The following is a talk I gave on 23 February 2022 on the occasion of the launch of “Contemplating post-1989 Slow Cinema”, a booklet published by i2ADS in association with the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Porto. You can get a copy of the booklet for free on the publisher website.
First of all, I’d like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Fernando for inviting me to give this talk and for giving me a chance to speak a bit about my work. Thank you also to the University of Porto, especially to the Faculty of Fine Arts in liaison with the publisher i2ADS for making this beautiful booklet happen. It’s gorgeous and I feel honoured to have contributed to the series.
Usually, I start this kind of talk with how I came to Slow Cinema, how the viewing experience of my very first slow was like, that kind of thing. But I want to do things a little bit different today because this year, 2022, also marks the 10th anniversary of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema, my website where I have been publishing my film reviews. That means that, after ten years with Slow Cinema, I can now look back at the larger picture and I want to do the same here today.
I was born in 1988 in what used to be the German Democratic Republic, or GDR. I was born behind a wall, behind the Iron Curtain as it is called today. I wasn’t even two years old when everything changed. Retrospectively, one could describe it as a strong earthquake of which we feel the aftershocks to this day. Growing up in the East during the 90s wasn’t the most idyllic. People lost their livelihood, their jobs, their identity. All of a sudden, a country imploded and was gone almost over night. When the Soviet Union ceased to exist two years after the Berlin Wall fell, this implosion took on a magnitude we still can’t fully grasp today.
I remember men, mostly in their 40s, already drunk in the morning, either in the streets or in the train from my city to Berlin. It’s an image that stayed with me. So did the images of neo-Nazis who roamed the streets. My city was one of their hubs, there were regular attacks against leftists. Even though I was only a child, I remember the 90s as a big brawl in which everyone was on the losing side. I witnessed families breaking apart because of the major upheaval in their lives, political and economical. I witnessed refugees coming to our city because of wars that broke out in the Balkans. There was so much resentment, anger and frustration. What we see today in the East of Europe, including in East Germany, is a resurgence of that resentment from the 90s.
But let us fast-forward. In 2007, I left Germany to study in the UK where I tasted a sort of freedom, which I had never even believed existed. I’m not a globetrotter, but one no longer has to be because nowadays the world comes to you. True, I spent a lot of time in Scandinavia, visited Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Luxembourg, Portugal, Ireland and Switzerland. I lived in Germany, of course, as well as in Scotland, Belgium and France. Regardless of those travels, though, wherever I was there were people who were different from me. Sometimes they looked different, they had a different skin colour. Often they spoke another language, although we conversed in English. Some were religious, others were non-believers. I came across different cuisines, different mentalities, different perspectives on life and the world.
Each and every one of those encounters left its mark on me, and those marks would only merge and create meaning when I began to dive into Slow Cinema. It was pure luck that I found my way into it. I had planned to study Journalism at the university, but in order to get into the journalism course, you had to do two semesters of basic Film & Media. The film courses moved something in me. When I was younger, say, a teenager, television was flooded with American films. Even if you had known that other countries also made films, it was extremely difficult to find non-American films. And anyway, a good Hollywood blockbuster was enough for me. I was young, innocent and, when it comes to film, completely illiterate. This changed in my first two semesters of Film & Media. All of a sudden, I became interested in what film could do.
When I was home for the semester holidays in summer 2009, I read an article about a film that was said to be super slow and very dark. It was impossible to find it anywhere. I had no other choice at the time than to find an illegal download file. That being said, I’m a proud owner of the DVD today! Anyway, I put on the film and was blown away.
The Man from London (2007) by Béla Tarr was indeed super slow and very dark, but it wasn’t a bad film. It was different, it was kind of exciting, albeit the excitement came slowly and not in fits as is usually the case with Hollywood blockbusters. There was a combination of slowness and duration, merged with Hungarian dialogue, which completely drew me in, and a cinematography that looked often more like photography. I decided to watch more by Tarr.
Which I did. The seven-hour long Satantango (1994), whose narrative moves like a tango — two steps forward, one step back — convinced me that there was a kind of cinema I wanted to learn more about. So it came that I searched for more and more slow films, but not before I had tried to put some words to it, tho, in a youthful essay on Tarr’s work, which I never published anywhere but which one of my professors read. It was February 2010, and he advised me to read the latest Sight & Sound magazine, which contained an article on what was called ‘Slow Cinema’.
Fast forward again. I did a PhD on the Slow Cinema of Lav Diaz from 2012 to 2015 and have written almost 400 reviews of slow films, of books, and published some research ideas on my website. After several years of writing about Slow Cinema, I was thrown back in time. A lot has been said and written about Italian Neo-Realism, with its use of non-professional actors, the films’ relatively long takes and their focus on the everyday, mostly telling stories of people at the margins of society.
When I began to write my book Human Condition(s) – An aesthetic of cinematic slowness, which I published in April 2021, I wrote it in blocks. I took films that somehow fit together. I worked like this for a while until I began to realise that they were all linked somehow. What struck me most while writing was that I returned time and again to my childhood in the 90s and also remembered the people I met abroad, people who showed me their world.
1945, when the world lay in ashes, cinema reacted with contemplation. Stillness and silence lay in the air, almost as if everyone and everything fell silent. Slow Cinema wasn’t a thing at the time. But Italian Neo-Realism was. It was not the main output of cinema, and yet it shaped cinema as an art form for decades to come. This contemplation on loss and emptiness, on absence and alienation would return to the stage after 1989, when Europe, in particular, splintered into fragments which people tried to reassemble. Driven by promises of freedom and wealth, people tried their best to fit into this new world, a world after the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama called it, although his thesis has since been proven wrong.
What I could witness as a child in my own little city, in my own little world, happened also on a much larger scale, and not only where I lived but in so many, and so different countries. All the slow films which I had seen over the years, showed me this. Beginning in the 1990s, directors from all over the world turned to aesthetics of contemplation again to capture a kind of post-world: a world full of freedom and opportunities, but also of fragmentation and disorder. What distinguishes this new wave of slow films from Italian Neo-Realism is its global spread and its pace. If we were to describe Neo-Realism as slow, we would have to say that post-1989 slow films tell their stories at snail pace.
When I began exploring slow films a little over ten years ago, no one spoke about the content of the films. Works by Béla Tarr, Pedro Costa and many others were primarily spoken of or written about because of their perceived slowness. It irritated me after a while because speed (or slowness) is relative. It is subjective, and it depends on so many factors, all of which makes it extremely difficult for anyone to judge objectively if a film is too slow or too fast. But this is what the initial debate amongst film critics and film academics revolved around. The longer I stayed in this field of Slow Cinema, the more I had the feeling that the reactions of people confirmed what the films’ directors wanted to demonstrate: we watch, but we do not see. We hear, but we do not listen. We have become deaf and blind to our surrounding, to our fellows and to ourselves.
Life is not what happens in the news. It’s not what happens in the movies. It’s part of it, sure. But it’s not what characterises our lives most. For the most part our life is ordinary and uneventful. Whether we live in Thailand, Ghana, Italy or Colombia, we have a fixed daily routine, which hardly ever changes. There are, of course, minor variations between countries and cultures, but overall we are all doing the same (human) things day in, day out all over the world.
Invariably, this also means that we share our suffering. If one watches a large selection of slow films that were made after 1989, but especially those from the last 20 years, one cannot help but feel that they are not only portraits of what is and of what we have gained. They are also comments on everything that we lost in the pursuit of progress and wealth.
Charlie Chaplin, we all know, is not an icon of Slow Cinema. Far from it. But his iconic speech in his 1940 film The Great Dictator hit the nail on the head. He said:
The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way / Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose stepped us into misery and bloodshed / We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in / Machinery that gives us abundance has left us in want
Today, in the digital age, we’re more connected than ever. We’re not better connected, tho. We have become lonely figures in a sea of people. It is extremely difficult to find a slow film that does not portrait a lonely character, removed from his or her environment. I’m speaking specifically about films from Asia, where cities continue to grow to previously unimaginable sizes, where entire villages are razed from the map, where teenagers forge their birth certificates to finally be able to work in the city and where parents, specifically fathers, leave behind their children in the villages and disappear for months at a time to earn a living. Those films come to us primarily from China and India at the moment, and they have a degree of loneliness at their core that is difficult not to feel.
But it’s not only solitude, this feeling of being alone while being surrounded by millions of people in a large city. There is something else that is at play in contemporary slow films, something that makes them so different from the post-Second World War slow films we know. In 1945, the world lay in ashes. Humans turned into barbaric animals. The discovery of the death camps and the aftermath of the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made the world fall silent. All the frantic developments in the last centuries, especially those at the beginning of the 20th century, had taken us to the cliff edge. Where would we go from here?
Thirty years of economic prosperity in the West and one Cold War later (I say one because it looks as if we’re entering the second one as we speak), the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union felt like a full stop behind all of this. There was celebration, there was hope and optimism. There was a feeling that finally we could live in peace, as equal citizens, each and everyone of us with the chance to become a master of their destiny. The problem was that this was a Fata Morgana and that we have been deceived.
Contemporary Slow Cinema observes an exhaustion that is unparalleled in other genres or movements in cinema. The films capture a frustration, but also a resignation. Many characters in slow films from around the world still try to make their way out of the hamster wheel they find themselves in. Others have resigned. Hu Bo’s characters in An Elephant Sitting Still still have the vague hope of finding relief from their suffering at a zoo where an elephant sits still. The elephant becomes a desire to escape, it becomes hope. But truth is that the character and the viewer are fully aware of the hopelessness of their situation. They won’t be able to break out. Only suicide, it seems, is a way out of their suffering.
Hu Bo’s characters are now iconic figures in this post-1989 Slow Cinema. So are the Cap Verdean migrants in Pedro Costa’s films, those men, for the most part, who are imprisoned in exclusion, rejection and solitude, who live in ghettos almost. And so are the men and women Lav Diaz portrays in his six-, eight- or eleven-hour long films about psychic wounds left in Philippine society after centuries of colonialism.
None of these films would be possible by looking at events. The directors who make films today don’t look at what happens to us. They look at the condition that is ours today. Our Human Condition in the 21st century is a double-edged sword. We’ve never had so many opportunities, so much freedom. We have never been as well educated as we are today. At the same time, we have never been lonelier. The gap between rich and poor has never been wider. I don’t think we’ve ever had this many people in work and yet sleep in their cars because they can’t afford their rent.
As I write in my book, Slow Cinema isn’t surface cinema. It doesn’t look at the outside. Slow Cinema is human cinema. It doesn’t judge. It observes. It observes what this Human Condition does to us, what it does to our hopes and to our prospects for the future. But if I say that slow films don’t judge, I want to say that they don’t judge the people they show. They never do. But they do judge the condition that millions of people find themselves in without their suffering being visible. The directors tell the stories they tell because they want to make the invisible visible. Only by truly seeing and listening can we understand and change our Human Condition for the better.