Going Public

In this month’s Screening Room, we have one astounding experimental feat of precision, one unexpected play on words, and another fast-paced watch. Each of these films is linked by a common concept: human interaction in public space.

The films Tango (1980), Schwarzfahrer (Black Rider) (1993), and Surface (2010) each use very different technical approaches to examine and challenge perceptions of public behaviour. Though the production of these shorts is separated by decades, considering them collectively may also help to reveal more about each of them.



Zbigniew Rybczyński, 1980

Tango is a hypnotic experimental short from director Zbigniew Rybczyński. While it may appear to be one simple shot, Rybczyński’s complicated and flawless choreography meant the film took an entire year to shoot.

The performances qualities of the actors are reminiscent of professionals on a stage; effortless routines that are all at once instinctual and gestural, yet formulaic and controlled. While there is a lot of domestic activity, this film is more representative of public behaviour – such as the avoiding of others while weaving through a crowd.

Tango was the first Polish film to win an Academy Award in 1983 and what happened to Rybczyński at the Oscar ceremony is stranger than fiction. After winning the award he stepped out of the auditorium to smoke, but on his return the security guard wouldn’t let the scruffy director back in. Rybczyński was outraged and in broken English reportedly yelled, “American pig, I have Oscar!” and soon enough the newly minted Oscar-winning director was in jail for the night.


Schwarzfahrer (Black Rider)

Pepe Danquart, 1993

Ever had an uncomfortable bus ride? Looked around at fellow passengers while someone makes a scene? We’ve all been there and Pepe Danquart gets you squirming in your seat as if you were on the tram itself. And what a quirky tram load. Danquart creates rounded and relatable characters with striking close ups and minimal dialogue.

Schwarzfahrer took home the Oscar in ’93 and literally translates to “black rider”, a nod to the prejudices tackled in the film. “Schwarzfahrer” is also slang for fare-dodger, creating another play on words and foreshadowing the twists and turns of this compelling short.

Schwarzfarher is a fascinating look at the act of avoidance within a public space, aka the ‘bystander effect.’ With stunning camerawork and a touch of German humour, Danquart offers a surprise to normal expectations of public behaviour.



Varathit Uthaisri (2010)

Like Tango, Surface is another experimental piece without dialogue that has a lot of fun playing with your sense of perspective. Filmmaker Varathit Uthaisri obviously has a nose for design, and your eyes and ears will be delighted by this unexpected look up at life from just below the surface.

Uthaisri’s visual feast evokes the hectic pace of contemporary society as we observe familiar gestures and behaviours (both normal and taboo) of people in public from an original voyeuristic viewpoint. From drips to drummers to dinner, the soundscape is intoxicating.

While Tango has its calculated rhythm, and Schwarzfahrer its metaphorical forward momentum, Surface has an increasingly accelerated and frantic pace that will leave you breathless. You’ll be taking a second look (and listen) that’s for sure.

These three films draw upon our common experience of public spaces and how people behave in them. They then find ways of altering perspective to challenge expectations and perceptions. And, interestingly, as the viewer becomes a voyeur, they may realise that it is not unfamiliar territory.