2019 – The Year in Review

Another year comes to an end and perhaps you’re as tired of “end of year” lists as I am. Every December (and increasingly every November), cinephiles and film critics rally to create a list of their favourite films. I have always struggled to understand the idea behind making a list of a Top 10, or even of a Top 50 which I have seen this year, too. Strong or weak lists – it doesn’t matter what you put together. As long as it is a list, people share it, which, to many writers, is the most important aspect in creating their lists. The very influential French magazine Les Cahiers du Cinéma has released the weakest list I have seen this decade. Lists are always based on individual preferences, but there are some critics who don’t even try to hide their utter ignorance of world cinema. How can a Top 10 list with the best films of the decade be exclusively European-American with the sole exception of Apichatpong Weerasethakul? A list like this suggests that Asia, Latin America, the Maghreb have produced nothing worthwhile in the last ten years and this, I think we can all agree, is a lie. Cahiers‘ list is, as is the Sight & Sound list, influential and those films on the list will get even more exposure than they already have. This also means that it is those very lists which actively help to exclude underrepresented films and filmmakers. And this is, as I believe I write every year, also the reason why you will never get me to make a list. Every film I write about here on this blog is a recommendation and a nod to its quality. Of course, there are exceptions, like Lav Diaz’s Season of the Devil which I found particularly terrible. But generally, if a film ends up on this blog, it is a pointer to its quality.

Closing Time, dir Nicole Vögele

But enough of lists. This was my end-of-year rant, how about getting back to cinema? 🙂 At the end of 2018, I planned to watch more films by Abbas Kiarostami. I failed and I don’t even know exactly why. Perhaps it was the DVD box set with films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, which I generously received from Icarus Films. Geyrhalter’s films rarely have an average length. Even though not quite as extreme as Wang Bing or Lav Diaz, Geyrhalter demands time and patience. Four hours can be a lot, but in combination with Wang Bing’s Dead Souls or Til Madness Do Us Part, I have been able to really feel long-form documentary this year. This isn’t necessarily about slowness. Rather, it is about depth. I already mentioned this in the context of Frederick Wiseman’s Welfare. The action in Wiseman’s frames is not slow or minimalist and yet they evoke the feeling of weight. I could easily recommend The Vietnam War by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick here, for example, or OJ: Made in America by Ezra Edelman. Neither is slow. Neither speaks about the usual subjects of Slow Cinema. Besides, at first sight they seem to be the complete opposite of, say, Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks. At the same time, however, they share the long-form format, which means a vertical in-depth exploration of a chosen subject. The subject itself or the director aren’t important as such. What counts is the depth, the verticality and the time spent on unearthing what a certain event means. It is not about what happened, but why and how it effected those involved. For me, personally, the long-form documentary was a defining characteristic of 2019 and there will hopefully be more of it in the future.

Century of Smoke, dir Nicolas Graux

The best thing that happened this year was that I finally met Scott Barley, with whom I had been friends over the Internet for seven-odd years. It all started with the Mubi Forum. There was a mutual click somehow and I have been following Scott’s career ever since. His first feature film, Sleep Has Her House, was like one of my shamanic journeys. We had never met and yet his film spoke to me on a level that only soul mates could manage. There was a special bond, although exclusively online. Until, that is, we both traveled to this year’s Slow Film Festival in Mayfield, where we showed a small retrospective of Scott’s work in form of an installation. How wonderful is it to meet directors you’ve been following for years, directors with whom you are on the same wavelength? I had a similarly wonderful meeting with Nicolas Graux at this year’s Visions du Réel. There is something very unique about meeting slow-film directors and I had the chance to experience this again this year. Both events were memorable, even more so than the films I have seen in the course of the last twelve months.

Speaking of which: 2019 was also the year of a slow overdose. As many (or at least a few) of you know, I’m part of the programming team of the annual Slow Film Festival in Mayfield, East Sussex. The festival attracts more and more filmmakers, which means that the number of submissions continues to rise. There are people who watch one film a day, something I can’t do. Especially slow films always take their time in my head, I need a period of digestion before I can watch another film. This doesn’t quite work, tho, when you have a flood of submissions coming through. As I’m writing this, the first submissions for next year’s festival are arriving via Filmfreeway and the viewing process will begin anew. Although it isn’t an easy job to look through all the submissions, it’s a great opportunity to look at a pool of talent, which is otherwise invisible and unavailable. It also made me become hyperaware of the influence a small screen has on the viewing experience (I wrote an article about this for a forthcoming special edition of Moving Image Artist journal, which will be released early next year). I think, overall this year has taught me a lot. I wasn’t simply a viewer who wrote about slow films. I learned more about Slow Cinema this year than ever before. This might also be the case because I started to put a book together, which will be everything but your standard book on film. I have a really good chunk already and am now preparing the formalities for the book proposal. With a bit of luck I can perhaps soon sign a contract.

Almost There, dir Jacqueline Zünd

Let’s turn to the actual films now. December 2019 is the end of the year, but also the end of a decade. This decade coincides almost exactly with my interest in Slow Cinema. A decade of slow films. A decade of discovery, of exploration. Admiration, too. Admiration of all those filmmakers who stand their ground and who make films that break “the rules” and in doing so create an experience unlike any other. There are several films that have stayed with me over the years, for various different reasons. I don’t want to make a “Top 10” or “Best of Slow Cinema” list. Rather, I would like to mention those films that have left scars, which I carry with me every day, which still influence the way I see (slow) films today and will do in future. It’s films that have changed the way I live and the way I look at things around me. Not only what supposedly are “the best” films can achieve this. Often it takes simple messages, a brief sequence of a narrative to do this.

The Man from London by Béla Tarr (2007) was my first slow film. It changed everything I had known up to then about film. I will never forget the beginning, the slow and gentle camera movement in the watchman’s tower, something I would later get used to. The duration of the shots was not just impressive for someone who had seen only Hollywood and popular mainstream films until then. It created an entirely new feeling of cinema. It showed me a different world I hadn’t known existed. This alone made the film stick with me. The Man from London is slightly different from Tarr’s other films, as I would come to find out. It’s not based on a script by Laszlo Krasznahorkai, but on a book by George Simenon. I watched a pirated copy at the time because Tarr hadn’t secured distribution of his films back then. The copy was in Hungarian. The language was mesmerising (and even made me look into learning Hungarian at some point!) and I was disappointed to see (hear) that the original version was French. This is also how the film was sold on DVD. To this day, I keep my pirated version (although I did buy the DVD) because Hungarian, as a language, brings something so unique to the film, something mysterious. It’s a dark and mysterious language, and fits well to Tarr’s and Krasznahorkai’s works.

The Man from London, dir Béla Tarr

Melancholia by Lav Diaz (2008) was my first slow film on a big screen and my first truly long film ever. Of course, it had a lasting impact. Those who know the film also know that Melancholia clocks in at around eight hours. Seeing this in the programme of the bi-annual AV Festival which, in 2012, also hosted a special Slow Cinema weekend with a mini-retrospective of Lav Diaz’s films, I didn’t expect to survive it without falling asleep. Truth be told, it was an exhausting weekend. The two Diaz films alone, which I saw at the time, clocked up at fourteen hours together, which is quite a lot for two days. Plus a Fred Kelemen. Seeing slow films on a big screen and being with fellow likeminded cinephiles made all the difference in the experience of film. It didn’t feel like going to the cinema and sit anonymously in a dark auditorium, but it felt like becoming part of a family, a feeling that intensified over the years, especially while writing about Slow Cinema. It has often been said that cinema creates a feeling of community, but I had never felt this community until I attended the Slow Cinema weekend. Years later, I would realise that speaking about slow films often involved speaking about it in personal terms. It wasn’t so much about whether or not a film was good, but what it evoked, what memories it triggered.

Melancholia, dir Lav Diaz

Sleep Has Her House by Scott Barley (2017) was a special experience in that it showed me that film can dig deep into one’s unconsciousness and express something that you yourself would perhaps have no words for. But there are filmmakers like Scott, whose films do exactly this. They are the most experiential films I know and it is not all about slowness in his films. It is very much about experiencing whatever state you are in. I remember that I passed through a particularly tough time when I saw the film for the first time. I struggled with severe depression and I sometimes wondered whether life was worth it. Seeing Scott’s film made me become hyperaware of my state, but also of film as a way of therapy to help both viewer and filmmaker to purge themselves from whatever dark period one is passing through. Sleep Has Her House has always been more than just a slow film for me. At the Slow Film Festival, I saw the film for only the second time. The first time, my reaction to it was violent and intense, so intense that I couldn’t remember much of the images. They were blacked out in favour of the feeling that the film left me with. I was worried about seeing the film once more. I didn’t know what my reaction would be like. Seeing the film a second time felt like a process of remembering.

Sleep Has Her House, dir Scott Barley

Là-bas and D’Est by Chantal Akerman (2006/1993) introduced me fully to the ways in which slow films can function as therapy, as a means of working through transgenerational trauma, of experiences which one has inherited. I came late to Akerman, much to my shame, but it was perfect timing in the end. After years of studying film and trauma, trauma and experience, and the idea of art as a means to rid oneself of a traumatic event, Akerman’s work became an incredibly powerful reinforcement of what I myself felt. It wasn’t so much a film on a screen, but a communication with a woman who also worked through the ghosts of her family’s past.

Là-bas, dir Chantal Akerman

West of the Tracks by Wang Bing (2003) was my first long-form slow documentary. Seeing the collapse of an industrial complex in China is more than just this. Wang Bing tells stories about China, but West of the Tracks is a universal story. The film could have been set in the Ruhr in Germany, in the north of France, in Dundee up in Scotland. It could have been set in any other previously heavily industrialised region which collapsed once the economic boom had subsided. Loss of jobs, loss of a community, loss of entire cities – what stuck with me was the possibilities of long-form documentaries in the telling of individual and global history. Wang Bing is, of course, also a director who, as I would come to find out the more films I watched by him, is engaged in the writing of Chinese history, the kind of history which the Party is keen on blanking out. The glorious ascent to an economical superpower claimed the lives of many and it is in Wang Bing’s films that the silenced and the invisible become visible.

West of the tracks, dir Wang Bing

An elephant sitting still by Hu Bo (2018) doesn’t need any further explanation other than what I wrote earlier this year. There are no adequate words that could possible describe why this film is in this list today.

An elephant sitting still, dir Hu Bo

A decade of slow film is a lot and the last thing I had in mind when I started watching those films was that I would spend an entire decade with them. Another thing that I didn’t think possible was the large number of you guys out there, people who love slow films, who get in touch and discuss films with me, who point me to certain films and who follow my work.

I don’t want to write about plans for 2020. Except for the new issue of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine and the hope to get the book done, I’ll have nothing planned in particular. There will be plenty of films to watch and I will surely not get bored next year!

Finally, it is time to extend my heartfelt gratitude to a couple of people. First of all, I’d like thank my patrons Michael, John, Juan, Ana, Socrates, Jaime, another John, Fabiano, Shaun, Chris, Bryce, Jesse, one more John, Anthony and Martin. I’d also like to thank Priscilla from Icarus Films, Ruth and Giuseppe from Filmexplorer, the Slow Film Festival programming team, and every filmmaker who was so kind as to send me a screener of their film. A special thank you goes out to Scott.

Thank you all! Here’s to another decade. See you in 2020!

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