Visitor – Sebastian Cordes (2018)

“It is said that man has always wandered. Out of need or curiosity, across deserts and oceans.”

This is how the new feature film by Danish director Sebastian Cordes begins. After his Bolivia-set A Place Called Lloyd, which is currently running on tao films for free, Cordes took a journey to the island of Chios, Greece. As he states at the beginning of his film, the years 2015 and 2016 were seminal in the European consciousness. Indeed, they were. They will remain with us for years to come, perhaps especially for me as I’m originally from Germany and my country was the only one that had heart enough to open the borders. The German chancellor paid dearly for this, politically, which is still difficult for me to grasp. You don’t have to agree with a politician, but you can agree with another human being on helping other people to find refuge, people who flee from war, from certain death, people who have lost their home, possibly even their entire family.

This background represents the core of Cordes’ Visitor. Set on the island of Chios, the director films life on the island as it is, an obscure parallel world of normality for the local population and an extraordinary world for those who have landed in Chios, “where Turkey is always at the horizon”. A static low level shot that shows a police car on the right hand side and the raging sea on the left opens the film visually. The shot sets the tone of the film. Its emptiness, its anonymity, is something that will return over and over again throughout Visitor. The raging wind, too, is always present, right at your ears, in the weeks before Christmas. Not much later, there is a poignant shot of a stone wall. A very simple shot. There is nothing beautiful about it. It is a wall, nothing more, nothing less. Water flows underneath it. The waves push the water onto the land, right underneath the wall. “No borders” – this is what’s written on this stone wall, stone, which stands for harshness, hardness, durability, for a definite attempt to keep other people out of your territory. It is this phrase that dismantles the wall. Two words: No borders.

Visitor is an observational documentary. It is self-reflexive. It is contemplating itself and what is happening around it. Time and again, Cordes cuts to a black screen and makes us think about who we are. Visitor poses the question of who the visitor is which Cordes names in the film’s title. First of all, the viewer is at all times aware of the director’s presence. He’s got a shadowy presence in one shot. In another, we can see (parts of) him at a restaurant. Cordes doesn’t hide his presence. He’s the visitor, he’s the person whose “body is blue eyes white skin”. He’s the one who shoots the footage, who assembles it and who tells the story of life on Chios. But this isn’t the whole truth, the full meaning of the title. What are the refugees Cordes is, except for the very end, filming only from the distance, the refugees who have an absent presence, an almost haunting presence throughout the film’s running time of just over an hour?

One of the defining responses to the refugee crises in Europe was that countries expected the refugees to keep moving on. No country wanted to shelter them permanently. The response, not new at all, sadly, is at the core of Anna Seghers’ novel Transit, which is set in Marseille just after German troops have invaded France. Transit painfully shows that the whole idea of giving refuge to someone is to help him or her to move somewhere else. The novel is a representation of the inhumane treatment of those who flee from persecution. It is all encapsulated in the attempt of getting a visa to stay in Marseille: you can only stay if you prove that you’re leaving again. The situation Europe faced in 2015 did not change anything in our response to something we had seen and dealt with before. Cordes’ film title makes a point, a point that you might not see at first because you consider the director as the only visitor present in the film. But Visitor also speaks of the “visiting” refugees, of temporary shelters, temporary safety, and the expectations that they just move on. It doesn’t matter where to, as long as they do not stay in “our” country.

Poignantly enough, Cordes includes a shot of the shopping window of a transit ship agency. Transit – keep moving, keep moving. Don’t stay, don’t stop. There are shots of the open sea interspersed with more static and empty shots; a contrast which Cordes creates deliberately. The raging sea, the wind in our ears – this is it, this is movement, this is a continuous forward movement. But where should those people go if no country wants them? 

“My body is not the capsized boat in the open sea, the stillness when the sea again falls still.”

Voice-over parts like those cut through the narrative like a sharp knife. While at the beginning, the question could be whose body the voice-over speaks of, it becomes inevitably clear in the course of the film that this body is our body. Cordes not only speaks of himself here. This has a larger, a more wide-ranging meaning. He tells the story of those who died, those who suffered on their way to a hoped-for refuge. He tells the story of who we are not, because we are the “blue eyes white skin”. We are the privileged, those who look at refugees from a safe distance, possibly sitting in front of our telly on a sofa, with the radiator on full blow so that we don’t get cold.

Visitor becomes a real force towards the end, really bringing home the idea of visiting, the idea of repetition, in particular when the director speaks to an old woman who was aged 5 in 1940 when she suffered from hunger and cold, just like the refugees do now as a result of war. History repeats itself. History doesn’t move forward in a linear fashion. History is an eternal circle of repetitions. What has been, will be again. What we have seen in the past, we will see again in future. The only question is when. But there seems to be little doubt about the actual occurrence. And yet, with this rather bleak feeling that I had at the end of Visitor, Cordes did something. He added hope. Two refugee children making faces for the camera, laughing, playing around. There it is, this hope that I had been missing throughout the film. There it is, in the face of children who have been through so much, who have, in some cases, seen more than one of us does in his/her entire life. But hope is not lost, Cordes tells us, which makes Visitor an important film to see this year.

The art of emptiness – Itzhak Goldberg (ed, 2017)

After a rather long break from writing due to health reasons, I’m trying to embark on finally writing something about that book I bought last year, which intrigued me with its title. My avid readers might remember just how keen I am to link painting (or static art in general) to Slow Cinema. Not because I think that they’re the same. They cannot be. They each have their individual characteristics that sets them apart from the other. But there is this use of empty frames, of static frames, of little to no dialogue in slow films that has always reminded me of standing in a gallery in front of a painting, contemplating the scenery I see in my own time.

Like almost all French books I have so far bought for reviewing on this blog, L’art du vide (2017) is the result of a colloqium on the subject which united scholars and artists alike. The book contains chapters on paintings, drawings, even animation films and one chapter that I really enjoyed titled “The dimension of absence in contemporary art”, written by Nadia Barrientos. Some of you might know the works by Jean-Luc Nancy, French philosopher, who also wrote a preface to the book, in which he states that we cannot penetrate emptiness. It is emptiness that penetrates us, pierces through us, and it’s not so much that it leaves emptiness behind. Emptiness means, in fact, fullness. It’s this Chinese adage, which I had read about during my PhD research: emptiness and fullness complement one another. One cannot exist without the other.

This is, as Nancy demonstrates with several examples, clearer in the French language than in English. I was quite baffled when I read that section, and was then glad that I could speak French. Indeed, nothingness in French doesn’t come without fullness. Nancy points out that the French word rien (nothing) comes from Latin res, whose accusative rem became rien in French. In fact, res means thing. It doesn’t mean nothing. It means thing. In French, rien therefore only becomes nothingness if you negate it: “Il n’y a rien à dire” (there is nothing to say). If you don’t negate rien, it remains a positive word.

In his introduction to the book, editor Itzhak Goldberg points out that (as I have previously argued in the context of Slow Cinema) the larger visibility of emptiness as a subject is, as such, not a recent phenomenon. Rather, emptiness has always been there, but external circumstances, such as the increased speed of our lives, make us more aware of the opposite: of slowness, of nothingness, emptiness. It’s like you searching for something to do when you’re bored. Nothingness gives way to fullness, and the other way around. In his online article about emptiness in art, André Rouillé argues – to me quite convincingly – that art has the opportunity to set itself apart from all other mediated images in a world full of images by putting emptiness (or nothingness) at their centre. According to Rouillé, the media are condemned to be fast all the time. It is about grabbing the spectator, about reporting first about an important event. It is, as he says, all about the spectacle, which makes me think of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and his own comments on it. In any case, Rouillé suggests that art can function as the antidote of this ever-increasing speed, which is being normalised by the (spectacle of the) media.

I think what resonates strongly with Slow Cinema and my work on it, is a quote by Norman McLaren Goldberg uses in order to strengthen his own arguments of emptiness being a central part of art. McLaren famously said that it’s not the image that is important, but what can be found between the images. It’s not so much about showing, but about suggesting, and in order to suggest something on a screen, you have to use nothingness. you have to use the off, something that isn’t there, something that isn’t easy to grasp at first. A great deal of slow film directors use this strategy in order to engage the viewer in their films’ stories. If I speak about the use of absence, as I have called it throughout my work, I inevitably think of Lav Diaz and his magnificent use of the off in order to suggest trauma and create an almost slo-mo progression of narrative. But, Goldberg argues correctly, the use of nothingness (or absence) confronts the viewer with problems. Goldberg does not go into detail here. Yet, I have argued elsewhere that the problem really comes from the fact that the viewer is conditioned. S/he is used to getting everything served on a silver platter, so that s/he can enjoy a film rather than have to work in order to “get it”. This conditioning is also the reason of slow films or “empty” artworks being rejected because they do not conform to what one is used to. In the end, Goldberg argues, this is a very Western attitude: seeing is believing. Something invisible doesn’t count, isn’t worth mentioning.

I could go on about the introduction of the book, which is genuinely interesting and contains a lot of good points. But I would like to draw your attention to one chapter at least, which I found particularly fascinating. I have mentioned on this blog before that slowness/emptiness can be an antidote to anxiety induced by external factors. The hectic 24/7 we-are-always-live news is one example, but by far not the only one. What struck me in L’art du vide was the chapter on the American artist Jacques Brown, who was absolutely afraid of emptiness. He suffered from severe anxiety when he just saw an empty canvas. At one point, he wrote in his personal notes: “I died 36 times in this canvas.” He coudn’t deal with or handle a white page, an empty canvas, anything that was empty. It prevented him from creating something. If it created something, then it was utter fear and debilitating anxiety. So what did Brown do? He used old account books of his wife to draw on. Those pages were not white, not empty. He could draw freely on it without being inhibited by “the fear of emptiness”.

In her superb chapter on the aesthetics of absence in contemporary art, Nadia Barrientos writes that absence forces us to shift our attention to something that had previously escaped us. Absence functions as a reminder of something previously forgotten, and to show us this something in a new light. Absence works like silence, which is often used to enhance what has been or what should be said. I have been fascinated by something I’d perhaps call “temporary art”; a work of art that disappears after a while. In some ways, those are wonderful examples of the interaction between fullness and emptiness, combining both to generate a powerful message. Barrientos mentions 2017 by Thai artist Pratchaya Phinthong, for instance, which is a sort of mural painting written with a special ink that slowly but surely disappears the longer it is exposed to daylight. This is not only about fullness and emptiness. It is, to me, a statement about forgetting, something that happens very slowly, almost invisible until one day a certain memory is gone. As Barrientos correctly points out, Phinthong’s artwork goes against the famous adage “the medium is the message”. Here, it is the process – of change, of forgetting – that is the message, and that stands above all and invites the viewers to reflect upon this.

Nothingness, or emptiness, has, as this book shows, wide-ranging meaning. What stands out in all chapter is the idea that nothing doesn’t mean nothing. On the contrary, nothing always stands for something, and helps highlighting this particular something. The use of emptiness/absence is a way to engage a viewer, to reflect about major themes as large (but important) as humanity. Nothingness can be anxiety-inducing or soothing. It can be the centre of an artwork, or it can be one of many characteristics. Nothingness can be there from the start, or an artwork can disappear in front of a viewer’s eyes. This “nothing” is multi-facetted and more than just “nothing”. I think this is the easiest, and quickest (oh, the irony) way to describe this collection of essays!

tao film selection and other news

Welcome to a new selection tao films films for you, handpicked just for you 🙂 Before you dive into it, let me say that tao films will start a free collection very soon. We’re currently preparing it. In order to give you a taster of our work, some films will be available for free on our platform. I’ll let you know once everything is up and running for this. And now, please welcome…

BYRON JONES by Ashish Pant (2013, US/India, 108min)

“If there is something that characterises contemporary “Slow Cinema” in particular, then it is the directors’ focus on the everyday. They hold a mirror in front of us, in front of our pains, our joys. Ashish Pant’s Byron Jones belongs to this category of filmmakers., but he stands out, taking the focus on the ordinary everyday further than other directors do. Byron Jones is a two-hour long portrait of an elderly man. We see him sleeping, showering, preparing meals, eating. In particular the last two daily habits might evoke in some viewers the memories of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman; the almost hyper-real depiction of a woman’s day-to-day going ons. Jones, a widow perhaps, lives alone, which the director enhances with an almost oppressive silence that characterises the man’s solitude. With his insistence on showing Jones’ daily activities in detail through the use of almost extreme long-takes, Pant has created a hyper-real portrait not only of Byron Jones, but of most of us.”

ART 35.5. HOURS A WEEK by Mariken Kramer and Eli Eines (2017, Norway, 22min)

“The front security door opens and the first visitors enter the National Gallery in Oslo. Another day at the gallery begins. But while this is another day of leisure for local visitors or foreign tourists, several coming from far away to see the classics, it is another day of work for the security guards who surveil the precious paintings the National Gallery is home to. Artist-filmmakers Mariken Kramer and Eli Eines, both alumni of the Trondheim Academy of Fine Art, focus in their documentary on the behind-the-scenes at the National Gallery, singling out those people who spent the most time with the paintings in front of them. In careful long takes, Kramer and Eines evoke the required slow look at a gallery, all the while speaking to the guards in order to learn about their work, but most importantly about their relationship to art. In the background of the directors’ frames, viewers speed through the different rooms only to take a picture of a famous painting; a beautiful contrast that forces us to think about our relationship to art, our willingness to take time for what surrounds us, and our appreciation of it.”

ONE TIMES ONE by Chris Bell (2016, US, 20min)

“It is not easy to leave one’s home. It is even more difficult to build a life in another country, a country that is, perhaps, very different of one’s own. Ahmad emigrated to the US from Syria but struggles to find his feet. His days are spent idling, waiting for job opportunities that rarely arise for him. One Times One tells the story of Ahmad and a curious, if at times ambiguous, companionship with Mike, a 50-something American who lost his arm in an accident and keeps himself busy by drawing cartoon characters. Chris Bell uses the same patience he has shown in his feature film The Wind That Scatters in order to dig deeper into Ahmad’s daily life and struggles. It’s an episode that plays out so many times in our world that it gets overlooked and forgotten, but Bell brings it back into light and makes us aware of this enforced idleness that puts our life on hold.”

LADDER by Simo Ezoubeiri (2015, US/Morocco, 8min)

“An elderly man, alone, wakes up. He appears to be in a state of arrest. His movements are slow; he is sleepy. He is being drowned by something, something that weighs heavy on his shoulders. In one scene, we see a woman leaving the house with a suitcase. The house falls quiet, and it becomes clear what the weight on the man’s shoulder is. There is a profound sentiment of loss that Simo Ezoubeiri attempts to bring across in his film. The loss of a partner, through death of a break-up, causes a temporary stoppage of time and opens up a hole both in the person’s life and in the person itself. In long-takes which show the elderly man do nothing but idling, Ezoubeiri gets to the bottom of this sudden emptiness and loneliness, and lets us feel what it means to be left behind.”

KHOJI by Yudhajit Basu (2016, India, 20min)

“Set in the lower Himalayas, Yudhajit Basu’s short film Khoji is an ominous piece that uses the violent history of its people as a background in order to explore (and explain, perhaps) the people’s struggle today. And yet, this history is visually absent from the screen. In carefully framed long-takes, Basu lets the images speak as well as the dialogue in which parents consider sending their daughter to the city because it is no longer safe where they live. Or a dialogue in which a brother, almost surprised, asks his sister whether she wasn’t aware of what was happening in the neighbourhood. Something is happening; it hovers over Basu’s film, over every frame. The director suggests rather than tells, using still and quiet imagery that show resemblances to some of the big names in Slow Cinema.”

 

Other news

This autumn, Sebastian Eklund (director of The Blind Waltz) will open his first solo exhibition at the Konstepidemin in Göteborg, Sweden. He’s a great visual artist, so if you’re in or around Göteborg, do use the chance and see his work.

Pilar Palomero has been awarded a Special Mention at the Sarajevo Film Festival for her film WINTER SUN. The special mention has been awarded by one of the festival’s partner in the larger context of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Student Programme Award. Congratulations!

If you want to learn ore about the director of Onere, Kevin Pontuti, there is a new interview with the filmmaker available, conducted as part of the short film programme of the Prague International Film Festival. You can read the interview here.

Scott Barley’s Sleep Has Her House will have its Canadian theatrical premiere on 24 September as part of Art House Theatre Day. You can read more about the event and book tickets here.

La Pesca by by Pablo Alvarez screened at the Camden International Film Festival this month . The film will come to tao soon, and I cannot wait to show this beautiful short film to you!

More news about Kevin Pontuti. The filmmaker has taken the helm of a new study programme called “Media X” at the University of the Pacific this semester. You can read all about the director’s new university programme here.

While his short film Ladder is being shown on tao films just now, Simo Ezoubeiri’s new project Inner Marrakech begins to travel the festival world, starting with the Kaohsiung Film Festival in Taiwan.

We hope you enjoy the new selection. Do join us in our tao films Facebook community, or follow our Facebook page, or our Twitter account for the latest updates on tao films and festival news from around the world.

Nothing

Certainly, I could leave this blog post blank and let you do the thinking. This is what “nothing” is there for; it allows you to fill in the gaps that others have left, deliberately or by accident. “Nothing” can be liberating.

What brought me to this post is a film I saw last night. In Praise of Nothing by Boris Mitic is is a satirical documentary about Nothing. Narrated by Iggy Popp, it’s a humorous take on our lives, on how we deal with others, with difficulties, or even with nothing. But the film also invites profound thinking if you do more than just let the film wash over you. It contains beautiful long shots, minimalist shots in most cases, a kind that one finds regularly in other slow films, although I’m not yet entirely sure whether or not I would classify this film as Slow Cinema. In the end, it matters little because In Praise of Nothing contains a lot that made me think about the more general nature of slow films and also returned me to a book I had read as part of my doctoral research, but which I have, if I remember correctly, never reviewed as such on this blog. I’m speaking of François Cheng’s Empty and Full (or Vide et plein – Le langage pictural chinois in the original French).

François Cheng’s work teaches us a lot about how to look (at something), and how to appreciate nothingness, absence and emptiness which is so common in slow films. As Iggy Popp tells us quite rightly in In Praise…, “I (nothingness) am in every shot.” And it’s true. There is always en empty section in a film frame, or even in a painting. Even seemingly “full” paintings have their areas of what I would call rest. We struggle seeing this nothingness because we have gotten used to the capitalist idea that nothing(ness) means non-profitability. Non-profitability in turn is not desired, and so everyone needs to create something in order to fit into this system, in order to take part. Nothingness often only plays a role when we are exhausted from the capitalist hamster wheel and need to slow down. Then people flock to meditation where they often learn that nothingness is profitable after all, just perhaps not in monetary value.

What I feel more and more, especially now with film submissions I receive for tao films, is that slow film directors, just like Chinese painters during the Song dynasty period, for instance, use nothingness (either through a rigorous absence or positioning a certain something in the off) in order to express the state of their soul, or that of society, or even that of the world. The films are an expression of the soul; they’re not necessarily factual or try to teach us. Cheng puts emphasis on the importance of the soul throughout his work because it is key to reading (traditional) Chinese painting (but also slow films, I find). I have never felt so many souls, have seen so many takes on the human condition than in the films I have seen for tao. They go further than the classic Slow Cinema canon we know. They genuinely align themselves (unconsciously, I’m sure!) with what Chinese painters have described all along as how they approach their work and what they intend to show. And this has nothing to do of being aware of the painters’ desires at the time, or not. It’s about putting oneself into a mindset that favours nothingness.

According to Cheng, nothingness is a crucial means to create a relationship that blends us with nature, as well as the artwork and the viewer. It is not so much that we become one, but that we become aware of the other while acknowledging that whatever it is, it is our creation. That means that, again, whatever it is it is part of us, we’re part of it. When we speak about cinema, this element of nothingness might come through strongest in experimental films which present you with little else than slowly moving blurred images. It is the idea of an experience in which we create the meaning because the director has given us nothing; how to read his/her images, how to respond to them, how to make sense of them. These films leave you with nothing, and we blend into it because only when we see such a film is the film really complete. We play an essential role.

I have mentioned several times before the concept of a “vertical axis”, which Maya Deren so wonderfully described in the context of poetic film. In Chinese cosmology it is exactly there (as opposed to the horizontal axis which is all about fullness) that nothingness and fullness interact. Fullness always comes out of nothingness, while nothingness lives on in fullness. Again, we have this blending, this dependency. And again, this is, in a good film absolutely the case as I have seen so many times in the last five years of writing for this blog and in the last two years of my watching film submissions for tao films. There is a real understanding of this interaction between nothingness and fullness that allows one to contemplate, to think, sometimes to marvel at images. it is those times “where nothing is happening” that the real fullness of a scenes comes to the fore because suddenly we notice crucial aspects of the scene we’re seeing at the moment, or others that have already passed and return to our mind. But this can only happen in nothingness and not while being bombarded with fast-cut scenes in an action movie.

There is more in Cheng’s book, but I will return to this another day as I know that not everyone likes long-reads 🙂 For now this shall suffice to give you food for thought, and do try see In Praise Of Nothing. It’s a lovely film!

Jean-Paul Curnier’s writings on the image

Something I genuinely love, now that I’m in France, is that I can walk into any book shop and I find amazing books that really get me. I open them, read the first page and buy them. It’s not necessarily good for my wallet, but it’s good to expand more and more my horizon, especially in art and film. I have Jean-Paul Curnier’s Montrer l’invisible : Ecrits sur l’image on my desk at the moment. I have long had an interest in the absent, the invisible, which, in some ways, was introduced to me via Slow Cinema. In popular film it is about showing. The directors use the common concept of the visible in an image as proof. I don’t want to go into too much detail about this just now, because I’m using this right now for another project and it will go public in its own time.

There is something else that fascinated me with Curnier’s book. First of all, Curnier argues that with the ever increasing number of images we’re now confronted with, it is the ordinary in those images that strike us as most poignant; showing the extraordinary in the ordinary. To me, this also means that photography now has the task of making people aware again of the beauty in their surrounding, something that is now often forgotten because we always look for something better. Curnier doesn’t go as far as this in his arguments, but I believe that his initial statement says as much. We can quite clearly see the parallel to slow films here, films that often show nothing but the ordinary, which is precisely what bores people. But if one takes one’s time with those images, we rediscover just how beautiful life is while at the same becoming aware that regardless of where we come from, we share more than we don’t.

What really struck me, though, were Curnier’s writings about time, primarily suspended time. Photography has always been considered as a means to stop time. It captures what has been, it therefore captures the past. A photograph is an arrested moment. But, Curnier, writes, this argument is rather strange, because

C’est à la durée que se mesurent la suspension et l’arrêt…(9)

Curnier argues that suspended or arrested time is, contrary to common belief and scholarly writings we know, essentially measured by duration (and you probably know where I’m going with this, if you’ve been a faithful reader of my blog). To Curnier, time cannot just be stopped, it also needs to continue, perhaps in another form than before (in terms of speed perhaps), but time always progresses or continues. Therefore, it can only really be duration that sets the degree of suspension of time. Is it perhaps, then, Slow Cinema, especially those slow long durational films that really fit the idea of photography’s long-thought “what-has-been”? In effect, this is perhaps best illustrated by long-form documentaries that are also slow in their progression. But Curnier goes further.

Rien ne peut être conçu hors du temps; c’est donc bien plutôt d’une suspension du temps dans le regard qu’il est question dans ce cas ou, ce qui revient au même, d’une suppression du temps dans le regard. (10)

It is not so much a simple suspension of time, but a suspension of time in one’s gaze/view/sight. In the end, as Curnier says, nothing is ever out of time. It can’t be. Time is all around us, and it cannot just stop. What art does, I believe, is giving us the illusion of arrested time, and it therefore means that arrested time can only really exist in our gaze alone, and nowhere else.

Curnier also speaks of “the temporality of non-time” and “the time of invented time”. The first is very much connected to a dream state. Curnier repeatedly makes reference to the invisible, to an aesthetic of absence, and to the fact that when we do look at a photograph, we start to rummage in our memories. We do not simply look at a photograph, we also try to identify parallels to ourselves, as far removed as those parallels might be. This journey through our memories is, essentially, this dream state, this non-time, that appears like arrested or suspended time, but is, according to the author, simply non-time. His second term is closely related to this. It is the time of viewing. By choosing what to look at, by choosing how much time we spend on it (which has nothing to do with speed or slowness), by choosing where our gaze is moving to across an image, we create, we invent our own time. It always differs from someone else’s time. It is the time we invent for ourselves in order to look at something.

Now, the last part may not be entirely applicable to Slow Cinema, and I’m not trying to make it work. What is interesting in regard to Slow Cinema, though, is the idea of duration setting the degree of suspension because time cannot be stopped. Also, I appreciate the terms non-time and the fact that time isn’t simply suspended (what has been argued for a very long time), but that time is suspended only in our own eyes. Lots of good stuff to think about, for you and for me!

 

Ananke (Claudio Romano Nöhring, 2016)

!!! This film is now available on tao films VoD !!!

A man and a woman walk slowly through the woods. The camera follows their steps. They seem exhausted. The woman stumbles and tries to hold on to the jacket sleeve of the man. Birds are chirping, crows are cawing. There is something both peaceful and ominous in the air.

Claudio Romano’s Ananke is an observation of our selves, in parts based on Greek mythology. Romano explained the meaning of the film’s title, which, at the same time, is the name of the goat the two unnamed characters own, in an interview:

In greek mythology, Ananke stands for necessity. Ananke is the force that governs everything. It’s the deification of the unalterable necessity of fate, which is an unavoidable principle and a regulative law, without which we would be swallowed by Chaos.

Ananke (dir Claudio Romano Nöhring)

This chaos is palpable in Romano’s film. His two characters go about their daily life. Very much in the style of Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which the Italian director wasn’t aware of while he was working on his own film, the film shows the man and the woman get dressed, comb their hair, eat. In long observing takes, Romano depicts the weight of time which weighs heavily on the little house the film is predominantly set in. Damages on walls become wounds, wounds become scars. The ageing interior of the house has something mysterious to it, a mystery that also envelops the two characters. Who are they? What is their relationship to each other? While in Tarr’s film the relationship between the man (father) and the woman (daughter) is clear, Romano keeps it open, asking the viewer to decide about what s/he sees in those two characters.

The film’s idyllic atmosphere and its peace is disrupted when chaos breaks out. Ananke, the characters’ goat, named after the Greek goddess, disappears and sets a desperate search in motion. The sudden absence of the goat brings the people’s dependancy on it into the open. What becomes apparent is not the fear of what has become of the animal, but rather the fear of what will become of themselves. Ananke becomes a mirror we hold up to ourselves, because the film isn’t so much about the two characters, or the goat. It is a film that represents Man’s relationship to Nature.

Ananke (dir Claudio Romano Nöhring)

To me, this is a moving-image representation of what I have been mentioned several times in connection to traditional Chinese landscape painting. Contrary to Western landscape painting, Man was the crowning glory. He overpowered Nature. This wasn’t the way Chinese painters perceived of Man’s role. He was simply one part of the whole, a piece that adds to the vast jigsaw puzzle called Life. Romano shows in Ananke that Man still very much considers himself to be the crowning glory and that he believes he can master Nature.

But it’s not that simple. Nature has its own ways, as the goat’s disappearance shows. And this is precisely where Man’s perception of himself begins to show cracks. “Anake! Ananke!”, the woman shouts over and over again, her voice almost terrified. Her terrified shouting, her desperate searches – all of this has its root in her realisation that she and the man who accompanies her are no longer in a position of power. They’re acted upon, and struggle with their role.

What remained for me after the film was the woman’s desperate shouts. They are still ringing in my ears when I think of the film. Ananke is a film about power, in some ways, but also about a lack thereof, about emptiness, which is palpable in every frame. It is perhaps best to end this post with Romano’s own words, who describes this interest in absence and emptiness:

Emptiness, or absence, is maybe the main theme of the film and the most important concept of my style, my method, my filmmaking. Absence is all I search, in life as well. To discard everything, to taste the void. Absence means to not see, to not perceive, and also to see and to listen elsewhere. Absence is also a political choice, an essential life choice to me. It’s about focusing on what’s not there, what we cannot see, to appreciate what is there and what we do see. To claim my presence in the void, to not occupy common spaces. This is related to Nature, to God, or spirits, in my opinion. The absence of the goat, for example, is more than a vanishing. It reminds us we cannot manage everything. Almost everything happens out of our control and an explanation is not needed. The absence of an explanation: this is another concept very important to me.

West of the Tracks – Wang Bing (2003)

If you hear people speaking about Slow Cinema, or see lists of films that are usually considered to be part of this genre or this movement (whatever it is), then you will hear or see the name of Wang Bing and his exceptional film Tie XI Qu (West of the Tracks). With a running-time of nine hours, it’s not his longest documentary. Crude Oil tops this with an extra five hours. If there is something that characterises Wang Bing’s films, and this can be partly seen in the lengths of his films, is that he spends a lot of time with the people he films.

West of the Tracks is a cinematic document about the collapse of the industrial complex Tie Xi Qu at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. Filmed between 1999 and 2001, Wang Bing follows the lives and work of primarily temporary workers at factories that will close in the near future. In several segments we are told by the workers that all permanent, full-time employees have already left the factories because they were no longer being paid. What remains are groups of temporary workers, here and there. Spectres. Just like the run-down, half-empty, half-demolished parts of the factories. Wang Bing’s film is a film about absence-in-the-making. Until the end of the 1990s, over 50,000 people had been employed there. Tie Xi is both workplace and living space. Both are disappearing in front of our eyes, and so are the people.

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RustRemnants, and Rails – the three parts of the film – each focus on their own little cosmos, each part tying the knots a bit tighter on the people who try to make a living, or to simply survive. Rust is the longest part of the film and divided into two parts. The part’s four hours running time takes us through the happenings of a smelting plant, an electric cable factory, and a sheet metal factory. This part, in particular, defies the usual characterisation of a slow film being quiet and peaceful. Wang Bing’s film is anything but. If there is one thing that stood out for me personally, it is the sound track. There is a constant noise in the background. The noise in the factories is almost deafening. Only the electric cable is a bit of a respite to what Rust usually shows us. The colours are mysterious, and, partly, reminded me of Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead, which I reviewed on this blog a little while ago.

Rust is about the factories themselves. Wang Bing follows the workers in several scenes, but the focus remains persistently on the factories, which we enter and exit via lengthy train journeys with the camera attached to the front of a train. These journeys made me think of the first traveling shot in cinema; a hallucinatory journey through empty places and a sort of symbol of Wang Bing’s film. The director records the men at work, revealing the disregard of any safety procedures. Money is what counts. The workers have no value unless they create (monetary) value. Their health and their safety count for nothing. Rust is a document of capitalist exploitation, taking place in a communist country that refuses to acknowledge publicly that it, too, has been seduced by the ideas of capitalism and consumerism, and that their people have to suffer as a result.

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West of the Tracks wasn’t made with official blessing. It was shot clandestinely, helped by a small digital camera the director used. This film wouldn’t have made it past the state censorship, like all of Wang Bing’s films. He films what doesn’t exist officially. He writes the stories that have officially never happened. He films the flip side of the country’s enormous boom: the extreme poverty of parts of the population, the exploitation of the workforce in absolute disregard of their health and safety, the rehousing of people against their will, the frank neglect of everyone who does not belong to the top 1%.

Remnants and Rails show all of this in poignant ways. Remnant is set in Rainbow Row, the housing complex that is part of Tie Xi. In contrast to the first part of the film, Remnants is a more intimate portrait of the people who suffer from the collapse of Tie Xi. This is no longer just about the workers, but about their families. Rainbow Row is destined for demolition. The people are promised a new house if they sign up for it by a certain date. Several of the people we see in the film, however, refuse to do so, and risk being homeless once Rainbow Row is getting demolished. What becomes clear in the discussions between the people, which primarily take place in the local shop – a sort of gathering point for them because it has everything, even a telephone – is that the local councils attempt to trick the people, drastically reducing the amount of compensation they will pay to those who lose their jobs or giving them a much smaller flat which does not offer enough space for a family. As a result, some people refuse to leave their house, a protest that leads to their being cut off from electricity in November 2000.

West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)

In some ways, Remnants is a look into the future, albeit it is set in the present. Wang Bing focuses primarily on a group of youngsters, amongst them Bobo and Whitey. They’re roaming the streets, speaking about their love interests or about their goals in life (“We’re the same”, says Bobo, “we have no goals.”). I remember one man being worried about his son. He himself doesn’t have proper education, nor does his son. Everything around them is collapsing, and it’s unlikely that his son will have it any better in future. It might as well get worse. Part of this collapse is also the collapse of the human being. The mother of Wang Zhen is diagnosed with cancer. The mood is sombre, and continuously drops throughout the rest of the film. She’s getting treatment and her hair fall out. She shows this to someone in the streets. Wang Bing keeps recording, offering no comment. We’re left with this tragic image. Remnants ends quietly, and as a complete contrast to Rust. It is quiet, almost peaceful, perhaps dead. The majority of Rainbow Row has been demolished. A few people are still living in the area, amongst rubbles, without water or electricity. “Fuck,” an old man says. “It’s as if everyone has died.”

As was the case in the first part of West of the Tracks, Wang Bing often travels by train in the third chapter of the film, aptly called Rails. Even though he depicts a group of workers again, Rails becomes the tragic ending of what we have seen before. The emphasis is placed on old Lao Du and his son, Du Yang. Lao Du has been working on the railways for over 20 years, but he was never employed. He made a living by selling whatever he could find in the complex. “It’s not easy with children,” he says. His wife left him. One of his sons works in a restaurant. The second son is still living with him. The pressure, the stress, the fear of losing everything is drowning him. One day, Lao Du is arrested, and it is not clear when he would return. At the same time, Du Yang, the son, is informed about the demolition of their place. Alone in the small house, he shows Wang Bing photographs of his family and begins to cry when he sees pictures of his mother.

West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)

The director’s focus on Du Yang is poignant. Wang Bing stays with him, recording this microcosmos of the collapse of Tie Xi. When Yang’s father is released, Yang appears to suffer a complete mental collapse in a restaurant where he is eating with his father. He cries, he shouts, he seems to have trouble to coordinate himself, he even hits his father several times. What has happened over the years was too much for him. He could take no more. Du Yang becomes the tragic figure of West of the Tracks, a young man, who inhabits the collapse of everything around him.

West of the Tracks is a long and slow film, but the collapse of Tie Xi Du happened very quickly. In the matter of two years, people lost everything they ever possessed. Without Wang Bing, this part of China’s recent past would not have been written. It would have become part of the several other histories that disappeared into oblivion because it wouldn’t be right to acknowledge failure and exploitation. It just doesn’t fit into this image of a rising, prosperous and successful country. As he would do four years later with Fengming – A Chinese Memoir (2009), Wang Bing uses the camera not only to record history, or rather history-in-the-making, but to write history. West of the Tracks is a cinematic document that, despite its running time, needs to be seen. It is not a beautiful film. You will look for beautiful frames in vain. It’s an ugly film, it is not aesthetically pleasing. But neither is the subject matter. What Wang Bing shows shouldn’t and cannot be made aesthetically pleasing. It’s a simple document that asks to be taken as it is; raw, brutal, ugly.

Homo Sapiens – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2016)

Who, or maybe what, is Homo Sapiens? Wise man, they say. But is Homo Sapiens just that? Does Homo Sapiens stand entirely for the human being we are? I’m not so sure. And I think Nikolas Geyrhalter’s superb poetic piece Homo Sapiens is, in effect, posing this question without giving answers.

Geyrhalter does not focus on the living aspects of Homo Sapiens, but of what Homo Sapiens has left behind. His film is about abandoned places, empty places, spaces where nature takes over as if man has never been there. Man exists as a spectre. He is in the buildings Geyrhalter films, the buildings which are not far from collapsing, from falling into pieces. He is in the abandoned playgrounds, in the abandoned train stations. He hovers like a ghost over every single image of Homo Sapiens. You can feel him, but you will never go beyond this feeling.

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What takes over instead is a beautiful, intriguing soundscape. I closed my eyes from time to time to listen to the sounds. I could never tell where I was, but did that really matter? The sounds took me into an eerie, unnatural world, which at times reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, reinforced once I opened my eyes again and saw abandoned buildings. It felt like being in a zone, in Tarkovsky’s zona, where life and death exists in the same image.

The images might be static. They might show nothing interesting. What is interesting instead is what is going on in your mind. We’re speaking of yes boredom here. If you’re willing to take on a film of 90 minutes which shows nothing but run-down buildings, you begin to create your own narrative. What games did the children play in that playground overgrown with grass? What film did they show in that decayed filmhouse? How many people used to come every night for their evening entertainment? Who was the person who left his or her bike under a shed at that abandoned train station in Japan?

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Why did the people leave in the first place? I started to wonder why the places I saw had been abandoned. I began to think of Fukushima. I began to think of war. I had all kinds of things in my head. In fact, my mind felt very different from what the images showed. My mind was busy making up fictional stories about what happened at the places I saw. I made up fictional stories about the people who shaped those places. Who were they? And, more importantly, when were they there?

Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens is full of fascinating shots. Almost every frame is a beauty in itself. It’s incredible how much beauty you can find in destruction and abandonment. Homo Sapiens achieves this through perfect framing. This reminds me again of something I have read somewhere (God knows where!) and which applies so well to slow films: it doesn’t matter what you show. It’s a question of how you show it. You can show the most simple things, but they can become complex and special depending on how you show them. This is the case with Geyrhalter’s film.

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I suppose many people would just walk past those abandoned places, but he makes us stop for a moment. He makes us look at them, and he gives us time to appreciate what we see. Wee see the past, the present and the future. We see what we built. We see what is now decaying. And we see how the planet will look like after Homo Sapiens is gone. Regardless of what we’re building right now, nature will take over. It is nature that is wise. It is patiently waiting for its time, for its time to breathe and for its time to expand.

Los Ausentes – Nicolas Pereda (2014)

Knowing Nicolas Pereda’s early work, I’d be inclined to say that his medium long film Los Ausentes marks a new era in his filmmaking. The trailer already looked haunting and different from Pereda’s usual filmmaking. The colour palette is the same, the actors have the same aura around them. And yet, and yet…

Los Ausentes is, first of all, about an old, fragile man who loses his house near the beach. I assume he has lived there all his life, so loss (absence) is at the heart of Pereda’s film. It’s the very core of it, and Pereda perfects his usual aesthetics in order to transmit this feeling of loss to the viewer. Los Ausentes stands out in Pereda’s work because of its camera work. The director has always favoured long-takes, temps mort, and a very minimalist storytelling. But this film goes a bit further. In fact, it reminded me strongly on the films of Béla Tarr and the fascinating work by cinematographer Fred Kelemen (who himself made films, amongst them Krisana).

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Pereda uses a kind of independent camera, which I have marvelled upon when I saw Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). This is also when I first understood Daniel Frampton’s filmind, film as thinking independently. If you put Los Ausentes and Werckmeister Harmonies next to each other, you can see that they both make use of an independent camera. The camera is not really following the protagonist, unless the character is walking down a road. The camera has its own mind and moves to whatever place or whatever action it would like to record.

I haven’t seen it to such an extent in Pereda’s previous films. I even wonder whether it is an homage to Tarr. The beginning must be at least a very obvious wink, starting with a medium shot of a cow facing us. And then, slowly, very slowly, the camera zooms out and reveals first some kind of structure, which then turns out to be a window frame. The camera zooms further out, very smoothly, totally beautifully, and reveals the old man sitting at a table eating. If faithful Tarr-viewers are not reminded of the famous opening scene in Damnation or the beginning of The Man from London, I don’t know what those people have done with their lives 🙂

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In any case, this independent camera transmits the film’s idea of loss, of the absent, fabulously. It feels as though there was a ghost walking around, looking at things or moving places. At times, we see the protagonists. At others, we don’t. But nevertheless, we can feel an eerie presence. There is someone there with us, but who is it? Los Ausentes is a perfect example of how aesthetics can convey absence. I had come across this very subject in my research on the films of Lav Diaz, but Diaz is doing this in a very different way. This independent camera movement also feeds well into the idea of the fragile, old man losing his sanity. Again, this is a theme that pops up comparatively often in slow films, and it is interesting to see how directors deal with this differently.

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When I saw the old man standing somewhere in the woods, with his skinny back towards me, I wasn’t quite sure whether what I saw was supposed to be real, or whether Pereda wanted me to believe it was a dream. There’s only ambient sound, and because I was in a state of dreaming already because of the superb camera work, I wasn’t so sure anymore what I was seeing or what I was asked to believe. This became even more difficult when the old man’s younger self appeared and it wasn’t clear anymore what happened when and where.

I began to wonder whether the title Los Ausentes applied to more than just the film, because in the end, you do lose yourself in the film. You might be physically present when you watch the film, but where are you mentally? Are you home? In the cinema? In an imagined Mexico? In a dream? In real life? I would say that Los Ausentes is Pereda’s strongest film. As I said before, it looks like his previous films but it feels very different. The combination of narrative and aesthetics is just right, perfect even, and I think that the length of the film – medium length – helps to keep the film focused. It feels like Pereda’s most polished film and I wonder where he will go from here. I hope that we will see more of this!

Another Year – Shengze Zhu (2016)

A three hour long film about people eating – admittedly, this doesn’t sound like a must-see film. And it’s not even just three hours of people eating. It’s three hours of long slow takes as well. We’re not exactly speaking of fast food here 🙂

Another Year should, nevertheless, be on your must-see list for this year. It is an essential slow film to watch and is already my slow film of the year. Shengze Zhu draws a portrait of a Chinese migrant family. This is more than just about eating, although, if you are no more than a passive viewer, you could easily think that. I remember the time when I was younger. When my siblings were still home, dinner was always the time when we were together and talked about our day. It wasn’t dinner. It was a social gathering. Yes, we came together over food, but I found that it was more about exchanging our thoughts and feelings than about the actual process of eating.

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Those memories resurfaced when I saw Shengze’s film. The film has a very simple, but effective structure. It is divided into 13 months. Every meal in a certain month is shown in one long-take. In some cases, Zhengfan Yang, the cinematographer – also known for this films Distant and Where Are You Going? – uses medium long to long shots, partly framed by the inside of a house. A thoroughly engaging approach, because it plays with absence and presence.

In a way, Another Year is an extension of Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II, which is all about making dumplings. In Another Year, you don’t see the cooking. It’s all about eating, and, funnily enough, they do eat a lot of dumplings! The kitchen is something that only exists in the off. It exists in the film’s sound, but the director doesn’t go beyond that. What she does make clear – both through off- and on-screen presence – is the absolutely invasive presence of the television, which is running almost all the time. It adds to the already claustrophobic nature of the room where most of the film is set.

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Why did I remember my childhood when I saw the film? Another Year tells the story of a family, which unfolds during dinner time. In January, the father comes home and the mother complains that she cannot stand her mother-in-law. In February, the mother-in-law has a stroke and is only talked about because she’s in hospital. In March, the mother has moved with her two smallest children to the house of her mother-in-law to look after her. And so it goes on. Every month, every meal, tells a new part of the story, which you have to piece together on the basis of the dialogues you hear. You cannot just sit and stare at the screen. Shengze Zhu asks you to be active.

And if you are, then you notice the currents below the surface. Another Year is drawing a picture of a family under pressure. The film is not a picture of happiness. If anything, the film is a portrait of frictions, of arguments, of anger and of impatience. No one in the film seems to be really happy. It often appears as though life is a chore, and yes, the mother does utter this early on in the film: “My God, why is life so hard?” Money is scarce. She has three kids with her husband being at work all day. Towards the end, she actually complains about this, but it is not even clear what she wants because she feels offended when her husband offers to stay home to look after the kids while she goes out to earn money. So what do these characters want?

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The oldest daughter wants new shoes. Then she wants new socks. And new chopsticks are also necessary. There is an almost constant “I want this – I want that” in the film, but because of the family’s poverty, the characters are stuck and do not seem to be able to move forward. This is shown quite literally by the framing, which is predominantly claustrophobic. The camera is often positioned in a small room where the characters eat, sleep, watch TV and play. It seems as though their entire life plays out in the very room we see in front of us. It’s not a surprise that frictions and arguments are almost a daily routine. There is no breathing space. Nor is there any light. I found that the entire film was pretty dark. Natural light was scarce. I’m aware that the family eats in the evening and that in some months there is no more natural light at that time. Yet, I do believe that the lack of natural light is indicative for the family’s misery. The claustrophobic space and the lack of light are enough to get a sense of unhappiness, of frustration, also indicated by a lot of shouting and accusations between the characters. The dialogues are – at least for this point – not necessary. Their mood, their thoughts, they are all visualised by the film’s aesthetics.

Another Year sounds like a pretty simple film, and yes, it is based on a very simple concept. In the end, we see thirteen family meals, although we don’t really see that, because the family never sits quietly together, and eats. They’re often all over the place, especially the young children. But this simplicity, which I have seen so often in other slow films is giving us a complex picture of an unhappy, poor family, and a society that is still haunted by the one-child policy. It gives us an insight into their lives, into their concerns – simply, by being. Shengze records this being, and captures a fascinating view on a modern working-class family in China. A three-hour long must-watch!