Import Export Review
It’s perhaps Ulrich Seidl’s background as a documentary filmmaker, and previously as a painter and a photographer, that is responsible for his cold, distant, objective and unflinchingly critical look at the world around him. As a result, his 2002 debut feature Dog Days cast an emotionally detached eye over Austrian society in a way that could be mistaken for misanthropic, but in reality was a merciless condemnation of self-interested attitudes and self-serving behaviour that persist in modern society. Import/Export casts its gaze further beyond national borders, following the case of one young Ukranian woman and one Austrian man, who each find that they have to look elsewhere to meet the challenges of living in a modern society where traditional borders no longer have any meaning, but other obstacles exist.
On the import side of the film is Olga, a young woman working as a nurse in the Ukraine. Poorly paid, and sometimes not even paid her full wages, she supplements the income she needs to look after her child by working in the porn industry, performing live on camera for on-line clients in other parts of Europe. She is eventually forced to leave her child behind with her mother, travelling to Austria to look for work and new opportunities, initially as a housekeeper and then, even though a qualified nurse, as a mere cleaner on the geriatric ward of a Viennese hospital. In the export sections of the film, an Austrian security guard called Pauli eventually makes the opposite journey into Eastern Europe, seeking to escape his debts and the increasing urban violence and alienation he finds himself caught up in. Attempting to work off some of those debts, Pauli travels with his stepfather over into Slovenia and eventually to the Ukraine, transporting and dealing in gumball machines and out-of-date arcade games, but he makes no more meaningful connection with the people he meets there.
The exchange between two cultures uncomfortably thrown together, the conflicts and the accommodations made between them would suggest an over-formalised structure of mirroring situations, and while to some extent there is a certain formalism to the compositions – if the locations are bleak, Import/Export is at least beautifully photographed – the film still retains a sense of almost documentary realism, using framing and structure only to show that there is commonality in the attempts of the two characters to simply escape, and not necessarily for a better standard of life. As a depiction of everyday life that approach is straightforward, showing us a social reality we are doubtless already aware of – employment, immigration, poverty, the internet sex industry, urban alienation, the shortcomings of the health service - but showing it to us in a much more gritty, realistic manner that we are perhaps accustomed to seeing it.
Avoiding grand cinematic gestures, the film forces us to view a reality that we’d rather not think too deeply about by pushing these issues far beyond the stage where they’ve made their point into an area that makes the viewer very, very uncomfortable indeed. One scene when Pauli and his stepfather bring a 19 year-old prostitute back to their hotel room in particular is profoundly unsettling and not the kind of scene that you would not expect to see a professional actor perform. Like many of the scenes in the geriatric ward, this can often seem exploitative of real people and their condition, but the director’s willingness to move outside the accepted boundaries of what it is acceptable to depict in either a documentary or narrative film breaks down any kind of cinematic contrivance and alerts us to the fact that there are no doubt similar scenes being enacted every day by many “real” people all over the world. Much as it makes us uncomfortable to realise this, the lack of dignity endured by many people is a point that the film needs to make and it makes it very strongly indeed.
The directness with which Seidl shows this consequently makes the film fascinating and grimly compelling, replacing traditional structure and narrative drive with natural elements of human behaviour that the viewer can recognise arising out of the context of the situations. There may be no contrived cinematic structure to enforce the point, but parallels do exist in both stories and it’s left to the viewer to identify the common elements that are universal. The experiences of Olga and Pauli on both sides of the import/export borders show that as far as society and people’s attitudes are concerned, there are certain borders that still exist, whether through prejudice, xenophobia or just plain jealousy. And it’s not just the obvious negative values of poverty, segregation and exploitation – the film also touches on other aspects of life that are inextricably linked to the human condition. Regardless of their condition, position, language and nationality on the import/export divide, compassion, hope and humour also exist amid the misery.
Import/Export then is all about the breaking down of borders through the opening up of international frontiers in Europe and through the options made available through the Internet. As many of the examples of the film show however, rather than offering greater opportunities, the new society is unprepared for such openness and instead uses these freedoms only to exploit and enslave people further. Just as importantly, Import/Export is also about taking the viewer across a border, forcefully taking cinema-goers out of their comfort zone to confront the realities of the society we live in and witness uncomfortable truths about our attitudes towards the darker aspects of our society that we’d perhaps not wish to acknowledge.
Import/Export is released on Blu-ray in the UK by the Trinity Filmed Entertainment. The disc is BD25 and both the film and extra features come with a 1080/24p encode. The disc is All Region, but beware that the extra features are Standard Definiton PAL.
Trinity’s regular DVD release of this title was already very strong and almost flawless for a Standard Definition release, so there should be no high expectations for a great improvement in High Definition, particularly as the film would appear to have been filmed either on Digital Video or, according to IMDb, Super 16. A subtle but definite improvement can nevertheless be detected in colour definition, finer detail and in fluidity of movement.
There is still surprisingly little grain visible – it’s there however and not frozen or smoothed out, but would seem to be well handled by the digital encode. The overall look is still slightly soft and the tone is still cool, both in line with the original look and feel of the film, but there’s certainly greater gradation and fidelity to the colours and skin tones. Interiors and low-light sources fare even better, showing greater shadow detail and stability, with strong blacks and warm tones that don’t bleed. There is occasionally a little edging or faint haloing, but this would seem to be more likely down to how the original source materials were treated. There’s a wonderful stability to the transfer and fluidity to movement on the screen, with not a flicker anywhere.
The transfer, incidentally, is chaptered according to each alternate import/export chapter, so it is perfectly possible to program the disc to watch Olga’s story and Pauli’s story each in their entirety on their own, should you wish to do so for whatever reason.
Screenshot stills used in this review are taken from the Standard Definition DVD release.
The soundtrack is presented in a choice of 2.0 and 5.1 DTS HD Audio Master mixes. The audio is recorded very much naturalistically and, even in the 5.1 mix, is resolutely front speaker for dialogue with only minimal use of surrounds for occasional ambience, and practically no LFE activity. It doesn’t gain anything from the fine Dolby Digital 5.1 track on the regular DVD release, but it’s just as effective in its how it meets the requirements of the film.
English subtitles are in a clear white font. They are well-sized, not too large, and stand out well from the image.
There are not a lot of extra features, but the Interview with Ulrich Seidl (24:08) is excellent, the director giving a good account of his approach, intentions and treatment of the difficult subjects the film deals with. He deals also with those questions you are bound to be asking after watching the film, how he got such naturalistic almost-documentary like performances out of the cast and whether he feels he was exploiting people and their sense of dignity. The film’s UK Trailer (1:51) is refreshingly different, showing a slideshow of eye-catching clips from the film with quotes from the UK press. The extra features are Standard Definition PAL.
Import/Export may lose a little of its initial shock value through repeated viewings, and its structure and the filmmaking hand of the director does become more apparent, but this is not a particularly bad thing and it doesn’t make the film any less challenging or uncomfortable to watch. That’s because it’s not the intention of the Ulrich Seidl to merely to shock the viewer by pushing scenes much further than a conventional film would, but rather to make them think about what they are watching and consider what it says about people and the society we live in. The power with which this is achieved certainly validates Seidl’s semi-documentary approach, the use of non-professional actors and the extreme images and situations he presents. The film’s qualities are all the more evident on this fine Blu-ray release from Trinity. Derived from 16mm stock, the image may not show a huge improvement over the regular Standard Definition release, but there is certainly finer detail and definition and closer fidelity to the original source materials.