I came to Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement by accident and it’s one of those accidents that you’re grateful for. Not so long ago, I read a long article on the Guardian about our obsession with concrete. Concrete, stable, over-towering and yet destructive, is perhaps the symbol of our advanced modern societies. Kalthoum’s film is not only about this though. It’s a poetic journey in many ways; literary, cinematically, humanly.
I’m trying to remember my life before the war.
Ziad Kalthoum tells two stories. His film is set in Lebanon. The camera observes Syrian migrant workers who are employed on construction sites around Beirut. They’re rebuilding a country that has been ravaged by war; all the while war is destroying their own country. Syria, where war has been raging for eight years, is always in the background of the film. The country is for a long time an absent protagonist, the main protagonist even, and it’s in the fabric of each character, of each movement, each action. Syria is there.
But it’s crumbling. It’s being dismantled, destroyed. The director, from Homs, puts the country at the horizon. There is a feeling of longing, of desire, but also of anxiety. After a twelve-hour shift on the rooftops of Beirut’s new building complexes, the workers return to Syria. In their makeshift housings, beyond humane, they travel back home via their mobile phones. Social media allows them to follow the war and the ongoing destruction. It is here that Kalthoum merges the two locations of the film; one a war-torn country, the other in a mode of post-war reconstruction.
The sound of the sea is deafening, but the waves stand still.
Kalthoum guides the viewer through the use of a voice-over, through the use of a worker’s memories of his childhood, the times when his own father returned from work abroad, from Beirut, from the construction site. With a taste of cement. The man’s memories are vivid, almost palpable. We can imagine a young boy running towards his father, fascinated by those white hands that show the marks of hard labour. “Cement eats your skin, not just your soul,” the voice-over tells us. The food the father cooked upon his return had always tasted of cement, the young man remembers.
This taste, it is a bitter one. The film begins with breathtaking imagery. Each frame is aestheticised, photographic, marvellous. But the images contradict the voice-over. They contradict the hardships, the war at home. The second part of the film begins to make Syria, the absent protagonist of the film, visible, not only through pictures and videos on the workers’ mobile phones. The slow, almost peaceful movements of the cranes in Beirut are juxtaposed with gun turrets of tanks. The movements are the same, the purpose on opposite sides. Creation, destruction. Destruction, creation.
When your palm corrodes you stop counting the days. Time stops.
Man giveth. Man taketh.
There is a special rhythm to the film. It is contemplative, observational, poetic, but the director disrupts this rhythm several times. Those disruptions, they function as shock moments and as a link to the images of destruction in Syria. The taste of cement is present not only in those who work abroad on construction sites. It is also present in those who are buried underneath the ruins of their houses, in those who dig for survivors.
Kalthoum’s rapid editing towards the end of the film evokes the traumatic shocks of war. The routine and repetitive work processes give way to footage of destruction and of death. It is as though the film comes full circle. It is as though it points to the senseless circle of construction-destruction, the sheer painful irony of Syrians helping to rebuild one country while their own is ravaged. Taste of Cement is a look at our own conflictual nature and one cannot help but keep a bitter aftertaste.
There is one aspect of my work in the field of Slow Cinema, which I like more than anything else: the opportunity to travel the world via the eyes of filmmakers who listen to marginalised people around the globe. For the first time in ten years writing on the subject, I have been taking a trip to Laos, a country perhaps no one really knows much about. Perhaps the capital, at most. But when it comes to life in Laos, a small country in south-east Asia, with almost seven million inhabitants, we know nothing. Nicolas Graux has travelled there to use film as a means to tell the story of Laosan, a young man, married with two children, who is addicted to opium.
This addiction doesn’t come from nowhere. On the contrary. As Laosan tells us in the second half of the film, the family grows the highly profitable plant. The plantations in themselves don’t cause the people to get addicted, but a lot of men in this Akha society are. Laosan’s parents, he tells us, became addicted after the death of his brother. They didn’t know how to handle their grief. Opium became a relief and his father, in particular, is seen smoking time and again throughout the film. This is only part of the story, however. The core of Graux’s film focuses on Laosan himself and the ways in which his opium addiction affects not only his own life but also that of the people around him.
Graux uses breathtaking long-takes in order to situate us in the milieu the Ahka are living in. Tight, almost suffocating close-ups are replaced with wide open shots of the jungle, low-hanging clouds moving along the horizon. Laosan is a heavy smoker, he tells us. As soon as withdrawal effects are setting in, he needs to tackle them by smoking again and, more importantly, smoking more. We see him preparing the drug, we see him inhaling and exhaling. We see the smoke that leaves his mouth and his nostrils. The repeated shift between close-ups and long shots resembles Laosan’s smoking process; the film inhales and exhales. The low-hanging clouds become a mirror for the opium smoke that infests a substantial number of Graux’s frames.
But the film is not only an aesthetically pleasing, visually stunning piece. Graux lays open the problems of opium addiction in society. Laosan is an absent husband and father. He doesn’t know what to do with his life. He has lost all energy, all perspective for the future. He is almost lethargic. His parents, especially his father, urge him to move away from the region and to build a new life somewhere else, to a region that had something to offer. Laosan’s father reiterates time and again that the region had nothing more to offer, and that his son needs to make a move fast. The dialogue between parents and son, shot in an extensive long-take, is ironic in some ways. The father, himself addicted to opium, scolds his son for losing all interest in making something out of his life. It is clear that the problem is the opium, and yet the father doesn’t mention it. Opium – the elephant in the room.
Most heart-breaking is a sequence that focuses on the women in the village. It is they who suffer the most. They speak of their horror witnessing the drastic change in their husbands. They speak of their fears of being beaten because opium makes their husbands violent. They speak of wanting to leave their miserable lives behind, of going to China, of looking for a new man, a new job. Laosan’s wife even speaks of suicide because she can no longer live this life. It’s her children who hold her back. Who would look after them? she wonders. Her plan is to move away as soon as her children are old enough. Until then, she will be locked into a tiring fight against this disease, this addiction that has changed the face of the region.
But perhaps there is hope. Laosan tells us that the Laotian government seeks to prohibit the growth of opium. The young man, marked by over a year of addiction, is hoping for this change, giving him the chance to finally come off it. For Laosan, being surrounded by opium is counterproductive to any attempt at freeing himself from those chains. He hopes for the government, for the prohibition of opium in the country, in order to get clean. It is, perhaps, the desire of a vast number of people. Laosan is only one of many. Graux allows him to tell his story and his camera is a patient observer, which stylistically also reiterates the idea of lethargy. Cinematic slowness becomes an expression of each and every lethargic day spent in the mountains and hoping for better days to come.
I couldn’t help but think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul several times while watching Graux’s film. There is a degree of similarity between Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady and Century of Smoke. Is it the location? The aesthetics? The way of observation? I haven’t found the answer yet, but regardless, Graux walks in the steps of big-name slow-film directors. With Century of Smoke he has arrived at the very heart of Slow Cinema, and he sits comfortably amongst Weerasethakul, Lisandro Alonso and Tsai Ming-liang.
Since summer last year, I have slowly but surely made my way through the filmography of Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter, who I have started to perceive as one of the most important filmmakers working today. He is the European equivalent to Wang Bing, albeit more composed. His films allow us to see what we usually wouldn’t see. He tells the stories of those who lack listeners. He is the listener, and so are we. The Year After Dayton, his second documentary, is set in Bosnia the year after the peace treaty has been signed. The 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the ensuing collapse of Yugoslavia, were dominated by war in Europe.
I was born in 1988 and was well aware through TV news that my childhood was filled with news of brutal conflicts that felt like sort of next door, rather than at the other end of the world. There was not only Bosnia. The clearest I remember is the war in Kosovo, primarily because this was the first time I consciously heard adults around me speaking of the German army and their work there. We also had a new family moving into the house where we lived. They came from Kosovo as refugees, and one of the daughters became one of my best friends in the early 2000s. I learned a lot about conflicts, about Islam, and human suffering during that time.
The Year After Dayton is with a running time of over three hours a long film, but the time spent on the subject is absolutely necessary. Geyrhalter divides the film into four parts, four seasons, which allows us to see a change within the first 12 months after the Dayton peace treaty came into effect. The Bosnian war lasted three-and-a-half years, which incidentally coincides with the films running time in hours, and it was a bloodshed beyond description, not long after Europe had found peace once more in 1945. But as Geyrhalter’s film shows, the years of conflict became a starting point for a development which we still see today. Several interviewees in the film tell us that life before the war was peaceful because no one cared about the concept of national identity. Croats, Serbs, Muslims – they had lived alongside one another and one’s nationality or religion wasn’t an issue. The war has changed this.
One girl, a refugee who had to flee the violence with her mother, is interviewed while sitting on a blanket in the grass. She tells us about a friend she used to have, her best friend. They used to spend a lot of time together, but now she no longer wants to see her because she is a Serb, and Serbs killed her father. It doesn’t matter that her friend didn’t actually kill her father. It’s the nationality that counts, and she can no longer be friends with Serbs. The selection of interviews shows that the war has created a rift where once used to be a multicultural community.
“Every shepherd knows what’s good and what’s bad, but the governments don’t know this.”
Geyrhalter makes us listen to the simple people, those who were used as pawns and who lost everything. One woman tells us that she has lost 16 members of her family, her husband has lost 17. The people the director speaks to have lost their house, their job, friendships. They have lost limbs. They are no longer the same person. One boy we get to know hasn’t been to school for almost four years. We meet a woman who leaves the house for the first time in four years to see how the streets look like. It is a sad walk. There is little else but rubbles and destruction. Ruins everywhere you look. Geyrhalter films the woman from behind, allowing us to see the landscape of destruction which she sees.
“There is no love after Dayton.”
The Year after Dayton is a film about a huge sinkhole which has opened under the feet of people and which has sucked in everything that life had to offer before the war. Dayton challenges the way we speak about film. I, too, have said earlier that the film was about something. Everything – painting, literature, music, film – is always about something. Or so we have learned. But Dayton is about the opposite. Nothing isn’t an adequate word in this context, although what we see in the film is essentially what has remained after the war, which resembles nothing the people had known before. Nothing remains, and it is this nothing that the film speaks about. It is not just loss that is expressed in the film. There is a deep sense of this sinkhole, a sort of anno zero. The lengthy interviews, a trademark of Geyrhalter, give voice to an emotional void; a numbness that feels like resignation. Life continues, must continue. Yet one can sense change. What we see through Geyrhalter’s camera is the first generation implicated in the conflict. What we can sense, on the other hand, is the struggle of those who come afterwards, those who have to make sense of this brutal legacy.
As with Pripyat and Elsewhere, The Year After Dayton leaves one with an almost bitter aftertaste, caused by several questions at once: what’s next? What has since happened to those we have come to know? Is the memory of the war kept alive? What does the next generation do with this dark past? What remains today, over twenty years after the release of the film?
It was difficult to find time for writing another review. I have been asked to write an essay on Wang Bing for Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which programmed an artist focus on the Chinese director. I am also contributing to a French-language edited collection on Lav Diaz, and have been offered to write a book on Slow Cinema. Writing spreads out, and the blog is, at the moment, not the only platform I need to take time for. If posts come at a slower rate than usual, you know why that is the case.
After the first hour or so of Wang Bing’s ‘Til madness do us part (2013), I knew that I didn’t want to write a review of the whole film. When the director introduced Ma Jian, who had been hospitalised for five months at the time of filming, I knew that I wanted to focus on this specific character. There is a lot just in the first quarter of the film alone. The images alone say so much. The behaviour of those hospitalised, some for over a decade, deserve a separate study. The different backgrounds of those hospitalised, too, deserve a separate study. Madness is such a rich film, disconcerting without a doubt, but this very film says perhaps more about the director’s country than any of his other films.
My main interest has long been the representation of trauma and the aim at representing a sort of concentrationary universe through the use of time (duration), and interaction between absence and presence, life and death. I wrote quite a bit about it in my PhD thesis, which you can download from the British Library. In my thesis, I analysed the ways in which Lav Diaz created a concentrationary universe in his films, in particular in Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). I argued, contrary to available literature, that the concentrationary doesn’t need an actual camp or a prison as a framework. The concentrationary is first and foremost based on a specific experience of time and space.
In Wang Bing’s Madness, you have the nature of the concentrationary right in front of your eyes without the director needing to create a particular mix of aesthetics in order to evoke it. Only a camera was needed, straightforward shots of inmates of a mental hospital, inmates whose reason for their being there is not always evident. Some men we come across – and this is striking because the film focuses on the male population of the institution – certainly struggle with their mental health. Some may be autistic, some violent. Some cannot shoulder a normal life on their own. Others seem perfectly normal, and, seeing this film in 2019, makes you wonder about the real reason for their stay. I’m thinking in particular of one Uighur, who, in one scene, is filmed while following his traditional prayer routine. Perhaps, the man would have gone unnoticed six years ago. Perhaps he could go unnoticed even today. Yet, with China ramping up their persecution of Uighurs and deporting them to concentration camps for “re-education”, Wang Bing’s temporary focus on this young man poses questions about the reasons for his internment. Was the internment in mental hospitals the beginning of concentrating the Muslim population? Was this young man there simply for his religious beliefs?
But let me return to the man I mentioned above: Ma Jian. A young man, who, in the first part of the film, reminded me of a nervous lion inside a cage waiting to be let out. Jian has a tendency to violence, although the question is whether he had been violent before his internment, or whether violence became a means for expressing his frustration with his being locked up. This is the first element one notices: in no way does this mental hospital look like one. Except for handcuffs, which, to be fair, do come into use here and there, the hospital has everything of a prison, including the barred doors. It’s nothing more than a building made of cold concrete with rooms which up to six people share at once. The bars along the hallways certainly prevent suicidal inmates from jumping off their balcony, but, as a viewer, it gives one a permanent feeling of being locked up.
Jian is a fascinating character, and I believe that he is autistic. His reasoning, his monologues (or even dialogues with Wang Bing), show his intelligence. He is fully aware of what’s happening around him and he is also aware of his not being in the right place. “How the fuck did I end up like this?” he asks. He seems sleepy, almost drunk, which could be the effect of medication they give him to calm him down, to sedate him.
“What kind of life is this?”
“The pain doesn’t make you want to live. How many lives I have? Nine!”
There is a lot going on in his head. Ma Jian is the character that touched me most in the entire film. At the time of filming, he had been interned for five months. When we see him first, we don’t know why he is there and for how long he will have to stay there. The immediate concern, from my side, was what will happen to this fragile character in an environment like this. It’s not at all about living, it is about surviving and following your basic needs. One man, struggling to keep on his feet, gets out of bed in one scene, stumbles out of the room into the hallway and pees right there. He didn’t go to the toilet. It didn’t matter. Life is nothing other than basic needs. The man has become a muselmann.
Nothing really matters in this hospital. The inmates live outside of time. They have fallen out of time, as David Grossman would describe it in his book on trauma. There is little to keep the patients busy. Most spend their time in bed, regardless of the time of the day. They are vegetating, and that often for years. Ma Jian attempts to fight against this state. He runs. He takes off his jacket, jumper and shirt and starts running. Wang Bing follows him, a magnificent long-take that, I believe, is the best scene in the director’s oeuvre. It’s spontaneous, it’s life and fight, it’s pulsating. It’s a rebellion. It’s a “no” to everything.
“This is a dead end. This sucks, how can anyone live like this? Come on, kill me. You could even butcher me like a cow or a chicken.”
One of the main characteristics of the concentrationary system: an increase in the death drive. But suicide is prevented, through bars and empty rooms. There is no escape from this degrading situation. Agony is extended. Frustration grows. There is no other possible end than madness in this hospital. ‘Til madness do them part. There is something about Wang Bing’s choice of film titles that strikes me every time I see another film of his. How fitting can a title be, how much can it reinforce every single frame that we see? I’m still wondering what has happened to those people in the last six years. Are they still there? Have some been released? Just how many have lost their minds?
And then there is this echoing title. Until madness do us part. Me and the people I have followed for four hours.
There are films, which I’m grateful for. Grateful for being able to watch them, grateful for being able to write about them. Grateful for being able to experience them. There are those films that go deep without trying too much. Films that show the ordinary in their ordinariness, in their simplicity, and which tell a million stories about who we are and why, about what is happening around us and why, what consequences there will in future, and sadly, about how little we can do about it.
Xu Xin’s A Yangtze Landscape (2017) is one of those marvellous films, which made me want to stop it several times in order to process the images in front of my eyes as well as the images in my mind. A Yangtze Landscape is not only a beautifully shot film, it also conjures a number of images, thoughts, and emotions that I struggled to digest all at once. Something that Xi Xin clearly demonstrates is that there is a strong documentary movement present in China, which goes against the official party narrative, a movement that looks beyond propaganda, beyond imagined greatness and heroic plans. It looks at the reality without commenting on it. The camera records the invisible, the silenced and the silent. What directors like Wang Bing and Xu Xin show, won’t end up in history books, or in any books for that matter. If it wasn’t for them, the people they meet would fall into oblivion; forgotten, silenced, expropriated.
A Yangtze Landscape is a journey in many ways. We move along the river Yangtze, the longest river in Asia with its over 6,000km in length. It’s an astounding river that is not only an ecosystem in itself. It is also a symbol of the exploitation of resources, of the creation of man-made projects, state projects in the name of the party, which displace hundreds of thousands of people. Fast progress by all means possible. On his way along the river, on boats, ships, filming the vastness that alludes to an open sea, Xu Xin stops here and there. He literally holds the forward, horizontal progression and dives into vertical storytelling. It is this vertical exploration that questions Chinese progress, that not simply films it, but that investigates its effects.
It is also this vertical exploration that made me think just how important filmmakers like Xu Xin and Wang Bing are, both directors looking at those people who are being left behind by a grand project that, officially, has no victims. Xu Xin shows us people whose stories are never told. They often reminded me of Wang Bing’s Man With No Name or Till Madness Do Us Part. The people we see are disabled, mentally above all, but also physically, the latter, for one man, being a result of having protested against the damaging of his fisher net by big ships. His hands were mangled, he can no longer earn a living. This elderly man, sitting outside overlooking the river with his mutilated hands…what a powerful message in a film that quietly inserts written words to inform us about accidents, suicides and state intervention.
The gloomy greyscale landscapes, almost all of them man-made, speak of lifelessness, and are juxtaposed with the movements of Xu Xin’s camera on board a ship (or does he travel on several ships?). Here again, as in many other slow films, we witness a push-and-pull between life (animation, movement) and death (stillness). The massive projects along the Yangtze river have their advantages for some people, but mean the loss of an entire identity for others, sometimes of lives. This clash, highlighted throughout the film’s over two-hour running time, is aesthetically intensified through Xu Xin’s use of sound.
It’s the sound, or rather the deafening noise of a firework display from Chinese New Year, which connects several scenes in the film. The sounds clearly oppose the images. There doesn’t seem to be a link at all. What the sounds do, on the other hand, is they introduce a degree of disorientation. They may not support the images as such, but they support the mental state of the people we see, the disorientation felt by those who were displaced, the staggering changes, even invasions, of man-made structures. And with that, Yangtze is not only a Chinese film. It not only speaks about the country’s modern development.
Instead, it is also a film about Man’s anthropocene era. It is Man’s era, an era in which we have reached total dominance over nature, an era in which we irreversibly steer towards our downfall, our extinction. Yangtze reminded me of Norbert Elias’ speech on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. His argument has, of course, nothing to do with film, but with the way we treat our surrounding, and, with that, ourselves.
How come that we force scientific progress in order to dominate nature? How come that we try to explain everything in order to make life less dangerous? How come that, at the same time, we seed hostility, resentment, inequality between people which will inevitably lead to conflict and war? Xu Xin’s film is a very good example of this specifically human problem. Yangtze is a film about creating a (state) hegemony, a superiority that aims to remove its opponents, but which, in the long run, will not stifle conflict. What Yangtze shows in its often sublime shots is power, the thirst for power that has no limits.
But Xu Xin hides this point well. It’s not overt and needs to be looked out for. Yangtze is not so much a film about landscapes and about the longest river of Asia. It is much more complex than it looks at first. It is a statement about us. Xu Xin uses frames that are relatively open, giving us the space to think through different possible meanings of what he shows. In that, he differs from Wang Bing, who tends to use tight frames. Tight frames are always a means to evoke suffocation, making it clear to the viewer that there is pressure from the outside. Xu Xin, on the other hand, leaves things open.
In the end, what remains from A Yangtze Landscape is a bitter aftertaste. The film is a mixture of stunning beauty, and utter poverty and oppression, which some people escape from by killing themselves. There is a contemplative journey juxtaposed with violent imagery. The back and forth creates a truly powerful film about 21st century China and about our human condition.
There are good films. There are bad films. There are exciting films, awesome films, overwhelming films. There are also underwhelming films, those that are total junk and a complete waste of time. There are those exclamations like “wow!” or “no, no, I don’t believe this!”. Maybe even something like “best film of the year for me!”. And then there is Hu Bo’s first and only feature film An Elephant Sitting Still, which he had completed in late 2017 before he committed suicide. There is no word or expression in the three languages I speak that would help me express what I feel about this film.
There are films that make you interested in film, and you pick it up as a study subject at university. Or you pick up a camera yourself. There are films that touch you deeply. Films that make you cry, make you laugh. People sometimes speak of emotional rollercoasters. And then there is An Elephant Sitting Still, which makes me want to stop watching films because I don’t want to stain what I have seen with other films. I would like to keep this film as the last film I would ever see because it is so rich, so pure, so deep.
We are all looking for something in life. You might not be aware of it until you find the one thing that you had been looking for. I have been looking for An Elephant Sitting Still. My now ten years in film, especially in slow film, on a quest to find the answer to something I haven’t even asked a question about, have found what I seem have been unconsciously looking for. And this something doesn’t have a word. Or a feeling. It’s something deep inside me.
Milan Kundera wrote a book called The Unbearable Lightness of Being, later adapted to the big screen. The Unbearable Weight Of Being – this is what Hu Bo captures. The weight of living, of breathing, of surviving, or trying to. The weight of our times. Chantal Akerman always wanted us to feel time. Hu Bo wants us to feel the weight of it. The calculated stillness in numerous extended long-takes functions like the weight of an elephant, several tons that crush you underneath its feet. You fight, but what do you fight for if there is no alternative?
The time spent on fighting the agony, on lifting the weight of time, only adds to the feeling of hopelessness. Hu Bo’s characters struggle with the existential question of what their life is worth. This isn’t a truly pessimistic look at life. It is, rather, an existential look at our times, at our stillness in the face of time.
Hu Bo’s moving images are drained of energy, of colour. The film itself is tired, but uses its last bit of energy on telling its characters’ stories. There is resistance, yet not enough in the face of an overwhelming external and invisible force. Every hour spent with the characters feels like an entire life. It is not just the weight of time that drains the characters. It is their anger, often contained, swallowed, until the last straw break’s the camel’s neck. Then, verbal and physical violence becomes omnipresent, but only briefly, often in the off.
There is a boiling point which the film is headed towards. Not a climax, followed by a denouement. An Elephant Sitting Still is eternal. It is our film, our malaise of trying to make something out of our lives in an increasingly hostile world in which we millennials are the first generation to feel the brutality of this new age in which it is difficult enough to survive and even more difficult to live.
Life as an eternal tragedy. Life as an eternal struggle. For those who live in the here and now, the film becomes an expression of their pain without ever trying to make us feel sorry. Without ever trying to make us cry. Wang Jin, an elderly man who faces the fate of spending the rest of his days in a nursing home, says towards the end: “by not going (elsewhere), you learn how to live with it here.”
Elsewhere is always close. We see one character, up close, and another blurred in the background. Elsewhere. The dream of something better than this. A dream that keeps us going, crawling almost, with the few resources we have left. And yet, Hu Bo’s Elephant is not hopeless or worthless, as the film’s characters think they are. Elephant is the one reason why all of this is worth it.
Endnote: If you expected an in-depth review of the film, I’m sorry that I have disappointed you. The experience of Elephant is special. I have thought for a long time that I shouldn’t write about it at all. I don’t want to talk about it either. Elephant is inside me, and only I have the key to it. Never in my life have I had such an experience, but, as I have said above, all of the struggles in my life were worth it if it meant discovering such a film at some point in my life.
It is impossible to retain a past thought, to seize a future thought, and even to hold onto a present thought.
There couldn’t be a better beginning to a film than this extract of the Diamond Sutra, the most important sutra in Buddhism. It says so much about the reasons for our suffering. Do we not always try to project ourselves into the future? Are we not always haunted by past thoughts? And what about those wonderful present moments, which we would like to hold onto? There is a constant tension because of our attempts of controlling what is beyond our control.
And yet, this extract of the Diamond Sutra is not only there to make us aware of this curious state of eternal suffering. Chinese director Bi Gan also makes a statement about his film Kaili Blues, his debut feature, and, perhaps, about cinema in general. Especially the inability to hold on to a present thought… it has often been said that photography and film can capture the present moment. Indeed, so they do. Yet as soon as the present has been captured, it becomes part of the past. What is, has been. Bi Gan’s non-linear moving images (I wouldn’t call it a film just now) are a fascinating example of Daniel Frampton’s filmmind. His images are free floating, The film moves to wherever it wants to move. Past, present, future – it all seems to be one. The director’s forty-minute long-take in the second half of the film shows exactly this; the act of floating, floating memories, floating thoughts. We travel by motorcycle, by car. We follow this character, then another, all the while (re)discovering places and scenes that we remember from earlier.
Time has no meaning in Kaili Blues. Everything is. Temporal orientation is impossible and unnecessary. The film is no more than an invitation to float with the characters. A long circular, counterclockwise camera movement to the left, a long circular clockwise camera movement to the right – the camera becomes an indicator of the nature of time. Time is circular. There is repetition, there is rebirth. Freedom, relief, means breaking out of this circle. But Bi Gan doesn’t allow us to break out.
He holds us with lingering shots that resemble thoughts. He holds us with sounds that feel as though they come from our own mind, from our dreams and desires. He holds us. After twenty minutes, it feels as though we have already spent an eternity with Bi Gan’s characters, characters that draw watches on their wrists. The mechanical clock, the imposed partition of time, as an opponent to the very nature of Kaili Blues, the natural passage of time versus our modern perception of it, our modern desire to control time, to impose our rhythm on something that is beyond control – a marvellous point by the director.
Carefully composed, beautiful frames tell a story of emptiness, of distance. There is something missing. There is an absence that cannot be filled, a chasm that becomes deeper and wider with every scene. The independently moving camera opens up spaces and poses questions. If we try to find responses to our questions, time will wash over us like an overwhelming wave in the sea. We will get lost and have no means to catch up.
The reason for Chen’s imprisonment, the reason for Chen’s apparent adoption at a young age and the ensuing jealousy of his stepbrother, the role of Weiwei, Chen’s nephew – there is so much to explore, so many questions to ask, and not a single answer. Instead, we are shipwrecked, safe and secure on a piece of debris, but at the mercy of the sea, which the director keeps moving just like his camera. Long pans, slow zooms – these create waves that shift us to another place, to another time. And we forget where we are. We’re oblivious. In the end we become melancholic, we get the blues, subdued by somber frames, dull colours, and the endless movement in time without a goal ahead.
Bi Gan is, in his first debut feature, already a master of time, a puppet master who knows exactly what strings to pull and when. He follows the story where it wants to go. The camera becomes a companion along the road. At some point the question arose: have I seen this film already? An obscure feeling of familiarity surrounded me. Bi Gan walks in the steps of Béla Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s a cinematic heritage he picks up and which turns into his own style. Kaili Blues is only the beginning.
Here we are again. Another year comes to an end. It’s not easy to look back at 2018, which began with a complete breakdown of body and mind and which ended with complete exhaustion. In between, I tried to watch films and write articles. On top of that, I have managed (don’t ask me how!) to create a new baby: The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine.
But let’s look at something else first. Social media as well as news sites are full of annual Best-Of lists. I don’t think in lists, as many people do. Classifying everything is one of those quirks of our time, primarily because we can. Social media, in particular, allows us to judge everything. Whether continuous and subjective judgment of good and bad brings us forward, or helps the art of cinema in anyway could be a lengthy debate at a workshop, or a conference. I think the issue is that some people watch too many films, and I have trouble to believe that they can actually savour each one of them them or choose wisely. I was forced to take a step back this year and watched less films than usual. But I can say that all films were good. And so they were last year. To me, it’s about giving a film time to make an impact. This can come after a few days, sometimes even after a few weeks. If, by that time, you have seen another 20 films, the impact of a really good film will be drowned by all the others. Images merge and become one. In the end, it’s like a slow coffee filtering process. The more time it takes, the better and stronger the taste.
This is quite literally the case with Wang Bing’s new film Dead Souls. Eight hours long, with the film getting stronger over the course of it running time – this is really what, to me, cinema is all about. Yes, I could say that Dead Souls, a collection of testimony from survivors of Chinese labour camps, was the best film I have seen this year. But then, so is Elsewhere by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, which really drew me in, and which is still with me, even months after I have seen in. Both films create the weight and the urgency with which they tell their stories through the use of long duration. The filmmakers took their time with their subjects. It was not only about listening, but also about understanding the stories the people in front of the camera tell us. This is perhaps the element that stood out most for me this year. It was a year of seeing and of listening to people.
Seeing – this reminds me most strongly of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielmann. It’s one thing to watch the ordinary in Slow Cinema. It is something entirely different if one watches Jeanne doing her routine housework until this routine cracks. I had thought it would be a laborious viewing session, but it was a revealing experience instead. And so was Jacqueline Zünd’s Almost There, a truly marvellous poetic documentary that made me think, and almost cry. It is unfortunate that it’s difficult to find female slow-film directors. I’m sure they’re there. The challenge is to find them. Jacqueline Zünd is a great example of exceptionally good female filmmakers, with an eye for detail and an ear for (extra-)ordinary stories.
My year 2018 was a year of long-form cinema. I have mentioned Geyrhalter’s Elsewhere and Wang Bing’s Dead Souls already. This year, I also took the time to watch Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Lav Diaz’s four-hour long The woman who left and Andrei Tarkovsky’s equally long Andrei Rublev. There is something about long-form cinema that, for obvious reasons, the average film cannot give you. Long-form cinema can be the ultimate example of vertical cinema, a form of cinema that gives you a real insight, an in-depth exploration of a subject matter. Of course, it is not easy to find time for long films, but every time I do it I have to say that spending a couple of hours with a single film is worth it and I start to like them more than shorter films.
This also shows in my posts. I have written 15 posts less this year than in 2017, and yet I have written 7,000 more words. There was more to say, more thoughts triggered by the films I have seen. And despite the longer posts, people keep reading The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. Thank you! 2018 was the most successful year ever and even more people than last year found their way to the site. Thank you to everyone who is linking to it!
So, what’s next for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema? At the beginning of January, the first 20 copies of Issue 01 of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine will be shipped. The paper version, with previously unpublished material by artists, filmmakers and cinephiles alike, is a new way forward to broaden the output. I want you to read other opinions, other views, instead of always only my own 😉 If you want to check the first issue, do take a look at the contents and you can order it via tao films.
I’m hoping to publish the magazine twice a year, but it really depends. I’m not pushing it. If the content for a new magazine isn’t there, then I will wait until it’s all there and ready. Slow film, slow magazine. A new project for 2019 is a Slow Cinema podcast. Once I have recovered and recuperated my energy, I will start experimenting with different things and see how I can best approach this. Each episode will be a more in-depth analysis, or a conversation with someone about a film I have previously written about on the blog. That’s the plan. How it will look (or sound) like in the end, we’ll see. But this will be the next step for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema.
The first post in 2019 will probably be thoughts on seven podcasts, which deal with the concepts of waiting and slowing down. I’ve come across them this month and found that there was a lot in them, which I’d like to expand on here on this blog. Apart from that, however, I will take 2019 the way it comes. I have two more films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter to watch and the rest is open. Let’s see what I’ll find!
Finally, I’d like to take the opportunity to make you aware of my profile on Steady. Steady works a bit like Patreon and offers you a chance to support the growing body of work I’m doing for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. It becomes more and more demanding, but it is work I have been doing happily for free. I have also said that the blog will always be for free. And I stick to this. On the other hand, you can support me on Steady and make it a bit easier for me to dedicate myself to this work. Take a look and if you could circulate it, advertise it or contribute, I would thoroughly appreciate it. Thank you!
I wish you all a fantastic end of the year, and I’ll see you in 2019!
After months of work, the very first issue of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine is now available for pre-order via tao films. It’s thanks to Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais that I have finally made the move towards my own journal. It’s been thought of for years, but I had never actually had the guts to do it. Now, after six years of blogging I’m happy to welcome the first paper version of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema into the world.
With a cover designed by Swedish filmmaker and artist Sebastian Eklund, the magazine comes in A5 size and is 84 pages strong. It comes with a professional fastback binding. I’m super chuffed to have wonderful people on board.
Filmmakers Aleksandra Niemczyk and Sebastian Cordes write about their approach to film, and give you an insight of the behind-the-scenes of their films Centaur and A Place Called Lloyd respectively.
Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais reflect about the state of cinema in the 21st century, to which Maximilian Le Cain responds in a separate essay.
Catlin Meredith from Her Head in Film writes about the meaning of home in Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo, which we are streaming on tao films.
Myself, I investigate the aesthetic of absence in the films of Lav Diaz.
All of this, and a 20% discount of your tao films subscription, can be found in the magazine.
In order to keep possible financial losses at bay, I will collect orders of twenty magazines before they go into print and are then shipped. It’s a sort of on-demand service, which allows me more flexibility and avoids financial hassles. In the end, we must not forget that this is the first issue and I have no clue as to how successful this will be. I’m taking it safe 🙂
International shipping is available, of course. The price is 10€ for the magazine and 6€ for shipping. Shipping from France is pretty expensive. I wished I could offer it for cheaper, but it’s sadly not (yet) doable. Maybe I’ll have found a better option for issue 02.
As soon as the first batch of magazines is ready for shipping, a shipping date will be communicated to each buyer individually. I’d be eternally grateful if you could spread the message, in whatever way possible. And, of course, if you have any questions about the magazine, do drop me an email: email@example.com
My thanks goes to all contributors and supporters. This magazine wouldn’t have been possible without you!
It seems as though Chinese director Wang Bing gets better and better. Each film improves on the previous one, and with this I don’t mean that he improves on his aesthetics. Wang Bing stoically, stubbornly continues to pursue his traditional aesthetics, which means nothing more than that he simply films in whatever way necessary or possible. His films are not about beauty, about photographic framing, about characters walking towards a horizon and returning (see Béla Tarr). No, each of his films instead dives deeper into Wang Bing’s overall aim of telling the story of his country, of (re-)writing China’s official history. His films are like lengthy books à la Dostoievsky or Tolstoy, using the entire span of 900 pages or more to create a fundamental piece that outlives a single generation.
His previous film, Mrs Fang (2017), had already been an astonishing film, an important cinematic exploration of Alzheimer’s, of our slow death in the face of an impossible disease that doesn’t allow us to go gracefully. The director’s intimate portrait drew controversy. The ethics of filmmaking became an important part in our discussion as critics and cinephiles alike. What everyone was in agreement, however, was that Wang Bing had created something special, something that goes under the skin and that is not so easily shaken off.
Dead Souls, the director’s new film, is a monumental achievement. In over eight hours, shot over the course of more than ten years, Dead Souls, too, is an intimate portrait, or rather a collection of intimate portraits that go under the skin, albeit in a different way than Mrs Fang. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to compare the film to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. On the contrary, one could go as far as arguing that Dead Souls was the Shoah of the 21st century. It’s difficult to explain in words. Both films need to be seen in parallel in order to see the similarities. Yet, I don’t want to place too much emphasis on this, because I believe that Dead Souls needs to be, and deserves to be, seen in its own light.
Wang Bing has always used film in order to tell untold stories. His films, shot without official approval and without treading the official way of making films, i.e. submitting scripts for approval with a final censorship part at the end, fill in those blanks left by history books that merely tell the heroic parts of a country that is fascinating and scarily powerful and dangerous at the same time. History is used to form a common basis for national identity. History is always written by those who have fought and won a war, those who have heroically fallen into the hands of the enemy during the fight for his/her motherland. It is written by those who have ideological interests, by those who have to justify their gruesome acts.
Every country has this famous skeleton in the closet, and China certainly is no different. They seem to be even more secret about some of their excesses than other countries and those “black holes” make for a mysterious and frightening atmosphere. Dead Souls pierces this black hole. Wang Bing holds a torch into it to shine light onto the plights of hundreds of thousands so called rightists, people who have, in the eyes of officials, not been supportive of the movement, or have even been critical of the government. It was the late 50s, and there was a broad sweep particularly against intellectuals. Jiabiangu, the name of the camp complex, where people had been sent for re-education, has hoovered over Wang Bing’s work before. His film He, Fengming was part of his ongoing effort to collect testimony about the period. And so was The Ditch, a failed feature film that aimed at showing what life in the camps was like.
In Dead Souls, Wang Bing returns to his way of filmmaking which he had used for Fengming. This means that what mattered most to him was the recording of testimony. He put the camera on his lap, on a table, somewhere stable (or not necessarily) in order to record a person’s memories of the time. “I am a former nationalist. I had to re-educate myself and adopt communist thought.” This is how Wang Bing’s new film begins. Zhou Huinan, 85 years old, speaks about the time when people had been encouraged to criticise the Party. It was a cunning way of the Chinese government to lure people into the trap that would kill hundreds of thousands in a form of auto-genocide that resembles measures takes by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia later on, or which the Stalinist rulers undertook twenty years ealier. Zhou Huinan’s fault was his criticism of the lack of democracy. The result: a lengthy period at a camp, in which people died slowly in front of him of starvation. Sitting on a bench next to his wife, who visited him several times and who struggles to make herself heard in front of the camera, he seems a proud man, someone who has put the events behind him. He mentions his brother, a highly intelligent man who had been tasked with evaluating already validated town plans. He had been promoted several times, before he, too, was taken to a camp.
A harsh cut brings us into a completely different world. Despite his age and his experience in the camp, Zhou Huinan still embodies life. On the other hand, his brother, Zhou Zhinan, 82 years old, is a shadow of himself. Wang Bing films him in bed, suffering, dying, and tries to get a testimony. This very scene, painful and heart-rendering, hearing the whispers of a once strong man, is essential for the rest of the film. After a rather brief testimony, Wang Bing cuts to Zhou Zhinan’s funeral. In a lengthy sequence of scenes, we witness the burial of the man we had seen earlier, his son struggling with accepting the death of his father. Several times throughout the film, the director notifies us about the passing of those he spoke to. What this creates is a sense of urgency that wasn’t as clear in Lanzman’s Shoah. When I watched Lanzman’s opus, I had the feeling that the director had time for his project. Those he interviewed were elderly, but not yet on the threshold of death. With Wang Bing, this is different.
Dead Souls is an urgent film. Testimonies of men aged over 90, as is the case with Gao Guifan (97) who, filmed with a shaky handheld camera, says little else than “It’s the end. I want to die as quickly as possible. Dead, I’ll suffer less,” are common and one feels the director’s desire to get those testimonies on record in order to allow their voices to live on. Men eating human flesh, men cutting open the dead in order to collect the intestines and eat them, a father killing his eldest daughter so that his family could eat and therefore survive a little longer (this story is based on a rumour one of the men heard), men turning into animals – all of this must not die with those victim-survivors.
“You lose your humanity.”
“It had become banal to see dead people.”
“People no longer resembled human beings.”
Many of those Wang Bing speaks to go into a lot of detail of their ordeal. It becomes a collection of sort, but there are certain phrases that cut into you like a knife, and it’s those that will stay with you. The aim of turning humans into non-humans, of letting them slowly die – “People didn’t go in excruciating pain, they slowly passed away,” says Gu Huimin, 84 years old – is the most evident characteristic of a concentrationary system that has sadly found its application in so many parts of the world. China is no different, but China refuses to acknowledge the existence of those camps and the unnecessary deaths of innocent men and women.
The people the director speaks to are different in the way they have dealt with their past experience. Or perhaps, they are still traumatised and what they have endured and seen has broken them forever. Lao Zonghua, 75 years old and interviewed in 2010, reminded me of Bomba in Shoah, the man who smiles all the time. Lao Zonghua became almost uncomfortable to watch with his persistent laughs about the terrible things he has experienced. Is he one of Wang Bing’s dead souls?
Or are the dead souls those who Wang Bing and survivors look for in the desert? As in Lanzman’s Shoah, those who survived return to the place where everything happened, only to find almost nothing left. Nature has taken over. What’s left are bones and skulls. One doesn’t need to dig in order to find them. They’re there for everyone to see. An open secret of China’s brutal history. Just like Lav Diaz in his eight-hour film Melancholia, Wang Bing becomes an archeologist here. He uncovers, he unearthes. In discussions with survivors, in visiting the place of a silenced auto-genocide to record what is left. Every little helps to piece the country’s unwritten, and yet certainly essential history together for future generations who must know about this, and who, hopefully, take their government to account one day.
“If we’re alive today, it’s at the cost of your lives.”
“Only death could have ended that suffering.”
Zhao Tiemin is visibly angry at what he had been put through. He is the first in the film who speaks without questions needing to be asked. Wang Bing intervenes rarely, letting Zhao Tiemin take over. His testimony is interesting not only regarding its content, but also in the way it is given; openly, freely, without fear, but with a lot of anger. Others, such as Zhao Binghun, are more reserved. This particular man reminded me of my grandpa who felt uncomfortable answering questions about his past and who had initially responded in short sentence to all my questions, followed by “And what else do you want to know?” There is hesitation. Can I say this? Do I want to talk about this? There is, of course, shame and the fear that the memories, if spoken about, become to vivid and painful. Chen Zhonghai, 85 years old, remembers having lied to a fellow prisoner who asked him for a bit of roasted flour. He told him he didn’t have any, a lie. It was about his own survival. The other prisoner died of starvation. One can see the feeling of shame, Chen Zonghai, sitting on a sofa with a jacket over his left arm and his left trouser leg rolled up, the man has endured since then.
For those who have seen Fengming or even Lav Diaz’s six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) it is possibly evident what the director aims to do here. He blurs the boundaries of listener and viewer. Dead Souls is not so much a film to view, but a film to listen to. While the body language of those who testify in front of the camera can certainly be interesting, it is of much larger interest to simply listen, to lend our ears to those who have something to say. Wang Bing’s film gives them a platform for their experiences, for their shame, for their guilt, for their anger. With this part of history having been silenced, so have been the survivors. Film becomes a tool to break this silence and to allow those who need to tell their stories to find listeners. Only then can a traumatic narrative be turned into a normal life narrative and free the survivors.
But what about the film’s title? Dead Souls. Over the course of eight hours, one aspects becomes undoubtedly clear: those who survived, no longer have a soul. They should have helped their fellows. And this is precisely where Wang Bing is going with this. Humans are no longer humans. They struggle for survival. They have been put into situations where humanity, where souls, don’t have a place. In order to survive, one needs to kill one’s soul, one’s human nature, one’s empathy. The men we see in Wang Bing’s film might differ from one another. They are different in the way they give their testimony, different in the way they narrate their suffering, different in how they have handled those horrible experiences. But they share the tragic loss of their soul.