Elsewhere – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2000)

I have one specific sequence in my head, and what it shows and what is said doesn’t get any weaker with time. An elderly tribes man from Indonesia, sitting in his tree house, tells us that it wouldn’t be good to kill bad people because this would only anger the dead person’s family. For some reason, this sequence has burned itself into my memory. Perhaps because of its simplicity, of its plain and simple logic that modern people, especially politicians, have lost or forgotten about a long time ago. 

Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Elsewhere (2000), a fascinating four-hour long-form documentary, is perhaps one of the best films I have seen by the director. Of course, Elsewhere has strong competition. I will never forget the astonishing Homo Sapiens, or the curious Pripyat. Geyrhalter is a documentarian with enough patience to tell important stories, those stories that don’t make it into our field of vision because we’re saturated daily with short-lived story bites that will never stay in our memories. Elsewhere is, however, a powerful example of what time, or rather long duration, can achieve in exploring the world, in exploring life outside of our personal ordinariness, our “normality”, our “modernity”. It allows us to see the wealth around us, the differences, the similarities, in fact everything that makes us human.

Part 1 – January to June 2000

I still remember the 31 December 1999. There was a real hype about it. We would be crossing a magical threshold. Tomorrow would be the beginning of a new century. What would it bring? One thing that was clear, at least on telly, was that no one could tell whether the hundreds of nuclear bombs the world hosts would go off all at once because of a computer error. Excitement switched to anxiety, and it became the more apocalyptic the more time passed.

This is, one must admit, the downside of modern life. It can kill us at any moment, and it can do so faster than any traditional life we used to have before the Industrial Revolution sped up our life beyond something we would ever be able to control. Geyrhalter traveled the world and his film is a look into the past, yet a past that is still very present, albeit at the margins. The director is on the lookout for traditional societies, which do not comply with our idea of modernity and therefore of progress. Beginning in Niger, with the lives of the Tuareg, Geyrhalter stops in 12 different regions of the world to show us what has been and what still is. Niger hosts around two million tuaregs. They live in the desert, in vast empty spaces that many would deem hostile. The colours are beautiful, and Geyrhalter’s low-angle camera allows us to get down to the same height as several actions we see. The Tuareg sit on the sand, on stones, or they spend their time traveling on their dromedars. It’s not often that we see them stand up or walk. The most impressive images, to me, are those of low-angle stillness or movement. Three women sit int front of the camera, speaking about the difficulties women face when bringing up children. “They’re hungry all the time,” they say. Only when they grow up do they become useful. A man is afraid that the bush will one day no longer feed the people and that the Tuareg would have to move into town in order to survive.

It’s those interviews, sometimes snippets, that are particularly intriguing in Geyrhalter’s film. He does not simply film what’s in front of his lens. There is an interaction apparent, and there’s no intention hiding it. In Namibia, one hears the interpreter in the background. The presence of the other is not cut. It’s supposed to be there. In Ombivango, shown in beautiful long shots, a man tells us that his job is examining court cases. He tells us that it’s important to prevent the destruction of the environment and that poachers need to be prosecuted. There voilà, the documentary becomes a reminder, perhaps a lesson that we should learn from those who live with the resources they have, knowing that one cannot live on credit, especially not when it comes to natural resources. An inconvenient truth? Maybe, but Geyrhalter doesn’t create an openly environmentally-friendly documentary. This wasn’t his aim. The aim was to observe tradition, and observation is an essential part in a longer, a slower learning process. Elsewhere is an invitation to observe and to learn, to remember what we have forgotten. 

The vast landscapes in Namibia and Niger are juxtaposed with vast landscapes in Greenland and Finland. Reindeer herding and seal hunting – it is here that modernity and tradition clash. A snowy landscape, at night. It looks and feels like the middle of nowhere. But there is a petrol station, a view one would perhaps not expect high up in the north, the farthest north of Finland, far off human civilisation. Civilisation – that are hundreds of reindeer that need to be looked after. Hansa, one of the few Sami people who can still live off reindeer herding is detached from society, but merges with his wintry environment. He becomes one with it. As do Otto and Asiajuk, seal hunters in Greenland, who tell us about the way their work has changed because of Greenpeace activism and Brigitte Bardot. The macro clashes with the micro, the seen with the unseen, unheard, the international with the local. Everything affects everything. This is why sorcerers in West Papua, Indonesia, we are told, are no longer being killed. They are “sent to town”, villages which white men have built in order to settle there. The magnificent tree houses the tribe builds with simple means are mind-blowing. And yet, one wonders when the white men, who live next door, will come too close to this part of simple and traditional life that has survived for centuries. Further south-east, in Australia, the Aboriginals tell us that they want to keep their identity, all the while adopting parts of “white”, or European (as they call it) modernity. And so, while we witness traditional dances, bush fires and hear about circumcision rituals, Aboriginal boys are seen glued to a television over a video game. It seems like we’re witness the merging of two disparate worlds, two opposing times.

Part 2 – July to December 2000

July opens with a beautiful shot in India. A woman hums while preparing tea for everyone. It’s difficult to guess her age. She seems radiant, content in her surrounding. “We should all try to live together in peace,” she says. To her, it’s important to share things with others. It all started with an argument in the village about water. Now, she shares everything she has with everyone. Making up for mistakes in her previous lives, she says. 

What characterises the second part of Geyrhalter’s film is its particular beauty. I had the impression that the director tried to go a little further, enhancing his already magnificent work. At the same time, he moves closer to us. In Russian Siberia, we meet Josip, whose livelihood has been destroyed by oil companies which moved into the area. A native reindeer herder, Josip no longer knows how to live in a polluted, toxic environment, which kills ducks, geese and fish around him. He speaks of the past and how everything used to be better. He sits on a rock at the shores of the sea. Again, Geyrhalter uses a low angle. We’re on the same height as Josip, which makes the interview incredibly personal and intimate. It’s one of the film’s strength – the intimacy between us and those far away. Geyrhalter bridges geographical distances by choosing the right height of the camera. 

It was in 2012, when Wang Bing filmed Three Sisters. A beautiful portrait of three sisters, left behind by their father who works in the city. It’s a portrait shot in the Chinese region of Yunnan. Geyrhalter filmed in that region about a decade earlier. He, too, portrayed the people, albeit the adults more than the children. It seems to be the first part, in which we listen to ongoing dialogue between characters. It’s striking because it’s not something that we’ve been used to in the previous three hours. Women cook, chop vegetables. They are amongst themselves, and it’s here that it becomes evident that the director tries to keep the societal structure within the groups he films intact on film. One woman tells us that people have “walking marriages”. A couple doesn’t move in together. A mother wouldn’t want her daughter to be raised by another woman, for example. So each stays in his/her own respective family. No one ever moves out or away. It’s something, which Han people (the main ethnic group in China) cannot understand, she says. The idea is not only to keep the family together, but also to preserve land. If a couple has 10 kids and each of them marries and builds a house, space for farming will become rare. This is how it works in traditional societies. Children move away and build new. Not so with the Moso people. 

There are two main themes in Elsewhere. First, we have the theme of roots, of home, of tradition. The theme of the past, if you wish, a past that is continuous. The other, opposing theme is that of the present threat to this tradition. There is talk of “the white men” who have built villages in West Papua, those who now prevent the natives from killing sorcerers. There is talk of Greenpeace and its fight against seal hunting and its difficulties for the natives in Greenland. Then there is Denis, a Nisga’a (Canada), who had been sent to residential schools where he was beaten until he no longer spoke the tribe’s language. When he returned home and spoke English only, he was beaten at home, because he no longer understood the Nisga’a language. Tradition was beaten out of him. There is Luigi, a traditional fisherman, who still lives without electricity and running water. “Working doesn’t pay anymore,” he says. Fishmongers only want beautiful fish for the restaurants. Only poor people eat ugly fish. In Micronesia, on the Woleai Atoll, the US dumps what has become known as “Christmas drop”, stuff Americans no longer want are dropped off on the island for Christmas in the hope the natives could use this modern junk. What they use are the parachutes which are used to drop the “drop”. They’re effective mosquito nets…

How would Elsewhere look like today? How has life changed for those twelve tribes/families? I couldn’t help wondering. Elsewhere is an intense documentary that benefits from its long running time. Even though we spend only about twenty minutes with each family, Geyrhalter makes those few images count and leaves us with poignant dialogues and at times breathtaking images that, all together, create an intense film experience. It’s a film that makes one think and wonder, and makes one hope that Geyrhalter will redo this project so that we can see how things have changed. I’d give anything for it!

(Elsewhere is part of the wonderful DVD box set that Icarus has released earlier this year. An absolute must for me, so do check it out! More info on the Icarus website! Read my review on Geyrhalter’s other films, also on The Art(s) of Slow Cinema: Homo Sapiens, Pripyat,  and Abendland.)

24 Frames – Abbas Kiarostami (2017)

One of the defining characteristics of Slow Cinema is that quite a number of films, in particular experimental films, question the difference between photography and cinema. Static art and moving image art interact and create a certain pull that only those films (can) have. At the beginning of 24 Frames, Abbas Kiarostami notes: “I always wonder to what extent the artist aims to depict the reality of a scene. Painters capture only one frame of reality and nothing before or after it.”

Moving images have helped make recorded life more realistic. I believe that almost everyone shares this opinion. Cinema had, originally, been hailed at creating an almost too real version of reality. Cinema had become an extension of photography. It can go further. Just the movement is enough to make us believe that what we see is real, or so it seems. Kiarostami, a photographer and filmmaker, blurred the line in many of his works, and therefore posed questions about the nature of both art forms. 

With 24 Frames, the question becomes even more urgent. 24 Frames is not so much a film. It is not photography either. It is a question. 24 questions, to be exact, that make us drift into reverie. Most of Kiarostami’s shots are wintry landscapes, like those of a dream land, a land far away, peaceful, yet menacing. Shots, static, that suggest death, lifelessness, silence, contemplation. But death suggests life. Every death creates life in another way. It’s an eternal cycle. Nothing ever dies completely. And so the scenery, the reveries, beautiful, penetrating like the eyes of family members in photographs from a different epoch, begins to move. Snow is falling. Snowflakes are blown towards us. The wind is howling. Deer are running through a prairie after a shot went off. A shot in the off. Far away, and yet very close. The peaceful scenery is disrupted. The shot irritates, shocks, upsets the stillness. The shock of a shot of a deer is almost traumatising. What has happened?

Is this real? Did we have a nightmare? Is this our unconsciousness speaking? Kiarostami’s world is imaginary. It is a journey, several journeys, triggers that make us think about the nature of an image. 24 Frames creates 24 frames of a shamanic journey you are taking with the director. Crows fill the frames, making one think of Hitchcock perhaps. But Kiarostami is different. This is no threat. Kiarostami’s crow is a spirit animal, a prophecy. Wisdom, transformation, the act of change. It is a mysterious creature which, in almost literal terms, transforms a photograph or a painting into a moving image. The crow makes us question, makes us wonder. It initiates a journey into ourselves.

The sea. Endless, raging, wild. But also cleansing. Kiarostami’s sea is an important destination of his journey into the unconsciousness. Rain is falling, the wind is howling. It is a menacing scenery, yet soothing. The sea – a place without limits, without barriers. A place that frees our mind, that allows us to sink into reverie and to go wherever we want to be. That, too, is a journey. A personal journey to a place where we think we have to be. Our journey becomes our destination.

We travel through memories. Can you remember the day we arrived in Paris? Everyone was there. Grandpa wore his nice suit and his hat. He wanted to put on his best clothes for our trip. Can you remember what’s happened to him? 

Static images, Kiarostami said, capture only a frame of reality. 24 Frames is a collection of 24 snippets, of 24 mind images, of 24 destinations on a journey that we’re gently taken on. We look through open windows, open doors. Vast landscapes and the sea are at our finger tips. 24 Frames is an invitation, it is a hand stretched out to us. “Come with me,” the film says. “Let me guide you.” There is no other film whose underlying openness is so vast, so liberating, so fascinating, so personal. The film doesn’t allow refusal. It is there to be journeyed with.

Three Sisters – Wang Bing (2012)

I become more and more a fan of Wang Bing. I’m  making my way through his filmography in a random order, which is a shame, because I believe that you can actually see China’s economical development through the lens of his films. I can already see it when I watch his films in random order, and I’m sure this would be even stronger if I were to watch all of this films chronologically. Wang Bing is in a completely different league than Lav Diaz, observing reality rather than writing a story. Each director works in a different environment and uses different forms and aesthetics in order to record the dangerous, forgotten, sometimes humiliating present people are living through in their respective countries. What I begin to appreciate about the films of Wang Bing is the director’s observational style. His films are documentaries after all, and he observes (via his camera) in detail about what is happening in front of the camera, in front of his eyes. If I had to decide about which director currently shows the human condition best, it’s most certainly Wang Bing.

Yesterday, I finally had a chance to watch Three Sisters (2012), which had been lying around in my shelf for the last two years. Because I moved three times in two years, all my DVDs were always in cardboard boxes and I had completely forgotten that I even had that film! So while looking for Christmas decoration, I also found this DVD again…that was a sign I had to follow!

Three Sisters, as the film’s title suggests, is a documentary about three sisters, who live in Yuannan, a province in southwest China that borders on Mayanmar and Laos. They live in a village with around 80 other families but without their own parents. The eldest, Yingying is 10 years old and is forced to look after her two sisters Zhenzhen, 6 years old, and Fenfen, 4 years old. Despite her age, Yingying becomes a mother figure as a result of circumstances. Her father is absent from the beginning of the film. It is not said where he is; whether he has left the family behind, whether he is a migrant worker or even whether he is dead. The same is true for the mother, who, throughout the film, is present through her absence. The children and their grandfather talk about her, but we never actually see her.

The children go about their daily lives; they dry their shoes around the fire, shoes that are broken (and which cut Zhenzhen’ ankle all the time), full of mud but still halfway usable. There is nothing else for them anyway. They have to make do with that they have, and Wang Bing shows in his documentary that those children do, like any other child probably would. They eat steamed potatoes in their own house, slowly peeling them just like the unnamed man and his daughter do in Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse; the potato as a staple of our food source that helps to nourish us, but also as a symbol of poverty in that there is little else left. In the evenings, Yingying and her sisters head to her uncle and aunt, who give them one proper meal a day. In return, they help with the animals, such as preparing food for the pigs.

It’s those pigs that lead us to the first heart-breaking scene in the film. The sisters take the pigs out onto a beautiful pasture. It is unclear from the off who it is, but while we are seeing Yingying looking across a plain, one of her sisters shouts: “Does no one want me?” A simple image, a powerful message after having seen the three alone for about half an hour, if not more. The one who shouted this, twice in fact, could be Fenfen. I believe she was also the one who said towards the end of the film “Children who have mothers, that’s is the most wonderful thing in the world!” The lack of parental love does not often find an expression in form of words in Wang Bing’s films, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Those two instances alone make clear what the three sisters really go through, and it is painful. They suffer mostly in silence, which becomes more expressive in Yingying in the second half of the film.

It is a small relief when the father, 32 years old, arrives. It is only then that we learn that he’s a migrant worker, trying to earn enough for the family in a nearby city. As the mother has disappeared (he says he doesn’t know where she is), he has no choice but to leave his children to their own devices. But he is a caring father. Once he’s part of the film, I felt that the film became a bit warmer, more affectionate. He had Fengfeng on his lap and laughed with his children. He washed them, which the children themselves never really did. At least Wang Bing didn’t show them doing so. He genuinely looks after them, and that was good to see after so many “cold” scenes which made my heart bleed. However, the father has also returned to complicate the family situation even more. He can no longer leave all three children to their own devices. His plan was to take Yingting to the city to have her work. But her grandfather said he should rather buy her a new pair of shoes and leave her with him. The father decides to take the two youngest to the city instead. Yingying, it is decided, lives at her grandfather’s, works with and for him, but also attends school. The father argues that taking Yingying to the city would be too expensive, he couldn’t afford the school fees for her. The only solution is to leave her behind.

That decision – Wang Bing follows the father with the two little girls to the bus – has an effect on the rest of the film. Three Sisters becomes a portrait of a lonesome sister, who, all of a sudden, no longer knows what to do, why she is there, what she is there for. Even though she goes to school, something we see only once, and even though she also helps her grandfather with his animals (sheep and goats), she becomes an isolated child who seems to suffer in silence. Once her sisters have left, she turns quieter and quieter, very much detaches herself from this world and from the people around her. She does her chores, but she no longer feels present at all. I often felt as though she was a ghost; she herself, like her mother in a way, becomes a present absence. It’s a remarkable change that takes place in the film, and I’m very glad that I watched the long version of the film (there is a shorter version called Alone), because that really brings the whole power of this growing loneliness and this changing character of a little girl to the forefront.

Wang Bing is superb at observing the daily lives and daily struggles of those who live on the margins of society. What I noticed once more in Three Sisters is that all of his films have a journey at its core. It’s movement, rather than stillness. In West of the Tracks, the factories are dismantled as well as all the houses that the workers had so far lived in. They need to leave and look for another home. In Ta’ang, too, there is the idea of being forced to leave one’s home at the core of the film. Bitter Money shows very young migrant workers, who leave their home to work in the city. Three Sisters has the same core theme; the father having to leave to earn money, the people in the village not being able to pay their tax will see the authorities take their cattle away, which means there won’t be much livelihood left for them. They, too, might have to leave as there is talk about destroying houses, building new ones and bringing electricity to the region. It’s a very small sequence, but it reminded me just how much Wang Bing’s films are centred around the issue of people not having a home.

With that comes restlessness, concerns, questions. All of that is deeply inscribed into the faces of Wang Bing’s characters. The director might focus his camera on China, but his films tell a larger story about where the world has been going politically, economically and socially.

Sixty Spanish Cigarettes – Mark John Ostrowski (2015, repost)

!!! This film is now available on tao films !!!

There is something sublimely beautiful about Mark John Ostrowski’s film Sixty Spanish Cigarettes (2015). Fifteen minutes into the film, an extreme long shot captures the sea and coast in the background. From the right hand side of the frame, a small boat comes into view. Ostrowski’s camera stays with the boat and follows it. Even in this extreme long-shot, we can see how the boat is moved by the wind and the waves. The sun is shining from behind a few clouds, it seems. The image is not in colour, even though you would perhaps think that. Coastal images in colour are always superb.

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But no. Ostrowski works against our expectations. He frustrates us. Scenes of blissful contemplation are interrupted by hard cuts to a black screen. Those contemplative scenes of land- and seascapes, for instance, feel like a carrot Ostrowski is hanging in front of our eyes. But he takes that carrot away as soon as we have almost reached a state of contemplation. We cannot contemplate everything at once. We have to give it time. We have to be patient in order to reach this desired state. Ostrowski works well in alternating beautifully slow shots with a black screen, the latter making us hyper-aware of where we are.

Paradoxically, Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is about movement, and yet it gives us no feeling of speed at all. We see the protagonist walking through several different (beautiful) landscapes, which reminded me strongly of those used in Albert Serra’s Birdsong (2008). The clouds are brushing slowly over the hills, while the man is often dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape. He is alone, alone on his way to an unknown location. At times, he stops to light a cigarette. At other times, he simply rests. It is this solitude which gives us a feeling of slowness, a sense of pause. The repeated scenes of a man’s walking through an empty landscape brought a wonderful book back into my head; The Philosophy of Walking. If you haven’t read it, please do get yourself a copy.

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Ostrowski’s film shows the director’s superb photographic eye. Many of his shots are beautifully composed. They could easily be photos in an album, or large prints in a gallery. To me, the visual beauty of the film was also its strongest asset; the viewer in awe of nature, in awe of simple but expressive architecture. Ostrowski’s long-takes of those “photos” helped me to pause, to be in the present but also to wonder what the protagonist was really up to. I’m not entirely sure whether this is ever fully revealed in the film, but it is of little interest in any case. Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is more of an atmospheric film than about a set narrative persistently progressing within the film’s 60 minutes running time. It reminded me of Martin Lefebvre’s modes of viewing; the narrative mode and the spectacular mode. Many slow films, which most certainly includes Ostrowski’s film, operate very much in the spectacular mode, even though there is a narrative mode in all. But the narrative mode is suppressed in many instances to give way to contemplation.

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I believe that the film could have been a tick shorter in order to make full use of its shots. I’m not entirely sure when this shot appears, perhaps after around 45 to 50min. There is a beautiful extreme long shot of a landscape at the coast, with the protagonist sitting on a rock or something similar. He has his back turned to us and is looking at the scenery, like us. I expected the film to cut there. It would have been the most fitting and most suitable ending for the film, but unfortunately Ostrowski did not cut there and kept going instead. The final images, to me,weakened the film slightly because they were not entirely necessary.

Nevertheless, with Sixty Spanish Cigarettes, Ostrowski has created a beautiful piece of Slow Cinema, which, regardless of whether or not he continues this slow journey, adds him to my list of directors to look out for in future. If the film runs at a festival near you, I highly recommend watching it!

Sleep Has Her House – Scott Barley (2017)

!!! This film is now available on tao films till the end of March !!!

It took me a long time to decide whether I should be writing about this film. All films available on tao films are reviewed on this blog. But how do I even begin this with Scott Barley’s first feature film Sleep Has Her House?

Why is it so difficult for me to write about it? I have seen several overwhelming reviews of this film. Some people can put their experience of the film into words. I struggle with it. Maybe it’s because I experienced the film. Sleep has nothing to do with the intellect. There is nothing you can or even want to think about. When you see the first images, at the latest when you see the stunning waterfall – the camera zooms out slowly, carefully, to show the full beauty of it – then all you want is for Barley to take you on a journey. And he does.

I do not want to describe what’s happening in the film. I don’t want to describe the images. Rather, I’m going to break the rules for my blog and tell you an anecdote instead.

Last year, I went on two shamanic journeys. One of them was a follow-up to a journey I undertook in 2015 (if you’re reading this, John: thank you!). The aim was to find my power animal. These two journeys were very intense, especially visually. Everything looked underexposed and yet I could see clearly. That translated into sensations. I felt those two journeys. I felt my standing in a dark cave watching a deer. I also felt my watching a river. I didn’t see myself there. I was actually there, I felt my presence in this different world.

Barley’s Sleep Has Her House silenced me the day I saw it. I couldn’t bring more over my lips than “I really like it”. What I noticed was that Sleep is part of my shamanic journeys. The images, the sounds – they have a resemblance to my journey. No, Sleep isn’t my shamanic journey on screen. But it is so close that it frightened me on the one hand, and on the other I suddenly had the feeling that a director who doesn’t know me, a director whom I have never met in real life, knows my soul.

Sleep is a film that goes deep, very deep. It is not just a film. It is not just visuals. And it is not just a combination of visuals and sound. It is a journey. It is an experience. It digs deep into your soul, into your dreams. It takes you into another world, into the underworld, but it’s not a scary journey at all. On the contrary, Barley is always there with you. You’re never really on your own.

Barley’s film is certainly the strongest film I have seen in years. There have been many films which touched me, but not in the same way. Sleep stands out. This is as far as my words can take it. All I can do now is strongly recommending the film. Words cannot adequately translate experience. You naturally lose most of that experience because you try to find words for something that has no words. So please watch the film, and experience this magnificent journey Barley takes you on.

Where are you going? – Zhengfan Yang (2016)

If the film’s title were a question about the direction of the filmmaker, then I would respond to it with “higher and higher”. Where Are You Going? is Zhengfan Yang’s second feature film. His Distant was a true marvel to watch and his second one is even stronger. Visually, it is very different from Distant but narrative-wise I would say it is stronger, cleverly constructed and even though you’re driving through Hong Kong for over two hours, your attention will not wane precisely because Zhengfan uses the frustration principle for the creation of revelatory moments, which make you want to watch more.

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Where Are You Going? is an apt title for a film, which puts you in the seat of a taxi, or a bus, or anything on four wheels that takes you from A to B. The standard first question a taxi driver asks you becomes a metaphor in Zhengfan’s film, though. The film is not only divided into several car journeys across Hong Kong. I found that, more than anything, the question was metaphorical for where the characters (want to) go in their lives. Who are they? Zhengfan doesn’t show them. Sometimes we’re not even sure whether there is someone with us in the car which is travelling through the night or through the busy streets of Hong Kong under the sizzling sun. Their voices are the protagonists. The characters become a face only through their voices, and those voices create not only a personality but an entire life of that personality in front of your eyes. You cannot see the character, but you get to know him/her in an astonishingly detailed way.

Every character has a story to tell but only reveals pain, frustration, anger and sorrow slowly and gradually over the course of a long-take. The viewer gets a glimpse of Hong Kong society through the eyes of people from very different backgrounds and social status. There is the young female banker, who is confronted by her taxi driver over her alleged false promises to her customers that they would make lots of money by investing in risky bonds. He himself was cheated out of 2 million HKD by someone like her, he says. While this could be a straightforward black-and-white story, Zhengfan portrays a banker who pursues the job she doesn’t like only to pay her bills, earning, in effect, less than than the taxi driver and being under persistent pressure by her boss to sell bonds. If she fails to sell a certain amount, she’d get fired.

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We get to know a mainland Chinese couple who wanted to leave the mainland behind in order to search for a better life. A very impressive dialogue between husband and wife, a dialogue that speaks of homesickness and the frustration of discrimination in Hong Kong. While she has enough of trying to get on her feet in the big city (going as far as saying that her “better life” means that she reaches the wall when she stretches her arm out, implying they’re living in a tiny apartment), he is willing to sit this out for another two years, after which they would get a permanent residence permit. She’s dreaming of Canada or Australia; he worries that their parents will consider them a failure if hey returned to mainland China. Pressure from all sides – this is a common theme in pretty much all conversations we hear in the film, be it pressure in family, in society, amongst friends; it’s everywhere.

And while the voices in the background speak of saving money, hating the city, childhood memories, or being set up with a man from mainland China, the images take us through Hong Kong. Zhengfan makes sure to give us as elaborate an image of the city as possible. There’s one chapter, whose name I cannot remember now. I can only remember that it contains the word “corridor” and it was so fitting. A rather narrow motorway leads us through run-down houses, houses in desperate need of repair, houses you wouldn’t want to live in, but which at the same time are most likely the most affordable housing there is in Hong Kong. So while you have the motorway so close to your window that you can almost touch the cars, you have the neighbouring tower just as close. It’s a take that gives you a real feeling of the claustrophobia in the city. At the same time, you see at the horizon all those skyscrapers that we know of Hong Kong; the offices, the expensive apartments, the stuff only rich foreigners can afford.

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Where Are You Going? tells much, much more, and if you’re really attentive, you can see certain connections between the characters. Not all of them are unrelated. Zhengfan has added some connections in there, which makes the entire journey through Hong Kong city, its society and its people even more enriching. The idea of spending over two hours in a car driving through the city is perhaps not very appealing. But the concept is fascinating and riveting in a special way. You see nothing but the streets and other cars, and yet the film is full of humanity, of emotion. You may find this an odd thing to say, but Where Are You Going? is a film which makes you see if you open your ears.

P.S.: Very attentive viewers may find a place where Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker went!

The Royal Road – Jenni Olson (2014)

How I had missed this fight inside my head of what is slow and what isn’t. Jenni Olson’s deeply personal, moving and engaging film The Royal Road (2014) started those evil voices in my head again. I think I’ve been saying for a few years now that Slow Cinema is not a fixed but rather a fluid category of films. And yet, I start to find myself figuring out what I consider Slow Cinema and slow film. The former to me is most definitely narrative, while the latter can be anything but is mostly experimental. It doesn’t necessarily need a narrative. This is as vague as I can describe the voices in my head. I thought I would get away with this “definition” but Jenni Olson did a good job in questioning even this attempt of where to position certain films. Is The Royal Road Slow Cinema or a slow film? Is it both (gosh this becomes complicated now)? I don’t want to make a case for either, though. It’s a great thing when I come across films that make me rethink my own writing. In the end, this is what it’s all about and I do not want to be definite on anything. There are millions of films out there. Any fixed definition would fall apart sooner or later.

Slow Cinema or slow film, Olson’s The Royal Road is something entirely new for me. It goes very much into the direction of James Benning, whose films – shame on me – I still haven’t had time to see. Her film consists of several static shots with at times only little movement in the frame. This does sound like the now famous Slow Cinema, and yet it isn’t. The shots in themselves are of several different locations throughout America along The Royal Road. There are no protagonists as such in the frames. The visual protagonist is this famous road of which we learn quite a bit through Olson’s personal interest in history. She takes us on a journey through history, which I, personally, found fascinating. Not only because it was history I didn’t know about, and I reckon most Americans don’t know about either. Even the Royal Road is now broken up into several different highways and city streets. I guess so is the knowledge of the road’s history.

What makes Olson’s journey along this road really fascinating is her combination of historical blurb with the most personal details of her journey to her loved one – along this very road. It is a journey which expands by the minute. It is also a journey which becomes more personal by the minute. The Royal Road‘s auditory protagonist, to me, is herself and her wife, whose first encounters she describes in a sort of dreamy, blissful tone. It sort of reminded me on my own very long, eight hour train journey across an entire country to see my partner. All those anticipations, those expectations, and anxieties – they’re all there in Olson’s film.

Returning more to the visuals, the long shots Olson uses reminded me of a photo album. A sort of photo album that is passed along generations. It doesn’t contain the most beautiful shots but they tell a story and this story comes through the voiceover. It is like sitting down with Olson who shows you one photo after another and who talks a bit about the history or the context of what we see. Or, perhaps, even of what we don’t see. This form of story-telling made me feel part of the film, made me feel part of the journey. It all fits in with the very personal tone of Olson’s film.

I felt immensely privileged having seen the film. I felt privileged to go on a journey with Olson to see her partner. The theme of LGBT is not as overt in slow films as it is perhaps in others (maybe I speak rubbish here but my excuse is that I’m not at all familiar with this field). You do have Tsai Ming-liang’s films, of course, and The Royal Road could not be more different from Tsai’s films. Olson does not create a secretive, fictional narrative about her love to Julie Dorf, her wife. On the contrary, she puts it straight out there which makes me film even more personal. It’s a fascinating piece and I would like to see more of Olson’s work in future. I love her interest and fascination with history, and her style – this slow, meditative photo album style – is intriguing and gives me something new to think about in future for whatever entails Slow Cinema. Or slow film. Or whatever you may call it.

Manakamana – Stephanie Spray, Pacho Velez (2013)

If you’re looking for a very zen film, then I believe that you cannot find many films that are as zen as Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’ Manakamana (2013). Slow Cinema has often been considered in the context of “watching paint dry”, and I may remember this wrong, but some critics did mention this explicitly after a screening of one of Tsai Ming-liang’s films. I think it was Walker. In any case, if Tsai’s film was about watching paint dry, Manakamana is about watching ice cream running down an elderly woman’s hand for ten minutes towards the end of the film.

For inattentive viewers, or those who just go with the flow of traveling to and from the Manakamana temple with pilgrims, the film may appear to be shot in one very long take, similar to that of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark. There are cuts, of course, but the entire structure of the film is so smooth that you’re fully immersed in your own journey with people from different backgrounds, both cultural and geographical. The set-up is as simple as it can be: a camera, a cable car, pilgrims. This simple recipe leads to a remarkably peaceful and interesting cinematic experience that is unlike any other.

The film’s beginning is based entirely on visuals. If you were to close your eyes and only followed the sound, you would be on a fascinating journey into the wheres and whats. Only after about twenty minutes or so do we hear the first spoken words; a clever strategy by the directors. It allows the viewer to contemplate the natural scenery in the background without many distractions. Once we have spent time with nature, we shift our focus to the pilgrims; their dialogues, their silences, their postures.

Manakamana is an intimate portrait of many different people. It is a slow portrait. But the use of long-takes which tends to point to slow time is misleading here. In effect, you could see every long-take as a form of speed dating, which, yes, sounds opposing to the entire concept of Slow Cinema. Yet, you only have a certain amount of time with the pilgrims. The position of the camera makes us believe that we’re making the journey with them. We study their faces, their body language. We listen to their conversations. We get to know them precisely because of the medium-shot static camera. But we only have one take. Once the characters start to become familiar, they arrive at their destination and leave the cable car and we go on a journey with someone else. We’re literally running in circles, up and down, to and from the temple.

Throughout the film there is an admiration of technical progress and modernity apparent: “When I think of the old days, it now seems better.” Local pilgrims remark on the building of houses and roads, and on how long it used to take to go to the temple. Before the cable car was built, they had to walk to the temple, often for three consecutive days. This is a rather interesting aspect, because here modernity is shown as a good thing. I suppose it has something to do with the geographical setting of the film. It is not so much that Slow Cinema rejects modernity or progress. But the films are seen in the light of a rejection of speed, which is exactly what modernity is now known for. Not all slow-film directors oppose cinematic speed deliberately and consciously. But the bulk of the films is regarded as anti-speed, that means anti-modernity. So, where do we position Manakamana?

It’s an observation of the advantages of modernity, in fact. It is not only a portrait of pilgrims on their journey to the Manakamana temple. The film does tell a story after all, and even though the discussion on modernity may not be as foregrounded as I make it here, it is nevertheless there. It’s a really interesting study, actually. Nepalese pilgrims conversing about progress and an American woman taking photographs with her old camera, which still uses analogue film. You have a forward and a backward movement, all in one film, which makes Manakamana a very dynamic piece, not only because we’re constantly on the move.

At first sight, there isn’t much happening in the film. But there are undercurrents, which are well worth looking into more closely.