Wanderer – Martynas Kundrotas (2016)

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

Three months ago, I have moved to Brittany after two pretty depressing years in the north of France. Now that the stressful study time (PhD time) is over, I’m trying to take a lot more time for me and my natural surrounding. My new home is a two to three minute walk away from a canal where you can have a daily walk and watch the ducks making their way to whatever place they would like to go. A five minute walk away is a prairie, a sort of wild place; lots of trees, bushes, birds and even rabbits! If the weather allows it, I’ll make sure to walk through this peaceful place, a place where I can breathe, where I can think or not think, where I can just be.

Now, why am I telling you all this, you might wonder. When I walk through the prairie, I’m always thinking of Martynas Kundrotas’ Wanderer, a simple short film about a young wanderer roaming about in nature. I agree, it doesn’t sound like the most spectacular film, and it is, in fact, the least spectacular film I have offered on tao films so far. I have programmed it nevertheless, because I think that Kundrotas’ Wanderer is the closest a slow film comes to what I think some slow film directors want to achieve: bring us, disconnected as we are from our natural surrounding, back to our environment.

Martynas Kundrotas – Wanderer

I believe that we have lost touch with nature. If anything, we think we’re the master of nature, which is also shown in Western painting. I spoke about Chinese painting on this blog before and how Chinese painters painted Man always in a sort of miniature size in order to show that nature is more powerful, more forceful. The size of humans in Western painting is an indication of what we think of ourselves: we’re the crowning glory, we have the power to control nature. Indeed, our relationship to nature is one of control, power and exploitation. We straighten rivers; we hunt animals just for the fun of it; we cut down trees because they’re in our way; we exploit our natural resources in order to live in luxury. If we do walk through a park here and there, it is only to walk through. It’s usually not in order to stop and look at trees, grass, or flowers.

Looking at the bark of a tree, for longer than a second, as does Kundrotas’ wanderer, is the opposite of our terribly fast life. We need an adrenaline kick nowadays in order to feel alive, and the bark of a tree is everything but. However, the more time you spend looking, the more you see. There is so much life, a life that runs parallel to others, but a life which we aren’t aware of, because we don’t take the time to become aware of it in the first place.

Martynas Kundrotas – Wanderer

Kundrota’s wanderer roams through fields, touching the grass. He stands at a riverbed in the rain, seemingly enjoying every drop that falls from the sky. While we would open our umbrellas or run for cover, the wanderer remains at one with nature. Water, precious source of life, is something else we merely use without being aware of the meaning of it for us. We have become ignorant, blind, and numb, and Kundrotas attempts to rectify this. Wanderer is not a film that seeks to teach. Rather, in simple, unspectacular frames, the director tries to raise awareness; awareness of what what is around us, awareness of what we no longer see.

He very much follows Chantal Akerman’s mantra, which I described last week. In order to see, you need to look for longer than a few seconds. Seeing means more than recognising. It means getting to know, it means letting oneself drift off maybe for a chance to learn something new. It is entirely up to you whether you take the journey with the wanderer or whether you dismiss the reality of what nature really is and what it means to us, to our presence, and that, without it, we wouldn’t be here.

Autoportrait en cinéaste / Ma mère rit (Chantal Akerman)

In the last fortnight or so, I have read two books by Chantal Akerman. One of them, Autoportrait en cinéaste, is, in fact, a sort of exhibition catalogue, published at the occasion of a retrospective dedicated to her work at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2003. This isn’t the usual catalogue, however. Akerman has written most of the book herself. It is personal, and only in parts about her films or her filmmaking. More evident, to me, is the insight into the director’s troubled mental health and her continuous suffering. This becomes the driving force in her 2013 book Ma mère rit, which makes you feel that in those ten years, between one book and another, a lot seems to have changed.

In a way, both books are speaking about the ordinary. There is as little happening as in slow films. Neither has a narrative with an intro, a middle and an end. Ma mère rit even less so than Autoportrait, the former, if I read this correctly, seemingly jumping between different phases of her life without indicating which year it was, without clarifying who said certain things (she uses dialogues, in a way, but without indicating that something is a dialogue and without indicating who the protagonists are, though it’s most often her and another person).

Chantal Akerman

I began to think whether the style in Ma mère rit was representative of her state of mind, sort of jumping from one place to another, speedily, while at the same time being exhausted. So often does she mention her “maladie”, her (mental) illness, that I sometimes cringed. It is, of course, now with hindsight that I was reading this book, knowing that she killed herself in autumn 2015. The book is more personal than Autoportrait. It is very much about her family, specifically about her relationship to her mother, very much in the context of her mother’s accident and her subsequent stay at hospital and her suffering at old age. Trauma is present on almost every page, though you have to read between the lines. And sadly, she does announce her suicide in that book, a death that shocked the world of cinema in 2015.

J’ai survécu à tout jusqu’à présent et j’ai souvent eu envie de me suicider. Mais je me disais je ne peux pas faire ça à ma mère. Après, quand elle ne sera plus là.

But I would like to go into more detail here about Autoportrait which is, while personal, an important read because it contains material on how Akerman thought about film. I think what struck me was the following:

Le livre avait et a sans doute toujours plus d’importance pour moi que le cinéma.

If you read her own writing, you do not get the feeling that she is a passionate filmmaker. In fact, if this was indeed the case, Akerman showed throughout her oeuvre that you don’t have to be passionate in order to make good films. You need ideas, first of all, and she had plenty of those. But yes, it feels odd (primarily because we don’t expect it) if a filmmaker says that the book, that literature, always had and still has more value than film. I don’t think she explains why this is the case, but it is interesting for us to think about. It is true, for me, that literature can give you something film cannot. Most evident to me is that you have to imagine the story you read, the characters, the natural environment, everything. In film, these things are given. Unless you have a striking experimental film, there is, usually, not much left for imagination. Another point about literature is that you have time… Just as Lav Diaz said once, novels can be 900 pages without anyone complaining, but long films are not acceptable. Because books can have any length, you, as the author, can go into as much detail as you want. You have time and space, and so does the reader. Slow films are a beginning, they’re an attempt to rectify this, and I believe Akerman’s https://partenaires.amazon.fr/home/productlinks/customize?asin=B000NDDTCA&request_source=quicklinks&subflow=sp_ shows this best.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

The issue of time in film does pop up, in fact, a few pages after Akerman’s argument about literature.

Une rue longtemps. Ou un arbre. Mais pourquoi longtemps et par rapport à quoi et puis c’est quoi longtemps? C’est plus que pas longtemps de tout façon. En tout cas, c’est plus longtemps que pour informer. En une seconde ou deux, on reconnaît une rue, un arbre. Donc, longtemps, cela peut être plus que le temps de le reconnaissance. Cela peut être le temps de la connaissance, enfin d’un peu de connaissance comme d’un peu de vérité.

In her usually, dry funny style, Akerman says that “long” is certainly longer than not long. So, if someone ever asks you, there you have it! But she elaborates on this, to be fair. She argues that “long” means that a filmmaker spends more time on something that would be dedicated to that something if the filmmaker merely wanted to inform his/her audience. What length suggests is that a filmmaker wants the viewer not just to recognise, to notice something, but to get to know it.

D’Est (From the East)

She also suggests that waiting for the next (long) take means to live, to feel that one exists. Time, for Akerman, is not only part of a film. It is also part of the viewer. To me, this was clearest in her film From the East. Even though Akerman is using a moving camera, she gave us time to see, another important aspect of her filmmaking.

Regarder est-ce la même que voir, non. Il faut regarder pendant combien de temps pour avoir vu et vu quoi.

To look is not the same as to see. One must look for a long time in order to see. Slow films follow this mantra, especially those films with very few characters and almost empty frames. Static cameras also support the idea of looking in order to see. I think that this single, and, in fact, simple Akerman quote sums up the nature of slow films.

Her death is a big loss for all of us, for film, for filmmaking. However, behind the genius of this “sad clown”, as she had been described by some, there was so much trouble, so much suffering, so many problems, fears, anxieties that no one saw, as the books, especially Ma mère rit, show. But her legacy will remain for as long as we want it to remain.

People’s Park – Libbie D. Cohn & J.P. Sniadecki (2012)

I’m not sure where to start with this film, which, even though very similar to Alexandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, shot in a single long-take, reminded me of so many things except for this particular film. People’s Park and Russian Ark have a lot in common, but there are certain aspects of People’s Park, which actually made me feel uncomfortable while watching it which had never been the case with Russian Ark.

People’s Park  is set in a park in Chengdu, China. Shot in a single long-take of around ninety minutes, the camera travels through the landscape and records people’s activities during their leisure time. This is one thing that sets off the film strongly from Sokurov’s counterpart. The directors Libbie Cohn and JP Sniadecki have set up a seemingly Tarr-esque camera, a camera which has its own life, its own objectives, its own trajectory. It reminded me of Daniel Frampton’s filmind, a concept I have found mind-blowing when I read Frampton’s book Filmosophy and which I still like, especially when it comes to Béla Tarr and his use of an “independent” camera, which appears to follow nothing but its own plan. But, in contrast to the uses of an independent camera by Tarr and Sokurov, Cohn and Sniadecki’s camera feels voyeuristic. While Sokurov’s camera is a playful tool to record a walk through a museum, for example, People’s Park feels like something one is invited to watch but which one shouldn’t watch perhaps.

The extremely smooth camera is on a level of height with that of a child. The people with whom we cross paths, look down on us. The only ones that look straight into our virtual eye are the children we meet. As for the adults, we look up to them from time to time. We cross a lot of people who don’t know why we look at them, why we seem to be interested in their having a tea, in their enjoying themselves on a free day. Some people even look as if they have never seen a camera before. Indeed, why are the directors filming this and why do they force us to watch this? This could be said with other slow films, too. But there is no film I’m aware of in my repertoire which nagged me so strongly with those two questions; for one specific reason.

One thing that immediately came to my mind, after only a couple of minutes, was the ethnographic studies done with the help of film in colonised countries. I couldn’t help but think of those early films colonisers have made in far away worlds to record natives and show those portraits to their (colonising) people at home. The Chinese you see in People’s Park had very similar looks in their faces, if not the exact same look we know from early colonial film. It made me feel very uncomfortable and I wonder what the actual aim of the film was. Of course, the historical context today is different. And yet, and yet… I’d be very interested in seeing an analysis of the relationship between colonial film and People’s Park.

Two more things which came to mind while watching the film. There are definite links to Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (1993), which is a superb film and was a journey through memories for me, having been born into a communist system which then fell apart shortly afterwards. And then there is this eerie feeling, just like in Akerman’s film, that there is a ghost taking us on a journey. For some reason I felt a ghostly presence throughout the film. I think it was the incredibly smooth camera, the floating movements, which had me believe that there is an otherworldly presence.

Maybe this is the reason for the questioning looks on the protagonists?

Là-bas (Chantal Akerman, 2006)

Là-bas. Down there. Down there has many meanings in this film of Chantal Akerman, her first, last and only film set in Israel. Down there – geographically, perhaps. Down there, là-bas – down memory lane. Down there, in the abyss of memory. Down there, in the darkest memory of 20th century history. Of a family. Of the Jewish people.

Akerman is not just in Israel. She is in a different world, a world of memories. She’s in the past. Akerman is like a ghost throughout the film. We can hear her make a coffee. We can hear her brushing her teeth. We can hear her footsteps. She’s there, and yet she isn’t. Her body is there. Her mind isn’t.

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She’s absent. She is là-bas. Speaking of exile, of suicide, of spending her childhood indoors in Brussels because her mother was too afraid of letting her out. She speaks of the childhood she never had, but could have had in Israel. She’s speaking of her aunt, who received electro shock therapy in order to deal with her depression.

Towards the end of the film, Akerman speaks of a university professor who came to see her. He said: “It is difficult to get out of prison, especially out of your own prison.” Akerman’s film is almost entirely shot from inside the apartment she is living in, often through the same window, through the same curtains. Visually, this film is a prison. It hardly ever moves beyond the apartment window.

Just like Akerman herself. In a voice-over she says that she doesn’t go out much. One reason is security. One day she went out and noticed that something wasn’t right. She asked a man what had happened and he told her about a suicide attack.

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But it’s not just that. It is not just the outside world. It’s also là-bas, the inner world, the inner turmoil, which imprisons her. In every word, in every phrase Akerman uses – French, English or even Hebrew – there is pain. There is sadness. There is depression. After this film, after everything I felt during those just over 60 minutes, I’m not surprised about the path she took on 5 October last year. It’s all there, in Là-Bas, which she had completed nine years earlier.

There aren’t many words I have for this film. What I do have are feelings, and it is impossible to put them into words. Là-bas made me thoughtful about many things, and I would urge my readers to watch the film if they’re not familiar with it. It is an important piece in Akerman’s filmography and deserves to be seen as such.

Passions of the will to boredom

I have taken today’s post title from Julian Jason Haladyn’s wonderful book Boredom and Art: Passions of the Will To Boredom (2015), which I have read with pleasure. Haladyn is, effectively, speaking about more than just boredom and art. To me, there is a lot about the politics of modernity in it, and several of Haladyn’s ideas and thoughts are an answer to the question of why people walk out of the cinema when they see a slow film.

What I found most striking, though actually most obvious (so obvious that we may never think of it these days) is the way modernity has changed our attitude. Haladyn uses the train journey, now a famous example, to illustrate this. He proposes that modernity, in the form of a train journey, has lead to people placing emphasis on expectations rather than on presence. If you think about it, during a train journey, or any journey for that matter nowadays, whether it’s by train, by car or by plane, you are expecting your arrival at the destination. This is what your mind is focused on (if it can focus at all during a time of transit). Expectation overshadows presence. Because you’re in transit, you can no longer appreciate being in there here and now because time and space is persistently shifting. If there’s one major thing that has changed for us through modernity, then it is the fact that we have lost the ability, perhaps the opportunities even, to be present.

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This is one section of life, where slow, contemplative films are intervening. Even though Haladyn does mention the films of Andy Warhol and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, he makes too little a case for cinema in general. However, there is a major case to be made about the nature of Slow Cinema as a tool for allowing us to return to the pre-modern feeling of being present at and with something. The long-takes, the wide shots of nature, the focus on character development, or even the running time, which is at times excessive (you know whom I’m talking about!) – all of those give us, the viewer, the opportunity to let go and just be. I argued in an earlier post that, to me, slow films are the real escapist cinema because they allow me to get away from the hectic modern life that is too fast, too noisy, too stressful. This is precisely where my two thoughts merge. It is escapist precisely because it allows me to be present, to be in the here and now, to breathe with the film, which nothing in modern life (apart from a Buddhist retreat and meditation, and perhaps yoga) can give me.

For some reason, a parallel between slow films and Duchamp’s readymades shaped up in my head while reading Haladyn’s book. Duchamp’s works were outrageous at the time, and perhaps they still are. Remember his famous toilet? There’s nothing arty about it. In effect, he has taken it and made a piece of art out of it. He showed us the ordinary in life, which we no longer notice. Perhaps this wasn’t his real intention, but I read it this way. The readymades are ordinary elements. They’re already there, nothing needs to be done, apart from putting them into a spotlight. Duchamp’s strategy, I find, is very similar to what slow film directors to, too. I’m aware that films are, more often than not, constructed pieces. There is an involvement of the artist evident, especially in highly experimental films. Yet, what slow films show is the mundane, the everyday, the life we all live without actually noticing it. What these films show are readymades. That also goes for the characters who are often no more than themselves – non-professional “actors” who play themselves, who do what they usually do, only in front of a camera.

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Haladyn cites Frances Colpitt, who made a very good point about Warhol’s films, but it is a point that can be equally applied to slow films. She writes, “Boredom necessarily describes the spectator’s state of mind rather than any characteristic of the object. The root of the problem is in the unpreparedness of the audience, most of whom were not familiar with the theoretical concerns of this highly conceptual art.” Colpitt is correct in arguing that boredom is a state of mind of the viewer and the artwork in itself is not boring. Haladyn proposes two approaches to a “boring” piece of art. He describes them as yes boredom and no boredom. The latter is a refusal of letting yourself float with the artwork, a refusal of trying to find or make meaning. Following Haladyn’s description of no boredom, it is to me a refusal of engaging with a work of art, or a film for that matter. Yes boredom, on the other hand, means that the viewer engages with an object. If there’s no obvious meaning, then the viewer is ready to create something, or at least s/he tries to. This is very much what the annual Slow Art Day is doing, or allowing you to do.

What is happening with slow films, and their rejection of it, is, in effect, no more than an expression of no boredom on the side of the viewer. It is an inability to be, to breathe, to be present. Those who walk out have no intention to do a bit of work. They have no intention to create meaning. They have no intention to engage with what is in front of them. Engagement with a work of art does not necessarily mean that you like it. Of course, you can dislike slow films. Yet, those films need to be engaged with in full first, and the reason for dislike cannot be “it’s boring”, because then you haven’t tried to engage with it. Two UK film critics walked out of the Lav Diaz Berlinale screening after two and three hours respectively (which is fatal, because Diaz’s long films only begin to get really interesting after three hours). Diaz takes it with humour, of course. At the same time, he said that people needed to sit through the full length of his films before they should express their opinion. Only then have they really tried to engage with the film. This is not only true for Diaz’s films, but for any slow film. Yes boredom!

D’Est – Chantal Akerman (1993)

Chantal Akerman’s D’est is a great example of Slow Cinema, and for those who do not feel prepared to start with eight hours Lav Diaz, then this may be a film for you. The film is engrossing, but minimalist. It is slow, yet full of movement. It is, in some ways, a contradictory piece, as you can imagine. This is precisely what made me think of Béla Tarr when I watched it, but more of that in a little while.

D’est is set somewhere in the former Eastern bloc. Unless you read about the film, you cannot determine where exactly the film is set. At the beginning, I felt transported to my childhood. Born in 1988 in the former GDR, then growing up in the east of the unified Germanys, I can say that the initial images of Akerman’s film represent my memories of how people and towns looked like when I was little. I went to school in 1994 and even then things still looked like they used to under Soviet occupation. It took quite a while before life gradually changed. Akerman’s film is universal for a lot of people in that respect. It is not important where exactly the film is set. The political context is much more interesting and perhaps triggers memories in some viewers, just as it did with me.

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Akerman’s observation of people in the Eastern bloc is often considered as one of her documentaries. I wonder whether this is correct. What are documentaries? What are their aims and how are these aims approached? D’Est perhaps contains elements of this, but I would much rather describe the film as pure observation. Documentaries often come with the aim of teaching attached to it. But is this really the case with Akerman’s film? Does she really want to teach, or does she merely want to observe, to record, to leave it up to the viewer what s/he makes out of it?

I would even go as far as describing it a poetic observational film instead of merely “documentary”. The term doesn’t convey what Akerman is doing and how she is doing it. The poetics, for me, come from her slow, long and moving takes. They are like part of a symphony and reminded me of Béla Tarr’s films, of almost all of them. Most strongly, though, Tarr’s Prologue (2004) comes to mind and I still wonder whether Tarr rendered hommage to Akerman in his short film. His one-take film is no more than the camera moving to the left, slowly, lingering, past a line of people. It’s fascinating and suspenseful. You wait for something to happen, and if it’s only at the end. Now, in Akerman’s film, I didn’t feel the same suspense. Maybe it is the dark atmosphere in Tarr’s films that conjured the suspense. In any case, there is an almost identical shot in her film. And that wasn’t the only one. I have written down Sátántangó during the screening and then wondered who influenced who. Maybe there was no influence at all, and both had similar ideas at the same time. I do believe in those circumstances. But the similarities between Akerman and Tarr are intriguing, made me think a lot. And smile a lot whenever I saw something familiar.

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D’Est has a kind of hypnotic feeling to it. Perhaps it is the long-takes of people at a train (?) station, looking at the camera, looking at us. Why do we look at them? What is it we are after? In Akerman’s film we have to ask ourselves those questions. I don’t think we can simply be observers. We need to engage, we need to pose questions, and respond to questions that the images pose. It is, in effect, a great slow film: it isn’t innocent. We cannot just sit back and look at the images. We have to engage with it.

10 questions for… Jenni Olson

Jenni Olsen (C) Lydia Marcus / www.lydiamarcus.com Photographed July 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, CA at the Directors Guild of America
Jenni Olsen
(C) Lydia Marcus / www.lydiamarcus.com
Photographed July 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, CA at the Directors Guild of America

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a few thoughts on Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road, which is a wonderful piece. I hope you can see it on a big screen some day. Jenni has kindly agreed to answer a couple of questions about her film and her approach to filmmaking. Happy reading, and thanks Jenni!

1) The Royal Road is situated somewhere between an exploration of American history and a personal essay on love. The Royal Road is most likely unknown to the vast majority of your viewers because, as you say in your film, there are only fragments of it left these days. Can you tell us a bit more about it and how you came about making a film about it?

I moved to California from Minnesota in 1992. At some point after I’d been here awhile I started noticing there were these odd bells installed at certain points along the highway. I love finding unusual historical artifacts and researching their histories so that was the beginning of my interest in El Camino Real. I learned that they had been placed their in the early 1900s as a way of memorializing the original trail (but also as a way if encouraging tourists to drive up and down the state — remember this was around the time that automobiles were becoming more popular: You have a car, now here’s where you should go.) Using the road as the central organizing point for the film seemed like a great way to be able to talk about the more serious and generally lesser-known history of California (the decimation of the indigenous population by the Spanish colonizers and the conquest of Mexico by the US in the Mexican American War) while also using the road as a plot device to tell a story of a character going to visit her love interest from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

2) What brought you to filmmaking and what does filmmaking mean to you? What role does it play in your life?

I have a deep and abiding love of cinema that began all the way back in my childhood. I loved watching classic Hollywood movies as a kid and I was a Film Studies major in college — where I also read Vito Russo’s pioneering book, The Celluloid Closet and then created the first gay and lesbian film series on campus (at the University of Minnesota in 1986) and started writing reviews of gay films for the local gay newspaper. I then became the festival co-director at Frameline: The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival in 1992. It wasn’t until that point that I decided to actually make films myself, and even then they were always very modest productions. 

It’s only recently that I have realized that my style of urban landscape filmmaking is really just a natural outcome of the way I look at the world. I tend to envision the world around me as a series of compositions. I notice the qualities of the light, the textures and surfaces of buildings, the distance and depth of what is in front of me. And I feel compelled to try to capture this on film. 

3) You said you felt compelled to try to capture qualities of light etc on film. Do you think you have succeeded doing this, or are you still looking for the perfect composition?

I am extremely happy with the majority of the footage I’ve shot over the years. I have about five hours of footage total that I was working from to create the film. In this reservoir of images there are still tons of great shots I wasn’t able to fit into this film which will hopefully be in my next project. And I hope I will be able to continue shooting at some point in the future (I can’t afford to these days) and be able to make another film.

4) The film feels very personal. It feels as though, between the lines of history, we can read your film as a kind of autobiography. How autobiographical is the film?

My voiceover is very much drawn from my personal experience but the film is not at all a straightforward autobiographical story. There are many things that are completely fictional in the stories about the women in particular. The woman in Los Angeles is named Juliet mainly because I liked it as an evocative name. She is very much a fictional character (sometimes a mash up of real women, other times totally made up). Since my wife’s name is Julie I have had a few questions from people wondering whether they are the same person. There really is no connection. As W Somerset Maugham once said of his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage: “This is a novel, not an autobiography; though much in it is autobiographical, more is pure invention.”

As a writer I like to use some kind of topic or thing as an area of exploration which helps provide a structure to my storytelling. I tend towards a very discursive style involving a lot of tangents and associations and allusions to other texts so it helps to have something in the center that I can circle around and bounce off of. Virginia Woolf once said something similar about To The Lighthouse and it has always stayed with me. She said that having the lighthouse as an organizing principle was the thing that enabled her to explore all these other emotions and topics. So I very much think of El Camino Real as a similar central device that organizes the film as a whole.

5) I get the impression that you’re very much drawn to literature. Having seen your film, I’m not surprised about that. Is your film perhaps a “visual novel” rather than the photo album I mentioned in my review?

I like the idea of it as a visual novel but maybe creative non-fiction would be more accurate in terms of literary terms. I have a few different terms I’ve used to describe it: as an essay film, as a hybrid film, an experimental film. It has played in many documentary festivals simply as a documentary but it is of course more complicated than that.

6) You make extensive use of long-takes in the film. I had the feeling of sitting next to you while looking at photos you are telling me stories about. What’s the reason for those long-takes? Are they an aesthetic you generally use in your films?

I have always felt drawn to urban landscape filmmaking as a mode of storytelling. The viewer is put into a certain unique state of receptiveness and is made susceptible to feeling their own emotions — the static, open space provides a calming, comforting reassurance that allows the viewer to relax and take in the voiceover. Ideally the images I like to capture are visually interesting in their compositions and content, and yet they are also somewhat mundane — they have to be not TOO visually interesting or else the viewer will be distracted by them. 

The length of the takes is also crucial to creating a spaciousness for the viewer. I always like to establish the grammar of the film in the first few shots so you know to expect these very long takes and can begin by experiencing the joy of just looking at the landscape, relaxing into it and starting to notice the small details of each shot which emerge as hugely dynamic given the minimalist palette of the film — so when a bird flies across the shot, or the light gets brighter or a puff of fog blows past it can actually take your breath away.

I also especially love to have urban landscapes that seem somewhat timeless, as though they might have looked like this fifty years ago. So I crop out as much as possible things that look more contemporary and modern (like newer street signs, billboards and such). 

7) Your voiceover is guiding the viewer through history, if you want, all the while seeing modern, but as you said timeless, urban landscapes. How, do you think, can your long-takes help the viewer reach a state of contemplation despite your voiceover providing a persistent auditory background of interesting information?

I think this meditative state is not the same as actual sitting meditation where one is focusing on the breath per se. But it is in the realm of a meditative state in that one emerges in a more mindful and present state, attuned to the physical environment and seeing the world around us in more vivid attentive ways.

8) The film was shot in 16mm, which, unfortunately, isn’t all that common anymore. Why do you still work with 16mm film?

I have a great affection for the look of 16mm film — the quality of the grain, the saturation of the colors and also the 4:3 aspect ratio since I shoot in regular 16mm, not Super 16. I have an underlying agenda in my filmmaking that is about the joys of being present in the moment, in the landscapes in which we live. In The Royal Road I talk about our exceptionally digital age and the importance of “staying connected to the physical, analog world in which we live.” And so there is something very organic about using actual film to create my films.  

9) Do you develop the films yourself? I’m reminded of Ben Rivers who develops his films in his kitchen sink.

No, I’ve always depended on the kindness of skilled and talented strangers to process the film (at Fotokem in Los Angeles). I’m dependent on many people to create my films and I’m especially grateful to my good friends Sophie Constantinou (my primary cinematographer) and Dawn Logsdon (my editor) for enabling me to fulfill my creative vision.  

10) The 16mm film seems to disappear slowly. Are you worried that you will eventually lose your medium? 

Yes, when I talk about making my next film I do worry that I may not be able to pull it off simply because of the level of effort involved. And yet in some ways then it becomes even more compelling to me to continue to use this medium the more arcane it becomes. It really does feel organic to what I’m trying to achieve in my work — qualities of emotional resonance that actually arise from the medium itself (the grain of the image, the quality of light, etc.) The genuine qualities of feeling these generate in the viewer can’t be achieved through the digital medium even by using digital effects that try to recreate the qualities of film. 

Personal note by Jenni Olson: 

I have to just conclude by saying that I have felt so impacted by the suicide of Chantal Akerman earlier this week and would like to take the opportunity to convey a brief appreciation of her as her work has had an enormous influence on me as a filmmaker over the years. I woke up to the news of her passing on October 6th (my 53rd birthday). As a pioneering filmmaker, Akerman is frequently celebrated for her portrayals of women characters and for elevating women’s stories and offering a unique female perspective in her films. All of which is the case. First and foremost though, she was a filmmaker with a singular vision whose distinctive approach to the possibilities of the medium encompassed a painstaking awareness of the smallest cinematic elements and their potential impact not just on conventional aspects of storytelling but on the emotional, psychological and physiological experience of the audience (of course I identify with this in my own filmmaking and feel deeply indebted to her as an influence). It is this consummate craftsmanship that produced such masterpieces as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It is this craftsmanship that created so many stunning works of art that will change the way you see the world, and that will never leave you — even though their creator has. May her memory be for a blessing. 

Today's My Birthday - Akerman's News from Home