Movie Review: Civilization And Other Chimeras Observed During The Making Of An Exceptionally Artistic Feature Film
The world is littered with movie “making of” documentaries. Oh, we may not consider those self-serving promotional DVD “bonus” features where filmmakers discuss their process the way a cheesemaker may wax eloquently about the way they make cheese as “documentaries,” but in their own way they are. Some may even exhibit some artistic creativity in and of themselves.
But South African filmmaker Aryan Kaganof elevates the “making of” documentary to a brilliant piece of artistry in his Civilization and Other Chimeras Observed During the Making of an Exceptionally Artistic Feature Film. However, a bit of a correction, as labeling Civilization and Other Chimeras as simply a “making of” doc is very misleading. What’s really happening here is Kaganof has taken the occasion of the making of a particular film to ruminate on the very nature of reality and to push the paradoxical idea of “Even if an action is recorded on camera, did it really happen?”
Kaganof sets up his premise with an on-screen quote from the post-modern French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, which says in its entirety:
There are two-way mirrors which allow you innocently to spy on people. This is one of the finest metaphors for consciousness. There is no two-way screen because there is nothing to see on the other side of the screen, nothing to see without being seen.
The Baudrillard quote also pops up repeatedly throughout the film. Someone — and we can assume Kaganof — has written the quote on a mirror hung on the wall of the film set’s make-up room. Kaganof films various crew and cast members reading the quote, but the only person it really seems to stick with is a young pre-teen actress, Kiriko Mechanicus, who seems to view the quote as a puzzle she needs to solve.
Mechanicus is the star of the “exceptionally artistic film” whose production Kaganof is documenting. Called Winterland, it is the directorial debut of fine artist Dick Tuinder. The centerpiece image of Winterland is of Mechanicus as her character, Sally DeWinter, riding a giant eyeball balloon. If the young actress could only see an image of an audience watching her watching the giant eyeball watching her, she might actually solve that puzzle she’s so desperately trying to figure out.
Baudrillard’s screen metaphor gets a physical workout through Tuinder’s directing style. When scenes of Winterland are being shot, Tuinder sits back watching the action on a playback monitor rather than watch the live action happening just a few feet from him. The actual scenes being performed are so close to the monitor that Kaganof is able to capture both the live performance and it’s immediate playback on Tuinder’s screen.
The effect of being an audience member watching a screen filled with another man watching a screen of simultaneous action that we can also see happening is an extremely disconcerting one. It makes that audience member question where does reality actually lie? The acting of the scene in Winterland is completely irrelevant unless it’s being captured by a camera. Yet, Tuinder acting as a director is also being captured by a camera. So, if Kaganof wasn’t filming Tuinder, would Tuinder’s directing being similarly irrelevant? And who is watching the audience watching Tuinder watching the acting? If nobody is watching somebody watching Civilization and Other Chimeras, does Kaganof’s documentary actually exist?
It’s tough to point out anything that’s real in the documentary. First of all, there’s never any discussion of what Winterland is about and the scenes we see being shot don’t offer any clues as to what the plot may be. Plus, many of the actors we never see outside of their costumes so that most of them don’t seem like real people, just characters living inside some hazy dream. Even Tuinder’s role as director becomes suspect as it slowly becomes clear that he has cast himself as a character in his own film. Where Tuinder the director stops and Tuinder the character begins — and vice versa — is unknown.
The “making of” documentary typically follows fairly rigid structural and formal conventions. For Civilization and Other Chimeras, Aryan Kaganof has completely subverted those conventions to concoct a real challenging mind-bender of a film that intriguingly weaves together layers upon layers of conundrums, paradoxes and mysteries.