Day 2 – Alamar (Gonzales-Rubio)

I stick to slow films that make me sea sick. Vivan las Antipodas was the first film, but obviously not the last one to confuse my perception of where the actual horizon in a cinematic frame is. A central focus point. Just something for the purpose of orientation.

The similarities between Antipodas and Alamar don’t stop there. True to the matter, I have pointed out the specific opposition of rural/urban in Antipodas, which is not a dominant theme in the film, but a vital one for my interest. Alamar goes even further, and is, similar to Michela Occhipinti’s Letters from the Desert (2012) a subtle attack at the way we live; in the West, or in urban centres, or in rich countries. Whatever you choose – it is subtly attacked in this lovely and very peaceful tale of a father-son relationship.

The opening of the film tells us in brief about Jorge and Roberta, a couple for three and a half years, parents to son Natan, who got divorced based on, I find, striking “differences”. One aspect is the different perception of reality. In a voiceover, Roberta tells us: “Look at how we live now. He’s in the middle of the jungle in the sea, in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t live here. I would die in a place like this.” Roberta is from Italy. The slow backward life clashes with a modern lifestyle. The product is a divorce; Roberta takes custody of Natan.

Alamar, Pedro Gonzales-Rubio
Alamar, Pedro Gonzales-Rubio

In Alamar, five-year old Natan joins his father for a “holiday trip” to the roots of basic living. Of living with nature. Jorge is keen on teaching his son how to fish, how to scale the fish, how to make a life and enjoy life faraway from modernity and civilisation. Just the way he himself had grown up.

The film is almost entirely set on the sea (hence the sea sickness). We’re either on a boat, or in a hut built on some pillars, surrounded by water. There is water everywhere, and this is the first slow film I have encountered where the sea plays such an important role. The sea stands for freedom, for vastness, for fullness, too. In many ways, what we associate now with urban spaces, especially the fullness and freedom, comes from a very basic life we had before modernity took hold. The use of the sea as a continuous background is thus absolutely vital to the message Gonzales-Rubio wants to deliver.

In one scene, Jorge and his father get dinner ready. They have prepared fish and tortillas. This interesting conversation follows:

Natan: It’s the barracuda, right?

Jorge: Yes, it is. There are the tortillas, please eat.

Natan: I don’t want lobster.

Jorge: There is no lobster. This is barracuda. Eat.

Grandfather: I bet you don’t have that in Italy.

Natan: They don’t go fishing there.

Jorge: They don’t fish, right, son?

Natan: The fish is already bought in Italy.

Alamar, Pedro Gonzales-Rubio
Alamar, Pedro Gonzales-Rubio

There are two points here. First, Natan is illiterate in sea food. He has obviously never learned what the difference between a lobster and a barracuda is. But then, how is he meant to learn this where he lives, and is it really of importance to him? Or to us, in that matter. I remember that I learned different fish species in primary school, but this knowledge is pretty much gone. Do I need it where I live? Not really. It would be an entirely different story, though, if I had to go out fishing for food on my own.

Second, the conversation contains the subtle attack on Western lifestyle/consumerism I mentioned before. People in Italy don’t fish. They go into a supermarket, and buy fish if they want some. Father and grandfather imply that their way of doing things is better.

In general, you get a sense that, while Natan appears hesitant here and there (which I take from his illiteracy in this new world), he seems to enjoy this new place. It’s probably adventurous for him. On the other hand, when he is back in Italy at the end of the film, he appears equally comfortable. I suppose this is the luxury of being little: you adapt pretty quickly to whatever surrounding you’re in.

This film is definitely worth working on in more detail at some other time.

Day 1 – Vivan las Antipodas (Kossakovsky)

With Vivan las Antipodas, Russian director Victor Kossakovsky has created quite a stunning portrait of differences and similarities between different points on Earth. I’m not trying to explain what antipodes are, I wouldn’t be very good at it. Instead, you only get the wikipedia definition:

In geography, the antipodes … of any place on Earth is the point on the Earth’s surface which is diametrically opposite to it.

In his film, Kossakovsky opposes four antipodes that are actually inhabited (most antipodes can be found in oceans as 97% of the planet is covered by water): Argentina and China, Spain and New Zealand, Hawaii and Botswana, and Chile and Russia.

Aesthetically, the film is slow, though I wouldn’t quite categorise it as a part of Slow Cinema the way I study it. This is mainly due to the camera movements, and the fairly widespread use of music, which tends to be traditional to the specific country we are in. If it weren’t for the musical interludes, this film would make a stunning photographic album of wonderful landscape images (I spoke about the effects of music in an earlier post).

Vivan las Antipodas, Kossakovsky
Vivan las Antipodas, Kossakovsky

It would exceed the limit of my usually fairly short entries to cover all four of the antipodes. They are all incredible, and reminded me of how important it is in slow film that the cinematographer has a photographic eye. Without it, I would be less inclined to think a film in a slow-film way.

Anyway, let me comment briefly on one aspect of the film; a decisive and explicit one that stands for slow film as a whole, in particular the films I’m studying. The interest here is the opposition of Entre Rios, a rural area in Argentina, and Shanghai in China. The contrast can’t be more startling. The film opens in Entre Rios. It appears to be in the middle of nowhere. Two men (father and son?) charge people who use their makeshift bridge over a river. They spend their days waiting for cars to come. The few cars that do appear here and there are in a poor state. You get a good idea of the living standards. Also through the images of the bridge and the house the two men appear to live in. Life is slow, even for the viewer.

Until we reach Shanghai, via a strange floating camera movement (that over the course of the entire film made me sea sick). We leave the (slow) rural life behind, and are thrown into a bustling urban space. Fittingly, the first thing we see is a strange upside down scene with cars racing on a motorway. So much for slowness! We are also presented with crammed frames, full of people, bicycles, smog, high-rise buildings.

Vivan las Antipodas (Kossakovsky)
Vivan las Antipodas, Kossakovsky

The contrast can’t be bigger. And as I pointed out, these are important things in my research. The importance of the rural in the evocation of slowness. At the same time, the importance of developing countries for the output of Slow Cinema, whether as depicted subjects, or as filmmaking nations. All this is there in the first 25min. Some of my ideas right there, on screen. Good to see it!

Slow Film Advent Calendar

It’s almost Christmas time, and this blog had its first (slow) anniversary yesterday. On 25 November 2012, I published the first (very brief) entry. I would have never imagined this blog to develop in the way it has done so far, and I’m grateful that some of my readers have contacted me to discuss Slow Cinema as a concept, or even just to recommend slow films.

I will go through Christmas time in the usual way. From 1 December, I will open one (imaginary) door of my (imaginary) advent calendar. Twenty-four doors. And twenty-four slow films. I’ll be creating my very own Slow Cinema Advent Calendar.

Merry Slow Christmas!

Every day, I will publish a brief comment on the film I have watched on the day; something about aesthetics, or the content of the film. Some aspect that is perhaps worth looking at in more detail.

Finding slow films is by all means a slow matter, so I will obviously re-watch quite a few films I know already. But I think this is a good thing, because the images of films tend to become vague once you fill up your head with more and more films.

However, I’m open for suggestions. Very open, to be honest. If you have a slow film in mind, I should really get my hands on, please let me know in the comments, or email me: theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com

I only have one request: Please do not recommend 24 films that last nine hours or longer. I do have a life outside Slow Cinema 🙂

Let’s go people!

Bestiaire (Denis Coté)

Thanks to a reader of my blog, who made me aware of another slow film, I had the chance to dive into a hugely photographic piece of cinema. A while ago, I wrote a short post on Bovines by Emmanuel Gras. It is a film without dialogue. Just pure beauty. And cows. It traces the often overlooked lives of cows throughout the four seasons. It still is the most peaceful slow film I know.

Bestiaire by Canadian filmmaker Denis Coté is not much different at first sight. It is about (wild) animals in Parc Safari in Quebec (“Africa in the Heart of Canada”). Again, the changing seasons play an interesting role. Bestiary, or The Book of Beasts, was a medieval collection of physical descriptions of animals, often written in such a way as to highlight an animal’s special meaning or position in the world.

Bestiaire, Denis Coté

This seemingly little detail is in fact very significant. The animals we see in the film – horses, giraffes, bears, zebras – have been deprived of their special meaning in the world. They are all the same. They are an object of attraction for both the employees, and the tourists, who flock to the park in spring and summer.

They have been deprived of their special meaning because they have been put into captivity, where they cannot be the animals they really are. They cannot be wild. In winter, especially, when the animals are put into indoor shelters, we see, for example, zebras wanting to break out of their cage. Thus, the first half of the film is a bit depressing if you have a heart for animals.

Bestiaire, Denis Coté

The very fact that tigers, zebras and ostriches have lost their special meaning by having been put into captivity, can perhaps be seen as a concept for “subjects” (i.e. humans) in Slow Cinema as a whole. Are the characters still “special” and “distinct”? Are they not all in the same cage, the cage of poverty, oppression? The cage of loneliness and emptiness? Does it then really matter where the characters come from (geographically)? Just a thought…

Aesthetically, Bestiaire is stunning, though. It feels like a photo album from time to time. Coté is certainly one of those filmmakers with an incredible eye for frame composition. The camera is always static, as is often the case in Slow Cinema. I suppose that many shots happened by pure chance because it looked as if Coté had put the camera somewhere and had hoped that an animal or two would cross the frame. So while Coté certainly tried to set up the camera in such a way that he could get interesting shots, it is not all due to his work as director / cinematographer. He was very much dependent on the movements of the animals. I therefore see Bestiaire is a collaboration of man and beast, rather than “a film by Denis Coté” alone.

Bestiaire, Denis Coté

Watching Bestiaire might make you think that Coté is a slow-film director. In fact, he is, but his films are less Slow Cinema. I watched his film Curling yesterday, and though it did start off like a Slow Cinema film with regards to its aesthetics (long-take, static camera, medium or long shots etc), Coté moved away from those aesthetics halfway through the film, which confused me a bit. I don’t think there was anything in the narrative that could have asked for it, but then, don’t question a director’s aesthetic choices. You’re wrong about it more often than not.

Literally Distant

Sometimes you only have to be patient. Patience is a virtue, and without patience you can’t endure a slow film. Or waiting for a slow film, for that matter. I was therefore chuffed when I got the chance to see Zhengfan Yang’s Distant a lot sooner than I had expected.

The film consists of 13 takes, spread over 88 minutes. It consist of 13 different scenes in 13 different settings. In a way, I find, they tell 13 different (small) stories, but they are stories that are nevertheless somehow connected. You can feel it, though you cannot be entirely sure because you cannot see everything.

Distant, Zhengfan Yang

Distant takes the characteristics of Slow Cinema very literal and makes them explicit, but actually so explicit that I only realised how all the features came together at the end of the film. A clever tactic, and an entirely new challenge for me as a viewer. I’m very used to see the same characteristics over and over again. It’s lovely to see something in a different context.

Anyway, the title of the film is key to the entire film, and builds up on what I mentioned previously: the absence of intimacy between film and viewer, between character and viewer, and also between the director and the characters.

In some ways, Distant can be frustrating to watch if you are a viewer who wants to see everything. All scenes are shot in extreme long shots. The surroundings (of man) are more prominent, i.e. take a greater part of the frame, than the actual characters. Whether we are at a beach, where we can see a man playing with his dog, or whether we are at a bus station, where people wait for the next bus – we have no access to them.

The little gestures they make have to be guessed if one really wants to know what they’re up to. Facial expressions are even less visible than in other slow films I know (the complete opposite to Tsai Ming-liang’s Visage). The film teaches you to give up on the usual longing for seeing everything, more so than other slow films. The surroundings, and therefore the relationship between the characters and their habitat, are the feature to look out for and to study in more detail. In classical (narrative) cinema, films are human-centred. Distant is a great example that Slow Cinema, while following human subjects, moves beyond this, and puts human subjects into their social, political, and geographical context – literally. It puts into perspective that humans shape their surroundings, and vice versa. Especially the latter plays an important role in Slow Cinema.

Distant, Zhengfan Yang

Distant has an additional layer to all this. It is not only about the viewer and the director being distant from the characters, achieved by long shots. The characters are also distant to one another, which again, symbolises what I have established earlier: loneliness amongst characters is one of the many key features of Slow Cinema, and Yang’s film makes it very explicit.

All characters are alone. They do not seem to be with anybody. In one scene, there is a newly-wed couple, but the bride seems to be unhappy. She walks into nothingness, then she returns, walks closer to the camera. She then drops her flowers onto the ground, and walks off towards the horizon. She distances herself from the guests, from the photographer, and most importantly, from her husband, who all continue to celebrate.

An old man (who strongly reminded me of Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker in some ways, especially when he began to walk in a subway tunnel, whose framing brings Tsai’s compositions to mind) collapses on the pavement. No one helps him. People walk past. Cars drive past. There is no sign of compassion, or a willingness to help. As with all other characters, he is on his own. And he possibly dies on his own.

What I couldn’t quite make out was the reason for using predominantly male characters. This reminded me somewhat of Japan, where women and men grow apart from each other more and more. Loneliness seems to prevail over intimacy. I know that Japan isn’t China, but I couldn’t help the association. There’s too much loneliness in the world! (Perhaps SC is an advocate for turning this around…or maybe I’m wrong, and read too much into it, which is the more obvious possibility.)

A long Lav Diaz Taster

I have mentioned the films by Filipino director Lav Diaz several times in the past, and I also said that his films, amongst many other slow films, are difficult to get your hands on. However, there is now a perfectly legal way to watch his six-hour film Century of Birthing from 2011, the year before he released Florentina Hubaldo CTE.

Century of Birthing, Lav Diaz (2011)

Mubi offers the film free to watch (conveniently in parts of one hour each) until November, 14th as part of the Dialogue of Cultures International Film Festival. If you haven’t got an account with Mubi yet, you should get yourself one. It’s an amazing film platform!

This is your chance if you haven’t seen any of his films, or if you haven’t seen this specific one. I do have to warn you, though. There is a sect in this film. All singing and dancing. Very brainwashing indeed! I can guarantee you you’re going to hum this song under the shower.

Third (Slow) Cinema

In my last post, I hinted at the peculiar phenomenon that quite a substantial amount of slow films are made in third world countries, or that they deal with themes that cover this area of the world. It didn’t let me go and I began to read a bit about Third Cinema, or Third World Cinema. Somehow these two are used interchangeably. I am aware that categorising films like this is problematic, but I’m still having problems with the term Slow Cinema, because my intuition tells me that it’s frankly wrong, and until I have solved this issue it’s going to turn my head round every time I have to use this term in my thesis. There is something that doesn’t quite work for me.

Let us recall: Slow Cinema is often characterised as dominated by long-takes, the use of long shots instead of close-ups, and the scarce dialogue, if there is one. Slow films put people from the margins of society into the spotlight. The everyday is highlighted. Story has prevalence over action. Observation is key.

I am aware that not all films that are regarded as Slow Cinema have been made in third world countries, but I nevertheless wish to put a few things into perspective here. Not least because Lav Diaz, the director I’m working on, comes from the Philippines, a third world country with a long history of colonisation.

Third Cinema originated in Latin America, but the term was then also applied to African filmmaking. At least filmmaking beyond Nollywood. I flicked through a few books about the issue and realised that there is so little written on the subject with regards to Asian films. You can find separate works on Southeast Asian Cinema, for instance, which sometimes highlight the exact same things, i.e. aesthetics, without mentioning the term (which is probably wise, but never mind). Consistency is apparently not a strength in this scholarly field.

Anyway, I came across the works of Teshome Gabriel, who wrote two illustrative essays on third world cinema. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but safe to say that his observations of third cinema are the exact same we can find today in what is termed Slow Cinema.

A few points:

  • Film aesthetics are indigenised. They represent the country/area of the filmmaker and the themes he aims to put on the screen.
  • Long and wide shots are used preferably, so as to highlight the vastness of nature and man’s surroundings.
  • The focus is on space rather than time.
  • Story is more important than action.
  • Long takes are used in order to realistically represent the (third world) viewer’s sense of time.
  • Close-ups are rarely used as they would not depict man adequately in his surroundings.
  • Silence is dominant.
  • Location shooting.
  • Characters in the films are played by non-actors.
  • Formal aesthetics and oral traditions co-exist.

Is there are box we can not tick here? This all looks very much like Slow Cinema. In the case of Lav Diaz, we can add the box of return to pre-colonial culture, and the depiction of the effects of colonialism and dictatorship on society. With regards to the oral traditions, it is worth stressing that Lav’s films (their narrative) make use of Filipino epic tales.

Generally, if you try to find writings on Third Cinema, it very much looks as if it’s a dead subject. Most writings are from the 80s and 90s. A few books have been published at the very beginning of the 2000s. Since then it’s been quiet.

I wonder whether Slow Cinema is for today’s scholar merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing, because Third Cinema is quite an old and used term, and perhaps debatable.

Did we just give it a new name?

The River Used to be a Man

It’s been a while that I watched a good slow film. My head rarely thinks ouside Lav Diaz’s films at the moment. I’m trying to re-watch Florentina Hubaldo (and will post a review here later), but it’s a lot tougher than I had first experienced. So I’m taking it slow.

I came across The River used to be a man by accident. It’s a German film by Jan Zabeil that was released last year in its home country. I don’t think it has ever made its way to the UK, and IMDB agrees with me on this point.

The river Used to be a Man

The film tells the story of a German, who, after the apparent death of his guide, gets lost in the Botswanan wilderness. It is a slow-paced film, though not a painterly slow film the way I would study it. However, The River that used to be a man confirmed a few things that I realised only a short while ago, and which still make me think as to how I could fit this into my writing.

The film is wonderful at depicting the African wilderness, the loneliness it evokes. But also the untouched nature we can hardly find these days, especially in our regions. We see peaceful sunsets and smooth rivers. The main character, for me, in this film is nature. And strikingly, the native who initially travels with the German explains to him: “Here’s the house of the animals. It’s the house of all the animals … we’re on their island”. Nature is the host; man is merely a guest, as is the case in many other slow films.

The River Used to be a Man

What made me think is the subtle point on modernity, and the way in which we humans, especially from the First World, have forgotten how to live in a simple manner. When the native dies, the German is on his own, in the middle of nowhere. He struggles to manouvre the canoe-like boat, and falls into the river because he cannot keep his balance. He cannot hunt. At night he hears a lot of sounds from animals, but he cannot identify whether or not the animals around him could be dangerous as he possibly has never learned to identify them in the first place. He didn’t need to, living in a city. Finally, he can’t light a fire because his lighter doesn’t work. The first thing he asks for when he wakes up in an unknown village after he had been picked up by a native when unconscious, is a telephone and a shop.

It sounds like the typical ignorant Westerner. And yet, it is only a subtle theme that runs through the film. This very theme brought me back to an earlier thought that a substantial amount of slow films are in some ways connected to the Third World, or in more specific terms to developing countries. They are made by directors from developing countries, or deal with issues that touch upon those regions. This doesn’t apply to all slow films, but it is nevertheless quite a large number.

We have Lav Diaz from the Philippines; Yulene Olaizola, Nicolas Pereda, Carlos Reygadas and Francisco Vargas from Mexico; Lisandro Alonso from Argentina; Abbas Kiarostami from Iran; Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand. Michela Occipinti’s film Letters from the Desert is set in India. The River is set in Africa.

I wouldn’t go as far as terming these films Third Cinema, but I find this development striking. Other slow films come from what we call the Second World. Bela Tarr and Alexandr Sokurov are the most known examples. I’m not trying to put the films into boxes. However, this is where the term “slowness” comes in again. For whom are those films slow? For the audience, and the audience comes mainly from the capitalist, speedy First World. From urban areas with bustling streets. From hyper-modern civilisations, whose days are structured by the mechanical clock.

Considering the geographical backgrounds of those directors, it is inadequate to term the films slow. The term can be derogative, and in this case, I would say that, indeed, it is. It is merely looking down from our big modern horse on countries that are still a bit “behind”. But behind what? What is the merit?

Eulogy to Slowness

I was fortunate enough to be able to watch Letters from the Desert (Eulogy to Slowness) yesterday. It’s a poetic documentary by Italian director Michela Occhipinti. While other slow films, that have been widely discussed, are seen in the light of slow vs fast because we project it onto them, Occhipinti’s film is addressing this topic directly. It is the only slow film, to my knowledge, that can be regarded as an explicit stance in the slow-fast-dialogue.

Letters tells the story of a postman in an Indian region which is still very much true to its (untouched) nature. The film starts with images of a bustling city. The camera is in constant movement, the cuts are fast. The noise is overwhelming. A young man writes a letter, and we go on a journey with a train. The train’s sound, again, is overwhelming. It’s juxtaposed with images of the Indian landscape; vast, natural spaces. Quiet spaces. Quiet spaces you are, in fact, longing for as a viewer after having been through all this noise. The train rushes past a station, and what follows is one of the most remarkable transition I’ve seen in film: the camera remains with the station, and once the train has passed, we hear nothing but silence. It’s auditory beauty, if you wish, and you go “ahhh, finally!” in your head. Then we cut to a postman on his bicycle.

Letter1
Letters from the Desert (2010)

Fom this moment onwards we’re traveling with him through the desert to deliver letters. In many scenes he appears to be a small, lonely figure surrounded by the vast desert around him. It’s beautifully photographic, and highlights the interplay of space and man; an interplay that shapes both.

Letter2
Letters from the Desert (2010)

A mobile tower is erected in his village, which is the beginning of the end of his job. It changes both the natural landscape and the landscape of communication. People write less and less letters. “Letters are more expensive, and they take longer.” People don’t have time, or rather they have been given a medium that delivers messages much faster and they are happy to save a bit of time. Towards the end of the film, the postman has a mere two letters in his bag. A third one announces that there would be job cuts due to the declining numbers of letters sent. He is forced to open a market stall in order to support his family, as his salary isn’t sufficient anymore.

There is more to this film, however, than a simple statement about the effects of modernity arriving in even the remotest areas. There is also more than it photographic beauty. Overall, the film is multi-layered and addresses several issues.

There is, for instance, an underlying theme of illiteracy apparent. In many cases, the postman reads out the letters as the recipients cannot read. It thus blurs the line between private and public. And yet, it is a ceremonial event. Usually the whole family gathers together when a letter is read. This is changing with the arrival of mobile phones. Ironically, the postman himself, while struggling with a declining salary, receives a mobile phone by post, which his son has bought for him with his savings. This sets up a poignant juxtaposition.

Earlier in the film, he had received a letter from him and the whole family was around to listen to what he said. But when he phoned his son, he was alone. High up on his house’s walls in order to receive a better signal. It feels as if communication has been reduced to mere technicalities.

Interestingly, the son cannot talk at that moment. He is busy, and his father has to hung up. Besides, the signal isn’t allowing for a smooth communication.

A letter would have made it possible to communicate…

Slow Cinema at London Film Festival

The line up for this year’s London Film Festival has ben revealed, and it looks as though it’s going to be a strong and slow festival.

After the success at Cannes and other prominent festivals, Lav Diaz’s Norte will be screened in the category “Dare”. Albert Serra’s new film, Story of my Death, which recently won the Golden Leopard at Locarno, is also part of this category. We have Ben Rivers’ new film A Spell to Ward off the Darkness in the category “Experimenta”.

Apart from these usual suspects, French film Camille Claudel 1915 is also part of the festival. I’m convinced that there are more slow films in the line up than are actually talked about. I have already mentioned that there is a tendency to (deliberately) overlook equally great films, made by unknown directors, such as Yulene Olaizalo. I hope to get to see trailers of most films, and I can hopefully see a few of them in cinema, too.

What will be talked about for sure are the three above-named “big” names. But there is a larger realm of slow film out there. It’s just a question of whether it’ll be talked about. I’m looking forward to the BFI’s own edition of the Sight & Sound after the festival…particularly after they have pronunced Slow Cinema dead after Cannes. It’s going to be an interesting editorial by Nick James, I’m sure!

Update: I forgot to mention Philip Groening’s The Police Officer’s Wife. Groening made that unbelievably beautiful film Into Great Silence a few years ago.