Ute Aurand

The Act of the Moment

PAULINA, D 2011 © Ute Aurand


Her films possess a particular consistency: They are comprised of light and colour, even when black/white. The camera feels surfaces and allows us to share in their texture and materiality, take pleasure in them, perceive them differently. Reoccurring motives appear throughout her films, each film continues on from the last: fabric that shimmers or bulges, skin, that moves or creases, the sea, that ripples or plods along languidly, patterns, shadows, dust, everyday objects on desks or inside display cases. Fellow filmmaker and cohort Karl Heil calls them ‘flacon films’. The exterior is transformed by the way in which the light falls, nothing is perpetual, and the world of things reveals itself to us only in alternation. It is the light that determines whether we perceive the ocean to be inviting or threatening, or a room as gloomy or bright. This leads us, when phrased rather boldly – to aspects of perceptual psychology. Those familiar with Ute Aurand know however that she resists any kind of theoretical categorisation with her entire being, indeed, rebels against it. An overly intellectual approach is not her thing, the exploratory on the other hand, is.

Born in 1957 in Frankfurt am Main, she grew up in Berlin and played an integral part in the local scene. From 1979-85 she studied at the DFFB with Bärbel Freund and Ulrike Pfeiffer among others, who came to be significant cohorts. Wikipedia has not included Ute Aurand in its list of distinguished alumni, which in itself describes the whole fortunate dilemma. She never made it in the television or film business, she never strived to. Those who make experimental films which do not conform to any kind of format, genre, or above all, guideline, operate in a parallel world.

Her very first film DEEPLY ABSORBED IN SILENT CONVERSATION (1980) was created the way in which first films often are: “…owing to a certain, sometimes involuntary audacity, generally ignorant of cinematic rules, driven purely by the need to make this film”, she recalls in an article “how I came to film(ing)”.

The headline, taken from a satirical poem, divulges her whole credo: “What interests me, is the act of watching in a dark space – but not however the act of being drawn into a film. I cannot endure any form of suspense, nor films that lead or mislead me. I prefer it when there is a conscious communication taking place between me and that which occurs on the screen, a dialogue, the kind of which I can only find in very few feature films. As a rule, even documentaries are informative or educational, whereby the impetus has already been predetermined”, from an interview for the magazine Kinema Kommunal (1_2016).

With this, her first 7-minute film, she won the Experimental Film Award at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, which at that point in time clearly signified the importance of consciously distancing oneself from the trends of the moment, at a time when (male) representatives of new German film including Wenders, Fassbinder and Herzog occupied the term auteur film.  Aurand found her inspiration elsewhere: REMINISCENCES FROM A JOURNEY TO LITHUANIA by Jonas Mekas, as well as in the films of Elfie Mikesch, Ulrike Ottinger and Maya Deren.

It is hardly a coincidence that her interest is primarily assigned to cine-film, Super8 and 16mm. In order to follow a trail of light one requires the graininess of analogue material and shutter technology. The overexposure and the effect achieved when a camera barely manages to level-out the variations in light/shadow ratios, these are the stylistic devices that Ute Aurand and her Bolex approve of, apply and blatantly provoke. The sequences are edited short, like the blinks of an eye. Her earlier films even adhered to the dogma of in-camera editing – meaning no subsequent montage or postproduction of any kind. This was not however, driven by a concept of self-denial, but rather the discipline required in consciously selecting the right framing and the precise moment. Failure is part of the process, there is no failure, for each moment stands alone and demands validity. When one considers how much filmmaking has changed in the Digital Age, with “We’ll do it in post…” becoming a catchphrase, and cinematographers demoted to mere deliverers of footage, then the way in which Ute Araund kneels before authenticity is tantamount to an aesthetic insurrection.

 „What I search for in film is the degree of abstraction where things, just as nature itself and the light are also ‘living’ elements, and have a language all their own. My generation was dominated by films that denounced fascism and because of that were celebrated as unconventional and remarkable. The other films were quickly dismissed as being formalistic, decadent and of dealing with the self.” (KK 1_2016)

While resolute use of 16mm as source material may have ensured her with extensive autonomy during production, in order to screen it, specific measures have become necessary. Since most cinemas have converted to digital projection systems, having a projector at the ready à la travelling cinema has become essential. Aurand can project at anytime and anywhere – proposing once again an alternative model to the ‘omnipresent content’ available on related internet portals. Nevertheless, limitations are becoming apparent: How much longer will 16mm material be produced? How long will film labs continue to exist? Increasingly, even ambitious film festivals are disengaging from this format, owing to their reliance on modified cinema structures.

The good old Bolex is Ute Aurand’s third eye. It accompanies her throughout the day as well as on journeys, such as at Red Square, Moscow in OH! THE FOUR SEASONS (with Ulrike Pfeiffer 1988), where she counters Russian folklore and march battalions with a kind of pas de deux and playful twirls. Or INDIA (2005), about which curator Susan Oxtoby (TIFF 2005) wrote:

Lyrical and sketch-like, Aurand’s exuberant impressions of street scenes, performances of traditional dances, and portraits of people she meets mirror the vitality of the life she encounters. Her staccato-length shots flash like bursts of energy, adding a rhythmic dimension to the handheld cinematography.”

However, it is not just exoticisms that inspire her to release the shutter. She levels equal curiosity at the banal, the ordinary, nature, the young and the old. The common preoccupation of all images is that of happiness. A word one hardly dares to mention uncritically these days, as it has become too worn-out through advertising, too dubiously connected with egoism, and too corny-sounding to be taken seriously as art. But Ute Aurand succeeds at restoring happiness with qualities of naivety and originality. An ‘Ode to Joy’ as it were, drawing attention to that which we have and are, a plea for idleness! She has numerous miniatures corresponding to this theme. Such as the 2.5-minute film AT HOME from 1998, in which she enacts a few everyday moments as a shadow play, and by simply doing so, invests them with an enchanting quality (may we divine from this a reminiscence for Lotte Reiniger?) Or in HALFMOON FOR MARGARET (2004): silent observations of birds, the moon, light reflexes and playing children, similar to diary notes – no more and no less – and yet it is also a bow to Margaret Tait, the poet from Scotland and the grand dame of experimental film, whose work she admires and tries to show whenever she can.

In fact, the Bolex means even more to Ute Aurand, a mission: For several years she has been giving workshops to students at the DFFB. The resulting works are small and fine – but she senses that most participants consider the exercise as a mere stopover before rushing on to make ‘real’ films.

Yes, it’s true that a decent living isn’t easy to come by. But persistence is rewarded.

Ute Aurand has been making films for more than 30 years, which in their summation, form a kind of fabric,

“a collection of short moments from (my) life, that sound different according to their different moods – minor third, major third, mamma sings on Hiddensee, deeply absorbed in silent conversation, Salut Corinne. The various threads weave themselves into a single pattern with neither a beginning nor an end.” (From the booklet “Ulrike Pfeiffer, Bärbel Freund, Ute Aurand – Filme”)

She has allies, an entire network of female combatants and friends, who always manage to get together, work, and have been increasingly moving towards the creation of their ‘own cinema’ by touring with the films that encapsulate their ‘image-messages’ through galleries, spaces and cinemas. This nomad-like quality pertains to the certain intimacy that these films and events convey. If one were to search for a common denominator, their closest equivalent would be found in verse: concise, associative and rich, playful whilst simultaneously channelling the spirit of Jonas Mekas’ notion of “improvisation as the highest form of concentration”.