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? 

Almost There – Jacqueline Zünd (2016)

A caravan in the centre of the frame. An empty parking lot. The caravan neatly divides the frame into two equal parts. It’s a beautiful shot that, despite a faint male voice in the off, sets the tone for themes of loneliness, emptiness but also will and resilience. “Employees form a group. Overnight you become an individual,” a Japanese retiree tells us. Jacqueline Zünd, following three men in the US, in Europe and in Japan through a life-changing situation, proves herself to be a quiet but detailed observer, letting images rest, letting them breathe and wash at our shores.

Bob Pearson is a 50+ man, single. His ex-girlfriend pushed him to do something with the rest of his life. He became aware that he could die any day, and that there might not be a tomorrow. The camper van tour they had planned together has turned into a one-man show, just like the nightly stand-up show Steve puts on in Spain after having left a life of lies about his sexuality behind in England. Yamada, acknowledging that he had been married to his job, struggles to be “an individual”, struggles not to be part of a strictly formed hierarchy that his job had given him. He’s retired, now what?

Each one of those three men has a particular personality, a particular nature. They seem to be different types, but all three share one thing: they started anew. They changed their lives, their lives needed to change. Something in them pushed them towards taking the jump, the jump into the cold water of trying something new, facing the unknown. “If I want to do something, I want to do it now,” says Bob. Almost There is intrinsically tied to the process of ageing, of our having to face the reality of death, all the while trying to push it aside, push it further away, one more day, one more week. Maybe if I did this or that, I could say that I had a more meaningful life? Maybe I didn’t take enough risks, risks I could take now? 

Of course, the real protagonist is time. It’s not only the process of ageing that makes the forward progression of time evident. There is also a fascinating push-and-pull between stillness and movement, between a stop and a forward jump. Zünd follows Bob on his journey with his camper van, more on the move than standing still. At times, he sits in a bar to have a drink, at others he gets a quick hair cut. Apart from those brief moments, Bob’s life feels like being constantly on the move. “I’m always scared,” he says at some point. He seems a lonely person. Zünd breaks her aesthetics, almost brutally, in order to insert family photographs of Bob, at a time he was younger. He had never been a particularly happy child, nor a particularly sad one. And yet, it becomes evident that he seeks solitude. He wishes for company here and there, but one gets the feeling that this coat of solitude seems to suit him well.

It is here, again, that time becomes the main force. As it does with Yamada. Shortly after his retirement, he didn’t know how to handle his “new life”. He struggled to fill his time, but, after a friend suggested it, he began to read to children. Zünd follows him on his journey, a particularly touching one, I found, one in which a father admits that he had never done anything for his children and that now he seeks to rectify the wrongs he had done. He’s making amends. He uses the time he has left to make up for the time he has already spent. Interestingly, Yamada’s film segments are a pool of stillness as opposed to the segments of Bob and Steve. At the end of the film, it feels as though only he has managed to find his place, his role in this new life of his.

This is different with Steve. Zünd follows him through the streets in Blackpool (me thinks!) and Benidorm in Spain. Zünd’s frames are beautiful, painterly almost. They’re frames worth printing. They put the film characters in an extraordinarily expressive surrounding that makes them appear small but dominant at the same time. They seem lost, but also in control. As Steve says towards the end of the film, he wasn’t sad or angry. If you were to feel this, you would be lost in the world. While Zünd’s frames, and her almost continuous music does make one feel sad for the characters – so much that I did have watery eyes at some point – there is a fascinating, opposing optimism in the film. It’s a sort of optimism that does not express itself through the film’s aesthetics. It opposes it. It does not openly embrace it.

It’s this specific clash that makes Zünd’s Almost There a gorgeous, a powerful, a deeply moving piece. I saw it for the first time two years ago, and it didn’t let me go. Zünd’s images have haunted me until today, and it’s not only the images that stayed with me. The film is telling a simple story about life, a universal story, but a story that we tend to push away: we’re ageing, we’re inevitably walking towards death. During my PhD research I came across the concept of TMT, Trauma Management Therapy. It’s said that we are naturally afraid of death, daily. But we do everything to keep this in check. One way of doing this is seeking something that would make us immortal in one way or another, to achieve something. I think that Zünd’s Almost There is a good demonstration of this, specially prominent in the story of Yamada, whose reading, we feel, will make him immortal, if only, perhaps, to the school children.

Almost there. Where? Zünd, I believe, brings us closer to ourselves. Ourselves as humans. The characters seem specific, but they speak from their souls, our souls. The film is human, and I’m not sure if I can name a more human film, a more down-to-earth human film that is this powerful. It is perhaps one of the best films of all time for me personally, and an absolute must-see, especially for those who love contemplative cinema. 

24 Frames – Abbas Kiarostami (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visitor – Sebastian Cordes (2018)

“It is said that man has always wandered. Out of need or curiosity, across deserts and oceans.”

This is how the new feature film by Danish director Sebastian Cordes begins. After his Bolivia-set A Place Called Lloyd, which is currently running on tao films for free, Cordes took a journey to the island of Chios, Greece. As he states at the beginning of his film, the years 2015 and 2016 were seminal in the European consciousness. Indeed, they were. They will remain with us for years to come, perhaps especially for me as I’m originally from Germany and my country was the only one that had heart enough to open the borders. The German chancellor paid dearly for this, politically, which is still difficult for me to grasp. You don’t have to agree with a politician, but you can agree with another human being on helping other people to find refuge, people who flee from war, from certain death, people who have lost their home, possibly even their entire family.

This background represents the core of Cordes’ Visitor. Set on the island of Chios, the director films life on the island as it is, an obscure parallel world of normality for the local population and an extraordinary world for those who have landed in Chios, “where Turkey is always at the horizon”. A static low level shot that shows a police car on the right hand side and the raging sea on the left opens the film visually. The shot sets the tone of the film. Its emptiness, its anonymity, is something that will return over and over again throughout Visitor. The raging wind, too, is always present, right at your ears, in the weeks before Christmas. Not much later, there is a poignant shot of a stone wall. A very simple shot. There is nothing beautiful about it. It is a wall, nothing more, nothing less. Water flows underneath it. The waves push the water onto the land, right underneath the wall. “No borders” – this is what’s written on this stone wall, stone, which stands for harshness, hardness, durability, for a definite attempt to keep other people out of your territory. It is this phrase that dismantles the wall. Two words: No borders.

Visitor is an observational documentary. It is self-reflexive. It is contemplating itself and what is happening around it. Time and again, Cordes cuts to a black screen and makes us think about who we are. Visitor poses the question of who the visitor is which Cordes names in the film’s title. First of all, the viewer is at all times aware of the director’s presence. He’s got a shadowy presence in one shot. In another, we can see (parts of) him at a restaurant. Cordes doesn’t hide his presence. He’s the visitor, he’s the person whose “body is blue eyes white skin”. He’s the one who shoots the footage, who assembles it and who tells the story of life on Chios. But this isn’t the whole truth, the full meaning of the title. What are the refugees Cordes is, except for the very end, filming only from the distance, the refugees who have an absent presence, an almost haunting presence throughout the film’s running time of just over an hour?

One of the defining responses to the refugee crises in Europe was that countries expected the refugees to keep moving on. No country wanted to shelter them permanently. The response, not new at all, sadly, is at the core of Anna Seghers’ novel Transit, which is set in Marseille just after German troops have invaded France. Transit painfully shows that the whole idea of giving refuge to someone is to help him or her to move somewhere else. The novel is a representation of the inhumane treatment of those who flee from persecution. It is all encapsulated in the attempt of getting a visa to stay in Marseille: you can only stay if you prove that you’re leaving again. The situation Europe faced in 2015 did not change anything in our response to something we had seen and dealt with before. Cordes’ film title makes a point, a point that you might not see at first because you consider the director as the only visitor present in the film. But Visitor also speaks of the “visiting” refugees, of temporary shelters, temporary safety, and the expectations that they just move on. It doesn’t matter where to, as long as they do not stay in “our” country.

Poignantly enough, Cordes includes a shot of the shopping window of a transit ship agency. Transit – keep moving, keep moving. Don’t stay, don’t stop. There are shots of the open sea interspersed with more static and empty shots; a contrast which Cordes creates deliberately. The raging sea, the wind in our ears – this is it, this is movement, this is a continuous forward movement. But where should those people go if no country wants them? 

“My body is not the capsized boat in the open sea, the stillness when the sea again falls still.”

Voice-over parts like those cut through the narrative like a sharp knife. While at the beginning, the question could be whose body the voice-over speaks of, it becomes inevitably clear in the course of the film that this body is our body. Cordes not only speaks of himself here. This has a larger, a more wide-ranging meaning. He tells the story of those who died, those who suffered on their way to a hoped-for refuge. He tells the story of who we are not, because we are the “blue eyes white skin”. We are the privileged, those who look at refugees from a safe distance, possibly sitting in front of our telly on a sofa, with the radiator on full blow so that we don’t get cold.

Visitor becomes a real force towards the end, really bringing home the idea of visiting, the idea of repetition, in particular when the director speaks to an old woman who was aged 5 in 1940 when she suffered from hunger and cold, just like the refugees do now as a result of war. History repeats itself. History doesn’t move forward in a linear fashion. History is an eternal circle of repetitions. What has been, will be again. What we have seen in the past, we will see again in future. The only question is when. But there seems to be little doubt about the actual occurrence. And yet, with this rather bleak feeling that I had at the end of Visitor, Cordes did something. He added hope. Two refugee children making faces for the camera, laughing, playing around. There it is, this hope that I had been missing throughout the film. There it is, in the face of children who have been through so much, who have, in some cases, seen more than one of us does in his/her entire life. But hope is not lost, Cordes tells us, which makes Visitor an important film to see this year.

The Red Turtle – Michaël Dudok de Wit (2016)

I believe this is the first animation film that I’m mentioning on this blog. I haven’t heard a lot about slow animation before, nor am I really a fan of animation. But it’s different with Michaël Dudok de Wit’s The Red Turtle. One could easily argue that the film doesn’t fit the Slow Cinema categories I have established on this site in the last five years. That was my very first thought, too, when the film had started. A lot of movement, comparatively quick cuts – there was something that made me wonder why some people have described this film as being slow or contemplative in the past. Just over an hour later, I agreed with those people and it is, funnily enough, the aspect of movement that, in parts, contributed to my change in thinking.

On the surface, The Red Turtle does not take its time with anything. In effect, the film tells the story of life in under seventy minutes. A man is caught up in a storm, is stranded on an island, tries to escape but a red turtle prevents him from doing so. In subsequent scenes, he falls in love, has a son, the son grows up pretty fast, leaves the island and he himself dies. So basically, it’s the natural circle of life told in a short time frame. In case you’ve been following my work for a long time, you probably know that I would always advocate for length in order to allow for an in-depth depiction of whatever is on screen. For The Red Turtle, this is slightly different and even though the sudden speed with which the story developed was startling at times, the film didn’t lose any of its smoothness.

And this is the key of the film that makes it so wonderfully slow and contemplative: its smoothness, its beauty. The Red Turtle is a magnificent, poetic piece that, despite looking like a speedy story-telling rollercoaster on the surface, takes its time. This sounds contradictory, I agree. And yet, apart from one sequence towards the end of the film, all scenes give the impression that life moves slowly, that it progresses in its own time. I mentioned the aspect of movement before. Especially character movement is not necessarily a major thing in traditional Slow Cinema. It’s there, but it’s limited. What struck me in The Red Turtle is the perfectly smooth, sort of zen movements. The film’s characters swim a lot, for example, and they do it, in parts, to enjoy the very act of swimming, to swim with turtles and imitate their slow and graceful movements, to become one with the still sea that surrounds them (up to a point, one should say).

Then there is the aspect of isolation and loneliness. The story is focused, first of all, on a single man only. He looks for food and for drinking water. He builds a raft in order to escape, but there is only so much you can do on your own on an island. So what the film does show is limited, is repetitive, is the daily survival of a man stranded in the middle of nowhere on an unnamed island. Curiously, once he gave up trying to escape, the film becomes very peaceful. It was his anger that gave the impression of a speedy story development, his rage against natural forces. But after that there is a real shift in tone in the film that, once established, made me sink into my seat and observe the images. I didn’t actually watch the film, I observed it. I wasn’t even distracted by the music. On the contrary, they helped me to feel the sort of isolated, limited life which, at the same time, is a life of complete freedom.

There is something mystic, something metaphorical about The Red Turtle. I felt that the film spoke about a million things, and yet only about one essential thing: life. In some ways, just like with major slow films spoken about on this blog in the past, the film’s utter simplicity, also in its drawing, highlights the beauty of it; of the film itself, of the story, of nature. I often thought about Chinese painting (I can’t let it go!), and was reminded of how often slow films focus on nature. Crucially, there is no dialogue in the film. Thoughts and feelings are expressed by actions only. Body language is the centre of the film, and aligns itself, once more, with other, more known and popular slow films. So maybe you begin to see the contradictory nature of The Red Turtle. Nevertheless, or maybe despite this, this animation film deserves being on this blog. It’s an interesting hybrid that made me rethink the framework I have established for myself. At the same time, it fits almost perfectly, and I’m absolutely delighted that it’s this film that has become the first animation mentioned on this blog. The year starts off well…

Three Sisters – Wang Bing (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs Fang – Wang Bing (2017)

The winner of the Pardo D’oro at this year’s Locarno Film Festival, and a brave decision of the festival jury headed by Olivier Assayas, if you ask me. I’m simply noting a few things, which I started writing while watching the film – I never do this. I never start writing my post while watching a film, but this one triggered some urgent thoughts in my head that needed to be written down immediately.

Wang Bing’s award-winning film Mrs Fang (2017) shows the last ten days in the life of Mrs Fang, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. In less than ninety minutes, the Chinese director, who is usually known for his longer pieces, creates a strong, deep and powerful portrait of the most important part of life next to being born: the process of dying. In careful handheld shots, most of them in medium close-ups or close-ups, Wang Bing pictures Mrs Fang in her bed, hardly moving at times, utterly still at others. In his usual manner, he captures ordinary life because, indeed, life goes ahead for the family member of Mrs Fang. They think of the funeral, they go fishing, they eat. Life and death, often considered as opposites while they are, in fact, part of the larger nature of human existence, are perfectly captured as running in parallel.

I have tried not to read too much about the film, because what can critics say? There is nothing to analyse, nothing to make sense of. Mrs Fang is a film about a woman dying very slowly, portrayed on a big screen. I know that Wang Bing has been both heralded and slammed for bringing death to the screen, for breaking a taboo, the latter being a curious complaint given that the viewer wants his/her film to be always as realistic as can be. It can never be realistic enough, but if a film shows human death not as part of a fictional story, people are offended. The question that one should pose is, what are they really offended by? Is it really Wang Bing’s film? Or is it the idea of them dying themselves at some point, finding those images appalling because they reject the idea of death? Or do they fear that they may end up like Mrs Fang, vegetating in her bed and do they therefore prefer to close their eyes and ignore the possibility?

Wang Bing’s film is more than just about death. What I found curious is the way the family deals with it. It made me wonder about our appreciation of life and of people, of everything around us while we’re still alive. Mrs Fang’s relatives look after her, they notice every change in her breathing, her posture, even a stiffening of a tendon in her neck. They recognise details, details that had no meaning (I would guess) to them while Mrs Fang was still in the full capacity to live her life fully. They surround her, several times, and even though this might look like a curiosity show on screen, I cannot help thinking that Wang Bing is after something else: it’s only death that makes us become aware of what’s around us. The details of a person, the subtle changes in a person’s posture while sitting or lying in front of you – I’m sure you never take note of this. We tend to see the broader picture, which explains why we never actually live in the present. Only in the present would we commit ourselves to look at details, to commit time to noticing.

Photography has long been considered in the context of death; a photograph as the arrest of a certain moment, the arrest of time, a stoppage. It is said that, in some ways, photography always captures death because, once a photograph has been developed, it shows a moment that has been. But only film can capture death. Death is durational; it is a passageway; it is the passing from one state into another; it is movement. A photograph cannot portray this, it can merely show what leads to a person’s death and death itself as a fait accompli. Not, however, death itself. This is something Wang Bing has managed with Mrs Fang, and I salute him for doing so. I’m struggling with seeing my father-in-law dying slowly and have been for a while, and I myself have been wondering whether I should turn this suffering into an artistic project that creates awareness, not only of death but of certain diseases that do not allow for an ethical, graceful death. Can death be ethical in any case?

Wang Bing’s film poses ethical questions. Should he have filmed Mrs Fang in this or that way? Should he have brought it to a festival? Should he have won a prestigious award for it? But how about: why should he not have filmed Mrs Fang? Why should he contribute to the silencing of real death on screen, even though death is, actually, a major part of our lives? There is very little that you can say about the aesthetics about the film. What Mrs Fang does is pose questions. It opens a debate. This film demands more than a “I like it”, or “I dislike it”, because as soon as you start to explain your reasons for your preference, you must start a debate on ethics and death. Wang Bing has created a piece that needs to be engaged with on the level of society. It cannot be described, it cannot be formally analysed; it needs to be discussed. The usual words people use to describe a film – good, bad, amazing, awful – are insufficient, more so than with any other film.

To me personally, Mrs Fang is Wang Bing’s best film. He’s reached the height of his career. The sheer complexity he has shown by this simple portrait of death is overwhelming. Other films of his, such as Tie XI Qu (West of the Tracks), are also complex and demand a thorough engagement. But Mrs Fang goes much further. It is not simply a film about death and dying, but about our engagement with it, our willingness to acknowledge what will happen to all of us, about our (non-)acceptance. Mrs Fang goes deep, deeper than any other film I know dealing with the human being, the human as a living creature whose life is finite.

Tao Films Selection and Other News

In the last six months, tao films has gone a long way. We started off with a mere six films in January that were replaced by a selection of eight films in April. By now, we have a permanent selection of 15 films available for streaming. And many more films are to come. We have around 80 short films and 50 feature films which wait to be uploaded, and we can’t wait for you to see them. But all in its own time…

This July, we have switched to a permanent collection, a library of films that cannot, for the most part, be found somewhere else. We pride ourselves with selecting films from mostly young and emerging talents from around the world in order to give them a chance to showcase their work. We have added 4 films this month, ranging from fiction films to experimental cinema.

In The Night of all Things/La Noche, director Pilar Palomero explores themes of loss as a result of death in connection with childhood. Her film is a quiet study, a study that makes palpable pain and grief transmitted through silence and the slow progression of time.

The night of all things – Pilar Palomero (2016)

Eli Hayes’ Mercury Vapor is an experimental film that, over the course of two hours, asks you to free your mind, to be open to the moving images, not always clear, blurred at times, open to what is happening on your screen. Hayes does not tell a story; the story shapes up in your head alone. The film becomes what you see in the director’s images, and it is this characteristic which makes Mercury Vapor a special experience. 

Mercury Vapor – Eli Hayes (2017)

In his short film Onere, which is part of a larger project, Kevin Pontuti metaphorically explores the theme of self and the role of our identity. What does it mean to carry the weight of ourselves? Can we detach ourselves from our identity and choose a new one?

Onere – Kevin Pontuti (2016)

In A Place Called Lloyd, Danish director Sebastian Cordes takes us on a trip to Bolivia. Even though the national airline Lloyd Aereo Boliviano has gone bankrupt, its workers show up at their workplace every day. In at times vast and impressive shots, Cordes captures the stories of these people and their sense of dedication and pride. 

A place called Lloyd – Sebastian Cordes (2015)

Some films from season one have returned and others from season two have stayed on. We’re happy to say that the following films are also available on tao films: Bare Romance by Belgian director Karel Tuytschaever, Centaur by Aleksandra Niemczyk from Poland, Ecce Homo by Dimitar Kutmanov from Bulgaria, Metropole by Ozal Emier and Virginie Le Borgne from France/Lebanon, Osmosis by Nasos Karabelas from Greece, Remains by Yotam Ben-David from Israel, Seaworld by Hing Tsang from the UK, Sixty Spanish Cigarettes by Mark John Ostrowski from Spain, A Souvenir from Switzerland by Sorayos Prapapan from Thailand, Transatlantique by Félix Dufour-Laperrière from Canada, and Wanderer by Martynas Kundrotas from Lithuania. 

In other news…

There is a lot happening with our filmmakers and they make us proud. First of all, we’re happy to say that Yudhajit Basu, whose film Khoji will show on tao next month, has been accepted at the prestigious National Film and Television School in India. Congratulations! 

Emily Cussins’ Diviner Intervention, to be released on tao soon, has been selected for the Science Arts Cinema Festival (if this is not a curious festival, we don’t know what is!).

Kevin Pontuti’s Onere keeps traveling to various festivals, so many, in fact, that I lose track of them.

Centaur by Aleksandra Niemczyk was screened at the International Film Festival in Madrid this month.

Félix Dufour-Laperrière, director of Transatlantique, is putting the finishing touches to Ville Neuve, his new film.

The Slow Short Film Festival, all new, will kick off in September and they have selected quite a few tao films. Check out the line-up, or rather impressive screen grabs of the selected films, on the official website. I’ll try to be there and maybe I meet some of you 🙂

There is a lot going on, and I will keep you updated here on The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. Stay tuned!

Straub-Huillet: what is film?

Thanks to a very good and impressive collection of DVDs in my local library/cultural centre, I had the chance to discover the works of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Finally! They’re often mentioned in the context of Slow Cinema and I have been approached quite a lot about the reason why the filmmaker duo has so far not yet been present in my own work. Truth is that I hadn’t seen their work before. I tried to not focus on almost canonical works in order to see the films I was working on with fresh eyes, not with eyes that have been influenced by the canon and by the writings about it.

I have seen only two of Straub-Huilet’s films so far, and this blog will perhaps be no more than some rambling because these two films posed, to me, one essential question: what is film? I have posed this question before, primarily in the context of static art and the parallels to slow films; those which are highly photographic, those whose directors use static cameras, empty frames, almost no dialogue, little to no movement of the characters. But my argumentation went into a direction different from the one I’m taking right now with Straub and Huilet.

And the reason for this is, essentially, the soundtrack. In my previous arguments about slow films showing similarities to slow art, I put the sound aside and focused entirely on the image. When I saw Straub-Huilet’s Chronique d’Anna Magdalena Bach (1967) and History Lessons (1972), I questioned that take, albeit not entirely, because my thoughts still hold true to the majority of slow films. They don’t work for the French duo, though, and the sound-image combination is key. In effect, I asked myself (and yes, I experimented with it) whether the image was necessary in those two films. Indeed, a film becomes a film, it is often said, when there are moving images. You can find those in those two films, although the image itself isn’t moving. It’s the characters. When I said that I experimented to find out whether the image was necessary, I mean that I put another window (on my laptop) on top of the video image. I started browsing, not because I was bored but because I wanted to find out what the role and the importance of the image was.

From the minute I started Anna Magdalena Bach I wondered whether I saw a film or whether I listened to an audio book. The film is an extensive repertoire of Bach’s music, if you wish. The first forty minutes are almost nothing more than people playing Bach’s music in long static takes. Here and there we hear the voice over of Anna telling the viewer of the going-ons in the life of the Bachs. The film is radical. It upsets everything we know of film, and it did so even more, I believe, when it was released in 1967. History Lesson is very similar. In effect, the film is almost a monologue, testimony, it’s difficult to say what exactly it is. What is, however, easy to note is that, once more, emphasis is placed on sound, on speech. You can black out the image and you might even get more out of the “film”. What is important in both films is not what is shown, but what is heard. In many slow films, the opposite of what I felt for Straub-Huilet is true. Some films annoy me with their voice overs or dialogues because the images are so pretty, I just want to  sit there and contemplate them like a painting or a photograph.

Straub-Huilet make me want to turn off the image, and listen quietly to what is being said. The image is more of a distraction, and it sure upsets a viewer’s expectation. If you watch these two “films” thinking they would be like any other film with images and sound, you’ll be mistaken, disappointed, and leave the auditorium pretty early. It is the sound only that tells the story. The image comes second, if not third or fourth, and God knows what is in between. It felt like a challenge to sit through those two films, precisely because I took them as films and was surprised that this is not how I perceived them. Yes, they contain moving images, but the image is not important at all. It brings nothing to the film over the course of ninety minutes or so. You could show both with a single screenshot projected against a wall and the sound/dialogue coming through loudspeakers in a gallery. It would have the same, if not a more impressive effect.

So once more on this blog, I just can’t help wondering: what is film? Where does film start, where does it end, and where do other forms of communication take over?

Seaworld – Hing Tsang (2016)

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

What I like about my job (is it even a job?) is that I always find films that surprise me; films that show me something I haven’t seen before; films that startle me in a positive way. It keeps up my faith in cinema, in the idea that not everything is (as yet) homogenous for a homogenous mass out there. Hing Tsang’s Seaworld is one of those that, to be fair, took a while to get me. But the longer the film lasted, the more I loved it. If you have seen slow films before, or even just our films on tao films, then Seaworld will surprise you. It might make you raise your eyebrows. It might make you laugh. But its smoothness, its gentleness, will take you on a very enjoyable journey to the bottom of the sea.

Seaworld (Hing Tsang, 2016)

Seaworld is not the ordinary slow film. It is not entirely narrative, but not entirely experimental either. It is not entirely fiction, but not entirely documentary either (“I try not to work within the limits of genre.”). It is a game, a playful trip alongside sea creatures that you sure haven’t seen this way yet. For this film, Hing Tsang, a lecturer in Suffolk whose work focuses on documentary film, worked together with José Navarro, a puppeteer from Peru. While the film starts with “real” footage taken at a beach, the film then shifts to the actual sea world, entirely replicated by Navarro’s body; arms and legs become fish and other creatures. Even shoes become creatures that one can find in the sea.

The movements of Navarro’s arms, legs and feet are graceful. They’re imitating the movement of sea creatures beautifully. The use of a green and slightly blue background to these movements gives us a sense of where we really are. The creatures are slightly transparent at times, at others they’re a bit blurred. The characteristics of water change our perception of what we see in it, and Hing Tsang is trying to get as close to this as possible, albeit in an abstract (puppeteer) way. When I saw the film in London, where I met the director, I was conscious of the film dragging me towards it, pulling me into it. But I couldn’t resist. Not that I wanted to, but I nevertheless found it curious that I couldn’t let it go.

Seaworld (Hing Tsang, 2016)

Seaworld is not just a combination of dream imagery. Hing Tsang uses a very effective, minimalist soundtrack that renders the film a visual lullaby. Just speaking of the sound, the film reminded me of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s short film Mekong Hotel. The images are very different, but the persistent slow guitar music functions as a lullaby; it pulls you in, it makes you sleepy. The same process goes on in Hing Tsang’s Seaworld.

I would strongly advise you to give this film a try via tao films where it is available for streaming. It’s a wonderful piece of work, something that definitely helps you to wind down after a long week of work. It’s Friday, and Seaworld would surely help you to take it slow, all the while showing a kind of slow film you have probably not seen before.