The spirit of absence

I have long been fascinated by the power of absence. I hadn’t known that this was one element that drew me towards Slow Cinema until I saw my first of a number of Lav Diaz’ films, which so clearly play on the nature of the unseen, the present absence. More and more I also realise that my attraction towards this ghostly aesthetic probably stems from several holes in my family history, which I’m now seeking to clear up. There is always a reason for one’s attraction to a piece of art, or a film, and often one isn’t aware of the underlying reason for being emotionally moved by something.

The fascinating aspect of absence, which, to me, is related to the element of space, is that it distorts our perception of time. In many ways, time appears to pass slower, in extreme situations perhaps even in slow motion. There are various reasons for “holes” in our life narrative. Absence is always connected to a loss of something, and this can take different forms. Death is probably the one we can all identify with, and the days and weeks after having lost a loved one always feel different. Time has a different meaning than before. There is a before and an after.

I have long been an admirer of the writings of Georges Didi-Huberman, whose work seems to overlap with my own more often than not, and the further I move through his work, the more I see just how much value his books and essays have for Slow Cinema. Didi-Huberman is not an expert in cinema, which would perhaps rule him out for a lot of people because he just doesn’t know the field. Interestingly enough, it is probably precisely because he is writing from several vantage points – philosophy, art, history, and yes, cinema – that allows him to see things clearly, to take a step back, and to introduce new ideas. Or to simply open our eyes to what’s really in front of us.

One would not necessarily pick up a study on the Italian artist Claudio Parmiggiani for an informed reading on Slow Cinema. But Didi-Huberman’s in-depth focus on “air, dust, traces, and haunting”, as indicated in the book’s subtitle (Génie du non-lieu – Air, poussière, empreinte, hantise), is exactly what one should pick up for a better, or even new understanding of the uses of absence in slow films. I have long used art books for my work on Slow Cinema, and there is a lot of remarkable material that many people, especially academics who think only in their own field, have overlooked. Claudio Parmiggiani is an exceptional artist, whose work focuses on absence, silence and fragmentation. Ignoring everything I have read, looking at Parmiggiani’s pieces online conjures feelings of loss, of pain, of longing, but also of searching and hoping.

The power of time in form of patience, desire and waiting, Didi-Huberman writes, can never exist without an event, an action, that tears it up. There is nothing like a homogenous forward movement of time. There is a persistent alternation between calm and shock. This shock, as I have argued above, usually comes about through the loss of something or someone. A loss is always traumatic, like when you thought, in your childhood, that your dad really stole your nose when he made this weird finger movement in front of your face. You’re shocked, you cry. The calm disappears. The alternation between the power of time in form of slowness and its shock moments can be found in several slow films, but is most visible in the films of Lav Diaz, whose narratives live of this back-and-forth, especially his six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012).

There is this famous opposition in the works of Roland Barthes: what is and what has been. Parmiggiani, on the other hand, works on what remains. Barthes’ has been is absent, but continues to haunt the present. Parmiggiani shows the residues. He creates a picture of this haunting absence in the form of dust, or imprints. He makes it palpable, brings it out into the open. Didi-Huberman argues that dust (poussière in French) has its own time, it doesn’t follow the rhythms we establish throughout our lives. What’s more, dust survives us. It always will. Even though, as Didi-Huberman points out, dust is in permanent movement, it is perhaps the only permanent remnant of everything we do, of everything that our life is and has been. It’s what remains after our death. Dust is temporary and yet permanent. It is in movement, shifting from place to place, and yet remains where it is.

The survival of traces, of dust, of imprints threatens our own survival, Didi-Huberman writes. Is this the reason why we feel uncomfortable about it? Is this why feel haunted, why we try to run away, in whatever way? The nature of slow films reminds us of those traces, and they usually do so by using the off-screen very effectively (and affectively). Parmiggiani’s work is all about the literal meaning of imprints and dust, at least in his magnificent series Delocazione. In effect, I find that he gives an image to what those two elements can also mean, namely memory. Persistent memories, haunting memories, memories that are transmitted from one generation to the next. Memories survive us, and this very survival, this longevity, threatens us and our calm existence. They bring upheaval, pain, change.

This “dust” forms the core of most slow films that I have seen. I have argued previously on this blog that slow films centre around Barthes’ what has been. In fact, after having seen Parmiggiani’s art, I more and more believe that we’re actually speaking about what remains in those films. We’re speaking about remains, residues, dust. We speak about what survives us, what remains after we’re gone. We feel our own impotence of something much larger than us. Do we not?

An Elephant Sitting Still – Hu Bo (2018)

There are good films. There are bad films. There are exciting films, awesome films, overwhelming films. There are also underwhelming films, those that are total junk and a complete waste of time. There are those exclamations like “wow!” or “no, no, I don’t believe this!”. Maybe even something like “best film of the year for me!”. And then there is Hu Bo’s first and only feature film An Elephant Sitting Still, which he had completed in late 2017 before he committed suicide. There is no word or expression in the three languages I speak that would help me express what I feel about this film.

There are films that make you interested in film, and you pick it up as a study subject at university. Or you pick up a camera yourself. There are films that touch you deeply. Films that make you cry, make you laugh. People sometimes speak of emotional rollercoasters. And then there is An Elephant Sitting Still, which makes me want to stop watching films because I don’t want to stain what I have seen with other films. I would like to keep this film as the last film I would ever see because it is so rich, so pure, so deep.

We are all looking for something in life. You might not be aware of it until you find the one thing that you had been looking for. I have been looking for An Elephant Sitting Still. My now ten years in film, especially in slow film, on a quest to find the answer to something I haven’t even asked a question about, have found what I seem have been unconsciously looking for. And this something doesn’t have a word. Or a feeling. It’s something deep inside me.

Milan Kundera wrote a book called The Unbearable Lightness of Being, later adapted to the big screen. The Unbearable Weight Of Being – this is what Hu Bo captures. The weight of living, of breathing, of surviving, or trying to. The weight of our times. Chantal Akerman always wanted us to feel time. Hu Bo wants us to feel the weight of it. The calculated stillness in numerous extended long-takes functions like the weight of an elephant, several tons that crush you underneath its feet. You fight, but what do you fight for if there is no alternative?

The time spent on fighting the agony, on lifting the weight of time, only adds to the feeling of hopelessness. Hu Bo’s characters struggle with the existential question of what their life is worth. This isn’t a truly pessimistic look at life. It is, rather, an existential look at our times, at our stillness in the face of time.

Hu Bo’s moving images are drained of energy, of colour. The film itself is tired, but uses its last bit of energy on telling its characters’ stories. There is resistance, yet not enough in the face of an overwhelming external and invisible force. Every hour spent with the characters feels like an entire life. It is not just the weight of time that drains the characters. It is their anger, often contained, swallowed, until the last straw break’s the camel’s neck. Then, verbal and physical violence becomes omnipresent, but only briefly, often in the off.

There is a boiling point which the film is headed towards. Not a climax, followed by a denouement. An Elephant Sitting Still is eternal. It is our film, our malaise of trying to make something out of our lives in an increasingly hostile world in which we millennials are the first generation to feel the brutality of this new age in which it is difficult enough to survive and even more difficult to live.

Life as an eternal tragedy. Life as an eternal struggle. For those who live in the here and now, the film becomes an expression of their pain without ever trying to make us feel sorry. Without ever trying to make us cry. Wang Jin, an elderly man who faces the fate of spending the rest of his days in a nursing home, says towards the end: “by not going (elsewhere), you learn how to live with it here.”

Elsewhere is always close. We see one character, up close, and another blurred in the background. Elsewhere. The dream of something better than this. A dream that keeps us going, crawling almost, with the few resources we have left. And yet, Hu Bo’s Elephant is not hopeless or worthless, as the film’s characters think they are. Elephant is the one reason why all of this is worth it.

Endnote: If you expected an in-depth review of the film, I’m sorry that I have disappointed you. The experience of Elephant is special. I have thought for a long time that I shouldn’t write about it at all. I don’t want to talk about it either. Elephant is inside me, and only I have the key to it. Never in my life have I had such an experience, but, as I have said above, all of the struggles in my life were worth it if it meant discovering such a film at some point in my life.

Kaili Blues – Bi Gan (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting Time

The end of the year 2018 was, in France at least, a period in which the media focused on the subject of time. The quantity of things published was impressive and made me think about the possible reasons behind this seemingly mutual choice of journalists and podcasters alike. What happened in 2018 that became the trigger for a return to the subject of time and a reminder that time, as we know it, is an artificial construct?

It was, perhaps, Donald Trump and his presidency. In part, at least. An American president, impulsive, tweeting, can quickly take over the news. What I noticed last year is that it felt as though news faster than ever before. One tweet by a politician was enough to create a newsworthy item. Breaking news was the order of the day. Trump, Brexit – you name it. 2018 was characterised by immediacy, heightened by social media and people’s use of it for “news”. I don’t want to write a political post, albeit I could because there is so much to say about last year. Instead, I want to focus on the issue of time today. In an earlier post, I already wrote down my ideas on the theme of waiting, triggered by a blog post on the subject.

Today, I want to go into a bit more detail because I think that if we speak about Slow Cinema, we still don’t speak enough about the subject of time itself. Academics love to explain slow films with Bazin and Deleuze, but this approach has always felt incomplete, or even inadequate to me. It is Sylvain Piron, who, in his magnificent book L’occupation du monde, writes about, what he calls, an artificialisation of every part of society. This, I believe, can also be found in the debate on Slow Cinema. There is no natural conversation about it, but slow films are being explained by artificially constructed frameworks that we have created merely because we humans have to categorise everything in order to keep track of what is happening around us.

Prologue – Béla Tarr

The simple aspect we forget while creating artificial frameworks is that time is an illusion, a question of perspectives rather than a universal truth, as physicist Carlo Rovelli describes it in his new book on time. There is, he suggests, neither space nor time, but instead a continuous progression of processes. Not so long ago, I spoke of Sylviane Agacinski’s thought-provoking book Le passeur du temps, in which she argues that everything is always passing, is in constant transformation. Nothing remains the way you see it right in this very moment. In a second, it’s already different, which, as we may remember from previous readings and discussions, makes it difficult to define what the present moment is, because the present is fragile. If you speak about “the present”, it sounds like a stable temporal entity, but it’s the opposite. What’s present now, is already past in a nano second. So what does this say about time? Rovelli puts forward a pretty good argument. Reality, our reality, is merely a fragment. No one’s reality is the ultimate reality. We create those fragments in order to handle the world. He describes this process, in fact, as a way of blurring of what is around us. In order to contemplate the world as it is, we need to fragment it. We do this, for example, via time, and time is nothing but a marker of our unawareness, of our ignorance.

For Rovelli, time is primarily an emotional and psychological experience, which resonates so strongly with everything I have thought to express on this blog in relation to slow films. From the beginning, I have considered slow films as an experience, rather than as a sort of movement that is defined by frameworks, which tick certain boxes. I have reviewed over 250 films and have seen more without having (yet) written about them. If there is one thing that I have learned, then it is about the necessity of experiencing the films before one poses questions as to what they mean, why they are so slow or so long, and why the director didn’t cut at a specific point. Slow Cinema is, if I take the argument of Rovelli to heart (which I do), the perfect illustration of what time is: an experience, a passing experience, a continuous movement towards something – the end in most cases.

It is, I believe, this experience that we struggle with. In a fast-paced, knee-jerk epoch, are we still capable of truly experiencing something? In order to experience something, this something needs to last, and what actually still lasts? The 21st century, in particular, has cut short everything. Except, that is, for slow films. They last. Their duration allows us to experience, which can be a scary experience. Maybe this is why people say that they are bored. Perhaps they are just scared of letting something happen to them und use boredom as an easy way out. This something – it matters little what it essentially is as it is different for everyone – appears by itself, but one needs to wait for it. We spend so much of our lives waiting, we don’t even realise it anymore. It is so normal to wait for the bus that we no longer notice it as something out of the ordinary. Besides, as Reiner Niehoff and Sven Rücker explain in a three-part podcast series on waiting, everything is being done to make this period of waiting look and feel as though we are not waiting at all. Newspapers and journals in the GP practice, games on mobile phones while waiting for the bus or the metro. We keep ourselves busy all the time, even during periods of waiting.

Almost There – Jacqueline Zünd

Waiting, Niehoff and Rücker say, doesn’t have a quality in and of itself. Its goal is to end the period of waiting. What I found truly thought-provoking, even though it is so simple and easy to recognise that, precisely, I had never thought of it before, is that no one chooses to wait. Waiting is always imposed upon us. We have to endure it and we are at its mercy. This alone tells us why we struggle with waiting. Of course, we like to be in control, and if we are not, it makes us anxious, angry or simply uncomfortable. Whoever it is who makes us wait has power over us, because s/he plunges us into a hole of non-productivity. Remember that time is nothing but a psychological experience? In waiting, we can feel this most strongly.

Do you wait for the director to cut the scene? Do you wait for something to happen? Do you wait for the film to end? The key here is that we perceive a slow film as a form of waiting, and then we say “I don’t have time for this”. Some people might even say that the director shouldn’t steal or waste our time. At the same time, I consider waiting for something to happen in a slow film as the one way of waiting that is not imposed from the outside, but from the inside. Waiting is imposed on ourselves by ourselves, and we project this fear of waiting and our disappointment onto the director, who merely shows a passing experience without any obligations. Because we are, as Rovelli suggested, busy with “blurring” our surrounding, it becomes difficult to accept those films as they are. Instead, we consider them as time experiments, as a “tour de force”. People’s rejection of those films comes from their misconception of what time is, and I think that seeing the subject from a different angle might help them to find their way into the films one day.

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. 

Le passeur de temps – Sylviane Agacinski (2000)

More often than not, book flea markets are the best way to find gems that you might not find in book shops (anymore). Very old books from the 19th century, old film magazines, discontinued books – a whole range of literature that can genuinely enrich your reading, your thinking, your research. It was on a flea market last week that I picked up Sylviane Agacinski’s Le Passeur de Temps – Modernité et Nostalgie, quite a feast for the brain if you’re interested in the subject of time and modernity.

But let me begin with the actual beginning of the book, in which she describes a photograph, which shows a group of students somewhere between 1890 and 1900. All students are male. They look proud, sure of themselves. But there is, in the background and centred, a nude woman. She appears to be just the same: proud, sure of herself, confident. Only one man looks at her. The others look straight at the camera. Agacinski suggests that the nude woman stands in for modernity, appearing at the horizon and few people notice it coming. An interesting take, which, I’m absolutely certain, wasn’t the intention of the photographer. At the same time, we are at the end of the 19th century. Photography itself is part of modernity. The photograph itself is modern, the nude woman becomes a reinforcement of “the new” taking over.

Le Passeur de Temps is a threshold experience, just like this photograph. Written in the late 1990s and published in the year 2000, Agacinski’s book evaluates what has been and what is. It is not a book on the history of modernity and time. It is a philosophical book that poses crucial questions. I would even think that the faster we move forwards, the more essential those questions become. Agacinski’s passeur is taken and adapted from Walter Benjamin’s flaneur, the passeur being what characterises us, and our time, most: everything, including us, is merely passing through or by. With modernity’s aim of constant progress (forward movement), we have to keep going. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Augenblick, verweile doch. Du bist so schön” takes on an important meaning here. The desire for a moment to last, to become eternal, is perhaps stronger than ever before, but it is also less likely than ever before that we allow for a moment to last.

Agacinski reminds us in her chapter L’Heure Occidentale that it used to be religion and politics which created a temporal order in our lives. If history had a religious or political nature to it, so did time. This has changed drastically, however. Globalisation, Agacinski argues, meant nothing other than a homogenisation of rhythms around the world. All rhythms are now Western rhythms, and it is this Western rhythm that makes people believe that time needs to be productive and profitable. Using the work of Claude Levi-Strauss as a basis, Agacinski notes that we could essentially divide the world into two forms of civilisation: those “made to change”, those whose people believe in the possibility of infinite power and knowledge; and those “made to last”, those whose people live in an equilibrium with nature. It’s as though the fate of our modern civilisation is foretold…

This distinction is, in a very crude way, a difference between fast and slow. We have Western society persistently moving forward, and those societies which are meant to last. I like Agacinski’s description here. Societies meant to last…lasting, enduring, duration. Civilisations that live in harmony with nature, that follow natural rhythms. Western societies, on the other hand, live through an eternal passageway, albeit it’s not the mechanical clock, which dictates this movement towards an unknown goal. It is, Agacinski suggests, the stock exchange which waiting for its profits that govern our lives.

Notre monde, surpeuplé d’images, nous fait cohabiter avec des foules de fantômes et douter de l’homogénéité de notre temps. 

When the book was released, 18 years ago (sometimes I really do feel old!), the over-saturation of images was at its beginning. What we see now is something that perhaps no one could have imagined 18 years ago. But the sheer flood of images forces us to live with phantoms. What does that mean for our lives, for our societies?

Essentially, modern consciousness is a “passing consciousness”. It never rests, it never stays. Modern consciousness is aware that our lives are nothing other than a passing element. We come and we go. Agacinski notes that before the age of modernity, at a time when in particular religion still governed our lives, man had a goal. There was this idea of working towards an ideal. Everything one does, everything one creates, one lives through – everything is part of our progressing towards a higher ideal. This ideal was our goal, the reason why we were alive in the first place. This ideal is gone. What remains? There is a thought-provoking argument in the book, which still keeps me thinking.

Selon une longue tradition en effet – avec laquelle il est difficile de rompre – le passager a été conçu comme la négation de l’éternel, donc de l’être. Ce qui ne pouvait durer, rester absolument, ne pouvait pas être.

The idea of passing through”, as we do nowadays, negates eternity. It was our ancient dream to become, or at least to create something eternal. There is this Trauma Management Therapy, which I mentioned in my PhD. We know that we will all die eventually. It causes anxiety, which we tackle by working on something that might make us eternal in one way or another. Yet, modernity, which shows us every day that everything we do is what is called “vergänglich” in German, means that we have no means to tackle this anxiety anymore. Living becomes mourning our death in advance. But the most intriguing point is: if only the eternal, those things that last, are considered to be in the actual sense of the term, then how can modern man still be?

Passionate attachment to life and to youth, Agacinski argues, are only a symptom of the diminishing of the eternal. We try to hand over something to the next generation, something of us, which would make us live longer than our body ever would. Yet, we cannot stop the continuous forward movement towards our non-existence. A taster of mourning, as Agacinski describes it.

Let’s leave this heavyweight argument behind for now, though, and speak about her argument that our concepts and experience of time and space are acquired and not innate. We learn it depending on where we are born, where we grow up, in what kind of society we live. It is based on common human conventions. I would quite like to bring Slow Cinema at this point, because it is/can be a means to acquire a different concept and experience of time and space. If our experience of time is acquired, we can also unlearn our previous ideas and learn something new. Slow Cinema, with its concept of time very different from that of modernity, can be a tool to facilitate this movement. The present, Agacinski argues, is the opportunity for an event or a moment to last. It’s not like the past which is “a world outside of me, without me”, something that we’re merely looking at from the outside. Instead, we’re in a lasting moment. A moment that stretches.

Are slow films a form of the present tense, even if they tell stories of the past? It is an interesting question to which I have no answer. Cinema is a threshold experience, a modern invention which makes us looking at the world passing by in front of us in a much more extreme way than real life ever could. Cinema, by nature, is a passing experience. In this way, it couldn’t be more modern, more emblematic of us as the passeur. And yet, where can we situate Slow Cinema that, through lasting images, invites us to see our lives passing by? A form of film that, more so than popular film, asks us to “lose our time”, to “waste our time” but that, at the same time, invites us to be, to last? Is Slow Cinema a way to slow down the diminishing of the eternal, our attempt at stopping the inevitable progress towards annihilation? 

Sneak Peek at The Art(s) of Slow Cinema journal (Issue 1)

It’s slowly coming together, the first print issue of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. The design is ready (for now), and I have put work on the journal aside for now to allow me some breathing space. If you keep looking at the same thing all the time, you no longer see whether or not something looks good. I want to return to the draft with a fresh pair of eyes by the end of the week and start the final round of proof-reading. This means that we’re getting closer to the day when you can (finally!) pre-order the magazine. And why not give you a sneak peek at what is to come? Let me introduce…. *drumroll*

The wonderful Sebastian Eklund from Sweden, one of the most talented artists I know, has adapted the poster for his new film The Tide Brings the Birds Underwater (streaming for free on tao films) in order for it to fit the cover of the journal. It’s beautiful and expresses everything that Slow Cinema is for me. Obscurity, dreams, mind images, imagination…I cannot thank Sebastian enough for this. I hope it will look just as good in print! 🙂

The journal contains seven articles, responses, and/or creative works. Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais from The Underground Film Studio contributed their engaging 21 Reflections on Creativity and Cinema in the 21st Century, which takes a look at the meaning of both at a time when digital images are omnipresent. A taster? Here you go: 

The daily work of the artist is to develop a craft. Seek to have the widest possible creative tools available in order to best serve the images that need to materialise through you. Work on cinema and let cinema work on you; artistry and craft are ways of being.

I’m particularly happy that filmmaker and writer Maximilian Le Cain has agreed to write a response to Daniel’s and Clara’s propositions. All three belong to an active group of experimental filmmakers whose output is simply fascinating.  

Watching is as personal and creative as making. This understanding rips the foundations out from under the traditional hierarchical power relations implicit in the producer/consumer dynamic. The question they pose of “how can a film fail when its only goal is to come into existence?” neatly emasculates over a century of puffing and panting efforts to overawe audiences with bigger, better, louder, more Olympian products. 

And we continue with filmmakers speaking about their work and the meaning of cinema, time, and duration. There is Aleksandra Niemczyk, whose breathtaking film Centaur runs on tao films at the moment. Her Thoughts on Centaur are a view behind-the-scenes of making a film that is both personal, and yet universal. A visual beauty which impressed me the first time I saw it. 

In a photo, stillness is pregnant with movement. The photographer brings the stillness, and the viewer must project the movement. In a film, stillness frames a scene, while movement is giving information, telling, bringing emotion. Stillness is observing and giving time to see and breathe the point of the frame. 

What is the link between film and boredom? Why is it that some people get bored by films and others do not? Sebastian Cordes, director of A Place Called Lloyd (available on tao films), investigates the subject of boredom in cinema, merging his experiences as a filmmaker on set of Lloyd and theoretical reading. 

 To know nothing is, precisely, the child’s position. The poet, the philosophers position. This was our position in Bolivia. Anti-journalism. To embrace, to dwell, to plunge into a space for a while. This takes time. As it is said before, boredom is linguistically connected to time as well. Phenomenologically speaking, boredom is the state of being such that one’s time feels lengthened. 

But Slow Cinema is not only about time. It is also about themes that find less exposure in other, more popular films. Their vertical development, i.e. their in-depth exploration of themes as opposed to a horizontal progression of a narrative by all means, allows us to get closer to a burning topic that are the heart of some people’s lives. Caitlin Meredith, the voice behind Her Head In Films podcast, writes about Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo:

 Olaizola’s focus on the mundane also shows how these men are embedded in Fogo Island. We begin to understand why they cannot leave. They are so enmeshed in the environment–so attached to the land, the wind, and the water–that evacuating is, in some sense, death. It’s a death of the soul, of the spirit. By refusing to leave, they are resisting this death. 

And one thing is sure: as Caitlin points out, at the heart of Fogo is the theme of loss, of death. This is also the case with Lav Diaz’s oeuvre, which I have explored for the Brazilian film magazine multiplot!, available online

Slow Cinema has often been talked about in the context of temps mort, or dead time. After an action has come to an end, frames remain empty for several seconds, which tests the patience of the viewer. Lav Diaz’s films are no different, but his use of long duration and dead time takes on another dimension. He creates something that I call death time. Death always comes slowly in his films. It takes its time, and it’s not so much about dead time in Diaz’s films but about the slow descent into madness with death being a refuge for the persecuted. 

The journal is a complementary resource to the website you have come to love over the years. There is one secret, which I’m not willing to give away yet, and maybe I never will. But let me say one thing: I have invited filmmaker and artist John Clang to contribute, and his work is so gorgeous that I don’t think I will give it away before at least the pre-sale! 

The only thing you need to do now is wait. Which is what I do, too. Good things come slowly, and I’m not too far off the pre-sale. I’m just taking my time to make sure that it’s all good and that I can ship the baby without getting a bad conscience! 

In the meantime, if you missed this announcement, you can now support me not only via Patreon and a monthly contribution. You can also buy me a virtual coffee via Ko-Fi. I love coffee when I write for you! 🙂

24 Frames – Abbas Kiarostami (2017)

One of the defining characteristics of Slow Cinema is that quite a number of films, in particular experimental films, question the difference between photography and cinema. Static art and moving image art interact and create a certain pull that only those films (can) have. At the beginning of 24 Frames, Abbas Kiarostami notes: “I always wonder to what extent the artist aims to depict the reality of a scene. Painters capture only one frame of reality and nothing before or after it.”

Moving images have helped make recorded life more realistic. I believe that almost everyone shares this opinion. Cinema had, originally, been hailed at creating an almost too real version of reality. Cinema had become an extension of photography. It can go further. Just the movement is enough to make us believe that what we see is real, or so it seems. Kiarostami, a photographer and filmmaker, blurred the line in many of his works, and therefore posed questions about the nature of both art forms. 

With 24 Frames, the question becomes even more urgent. 24 Frames is not so much a film. It is not photography either. It is a question. 24 questions, to be exact, that make us drift into reverie. Most of Kiarostami’s shots are wintry landscapes, like those of a dream land, a land far away, peaceful, yet menacing. Shots, static, that suggest death, lifelessness, silence, contemplation. But death suggests life. Every death creates life in another way. It’s an eternal cycle. Nothing ever dies completely. And so the scenery, the reveries, beautiful, penetrating like the eyes of family members in photographs from a different epoch, begins to move. Snow is falling. Snowflakes are blown towards us. The wind is howling. Deer are running through a prairie after a shot went off. A shot in the off. Far away, and yet very close. The peaceful scenery is disrupted. The shot irritates, shocks, upsets the stillness. The shock of a shot of a deer is almost traumatising. What has happened?

Is this real? Did we have a nightmare? Is this our unconsciousness speaking? Kiarostami’s world is imaginary. It is a journey, several journeys, triggers that make us think about the nature of an image. 24 Frames creates 24 frames of a shamanic journey you are taking with the director. Crows fill the frames, making one think of Hitchcock perhaps. But Kiarostami is different. This is no threat. Kiarostami’s crow is a spirit animal, a prophecy. Wisdom, transformation, the act of change. It is a mysterious creature which, in almost literal terms, transforms a photograph or a painting into a moving image. The crow makes us question, makes us wonder. It initiates a journey into ourselves.

The sea. Endless, raging, wild. But also cleansing. Kiarostami’s sea is an important destination of his journey into the unconsciousness. Rain is falling, the wind is howling. It is a menacing scenery, yet soothing. The sea – a place without limits, without barriers. A place that frees our mind, that allows us to sink into reverie and to go wherever we want to be. That, too, is a journey. A personal journey to a place where we think we have to be. Our journey becomes our destination.

We travel through memories. Can you remember the day we arrived in Paris? Everyone was there. Grandpa wore his nice suit and his hat. He wanted to put on his best clothes for our trip. Can you remember what’s happened to him? 

Static images, Kiarostami said, capture only a frame of reality. 24 Frames is a collection of 24 snippets, of 24 mind images, of 24 destinations on a journey that we’re gently taken on. We look through open windows, open doors. Vast landscapes and the sea are at our finger tips. 24 Frames is an invitation, it is a hand stretched out to us. “Come with me,” the film says. “Let me guide you.” There is no other film whose underlying openness is so vast, so liberating, so fascinating, so personal. The film doesn’t allow refusal. It is there to be journeyed with.

Shoah – Claude Lanzmann (1985)

It is clear to me that Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) would never make it into a Slow Cinema list. Perhaps, it shouldn’t be. Perhaps, it should simply remain a film apart from the rest in order to preserve its sheer monumentality. And truth be told, it might not feel like a slow film at all. It certainly feels different from the Béla Tarrs, from the Apichatpong Weerasethakuls, from the Pedro Costas of the world. Nevertheless, I would like to jot down some notes and try to establish a to me inevitable link to the nature of Slow Cinema.

I have become aware of the rather limited approach we seem to have in terms of establishing what is and what isn’t slow. Of course, the respective and perceived pace of a film is entirely subjective, and what is slow for me might well be fast for you. At the same time, there seems to be a sort of mutual agreement that slow happens primarily in feature films. Fiction films, to be more precise. Documentaries don’t pop up very often in our discussion on Slow Cinema. This blog is also a good mirror of this. There is, of course, the work of Wang Bing which has been so often used as an example of Slow Cinema. Apart from a sole exception, Wang Bing is, and possibly remains, a documentary filmmaker whose cinematic slowness is so essential to the stories he tells. He couldn’t tell those stories in any other way. At the same time, he seems to be pretty much the only widely known slow-documentary director, who pops up time and again in people’s writings and in their lists.

Why is this? Why do we seem to have problems to classify documentaries as slow? I believe that documentaries are, often in any case, slower than fiction films. It is somewhat “acceptable” to make a poetic documentary, a piece that takes its time and which allows people to tell their stories. Documentaries are only categorised as special when they are particularly long, which is the case with most of Wang Bing’s films, or Claude Lanzmann’s. Shoah is, by and large, the slowest documentary I have seen, which made me think about its “ingredients” and how they compare to the slow films that have become somewhat canonical.

I do not intend to write a review of the almost ten-hour long film. I would fail. And I would fail miserably. Whether one can write an adequate review at all, I have my doubts. There are so many stories to tell, so many emotions to mention, so many complexities to unravel that written words would never do justice to Shoah. Instead, I want to note a few aesthetic particularities, which I noticed were in sync with what I have written about in the last couple of years.

It remains true that not all slow films are long films. It remains true, too, that not all long films are slow films. Shoah is a particular case, however. Lanzmann set out to create a portrait as detailed as possible of what has been called the “Endlösung”. Similar to any major books you find on the subject, there is little you can cut out. The subject is complex, based on so many orders, on so many levels, in so many administrative regions, so much bureaucracy – it is impossible to recount this part of the Second World War in the usual, narrative way. Take the work of Saul Friendländer, “Nazi Germany and the Jews”, a two-part investigation into the persecution and extermination of the Jews. Overall, the French version (as an example) counts around 1,500 pages. A monstrous piece, in many ways. Just like some people argue that the Holocaust defies representation, certain writers (like Friedländer) and filmmakers (like Lanzmann) have shown that the Holocaust dislocates time and space. It dislocates narrative coherence, albeit it needs to be said at this point that Lanzmann tried to allow the “story” of Shoah to progress in an almost linear fashion. The Holocaust defies cinematic cuts, or ellipses to push the narrative forwards faster, to allow the audience to fill in the gaps. There are no gaps. Not only to prevent the viewer from filling gaps with escapist ideas, romantic ideas which they take from Hollywood films, which in most cases always have a Happy End. It is also about forcing the viewer to listen, to hear, to imagine the unimaginable.

Shoah doesn’t cut. It listens extensively to testimony of survivors, of bystanders, of perpetrators. If there is one thing that narrative convention in cinema, which has developed over decades, has done to us is that we no longer have the patience to listen to survivors. We expect them to tell their stories quickly, in a classical three-act structure, and please do not give any details. Our obsession with narrative conventions has silenced survivors. Alexandre Dauge-Roth has noted this problem in his writing on the genocide in Rwanda. The camera in Lanzmann’s film, on the other hand, remains with the one who speaks. Certain monologues of survivors feel endless, filled with horror, and yet it is impossible to stop listening. The very characteristic of Slow Cinema – giving time to a monologue, a dialogue, an event – is crucial here because time, that means long duration in this case, can assign the witnessing function to the viewer. And in becoming witnesses, we lift at least some of the burden on the shoulder of those survivors who were willing to talk to Lanzmann. Long duration, perceived slowness expressed through little to no movement within a frame, and the use of long takes, all parts and parcel of Slow Cinema, become vital in the representation of trauma.

It is of little importance who is speaking in front of the camera. Survivor, bystander, perpetrator – they all contribute to film as trauma. And the two aesthetics I looked at during my PhD research – duration and absence in Lav Diaz’s cinema – are very much the centre of Lanzmann’s work, not only of Shoah, but also of his last film Four Sisters. The latter film shares a lot with Wang Bing’s Fengming, which also consists of a single interview with a single woman in a single room. Minimalism becomes a vehicle for the transfer of traumatic memories. The focus on interviews, of people talking in front of the camera, their words translated on camera so as to keep the authenticity of what happens alive, all of this results in one major theme: absence.

Shoah is perhaps one of the most haunting films, precisely because it doesn’t show anything. It can’t. It is a post-trauma film, a film that is visually set in the time after the traumatic event occurred, but where the monologues position us inside the traumatic event itself. It is common practice in films by director Lav Diaz, for instance, that traumatic events are spoken about but never shown. Perpetrators are mostly spoken of, not seen very often, or not seen at all. Trauma resides in the past. Shoah is one of those films, albeit it must be so by default. The absence of traumatic imagery results from the absence of real imagery of the Holocaust (excluding four photographs that have been found – see further Georges Didi-Huberman). This means that the haunting nature of the event, as well as of the film, is entirely natural, is consequential rather than forced upon from the outside. There was no choice, there were no options – the particular present absence / absent presence, which is so vital to slow films and their treatment of trauma (for example, the films of Lav Diaz or of Pedro Costa) stands at the core of Shoah.

This particular point is most visible, perhaps even haptic if you wish, in the second half of the film. Filip Müller, a Czech survivor, speaks in detail about the process of the extermination; the arrival of a train, the undressing, the hair cuts, the way the people had to walk, their way through the so-called Schlauch, their screams. Lanzmann overlays most of Müller’s detailed description with images of the ruins, the remnants of the Auschwitz gas chambers, with images of what has remained; nothing but the mere skeletons of the past. There’s a friction here; the images of ruins invites one to imagine, invites one to let the imagination wander, perhaps even wonder. Yet Müller’s monologue, in painful detail, doesn’t allow for imagination. He doesn’t allow for gaps, for holes to open up. There is a constant push-and-pull between what we would possibly like to do as viewer, and what the survivor wants us to do, namely to listen.

Nothing is more effective than not showing. Nothing brings out (post-)trauma so well as does a rejection of visibility, of showing. Nothing makes the past more palpable than using time and space invested in listening, and not only simply listening to words. It is about really listening, not just hearing some words. Lanzmann’s Shoah is so minimalist, so simple that it creates an adequate space and an adequate time for traumatic events to resurface in the survivors’ memories, which can then be uttered, be brought to the surface, be brought into the open. Only slowness, only unconventionality, only long duration and absence, only minimalism can do this. Only Slow Cinema, I personally believe, can really be a cinema of (post-)trauma because all types of aesthetics that are favourable of an exploration of post-trauma are at the filmmaker’s disposal. Slow Cinema can become a vehicle for survivor testimony, if used adequately.

(NB: I began this sort of work in my PhD thesis. If you want to read it, it’s available here.)

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.