Happy 10th Slow Cinema anniversary

This year marks a special anniversary for me. Ten years ago in summer, I watched my first slow film. It was Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007), a stunning feast, which blew my mind. I kept looking at my watch not because I was bored, but because I wanted to see just how long this first take would last. Quite remarkable that it has been a decade already. Since The Man from London, which, I later found out, was based on a book by Georges Simenon, I have seen hundreds of slow films. Not all of them have made it onto my blog, for lack of time, or frankly for a lack of space because I started my blog only three years after my first slow-film experience.

Béla Tarr, Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-liang – these were the big names when I started. I came comparatively late to the oeuvre of Pedro Costa, and I still need to catch up with all of his films. But overall, those four directors used to be the core of what was considered to be Slow Cinema at the time. There were others, of course. Abbas Kiarostami, or Theo Angelopoulos. Chantal Akerman was always a bit on the side, because she was the only woman director talked about. Slow Cinema certainly was a male field. The term was coined by a man, the directors were almost exclusively male, and whenever I did see a slow film in cinema or went to a conference, I felt rather strange as being one of only a handful of women. In fact, my work on Slow Cinema has made me become utterly aware of my being a woman, especially when my book proposal was rejected with the reason of the subject not fitting into the publisher’s portfolio, only for them to accept a book on the same subject by a man.

But apart from having me made aware of who I am and where I come from, Slow Cinema had for me something exciting about it. Why? Because it was a sort of genre, or movement, that I more or less grew into. Slow films, or slower-than-the-usual films have always existed, yet it became “a thing” only in the 2010s, once Jonathan Romney published his Sight & Sound piece about the increase of cinematic slowness in films. It felt as though I was witnessing something in-the-making. I still remember the first festival dedicated to slow films. The AV festival in the UK dedicated a whole weekend to Slow Cinema, with a mini retrospective of Lav Diaz’s films. This was where I saw my first ultra-long film, which much later became my main interest because the length not only created an entirely new film experience for me. It also allowed me to see films in a different way, not just as a purely horizontal narrative, but as something that can take its time to get to the bottom of things.

When I did my Phd from 2012 to 2015, debates about and around Slow Cinema tended to become heated. On the one hand, you had devoted followers. On the other, there were people who hated Slow Cinema and they were the ones who advocated the idea of boredom in the context of slowness. “I’m not going to the cinema to get bored.” The debate on Slow Cinema highlighted what most people expect of cinema to be: a form of entertainment that is used to numb problems, pain, concerns – if only for two hours. I believe that the rejection of slow films not only stems from its rejection as a form of entertainment. It is the rejection to see, a rejection of our human condition.

Slow Cinema also showed the nasty business of film criticism, with certain critics leaving the auditorium early and then ripped a film into pieces (which you can’t do with slow films until you have seen the whole film), and with critics who haven’t even seen a certain film they were reviewing. There were books hastily published, which didn’t even try to understand the movement as something that goes beyond a rejection of modernity’s speed. All of a sudden, those who never bothered with the field had a chapter published. If you wanted to be on top of things as a film scholar, you had to join the band waggon.

I believe that Slow Cinema has given me an insight into more than I had bargained for. In the end, the heated discussion died down as quickly as it had begun. Paul Schrader announced the death of Slow Cinema not so long ago. This shows nothing else than his lack of understanding of the genre. It may well look as though Slow Cinema is in decline. Béla Tarr and Tsai Ming-liang have retired. Chantal Akerman, Theo Angelopoulos, Abbas Kiarostami have died. The written output is decreasing.

If one wasn’t actively involved with it almost daily, one could easily agree with Schrader. But this would be a mistake. With the rush over slowness coming to an end (yes, this joke is totally intentional), Slow Cinema can finally be. Maybe directors can soon even do Q&As without being asked the age-old question as to why their films are so slow. They can just talk about the content of their films. Now is the time when some quality writing, some quality analysis can emerge from the silence and the stillness that is slowly beginning to wrap around slow films. It’s no longer about making a quick comment on something that is at odds with our modern times. It is about feeling it, and putting it into perspective.

And we will have ample time to do this, as Slow Cinema is everything but dead. Wang Bing has become one of the most prolific directors in recent years. Nikolaus Geyrhalter continues to investigate the world. Shengze Zhu has just won the Tiger Award in Rotterdam. Jacqueline Zünd seems to become a new female force in Slow Cinema. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is treading new grounds in Colombia. Aleksandra Niemczyk is probably one of the most promising new talents. Michela Occhipinti has premiered her new film at the Berlinale. Bi Gan is making himself a name in the field.

The future couldn’t be brighter, precisely because the public debate has died down. While others declare Slow Cinema dead, I personally am convinced that we are entering a new promising phase, which could even become a sort of golden age for slow films. Let’s see what there is to write for me in 2029!

Kaili Blues – Bi Gan (2015)

It is impossible to retain a past thought, to seize a future thought, and even to hold onto a present thought.

There couldn’t be a better beginning to a film than this extract of the Diamond Sutra, the most important sutra in Buddhism. It says so much about the reasons for our suffering. Do we not always try to project ourselves into the future? Are we not always haunted by past thoughts? And what about those wonderful present moments, which we would like to hold onto? There is a constant tension because of our attempts of controlling what is beyond our control.

And yet, this extract of the Diamond Sutra is not only there to make us aware of this curious state of eternal suffering. Chinese director Bi Gan also makes a statement about his film Kaili Blues, his debut feature, and, perhaps, about cinema in general. Especially the inability to hold on to a present thought… it has often been said that photography and film can capture the present moment. Indeed, so they do. Yet as soon as the present has been captured, it becomes part of the past. What is, has been. Bi Gan’s non-linear moving images (I wouldn’t call it a film just now) are a fascinating example of Daniel Frampton’s filmmind. His images are free floating, The film moves to wherever it wants to move. Past, present, future – it all seems to be one. The director’s forty-minute long-take in the second half of the film shows exactly this; the act of floating, floating memories, floating thoughts. We travel by motorcycle, by car. We follow this character, then another, all the while (re)discovering places and scenes that we remember from earlier.

Time has no meaning in Kaili Blues. Everything is. Temporal orientation is impossible and unnecessary. The film is no more than an invitation to float with the characters. A long circular, counterclockwise camera movement to the left, a long circular clockwise camera movement to the right – the camera becomes an indicator of the nature of time. Time is circular. There is repetition, there is rebirth. Freedom, relief, means breaking out of this circle. But Bi Gan doesn’t allow us to break out.

He holds us with lingering shots that resemble thoughts. He holds us with sounds that feel as though they come from our own mind, from our dreams and desires. He holds us. After twenty minutes, it feels as though we have already spent an eternity with Bi Gan’s characters, characters that draw watches on their wrists. The mechanical clock, the imposed partition of time, as an opponent to the very nature of Kaili Blues, the natural passage of time versus our modern perception of it, our modern desire to control time, to impose our rhythm on something that is beyond control – a marvellous point by the director.

Carefully composed, beautiful frames tell a story of emptiness, of distance. There is something missing. There is an absence that cannot be filled, a chasm that becomes deeper and wider with every scene. The independently moving camera opens up spaces and poses questions. If we try to find responses to our questions, time will wash over us like an overwhelming wave in the sea. We will get lost and have no means to catch up.

The reason for Chen’s imprisonment, the reason for Chen’s apparent adoption at a young age and the ensuing jealousy of his stepbrother, the role of Weiwei, Chen’s nephew – there is so much to explore, so many questions to ask, and not a single answer. Instead, we are shipwrecked, safe and secure on a piece of debris, but at the mercy of the sea, which the director keeps moving just like his camera. Long pans, slow zooms – these create waves that shift us to another place, to another time. And we forget where we are. We’re oblivious. In the end we become melancholic, we get the blues, subdued by somber frames, dull colours, and the endless movement in time without a goal ahead.

Bi Gan is, in his first debut feature, already a master of time, a puppet master who knows exactly what strings to pull and when. He follows the story where it wants to go. The camera becomes a companion along the road. At some point the question arose: have I seen this film already? An obscure feeling of familiarity surrounded me. Bi Gan walks in the steps of Béla Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s a cinematic heritage he picks up and which turns into his own style. Kaili Blues is only the beginning.