Le vrai film est ailleurs – Mark John Ostrowski (2018)

A curious title, a provocative message from director John Mark Ostrowski, whose work I came across for the first time during my work on tao films VoD, where we show his previous film Sixty Spanish Cigarettes. The real film is elsewhere, somewhere else, not here, not now. But where?

A female voice introduces the film. She speaks in broken French, seemingly still learning the language. The voice over, animating the black screen, allows for an almost magical journey. Where will this film go? Speaking in metaphors, the woman uses a poetic language to lure us in. She speaks about love, about the sea, her words inviting us to float with her words, which we use to look for meaning; the meaning of her words, the meaning of the film’s title, the meaning of the woman’s memories. 

Music sets in. The black screen gives way to a close-up shot of water. Waves push and pull a large flag, entangling it in a swirl of different currents that make it no more than a toy. It’s defenceless, vulnerable to the surrounding forces. Ostrowski cuts the sound of the water, deafening us, disorienting us, but also guiding us with dramatic, yet minimalist music. A foreshadowing of something elsewhere, something to come, or something that has already been. The flag – an important metaphor in the first part of the film, a symbol of belonging, of identification.

We get to know Sofia, the woman whose voice has led us into the film, and Javier, an elderly man, who suffers from a bad cough, who looks poor, but whose words radiate with power. Javier is a philosopher. He carries around a flag that he found in his grandparents’ house. He assumes that his grandparents attached great meaning to this flag, so he kept it. But “My flag, my own flag, I don’t know what it is,” he says. Instead he tells Sofia that everything is the same everywhere, yet one always makes one’s own out of what one loves. The almost intimate, very open conversations between Sofia and Javier are special. They add a counterpoint to the film’s long takes, bring substance to them. “We all come from the same womb. I don’t consider myself white, or black, or yellow. I consider myself human,” Javier says.

Ostrowski surprises when he introduces a third character, Pablo, Javier’s son. Sofia has a lightness to herself that contradicts the seeming heaviness of Javier. The Fisherman’s Guild, where they stay, makes him heavy, makes him suffer. “I can’t breathe. It’s a struggle.” He’s slowly dying, slowly wasting away. His own place, that where he is from, causes pain. It wants him to leave. There is a palpable gentleness between Sofia and Javier, an intimate relationship based on mutual (non-sexual) love. The role of the human soul plays an important role here. Ostrowski is showing soul mates, two people who speak the same universal language.

After Pablo’s unexplained disappearance, the film takes a more sombre tone. The lightness, the philosophy – everything has lost its meaning. Instead, Ostrowski’s film turns into a haunting ghost that weighs heavy on the two characters. There is an attempt at continuing, but one can feel, as a viewer, that something has changed. The film isn’t the same. It is mourning Pablo. It is mourning Sofia. It is mourning Javier. At one point, there is hope. Sofia notes that Pablo had been seen playing the guitar in the streets. We will never know. What we witness instead is the cut of the gentle ties between Sofia and Javier, a birthday present for the latter, heartfelt, but also a farewell gift that bares too heavy on the man who struggles breathing in this damp surrounding in the Fisherman’s Guild. Metaphorically, literally.

What remains in the end are traces; traces of an incredible lightness, of thought-provoking conversations, of two characters that have shared a bond. What remains are the traces of a film. Elsewhere. 

Five – Abbas Kiarostami (2003)

The beach. A beach. Somewhere. It doesn’t matter where we are, and Abbas Kiarostami knows this. What matters is his recording of the soothing and calming waves, small but significant in their way across the beach sand. The first take of Kiarostami’s Five, which he dedicated to Ozu, is a meditative exercise. There are slow films, in which genuinely nothing is happening and emphasis is placed on simply breathing with ‘frames of nature’, and then there are slow films in which quite a bit is happening; there is dialogue, there is music, there is a plot that is pushed forwards. The Iranian director has created a film that resembles very much the former, with its five long-takes which show very little and which ask us to become meditative of nature.

The beginning of Five is a record of smooth waves arriving at the beach, seizing a small piece of wood and shifting it from one place to another. Kiarostami keeps the camera at a slightly high angle, which, to me, wasn’t intuitive. Whenever I film the water, I try to do it almost on level. I don’t know why this is more intuitive to me than any other angle. At the same time, Kiarostami put the viewer into the position of…exactly, the viewer. We usually see the water from above, bending down to examine something closely. And this is what we do with that small piece of wood, over and over again, for about 10 to 15 minutes, a wonderful exercise in staying with an image and with the sound. After a couple of minutes, it is perfectly fine (and probably acceptable, too) to close your eyes and imagine the piece of wood being shifted by the water, to imagine the waves; everything begins to happen in your imagination, the actual film image is no longer needed.

This is different in the next long take, which shows us primarily elderly people walking past the camera (which still focuses on the sea in the background) somewhere at the coast. People come and go, most of them alone. The motion that we could observe in the first take is very different here, seemingly more regular, albeit not as smooth. But it also appears slower. I haven’t yet figured out why that is the case. Perhaps it is the sort of visual pauses this take takes in between people entering and leaving the frame. Besides, people simple walk past the camera…there is, in fact, more happening in the meditative scene at the beginning of the film because there are a lot of details to observe. It takes a long time before this chain is broken; four people stop in front of the camera and have a conversation. It’s those small events that make a film such as Five actually eventful and which do jolt us in our seats because these things don’t happen all the time as is the case in other films (which reminds me, I still need to see the films of Benning!).

If I look at those two first scenes retrospectively, I should perhaps say that the long-take in which ducks or small geese walk into and out of the frame, left and right, all the time, plenty of them, is a real explosion of action! It’s an amusing interlude just before Kiarostami plunges us into almost complete darkness. There is water, one can guess, perhaps a lake where frogs sit at the shore and help create a very special night-time atmosphere. There is also a vague reflection of something that, with time, turns out to be the moon – a beautiful take that, to me, brings home the idea of observing nature.

The use of the night with a hint of light reminded me strongly of Italian film artist Enzo Cillo, whose work is often using the night to its advantage and who plays with our expectations. Kiarostami remains with this scene for quite some time. It felt like the longest take in the film and what followed was perhaps the most beautiful recording of the entire film: the director remains at the shore, clouds begin to cover the moon and the screen turns black. We hear thunder and lightnings light up the lake. In split seconds only we see heavy rain drumming on the lake. We hear nature at its most forceful…and all of a sudden, it is quiet again. The clouds disappear and the reflection of the moon on the surface of the lake reappears; what a beautiful sequence! I could have watched this for hours. There are no words for this.

This very take, the end of the film, made me wonder where it would be best to see the film. Is it even a film, or is it video art? I watched it on my TV and I never felt so strongly about stopping the film because it felt wrong to watch it in my living room on a television. Five is an installation piece, not a cinema piece. To me personally, the film does not appeal to the communal, the “together” in us as film viewers. I truly believe that Five is a film that needs to be seen in a sort of dark room, alone, perhaps as a sort of event which allows one to walk (alone) from room to room, from screen to screen. The very last take, in particular, is not a cinematic piece, it is a call for experiencing the viewed, which would perhaps be done best with the help of huge, almost overwhelming screens. That would be my dream condition for viewing the film again, because it’s a wonderful film, simple, but so lovely. A real meditation in which I want to become immersed fully for the duration of just over an hour.

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Tremor – Annik Leroy (2017)

It was in the French national paper Libération that I first came across the work of Annik Leroy. I added a note to myself and thought I really needed to get my hands on her work. Her latest film Tremor – Es ist immer Krieg is my first Leroy film, and I found it magnificent, embalming, haunting. I’m not even sure where to start with this film. It contains so much I’d like to talk about. At the same time, I’d like for the images to linger a bit longer before I try to explain them with words. So we will see where this post will take me and you.

Even though I cannot confirm it for the rest of her filmography as yet, Leroy is known for her meditative films, to which Tremor is not an exception. It starts off with a mind-boggling image that makes one wonder where one is positioned. Where is top, where is bottom? Is the camera tilted, or is it just an illusion? The first image is, I believe a mountain range, perhaps a volcano, but shot with a camera that lays on its side. The sky is to our right and not above us. This disorientation through illusions is one of the main characteristics of Leroy’s film. There are several scenes such as the one I have just described, albeit some of them are much more straight forward.

I love the simplicity of it; a camera on its side, on the ground, recording a lonely tree in a wide field. It’s disorientating, and yet you know what you see. This curious discrepancy keeps one engaged, it keeps one in wonder perhaps, even more so when Leroy turns the camera on its head. We’re on a boat, but the sky is beneath our feet, the water above our head. It’s the opposite of freedom. We have eternity beneath us, but above us…it feels limited somehow. Even though water can have a seemingly endless depth, Leroy’s shot suggests otherwise. It’s more like positioning us like a balloon (as my husband noted) that is stuck at a ceiling, that wants to go further but cannot do so. Leroy keeps us in chains, so to speak, which fits well with the subject of her film.

That said, it’s perhaps not easy to pinpoint a single subject in the film. I believe that Tremor is multilayered, although the focus is history, history of Europe, of art. But it’s also about brutality and violence, about emptiness. Tremor doesn’t contain dialogue, it is a chain of monologues, of book readings in part. Only at the end of the film do we know to whom the voices that accompany us belong.

 

“We all hate the power we endure. It manipulates us and creates false values.”

“Fascism doesn’t start with the first bombs you drop, or with the terror that one can write about in the papers. Fascism starts with the relationship between people.”

It’s quotes like these that give extraordinary weight to Leroy’s frames, long takes of empty places, ruins, rundown areas.The use of black-and-white and the stillness that prevails in many shots add to the power of the film. Especially the first half of the film is void of people, it feels almost apocalyptic, enhanced by quotes from artists and madmen that makes one think. Tremor is a thinking piece; it is not only a film that forces one to think, it is thinking itself. Yes, there are some films that demand a return to Daniel Frampton’s wonderful book Filmosophy, and I feel as though Tremor is one of those. I never had the feeling that there was a director, if anything the director might have just been a guidance to the film’s development but the film progressed in a way that was natural to itself. It took the director on a journey, not necessarily the other way around.

Tremor couldn’t be more topical and I think that the film was released just at the right time, the world being in tatters due to inexplicable decisions on the world stage of politics. The sound design of Leroy’s film is somewhat ominous regarding this and the monologues we hear: sirens of ambulances; helicopters above our head but we just cannot see them. Are these warning signs? Warning signs of what is to come? Warning signs of our madness? I should try to see the film a second time in order to be able to grasp the full power of Leroy’s cinematic creation.

News from Home – Chantal Akerman (1977)

I’m slowly but surely diving more into Chantal Akerman’s filmography. I believe that her work contains a lot that I have been interested in throughout the past years, and it might be worth looking at it in more detail over the coming months and years. News from home, released in 1977, is a sort of follow-up to Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) in that it continues to follow Akerman’s contemplative aesthetics. In some ways, it is a soothing film. The images of New York in the late 1970s are accompanied by a voice over of Akerman herself, reading letters she had received from her mother. The concept is very simple, but effective (affective?).

While we see images, often via a static camera, of cars driving up and down the streets of New York, or people walking the streets, or even people in diners as seen through windows, we hear the written words of Akerman’s mother, always worried, always concerned, always tired. She speaks about her health, needing medication again and again, and the difficulties they have with their shop in Belgium. It appears to be quiet, and Akerman’s mother often evokes that she’s either bored at work because nothing happens, or anxious precisely because of this. It means tighter finances. And yet, she makes a great effort at supporting Chantal in her adventure in becoming a filmmaker in the US. She sends money and clothes, always anxious whether her letters or packages are received.

The voice over is often drowned out by noise in the streets or in the metro. You try to listen, but there is little point. You can catch mere glimpses of what is said, if at all. It is realism that Akerman attempts to pursue here. Cities are noisy, cities are loud, deafening the people who live in it. We become accustomed to it and no longer notice it…until we spend a few hours in the countryside. The approach of letting the spoken word disappear in the noise of city life is very poignant, especially given that the film was made in the late 1970s and it’s so much worse today.

I became very quickly an admirer of Akerman’s shots in the metro stations; beautiful and enigmatic, just like life. What these shots meant to me was much more complex than what the actual images show. These images are images of time, and not just of slowness, but of time the way Chinese, for example, see it. Time not as consisting of only a single pace. Time is complex. Time consists of slowness and speed, of emptiness and fullness, of idling and of doing. At those metro stations people come and go. They wait for the next metro that takes them to another place, that takes them through space. We see them wait, we wait with them, and at some point the metro comes rattling into the station. It’s speed that we perceive. People leave the metro cars, people enter the metro cars. It’s bustling for a few second, and then everything quietens down again. Slowness and speed…the complexity of time portrayed in a single shot.

There is another aspect that I became aware of, and I’m unsure whether this has been written about before. If someone were to ask you what the film was about, what would you respond? We can all describe the film, describe what we see. But what is the film about? Perhaps this isn’t important. At the same time, the indistinct feeling , this not so very clear orientation of where we should go, again speaks for complexity in simplicity.

Did Akerman make a film about New York at the end of the 1970s? One gets a glimpse of life in the city throughout the film’s running time.

Did Akerman make a film about her mother? Maybe. Her written words are the images’ second layer. They give a characterisation of Akerman’s mother, but perhaps also of any mother, worried about a child abroad, in a big city, far away.

Did Akerman make a film about herself? That is possible, too, especially if one considers that she herself is involved (via voice over), reading personal letters she has received and filming the city she now lives in.

Did Akerman make a film about us? Maybe. Everything is possible in this film. Akerman keeps it simple but open. It’s a film that wasn’t finished by herself or the editor. It is finished when it meets its viewer, and when the viewer decides what s/he sees, what s/he wants to read into the images before his/her eyes. Only then News from Home is complete. Only then do we see just how complex simplicity can be.

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.

People’s Park – Libbie D. Cohn & J.P. Sniadecki (2012)

I’m not sure where to start with this film, which, even though very similar to Alexandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, shot in a single long-take, reminded me of so many things except for this particular film. People’s Park and Russian Ark have a lot in common, but there are certain aspects of People’s Park, which actually made me feel uncomfortable while watching it which had never been the case with Russian Ark.

People’s Park  is set in a park in Chengdu, China. Shot in a single long-take of around ninety minutes, the camera travels through the landscape and records people’s activities during their leisure time. This is one thing that sets off the film strongly from Sokurov’s counterpart. The directors Libbie Cohn and JP Sniadecki have set up a seemingly Tarr-esque camera, a camera which has its own life, its own objectives, its own trajectory. It reminded me of Daniel Frampton’s filmind, a concept I have found mind-blowing when I read Frampton’s book Filmosophy and which I still like, especially when it comes to Béla Tarr and his use of an “independent” camera, which appears to follow nothing but its own plan. But, in contrast to the uses of an independent camera by Tarr and Sokurov, Cohn and Sniadecki’s camera feels voyeuristic. While Sokurov’s camera is a playful tool to record a walk through a museum, for example, People’s Park feels like something one is invited to watch but which one shouldn’t watch perhaps.

The extremely smooth camera is on a level of height with that of a child. The people with whom we cross paths, look down on us. The only ones that look straight into our virtual eye are the children we meet. As for the adults, we look up to them from time to time. We cross a lot of people who don’t know why we look at them, why we seem to be interested in their having a tea, in their enjoying themselves on a free day. Some people even look as if they have never seen a camera before. Indeed, why are the directors filming this and why do they force us to watch this? This could be said with other slow films, too. But there is no film I’m aware of in my repertoire which nagged me so strongly with those two questions; for one specific reason.

One thing that immediately came to my mind, after only a couple of minutes, was the ethnographic studies done with the help of film in colonised countries. I couldn’t help but think of those early films colonisers have made in far away worlds to record natives and show those portraits to their (colonising) people at home. The Chinese you see in People’s Park had very similar looks in their faces, if not the exact same look we know from early colonial film. It made me feel very uncomfortable and I wonder what the actual aim of the film was. Of course, the historical context today is different. And yet, and yet… I’d be very interested in seeing an analysis of the relationship between colonial film and People’s Park.

Two more things which came to mind while watching the film. There are definite links to Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (1993), which is a superb film and was a journey through memories for me, having been born into a communist system which then fell apart shortly afterwards. And then there is this eerie feeling, just like in Akerman’s film, that there is a ghost taking us on a journey. For some reason I felt a ghostly presence throughout the film. I think it was the incredibly smooth camera, the floating movements, which had me believe that there is an otherworldly presence.

Maybe this is the reason for the questioning looks on the protagonists?

Los Ausentes – Nicolas Pereda (2014)

Knowing Nicolas Pereda’s early work, I’d be inclined to say that his medium long film Los Ausentes marks a new era in his filmmaking. The trailer already looked haunting and different from Pereda’s usual filmmaking. The colour palette is the same, the actors have the same aura around them. And yet, and yet…

Los Ausentes is, first of all, about an old, fragile man who loses his house near the beach. I assume he has lived there all his life, so loss (absence) is at the heart of Pereda’s film. It’s the very core of it, and Pereda perfects his usual aesthetics in order to transmit this feeling of loss to the viewer. Los Ausentes stands out in Pereda’s work because of its camera work. The director has always favoured long-takes, temps mort, and a very minimalist storytelling. But this film goes a bit further. In fact, it reminded me strongly on the films of Béla Tarr and the fascinating work by cinematographer Fred Kelemen (who himself made films, amongst them Krisana).

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Pereda uses a kind of independent camera, which I have marvelled upon when I saw Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). This is also when I first understood Daniel Frampton’s filmind, film as thinking independently. If you put Los Ausentes and Werckmeister Harmonies next to each other, you can see that they both make use of an independent camera. The camera is not really following the protagonist, unless the character is walking down a road. The camera has its own mind and moves to whatever place or whatever action it would like to record.

I haven’t seen it to such an extent in Pereda’s previous films. I even wonder whether it is an homage to Tarr. The beginning must be at least a very obvious wink, starting with a medium shot of a cow facing us. And then, slowly, very slowly, the camera zooms out and reveals first some kind of structure, which then turns out to be a window frame. The camera zooms further out, very smoothly, totally beautifully, and reveals the old man sitting at a table eating. If faithful Tarr-viewers are not reminded of the famous opening scene in Damnation or the beginning of The Man from London, I don’t know what those people have done with their lives 🙂

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In any case, this independent camera transmits the film’s idea of loss, of the absent, fabulously. It feels as though there was a ghost walking around, looking at things or moving places. At times, we see the protagonists. At others, we don’t. But nevertheless, we can feel an eerie presence. There is someone there with us, but who is it? Los Ausentes is a perfect example of how aesthetics can convey absence. I had come across this very subject in my research on the films of Lav Diaz, but Diaz is doing this in a very different way. This independent camera movement also feeds well into the idea of the fragile, old man losing his sanity. Again, this is a theme that pops up comparatively often in slow films, and it is interesting to see how directors deal with this differently.

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When I saw the old man standing somewhere in the woods, with his skinny back towards me, I wasn’t quite sure whether what I saw was supposed to be real, or whether Pereda wanted me to believe it was a dream. There’s only ambient sound, and because I was in a state of dreaming already because of the superb camera work, I wasn’t so sure anymore what I was seeing or what I was asked to believe. This became even more difficult when the old man’s younger self appeared and it wasn’t clear anymore what happened when and where.

I began to wonder whether the title Los Ausentes applied to more than just the film, because in the end, you do lose yourself in the film. You might be physically present when you watch the film, but where are you mentally? Are you home? In the cinema? In an imagined Mexico? In a dream? In real life? I would say that Los Ausentes is Pereda’s strongest film. As I said before, it looks like his previous films but it feels very different. The combination of narrative and aesthetics is just right, perfect even, and I think that the length of the film – medium length – helps to keep the film focused. It feels like Pereda’s most polished film and I wonder where he will go from here. I hope that we will see more of this!

D’Est – Chantal Akerman (1993)

Chantal Akerman’s D’est is a great example of Slow Cinema, and for those who do not feel prepared to start with eight hours Lav Diaz, then this may be a film for you. The film is engrossing, but minimalist. It is slow, yet full of movement. It is, in some ways, a contradictory piece, as you can imagine. This is precisely what made me think of Béla Tarr when I watched it, but more of that in a little while.

D’est is set somewhere in the former Eastern bloc. Unless you read about the film, you cannot determine where exactly the film is set. At the beginning, I felt transported to my childhood. Born in 1988 in the former GDR, then growing up in the east of the unified Germanys, I can say that the initial images of Akerman’s film represent my memories of how people and towns looked like when I was little. I went to school in 1994 and even then things still looked like they used to under Soviet occupation. It took quite a while before life gradually changed. Akerman’s film is universal for a lot of people in that respect. It is not important where exactly the film is set. The political context is much more interesting and perhaps triggers memories in some viewers, just as it did with me.

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Akerman’s observation of people in the Eastern bloc is often considered as one of her documentaries. I wonder whether this is correct. What are documentaries? What are their aims and how are these aims approached? D’Est perhaps contains elements of this, but I would much rather describe the film as pure observation. Documentaries often come with the aim of teaching attached to it. But is this really the case with Akerman’s film? Does she really want to teach, or does she merely want to observe, to record, to leave it up to the viewer what s/he makes out of it?

I would even go as far as describing it a poetic observational film instead of merely “documentary”. The term doesn’t convey what Akerman is doing and how she is doing it. The poetics, for me, come from her slow, long and moving takes. They are like part of a symphony and reminded me of Béla Tarr’s films, of almost all of them. Most strongly, though, Tarr’s Prologue (2004) comes to mind and I still wonder whether Tarr rendered hommage to Akerman in his short film. His one-take film is no more than the camera moving to the left, slowly, lingering, past a line of people. It’s fascinating and suspenseful. You wait for something to happen, and if it’s only at the end. Now, in Akerman’s film, I didn’t feel the same suspense. Maybe it is the dark atmosphere in Tarr’s films that conjured the suspense. In any case, there is an almost identical shot in her film. And that wasn’t the only one. I have written down Sátántangó during the screening and then wondered who influenced who. Maybe there was no influence at all, and both had similar ideas at the same time. I do believe in those circumstances. But the similarities between Akerman and Tarr are intriguing, made me think a lot. And smile a lot whenever I saw something familiar.

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D’Est has a kind of hypnotic feeling to it. Perhaps it is the long-takes of people at a train (?) station, looking at the camera, looking at us. Why do we look at them? What is it we are after? In Akerman’s film we have to ask ourselves those questions. I don’t think we can simply be observers. We need to engage, we need to pose questions, and respond to questions that the images pose. It is, in effect, a great slow film: it isn’t innocent. We cannot just sit back and look at the images. We have to engage with it.

Slow Cinema, trauma and therapy

I set up this blog in the autumn of 2012, at the start of my doctoral research. It’s funny just how much the original subject has changed in those three years. I planned to write a piece on Slow Cinema in general, but the subject became narrower and narrower and, as attentive readers may know, has then focused entirely on the films of Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma. Throughout those three years, I came across beautiful films with stunning cinematography and interesting stories. What started off as a research project and as a way to formulate ideas, has turned into a platform with reviews, interviews and research ideas. A lot of people have contacted me to ask whether I could take a look at their films. I’m eternally grateful to those people. Because of them, I have seen marginal, yet great films which showed me what cinema is or can be. All I can say is thank you, and please keep the films coming!

In the last year of my PhD research, something else became clear, though. Slow films became a form of trauma therapy for me, and I would like to say a few things about this now. I do not in any way attempt to publish my life story, but I find the link between Slow Cinema and trauma fascinating, and I’m hoping to dig deeper into it, now that the PhD is done.

In spring 2009, a chain of traumatic events triggered an abnormal stress reaction in my brain and I was diagnosed with PTSD in summer 2010. Until that time I had little idea what happened to me. I did know that life was even faster than before. I also knew that things were much louder than before. My senses were constantly overwhelmed, 24/7. My adrenaline level was much to high which caused anxiety and aggression. Panic attacks were the order of the day. Any kind of uncertainty drove me mad. If you think that life is fast those days, imagine it about ten times worse, and you may get an idea of the frenzy my brain was in until about three years ago.

I only noticed towards the end of my doctoral research that parallel to my post-trauma surfacing slowly, I became more and more interested and, at times, even obsessed with Slow Cinema. This was entirely unconscious. By chance, I read an article about Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) and I was so curious that I just had to watch it. I watched it in summer or autumn 2009. I do remember that I watched Sátántangó (1994) that same year, in December 2009, with a 24h blood pressure measuring device because the doctors weren’t sure just why my blood pressure had been that high. A fascinating experience, to say the least!

In any case, over the months I struggled with whatever happened in my brain, I developed a real taste for slow films. Now it makes sense, and I think there are a few different things to it.

First of all, the slow pace of the films allowed me to record what was happening in front of me. I was no longer able to watch Hollywood blockbusters. My brain simply couldn’t record the events on screen. In general, whenever something became too fast, my brain shut down. I assume it’s a safety procedure in order not to get overwhelmed and overstimulated again. So, if I wanted to watch a film it had to be slower than the average. That kind of feeds in with my next point, namely the minimalist mise-en-scène, for instance. With my senses having been persistently overwhelmed, it was a blessing to look at something that was more or less empty. Those now famous, more or less empty long-shots of landscapes were bliss and contributed to a feeling of calm inside me. The fact that slow films tends to tell minimalist stories, i.e. stories the way they happen in real life without overly exaggerating everything and making the viewer believe that it is perfectly plausible to go through all emotions from A to Z in only ninety minutes, was perfect for someone like me. Don’t get me wrong, slow films say a lot. But they say it in a slower and more minimalist way, which allows the viewer to take his/her time to record and understand everything.

Not a lot of dialogue – perfect! I could contemplate the shots and took my time to study small bits which I personally found interesting. It is said that slow films are not exactly a form of escapist cinema for people. And yet, it was for me. It was exactly that: escape from everyday life. A life that was fast, overwhelming, overstimulating, loud, confusing and whatever else unpleasant. It’s funny that people whose life is fast anyway go see escapist fast movies from Hollywood. Yes, story-wise they’re escapist, but in the end, aesthetically they’re not. Slow films are, especially if you suffer from PTSD. They’re the ideal form of escapist cinema.

Now, the link between cinematic slowness and post-trauma may perhaps trigger an eureka effect in you, the kind of “Oh yes, it makes perfect sense!” Indeed, it does make perfect sense. But there is more, and this is my interest in the films of Lav Diaz. I owe him a great deal even though he didn’t actively do something apart from making films. But his films, in particular those I worked on for my doctoral thesis (Melancholia, Death in the Land of Encantos, Florentina Hubaldo CTE), are, to my mind and according to my experience, a correct representation of post-trauma. The issue with popular trauma films is that the focus is on speed, that means the unpredictability of intrusive memories, flashbacks, etc What those films don’t show is the slow part of post-trauma: the depletion of resources in the survivor because of an over-stimulation of the senses, the stagnation and paralysis because you repeatedly return, in your head, to the traumatic event, the inability to follow a linear life narrative, the draining away of your energy.

These elements are the main thrusts in those three films and especially when it comes to Florentina Hubaldo I have to say that Diaz is and remains the first director I have come across who puts PTSD the way I experienced it onto a big screen. Post-trauma is not a special-effect driven blockbuster spectacle. It’s an immensely slow and painful condition. Diaz’s films are by no means easy. Narrative wise they’re immensely hard to sit through. They’re painful, they drain you. They drain you the way post-trauma drains the characters he depicts. At the same time, however, watching them allowed me to understand myself, my condition, my suffering. I understood what was happening inside me and for once I felt understood. In effect, Slow Cinema and the films of Lav Diaz had an strong therapeutic effect on me, and I want to dig deeper into this, write about it, starting with a journal article, then maybe going further. It isn’t new that films can have a therapeutic effect, but it would be new to bring Slow Cinema in.

10 questions for… Jenni Olson

Jenni Olsen (C) Lydia Marcus / www.lydiamarcus.com Photographed July 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, CA at the Directors Guild of America
Jenni Olsen
(C) Lydia Marcus / www.lydiamarcus.com
Photographed July 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, CA at the Directors Guild of America

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a few thoughts on Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road, which is a wonderful piece. I hope you can see it on a big screen some day. Jenni has kindly agreed to answer a couple of questions about her film and her approach to filmmaking. Happy reading, and thanks Jenni!

1) The Royal Road is situated somewhere between an exploration of American history and a personal essay on love. The Royal Road is most likely unknown to the vast majority of your viewers because, as you say in your film, there are only fragments of it left these days. Can you tell us a bit more about it and how you came about making a film about it?

I moved to California from Minnesota in 1992. At some point after I’d been here awhile I started noticing there were these odd bells installed at certain points along the highway. I love finding unusual historical artifacts and researching their histories so that was the beginning of my interest in El Camino Real. I learned that they had been placed their in the early 1900s as a way of memorializing the original trail (but also as a way if encouraging tourists to drive up and down the state — remember this was around the time that automobiles were becoming more popular: You have a car, now here’s where you should go.) Using the road as the central organizing point for the film seemed like a great way to be able to talk about the more serious and generally lesser-known history of California (the decimation of the indigenous population by the Spanish colonizers and the conquest of Mexico by the US in the Mexican American War) while also using the road as a plot device to tell a story of a character going to visit her love interest from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

2) What brought you to filmmaking and what does filmmaking mean to you? What role does it play in your life?

I have a deep and abiding love of cinema that began all the way back in my childhood. I loved watching classic Hollywood movies as a kid and I was a Film Studies major in college — where I also read Vito Russo’s pioneering book, The Celluloid Closet and then created the first gay and lesbian film series on campus (at the University of Minnesota in 1986) and started writing reviews of gay films for the local gay newspaper. I then became the festival co-director at Frameline: The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival in 1992. It wasn’t until that point that I decided to actually make films myself, and even then they were always very modest productions. 

It’s only recently that I have realized that my style of urban landscape filmmaking is really just a natural outcome of the way I look at the world. I tend to envision the world around me as a series of compositions. I notice the qualities of the light, the textures and surfaces of buildings, the distance and depth of what is in front of me. And I feel compelled to try to capture this on film. 

3) You said you felt compelled to try to capture qualities of light etc on film. Do you think you have succeeded doing this, or are you still looking for the perfect composition?

I am extremely happy with the majority of the footage I’ve shot over the years. I have about five hours of footage total that I was working from to create the film. In this reservoir of images there are still tons of great shots I wasn’t able to fit into this film which will hopefully be in my next project. And I hope I will be able to continue shooting at some point in the future (I can’t afford to these days) and be able to make another film.

4) The film feels very personal. It feels as though, between the lines of history, we can read your film as a kind of autobiography. How autobiographical is the film?

My voiceover is very much drawn from my personal experience but the film is not at all a straightforward autobiographical story. There are many things that are completely fictional in the stories about the women in particular. The woman in Los Angeles is named Juliet mainly because I liked it as an evocative name. She is very much a fictional character (sometimes a mash up of real women, other times totally made up). Since my wife’s name is Julie I have had a few questions from people wondering whether they are the same person. There really is no connection. As W Somerset Maugham once said of his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage: “This is a novel, not an autobiography; though much in it is autobiographical, more is pure invention.”

As a writer I like to use some kind of topic or thing as an area of exploration which helps provide a structure to my storytelling. I tend towards a very discursive style involving a lot of tangents and associations and allusions to other texts so it helps to have something in the center that I can circle around and bounce off of. Virginia Woolf once said something similar about To The Lighthouse and it has always stayed with me. She said that having the lighthouse as an organizing principle was the thing that enabled her to explore all these other emotions and topics. So I very much think of El Camino Real as a similar central device that organizes the film as a whole.

5) I get the impression that you’re very much drawn to literature. Having seen your film, I’m not surprised about that. Is your film perhaps a “visual novel” rather than the photo album I mentioned in my review?

I like the idea of it as a visual novel but maybe creative non-fiction would be more accurate in terms of literary terms. I have a few different terms I’ve used to describe it: as an essay film, as a hybrid film, an experimental film. It has played in many documentary festivals simply as a documentary but it is of course more complicated than that.

6) You make extensive use of long-takes in the film. I had the feeling of sitting next to you while looking at photos you are telling me stories about. What’s the reason for those long-takes? Are they an aesthetic you generally use in your films?

I have always felt drawn to urban landscape filmmaking as a mode of storytelling. The viewer is put into a certain unique state of receptiveness and is made susceptible to feeling their own emotions — the static, open space provides a calming, comforting reassurance that allows the viewer to relax and take in the voiceover. Ideally the images I like to capture are visually interesting in their compositions and content, and yet they are also somewhat mundane — they have to be not TOO visually interesting or else the viewer will be distracted by them. 

The length of the takes is also crucial to creating a spaciousness for the viewer. I always like to establish the grammar of the film in the first few shots so you know to expect these very long takes and can begin by experiencing the joy of just looking at the landscape, relaxing into it and starting to notice the small details of each shot which emerge as hugely dynamic given the minimalist palette of the film — so when a bird flies across the shot, or the light gets brighter or a puff of fog blows past it can actually take your breath away.

I also especially love to have urban landscapes that seem somewhat timeless, as though they might have looked like this fifty years ago. So I crop out as much as possible things that look more contemporary and modern (like newer street signs, billboards and such). 

7) Your voiceover is guiding the viewer through history, if you want, all the while seeing modern, but as you said timeless, urban landscapes. How, do you think, can your long-takes help the viewer reach a state of contemplation despite your voiceover providing a persistent auditory background of interesting information?

I think this meditative state is not the same as actual sitting meditation where one is focusing on the breath per se. But it is in the realm of a meditative state in that one emerges in a more mindful and present state, attuned to the physical environment and seeing the world around us in more vivid attentive ways.

8) The film was shot in 16mm, which, unfortunately, isn’t all that common anymore. Why do you still work with 16mm film?

I have a great affection for the look of 16mm film — the quality of the grain, the saturation of the colors and also the 4:3 aspect ratio since I shoot in regular 16mm, not Super 16. I have an underlying agenda in my filmmaking that is about the joys of being present in the moment, in the landscapes in which we live. In The Royal Road I talk about our exceptionally digital age and the importance of “staying connected to the physical, analog world in which we live.” And so there is something very organic about using actual film to create my films.  

9) Do you develop the films yourself? I’m reminded of Ben Rivers who develops his films in his kitchen sink.

No, I’ve always depended on the kindness of skilled and talented strangers to process the film (at Fotokem in Los Angeles). I’m dependent on many people to create my films and I’m especially grateful to my good friends Sophie Constantinou (my primary cinematographer) and Dawn Logsdon (my editor) for enabling me to fulfill my creative vision.  

10) The 16mm film seems to disappear slowly. Are you worried that you will eventually lose your medium? 

Yes, when I talk about making my next film I do worry that I may not be able to pull it off simply because of the level of effort involved. And yet in some ways then it becomes even more compelling to me to continue to use this medium the more arcane it becomes. It really does feel organic to what I’m trying to achieve in my work — qualities of emotional resonance that actually arise from the medium itself (the grain of the image, the quality of light, etc.) The genuine qualities of feeling these generate in the viewer can’t be achieved through the digital medium even by using digital effects that try to recreate the qualities of film. 

Personal note by Jenni Olson: 

I have to just conclude by saying that I have felt so impacted by the suicide of Chantal Akerman earlier this week and would like to take the opportunity to convey a brief appreciation of her as her work has had an enormous influence on me as a filmmaker over the years. I woke up to the news of her passing on October 6th (my 53rd birthday). As a pioneering filmmaker, Akerman is frequently celebrated for her portrayals of women characters and for elevating women’s stories and offering a unique female perspective in her films. All of which is the case. First and foremost though, she was a filmmaker with a singular vision whose distinctive approach to the possibilities of the medium encompassed a painstaking awareness of the smallest cinematic elements and their potential impact not just on conventional aspects of storytelling but on the emotional, psychological and physiological experience of the audience (of course I identify with this in my own filmmaking and feel deeply indebted to her as an influence). It is this consummate craftsmanship that produced such masterpieces as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It is this craftsmanship that created so many stunning works of art that will change the way you see the world, and that will never leave you — even though their creator has. May her memory be for a blessing. 

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