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.

Fresh from the press: new books on Chantal Akerman

I took a literary journey through the works of Chantal Akerman thanks to two new books that have been published on her work. Not so long ago, I wrote about Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit by Corinne Rondeau, which I found to be a great book, something that gave you a sense of how a Chantal Akerman film feels. It wasn’t a dry description, it was a book about experience.

So from that point of view, it was a pleasant surprise to have yet another French-language book in my hand that dealt with feelingssensationsmemories. The most recent book on Akerman, Chantal Akerman – Dieu se reposa, mais pas nous, published just a week ago, was written by Jérôme Momcilovic, who also gave a lecture on the director as part of the major retrospective that is currently running at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. What struck me first of all, from page one, is the way Momcilovic approached the task of writing about a director whose oeuvre is so vast and so complex (albeit it looks simple at first) that it would be easy to miss most of the essential stuff in a book of less than 100 pages.

Momcilovic begins his book with a quote by Sylvia Plath, American poet and writer: “Light, as white as bones, like death, after all things…” A description of a scene from Akerman’s New from Home (1976) follows, an interpretative description, rather than a mere statement of what one sees. Once more, here’s a book which is very much in line with my own writing. I see it so often that “analytical” books contain more film descriptions than analysis (as we will see later on in this post), and the uses of synopses are, nowadays at least, limited. Brief, two- or three-sentence synopses are fine if you want to give the reader something. All other details are online. Books can focus on the depth and the experiential nature of films if only more writers would do it. In any case, Momcilovic does a great job here, carefully using short paragraphs for each essential thought, an essential feeling that one might have when one sees a certain scene.

The book is not a description of Akerman’s films. Its a journey through it. Not necessarily going chronologically in his writing about her main works, Momcilovic follows thoughts, follows ideas, interrupted by Akerman’s own thoughts on specific films or her filmmaking career. He describes hers as “cinéma errant, nomade, vagabond” (nomad, wandering cinema) which is very much in line with Akerman’s being.

“Le temps n’est pas le même pour tout le monde, mais les films d’Akerman nous ont donné un temps à partager avec eux, temps électrique, dans l’hôtel et à l’arrêt de bus, un temps délimité par le miracle de l’apparition et le deuil de la disparition qui oblige de revenir pour effacer le deuil dans le miracle…On ne sort jamais des films d’Akerman, il faut y rester tout une vie.”

Everyone has a different perception of time, but, Momcilovic writes, Akerman’s films gives us a special time which we can share with her films, with her work, be it at a hotel or at a bus stop. What matters most, however, is that one can never leave a film by Akerman. One has to stay with them one’s entire life. I was struck by this powerful statement and noticed that, without ever expressing it this way, I had the same feelings about the films by Lav Diaz. As Momcilovic suggests in his writing, you can leave the auditorium for a cigarette or for a pee break, but you stay with the film, or rather the film stays with you for longer than any screen time at a cinema. That reminds me of a very important aspect Andrei Tarkovsky mentioned: a good film is never finished at the end of post-production. A good film lives on in its viewer and its meaning is created only by the viewer. This is, Momcilovic seems to suggest, precisely the nature of Akerman’s films.

“Par un réflexe facile à expliquer, parce que ses plans durent et nous font regarder longtemps, l’arbitraire des classements l’a rangée parmi les cinéastes “de la durée”. Mais dire ça, c’est toujours faire peser sur l’expérience des films le soupçon d’une douloureuse endurance, c’est voir les films comme une prison de temps, belle prison mais prison quand même.”

Akerman’s films are regularly classified as belonging to a group of films that focus on duration, Momcilovic says. And yet, this classification – and I agree wholeheartedly here – creates a tension, potentially a rejection on the part of the viewer because it sounds as though those films are an endurance test, a “prison of time”. But, he argues, quite the contrary is the case. Akerman’s films, and I’d like to add all slow films, liberate the view, liberate the viewer, and therefore invite an active engagement with the film text.

Momcilovic spends quite a good part of his books on recurring sounds in Akerman’s films, arguing at some point that no one has forced his/her viewers to listen to the silence of waiting the way Akerman had done in some of her films. And if it’s silence in some parts, then it is the outdoor noise that invades a room through wide open windows in others. I haven’t yet thought much about sound in Akerman’s films, but Momcilovic gave me a couple of ideas, which I’d like to investigate more in future.

I’d like to finish this part of my blog with another quote by Momcilovic, which I found touching and will stay with me for a while: “No Home Movie is not a film about death, but about a gradual obliteration of two images bound to disappear together.”

I wished I could finish this whole post with this quote, but there is still one more book I’d like to speak about briefly. Quite some time ago, I reviewed a book on Pedro Costa, an edited collection that appeared in edition text + kritik (Germany). They published one on Chantal Akerman last summer, edited by Fabienne Liptay and Margit Tröhler. The two books couldn’t be more different from another. One feels like a collection of thoughts, liberated and liberating. The other is a rather rigorous study of Akerman’s oeuvre that allows little room for the reader’s own thought. In nine chapters, various themes are explored, albeit I had the feeling that synopses and detailed descriptions played a major role, which, at times, put me off actually watching more of Akerman’s films because everything was said, and in such descriptive detail that, technically, I wouldn’t need to see the films anymore. This is a shame and something I always dislike about writers, academics, and especially editors who decide to publish stuff like this. Giving away everything from a film means ruining it for the reader, unless you want your readers to see everything beforehand or if you want readers without an intention to discover. That, for me, is a bit how Chantal Akerman felt at certain points.

At other times, the authors make several good points which are useful for my own work. Eric de Kuyper, for instance, argues that Akerman’s work is so extremely autobiographical that it’s no longer noticeable. It’s everywhere, and yet not always as visible or as easy to grasp as in other works either by herself or by other directors. Furthermore, his point on the use of a static camera is interesting. It’s something I had never thought about this way. Kuyper argues that the absolute stasis of the camera highlights the presence of the director, making his/her presence behind the image we see palpable. There is someone recording the scene we see, he writes. I personally always thought of a static camera in the context of an arresting image, of photography, of death in certain ways. Kuyper speaks of presence, meaning life, which makes me rethink a bit what I had argued in the past.

In her chapter on Hotel Monterey and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Michelle Koch suggests that the contemplative look at empty rooms and the way certains scenes are edited turns physical architecture into a mental space (or “room”, as Koch writes). I have seen neither of the two films yet, but Koch’s argument reminds me of something I myself have argued in my PhD thesis regarding the use of makeshift and run-down houses in the films of Lav Diaz to reinforce an image of despair and mental upheaval. I also wrote an unpublished essay on the uses of architecture and double framing in the films of Béla Tarr and who immediately comes to mind in this context is, in fact, Tsai Ming-liang. Akerman’s use of physical spaces to evoke a mental space, to me, is consistent with other directors’ uses of physical spaces in order to show their characters’ mental upheavals.

The longest chapter in the book, I believe, is Heike Klippel’s thoughts on Jeanne Dielman, which is situated somewhere between Momcilovic’s free thinking and this very book’s rigorous descriptions. Nevertheless, there are some points to take away from it. I’d like to point out just one here. Klippel suggests that the way Akerman films everything in detail would normally suggest an abundance of information. Her long takes show everything in detail. And yet, especially in Jeanne Dielman, you have this discrepancy between showing and not showing. One example is Jeanne doing the dishes, but she’s with her back towards us. We know what she’s doing, but we cannot see it. So, can we actually know what she’s really doing in detail? Akerman blurs the line between the visible and the invisible, between the idea of showing detailed everyday activities and hiding details, keeping secrets about what’s going on.

Overall, both books have their own way of approaching the rather comprehensive and complex oeuvre of Chantal Akerman. I believe that Momcilovic succeeded in getting to the depth of Akerman, really focusing on the vertical axis (the experiential, the emotional) in many cases, whereas the other book is more for people who prefer a rigorous reading of single scenes. One is French, the other in German. I hope that at least Momcilovic’s piece will be translated into English soon.

Film Spectatorship

Something that has always fascinated me is film spectatorship in regards to Slow Cinema. While film spectatorship as a subject isn’t entirely absent from research, it is not as big a subject as it deserves. The problem with spectatorship is that “spectators” are an unknown, unlimited, undefinable mass. It’s difficult to study and easy to generalise. Every spectator is different from another. We’re all individuals, and our perception of certain films is shaped by the way we grew up, where we were born, our life experiences, even our social circle. Spectatorship is multi-facetted, which is, I believe, what makes it so fascinating. It is not something that can be easily defined. Nor, perhaps, for that matter, written about with absolute clarity.

La direction de spectateurs, edited by Dominique Chateau (2015), is an interesting compilation that is the result of a symposium on the subject of film spectatorship held in several places in France, the UK and the Netherlands. There seems to be a habit with good Belgian publishers (and I’m getting more and more interested in them) that they always include film / art professionals in books, so as to avoid selling tough, dry, and theoretical analyses. For them, it appears to be important to bring together the worlds of research and of practice, and this always shows in the quality of their publications (maybe it’s worth thinking about writing my Lav Diaz book in French and publish it through a Belgian publisher).

I don’t want to review the entire book here, even though it is an interesting read and I sure recommend you get yourself a copy if you can read French. I would much rather like to focus on one specific chapter, which made me think a lot about Slow Cinema, contemplation, and my work for tao films. The chapter is entitled Le regard activé – Défis des cinématographies expérimentales and is based on a talk by artist Katerina Thomadaki. Together with Maria Klonaris, she’s been making non-narrative experimental films that have founded and shaped the concept of corporeal cinema as early as the 1970s. Her insights into making those films and her take on the audience is quite intriguing, and I’d like to note a couple of points.

First of all, it is important to note her point that it is common practice to assume that the spectator (or viewer, a term which I personally prefer given the films we’re speaking of which are not at all spectacular) is pre-conditioned. We heave learned “how” to watch a film. We look out for specific characteristics, such as camera angles, changes in colour, etc in order to interpret a film. Thomadaki describes this as “coded learning” and “conditioned expectations”. This coding, this conditioning, is what leads certain viewers to reject certain films. I believe this goes back to a previous post about yes-boredom and no-boredom, i.e. the viewer’s willingness to break through this conditioning and let him- or herself be taken by a work of art. Thomadaki doesn’t mention this in her talk/chapter, yet I see strong parallels between her proposal and the idea of boredom.

This conditioning is not as final as it sometimes seems, however. Thomadaki speaks of the “plasticity of the spectator”, the idea that in talks following the screening of her films a few sentences sufficed in order for some viewers to see the films differently and, most importantly, to open up about what they had seen. While this is an important point to keep in mind while discussing film spectatorship, it needs to be pointed out that this plasticity is not necessarily the norm. To me, plasticity only comes into effect if there is a will on the side of the viewer, which brings me back to the argument above about yes- and no-boredom. It is with films like with everything else. If you’re willing to have your mind changed about something, you walk this way, you open up, and you see where this way might or might not take you. A lot of viewers, however, prefer walking the pre-walked paths, and this is precisely where experimental and arthouse films struggle.

When it comes to experimental films, she argues, one should not speak about directing the spectator, which is the title of the book, and which many filmmakers go for, especially in Hollywood circles. What is most apt for experimental films – and this is where I think Slow Cinema comes in – is that those films disorientate the viewer. It is the aim of the filmmaker to disorientate, rather than to direct. Non-narrative experimental films as well as slow films act against previous conditioning. She writes that in those films it is not the aim of the director to direct the viewer, but to liberate potentials in him/her. The aim is to create such a condition which allows the viewer to find something experimental in him/herself (expérimentale en soi).

I quite like this argument, and I think that this is what a lot of experimental and slow film directors hope to achieve. I, too, as programmer of tao films am very interested in de-conditioning the viewer. If anything, the viewer is hostile to slow films because it’s not standard. If slow films were standard and we would grow up with them, no one would be opposed to it. I mentioned in a post on the book Art and Therapy that what we like depends on what we’re taught is good. As long as no one teaches people that slow films (or experimental films) are good, the vast majority will reject them. It’s a responsibility that institutions, schools, universities shoulder.

Thomadaki suggests that hostility to a genre of film is the first step to acknowledging that there is something worthwhile in those films, but that there is also a creative freedom in the viewer. In this way, her argument continues, the spectator is no longer simply a consumer, which is exactly what especially sales companies are aiming at. The “experimental spectator” becomes de-conditioned, de-programmed, disorientated. While this might feel scary, it is the first step towards a liberated viewing, a kind of viewing that allows one to actually see, to become aware of one’s power as viewer and the power of one’s look. This is at the centre of my work at tao films. I’m hoping that something in the general public can change about the way we see those films. I will never change the world with it, but if I could help some viewers to reach a state of creative freedom, my work has had a point.