Le passeur de temps – Sylviane Agacinski (2000)

More often than not, book flea markets are the best way to find gems that you might not find in book shops (anymore). Very old books from the 19th century, old film magazines, discontinued books – a whole range of literature that can genuinely enrich your reading, your thinking, your research. It was on a flea market last week that I picked up Sylviane Agacinski’s Le Passeur de Temps – Modernité et Nostalgie, quite a feast for the brain if you’re interested in the subject of time and modernity.

But let me begin with the actual beginning of the book, in which she describes a photograph, which shows a group of students somewhere between 1890 and 1900. All students are male. They look proud, sure of themselves. But there is, in the background and centred, a nude woman. She appears to be just the same: proud, sure of herself, confident. Only one man looks at her. The others look straight at the camera. Agacinski suggests that the nude woman stands in for modernity, appearing at the horizon and few people notice it coming. An interesting take, which, I’m absolutely certain, wasn’t the intention of the photographer. At the same time, we are at the end of the 19th century. Photography itself is part of modernity. The photograph itself is modern, the nude woman becomes a reinforcement of “the new” taking over.

Le Passeur de Temps is a threshold experience, just like this photograph. Written in the late 1990s and published in the year 2000, Agacinski’s book evaluates what has been and what is. It is not a book on the history of modernity and time. It is a philosophical book that poses crucial questions. I would even think that the faster we move forwards, the more essential those questions become. Agacinski’s passeur is taken and adapted from Walter Benjamin’s flaneur, the passeur being what characterises us, and our time, most: everything, including us, is merely passing through or by. With modernity’s aim of constant progress (forward movement), we have to keep going. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Augenblick, verweile doch. Du bist so schön” takes on an important meaning here. The desire for a moment to last, to become eternal, is perhaps stronger than ever before, but it is also less likely than ever before that we allow for a moment to last.

Agacinski reminds us in her chapter L’Heure Occidentale that it used to be religion and politics which created a temporal order in our lives. If history had a religious or political nature to it, so did time. This has changed drastically, however. Globalisation, Agacinski argues, meant nothing other than a homogenisation of rhythms around the world. All rhythms are now Western rhythms, and it is this Western rhythm that makes people believe that time needs to be productive and profitable. Using the work of Claude Levi-Strauss as a basis, Agacinski notes that we could essentially divide the world into two forms of civilisation: those “made to change”, those whose people believe in the possibility of infinite power and knowledge; and those “made to last”, those whose people live in an equilibrium with nature. It’s as though the fate of our modern civilisation is foretold…

This distinction is, in a very crude way, a difference between fast and slow. We have Western society persistently moving forward, and those societies which are meant to last. I like Agacinski’s description here. Societies meant to last…lasting, enduring, duration. Civilisations that live in harmony with nature, that follow natural rhythms. Western societies, on the other hand, live through an eternal passageway, albeit it’s not the mechanical clock, which dictates this movement towards an unknown goal. It is, Agacinski suggests, the stock exchange which waiting for its profits that govern our lives.

Notre monde, surpeuplé d’images, nous fait cohabiter avec des foules de fantômes et douter de l’homogénéité de notre temps. 

When the book was released, 18 years ago (sometimes I really do feel old!), the over-saturation of images was at its beginning. What we see now is something that perhaps no one could have imagined 18 years ago. But the sheer flood of images forces us to live with phantoms. What does that mean for our lives, for our societies?

Essentially, modern consciousness is a “passing consciousness”. It never rests, it never stays. Modern consciousness is aware that our lives are nothing other than a passing element. We come and we go. Agacinski notes that before the age of modernity, at a time when in particular religion still governed our lives, man had a goal. There was this idea of working towards an ideal. Everything one does, everything one creates, one lives through – everything is part of our progressing towards a higher ideal. This ideal was our goal, the reason why we were alive in the first place. This ideal is gone. What remains? There is a thought-provoking argument in the book, which still keeps me thinking.

Selon une longue tradition en effet – avec laquelle il est difficile de rompre – le passager a été conçu comme la négation de l’éternel, donc de l’être. Ce qui ne pouvait durer, rester absolument, ne pouvait pas être.

The idea of passing through”, as we do nowadays, negates eternity. It was our ancient dream to become, or at least to create something eternal. There is this Trauma Management Therapy, which I mentioned in my PhD. We know that we will all die eventually. It causes anxiety, which we tackle by working on something that might make us eternal in one way or another. Yet, modernity, which shows us every day that everything we do is what is called “vergänglich” in German, means that we have no means to tackle this anxiety anymore. Living becomes mourning our death in advance. But the most intriguing point is: if only the eternal, those things that last, are considered to be in the actual sense of the term, then how can modern man still be?

Passionate attachment to life and to youth, Agacinski argues, are only a symptom of the diminishing of the eternal. We try to hand over something to the next generation, something of us, which would make us live longer than our body ever would. Yet, we cannot stop the continuous forward movement towards our non-existence. A taster of mourning, as Agacinski describes it.

Let’s leave this heavyweight argument behind for now, though, and speak about her argument that our concepts and experience of time and space are acquired and not innate. We learn it depending on where we are born, where we grow up, in what kind of society we live. It is based on common human conventions. I would quite like to bring Slow Cinema at this point, because it is/can be a means to acquire a different concept and experience of time and space. If our experience of time is acquired, we can also unlearn our previous ideas and learn something new. Slow Cinema, with its concept of time very different from that of modernity, can be a tool to facilitate this movement. The present, Agacinski argues, is the opportunity for an event or a moment to last. It’s not like the past which is “a world outside of me, without me”, something that we’re merely looking at from the outside. Instead, we’re in a lasting moment. A moment that stretches.

Are slow films a form of the present tense, even if they tell stories of the past? It is an interesting question to which I have no answer. Cinema is a threshold experience, a modern invention which makes us looking at the world passing by in front of us in a much more extreme way than real life ever could. Cinema, by nature, is a passing experience. In this way, it couldn’t be more modern, more emblematic of us as the passeur. And yet, where can we situate Slow Cinema that, through lasting images, invites us to see our lives passing by? A form of film that, more so than popular film, asks us to “lose our time”, to “waste our time” but that, at the same time, invites us to be, to last? Is Slow Cinema a way to slow down the diminishing of the eternal, our attempt at stopping the inevitable progress towards annihilation? 

Pripyat – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (1999)

A woman is walking through a dead landscape. Nature has taken over what Man has built. It’s wilderness we see. “These wild apples grew after the accident. There weren’t apples here before,” she says while slightly turning towards us. She doesn’t stop. She keeps walking. Always on the move. She is a scientist, spending her day in a contaminated lab and checking radiation levels. She had worked in the city centre, she says. And at the nuclear power plant. Of her flat, nothing is left. She enters a rundown building that used to be her home. In one room, she finds a book on the ground that used to belong to her son. “It’s all radiated,” she says, and puts the book on top of the window sill.

It is an eerie but magnificent, haunting but beautiful end to a ghostly film. At the end of the 1990s, Nikolaus Geyrhalter explored “The Zone” around the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. It often feels like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, more modern perhaps, less philosophical, but just as important. The extensive ending, the woman walking through a wilderness which used to be her home, turns into a hypnotising journey through a place out of time. Pripyat is as timeless as Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens. Although it is anchored to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in 1986, it feels as though the film tells more than one story. The black-and-white shots of a rundown, deserted area speak of universal calamity.

Pripyat used to be a workers’ city. A city built from scratch, with a cinema, a stadium. Entertainment – that was important for those who worked at the nuclear power plant. And the city had it all. Geyrhalter introduces us to the now deserted landscape with long shots. His shots are memories, old photographs of things that have been. The deserted buildings become scars that have been left behind by a disaster, which disjointed time. It has blurred the line between past and present. Pripyat shows that both exist at the same time. Life and death – they’re always in one and the same frame. A broken-down electricity pole in an otherwise deserted landscape. A bird’s nest on top of the pole. A sign of life? Absence and presence. (In)Visibility. 

“Well, we don’t call it ‘The Zone’,” an elderly couple tells us. The man confesses that he had been homesick after he and his family had been evacuated, so they returned to live in Pripyat, right in the centre of the contaminated zone that might remain lifeless for decades to come. “I can tell you, there’s no life here. There’s no on else, no neighbours,” he says.

What you see is what you believe. Geyrhalter sure shows us the dying city. Every day, a bit more of it is taken back by nature. Grass, fern, weed, trees. Despite several interviews, the film frames are drained of people. They’re drained of life. And yet. One security guard on the scrapyard for cars says that he got used to the danger. “You cannot see the radiation,” he says. But it is in every frame, an invisible presence that is really the core of the film. A hovering ghost from the past that makes what we see appear timeless. And so do those who have lost their lives in the disaster. They’re still there, invisible reminders of man’s self-destructive development in the name of science and progress. “He has never been found,” a foreman of the power plant’s Unit 3 says while standing in front of a memorial set up for one of the victims who died in Unit 4. Unit 4 – symbol of the worst nuclear destruction since WW II. An accident. An accident that should have been a reminder of the dangers of nuclear development. We didn’t listen. Fukushima was next.

“Even if I’m sent to prison for this. They can lock me up,” the woman scientist says when she speaks about helpers who had arrived from all over the Soviet Union and the world in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. She believes that many have since lost their lives. They needed experts, she says, not young man who didn’t even know what radiation was. She accuses the government of sending unknowing people intentionally to the disaster area. 

There is anger. There is concern. One woman is still waiting to be evacuated. For six years. Six years. She has given up believing that someone would ever resettle her. You have to make do. “You have to live and you have to work,” an old woman at the doctor’s says. “But how are you supposed to live?” Geyrhalter shows us people who have been forgotten by the government. The present become the absent on a larger scale, in another dimension. Only a few years after the disaster, the Soviet Union collapsed. The responsibilities shifted. Those outside the zone continue their lives. Those inside are stuck in an atemporal bubble.

Pripyat is very much a precursor to Homo Sapiens. You cannot ignore the similarity between the two films. What he had started in Pripyat, namely the investigation of what mankind possibly leaves behind one day, Geyrhalter pushes a bit further in Homo Sapiens. There are no more men, no more interviews. Only empty frames, deserted buildings. An apocalyptic feeling which starts with Pripyat. Homo Sapiens feels like a sequel, and which, I might say, deserves another instalment. Geyrhalter is, next to Wang Bing, one of the most important documentary filmmakers working at the moment. Interestingly, the two directors from two different corners of the world share a lot, even simple frames that show up in both directors’ works.

There seems to be a silent conversation between the two, a conversation through film, a conversation that is so often absent in their films. Scarce, basic, casual. If communication exists, it’s a form of communication by those left behind, forgotten, those on the margins who are cut off from the rest of society. Whose livelihood has been destroyed and who make do with what they have. Pripyat is one of those powerful films that makes one aware of the many blind spots that exist around us, of people who, despite everything, simple keep living, defiant of all external threats and neglect. Film becomes a tool to acknowledge this, to take our hats off in face of their courage, and to let them know that not everyone has forgotten.

(Pripyat is part of the newly released DVD Box set of Geyrhalter’s films called Six Films By Nikolaus Geyrhalter. You can check the website of the distributor, Icarus, for more information. I can highly recommend getting the box set!)

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.)

Visitor – Sebastian Cordes (2018)

“It is said that man has always wandered. Out of need or curiosity, across deserts and oceans.”

This is how the new feature film by Danish director Sebastian Cordes begins. After his Bolivia-set A Place Called Lloyd, which is currently running on tao films for free, Cordes took a journey to the island of Chios, Greece. As he states at the beginning of his film, the years 2015 and 2016 were seminal in the European consciousness. Indeed, they were. They will remain with us for years to come, perhaps especially for me as I’m originally from Germany and my country was the only one that had heart enough to open the borders. The German chancellor paid dearly for this, politically, which is still difficult for me to grasp. You don’t have to agree with a politician, but you can agree with another human being on helping other people to find refuge, people who flee from war, from certain death, people who have lost their home, possibly even their entire family.

This background represents the core of Cordes’ Visitor. Set on the island of Chios, the director films life on the island as it is, an obscure parallel world of normality for the local population and an extraordinary world for those who have landed in Chios, “where Turkey is always at the horizon”. A static low level shot that shows a police car on the right hand side and the raging sea on the left opens the film visually. The shot sets the tone of the film. Its emptiness, its anonymity, is something that will return over and over again throughout Visitor. The raging wind, too, is always present, right at your ears, in the weeks before Christmas. Not much later, there is a poignant shot of a stone wall. A very simple shot. There is nothing beautiful about it. It is a wall, nothing more, nothing less. Water flows underneath it. The waves push the water onto the land, right underneath the wall. “No borders” – this is what’s written on this stone wall, stone, which stands for harshness, hardness, durability, for a definite attempt to keep other people out of your territory. It is this phrase that dismantles the wall. Two words: No borders.

Visitor is an observational documentary. It is self-reflexive. It is contemplating itself and what is happening around it. Time and again, Cordes cuts to a black screen and makes us think about who we are. Visitor poses the question of who the visitor is which Cordes names in the film’s title. First of all, the viewer is at all times aware of the director’s presence. He’s got a shadowy presence in one shot. In another, we can see (parts of) him at a restaurant. Cordes doesn’t hide his presence. He’s the visitor, he’s the person whose “body is blue eyes white skin”. He’s the one who shoots the footage, who assembles it and who tells the story of life on Chios. But this isn’t the whole truth, the full meaning of the title. What are the refugees Cordes is, except for the very end, filming only from the distance, the refugees who have an absent presence, an almost haunting presence throughout the film’s running time of just over an hour?

One of the defining responses to the refugee crises in Europe was that countries expected the refugees to keep moving on. No country wanted to shelter them permanently. The response, not new at all, sadly, is at the core of Anna Seghers’ novel Transit, which is set in Marseille just after German troops have invaded France. Transit painfully shows that the whole idea of giving refuge to someone is to help him or her to move somewhere else. The novel is a representation of the inhumane treatment of those who flee from persecution. It is all encapsulated in the attempt of getting a visa to stay in Marseille: you can only stay if you prove that you’re leaving again. The situation Europe faced in 2015 did not change anything in our response to something we had seen and dealt with before. Cordes’ film title makes a point, a point that you might not see at first because you consider the director as the only visitor present in the film. But Visitor also speaks of the “visiting” refugees, of temporary shelters, temporary safety, and the expectations that they just move on. It doesn’t matter where to, as long as they do not stay in “our” country.

Poignantly enough, Cordes includes a shot of the shopping window of a transit ship agency. Transit – keep moving, keep moving. Don’t stay, don’t stop. There are shots of the open sea interspersed with more static and empty shots; a contrast which Cordes creates deliberately. The raging sea, the wind in our ears – this is it, this is movement, this is a continuous forward movement. But where should those people go if no country wants them? 

“My body is not the capsized boat in the open sea, the stillness when the sea again falls still.”

Voice-over parts like those cut through the narrative like a sharp knife. While at the beginning, the question could be whose body the voice-over speaks of, it becomes inevitably clear in the course of the film that this body is our body. Cordes not only speaks of himself here. This has a larger, a more wide-ranging meaning. He tells the story of those who died, those who suffered on their way to a hoped-for refuge. He tells the story of who we are not, because we are the “blue eyes white skin”. We are the privileged, those who look at refugees from a safe distance, possibly sitting in front of our telly on a sofa, with the radiator on full blow so that we don’t get cold.

Visitor becomes a real force towards the end, really bringing home the idea of visiting, the idea of repetition, in particular when the director speaks to an old woman who was aged 5 in 1940 when she suffered from hunger and cold, just like the refugees do now as a result of war. History repeats itself. History doesn’t move forward in a linear fashion. History is an eternal circle of repetitions. What has been, will be again. What we have seen in the past, we will see again in future. The only question is when. But there seems to be little doubt about the actual occurrence. And yet, with this rather bleak feeling that I had at the end of Visitor, Cordes did something. He added hope. Two refugee children making faces for the camera, laughing, playing around. There it is, this hope that I had been missing throughout the film. There it is, in the face of children who have been through so much, who have, in some cases, seen more than one of us does in his/her entire life. But hope is not lost, Cordes tells us, which makes Visitor an important film to see this year.

Cochihza – Khristine Gillard (2013)

It doesn’t happen very often that I have to rewatch a film because I forgot about its contents. In fact, it never happened to the degree I experienced it with Khristine Gillard’s Cochihza (2013). I loved the film the first time I saw it, and this was only a week ago. But a couple of days later, I couldn’t remember a single scene. I could have said that the film was special, and maybe my not recording this beauty is an indicator of that. Or maybe it isn’t, and I merely try to justify an odd thing that happened to me after having seen a good film.

Cochihza is my first slow film from Nicaragua, or my first ever film set in Nicaragua. It reminded me of aspects I had seen in Filipino films, particularly those of Lav Diaz, and films from Mexico. And yet, Cochihza was different. It is more rooted in the symbiosis of Man and Nature than any other film I have seen so far, I believe. It is so peaceful, so smooth, so embracing.

There is also something mysterious without really putting it on its sleeves. I only need to return to the beginning. Two men are playing a board game, and I have no idea what they are actually playing. It’s curious, and the director returns several times to it. Without us seeing the game at first, Gillard shows us a long shot of the Concepción volcano on Ometepe Island, off the coast of Nicaragua. And then we hear two male voices speaking about betting. “It’s time to bet”, one of them says. “Bet the Purgatory, I’ll bet Hell.” A little later, one of the says “We’re not gambling the sky…because we have already won it.”

This scene, right at the beginning of the film after a black screen with drum music that reminded me of the procession we see in Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012), to me, set in motion my curiosity, but not this impatient type of curiosity. It was a soothing curiosity that , something that made me feel I was in good hands. And I know that this might sound odd given that we’re speaking about a film here, but this is exactly how I felt.

Maybe one of the things you will feel when you see the film is that there is time. There is time for everything, and you don’t even have to hurry to enjoy this time, or to use it. No, you do not have more time when you hurry. It’s make-believe, and people still follow this evil of modern times, although they know that time is still progressing with the same speed. All you do is exhaust yourself and miss out on being in the present. The people in Gillard’s film are aware of this and simply live according to natural time (as opposed to mechanical time). They rest, they play games, they enjoy just being. They do work, but they do it at their own pace.

Presence, being in the present, being in the here and now, and cherish it – this is Cochihza. Gillard is careful with her camera, keeping it at a distance, trying not to interfere. She observes, observes freely, and always shows us the Concepción volcano that has a magnificent beauty and power to it. In one shot, in the middle of the film, there is a superb long shot that shows the volcano and the clouds moving across it – a breathtaking spectacle, and something that asks me to return to Lav Diaz one more time, this time to his nine-hour film Death in the Land of Encantos (2007). The film is set in the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Mayon and a typhoon that had followed in autumn 2006. Diaz includes several shots of this perfect cone, while at the same time, in voice overs, letting us know that the volcano, or volcanos in general, have a special force.

They give and they take; they give us fertile soil and they take our lives in natural disasters. Nature destroys. Nature gives birth. The people in Gillard’s film live according to this principle. There is also an appreciation for ancient traditions, cultures, beliefs, thoughts, which we have almost forgotten.

I probably haven’t said much substantial things about the film, but somehow I really can’t. If I was to summarise the film, I’d say nothing more than “It’s a meditation on being in the present”. This is what I feel deep down in my heart and my gut.

P.S.: I don’t know whether the DVD of the film is still available. Amazon doesn’t give any results, but it might be possible to order a copy from the distributor alter ego films based in Belgium. The DVD would come with French and English subtitles. You can contact the distributor here.

Waiting

What does it mean to wait? What does “waiting” mean nowadays when everyone seems to be always, eternally busy? Are we still waiting, or have we essentially replaced waiting by simply doing stuff? I use this blog post in order to respond to a post on Geyst blog that ended with the question “what does it mean to wait?” I felt that there is plenty to say, also in regards to slow film. If waiting has perhaps indeed been almost replaced by us doing stuff in order to keep ourselves busy – while waiting for the train, the bus, a friend to arrive – then it is slow films that return us to the idea of waiting, the feeling of time standing still.

Chantal Akerman didn’t want people not to notice time passing. The point of her work was to make the viewer aware that time was passing. We notice the power of time, I would say, most often when presumably nothing is happening, exactly in moments of waiting. Time feels heavy, feels burdensome. “With my films, you’re aware of every second passing through your body”, she famously said. What is important (and characteristic of slow films) is the act of waiting, in several different ways. For one, it’s the characters who wait. Think of Lav Diaz. In Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), I think it is, that characters are walking from one village to another, but because of the heat they take several extensive breaks. They sit in the shadow, simply waiting for the sun to subside. Diaz said once that this was characteristic of the Filipinos. The heat, the humidity – it’s too much, so people sit down and wait for the heat to subside. They wait, doing nothing.

Béla Tarr…what would Slow Cinema be without Béla Tarr? The endless, now almost characteristic scenes of people in front of windows, looking outside, looking for nothing in particular. They just sit and watch. We don’t know whether they wait for something to happen, or whether they just stop and allow time do its work. Whether it’s DamnationThe Man from London or The Turin Horse, these scenes are iconic, and they force us, the viewer, to wait, too. Because as Akerman suggested, the viewer is always waiting. We are waiting for the next take to commence, for the current one to stop. Slow films pause, and they develop in their own time. Events are not cut short, which would suit our impatience. Something is always happening in action films, something that relieves us from the claustrophobic feeling of time, the heaviness of time. Time is flying, it’s passing as fast as could be (albeit this is artificial and misleading).

When people who dislike slow films try to reason their feelings towards this type of film, they tend to say that nothing happens on screen, i.e. that it is boring. This “nothing happens” is, in fact, another word for “you actually have to wait for something to happen and we don’t have time for this”. People are impatient. Waiting seems to mean being passive, perhaps being impotent, immobile, all the while being told everywhere that time is running so fast that you’re losing it when you wait a minute or two for the bus. You cannot wait. You need to haste, or else you will lose those precious two minutes. One could perhaps say that people who reject slow films for the simple reason that nothing happens never learned to wait, or forgot the joy of waiting. Because what does waiting mean? What does it do to your body, your mind?

I mentioned several times on this blog that slow films helped me to slow down and deal with PTSD. PTSD introduces an incredible speed into your life, which causes severe anxiety. It’s not just that you’re scared of death. It’s the fact that you can no longer keep up with the speed around you, which makes you unstable and insecure. So what happened was that slow films helped me to pause, and, yes, to wait. Waiting does not mean doing nothing, although it appears as such to a great deal of people. It does not mean being passive, although some people would tell you otherwise. Waiting means being in the moment, being in the present, being present, something that has become increasingly difficult. There is “no time” to be in the present, but this is only the case because we don’t take time for it. To wait means to be mindful. It is a chance to take a look at what surrounds you, at what is going on in your body and mind.

This state is embodied by characters in slow films, when they sit and look out of the window; when they sit in the shadow of trees doing nothing; when they sit in the fields and watch the sky. They’re in the present moment, and the directors ask us to do the same. Be with the characters, be in the moment with them, and become mindful of our surrounding. Become mindful of time, as Akerman suggests, yet without feeling anxious about wasting it. Slow films are a way to see the chances of doing nothing, the liberties of waiting, even the joy in waiting. If only more people took their time to wait and considered the pleasures of nothingness and emptiness… Just how enjoyable is the end of Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea? A man sits at a fireplace outdoors, the soundscape gives us a feeling of being there with him. He’s doing nothing. He simply watches how the fire consumes the wood. A beautiful scene, seemingly endless, that allows the viewer to be.

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.

Passions of the will to boredom

I have taken today’s post title from Julian Jason Haladyn’s wonderful book Boredom and Art: Passions of the Will To Boredom (2015), which I have read with pleasure. Haladyn is, effectively, speaking about more than just boredom and art. To me, there is a lot about the politics of modernity in it, and several of Haladyn’s ideas and thoughts are an answer to the question of why people walk out of the cinema when they see a slow film.

What I found most striking, though actually most obvious (so obvious that we may never think of it these days) is the way modernity has changed our attitude. Haladyn uses the train journey, now a famous example, to illustrate this. He proposes that modernity, in the form of a train journey, has lead to people placing emphasis on expectations rather than on presence. If you think about it, during a train journey, or any journey for that matter nowadays, whether it’s by train, by car or by plane, you are expecting your arrival at the destination. This is what your mind is focused on (if it can focus at all during a time of transit). Expectation overshadows presence. Because you’re in transit, you can no longer appreciate being in there here and now because time and space is persistently shifting. If there’s one major thing that has changed for us through modernity, then it is the fact that we have lost the ability, perhaps the opportunities even, to be present.

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This is one section of life, where slow, contemplative films are intervening. Even though Haladyn does mention the films of Andy Warhol and Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, he makes too little a case for cinema in general. However, there is a major case to be made about the nature of Slow Cinema as a tool for allowing us to return to the pre-modern feeling of being present at and with something. The long-takes, the wide shots of nature, the focus on character development, or even the running time, which is at times excessive (you know whom I’m talking about!) – all of those give us, the viewer, the opportunity to let go and just be. I argued in an earlier post that, to me, slow films are the real escapist cinema because they allow me to get away from the hectic modern life that is too fast, too noisy, too stressful. This is precisely where my two thoughts merge. It is escapist precisely because it allows me to be present, to be in the here and now, to breathe with the film, which nothing in modern life (apart from a Buddhist retreat and meditation, and perhaps yoga) can give me.

For some reason, a parallel between slow films and Duchamp’s readymades shaped up in my head while reading Haladyn’s book. Duchamp’s works were outrageous at the time, and perhaps they still are. Remember his famous toilet? There’s nothing arty about it. In effect, he has taken it and made a piece of art out of it. He showed us the ordinary in life, which we no longer notice. Perhaps this wasn’t his real intention, but I read it this way. The readymades are ordinary elements. They’re already there, nothing needs to be done, apart from putting them into a spotlight. Duchamp’s strategy, I find, is very similar to what slow film directors to, too. I’m aware that films are, more often than not, constructed pieces. There is an involvement of the artist evident, especially in highly experimental films. Yet, what slow films show is the mundane, the everyday, the life we all live without actually noticing it. What these films show are readymades. That also goes for the characters who are often no more than themselves – non-professional “actors” who play themselves, who do what they usually do, only in front of a camera.

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Haladyn cites Frances Colpitt, who made a very good point about Warhol’s films, but it is a point that can be equally applied to slow films. She writes, “Boredom necessarily describes the spectator’s state of mind rather than any characteristic of the object. The root of the problem is in the unpreparedness of the audience, most of whom were not familiar with the theoretical concerns of this highly conceptual art.” Colpitt is correct in arguing that boredom is a state of mind of the viewer and the artwork in itself is not boring. Haladyn proposes two approaches to a “boring” piece of art. He describes them as yes boredom and no boredom. The latter is a refusal of letting yourself float with the artwork, a refusal of trying to find or make meaning. Following Haladyn’s description of no boredom, it is to me a refusal of engaging with a work of art, or a film for that matter. Yes boredom, on the other hand, means that the viewer engages with an object. If there’s no obvious meaning, then the viewer is ready to create something, or at least s/he tries to. This is very much what the annual Slow Art Day is doing, or allowing you to do.

What is happening with slow films, and their rejection of it, is, in effect, no more than an expression of no boredom on the side of the viewer. It is an inability to be, to breathe, to be present. Those who walk out have no intention to do a bit of work. They have no intention to create meaning. They have no intention to engage with what is in front of them. Engagement with a work of art does not necessarily mean that you like it. Of course, you can dislike slow films. Yet, those films need to be engaged with in full first, and the reason for dislike cannot be “it’s boring”, because then you haven’t tried to engage with it. Two UK film critics walked out of the Lav Diaz Berlinale screening after two and three hours respectively (which is fatal, because Diaz’s long films only begin to get really interesting after three hours). Diaz takes it with humour, of course. At the same time, he said that people needed to sit through the full length of his films before they should express their opinion. Only then have they really tried to engage with the film. This is not only true for Diaz’s films, but for any slow film. Yes boredom!