Abendland – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2011)

The first time I came across the work of Nikolaus Geyrhalter was when I watched his absolutely superb Homo Sapiens, which was so rich, so affective and so beautiful that I had always wanted to explore the director’s work in more detail. The opportunity comes at the right time because Icarus Films released a DVD Box set with six of Geyrhalter’s films, including, of course, Homo Sapiens. For The Art(s) of Slow Cinema, I will review each one of those films, looking forward, in particular, to his long-form documentaries Elsewhere and Over The Years, whose running time exceed three hours. Abendland, the film I watched last night, is one of Geyrhalter’s shorter works, and, in some ways, foreshadows his later film Homo Sapiens in its subject treatment.

Homo Sapiens focuses on run down buildings, places, structures. It shows the remnants of us, of our lives, the remnants of our ever-present desire to strive for higher only in order to fall low. Homo Sapiens is a film that, to me, shows what we humans will leave behind on this planet. Neglect, abandonment and decay are three dominating visual characteristics that, in Geyrhalter’s breathtaking framing, leaves one in awe – in awe of the sheer beauty of ruins, but also in awe of the incredible waste, the waste of human labour, of resources, of dreams and desires. Homo Sapiens could be a look into a future that is yet to come.

Abendland, on the other hand, brings the human, who is, ironically, absent from Homo Sapiens, the film that actually deals with him most explicitly, back into frame. Abendland is the German term for “the West”. It’s where the sun sets and where the night, where obscurity reigns. It’s a traditional description, a traditional belief, something that divided the world in two; east and west, Abendland and Morgenland, sunset and sunrise. Geyrhalter’s Abendland is, as the film title might suggest, set entirely at night. It begins with a high angle shot of a surveillance camera, which is launched from van. The cam is moved by a man inside the van, a man from Eastern Europe, who looks out for possible trespassing. The film is from 2011, but it hasn’t lost its topicality in the last seven years. On the contrary, Abendland contains several scenes that refer to migration, asylum seekers, refugees. The film takes on another dimension in these days, when our continent as a whole struggles to contain rising nationalism and exclusion while facing an influx of people who seek shelter from autocratic and oppressive governments and societies.

We are in a Roma camp in Eastern Europe that is scheduled to be dismantled. 39 families will be moved to other camps. At night, a man, holding a list of names in his hands, tells everyone when the bus would pick him/her up. The concern for the possibility of families staying together is prominent; will I be able to go with my parents? Where will my grandfather stay? If he gets picked up on Saturday, why am I going to be picked up a day later? There is little space for individual concerns. The directive is clear: clear the camp and send the bulldozers in. It reminds one of the jungle in Calais. It puts on screen what the new Italian government is planning: the deportation of “illegal” Romas, and I put illegal in quotation marks because the term has become an easy excuse for politicians who simply want to rid themselves of foreigners. The discussion of the transport of the 39 families is followed by a long shot of the destroyed camp. Fire, smoke, ruins. What has happened to the families, no one knows.

We are patrolling a border fence around Ceuta with the Spanish Guardia Civil, who look for illegal migrants. We are with the British police, steering mobile CCTV cameras in order to observe the nightlife of people. Zoom in on a “troublemaker”, a man in a wheelchair; zoom in on a black man waiting for someone; zoom in on a heated conversation between three men on a bench. The sheer number of cameras that observe people is stunning. It is a visual manifestation of our addiction to technology, to cameras, to surveillance, to presumed, but false safety. It is an image that makes one think of possible abuse, the loss of privacy in societies that have become more and more paranoid in recent years. The night, the obscurity that surrounds us, doesn’t help the paranoia.

We are in an asylum seeker camp in Germany. A woman tells a man from Lagos that he’s got two choices after his request had been rejected. Either he begins a life in Germany, illegally, sleeping in the streets, running from the police, or returning voluntarily to Lagos as a man with dignity. She says, “You might want to go back and start a business and be successful.” The irony. Or is it sarcasm? Or is she – sorry for my language – just taking the piss? And all of this is juxtaposed with the other side of nightlife in the so-called Abendland. The other side of the coin, the side of excess at Munich’s Oktoberfest, for example, which seems like a parallel world, far removed from helpless asylum seekers, from a group of elderlies being looked after at a care home, removed from premature babies fighting for their lives. The differences are stark, brutal, thought-provoking.

In that way, Abendland is a mirror image of our society. With the help of simple shots, but suggestive juxtapositions, Geyrhalter poses important questions. The film shows us the multiple, often contradictory, faces of society, of life, of a life that continues when most people sleep. In his superb book La Nuit, Michael Foessel describes the night as a possibility of live without a witness that observes you. Geyrhalter has become this witness, and so have we. We witness complex worlds, opposing universes, personal limits and political concerns. There is the care for our own and the rejection of the other. There is an exclusive joy for us, and a struggle put on the shoulders of others. There is a fence, a border, a solid frontier between us and them. Abendland might have been made seven years ago, but what we see is as true as seven years ago, and makes for an eye-opening watch.

(Check the official site of Icarus Film for more details about the DVD Box set and how to order it.)

The Woman Who Left – Lav Diaz (2016)

Hooray! I have finally managed to see Lav Diaz’s The Woman Who Left, which won the Venice International Film Festival about two years ago. I’m always a bit behind with those films now, as things have changed quite considerably since I finished my PhD thesis on the director. In any case, the main thing is that I still catch his films, albeit now with a delay of several years.

The Woman Who Left has been hyped quite a bit, similar to his other “short film” Norte, The End of History. It is a little under four hours long, and therefore comparatively accessible. I see more and more documentaries that last for hours and hours. It has become a thing now, and I quite like it. Especially for documentaries, time is essential. It’s about investigating, about exploring, and all of this takes time. In recent years, Diaz has reduced the running time of his films with the sole exception of his first Berlinale film Hele that was very much in line with his earlier films that have turned Diaz into a real challenger of traditional film spectatorship. The Woman is, I find, close to the story of Norte, and it made me wonder whether those two will, in the end, become part of a trilogy about crime and punishment, a theme that is very much at the heart of both films, a red thread, a line that the director walks us through over the course of the films’ running times.

Both films are about injustice, about the failure of the Philippine justice system, of arbitrary arrests and the subsequent destruction of a life. Of course, one of the major differences between Norte and The Woman is the use of colour in the former, and the use of black-and-white in the latter. The Woman is visually very interesting. From the beginning, there is a nice shift apparent in the way Diaz records his scenes. He uses a lot of light (if deliberately, I don’t know), which gives some of the scenes an interesting high contrast between light and shadow, while at the same time just shying away from actually overexposing the image. Also, Diaz continues his exploration of the night, which he does in pretty much all of his other films, and which has always struck me. A couple of months ago, I wrote another post on the use of the night, the use of darkness, and how it contributes to the “slow” experience of a film. The night in Diaz’s films always has something dangerous to it, as it does in real life in any case. Diaz makes sure not to use too much extra light. He shows the night as it is where he films: pitch black, dangerous, lurking, creepy at times. A time, a space where people hide, where people seek refuge, but also where people work.

The actual story of the film is quickly summed up: Horacio, falsely imprisoned for a murder she hadn’t committed, leaves prison and seeks revenge, wanting to kill the man who was behind her arrest and her trial. The film begins with scenes of Horacio in prison, teaching other inmates and children. 30 years – this is the time she had to spend behind bars for a murder that, in fact, a friend of hers committed, a friend who then framed her. 30 years – this is the time wasted, the time lost. Horacio didn’t see her children growing up. She sees her daughter when out of prison, but her son remains lost without a trace. Her husband died while she was in prison. 30 years – this is the time it took for her to lose everything she’s ever had. The obvious anger and thirst for revenge becomes one of the main themes, albeit Diaz stays away, as usual, from showing violence. The director focuses on the tension that is boiling underneath, the tension that is there, dormant and yet fully alive. It only needs a small kick in order to show itself.

Perhaps because of all the social work she had done in prison, Horacio (Renata in some scenes, depending on the person she is with) presents herself as the good person, as the helper, the sort of rock in a stormy sea. She’s drowning in thoughts of her own, but she’s nevertheless there for others. She helps her former caretaker to start a new life. She helps a homosexual after he had been raped and beaten. She gives money to a woman, who is clearly suffering from severe mental health issues, and also buys her food. But here it is: she does so in order to get closer to her enemy: Rodrigo Trinidad, her ex-boyfriend, who is responsible for her imprisonment. Horacio is a good woman, but she has also learned to be cunning, cold, and, above all, rational.

All of those elements – the mise-en-scène, the storyline, the aesthetics, the characters – make for a very good film. The Woman starts on a promising premise. Unfortunately, this is where the film remains: at its premise. As with NorteThe Woman is obviously hyped because it is an easy film. It is Diaz’s most accessible film. The storyline is easy to follow. There are no twists, no turns. The viewer knows what’s happening next. It’s a film that makes the viewer feel comfortable in his/her seat because there’s nothing lurking around the corner, nothing that can shock. Diaz favours a straight, linear storyline over a complex engagement with the actual subject the way we know it. What happens in the next scene is evident. What happens at the end is evident. The viewer doesn’t have to engage. S/he can sit back and have the film wash over him/her.

I found this quite stunning because I know Diaz’s stand towards popular cinema, but The Woman is very much in line with the concept of popular cinema. Minus the film length and the long takes, the way the story is constructed is spoon-feeding the audience, which he had always opposed. At the same time, I reckon that both Norte and The Woman are ways to make his work more popular, making it in turn more likely to receive financial support for his more arty projects. And going down this lane means, unfortunately, accepting a drop in quality of your own work. It is not just the easy storyline that made it difficult for me to watch this film. It is also the acting. Horacio, played by Charos Santos-Concio, was a difficult character to follow. Her acting wasn’t good, or rather it was what it was: it was acting. With the exception of the mentally handicapped woman and the homosexual, the actors weren’t very good. Contrary to actors in Diaz’s previous films, those characters weren’t living their roles. They did what they got paid for doing: acting. This has a detrimental effect on how the film is perceived, namely as a film, an artificial construct, not as an experience.

I have to say that, sadly, this was the most difficult film by Diaz to sit through. For me, personally, of course. I’m sure that other people think differently, and that’s perfectly fine. I have troubles seeing people try to fit into their roles, trying to be convincing actors and actresses for four hours. Trying to follow an easy storyline without falling asleep. Then I prefer eight hours of twists and turns, characters who don’t act but play themselves, and a storyline that doesn’t wash over me, but that keeps me engaged. I found eight hours Melancholia much easier than The Woman, because it kept me awake, it kept me engaged. The Woman is, as I said above, the easiest Lav Diaz film. That might be a good thing because people can discover his work. At the same time, he shouldn’t be judged on this film alone. He made superb films before. Difficult films, difficult to access, difficult to sit through. But if you really want to get to know Diaz, then you need to give those films a try after you have seen The Woman.

The Essence of Place – Susannah Ramsay (2017)

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!

Five – Abbas Kiarostami (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The nocturnal and the slow

Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) impressed me with its images that had been shot at night. The almost complete blackness of the night, seen through the eyes of a watchman in his tower at a harbour, was stunning. Most of the film is set in one way or another in the darkness of the night. It has something uncomfortable around it, something mysterious. The night is a time of disguise. It’s not just people who want to disguise who they really are. It’s also trees, bushes, buildings – everything around us looks different than during the day.

The Man from London (Béla Tarr, 2007)

Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 2010, also has extensive night scenes. These are the scenes when mysterious figures appear, ghosts, people who return from the afterlife in order to connect with loved ones they had left behind when they died. The night is a time when the living and the dead come together. Ghosts can only be seen at night.

Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)

Horse Money, the latest film by Pedro Costa, is an investigation of memory and trauma. A lot of the film is set in the dark, which stands for the uncertainty about memories. The darkness doesn’t allow to see clearly; memories are everything but clear. It takes a journey through this darkness in order to see clearly, if one can manage at all.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014)

Quite a number of slow films make use of the night. I only realised this when I read a new book, which has just been released earlier this year, and which I picked up in our local book shop in preparation for an installation event I’m working on. It is difficult to think about the night nowadays. There are lights everywhere. Unless you live in the countryside, far away from civilisation, there is a chance that you have difficulties seeing the night as what it is, namely as dark time which embalms you. What I never realised until I had picked up La nuit : Vivre sans témoin by Michael Foessel is that the night / the darkness has a significant influence on how we perceive time, and this might be quite a fascinating aspect to follow when it comes to Slow Cinema. In many action films, the night is used for chases, for police operations, for illegal deeds.

In slow films, the meaning of the night is, in most cases, quite different, as the above examples show, albeit Tarr’s film is based on a crime the watchman watches at the beginning of the film. Nevertheless, the night then becomes something else.

Penser la nuit, c’est penser la manière dont l’obscurité change notre perception, transforme notre rapport aux autres ou modifie notre expérience du temps.

Foessel makes very clear throughout his book that the night changes our perception. The darkness we’re surrounded by makes it at times difficult to see. Let’s take a journey through the woods, for instance. No street lamps, no torch. Just you and the woods. This might be an extreme example. However, it best illustrates Foessel’s point: our perception changes and because of that, our sense of time changes, too. Why is that the case? There is no clarity in our vision. We cannot see details. If at all, we can see no more than silhouettes. This ultimately means that we have to walk slower in order to make our way through the woods. It’s not just our walk that slows down, though. For many people, being alone in the woods at night is a scary thing. You need to be on alert at all times in order not to become the victim of wild animals. Time stretches. The night feels so much longer than it usually does when you go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 7am.

La nuit impose cette suspension au moins le temps nécessaire pour reconnaître une forme ou distinguer un visage.

The lack of clarity, of visibility, means that we need more time in order to identify what is in front of us. We’re not entirely blind, yet our vision is restricted. While we have no problem at all to see during day time, the night challenges our eyes, and slows us down. We depend more on our hearing than on our vision, because we have no other choice.

I don’t want to suggest at all that slow-film directors use the night in their films for exactly those reasons. I’m sure they don’t think about stuff like that at all. But there is quite an interesting link between the meaning of the night in their films, and the cinematic slowness that is employed. In the end, it is not only the character that faces the darkness. If the screen goes dark, the viewer faces the same darkness as does the character. That means that our reading of whatever is on screen (or of what isn’t) becomes a slow adventure and adds to the feeling of slowness of the entire film. I will certainly keep thinking this through and maybe follow this blog post up with another one, one that is more detailed!