Walden – Daniel Zimmermann (2018)

Not so long ago, I picked up Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden. Published in the middle of the 19th century, it is now something of an iconic book about nature, about the woods, about the joys of solitary moments. Several times, I have mentioned Umberto Eco’s Six Walks Through The Fictional Woods on this blog, and even though Eco’s work isn’t exactly about the woods as such, but more about the woods as a fictional entity, both books have come back to mind when I saw Walden, an observational, poetic, very slow, very contemplative documentary by Daniel Zimmerman.

A tree is felled somewhere in Austria, transformed into planks of wood, which are then shipped to an unspecified location in the Brazilian rainforest. The story is quickly told and not, in itself, interesting. Until you realise that the trade route seems reversed. You would, perhaps, expect it the other way around. Something else is interesting, too: Zimmermann’s aesthetics. The film starts with a slow, patient pan from left to right. We’re in a fresh, lush forest. It’s quiet and peaceful. We can hear birds lifting off from tree branches, though we don’t see them. This sequence is important because it makes clear Zimmermann’s intention: hear first, then see. Walden targets, first of all, our ears. While the camera continues to pan patiently towards the right, we spot a worker in a hard hat and a security vest, dwarfed by the sheer size of the trees, overwhelming, overshadowing. There is a real grandeur of nature, a real dwarfing of Man.

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann, 2018)

The patient pan to the right, it turns out, is not so much a pan, but a circular movement. Zimmermann’s camera circles 360 degrees around its own axis. I couldn’t help think of the Eastern concept of time; time not as something linear but as something circular instead. Walden uses this concept effectively and lulls us in. After nine minutes into the film, the felled tree crashes to the ground right in front of us. Before we even see it, we only see the trees in front of us vibrating. Then, almost total silence once the felled tree has fallen. An incredible scene, momentous even. All of a sudden, there is this discrepancy between life and death, both in the same frame. The silence is deafening, but so are the distant chirps of the birds that seem to respond to the act of felling. The silence highlights the chirps, makes them appear louder, more pronounced. And even though we might expect the camera to stop, to witness with us, Zimmermann moves on.

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann, 2018)

A second aspect that stands out in Walden. Apart from the use of circular time, the film puts emphasis on time as never stopping. Photography and film, it is true, can halt time, can seemingly give us power over time in that they both allow us to stop for a moment, to go back, to look again. Photography and cinema can freeze time. Or so we think. Zimmermann clearly defies this. His camera keeps moving. At dawn, when the planks are loaded onto freight trains; on the motorway; at the border where the police check the freight on lorries… Zimmermann positions us as passersby. Even though the trade route, or rather the entire process from felling to shipping to unloading, is at the heart of the film, it isn’t really. It is something that happens, just like everything else simply happens. The director’s magnificent camera pans are iconic of two elements of our life. First, a lot of things happen at the same time. Things are always moving, are in flux, and for that, it is difficult to fully pay attention to one single action. In the last century or so, everything has become much bigger, much faster, and, also, simply much more. I know that this is a standard argument, but it is important here because it leads to my second point: we cannot pay attention to everything that happens anymore. We have to select or simply keep going, which is exactly what Zimmermann’s camera does.

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann, 2018)

As mentioned above, sound is key in Walden. Because of the camera’s 360 degrees movement, we do not always see actions as and when they happen. We hear those actions first and only after a long, slow pan we see the action that belongs to the sounds we have heard earlier. In this way, Zimmermann creates tension, a form of slow suspense, and he plays with our expectations. In our culture, seeing is believing. Seeing is truth. We cannot trust our ears alone. We must see. The slow circular camera movement puts this want in suspension. We must wait for what we want. We must be patient. This, too, is Walden. An exercise in patience.

There is something else that stands out. Zimmermann’s camera never moves from right to left. The camera’s circular movement is from left to right, which is identical to our way of reading in the Western world. We read from left to right, as opposed to other cultures where people read from right to left. If the director’s circular movement reminds me of circular time in Eastern cultures, then he puts emphasis on Western culture in the way he moves his camera from left to right. In this way, Walden becomes a complex image of culture(s) and the ways in which we’re all connected. Once more, the film’s story about a tree being felled and then transformed into planks which are then shipped across the globe is, to my mind, only a story at the surface. After the film’s almost two-hour running time, once the circular camera movements penetrate deeper and deeper into the rainforest and the film comes full cycle, there is a sense that this wasn’t so much about the tree, but about something much higher, or, rather, something much deeper.

And I cannot end this post without noting the film’s official description: A slow down road movie. I think we have a new slow genre!

The (in)significance of dialogue

While adding a few paragraphs to my chapter on Lav Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), it occurred to me that for some slow films the characteristic of “little dialogue and predominant silence” is not exactly applicable. Lav’s films are all in the Slow Cinema canon, but Encantos does not exactly fit to the category of little dialogue. I noticed that while thinking about the films of Béla Tarr.

In Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012), Diaz uses the juxtaposition of sound and silence as an indicator of trauma. Florentina is repeatedly sold to and raped by men. Her mental capacities are declining. Slowly. Over the course of six hours. Silence plays an important role in the film. Not just absolute silence, as is the case in several scenes. I’m also speaking about the absence of dialogue. Florentina reveals her plight in monologues, but it is – seen over the film’s running time – rare. Besides, it is fragmented due to her suffering from CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain.

In Encantos, trauma is revealed by speech rather than through specific auditory or visual aesthetics. Diaz does use canted angles in many extreme long-shots of the post-apocalyptic scenery in Padang etc, but they’re overall not the main aesthetic he uses to transmit aspects of trauma. Trauma is revealed entirely through dialogue between characters. Just as in Florentina, there is little to no on-screen violence, so it has to come from somewhere else.

Tarr famously said that his films could be understand without dialogue. I still have this line in my head. It’s taken from an interview, which is on the DVD of The Man from London (2007), if I remember right. And it’s true. His films contain dialogue, sometimes very little, but the dialogues do not reveal something that is absolutely essential to comprehending the film. It works with quite a few other films. And then there are slow film directors, who cut the dialogue completely, as is the case with Michelangelo Frammartino’s La Quattro Volte.

The emphasis of slow films is traditionally on contemplation. If you have too much dialogue, which, given the geographical origins of the directors, most likely means a lot of subtitles, it disrupts the slow viewing process. Encantos is one of those films. If you don’t follow all the dialogues in detail, you will miss important parts of the film as everything is revealed by speech. I vaguely remember that there’s a lot in Century of Birthing, too, which is revealed only by dialogue and not through visuals.

Diaz  puts emphasis on the viewer’s listening capacity. And his/her willingness to listen. His films are not contemplative in the usual sense. Stretched over eight hours, dialogue appears to be scarce, true. And yet if we don’t listen to Diaz’s films, we miss most of what he wants us to see. A lovely juxtaposition.

Day 20 – Interview with the Earth (Pereda)

Quite a while ago, I watched Summer of Goliath (2010) by Nicolas Pereda, a hugely interesting slow-film director from Mexico. Pereda is not only interesting because of the aesthetics he employs. He is also living in Canada, if I’m not completely mistaken. This means that he always returns “home” for filming. For me, it’s bound to result in an interesting, but also blurred line between objectivity and subjectivity. This isn’t the only blurred line in his films, though.

Pereda is known for his documentary / fiction hybrids. Interview with the Earth (2008), a short film of only twenty minutes, is in no way different from Pereda’s feature films. In fact, it contains material, he later used in Summer.

Interview with the Earth (2009), Nicolas Pereda

The opening of the film brought up one desire: to watch all of his films in the successive orders they were released. When I saw the elderly woman with a chicken on her lap, and the two boys – Nico and Amalio – I had the instant need to watch all of his films. I believe that Pereda’s films are closely linked to one another. It’s a bit like Tsai Ming-liang’s films. Every film has a specific link to the following work. You can watch them as separate, individual films, but the overall message only comes through if you watch them in their successive order.

For Pereda, I would say, it is similar, though I cannot say for sure as I haven’t seen enough films. It is only a feeling after all. The title of his short, Interview with the Earth, makes perhaps little sense at the beginning. You can probably figure it out at some point. But the embodiment of the title appeared right at the end of the film, when Nico recorded sound on a cemetery with a boom and a mic. He is quite literally conducting an interview with the earth, though not by asking questions. Simply by listening, an important asset to have as a viewer of slow films. 

Compared to SummerInterview is a striking experience because of its sound. Earlier this year, I wrote about the effects of music and dialogue on the perceived speed of films. I used the context of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Mekong Hotel. Pereda made extensive use of music and sounds here. I couldn’t decipher the instruments that were used, but they created a strangely haunting atmosphere throughout the entire film. In the film itself, we learn about the death of David, a boy who fell off a mountain when picking cacti. Nico and Amalio are interviewed about this event, and there’s also talk about sacrificing a chicken, and burying it on the spot David died.

Interview with the Earth (2009), Nicolas Pereda

The haunting music underlines the seemingly omnipresent aspect of death perfectly. There was something that made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Nothing grave, obviously. But what does this music represent? The ghost of David? The haunted or even haunting soul of the dead? In comparison to Mekong Hotel the music in Interview did not increase the perceived speed of the film. I’m not entirely sure why. Apichatpong used simple and slow guitar rhythms, which, on their own, shouldn’t have sped up the film. But they did somehow. It’s a curious thing I’d like to explore in more detail one day.

Anyway, Pereda is one of the discoveries of 2013 I’m really happy with. He’s a great filmmaker, and his films are worth your attention.