In April this year, I had the pleasure to publish my very first baby. Human Condition(s) – An aesthetic of cinematic slowness has already shipped to several countries around the world. Most copies went to the US and to the UK. Others went to Switzerland, Belgium, Germany and France, Spain and Portugal, Slovenia, Sweden, Greece, Japan, India and Cambodia. One copy even made it to the Kiwis in New Zealand. I couldn’t be happier, I’m delighted that so many of you find pleasure in the book or are looking forward to finally receiving it. Thank you so much!
I thought that I could give a more detailed insight into the book today. I already wrote a summary for a previous blog post, but it’s not always easy to describe one’s own work. I want to post extracts of the book’s introduction instead, which will give you an idea of what the book is really about and what kind of writing style you can expect. You’ll notice that it’s got an accessible and personal touch. The book’s introduction is entitled “Contemplation” because I reflect on my experience of and with Slow Cinema. What brought me here? What does Slow Cinema really speak of? If one ignores the films’ pace, the films go incredibly deep in their examination of our (post-)modern condition, which no other film movement/genre manages. Not to this extent anyway. And it is precisely this that is the core of the book.
Let’s take a look at a few paragraphs, shall we?
It is Monday morning. I’m attending the 2019 edition of Visions du Réel in Nyon, Switzerland, for an industry talk on the opportunities and challenges of digital publishing. But first, I grab a slowly brewed coffee with Nicolas Graux, director of Century of Smoke (2018), a film which had impressed me a couple of weeks earlier. With the early spring sun gently heating up the terrace, Graux and I have a long in-depth discussion about his film, his approach to film in general, the world of Béla Tarr and Lav Diaz, and about what constitutes, or might constitute, Slow Cinema. It was an inspiring conversation, of which I had several over the years with filmmakers and viewers alike, all speaking about films in a way that I hadn’t been used to before I became interested in Slow Cinema.
Each exchange about Slow Cinema turns out to be personal, about a painful point, perhaps even a deep-seated but covered wound that a slow film reopened and that one feels the need to talk about. It was never about intellectualising the films. Conversations I had about Slow Cinema – at festivals, at special weekends, or at other events which put me in touch with likeminded people – always became the more personal the longer they lasted.
Admittedly, the personal aspect of slow films wasn’t entirely new to me by April 2019. When I saw my first slow film ten years earlier, in summer 2009, I could feel something which I could neither name nor describe. Many years later, in autumn 2016, British director Scott Barley sent me a cut of his first feature film Sleep Has Her House, an experimental film shot on an iPhone with no human presence. Each frame was the result of a long layering process of several images recorded at different locations around Great Britain.
Perhaps it was the layering of the images, perhaps it was the absence of a human presence or simply the overwhelming image-sound combination – something in Barley’s film made it feel similar to a shamanic journey, something which I had taken up around the time of my first viewing to help me through a long period of severe depression. Maybe it is because of my personal (psychological) investment in the films that I have often struggled (and still do) when I was asked to define Slow Cinema. Even after many years ‘in the field’, I’m still unsure as to what to say to people who launch the famous question: what is Slow Cinema?
Perhaps, one answer could be: Slow Cinema is a democratic form of cinema. While the boredom with our life, with our surrounding, leads us to take extreme political decisions, slow films remain steadfast in their offer of an individual experience. Flicking through interviews with directors shows that there is no one way of reading the films. Although all films express something about our human condition(s), they also leave it open as to what exactly we (would like to?) see in the films. The human condition, albeit communal and collective, is also a deeply personal and individual experience. Even though we all share the present, the actual experience of it is individual and depends on many factors. These factors influence the ways in which we imagine our future and that of our societies. The open structure of slow films, the long observations which do not force the viewer to look at a specific part of the frame but instead leave it open to them to explore and discover, allow for individual choices. In the words of the great Andrei Tarkovsky:
A film is bigger than it is – at least, if it is a real film. And it always turns out to have more thought, more ideas, than were consciously put there by its author. Just as life, constantly moving and changing, allows everyone to interpret and feel each separate moment in his own way, so too a real picture, faithfully recording on film the time which flows on beyond the edges of the frame, lives within time if time lives within it; this two-way process is a determining factor of cinema. The film then becomes something beyond its ostensible existence as an exposed and edited roll of film, a story, a plot. Once in contact with the individual who sees it, it separates from its author, starts to live its own life, undergoes changes of form and meaning. (1986: 118)
I have always found that this was particularly true of slow films because their very aesthetics make it possible to feel, and therefore to read, the films in ways that differ from what the director, perhaps, and also other viewers see in the same moving images. They can become like books, which depend on the reader to imagine that which is not said, the characters which exist on paper but need to be turned into people made of flesh in our minds.
Slow films focus on the unseen, the invisible, stories from the margins of our societies. They tell stories that happen daily around the world, events that, perhaps, happen to our next-door neighbour. Yet, these stories remain silent because they are stories that are ordinary and therefore removed from view. In today’s hyper-modern news environment, only extraordinary shock moments, which catch readers’ and viewers’ attention, count. These make for only a small part of our daily life, however. Looking at the big picture, our human life is mundane, ordinary, full of routines and repetitions. And it is those routines that have disappeared from view, those routines which make us human, which make us who we are.
This is the general intro and the first element of Slow Cinema, which I consider important: Slow Cinema is democratic. Let’s continue:
Luke Hockley writes in his book Somatic Cinema (2014) that a film can have three possible meanings. The first one is based on a simple reading which regards its aesthetics: what does the mise-en-scène look like? What colours are used? Is the camera static or mobile? The first reading is a simple stating of facts, which tends to be enriched with Hockley’s “second meaning”. What does the colour red stand for? How can we interpret the camera angle? In what way does the light contribute to a character’s personality on screen? The analysis of a film’s aesthetics generates an image of what the director might want to say. It is a helpful tool in getting a quick overview of the narrative’s pro- and antagonists, as well as of the relationship between them. But what Hockley calls “third meaning” has always been the most dominant one for me personally when I was watching a slow film. Hockley writes about feeling the image: “This new meaning does not come directly from the screen, nor does it come from the intellectual investigations of consciousness” (2014: 135). A film can touch us in a way that we cannot always explain. It touches the unconscious, and it can take a very long time before it becomes clear just why we had a certain reaction to a film.
When I saw my first slow film – Béla Tarr’s magnificent The Man from London (2007) based on a novel by Georges Simenon (1933) – I could feel something indescribable. It was neither bombastic nor deeply emotional or overwhelming. Slow films touched me in a particular way. These films were uncanny, provoking an experience which I had not made with any other form of cinema before. From the moment I saw my first slow film, cinema became an experience that wasn’t easy to describe. It was one thing to speak about the aesthetics of slow films, which can be straightforward if one focuses on the basics. It was another not to sound boring. Throughout the years, it has been a challenge to speak about Slow Cinema because the rejection of it usually came quicker than the willingness to be part of an experience that does not resemble popular cinema. It was Julian Jason Haladyn (2015) who looked at what makes us reject or engage with so-called boring art. To him, the reactions are simple, bipolar oppositions: yes-boredom and no-boredom. The latter is effectively the viewer’s refusal to create meaning in an artwork that is everything but straightforward and which demands a longer-than-usual engagement with it. Haladyn’s yes-boredom describes the acceptance of such an engagement, the acceptance to let oneself be immersed while also accepting that not everything must have meaning.
I more and more slipped into slow films and I began to realise just how essential it was to become complicit in the director’s project, to become an active agent in completing, or at least in continuing, the narrative once the end credits have rolled. At the first Slow Cinema symposium in London in 2015, I gave a talk on my work after having written about it for three years. When I was asked how I would decide that one film was slow but not another, I answered for the first time that I could feel it. “It’s in my guts,” I said, and I have never since tried to describe Slow Cinema in any other way lacking a better way to explain what was happening inside my body and mind when seeing a film.
The more films I had seen, the more I realised that what I felt was what Roland Barthes called the punctum in Camera Lucida: marks, wounds, something that stings and bruises (2000: 27). An image can pierce you, wound you, and which you can feel as a result. Slow Cinema is a cinema of punctums, of wounds often created in the past and shaping the present. Of wounds that will extend into the future. It is thus impossible not to speak of pain, of trauma, of loss and absence in the context of Slow Cinema because these films speak about us, about our human condition and even though we perhaps often wished it was different, to be human means above all to suffer, to make mistakes, to lose loved ones, to struggle. Each film I’m speaking of in this book is a wound and in order for wounds to heal, they need to be confronted and worked through.
The second element: slow films show wounds, injuries, mostly psychological aftermaths of a loss in a wider sense. I consider the link between Barthes’ punctums and Slow Cinema important.
I want to point out a third characteristic (there are more in the book), namely the fact that slow films have become slower, longer and more ‘vertical’ since 1989.
If the films I’m writing about in this book have all been made between 1994 and 2018, it is not a coincidence. When I look at this time period, the films have all been made throughout my tumultuous childhood full of conflicts and war on television, my adolescence which was marked by 9/11 and the subsequent fracturing of the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and whose repercussions we can still feel today. Finally, my adulthood marked by my decision to emigrate, “to dismantle the center of the world,” in the words of John Berger, “and so to move into a lost, disoriented one of fragments” (1984: 57). My life as a migrant, uprooted and searching, was marked by the financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent rise in nationalism, but also by the discovery of other lifestyles, people of nationalities other than my own, people of different religions with different world views, allowing me to understand that, regardless of our respective and individual heritage, we share the current fight against this sometimes frightening human condition that we become more and more aware of today. Retrospectively, it seems slow films have existed in a parallel world, if not in a parallel universe. Since 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall (I was less than two years old), then, two years later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the world has become more global, and that at breakneck speed, but it has also become more fragmented, a paradoxical development which remains the cause of confrontations all over the world today.
In fact, the year 1989 shook the world to its core. It rocked the very foundations millions of people had grown up with. There was not only the fall of the Berlin Wall, the fall of the Iron Curtain which had divided Germany for twenty-eight years. There was not only the bloody uprising in Tian’anmen Square in the heart of China. After nine years of occupation, the Soviet army left Afghanistan. The Velvet revolution in Czechoslovakia as well as the revolution in Romania took hold of the East bloc in late 1989. The Pinochet era in Chile ended. 1989 was Year Zero, the second in less than fifty years. As the Second World War came to an end in 1945, the world, in particular Europe, had to start anew, had to rebuild cities, industries, and societies. It was the year of reckoning, just as the year 1989 would later become one. Both ends and new beginnings were accompanied by a surge in slow films which focused on those people who were at the losing end of the new developments, those who found themselves at the margins.
Europe’s first Anno Zero gave rise to Italian Neo-Realism, often cited as a precursor to today’s Slow Cinema, which was marked by a preference of non-professional actors, the use of long-take cinematography and the depiction of day-to-day struggles of people at the margins of societies which try to rebuild themselves after years of devastating physical and moral destruction. Even though slow films continued to be made throughout what became known as the Trentes Glorieuses in France, designating a three-decade long period of economic prosperity, or as the Wirtschaftswunder in West Germany, I consider the year 1989 as the second large turning point, the second Year Zero in cinema, which became the starting point for a second, much more international wave of slow films. Entire countries disappeared before people’s eyes, ideologies, political systems and approaches were gone overnight, leaving millions of people disoriented, spiritually and politically lost and in search for meaning. Initial euphoria, created by the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union has, over the years, given rise to feelings of exhaustion and of anger; anger over betrayed promises, over lost ideals and moral guidance, over an increased exploitation at the workplace with cheap labour used by major companies and the rise in zero-hour contracts as well as micro-travail, or turking.
As I said, there is more in the introduction (and in the book), but I believe that those extracts are a good taster of what Human Condition(s) is about. It is a personal book. I assume that a lot of readers, especially those of my generation, will find themselves in those pages. Human Condition(s) is not just a book about a certain type of film that happens to be slow. It is, I think, also a testament of all the difficulties we have seen in the last three decades, which we tend to brush off in order to avoid getting too depressed or too anxious. But here’s the thing: slow films are a reminder. And maybe ‘film’ is not the ideal term for them. Maybe ‘documents’ or ‘testaments’ would fit better. This way we could also avoid having the same debates over and over again about their aesthetics, their pace, academic frameworks etc
Human Condition(s) is available in The Art(s) of Slow Cinema shop for 25 EUR (international tracked shipping included). Every copy comes with a little signed note.