Shoah – Claude Lanzmann (1985)

It is clear to me that Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) would never make it into a Slow Cinema list. Perhaps, it shouldn’t be. Perhaps, it should simply remain a film apart from the rest in order to preserve its sheer monumentality. And truth be told, it might not feel like a slow film at all. It certainly feels different from the Béla Tarrs, from the Apichatpong Weerasethakuls, from the Pedro Costas of the world. Nevertheless, I would like to jot down some notes and try to establish a to me inevitable link to the nature of Slow Cinema.

I have become aware of the rather limited approach we seem to have in terms of establishing what is and what isn’t slow. Of course, the respective and perceived pace of a film is entirely subjective, and what is slow for me might well be fast for you. At the same time, there seems to be a sort of mutual agreement that slow happens primarily in feature films. Fiction films, to be more precise. Documentaries don’t pop up very often in our discussion on Slow Cinema. This blog is also a good mirror of this. There is, of course, the work of Wang Bing which has been so often used as an example of Slow Cinema. Apart from a sole exception, Wang Bing is, and possibly remains, a documentary filmmaker whose cinematic slowness is so essential to the stories he tells. He couldn’t tell those stories in any other way. At the same time, he seems to be pretty much the only widely known slow-documentary director, who pops up time and again in people’s writings and in their lists.

Why is this? Why do we seem to have problems to classify documentaries as slow? I believe that documentaries are, often in any case, slower than fiction films. It is somewhat “acceptable” to make a poetic documentary, a piece that takes its time and which allows people to tell their stories. Documentaries are only categorised as special when they are particularly long, which is the case with most of Wang Bing’s films, or Claude Lanzmann’s. Shoah is, by and large, the slowest documentary I have seen, which made me think about its “ingredients” and how they compare to the slow films that have become somewhat canonical.

I do not intend to write a review of the almost ten-hour long film. I would fail. And I would fail miserably. Whether one can write an adequate review at all, I have my doubts. There are so many stories to tell, so many emotions to mention, so many complexities to unravel that written words would never do justice to Shoah. Instead, I want to note a few aesthetic particularities, which I noticed were in sync with what I have written about in the last couple of years.

It remains true that not all slow films are long films. It remains true, too, that not all long films are slow films. Shoah is a particular case, however. Lanzmann set out to create a portrait as detailed as possible of what has been called the “Endlösung”. Similar to any major books you find on the subject, there is little you can cut out. The subject is complex, based on so many orders, on so many levels, in so many administrative regions, so much bureaucracy – it is impossible to recount this part of the Second World War in the usual, narrative way. Take the work of Saul Friendländer, “Nazi Germany and the Jews”, a two-part investigation into the persecution and extermination of the Jews. Overall, the French version (as an example) counts around 1,500 pages. A monstrous piece, in many ways. Just like some people argue that the Holocaust defies representation, certain writers (like Friedländer) and filmmakers (like Lanzmann) have shown that the Holocaust dislocates time and space. It dislocates narrative coherence, albeit it needs to be said at this point that Lanzmann tried to allow the “story” of Shoah to progress in an almost linear fashion. The Holocaust defies cinematic cuts, or ellipses to push the narrative forwards faster, to allow the audience to fill in the gaps. There are no gaps. Not only to prevent the viewer from filling gaps with escapist ideas, romantic ideas which they take from Hollywood films, which in most cases always have a Happy End. It is also about forcing the viewer to listen, to hear, to imagine the unimaginable.

Shoah doesn’t cut. It listens extensively to testimony of survivors, of bystanders, of perpetrators. If there is one thing that narrative convention in cinema, which has developed over decades, has done to us is that we no longer have the patience to listen to survivors. We expect them to tell their stories quickly, in a classical three-act structure, and please do not give any details. Our obsession with narrative conventions has silenced survivors. Alexandre Dauge-Roth has noted this problem in his writing on the genocide in Rwanda. The camera in Lanzmann’s film, on the other hand, remains with the one who speaks. Certain monologues of survivors feel endless, filled with horror, and yet it is impossible to stop listening. The very characteristic of Slow Cinema – giving time to a monologue, a dialogue, an event – is crucial here because time, that means long duration in this case, can assign the witnessing function to the viewer. And in becoming witnesses, we lift at least some of the burden on the shoulder of those survivors who were willing to talk to Lanzmann. Long duration, perceived slowness expressed through little to no movement within a frame, and the use of long takes, all parts and parcel of Slow Cinema, become vital in the representation of trauma.

It is of little importance who is speaking in front of the camera. Survivor, bystander, perpetrator – they all contribute to film as trauma. And the two aesthetics I looked at during my PhD research – duration and absence in Lav Diaz’s cinema – are very much the centre of Lanzmann’s work, not only of Shoah, but also of his last film Four Sisters. The latter film shares a lot with Wang Bing’s Fengming, which also consists of a single interview with a single woman in a single room. Minimalism becomes a vehicle for the transfer of traumatic memories. The focus on interviews, of people talking in front of the camera, their words translated on camera so as to keep the authenticity of what happens alive, all of this results in one major theme: absence.

Shoah is perhaps one of the most haunting films, precisely because it doesn’t show anything. It can’t. It is a post-trauma film, a film that is visually set in the time after the traumatic event occurred, but where the monologues position us inside the traumatic event itself. It is common practice in films by director Lav Diaz, for instance, that traumatic events are spoken about but never shown. Perpetrators are mostly spoken of, not seen very often, or not seen at all. Trauma resides in the past. Shoah is one of those films, albeit it must be so by default. The absence of traumatic imagery results from the absence of real imagery of the Holocaust (excluding four photographs that have been found – see further Georges Didi-Huberman). This means that the haunting nature of the event, as well as of the film, is entirely natural, is consequential rather than forced upon from the outside. There was no choice, there were no options – the particular present absence / absent presence, which is so vital to slow films and their treatment of trauma (for example, the films of Lav Diaz or of Pedro Costa) stands at the core of Shoah.

This particular point is most visible, perhaps even haptic if you wish, in the second half of the film. Filip Müller, a Czech survivor, speaks in detail about the process of the extermination; the arrival of a train, the undressing, the hair cuts, the way the people had to walk, their way through the so-called Schlauch, their screams. Lanzmann overlays most of Müller’s detailed description with images of the ruins, the remnants of the Auschwitz gas chambers, with images of what has remained; nothing but the mere skeletons of the past. There’s a friction here; the images of ruins invites one to imagine, invites one to let the imagination wander, perhaps even wonder. Yet Müller’s monologue, in painful detail, doesn’t allow for imagination. He doesn’t allow for gaps, for holes to open up. There is a constant push-and-pull between what we would possibly like to do as viewer, and what the survivor wants us to do, namely to listen.

Nothing is more effective than not showing. Nothing brings out (post-)trauma so well as does a rejection of visibility, of showing. Nothing makes the past more palpable than using time and space invested in listening, and not only simply listening to words. It is about really listening, not just hearing some words. Lanzmann’s Shoah is so minimalist, so simple that it creates an adequate space and an adequate time for traumatic events to resurface in the survivors’ memories, which can then be uttered, be brought to the surface, be brought into the open. Only slowness, only unconventionality, only long duration and absence, only minimalism can do this. Only Slow Cinema, I personally believe, can really be a cinema of (post-)trauma because all types of aesthetics that are favourable of an exploration of post-trauma are at the filmmaker’s disposal. Slow Cinema can become a vehicle for survivor testimony, if used adequately.

(NB: I began this sort of work in my PhD thesis. If you want to read it, it’s available here.)

No Home Movie – Chantal Akerman (2015)

My journey through Chantal Akerman’s filmography continues. It is haunting to do this with the knowledge that she committed suicide almost to the day two years ago. I mentioned in my post on Là bas that her pain, her struggle, the weight of the past she had carried with her, was palpable in every frame. Chantal Akerman was open about this, and yet she wasn’t. She made it more (c)overt in her films, I find, than in other circumstances. The texts she wrote were full of references to her mental struggles, and yet it is her films that haunt me most. Akerman is similar to, albeit also very different from, Lav Diaz. The Filipino director equally creates a traumatic universe in this films and plays with presence and absence throughout his long films. Even though I know about Diaz’s own traumatic past, his films are less personal than Akerman’s. Whereas Diaz primarily tells the story of his country, Akerman tells her own story. She speaks about her family and the ways in which her family’s contact with the Holocaust has shaped her.

No Home Movie is Akerman’s last film. It is an intimate study of her mother, of herself, and of the relationship between the two. There have been rumours that people booed at the premiere of the film. I do not and cannot know whether those rumours are true. But if they are, they show that some people have little interest in building a relationship with a director and a film. A director is merely a machine creating one entertaining film after another. Film becomes a commodity. No Home Movie is anything but. It is not exactly beautifully shot, it is raw, unpolished. It is a home movie, without actually being one. Some of you might remember old footage of your holidays, when you were little. Our parents or grandparents show us those raw pictures, often utterly unstable which makes it difficult to watch. In the good old times of analogue film, the shaky nature of the home movie image was a classic. The shakiness often became an aesthetic vehicle in order to transmit feelings of joy. Who hasn’t seen those images of children running towards the sea with their arms high up in the air? Or of parents playing hide-and-seek with their children, a smile on their faces, enjoying the leisure, the freedom, the opportunity of being, if only for a little while, a child again.

Akerman’s No Home Movie is the opposite of all that. It shows stasis, it shows one woman ageing slowly and another trying to cope with it. The camera is often positioned on a stable surface, such as a table, recording passively what happens in front of its lens. At times we see Akerman herself or her mother in a long shot, framed with the help of door frames, which represent the mother’s apartment in Brussels as a complex labyrinth. The detached camera is a good metaphor of the distance that lies between present life and past trauma. Post trauma, you continue your life, but your life is different from that of people around you. Yours will always be a different life. I remember those painful passages in Akerman’s writing in which she evoked the silence, the detachment, especially of her mother, as a result of the family’s deportation to Auschwitz. I remember those passages in which she spoke about her dad taking her out of Jewish school, of the family ceasing to celebrate Shabbat. They seem to me like consequences of endured trauma and describe the detachment that Akerman’s camera often visually reinforces. These memories surface in No Home Movie, during long sequences of conversations between Akerman and her mother. They are a repetition of her writing.

The film is not, as it might look at first, a film about her mother. It is more complex than that. Akerman herself is present in a lot of frames. The conversations with her mother in the kitchen, over a meal, are interesting, are simple and yet have a strong meaning, because they return over and over again to the past. It is a past that has marked Akerman’s mother profoundly, and Akerman herself, although she was not directly affected by the persecution of Jews. Instead, she is the second generation that is known to have “inherited” the trauma of their parents. Theirs is a trauma that is the result of silence on the one hand, but also of overt behaviour of their parents as a result of what they have been through. These traumas can affect three generations, although the third generation (as is the case with myself) approaches this trauma from a different angle. Something that struck me is how relatively open those conversations between Akerman and her mother were in the film, knowing that there had been a difficult silence in the past. What the film shows is something I see in my own family; the older my grandfather get, the more he speaks about his trauma. It is as if they want to unburden themselves in order to be able to rest in peace, literally and truly.

No Home Movie contains, I find, a radical break after an hour. The first part of the film is a study of Akermans’ interactions with one another. They’re almost sweet, those scenes when Akerman films her mother while being on Skype with her. When her mother asks why she is being filmed, the director responds so lovingly, heartfelt: “I like filming people, but you more than anyone else.” Or “Because I want to show people that there is no more distance.” It is affectionate, a gesture that seems so personal, and yet it is there for all of us to see. The second part is a shift towards showing the last days or weeks of Akerman’s mother. The film loses its dynamic (on the level of character interaction) and becomes a slow, almost static portrait of an old woman eating less and less; sleeping more and more; remembering less and less; being confused more and more. This intimacy has certain similarities to Wang Bing’s Locarno winner Mrs Fang, which I reviewed not so long ago. No Home Movie doesn’t go quiet as deep, but one cannot deny that these two films have in common their focus on the process of dying, of saying goodbye.

In Akerman’s film, this goodbye is twofold, which gives this film a ghostly appearance. The director had said that her films were about her mother and if her mother was to die, there was nothing left for her to say. With her mother’s death, her filmmaking had lost its raison d’être. It pained me to see the final shot of the film; alone, she closes the curtain in her mother’s apartment and remains in a dark room. It stands in stark contrast to what the film felt like at the beginning. There were scenes of her driving, perhaps aimlessly, through austere landscapes, leaving the sound unpolished. Akerman wasn’t present in those shots. She focuses instead on the vastness in front of her, of the emptiness, but also of the absolute freedom that a landscape such as this can offer. In the end, stasis and death prevail. Darkness becomes a veil and a shadow that, I find, wasn’t (visually) as present in the films I had watched previously. No Home Movie is no home movie. It is Akerman’s personal farewell; a farewell to her mother, to film, to the world. A striking last film whose images and conversations will stay with me for a long time.

Death in the Land of Encantos – Lav Diaz (2007)

I believe that I keep mentioning this film, but I have never really made a proper (blog) case out of it. So let’s go into a bit more detail about Lav Diaz’s painful trip through the Land of Encantos.

Encantos is a docu-fiction hybrid, akin to the works of Nicolás Pereda, a Mexican slow-film director, who plays with our expectations of fact and fiction. Diaz’s film was, in fact, originally a documentary. It is set in the aftermath of typhoon Reming, which hit the country in autumn 2006, only a month or two after volcano Mayon erupted. The strong winds and heavy rain caused havoc in the cities surrounding the volcano, such as Legazpi City. The rain water mixed with the volcano ashes that have remained after the eruption, and produced a deadly lahar that swept through villages and cities. Over a thousand people died, many of them were buried alive.

Diaz ventured out to record footage of the aftermath. He also conducted interviews with survivors, which you see in the final film. You even hear him in the background asking questions. When he saw the footage on his computer, he decided to construct a fictional narrative around the disaster that befell the region. The final product is a film that uses the devastated landscape in order to mirror a devastated character; Benjamin, or Hamin, “the great poet” as he is called by his friends Teo and Catalina. He returned to the Philippines, supposedly to look for the body of his former lover Amalia. This is only a small piece of Hamin’s complex struggle against losing his sanity, though.

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Hamin lived in Russia for seven years. In Kaluga, to be exact. He received a grant and residency for teaching. I’m not entirely sure whether I believe this or not. There are things that let me doubt his version of leaving the Philippines. Perhaps the most subtle pointer towards it is the fact that Kaluga used to be a place for exiled politicians during the period of the Russian Empire. It also used to be a place for prisoners. Put this into the context of Hamin being a persecuted artists for inciting a revolution, and you start to re-think his story of grants, residencies, and teaching.

Hamin is a broken man. Just as “broken” and devastated as the landscape that surrounds him. The framing and the camera angles support his mental decline. The frames are generally empty. It’s like what the mayor of Legazpi City said after the disaster: “We now call this a black desert”. Desert means death, and this is what you see in every frame. Houses are buried in lahar up to the rooftop. They have become coffins for their owners. The trees are bare. New rivers have formed as the water from the sea has swallowed substantial amounts of landmass. The camera is hardly set straight. It’s more tilted than anything else; an element that emphasises the idea of an upset equilibrium, both in nature and in Hamin’s mind.

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The poet was deemed too dangerous for Philippine society. He was arrested, and tortured so as to break his spirit. His hand was crushed, his penis electrocuted, he was sexually abused, and – intriguingly – he had what he called acid injected into his brain (as I found out a fairly common strategy used by the CIA in the past). On top of this, guilt is crushing him. He never visited his mother, who was in a mental institution because of uncontrollable schizophrenia-paranoia. His sister committed suicide by jumping of a building. His father died of loneliness. It is a demonstration of what Catalina says later in the film: artists are selfish. They only care about their art but they care little about the people around them.

The film is, in fact, full of discourses around art and artists. It’s a discourse on colonialism and the influences of Western culture on Philippine society. It’s a discourse on political activism and the still very present threats of kidnapping, torture, and killing. Compared to Florentina Hubaldo, there are several different layers of discourse. I mean actual dialogue, rather than mere images. Encantos is rich, and it tackles so many issues of what Diaz calls the “Philippine struggle” that the nine-hour run time is more than justified. It could even be a tick longer.

The images are strong. Every single frame has its particular strength. The expression of Hamin’s struggle is visible in every frame, and if we only see an empty bit of devastated landscape. This landscape is Hamin. But on top of the visuals, the dialogues are heavy. Very philosophical. Very thought-provoking. This combination creates a piece which weighs heavy on the viewer. An intellectual piece which requires thinking and commitment. Only with thinking and commitment you get to the bottom of it (and you may actually want to watch the film more than once – ha, commitment!).