Almost There – Jacqueline Zünd (2016)

A caravan in the centre of the frame. An empty parking lot. The caravan neatly divides the frame into two equal parts. It’s a beautiful shot that, despite a faint male voice in the off, sets the tone for themes of loneliness, emptiness but also will and resilience. “Employees form a group. Overnight you become an individual,” a Japanese retiree tells us. Jacqueline Zünd, following three men in the US, in Europe and in Japan through a life-changing situation, proves herself to be a quiet but detailed observer, letting images rest, letting them breathe and wash at our shores.

Bob Pearson is a 50+ man, single. His ex-girlfriend pushed him to do something with the rest of his life. He became aware that he could die any day, and that there might not be a tomorrow. The camper van tour they had planned together has turned into a one-man show, just like the nightly stand-up show Steve puts on in Spain after having left a life of lies about his sexuality behind in England. Yamada, acknowledging that he had been married to his job, struggles to be “an individual”, struggles not to be part of a strictly formed hierarchy that his job had given him. He’s retired, now what?

Each one of those three men has a particular personality, a particular nature. They seem to be different types, but all three share one thing: they started anew. They changed their lives, their lives needed to change. Something in them pushed them towards taking the jump, the jump into the cold water of trying something new, facing the unknown. “If I want to do something, I want to do it now,” says Bob. Almost There is intrinsically tied to the process of ageing, of our having to face the reality of death, all the while trying to push it aside, push it further away, one more day, one more week. Maybe if I did this or that, I could say that I had a more meaningful life? Maybe I didn’t take enough risks, risks I could take now? 

Of course, the real protagonist is time. It’s not only the process of ageing that makes the forward progression of time evident. There is also a fascinating push-and-pull between stillness and movement, between a stop and a forward jump. Zünd follows Bob on his journey with his camper van, more on the move than standing still. At times, he sits in a bar to have a drink, at others he gets a quick hair cut. Apart from those brief moments, Bob’s life feels like being constantly on the move. “I’m always scared,” he says at some point. He seems a lonely person. Zünd breaks her aesthetics, almost brutally, in order to insert family photographs of Bob, at a time he was younger. He had never been a particularly happy child, nor a particularly sad one. And yet, it becomes evident that he seeks solitude. He wishes for company here and there, but one gets the feeling that this coat of solitude seems to suit him well.

It is here, again, that time becomes the main force. As it does with Yamada. Shortly after his retirement, he didn’t know how to handle his “new life”. He struggled to fill his time, but, after a friend suggested it, he began to read to children. Zünd follows him on his journey, a particularly touching one, I found, one in which a father admits that he had never done anything for his children and that now he seeks to rectify the wrongs he had done. He’s making amends. He uses the time he has left to make up for the time he has already spent. Interestingly, Yamada’s film segments are a pool of stillness as opposed to the segments of Bob and Steve. At the end of the film, it feels as though only he has managed to find his place, his role in this new life of his.

This is different with Steve. Zünd follows him through the streets in Blackpool (me thinks!) and Benidorm in Spain. Zünd’s frames are beautiful, painterly almost. They’re frames worth printing. They put the film characters in an extraordinarily expressive surrounding that makes them appear small but dominant at the same time. They seem lost, but also in control. As Steve says towards the end of the film, he wasn’t sad or angry. If you were to feel this, you would be lost in the world. While Zünd’s frames, and her almost continuous music does make one feel sad for the characters – so much that I did have watery eyes at some point – there is a fascinating, opposing optimism in the film. It’s a sort of optimism that does not express itself through the film’s aesthetics. It opposes it. It does not openly embrace it.

It’s this specific clash that makes Zünd’s Almost There a gorgeous, a powerful, a deeply moving piece. I saw it for the first time two years ago, and it didn’t let me go. Zünd’s images have haunted me until today, and it’s not only the images that stayed with me. The film is telling a simple story about life, a universal story, but a story that we tend to push away: we’re ageing, we’re inevitably walking towards death. During my PhD research I came across the concept of TMT, Trauma Management Therapy. It’s said that we are naturally afraid of death, daily. But we do everything to keep this in check. One way of doing this is seeking something that would make us immortal in one way or another, to achieve something. I think that Zünd’s Almost There is a good demonstration of this, specially prominent in the story of Yamada, whose reading, we feel, will make him immortal, if only, perhaps, to the school children.

Almost there. Where? Zünd, I believe, brings us closer to ourselves. Ourselves as humans. The characters seem specific, but they speak from their souls, our souls. The film is human, and I’m not sure if I can name a more human film, a more down-to-earth human film that is this powerful. It is perhaps one of the best films of all time for me personally, and an absolute must-see, especially for those who love contemplative cinema. 

The Dog – Lam Can-zhao (2015)

There are films that one struggles to forget. They stay with you either because they are terrible, or simply really good. Others stay with you because they’re affective in their simplicity, and really touch your heart. This fascination with films that don’t let me go has reemerged with Lam Can-zhao’s wonderful The Dog, which proposes multiple layers to the viewer about life and human relationships. It is one of many examples of a striving independent film community in China that creates a high-quality output, often without many people being aware of it because those films are not always easy to get your hands on. 

The Dog is set in Guangzhou, China, in early 2014. A mother and her daughter appear to wait for the bus on the roadside. It’s a busy road. Scooters rush by, people walk past. There is a persistently high noise level that fills the director’s long take. The camera is static. Just like the people in front of us, who wait for the bus, the camera doesn’t move. It’s patiently waiting, surrounded by a sea of noise and movement. “Action!” Someone shouts from behind the camera. Is it the director himself? Does it come from a film crew nearby? It upsets the constant stream of movement, of our being invested, hypnotised by the passing scooters. In fact, it is the beginning of the director creating an at times frustrating, yet enjoyable encounter with his film, cleverly yet cruelly cutting at moments you just want to stay with a little longer. His cuts feel brutal at times, like a book which suddenly closes on us, depriving us from further reading.

The cuts become an editorial manifestation of the dog the director follows. A stray dog. He falls out of a basket at the beginning of the film, and then functions as a narrative thread, connecting our characters, people on the margins of society; a woman who is bored to death, living on the roof top with her boyfriend who is never really there; a man whose wife is severely ill and whom he has to take care of; a woman who tries to make a living by running her own snack service. The characters are as varied as can be, yet they share the exclusion from society. They share the invisibility, the fate of being forgotten. They share a life on the margins, in the dark. But they also share the company of a nameless dog.

A dog, who travels from one character to another, because everyone has a heart big enough to pick him up, but no one has the means or the chance to keep him. It is here that the previously mentioned cuts achieve their meaning. The director leads us on. A scene is picking us up. We feel comfortable, expect to stay, but then he brutally cuts and we’re put in front of the door again. Just like the dog. A young woman picks him up. She takes her distance, caresses him with one of her feet, but eventually takes him in. While preparing to give him a wash, her boyfriend arrives. They have sex, which we observe from the dog’s perspective, who sits at the other end of the room. “Take him away. It makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s like there is another eye in the room.” None of her arguments stick. He wants her to get rid of the dog.

This is the beginning of a journey through the margins of Guangzhou. Lam Can-zhao shoots the city in gorgeous black-and-white. Of course, this supports a narrative of people living on the margins, in poverty, away from the buzzing life of the high street. But the director does something else, which I noticed comparatively late. The stark black-and-white is combined with a particularly tight framing. It feels like tunnel vision at times, allowing us a rather boxy view of everything. Trapped where our characters are, confined to their places, both physical (their homes) and metaphorical (in society), without the means to break through the walls that the director so effectively recreates with his aesthetics. 

It is an astonishingly claustrophobic world, which Lam Can-zhao’s dog takes us through. Uncomfortable, tight, a dark prison. The camera is often positioned on knee-height. There is no overview. There is no wide angle. There is only a small square, a snippet of a life, which suffocates Lam’s characters. In the last half hour of the film, after a gun shot, the director cuts to a slow-motion of the dog running across what looks like a dump yard. Is what we see a distant memory? Or is what we see happening in the here and now? Lam plays with time and space here, disorienting us by cutting the sound. Sound allows us a temporal and spatial orientation. But Lam remains true to his approach of locking the viewer into a claustrophobic prison s/he cannot escape from. 

Only towards the end does the tight grip loosen. Lam shows us an open field from above, the camera pans across house roofs when a Buddhist monk arrives in a village and asks a young boy for meat for the dog. There is warmth to it. The sun shines. It is a scene very different from what we have seen before. It’s as though the film begins to breathe a bit, surfaces from the darkness in order to breathe before it returns into the claustrophobic darkness. 

The Dog is a magnificent debut feature that is strong on aesthetics and narrative. It is not always overt in what it wants to say, which makes it a particularly affective film because you need to open up and feel in order to read the film, which deals essentially with the nature of being human, with loving attachment but confining pressure. The dog becomes a vehicle for the exploration of characters who each have their burden to carry. It is a gentle film, full of emotion that bubbles under the surface, tickled by the presence of the dog, but not tickled enough to be released. Perhaps it is for this reason that the film as a whole, and specific scenes in particular, will stay with me because there is something that hasn’t been said, and it’s this that sticks more than anything else. 

Centaur – Aleksandra Niemczyk (2016)

!!! This film is now available on tao films until 30 March 2017 !!!

I rarely come across a film, which stuns me through its very first frame. The minute Aleksandra Niemczyk’s film Centaur opened, I couldn’t take my eyes off it anymore. Was it the character, the half man, half horse figure which walked towards me? Or was it the ice cold aesthetic and colour which characterised the frame? Maybe it was both. I just knew that I had found a real gem in the field of slow film, and I will try my very best to get this film on board The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD, which will go live in January 2017.

Niemczyk, a student at Béla Tarr’s film.factory, is more than just a filmmaker, and this is perfectly visible in Centaur. She is a painter. Filmmaking is only a part of her work, but as far as I could see, she combines the two parts. The visuals of Centaur are stunning. Almost every frame is a beauty. It’s one of those things which made my photographer heart open up again. It smiled, and smiled, and it couldn’t stop smiling and admiring Niemczyk’s framing until the very end.

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But let me tell you something about the content of the film first before I lose myself in admiration of the film in its entirety. Centaur is a film about a love which is challenged, a love between a woman and her husband whose mobility is greatly reduced due to polio. She is much younger than he is, which reminded me of Tarr’s last film The Turin Horse (2011), in which a daughter repeatedly dresses her father because he is too old, too fragile and not mobile enough to do it himself. There is something of that in Centaur until we realise that the two protagonists are married.

Alma and Vlado are one, but what differs between them is how they handle the challenge. Alma cares for her husband every day. She washes him, she helps him out of bed, she does everything. Vlado, on the other hand, is losing patience with himself. He can no longer bare his wife seeing him like this and having to support him in such a way. One can feel that it humiliates him, when he sits in the bathtub and refuses to be washed by his wife. The clash between the two – Alma is hurt by Vlado’s refusal to let her care for him – is visually reinforced, easily – perhaps too easily – but beautifully when Alma leaves the bathroom and enters another room just next door.

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The light, the colour – everything fits there. And it doesn’t even feel as though it’s overdone. There is another striking scene in which Vlado makes his way along a long balcony. He sits on one chair and uses another to lift his body onto it. It is a painful scene, and a painfully long scene, not only for the viewer. The almost endless way of Vlado while, on the other side of the small wall which separates the balcony from freefall, an elderly woman, possibly retired, watches him the entire time from her window. One wonders what she is thinking. One wonders why she doesn’t offer to help. Maybe she has offered to help already, but her help had been refused just as Alma’s has been refused before.

What is Vlado’s goal? We get the feeling that he wants to give up. He’s tired of living like this, without any improvement in sight. But what have his dreams got to do with his situation? Vlado dreams of a figure half horse, half man. The interesting things is that this centaur is the opposite of the centaurs we know from Greek mythology. The centaur in Vlado’s dream has a horse-shaped rather than a human head. I’m not trying to interpret this, but I find it interesting that Niemczyk uses this symbol and changes it ever so slightly.

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The film is “only” forty minutes long, but it contains a lot of visual and narrative material which keeps you thinking for a while. I watched the film as part of last week’s Slow Cinema No 2, a follow-up event to the Slow Cinema symposium which took place in April in London. It’s been almost a week and I cannot forget the first image of the film. It really stays with you. Niemczyk has created an open film, a film which doesn’t end when the credits roll. It continues way beyond this. It has its own life, perhaps like that of Greek mythology. It evolves and develops in your mind. It is as though Centaur was the beginning of a domino effect. The film does something to me, and I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it is time to return to Luke Hockley’s Somatic Cinema and his theory of the “third image” in order to tackle what’s going on in my head.