Uzak – Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2002)

One of the three films I recently bought with the support of my patrons is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak, a film from 2002 and, even though not his first film, possibly the first well-known film of the Turkish director from Istanbul. It’s my third film by the director. After I had seen his latest film Winter Sleep, I really wanted to see more. I was curious to see the director’s development over almost two decades of filmmaking. Uzak was the beginning of my starting to watch Ceylan’s films chronologically. Let’s see what I will find!

The story of Uzak is quickly told: Yusuf, a rather uneducated factory worker, travels to Istanbul to stay with his cousin Mahmut while looking for a job as a sailor. Things are not going to plan, however, and Yusuf prefers following a woman around the city rather than look for a job. He lacks motivation but so does Mahmut. The two couldn’t be more different, more distant. I return to the meaning of distance further below, because it is multi-layered and speaks volumes.

As is the case in Winter Sleep, Ceylan’s 2014 film about the divide between rich and poor, and an investigation of power, Ceylan’s outdoor shots in Uzak are gorgeous. In Uzak, the director plays with different lenses, similar to Alexandr Sokurov (Mother and SonFaust). Ceylan doesn’t go as far as using mirrors, however. Rather, he uses painted lenses (or maybe even broken lenses?). In one scene, the top half of the frame is tainted in a very slight brownish colour, something that visualises the weight felt by Mahmut and Yusuf. It’s also a weight that comes from nature; the heavy, endless snow weighs down on the trees. The film feel claustrophobic throughout the 100 odd minutes with the exception of an outdoor scene in Anatolia. There doesn’t seem to be breathing space, neither for us nor the characters. Ceylan’s experimentation with lenses work well here because they reinforce this idea of claustrophobia, of weight, of heaviness, precisely because Ceylan positions the extra layer of light brown at the top of the frame.

In my head, I returned time and again to Winter Sleep, noticing the similarities Ceylan has kept up over the years. The use of snow is only one of many things. Ceylan uses it effectively to create an atmosphere of both peace and beauty, and of subtle, but boiling tension between his characters. Yusuf and Mahmut are different in everything they do…and stand for. Yusuf is a rather uneducated character, poor, aimless, without much motivation. Mahmut has worked his way up to become a renowned photographer in Istanbul. He has climbed the social ladder but now he no more than pretends to belong there. For him, “photography is dead.” He attempts to behave according to his position in society, but does so without motivation or aim. He simply aims not to lose face. It is for this reason that one evening he puts on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s supposed to be for intellectuals, so he pretends to be interested but switches to a porn VHS as soon as Yusuf has gone to bed. In the end, the two characters are not as different as they might look like at the beginning of the film. In their heart, they are the same. They are only different because Mahmut plays a role that doesn’t seem to suit him. It is like a heavy coat that he cannot take off.

Ceylan contrasts rich and poor, educated an uneducated. But the quest for love remains the same for both characters. Both Yusuf and Mahmut long for love, the latter presumably still in love with his ex-wife who leaves for Canada with her new husband. The former sees a young woman in the streets when he arrives at Mahmut’s place, but whenever he is close to her or wants to approach her, something or someone comes between them. Unfulfilled love – a current that is running under the main storyline and unites the characters that seem so different. It is also here that the theme of “distant” and “distance” comes into effect. Ceylan creates several distances in his film. There is the distance between the two male characters and women. There is something they’re outside of. They cannot get into this world of love, of emotional bonds. It’s something that happens around them, as we see in one scene in which Mahmut sits in a restaurant by himself, having had dinner. A couple arrives. He knows her, she keeps awkwardly looking over to his table without trying to raise the suspicion of her partner. Mahmut leaves, avoiding the situation, putting a distance between it and the situation. Happiness with a woman – that happens elsewhere.

There is a distance between Ceylan’s two protagonists, as I have mentioned. There is also the distance between social classes that often cannot be overcome. Mahmut has alienated, distanced himself from photography, arguing time and again that photography is dead. Ceylan creates several forms of distance, all of which (apart from Yusuf having left his home) are an expression of his characters alienating themselves from their outside world. They close up, they detach themselves from what is happening around them, while at the same time longing for being a part of something, for joining. Uzak is essentially a film about growing isolation and solitude; it is about an often self-inflicted distance the reasons of which aren’t explained in the film. Indeed, this is one of the trademarks of Ceylan’s films: things are the way they are. The director doesn’t try to explain them, he simply shows them.

I’m not sure whether I can agree to the general opinion that Uzak is Ceylan’s best film. It is a good film, beautifully shot, and intelligent. But I would not (yet) go as far as declaring it his best work. I need to see the rest of his films first before I can judge this properly. I loved Winter Sleep but haven’t so far been able to put it into the context of the director’s full filmography. We will see!!

Remains – Yotam Ben-David (2016)

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

What remains if a relationship, if love, has hit a dead end? We have all been at this point, asking ourselves whether we’re still moving forwards together, as a couple, or if we have long reached a stage when it is almost impossible to return to the good old days.

With patience and an eye for detail (in a couple’s routine life), Yotam Ben-David from Israel explores this painful stage, often ignored out of fear to face the reality and the frightening possibility of being alone again. Itamar and Thomas, the protagonists of Remains, couldn’t be more different from one another. Whether it was a coincidence or not, the respective size/height of each character says a lot about how they are positioned in their relationship. Thomas is a tall, almost overpowering man. He is forceful and patronising. Ben-David doesn’t show this with the help of low angles, which would establish Thomas’ overpowering nature clearly on a visual level. Instead, the director asks us to read the character through his actions. This might take longer, but it is a way to get the viewer engaged without feeding them with a golden spoon.

Remains (dir Yotam Ben-David)

Itamar, played by the director himself, is the complete opposite. It seems as if he is with his back against the wall, not having enough breathing space, being unable to move, to live. Regardless of what he does, it is wrong. The relationship is no longer an intimate community of love, but a sort of boxing ring where battles take place on a daily basis. Night appears to be the only relief for both sides, until another day, another battle, begins.

Ben-David uses beautiful night shots in order to underline the idea of a period of peace. But you can’t ignore the fact that the director’s characters are shown primarily alone in those night shots, suggesting that peace can only exist if the two partners are embalmed by solitude. It is uncomfortable to watch the two men positioning themselves in strong opposition to one another. There is persistent tension between the two, which acts as a thread which leads us through the film’s narrative.

All of this is, of course, the mere surface of the film. I had watched the film twice or three times, before I realised that the film has a deeper meaning. There was something that went beyond the depiction of a relationship that has hit a dead end. In fact, Ben-David said in an interview with tao films:

All of my films have roots in my own reality and my own experience, but at the same time I try to distil and highlight certain elements from this experience in order to examine them closely through my films. In this case I was very interested in this type of role play between dominant and submissive, which is something I believe we all live to a certain degree (even if not in the same volume as in the film). I was specifically interested in the different shades and nuances between those two poles, finding power in passivity and weakness in control. I was also interested in the idea that power is both attracting and destructive.

Remains (dir Yotam Ben-David)

Remains uses its characters in order to explore the concept of power. This goes beyond the on-screen relationship between two men. Quite interestingly, it has a political edge to it. The idea of an attractive personality which you follow and engage with only to find out that once you’re in this relationship (any type of relationship, it doesn’t have to be a loving relationship) you are oppressed to a point where you are aware of what’s happening without being able to stop – this rings so true in current politics where the right is on the rise around the world. Or when even left politicians turn out to use their power to, quite literally, overpower.

This political aspect of Ben-David’s Remains might not be very obvious. The young director is very clever in hiding the obvious, asking us to search for something that is just as important as the surface that plays out on screen. The short is a subtle investigation into human relationships and the power that plays out between them. Could we go as far as saying that the power Ben-David depicts mirrors societies, too, confronting one another because of their differences? Watch the film on our platform and see for yourself.

For a Son – Suranga Katugampala (2016)

Suranga Katumgampala is a director I have followed with great pleasure for two or three years. The first film of his I saw was Son of the lovely capitalism (2015), a stunning portrait of alienation in a world of expanding capitalism. For a Son is his first feature film, and it is a strong one. Suranga follows his intention to look into the aspects of migration, and how it can cause conflicts between generations. But not only that. Migration can also be the root of alienation and anger in individuals. Himself a director from Sri Lanka living in Italy, he’s an artist following those who share the same fate. With For A Son, Suranga makes this more obvious than in his previous films.

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For a Son focuses on a Sri Lankan mother and her son who grew up in Italy. She is a caretaker of an elderly, very fragile woman, who repeatedly complains about her son who never visits her, or, if he does, only ever comes when she is not around. It takes a while before Suranga reveals just how much these two seemingly very different women have in common. To me personally, their relationship is based on a mutual affection for but disappointment of their respective sons, for whom they have done or still are doing everything but whose love doesn’t seem to be reciprocated. But then, this would be too easy an interpretation.

In fact, For a Son is a complex film, if you watch it with open eyes. For me, it was a difficult film. There were several instances when I wanted to switch off. This is a compliment, rather than a sign of frustration. Suranga really touched me. His depiction of an angry son who always turns against his mother, who actively rejects her, is painful to see, is painful to endure. You cannot help but feel sorry for the mother who works hard to make a life in Italy possible. The second part of Suranga’s film moves towards revealing the deep-seated problems in the son, but never actually resolves the conflict between mother and son, the latter thoroughly suffering from not having been able to enjoy a close mother-son relationship while growing up for very different reasons, one of them being his mother’s commitment as caretaker in order to earn a living.

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For a Son is more than about a son, however. It is more than about the relationship between a mother and her teenage son. It is about a conflict between generation, which deepens with migration. In a way, I know this from experience, although this wasn’t even migration as such. But I did grow up in a united Germany, having been born in 1988. It was an entirely different world from that my parents lived and raised their other children in. This was bound to bring conflicts, and it did. We were one family, but we lived in two different worlds which constantly collided. It’s not only about politics but also about culture. Suranga includes this very topical subject in his film. In a phase of pure anger, the son even accuses his mother of not even being able to speak proper Italian. He himself, so it seems, feels more Italian than Sri Lankan, which is often the case with second generation immigrants. It is one thing to move abroad. Bridging between cultures is an entirely different thing which, in many cases, causes ruptures within families.

And here you can sense that Suranga, while focusing on a Sri Lankan mother and her son, tells a universal story. It is specific, and yet broad, and therefore allows viewers from different backgrounds to see themselves mirrored in this film. But the film is also, to me at least, a  piece of work which allows us, in parts, to understand the anger of second-generation immigrants, who are torn between their actual, geographical home and that of their parents, who are usually keen on keeping their local traditions and languages alive. It is, in a way, a schizophrenic life, which Suranga depicts in For a Son. He shows conflicts on several different layers, which makes his film rich in meaning. For a Son is by far not as experimental and playful as Son of the lovely capitalism, but it is a deeply honest piece with attention to detail. I’m looking forward to more!

Centaur – Aleksandra Niemczyk (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Silence in Dreamland – Tito Molina (2013)

I know exactly where to put Ecuador on the map. Unfortunately, I do not know where to put Ecuador on the map of world cinema. It’s one of those countries that is shamelessly underreported. There is quite a lot of material about South/Latin American cinema. Yet, Ecuador plays only a marginal role and I wonder why that is.

Tito Molina has put Ecuador on the map of world cinema. With Silence in Dreamland (2013) he has created a stunning portrayal of – surprise! – silence and dreams, but also of ageing, loneliness, and love. The narrative can be quickly summarised: an elderly woman, lonely after the death of her husband, goes about her daily chores. The routine is broken when Cokie, a truly lovable dog appears in front of her window and both strike up a very special relationship. This summary is a good example for why I never read summaries. Indeed, many films have kind of the same thrust and summaries therefore make them boring. But it is the cinematic treatment that is interesting, and it is the same here with Molina’s work.

Silence is a superb slow film that has a meditative, observational rhythm, though partly disrupted by quick cuts so as to indicate brief dream interludes that come in a flash. Molina’s attention to detail, such as his close-up of the woman’s neck to focus on her pulse and her breathing, helps to create an intimate portray of her. I felt as though she was more than a simple subject of a film. There was a bond between filmmaker and character, even between viewer and character, which grew throughout the film. Another detail, which I loved was the persistent electricity cut. Sometimes you didn’t notice it until you looked at the oven behind her, which suddenly ceased to display the time. It’s subtle, but it’s also a reminder that the background of a film is just as significant as everything that happens in the foreground.

Molina introduces aesthetics to Slow Cinema that are unusual. I’m speaking of dissolves, a lot of music in the background, superimpositions. If I had read about these techniques in his film beforehand without having seen the trailer of Silence, I would have been hesitant. Yet, Molina uses these techniques and incorporates them superbly and lovingly into the genre, or movement, or simply this form of cinema. This combination of techniques greatly enriches the viewing experience. A while ago, I wrote about the effects of music and dialogue on our perception of slowness and came to the conclusion that both speed up the film. For some reason, I didn’t have the same impression this time. Either I have changed my point-of-view regarding the issue entirely, or maybe Molina makes better use of music and dialogue than Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Mekong Hotel. It is a mystery. In any case, there is quite a lot of music in Silence, which is a rather interesting contradiction. The music, however, is slow. Very traditional, kind of melancholic so that it works well with the subject matter of the film.

Silence awakened my interest in photography again. I know I say this with a lot of films. But despite this, it is actually not as easy to impress me visually as it sounds. Molina has a superb eye for composition, though, and I wonder what his background is. It doesn’t look painterly, but oh my, some of his shots are worth taking a snapshot of, have them printed and framed. Especially the shots at the sea are magnificent. Shot from above, we see the woman and Cokie walking along the beach, for instance. They both mere dots because of the sheer height of the camera. Molina’s capturing of the sea is truly beautiful and adds a hypnotic rhythm to the film, apart from its making you fall in love with his photographic eye.

In all, I wasn’t all too surprised to see such a fantastic film after the trailer perfectly convinced me that this would be a superb work. Molina is certainly an upcoming and very talented director, who is worth following in the future.

My thanks goes to Tito Molina, who has kindly provided me with a copy of his film. An interview with the director will follow on this website.