Le vrai film est ailleurs – Mark John Ostrowski (2018)

A curious title, a provocative message from director John Mark Ostrowski, whose work I came across for the first time during my work on tao films VoD, where we show his previous film Sixty Spanish Cigarettes. The real film is elsewhere, somewhere else, not here, not now. But where?

A female voice introduces the film. She speaks in broken French, seemingly still learning the language. The voice over, animating the black screen, allows for an almost magical journey. Where will this film go? Speaking in metaphors, the woman uses a poetic language to lure us in. She speaks about love, about the sea, her words inviting us to float with her words, which we use to look for meaning; the meaning of her words, the meaning of the film’s title, the meaning of the woman’s memories. 

Music sets in. The black screen gives way to a close-up shot of water. Waves push and pull a large flag, entangling it in a swirl of different currents that make it no more than a toy. It’s defenceless, vulnerable to the surrounding forces. Ostrowski cuts the sound of the water, deafening us, disorienting us, but also guiding us with dramatic, yet minimalist music. A foreshadowing of something elsewhere, something to come, or something that has already been. The flag – an important metaphor in the first part of the film, a symbol of belonging, of identification.

We get to know Sofia, the woman whose voice has led us into the film, and Javier, an elderly man, who suffers from a bad cough, who looks poor, but whose words radiate with power. Javier is a philosopher. He carries around a flag that he found in his grandparents’ house. He assumes that his grandparents attached great meaning to this flag, so he kept it. But “My flag, my own flag, I don’t know what it is,” he says. Instead he tells Sofia that everything is the same everywhere, yet one always makes one’s own out of what one loves. The almost intimate, very open conversations between Sofia and Javier are special. They add a counterpoint to the film’s long takes, bring substance to them. “We all come from the same womb. I don’t consider myself white, or black, or yellow. I consider myself human,” Javier says.

Ostrowski surprises when he introduces a third character, Pablo, Javier’s son. Sofia has a lightness to herself that contradicts the seeming heaviness of Javier. The Fisherman’s Guild, where they stay, makes him heavy, makes him suffer. “I can’t breathe. It’s a struggle.” He’s slowly dying, slowly wasting away. His own place, that where he is from, causes pain. It wants him to leave. There is a palpable gentleness between Sofia and Javier, an intimate relationship based on mutual (non-sexual) love. The role of the human soul plays an important role here. Ostrowski is showing soul mates, two people who speak the same universal language.

After Pablo’s unexplained disappearance, the film takes a more sombre tone. The lightness, the philosophy – everything has lost its meaning. Instead, Ostrowski’s film turns into a haunting ghost that weighs heavy on the two characters. There is an attempt at continuing, but one can feel, as a viewer, that something has changed. The film isn’t the same. It is mourning Pablo. It is mourning Sofia. It is mourning Javier. At one point, there is hope. Sofia notes that Pablo had been seen playing the guitar in the streets. We will never know. What we witness instead is the cut of the gentle ties between Sofia and Javier, a birthday present for the latter, heartfelt, but also a farewell gift that bares too heavy on the man who struggles breathing in this damp surrounding in the Fisherman’s Guild. Metaphorically, literally.

What remains in the end are traces; traces of an incredible lightness, of thought-provoking conversations, of two characters that have shared a bond. What remains are the traces of a film. Elsewhere. 

The Dog – Lam Can-zhao (2015)

There are films that one struggles to forget. They stay with you either because they are terrible, or simply really good. Others stay with you because they’re affective in their simplicity, and really touch your heart. This fascination with films that don’t let me go has reemerged with Lam Can-zhao’s wonderful The Dog, which proposes multiple layers to the viewer about life and human relationships. It is one of many examples of a striving independent film community in China that creates a high-quality output, often without many people being aware of it because those films are not always easy to get your hands on. 

The Dog is set in Guangzhou, China, in early 2014. A mother and her daughter appear to wait for the bus on the roadside. It’s a busy road. Scooters rush by, people walk past. There is a persistently high noise level that fills the director’s long take. The camera is static. Just like the people in front of us, who wait for the bus, the camera doesn’t move. It’s patiently waiting, surrounded by a sea of noise and movement. “Action!” Someone shouts from behind the camera. Is it the director himself? Does it come from a film crew nearby? It upsets the constant stream of movement, of our being invested, hypnotised by the passing scooters. In fact, it is the beginning of the director creating an at times frustrating, yet enjoyable encounter with his film, cleverly yet cruelly cutting at moments you just want to stay with a little longer. His cuts feel brutal at times, like a book which suddenly closes on us, depriving us from further reading.

The cuts become an editorial manifestation of the dog the director follows. A stray dog. He falls out of a basket at the beginning of the film, and then functions as a narrative thread, connecting our characters, people on the margins of society; a woman who is bored to death, living on the roof top with her boyfriend who is never really there; a man whose wife is severely ill and whom he has to take care of; a woman who tries to make a living by running her own snack service. The characters are as varied as can be, yet they share the exclusion from society. They share the invisibility, the fate of being forgotten. They share a life on the margins, in the dark. But they also share the company of a nameless dog.

A dog, who travels from one character to another, because everyone has a heart big enough to pick him up, but no one has the means or the chance to keep him. It is here that the previously mentioned cuts achieve their meaning. The director leads us on. A scene is picking us up. We feel comfortable, expect to stay, but then he brutally cuts and we’re put in front of the door again. Just like the dog. A young woman picks him up. She takes her distance, caresses him with one of her feet, but eventually takes him in. While preparing to give him a wash, her boyfriend arrives. They have sex, which we observe from the dog’s perspective, who sits at the other end of the room. “Take him away. It makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s like there is another eye in the room.” None of her arguments stick. He wants her to get rid of the dog.

This is the beginning of a journey through the margins of Guangzhou. Lam Can-zhao shoots the city in gorgeous black-and-white. Of course, this supports a narrative of people living on the margins, in poverty, away from the buzzing life of the high street. But the director does something else, which I noticed comparatively late. The stark black-and-white is combined with a particularly tight framing. It feels like tunnel vision at times, allowing us a rather boxy view of everything. Trapped where our characters are, confined to their places, both physical (their homes) and metaphorical (in society), without the means to break through the walls that the director so effectively recreates with his aesthetics. 

It is an astonishingly claustrophobic world, which Lam Can-zhao’s dog takes us through. Uncomfortable, tight, a dark prison. The camera is often positioned on knee-height. There is no overview. There is no wide angle. There is only a small square, a snippet of a life, which suffocates Lam’s characters. In the last half hour of the film, after a gun shot, the director cuts to a slow-motion of the dog running across what looks like a dump yard. Is what we see a distant memory? Or is what we see happening in the here and now? Lam plays with time and space here, disorienting us by cutting the sound. Sound allows us a temporal and spatial orientation. But Lam remains true to his approach of locking the viewer into a claustrophobic prison s/he cannot escape from. 

Only towards the end does the tight grip loosen. Lam shows us an open field from above, the camera pans across house roofs when a Buddhist monk arrives in a village and asks a young boy for meat for the dog. There is warmth to it. The sun shines. It is a scene very different from what we have seen before. It’s as though the film begins to breathe a bit, surfaces from the darkness in order to breathe before it returns into the claustrophobic darkness. 

The Dog is a magnificent debut feature that is strong on aesthetics and narrative. It is not always overt in what it wants to say, which makes it a particularly affective film because you need to open up and feel in order to read the film, which deals essentially with the nature of being human, with loving attachment but confining pressure. The dog becomes a vehicle for the exploration of characters who each have their burden to carry. It is a gentle film, full of emotion that bubbles under the surface, tickled by the presence of the dog, but not tickled enough to be released. Perhaps it is for this reason that the film as a whole, and specific scenes in particular, will stay with me because there is something that hasn’t been said, and it’s this that sticks more than anything else. 

Pripyat – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (1999)

A woman is walking through a dead landscape. Nature has taken over what Man has built. It’s wilderness we see. “These wild apples grew after the accident. There weren’t apples here before,” she says while slightly turning towards us. She doesn’t stop. She keeps walking. Always on the move. She is a scientist, spending her day in a contaminated lab and checking radiation levels. She had worked in the city centre, she says. And at the nuclear power plant. Of her flat, nothing is left. She enters a rundown building that used to be her home. In one room, she finds a book on the ground that used to belong to her son. “It’s all radiated,” she says, and puts the book on top of the window sill.

It is an eerie but magnificent, haunting but beautiful end to a ghostly film. At the end of the 1990s, Nikolaus Geyrhalter explored “The Zone” around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It often feels like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, more modern perhaps, less philosophical, but just as important. The extensive ending, the woman walking through a wilderness which used to be her home, turns into a hypnotising journey through a place out of time. Pripyat is as timeless as Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens. Although it is anchored to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in 1986, it feels as though the film tells more than one story. The black-and-white shots of a rundown, deserted area speak of universal calamity.

Pripyat used to be a workers’ city. A city built from scratch, with a cinema, a stadium. Entertainment – that was important for those who worked at the nuclear power plant. And the city had it all. Geyrhalter introduces us to the now deserted landscape with long shots. His shots are memories, old photographs of things that have been. The deserted buildings become scars that have been left behind by a disaster, which disjointed time. It has blurred the line between past and present. Pripyat shows that both exist at the same time. Life and death – they’re always in one and the same frame. A broken-down electricity pole in an otherwise deserted landscape. A bird’s nest on top of the pole. A sign of life? Absence and presence. (In)Visibility. 

“Well, we don’t call it ‘The Zone’,” an elderly couple tells us. The man confesses that he had been homesick after he and his family had been evacuated, so they returned to live in Pripyat, right in the centre of the contaminated zone that might remain lifeless for decades to come. “I can tell you, there’s no life here. There’s no on else, no neighbours,” he says.

What you see is what you believe. Geyrhalter sure shows us the dying city. Every day, a bit more of it is taken back by nature. Grass, fern, weed, trees. Despite several interviews, the film frames are drained of people. They’re drained of life. And yet. One security guard on the scrapyard for cars says that he got used to the danger. “You cannot see the radiation,” he says. But it is in every frame, an invisible presence that is really the core of the film. A hovering ghost from the past that makes what we see appear timeless. And so do those who have lost their lives in the disaster. They’re still there, invisible reminders of man’s self-destructive development in the name of science and progress. “He has never been found,” a foreman of the power plant’s Unit 3 says while standing in front of a memorial set up for one of the victims who died in Unit 4. Unit 4 – symbol of the worst nuclear destruction since WW II. An accident. An accident that should have been a reminder of the dangers of nuclear development. We didn’t listen. Fukushima was next.

“Even if I’m sent to prison for this. They can lock me up,” the woman scientist says when she speaks about helpers who had arrived from all over the Soviet Union and the world in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. She believes that many have since lost their lives. They needed experts, she says, not young man who didn’t even know what radiation was. She accuses the government of sending unknowing people intentionally to the disaster area. 

There is anger. There is concern. One woman is still waiting to be evacuated. For six years. Six years. She has given up believing that someone would ever resettle her. You have to make do. “You have to live and you have to work,” an old woman at the doctor’s says. “But how are you supposed to live?” Geyrhalter shows us people who have been forgotten by the government. The present become the absent on a larger scale, in another dimension. Only a few years after the disaster, the Soviet Union collapsed. The responsibilities shifted. Those outside the zone continue their lives. Those inside are stuck in an atemporal bubble.

Pripyat is very much a precursor to Homo Sapiens. You cannot ignore the similarity between the two films. What he had started in Pripyat, namely the investigation of what mankind possibly leaves behind one day, Geyrhalter pushes a bit further in Homo Sapiens. There are no more men, no more interviews. Only empty frames, deserted buildings. An apocalyptic feeling which starts with Pripyat. Homo Sapiens feels like a sequel, and which, I might say, deserves another instalment. Geyrhalter is, next to Wang Bing, one of the most important documentary filmmakers working at the moment. Interestingly, the two directors from two different corners of the world share a lot, even simple frames that show up in both directors’ works.

There seems to be a silent conversation between the two, a conversation through film, a conversation that is so often absent in their films. Scarce, basic, casual. If communication exists, it’s a form of communication by those left behind, forgotten, those on the margins who are cut off from the rest of society. Whose livelihood has been destroyed and who make do with what they have. Pripyat is one of those powerful films that makes one aware of the many blind spots that exist around us, of people who, despite everything, simple keep living, defiant of all external threats and neglect. Film becomes a tool to acknowledge this, to take our hats off in face of their courage, and to let them know that not everyone has forgotten.

(Pripyat is part of the newly released DVD Box set of Geyrhalter’s films called Six Films By Nikolaus Geyrhalter. You can check the website of the distributor, Icarus, for more information. I can highly recommend getting the box set!)

The Woman Who Left – Lav Diaz (2016)

Hooray! I have finally managed to see Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left, which won the Venice International Film Festival about two years ago. I’m always a bit behind with those films now, as things have changed quite considerably since I finished my PhD thesis on the director. In any case, the main thing is that I still catch his films, albeit now with a delay of several years.

The Woman Who Left has been hyped quite a bit, similar to his other “short film” Norte, The End of History. It is a little under four hours long, and therefore comparatively accessible. I see more and more documentaries that last for hours and hours. It has become a thing now, and I quite like it. Especially for documentaries, time is essential. It’s about investigating, about exploring, and all of this takes time. In recent years, Diaz has reduced the running time of his films with the sole exception of his first Berlinale film Hele that was very much in line with his earlier films that have turned Diaz into a real challenger of traditional film spectatorship. The Woman is, I find, close to the story of Norte, and it made me wonder whether those two will, in the end, become part of a trilogy about crime and punishment, a theme that is very much at the heart of both films, a red thread, a line that the director walks us through over the course of the films’ running times.

Both films are about injustice, about the failure of the Philippine justice system, of arbitrary arrests and the subsequent destruction of a life. Of course, one of the major differences between Norte and The Woman is the use of colour in the former, and the use of black-and-white in the latter. The Woman is visually very interesting. From the beginning, there is a nice shift apparent in the way Diaz records his scenes. He uses a lot of light (if deliberately, I don’t know), which gives some of the scenes an interesting high contrast between light and shadow, while at the same time just shying away from actually overexposing the image. Also, Diaz continues his exploration of the night, which he does in pretty much all of his other films, and which has always struck me. A couple of months ago, I wrote another post on the use of the night, the use of darkness, and how it contributes to the “slow” experience of a film. The night in Diaz’s films always has something dangerous to it, as it does in real life in any case. Diaz makes sure not to use too much extra light. He shows the night as it is where he films: pitch black, dangerous, lurking, creepy at times. A time, a space where people hide, where people seek refuge, but also where people work.

The actual story of the film is quickly summed up: Horacio, falsely imprisoned for a murder she hadn’t committed, leaves prison and seeks revenge, wanting to kill the man who was behind her arrest and her trial. The film begins with scenes of Horacio in prison, teaching other inmates and children. 30 years – this is the time she had to spend behind bars for a murder that, in fact, a friend of hers committed, a friend who then framed her. 30 years – this is the time wasted, the time lost. Horacio didn’t see her children growing up. She sees her daughter when out of prison, but her son remains lost without a trace. Her husband died while she was in prison. 30 years – this is the time it took for her to lose everything she’s ever had. The obvious anger and thirst for revenge becomes one of the main themes, albeit Diaz stays away, as usual, from showing violence. The director focuses on the tension that is boiling underneath, the tension that is there, dormant and yet fully alive. It only needs a small kick in order to show itself.

Perhaps because of all the social work she had done in prison, Horacio (Renata in some scenes, depending on the person she is with) presents herself as the good person, as the helper, the sort of rock in a stormy sea. She’s drowning in thoughts of her own, but she’s nevertheless there for others. She helps her former caretaker to start a new life. She helps a homosexual after he had been raped and beaten. She gives money to a woman, who is clearly suffering from severe mental health issues, and also buys her food. But here it is: she does so in order to get closer to her enemy: Rodrigo Trinidad, her ex-boyfriend, who is responsible for her imprisonment. Horacio is a good woman, but she has also learned to be cunning, cold, and, above all, rational.

All of those elements – the mise-en-scène, the storyline, the aesthetics, the characters – make for a very good film. The Woman starts on a promising premise. Unfortunately, this is where the film remains: at its premise. As with NorteThe Woman is obviously hyped because it is an easy film. It is Diaz’s most accessible film. The storyline is easy to follow. There are no twists, no turns. The viewer knows what’s happening next. It’s a film that makes the viewer feel comfortable in his/her seat because there’s nothing lurking around the corner, nothing that can shock. Diaz favours a straight, linear storyline over a complex engagement with the actual subject the way we know it. What happens in the next scene is evident. What happens at the end is evident. The viewer doesn’t have to engage. S/he can sit back and have the film wash over him/her.

I found this quite stunning because I know Diaz’s stand towards popular cinema, but The Woman is very much in line with the concept of popular cinema. Minus the film length and the long takes, the way the story is constructed is spoon-feeding the audience, which he had always opposed. At the same time, I reckon that both Norte and The Woman are ways to make his work more popular, making it in turn more likely to receive financial support for his more arty projects. And going down this lane means, unfortunately, accepting a drop in quality of your own work. It is not just the easy storyline that made it difficult for me to watch this film. It is also the acting. Horacio, played by Charos Santos-Concio, was a difficult character to follow. Her acting wasn’t good, or rather it was what it was: it was acting. With the exception of the mentally handicapped woman and the homosexual, the actors weren’t very good. Contrary to actors in Diaz’s previous films, those characters weren’t living their roles. They did what they got paid for doing: acting. This has a detrimental effect on how the film is perceived, namely as a film, an artificial construct, not as an experience.

I have to say that, sadly, this was the most difficult film by Diaz to sit through. For me, personally, of course. I’m sure that other people think differently, and that’s perfectly fine. I have troubles seeing people try to fit into their roles, trying to be convincing actors and actresses for four hours. Trying to follow an easy storyline without falling asleep. Then I prefer eight hours of twists and turns, characters who don’t act but play themselves, and a storyline that doesn’t wash over me, but that keeps me engaged. I found eight hours Melancholia much easier than The Woman, because it kept me awake, it kept me engaged. The Woman is, as I said above, the easiest Lav Diaz film. That might be a good thing because people can discover his work. At the same time, he shouldn’t be judged on this film alone. He made superb films before. Difficult films, difficult to access, difficult to sit through. But if you really want to get to know Diaz, then you need to give those films a try after you have seen The Woman.

Tremor – Annik Leroy (2017)

It was in the French national paper Libération that I first came across the work of Annik Leroy. I added a note to myself and thought I really needed to get my hands on her work. Her latest film Tremor – Es ist immer Krieg is my first Leroy film, and I found it magnificent, embalming, haunting. I’m not even sure where to start with this film. It contains so much I’d like to talk about. At the same time, I’d like for the images to linger a bit longer before I try to explain them with words. So we will see where this post will take me and you.

Even though I cannot confirm it for the rest of her filmography as yet, Leroy is known for her meditative films, to which Tremor is not an exception. It starts off with a mind-boggling image that makes one wonder where one is positioned. Where is top, where is bottom? Is the camera tilted, or is it just an illusion? The first image is, I believe a mountain range, perhaps a volcano, but shot with a camera that lays on its side. The sky is to our right and not above us. This disorientation through illusions is one of the main characteristics of Leroy’s film. There are several scenes such as the one I have just described, albeit some of them are much more straight forward.

I love the simplicity of it; a camera on its side, on the ground, recording a lonely tree in a wide field. It’s disorientating, and yet you know what you see. This curious discrepancy keeps one engaged, it keeps one in wonder perhaps, even more so when Leroy turns the camera on its head. We’re on a boat, but the sky is beneath our feet, the water above our head. It’s the opposite of freedom. We have eternity beneath us, but above us…it feels limited somehow. Even though water can have a seemingly endless depth, Leroy’s shot suggests otherwise. It’s more like positioning us like a balloon (as my husband noted) that is stuck at a ceiling, that wants to go further but cannot do so. Leroy keeps us in chains, so to speak, which fits well with the subject of her film.

That said, it’s perhaps not easy to pinpoint a single subject in the film. I believe that Tremor is multilayered, although the focus is history, history of Europe, of art. But it’s also about brutality and violence, about emptiness. Tremor doesn’t contain dialogue, it is a chain of monologues, of book readings in part. Only at the end of the film do we know to whom the voices that accompany us belong.

 

“We all hate the power we endure. It manipulates us and creates false values.”

“Fascism doesn’t start with the first bombs you drop, or with the terror that one can write about in the papers. Fascism starts with the relationship between people.”

It’s quotes like these that give extraordinary weight to Leroy’s frames, long takes of empty places, ruins, rundown areas.The use of black-and-white and the stillness that prevails in many shots add to the power of the film. Especially the first half of the film is void of people, it feels almost apocalyptic, enhanced by quotes from artists and madmen that makes one think. Tremor is a thinking piece; it is not only a film that forces one to think, it is thinking itself. Yes, there are some films that demand a return to Daniel Frampton’s wonderful book Filmosophy, and I feel as though Tremor is one of those. I never had the feeling that there was a director, if anything the director might have just been a guidance to the film’s development but the film progressed in a way that was natural to itself. It took the director on a journey, not necessarily the other way around.

Tremor couldn’t be more topical and I think that the film was released just at the right time, the world being in tatters due to inexplicable decisions on the world stage of politics. The sound design of Leroy’s film is somewhat ominous regarding this and the monologues we hear: sirens of ambulances; helicopters above our head but we just cannot see them. Are these warning signs? Warning signs of what is to come? Warning signs of our madness? I should try to see the film a second time in order to be able to grasp the full power of Leroy’s cinematic creation.

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.

Sixty Spanish Cigarettes – Mark John Ostrowski (2015, repost)

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

There is something sublimely beautiful about Mark John Ostrowski’s film Sixty Spanish Cigarettes (2015). Fifteen minutes into the film, an extreme long shot captures the sea and coast in the background. From the right hand side of the frame, a small boat comes into view. Ostrowski’s camera stays with the boat and follows it. Even in this extreme long-shot, we can see how the boat is moved by the wind and the waves. The sun is shining from behind a few clouds, it seems. The image is not in colour, even though you would perhaps think that. Coastal images in colour are always superb.

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But no. Ostrowski works against our expectations. He frustrates us. Scenes of blissful contemplation are interrupted by hard cuts to a black screen. Those contemplative scenes of land- and seascapes, for instance, feel like a carrot Ostrowski is hanging in front of our eyes. But he takes that carrot away as soon as we have almost reached a state of contemplation. We cannot contemplate everything at once. We have to give it time. We have to be patient in order to reach this desired state. Ostrowski works well in alternating beautifully slow shots with a black screen, the latter making us hyper-aware of where we are.

Paradoxically, Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is about movement, and yet it gives us no feeling of speed at all. We see the protagonist walking through several different (beautiful) landscapes, which reminded me strongly of those used in Albert Serra’s Birdsong (2008). The clouds are brushing slowly over the hills, while the man is often dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape. He is alone, alone on his way to an unknown location. At times, he stops to light a cigarette. At other times, he simply rests. It is this solitude which gives us a feeling of slowness, a sense of pause. The repeated scenes of a man’s walking through an empty landscape brought a wonderful book back into my head; The Philosophy of Walking. If you haven’t read it, please do get yourself a copy.

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Ostrowski’s film shows the director’s superb photographic eye. Many of his shots are beautifully composed. They could easily be photos in an album, or large prints in a gallery. To me, the visual beauty of the film was also its strongest asset; the viewer in awe of nature, in awe of simple but expressive architecture. Ostrowski’s long-takes of those “photos” helped me to pause, to be in the present but also to wonder what the protagonist was really up to. I’m not entirely sure whether this is ever fully revealed in the film, but it is of little interest in any case. Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is more of an atmospheric film than about a set narrative persistently progressing within the film’s 60 minutes running time. It reminded me of Martin Lefebvre’s modes of viewing; the narrative mode and the spectacular mode. Many slow films, which most certainly includes Ostrowski’s film, operate very much in the spectacular mode, even though there is a narrative mode in all. But the narrative mode is suppressed in many instances to give way to contemplation.

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I believe that the film could have been a tick shorter in order to make full use of its shots. I’m not entirely sure when this shot appears, perhaps after around 45 to 50min. There is a beautiful extreme long shot of a landscape at the coast, with the protagonist sitting on a rock or something similar. He has his back turned to us and is looking at the scenery, like us. I expected the film to cut there. It would have been the most fitting and most suitable ending for the film, but unfortunately Ostrowski did not cut there and kept going instead. The final images, to me,weakened the film slightly because they were not entirely necessary.

Nevertheless, with Sixty Spanish Cigarettes, Ostrowski has created a beautiful piece of Slow Cinema, which, regardless of whether or not he continues this slow journey, adds him to my list of directors to look out for in future. If the film runs at a festival near you, I highly recommend watching it!

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

My, my, my…another strong arthouse film this year. And another one which is too good to be written about, if I’m honest. There are films which cannot be described in words. Sebastian Mez’s Postcards from the Verge (2017) is one of those films, a film that, like postcards, takes you on a journey into a different land. That land or these lands, to be correct, are Israel and Palestine.

The film starts with a black screen and no sound. After a while, the image of a fire burning in the far background of the black frame shapes up. The camera remains with the fire, lingering on it, focuses on it. This very first shot gives us an idea, a feeling, of what the next seventy odd minutes will be like: they will invite us to observe, to be in the very moments the director proposes to be in.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

Mez’s film consists of chapters. Each chapter has a very specific aesthetic, especially visually. The first chapter stunned me because it felt as though I was looking at something through a third eye. The frame was structured in such a way that it gave the impression of an eye through which you observed, in wide angle shots, the landscape of Israel and Palestine. The director uses a stark black-and-white contrast for most of his frames, a contrast that is, for someone who loves black-and-white photography as much as I do, a real pleasure to look at. It’s the sort of visual aesthetic that makes my heart jump.

For a very long time in the film, there is nothing but images. Mez shows us the landscape of conflict, a conflict that has been ongoing for several decades, and which seems to find no end. There is one frame that struck me. It was a landscape shot, a slow pan, if I remember correctly, but perhaps my memory tricks me. What is important is that there is a tank in that landscape and because of the director’s use of high contrast black-and-white, you don’t see it at first. To me, this is a very good depiction of this conflict. Violence, and everything that embodies it, has become part of the fabric of those countries. Wherever you go, there is military; in the streets, at checkpoints, etc It has become normal, and no one sees it anymore. Just like you might not see the tank in that very frame because it is no longer standing out in a region that is in constant upheaval.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

At some point a voice over comes in. The voice over disrupts the contemplative nature of the images and comments on the conflict. But it’s not going into details. It’s a simple observation: “I think peace will be difficult to find because we want the same thing. The Jews want Al Aqsa to destroy it and build their own temple on it, and the Arabs want Al Aqsa to pray.” The viewer is left with this thought, an idea that seems viable but that goes beyond the complex political circumstances that we have come to know. It is an observation from the inside, with a take on the conflict that goes beyond the violence that saturates our thinking.

Mez lets us alone with this thought, and continues his visual journey through the landscape of conflict – in a letter boxed super-wide angle (does that even exist?), for example. The effect of this is interesting. The wide angle allows us to breathe. We can easily shift around our gaze on a horizontal axis. At the same time, however, the letter box around the image contracts it. It limits our gaze on a vertical axis. And the (metaphorical) vertical axis is the one of feeling and experience (if we think back to Maya Deren’s thoughts on the subject). A contracted vertical axis in a film about a conflict where feelings are numbed…

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

Which brings me to the film’s fourth chapter, titled Vivid Memories. Overall, the film is like a photo album, and this becomes most evident in Vivid Memories. The frames are almost still images. Or perhaps they are still images. Or maybe Mez uses super slow-motion. In any case, these images are an embodiment of remembering, of vivid memories, just as the title of the film’s chapter proposes. The frames felt like memories. They reminded me of parts of Chris Marker’s La Jetee. There is something tangible in those images, often dreamlike, blurry at first, then becoming clearer with time.

With Postcard from the Verge, Mez has created lasting images, postcards that stay with you. The final chapter of the film speaks about silence. In fact, it doesn’t. This chapter is quiet, almost completely silent…

The ebb of forgetting – Liryc de la Cruz (2015)

!!! This film is now available on tao films until 30 March 2017 !!!

The following is a repost from another blog I had worked on two years ago around which time I came across Liryc’s solo work for the first time.

After having worked with Lav Diaz on several projects, Liryc de la Cruz is embarking on his own filmmaking career. His short film “Sa Pagitan ng Pagdalaw at Paglimot” was selected for the short film section at this year’s Locarno Film Festival as one of only two Filipino films. Only recently, I had an issue with putting down thoughts on Martin Edralin’s short Hole. Pagitan is similar. It’s a film that needs to be seen. I more and more feel the limits of my own creation – blogs on which I can write about films, which are often so good that I would much rather not write about because words ruin the experience.

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Pagitan is about memory, about forgetting, about searching. Perhaps about absence. The film draws you in with a voice over of a woman: “Along with letting go of the memories, is to go back to the past and the things we used to do.” It’s a simple statement, but because it is so simple it’s rarely made. The black screen we see allows us to focus entirely on the woman’s voice, a soft voice, with a hint of melancholy. The voice sets the tone for the rest of the film. It introduces us to Pagitan’s world, which is minimal, contemplative, empty. The latter is by no means negative.

On the contrary, Liryc de la Cruz has made use of vast empty landscapes and only a single character in order to create a minimalist, but expressive portrait. Once the black screen is replaced by imagery, the strong voice-over still lingers in one’s head. We infuse the reading of the images with the woman’s statements on memory. Pagitan is shot in black-and-white. The contrast stresses every detail we see in the frames. At first, we’re positioned behind vegetation. A woman, presumably searching for something or someone, approaches the camera, but doesn’t acknowledge it. She’s distracted, she’s looking for something. But what is she looking for, for her memories?

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What I find particularly interesting in this short film is the camerawork. We’re not speaking about a static camera. Instead, the camera is moving ever so slightly. It has a dream-like aesthetic to it. It is not intrusive in its movement. Nor does it makes us feel like a voyeur. It’s smooth. It’s there and yet almost not noticeable because it looks so natural. You kind of swing with it. Like Diaz, de la Cruz is using long-takes of at times beautiful scenery. This temporal aspect means one has the time to be with the character, to be with the young woman during her search. It allows us time to just be, to let the film happen to us. Contrary to his mentor, as I would describe Diaz in this context, de la Cruz does not turn his film into a hardcore treatment of psychology and history. Perhaps, this may come in future. Perhaps not. As far as I can see, Liryc is very much developing his own approach to filmmaking.

Pagitan is rather a more minimalist investigation into memory and forgetting – without philosophical discourse, without much talk. Pagitan is very much an experience. All the film asks of us is to be there, and to be – a brave, and wonderful debut by an upcoming Filipino filmmaker.

tao films VoD now live

I’m very pleased to announce that tao films VoD is now live after a year of hard work. It is a project I’m particularly proud of. Since midnight CET, you can now stream six selected films from around the world, and you can do so until 31 March 2017.

Our feature films are Centaur by Aleksandra Niemczyk, a film shot in Bosnia-Herzegovina as part of Aleksandra’s studies at Béla Tarr’s film.factory. She says about why she made the film: “As for the reason to make Centaur, it was the idea to make something personal yet fictionalized. And Centaur is based on the story of my grandfather who, in 1953 was paralyzed by polio during an epidemic that affected the whole world. It is very much abstracted from the reality, more like a vivid memory.”

Then there is Osmosis by Greek filmmaker Nasos Karabelas, a deeply philosophical piece about life, death, and everything in between. It’s a film heavily laden by a voice-over, which gives substance to the often empty frames. In Nasos’s own words, “The movie sets questions which reflect firstly my personal worries and secondly the daily life of a human being at this very moment.”

I’m exceptionally proud of presenting to you Scott Barley’s Sleep Has Her Housethe young director’s first feature film. It’s very experimental. No dialogue guides you through the images; you have to learn to read them. In our interview with him, Scott ponders about the relationship between film and viewer: “What does a mountainside, deep in its slumber say about being a human being? What does a picked flower floating in a starlit pond say? How does time pass us, as we stand rooted, in the quiet wind, mesmerised by the moon above us? How can we go beyond ontology and communicate in discussion through cosmological questions? To me, the body, and the stars are both one and the same. And the film and the spectator are too. They feed off each other.”

The ebb of forgetting is a short film by Filipino director Liryc de la Cruz, who has previously worked with Lav Diaz. It shows in his films; black-and-white empty frames, a focus on contemplation and nature. About the choice of cinematic slowness, Liryc told us, “Regarding the slowness in my films, for me, this “slowness” is a gift to our soul, especially that the world now is moving so fast. So when you are able to immerse yourself or get inside this “slowness,” it’s like you exist at the right moment, at an ideal pace that the world seems to lack right now. I want that moment to be experienced by my audience while watching my films.”

French duo Ozal Emier and Virginie La Borgne present their short film Metropole, a strong film about what it means to leave your home and settle in a different country, and about how your past travels with you wherever you go. Ozal explains, “There is something very violent in cutting your ties with your culture and forget who you have been so far in order to “fit” in a new place. This is what Hector did, in the name of integration and social success.”

Last but not least, we’re happy to show A souvenir from Switzerland by Thai director Sorayos Prapapan. The refugee crises from 2015 hits the art world; the Thai directors, in Switzerland for a festival, meets an Afghan filmmaker friend who has become a refugee in Switzerland. Set against iconic images of Swiss mountains, Sorayos gives us an individual perspective on the refugee crises. What characterises the film is the absence of faces. Sorayos explained his choice: “I think without our faces, the story feels as if it belongs to everyone and not only to him and myself. This kind of thing can happen to anyone in the world who lives in a country which lacks freedom of expression.”

If these six films sound appealing to you, please join us on tao films. You can watch trailers of the films and read the full interviews with our selected directors. A feature film costs 4.99€ and a short film costs 1.99€. We have a special package price, which gives you access to all six films for 17.99€. Please note that our platform aims to support the directors and their new films. Two-thirds of the profits go directly to the directors.

I’m looking forward to welcoming you on tao films!