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.)

The Multisensory Film Experience

If there is one thing that is visible in my research of the last three to four years, then it is my interest in why certain films attract me more than others. I’m fascinated by film experience, a fascination which started with Slow Cinema and then shifted to slow trauma cinema (specifically the cinema of Lav Diaz). Why did I get so hooked on Slow Cinema? In a previous post, I wrote about my experience with post-trauma and how Slow Cinema helped me to deal with anxiety and sensory overstimulation. For me, slow films were therapeutic. At the same time, I was reading an eye-opening book called Somatic Cinema: The relationship between body and screen – a Jungian perspective by Luke Hockley. I discovered “the three meanings” of a film, the third (speaking to something in the unconscious, unknown to us) being the reason why I have one film in particular which I cannot watch to the end. I don’t know why, but there seems to be a relation between the film and my unconscious.

Now, this reading and this experience showed to me that film is not just an audio-visual product. I could already feel this when I investigated the ways in which Lav Diaz used specific aesthetics in order to transmit a sensation of post-trauma to the viewer. Post-trauma is more than just audio-visual. It goes deep under your skin, so if a film wants to evoke this, it has to go deep under your skin too. In effect, film being a multisensory experience is a no-brainer. I believe people are aware that it’s not just about images and sound. However, this is what scholars focus on, even more so on image than on sound. Film critics follow a similar line. There is little talk about the experience of a film, regardless of where you look. Especially in scholarship, experience is a sort of plague which you should try to avoid. It is subjective and mostly individual, therefore you cannot prove anything or write an objective scientific paper backed up with facts. But film viewing isn’t fact, it’s experience. It always was and it will always be, whether we’re speaking of popular mainstream or niche arthouse cinema.

I was therefore happy to read Luis Rocha Antunes’ book Multisensory Film Experience: A Cognitive Model of Experiental Film Aesthetics (2016), which contains a lot of material that is applicable to Slow Cinema, or that comes specifically from slow films. Antunes even mentions Slow Cinema, which doesn’t surprise me at all. He argues that the multisensory in film can be felt primarily in films with little dialogue, films which allow time for viewer experience, films which are often austere in their aesthetics. That is not to say that other films don’t offer this experience. It is just more difficult to perceive an action blockbuster as multisensory rather than as an image-sound-product. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Specifically, Antunes writes: “By using non-verbal communication and the senses, these films capture the interest of various audiences. The experiential appeal of these films is universal” (2016: 7).

The fact that the experiential aspect is universal explains (to me) why there is a rather large group of people attracted to slow films, and if you ask them why they’re attracted to it, it seems as though they all feel the same. Certainly to different degrees, but it is always about the specific experiential aspect of the films, not about how amazing the actress looks, or how mind-blowing the cuts were. There is something that sits deeper in those viewers who admire slow films, and I believe that Antunes’ book is a very good start to explore this “something”.

After years heavy with sensorial experience, be it through post-trauma or through cinema, I can heartily support Antunes’ proposition that “the experience is the message”: “it is the experience – not the medium alone – that defines the perceptual nature of the message” (2016: 13). In some ways, this is one of the cornerstones of meditation and Buddhist/Taoist beliefs. It is about experience. For that to happen, for the experience to materialise, you need to be in the moment, in the present, and this can be facilitated through certain aesthetic choices by filmmakers, as is the case in Slow Cinema, the way I see it. In fact, Antunes mentions slow-film directors as varied as van Sant, Tsai Ming-liang and Albert Serra.

The issue is that we have lost the ability to be in the moment, which makes it difficult for us to feel a film as a multisensory experience. This explains why so much emphasis is placed on images first of all, then maybe on sound. If they follow classic patterns like changes of colour for mood changes or change of shot lengths if a character reveals something important to the narrative, images are easy to read. Add a chunk of quick cuts, and the viewer has little chance to be with a film. I think Antunes’ book is worth reading if you’d like to understand the psychological and biological processes behind the multisensory film experience. Antunes cognitive model can be overwhelming, but it is an eye-opener, or perhaps rather a reminder of what cinema is about, namely experience.

Slow Cinema and Cultural Memory

In a previous post I mentioned my own personal experience with slow films in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder. Given the comments I had received after publishing that specific post, it seems as though I’m not the only one who, consciously or unconsciously, uses or used slow films in order to calm down, to soothe, to work through traumatic events. Slow films allowed me to breathe. They gave me the chance to think, to take my time, and, most important of all, to “realise”; realise what is happening in front of me, something I couldn’t do in real life at the time because my senses were repeatedly overstimulated. You can read all details about the link between Slow Cinema and trauma here.

In my post-PhD life I’m discovering more relations between slowness and memory, and I find the role (cinematic) slowness is playing in regards to working through trauma increasingly intriguing. It started off with my finding a theatre play by the Belgian theatre group GROUPOV. Just imagine, a five-hour theatre play about the genocide in Rwanda, with the beginning nothing but a forty minute long testimony of a genocide survivor. The sheer overall length of the play exceeds public expectations. It is not a theatre play you go see to entertain yourself. You go there, perhaps, because you feel a responsibility. Or because you’re simply interested. But you certainly don’t go see this in order “to have fun”. Now, this five-hour play stunned me. I watched parts of it on YouTube and read whatever I could about it. It made waves when it premiered in Liège, Belgium in 2000.

In the context of the genocide in Rwanda (1994), scholar Alexandre Dauge-Roth has proposed a thoroughly striking argument, which I couldn’t help but link to (cinematic) slowness or long duration. Dauge-Roth argues that cultural expectations may silence victims of genocide, war, and other traumatic events. This isn’t just about state-sponsored trauma and terror. We’re also speaking of individual trauma; sexual abuse, rape, attempted murder, loss of family members etc

For the sake of length (what irony!) and because I’m working on an article on this subject, which prevents me from going into too much detail, I’m simplifying the argument here. Most vital in any case here is that we have very much grown used to the way stories are told. Just take the resistance to long films such as those by Lav Diaz. We are not used to films of six hours running time or more. A nice, concise ninety minute film is just about right. Make it two hours at most. Already at school, I was taught that a story needs to have a three act structure, with an introduction, a climax and everything. These are standard characteristics of narratives, even today, when arthouse films try to break through this tradition.

This tradition is exactly what may silence victim-survivors, argues Dauge-Roth. He doesn’t mention long duration as such. But it becomes clear that this is one vital characteristic which is missing in current representations of trauma. It was a major force in my work on Lav Diaz and his treatment of post-trauma on-screen. Then there was the theatre play, and Wang Bing’s three-hour film Fengming. Interestingly, they all take their time in exploring trauma. They allow victims to take as much time as they want and need.

Of course, for everyone who has been through a traumatic event, the experience is individual. I cannot oversimplify and approach every traumatic text in the same way. However, there seems to be a relation between films of long duration and the investigation of trauma. The problem we face nowadays is that the tradition of storytelling challenges (post-)trauma. Trauma is a-temporal. It doesn’t follow a linear narrative. Nor is it necessarily something you can squeeze into a nine-minute film. Nor does it follow a typical three act structure. Traumatic events are remembered in the time the survivor needs, and in a fashion that the survivor finds appropriate. This very often clashes with people’s expectations; it clashes with standards, with traditions, and is therefore often rejected by listeners. As a survivor you can tell that your story somehow “doesn’t fit”, which may lead to being rejected…which overall causes a silencing of the traumatic experience in public discourse.

I not only generalise here. I also use my own experience, having had to tell people in every single detail about what happened to me a couple years ago. This took an immense amount of time, and wasn’t at all linear. I think my way of remembering defied all classical structures, which is why a lot of people turned their back on me. We have created a net of tight expectations as to what is allowed and in what way we should tell our stories, or in what way we should write about it, or even make films about it. This adds to the already suffocating life of trauma-survivors. To me, personally, Slow Cinema or films with long duration, directors who engage in those films, are those who alleviate this silence, who can genuinely contribute to cultural memory, and this is exactly where I’m headed with my new project – the clash between expectations and silencing, and how artists can intervene, and the ways in which duration can tackle the silence imposed by society. Very excited by this actually!

Horse Money – Pedro Costa (2014)

It’s kind of sad that you have to wait almost two years for a brilliant film to cross your way. I missed Pedro Costa’s new film in Locarno, because I saw Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before (2014). That was my only chance somehow, because it has never popped up around me. I regret not having seen it there and then. Pedro Costa has convinced me with Horse Money, perhaps even made me a fan. When I saw Colossal Youth a while ago, I couldn’t really get into his work. Cinematographically it was beautiful, but I had issues to follow the narrative. Now, my having matured and having a more in-depth view on themes such as colonialism and the trauma that comes with it, I want to revisit not only Colossal Youth. I also want to see as much of his other films as I can. There is something very attractive about it, very engaging, very enveloping.

Horse Money is an exceptional piece and resonated with my experiences of Diaz’s films. Costa has created a haunting piece. His extraordinary play with light and shadow, the latter being most prominent, renders Horse Money as haunting as it could be. The frames are tight, adding to the haunting atmosphere a feeling of claustrophobia. What is it that holds us so tight, like prisoners? What is it that the characters are imprisoned in? What is it that the characters are looking to escape from, but who cannot flee?

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History. Memory. Trauma.

Three words which are embodied by characters and film style alike. Costa plays on temporal disorientation. Ventura, an elderly man and Costa’s muse, if you wish, speaks of the past as if it was present. He says he is 19 years and 3 months old. When asked whether he is married, he looks at his ring finger and hides it. He walks repeatedly through dark, endless corridors. Passages to the past, passages to memory.

Horse Money is situated on the threshold between life and death. We can never be sure whether the characters we see are alive, a result of a dream, a hallucination, or a simple memory. To me, even Ventura himself was a phantom, a man of ghostly presence who is removed from reality. And so was I. A curious effect I had never experienced with a film before – I felt removed from reality. I felt as though I saw the film from outside my body. The ghostly appearances of the few characters we meet, their almost constant whispering, their positions in dark, shadowy places – I wasn’t really where I thought I was. Where was I, then?

I’m not sure where Horse Money took me. I know that it hit certain spots. Trauma is one of them. I studied Diaz’s representation of post-trauma back and forth, and Costa’s is an entirely different, yet very effective approach. Ventura is paralysed. He’s living in a temporal loop. So are his friends. His shaking hands are indicative of shock, which, it often seems, he has lived through only a few minutes earlier. The date mentioned, however, is 11 March 1975, the day a coup attempt was beaten down by the Portuguese military government. It feels as if it was yesterday.

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Absence. Absent presence. Present absence.

Ventura enters his former work place, a building in ruins. Everything is shattered. He speaks to his boss who is no longer there. He dials numbers on broken telephones. It is an errie atmosphere. The past is well alive in Ventura’s mind, but not in Costa’s screen images. This discrepancy is startling throughout the film, and causes the temporal and spatial disorientation I was speaking of earlier. Above all, however, it is an image of people reeling from trauma. It is an image of paralysis, perhaps most obviously embodied in a single image: that of Ventura, naked apart from his red pants, standing in the streets at night, surrounded by soldiers and an armoured vehicle. He lifts his hands.

“You died a thousand deaths, Ventura,” a friend says. Horse Money feels like the end, but it isn’t. Ventura, struggling with what he calls a “nervous disease”, will die many more deaths before he can break out of the circle of history, memory, trauma.

The aesthetics of absence and duration in the post-trauma cinema of Lav Diaz

Now that the PhD has been awarded, I’m happy to make my thesis, the first coherent study of the films of Lav Diaz, available for you to read. I’m currently working on a monograph, which will use this thesis as a basis, but which will be more personal, less academic and which will contain one more chapter. I’ll write a little something on Diaz’s Locarno winner From What Is Before (2014) which I really thought needs mention in the context of post-trauma, but which I couldn’t really fit into my thesis. Please feel free to get in touch about the thesis if you want. Please feel free to comment or even recommend further reading which I would be happy about. Here’s the abstract of the thesis. You can find the download link below.

Aiming to make an intervention in both emerging Slow Cinema and classical Trauma Cinema scholarship, this thesis demonstrates the ways in which the post-trauma cinema of Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz merges aesthetics of cinematic slowness with narratives of post-trauma in his films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). 

Diaz has been repeatedly considered as representative of what Jonathan Romney termed in 2004 “Slow Cinema”. The director uses cinematic slowness for an alternative approach to an on-screen representation of post-trauma. Contrary to popular trauma cinema, Diaz’s portrait of individual and collective trauma focuses not on the instantenaeity but on the duration of trauma. In considering trauma as a condition and not as an event, Diaz challenges the standard aesthetically techniques used in contemporary Trauma Cinema, as highlighted by Janet Walker (2001, 2005), Susannah Radstone (2001), Roger Luckhurst (2008) and others. Diaz’s films focus instead on trauma’s latency period, the depletion of a survivor’s resources, and a character’s slow psychological breakdown. 

Slow Cinema scholarship has so far focused largely on the films’ aesthetics and their alleged opposition to mainstream cinema. Little work has been done in connecting the films’ form to their content. Furthermore, Trauma Cinema scholarship, as trauma films themselves, has been based on the immediate and most radical signs of post-trauma, which are characterised by instantaneity; flashbacks, sudden fears of death and sensorial overstimulation. Following Lutz Koepnick’s argument that slowness offers “intriguing perspectives” (Koepnick, 2014: 191) on how trauma can be represented in art, this thesis seeks to consider the equally important aspects of trauma duration, trauma’s latency period and the slow development of characteristic symptoms. 

With the present work, I expand on current notions of Trauma Cinema, which places emphasis on speed and the unpredictability of intrusive memories. Furthermore, I aim to broaden the area of Slow Cinema studies, which has so far been largely focused on the films’ respective aesthetics, by bridging form and content of the films under investigation. Rather than seeing Diaz’s slow films in isolation as a phenomenon of Slow Cinema, I seek to connect them to the existing scholarship of Trauma Cinema studies, thereby opening up a reading of his films.

You can download the full thesis here.

Slow Cinema, trauma and therapy

I set up this blog in the autumn of 2012, at the start of my doctoral research. It’s funny just how much the original subject has changed in those three years. I planned to write a piece on Slow Cinema in general, but the subject became narrower and narrower and, as attentive readers may know, has then focused entirely on the films of Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma. Throughout those three years, I came across beautiful films with stunning cinematography and interesting stories. What started off as a research project and as a way to formulate ideas, has turned into a platform with reviews, interviews and research ideas. A lot of people have contacted me to ask whether I could take a look at their films. I’m eternally grateful to those people. Because of them, I have seen marginal, yet great films which showed me what cinema is or can be. All I can say is thank you, and please keep the films coming!

In the last year of my PhD research, something else became clear, though. Slow films became a form of trauma therapy for me, and I would like to say a few things about this now. I do not in any way attempt to publish my life story, but I find the link between Slow Cinema and trauma fascinating, and I’m hoping to dig deeper into it, now that the PhD is done.

In spring 2009, a chain of traumatic events triggered an abnormal stress reaction in my brain and I was diagnosed with PTSD in summer 2010. Until that time I had little idea what happened to me. I did know that life was even faster than before. I also knew that things were much louder than before. My senses were constantly overwhelmed, 24/7. My adrenaline level was much to high which caused anxiety and aggression. Panic attacks were the order of the day. Any kind of uncertainty drove me mad. If you think that life is fast those days, imagine it about ten times worse, and you may get an idea of the frenzy my brain was in until about three years ago.

I only noticed towards the end of my doctoral research that parallel to my post-trauma surfacing slowly, I became more and more interested and, at times, even obsessed with Slow Cinema. This was entirely unconscious. By chance, I read an article about Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) and I was so curious that I just had to watch it. I watched it in summer or autumn 2009. I do remember that I watched Sátántangó (1994) that same year, in December 2009, with a 24h blood pressure measuring device because the doctors weren’t sure just why my blood pressure had been that high. A fascinating experience, to say the least!

In any case, over the months I struggled with whatever happened in my brain, I developed a real taste for slow films. Now it makes sense, and I think there are a few different things to it.

First of all, the slow pace of the films allowed me to record what was happening in front of me. I was no longer able to watch Hollywood blockbusters. My brain simply couldn’t record the events on screen. In general, whenever something became too fast, my brain shut down. I assume it’s a safety procedure in order not to get overwhelmed and overstimulated again. So, if I wanted to watch a film it had to be slower than the average. That kind of feeds in with my next point, namely the minimalist mise-en-scène, for instance. With my senses having been persistently overwhelmed, it was a blessing to look at something that was more or less empty. Those now famous, more or less empty long-shots of landscapes were bliss and contributed to a feeling of calm inside me. The fact that slow films tends to tell minimalist stories, i.e. stories the way they happen in real life without overly exaggerating everything and making the viewer believe that it is perfectly plausible to go through all emotions from A to Z in only ninety minutes, was perfect for someone like me. Don’t get me wrong, slow films say a lot. But they say it in a slower and more minimalist way, which allows the viewer to take his/her time to record and understand everything.

Not a lot of dialogue – perfect! I could contemplate the shots and took my time to study small bits which I personally found interesting. It is said that slow films are not exactly a form of escapist cinema for people. And yet, it was for me. It was exactly that: escape from everyday life. A life that was fast, overwhelming, overstimulating, loud, confusing and whatever else unpleasant. It’s funny that people whose life is fast anyway go see escapist fast movies from Hollywood. Yes, story-wise they’re escapist, but in the end, aesthetically they’re not. Slow films are, especially if you suffer from PTSD. They’re the ideal form of escapist cinema.

Now, the link between cinematic slowness and post-trauma may perhaps trigger an eureka effect in you, the kind of “Oh yes, it makes perfect sense!” Indeed, it does make perfect sense. But there is more, and this is my interest in the films of Lav Diaz. I owe him a great deal even though he didn’t actively do something apart from making films. But his films, in particular those I worked on for my doctoral thesis (Melancholia, Death in the Land of Encantos, Florentina Hubaldo CTE), are, to my mind and according to my experience, a correct representation of post-trauma. The issue with popular trauma films is that the focus is on speed, that means the unpredictability of intrusive memories, flashbacks, etc What those films don’t show is the slow part of post-trauma: the depletion of resources in the survivor because of an over-stimulation of the senses, the stagnation and paralysis because you repeatedly return, in your head, to the traumatic event, the inability to follow a linear life narrative, the draining away of your energy.

These elements are the main thrusts in those three films and especially when it comes to Florentina Hubaldo I have to say that Diaz is and remains the first director I have come across who puts PTSD the way I experienced it onto a big screen. Post-trauma is not a special-effect driven blockbuster spectacle. It’s an immensely slow and painful condition. Diaz’s films are by no means easy. Narrative wise they’re immensely hard to sit through. They’re painful, they drain you. They drain you the way post-trauma drains the characters he depicts. At the same time, however, watching them allowed me to understand myself, my condition, my suffering. I understood what was happening inside me and for once I felt understood. In effect, Slow Cinema and the films of Lav Diaz had an strong therapeutic effect on me, and I want to dig deeper into this, write about it, starting with a journal article, then maybe going further. It isn’t new that films can have a therapeutic effect, but it would be new to bring Slow Cinema in.

The slow long-take?

If you have been following this blog from the beginning, you may have noticed that I regularly return to the issue of the long-take and its importance for Slow Cinema. I have often argued that the long-take is not in and by itself a guarantee for a slow film. Other factors need to be in place, too. Towards the end of my research, I have come across the latest doctoral thesis on Slow Cinema, in which the long-take was described as the “sine qua non” of Slow Cinema. I have an issue with that. Previous researchers, like Matthew Flanagan, or even Harry Tuttle (Contemplative Cinema) have at least linked the long-take with the content of respective film frames. Even though the long-take is and remains the main focus in Slow Cinema studies, which is not bringing the research forward at all, I would like to point to a film which I have recently seen.

Victoria by Sebastian Schipper (2015) has been shot in a single-take. The film is in fact a very long two-hour and twenty minute take. For those who have not yet seen it (and you should!), the film is everything but slow. It does take its time to build up tension. Yet in the end it’s nevertheless a heist movie. It’s fast. It’s about speed, about anxiety, about adrenaline. Victoria is anything but slow. So if the long-take is the sine qua non of Slow Cinema, where would we position films such as Victoria? If the long-take slows down the narrative, how exactly can we continue to speak of it as THE Slow Cinema characteristic if it can easily be used for a complete opposite effect?

I think, my main issue with this “sine qua non” is that it’s taken out of context. Again, the long-take has rarely been mentioned in the context of a film’s respective content. Analyses are often mere descriptions because researchers have difficulties to approach slow films in the usual scholarly fashion of applying previously successful frameworks to those films. I had a very similar problem and it took me a while (thank God, I had three years for this!) to get a hang of it.

The long-take is not the main characteristic of Slow Cinema. It seems to be at first sight, but I would like to suggest a different approach: the long-take is essential for a cinematic exploration of character psychology. Whether this happens in a slow, or in a fast film is of little interest. It is true that very often it is slow films which deal with character psychology. My own work on Lav Diaz and his representation of post-trauma is a good example for this, because Diaz uses slow time in order to give the viewer a sense of depletion of resources, trauma’s latency period, and other debilitating factors of post-trauma. In the films of Béla Tarr, too, you can see a depiction of character psychology. It has often been said that characters in slow films show no emotion, that it is difficult to read them. Ira Jaffe has been a supporter of this argument. But as I have argued in an earlier post, we merely expect characters to go through all possible emotions in 90 minutes. If this isn’t the case, the character lacks emotional engagement.

This is simply wrong, and shows that we are still reading slow films through the lens of approved of, age-old frameworks. What becomes important, and I hope that my doctoral thesis makes a first step into this direction, is that Slow Cinema studies has to be connected to other fields of academic research. If one sees Slow Cinema entirely in the context of Film Studies, one is bound to reach the conclusion that the long-take is the sine qua non of it. It looks like it, and I was also one of those supporters. If someone asked me what Slow Cinema was, I always mentioned the long-take first, and I still do, because it’s easy and people know what I’m talking about.

But no, it is not typical of Slow Cinema as such. It is necessary for character psychology. In a way, it’s similar, because, again, Slow Cinema often focuses on character psychology. Yet one needs to be more precise and put the significance and role of the long-take into a correct context. Otherwise, you will always come across films like Victoria which prove you wrong.