the five obstructions

When our professor said that the next film we would watching was a film from 2003, I felt relieved because I thought that maybe this one wouldn’t feel so foreign and different as compared to the other films we watched which I found very odd and ~old~. I wanted to understand and at the same time enjoy a European film on our list for once, and I was hoping this one would be it.

The Five Obstructions by Lars von Trier is a documentary that involves two filmmakers challenging each other on their expertise on art and cinema. Protégé Lars von Trier summons his mentor Jorgen Leth to recreate one of Leth’s most popular films, The Perfect Human. His challenge came with a twist: Leth has to recreate his own film five times, with five different obstructions for every remake that gets more and more amusing.

To be honest, it took me some time to understand what was going on in the film. I was initially confused why there were two men arguing about something about 12 frames and why this younger man seemed to be bossing around this older guy. When I finally understood what was going on, things started to make more sense and things got a bit more interesting. Though it didn’t take awhile until I felt confused and lost again; I couldn’t seem to figure out why von Trier was giving those kinds of ‘obstructions’ and what its purpose was. It felt so random to me. He loved the original film, didn’t he? He’s the student in their relationship, right? But towards the end of the film, I realized that it wasn’t really about making fun of Leth nor was it in any way disrespecting him. Leth was a lot older than von Trier, and based on my research, he’s a good and experienced filmmaker. So maybe this wasn’t von Trier being bossy and arrogant; maybe it was his attempt at challenging Leth’s filmmaking style and creativity, and helping him develop his technique in this new generation of arts and filmmaking. We see this initially in the film when von Trier gave his first obstruction, and Leth reacting negatively because he thought it would be impossible to shoot in just 12 frames. Yet he ended up doing it flawlessly, just as he did in the original. In a way, it can be said that von Trier was helping Leth push himself outside of his comfort zone and evolve as an artist. More than it being a good message for change and progress, I think it’s also an empowering message for mentee-mentor relationships in general, as it teaches students to constructively criticize, give valuable input, and even challenge their mentors.

In a more general, relatable, and non-film-related perspective, I think The Five Obstructions is a good reminder that humans are, contrary to the film title, imperfect. From the snippets of The Perfect Human that we saw from the documentary, it just shows how the “perfect human” (or at least the idea of it) is only in a box, which is perhaps our imagination or our concept of this kind of human. But what von Trier tries to show us through his obstructions is that humans exist outside this perfect box with a constantly changing environment and factors that makes genuine human life and interaction unpredictable, unautomated, and perhaps perfectly imperfect.

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