Neuer Berliner Kunstverein - Kobarweng

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 October 2013:

Thomas Elsaesser presents Johan Grimonprez Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter? (1992)


Johan Grimonprez Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter? 

Johan Grimonprez is best known for his 1997 video dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, which after 9/11 became retroactively prescient of disasters to come, and is now revered as a "cult classic". It casts a mocking and irreverent eye on the connections between high-jacked planes and high-heeled boots, PLO freedom fighters in keffiyes and TWA stewardesses in miniskirts. A similarly sardonic spirit presides over Grimonprez' other celebrated venture into the political macabre, Double Take, about men - some of uncanny, others of wholly improbable likeness - who make a living by impersonating the long-dead Alfred Hitchcock. Its political subtext, more retrospective than prescient (but who knows what will happen in Syria?), is the Cold War, the Atom bomb, US-Russian rivalry, and Fidel Castro visiting Nikita Khrushchev's dacha that looks like the Bates Motel out of Psycho.

But if one wants to know what unites dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and Double Take, so apparently different from each other (one about television, terrorism, advertising and fashion, the other about an icon of pure cinema, master of suspense and manipulator his own public persona) there is no better place than Grimonprez' debut as a serious commentator on the contemporary than his 1992 film Kobarweng, or Where is Your Helicopter. A documentary that proudly takes its stand as an anti-documentary, Kobarweng is, as the credits inform us, the result of a research visit Grimonprez made in 1986–87 to the formerly Dutch colony of Netherlands New Guinea, now known as West Papua and since 1963 under Indonesian rule. We do not see much of the reputedly breathtaking scenery, except some blurry outdoor shots, possibly including the close-up of a chicken, and we do not see much of the indigenous people other than in a grainy video dupe of colour film stock shot by one Derk Jan Dragt in 1958. For the rest, the camera tracks down a narrow corridor that could have come out of the Brenner house in The Birds (or the hotel corridor in Marnie), leaving the viewer both claustrophobic and disoriented.

But while we may have to strain and lean forward in order to make out what it is that we are seeing, there is plenty we learn in these twenty-five minutes of film. Kobarweng is anthropological filmmaking with a vengeance, its nearest ancestors Luis Bunuel's Land without Bread (1933), Jean Rouch's Les Maitres Fou (1955), or Gary Kildea and Jerry Leach's Trobriand Cricket (1979). Papua New Guinea has long been a favorite among anthropologists, with its more than 7000 years of agriculture, its hundreds of tribes and languages, some of whom have still not been "discovered". New Guinea, in short, is to anthropologists what the Galapagos Islands were to Darwin and to students of evolutionary biology ever since. From Margaret Mead (Growing Up in New Guinea) to Jared Diamond (The World Until Yesterday), they have used New Guinea as a foil against which to measure their own cultural pessimism about our civilization's decline, while reporting with respectful awe about head-hunters and cannibalistic rituals, child rearing that leaves the young scarred for life and tribes that suffocate their old when they become too burdensome to take care of.

I have no idea what Grimonprez did during his field trip to the village of Pepera in Irian Jaya (the local name for West Papua). He may have been a political activist fighting on the side of the secessionists (the OPM); he may have done anthropological studies with a Belgian expedition team; or he may have prospected for copper or gold. The film gives little away on that score, and even suggests that the author could have been too mystified or traumatized by what he saw to entrust it to celluloid. And this he shares with his native informants: the shaky, jittery footage is traversed by a running band of script, reporting observations and remarks culled from anthropologists' interviews, eye-witness reports, and the reminiscences of those highlanders who recall those moments of 'first contact' between the white intruders (missionaries, prospectors, anthropologists, adventurers) and the local inhabitants: "We never tell everything, we always keep something for the next anthropologist" they are candid enough to admit to Margaret Mead, while another wit remarks: "We called the whites 'people of soap', but their shit smelled the same as ours."

"First contact", of course, is the primal scene of colonialism, a trauma for both parties, but with asymmetrical consequences. Knowing Grimonprez to be Belgian, one cannot help but think Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with the Dutch colony standing in for the Congo. There are enigmatic shots of a water kettle, whose lid tumbles to the ground in slow motion, and the raucous cries on the sound¬track could be a cockerel or a peacock, but the birds that hover over the film are airplanes, war-planes and cargo-planes, and in a shot that seems to last forever, we eventually make out the nose and wings of one of those giant bombers coming into focus. Kobarweng, the title of the film, is the name of one of the elders, born when his parents helped build the landing strips, so they called him "sound of the plane". As Grimonprez explains:

The point of departure [for the film] was Kaiang Tapior's question "Where is your helicopter?", a remark which puzzled me on the 6th of July1987, the first day of my visit to the village of Pepera. The question reflected an event which took place in June of 1959, when a crew of scientists, which included anthropologists, dropped down from the sky in helicopters—much to the terrified surprise of the villagers who watched in awe at these things out of the sky, the likes of which they had never seen before...

The challenges were formidable: knowing himself to be a latecomer to this game in every role – as colonial adventurer, as anthropologist and as filmmaker – Grimonprez had to up the ante, and up-end our assumptions. Not only did the locals wise up fast, since they have been telling the ethnographers for generations what they imagined their visitors wanted to hear, while making sure they came back for more (and with more money or merchandise). The very impulse behind anthropological research, let's call it a potent blend of fear and curiosity, is turned on its head, or rather, it reverses direction: here it is the indigenous informants that make the visitors their objects of anthropological study, smelling their skin, wondering where they come from, weighing and testing their objects, and poking in their droppings. Now it is us who try to hide in the bushes, by staying indoors, out of sight, and then taking off. One of the last shots of the film is out of a window onto a street that looks like New York.

But we would be missing a crucial point if we simply thought that the change of perspective, the look through the other end of the ethnographic microscope was all that Kobarweng is doing, and that Grimonprez just wanted to create a bit of confusion over who is actually investigating whom, and who is here the Other. For that, the film is too urgent, the pace too tense, the camera too traumatized. As 'we' look at 'them' and 'they' look at 'us', the real surprise is the shock of recognition: they are (like) us, and we are (like) them. Each is the other's double, and nothing could be more troubling, nothing more uncanny. This was the scandalous (some thought it merely frivolous) double take in dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, where hijackers and media-hounds not only depended, but in a sense created each other. Such mutually sustained doubling, and the shocks of recognition it produced, came to the surface as the overt theme of Double Take/ Looking for Alfred, but there, the lesson was spelled out, in the Borges- attributed story that gives the film its moral spine: If you meet your double, you should kill him. Or he will kill you.

In Grimonprez' world, you will meet your double, sooner or later. And in Kobarweng or Where is Your Helicopter, everybody knows it, and may have to act on it. This is the terrible mystery, but also the terrible legacy of colonialism, and we are still living through its consequences. Which, of course, makes Kobarweng, twenty years after, in a Europe about to puts its neighbors once more into the place of the 'others', as retroactively prescient as dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y proved to be, and as Double Take might yet turn out to be.

Thomas Elsaesser, October 2013

[in German]

Thomas Elsaesser • Reguliersgracht 20 • 1017 LR Amsterdam, The Netherlands • Email:
Copyright © 2013, Thomas Elsaesser