Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Flying Doctors of East Africa/Handicapped Future

Werner Herzog's "documentaries" are generally known as strange, hybrid affairs, often incorporating nearly as much fictional material as his proper fiction features — thus, the common conceit of surrounding the word "documentary" with quotes when it's applied to this idiosyncratic filmmaker. But early in his career, Herzog made a pair of proper documentaries for German TV, films that set themselves apart from his other work in their polemical and educational purpose. Herzog himself viewed them not as artistic films but as more practical pieces of work, films made to fulfill a specific societal purpose. They are anomalies in his career, though neither is without interest or utterly devoid of typically Herzogian moments. The Flying Doctors of East Africa, made in 1969, is a report on the conditions of medical treatment in the African nations of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Herzog was in Africa working more or less simultaneously on this film, Fata Morgana and Even Dwarves Started Small, interweaving the production of this practical feature with his more personal work. The film has an obvious documentary purpose, to raise awareness about poor living conditions in Africa, and to chronicle some of the hard work being done by a multinational force of doctors and nurses to treat and educate these people living in unimaginable poverty.

There are thus several harrowing sequences depicting the rough, makeshift surgeries these doctors must perform, dealing with inadequate supplies, haphazard sterilization (during one surgeon, a priest stands nearby with a can of bug spray to chase away insects as they congregate by the operating table) and the ignorance of the locals to good hygiene or the use of medicine. Herzog documents all of this with a steady, unflinching eye, and as a report on the conditions of people living in Africa it is undoubtedly effective. It publicized the doctors' mission and probably helped to mobilize some support for what they were doing as well. This was the film's primary goal, and Herzog sticks to it with a single-minded simplicity that would rarely be seen in his personal work.

That said, he can't seem to resist finding ancillary points of interest within this material, and despite the uncharacteristically straightforward message and the generic British narrator who translates the English version of the film, the images here are unmistakably Herzog's. His interviews in particular are framed and staged in much the same way as the notoriously eccentric interviews dotting the second half of Fata Morgana. He shoots people from dead on, with a curiously abstracted distance that sets them off against their backgrounds and gives a faintly surreal edge to even the most prosaic scenes. It's hard to describe what exactly is so unsettling about these Herzogian interviews; the interview subjects are invariably stiff and awkward, alternately staring into the camera or uncomfortably and pointedly looking off to the side. When an Irish nurse speaks about the way that the natives ignore advice and interrupt treatment, Herzog frames her from a considerable distance, so that her white form is stretched across the frame from top to bottom. She speaks haltingly in English, as though it wasn't her first language, or as though she were reading from cue cards — which in Herzog's later, more stylized documentaries, wouldn't be out of the question.

The director also finds time to stumble across some particularly Herzogian non-sequiturs, and he includes several as interludes between the more serious segments. At one point, the voiceover describes how the local hyenas like to chew the tires on the doctors' airplanes, and have developed a taste for a particular Firestone type: "what makes this particular brand so tasty has not yet been discovered," the narrator deadpans, leaving a long pause for a rimshot while Herzog's camera lingers beneath an airplane's nose. There's also the weird shot of five missionary priests shuffling back and forth in formation along a dirt path, rearranging themselves as though obeying the arcane instructions of someone just offscreen. But Herzog never explains the shot, letting it just sit there in all its strangeness while the voiceover mundanely describes the priests' function in Africa. Moments like this suggest that even in a seemingly prosaic film like this, Herzog's active visual imagination and instinct for the unusual enlivens the film's straightforward reportage.

This is not so much the case, however, with Handicapped Future, a film that Herzog made two years later in order to raise awareness of the treatment of handicapped people in Germany at the time. This is surely the most polemical film that the avowedly apolitical Herzog ever made. It is utterly stripped-down in form, in order to communicate its message more directly. This message is a simple one, too: the treatment of the handicapped in 1970s Germany is utterly dire, and needs to be drastically altered if the children depicted in this film are ever going to have a happy, productive future. In interviews with children who are afflicted by various forms of disability — shortened or missing limbs, paralyzation, deformed bodies — and their parents, Herzog probes at the prejudice and societal ignorance these people encounter every day. With no real attempt to integrate children with disabilities into society, they are often shuffled off to institutions where they are cared for but not given any real opportunity to become independent, to do things for themselves, to become true members of society. Herzog finds many people who care for and help these children, genuinely good people trying to do their best, but he also finds a larger societal climate that is ignorant of the whole problem.

The film contrasts this situation against the treatment of people with disabilities in America at the same time. In order to do this, Herzog traveled to California to spend time with Dr. Adolf Ratzka, who had been afflicted with polio as a child and was as a result unable to walk and forced to spend his nights in an apparatus to help him breathe. Nevertheless, he is almost entirely independent thanks to an electronic wheelchair, a specially customized car with all the controls triggered by hand, and architectural surroundings much more friendly to the handicapped than those in Germany. Ratzka, who had moved to California from Munich, explicitly makes the comparison, describing how much easier it is to get around in his new home, where there are wheelchair ramps and elevators everywhere, and far fewer obstacles to his progress.

Herzog presents all of this with a flat, observational tone, with only sporadic overt commentary. The images of disabled children struggling to learn how to walk and balance themselves are heartbreaking, and it's obvious that Herzog intends them to be. It's hardly a true Herzog film, but it's a masterful piece of propaganda, and it reportedly did its job at the time. When the film was aired on German television, it apparently became a crucial factor in mobilizing activism and change within the systems designed to treat and care for the disabled in Germany. It presented not only an alternate way of doing things, but an alternate way of even thinking about such issues.

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