Pripyat – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (1999)

A woman is walking through a dead landscape. Nature has taken over what Man has built. It’s wilderness we see. “These wild apples grew after the accident. There weren’t apples here before,” she says while slightly turning towards us. She doesn’t stop. She keeps walking. Always on the move. She is a scientist, spending her day in a contaminated lab and checking radiation levels. She had worked in the city centre, she says. And at the nuclear power plant. Of her flat, nothing is left. She enters a rundown building that used to be her home. In one room, she finds a book on the ground that used to belong to her son. “It’s all radiated,” she says, and puts the book on top of the window sill.

It is an eerie but magnificent, haunting but beautiful end to a ghostly film. At the end of the 1990s, Nikolaus Geyrhalter explored “The Zone” around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It often feels like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, more modern perhaps, less philosophical, but just as important. The extensive ending, the woman walking through a wilderness which used to be her home, turns into a hypnotising journey through a place out of time. Pripyat is as timeless as Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens. Although it is anchored to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in 1986, it feels as though the film tells more than one story. The black-and-white shots of a rundown, deserted area speak of universal calamity.

Pripyat used to be a workers’ city. A city built from scratch, with a cinema, a stadium. Entertainment – that was important for those who worked at the nuclear power plant. And the city had it all. Geyrhalter introduces us to the now deserted landscape with long shots. His shots are memories, old photographs of things that have been. The deserted buildings become scars that have been left behind by a disaster, which disjointed time. It has blurred the line between past and present. Pripyat shows that both exist at the same time. Life and death – they’re always in one and the same frame. A broken-down electricity pole in an otherwise deserted landscape. A bird’s nest on top of the pole. A sign of life? Absence and presence. (In)Visibility. 

“Well, we don’t call it ‘The Zone’,” an elderly couple tells us. The man confesses that he had been homesick after he and his family had been evacuated, so they returned to live in Pripyat, right in the centre of the contaminated zone that might remain lifeless for decades to come. “I can tell you, there’s no life here. There’s no on else, no neighbours,” he says.

What you see is what you believe. Geyrhalter sure shows us the dying city. Every day, a bit more of it is taken back by nature. Grass, fern, weed, trees. Despite several interviews, the film frames are drained of people. They’re drained of life. And yet. One security guard on the scrapyard for cars says that he got used to the danger. “You cannot see the radiation,” he says. But it is in every frame, an invisible presence that is really the core of the film. A hovering ghost from the past that makes what we see appear timeless. And so do those who have lost their lives in the disaster. They’re still there, invisible reminders of man’s self-destructive development in the name of science and progress. “He has never been found,” a foreman of the power plant’s Unit 3 says while standing in front of a memorial set up for one of the victims who died in Unit 4. Unit 4 – symbol of the worst nuclear destruction since WW II. An accident. An accident that should have been a reminder of the dangers of nuclear development. We didn’t listen. Fukushima was next.

“Even if I’m sent to prison for this. They can lock me up,” the woman scientist says when she speaks about helpers who had arrived from all over the Soviet Union and the world in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. She believes that many have since lost their lives. They needed experts, she says, not young man who didn’t even know what radiation was. She accuses the government of sending unknowing people intentionally to the disaster area. 

There is anger. There is concern. One woman is still waiting to be evacuated. For six years. Six years. She has given up believing that someone would ever resettle her. You have to make do. “You have to live and you have to work,” an old woman at the doctor’s says. “But how are you supposed to live?” Geyrhalter shows us people who have been forgotten by the government. The present become the absent on a larger scale, in another dimension. Only a few years after the disaster, the Soviet Union collapsed. The responsibilities shifted. Those outside the zone continue their lives. Those inside are stuck in an atemporal bubble.

Pripyat is very much a precursor to Homo Sapiens. You cannot ignore the similarity between the two films. What he had started in Pripyat, namely the investigation of what mankind possibly leaves behind one day, Geyrhalter pushes a bit further in Homo Sapiens. There are no more men, no more interviews. Only empty frames, deserted buildings. An apocalyptic feeling which starts with Pripyat. Homo Sapiens feels like a sequel, and which, I might say, deserves another instalment. Geyrhalter is, next to Wang Bing, one of the most important documentary filmmakers working at the moment. Interestingly, the two directors from two different corners of the world share a lot, even simple frames that show up in both directors’ works.

There seems to be a silent conversation between the two, a conversation through film, a conversation that is so often absent in their films. Scarce, basic, casual. If communication exists, it’s a form of communication by those left behind, forgotten, those on the margins who are cut off from the rest of society. Whose livelihood has been destroyed and who make do with what they have. Pripyat is one of those powerful films that makes one aware of the many blind spots that exist around us, of people who, despite everything, simple keep living, defiant of all external threats and neglect. Film becomes a tool to acknowledge this, to take our hats off in face of their courage, and to let them know that not everyone has forgotten.

(Pripyat is part of the newly released DVD Box set of Geyrhalter’s films called Six Films By Nikolaus Geyrhalter. You can check the website of the distributor, Icarus, for more information. I can highly recommend getting the box set!)

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.)

Man With No Name – Wang Bing (2010)

Anonymity and intimacy – these two characteristics work hand in hand in Wang Bing’s Man With No Name (2010), which is a mere glimpse of the life of a hermit, given the director’s otherwise very extensive and lengthy observations of people in their given environment. With a running time of around 90 minutes, one could almost describe it as a “normal” film. At the same time, Wang Bing’s normality differs from that of the standard viewer, showing this again and again, most recently with his eight-hour long documentary Dead Souls, which runs at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival. Man with no name feels like an insert, perhaps a bookmark or even a pause. A pause in which the director follows an anonymous subject and creates an intimate portrait of a man, of whom we know nothing but with whom we spend enough time to feel as though we’ve known him all our life.

Wang Bing’s sixth film has no beginning and no end. This negation that finds its expression already in the film title is one of the main forces throughout this observational documentary that jumps right in there, right into the heart of the story, if there was any. Wang Bing doesn’t introduce the man we’ll follow for the following ninety minutes. Stylistically, this is great, and yet it wasn’t so much by choice the director has done this. It was a necessity. The hermit he became fascinated with while shooting for another film simply did not speak. Even when Wang Bing asked him if it was okay to film him, he didn’t respond. If I remember correctly from a text I read not so long ago, the man merely responded by looking into the director’s eyes. And that was it.

All there was for Wang Bing was what he could observe. The man, perhaps in his fifties or sixties, has no name, no history, no personal stories. He is what he is: a man without a name. In a style that reminds one of West of the Tracks (2003), Wang Bing often follows the man wherever he goes. Staying behind, literally just following him, the director establishes a distance between himself and the man, but also between us and the man. He positions him in his natural environment with long and mobile shots. Over time, it becomes a film as much about the natural surrounding as it is about a man living in it and making use of it. The man uses what he can find to survive, to feed himself, to protect himself from the weather. His cave is his home, his kitchen, his bed. The cave is a microcosm in which everything and nothing happens. We have three meals with the man. Wang Bing takes us into the cave, shows us how the man cuts vegetables he’s harvested with a pair of scissors, shows us how he cooks with broken pans and little else.

Nothing seems in a good shape. Everything is used, damaged, dirty. Wang Bing doesn’t paint a utopian picture, but shows life in this man’s microcosm as it is. And in doing so, he creates a remarkable admiration of some kind. An admiration of a man who has (possibly) left everything behind, who lives in solitude, removed from civilisation, in the middle of nowhere but who sustains himself without seeming to bother. Instead, it looks as though the man enjoys his freedom. Yes, if there is perhaps a third characteristic of the film – on top of anonymity and intimacy – then it must be the idea of freedom. The hermit doesn’t speak. Nor does he communicate through other ways. But the longer we stay with him, the more we get the feeling that the man is not outwardly unhappy. It feels more like a film that places a genuine emphasis on breathing space. One cannot neglect the important aspect of time and duration in Man with no name. Nevertheless, I believe that the film is more about space (in its many forms) than it is about time. It is, in some ways, an ode to space, to emptiness, to absence…and it all begins with the title.

The fact that there is no dialogue makes the film appear much slower than Wang Bing’s other films. Usually, the absence of dialogue gives way to ambient noise. Man with no name gives way to very little. We don’t hear birds, or anything else that would make us think of life. Sometimes we hear a few steps on the ground, and we also hear the heavy rain plunging from the sky towards the end of the film. But besides this, there is little else. The soundscape seems as empty as the surrounding environment. Sound tends to make us perceive the narrative progression as being faster. Dialogues, monologues, music – everything that attracts the ear is perceived faster than a collection of still images. However, it is the latter which Wang Bing focuses on. Time is seemingly stretched. It seems slower. It feels as though it is running at a different pace. And indeed, I had to think of an interview I had heard on the radio with a scientist whose name I sadly cannot remember. He said that it had been proven that time was running slower in the mountains (where our hermit is living) than in the plain. It is a very small, barely perceptible difference, which only shows on our mechanical clocks after at least 10 years. Nevertheless, it is a fact that time is different in different places. While watching the film, I could feel this difference for the first time.

I have to say that I was not a fan of what I saw at the beginning, but I became more and more enveloped by Wang Bing’s footage. I began to marvel about the idea of freedom, of the return to a life where man and nature live in harmony. For me, it was this aspect that stood out in the end, a feeling of longing in some ways, something that is easier to achieve if you’re surrounded by nothingness, regardless in what form. I believe that Man with no name is, in its very simplicity, one of the best Wang Bing films (albeit they’re all good!) and I might actually see it again!

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.

Year 2017 in review

I’m not someone who likes lists, all sorts of The best films…The worst films… etc I never saw a point of social media getting obsessed with someone’s subjective opinion, with someone they have never even met or heard of rating a particular film at the top of their list. I have been asked whether I could put a list of my top slow films together, but I will do it differently here.

First of all, I’d like to thank the over 52,000 people who have dropped by this year. Of those, over 24,000 were unique visitors, new people who have discovered The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. The blog is now five years old. I changed servers last year, so I no longer have statistics for every year. But I think that this year has been the strongest in the blog’s history and I reckon around 200,000 to 250,000 people have so far viewed the blog since October 2012. These are abstract numbers, they quantify what’s going on on the blog. To me, those numbers show the growing interest in Slow Cinema / Contemplative Cinema. It’s not my work the people come here for. I know maybe 0,5% of those who drop by. It’s their interest in this type of film that brings them to The Art(s) of Slow Cinema, away from standard writing, from standard analysis. Those people want to discover what’s beyond the already-written, the already-said, and that makes me very happy. I will keep going for as long as I can, and you can help me with that by supporting the blog on Patreon.

2017 has been a year in which I did not discover single films as such, but rather almost entire oeuvres. I looked through my posts and noticed that, unconsciously, I returned time and again to the same directors; Wang Bing and Chantal Akerman. That was completely accidental. I usually try to vary my writing, but those two directors demanded more attention from me. I watched 4 films by Wang Bing alone; 15 hours of material that really struck me. I started of with West of the Tracks, Wang Bing’s nine-hour long documentary about the collapse of the Tie Xi Qu industrial complex. It was my first long film by the Chinese director, and the more films I watched by him the more I became fascinated by how much you can do with so very little. For those who know Wang Bing, it is a well-known fact that he often works clandestinely, with a small handheld camera and no real crew. He simply records what he sees. West of the Tracks is a masterpiece that was for me this year the perfect introduction to Wang Bing’s work. I had seen one or two of his works before, but that particular film had the effect that I had missed until then: the desire to see more. And so I did; Bitter Money, a superb film about young migrant workers trying to earn a living in clothes factories; Three Sisters, a look at the life of three sisters, aged 10, 6 and 4, who live alone in the mountains as their father is a migrant worker in a city nearby; and Mrs Fang, a film that was my personal discovery of the year. If someone really forced me to name a Film of the Year, it would be Mrs Fang. My aim for next year is to see and review Crude Oil and Till Madness Do Us Part. That would complete my journey through the lengthy works of Wang Bing, and I really cannot wait to see more films in future (although they do take up a lot of time!!).

The second director who stayed with me throughout the year was Chantal Akerman. It is perhaps the coincidence of my embarking on a journey through my family history during the war that brought me closer to the films of Akerman, films that are full of history, memory, and trauma. Of course, there are films in which those themes are not as present. But the two films I did see this year (I should have seen more!) had those very much at their centre; No Home MovieAkerman’s last film, and News from Home, albeit the former is much more explicit on this and, perhaps with Là-bas, the most explicit film about the family’s past. News from Home is, now that I think about the two films in retrospect, a great companion piece to No Home Movie, a sort of mirror image. Akerman left Belgium to live and work in the US. The film shows us images of the United States in the 1970s. We never see Akerman, but we do hear her reading letters she had received from her mother. There was anxiety in the words of Akerman’s mother; anxiety about whether her daughter could make it, about whether money she had sent had arrived, about not hearing from her daughter for a long time. There was a distance that could only be bridged by letters. Then there is this moving scene in No Home Movie, with Akerman filming a Skype call she had with her mother: “I want to show that there is no distance anymore.” Akerman’s portrait of her increasingly frail mother is superb and, in some ways, went well with Wang Bing’s Mrs Fang.

Wang Bing and Chantal Akerman hardly make for cheery films. And so my counterpart to all of this was the Living trilogy by Swedish director Roy Andersson, comprised of Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007), and A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence (2014). With seven years in between each of the films, Andersson took his time to craft a superb trilogy on the human condition, on our mundane lives, our mundane struggles, and yes, also about our WTF actions, actions that make you go “yes, we do this but why the heck are we doing this in the first place?” The Living trilogy is one of the few slow films (or slow film compilation) that come with a lot of humour, even though it’s dark humour. It’s not that often that we find cheery slow films. It’s usually Albert Serra who makes up for the lack of humour in Slow Cinema. This year, I learned that Roy Andersson joins the rank of slow clowns, and I still have all his short films to watch! Very much looking forward to seeing more by Andersson in the next year.

Then there was the marvellous Five by Abbas Kiarostami, which I finally had the chance to watch, and it was one of those experiences that are difficult to forget. It’s primarily the last sequence that still stays with me, the long take of a lake at night, the moon light reflecting on the surface until dark clouds cover it and a storm arrives. An absolutely superb observation of a perfectly natural phenomenon, but filmed in a rather obscure way so that, for a long time, one wonders what’s happening. Outside my director studies this year, Five was the single most interesting film I have seen in 2017.

Overall, 2017 was a good year for slow films…at least on my blog. I have also read quite a bit. There was this great book about contemporary art and time, for example. And, of course, the most wonderful Art and Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. I already have three books in store for next year, so there will be more to come in 2018. More books, more Wang Bing and who else? We will see that soon!

I wish all of my readers a peaceful end of the year, a Happy New Year in advance, and you’ll hear from me again very soon!!

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.

Ex Libris – Frederick Wiseman (2017)

When I wrote about Frederick Wiseman’s Welfare not so very long ago, I did mention how difficult it was to classify Wiseman’s films as slow cinema. They are not slow in itself, but what makes it rather complex is the director’s in-depth observations that result in films that run for three or four hours. I should be careful and I know that I run the risk of equating length with slowness, which is not always the case. Nor is it a standard of Slow Cinema. We all know that directors such as Lav Diaz, who combines cinematic slowness and long duration, are rare. And yet, it seems impossible not to speak about Frederick Wiseman’s new film Ex Libris.

Ex Libris is the latest of Wiseman’s 40 odd films that explore, for the most part, American institutions and American society. As he explained again during the Q&A which followed the screening at the Théâtre National de la Bretagne in Rennes, these films become films only in the post-production. He tends not to prepare for his films. Instead he goes out and shoots, which, I believe, frees him from certain constraints. If you don’t know anything, you are bound to observe everything in order to learn how things work. He told us outright that he was at the NYPL only once in his life, and that was over 40 years ago. He went out without any knowledge but with the goal to find out about how this institution works. Now, at this point I feel the almost desperate need to mention that I have no respect for viewers, who believe that they know better, that they know how some directors work on set and the director doesn’t know what he himself/herself is doing. I listened to a Q&A with Béla Tarr once, after the screening of his last film The Turin Horse (2011) in Edinburgh. Some viewers took Tarr for a liar and pretended they knew what he really did or had in mind when he was on set. Some viewers tried the same with Wiseman on Sunday and I salute his inner peace! I’m sure it’s not always easy to stay calm in Q&As when the viewer thinks s/he’s king!

Wiseman’s new documentary is an almost three-and-a-half hour look at the New York Public Library. I expected a lot of scenes of people reading, researching, writing. I got almost nothing of it, because Wiseman focused on the many identities that libraries have nowadays, and perhaps must have in order to survive. The documentary’s title is a clever choice, allowing for several associations to pop up in your head once the film is running. Wiseman shows several different sites of the library, which is not at all connected to one place only. On the contrary, the New York Public Library has 87 branches and although Wiseman’s film is pretty long, it shows only a fraction of the work that is being done across those branches. And this work is impressive.

As one architect, who was amongst the finalist for redesigning one branch (or a centre? Memory fails me.) said, libraries are no longer a simple stockage for books as they used to be. Libraries are – and Wiseman shows this throughout his film – a community hub. It is a space for learning, in some ways like a school, and yet very different. People learn to read Braille; they visit workshops in which they learn about links between Marx and Lincoln; they attend public talks by authors who talk about their work (one subject I can remember dealt with Islam and slavery); they come into the library to dance, to look at rare objects in galleries/museums, to meet other people; they come to learn how to use a computer. The New York Public Library does it all, and more. Behind the scenes, Wiseman shows us how intensive the discussions are in the executive board about future goals, about how to remain relevant and justify the funding from the city they have asked for. What is it that they want to do next? What should their focus be? Is it Bestseller books, or rare research items? Is it primary education for children before they even go to school, or is it helping struggling teenagers?

Wiseman shows all of that. He records live sessions with artists and authors, but also official speeches by the director of the NYPL, or by the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He records people at the help desk; students who work with the library’s picture collection; children experimenting with robots; or a poet who wonders “What is a man?”. The director very much shows the ex, places emphasis on it as if to bring home the idea that a library is no longer just a library in the original sense. Whenever he shows scenes of quietude and peacefulness, i.e. the very essence of a library (in my mind, using it as a research place), he cuts away quickly again. Wiseman doesn’t dwell for very long on the library as a harbour of quietude. Rather, he shows the buzzing nature of it, of what it has become. This is, to me, unfortunate, because he ignores the readers and researchers who spend hours in the library in order to progress in their work. It’s their place, it becomes their home for a period of time. At the same time, I might well be stuck in my head with this image of a library being a stockage of books, which, as Wiseman perfectly demonstrates, really isn’t the case.

Ex Libris is a film to be seen this year (or next!). It’s a through investigation of the ex and of the essence of a library in our time. Without being slow, it takes its time to look at the various aspects of the life of a library as institution, as social hub, as meeting place, as a business, as a concert place, as a school, as a museum, as a research hub… Wiseman shows the fascinating diversity of what’s going on in this “stockage place of books”. Rather than being a place of quietude, it is, in fact, a beehive where something happens all the time.

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.

(If you like this blog and want to support it, you can now become a patron of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. Check out my Patreon page!)

tao films subscription pre-sale

As part of our effort to increase tao films’ visibility, we are running a pre-sale campaign for subscriptions to our VoD platform, the only platform that is dedicated to the art of contemplative cinema 🙂

There are several reasons behind this campaign. First of all, even though we started off as a no-budget platform, we can no longer hide the fact that it costs money to run a platform like this. I would love to have things differently, but it’s sadly not always possible. Our campaign is therefore an effort to raise at least 600 EUR in order to keep going for the next 12 month. It is also a way to find out whether subscriptions would be a viable way forward as the campaign will show whether there is an interest in subscriptions or whether it is more attractive to price each film individually. I believe it is the former, but we offer different price models for our campaign, so we will see what attracts people most. The money we raise with this campaign helps us not only to keep going but to focus on advertising, on partnerships, on generally increasing our visibility, especially in key cities around Europe and North America (as our main targets) in 2018.

For the duration of the campaign, we offer a one-month subscription for 10 EUR, a three-months subscription for 25 EUR, a six-months subscription for 50 EUR, a twelve-months subscription for 100 EUR and one lucky lifetime subscription for 500 EUR. Each of those subscriptions will become available in the new year and you can then decide when you want to start watching our films. All films are available to you, all the time, for the duration of your subscription.

Our campaign runs until 16 October. If you love what we do, please consider a subscription. If you cannot support us financially but love what we do, we would appreciate it if you could share the link to our campaign and tell everyone how amazing we are 🙂

Do check our campaign on Indiegogo (click, click!). Thank you so much for your support in the past. I appreciate your help and support, and I’m looking forward to continuing this contemplative journey through world cinema with you!

tao film selection and other news

Welcome to a new selection tao films films for you, handpicked just for you 🙂 Before you dive into it, let me say that tao films will start a free collection very soon. We’re currently preparing it. In order to give you a taster of our work, some films will be available for free on our platform. I’ll let you know once everything is up and running for this. And now, please welcome…

BYRON JONES by Ashish Pant (2013, US/India, 108min)

“If there is something that characterises contemporary “Slow Cinema” in particular, then it is the directors’ focus on the everyday. They hold a mirror in front of us, in front of our pains, our joys. Ashish Pant’s Byron Jones belongs to this category of filmmakers., but he stands out, taking the focus on the ordinary everyday further than other directors do. Byron Jones is a two-hour long portrait of an elderly man. We see him sleeping, showering, preparing meals, eating. In particular the last two daily habits might evoke in some viewers the memories of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman; the almost hyper-real depiction of a woman’s day-to-day going ons. Jones, a widow perhaps, lives alone, which the director enhances with an almost oppressive silence that characterises the man’s solitude. With his insistence on showing Jones’ daily activities in detail through the use of almost extreme long-takes, Pant has created a hyper-real portrait not only of Byron Jones, but of most of us.”

ART 35.5. HOURS A WEEK by Mariken Kramer and Eli Eines (2017, Norway, 22min)

“The front security door opens and the first visitors enter the National Gallery in Oslo. Another day at the gallery begins. But while this is another day of leisure for local visitors or foreign tourists, several coming from far away to see the classics, it is another day of work for the security guards who surveil the precious paintings the National Gallery is home to. Artist-filmmakers Mariken Kramer and Eli Eines, both alumni of the Trondheim Academy of Fine Art, focus in their documentary on the behind-the-scenes at the National Gallery, singling out those people who spent the most time with the paintings in front of them. In careful long takes, Kramer and Eines evoke the required slow look at a gallery, all the while speaking to the guards in order to learn about their work, but most importantly about their relationship to art. In the background of the directors’ frames, viewers speed through the different rooms only to take a picture of a famous painting; a beautiful contrast that forces us to think about our relationship to art, our willingness to take time for what surrounds us, and our appreciation of it.”

ONE TIMES ONE by Chris Bell (2016, US, 20min)

“It is not easy to leave one’s home. It is even more difficult to build a life in another country, a country that is, perhaps, very different of one’s own. Ahmad emigrated to the US from Syria but struggles to find his feet. His days are spent idling, waiting for job opportunities that rarely arise for him. One Times One tells the story of Ahmad and a curious, if at times ambiguous, companionship with Mike, a 50-something American who lost his arm in an accident and keeps himself busy by drawing cartoon characters. Chris Bell uses the same patience he has shown in his feature film The Wind That Scatters in order to dig deeper into Ahmad’s daily life and struggles. It’s an episode that plays out so many times in our world that it gets overlooked and forgotten, but Bell brings it back into light and makes us aware of this enforced idleness that puts our life on hold.”

LADDER by Simo Ezoubeiri (2015, US/Morocco, 8min)

“An elderly man, alone, wakes up. He appears to be in a state of arrest. His movements are slow; he is sleepy. He is being drowned by something, something that weighs heavy on his shoulders. In one scene, we see a woman leaving the house with a suitcase. The house falls quiet, and it becomes clear what the weight on the man’s shoulder is. There is a profound sentiment of loss that Simo Ezoubeiri attempts to bring across in his film. The loss of a partner, through death of a break-up, causes a temporary stoppage of time and opens up a hole both in the person’s life and in the person itself. In long-takes which show the elderly man do nothing but idling, Ezoubeiri gets to the bottom of this sudden emptiness and loneliness, and lets us feel what it means to be left behind.”

KHOJI by Yudhajit Basu (2016, India, 20min)

“Set in the lower Himalayas, Yudhajit Basu’s short film Khoji is an ominous piece that uses the violent history of its people as a background in order to explore (and explain, perhaps) the people’s struggle today. And yet, this history is visually absent from the screen. In carefully framed long-takes, Basu lets the images speak as well as the dialogue in which parents consider sending their daughter to the city because it is no longer safe where they live. Or a dialogue in which a brother, almost surprised, asks his sister whether she wasn’t aware of what was happening in the neighbourhood. Something is happening; it hovers over Basu’s film, over every frame. The director suggests rather than tells, using still and quiet imagery that show resemblances to some of the big names in Slow Cinema.”

 

Other news

This autumn, Sebastian Eklund (director of The Blind Waltz) will open his first solo exhibition at the Konstepidemin in Göteborg, Sweden. He’s a great visual artist, so if you’re in or around Göteborg, do use the chance and see his work.

Pilar Palomero has been awarded a Special Mention at the Sarajevo Film Festival for her film WINTER SUN. The special mention has been awarded by one of the festival’s partner in the larger context of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Student Programme Award. Congratulations!

If you want to learn ore about the director of Onere, Kevin Pontuti, there is a new interview with the filmmaker available, conducted as part of the short film programme of the Prague International Film Festival. You can read the interview here.

Scott Barley’s Sleep Has Her House will have its Canadian theatrical premiere on 24 September as part of Art House Theatre Day. You can read more about the event and book tickets here.

La Pesca by by Pablo Alvarez screened at the Camden International Film Festival this month . The film will come to tao soon, and I cannot wait to show this beautiful short film to you!

More news about Kevin Pontuti. The filmmaker has taken the helm of a new study programme called “Media X” at the University of the Pacific this semester. You can read all about the director’s new university programme here.

While his short film Ladder is being shown on tao films just now, Simo Ezoubeiri’s new project Inner Marrakech begins to travel the festival world, starting with the Kaohsiung Film Festival in Taiwan.

We hope you enjoy the new selection. Do join us in our tao films Facebook community, or follow our Facebook page, or our Twitter account for the latest updates on tao films and festival news from around the world.