can also hear their frustration in this attempt, which echoes with the viewers’ frustration being presented with an image and being told at the same time that it does not look like reality. They conclude that what they see, and what the camera shows, is still not an exact match, but they agree that it is hard to believe that one could mistake a human for a boar under these conditions. This scene certainly has the purpose of recreating the circumstances of the event in order to determine the likelihood of certain versions; simultaneously, it also reveals the limitations of a camera to depict reality. The moving image has an intrinsic, very convincing “strong evidentiary power” (Nichols 35); this scene confronts the viewer with the boundaries of this power, and one’s own misguided trust in it. When a journalist recounts the events of an attack on a refugee center that escalated into violent fights, he reveals another effect of the camera lens: “Without my camera, I wouldn’t have endured this for half an hour.” His observation confirms the concept of the camera as a mediating filter but also exposes the protective power of an image compared to the real experience.

Documentary film has always had a complicated relationship to reality. By its own definition, documentary is a nonfictional genre, i.e. a genre that links to reality directly, that represents the actual rather than imaginary worlds. The filmmaker’s choices, views, and perceptions, however, influence the film she creates. Pointing the camera at one object instead of another already shapes the narrative into a certain perspective on reality. Just like the historiographer, whose limited objectivity Hayden White revealed in the 1970ies, the documentary filmmaker can never give a full account of “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist”. Instead one can only gain access to entirely mediated pieces of information that are compromised by the medium as well as the mediator. Errol Morris claims in an interview with Werner Herzog about The Act of Killing: “[W]hatever documentary is, it’s not adult education. Presumably, it’s an art form where we are trying to communicate something about the real world.”

In Revision, the relationship between immediate experience and its representation is further complicated by the strategies employed in the interviews. The first scene of an interview shows the interviewee listening to a recording of their own statement, confirming their agreement with what they said. On a practical level, this strategy allows the interviewees to correct or revise their statement making sure their words convey what they want to say. Making this process part of the film certainly gives the impression of transparency in terms of an ethical treatment of the film’s subjects with the goal to not misconstrue statements, as well as in terms of an ethical filmmaking itself in showing the complexity of the issue along with the complexity of the humans who happen to be part of it. In an interview with Dieter Kassel, Scheffner elaborates on the reasons for choosing this strategy:

Aber damit ist eine der Grundfragen des Films gestellt: Wer spricht da, wer erzählt eigentlich die Geschichte? Das ist eine ganz zentrale Frage, weil die Geschichte je nach Perspektive ganz anders beginnt, ganz anders endet und auch eine ganz andere politische Dimension entwickelt. Wir wollten, dass die Menschen, mit denen wir sprechen, das höchste Maß an Kontrolle über das haben, was sie sagen. Wir wollten, dass eine Art von filmischem Raum entsteht, der die Machtverhältnisse, die in so einem Interview entstehen, zum Wanken bringt. (25)

At the same time, the moment of the interviewees listening to their own recorded voice reveals the volatility of the present moment that one can only attempt to capture. Listening to the statement alone already alters and changes it forever, adding layer after layer of mediation. It emphasizes that none of the things one sees on the screen are part of one’s own present except for the screen itself. The same is true for the interviewees whose own voice acts like a ghost of the past; even if they corrected their previous statement it will always only represent a correction, never an actual change to the past event. These scenes are haunted by the past without creating a direct link to it.

The landscape shots inserted throughout the films give a similar impression.

Figure 6: Landscape shots of the crime scene

Figure 6: Landscape shots of the crime scene

For the most part, they show shots of the field in Nadrensee, thus, the location of the crime. Yet, none of this is visible in these peaceful and serene scenes that show the corn swaying in the wind or the monotonous hypnotizing movement of farming machines and windmills. There is no sign that two people lost their lives there, no sign of the tragedies their families had to endure. In the film these shots offer moments of contemplation for the viewer to gather one’s thoughts while these moments are simultaneously fully informed by the accounts of the film, i.e. by the knowledge of the crime and its impact. This knowledge haunts these calm shots and, thus, contrasts past and present, absence and presence, the invisible and the visible.[2]

The result of these aesthetic strategies is a changed perception of the viewer. Documentary films often aim at a call of action, the creation of a viewer’s intrinsic motivation to become active and change whatever issue the film is targeting, e.g. The Thin Blue Line clearly aims at a new trial for Randall Dale Adams to have him acquitted based on the proposed outrage of the audience of the film. Heller-Nicholas further argues that The Thin Blue Line’s self-reflexive questioning of the validity of evidence, and thus of documentary film itself, puts the spectators in a position to become “critical viewers rather than passive consumers” (114). For Revision, the legal consequences of the crime, the fact that the hunters were never persecuted, are far less important. This film does not take the place of a private investigator searching for the guilty through evidence but rather the place of a historian, and to be more precise, of an effective historian according to Michel Foucault’s concept of genealogy. Foucault demands a rejection of the concept of history as “retracing the past as a patient and continuous development” (380) and calls to “relentlessly disrupt its pretended continuity” (380). By presenting us with a multitude of different and contradicting perspectives that all simultaneously exist (rather than replacing one another), Revision argues against the belief in one true history that can be reconstructed as The Thin Blue Line might have us believe. Like all filmmakers’, Scheffner’s and Morris’ choices shape the depiction and arrangement of the visual material on which the truth claim of documentary film is based. As Michael Renov puts it:

But public history cannot simply be an aggregate of private histories strung together or nimbly intercut. […] Delegating the enunciative function to a series of interview subjects cannot, in the end, bolster a truth claim for historical discourse; the enunciator, the one who ‘voices’ the text, is the film or videomaker functioning as historiographer. (27)

Along the lines of making Revision a genealogical project, Scheffner, however, goes beyond that by being a constant presence in the film; he reads the voice-over narration, conducts the interviews, discusses with his cameraman. One scene especially reveals his perspective:

Scheffner asks the lawyer who is surrounded by volumes of legal writing making him the official representative of the law in the film about his notification of the liability insurance for hunters that covers hunting accident such as the one from June 29 1992. That is to say that the insurance would have covered any claims “if the families had put in a claim.”

Lawyer: That’s how our legal system works. I can only fulfill demands when someone files a claim. That is, seen from a legal perspective. It’s possibly difficult for you to relate to but…

Scheffner: It is difficult to relate to. Legally or not.[3]

This emotional response of indignation and outrage from the filmmaker is a singular event in the movie. It intentionally breaks the established separation between official and personal narratives by forcing the lawyer out of his social role as representative of the law, and addressing him as a private person – as a human – on a moral rather than a legal issue. This outbreak along with Scheffner’s continuous presence throughout the film affirms his own “grounding in a particular time and place, [his] preferences in a controversy” (Foucault 382) which makes him a genealogist and effective historian in comparison to Morris’ not atypical, traditional relinquishment of any personal existence of the filmmaker in the movie.

The goal of Revision is not simply to make the viewer an activist against antiziganism, racism, and an unjust legal system but to put the viewer in a critical space of medial awareness. The film displays this case not as criminal investigation but as a result of societal systems and patterns, and thereby, alludes to the issues and problems in today’s society. Scheffner sums up the program of his film: “Also diese kriminalistische Form der Aufarbeitung ist gescheitert. Unser Schwerpunkt war die Frage: Was kann eine filmische Form als Ergänzung oder als andere Form des Umgangs leisten?“ (Kassel 25) This program reflects on a media situation in which the authentic experience, the immediacy of reality represents an impossibility. The movie ends with the statement of one of the daughters; she says: “If you had at least one lasting memory of him. You’d have at least that memory when you miss him. But we don’t have memories. We have photos.”

Endnotes

[1] This issue represents a common problem in our current media-dominated era. A limited amount of certain images is repeatedly reproduced which not only leads to the stigmatization of the represented with inadequate properties but also to the loss of meaning of these images. Examples include historical events like the Holocaust but also current topics such as the refugee crisis. While the oversaturation with negative stereotypes is a common practice for antiziganist and antisemitic propaganda, contemporary documentary filmmakers aim at addressing these problems; e.g. A Film Unfinished (2010) by Yael Hersonski re-examines and re-contextualizes archival footage from the Warsaw ghetto in order to reveal the harmful intentions of its production.

[2] In his film Respite (2007), Harun Farocki uses a similar strategy in order to explicitly reveal the layers of remediation of certain images. When showing peaceful archival footage of a Nazi transit camp in the Netherlands, the narrator points out that one cannot see these images without also seeing representations of Nazi atrocities that overshadow any engagement with elements of the Holocaust. These strategies aim at exposing the media structures surrounding an event which allows a different access to remembering.

[3] See clip here: https://youtu.be/fBpxCEIoZ5U. The tone of the conversation is more comprehensible in German: “Mag vielleicht für Sie ein bisschen schwer vorstellbar sein, aber…” Scheffner: “Das ist auch schwer vorstellbar. Da gibt’s… ‘tschuldigung, aber juristisch hin oder her, ähm.”

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