Friday, April 25, 2014

Michael Glawogger (1959 - 2014)

Since December, Michael Glawogger had been working on an untitled film project. His only plan was to travel the world for a year shooting film, recording anything and everything he found interesting. What it would ultimately add up to would be determined later. "It's a film about nothing," Glawogger wrote. "I'll travel once around the world in one year, and I'll bring home a film. It often happened that on the shoot for a film something unexpected captured my eye and attention but we wouldn't film it because it didn't fit that respective project. This film doesn't have a concept. And there's no pre-conceived plan. Not having to stick to a subject, I can film everything. I really can't say what we'll be coming home with."

Four and a half months into the project—and with more than 50 hours of footage already shot—Michael Glawogger died in West Africa. He was on the runway of the Monrovia Airport awaiting flight, according to the obituary Stefan Grissemann wrote. "A false diagnosis given to [Glawogger] in the small Liberian town of Harper Delayed the necessary treatment," Griseemann explained. "[S]ince the previous Friday Glawogger had been running a fever, which local doctors had initially thought to be a symptom of typhoid fever. Actually, however, an especially aggressive form of malaria tropica was already raging inside him but wouldn't be discovered until Monday. Despite the emergency air transports that had been arranged to take him first to the capital of Liberia and then to Vienna, Glawogger only made it to Monrovia, initially to the hospital, then to the airport, where he died from multiple organ failure."

* * *

Throughout his travels, Glawogger composed short blog pieces and uploaded striking photographs to Facebook. On January 9th, he posted the following:

"The trip goes on. #Europe will be left behind and in anticipation we cautiously follow the steps of #PaulBowles, Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs and further on in the (for us) unknown territories of #WestAfrica.
'The Sailor hanging to a cell door his tongue out the way it would fall right out of his mouth when he was loaded on goof balls. Kammerer drifting along under the Hudson, jettisoned murder weapons cutting his flesh like meteors and Jane sitting there at the counter. I hear about it later in #Tanger.' Naked Lunch, 1959 — in Genova, Italy."

After reading Glawogger's final docu-blog post (published April 18th), I was reminded not of Bowles' or Burroughs' Africa but of Rimbaud's. Not geographically—theirs was Morocco; Rimbaud's (mostly) Ethiopia—but the Africa of erasure and escape. Written in the third person, Glawogger's post expresses a deep longing for anonymity and invisibility. "The foreign was Michael Glawogger's drug," Grissmann writes. Not just, it seems, the foreignness of location—Départ dans l’affection et le bruit neufs!—but the foreignness of self—Je est un autre.

Below is Glawogger's post from Harper, Liberia, which I've translated from the German using Google translate and some common sense (I don't speak the language). Not the greatest, but it'll have to do. Accompanying the piece are three photographs Glawogger took during his travels in Africa, and prefacing it is a quote I thought apt.

"[H]e was stuck, awaiting further orders for a mission that remained unclear... It was then that he experienced the first shocks of this ... project. It came one day when he actually saw himself, like a face in a pool—saw the child self, now grown, that all his life he had harbored. Of course many a child harbors—at least for a while—an imaginary friend. But upon taking up residence, [his] double had remained hidden in him... Hiding, then, was the only solution."
—Bruce Duffy, Disaster Was My God: A Novel of the Outlaw Life of Arthur Rimbaud

As a child  he had always thought: the world is so big.   He couldn't understand why a wanted criminal
couldn't simply hide somewhere where no one could find him.
The forest behind his house was so big that he could disappear within it for as long as he wanted. But he was also afraid of the forest, and so he was secretly glad he had never disappeared. Because of his fear of the dark, the rustling and the whispers had always loomed larger than whatever it was he would have to hide from.

He sat in the car between Fishtown and Harper. It was the third day in this car. The unpaved road wound through the jungle like a rust-red wound, and after each hill came the next section which looked just like the last.
 Each truck and UN jeep coming toward you had to constantly wipe the window so as not to be completely covered in dust. His hair had turned the color of the road and felt sticky and matted. The potholes came at regular intervals and deep channels, caused by the daily rain, crossed the pavement. 

The villages that appeared offered time and time again a similar picture: people who sat in front of their homes, squealing children waving cheerfully, black, toasted or smoked bushmeat―which was tied to wooden sticks in large pieces―men with machetes and shouldered hunting guns, women with babies tied behind their backs, mechanics below rusty cars, old women with muscular upper arms carrying wood home―and then burned forest, tall green trees and birds that looked as if they had a white hat on, sluggish, hovering vultures and flocks of swallows circling excited around rice paddies. Here one would still be able to hide. Where, if not here?

But he was white, white and strange. He did not belong here.  He could indeed go unnoticed for a long trek through the forest, but at some point he would come across a village, and even if he could stay there for some time, houses would appear, at some point a police officer, and would his passport be out of order?  He could not explain why he was here, and so he would be handed back to his world like everyone else. The world, then, is too small a place in which to hide. And there probably wasn't any place where you could go to become invisible. There was no place so remote as to not use up a stranger with no papers. And yet in his head there remained, stuck like a song, a thought from childhood:  The world is so big, and you have to be able to hide somewhere where no one will find you.

Not that he had done something wrong or was doing something  criminal.   But the opportunity to disappear in all its abstractness had something seductive and reassuring about it.   You would have your own life to live somewhere else―a different life, with other difficulties and a new sense of time. Intense pain and unimaginable happiness.

He dismissed such thoughts as childish when he saw a boy standing by the roadside holding a dead baby crocodile by the tail, shyly making a gesture to offer it for sale. He stopped, and the boy stared at him with similar amazement as he stared at the little crocodile.  He wanted to touch it, and the boy assured him in a few words that the meat of a young crocodile was particularly tasty.   He wanted to know how he caught it.   Twenty-five minutes from here, on the banks of a small river, the boy had set his traps. 

It was difficult, but sometimes it would be possible for the boy to catch one and kill it. He wanted to ask the boy whether he was afraid of a where larger crocodile might be―a mother, perhaps, that would find her baby trapped. But the boy didn't look like like someone who would be afraid of anything in the nearby forest. Yes, he could hide. If he had done something wrong once or just got tired of his daily life in the village, he could disappear. He could likely succeed in crossing the border to Guinea without anybody noticing.  But his new life would probably not be very different. After all, the crocodiles aren't any greener on the other side.

The journey continued as a gauntlet of warnings.  At each entrance and at each crossing large signs were installed in different stages of weathering. Often pictures were painted on them in order to bring the content to the part of the population who couldn't read. The signs asked in impressive words or graphics not to chop off other people's arms and legs or to rape any women,  not to molest your children or to beat your wife (Do not beat on your woman, she is not your drum!), not to shit in public, to get tested for HIV and to pay your taxes.   For some reason he felt ashamed of a similar sign in the city where he lived: "Bring a sack for the dog shit" written above a small dog who looked too innocent and clean to have ever shat.

Harper was finally that place where you might have to hide.  At the end of Liberia, on the southern tip of West Africa, at the end of a bloody civil war, at the end of a dream (the return of the slaves from the U.S.), there is a spacious, almost pristine beach. Harper is difficult to reach, and no one has any reason to be here except a few Pakistani UN officers.

"Please hide me"

As soon as he crossed the road in front of his hotel to look at a house that was really more of a staircase and an open space from which a tree grew, he was stopped by two immigration officers who meticulously checked if he was authorized to be here. They recorded all their data with a pen on a white sheet of paper, then reluctantly acknowledged that everything was in order.

He climbed  the stairs of the dilapidated house held up by the remains of the balcony and gave a little speech that no one wanted to hear and that no one understood. A young woman who was carrying a large mayonnaise jar   full of gasoline on her shoulder stopped in the middle of the intersection and smiled at him as he put forth his requests like a madman: "Please hide me, give me a room in one of your great houses from where  I can see the sea, cook me palaver soup, talk to me until I understand your language, and do not tell anyone that I'm here. Until I'm here for so long that no one sees me."

The young woman giggled uncontrollably when she saw him like this, and the glass mayonnaise jar fell to the ground. In order to alleviate her pain over the loss, he gave her money.   Money is the only thing you can hide behind.   Former Liberian President Taylor apparently didn't have enough of it to afford a majestic hiding place in Nigeria and now sits in custody in England―probably for the rest of his life.