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 11 – Into Great Silence (Gröning)

I guess after films about suicide and rape, I more than deserve a little retreat. Why not join a few monks in a monastery for a change?

Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence (2005) is a wonderfully poetic portrayal of life in voluntary retreat and solitude, far off any civilisation. In the region of Dauphiné to be exact, in the mountains of Chartreuse, France. To be fair, the film could have been slower. I mean, the takes could have been longer to make it look even slower. Yes, the takes are on average much longer than in other films. But what I find most interesting in this context is the importance of subject matter in the demonstration of slowness, rather than the long take (or the aesthetic in general).

Into Great Silence (2005), Philip Gröning

Monks are not exactly in a hurry, so their presence in the film and their day-to-day life alone have an impact on the perception of how fast (or slow) the film runs. This also points to a natural way of filmmaking. You cannot cut slow activities every two seconds. Nor can you leave a car race going on for ten minutes in one long take. Just as Lav Diaz said in many many interviews: long takes come natural.

The film (narrative?) is interrupted from time to time by what we know from the silent era as intertitles. I’m not overly familiar with the Bible, but some of the titles definitely contain passages from it. Gröning never gives a source for the passages. Maybe he appeals to the familiarity of the viewer with the Bible? In any way, they set a nice simple tone to the entire film, though, so, in fact, it doesn’t matter much where exactly the passages come from.

Into Great Silence is a documentary. I should perhaps mention this, as it therefore differs from the other films I have so far reviewed this month. At the same time, it is a nice contrast to them. Gröning doesn’t seem to have a set aesthetic in mind. His shots keep changing from still to moving, from beautiful photographic double frames to pretty much medium close-ups of the monks’ faces. The latter fact is what distinguishes Silence from the “usual” slow film. While in some cases the monks are set against their environment, they are just as often portrayed in detail. Facial expressions are a means to convey meaning, and Gröning makes use of this from time to time.

Into Great Silence (2005), Philip Gröning

The strange feeling I had about the film is the aspects of confinement and freedom. The film is set entirely in and around the monastery. We never really leave the grounds. The monks are almost always filmed with walls in the background. The framing – if we thought about it logically – could create a sense of restriction. But the strange thing is, it doesn’t feel restricted at all. Perhaps, it is the aura of the monks that made the film feel so smooth and free.

Silence kind of makes me want to go on a retreat. But not in winter. I’m not too keen on freezing while trying to calm down my mind. I don’t think it would work.