Film Review | Pina

Wim Wenders’s tribute to fellow German dance choreographer Pina Bausch succeeds because it doesn’t tell us why the titular cultural heroine was great: it shows us.

Wim Wenders brings the inspiring dance choreographies of the late Pina Bausch to life in his latest documentary, completed very shortly after his subject’s death in 2009.
Wim Wenders brings the inspiring dance choreographies of the late Pina Bausch to life in his latest documentary, completed very shortly after his subject’s death in 2009.


Anyone with even the most rudimentary Go or Melita cable package would have been made aware, by now, that cooking shows seem to have become the order of the day. Seriously, you can't switch on the TV at any point during the day without seeing someone sculpt an elaborate cupcake or garish a sizzling hunk of meat.

Their popularity is baffling to me for one chief reason: surely, watching someone make and eat delicious stuff is just teasing. Wouldn't it be better to get out there and make or consume the thing for yourself?

But we seem to be okay with this double-remove. The fact that, even in supposedly 'high-brow' cinema, the phenomenon of the performance film - a 'creative documentary' showcasing how a performance artist works - seems to be very much alive is a testament to that.

The recent 'Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present' - an HBO documentary that follows the iconic Serbian performance artist as she prepares for the titular retrospective show at New York's prestigious Museum of Modern Art - was a candid, and always interesting affair.

But as visitors to the actual exhibit were shown entering the museum in their droves, reacting in various ways to Abramovic's always-provocative performance pieces (some of them - most of them, the documentary appears to suggest - breaking down in tears), you can't help but think: "Well, I guess you had to be there..."

In his tribute to celebrated dance choreographer Pina Bausch, cult German director Wim Wenders attempts to get around this problem by doing a lot of showing and not all that much telling.

The film - made with Bausch's participation up until her abrupt death in 2009 - is a 'tribute' in the most literal way imaginable: Bausch's choreography once again takes centre stage, lovingly reconstructed by the international ensemble of dancers who had developed a relationship with the iconic giant of German dance over the years - a relationship, it is suggested, which stretched way beyond professional rapport.

But the fact that Wenders's camera remains an assertive presence throughout is what makes Pina immune to the 're-enactment' format that it could easily have fallen prey to. The first explanatory voiceover only appears around 10 minutes in, and there's no talking heads introducing the thing and lecturing us about why Pina Bausch was so important.

Instead, Wenders launches straight into a rendition of Bausch's take on Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. Depicting even the preparatory stages of the production - backstage assistants pour liberal dollops of soil on the stage, raking it into a neat box shape gradually - the intense showcase will likely convince even those indifferent to dance that in the gentle-but-influential figure of Bausch, the world had something special.

The 'Rite' kicks off with a pack of female dancers acting out either some kind of natural cycle, or simply tilling the field. But a red piece of cloth which becomes a centre piece, and the appearance of the dancers' male counterparts, immediately evoke questions: is this simply a performance that signals the natural shift that occurs every spring, or does is it trying to tell us something about the nature of male-female relationships, or of the relationship between nature and the industrial world...?

So immediately, even someone not at all attuned to the world of dance, its history and its vocabulary - like myself - is given a raw, visceral understanding of the kind of artistic punch it can pack, with the help of inspired, judicious choreography and performers who are very much on the same wavelength as their leader.

Bolstered by the fact that he's embraced 3D technology, Wenders gives himself time to indulge in the full scope of Bausch's choreography, staging cuts of it not just in their traditional stage environs but also in urban and outdoor spaces (though the 'rural' setup of the 'Rite' and the rocky set of 'Vollmond' ('full moon') remain the most memorable).

This leisurely sweep of Bausch's back catalogue is very welcome... for a reason that could have been a serious shortcoming in a documentary of this kind. Because the fact is that dancers can't be expected, outright, to comment on their work with the kind of chatty exposition that befits the genre. "Pina once told me: 'your fragility is also your strength'," one Asian dancer enthuses, while a male dancer reveals that, while he was in Pina's employ and undergoing a "confusing" period in his life, Pina boosted his confidence by telling him to just "dance for love".

A documentary filled with such pat clichés would have been doomed from the start.

But Wenders, presenting his speakers in intimate close-up, and doing away with the standard 'interview' format by overlaying their views on Pina as they quietly gaze at the camera, injects a dose of humanity, over the very apparent physical virtuosity on display.

Never for a second will you doubt that Pina was great at what she did. But Wenders will also assure you that her dancers were great, because she allowed them to be.  

Pina will be screened at St James Cavalier, Valletta throughout April.