Import Export Review
Import/Export is Ulrich Seidl’s second feature film following on from the hard-hitting and uncompromising Dog Days (2002), but the director’s background in documentary cinema stretches back over three decades. The same rigorous attention to the realities of everyday life aligned with a deeply pessimistic outlook on modern society is evident in Seidl’s latest film, but here it is pushed to ever greater extremes. A realistically bleak examination of lives cast adrift on the tide of sweeping changes in modern Europe, Import Export is as resolutely direct as its title suggests.
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with his stepfather over into Slovenia and eventually to the Ukraine, transporting and dealing in gumball machines and out-of-date arcade games, but he makes no more meaningful connection with the people he meets there.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 than 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 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, it’s 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 divide 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, 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 DVD in the UK by Trinity. The DVD is in PAL format, and encoded for Region 2.
With one or two caveats which I’ll come to later, the transfer here could hardly be better. It’s progressively encoded and anamorphic at a ratio of 1.78:1. There are no marks on the print – the transfer being derived presumably directly from the digital source rather than a 35mm intermediary source – and there are no apparent digital artefacts, no filtering or enhancement, and no boosting of colour or contrast. It looks exactly the way it should. The image is not perfectly sharp, but filmed documentary fashion and seemingly using natural light sources, neither should it be. Shadow detail however is impressive and blacks are handled extremely well, with even low-lit interiors showing remarkable detail. The image exhibits no flutter or flicker, and movements are smooth and progressive – which again suggests that this is sourced digitally. Essentially, the transfer is almost perfect.
There are however some potential issues. The fixed subtitles on the transfer, as noted below, is a minor issue - it would have been nice if they were optional, but they are appropriately sized and placed so it’s not a major problem. When viewing the image on a PC to take screengrabs however I noticed other artefact problems where the image would break up horizontally but I suspect that’s a localised issue and it wasn’t evident on any other player/display set-up I tested, but I've mentioned it here in case anyone else finds it an issue.
The DVD has both Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks (listed here under the set-up simply as Stereo and Surround). The stereo track is fine, giving a strong central focus to the film, but the surround option is outstanding. It’s not showy, but captures the ambience better, has excellent clarity and strong dynamic. You couldn’t expect more of the track than this.
English subtitles are fixed on the transfer. They are white and appropriately sized, rarely distracting or obscuring the image. Optional subtitles would have been nice, but there would be very few people who would view the film entirely without subtitles since there are several languages spoken in the film – German, Russian, Ukrainian and even a smattering of English.
There are not a lot of extra features, but the Interview with Ulrich Seidl (23:09) 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.
On a second viewing Import Export may lose a little of its initial shock value, 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 and the extreme images and situations he presents. The film’s qualities are well supported on this DVD from Trinity, which has an impressive transfer and an excellent interview with the Ulrich Seidl for anyone who needs further justification.