Slow reconciliation with nature

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!

(Little reminder: the tao films advent calendar is now available on our website. 24 short films until Xmas. A new film every day. Check out our website and check yesterday’s post for more info.)

Fogo – Yulene Olaizola (2012)

Have I ever mentioned that I love my “job”? It makes me really happy to discover all those talented, yet unknown directors from all over the world, whose films are a pleasure to watch. Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo (2012) is one of those films. Unfortunately, it is one of so many slow films that have not yet received adequate distribution, especially in Europe. So I’m very much in her debt for granting me access to a screener.

Olaizola is a Mexican director. After Nicolas Pereda, Pedro Gonzales-Rubio, and Francisco Vargas, she is the fourth stunning slow-film director from Mexico. There appears to be a real pool of slow talent over there, and I hope to see more in future. Fogo is, however, not set in Mexico, but in Canada, on the Fogo Island. Uncommon for Slow Cinema, the film starts with music over black screen, and then a cut positions us behind a man, wrapped up in thick clothes, who is slowly walking along a path while the camera, following him, slowly moves from eye level to a high angle shot. It’s a smooth transition, and it’s beautiful. This isn’t the only beautiful shot in the film. In fact, the entire film contains superb compositions. It once more reinforces my idea that slow-film directors really have a photographic eye, if trained or not.

Fogo 1

The music stops, the screen goes black again. A smooth dissolve starts the actual narrative. With the man we saw earlier walking in the background as a tiny dot in the landscape, our eyes are fixed on the ruins of houses we’re shown. There is one particularly tilted house, possibly a result of landslides. The man knocks on the door of that house, saying “Last ferry leaves day after tomorrow.” What is going on?

There is this remarkable shot which I can’t get out of my head. It’s indoors, dark, with a bit of backlight coming through the window, which illuminates the window itself like a holy relic. A man sits on the right hand side of the frame. Waiting. In silence. He’s the man in the titled house. Through a conversation between him and another man, we learn that the part of the island the films is set in is to be evacuated. People can no longer live there. More shots of the island throughout the film make the reason behind the evacuation obvious: it’s an utterly desolate landscape. It’s a landscape of emptiness (as is so often the case in slow films) that cannot provide for the people anymore. The island stands for death.

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While most people leave the island, two men stay behind. Even though they’re alone there, I see it as a solitary confinement. Truth is, the last ferry is gone. They have decided to die (slowly) on this island, so in effect they are trapped. Trapped alone, but together. In this way, Fogo is Slow Cinema par excellence. The entire narrative is structured around absence and emptiness. Death is hinted at. It is about loneliness and hopelessness. There are lengthy scenes of two men walking across the island to seek a better place, where they can stay until the end. There is this feeling of imminent death. One scene that reminds me of it, which conveys this brilliantly, shows one of the men chopping wood. Now, the frame is rather empty, and it contains only one tree, which is positioned a bit off-centre. Nowhere, not even in the farthest background is there any other tree visible. It looks as if the man chops down the last tree of the island to get some fire wood. The last resources are being used.

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Throughout the film, the light is low. It’s a rather dark scenery, but it is important to note that with growing hopelessness, the frames become darker. Indeed, we could move towards night. Yet the very fact that light is diminishing conveys a reliable sense of “the end”, both in terms of the film itself, but also that of the people on this island.

What I’m not entirely sure about is just how much fiction and fact is in it. Again, this appears to be a common trope within Slow Cinema. I remember Nicolas Pereda, who always moves between fiction and documentary. Lav Diaz did the same in Death in the Land of Encantos. And Michela Occhipinti approached Letters from the Desert in a very similar way. I assume that Fogo is also one of those films that are a bit of both. I wonder if it would make sense to re-define the term docu-fiction in relation to Slow Cinema. I think it would be useful, certainly for those films.

Anyway, if Fogo appears at a festival near you, do please go see it. If you want to see a superb slow film, then this is a very good choice, in particular because it is only an hour long. Good for all those people, who have little patience for slowness!

Day 24 – Surprise (me)

I finish this year’s advent calendar with a self-experiment in slow-filmmaking. It’s one thing to watch slow films all the time. But as I was to find out, it’s an entirely different matter to sit behind the camera and keep quiet for only five minutes just so that you don’t ruin the sound. It was fun to do, though, and I enjoyed it. You can find the video at the bottom of today’s entry.

The last 23 days have taken me to many countries. I was in Argentina with Lisandro Alonso, and in Mexico with Nicolas Pereda. I was in imaginative, historical spaces with Albert Serra, and in dark and evils spaces with Béla Tarr. I found myself in cramped apartments in China, in vast spaces of Turkish forests. I was in Japan, Iran and Sweden. Oh, and not to forget, I joined a couple of monks in France. The films I watched were a glimpse of suffering in the Philippines, of longing in Taiwan, of past memories in Thailand.

Over 37 hours of slow film. I cannot deny that it became difficult towards the end to find words for the films. Watching a slow film is, I find, an entirely different experience. Slow films really take you on a journey. You spend so much time with the characters that you feel as though you have been through what they have been through in two hours.

It was a great idea, though. It is one thing to watch a slow film here and there. It is a wholly different matter if you watch 23 films in a row. It gave me a real grasp of what Slow Cinema is about, how many nuances there are, what themes they actually tackle, and how similar and yet different the filmmakers are in their approaches.

I hope you enjoyed the excursion into slowness. This blog will now return to the usual weekly or fortnightly posts, and film comments whenever I’m lucky enough to find a diamond somewhere.

Merry Christmas!

Day 18 – Inori (Gonzales-Rubio)

If my memory doesn’t trick me, then this is a premier for me: a slow film set in Japan. Not really made by a Japanese filmmaker, but this matters little. I was, in fact, surprised when I read that Gonzales-Rubio, whose film Alamar I reviewed earlier this month, contributed to the NARAtive Film Festival Project, which Naomi Kawase initiated.

Rubio’s documentary Inori (2012) is set in the surroundings of Nara, east of Osaka. It is one of those cinematic works that brings everything that makes a slow film a slow film together. The documentary follows the lives of a few remaining inhabitants of the area. Elderly people who are dwelling on their memories of the past.

Inori (2012), Pedro Gonzales-Rubio

Inori is set in a  striking environment. It’s one of those landscapes that by definition evoke slowness. You don’t have to do much as a filmmaker anymore. You only need to set up the camera, let it run, and let the viewer dive into a different world.

I found it striking to hear how the area used to look like, and how the people react to the transformation. It is perhaps the complete opposite of the viewer’s perception. Most definitely, it is in stark contrast to my own perception. The area used to be lively, full of children and young people. But the economy crumbled. The younger generation moved away to big cities where they could find work. Today, the area is empty and quite literally slow. I didn’t get the feeling that people liked it. And this is where the urban spectator comes in. Or rather, the fed-up urban spectator. Fed up of speed, of abundance, wishing to have a slightly calmer life. I would die for a quite surrounding like this!

But I’m only the spectator, and not the inhabitant whose surroundings have entirely changed their faces. It’s like watching a village die. In general, death has a certain omnipresence in the documentary. The change of the village itself, the emptiness of it, tells one of the many stories of death in Inori. However, there is also the presence of graves. There is this wonderfully metaphorical shot. The camera is tilted right to the top of trees, then slowly tilts down to reveal a grave; Heaven and Earth, connected via a simple but effective camera movement.

Inori (2012), Pedro Gonzales-Rubio

There is talk about paradise and different worlds. I’m aware that people speak of these things in connection to the afterlife. But if you hear them talking, it almost seems as if they also talk about Nara before it became a near-dead area. There is this recurring sense of ambiguity in Inori. And yet, if I wasn’t writing a blog post on it, I wouldn’t pose any questions. It is a film you can simply follow and go where it might take you. It reminds me of floating on water, floating with the current. No effort at all, just let your mind be taken to a wonderful Japanese area, and be introduced to some interesting people, who all share their stories with us.

Day 2 – Alamar (Gonzales-Rubio)

I stick to slow films that make me sea sick. Vivan las Antipodas was the first film, but obviously not the last one to confuse my perception of where the actual horizon in a cinematic frame is. A central focus point. Just something for the purpose of orientation.

The similarities between Antipodas and Alamar don’t stop there. True to the matter, I have pointed out the specific opposition of rural/urban in Antipodas, which is not a dominant theme in the film, but a vital one for my interest. Alamar goes even further, and is, similar to Michela Occhipinti’s Letters from the Desert (2012) a subtle attack at the way we live; in the West, or in urban centres, or in rich countries. Whatever you choose – it is subtly attacked in this lovely and very peaceful tale of a father-son relationship.

The opening of the film tells us in brief about Jorge and Roberta, a couple for three and a half years, parents to son Natan, who got divorced based on, I find, striking “differences”. One aspect is the different perception of reality. In a voiceover, Roberta tells us: “Look at how we live now. He’s in the middle of the jungle in the sea, in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t live here. I would die in a place like this.” Roberta is from Italy. The slow backward life clashes with a modern lifestyle. The product is a divorce; Roberta takes custody of Natan.

Alamar, Pedro Gonzales-Rubio
Alamar, Pedro Gonzales-Rubio

In Alamar, five-year old Natan joins his father for a “holiday trip” to the roots of basic living. Of living with nature. Jorge is keen on teaching his son how to fish, how to scale the fish, how to make a life and enjoy life faraway from modernity and civilisation. Just the way he himself had grown up.

The film is almost entirely set on the sea (hence the sea sickness). We’re either on a boat, or in a hut built on some pillars, surrounded by water. There is water everywhere, and this is the first slow film I have encountered where the sea plays such an important role. The sea stands for freedom, for vastness, for fullness, too. In many ways, what we associate now with urban spaces, especially the fullness and freedom, comes from a very basic life we had before modernity took hold. The use of the sea as a continuous background is thus absolutely vital to the message Gonzales-Rubio wants to deliver.

In one scene, Jorge and his father get dinner ready. They have prepared fish and tortillas. This interesting conversation follows:

Natan: It’s the barracuda, right?

Jorge: Yes, it is. There are the tortillas, please eat.

Natan: I don’t want lobster.

Jorge: There is no lobster. This is barracuda. Eat.

Grandfather: I bet you don’t have that in Italy.

Natan: They don’t go fishing there.

Jorge: They don’t fish, right, son?

Natan: The fish is already bought in Italy.

Alamar, Pedro Gonzales-Rubio
Alamar, Pedro Gonzales-Rubio

There are two points here. First, Natan is illiterate in sea food. He has obviously never learned what the difference between a lobster and a barracuda is. But then, how is he meant to learn this where he lives, and is it really of importance to him? Or to us, in that matter. I remember that I learned different fish species in primary school, but this knowledge is pretty much gone. Do I need it where I live? Not really. It would be an entirely different story, though, if I had to go out fishing for food on my own.

Second, the conversation contains the subtle attack on Western lifestyle/consumerism I mentioned before. People in Italy don’t fish. They go into a supermarket, and buy fish if they want some. Father and grandfather imply that their way of doing things is better.

In general, you get a sense that, while Natan appears hesitant here and there (which I take from his illiteracy in this new world), he seems to enjoy this new place. It’s probably adventurous for him. On the other hand, when he is back in Italy at the end of the film, he appears equally comfortable. I suppose this is the luxury of being little: you adapt pretty quickly to whatever surrounding you’re in.

This film is definitely worth working on in more detail at some other time.