There is one aspect of my work in the field of Slow Cinema, which I like more than anything else: the opportunity to travel the world via the eyes of filmmakers who listen to marginalised people around the globe. For the first time in ten years writing on the subject, I have been taking a trip to Laos, a country perhaps no one really knows much about. Perhaps the capital, at most. But when it comes to life in Laos, a small country in south-east Asia, with almost seven million inhabitants, we know nothing. Nicolas Graux has travelled there to use film as a means to tell the story of Laosan, a young man, married with two children, who is addicted to opium.
This addiction doesn’t come from nowhere. On the contrary. As Laosan tells us in the second half of the film, the family grows the highly profitable plant. The plantations in themselves don’t cause the people to get addicted, but a lot of men in this Akha society are. Laosan’s parents, he tells us, became addicted after the death of his brother. They didn’t know how to handle their grief. Opium became a relief and his father, in particular, is seen smoking time and again throughout the film. This is only part of the story, however. The core of Graux’s film focuses on Laosan himself and the ways in which his opium addiction affects not only his own life but also that of the people around him.
Graux uses breathtaking long-takes in order to situate us in the milieu the Ahka are living in. Tight, almost suffocating close-ups are replaced with wide open shots of the jungle, low-hanging clouds moving along the horizon. Laosan is a heavy smoker, he tells us. As soon as withdrawal effects are setting in, he needs to tackle them by smoking again and, more importantly, smoking more. We see him preparing the drug, we see him inhaling and exhaling. We see the smoke that leaves his mouth and his nostrils. The repeated shift between close-ups and long shots resembles Laosan’s smoking process; the film inhales and exhales. The low-hanging clouds become a mirror for the opium smoke that infests a substantial number of Graux’s frames.
But the film is not only an aesthetically pleasing, visually stunning piece. Graux lays open the problems of opium addiction in society. Laosan is an absent husband and father. He doesn’t know what to do with his life. He has lost all energy, all perspective for the future. He is almost lethargic. His parents, especially his father, urge him to move away from the region and to build a new life somewhere else, to a region that had something to offer. Laosan’s father reiterates time and again that the region had nothing more to offer, and that his son needs to make a move fast. The dialogue between parents and son, shot in an extensive long-take, is ironic in some ways. The father, himself addicted to opium, scolds his son for losing all interest in making something out of his life. It is clear that the problem is the opium, and yet the father doesn’t mention it. Opium – the elephant in the room.
Most heart-breaking is a sequence that focuses on the women in the village. It is they who suffer the most. They speak of their horror witnessing the drastic change in their husbands. They speak of their fears of being beaten because opium makes their husbands violent. They speak of wanting to leave their miserable lives behind, of going to China, of looking for a new man, a new job. Laosan’s wife even speaks of suicide because she can no longer live this life. It’s her children who hold her back. Who would look after them? she wonders. Her plan is to move away as soon as her children are old enough. Until then, she will be locked into a tiring fight against this disease, this addiction that has changed the face of the region.
But perhaps there is hope. Laosan tells us that the Laotian government seeks to prohibit the growth of opium. The young man, marked by over a year of addiction, is hoping for this change, giving him the chance to finally come off it. For Laosan, being surrounded by opium is counterproductive to any attempt at freeing himself from those chains. He hopes for the government, for the prohibition of opium in the country, in order to get clean. It is, perhaps, the desire of a vast number of people. Laosan is only one of many. Graux allows him to tell his story and his camera is a patient observer, which stylistically also reiterates the idea of lethargy. Cinematic slowness becomes an expression of each and every lethargic day spent in the mountains and hoping for better days to come.
I couldn’t help but think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul several times while watching Graux’s film. There is a degree of similarity between Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady and Century of Smoke. Is it the location? The aesthetics? The way of observation? I haven’t found the answer yet, but regardless, Graux walks in the steps of big-name slow-film directors. With Century of Smoke he has arrived at the very heart of Slow Cinema, and he sits comfortably amongst Weerasethakul, Lisandro Alonso and Tsai Ming-liang.
There are films, which I’m grateful for. Grateful for being able to watch them, grateful for being able to write about them. Grateful for being able to experience them. There are those films that go deep without trying too much. Films that show the ordinary in their ordinariness, in their simplicity, and which tell a million stories about who we are and why, about what is happening around us and why, what consequences there will in future, and sadly, about how little we can do about it.
Xu Xin’s A Yangtze Landscape (2017) is one of those marvellous films, which made me want to stop it several times in order to process the images in front of my eyes as well as the images in my mind. A Yangtze Landscape is not only a beautifully shot film, it also conjures a number of images, thoughts, and emotions that I struggled to digest all at once. Something that Xi Xin clearly demonstrates is that there is a strong documentary movement present in China, which goes against the official party narrative, a movement that looks beyond propaganda, beyond imagined greatness and heroic plans. It looks at the reality without commenting on it. The camera records the invisible, the silenced and the silent. What directors like Wang Bing and Xu Xin show, won’t end up in history books, or in any books for that matter. If it wasn’t for them, the people they meet would fall into oblivion; forgotten, silenced, expropriated.
A Yangtze Landscape is a journey in many ways. We move along the river Yangtze, the longest river in Asia with its over 6,000km in length. It’s an astounding river that is not only an ecosystem in itself. It is also a symbol of the exploitation of resources, of the creation of man-made projects, state projects in the name of the party, which displace hundreds of thousands of people. Fast progress by all means possible. On his way along the river, on boats, ships, filming the vastness that alludes to an open sea, Xu Xin stops here and there. He literally holds the forward, horizontal progression and dives into vertical storytelling. It is this vertical exploration that questions Chinese progress, that not simply films it, but that investigates its effects.
It is also this vertical exploration that made me think just how important filmmakers like Xu Xin and Wang Bing are, both directors looking at those people who are being left behind by a grand project that, officially, has no victims. Xu Xin shows us people whose stories are never told. They often reminded me of Wang Bing’s Man With No Name or Till Madness Do Us Part. The people we see are disabled, mentally above all, but also physically, the latter, for one man, being a result of having protested against the damaging of his fisher net by big ships. His hands were mangled, he can no longer earn a living. This elderly man, sitting outside overlooking the river with his mutilated hands…what a powerful message in a film that quietly inserts written words to inform us about accidents, suicides and state intervention.
The gloomy greyscale landscapes, almost all of them man-made, speak of lifelessness, and are juxtaposed with the movements of Xu Xin’s camera on board a ship (or does he travel on several ships?). Here again, as in many other slow films, we witness a push-and-pull between life (animation, movement) and death (stillness). The massive projects along the Yangtze river have their advantages for some people, but mean the loss of an entire identity for others, sometimes of lives. This clash, highlighted throughout the film’s over two-hour running time, is aesthetically intensified through Xu Xin’s use of sound.
It’s the sound, or rather the deafening noise of a firework display from Chinese New Year, which connects several scenes in the film. The sounds clearly oppose the images. There doesn’t seem to be a link at all. What the sounds do, on the other hand, is they introduce a degree of disorientation. They may not support the images as such, but they support the mental state of the people we see, the disorientation felt by those who were displaced, the staggering changes, even invasions, of man-made structures. And with that, Yangtze is not only a Chinese film. It not only speaks about the country’s modern development.
Instead, it is also a film about Man’s anthropocene era. It is Man’s era, an era in which we have reached total dominance over nature, an era in which we irreversibly steer towards our downfall, our extinction. Yangtze reminded me of Norbert Elias’ speech on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. His argument has, of course, nothing to do with film, but with the way we treat our surrounding, and, with that, ourselves.
How come that we force scientific progress in order to dominate nature? How come that we try to explain everything in order to make life less dangerous? How come that, at the same time, we seed hostility, resentment, inequality between people which will inevitably lead to conflict and war? Xu Xin’s film is a very good example of this specifically human problem. Yangtze is a film about creating a (state) hegemony, a superiority that aims to remove its opponents, but which, in the long run, will not stifle conflict. What Yangtze shows in its often sublime shots is power, the thirst for power that has no limits.
But Xu Xin hides this point well. It’s not overt and needs to be looked out for. Yangtze is not so much a film about landscapes and about the longest river of Asia. It is much more complex than it looks at first. It is a statement about us. Xu Xin uses frames that are relatively open, giving us the space to think through different possible meanings of what he shows. In that, he differs from Wang Bing, who tends to use tight frames. Tight frames are always a means to evoke suffocation, making it clear to the viewer that there is pressure from the outside. Xu Xin, on the other hand, leaves things open.
In the end, what remains from A Yangtze Landscape is a bitter aftertaste. The film is a mixture of stunning beauty, and utter poverty and oppression, which some people escape from by killing themselves. There is a contemplative journey juxtaposed with violent imagery. The back and forth creates a truly powerful film about 21st century China and about our human condition.
This morning, I left the house at 8 o’clock. I went to a bridge that is close to my flat and that overlooks the canal Saint Martin in Rennes. I waited a bit but decided to walk a little closer to my flat again. The canal to my right and new apartment buildings to my left, I was waiting for the sun to rise. It was a cold night, it had snowed the evening before too. I stood there for an hour, not moving much, my gaze fixed on the horizon…just there, behind the tree tops, I expected the sun to appear. I’m sure that the construction workers who could surely see me wondered why I was standing there doing nothing. But even though they could stop even for a minute to marvel about this wonder of nature, the beginning of a new day, they don’t do it. Time is money. Every lost minute means delay, and delay costs money. So, naturally they keep working while I’m watching this fireball slowly appearing behind the tree tops. A wonderful sunrise in the cold at 8.36am but not visible until 9am. I could see the small changes in the colour of the clouds behind me as they slowly turned pink. The sun had an effect on everything before I could even see it.
It was this morning that I thought a bit more about something I heard on radio the other day. France Culture posed the question whether we should reconcile with nature, and if so, how. I didn’t hear the entire broadcast as I had only just stopped teaching and was on my way home. The broadcast reminded me a lot of slowness, contemplation, of the idea of taking one’s time to really see. The reason I’m writing something on this blog is because they spoke about film. I had hoped they would mention slow film, but they didn’t. A missed chance but perhaps it’s something I can start here on The Art(s) of Slow Cinema.
One of the guests, Anne-Caroline Prévot, looked into the representation of nature in Walt Disney films for a research project and found that the face of Disney has changed a lot. No more Snow White’s singing with birds. Away with characters dancing in the green, appreciating the beauty of nature, being one with it. Since the 1950s, Prévot argues, Disney has adapted (I would even say reinforced) our decreased interest in nature, in its marvels. Nowadays its films show more brick buildings, city life, cobble stones people walk over than characters appreciating nature. It’s how life is these days. In the last decades, waves of migrants from the countryside have moved to the cities in order to find jobs. Countrysides are now deserted. France and Germany, for instance, face critical “medical deserts” where everything has closed because only a handful of people live in those regions and it wasn’t financially viable to keep even one doctor there. Life is city life nowadays, and cinematic representations very much go with the flow.
That said, we’re speaking about mainstream representation here. It is mainstream that shows us where and how we life, and that can propel us into the future. It is independent cinema that can remind us of what life should be, and could be. Slow Cinema, I believe, is one type of cinema that reminds us of the marvels of nature. Not only, I should say. But one of its main characteristics is that films are primarily set in nature, something Walt Disney has gotten rid off in the last couple of decades (apparently since the 1970s). It looks at empty places, places where people have stopped looking. It looks at those “deserts” that have become so widespread in our developed countries. But, most important of all, they function as a reminder to be. Not to make something, but rather to accept our surrounding and see the beauty in it. For that, it needs time, time which slow films give us. A film I recently saw comes back to my mind: Abbas Kiarostami’s Five. I’m also thinking of Lisandro Alonso’s films (La Libertad, etc), Alamar by Pedro Gonzales-Rubio or Semih Kaplanoglu’s wonderful Bal.
These are, of course, narrative films. I believe that experimental films can go even further because they can dwell even longer without necessarily having to push a narrative forward. But there is also a wonderful book titled Cinema and Landscape by Graeme Harper and Jonathan Ryner. I’m aware that the broadcast was really about nature, but if you mention film you might want to take more than 2 minutes in really exploring how cinema represents our attitude to nature, but also how film, as a widespread form of entertainment, can help us to reconcile with nature. I strongly believe that Slow Cinema can do its share there and is already doing so. It’s not as visible as one might want it to be, but it’s there and good change is often a result of grass root movements…so maybe we’re seeing something in the making here!
It is 8.30 in the evening. It is dark and wet, although it has stopped raining for a little while. I’m at the RSPB reserve in Loch Lomond, Scotland, and embark on a journey through the reserve. My way is lined on both sides with candlelights, guiding me in my way through the reserve. It is pitch black and the rain slowly begins to fall again. The atmosphere is stunning. I can barely see something but my ears listen to every sounds that comes out of the darkness around me. Not out of fear. It is an engaged and curious listening to nature. It is about being present, which, in some cases, only our ears can make possible. It is our ears that have first become deaf as a result of the drastic change towards a speedier life. It is the ears that have lost most of their real value nowadays, filtering even more than do our eyes. Our ears are confronted with noise all the time, overpowering noise that silences the natural world around us. It takes will and effort not only to listen but also to actually hear (which somehow makes me think of Chantal Akerman’s thoughts on “seeing” and “actually seeing”).
I did listen, and I did hear on 21 October, when I saw Susannah’ Ramsay’s new film poem The Essence of Place, a work that was directly connected to the place it was shown at. Shot at the RSPB reserve it was also shown there, under the night sky, on a huge screen. A walk through the pitch black night allowed for a real sense of the surrounding nature, of life embalming us, of the preciousness that we’re no longer aware of. It was impossible to walk speedily towards the screen; the darkness robbed you of your vision. You had to be careful, attentive to what was around you. Darkness, especially the pitch-black night, is an invitation to slow down. Perhaps it is a demand, a request that cannot be turned down. Slowing down is a must, and is rewarded by a beautiful auditory perception of life around you.
“This is where I am. My body is inscribed in the contours of this landscape… Contemplation, nature’s secret language… I remember those need for words that sorrow brought and left with it long spells of nothing.”
After a walk through the darkness, one begins to see the contours of a huge screen at the horizon. The soundtrack of the film becomes audible. One is almost drawn to the light of the screen, like a moth that is attracted to the light in the pitch-black night. Ramsay’s The Essence of Place plays on a screen that is surrounded only by the vastness of the reserve. It is a short film/poem that beautifully captures – in writing and in image – the simple and beautiful wonders of nature, wonders we have come to forget. In her work, Ramsay demonstrates quite literally what the title of her film suggests: the essence of place. It is a phenomenological thought and conviction, the idea of watching Ramsay’s images at the exact same place where they have been shot. The viewer, the viewed, and the place become one; a sort of symbiosis actually in which we become aware of our relationship to one another and the ways in which our behaviour affects the other. It is awareness that Ramsay’s film instills, from the beginning of your walk through the reserve to the very end. It is awareness that is now more important than ever, and it is awareness that takes time to develop.
“I walked past your footprints again today. I still didn’t hear your voice. Here is where I am, consoled by the beautiful wonder of nature.”
The film, or rather the film experience, made me reflect about the importance of place in the context of film viewing. I said several times on this blog that a place (or space) influences the way we approach a moving image piece. We have expectations when we go into the cinema, and we also have specific expectations when we go into a gallery to see a video installation. Those expectations differ greatly, and it is the place/space that can also influence our perception of whether a film is “good” or “bad”. It is well known nowadays that slow films as shown in a cinema usually lead to walkouts. The cinema as an institution has, in its history, not been a place that invited contemplation. The cinema is a place for entertainment that tends to come with fast cuts. Now, slowness in a gallery is perfectly acceptable because we have come to accept that in a gallery one usually contemplates pieces of art anyway, so if you were to add a slow film into this mix it wouldn’t really upset your expectations. Ramsay goes even further, however, by showing her film outside, in nature, the same nature we see in the film. So where does this position the viewer? How does she position the viewer, and in what way is there an active rather than a passive spectatorship? Lots to think about!
The beach. A beach. Somewhere. It doesn’t matter where we are, and Abbas Kiarostami knows this. What matters is his recording of the soothing and calming waves, small but significant in their way across the beach sand. The first take of Kiarostami’s Five, which he dedicated to Ozu, is a meditative exercise. There are slow films, in which genuinely nothing is happening and emphasis is placed on simply breathing with ‘frames of nature’, and then there are slow films in which quite a bit is happening; there is dialogue, there is music, there is a plot that is pushed forwards. The Iranian director has created a film that resembles very much the former, with its five long-takes which show very little and which ask us to become meditative of nature.
The beginning of Five is a record of smooth waves arriving at the beach, seizing a small piece of wood and shifting it from one place to another. Kiarostami keeps the camera at a slightly high angle, which, to me, wasn’t intuitive. Whenever I film the water, I try to do it almost on level. I don’t know why this is more intuitive to me than any other angle. At the same time, Kiarostami put the viewer into the position of…exactly, the viewer. We usually see the water from above, bending down to examine something closely. And this is what we do with that small piece of wood, over and over again, for about 10 to 15 minutes, a wonderful exercise in staying with an image and with the sound. After a couple of minutes, it is perfectly fine (and probably acceptable, too) to close your eyes and imagine the piece of wood being shifted by the water, to imagine the waves; everything begins to happen in your imagination, the actual film image is no longer needed.
This is different in the next long take, which shows us primarily elderly people walking past the camera (which still focuses on the sea in the background) somewhere at the coast. People come and go, most of them alone. The motion that we could observe in the first take is very different here, seemingly more regular, albeit not as smooth. But it also appears slower. I haven’t yet figured out why that is the case. Perhaps it is the sort of visual pauses this take takes in between people entering and leaving the frame. Besides, people simple walk past the camera…there is, in fact, more happening in the meditative scene at the beginning of the film because there are a lot of details to observe. It takes a long time before this chain is broken; four people stop in front of the camera and have a conversation. It’s those small events that make a film such as Five actually eventful and which do jolt us in our seats because these things don’t happen all the time as is the case in other films (which reminds me, I still need to see the films of Benning!).
If I look at those two first scenes retrospectively, I should perhaps say that the long-take in which ducks or small geese walk into and out of the frame, left and right, all the time, plenty of them, is a real explosion of action! It’s an amusing interlude just before Kiarostami plunges us into almost complete darkness. There is water, one can guess, perhaps a lake where frogs sit at the shore and help create a very special night-time atmosphere. There is also a vague reflection of something that, with time, turns out to be the moon – a beautiful take that, to me, brings home the idea of observing nature.
The use of the night with a hint of light reminded me strongly of Italian film artist Enzo Cillo, whose work is often using the night to its advantage and who plays with our expectations. Kiarostami remains with this scene for quite some time. It felt like the longest take in the film and what followed was perhaps the most beautiful recording of the entire film: the director remains at the shore, clouds begin to cover the moon and the screen turns black. We hear thunder and lightnings light up the lake. In split seconds only we see heavy rain drumming on the lake. We hear nature at its most forceful…and all of a sudden, it is quiet again. The clouds disappear and the reflection of the moon on the surface of the lake reappears; what a beautiful sequence! I could have watched this for hours. There are no words for this.
This very take, the end of the film, made me wonder where it would be best to see the film. Is it even a film, or is it video art? I watched it on my TV and I never felt so strongly about stopping the film because it felt wrong to watch it in my living room on a television. Five is an installation piece, not a cinema piece. To me personally, the film does not appeal to the communal, the “together” in us as film viewers. I truly believe that Five is a film that needs to be seen in a sort of dark room, alone, perhaps as a sort of event which allows one to walk (alone) from room to room, from screen to screen. The very last take, in particular, is not a cinematic piece, it is a call for experiencing the viewed, which would perhaps be done best with the help of huge, almost overwhelming screens. That would be my dream condition for viewing the film again, because it’s a wonderful film, simple, but so lovely. A real meditation in which I want to become immersed fully for the duration of just over an hour.
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It doesn’t happen very often that I have to rewatch a film because I forgot about its contents. In fact, it never happened to the degree I experienced it with Khristine Gillard’s Cochihza (2013). I loved the film the first time I saw it, and this was only a week ago. But a couple of days later, I couldn’t remember a single scene. I could have said that the film was special, and maybe my not recording this beauty is an indicator of that. Or maybe it isn’t, and I merely try to justify an odd thing that happened to me after having seen a good film.
Cochihza is my first slow film from Nicaragua, or my first ever film set in Nicaragua. It reminded me of aspects I had seen in Filipino films, particularly those of Lav Diaz, and films from Mexico. And yet, Cochihza was different. It is more rooted in the symbiosis of Man and Nature than any other film I have seen so far, I believe. It is so peaceful, so smooth, so embracing.
There is also something mysterious without really putting it on its sleeves. I only need to return to the beginning. Two men are playing a board game, and I have no idea what they are actually playing. It’s curious, and the director returns several times to it. Without us seeing the game at first, Gillard shows us a long shot of the Concepción volcano on Ometepe Island, off the coast of Nicaragua. And then we hear two male voices speaking about betting. “It’s time to bet”, one of them says. “Bet the Purgatory, I’ll bet Hell.” A little later, one of the says “We’re not gambling the sky…because we have already won it.”
This scene, right at the beginning of the film after a black screen with drum music that reminded me of the procession we see in Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012), to me, set in motion my curiosity, but not this impatient type of curiosity. It was a soothing curiosity that , something that made me feel I was in good hands. And I know that this might sound odd given that we’re speaking about a film here, but this is exactly how I felt.
Maybe one of the things you will feel when you see the film is that there is time. There is time for everything, and you don’t even have to hurry to enjoy this time, or to use it. No, you do not have more time when you hurry. It’s make-believe, and people still follow this evil of modern times, although they know that time is still progressing with the same speed. All you do is exhaust yourself and miss out on being in the present. The people in Gillard’s film are aware of this and simply live according to natural time (as opposed to mechanical time). They rest, they play games, they enjoy just being. They do work, but they do it at their own pace.
Presence, being in the present, being in the here and now, and cherish it – this is Cochihza. Gillard is careful with her camera, keeping it at a distance, trying not to interfere. She observes, observes freely, and always shows us the Concepción volcano that has a magnificent beauty and power to it. In one shot, in the middle of the film, there is a superb long shot that shows the volcano and the clouds moving across it – a breathtaking spectacle, and something that asks me to return to Lav Diaz one more time, this time to his nine-hour film Death in the Land of Encantos (2007). The film is set in the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Mayon and a typhoon that had followed in autumn 2006. Diaz includes several shots of this perfect cone, while at the same time, in voice overs, letting us know that the volcano, or volcanos in general, have a special force.
They give and they take; they give us fertile soil and they take our lives in natural disasters. Nature destroys. Nature gives birth. The people in Gillard’s film live according to this principle. There is also an appreciation for ancient traditions, cultures, beliefs, thoughts, which we have almost forgotten.
I probably haven’t said much substantial things about the film, but somehow I really can’t. If I was to summarise the film, I’d say nothing more than “It’s a meditation on being in the present”. This is what I feel deep down in my heart and my gut.
P.S.: I don’t know whether the DVD of the film is still available. Amazon doesn’t give any results, but it might be possible to order a copy from the distributor alter ego films based in Belgium. The DVD would come with French and English subtitles. You can contact the distributor here.
A man and a woman walk slowly through the woods. The camera follows their steps. They seem exhausted. The woman stumbles and tries to hold on to the jacket sleeve of the man. Birds are chirping, crows are cawing. There is something both peaceful and ominous in the air.
Claudio Romano’s Ananke is an observation of our selves, in parts based on Greek mythology. Romano explained the meaning of the film’s title, which, at the same time, is the name of the goat the two unnamed characters own, in an interview:
In greek mythology, Ananke stands for necessity. Ananke is the force that governs everything. It’s the deification of the unalterable necessity of fate, which is an unavoidable principle and a regulative law, without which we would be swallowed by Chaos.
This chaos is palpable in Romano’s film. His two characters go about their daily life. Very much in the style of Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which the Italian director wasn’t aware of while he was working on his own film, the film shows the man and the woman get dressed, comb their hair, eat. In long observing takes, Romano depicts the weight of time which weighs heavily on the little house the film is predominantly set in. Damages on walls become wounds, wounds become scars. The ageing interior of the house has something mysterious to it, a mystery that also envelops the two characters. Who are they? What is their relationship to each other? While in Tarr’s film the relationship between the man (father) and the woman (daughter) is clear, Romano keeps it open, asking the viewer to decide about what s/he sees in those two characters.
The film’s idyllic atmosphere and its peace is disrupted when chaos breaks out. Ananke, the characters’ goat, named after the Greek goddess, disappears and sets a desperate search in motion. The sudden absence of the goat brings the people’s dependancy on it into the open. What becomes apparent is not the fear of what has become of the animal, but rather the fear of what will become of themselves. Ananke becomes a mirror we hold up to ourselves, because the film isn’t so much about the two characters, or the goat. It is a film that represents Man’s relationship to Nature.
To me, this is a moving-image representation of what I have been mentioned several times in connection to traditional Chinese landscape painting. Contrary to Western landscape painting, Man was the crowning glory. He overpowered Nature. This wasn’t the way Chinese painters perceived of Man’s role. He was simply one part of the whole, a piece that adds to the vast jigsaw puzzle called Life. Romano shows in Ananke that Man still very much considers himself to be the crowning glory and that he believes he can master Nature.
But it’s not that simple. Nature has its own ways, as the goat’s disappearance shows. And this is precisely where Man’s perception of himself begins to show cracks. “Anake! Ananke!”, the woman shouts over and over again, her voice almost terrified. Her terrified shouting, her desperate searches – all of this has its root in her realisation that she and the man who accompanies her are no longer in a position of power. They’re acted upon, and struggle with their role.
What remained for me after the film was the woman’s desperate shouts. They are still ringing in my ears when I think of the film. Ananke is a film about power, in some ways, but also about a lack thereof, about emptiness, which is palpable in every frame. It is perhaps best to end this post with Romano’s own words, who describes this interest in absence and emptiness:
Emptiness, or absence, is maybe the main theme of the film and the most important concept of my style, my method, my filmmaking. Absence is all I search, in life as well. To discard everything, to taste the void. Absence means to not see, to not perceive, and also to see and to listen elsewhere. Absence is also a political choice, an essential life choice to me. It’s about focusing on what’s not there, what we cannot see, to appreciate what is there and what we do see. To claim my presence in the void, to not occupy common spaces. This is related to Nature, to God, or spirits, in my opinion. The absence of the goat, for example, is more than a vanishing. It reminds us we cannot manage everything. Almost everything happens out of our control and an explanation is not needed. The absence of an explanation: this is another concept very important to me.
There is something sublimely beautiful about Mark John Ostrowski’s film Sixty Spanish Cigarettes (2015). Fifteen minutes into the film, an extreme long shot captures the sea and coast in the background. From the right hand side of the frame, a small boat comes into view. Ostrowski’s camera stays with the boat and follows it. Even in this extreme long-shot, we can see how the boat is moved by the wind and the waves. The sun is shining from behind a few clouds, it seems. The image is not in colour, even though you would perhaps think that. Coastal images in colour are always superb.
But no. Ostrowski works against our expectations. He frustrates us. Scenes of blissful contemplation are interrupted by hard cuts to a black screen. Those contemplative scenes of land- and seascapes, for instance, feel like a carrot Ostrowski is hanging in front of our eyes. But he takes that carrot away as soon as we have almost reached a state of contemplation. We cannot contemplate everything at once. We have to give it time. We have to be patient in order to reach this desired state. Ostrowski works well in alternating beautifully slow shots with a black screen, the latter making us hyper-aware of where we are.
Paradoxically, Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is about movement, and yet it gives us no feeling of speed at all. We see the protagonist walking through several different (beautiful) landscapes, which reminded me strongly of those used in Albert Serra’s Birdsong (2008). The clouds are brushing slowly over the hills, while the man is often dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape. He is alone, alone on his way to an unknown location. At times, he stops to light a cigarette. At other times, he simply rests. It is this solitude which gives us a feeling of slowness, a sense of pause. The repeated scenes of a man’s walking through an empty landscape brought a wonderful book back into my head; The Philosophy of Walking. If you haven’t read it, please do get yourself a copy.
Ostrowski’s film shows the director’s superb photographic eye. Many of his shots are beautifully composed. They could easily be photos in an album, or large prints in a gallery. To me, the visual beauty of the film was also its strongest asset; the viewer in awe of nature, in awe of simple but expressive architecture. Ostrowski’s long-takes of those “photos” helped me to pause, to be in the present but also to wonder what the protagonist was really up to. I’m not entirely sure whether this is ever fully revealed in the film, but it is of little interest in any case. Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is more of an atmospheric film than about a set narrative persistently progressing within the film’s 60 minutes running time. It reminded me of Martin Lefebvre’s modes of viewing; the narrative mode and the spectacular mode. Many slow films, which most certainly includes Ostrowski’s film, operate very much in the spectacular mode, even though there is a narrative mode in all. But the narrative mode is suppressed in many instances to give way to contemplation.
I believe that the film could have been a tick shorter in order to make full use of its shots. I’m not entirely sure when this shot appears, perhaps after around 45 to 50min. There is a beautiful extreme long shot of a landscape at the coast, with the protagonist sitting on a rock or something similar. He has his back turned to us and is looking at the scenery, like us. I expected the film to cut there. It would have been the most fitting and most suitable ending for the film, but unfortunately Ostrowski did not cut there and kept going instead. The final images, to me,weakened the film slightly because they were not entirely necessary.
Nevertheless, with Sixty Spanish Cigarettes, Ostrowski has created a beautiful piece of Slow Cinema, which, regardless of whether or not he continues this slow journey, adds him to my list of directors to look out for in future. If the film runs at a festival near you, I highly recommend watching it!
Three months ago, I have moved to Brittany after two pretty depressing years in the north of France. Now that the stressful study time (PhD time) is over, I’m trying to take a lot more time for me and my natural surrounding. My new home is a two to three minute walk away from a canal where you can have a daily walk and watch the ducks making their way to whatever place they would like to go. A five minute walk away is a prairie, a sort of wild place; lots of trees, bushes, birds and even rabbits! If the weather allows it, I’ll make sure to walk through this peaceful place, a place where I can breathe, where I can think or not think, where I can just be.
Now, why am I telling you all this, you might wonder. When I walk through the prairie, I’m always thinking of Martynas Kundrotas’ Wanderer, a simple short film about a young wanderer roaming about in nature. I agree, it doesn’t sound like the most spectacular film, and it is, in fact, the least spectacular film I have offered on tao films so far. I have programmed it nevertheless, because I think that Kundrotas’ Wanderer is the closest a slow film comes to what I think some slow film directors want to achieve: bring us, disconnected as we are from our natural surrounding, back to our environment.
I believe that we have lost touch with nature. If anything, we think we’re the master of nature, which is also shown in Western painting. I spoke about Chinese painting on this blog before and how Chinese painters painted Man always in a sort of miniature size in order to show that nature is more powerful, more forceful. The size of humans in Western painting is an indication of what we think of ourselves: we’re the crowning glory, we have the power to control nature. Indeed, our relationship to nature is one of control, power and exploitation. We straighten rivers; we hunt animals just for the fun of it; we cut down trees because they’re in our way; we exploit our natural resources in order to live in luxury. If we do walk through a park here and there, it is only to walk through. It’s usually not in order to stop and look at trees, grass, or flowers.
Looking at the bark of a tree, for longer than a second, as does Kundrotas’ wanderer, is the opposite of our terribly fast life. We need an adrenaline kick nowadays in order to feel alive, and the bark of a tree is everything but. However, the more time you spend looking, the more you see. There is so much life, a life that runs parallel to others, but a life which we aren’t aware of, because we don’t take the time to become aware of it in the first place.
Kundrota’s wanderer roams through fields, touching the grass. He stands at a riverbed in the rain, seemingly enjoying every drop that falls from the sky. While we would open our umbrellas or run for cover, the wanderer remains at one with nature. Water, precious source of life, is something else we merely use without being aware of the meaning of it for us. We have become ignorant, blind, and numb, and Kundrotas attempts to rectify this. Wanderer is not a film that seeks to teach. Rather, in simple, unspectacular frames, the director tries to raise awareness; awareness of what what is around us, awareness of what we no longer see.
He very much follows Chantal Akerman’s mantra, which I described last week. In order to see, you need to look for longer than a few seconds. Seeing means more than recognising. It means getting to know, it means letting oneself drift off maybe for a chance to learn something new. It is entirely up to you whether you take the journey with the wanderer or whether you dismiss the reality of what nature really is and what it means to us, to our presence, and that, without it, we wouldn’t be here.
Who, or maybe what, is Homo Sapiens? Wise man, they say. But is Homo Sapiens just that? Does Homo Sapiens stand entirely for the human being we are? I’m not so sure. And I think Nikolas Geyrhalter’s superb poetic piece Homo Sapiens is, in effect, posing this question without giving answers.
Geyrhalter does not focus on the living aspects of Homo Sapiens, but of what Homo Sapiens has left behind. His film is about abandoned places, empty places, spaces where nature takes over as if man has never been there. Man exists as a spectre. He is in the buildings Geyrhalter films, the buildings which are not far from collapsing, from falling into pieces. He is in the abandoned playgrounds, in the abandoned train stations. He hovers like a ghost over every single image of Homo Sapiens. You can feel him, but you will never go beyond this feeling.
What takes over instead is a beautiful, intriguing soundscape. I closed my eyes from time to time to listen to the sounds. I could never tell where I was, but did that really matter? The sounds took me into an eerie, unnatural world, which at times reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, reinforced once I opened my eyes again and saw abandoned buildings. It felt like being in a zone, in Tarkovsky’s zona, where life and death exists in the same image.
The images might be static. They might show nothing interesting. What is interesting instead is what is going on in your mind. We’re speaking of yes boredom here. If you’re willing to take on a film of 90 minutes which shows nothing but run-down buildings, you begin to create your own narrative. What games did the children play in that playground overgrown with grass? What film did they show in that decayed filmhouse? How many people used to come every night for their evening entertainment? Who was the person who left his or her bike under a shed at that abandoned train station in Japan?
Why did the people leave in the first place? I started to wonder why the places I saw had been abandoned. I began to think of Fukushima. I began to think of war. I had all kinds of things in my head. In fact, my mind felt very different from what the images showed. My mind was busy making up fictional stories about what happened at the places I saw. I made up fictional stories about the people who shaped those places. Who were they? And, more importantly, when were they there?
Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens is full of fascinating shots. Almost every frame is a beauty in itself. It’s incredible how much beauty you can find in destruction and abandonment. Homo Sapiens achieves this through perfect framing. This reminds me again of something I have read somewhere (God knows where!) and which applies so well to slow films: it doesn’t matter what you show. It’s a question of how you show it. You can show the most simple things, but they can become complex and special depending on how you show them. This is the case with Geyrhalter’s film.
I suppose many people would just walk past those abandoned places, but he makes us stop for a moment. He makes us look at them, and he gives us time to appreciate what we see. Wee see the past, the present and the future. We see what we built. We see what is now decaying. And we see how the planet will look like after Homo Sapiens is gone. Regardless of what we’re building right now, nature will take over. It is nature that is wise. It is patiently waiting for its time, for its time to breathe and for its time to expand.