What does it mean to wait? What does “waiting” mean nowadays when everyone seems to be always, eternally busy? Are we still waiting, or have we essentially replaced waiting by simply doing stuff? I use this blog post in order to respond to a post on Geyst blog that ended with the question “what does it mean to wait?” I felt that there is plenty to say, also in regards to slow film. If waiting has perhaps indeed been almost replaced by us doing stuff in order to keep ourselves busy – while waiting for the train, the bus, a friend to arrive – then it is slow films that return us to the idea of waiting, the feeling of time standing still.

Chantal Akerman didn’t want people not to notice time passing. The point of her work was to make the viewer aware that time was passing. We notice the power of time, I would say, most often when presumably nothing is happening, exactly in moments of waiting. Time feels heavy, feels burdensome. “With my films, you’re aware of every second passing through your body”, she famously said. What is important (and characteristic of slow films) is the act of waiting, in several different ways. For one, it’s the characters who wait. Think of Lav Diaz. In Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), I think it is, that characters are walking from one village to another, but because of the heat they take several extensive breaks. They sit in the shadow, simply waiting for the sun to subside. Diaz said once that this was characteristic of the Filipinos. The heat, the humidity – it’s too much, so people sit down and wait for the heat to subside. They wait, doing nothing.

Béla Tarr…what would Slow Cinema be without Béla Tarr? The endless, now almost characteristic scenes of people in front of windows, looking outside, looking for nothing in particular. They just sit and watch. We don’t know whether they wait for something to happen, or whether they just stop and allow time do its work. Whether it’s DamnationThe Man from London or The Turin Horse, these scenes are iconic, and they force us, the viewer, to wait, too. Because as Akerman suggested, the viewer is always waiting. We are waiting for the next take to commence, for the current one to stop. Slow films pause, and they develop in their own time. Events are not cut short, which would suit our impatience. Something is always happening in action films, something that relieves us from the claustrophobic feeling of time, the heaviness of time. Time is flying, it’s passing as fast as could be (albeit this is artificial and misleading).

When people who dislike slow films try to reason their feelings towards this type of film, they tend to say that nothing happens on screen, i.e. that it is boring. This “nothing happens” is, in fact, another word for “you actually have to wait for something to happen and we don’t have time for this”. People are impatient. Waiting seems to mean being passive, perhaps being impotent, immobile, all the while being told everywhere that time is running so fast that you’re losing it when you wait a minute or two for the bus. You cannot wait. You need to haste, or else you will lose those precious two minutes. One could perhaps say that people who reject slow films for the simple reason that nothing happens never learned to wait, or forgot the joy of waiting. Because what does waiting mean? What does it do to your body, your mind?

I mentioned several times on this blog that slow films helped me to slow down and deal with PTSD. PTSD introduces an incredible speed into your life, which causes severe anxiety. It’s not just that you’re scared of death. It’s the fact that you can no longer keep up with the speed around you, which makes you unstable and insecure. So what happened was that slow films helped me to pause, and, yes, to wait. Waiting does not mean doing nothing, although it appears as such to a great deal of people. It does not mean being passive, although some people would tell you otherwise. Waiting means being in the moment, being in the present, being present, something that has become increasingly difficult. There is “no time” to be in the present, but this is only the case because we don’t take time for it. To wait means to be mindful. It is a chance to take a look at what surrounds you, at what is going on in your body and mind.

This state is embodied by characters in slow films, when they sit and look out of the window; when they sit in the shadow of trees doing nothing; when they sit in the fields and watch the sky. They’re in the present moment, and the directors ask us to do the same. Be with the characters, be in the moment with them, and become mindful of our surrounding. Become mindful of time, as Akerman suggests, yet without feeling anxious about wasting it. Slow films are a way to see the chances of doing nothing, the liberties of waiting, even the joy in waiting. If only more people took their time to wait and considered the pleasures of nothingness and emptiness… Just how enjoyable is the end of Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea? A man sits at a fireplace outdoors, the soundscape gives us a feeling of being there with him. He’s doing nothing. He simply watches how the fire consumes the wood. A beautiful scene, seemingly endless, that allows the viewer to be.

Day 1 – Vivan las Antipodas (Kossakovsky)

With Vivan las Antipodas, Russian director Victor Kossakovsky has created quite a stunning portrait of differences and similarities between different points on Earth. I’m not trying to explain what antipodes are, I wouldn’t be very good at it. Instead, you only get the wikipedia definition:

In geography, the antipodes … of any place on Earth is the point on the Earth’s surface which is diametrically opposite to it.

In his film, Kossakovsky opposes four antipodes that are actually inhabited (most antipodes can be found in oceans as 97% of the planet is covered by water): Argentina and China, Spain and New Zealand, Hawaii and Botswana, and Chile and Russia.

Aesthetically, the film is slow, though I wouldn’t quite categorise it as a part of Slow Cinema the way I study it. This is mainly due to the camera movements, and the fairly widespread use of music, which tends to be traditional to the specific country we are in. If it weren’t for the musical interludes, this film would make a stunning photographic album of wonderful landscape images (I spoke about the effects of music in an earlier post).

Vivan las Antipodas, Kossakovsky
Vivan las Antipodas, Kossakovsky

It would exceed the limit of my usually fairly short entries to cover all four of the antipodes. They are all incredible, and reminded me of how important it is in slow film that the cinematographer has a photographic eye. Without it, I would be less inclined to think a film in a slow-film way.

Anyway, let me comment briefly on one aspect of the film; a decisive and explicit one that stands for slow film as a whole, in particular the films I’m studying. The interest here is the opposition of Entre Rios, a rural area in Argentina, and Shanghai in China. The contrast can’t be more startling. The film opens in Entre Rios. It appears to be in the middle of nowhere. Two men (father and son?) charge people who use their makeshift bridge over a river. They spend their days waiting for cars to come. The few cars that do appear here and there are in a poor state. You get a good idea of the living standards. Also through the images of the bridge and the house the two men appear to live in. Life is slow, even for the viewer.

Until we reach Shanghai, via a strange floating camera movement (that over the course of the entire film made me sea sick). We leave the (slow) rural life behind, and are thrown into a bustling urban space. Fittingly, the first thing we see is a strange upside down scene with cars racing on a motorway. So much for slowness! We are also presented with crammed frames, full of people, bicycles, smog, high-rise buildings.

Vivan las Antipodas (Kossakovsky)
Vivan las Antipodas, Kossakovsky

The contrast can’t be bigger. And as I pointed out, these are important things in my research. The importance of the rural in the evocation of slowness. At the same time, the importance of developing countries for the output of Slow Cinema, whether as depicted subjects, or as filmmaking nations. All this is there in the first 25min. Some of my ideas right there, on screen. Good to see it!