Fogo – Yulene Olaizola (2012)

Have I ever mentioned that I love my “job”? It makes me really happy to discover all those talented, yet unknown directors from all over the world, whose films are a pleasure to watch. Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo (2012) is one of those films. Unfortunately, it is one of so many slow films that have not yet received adequate distribution, especially in Europe. So I’m very much in her debt for granting me access to a screener.

Olaizola is a Mexican director. After Nicolas Pereda, Pedro Gonzales-Rubio, and Francisco Vargas, she is the fourth stunning slow-film director from Mexico. There appears to be a real pool of slow talent over there, and I hope to see more in future. Fogo is, however, not set in Mexico, but in Canada, on the Fogo Island. Uncommon for Slow Cinema, the film starts with music over black screen, and then a cut positions us behind a man, wrapped up in thick clothes, who is slowly walking along a path while the camera, following him, slowly moves from eye level to a high angle shot. It’s a smooth transition, and it’s beautiful. This isn’t the only beautiful shot in the film. In fact, the entire film contains superb compositions. It once more reinforces my idea that slow-film directors really have a photographic eye, if trained or not.

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The music stops, the screen goes black again. A smooth dissolve starts the actual narrative. With the man we saw earlier walking in the background as a tiny dot in the landscape, our eyes are fixed on the ruins of houses we’re shown. There is one particularly tilted house, possibly a result of landslides. The man knocks on the door of that house, saying “Last ferry leaves day after tomorrow.” What is going on?

There is this remarkable shot which I can’t get out of my head. It’s indoors, dark, with a bit of backlight coming through the window, which illuminates the window itself like a holy relic. A man sits on the right hand side of the frame. Waiting. In silence. He’s the man in the titled house. Through a conversation between him and another man, we learn that the part of the island the films is set in is to be evacuated. People can no longer live there. More shots of the island throughout the film make the reason behind the evacuation obvious: it’s an utterly desolate landscape. It’s a landscape of emptiness (as is so often the case in slow films) that cannot provide for the people anymore. The island stands for death.

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While most people leave the island, two men stay behind. Even though they’re alone there, I see it as a solitary confinement. Truth is, the last ferry is gone. They have decided to die (slowly) on this island, so in effect they are trapped. Trapped alone, but together. In this way, Fogo is Slow Cinema par excellence. The entire narrative is structured around absence and emptiness. Death is hinted at. It is about loneliness and hopelessness. There are lengthy scenes of two men walking across the island to seek a better place, where they can stay until the end. There is this feeling of imminent death. One scene that reminds me of it, which conveys this brilliantly, shows one of the men chopping wood. Now, the frame is rather empty, and it contains only one tree, which is positioned a bit off-centre. Nowhere, not even in the farthest background is there any other tree visible. It looks as if the man chops down the last tree of the island to get some fire wood. The last resources are being used.

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Throughout the film, the light is low. It’s a rather dark scenery, but it is important to note that with growing hopelessness, the frames become darker. Indeed, we could move towards night. Yet the very fact that light is diminishing conveys a reliable sense of “the end”, both in terms of the film itself, but also that of the people on this island.

What I’m not entirely sure about is just how much fiction and fact is in it. Again, this appears to be a common trope within Slow Cinema. I remember Nicolas Pereda, who always moves between fiction and documentary. Lav Diaz did the same in Death in the Land of Encantos. And Michela Occhipinti approached Letters from the Desert in a very similar way. I assume that Fogo is also one of those films that are a bit of both. I wonder if it would make sense to re-define the term docu-fiction in relation to Slow Cinema. I think it would be useful, certainly for those films.

Anyway, if Fogo appears at a festival near you, do please go see it. If you want to see a superb slow film, then this is a very good choice, in particular because it is only an hour long. Good for all those people, who have little patience for slowness!

The River Used to be a Man

It’s been a while that I watched a good slow film. My head rarely thinks ouside Lav Diaz’s films at the moment. I’m trying to re-watch Florentina Hubaldo (and will post a review here later), but it’s a lot tougher than I had first experienced. So I’m taking it slow.

I came across The River used to be a man by accident. It’s a German film by Jan Zabeil that was released last year in its home country. I don’t think it has ever made its way to the UK, and IMDB agrees with me on this point.

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The film tells the story of a German, who, after the apparent death of his guide, gets lost in the Botswanan wilderness. It is a slow-paced film, though not a painterly slow film the way I would study it. However, The River that used to be a man confirmed a few things that I realised only a short while ago, and which still make me think as to how I could fit this into my writing.

The film is wonderful at depicting the African wilderness, the loneliness it evokes. But also the untouched nature we can hardly find these days, especially in our regions. We see peaceful sunsets and smooth rivers. The main character, for me, in this film is nature. And strikingly, the native who initially travels with the German explains to him: “Here’s the house of the animals. It’s the house of all the animals … we’re on their island”. Nature is the host; man is merely a guest, as is the case in many other slow films.

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What made me think is the subtle point on modernity, and the way in which we humans, especially from the First World, have forgotten how to live in a simple manner. When the native dies, the German is on his own, in the middle of nowhere. He struggles to manouvre the canoe-like boat, and falls into the river because he cannot keep his balance. He cannot hunt. At night he hears a lot of sounds from animals, but he cannot identify whether or not the animals around him could be dangerous as he possibly has never learned to identify them in the first place. He didn’t need to, living in a city. Finally, he can’t light a fire because his lighter doesn’t work. The first thing he asks for when he wakes up in an unknown village after he had been picked up by a native when unconscious, is a telephone and a shop.

It sounds like the typical ignorant Westerner. And yet, it is only a subtle theme that runs through the film. This very theme brought me back to an earlier thought that a substantial amount of slow films are in some ways connected to the Third World, or in more specific terms to developing countries. They are made by directors from developing countries, or deal with issues that touch upon those regions. This doesn’t apply to all slow films, but it is nevertheless quite a large number.

We have Lav Diaz from the Philippines; Yulene Olaizola, Nicolas Pereda, Carlos Reygadas and Francisco Vargas from Mexico; Lisandro Alonso from Argentina; Abbas Kiarostami from Iran; Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand. Michela Occipinti’s film Letters from the Desert is set in India. The River is set in Africa.

I wouldn’t go as far as terming these films Third Cinema, but I find this development striking. Other slow films come from what we call the Second World. Bela Tarr and Alexandr Sokurov are the most known examples. I’m not trying to put the films into boxes. However, this is where the term “slowness” comes in again. For whom are those films slow? For the audience, and the audience comes mainly from the capitalist, speedy First World. From urban areas with bustling streets. From hyper-modern civilisations, whose days are structured by the mechanical clock.

Considering the geographical backgrounds of those directors, it is inadequate to term the films slow. The term can be derogative, and in this case, I would say that, indeed, it is. It is merely looking down from our big modern horse on countries that are still a bit “behind”. But behind what? What is the merit?