Afternoon – Tsai Ming-liang (2016)

Does this conversation have to be so miserable? Tsai Ming-liang asks. His two-hour long conversation with his fetish actor Lee Kang-sheng, Afternoon, will perhaps remain one of the least known of the director’s works. First of all, because it didn’t have a wide distribution, which is a true shame. At the same time, it is not an ideal cinema film. It is more something for a gallery, or even for your living room. I wondered what I could write about it, too, because it’s not easy to say something about the film.

Why is this? I think it is the result of Afternoon‘s nature, the film being a private, intimate conversation between a director and his actor. Tsai and Lee are an icon of world cinema. One cannot think of one without thinking of the other. There have always been questions as to how those two work together, how they found one another, what made them stick together over such a long time. Afternoon gives answers to all of those questions. And it gives answers to questions we may not even have asked yet.

There is only one frame and one cut. I’m not sure why the cut was made. I assume a technical problem. But it’s more important to think of the one and only frame we see throughout the over two hours running time. The camera is positioned higher than eye level. It’s a medium long shot. We see two walls of a house, two windows, and Tsai and Lee sitting in their respective chairs with one wall behind them. Outside, through the windows, one can see lush green, a vast valley and there is nothing but the wind on the soundtrack (except the voices). The setting is peaceful and yet something is crumbling. The walls are, for sure. But there is more.

Starting the conversation seems to be difficult. Tsai has troubles explaining why he wanted this conversation. He is reduced to tears at times, laughs at others. It’s a difficult beginning for the viewer, too. When Tsai speaks about his premonition that he will die soon, when he speaks about the memories of his grandfather who struggled with dementia – the image of his grandfather sweeping the streets is particularly painful – when he speaks about the suffering he went through before and during the shoot of Stray Dogs, there was a point I felt unsure about continuing to listen. Was it perhaps too private? Was it perhaps not meant for me? Of course, the latter question isn’t the right one to pose because if Tsai hadn’t wanted people to hear all his thoughts and feelings, he wouldn’t have made the film.

And yet, it felt uncomfortable at times and reminded me a lot of Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie. The two films are radically different, but they enter a private, very intimate world, which can be difficult for the viewer to navigate.

I just feel like expressing my gratitude towards you.

Afternoon is almost one-sided. The way we know Lee from Tsai’s films is very much the way he is in real life. He is quiet, withdrawn, shows little desire. Over the course of the film, we learn that his film personnages are his true self (minus the sexual orientation). Watching him as a conversation partner is fascinating, although he isn’t doing or saying much. It’s more about his body language and the few sentences he does say (“You should leave the house more often.”). It is even more fascinating to see him outside the world Tsai has over the last twenty years created for him, a world in which Lee can be himself, in which he can develop with ease. And one cannot deny that with every film, Lee became better and better. I found Stray Dogs to be the absolute pinnacle of his acting career. Both Tsai and Lee have, consciously and unconsciously, helped one another to get the best out of one another, and together they have achieved this magnificent collection of films that we can now see.

In effect, Afternoon is not just a two-hour long conversation between director and actor. It is an hommage to Lee. It is also a demonstration of the care Tsai has for Lee, admittedly, in part, to an almost obsessional extent. I will never forget this scene in What Time Is It There in which Lee sits in a cinema with a clock in his arms. There is so much pain in this image, there is grief and longing. As we learn in Afternoon, the film was an attempt by Tsai to help Lee overcome the grief for his father, who had died a couple of months earlier. Lee was, according to Tsai, miserable and he wanted to help, so he made a film, which allowed Lee to use it as a form of therapy, to work through his grief and his loss.

What one realises throughout Afternoon is that each of Tsai’s films has an even more personal and tragic background than one can somewhat imagine when one watches the films. As Tsai himself says, he has found in Lee his alter ego through which he could find his inner world. If one believes Lee, Tsai has a personality that is radically different from his films, but filmmaking allows him to discover another side to him. And after twenty years of close collaboration, of exploring, of discovering, Tsai feels as though “this life is almost complete.”

I can stop making films now. I am happy to just film you walking.

Autoportrait en cinéaste / Ma mère rit (Chantal Akerman)

In the last fortnight or so, I have read two books by Chantal Akerman. One of them, Autoportrait en cinéaste, is, in fact, a sort of exhibition catalogue, published at the occasion of a retrospective dedicated to her work at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2003. This isn’t the usual catalogue, however. Akerman has written most of the book herself. It is personal, and only in parts about her films or her filmmaking. More evident, to me, is the insight into the director’s troubled mental health and her continuous suffering. This becomes the driving force in her 2013 book Ma mère rit, which makes you feel that in those ten years, between one book and another, a lot seems to have changed.

In a way, both books are speaking about the ordinary. There is as little happening as in slow films. Neither has a narrative with an intro, a middle and an end. Ma mère rit even less so than Autoportrait, the former, if I read this correctly, seemingly jumping between different phases of her life without indicating which year it was, without clarifying who said certain things (she uses dialogues, in a way, but without indicating that something is a dialogue and without indicating who the protagonists are, though it’s most often her and another person).

Chantal Akerman

I began to think whether the style in Ma mère rit was representative of her state of mind, sort of jumping from one place to another, speedily, while at the same time being exhausted. So often does she mention her “maladie”, her (mental) illness, that I sometimes cringed. It is, of course, now with hindsight that I was reading this book, knowing that she killed herself in autumn 2015. The book is more personal than Autoportrait. It is very much about her family, specifically about her relationship to her mother, very much in the context of her mother’s accident and her subsequent stay at hospital and her suffering at old age. Trauma is present on almost every page, though you have to read between the lines. And sadly, she does announce her suicide in that book, a death that shocked the world of cinema in 2015.

J’ai survécu à tout jusqu’à présent et j’ai souvent eu envie de me suicider. Mais je me disais je ne peux pas faire ça à ma mère. Après, quand elle ne sera plus là.

But I would like to go into more detail here about Autoportrait which is, while personal, an important read because it contains material on how Akerman thought about film. I think what struck me was the following:

Le livre avait et a sans doute toujours plus d’importance pour moi que le cinéma.

If you read her own writing, you do not get the feeling that she is a passionate filmmaker. In fact, if this was indeed the case, Akerman showed throughout her oeuvre that you don’t have to be passionate in order to make good films. You need ideas, first of all, and she had plenty of those. But yes, it feels odd (primarily because we don’t expect it) if a filmmaker says that the book, that literature, always had and still has more value than film. I don’t think she explains why this is the case, but it is interesting for us to think about. It is true, for me, that literature can give you something film cannot. Most evident to me is that you have to imagine the story you read, the characters, the natural environment, everything. In film, these things are given. Unless you have a striking experimental film, there is, usually, not much left for imagination. Another point about literature is that you have time… Just as Lav Diaz said once, novels can be 900 pages without anyone complaining, but long films are not acceptable. Because books can have any length, you, as the author, can go into as much detail as you want. You have time and space, and so does the reader. Slow films are a beginning, they’re an attempt to rectify this, and I believe Akerman’s https://partenaires.amazon.fr/home/productlinks/customize?asin=B000NDDTCA&request_source=quicklinks&subflow=sp_ shows this best.

Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles

The issue of time in film does pop up, in fact, a few pages after Akerman’s argument about literature.

Une rue longtemps. Ou un arbre. Mais pourquoi longtemps et par rapport à quoi et puis c’est quoi longtemps? C’est plus que pas longtemps de tout façon. En tout cas, c’est plus longtemps que pour informer. En une seconde ou deux, on reconnaît une rue, un arbre. Donc, longtemps, cela peut être plus que le temps de le reconnaissance. Cela peut être le temps de la connaissance, enfin d’un peu de connaissance comme d’un peu de vérité.

In her usually, dry funny style, Akerman says that “long” is certainly longer than not long. So, if someone ever asks you, there you have it! But she elaborates on this, to be fair. She argues that “long” means that a filmmaker spends more time on something that would be dedicated to that something if the filmmaker merely wanted to inform his/her audience. What length suggests is that a filmmaker wants the viewer not just to recognise, to notice something, but to get to know it.

D’Est (From the East)

She also suggests that waiting for the next (long) take means to live, to feel that one exists. Time, for Akerman, is not only part of a film. It is also part of the viewer. To me, this was clearest in her film From the East. Even though Akerman is using a moving camera, she gave us time to see, another important aspect of her filmmaking.

Regarder est-ce la même que voir, non. Il faut regarder pendant combien de temps pour avoir vu et vu quoi.

To look is not the same as to see. One must look for a long time in order to see. Slow films follow this mantra, especially those films with very few characters and almost empty frames. Static cameras also support the idea of looking in order to see. I think that this single, and, in fact, simple Akerman quote sums up the nature of slow films.

Her death is a big loss for all of us, for film, for filmmaking. However, behind the genius of this “sad clown”, as she had been described by some, there was so much trouble, so much suffering, so many problems, fears, anxieties that no one saw, as the books, especially Ma mère rit, show. But her legacy will remain for as long as we want it to remain.

tao films VoD – Further info

I would like to use the time to explain a little more about the VoD platform. Things have developed quite a bit since I posted the original project description online. I also think that a great deal of people (including filmmakers) don’t read it 🙂 So maybe it’s a good opportunity right now to describe the forthcoming platform for which we are seeking the support of the people on GoFundMe, in more personal terms. This is what the platform is; a personal project, not a matter of business.

tao films VoD will go live on 1 January. It is a platform which seeks to support underrepresented or even completely unknown filmmakers, whose aesthetics are very much contemplative. There will be feature films, short films, and even experimental installation pieces. There will be films from Mexico, films from Thailand, films from Morocco, films from all corners of the world.

My intention is it to show films which have no distribution (yet). This does not mean that the films can’t run on festivals. Of course, they can. Festivals are fantastic opportunities, and I wouldn’t prevent anyone from experiencing this. But we do seek to have exclusive rights for 3 consecutive months during which the film should not be shown on any other platform.

The VoD is not meant to be the end of a film screened. I know that when a film is shown on VoD, it has usually finished its theatrical run. This is not what I’m interested in. In many ways, I think, the VoD could be the beginning of something new, something larger. The platform will generate exposure for the films, so if something else comes out of it, I’d be very proud and happy to support the filmmakers in every way I can.

I envision the forthcoming tao films VoD as a community project. It is not my project, or that of me and my brother. Yes, we’re hosting the films and prepare everything for their streaming. But we ask the filmmakers to join in. In the end, they know their work best. For instance, the filmmakers will be asked to upload their films, enter information about their work and about themselves.

Filmmakers and hosts work together to make this platform happen, which I believe is the way forward if you want to have a lively community, a sort of friendship, and not a model which is based on profit and nothing else. We will also make it possible for the viewer to contact the featured directors directly, in the hope that this encourages a vibrant community. I’m sure viewers will be interested in this, and the platform will be less anonymous than all the others we know. There will be a direct link between us, the artists and the viewers. I see us as a family, and nothing less.

The platform will have pay-per-view and free content. The free content will be accessible in form of a permanent collection. A sort of pool of all kinds of shorts – I mean short shorts – or films that are already showing for free on other platforms. Then there will be pay-only content, which features feature and short films. At the moment, the costs are set for 4,99€ per feature film and 0,99€ per short film. But this is not confirmed and may change. The pay-only content will change every three months, and the films will then be deleted from our servers.

Everyone involved will profit in the same way from the platform. tao films VoD will not be a competition. We’re all working together on this. Hosts and the filmmakers involved receive an equal percentage of the money the VoD platform makes every month. tao films VoD will be the most equal distribution method you can probably find. 

I’m still waiting for confirmation about the registration of “tao films” as trademark. But what I can say for sure already is that I have tried to register the name for film distribution, film production, exhibitions, book publishing, journal publishing, photography work, and more.

The logo is in the works. The contracts will be up for debate amongst the chosen filmmakers any day now. As I said, it’s a community, and I want this to be a fair distribution vehicle. If the filmmakers can help, then I’m more than happy to listen to them to make the platform better and fairer for all.

And now it starts to sound like a political speech, which is why I should stop myself 🙂 I just live for the project. I don’t like describing it. But feel free to contact me and ask questions, especially if you’re a filmmaker! Drop me an email via theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com

In defense of a lack of craft

I read a rather irritating article about Lav Diaz’s Norte, written by Adrian Martin for the Sight & Sound magazine. His reading of the film is good, but the last paragraph of the article makes me want to respond. I want to quote the passage in question first:

“There was a certain thrill to this – the kind that persuades you to endure eight-hour screenings, in search of a new kind of filmic epiphany. But as the years pass and the Diaz ‘formula’ hardens, it becomes more difficult to excuse the lack of inventiveness and craft in his work in the name of some spurious ‘neo-neorealism’. Diaz’s most vocal fans do him no favours in this regard: he might become a better, more self-critical director if people stopped reassuring him that every new film he makes is a deathless masterpiece.”

I know from responses on Twitter that Martin is not the only one who thinks that Lav Diaz’s films lack “inventiveness and craft.” I would like to turn this around and say that film criticism and film studies lack inventiveness and craft. In my articles on Norte (here and here) I stressed that the investment of money changed Diaz’s filmmaking. The film had to be profitable, and in a win-win situation for producer (not the filmmaker) and the viewers, Norte appeals to all those filmgoers out there who live in theories and frameworks they are familiar with.

The reception of Norte was positive, but this was precisely because it was different. According to Martin, it seems as if this is exactly what Diaz’s films needed, as all of his previous films were more or less the same, and any further steps on the same treadmill would have been inexcusable (so he’s not going to like his new film, to be honest). This argument is exemplary for the way critics and scholars treat films in their work. Not all of them, but a great majority sees films in comparison to other films. They want to see that x fits to y. If you can see Bazin’s or Deleuze’s work in films than these are superb and worth mentioning.

Lav Diaz isn’t the only slow-film director, who returns time and again to the same aesthetics, the same actors, the same overall story. The interesting thing is that it is only film critics who complain about this. Fans love the films, and I do not understand why they get accused of not doing their directors a favour. Truth is, every director is free to do what s/he wants, and rather than forcing the directors to return to the same themes, we “fans” simply support them for what they do. We do not ask them to change the way critics do just so that it makes it easier to write about them. We take the films the way they are.

The most pressing issue with regards to the films of Lav Diaz, however, is that there should not be any discussion about his craft or inventiveness. From Batang West Side (2001) to Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) his films have shown a remarkable development of a filmmaker, who produces films with little means. Making incredibly powerful movies with no financial support, a small crew and indeed little hope of distribution is in itself a craft. Not having any support system that makes popular filmmakers go “from strength to strength”, as critics would say, Diaz’s filmmaking requires inventiveness. You need to be creative to make something out of nothing.

My family would say that I inherited this way of thinking from them and my grandparents – while Western Germany was living in American luxury, those in the East were left with nothing because the Russians took everything away. A kind of punishment for what happened in WW II, if you will. I was born too late to live through this directly, but I grew into this mentality because society has this mentality where I come from. I’m still thinking this way, and that fourteen stunning films come out of a Third World country without any support is a success, and should be acknowledged as such. But here we are again: this wouldn’t happen in the First World. We look down on those filmmakers, and see their films through our pink First-World capitalist-imperialist glasses. And as soon as money flows into production, it’s great for the critics.

Those people don’t really see Diaz’s films. Florentina Hubaldo, for instance, was the strongest Diaz film since the beginning of his filmmaking career. Other people may not agree to this, but for me he has stepped up his aesthetic gear in this film, if you want to call it this way. The narrative, the visuals, the play with sound and silence – all this was at a level of perfection. In between, say, Heremias Book I and Florentina a lot had happened in Diaz’s filmmaking. If you only look at the surface, his films will always look the same. But dive deeper, and you will be surprised by what you find.

One final point, which is dear to my heart: I don’t think critics and scholars should touch his films at all, unless they are willing to commit and open up. I’m in a rather awkward position as a PhD student, but I have a background in filmmaking, and I’m trying my best to steer my work away from theories and standard practice of academia, precisely because it is impossible to dissect Diaz’s films with what academia has established in film studies. We should not discuss the aesthetics of Diaz’s films. We should not discuss why he doesn’t seem to develop, which is untrue anyway. We should not wish for stronger distribution or higher investment into his filmmaking.

What Diaz’s films really need is an attentive eye of an attentive viewer. His films are representations of a terrible form of reality in his country. They are an in-depth study of destructive trauma, of unbearable suffering, of violation of human rights, of torture, of extra-judicial killings. They are a document of a society gone awry, mainly because of Western involvement. It started with colonialism and goes to dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was installed by the West. Lav Diaz’s films are documents of human rights violations and the effects on an entire society. These films are not made for entertainment. Nor should they be seen in the lights of traditional filmmaking.

Lav Diaz is a filmmaker who, with little means, creates documents that scream for help and justice. Why do critics and scholars want him to do it with stunning aesthetics? We have played a big part in what has been going wrong in the country. Demanding a filmmaker, who documents social injustice which has its origin in the West, to be more creative in what he does, is a demand that defies understanding. The main point of his films is the stories they tell. If we really expect a filmmaker, who wants to put the devastating struggle of his people on screen with something other than with the means he has, then it just proves that we, in the First World, have little understanding or knowledge (or even desire) of what is happening around us, and, indeed, it proves what an ignorant society we live in.

Interview with Yulene Olaizola (Fogo)

My thanks goes out to Yulene Olaizola, who has kindly agreed to this brief email interview. Her film Fogo (2012) is a fascinating portrait of a fading landscape and its people. Especially her accounts on how she met the people on the island reminds me of my own experience while making the short documentary A Bunch of Gentlemen (2011). A real pleasure. This interview is a nice insight into filmmaking again. Thank you, Yulene.

First of all, Fogo is set in Canada, quite far away from your native Mexico. How did you come across the subject matter?

I was looking for an escape from my daily life in Mexico city, some kind of an artistic adventure. A close friend sent me the info about the new Residency Program from the Fogo Island Arts Corporation. I had only one day to apply. I sent a brief description of my intentions on doing a film in the Island during the 3 moths period of the residency. It was a very vague idea. I just said that I was going to mix documentary and fiction, and that I was going to work with non professional actors, people from the Island.

Three or four months later I received news from the Fogo Island Arts Corporation. They accepted my application and invited me to go there and work. I decided to go there from September – December 2012.

Was it difficult to convince the people on the island to make this film? Have they actually seen the finished product?

It was not difficult to convince them. The complicated part was to find the characters, but once I did that, somehow I knew they would accept. The main character Norman Foley is retired, so I knew he would have the time to participate in the film. I met him at some point during my second month living in Fogo. I was already worried about what I was going to do with the film. I did not have any ideas yet. But I met Norman at a partridge berry festival and he offered me to show me the woods. The very next day we went for a walk trough the woods. Very quickly we became friends and I knew he could be the main character. Soon he introduced me to his friend Ron, and his dogs Patch and Thunder, and together we went to a cabin in the woods; that day I decided to do a film where Norm, Ron and the dogs would go to a cabin. That was the first idea that detonated the simple story of Fogo.

When I watched the film, it was difficult to establish whether your film is fiction or documentary. This appears to be quite common in films that are nowadays termed “Slow Cinema”. What exactly is your film, fact or fiction?

The storyline is fiction, the idea of the Island having to be abandoned is something that I came up with after doing some research on the History on Newfoundland. I read about the resettlement program. It was an organized approach to centralize the population into growth areas. The Government of Canada did three attempts of resettlement between 1954 and 975, which resulted in the abandonment of 300 communities and nearly 30,000 people were moved.

I wanted to portray Fogo Island as if a new resettlement program was happening, without explaining the cause, which can be because economical reasons or something more apocalyptic where the life in the Island is simply dying. In order to achieve this fiction idea, I had to shoot only in abandoned houses, avoiding to see the real Fogo, the modern houses or highways.

Even though the actors where pretending to be living in a fictional situation, all the dialogs where improvised and the shooting was made with a documentary approach, with only two members in the crew, Diego García, the cinematographer, and me. Most of the situations are fiction but based on true events that we experienced while living in the island. For example, going to the cabin with the dogs, drinking a rum bottle in a tiny cabin lit up only by a kerosene lamp, cutting a tree in the middle of the woods all alone, spending time contemplating nature with the only company of two dogs, etc.

Some seconds where made by documenting real situation, like Ron playing with the dogs in the grass, Norm and Ron trying to get warm near a bonfire while is snowing, etc.

I am not sure if the right term to call this movie or other similar approaches to cinema is the term slow. I rather consider this film as a minimalistic bet. Where you have minimum resources and you have to make the most of averting, so in order to work with non-professional actors, you use aspects of their real life to nourish the story and the atmosphere. Where the script is made of contributions from everyone, the actors, the cinematographer and the director.

There is this overwhelming aspect of solitude apparent in your film. Is this a topic that came with the subject matter, or did it, in fact, coincide with a general interest in the aspects of loneliness and mans coping mechanisms?

When I am thinking about a new project, I never think about what subjects I would like to work with. In this case solitude, melancholy, abandonment, are ideas that came to me while living there. But these subjects or ideas are not what you would see if you travel to Fogo Island for a week. The people from Fogo is usually very warm, happy people, and the place is simply beautiful. But once I started talking deeply with the people, especially with the older ones, I discovered a huge nostalgic feeling about the past, when life in the island was different. People have a strong connection with their roots, a feeling of belonging to a place, that you don’t longer find in people who live in the city for example. Somehow I wanted to relate my film to all this ideas but with a fictional pretext.

What I found particularly strong was your exploration of people’s attachment to home. Even though this is set in Canada, is this something that resonates with yourself?

It not a subject matter that I have considered before in my films, or at least not consciously. When a film is born because of a place, I think that the first thing you want to do as a filmmaker is to document the beauties or interesting things about the place, in order to share that with other people. And that is exactly what I wanted to do, but beauty for me is not exactly the nice photo that you see in a truistic image.

I have already mentioned the term “Slow Cinema”. Your film is contemplative in many respects. It invites us to dwell in the surrounding as well as on the fate of the characters who decide to remain on the island. Do you think that your film is slow? Where does this contemplative aesthetic have its roots?

I enjoy the cinema that does not rush to take you to one place. I feel as a spectator, that I need time to transport my self from the cinema theater to the reality presented in a movie. In Hollywood style, in 4 or 5 shots of only a few second each, suddenly you are in the antique Pompei, or in another planet. They gave you the basic information about these universes, but they never give you the time to explore them or to feel them.

What I try to do is to give time to enjoy and discover all those details that can be found after living there for almost 4 months. I always try to do that in my films, and in each occasion, the concept of time is different. In this case, the time that passes in a slow way, or the contemplative mood, is related to how the people live there, always in a close relationship with nature, with weather. And of course time in places like Fogo seems to occur slower that in a city for a example.

I found your film highly photographic. Do you have a background in photography? What is your background in general?

Before I decided to study cinema I did a workshop in photography during high school. I thought I wanted to be a cinematographer, but when I entered film school I realized I wanted to direct. I do like to contribute as much as I can in all the different aspects of making a film, cinematography, sound, editing, production, etc. That is something you have to do if you don´t have the resources. I have produced all my films myself. In this case it was the first time I worked with Diego, the cinematographer. We went to film school together. It was a very close and special collaboration.

You are one of several emerging directors from Mexico, who astonish with their strong works. Do you think there is a certain “New Wave” of Mexican Cinema? I’m speaking in particular of Pereda, Gonzales-Rubio, Vargas as slow-film directors.

It is always difficult to define what is a new wave, or who is part of it. I think there are many new filmmakers from the past 10 years that have won recognition at film festivals, but that are still almost unknown for the Mexican audiences. There are other filmmakers with whom I feel close to, because we are friends, and because we have similar approaches to making films with low budgets and with no commercial interests. Between this filmmakers are: The Axolote group: Rubén Imaz, Matias Meyer and Michel Lipkes. Also the couple Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman. Nicolas Pereda. Pedro González. Julio Hernández Cordón, among others.

How are your films distributed?

My films have been only distributed in commercial cinemas in Mexico, with the effort of myself and small Mexican distribution companies like Interior 13 an Circo. Only my first film Shakespeare and Victor Hugo´s Intimacies has been released in TV in iberoamerica, thanks to a deal with Ibermedia program.

I saw that you are already working on a new project. What is this about and when will it be released?

It is once again a very low budget film. Is about 3 Spanish conquistadors who climbed up the iconic Mexican volcano The Popocatépetl, in an expedition in 1519. Even though it is a historic film, the resources we had were minimum, three guys wearing costumes climbing a mountain. It is a co direction with Ruben Imaz and will be released some time next year.

 

Interview with Michela Occhipinti

In 2010, filmmaker Michela Occhipinti made the brilliant and yet subtle slow film Letters from the Desert – Eulogy to Slowness. I have reviewed the film in an earlier post. I have contacted her to conduct a mini interview with her about her film and her filmmaking. A big thanks goes out to Michela for this, and good luck with your new film!

1) Where did the idea for Letters from the Desert come from?

“The idea of the film came while I was trying to understand how to tell a paradox of our society that deeply touched me. The intent though was to tell it through an equal but opposite symmetry, with a different culture. After having read a short article on a postman in the Thar Desert and on his long peregrinations it was clear to me that that was my story, I just had to bring it into focus.”

2) You are a filmmaker from Italy and gave your film the interesting tagline “Eulogy to Slowness”. Have you been inspired by the Italian Slow Movement, or is this a mere coincidence?

“It has nothing to do with it. I just wanted to celebrate slowness vs velocity. Because in fact in our society the latter is considered the positive between the 2, while for me it is exactly the opposite. We tend to easily classify dichotomies like light/dark, light/heavy, fast/slow, tending to confer the positive pole to the former and the negative one to the latter. There are so many nuances in between though…”

3) Is your film a personal comment on the speed in current society?

“Absolutely. It tells in an antithesis what I perceive as being a far too fast society.
It is a reflection on progress. It is my personal view on the concept of time and space. Of time in space and space in time.

Of the fragility of beauty. A small melancholy. A sort of freeze-frame of a world that is dying out. The photography of a moment of transition. The frame of the precise moment in which a foreign body arrives bringing transformation.”

4) The film is relatively slow. It contains a lot of long takes, and wide shots are a dominant element. Was the use of long takes a deliberate choice from the beginning, or has it come naturally to you once you were in India and became more involved with the subjects of your film?

“It was a deliberate choice from the beginning because I thought it was the only way to capture slowness, to convey it into images. And also to make the audience be in that time and space, dragging them into it.”

5) What significance do you as a filmmaker attach to the landscape in your films? Letters from the Desert is not only about a postman, who loses his job because of the foray of modernity. You have put emphasis on his natural surrounding. Why have you done so?

“The desert itself is not a casual landscape in the film. The most basic depiction of time is the hourglass that contains sand that pours into it marking time, and also here, the wind moves the sand changing the shape and structure of the dunes and the landscape, and thus, metaphorically, also of time. The desert also as a metaphysical place where we go to find ourselves and make silence.”

6) Retrospectively thinking, your film reminds me of Nicolás Pereda’s work. I feel as if you blur the line between documentary and fiction. What is your film, actually? How much fiction is in your documentary?

“I started off wanting to make a pure documentary. I wanted to choose a protagonist and follow him with the cameras.

Once I left for scouting though, I met so many postmen and each one of them had so many interesting stories that I conveyed some of them in the one of my chosen protagonist Hari. So I wrote a script based on these experiences but with open dialogues that I then composed together with my characters.

Also leaving some space to the unexpected.

Therefore the work on the film is not merely of a documentary approach. Letters from the Desert lays in a territory between reality and imagination. India in my film works as an “elsewhere” as opposed to the world from which I, director, come from and where I live in. It is the starting point to develop something that moves on a different territory, the one of fiction, of the cinematographic mise-en-scène and that exactly thanks to this leap transforms into something universal, but also absolutely personal because the subjective filter is me, my work as a director.”

7) Are there any directors that have influenced you in your work as filmmaker?

“I love cinema and watch a lot of films weekly and there are so many directors and films I am really passionate about that to name a few would not do justice. I also do not think I was influenced by some particular filmmaker. Of course, once I started thinking about how to make my film I did watch a lot of documentaries and films most of which were suggested to me by the brilliant D.o.P. who worked on Letters from the Desert, the Spanish Pau Mirabet. Those were suggestions he gave me once I explained what was my vision of my film.

So I saw a lot of Herzog, Humbert & Penzel and many other films of the seventies, especially East European. Thing is that, when I was young, I wanted to be a writer, only to discover very soon that I was no good. So I started to work in advertising, documentaries and cinema sort of by chance and after many years, when I finally found the courage, I went off to South America on a very long trip to direct my first documentary. In the end, I am still telling stories but just through a different media: a visual one rather than a written one. That is why, I think, even though I love cinema, in a way my visual references, as strange as it may sound, also come from literature.

And, although I even talk alone, I think in images. So I would not even define myself a director or filmmaker, but just someone who has something to say on a particular subject and decides to express it by filming because those images of the film are already in her mind. So when I will feel I have nothing to say on a particular subject, I will just stop filming, just as I started.”

8) Are you working on a new film at the moment? Or, will your next film be another slow film?

“I am working on a new film right now. Started with the idea and writing nearly 3 years ago…talking about eulogy to slowness!!

It is a totally different subject, dealing with women body, body transformation, social conditioning that should be shot in Mauritania as soon as we find the financing and international co-producers, but at least I do have a good Italian production. It will not be as slow as Letters from the Desert and also the photography will be different because the subject in my opinion requires a different visual approach and pace. But defintely no thriller!”

Interview with Zhengfan Yang (Distant)

Before I go ahead with more blog posts on the relation of Slow Cinema and Chinese painting, here’s a brief email interview with director Zhengfan Yang, director of Distant. I have posted a comment on the film a while ago and he was kind enough to answer a few brief questions for me.

Why “Distant”? The title of your film appears to comment on the aesthetics of the film. But there also seems to be more. 
The aesthetics of the film refers to the the wide shots, the long takes and the way I connected the audience with the film, all these are about “distance”. And it’s also about the subjects, each long take contains a small story about distance.
The characters in your film are a mystery to the viewer, because you refrain from employing close-ups, which could show their facial expressions or their body language. Why do you refuse the viewer access to the characters?

On one hand, the film is not about the characters but the distance between characters. I was trying to show the distance between the characters and even the distance between the audience and the characters, so it’s ridiculous to give close-ups to bring the audience and the characters closer. It’s not about how to let the audience to understand the characters but how NOT to. All I wanna do is to avoid the audience to understand them. We are strangers and strangers. That’s our situation today.
On the other hand, for me, the atmosphere of a film is more important than the characters. I denied the viewer access to both the characters and the story. I deliberately cut off the connections between all these 13 shots, I mean, I could have built up many connection between all these stories and leave some more imagination to the audience. They might think, “oh here’s the police I saw in the hospital scene”, but I didn’t. There will be no distance if they are connected.
For me, each long-take was a film on its own. 

Yes. As I said, I disconnected the 13 sections, so naturally each long take can be one on its own. And the story in each long take is a fragment I collected from the reality, from what I have heard, or from my own experience or imagination. I kept them as fragments as they were at the very beginning instead of developing into a whole full story, with built-up, climax and conclusion.
 Is “Distant” an active engagement with the canon of Slow Cinema?
I am not sure, to be honest with you. But by slowing the film, it allows more sense of time to come from the image and sound, and allows more observation on the space too. Most of the time we see only actions or dialogue in a shot, because many filmmakers just don’t work on time and space and so when the action is done, they have to cut it away. But there’s also time and space. I am creating a world on the screen with the time and space, using the image and the sound, and I want to introduce the audience to feel them.
Do you see yourself as a slow-film director?
Same, I am not sure, I don’t want to define myself as a certain kind of filmmaker, although it is true that the film I made is slow because it is dealing with a certain kind of subject, and the time and space, which I concern as the most important issue for me in cinema. Actually I believe that we are all dealing with time and space, but it doesn’t means that “slow” is the only way to do so.
What is your background? When did you start making films?
I have a bachelor in law but I spent most of my time watching films in that four years. Then, I started making short films around 2007 after I finished my study in law school. I was taught by a film professor, Zhou Chuanji, in a one-on-one film course for one year. After that I went to Hong Kong for a Master of Fine Art program in film production. I just graduated last year and Distant is my first feature film.
Are there any specific directors, writers, philosophers or general artists who have influenced your work or from whom you take your inspiration?
Well, Michelangelo Antonioni inspired me by his way of exploring the space in a film while I see how time has been captured and sculptured  in Tarkovsky’s film. For contemporary cinema, I consider Lav Diaz as one of the greatest filmmakers, together with Apichatpong. Both of them are shaping the future of cinema. But when it comes to something about influence, I believe I was influenced a lot by Tsai Ming-Liang, mostly the image, the sound, and the ambience he shaped in his films…
 Are you working on a new project?
Yes, I am going to premiere a documentary, Out Of Focus, in Cinema du Reel (France) at the end of March. The documentary is directed by Shengze Zhu, producer and cinematographer of Distant. I worked as producer, cinematographer and editor in this documentary.
I also have several projects and some interesing ideas that I want to make, but it’s getting more and more difficult to get funding for films. Most people want good stories instead of good films.

Slow Retirements

It came as a shock to cinephiles in 2011 when Hungarian director Béla Tarr announced that The Turin Horse would be his last film. I was fortunate to be at the Q&A session the Edinburgh Film Festival conducted with him. He said, he wouldn’t want to repeat himself. He said everything there was to say. It was important to him not to copy himself. Tarr, as we know, has not been a filmmaker who made films just for the sake of the audience. His statements, then, made perfect sense to me at the time. Having seen all of his films, I could tell that there was nothing left saying after The Turin Horse. I remember him saying that he wasn’t a filmmaker anymore. A career that span pretty much three decades came to an end.

When I left the cinema that day, after the screening of his last film, I found this to be a brave choice. I haven’t heard of filmmakers actually “retiring”. They either say they would but never do, because they can’t live without it. Or they make movies until they die on the set. I have always found filmmaking to be a grey area of retirement.

Until I read with sadness a few weeks ago that another slow-film director, Tsai Ming-liang, is retiring from filmmaking. To be fair, he said that he hoped Stray Dogs was his last. Tsai gave some interesting insights into filmmaking outside Hollywood. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that viewers of those filmmakers who only ever show up here and there at festivals are aware of their struggles. Tsai said that he was “tired”. Moreover, he said that “his films require more manual labor to make than the usual Hollywood production.”

This is obviously not a phenomenon exclusive to slow films. But I find it telling that, if you look up those two filmmakers and their retirement, you find parallels. It is, for example, interesting to read the comments about Tsai’s new film. The general opinion is that there was nothing left to say really. He put it all in; a bit like Tarr. I hope I can see this film sooner rather than later to see whether this is really true.

It is understandable that those directors get tired, despite their ambitions. First of all, it is difficult to receive funding for their projects. They are not deemed to be commercially viable and profitable. Tarr was lucky in a way because he became a famous strong auteur in Europe. He did have struggles. That is beyond doubt. But I guess it was easier for a Béla Tarr to attract funding than, say, for a Lav Diaz (and this is not only because of the length of their films; Diaz makes “shorts” as well). In an interview with JP Carpio in 2010, Diaz said that he lived of very small grants from museums and other small institutions he receives here and there. It’s only enough to live (which he doesn’t mind, really, but it’s telling).

Another important factor is the way those filmmakers work. With that, I do not only mean the small size of film crews. A question of money or of personal preferences, many of them work in very small groups, with little division of labour. That puts a lot of weight on your shoulders as a director. Besides, these directors never make sequels. As Tarr said, he didn’t want to copy himself. Sequels based on earlier success is a bit like a copy&paste job. Not that I want to say that there is no work at all in it. But there is less thinking involved in that you basically follow the rules from your last film and tick all the boxes. This in itself is a pursuit of profit, rather than, what Diaz would call, “aesthetic truth”. In order to find the truth, you need to dig. Dig deep. Do a lot of work. It is (allow me the pun) a slow job, with requires a lot of mental and physical effort. I’m not surprised that Tsai Ming-liang intends to retire. There will be more (slow?) filmmakers to follow, and I guess they will all have pretty much the same reason.

A curious development, I find.