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The Ister: search for the source

Hamish Ford

The Ister The Ister
The Ister is the ultimate philosophical road movie, a 3-hour journey the length of the Danube River accompanied by major contemporary philosophers discussing humanity, technology, politics and Martin Heidegger. It is an ambitious film in every sense. Yet this is the self-funded debut of Melbourne-based filmmakers David Barison and Daniel Ross—IT professional and Philosophy PhD respectively—who 5 years ago travelled to Europe, hired an old bread-van, bought a mini-DV camera and set about filming. In an interview with RealTime, Barison and Ross commented that they “obtained absolutely no funding whatsoever, largely due to our fear of bureaucracy and the film’s lack of ‘Australian content’.” Although in my view the best local film of the year, The Ister is about as un-Australian as you can get in terms of the arcane criteria guiding our funding bodies.

The film concerns questions of home in the broadest and most challenging philosophical sense—questions that are of no less potential relevance in Australia than elsewhere. The filmmakers told me they wanted to position this theme as the film’s ambiguous centre by beginning with an evocation of European ‘home’ in the form of Germany (the source of the Danube), and then start the journey with ‘the foreign’ in the form of Romania (where the Danube meets the Black Sea). How to judge such a distinction is left to the audience.

Flowing from Europe’s ‘centre’ to its ‘periphery’, the Danube is a paradoxical icon of time, perpetual change and home. The film’s multi-levelled, epic journey takes us from Romania, through a NATO-bombed former Yugoslavia, then Hungary—all currently undergoing radical transformations vis-a-vis what constitutes the nation state, national identity and political culture within an expanding Europe. The journey finally ends in Germany, a country riddled with markers of the Enlightenment and Fascism, and the heart of the EU’s unfolding experiment in multilateral politics, economics and culture.

While such a journey makes for the grandest of poetic and philosophical tropes, it is also treated with some sly humour. At every stop up the river, on-screen text not only informs us where we are, but also the “distance to source.” Reaching said source in the heart of Germany’s Black Forest is not only anticlimactic (it’s a modest porcelain pool); we then go beyond the river’s starting point by following small tributaries, the film now designating the distance from source in negative digits. Yet this subtly absurd extension of the search for origins is also deadly serious, offering both a philosophical substantiation of our mythical investments in home and a concurrent note of auto-critique.

This river-road movie is given its explicitly philosophical textual content via extended meditations by a range of interviewees on a 1942 lecture series by influential German philosopher Martin Heidegger on Hölderlin’s poem Der Ister (the Germanised variation of an old Greco-Roman name for the Danube). But prior to honing in on Heidegger, the film’s first hour features an extensive interview with contemporary German-French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, providing a wide-ranging exegesis of Western thought from Ancient Greek mythology through the middle ages and the Industrial Revolution to late (post)modernity. Combined with beautifully contrived images of mythological and contemporary Europe, Stiegler’s entertaining storytelling provides important big-picture historical and conceptual background, and a devoted yet also circuitous and ambivalent framing of Heidegger’s view of technology.

The guiding theme developed by Stiegler is the question of ‘technis’, which he addresses ontologically as technology’s inextricable, prosthetic relationship to the human. While memory is literally unthinkable without technology for a 21st century audience, Stiegler argues that this has been the case since the origins of human culture. In fact he defines human culture as the ability to transmit information across space and time, a crucial distinction between the experience of human beings and other animals. The filmmakers enact this notion in quite playful ways via repeated images of animals and environments that remind us of earlier scenes. Like the aphorism about not being able to put one’s foot in the same river twice, these recurring images are inevitably ‘different’ the second time around, and prompt ‘faulty’ recollection or even forgetting just as frequently as the subject’s intermittent ability to affirm recognition in the face of time. According to Ross, this is one of the things the filmmakers most wanted to show. “The impossibility of holding everything together in one’s head, and of putting all the pieces together intelligibly in one sitting,” he suggests, “is thus itself something the audience is forced to acknowledge, and hopefully to draw conclusions from.”

After asking ‘what is’ the human being, its politics and culture in light of what Stiegler argues is technology’s ontologically inextricable role, Heidegger enters centre stage. Although the filmmakers are clearly devotees of his philosophy, the viewer is strongly encouraged to enact their own perspective. This is brought to a head when the film broaches the topic of Heidegger’s association with National Socialism (the philosopher enthusiastically embraced Nazism in 1933, disassociating himself a year later). In light of the Holocaust, the film explicitly addresses the question of the vexed relationship between Heidegger’s notorious political choices and his arguments and views regarding technology. This discussion is based in part around Heidegger’s controversial suggestion of an equivalence between the Nazi gas chambers and automated agriculture.

Barison and Ross say they sought to deal with the question of this important but contested link by maintaining its ‘enigmatic’ nature. While The Ister enters into a nuanced critique of the political outcomes of Heidegger’s personal and philosophical choices, it also reveals the limits to which the filmmakers want to push such a debate. In our interview they suggested that the questions Heidegger pursues are “not reducible to a rhetorical trick by which he escapes political judgment”, and posited an argument Heidegger’s more scathing critics strongly contest: that one can, or even should, be able to differentiate his thinking from his politics.

Rather than a necessarily flawless assertion of Heidegger’s continuing relevance, The Ister offers a dense yet well orchestrated philosophical portrait of a controversial figure that encapsulates what is most impressive and ‘substantial’ about European (particularly German) thought, as well as its flawed and disturbing elements. The film’s potentially problematic aspects actually add to its multi-layered pleasures by strongly encouraging the viewer to engage actively and dialectically, rhapsodically and/or critically, at any given moment. No other film so extensively extols the genuine pleasures of philosophical thinking.

In making the film, Barison and Ross wanted to approach philosophy as both an academic discipline and an embodied event. While the viewer is guided to some degree by the on-screen ‘professionals’, philosophy is presented as a kind of thinking that “belongs to everyone, and is a part of the character of human being.” The Ister is an impressive testament to the filmmakers’ belief that the fusion of philosophy and art, as exemplified by Heidegger’s meditation on Hölderlin’s poem, can reap extraordinarily rich results.

“Our main intention and hope”, the filmmakers told me, “was to find a method for communicating cinematically both the rigour of philosophy and the awe about the world that inspires philosophy.” Central to this experience for the viewer is an immense textural pleasure derived from leisurely, meditative rhythms generated by very careful editing, allowing generous screen duration for images of astounding technical quality and deceptively simple composition. Ross rightly says, “The Ister is actually put together in a largely non-symbolic way,” even being “hopefully very concrete.” This formal rigour and concreteness gives the viewer the necessary time-space material with which to engage the challenging ideas at hand.

“In essence”, Barison and Ross assert, “we wanted to say to philosophy: ‘look at this incredible tool for framing concepts, for telling abstract stories’...look how much is gained with the use of sound and image.” The filmmakers have fused cinema and philosophy in a process that beautifully exemplifies Stiegler’s account of technology’s prosthetic relationship to the human. The Ister amply demonstrates and embodies the incredibly rich results that can be generated from such an ontologically confusing yet entirely ‘natural’ event.

The Ister, writers/directors David Barison, Daniel Ross, 2004.

The Ister debuted at International Film Festival Rotterdam in January 2004 and has since played at numerous local and internation festivals. The film will soon be available on DVD from

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 23

© Hamish Ford; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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