The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear begins by exposing the inherent perversity of the screen test and, more broadly, of the documentary-making process. We hear the authoritative voice of an off-frame filmmaker asking simultaneously vague and tendentious questions, like an abusive and disembodied psychoanalyst. The questions are addressed to the young people from the Republic of Georgia who responded to a casting call. The filmmaker, Tinatin Gurchiani, is protected by her off-image invisibility, manning a camera that corners her subjects against a decrepit post-communist wall, which, like the characters, time has peeled and worn out mercilessly: “What are your dreams?”; “Which Hollywood character would you like to be?”; “What can you do for a film?”; “Can you cry?” A young man answers, “Yes, I can laugh too.”
This approach recalls Brazilian documentarian Eduardo Coutinho’s style, especially in Playing, which features regular folk responding to a newspaper ad about sharing their life stories, but alternates their interviews with reenactments. In the end we’re stunned by our inability to distinguish who’s acting and who isn’t. Gurchiani’s subjects, apparently, are non-actors mostly drawn to an idea of cinema that the filmmaker herself rejects. They often think they’ll be auditioning for a Hollywood-like flick, one in which they’ll play someone other than themselves. Gurchiani takes advantage of the abyss between their delusional hopes for stardom (they want to be “the main character,” or a Van Damme type) and the lofty ethos of an art documentary project, which so often exploits the asymmetry of power between those who film and those who are filmed. Unlike Coutinho, Gurchiani seems sufficiently aware of such mechanics that she highlights them by offering the screen tests to us as a kind of Brechtian gift, or a Jon Jost-like concession: Here is our cinematic language, which, like the world it represents, is unfair.
The screen tests announce the brief stories of the characters’ hardships that follow, as well as the precarious position in which the camera invariably places them. We meet, among others, an online poker addict, a woman who didn’t know she was pregnant until her sixth month, a teenage girl abandoned by her mother, and a short-haired woman with heavy mascara on who doesn’t have any dreams, except owning a cherry tree despite the fact that she hates cherries. The film devotes various amounts of time to each story; some are mere poetic interludes, while others are longer Pedro Costa-meets-Béla Tarr tales of existential doom told in the simplest of all ways.
The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear also brings to mind Margarida Cordeiro and António Reis’s sensibility in the way it ever so subtly zeros in on the extreme particularities of a remote place to find something universal, or at the very least easily comprehensible about despair. The natural landscape, whether in Georgia or in Cordeiro and Reis’s rural Portugal, appears so oppressively vast it might as well have swallowed away the possibility for any place else to become, if not a destination, at least dream material.