The Ister

(David Barison & Daniel Ross, Australia, 2004)


This remarkable three-hour video-essay appears to have come from nowhere – at least in terms of the Australian film scene – and instantly won its rightful place on the international Film Festival circuit.

David Barison and Daniel Ross, two keen Melbourne students of philosophy and film, without any government funding, took their digital video camera up the Danube and also dropped in, around Europe, on some of the major thinkers and artists of our time: the philosophers Bernard Stiegler, Jean-Luc Nancy and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, and the celebrated German filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.

The result is the most intellectually rigorous and searching film ever made in Australia.

At the basis of this project are two texts: a seventy-two line 'hymn' by the poet Friedrich Hölderlin called "The Ister", which is a mystical meditation on the Danube; and the commentary on this poem delivered in lecture form by the philosopher Martin Heidegger in early 1942.

At stake are many histories: the history of human beings and their relation to nature; the birth of a technological society and its consequences; the succession of 'tribal' wars which have divided and re-divided the land, filling it with monuments and ruins; the history of philosophy itself, as it struggles to conceptualise the ideas of existence, lineage and progress that underpin European civilisation's image of itself – often at the cost of brutal, bloody exclusions. And through it all, the river flows, gathering up and emptying out places, times, ghosts of every sort.

Simply but beautifully photographed, the film is also an essay on montage itself: images of land, architecture, animals, water, communal celebrations and so on, do not simply illustrate the spoken ideas but return again and again in different contexts, each time illuminated by different frameworks of history and inquiry.

Pitching itself somewhere new and unique between Chris Marker and Terrence Malick, The Ister is a 'positively un-Australian' classic.

© Adrian Martin July 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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