24 Frames – Abbas Kiarostami (2017)

One of the defining characteristics of Slow Cinema is that quite a number of films, in particular experimental films, question the difference between photography and cinema. Static art and moving image art interact and create a certain pull that only those films (can) have. At the beginning of 24 Frames, Abbas Kiarostami notes: “I always wonder to what extent the artist aims to depict the reality of a scene. Painters capture only one frame of reality and nothing before or after it.”

Moving images have helped make recorded life more realistic. I believe that almost everyone shares this opinion. Cinema had, originally, been hailed at creating an almost too real version of reality. Cinema had become an extension of photography. It can go further. Just the movement is enough to make us believe that what we see is real, or so it seems. Kiarostami, a photographer and filmmaker, blurred the line in many of his works, and therefore posed questions about the nature of both art forms. 

With 24 Frames, the question becomes even more urgent. 24 Frames is not so much a film. It is not photography either. It is a question. 24 questions, to be exact, that make us drift into reverie. Most of Kiarostami’s shots are wintry landscapes, like those of a dream land, a land far away, peaceful, yet menacing. Shots, static, that suggest death, lifelessness, silence, contemplation. But death suggests life. Every death creates life in another way. It’s an eternal cycle. Nothing ever dies completely. And so the scenery, the reveries, beautiful, penetrating like the eyes of family members in photographs from a different epoch, begins to move. Snow is falling. Snowflakes are blown towards us. The wind is howling. Deer are running through a prairie after a shot went off. A shot in the off. Far away, and yet very close. The peaceful scenery is disrupted. The shot irritates, shocks, upsets the stillness. The shock of a shot of a deer is almost traumatising. What has happened?

Is this real? Did we have a nightmare? Is this our unconsciousness speaking? Kiarostami’s world is imaginary. It is a journey, several journeys, triggers that make us think about the nature of an image. 24 Frames creates 24 frames of a shamanic journey you are taking with the director. Crows fill the frames, making one think of Hitchcock perhaps. But Kiarostami is different. This is no threat. Kiarostami’s crow is a spirit animal, a prophecy. Wisdom, transformation, the act of change. It is a mysterious creature which, in almost literal terms, transforms a photograph or a painting into a moving image. The crow makes us question, makes us wonder. It initiates a journey into ourselves.

The sea. Endless, raging, wild. But also cleansing. Kiarostami’s sea is an important destination of his journey into the unconsciousness. Rain is falling, the wind is howling. It is a menacing scenery, yet soothing. The sea – a place without limits, without barriers. A place that frees our mind, that allows us to sink into reverie and to go wherever we want to be. That, too, is a journey. A personal journey to a place where we think we have to be. Our journey becomes our destination.

We travel through memories. Can you remember the day we arrived in Paris? Everyone was there. Grandpa wore his nice suit and his hat. He wanted to put on his best clothes for our trip. Can you remember what’s happened to him? 

Static images, Kiarostami said, capture only a frame of reality. 24 Frames is a collection of 24 snippets, of 24 mind images, of 24 destinations on a journey that we’re gently taken on. We look through open windows, open doors. Vast landscapes and the sea are at our finger tips. 24 Frames is an invitation, it is a hand stretched out to us. “Come with me,” the film says. “Let me guide you.” There is no other film whose underlying openness is so vast, so liberating, so fascinating, so personal. The film doesn’t allow refusal. It is there to be journeyed with.

Year 2017 in review

I’m not someone who likes lists, all sorts of The best films…The worst films… etc I never saw a point of social media getting obsessed with someone’s subjective opinion, with someone they have never even met or heard of rating a particular film at the top of their list. I have been asked whether I could put a list of my top slow films together, but I will do it differently here.

First of all, I’d like to thank the over 52,000 people who have dropped by this year. Of those, over 24,000 were unique visitors, new people who have discovered The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. The blog is now five years old. I changed servers last year, so I no longer have statistics for every year. But I think that this year has been the strongest in the blog’s history and I reckon around 200,000 to 250,000 people have so far viewed the blog since October 2012. These are abstract numbers, they quantify what’s going on on the blog. To me, those numbers show the growing interest in Slow Cinema / Contemplative Cinema. It’s not my work the people come here for. I know maybe 0,5% of those who drop by. It’s their interest in this type of film that brings them to The Art(s) of Slow Cinema, away from standard writing, from standard analysis. Those people want to discover what’s beyond the already-written, the already-said, and that makes me very happy. I will keep going for as long as I can, and you can help me with that by supporting the blog on Patreon.

2017 has been a year in which I did not discover single films as such, but rather almost entire oeuvres. I looked through my posts and noticed that, unconsciously, I returned time and again to the same directors; Wang Bing and Chantal Akerman. That was completely accidental. I usually try to vary my writing, but those two directors demanded more attention from me. I watched 4 films by Wang Bing alone; 15 hours of material that really struck me. I started of with West of the Tracks, Wang Bing’s nine-hour long documentary about the collapse of the Tie Xi Qu industrial complex. It was my first long film by the Chinese director, and the more films I watched by him the more I became fascinated by how much you can do with so very little. For those who know Wang Bing, it is a well-known fact that he often works clandestinely, with a small handheld camera and no real crew. He simply records what he sees. West of the Tracks is a masterpiece that was for me this year the perfect introduction to Wang Bing’s work. I had seen one or two of his works before, but that particular film had the effect that I had missed until then: the desire to see more. And so I did; Bitter Money, a superb film about young migrant workers trying to earn a living in clothes factories; Three Sisters, a look at the life of three sisters, aged 10, 6 and 4, who live alone in the mountains as their father is a migrant worker in a city nearby; and Mrs Fang, a film that was my personal discovery of the year. If someone really forced me to name a Film of the Year, it would be Mrs Fang. My aim for next year is to see and review Crude Oil and Till Madness Do Us Part. That would complete my journey through the lengthy works of Wang Bing, and I really cannot wait to see more films in future (although they do take up a lot of time!!).

The second director who stayed with me throughout the year was Chantal Akerman. It is perhaps the coincidence of my embarking on a journey through my family history during the war that brought me closer to the films of Akerman, films that are full of history, memory, and trauma. Of course, there are films in which those themes are not as present. But the two films I did see this year (I should have seen more!) had those very much at their centre; No Home MovieAkerman’s last film, and News from Home, albeit the former is much more explicit on this and, perhaps with Là-bas, the most explicit film about the family’s past. News from Home is, now that I think about the two films in retrospect, a great companion piece to No Home Movie, a sort of mirror image. Akerman left Belgium to live and work in the US. The film shows us images of the United States in the 1970s. We never see Akerman, but we do hear her reading letters she had received from her mother. There was anxiety in the words of Akerman’s mother; anxiety about whether her daughter could make it, about whether money she had sent had arrived, about not hearing from her daughter for a long time. There was a distance that could only be bridged by letters. Then there is this moving scene in No Home Movie, with Akerman filming a Skype call she had with her mother: “I want to show that there is no distance anymore.” Akerman’s portrait of her increasingly frail mother is superb and, in some ways, went well with Wang Bing’s Mrs Fang.

Wang Bing and Chantal Akerman hardly make for cheery films. And so my counterpart to all of this was the Living trilogy by Swedish director Roy Andersson, comprised of Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007), and A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence (2014). With seven years in between each of the films, Andersson took his time to craft a superb trilogy on the human condition, on our mundane lives, our mundane struggles, and yes, also about our WTF actions, actions that make you go “yes, we do this but why the heck are we doing this in the first place?” The Living trilogy is one of the few slow films (or slow film compilation) that come with a lot of humour, even though it’s dark humour. It’s not that often that we find cheery slow films. It’s usually Albert Serra who makes up for the lack of humour in Slow Cinema. This year, I learned that Roy Andersson joins the rank of slow clowns, and I still have all his short films to watch! Very much looking forward to seeing more by Andersson in the next year.

Then there was the marvellous Five by Abbas Kiarostami, which I finally had the chance to watch, and it was one of those experiences that are difficult to forget. It’s primarily the last sequence that still stays with me, the long take of a lake at night, the moon light reflecting on the surface until dark clouds cover it and a storm arrives. An absolutely superb observation of a perfectly natural phenomenon, but filmed in a rather obscure way so that, for a long time, one wonders what’s happening. Outside my director studies this year, Five was the single most interesting film I have seen in 2017.

Overall, 2017 was a good year for slow films…at least on my blog. I have also read quite a bit. There was this great book about contemporary art and time, for example. And, of course, the most wonderful Art and Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. I already have three books in store for next year, so there will be more to come in 2018. More books, more Wang Bing and who else? We will see that soon!

I wish all of my readers a peaceful end of the year, a Happy New Year in advance, and you’ll hear from me again very soon!!

Slow reconciliation with nature

This morning, I left the house at 8 o’clock. I went to a bridge that is close to my flat and that overlooks the canal Saint Martin in Rennes. I waited a bit but decided to walk a little closer to my flat again. The canal to my right and new apartment buildings to my left, I was waiting for the sun to rise. It was a cold night, it had snowed the evening before too. I stood there for an hour, not moving much, my gaze fixed on the horizon…just there, behind the tree tops, I expected the sun to appear. I’m sure that the construction workers who could surely see me wondered why I was standing there doing nothing. But even though they could stop even for a minute to marvel about this wonder of nature, the beginning of a new day, they don’t do it. Time is money. Every lost minute means delay, and delay costs money. So, naturally they keep working while I’m watching this fireball slowly appearing behind the tree tops. A wonderful sunrise in the cold at 8.36am but not visible until 9am. I could see the small changes in the colour of the clouds behind me as they slowly turned pink. The sun had an effect on everything before I could even see it.

It was this morning that I thought a bit more about something I heard on radio the other day. France Culture posed the question whether we should reconcile with nature, and if so, how. I didn’t hear the entire broadcast as I had only just stopped teaching and was on my way home. The broadcast reminded me a lot of slowness, contemplation, of the idea of taking one’s time to really see. The reason I’m writing something on this blog is because they spoke about film. I had hoped they would mention slow film, but they didn’t. A missed chance but perhaps it’s something I can start here on The Art(s) of Slow Cinema.

One of the guests, Anne-Caroline Prévot, looked into the representation of nature in Walt Disney films for a research project and found that the face of Disney has changed a lot. No more Snow White’s singing with birds. Away with characters dancing in the green, appreciating the beauty of nature, being one with it. Since the 1950s, Prévot argues, Disney has adapted (I would even say reinforced) our decreased interest in nature, in its marvels. Nowadays its films show more brick buildings, city life, cobble stones people walk over than characters appreciating nature. It’s how life is these days. In the last decades, waves of migrants from the countryside have moved to the cities in order to find jobs. Countrysides are now deserted. France and Germany, for instance, face critical “medical deserts” where everything has closed because only a handful of people live in those regions and it wasn’t financially viable to keep even one doctor there. Life is city life nowadays, and cinematic representations very much go with the flow.

That said, we’re speaking about mainstream representation here. It is mainstream that shows us where and how we life, and that can propel us into the future. It is independent cinema that can remind us of what life should be, and could be. Slow Cinema, I believe, is one type of cinema that reminds us of the marvels of nature. Not only, I should say. But one of its main characteristics is that films are primarily set in nature, something Walt Disney has gotten rid off in the last couple of decades (apparently since the 1970s). It looks at empty places, places where people have stopped looking. It looks at those “deserts” that have become so widespread in our developed countries. But, most important of all, they function as a reminder to be. Not to make something, but rather to accept our surrounding and see the beauty in it. For that, it needs time, time which slow films give us. A film I recently saw comes back to my mind: Abbas Kiarostami’s Five. I’m also thinking of Lisandro Alonso’s films (La Libertad, etc), Alamar by Pedro Gonzales-Rubio or Semih Kaplanoglu’s wonderful Bal. 

These are, of course, narrative films. I believe that experimental films can go even further because they can dwell even longer without necessarily having to push a narrative forward. But there is also a wonderful book titled Cinema and Landscape by Graeme Harper and Jonathan Ryner. I’m aware that the broadcast was really about nature, but if you mention film you might want to take more than 2 minutes in really exploring how cinema represents our attitude to nature, but also how film, as a widespread form of entertainment, can help us to reconcile with nature. I strongly believe that Slow Cinema can do its share there and is already doing so. It’s not as visible as one might want it to be, but it’s there and good change is often a result of grass root movements…so maybe we’re seeing something in the making here!

(Little reminder: the tao films advent calendar is now available on our website. 24 short films until Xmas. A new film every day. Check out our website and check yesterday’s post for more info.)

Five – Abbas Kiarostami (2003)

The beach. A beach. Somewhere. It doesn’t matter where we are, and Abbas Kiarostami knows this. What matters is his recording of the soothing and calming waves, small but significant in their way across the beach sand. The first take of Kiarostami’s Five, which he dedicated to Ozu, is a meditative exercise. There are slow films, in which genuinely nothing is happening and emphasis is placed on simply breathing with ‘frames of nature’, and then there are slow films in which quite a bit is happening; there is dialogue, there is music, there is a plot that is pushed forwards. The Iranian director has created a film that resembles very much the former, with its five long-takes which show very little and which ask us to become meditative of nature.

The beginning of Five is a record of smooth waves arriving at the beach, seizing a small piece of wood and shifting it from one place to another. Kiarostami keeps the camera at a slightly high angle, which, to me, wasn’t intuitive. Whenever I film the water, I try to do it almost on level. I don’t know why this is more intuitive to me than any other angle. At the same time, Kiarostami put the viewer into the position of…exactly, the viewer. We usually see the water from above, bending down to examine something closely. And this is what we do with that small piece of wood, over and over again, for about 10 to 15 minutes, a wonderful exercise in staying with an image and with the sound. After a couple of minutes, it is perfectly fine (and probably acceptable, too) to close your eyes and imagine the piece of wood being shifted by the water, to imagine the waves; everything begins to happen in your imagination, the actual film image is no longer needed.

This is different in the next long take, which shows us primarily elderly people walking past the camera (which still focuses on the sea in the background) somewhere at the coast. People come and go, most of them alone. The motion that we could observe in the first take is very different here, seemingly more regular, albeit not as smooth. But it also appears slower. I haven’t yet figured out why that is the case. Perhaps it is the sort of visual pauses this take takes in between people entering and leaving the frame. Besides, people simple walk past the camera…there is, in fact, more happening in the meditative scene at the beginning of the film because there are a lot of details to observe. It takes a long time before this chain is broken; four people stop in front of the camera and have a conversation. It’s those small events that make a film such as Five actually eventful and which do jolt us in our seats because these things don’t happen all the time as is the case in other films (which reminds me, I still need to see the films of Benning!).

If I look at those two first scenes retrospectively, I should perhaps say that the long-take in which ducks or small geese walk into and out of the frame, left and right, all the time, plenty of them, is a real explosion of action! It’s an amusing interlude just before Kiarostami plunges us into almost complete darkness. There is water, one can guess, perhaps a lake where frogs sit at the shore and help create a very special night-time atmosphere. There is also a vague reflection of something that, with time, turns out to be the moon – a beautiful take that, to me, brings home the idea of observing nature.

The use of the night with a hint of light reminded me strongly of Italian film artist Enzo Cillo, whose work is often using the night to its advantage and who plays with our expectations. Kiarostami remains with this scene for quite some time. It felt like the longest take in the film and what followed was perhaps the most beautiful recording of the entire film: the director remains at the shore, clouds begin to cover the moon and the screen turns black. We hear thunder and lightnings light up the lake. In split seconds only we see heavy rain drumming on the lake. We hear nature at its most forceful…and all of a sudden, it is quiet again. The clouds disappear and the reflection of the moon on the surface of the lake reappears; what a beautiful sequence! I could have watched this for hours. There are no words for this.

This very take, the end of the film, made me wonder where it would be best to see the film. Is it even a film, or is it video art? I watched it on my TV and I never felt so strongly about stopping the film because it felt wrong to watch it in my living room on a television. Five is an installation piece, not a cinema piece. To me personally, the film does not appeal to the communal, the “together” in us as film viewers. I truly believe that Five is a film that needs to be seen in a sort of dark room, alone, perhaps as a sort of event which allows one to walk (alone) from room to room, from screen to screen. The very last take, in particular, is not a cinematic piece, it is a call for experiencing the viewed, which would perhaps be done best with the help of huge, almost overwhelming screens. That would be my dream condition for viewing the film again, because it’s a wonderful film, simple, but so lovely. A real meditation in which I want to become immersed fully for the duration of just over an hour.

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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?