A few years ago, I started to write a little summary of what the year in Slow Cinema was like. I liked to look back at the previous months. This year, I’m honest, I hesitated because it wasn’t a normal year, neither for Slow Cinema nor for cinema in general. Nor for everyone and everything else, for that matter. I don’t think I’m the only one who usually feels a certain degree of fatigue at the end of a year. Today, I can say that I have never felt this tired at the end of any given year. I had difficult years, I had awful years, but 2020 was a brutal fight and left many of us and many of our established and taken-for-granted structures in society bruised, bleeding, or dying.
The worldwide lockdown had a good side, it’s true. When half the world’s population stayed at home, it became quiet around us. Have you ever heard the birds so clearly? Have you ever seen the grass so green and so wild as if we weren’t even there? Have you ever been so aware of your surrounding? It’s ironic in some ways. It is paradoxical, but true: once it’s quiet, once everything is silent, you become aware of yourself, of your self, of your living in a hyper-connected world. Living in this world and becoming aware of it are two different things. For once — and yes, we have to be grateful for this — we had a chance to become aware of our lives, of where we are headed and the possible (and even certain) consequences thereof.
The gap between rich and poor in our societies has been growing for a few decades now. We witnessed a similar gap arising within the film industry around the same time. The middle class is squeezed out in society and in cinema, we move towards two sections only: the mainstream, high-end blockbuster cinema, which continues to play its poker game and go all-in on sequels, prequels and remakes; and the low-budget, creative arthouse films which will continue struggling to find their audience in a Hollywood-dominated landscape. Whatever is between those two will become more and more invisible.
With cinemas being closed first, then subjected to restrictions as to the number of spectators in each auditorium, for instance, their ways of coping was interesting to watch. As festivals were cancelled and film productions halted, the taken-for-granted endless stream of new films dried up. When cinemas reopened, they had nothing to show. That said, that was a specific problem for multiplexes, not necessarily for independent cinemas. Of course, every cinema house faced an existential crisis, but with Warner’s decision to release all 2021 long-awaited blockbusters in cinemas and on streaming platforms, it seems evident who struggles most. Especially small arthouse cinemas always acted at the margins of the system, of the industry. Retrospectives of classics or the 15th repetition of Tarkovsky’s Stalker on 35 mm is not as big of a problem for them (nor for their audience) as is a re-run of a two-year-old Spider-Man.
We knew before the pandemic struck that cinema, as an industry, had become an icon of our capitalist system and the lives it has created: it has become empty, repetitive and predictable. But with the complete halt of production and distribution, especially at the beginning of the year, we could see (and hopefully realise) what has become of the 7th art. And hopefully, we take important decisions as to the future we want to have.
With everything that happened this year, it was difficult to focus on cinema, on watching films, let alone writing about them. It was difficult to keep The Art(s) of Slow Cinema alive. I saw eight years of work disappearing in front of my eyes. One book on Slow Cinema, which had a good chance of getting published, wasn’t taken up by the publisher after all. The reason was the usual, I heard it too many times: it wouldn’t sell, and now that publishers struggle anyway in current conditions, there was no way this book would become profitable. I had spent a year working on this, and I was close to finishing it, and here was another slap in the face. At the same time, the second publisher who wanted a sort of Best-Of of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema never got back to me again once the pandemic struck. Two books volatilised themselves, a third one (French this time, about Lav Diaz) was shelved, and the Slow Cinema magazine was a disaster.
As I was unable to keep the usual rhythm on my blog due to mental health issues, the number of readers has dropped by two-thirds. As I struggle more and more and have even less energy to advertise my work on social media, the numbers continue to drop. I became aware of just how fragile this kind of work is in today’s world. We must produce, no breaks are allowed. You become a prisoner of your work, and one day the whole thing blows up. For me and The Art(s) of Slow Cinema, this bomb exploded this year. Quality work alone isn’t enough. People, no matter in what context, always need new stuff, something new and exciting. This is the case with writing, especially blogging, too. Few people want to “wait” for a new article, or a new social media post. If the stream dries up, they go elsewhere.
This is the world we live in. And it is ironic that this happens to work on Slow Cinema. Today, I can’t say anything about the future of the platform. In theory, the third issue of the Slow Cinema magazine should be published early next year, but I have neither the energy, nor the motivation. I have exhausted myself this year. The magazine, for example, was the result of an ever-growing interest in The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. With the few readers I still have and with followers leaving my social media world, it is not worth putting in months of work. In any other situation, I would say to myself: keep going, you just have to keep going, it’ll all turn back to normal. But this is different because I’m in a fragile mental state and everyone who uses the internet for their work knows that it takes a lot of time to build up an audience. Eight years are a long time, I can’t do this again.
2020 was a year in which film festivals had to reinvent themselves. Not every festival had the time or the resources to offer an online version. It was quite a battle to put together this year’s Slow Film Festival, but we have an amazing team and could put on a great slow show. For quite some time, we didn’t know what to plan for. A physical festival is always different from an online festival. The atmosphere is different, which is particularly essential to Slow Cinema. I remember having written once that most slow films were being watched on a small screen, and this is still true. The reason for this is the films’ respective invisibility, the unwillingness by festival programmers and distributors alike to give those film a chance. But the big screen changes everything as I found out last year.
Programming a festival often (or usually) means watching a lot of films on your computer screen. Some of them can be very impressive, but you have a feeling that they wouldn’t work in cinemas. This often happens, in the case of our Slow Film Festival, with multi-channel works. Then there are films that don’t trigger any reaction when seen on a computer screen, but they become a true masterpiece in a darkened auditorium. The medium is the message, McLuhan famously said. And yes, this goes for films, too. The medium one uses to play/watch a film with can decide upon its affect on the viewer.
By early summer, we weren’t sure whether we should prepare for a physical or a digital festival. Or both. We knew that anything could happen until the autumn, and that our decision would have implications for our film selection. We were not the only festival team that had to struggle with this. The sheer abundance of free online festivals this year certainly showed that we were not alone. We learned a lot about digital opportunities this year and yes, as paradoxically as it may sound, I’m personally grateful for this opportunity. We were forced to reinvent ourselves, we were forced to leave our comfort zone, and we had a wonderful first online edition of the Slow Film Festival with, I’m happy to say, thousands of viewers. How the Slow Film Festival will look like in 2021 – we will see.
For a few years now, the tone in conversations and debates is hardening. Those who follow public discourse from a safe distance notice that the world, that our societies, become more polarised. Everything becomes a battle. No one takes the time to ponder anymore, there is no thinking involved anymore. Speaking to people is now about knee-jerk reactions. In politics, it is standard nowadays to defame your opponent. There is no constructive collaboration for the greater good anymore.
The pandemic showed that this behaviour has swept into other areas of public life with drastic consequences. Indeed, if the pandemic has shown us something, it is that the West has become an increasingly fragmented region of individuals who only care about themselves. This is combined with vicious debates about what counts or not as essential for the people, of what it means to be together in something. Nothing we do individually right now is as helpful as if we were doing it collectively. We must learn from each other, collaborate, and yes, even work with political opponents to limit the medical, social and economical fallout. Instead, people harden their stance of everything, including (national) culture. So much so that it frightens me.
It was only the first time I got directly involved in this, but it left a wound, even a traumatic wound because this shouldn’t have happened in the first place. That I was first invited to be part of a project on world cinema, then branded a leftist who aims to destroy human civilisation still leaves me speechless. I was contacted because of my profile on Speakerinnen. The email I received specifically pointed to my knowledge of Slow Cinema as a possible great asset to the project. I assumed that the project coordinator had read my work. My readers and followers know that I champion world cinema and that I try to avoid reading non-European films through European frameworks, albeit I cannot deny that it’s not always possible and that I do fail from time to time. What matters to me when I watch films and when I write about them is what I feel.
I was baffled to see that the left-right debate has arrived in the field of Film Studies. Is there really a need for branding someone a dangerous leftist if s/he suggests that cinema “masterpieces” (whatever that means) have been made in parts of the world other than the West? Is there really a need to accuse someone of having been ideologically manipulated because s/he takes the term “world cinema” by the word and suggests that the team should look at films beyond the Western frontiers? How did we get here? Since when are you a leftist when you like, say, Chinese films? I point out Chinese films because I find that there is some really great, and important, stuff coming out of the country. Does this make me a Communist now? I wonder where we will go from here if liking certain films makes you a dangerous leftie. Years ago, when you liked high-brow arthouse films you were simply a film geek, a snob, whatever. Today, supporting world cinema defines you as politically left, and, with the current tone, potentially dangerous to society. This, too, makes me ponder the future of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. I don’t want to be dragged into this. I don’t want to take part in a battle where white nationalists take over cinema and pour their frustration with their lives over those who consider cinema a universal, global medium.
No doubt, 2020 was bleak. The death of Eli Hayes, who struggled for years with depression, hit hard. Reading the news on Twitter made it feel as though I fell off a tall building and crashed on concrete. I never met Eli, but I distributed his work on tao films, and we stayed in touch a lot. There were times I was worried about him. At other times, he amazed me by his creativity. Eli was a generous person, the most generous person I know. And his passion for and dedication to cinema was extraordinary. This is not how it should have ended. But it was Eli, a magnificent filmmaker, who wrote the ending of his film. We ought to accept, as difficult as it is.
I don’t want to forget, however, that I saw some incredible films this year. It wasn’t easy to be receptive to films, especially slow films at a time when standstill and anxiety mixed in a weird and overwhelming way. I have to think back to Yes-Boredom and No-Boredom. The idea is to open yourself (to be potentially bored) in order to receive a piece of art which is on the surface not the most interesting. This year, I struggled to open up, not only to slow films, but to everything. I put the bit of energy I had into reading instead. If I’m not open for a film, if I’m not willing to receive it, it doesn’t make sense to force it.
The most impressive film I saw this year was, without a doubt Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It is a magical film, a real journey through dreams and the soul. It deserves to be seen over and over again, and I, for one, will give the film a re-run next year because I just want to dive into this magical world once more.
Another film which left me breathless was Birha by Ekta Mittal. I haven’t seen such a strong film about migration, absence and loss before. The atmosphere of the film is special, almost haptic. How can you not feel the loss, the constant erring and searching? Mittal is the filmmaker I look most forward to seeing more of in the future. There is something truly wonderful in her work, and she is still so young, she is not at all at the peak of her artistic development.
And then there was This is not a burial, but a resurrection by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, my first film from Lesotho, a small country in the middle of South Africa with, apparently, no cinemas of its own. The film was not only beautifully shot. It was a call of emancipation. It was, to be exact, an emancipated call from a country that is invisible on the map of world cinema. But oh boy; it made its entry with a (slow) boom and has also been submitted to the Oscars.
There were also Laila Pakalnina’s Spoon as well as Jean-Marc Lamoure’s excellent documentary about Béla Tarr. Books accompanied me this year, too. Adrien-Gabriel Bouché’s book on Lisandro Alonso is a must for French-language slow cinephiles. It’s a great resource about the Argentinian filmmaker, who remains comparatively invisible in the Slow Cinema corpus. And so is the German-language book Chantal Akermans Verschwinden by Tine Rahel Völcker.
It’s great for me to see that more work on Slow Cinema directors is done outside the English-language world than in it. Slow Cinema is an Anglo-Saxon term and after the Sight & Sound article in 2010, Anglo-Saxon academics threw themselves on it but quickly lost their interest. Books were published quickly without an in-depth engagement with the subject, the usual frameworks were applied and the whole thing was published in lightning speed. Today, the field of Slow Cinema in Anglo-Saxon academia seems to be dead. I figured that much a couple of years ago. It was clear that the interest would fade. And so it did.
Writers, not necessarily scholars, in other countries took their time studying Slow Cinema. They walked (and still walk) the path which slow-film directors treaded before them. Quality counts, and quality comes with time. Patience opens the senses, and the books published in French and German (especially the former) are an example of how one should write about Slow Cinema. With feeling, with patience, and with time. Everything else is a betrayal of this film form.
In 2022, The Art(s) of Slow Cinema will celebrate its 10th anniversary. I had planned a five-part online course on slow films throughout the year with a special event, possibly in Switzerland (thanks to a supporter!) with film viewing and the publication of one of the books which never got published but which I want to finish at least to avoid the disappointment of having wasted time and energy. Whether all of this goes ahead as planned, I don’t know. But I will try to put all of this together.
Whether I will stay in the field of Film Studies, I don’t know either right now. I have a strong urge to move into psychology, hypnotism, and shamanism, and make myself available to all those who have been hit hard this year and tumbled into depression and distress. We have a mental health crisis ahead of us, and we don’t have enough support. I want to help. But for now, I myself need rest. Lots of it.
Thank you to everyone to stayed around this year, even though it wasn’t easy. Thank you, in particular, to my patrons: Lynn, Michel, Maria, Yannick, David, Alan, Hing, Philip, Abner, Jacob, Devin, Izzy, Alisa, John, Chris, Athanasios, Rustin, Octavian, Fabiano, Alyssa, Anthony, Michael, J Chao, John, Jesse, Christopher, Martin, Socrates and John.
Here is to a better year 2021!