Le passeur de temps – Sylviane Agacinski (2000)

More often than not, book flea markets are the best way to find gems that you might not find in book shops (anymore). Very old books from the 19th century, old film magazines, discontinued books – a whole range of literature that can genuinely enrich your reading, your thinking, your research. It was on a flea market last week that I picked up Sylviane Agacinski’s Le Passeur de Temps – Modernité et Nostalgie, quite a feast for the brain if you’re interested in the subject of time and modernity.

But let me begin with the actual beginning of the book, in which she describes a photograph, which shows a group of students somewhere between 1890 and 1900. All students are male. They look proud, sure of themselves. But there is, in the background and centred, a nude woman. She appears to be just the same: proud, sure of herself, confident. Only one man looks at her. The others look straight at the camera. Agacinski suggests that the nude woman stands in for modernity, appearing at the horizon and few people notice it coming. An interesting take, which, I’m absolutely certain, wasn’t the intention of the photographer. At the same time, we are at the end of the 19th century. Photography itself is part of modernity. The photograph itself is modern, the nude woman becomes a reinforcement of “the new” taking over.

Le Passeur de Temps is a threshold experience, just like this photograph. Written in the late 1990s and published in the year 2000, Agacinski’s book evaluates what has been and what is. It is not a book on the history of modernity and time. It is a philosophical book that poses crucial questions. I would even think that the faster we move forwards, the more essential those questions become. Agacinski’s passeur is taken and adapted from Walter Benjamin’s flaneur, the passeur being what characterises us, and our time, most: everything, including us, is merely passing through or by. With modernity’s aim of constant progress (forward movement), we have to keep going. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Augenblick, verweile doch. Du bist so schön” takes on an important meaning here. The desire for a moment to last, to become eternal, is perhaps stronger than ever before, but it is also less likely than ever before that we allow for a moment to last.

Agacinski reminds us in her chapter L’Heure Occidentale that it used to be religion and politics which created a temporal order in our lives. If history had a religious or political nature to it, so did time. This has changed drastically, however. Globalisation, Agacinski argues, meant nothing other than a homogenisation of rhythms around the world. All rhythms are now Western rhythms, and it is this Western rhythm that makes people believe that time needs to be productive and profitable. Using the work of Claude Levi-Strauss as a basis, Agacinski notes that we could essentially divide the world into two forms of civilisation: those “made to change”, those whose people believe in the possibility of infinite power and knowledge; and those “made to last”, those whose people live in an equilibrium with nature. It’s as though the fate of our modern civilisation is foretold…

This distinction is, in a very crude way, a difference between fast and slow. We have Western society persistently moving forward, and those societies which are meant to last. I like Agacinski’s description here. Societies meant to last…lasting, enduring, duration. Civilisations that live in harmony with nature, that follow natural rhythms. Western societies, on the other hand, live through an eternal passageway, albeit it’s not the mechanical clock, which dictates this movement towards an unknown goal. It is, Agacinski suggests, the stock exchange which waiting for its profits that govern our lives.

Notre monde, surpeuplé d’images, nous fait cohabiter avec des foules de fantômes et douter de l’homogénéité de notre temps. 

When the book was released, 18 years ago (sometimes I really do feel old!), the over-saturation of images was at its beginning. What we see now is something that perhaps no one could have imagined 18 years ago. But the sheer flood of images forces us to live with phantoms. What does that mean for our lives, for our societies?

Essentially, modern consciousness is a “passing consciousness”. It never rests, it never stays. Modern consciousness is aware that our lives are nothing other than a passing element. We come and we go. Agacinski notes that before the age of modernity, at a time when in particular religion still governed our lives, man had a goal. There was this idea of working towards an ideal. Everything one does, everything one creates, one lives through – everything is part of our progressing towards a higher ideal. This ideal was our goal, the reason why we were alive in the first place. This ideal is gone. What remains? There is a thought-provoking argument in the book, which still keeps me thinking.

Selon une longue tradition en effet – avec laquelle il est difficile de rompre – le passager a été conçu comme la négation de l’éternel, donc de l’être. Ce qui ne pouvait durer, rester absolument, ne pouvait pas être.

The idea of passing through”, as we do nowadays, negates eternity. It was our ancient dream to become, or at least to create something eternal. There is this Trauma Management Therapy, which I mentioned in my PhD. We know that we will all die eventually. It causes anxiety, which we tackle by working on something that might make us eternal in one way or another. Yet, modernity, which shows us every day that everything we do is what is called “vergänglich” in German, means that we have no means to tackle this anxiety anymore. Living becomes mourning our death in advance. But the most intriguing point is: if only the eternal, those things that last, are considered to be in the actual sense of the term, then how can modern man still be?

Passionate attachment to life and to youth, Agacinski argues, are only a symptom of the diminishing of the eternal. We try to hand over something to the next generation, something of us, which would make us live longer than our body ever would. Yet, we cannot stop the continuous forward movement towards our non-existence. A taster of mourning, as Agacinski describes it.

Let’s leave this heavyweight argument behind for now, though, and speak about her argument that our concepts and experience of time and space are acquired and not innate. We learn it depending on where we are born, where we grow up, in what kind of society we live. It is based on common human conventions. I would quite like to bring Slow Cinema at this point, because it is/can be a means to acquire a different concept and experience of time and space. If our experience of time is acquired, we can also unlearn our previous ideas and learn something new. Slow Cinema, with its concept of time very different from that of modernity, can be a tool to facilitate this movement. The present, Agacinski argues, is the opportunity for an event or a moment to last. It’s not like the past which is “a world outside of me, without me”, something that we’re merely looking at from the outside. Instead, we’re in a lasting moment. A moment that stretches.

Are slow films a form of the present tense, even if they tell stories of the past? It is an interesting question to which I have no answer. Cinema is a threshold experience, a modern invention which makes us looking at the world passing by in front of us in a much more extreme way than real life ever could. Cinema, by nature, is a passing experience. In this way, it couldn’t be more modern, more emblematic of us as the passeur. And yet, where can we situate Slow Cinema that, through lasting images, invites us to see our lives passing by? A form of film that, more so than popular film, asks us to “lose our time”, to “waste our time” but that, at the same time, invites us to be, to last? Is Slow Cinema a way to slow down the diminishing of the eternal, our attempt at stopping the inevitable progress towards annihilation? 

Elsewhere – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2000)

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

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

Part 1 – January to June 2000

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

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

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

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

Part 2 – July to December 2000

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passions of the will to boredom

I have taken today’s post title from Julian Jason Haladyn’s wonderful book Boredom and Art: Passions of the Will To Boredom (2015), which I have read with pleasure. Haladyn is, effectively, speaking about more than just boredom and art. To me, there is a lot about the politics of modernity in it, and several of Haladyn’s ideas and thoughts are an answer to the question of why people walk out of the cinema when they see a slow film.

What I found most striking, though actually most obvious (so obvious that we may never think of it these days) is the way modernity has changed our attitude. Haladyn uses the train journey, now a famous example, to illustrate this. He proposes that modernity, in the form of a train journey, has lead to people placing emphasis on expectations rather than on presence. If you think about it, during a train journey, or any journey for that matter nowadays, whether it’s by train, by car or by plane, you are expecting your arrival at the destination. This is what your mind is focused on (if it can focus at all during a time of transit). Expectation overshadows presence. Because you’re in transit, you can no longer appreciate being in there here and now because time and space is persistently shifting. If there’s one major thing that has changed for us through modernity, then it is the fact that we have lost the ability, perhaps the opportunities even, to be present.

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This is one section of life, where slow, contemplative films are intervening. Even though Haladyn does mention the films of Andy Warhol and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, he makes too little a case for cinema in general. However, there is a major case to be made about the nature of Slow Cinema as a tool for allowing us to return to the pre-modern feeling of being present at and with something. The long-takes, the wide shots of nature, the focus on character development, or even the running time, which is at times excessive (you know whom I’m talking about!) – all of those give us, the viewer, the opportunity to let go and just be. I argued in an earlier post that, to me, slow films are the real escapist cinema because they allow me to get away from the hectic modern life that is too fast, too noisy, too stressful. This is precisely where my two thoughts merge. It is escapist precisely because it allows me to be present, to be in the here and now, to breathe with the film, which nothing in modern life (apart from a Buddhist retreat and meditation, and perhaps yoga) can give me.

For some reason, a parallel between slow films and Duchamp’s readymades shaped up in my head while reading Haladyn’s book. Duchamp’s works were outrageous at the time, and perhaps they still are. Remember his famous toilet? There’s nothing arty about it. In effect, he has taken it and made a piece of art out of it. He showed us the ordinary in life, which we no longer notice. Perhaps this wasn’t his real intention, but I read it this way. The readymades are ordinary elements. They’re already there, nothing needs to be done, apart from putting them into a spotlight. Duchamp’s strategy, I find, is very similar to what slow film directors to, too. I’m aware that films are, more often than not, constructed pieces. There is an involvement of the artist evident, especially in highly experimental films. Yet, what slow films show is the mundane, the everyday, the life we all live without actually noticing it. What these films show are readymades. That also goes for the characters who are often no more than themselves – non-professional “actors” who play themselves, who do what they usually do, only in front of a camera.

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Haladyn cites Frances Colpitt, who made a very good point about Warhol’s films, but it is a point that can be equally applied to slow films. She writes, “Boredom necessarily describes the spectator’s state of mind rather than any characteristic of the object. The root of the problem is in the unpreparedness of the audience, most of whom were not familiar with the theoretical concerns of this highly conceptual art.” Colpitt is correct in arguing that boredom is a state of mind of the viewer and the artwork in itself is not boring. Haladyn proposes two approaches to a “boring” piece of art. He describes them as yes boredom and no boredom. The latter is a refusal of letting yourself float with the artwork, a refusal of trying to find or make meaning. Following Haladyn’s description of no boredom, it is to me a refusal of engaging with a work of art, or a film for that matter. Yes boredom, on the other hand, means that the viewer engages with an object. If there’s no obvious meaning, then the viewer is ready to create something, or at least s/he tries to. This is very much what the annual Slow Art Day is doing, or allowing you to do.

What is happening with slow films, and their rejection of it, is, in effect, no more than an expression of no boredom on the side of the viewer. It is an inability to be, to breathe, to be present. Those who walk out have no intention to do a bit of work. They have no intention to create meaning. They have no intention to engage with what is in front of them. Engagement with a work of art does not necessarily mean that you like it. Of course, you can dislike slow films. Yet, those films need to be engaged with in full first, and the reason for dislike cannot be “it’s boring”, because then you haven’t tried to engage with it. Two UK film critics walked out of the Lav Diaz Berlinale screening after two and three hours respectively (which is fatal, because Diaz’s long films only begin to get really interesting after three hours). Diaz takes it with humour, of course. At the same time, he said that people needed to sit through the full length of his films before they should express their opinion. Only then have they really tried to engage with the film. This is not only true for Diaz’s films, but for any slow film. Yes boredom!

Interview with Michela Occhipinti

In 2010, filmmaker Michela Occhipinti made the brilliant and yet subtle slow film Letters from the Desert – Eulogy to Slowness. I have reviewed the film in an earlier post. I have contacted her to conduct a mini interview with her about her film and her filmmaking. A big thanks goes out to Michela for this, and good luck with your new film!

1) Where did the idea for Letters from the Desert come from?

“The idea of the film came while I was trying to understand how to tell a paradox of our society that deeply touched me. The intent though was to tell it through an equal but opposite symmetry, with a different culture. After having read a short article on a postman in the Thar Desert and on his long peregrinations it was clear to me that that was my story, I just had to bring it into focus.”

2) You are a filmmaker from Italy and gave your film the interesting tagline “Eulogy to Slowness”. Have you been inspired by the Italian Slow Movement, or is this a mere coincidence?

“It has nothing to do with it. I just wanted to celebrate slowness vs velocity. Because in fact in our society the latter is considered the positive between the 2, while for me it is exactly the opposite. We tend to easily classify dichotomies like light/dark, light/heavy, fast/slow, tending to confer the positive pole to the former and the negative one to the latter. There are so many nuances in between though…”

3) Is your film a personal comment on the speed in current society?

“Absolutely. It tells in an antithesis what I perceive as being a far too fast society.
It is a reflection on progress. It is my personal view on the concept of time and space. Of time in space and space in time.

Of the fragility of beauty. A small melancholy. A sort of freeze-frame of a world that is dying out. The photography of a moment of transition. The frame of the precise moment in which a foreign body arrives bringing transformation.”

4) The film is relatively slow. It contains a lot of long takes, and wide shots are a dominant element. Was the use of long takes a deliberate choice from the beginning, or has it come naturally to you once you were in India and became more involved with the subjects of your film?

“It was a deliberate choice from the beginning because I thought it was the only way to capture slowness, to convey it into images. And also to make the audience be in that time and space, dragging them into it.”

5) What significance do you as a filmmaker attach to the landscape in your films? Letters from the Desert is not only about a postman, who loses his job because of the foray of modernity. You have put emphasis on his natural surrounding. Why have you done so?

“The desert itself is not a casual landscape in the film. The most basic depiction of time is the hourglass that contains sand that pours into it marking time, and also here, the wind moves the sand changing the shape and structure of the dunes and the landscape, and thus, metaphorically, also of time. The desert also as a metaphysical place where we go to find ourselves and make silence.”

6) Retrospectively thinking, your film reminds me of Nicolás Pereda’s work. I feel as if you blur the line between documentary and fiction. What is your film, actually? How much fiction is in your documentary?

“I started off wanting to make a pure documentary. I wanted to choose a protagonist and follow him with the cameras.

Once I left for scouting though, I met so many postmen and each one of them had so many interesting stories that I conveyed some of them in the one of my chosen protagonist Hari. So I wrote a script based on these experiences but with open dialogues that I then composed together with my characters.

Also leaving some space to the unexpected.

Therefore the work on the film is not merely of a documentary approach. Letters from the Desert lays in a territory between reality and imagination. India in my film works as an “elsewhere” as opposed to the world from which I, director, come from and where I live in. It is the starting point to develop something that moves on a different territory, the one of fiction, of the cinematographic mise-en-scène and that exactly thanks to this leap transforms into something universal, but also absolutely personal because the subjective filter is me, my work as a director.”

7) Are there any directors that have influenced you in your work as filmmaker?

“I love cinema and watch a lot of films weekly and there are so many directors and films I am really passionate about that to name a few would not do justice. I also do not think I was influenced by some particular filmmaker. Of course, once I started thinking about how to make my film I did watch a lot of documentaries and films most of which were suggested to me by the brilliant D.o.P. who worked on Letters from the Desert, the Spanish Pau Mirabet. Those were suggestions he gave me once I explained what was my vision of my film.

So I saw a lot of Herzog, Humbert & Penzel and many other films of the seventies, especially East European. Thing is that, when I was young, I wanted to be a writer, only to discover very soon that I was no good. So I started to work in advertising, documentaries and cinema sort of by chance and after many years, when I finally found the courage, I went off to South America on a very long trip to direct my first documentary. In the end, I am still telling stories but just through a different media: a visual one rather than a written one. That is why, I think, even though I love cinema, in a way my visual references, as strange as it may sound, also come from literature.

And, although I even talk alone, I think in images. So I would not even define myself a director or filmmaker, but just someone who has something to say on a particular subject and decides to express it by filming because those images of the film are already in her mind. So when I will feel I have nothing to say on a particular subject, I will just stop filming, just as I started.”

8) Are you working on a new film at the moment? Or, will your next film be another slow film?

“I am working on a new film right now. Started with the idea and writing nearly 3 years ago…talking about eulogy to slowness!!

It is a totally different subject, dealing with women body, body transformation, social conditioning that should be shot in Mauritania as soon as we find the financing and international co-producers, but at least I do have a good Italian production. It will not be as slow as Letters from the Desert and also the photography will be different because the subject in my opinion requires a different visual approach and pace. But defintely no thriller!”

Eulogy to Slowness

I was fortunate enough to be able to watch Letters from the Desert (Eulogy to Slowness) yesterday. It’s a poetic documentary by Italian director Michela Occhipinti. While other slow films, that have been widely discussed, are seen in the light of slow vs fast because we project it onto them, Occhipinti’s film is addressing this topic directly. It is the only slow film, to my knowledge, that can be regarded as an explicit stance in the slow-fast-dialogue.

Letters tells the story of a postman in an Indian region which is still very much true to its (untouched) nature. The film starts with images of a bustling city. The camera is in constant movement, the cuts are fast. The noise is overwhelming. A young man writes a letter, and we go on a journey with a train. The train’s sound, again, is overwhelming. It’s juxtaposed with images of the Indian landscape; vast, natural spaces. Quiet spaces. Quiet spaces you are, in fact, longing for as a viewer after having been through all this noise. The train rushes past a station, and what follows is one of the most remarkable transition I’ve seen in film: the camera remains with the station, and once the train has passed, we hear nothing but silence. It’s auditory beauty, if you wish, and you go “ahhh, finally!” in your head. Then we cut to a postman on his bicycle.

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Letters from the Desert (2010)

Fom this moment onwards we’re traveling with him through the desert to deliver letters. In many scenes he appears to be a small, lonely figure surrounded by the vast desert around him. It’s beautifully photographic, and highlights the interplay of space and man; an interplay that shapes both.

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Letters from the Desert (2010)

A mobile tower is erected in his village, which is the beginning of the end of his job. It changes both the natural landscape and the landscape of communication. People write less and less letters. “Letters are more expensive, and they take longer.” People don’t have time, or rather they have been given a medium that delivers messages much faster and they are happy to save a bit of time. Towards the end of the film, the postman has a mere two letters in his bag. A third one announces that there would be job cuts due to the declining numbers of letters sent. He is forced to open a market stall in order to support his family, as his salary isn’t sufficient anymore.

There is more to this film, however, than a simple statement about the effects of modernity arriving in even the remotest areas. There is also more than it photographic beauty. Overall, the film is multi-layered and addresses several issues.

There is, for instance, an underlying theme of illiteracy apparent. In many cases, the postman reads out the letters as the recipients cannot read. It thus blurs the line between private and public. And yet, it is a ceremonial event. Usually the whole family gathers together when a letter is read. This is changing with the arrival of mobile phones. Ironically, the postman himself, while struggling with a declining salary, receives a mobile phone by post, which his son has bought for him with his savings. This sets up a poignant juxtaposition.

Earlier in the film, he had received a letter from him and the whole family was around to listen to what he said. But when he phoned his son, he was alone. High up on his house’s walls in order to receive a better signal. It feels as if communication has been reduced to mere technicalities.

Interestingly, the son cannot talk at that moment. He is busy, and his father has to hung up. Besides, the signal isn’t allowing for a smooth communication.

A letter would have made it possible to communicate…