Season of the Devil – Lav Diaz (2018)

Those of you who have been with me for a couple of years already know that I have been a huge Lav Diaz fan. Melancholia, my first film by Diaz, thoroughly impressed me and when I began to see his other films I felt that there was something very special in there. I wrote my PhD thesis on three of his films and on the director’s use of duration and absence. I wrote two book chapters on him, conducted an interview with him for publication. But there was a point when I was worried that Diaz would change his style, regardless of what he said in interviews, in order to attract a wider audience. Norte, the end of History was the beginning of something that became more and more obscure. For the first time, a Lav Diaz film was hailed as a masterpiece outside his hardcore fan circle.

I wasn’t a fan of Norte and often expressed my concern about the future of Diaz’s filmmaking. It wasn’t the use of colour, which irritated me, but the fact that the storyline had little surprises. It was an easy film, not as bad as Hollywood, but the viewer nevertheless didn’t have to do much work. The next film, From What Is Before, was a superb counter-argument to a potential decline. But, in fact, this was the true beginning of the end because he began to make films that were everything he had always rejected in interviews. The mentality changed. Friends, like me who did everything to help, became enemies. Success spoils people and the Berlinale Silver Bear for Lullaby to the sorrowful mystery was perhaps too much. It was a deserved award, no doubt. But something changed afterwards.

With Season of the Devil, Diaz returned to Berlin. The film was described as a rock-opera, but it is neither rock, nor an opera. It is a bizarre attempt at trying something new and hoping not to fail. I clearly remember some ecstatic reviews. As was the case with Norte, the positivity about the film comes from the simplicity of the film. There are no challenges, there are no question marks. Nothing is hidden. All cards are open on the table and everything the viewer needs to do is sit and let the images wash over him/her.

Season ‘s visual aesthetics are familiar terrain for Diaz fans. The black-and-white, often in high contrast, is a great visual support for a narrative set in the darkest of times for the Philippines. More than in his other films, I find, there is a link between past and present. But what used to be pointed to, is turned into a clear mirror image. What Diaz shows, the dialogues he wrote – all of this is happening once more in the Philippines. With the election of president Duterte in June 2016, the dark times of president Marcos’ dictatorship resurface. What happened, happens again and we can be certain that nothing, not even brutal atrocities, is ever over. In particular the extra-judicial army Diaz introduces at the beginning of the film is a clear pointer to what is happening in the country right now.

There is violence, there are disappearances, but there is also resistance. There are two distinct parts, I find. A quiet one, a real pause for breathing, and a part in which all dialogues are sung. And it is the latter that ruin the film, but continue the director’s drastic change (and the critics’ absolute joy about his films). Not so long ago, I saw The Woman Who Left, which stood out because of bad acting and a transparent narrative that didn’t engage the viewer. Devil goes even further. It remains an issue that Diaz now chooses actors and actresses, well-known in the Philippines, but who are just that: people who act. They do it badly. There is no sense that the characters we see live their roles. There is no sense that there is an experience on the side of the actors/actresses. It’s a bland role play, over-dramatic, over-theatrical, which makes it difficult to sit through it for four hours. The majority of shots follow a logical sequence. If there is a man sitting at the table and writing something, we expect to see in the next shot what he has written. Never before would Diaz have given us access to this letter. Now he does and these logical shots are the ones that create boredom (in me). It’s not the length of the film, it’s not the cinematic slowness. It’s the logical, linear narrative combined with bad acting.

What strikes me as most incomprehensible are the sung dialogues. They’re ill-placed and after two hours and dozens of “la la la la”, one cannot help but ridicule the entire film. One shouldn’t, of course. The subject of the film is important and if Diaz had made the film without singing it would have had a serious effect on the viewer. But the persistent, monotonous rhythm, the illogical “la la la” only to fill empty space and empty time, is the worst I have seen in any film in a long time. It simply doesn’t do justice to the seriousness of the story Diaz tells. It is an attempt-gone-bad at trying something new. If The Woman Who Left was a clear step towards the downward spiral of Diaz becoming an average director, Devil makes him a below-average one, having lost literally everything he still stood up for until about six years ago.

Season of a Devil is a film, not an experience. Even if it was an experience, it is certainly a bad one and it makes me wonder just where Diaz will take his new approach to filmmaking. It’s not a problem if a director decides to change his style. Many filmmakers have done so and even though it is disappointing to their followers, it usually accompanies a change in the director himself as well. This doesn’t seem to happen to Diaz, all the more striking because he still defends his original ideas he had when I started writing about him. He continues to speak negatively of Hollywood, of bad acting, of the stupidity of linear narratives in interviews all the while he more and more does the things he continues to verbally attack. The director who speaks is not the same who makes the film. And this, I find, is the most stunning change in a director I have come across since I started studying film about eleven years ago. Next week, Diaz’s latest film The Halt comes to French cinemas and I wonder what he has fabricated this time…

Afternoon – Tsai Ming-liang (2016)

Does this conversation have to be so miserable? Tsai Ming-liang asks. His two-hour long conversation with his fetish actor Lee Kang-sheng, Afternoon, will perhaps remain one of the least known of the director’s works. First of all, because it didn’t have a wide distribution, which is a true shame. At the same time, it is not an ideal cinema film. It is more something for a gallery, or even for your living room. I wondered what I could write about it, too, because it’s not easy to say something about the film.

Why is this? I think it is the result of Afternoon‘s nature, the film being a private, intimate conversation between a director and his actor. Tsai and Lee are an icon of world cinema. One cannot think of one without thinking of the other. There have always been questions as to how those two work together, how they found one another, what made them stick together over such a long time. Afternoon gives answers to all of those questions. And it gives answers to questions we may not even have asked yet.

There is only one frame and one cut. I’m not sure why the cut was made. I assume a technical problem. But it’s more important to think of the one and only frame we see throughout the over two hours running time. The camera is positioned higher than eye level. It’s a medium long shot. We see two walls of a house, two windows, and Tsai and Lee sitting in their respective chairs with one wall behind them. Outside, through the windows, one can see lush green, a vast valley and there is nothing but the wind on the soundtrack (except the voices). The setting is peaceful and yet something is crumbling. The walls are, for sure. But there is more.

Starting the conversation seems to be difficult. Tsai has troubles explaining why he wanted this conversation. He is reduced to tears at times, laughs at others. It’s a difficult beginning for the viewer, too. When Tsai speaks about his premonition that he will die soon, when he speaks about the memories of his grandfather who struggled with dementia – the image of his grandfather sweeping the streets is particularly painful – when he speaks about the suffering he went through before and during the shoot of Stray Dogs, there was a point I felt unsure about continuing to listen. Was it perhaps too private? Was it perhaps not meant for me? Of course, the latter question isn’t the right one to pose because if Tsai hadn’t wanted people to hear all his thoughts and feelings, he wouldn’t have made the film.

And yet, it felt uncomfortable at times and reminded me a lot of Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie. The two films are radically different, but they enter a private, very intimate world, which can be difficult for the viewer to navigate.

I just feel like expressing my gratitude towards you.

Afternoon is almost one-sided. The way we know Lee from Tsai’s films is very much the way he is in real life. He is quiet, withdrawn, shows little desire. Over the course of the film, we learn that his film personnages are his true self (minus the sexual orientation). Watching him as a conversation partner is fascinating, although he isn’t doing or saying much. It’s more about his body language and the few sentences he does say (“You should leave the house more often.”). It is even more fascinating to see him outside the world Tsai has over the last twenty years created for him, a world in which Lee can be himself, in which he can develop with ease. And one cannot deny that with every film, Lee became better and better. I found Stray Dogs to be the absolute pinnacle of his acting career. Both Tsai and Lee have, consciously and unconsciously, helped one another to get the best out of one another, and together they have achieved this magnificent collection of films that we can now see.

In effect, Afternoon is not just a two-hour long conversation between director and actor. It is an hommage to Lee. It is also a demonstration of the care Tsai has for Lee, admittedly, in part, to an almost obsessional extent. I will never forget this scene in What Time Is It There in which Lee sits in a cinema with a clock in his arms. There is so much pain in this image, there is grief and longing. As we learn in Afternoon, the film was an attempt by Tsai to help Lee overcome the grief for his father, who had died a couple of months earlier. Lee was, according to Tsai, miserable and he wanted to help, so he made a film, which allowed Lee to use it as a form of therapy, to work through his grief and his loss.

What one realises throughout Afternoon is that each of Tsai’s films has an even more personal and tragic background than one can somewhat imagine when one watches the films. As Tsai himself says, he has found in Lee his alter ego through which he could find his inner world. If one believes Lee, Tsai has a personality that is radically different from his films, but filmmaking allows him to discover another side to him. And after twenty years of close collaboration, of exploring, of discovering, Tsai feels as though “this life is almost complete.”

I can stop making films now. I am happy to just film you walking.

Memory of Time – HeeWon Lee (Rennes, 2019)

It is possibly the first time that I’m writing about a specific video installation here on this blog. I have read quite a bit during my PhD research in order to understand the uses of cinematic slowness in video, but I hadn’t come across an installation which combined not only everything that I had learned, but, most importantly, also what I had come to feel whenever I saw a slow film. Les Champs Libres in Rennes currently host an installation by South Korean artist HeeWon Lee, called Memory of Time and it is a truly intriguing example of the combination of cinematic slowness and aspects of memory.

The two main elements of HeeWon Lee’s work are contemplation and immersion. Both are achieved by the use of slow-motion, which is usually not an important factor in Slow Cinema. Slow films achieve their cinematic slowness by minimising movement, dialogue, music, the number of characters, etc The Korean artist uses slow-motion, which, combined with the darkness of the gallery space and the size of the screens, hypnotises the viewer, surrounds him/her but also has a disorienting nature to it. Infinity II is a vertical slo-mo piece. It shows a waterfall, I believed, and it was confirmed by the young woman outside the gallery who gave us a bit of extra information about what we had seen. Before I got to know that the waterfall was, in fact, Icelandic and keeps a painful secret, I was not even sure I was seeing a waterfall. The slowness as well as the fact that the video runs backwards creates for a fascinating experience, which allows your thoughts to flow freely.

Just recently, I published an article in which I tried to answer the question as to whether it was possible to escape time. I came to the conclusion that it was possible, depending on how you looked at it. Film and photography make it possible to alter time, and this is what HeeWon Lee does here. I briefly mentioned the secret the waterfall was hiding: it is the very waterfall, where the Icelandic population, forced by the Catholic Church, had to separate themselves from their icons. What the artist does here, is inverting the flow of time. She not only slows time down, but inverts it, allowing for a passage into the past. She turns back time and invites us to step into history.

There is something else going on in her two other pieces Infinity IV and Infinity V. One shows the full breadth of a waterfall, the other is a view from a cliffside, with a wave breaking at rocks slightly to our side. There is a beauty in there, which cannot be put into words. Again, it is immersive and despite the accompanying sound track (drone music?), there is a deafening silence somehow. Even though I was with people, I felt alone, in my own world, in my own thoughts and also, of course, alone with my imagination. I don’t know about the history behind this specific waterfall, but the beauty of Lee’s work is that it can also be considered universal. I couldn’t help think of the beauty of the very nature which we are destroying. I couldn’t help think of the loss we are encountering as a permanent, continuous condition in the here and now.

Lee’s work is not only about slow-motion as such, however, and it is this, which struck me most. I actually had my first VR experience thanks to her short film The Rain. It gave me a lot of food for thought in regards to the experience of history. Slow Cinema has, in many cases, often been about the immersion in a different culture, in a different time. In short, it is about the immersion in a different world. The lengthy works by Wang Bing, for example, are important to mention here. Of course, the immersion we get from one of Wang Bing’s films differs from that we get from a gallery piece and yet, both HeeWon Lee and Wang Bing channel (and limit) our attention in such a way that we become truly enveloped by the stories they tell.

The Rain is a short film about a painful and still unacknowledged part of South Korea. When Japan occupied the country during the Second World War, they turned many women into sex slaves. In The Rain, we hover over a river, slowly but steadily. This is the first point to notice about VR: you’re imprisoned in this world the director wants you to see. One is trapped in a world that isn’t one’s own, which already makes one become highly attentive and alert. While Lee takes us slowly around the peaceful landscape which retains its scars from the war, invisible and unknown to us in the present, we hear testimonies of those women who had been sex slaves to the Japanese. They’re powerful statements, brutal, gut-wrenching and stand in contrast to the peaceful landscape we traverse. The combination of contemplating a peaceful landscape, in which we’re fully immersed, and the testimonies of atrocities committed is particularly painful and difficult to handle. It reminded me of the early films of Lav Diaz in which you don’t see atrocities, but which are so hard-hitting, precisely because you don’t see violence and only hear about it. Lee walks a similar line here, but the use of VR creates a special experience that transmits history in a different and much more palpable way.

I have written a lot about the combination of slowness and testimony/a re-staging of history and the ways in which it can be effective in transmitting the nature of trauma to an audience. Because of the immersion it offers, Virtual Reality creates new possibilities for the exploration of painful histories, of silenced storied and brutal atrocities. Several slow-film directors make films in order to keep history alive. VR is, perhaps, an even better way forward. I have always wondered whether VR and slowness could work. But HeeWon Lee’s The Rain showed me that it is, in fact, a truly haunting combination.

Walden – Daniel Zimmermann (2018)

Not so long ago, I picked up Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden. Published in the middle of the 19th century, it is now something of an iconic book about nature, about the woods, about the joys of solitary moments. Several times, I have mentioned Umberto Eco’s Six Walks Through The Fictional Woods on this blog, and even though Eco’s work isn’t exactly about the woods as such, but more about the woods as a fictional entity, both books have come back to mind when I saw Walden, an observational, poetic, very slow, very contemplative documentary by Daniel Zimmerman.

A tree is felled somewhere in Austria, transformed into planks of wood, which are then shipped to an unspecified location in the Brazilian rainforest. The story is quickly told and not, in itself, interesting. Until you realise that the trade route seems reversed. You would, perhaps, expect it the other way around. Something else is interesting, too: Zimmermann’s aesthetics. The film starts with a slow, patient pan from left to right. We’re in a fresh, lush forest. It’s quiet and peaceful. We can hear birds lifting off from tree branches, though we don’t see them. This sequence is important because it makes clear Zimmermann’s intention: hear first, then see. Walden targets, first of all, our ears. While the camera continues to pan patiently towards the right, we spot a worker in a hard hat and a security vest, dwarfed by the sheer size of the trees, overwhelming, overshadowing. There is a real grandeur of nature, a real dwarfing of Man.

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann, 2018)

The patient pan to the right, it turns out, is not so much a pan, but a circular movement. Zimmermann’s camera circles 360 degrees around its own axis. I couldn’t help think of the Eastern concept of time; time not as something linear but as something circular instead. Walden uses this concept effectively and lulls us in. After nine minutes into the film, the felled tree crashes to the ground right in front of us. Before we even see it, we only see the trees in front of us vibrating. Then, almost total silence once the felled tree has fallen. An incredible scene, momentous even. All of a sudden, there is this discrepancy between life and death, both in the same frame. The silence is deafening, but so are the distant chirps of the birds that seem to respond to the act of felling. The silence highlights the chirps, makes them appear louder, more pronounced. And even though we might expect the camera to stop, to witness with us, Zimmermann moves on.

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann, 2018)

A second aspect that stands out in Walden. Apart from the use of circular time, the film puts emphasis on time as never stopping. Photography and film, it is true, can halt time, can seemingly give us power over time in that they both allow us to stop for a moment, to go back, to look again. Photography and cinema can freeze time. Or so we think. Zimmermann clearly defies this. His camera keeps moving. At dawn, when the planks are loaded onto freight trains; on the motorway; at the border where the police check the freight on lorries… Zimmermann positions us as passersby. Even though the trade route, or rather the entire process from felling to shipping to unloading, is at the heart of the film, it isn’t really. It is something that happens, just like everything else simply happens. The director’s magnificent camera pans are iconic of two elements of our life. First, a lot of things happen at the same time. Things are always moving, are in flux, and for that, it is difficult to fully pay attention to one single action. In the last century or so, everything has become much bigger, much faster, and, also, simply much more. I know that this is a standard argument, but it is important here because it leads to my second point: we cannot pay attention to everything that happens anymore. We have to select or simply keep going, which is exactly what Zimmermann’s camera does.

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann, 2018)

As mentioned above, sound is key in Walden. Because of the camera’s 360 degrees movement, we do not always see actions as and when they happen. We hear those actions first and only after a long, slow pan we see the action that belongs to the sounds we have heard earlier. In this way, Zimmermann creates tension, a form of slow suspense, and he plays with our expectations. In our culture, seeing is believing. Seeing is truth. We cannot trust our ears alone. We must see. The slow circular camera movement puts this want in suspension. We must wait for what we want. We must be patient. This, too, is Walden. An exercise in patience.

There is something else that stands out. Zimmermann’s camera never moves from right to left. The camera’s circular movement is from left to right, which is identical to our way of reading in the Western world. We read from left to right, as opposed to other cultures where people read from right to left. If the director’s circular movement reminds me of circular time in Eastern cultures, then he puts emphasis on Western culture in the way he moves his camera from left to right. In this way, Walden becomes a complex image of culture(s) and the ways in which we’re all connected. Once more, the film’s story about a tree being felled and then transformed into planks which are then shipped across the globe is, to my mind, only a story at the surface. After the film’s almost two-hour running time, once the circular camera movements penetrate deeper and deeper into the rainforest and the film comes full cycle, there is a sense that this wasn’t so much about the tree, but about something much higher, or, rather, something much deeper.

And I cannot end this post without noting the film’s official description: A slow down road movie. I think we have a new slow genre!

By the name of Tania – Mary Jimenez, Bénédicte Liénard (2019)

Since the Industrial Revolution, children have been massively exploited for work. Even though nation states regulated child labour, there is still a lot of work to do in order to safeguard them. What seems to be particularly difficult nowadays is the prevention of child prostitution. Teenagers without real roots anywhere slip into the hands of men and women, who try to profit from them, who lull them into their vicious circles with the promise of money and freedom. This “business” often happens in the dark, away from the public spotlight, and it is of major concern in Latin American countries. By the name of Tania made me think a lot, it is not a straightforward documentary, or a straightforward fiction film. Tania walks a path between these two.

To survive, I have erased myself. Time doesn’t matter.

Time doesn’t matter. Nor does a human being in a circle of prostitution. This erasure Tania, the young woman, speaks of is at the heart of the film. What matters is not visible, it’s in the off. Mary Jimenez and Bénédicte Liénard create a haunting absence throughout the film, with a lingering camera that tempts us, but that also refuses to let us go where we would like to go, that refuses to see us what we would like to see. In one scene, the camera takes us to the edge of a lush jungle. The green is marvellous, the sound eerie. We see the entrance to a jungle, lined by trees. There is a desire to walk further, to continue this walk and see what is on the other side. But the directors cut. They cut us off and leave us with an unfulfilled desire.

This is the point. There is an unfulfilled desire in Tania, too: the desire to be the young woman she should be, carefree, light, free. Free in all respects. Yet, she is cut off from this desire and taken to an underground world where the idea of freedom is connected to earning money. Tania had a difficult childhood, moving from family to family before she settled living with her grandmother. She has been taught to show strength. Crying wasn’t a way to express sorrow. It equalled weakness. We see Tania in a bus, on a boat, on a journey to an unknown place, unknown even to her.

She offers me a job, but far away. What do I have to do? Serve drinks and dance.

On a boat, the police is checking ID cards. It’s the trafficking police on the search for minors travelling alone. One 15-year-old has to leave the boat. She is considered too young to travel. The framings are tight. We are in between hammocks. Even though the boat is open and we can see the wind blowing in people’s hair, there is a sense of suffocation underlying those scenes. It is almost an atmosphere of suspicion. Once you realise that the police checks ID cards, you begin to worry about the children on board the boat. Are they travelling with their parents? Are they travelling with their “uncle”, their “aunt” who sell them to men in the city? What is going on in everyone’s mind?

I couldn’t help making a connection between Tania and Wang Bing’s Bitter Money with a pinch of Amat Escalante’s Esclava. Wang Bing’s film focuses on young people, often barely 18, or officially not 18 at all, who travel to the city in order to work. They face exploitation and conditions that tie them to their place of work. There is no freedom anymore. There is no life. They become part of an exploitative cycle of capitalist work. Esclava is about forced prostitution, a brutal short film that shows what Jimenez and Liénard don’t show.

She takes my ID card and throws it into the river. ‘Now you’re nothing’, she says.

Nothing. This is precisely the subject of the film. It is not so much about prostitution, albeit it might look like this at first. But Jimenez and Liénard, in their aesthetics, in their choice of storytelling, focus on what isn’t, on what is no longer, on what has been lost, on what cannot be reached. After fifty minutes, Tania tells us about the fines she incurs for not having a drink with customers, for waking up late. She says that her debts keeps growing, even though she works every day. Again, nothing – growing debt, no way out.

As well as the loss of dignity.

He raped me because I was a rebel.

Jimenez and Liénard’s film goes deep, travelling into the wound that is sexual exploitation. It’s a traumatic wound, which shows in the non-chronological progression of the narrative. The shifts between past and present, without warning, without explanation, are brutal. Even more brutal are the shifts between the two different pasts to which Tania returns whenever she remembers a little more. Traumatic confusion, for Tania and for us. The poetic feeling to the film is misleading. It’s a bubble, a cover, a lie to make you feel comfortable. But the truth is that the directors take you into the dark, a little deeper with every scene.

Closing Time – Nicole Vögele (2018)

The beauty of Slow Cinema is that directors welcome you to their world and let you explore it in your own way. If you follow one director in particular and have seen all of his/her films, then each new film feels like coming home. I hadn’t realised to what extent this seemed to be true until I saw Nicole Vögele’s superb Closing Time, set in Taiwan, in an environment that feels so familiar after several films by Tsai Ming-liang. It is like sitting on that nice, comfy sofa that Tsai Ming-liang had prepared for me and which Vögele invited me to sit on to see her film. It is marvellous to notice the true force of slow films, which sink in and stay with you unconsciously, films that do make you feel as if you are there with the filmmaker.

The wind howls around us. Strong waves brutalise the coast. And then – peace. Absolute peace. The stormy sea gives way to an empty street at night. There is a large part of an uprooted tree on the pavement. Faint music. Rice cooking in boiling water.

This sequence of scenes feels almost like dream. It is like a ferocious journey at first, before it becomes an almost magical dream-like state. The alternation between noise and silence, movement and stillness, is a key element in Vögele’s film. Taipei at night, a city of contrasts. Closing Time tells the story of Mr Ku and his night-time eatery. His life, it happens at night. He chops veg, he cooks, he helps his wife serving customers. Despite the work in the kitchen, the eatery seems to be a haven for peace during the busy nights in Taipei. It’s a meeting point, it’s where workers come to eat, to have a chat. Mr Ku knows a lot of his customers. Eating there means becoming part of the family, part of a circle of people who follow their routine jobs in order to keep their heads above water.

The night in Taipei isn’t black. I was reminded again of the thought-provoking book Nuit by Michaël Foessel, the idea that the night has become something rare. Darkness has become light. The time for rest has become the time for work. Taipei never sleeps in Vögele’s film. The black of the night that used to be is now tinted in cold blue. The night that used to be is now an artificial day. At a vast market hall, shop owners on scooters shop ingredients. After a typhoon destroyed local harvests, people have no other choice but buy their products from the mainland. Mr Ku complains about the costs. Every month, he spends more on the ingredients, but the eatery cannot keep up.

Closing Time is about fragile existences, created by the night, by economic conditions, by a multitude of circumstances. There is life at the margins, a life which we don’t (want to) see, but which continues regardless. People make do. There is a beautiful scene half-way through the film that struck me as one of the most special scene cuts I have come across in recent years. For approximately an hour we follow the fragile existence of people, at times accompanied by the sound of ferocious winds and heavy rain, the coming typhoon threatening the people’s fragile existence even more. And then, Vögele cuts to a park, a literal but also a visual breathing space. There is a man playing the saxophone somewhere. He’s difficult to spot, but the beautiful, peaceful melody is just… it opens your heart.

So does a long, slow pan, which allows us to see the nature outside Taipei, a world that allows us to breathe, but that also shows the clear contrast between the world of the Nachtschwärmer, the night owls, and the world that seems to be out of reach for them. Mr Ku speaks about the necessity to take a break. His fragile existence also depends on his ability to rest, to break out of the hamster wheel which his life has become. Closing Time is very much about this hamster wheel, about the constraints that those at the margins have to abide by. But it is just as much a film about agency, about the liberty to take a decision that allows you to be. Instead of returning home and back to work, Mr Ku takes a detour with his scooter one day. He doesn’t seem to have a specific destination in mind. The only destination he drives towards is a badly needed escape, in much the same way the saxophone allowed us to escape from the eternal blue night earlier in the film.

Vögele’s film is a genuine gem. It feels as though she continues where Tsai Ming-liang had left off. It feels like a continuation of a world that slow-film fans might recognise, but she adds her own touch to this world. In an interview, she once said “For me, it’s not important if I shoot a film in Taipei or in Zurich. I think what really interests me is a really deep humanistic thing. Why are we here? What is human? I think that it’s not important where you do that.” But it’s important how you do it, and Vögele shows in Closing Time that she is well-equipped to explore those questions with her camera.

Taste of Cement – Ziad Kalthoum (2017)

My father’s hand was the city of Beirut.

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.

Century of Smoke – Nicolas Graux (2019)

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.

The year after Dayton – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (1997)

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?

Til madness do us part – Wang Bing (2013)

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.