Battles, an unorthodox video essay that took the FIPRESCI critic's prize at Rotterdam earlier this year, opens with a suitably enigmatic quotation. 'When the combat ceases, that which is does not disappear, but the world turns away.' Looking at various locations across Europe where war has occurred, Isabelle Tollenaere's film explores how the components of war remains long after the actual conflict has taken place.
Across four concepts staged in four distinct segments (a bomb, a soldier, a bunker and a tank) Tollenaere forges a striking, frequently surreal portrait of how warfare leaves a permanent imprint on the landscapes and peoples it passes over. Across these wordless observational segments, Battles shows four entirely different visions of a landscape where war has passed through and left, but where traces of the impact of the conflict remain, surfacing itself in various forms. Avoiding applying anything descriptive, or even prescriptive, to these four scenes; Tollenaere merely observes them, utilising, and often enhancing the inherent subjectivity of the camera, as well as the viewer's foreknowledge to extract meaning from her largely static observations.
In the first segment, individuals in lab coats and masks are seen gently chipping away at mud encrusted landmines - tentatively, obsessively cleaning them and restoring these found objects to presentable form like restorers of valuable art. The next sees an old man living amongst the confines of a ex-military bunker, the cavernous ruins re-appropriated as a multipurpose settlement that repurposes the past into a Sci-Fi set style abode. Third, a portrait of a person, captured going through expressionless motions in flat tableaux, before changing into military attire and driving to work. Tollenaere's slow reveal storytelling shows this to be work that involves staging reenactments of war, ordering unseen mock cadets around a barracks - whether this is for their pleasure, for the purpose of historic renactment, or as punishment is left unclear. In the last and most lengthy, Tollenaere tours a festival of war, complete with victory songs, combat reenactments, balloons and parades, before moving to an arms factory to explore where the objects of warfare that fuel these celebrations are created.
In all the four scenarios, the images are loaded, resonant and wilfully unexplained. Tollenaere often favours the bizarre, presenting moments that are strange, especially considering the seriousness of the context, with a straightness that heightens the absurdity. A fixation on objects furthers this effect, looking intensely at items so far removed from their original context of battle that the connection is almost beyond recognition. Interspersed reenactments add temporal ambiguity and a sense of permanence, as if to realign these modern happenings within their historic context. Such is the pointed abstraction, the events recorded are often so far detached from war that it takes a considerable amount of time to work out what the connection might be, and what significance Tollenaere is implying by contrasting them against human conflict.
Opening each of her four abstractions on a theme without any indication of what is being shown or where it is taking place, and with no narration of any kind, Tollenaere's film is pointedly mystifying. Other than the leading title, and the deliberately simplistic introductory title cards, any reading of the film's is purely on visual terms. Luckily, Tollenaere is a capable image maker; layering striking widescreen compositions amongst alluringly abstract, carefully framed closeups to slowly reveal each of her four scenarios, and what they might mean. Whether shooting person or landscape, Frédéric Noirhomme's precise, symetrical photography is both picturesque and purposeful, exposing the necessary visual information in the most eye-catching fashion as Tollenaere places ever more revealing shots in stunning sequence.
As well as slowly revealing the purpose of the scenario (where it is taking place and how the on screen events may relate to the title card and wider concept of war,) Tollenaere builds an argument by opposing images against each other, notably war and nature. Scenes of animal life, the natural landscape and the (often dramatic) patterns of the weather are a constant across the four segments, the omnipresence of the overwhelming power of natural forces being the main competent that ties the four areas together. Combined with a terrific soundtrack of field recordings, clouds breaking into storm, the whistling of the wind and nature's various calls, Tollenaere creates a picture of the insurmountability and universality of nature as much as the inevitably of human-wrought war.
Despite this, Battles is not an easy film to interpret. Across the four segments, the same mystification that creates such a sense of intrigue makes it frequently frustrating. For some, Battles will feel like a little too much concept and not enough content. Not all of the four segments are entirely satisfying by their conclusion, and though Tollenaere has lot of planned ideas, there is a sense that in some parts the ambiguity conceals a lack of a more acute meaning. At its most compelling however, _Battles _shows a new filmmaker with an prescient understanding of purely visual documentary storytelling and the immediate power of a sharply presented image.
Battles plays Saturday June 20th at the Regent St Cinema as part of the Open City Docs Festival 2015.