Dir: Eugenie Jansen | 3D Special Presentations | Belgium, Netherlands | 2014 | 99 mins
No matter how much we may protest, resist, or deny, the world continues to turn on its axis, apathetic to the cries of humanity. Likewise, Above Us All, directed by Eugenie Jansen, is comprised of 52 scenes, all shot as slow turning panoramas. Such a unique and innovative technique requires some getting used to as a viewer, but the clockwise turn of the camera soon becomes familiar.
The story begins in Australia, but quickly moves to Ypres, after 11-year-old Shay’s indigenous mother dies. With her younger brother, their Flemish father transplants them to a new life in a town most famous for its devastating battle in World War I. Jansen was present for this film screening and before the film began, she suggested that we pay less attention to the plot, implying that there’s much more being conveyed than the storyline presented.
Ypres provides the perfect symbolist setting, as the city still bears its scars from the war; there are huge craters, graveyards, and museums, all dedicated to the events of a century ago that provide the play areas for Shay and the other children. At the same time, Shay grieves for the loss of her mother and is unable to let go of her own pain, finding resentment towards her father as her outlet.
Because the camera is always panning and we often do not see the characters interacting directly, there is space for the audience to contemplate and analyze what we are viewing and why. The film questions our capacity to handle mortality and grief. How do we move on without forgetting? In the case of the soldiers, though they’re ceremonially remembered, their deaths have also become artifacts of museums. In this commemoration of them, there is an implicit objectification. However, is that any worse or better than the genocide of so many indigenous peoples across the globe that has been willfully forgotten?
Despite these questions, the film reminds us that regardless of the answers, the world will continue to turn. In this vast universe, Earth occupies barely a fraction of space, and thus, our individual lives are infinitesimally small in comparison.
The film is shot in 50 frames per second, which at times is distracting because of how unnatural movement appears; however, Jansen explained that it was necessary due to the constant panning of the camera. The characters also speak directly to the camera, rotating with it as if on a pedestal. This takes out the suspension of disbelief in a film already asking for a lot from the viewer.
The film is an aesthetic experience, and there are many scenes that are visually arresting. While not perfect, Above Us All is pioneering in its experimental technique, and worthy of the film festival circuit.