For a film that claims to have no theme and never come to rest, Untitled certainly offers far more than it proclaims in its opening moments. The contemplative, enchanting and often elegiac documentary displays scenes from Africa and Europe in its quest to film everything. Now playing on MUBI after touring the festival circuit last year, there is a lyrical rhythm to Monika Willi’s assemblage of Michael Glawogger’s final footage, captured in the days and months leading up to his death. Accompanied by Fiona Shaw’s voiceover of Glawogger’s poetry and diary entries, the camera oscillates from a deeply-engaged stationary position to an almost-human, alert spontaneity; voraciously following its subjects’ every move.
The frequent long-takes soak up the process and detail of monotonous and repetitive hard work, allowing the communities’ natural rhythms to come to the fore. There is a persistent interplay between the subjects’ vivid, colourful clothing and the neutral-coloured, wild land (whether creamy sand, dull brown earth, or luminous white snow). This is particularly notable in the sequences of those digging the land and panning for diamonds. We see tiny, multi-coloured human figures in the vast, muted landscape; repeating the same motions in unison, again and again. There is a hypnotic energy to their work which creates a sense of searching, and a pattern of unrest, across the carefully-composed screen – the same could be said of Glawogger and Willi’s film as a whole.
By and large, Untitled continues Glawogger’s non-fiction work and his interest in workers on the periphery of society in some of the most gruelling environments. From Megacities to Workingman’s Death, Glawogger has never shied away from the worst aspects of life in developing nations. Yet this documentary goes beyond an exploration and critique of ‘work’ – this is a film about life, about all aspects of living, and it offers a glimpse into leisure, communities and family as much as the tedious struggle to survive every day. Some of the film’s most striking images come from a group of young men training for a wrestling match in the sand. As the men tussle one another and fall to the ground, their legs and backs are covered in silky golden sand. Suddenly their shirtless black bodies become engulfed by the sandy background behind, their untamed machismo oblivious to the layer of body paint uniting them all. The camera glides in and out of close-up, drawing attention to the contrast between the sand and the wrestlers, as well as their brightly-coloured shorts – the pops of primary colour leaping out from the pale background behind.
This sequence grabs our attention for its sheer aestheticism, but it only reaches its full significance later in the film when a football team of amputees play a match on the beach. As a subtle visual subversion, the film recalls the wrestlers’ sandy bodies through the absence of the footballers’ limbs. By constructing this visual play, the film poses questions about masculinity, social groups and leisure. What do these notions look like in the twenty-first century, and how do we define the social hierarchy of particular communities? This uncertainty is accentuated when a group of able-bodied men run behind the match. All of a sudden, the amputees’ camaraderie and idealism is re-positioned within the real world, with its socio-political order and rules. But the film refuses to satisfy any curiosity about the historical and political context of the team’s surgeries. From the intimate and extended filming of his subjects throughout the film, it is clear Glawogger respects and aims to understand his collaborators; but he and Willi are not interested in revealing anybody’s secrets beyond the immediate present.
Through its elliptical structure, the film continues to question and subvert images and ideas across spatial and temporal borders. A malnourished and ragged donkey braying in a square is considered anew after we see a dead donkey on the side of the road, half-eaten by maggots and flies. A city plunged into darkness during a black-out comes alive through the light from mobile phones, but we are later disorientated when a salesman peddles fish by torchlight – it is only as the scene jumps forward in time and the sun rises that we realise this is the normal, early-morning fish market and not a repeat of the black-out. Similarly, a montage of goats from all around the world highlights not only their ubiquity but their fundamental importance for many of the film’s subjects – even if this is almost unrecognisable from one community to another.
Untitled focuses on people’s constant movement and travel, whether at work, for pleasure or as part of a family; but the pace slows towards the end of the film. It is as if it is pausing for thought and reflection. In hindsight, this is easy to ascribe to Glawogger’s own last days – his writings indicate that he wanted to find somewhere that he could never be found – but the film remains committed to the relationships between people. During the closing sections, Untitled returns to the universal bonds between mother and child, man and nature, and within family units. These resilient and poignant connections are profoundly human and speak to our ability to thrive under all conditions, providing we have love and support from those around us.