Slow Cinema, trauma and therapy

I set up this blog in the autumn of 2012, at the start of my doctoral research. It’s funny just how much the original subject has changed in those three years. I planned to write a piece on Slow Cinema in general, but the subject became narrower and narrower and, as attentive readers may know, has then focused entirely on the films of Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma. Throughout those three years, I came across beautiful films with stunning cinematography and interesting stories. What started off as a research project and as a way to formulate ideas, has turned into a platform with reviews, interviews and research ideas. A lot of people have contacted me to ask whether I could take a look at their films. I’m eternally grateful to those people. Because of them, I have seen marginal, yet great films which showed me what cinema is or can be. All I can say is thank you, and please keep the films coming!

In the last year of my PhD research, something else became clear, though. Slow films became a form of trauma therapy for me, and I would like to say a few things about this now. I do not in any way attempt to publish my life story, but I find the link between Slow Cinema and trauma fascinating, and I’m hoping to dig deeper into it, now that the PhD is done.

In spring 2009, a chain of traumatic events triggered an abnormal stress reaction in my brain and I was diagnosed with PTSD in summer 2010. Until that time I had little idea what happened to me. I did know that life was even faster than before. I also knew that things were much louder than before. My senses were constantly overwhelmed, 24/7. My adrenaline level was much to high which caused anxiety and aggression. Panic attacks were the order of the day. Any kind of uncertainty drove me mad. If you think that life is fast those days, imagine it about ten times worse, and you may get an idea of the frenzy my brain was in until about three years ago.

I only noticed towards the end of my doctoral research that parallel to my post-trauma surfacing slowly, I became more and more interested and, at times, even obsessed with Slow Cinema. This was entirely unconscious. By chance, I read an article about Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) and I was so curious that I just had to watch it. I watched it in summer or autumn 2009. I do remember that I watched Sátántangó (1994) that same year, in December 2009, with a 24h blood pressure measuring device because the doctors weren’t sure just why my blood pressure had been that high. A fascinating experience, to say the least!

In any case, over the months I struggled with whatever happened in my brain, I developed a real taste for slow films. Now it makes sense, and I think there are a few different things to it.

First of all, the slow pace of the films allowed me to record what was happening in front of me. I was no longer able to watch Hollywood blockbusters. My brain simply couldn’t record the events on screen. In general, whenever something became too fast, my brain shut down. I assume it’s a safety procedure in order not to get overwhelmed and overstimulated again. So, if I wanted to watch a film it had to be slower than the average. That kind of feeds in with my next point, namely the minimalist mise-en-scène, for instance. With my senses having been persistently overwhelmed, it was a blessing to look at something that was more or less empty. Those now famous, more or less empty long-shots of landscapes were bliss and contributed to a feeling of calm inside me. The fact that slow films tends to tell minimalist stories, i.e. stories the way they happen in real life without overly exaggerating everything and making the viewer believe that it is perfectly plausible to go through all emotions from A to Z in only ninety minutes, was perfect for someone like me. Don’t get me wrong, slow films say a lot. But they say it in a slower and more minimalist way, which allows the viewer to take his/her time to record and understand everything.

Not a lot of dialogue – perfect! I could contemplate the shots and took my time to study small bits which I personally found interesting. It is said that slow films are not exactly a form of escapist cinema for people. And yet, it was for me. It was exactly that: escape from everyday life. A life that was fast, overwhelming, overstimulating, loud, confusing and whatever else unpleasant. It’s funny that people whose life is fast anyway go see escapist fast movies from Hollywood. Yes, story-wise they’re escapist, but in the end, aesthetically they’re not. Slow films are, especially if you suffer from PTSD. They’re the ideal form of escapist cinema.

Now, the link between cinematic slowness and post-trauma may perhaps trigger an eureka effect in you, the kind of “Oh yes, it makes perfect sense!” Indeed, it does make perfect sense. But there is more, and this is my interest in the films of Lav Diaz. I owe him a great deal even though he didn’t actively do something apart from making films. But his films, in particular those I worked on for my doctoral thesis (Melancholia, Death in the Land of Encantos, Florentina Hubaldo CTE), are, to my mind and according to my experience, a correct representation of post-trauma. The issue with popular trauma films is that the focus is on speed, that means the unpredictability of intrusive memories, flashbacks, etc What those films don’t show is the slow part of post-trauma: the depletion of resources in the survivor because of an over-stimulation of the senses, the stagnation and paralysis because you repeatedly return, in your head, to the traumatic event, the inability to follow a linear life narrative, the draining away of your energy.

These elements are the main thrusts in those three films and especially when it comes to Florentina Hubaldo I have to say that Diaz is and remains the first director I have come across who puts PTSD the way I experienced it onto a big screen. Post-trauma is not a special-effect driven blockbuster spectacle. It’s an immensely slow and painful condition. Diaz’s films are by no means easy. Narrative wise they’re immensely hard to sit through. They’re painful, they drain you. They drain you the way post-trauma drains the characters he depicts. At the same time, however, watching them allowed me to understand myself, my condition, my suffering. I understood what was happening inside me and for once I felt understood. In effect, Slow Cinema and the films of Lav Diaz had an strong therapeutic effect on me, and I want to dig deeper into this, write about it, starting with a journal article, then maybe going further. It isn’t new that films can have a therapeutic effect, but it would be new to bring Slow Cinema in.

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This is fantastic! Although I’ve never experienced PTSD, I have recoiled at the fast, noisy, brightly lit everyday life around us and the movies that depend on it and exploit it. After a lifetime of always moving in a hurry, I noticed that the stress was driving me crazy and started slowing down — about five years ago. Along the way I discovered slow cinema and then your blog and have been following it. Now, at 81, I’m living better than I’ve ever lived and slow cinema is a staple. I’m grateful to your blog as well.

Thank you so much for this, John. I’m so glad to hear that Slow Cinema is a form of escapist and therapeutic cinema for you, too, although in a different context. But isn’t it true? The films really contribute to a feeling of zen. Thanks for your comment, John. I appreciate it, and I’m glad you find the blog useful!

Gregg Kearns

Nadian- yes, I know exactly what you’re talking about! I’ve always had a hyper-active anxiety disorder- dizziness, eating problems, headaches (thankfully, these symptons have subsided aside from some digestion issues and of course some general stress)- but Slow Cinema helped soothe these anxieties. It started with Tarkovsky’s Mirror- the sounds of birds, the wind, a few sparse words, someone walking… These sounds calmed me down; ultimately hypnotizing me- and they still do! Slow Cinema soothes me, just as a Chopin nocturne does. I’ve discovered many great films through your blog; particularly Artificial Paradises which was a gem. Might I recommend the films of Bresson if you haven’t yet dwelved into him?

Anywho; thank you for keeping this blog going!

Thank you, Greg. It’s always a pleasure to see that there are like-minded people out there. I am glad that my blog is helping you to dive deeper into Slow Cinema. I’m aware of Bresson, but, like other classics, he is still on my watch list. Too many films, so little time!

I think that inexplainable peace that these films instill, freed from the edge-of-your-seat anxiety that waits for the next jump, or tension-built action sequence actually gives way to another form of attention. I noticed it the first time I watched the films of Albert Serra, or perhaps Bela Tarr as well. At first my mind was racing to try and ‘get’ what was going on, then a few moments in and a deeper form of attention took over. Suddenly I was experiencing film like never before. It’s a sacred experience and one I find so very restorative to my being. I’ve found it in Tarkovsky and Nuri Bilge Ceylan and even Kiarostami. These films have been able to work deeply into my being with some of the heavy concepts they deal with especially because they did the work of teaching me their slow way. I was able to savour the truths they presented without the sugary high and crash of hollywood pacing. It makes me think of Kiarostami’s excellent 10 on Ten documentary where he talks about what we lose in modernist hollywood cinema. Also Ermanno Olmi speaks of the degradation of cinematic story telling in the modern era with this quote:

At the beginning, when the audience saw a train on the screen rushing towards them, they hid under their seats; they were afraid, given film’s power of visualization. Today, to give only an inkling of what has happened since, you have to stab a man in the stomach nine times to get the same effect. And everyone is paying a very high price, figuratively as well as literally, for this kind of exploitation. But I think that any event—social, political, economic, or artistic—produces certain negative effects that were meant to be produced by betraying certain ideas or principles. The only question is how long it will take for a revolt on the part of those who produce as well as those who consume such cinema. I am not an optimist at all costs, but I do believe in the will to survive of life itself, and that when we have come to the end of our cunning and cleverness to trick the good earth, and with it Saint Cinema, into producing more and more, the both of them will rebel against us. Film art—cinematographic suggestion, if you like—will refuse at a certain point to participate in its own corruption and even prostitution. This is not just a discussion involving the cinema, however, as I have tried to make clear, because the cinema is only one element in the general economic noise that surrounds us.”

*I know this is an old post, I just keep getting to busy and stressed and keep meaning to getting around to reading much of what you’ve posted on here. I hope my voice is not too late to add to the conversation.

Nadin Mai

Dear Joel, thank you so much for all your thoughts. I find your posts fascinating and reassuring at the same time. Indeed, you’re absolutely right, and even though feelings or experience are always considered to be individual and subjective, the experience of Slow Cinema could well be collective. There is a general sense of what you have described. It was great starting the blog. I wasn’t alone anymore. Strangely enough, I found that my experience is not just my individual feeling. There are others around the world who follow this kind of cinema for the exact same reason, for a feeling we all seem to get. in a way, this upsets the way we consider film experience. We have more and more moved towards explaining the individual and this has been, in parts at least, a very good thing. The individual has often been neglected and this is still the case in subjects such as history, memory and trauma. But at the very beginning, cinema was collective, it was coming together for the same reasons. I believe that Slow Cinema returns us to this “original” thought of film. Please keep in touch, Joel. I will put an extract of your comment onto the Slow Cinema FB page. I’d love to share your thoughts. Thank you very much again. Have a lovely Christmas!

I came across the website a year or so ago, but only returned to it today. Now that I’m working on my undergrad dissertation (On Mental Health in Post-war Hollywood Cinema ), your posts have become really relevant to me; using your own experiences to carve out something new in film scholarship is something, in my own small way, I’m trying to do. I just wanted to say thanks for giving me a little more confidence with my project. As a person who suffers with an Anxiety Disorder, I find it really hard to concentrate on slow films: I’m always alert, my eyes flicking everywhere. Do you think that watching Slow Cinema has helped with your concentration?

[…] In a previous post I mentioned my own personal experience with slow films in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder. Given the comments I had received after publishing that specific post, it seems as though I’m not the only one who, consciously or unconsciously, uses or used slow films in order to calm down, to soothe, to work through traumatic events. Slow films allowed me to breathe. They gave me the chance to think, to take my time, and, most important of all, to “realise”; realise what is happening in front of me, something I couldn’t do in real life at the time because my senses were repeatedly overstimulated. You can read all details about the link between Slow Cinema and trauma here. […]

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