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!

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.

West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)

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.

West of the Tracks (Wang Bing, 2003)

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.

Son of the lovely capitalism – Suranga Katugampala (2015)

What a lovely surprise I received in my Facebook inbox last week! Suranga Katugampala provided me with a short film of his, which acts as a form of test for his upcoming feature film. Aesthetically, his work looks more than promising and I thoroughly enjoyed the 18 minutes in his world.

Suranga is from Sri Lanka, but lives in Italy and, according to him, he wants to capture the current situation of the young in today’s Europe. There is some stunning cinematography involved. Simple, but very effective. The director makes us watch a young man in each of his long takes. Rarely does he move. The young man (not necessarily always the same one) is static more often than not, or moves only sporadically. Given the subject matter of the film, this non-movement of the character seems plausible; today’s drive for capitalism is a trap for young people. Capitalism leaves little breathing space for people, but especially for young people, who are only just beginning to build their lives, wanting it to be better than their parents’, perhaps.

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The way Suranga frames the characters strongly reminded me of Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker series. One scene, in particular, stands out: a young man, bare-chested, curled up on the stairs of a subway station. He’s in the centre of the frame. The camera angle is high. It looks as though the young man is suffering. Is it because of increasing poverty perhaps? Regardless of the possible reason, no one cares. Just as people hurry past Tsai’s monk in Journey to the West, so do people walk past Suranga’s young man without so much as a glance at him. Their behaviour then led me to think about German poem called Städter, which describes the situation in big cities – so many people, so much loneliness. Everyone fights for himself.

After about half of the short film, Suranga begins to insert experimental features, which have a striking effect in that they disrupt the slowness induced by long takes. Superimpositions, a quick succession of cuts, a haunting and threatening hammering in the soundtrack. A long shot shows a painting or a sort of graffiti on a wall. It took me a while to find the young man in the shot, but there he was: positioned under the drawn hoof of a seemingly wild horse. Is the wild horse capitalism? The image is, to me, the strongest in the entire film and gives you a taste of Suranga’s talent and goal. He plays with us, he disorientates us – for instance by putting the camera on its head, which really turned my head round! – and in doing so he turns his film into a complex experience for the viewer.

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There is something eerie about the end, with its archival footage projected onto the young man’s back while he covers in front of a screen. It’s a quiet, powerful ending, which made me want more. If this short film was a test, then I certainly can’t wait for the feature film!

Suranga has uploaded his short film Sun of the lovely capitalism on YouTube and I’m pleased to share it with you. Please click here.

Day 3 – Oxhide I (Jiayin)

On day three, I have thankfully managed to avoid further motion sickness. Although I cannot say that I have moved into a better environment. Quite the opposite actually. After Alamar, a lovely trip to an atoll reef off Mexico, I ended up in a cramped apartment in China.

Oxhide is, to my mind, a strange hybrid of documentary and fiction. I felt unsure what was scripted and what was complete improvisation. In any case, director Liu Jiayin filmed daily life in the apartment she has lived with her parents. I was often surprised at the way Tsai Ming-liang has so far treated everyday life, and thought that he pretty much got the point. However, Jiayin went a step further and I cannot recall a single film that describes our (specifically their) mundane life so well.

There are two points in this film that interested me. The first was the framing. The slow films I study have as their main aesthetic feature a basis of vastness and nature. The landscape plays a major role, if it isn’t a character in itself (which I think it is in most cases). The framing tends to be loose, which is an interesting fact as loose frames are often associated with freedom for the character, but in the majority of slow films the characters are, in fact, trapped.

Oxhide, Liu Jiaying
Oxhide, Liu Jiayin

In Oxhide, the traditional feature tight framing equals pressure and stress on the character is more valid. It is for me the outstanding aesthetic I took away from the screening. The film was claustrophobic, especially over the course of two hours. There was literally no space. Neither for the viewer nor for the characters. Indeed, the father (who’s the director’s real father; she was filming her real family) says at some point “There’s no room to move freely”.

This also accounts for the viewer. It creates a tense atmosphere, also because we are often forced to witness arguments, and because there’s no free space to take our eyes (and therefore our mind) off things, we’re stuck with watching uncomfortably. Another interesting fact in the same context is the lighting. It always seems to be dark in the flat. I can’t remember having seen a single window in the film, which adds to the feeling of imprisonment.

The second significant thing is the theme of poverty and capitalism, which I recognised in quite a few films, especially in those by Lav Diaz. Jiayin’s parents design, make and sell bags made from oxhide. At the beginning of the film, the dad wants Jiayin to get discount advertisements ready on the computer. We see that he reduces the original price for a bag by fifty percent. The discounts bring in money, but he is unhappy about how he, as the maker and designer of the bags, and as the owner of the shop, has lost control over his business. He says at one point “It’s our shop, our bags – and in the end it’s the customers who set the price”.

Jiayin’s mother argues with him about his stubbornness. He wants to get rid of the discounts, while she argues that people just want cheap prices. For the customer, the shop owner or how the products had been made are of little significance. What counts is a cheap price. It matters little whether the shop owner can live off the money he makes with his own creation. She fears the date their rent is due, which tells us that they are indeed in financial trouble once he has removed the discounts.

Oxhide, Liu Jiaying
Oxhide, Liu Jiayin

It is a general theme that is picked up here. This has been developing for a long time, and it is true that more and more traditional craft makers go out of business. People want cheap prices. This is all they care about. This is also the reason why we see repeated accidents in factories, such as the one in Bangladesh this year.

P.S.: Yes, the screenshots are dark, but so is the film. Gives you an idea of how dark it really was!