A Yangtze Landscape – Xu Xin (2017)

There are films, which I’m grateful for. Grateful for being able to watch them, grateful for being able to write about them. Grateful for being able to experience them. There are those films that go deep without trying too much. Films that show the ordinary in their ordinariness, in their simplicity, and which tell a million stories about who we are and why, about what is happening around us and why, what consequences there will in future, and sadly, about how little we can do about it.

Xu Xin’s A Yangtze Landscape (2017) is one of those marvellous films, which made me want to stop it several times in order to process the images in front of my eyes as well as the images in my mind. A Yangtze Landscape is not only a beautifully shot film, it also conjures a number of images, thoughts, and emotions that I struggled to digest all at once. Something that Xi Xin clearly demonstrates is that there is a strong documentary movement present in China, which goes against the official party narrative, a movement that looks beyond propaganda, beyond imagined greatness and heroic plans. It looks at the reality without commenting on it. The camera records the invisible, the silenced and the silent. What directors like Wang Bing and Xu Xin show, won’t end up in history books, or in any books for that matter. If it wasn’t for them, the people they meet would fall into oblivion; forgotten, silenced, expropriated.

A Yangtze Landscape is a journey in many ways. We move along the river Yangtze, the longest river in Asia with its over 6,000km in length. It’s an astounding river that is not only an ecosystem in itself. It is also a symbol of the exploitation of resources, of the creation of man-made projects, state projects in the name of the party, which displace hundreds of thousands of people. Fast progress by all means possible. On his way along the river, on boats, ships, filming the vastness that alludes to an open sea, Xu Xin stops here and there. He literally holds the forward, horizontal progression and dives into vertical storytelling. It is this vertical exploration that questions Chinese progress, that not simply films it, but that investigates its effects.

It is also this vertical exploration that made me think just how important filmmakers like Xu Xin and Wang Bing are, both directors looking at those people who are being left behind by a grand project that, officially, has no victims. Xu Xin shows us people whose stories are never told. They often reminded me of Wang Bing’s Man With No Name or Till Madness Do Us Part. The people we see are disabled, mentally above all, but also physically, the latter, for one man, being a result of having protested against the damaging of his fisher net by big ships. His hands were mangled, he can no longer earn a living. This elderly man, sitting outside overlooking the river with his mutilated hands…what a powerful message in a film that quietly inserts written words to inform us about accidents, suicides and state intervention.

The gloomy greyscale landscapes, almost all of them man-made, speak of lifelessness, and are juxtaposed with the movements of Xu Xin’s camera on board a ship (or does he travel on several ships?). Here again, as in many other slow films, we witness a push-and-pull between life (animation, movement) and death (stillness). The massive projects along the Yangtze river have their advantages for some people, but mean the loss of an entire identity for others, sometimes of lives. This clash, highlighted throughout the film’s over two-hour running time, is aesthetically intensified through Xu Xin’s use of sound.

It’s the sound, or rather the deafening noise of a firework display from Chinese New Year, which connects several scenes in the film. The sounds clearly oppose the images. There doesn’t seem to be a link at all. What the sounds do, on the other hand, is they introduce a degree of disorientation. They may not support the images as such, but they support the mental state of the people we see, the disorientation felt by those who were displaced, the staggering changes, even invasions, of man-made structures. And with that, Yangtze is not only a Chinese film. It not only speaks about the country’s modern development.

Instead, it is also a film about Man’s anthropocene era. It is Man’s era, an era in which we have reached total dominance over nature, an era in which we irreversibly steer towards our downfall, our extinction. Yangtze reminded me of Norbert Elias’ speech on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II. His argument has, of course, nothing to do with film, but with the way we treat our surrounding, and, with that, ourselves.

How come that we force scientific progress in order to dominate nature? How come that we try to explain everything in order to make life less dangerous? How come that, at the same time, we seed hostility, resentment, inequality between people which will inevitably lead to conflict and war? Xu Xin’s film is a very good example of this specifically human problem. Yangtze is a film about creating a (state) hegemony, a superiority that aims to remove its opponents, but which, in the long run, will not stifle conflict. What Yangtze shows in its often sublime shots is power, the thirst for power that has no limits.

But Xu Xin hides this point well. It’s not overt and needs to be looked out for. Yangtze is not so much a film about landscapes and about the longest river of Asia. It is much more complex than it looks at first. It is a statement about us. Xu Xin uses frames that are relatively open, giving us the space to think through different possible meanings of what he shows. In that, he differs from Wang Bing, who tends to use tight frames. Tight frames are always a means to evoke suffocation, making it clear to the viewer that there is pressure from the outside. Xu Xin, on the other hand, leaves things open.

In the end, what remains from A Yangtze Landscape is a bitter aftertaste. The film is a mixture of stunning beauty, and utter poverty and oppression, which some people escape from by killing themselves. There is a contemplative journey juxtaposed with violent imagery. The back and forth creates a truly powerful film about 21st century China and about our human condition.

Tremor – Annik Leroy (2017)

It was in the French national paper Libération that I first came across the work of Annik Leroy. I added a note to myself and thought I really needed to get my hands on her work. Her latest film Tremor – Es ist immer Krieg is my first Leroy film, and I found it magnificent, embalming, haunting. I’m not even sure where to start with this film. It contains so much I’d like to talk about. At the same time, I’d like for the images to linger a bit longer before I try to explain them with words. So we will see where this post will take me and you.

Even though I cannot confirm it for the rest of her filmography as yet, Leroy is known for her meditative films, to which Tremor is not an exception. It starts off with a mind-boggling image that makes one wonder where one is positioned. Where is top, where is bottom? Is the camera tilted, or is it just an illusion? The first image is, I believe a mountain range, perhaps a volcano, but shot with a camera that lays on its side. The sky is to our right and not above us. This disorientation through illusions is one of the main characteristics of Leroy’s film. There are several scenes such as the one I have just described, albeit some of them are much more straight forward.

I love the simplicity of it; a camera on its side, on the ground, recording a lonely tree in a wide field. It’s disorientating, and yet you know what you see. This curious discrepancy keeps one engaged, it keeps one in wonder perhaps, even more so when Leroy turns the camera on its head. We’re on a boat, but the sky is beneath our feet, the water above our head. It’s the opposite of freedom. We have eternity beneath us, but above us…it feels limited somehow. Even though water can have a seemingly endless depth, Leroy’s shot suggests otherwise. It’s more like positioning us like a balloon (as my husband noted) that is stuck at a ceiling, that wants to go further but cannot do so. Leroy keeps us in chains, so to speak, which fits well with the subject of her film.

That said, it’s perhaps not easy to pinpoint a single subject in the film. I believe that Tremor is multilayered, although the focus is history, history of Europe, of art. But it’s also about brutality and violence, about emptiness. Tremor doesn’t contain dialogue, it is a chain of monologues, of book readings in part. Only at the end of the film do we know to whom the voices that accompany us belong.

 

“We all hate the power we endure. It manipulates us and creates false values.”

“Fascism doesn’t start with the first bombs you drop, or with the terror that one can write about in the papers. Fascism starts with the relationship between people.”

It’s quotes like these that give extraordinary weight to Leroy’s frames, long takes of empty places, ruins, rundown areas.The use of black-and-white and the stillness that prevails in many shots add to the power of the film. Especially the first half of the film is void of people, it feels almost apocalyptic, enhanced by quotes from artists and madmen that makes one think. Tremor is a thinking piece; it is not only a film that forces one to think, it is thinking itself. Yes, there are some films that demand a return to Daniel Frampton’s wonderful book Filmosophy, and I feel as though Tremor is one of those. I never had the feeling that there was a director, if anything the director might have just been a guidance to the film’s development but the film progressed in a way that was natural to itself. It took the director on a journey, not necessarily the other way around.

Tremor couldn’t be more topical and I think that the film was released just at the right time, the world being in tatters due to inexplicable decisions on the world stage of politics. The sound design of Leroy’s film is somewhat ominous regarding this and the monologues we hear: sirens of ambulances; helicopters above our head but we just cannot see them. Are these warning signs? Warning signs of what is to come? Warning signs of our madness? I should try to see the film a second time in order to be able to grasp the full power of Leroy’s cinematic creation.

Ananke (Claudio Romano Nöhring, 2016)

!!! This film is now available on tao films VoD !!!

A man and a woman walk slowly through the woods. The camera follows their steps. They seem exhausted. The woman stumbles and tries to hold on to the jacket sleeve of the man. Birds are chirping, crows are cawing. There is something both peaceful and ominous in the air.

Claudio Romano’s Ananke is an observation of our selves, in parts based on Greek mythology. Romano explained the meaning of the film’s title, which, at the same time, is the name of the goat the two unnamed characters own, in an interview:

In greek mythology, Ananke stands for necessity. Ananke is the force that governs everything. It’s the deification of the unalterable necessity of fate, which is an unavoidable principle and a regulative law, without which we would be swallowed by Chaos.

Ananke (dir Claudio Romano Nöhring)

This chaos is palpable in Romano’s film. His two characters go about their daily life. Very much in the style of Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, which the Italian director wasn’t aware of while he was working on his own film, the film shows the man and the woman get dressed, comb their hair, eat. In long observing takes, Romano depicts the weight of time which weighs heavily on the little house the film is predominantly set in. Damages on walls become wounds, wounds become scars. The ageing interior of the house has something mysterious to it, a mystery that also envelops the two characters. Who are they? What is their relationship to each other? While in Tarr’s film the relationship between the man (father) and the woman (daughter) is clear, Romano keeps it open, asking the viewer to decide about what s/he sees in those two characters.

The film’s idyllic atmosphere and its peace is disrupted when chaos breaks out. Ananke, the characters’ goat, named after the Greek goddess, disappears and sets a desperate search in motion. The sudden absence of the goat brings the people’s dependancy on it into the open. What becomes apparent is not the fear of what has become of the animal, but rather the fear of what will become of themselves. Ananke becomes a mirror we hold up to ourselves, because the film isn’t so much about the two characters, or the goat. It is a film that represents Man’s relationship to Nature.

Ananke (dir Claudio Romano Nöhring)

To me, this is a moving-image representation of what I have been mentioned several times in connection to traditional Chinese landscape painting. Contrary to Western landscape painting, Man was the crowning glory. He overpowered Nature. This wasn’t the way Chinese painters perceived of Man’s role. He was simply one part of the whole, a piece that adds to the vast jigsaw puzzle called Life. Romano shows in Ananke that Man still very much considers himself to be the crowning glory and that he believes he can master Nature.

But it’s not that simple. Nature has its own ways, as the goat’s disappearance shows. And this is precisely where Man’s perception of himself begins to show cracks. “Anake! Ananke!”, the woman shouts over and over again, her voice almost terrified. Her terrified shouting, her desperate searches – all of this has its root in her realisation that she and the man who accompanies her are no longer in a position of power. They’re acted upon, and struggle with their role.

What remained for me after the film was the woman’s desperate shouts. They are still ringing in my ears when I think of the film. Ananke is a film about power, in some ways, but also about a lack thereof, about emptiness, which is palpable in every frame. It is perhaps best to end this post with Romano’s own words, who describes this interest in absence and emptiness:

Emptiness, or absence, is maybe the main theme of the film and the most important concept of my style, my method, my filmmaking. Absence is all I search, in life as well. To discard everything, to taste the void. Absence means to not see, to not perceive, and also to see and to listen elsewhere. Absence is also a political choice, an essential life choice to me. It’s about focusing on what’s not there, what we cannot see, to appreciate what is there and what we do see. To claim my presence in the void, to not occupy common spaces. This is related to Nature, to God, or spirits, in my opinion. The absence of the goat, for example, is more than a vanishing. It reminds us we cannot manage everything. Almost everything happens out of our control and an explanation is not needed. The absence of an explanation: this is another concept very important to me.

Remains – Yotam Ben-David (2016)

!!! This film is now available on tao films !!!

What remains if a relationship, if love, has hit a dead end? We have all been at this point, asking ourselves whether we’re still moving forwards together, as a couple, or if we have long reached a stage when it is almost impossible to return to the good old days.

With patience and an eye for detail (in a couple’s routine life), Yotam Ben-David from Israel explores this painful stage, often ignored out of fear to face the reality and the frightening possibility of being alone again. Itamar and Thomas, the protagonists of Remains, couldn’t be more different from one another. Whether it was a coincidence or not, the respective size/height of each character says a lot about how they are positioned in their relationship. Thomas is a tall, almost overpowering man. He is forceful and patronising. Ben-David doesn’t show this with the help of low angles, which would establish Thomas’ overpowering nature clearly on a visual level. Instead, the director asks us to read the character through his actions. This might take longer, but it is a way to get the viewer engaged without feeding them with a golden spoon.

Remains (dir Yotam Ben-David)

Itamar, played by the director himself, is the complete opposite. It seems as if he is with his back against the wall, not having enough breathing space, being unable to move, to live. Regardless of what he does, it is wrong. The relationship is no longer an intimate community of love, but a sort of boxing ring where battles take place on a daily basis. Night appears to be the only relief for both sides, until another day, another battle, begins.

Ben-David uses beautiful night shots in order to underline the idea of a period of peace. But you can’t ignore the fact that the director’s characters are shown primarily alone in those night shots, suggesting that peace can only exist if the two partners are embalmed by solitude. It is uncomfortable to watch the two men positioning themselves in strong opposition to one another. There is persistent tension between the two, which acts as a thread which leads us through the film’s narrative.

All of this is, of course, the mere surface of the film. I had watched the film twice or three times, before I realised that the film has a deeper meaning. There was something that went beyond the depiction of a relationship that has hit a dead end. In fact, Ben-David said in an interview with tao films:

All of my films have roots in my own reality and my own experience, but at the same time I try to distil and highlight certain elements from this experience in order to examine them closely through my films. In this case I was very interested in this type of role play between dominant and submissive, which is something I believe we all live to a certain degree (even if not in the same volume as in the film). I was specifically interested in the different shades and nuances between those two poles, finding power in passivity and weakness in control. I was also interested in the idea that power is both attracting and destructive.

Remains (dir Yotam Ben-David)

Remains uses its characters in order to explore the concept of power. This goes beyond the on-screen relationship between two men. Quite interestingly, it has a political edge to it. The idea of an attractive personality which you follow and engage with only to find out that once you’re in this relationship (any type of relationship, it doesn’t have to be a loving relationship) you are oppressed to a point where you are aware of what’s happening without being able to stop – this rings so true in current politics where the right is on the rise around the world. Or when even left politicians turn out to use their power to, quite literally, overpower.

This political aspect of Ben-David’s Remains might not be very obvious. The young director is very clever in hiding the obvious, asking us to search for something that is just as important as the surface that plays out on screen. The short is a subtle investigation into human relationships and the power that plays out between them. Could we go as far as saying that the power Ben-David depicts mirrors societies, too, confronting one another because of their differences? Watch the film on our platform and see for yourself.

Death Time

Oh yes, a cheery title for this blog post. I apologise. But this only comes because of an email I received from one of my website’s avid readers. I was asked – and this isn’t rare – what I think the difference between slow film and Slow Cinema is. Two and a half years into my research, I still have no idea, and perhaps I will never be able to answer this questions. Slowness is relative. Whatever is fast for me, may be slow for you. It is true that slow films use very similar, if not the same kind of aesthetics. So where do we draw the line?

I was thinking about one of my arguments, which you can revisit in the paper I uploaded a little while ago. In the paper I linked the use of time in concentration camps and the way Lav Diaz uses time in his films about terror and trauma. I saw similarities and talked about “death time”. Slow Cinema is characterised by temps mort, or dead time. I switched this around and began to look into death time, which is such a characteristic feature of Diaz. Time is used as a form of power, of punishment. Endless duration drives the characters insane (and maybe the viewer, too). There is a curious mixture in his films of shock and duration, of the instant and endless waiting. I call this complexity death time.

Now, in what ways can we see Slow Cinema as a whole in this? I briefly thought about the other films I know. They are aesthetically close to Diaz’s films, and yet totally different. They also use time different. This is primarily the case because Diaz makes incredibly long films, while most slow-film directors stick to a more usual running time of about two hours. Diaz can therefore play a lot more with duration. His films are also different in that they deal specifically with the trauma of his people, which makes his films stand out in the classical Slow Cinema canon.

But if I were to expand a bit on the notion of “death time”, going a beyond my previous argument that it’s an expression of a complex interaction of the instant and duration in order to inflict miseries on film characters, then I could actually make it fit to Slow Cinema. This is way too new for me now, so it may be the case with slow films in general, so the whole idea of finding a structure which sets Slow Cinema apart from “normal” slow films becomes rather redundant. Personally I think that Slow Cinema is an experiential thing, but no one likes experience because you can’t prove anything. So I’m still trying to find something less abstract.

Anyway, let me expand on the notion of death time and say that death plays a major role in Slow Cinema. Slowness has often been equated with death. The Futurists were keen on speeding up life because it meant exactly that: life, living. Speed means progression, therefore a forward movement. Slowness also means movement, but it is more often associated with stagnation (which makes it particularly interesting for my study of terror and trauma). Death is not necessarily the kind of death we imagine. It is not necessarily associated with humans. Not a lot of people die in Diaz’s films, for example, but we know that they eventually will. They’re on the verge of death all the time. They’re walking dead.

Fogo by Yulene Olaizola is also about death, only in a different way. It is about the death of an island. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films are all about ghosts, which imply death by default. Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse is another example. Or even his Sátántangó. And what about Carlos Reygadas? Japon and Battle In Heaven use death as an underlying narrative feature, too. I also remember Nicolas Pereda’s Summer of Goliath (and I hope I remember this correctly); the death of a child, the departure of a husband and father and therefore the death of the family structure. Michela Occhipinti’s Letters from the Desert depicts the death of the traditional postman.

So are these films slow because they deal with death in one way or another? Can you deal with death appropriately in fast films? I think there is something in there, and it’ll be worth researching further (on my list!). And for some reason this all links vaguely to my very early arguments about static art; stasis always implies death in some form or another. So my original thought of death time looks a lot more complex now and I’m looking forward to looking into this in the near future.

Day 5 – Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (Diaz)

I admit that I have cheated a bit. I didn’t watch the whole six hours in one go. Not the second time. I did so the first time, though. I watched it at the Edinburgh Film Festival last year. So while I am cheating, I’m not really. This film happened to become a very convenient subject for today’s blog. I had to re-watch it for the chapter I’m working on.

Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012) precedes Norte (2013), and is by all means a Lav Diaz film; shot in black-and-white, giving his characters space and time to develop in their own pace, and dealing with controversial issues that have arisen in the context of colonialism and dictatorship in the Philippines. There is a lot you can say about the film. I found it to be his most complex, and most powerful film to date.

Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, Lav Diaz

In short, Florentina tells the story of a young woman of the same name who goes through horrific atrocities committed by her father, and the men he sells her to. She is repeatedly raped and beaten. She has developed CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative condition of the brain, which – as we can see in the film – causes memory loss and severe headaches, and leads to a very slow death. Florentina does have a second narrative strand, which merges with the first around four hours into the film, but the film is nevertheless about Florentina, and her daughter Lolita, or Loleng (her nickname).

Cinematically, I find it significant that Diaz never shows the atrocities. Here and there he shows Florentina’s father being rough on her, but he shows neither the rapes nor the beatings. Everything happens off-screen. The viewer is therefore forced to listen to screams and cries of help. It is a hugely effective method of filmmaking in this case. The uncertainty of what is really happening behind the walls to Florentina is an excruciating pain for the viewer, who is taken on a very intimate journey with a woman who goes through hell.

Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, Lav Diaz

There is also an interesting dichotomy between sound and silence in the film, with silence being predominant in her dream-like states, whenever she sees The Giants, which have a historical meaning. But if I start going into this, this entry will never find a worthy ending. So instead, I want to briefly point to the fact that Florentina is a metaphor. The film is not just about an individual. The young woman functions as an example for the whole of Philippine society. In a Q&A that followed the screening at the EIFF last year, Diaz spoke about the effects of colonialism and dictatorships on today’s society. He put Florentina as an individual on the same level as Philippine society. CTE is functions as a drastic and explicit illustration of what colonialism can do to nations.

The repeated maltreatment by Spanish, American, British and Japanese colonisers took its toll on the people. Diaz equated this with the repeated beatings Florentina suffers in the film. Indeed, “rape” has become a historical term these days. There is the rape of Austria (after the Nazis annexed the country). There is the rape of Jugoslawia, of Nanking in China, etc Rape no longer stands for the human act itself. It has become a metaphor for one country’s maltreatment in war of another country. It is a term, which has come to denote simply “power of one agent over another”, no matter in what form.

Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, Lav Diaz

So if we think about the treatment of Florentina as an individual, we have to see this in the context of Philippine history (which is dark, I’ve read about it). It is a clever cinematic construct. It criticises predominantly Western nations for getting rid of Philippine culture, and often, Philippine dignity, without being very explicit about it. The film is told through a metaphor, and it is the only slow film I know of that does this in such a successful manner.