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.
Here we are again. Another year comes to an end. It’s not easy to look back at 2018, which began with a complete breakdown of body and mind and which ended with complete exhaustion. In between, I tried to watch films and write articles. On top of that, I have managed (don’t ask me how!) to create a new baby: The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine.
But let’s look at something else first. Social media as well as news sites are full of annual Best-Of lists. I don’t think in lists, as many people do. Classifying everything is one of those quirks of our time, primarily because we can. Social media, in particular, allows us to judge everything. Whether continuous and subjective judgment of good and bad brings us forward, or helps the art of cinema in anyway could be a lengthy debate at a workshop, or a conference. I think the issue is that some people watch too many films, and I have trouble to believe that they can actually savour each one of them them or choose wisely. I was forced to take a step back this year and watched less films than usual. But I can say that all films were good. And so they were last year. To me, it’s about giving a film time to make an impact. This can come after a few days, sometimes even after a few weeks. If, by that time, you have seen another 20 films, the impact of a really good film will be drowned by all the others. Images merge and become one. In the end, it’s like a slow coffee filtering process. The more time it takes, the better and stronger the taste.
This is quite literally the case with Wang Bing’s new film Dead Souls. Eight hours long, with the film getting stronger over the course of it running time – this is really what, to me, cinema is all about. Yes, I could say that Dead Souls, a collection of testimony from survivors of Chinese labour camps, was the best film I have seen this year. But then, so is Elsewhere by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, which really drew me in, and which is still with me, even months after I have seen in. Both films create the weight and the urgency with which they tell their stories through the use of long duration. The filmmakers took their time with their subjects. It was not only about listening, but also about understanding the stories the people in front of the camera tell us. This is perhaps the element that stood out most for me this year. It was a year of seeing and of listening to people.
Seeing – this reminds me most strongly of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielmann. It’s one thing to watch the ordinary in Slow Cinema. It is something entirely different if one watches Jeanne doing her routine housework until this routine cracks. I had thought it would be a laborious viewing session, but it was a revealing experience instead. And so was Jacqueline Zünd’s Almost There, a truly marvellous poetic documentary that made me think, and almost cry. It is unfortunate that it’s difficult to find female slow-film directors. I’m sure they’re there. The challenge is to find them. Jacqueline Zünd is a great example of exceptionally good female filmmakers, with an eye for detail and an ear for (extra-)ordinary stories.
My year 2018 was a year of long-form cinema. I have mentioned Geyrhalter’s Elsewhere and Wang Bing’s Dead Souls already. This year, I also took the time to watch Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Lav Diaz’s four-hour long The woman who left and Andrei Tarkovsky’s equally long Andrei Rublev. There is something about long-form cinema that, for obvious reasons, the average film cannot give you. Long-form cinema can be the ultimate example of vertical cinema, a form of cinema that gives you a real insight, an in-depth exploration of a subject matter. Of course, it is not easy to find time for long films, but every time I do it I have to say that spending a couple of hours with a single film is worth it and I start to like them more than shorter films.
This also shows in my posts. I have written 15 posts less this year than in 2017, and yet I have written 7,000 more words. There was more to say, more thoughts triggered by the films I have seen. And despite the longer posts, people keep reading The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. Thank you! 2018 was the most successful year ever and even more people than last year found their way to the site. Thank you to everyone who is linking to it!
So, what’s next for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema? At the beginning of January, the first 20 copies of Issue 01 of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine will be shipped. The paper version, with previously unpublished material by artists, filmmakers and cinephiles alike, is a new way forward to broaden the output. I want you to read other opinions, other views, instead of always only my own 😉 If you want to check the first issue, do take a look at the contents and you can order it via tao films.
I’m hoping to publish the magazine twice a year, but it really depends. I’m not pushing it. If the content for a new magazine isn’t there, then I will wait until it’s all there and ready. Slow film, slow magazine. A new project for 2019 is a Slow Cinema podcast. Once I have recovered and recuperated my energy, I will start experimenting with different things and see how I can best approach this. Each episode will be a more in-depth analysis, or a conversation with someone about a film I have previously written about on the blog. That’s the plan. How it will look (or sound) like in the end, we’ll see. But this will be the next step for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema.
The first post in 2019 will probably be thoughts on seven podcasts, which deal with the concepts of waiting and slowing down. I’ve come across them this month and found that there was a lot in them, which I’d like to expand on here on this blog. Apart from that, however, I will take 2019 the way it comes. I have two more films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter to watch and the rest is open. Let’s see what I’ll find!
Finally, I’d like to take the opportunity to make you aware of my profile on Steady. Steady works a bit like Patreon and offers you a chance to support the growing body of work I’m doing for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. It becomes more and more demanding, but it is work I have been doing happily for free. I have also said that the blog will always be for free. And I stick to this. On the other hand, you can support me on Steady and make it a bit easier for me to dedicate myself to this work. Take a look and if you could circulate it, advertise it or contribute, I would thoroughly appreciate it. Thank you!
I wish you all a fantastic end of the year, and I’ll see you in 2019!
I have one specific sequence in my head, and what it shows and what is said doesn’t get any weaker with time. An elderly tribes man from Indonesia, sitting in his tree house, tells us that it wouldn’t be good to kill bad people because this would only anger the dead person’s family. For some reason, this sequence has burned itself into my memory. Perhaps because of its simplicity, of its plain and simple logic that modern people, especially politicians, have lost or forgotten about a long time ago.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Elsewhere (2000), a fascinating four-hour long-form documentary, is perhaps one of the best films I have seen by the director. Of course, Elsewhere has strong competition. I will never forget the astonishing Homo Sapiens, or the curious Pripyat. Geyrhalter is a documentarian with enough patience to tell important stories, those stories that don’t make it into our field of vision because we’re saturated daily with short-lived story bites that will never stay in our memories. Elsewhere is, however, a powerful example of what time, or rather long duration, can achieve in exploring the world, in exploring life outside of our personal ordinariness, our “normality”, our “modernity”. It allows us to see the wealth around us, the differences, the similarities, in fact everything that makes us human.
Part 1 – January to June 2000
I still remember the 31 December 1999. There was a real hype about it. We would be crossing a magical threshold. Tomorrow would be the beginning of a new century. What would it bring? One thing that was clear, at least on telly, was that no one could tell whether the hundreds of nuclear bombs the world hosts would go off all at once because of a computer error. Excitement switched to anxiety, and it became the more apocalyptic the more time passed.
This is, one must admit, the downside of modern life. It can kill us at any moment, and it can do so faster than any traditional life we used to have before the Industrial Revolution sped up our life beyond something we would ever be able to control. Geyrhalter traveled the world and his film is a look into the past, yet a past that is still very present, albeit at the margins. The director is on the lookout for traditional societies, which do not comply with our idea of modernity and therefore of progress. Beginning in Niger, with the lives of the Tuareg, Geyrhalter stops in 12 different regions of the world to show us what has been and what still is. Niger hosts around two million tuaregs. They live in the desert, in vast empty spaces that many would deem hostile. The colours are beautiful, and Geyrhalter’s low-angle camera allows us to get down to the same height as several actions we see. The Tuareg sit on the sand, on stones, or they spend their time traveling on their dromedars. It’s not often that we see them stand up or walk. The most impressive images, to me, are those of low-angle stillness or movement. Three women sit int front of the camera, speaking about the difficulties women face when bringing up children. “They’re hungry all the time,” they say. Only when they grow up do they become useful. A man is afraid that the bush will one day no longer feed the people and that the Tuareg would have to move into town in order to survive.
It’s those interviews, sometimes snippets, that are particularly intriguing in Geyrhalter’s film. He does not simply film what’s in front of his lens. There is an interaction apparent, and there’s no intention hiding it. In Namibia, one hears the interpreter in the background. The presence of the other is not cut. It’s supposed to be there. In Ombivango, shown in beautiful long shots, a man tells us that his job is examining court cases. He tells us that it’s important to prevent the destruction of the environment and that poachers need to be prosecuted. There voilà, the documentary becomes a reminder, perhaps a lesson that we should learn from those who live with the resources they have, knowing that one cannot live on credit, especially not when it comes to natural resources. An inconvenient truth? Maybe, but Geyrhalter doesn’t create an openly environmentally-friendly documentary. This wasn’t his aim. The aim was to observe tradition, and observation is an essential part in a longer, a slower learning process. Elsewhere is an invitation to observe and to learn, to remember what we have forgotten.
The vast landscapes in Namibia and Niger are juxtaposed with vast landscapes in Greenland and Finland. Reindeer herding and seal hunting – it is here that modernity and tradition clash. A snowy landscape, at night. It looks and feels like the middle of nowhere. But there is a petrol station, a view one would perhaps not expect high up in the north, the farthest north of Finland, far off human civilisation. Civilisation – that are hundreds of reindeer that need to be looked after. Hansa, one of the few Sami people who can still live off reindeer herding is detached from society, but merges with his wintry environment. He becomes one with it. As do Otto and Asiajuk, seal hunters in Greenland, who tell us about the way their work has changed because of Greenpeace activism and Brigitte Bardot. The macro clashes with the micro, the seen with the unseen, unheard, the international with the local. Everything affects everything. This is why sorcerers in West Papua, Indonesia, we are told, are no longer being killed. They are “sent to town”, villages which white men have built in order to settle there. The magnificent tree houses the tribe builds with simple means are mind-blowing. And yet, one wonders when the white men, who live next door, will come too close to this part of simple and traditional life that has survived for centuries. Further south-east, in Australia, the Aboriginals tell us that they want to keep their identity, all the while adopting parts of “white”, or European (as they call it) modernity. And so, while we witness traditional dances, bush fires and hear about circumcision rituals, Aboriginal boys are seen glued to a television over a video game. It seems like we’re witness the merging of two disparate worlds, two opposing times.
Part 2 – July to December 2000
July opens with a beautiful shot in India. A woman hums while preparing tea for everyone. It’s difficult to guess her age. She seems radiant, content in her surrounding. “We should all try to live together in peace,” she says. To her, it’s important to share things with others. It all started with an argument in the village about water. Now, she shares everything she has with everyone. Making up for mistakes in her previous lives, she says.
What characterises the second part of Geyrhalter’s film is its particular beauty. I had the impression that the director tried to go a little further, enhancing his already magnificent work. At the same time, he moves closer to us. In Russian Siberia, we meet Josip, whose livelihood has been destroyed by oil companies which moved into the area. A native reindeer herder, Josip no longer knows how to live in a polluted, toxic environment, which kills ducks, geese and fish around him. He speaks of the past and how everything used to be better. He sits on a rock at the shores of the sea. Again, Geyrhalter uses a low angle. We’re on the same height as Josip, which makes the interview incredibly personal and intimate. It’s one of the film’s strength – the intimacy between us and those far away. Geyrhalter bridges geographical distances by choosing the right height of the camera.
It was in 2012, when Wang Bing filmed Three Sisters. A beautiful portrait of three sisters, left behind by their father who works in the city. It’s a portrait shot in the Chinese region of Yunnan. Geyrhalter filmed in that region about a decade earlier. He, too, portrayed the people, albeit the adults more than the children. It seems to be the first part, in which we listen to ongoing dialogue between characters. It’s striking because it’s not something that we’ve been used to in the previous three hours. Women cook, chop vegetables. They are amongst themselves, and it’s here that it becomes evident that the director tries to keep the societal structure within the groups he films intact on film. One woman tells us that people have “walking marriages”. A couple doesn’t move in together. A mother wouldn’t want her daughter to be raised by another woman, for example. So each stays in his/her own respective family. No one ever moves out or away. It’s something, which Han people (the main ethnic group in China) cannot understand, she says. The idea is not only to keep the family together, but also to preserve land. If a couple has 10 kids and each of them marries and builds a house, space for farming will become rare. This is how it works in traditional societies. Children move away and build new. Not so with the Moso people.
There are two main themes in Elsewhere. First, we have the theme of roots, of home, of tradition. The theme of the past, if you wish, a past that is continuous. The other, opposing theme is that of the present threat to this tradition. There is talk of “the white men” who have built villages in West Papua, those who now prevent the natives from killing sorcerers. There is talk of Greenpeace and its fight against seal hunting and its difficulties for the natives in Greenland. Then there is Denis, a Nisga’a (Canada), who had been sent to residential schools where he was beaten until he no longer spoke the tribe’s language. When he returned home and spoke English only, he was beaten at home, because he no longer understood the Nisga’a language. Tradition was beaten out of him. There is Luigi, a traditional fisherman, who still lives without electricity and running water. “Working doesn’t pay anymore,” he says. Fishmongers only want beautiful fish for the restaurants. Only poor people eat ugly fish. In Micronesia, on the Woleai Atoll, the US dumps what has become known as “Christmas drop”, stuff Americans no longer want are dropped off on the island for Christmas in the hope the natives could use this modern junk. What they use are the parachutes which are used to drop the “drop”. They’re effective mosquito nets…
How would Elsewhere look like today? How has life changed for those twelve tribes/families? I couldn’t help wondering. Elsewhere is an intense documentary that benefits from its long running time. Even though we spend only about twenty minutes with each family, Geyrhalter makes those few images count and leaves us with poignant dialogues and at times breathtaking images that, all together, create an intense film experience. It’s a film that makes one think and wonder, and makes one hope that Geyrhalter will redo this project so that we can see how things have changed. I’d give anything for it!
(Elsewhere is part of the wonderful DVD box set that Icarus has released earlier this year. An absolute must for me, so do check it out! More info on the Icarus website! Read my review on Geyrhalter’s other films, also on The Art(s) of Slow Cinema: Homo Sapiens, Pripyat, and Abendland.)