El Cielo, la Tierra y la Lluvia – José Luis Torres Leiva (2008)

I think (although I could be wrong) that this post is a premiere, as it is probably the first post about a slow film from Chile on this blog. It does make me proud a bit, I have to say, because it means that the site keeps branching out. More discoveries from more countries – this is exactly what I’m aiming for. El cielo, la Tierra y la Lluvia by José Luis Torres Leiva was a good guess after I had read the synopsis, and it turned out to be a wonderful, beautifully shot film that was a pleasure to watch.

What impressed me most about the film where the photographic frames that, at times, took my breath away. And the utter and complete defiance of a three-part narrative arc, with up and downs which would normally keep the viewer going and engaged. The narrative progression is flat, like a flatline on an ECG. Perhaps this describes Leiva’s film best. This isn’t a bad thing at all. In the end, the narrative, the story of depressed characters at the margin of society, fits this flatline rather well. Their lives are mostly uneventful. There is not much happening, except for the usual routine that weighs them down. Ana, one of the main protagonists (whose name we only learn more than one hour into the film), is a good example for this cinematic flatline. We don’t know much about her. The director doesn’t provide us with a background story, nor anything else that would be useful to follow her as a character. She is in the here and now. Neither her past, nor her future really exists. Her life seems to be an eternal present, a present which is dragging on, and drags her with it.

Leiva’s mise-en-scène adds to the idea of a flatline, of being dragged through an endless now, through everlasting difficulties that never seem to end. The film frames are drained of colours. They’re dull, uninviting, a perfect mirror of people’s lives. Some frames are cramped, others empty. Both represent the characters’ minds, full of concerns and worries, empty of hope and a future. There is an interaction between the two extremes that manifests itself in the film’s visuals and character development. Ana works in a shop, uncomfortable with her role. She makes mistakes that lead to her being sacked, dragging her deeper into an economic crisis that defines her life. But this is not all. She looks after her mother, who seems to be paralysed and in need of round-the-clock care. Ana pays an elderly woman to be with her mother for the time she is at the shop. At other times, she administers injections to her, tries to feed her. One can feel that death is coming, and one cannot be sure whether it would lighten the burden for Ana, or whether it would, instead, increase her suffering even more.

Ana and the other characters are floaters. They are caught up in a torrent of problems that life confronts them with. But while floating, they also get drowned here and there. It feels as though life is dragging them to the bottom of the sea while they try to keep their heads above water; economically and mentally. The quietness of the film, the lack of dialogue, reinforces this weight, invisible at times, and yet present. We see mental images, mind images, translated into pictures on a screen. There is longing, there is a desire to break out of this circle. In one scene, Ana stands in front of a window. She has just changed and cleaned her mother’s bed sheets. The bed sheets are hanging outside, in the pouring rain. Ana is inside looking out. We can see her in a mirror image of the glass with the camera’s focus remaining on the bedsheets outdoors. One can sense that Ana wants to break out, but she seems trapped. What can she do?

Even more trapped is another important character, who, to me, actually takes the main role in the film, because she embodies everything that is burdensome, everything that functions as a trap. The young Marta is mute. The director doesn’t even make clear whether she is deaf-mute, or mute. Or why she is mute in the first place. Is it physical or a psychological reaction to a traumatic event? We can only assume. Like Ana, Marta is a character without a history. She simply is. This is the defining characteristic of the film; we see what is, not what has been. We cannot be clear about Ana’s relationship to Marta, nor about anything else. At one point, Ana finds Marta at the seaside, crying. She takes her to her brother, not knowing what went wrong. At another point, Marta attempts to kill herself. She walks into the sea and hopes that the waves sweep her away. She is saved. Drenched to the bones, Ana and her friend drive her home, silent. What happened, is not spoken about. Silence is deafening, silence is muting.

Marta appears to be the one character who takes action to break out. She does so in a violent way, but she no longer seems to be capable of bearing the weight of life. She takes action, no longer accepts being passive. Towards the end of the film, she disappears. Whether she has finally succeeded in killing herself – the director leaves it open. Ana and her friend search for Marta, but without success. Has Marta succeeded in breaking out? Is she now at a better place? Ana’s mother is. While Ana stays at Toro’s, where she has been working as a housemaid since she got fired at the shop, her mother, alone at night, dies. The director doesn’t comment on this death. Like Marta, Ana’s mother simply disappears. Is her death Ana’s fault? Is her absence the cause of her mother’s death? What did the mother go through while alone? No answer is given. The director records. He doesn’t answer. He triggers questions, but doesn’t help us finding an answer.

It is only then that Ana, whose facial expressions hardly change throughout the film, breaks down. The weight is too much. She can no longer bear it and seemingly falls apart in Toro’s arms. The camera, in smooth movements, then follows her walking along a wooden path. But rather than following her right up to the end, the camera abandons her, like everything else around her in life. The camera pans further and further, getting embalmed by trees, repeating in some ways the second scene at the beginning of the film. There is a degree of smoothness, a certain degree of peace in this long-take which wants to bring closure to what we have seen. But it cannot hide the fact that there is no closure. This would mean that the film’s characters have access to a past, to a future, but they don’t. They continue to hoover in the present, in the now, drowning in their unsolved daily problems all the while trying to keep their heads above water. Life continues for them, in a flat line.

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.

Centaur – Aleksandra Niemczyk (2016)

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

I rarely come across a film, which stuns me through its very first frame. The minute Aleksandra Niemczyk’s film Centaur opened, I couldn’t take my eyes off it anymore. Was it the character, the half man, half horse figure which walked towards me? Or was it the ice cold aesthetic and colour which characterised the frame? Maybe it was both. I just knew that I had found a real gem in the field of slow film, and I will try my very best to get this film on board The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD, which will go live in January 2017.

Niemczyk, a student at Béla Tarr’s film.factory, is more than just a filmmaker, and this is perfectly visible in Centaur. She is a painter. Filmmaking is only a part of her work, but as far as I could see, she combines the two parts. The visuals of Centaur are stunning. Almost every frame is a beauty. It’s one of those things which made my photographer heart open up again. It smiled, and smiled, and it couldn’t stop smiling and admiring Niemczyk’s framing until the very end.

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But let me tell you something about the content of the film first before I lose myself in admiration of the film in its entirety. Centaur is a film about a love which is challenged, a love between a woman and her husband whose mobility is greatly reduced due to polio. She is much younger than he is, which reminded me of Tarr’s last film The Turin Horse (2011), in which a daughter repeatedly dresses her father because he is too old, too fragile and not mobile enough to do it himself. There is something of that in Centaur until we realise that the two protagonists are married.

Alma and Vlado are one, but what differs between them is how they handle the challenge. Alma cares for her husband every day. She washes him, she helps him out of bed, she does everything. Vlado, on the other hand, is losing patience with himself. He can no longer bare his wife seeing him like this and having to support him in such a way. One can feel that it humiliates him, when he sits in the bathtub and refuses to be washed by his wife. The clash between the two – Alma is hurt by Vlado’s refusal to let her care for him – is visually reinforced, easily – perhaps too easily – but beautifully when Alma leaves the bathroom and enters another room just next door.

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The light, the colour – everything fits there. And it doesn’t even feel as though it’s overdone. There is another striking scene in which Vlado makes his way along a long balcony. He sits on one chair and uses another to lift his body onto it. It is a painful scene, and a painfully long scene, not only for the viewer. The almost endless way of Vlado while, on the other side of the small wall which separates the balcony from freefall, an elderly woman, possibly retired, watches him the entire time from her window. One wonders what she is thinking. One wonders why she doesn’t offer to help. Maybe she has offered to help already, but her help had been refused just as Alma’s has been refused before.

What is Vlado’s goal? We get the feeling that he wants to give up. He’s tired of living like this, without any improvement in sight. But what have his dreams got to do with his situation? Vlado dreams of a figure half horse, half man. The interesting things is that this centaur is the opposite of the centaurs we know from Greek mythology. The centaur in Vlado’s dream has a horse-shaped rather than a human head. I’m not trying to interpret this, but I find it interesting that Niemczyk uses this symbol and changes it ever so slightly.

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The film is “only” forty minutes long, but it contains a lot of visual and narrative material which keeps you thinking for a while. I watched the film as part of last week’s Slow Cinema No 2, a follow-up event to the Slow Cinema symposium which took place in April in London. It’s been almost a week and I cannot forget the first image of the film. It really stays with you. Niemczyk has created an open film, a film which doesn’t end when the credits roll. It continues way beyond this. It has its own life, perhaps like that of Greek mythology. It evolves and develops in your mind. It is as though Centaur was the beginning of a domino effect. The film does something to me, and I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it is time to return to Luke Hockley’s Somatic Cinema and his theory of the “third image” in order to tackle what’s going on in my head.

Day 6 – Colossal Youth (Costa)

I’m back on the European continent, after having made (film) trips to Mexico, the Philippines and China. I’m in Portugal this time, the home of filmmaker Pedro Costa. It is only the second of his films I have seen. The first one was Bones (1997), which I couldn’t quite get through at the time. I can now see, though, what type of slow-film director Costa is.

Colossal Youth tells the story of Ventura, an immigrant in his 70s, who, like many other immigrants, has been relocated to a new housing estate near Lisbon. He appears to live in the past. The present is a confusing structure he cannot seem to handle. He is confused as to where he really lives, I believe: past? Present? In his old slum? In the new estate? For me he is a walking ghost.

Colossal Youth (2006), Pedro Costa
Colossal Youth (2006), Pedro Costa

Similar to Nicolas Pereda from Mexico, Costa merges documentary and fiction. It is often difficult to tell what is scripted and what isn’t. Sometimes there is the strong sense that the camera simply records without the interpretation of the filmmaker. At other times, you can feel the presence of someone behind the camera.

First of all, very obvious, Costa is not a filmmaker who assigns a great role to outdoor spaces, especially to landscapes. This film in particular is set mainly indoors. In parts, it reminds me of the look of Oxhide I, in that we spend a considerable amount of time in very dark spaces, and the only light is of somewhat greenish colour.

There is, however, and interesting contrast in the film. As I already mentioned, Ventura is relocated to a new housing estate. Both the slums and the estate have their own set of lighting and colours. Ventura moves freely between both in order to see people he knows. We therefore switch between darkness (the slums) and brightness (the new estate). While the changing colour scheme seems to be a natural thing – and indeed, it comes in handy – I wonder whether there is a subtle message behind it.

Colossal Youth (2006), Pedro Costa
Colossal Youth (2006), Pedro Costa

I never got the feeling that Ventura feels very comfortable in his new surrounding. It doesn’t mean that I preferred him being and remaining in the slum. But somehow, he appeared to me more natural in his behaviour. So perhaps, while the above mentioned brightness is natural and most likely not intended, we could say that the brightness – the white sterile walls and the bright light – can function as an indicator of where Ventura feels more himself. I’m really not sure about this. It’s merely an idea.

Costa, to my mind, is the only slow-film director who picks up the issue of immigration of former colonised to the countries of their colonisers, in this case Portugal. Portugal is by far not the only country that faces this issue. France has seen similar waves of immigrants, but curiously enough they never appear in film, or not in a way that does not make the audience loath them (moral panics anyone?). There are few films that handle this issue in a sensitive manner, and Costa’s Colossal Youth is one of them.

What he has in common with other slow-film directors is the depiction of loss and poverty. I pointed out earlier that these two are of exceptional significance in Slow Cinema. And his films, too, are in one way or another connected to the Third World, something I also mentioned briefly earlier. Costa is very different (from the filmmakers I study), but he nonetheless shares many characteristics. The themes of poverty and loss are my main interest here. Somehow I think that Tsai Ming-liang and Albert Serra are the only two filmmakers who add a bit of humour to their slow films. Slow Cinema appears to be a very sad film genre!

From Painting to Drawing?

I have to admit that it sounds odd to bring drawing into my research. I have long argued that painting is the most appropriate art form some slow films can be compared to. Things have developed since I posted my first entry on this blog, and while I am still convinced that painting will be the focus in my thesis, there is something else that has caught my attention.

Jianping Gao (1996) argues that ‘painting’ means ‘to apply colour’. At least, this is our Western understanding of it. Indeed, my Oxford dictionary tells me that “paint” (noun) is a “substance applied to a surface in liquid form to give it colour“. Gao explained that there has traditionally been a difference in the west between paintings and drawings, the former incorporating colours, the latter being predominantly monochrome. This is, in fact, a fine line these days as art in general lives of mixing and merging concepts. However, do think for yourself: what do you associate with ‘painting’?

Perhaps the colourful works by Impressionists come to your mind. Or those of the Romanticists. No matter what period we’re looking at, I can almost guarantee you that you have ‘colour’ in your head. Maybe we could argue that Western painters wanted to create an image of the world, which comes as close as possible to reality. True, especially the Impressionists applied colours according to their own interpretation of the world. However, colour in general heightened the realistic effect of the paintings. The world was colourful, so the painters depicted it accordingly.

I’ve repeatedly mentioned analogous characteristics of Lav Diaz’s films and painting. The one thing I have never thought about was the absence of colour. Not in this context anyway. I did analyse the black-and-white system used in his films, but I never thought about whether it would make sense to apply the concept of ‘painting’ (applying colour) to his films. I’m not saying that his films are drawings, though if we looked at the definitions mentioned above, it would be true.

The main concern is that I can obviously not go ahead arguing easily for painting. While Diaz’s films show many similarities, and while all the points in my research make perfect sense, the term ‘painting’ can be controversial if not defined properly. Lesson learned.