Almost There – Jacqueline Zünd (2016)

A caravan in the centre of the frame. An empty parking lot. The caravan neatly divides the frame into two equal parts. It’s a beautiful shot that, despite a faint male voice in the off, sets the tone for themes of loneliness, emptiness but also will and resilience. “Employees form a group. Overnight you become an individual,” a Japanese retiree tells us. Jacqueline Zünd, following three men in the US, in Europe and in Japan through a life-changing situation, proves herself to be a quiet but detailed observer, letting images rest, letting them breathe and wash at our shores.

Bob Pearson is a 50+ man, single. His ex-girlfriend pushed him to do something with the rest of his life. He became aware that he could die any day, and that there might not be a tomorrow. The camper van tour they had planned together has turned into a one-man show, just like the nightly stand-up show Steve puts on in Spain after having left a life of lies about his sexuality behind in England. Yamada, acknowledging that he had been married to his job, struggles to be “an individual”, struggles not to be part of a strictly formed hierarchy that his job had given him. He’s retired, now what?

Each one of those three men has a particular personality, a particular nature. They seem to be different types, but all three share one thing: they started anew. They changed their lives, their lives needed to change. Something in them pushed them towards taking the jump, the jump into the cold water of trying something new, facing the unknown. “If I want to do something, I want to do it now,” says Bob. Almost There is intrinsically tied to the process of ageing, of our having to face the reality of death, all the while trying to push it aside, push it further away, one more day, one more week. Maybe if I did this or that, I could say that I had a more meaningful life? Maybe I didn’t take enough risks, risks I could take now? 

Of course, the real protagonist is time. It’s not only the process of ageing that makes the forward progression of time evident. There is also a fascinating push-and-pull between stillness and movement, between a stop and a forward jump. Zünd follows Bob on his journey with his camper van, more on the move than standing still. At times, he sits in a bar to have a drink, at others he gets a quick hair cut. Apart from those brief moments, Bob’s life feels like being constantly on the move. “I’m always scared,” he says at some point. He seems a lonely person. Zünd breaks her aesthetics, almost brutally, in order to insert family photographs of Bob, at a time he was younger. He had never been a particularly happy child, nor a particularly sad one. And yet, it becomes evident that he seeks solitude. He wishes for company here and there, but one gets the feeling that this coat of solitude seems to suit him well.

It is here, again, that time becomes the main force. As it does with Yamada. Shortly after his retirement, he didn’t know how to handle his “new life”. He struggled to fill his time, but, after a friend suggested it, he began to read to children. Zünd follows him on his journey, a particularly touching one, I found, one in which a father admits that he had never done anything for his children and that now he seeks to rectify the wrongs he had done. He’s making amends. He uses the time he has left to make up for the time he has already spent. Interestingly, Yamada’s film segments are a pool of stillness as opposed to the segments of Bob and Steve. At the end of the film, it feels as though only he has managed to find his place, his role in this new life of his.

This is different with Steve. Zünd follows him through the streets in Blackpool (me thinks!) and Benidorm in Spain. Zünd’s frames are beautiful, painterly almost. They’re frames worth printing. They put the film characters in an extraordinarily expressive surrounding that makes them appear small but dominant at the same time. They seem lost, but also in control. As Steve says towards the end of the film, he wasn’t sad or angry. If you were to feel this, you would be lost in the world. While Zünd’s frames, and her almost continuous music does make one feel sad for the characters – so much that I did have watery eyes at some point – there is a fascinating, opposing optimism in the film. It’s a sort of optimism that does not express itself through the film’s aesthetics. It opposes it. It does not openly embrace it.

It’s this specific clash that makes Zünd’s Almost There a gorgeous, a powerful, a deeply moving piece. I saw it for the first time two years ago, and it didn’t let me go. Zünd’s images have haunted me until today, and it’s not only the images that stayed with me. The film is telling a simple story about life, a universal story, but a story that we tend to push away: we’re ageing, we’re inevitably walking towards death. During my PhD research I came across the concept of TMT, Trauma Management Therapy. It’s said that we are naturally afraid of death, daily. But we do everything to keep this in check. One way of doing this is seeking something that would make us immortal in one way or another, to achieve something. I think that Zünd’s Almost There is a good demonstration of this, specially prominent in the story of Yamada, whose reading, we feel, will make him immortal, if only, perhaps, to the school children.

Almost there. Where? Zünd, I believe, brings us closer to ourselves. Ourselves as humans. The characters seem specific, but they speak from their souls, our souls. The film is human, and I’m not sure if I can name a more human film, a more down-to-earth human film that is this powerful. It is perhaps one of the best films of all time for me personally, and an absolute must-see, especially for those who love contemplative cinema. 

8 Questions for Sebastian Cordes

His poetic observation A place called Lloyd (2015) made Danish director Sebastian Cordes a slow-film director to look out for in future. I had a brief chat with him about his film. My thanks goes to Sebastian, who made this possible!

I always start my interviews with questions about how filmmakers have come across their subject. I find this particularly intriguing in your case. It is not the kind of everyday situation or place we usually find in slow films. So, how did you find this “place called Lloyd”?

As much as I would like to say that I was travelling around South America, and found this magical place on a journey to discover new stories, it was as simple as an article I read in the Danish newspaper Politiken. A classic stumple-upon-story. But I was struck by it, and thought ‘we have to go immediately!’ So we actually managed to get some funding real quick and really nice equipment by the Filmworkshop (under the Danish Film Institute) in Copenhagen, but didn’t want to go into long term negotiations with pitches and budgets with bigger production companies, the story could be gone by then. This is why the budget of the film was something like 10.000 dollars.

I noticed that the film is centred on the people of the former airline Lloyd Aero Boliviano. Was that your choice from the beginning or did that particular approach crystallise during the pre-production/shoot? I’m asking because many of your shots are stunning. Your film could have easily been an entirely visual piece on the subject.

First of all, to call it a ‘former airline’ is not entirely correct, especially if you look at it from their point of view. They still work, trying to get a license to fly again etc. But yes, admittedly, the pictures that accompanied the article attracted me, because of the abandoned nature in it. The dusty hangars, the worn out planes (what a metaphor for loss, to have your wings clipped!). It is not on purpose if it seems centered around something, rather it is centered around the nothingness at the place, and how this apparent nothingness is filled with meaning, pride, history and absurdity. How the buildings have this immanent aura to them.
It quickly became evident that this was a place like no other place I had ever been to. And the film needed to express this, not explain it. This is why there’s almost no talking, and when there is, it’s not interviews, but merely monologues told to the camera. We did not seek out stories that fitted into any predetermined idea of the place, but people came up to us out of the blue, and told us stories, that we then would ask them if they wanted to tell again on camera. So we tried to film, or express, our experience of the place, and stay away from any common logic of storytelling. I’m not really interested in that essentialist way of trying to narrow it to down to what the place is, as if that’s possible. Instead of looking at what it is, I’d rather look at how it is, or just that it is. To quote the first sentence of the Eminem/Rihanna song Love The Way You Lie “I can’t tell you what it really is. I can only tell you what it feels like.”

There are several beautiful shots which stand out. They have something photographic about them. How much time do you actually spend on composing those images? How important are the visuals to you?

This is where other filmmakers usually have eyes wide open and shake their head, especially documentary filmmakers. We would often use 10-15 minutes to set up a shot, and this is after we have gone scouting for that shot, perhaps the day before, taking notes, and if there’s supposed to be a person in the shot, test it out with one of us in front of the camera, notice when the light is how we want it – what time of the day is best etc. And then, we had sort of a silent agreement, me and the camera man, Jakob, that even if we went through all this and one of us had any doubt that we probably wouldn’t want it in the final film, we didn’t shoot it. As if we were filming on celluloid made of gold. This is why we only came back with less than four hours of material, for an 80 min film. Something that people also have a hard time believing.

Don’t get me started on the importance of the visuals. It is a puzzle why form and content is separated in the way it is in cinema still. I simply don’t get it. It seems Aristotle won that battle. The visuals are extremely important to me – it is the same as asking how important is the content. Well, they don’t go without each other. It been a forty years since McLuhan pointed out that the medium is the message, but perhaps it didn’t ring a bell for the people in cinema. And I often feel like an outcast pointing this out, as if it’s even close to being avant-garde to say that. It isn’t in any other art form.

You spend a lot of time capturing the daily affairs of the people. This is primarily achieved through long-takes. Why did you choose an aesthetic of slowness for the depiction of your subject?

Because I’m a lazy filmmaker, basically. But I have good arguments to back it up, if people don’t accept this. No, I honestly believe that A Place Called Lloyd could not have been made in any other way, if we were to be true to our experience of the place. It might be slow, it might be boring, it might be beautiful, it might be experimental, but is more true to that place, as it is now, than a journalistic or historic account. It is almost a naive, childish pointing that structures the film, not a generalising adult or a scientist way of organizing the world. Like the camera says ‘Look at this over here, it’s an empty office. Now look at this, it’s a hangar!’, as if everything has equal value. This is what Hölderlin referred to when he rightfully said, that what a poet can do is to make something interesting, just by pointing at it.

I’m interested in ways of inhabiting the world, ways being in the world so to speak. And the slowness, the static shots, is something that allows for this to unfold. I’m not that interested in events and climaxes. The slowness allows for thought, basically. Your mind starts to wander, and I think of this as a positive thing. Milan Kundera said that speed has to do with forgetting, and slowness is connected to remembering, to memory. I really like this thought. I also remember reading somewhere that in Tsai Ming-Liangs films, the main character is always time itself. I could really identify with this.

The daily affairs is a subject a care a lot for. I’m in favour of looking at the Other as a screen of informations, where you can’t enter the mind or the intentions of him/her, but only have access to the appearance. Then habits become something loaded with enormous potential meaning, the daily actions as something revealing. Especially with the state of the company as backdrop. And if the daily live is repetitive, the film should be too. This is where film has an advantage as an artform, as visible surfaces extended in time.

I remember during a conversation at the Danish Film School between Joshua Oppenheimer and Werner Herzog that I was watching, they came up with the phrase “out of the soil, not out of the head” to describe their approach to style. I like this, even though I have to add that inevitably there’s as head on that soil, that wants to capture something.

There are two very moving interviews, or rather monologues, in your film. Interestingly – considering the subject of Lloyd, namely the death of an airline – both stories describe events that are connected to actual death in one way or another.

Monologue is a good word, because we didn’t use interviews, we would ask them if they would retell stories they told us. I normally use the word stories, but monologue is better actually. Yes, you also mentioned in your review the focus of death in slow cinema in general, and I hadn’t actually thought of it before. This must one of those unintentional but revealing things that a director can’t explain himself.

The place did seem to have an aura of a last breath before death, but this breath has been held for 7-8 years, and who says you can’t turn back to life just before you exhale that last breath.

In my review, I mentioned Denis Côté and Carlos Casas. Your film, I find, is very close to Côté’s style in Bestiaire, but as far as I know you don’t know either of the two directors. So what or who are your influences?

Only by name, I haven’t seen any of their films before, that’s true. I have a lot of influences, I’m basically a big fanboy of a lot of things. And then I copy all of them, and put them in a big bowl and mix it, so hopefully no one notices. With this film, just to mention a few: In terms of editing – minimalist music (especially Steve Reich). In terms of sound and the approach of inviting people into your mediated experience of a place – Harvard Sensory Lab, (and the book Doing Sensory Ethnography by Sarah Pink). In terms of visuals, Andy Wahol and the godfather of Danish documentary film Jørgen Leth. In terms of slowness and the effect on the audience that that a lingering camera can have – Jim Jarmusch, but also Beckett and Camus – the absurdity of continuing without any promise of good in the future.

I tend to read a lot of philosophical and academic stuff (I studied philosophy for four years). Hegel, Zizek, John Cage, Heidegger and Deleuze makes me want to make film a thousand times more than watching films in general. I try to watch more, but I have to force myself to it.

Have the people already seen your film? Have you actually returned to Bolivia since you’ve finished Lloyd?

We were there in February, but haven’t been back yet unfortunately. This is mostly due to funding and festival planning, because we all want to go back. This was one of my greatest experiences ever, the people, the food, the place in itself. This is one of the reasons a make documentary films, however experimental they are. There is a world, that you let yourself plunge into, experience and organise with your camera. That, and my general lack of imagination.

Are you working on a new project already?

I’m working on a hopeless project doomed to go wrong, or at least turn out extremely incomplete. I want to do a film on slowness, or lingering, in itself. Instead of dancing around, using the method of slowness, boredom etc. I want to remove any story that could uphold the film and keep the attention of the audience and try to film the concept of slowness. Can you even film a concept?

I’m thinking of blending the form of Jim Jarmusch’ Coffee & and Cigarettes-like conversations, orbiting around Slow Food, Heideggers notion of boredom and areas like that, with examples of slowness; calligraphy, wandering, wild life sound recorders, sex. And then readings to the camera, like the monologues in A Place Called Lloyd.

After the premiere at CPH:DOX, a couple of people came up to me and said they were really annoyed with the pace of the film for the first ten minutes, but then they gave up being critical. And they told me they had a whole new cinematic experience. This reminded me of Hannah Arendt, my girlfriend has just written an academic paper on her. She said that thinking is fundamentally a destructive force. Dwelling makes you think, makes you reconsider, makes you meet your own conscience. It doesn’t build, it reconsiders. This is a very political intention, of course not in the classical sense.

But I think that by getting rid of a story, I can dig deeper into that notion of opening up to a space where this is possible. Where the audience can be attuned to thought. But the most important here is again, that we don’t explain anything, but invite to the sensory experience of slowness.

 

Eulogy to Slowness

I was fortunate enough to be able to watch Letters from the Desert (Eulogy to Slowness) yesterday. It’s a poetic documentary by Italian director Michela Occhipinti. While other slow films, that have been widely discussed, are seen in the light of slow vs fast because we project it onto them, Occhipinti’s film is addressing this topic directly. It is the only slow film, to my knowledge, that can be regarded as an explicit stance in the slow-fast-dialogue.

Letters tells the story of a postman in an Indian region which is still very much true to its (untouched) nature. The film starts with images of a bustling city. The camera is in constant movement, the cuts are fast. The noise is overwhelming. A young man writes a letter, and we go on a journey with a train. The train’s sound, again, is overwhelming. It’s juxtaposed with images of the Indian landscape; vast, natural spaces. Quiet spaces. Quiet spaces you are, in fact, longing for as a viewer after having been through all this noise. The train rushes past a station, and what follows is one of the most remarkable transition I’ve seen in film: the camera remains with the station, and once the train has passed, we hear nothing but silence. It’s auditory beauty, if you wish, and you go “ahhh, finally!” in your head. Then we cut to a postman on his bicycle.

Letter1
Letters from the Desert (2010)

Fom this moment onwards we’re traveling with him through the desert to deliver letters. In many scenes he appears to be a small, lonely figure surrounded by the vast desert around him. It’s beautifully photographic, and highlights the interplay of space and man; an interplay that shapes both.

Letter2
Letters from the Desert (2010)

A mobile tower is erected in his village, which is the beginning of the end of his job. It changes both the natural landscape and the landscape of communication. People write less and less letters. “Letters are more expensive, and they take longer.” People don’t have time, or rather they have been given a medium that delivers messages much faster and they are happy to save a bit of time. Towards the end of the film, the postman has a mere two letters in his bag. A third one announces that there would be job cuts due to the declining numbers of letters sent. He is forced to open a market stall in order to support his family, as his salary isn’t sufficient anymore.

There is more to this film, however, than a simple statement about the effects of modernity arriving in even the remotest areas. There is also more than it photographic beauty. Overall, the film is multi-layered and addresses several issues.

There is, for instance, an underlying theme of illiteracy apparent. In many cases, the postman reads out the letters as the recipients cannot read. It thus blurs the line between private and public. And yet, it is a ceremonial event. Usually the whole family gathers together when a letter is read. This is changing with the arrival of mobile phones. Ironically, the postman himself, while struggling with a declining salary, receives a mobile phone by post, which his son has bought for him with his savings. This sets up a poignant juxtaposition.

Earlier in the film, he had received a letter from him and the whole family was around to listen to what he said. But when he phoned his son, he was alone. High up on his house’s walls in order to receive a better signal. It feels as if communication has been reduced to mere technicalities.

Interestingly, the son cannot talk at that moment. He is busy, and his father has to hung up. Besides, the signal isn’t allowing for a smooth communication.

A letter would have made it possible to communicate…