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!)

The Long Take – Art Cinema and the Wondrous (Lutz Koepnick, 2017)

Time for a new book review. It’s been comparatively quiet in academic publishing when it comes to Slow Cinema. I speak of experience when I say that it’s not easy to publish something on the subject in an academic context. Again and again, I have to point out that the best writing comes from outside academia. Just recently, the online film magazine Multiplot published a  special issue on Slow Cinema  with articles on Lisandro Alonso, Albert Serra and Lav Diaz as well as thoughts on online platforms such as those by Experimental Film Society and tao films. Those articles are free of constraint and therefore fit to the subject.

During my PhD research, I have come across Lutz Koepnick’s magnificent book On Slowness, which I reviewed here on this blog. Koepnick impressed me with his non-confirmative, out-of-the-box thinking. The result was that I became sadly aware of the limits of writing up to that point. Koepnick’s work aligned itself with my own writing, trying to see things from a different perspective, introducing a new angle, a new sub-topic, a challenging way of thinking about slowness. At the time, the author looked at areas other than cinema. On Slowness was a necessary contribution in order to diversify the debate on what slowness can mean and stand for. Most importantly, Koepnick noted a link between slowness and memory, something that I was particularly happy to see because I had often thought I was the only one seeing (feeling) this. If you haven’t had a chance yet to read On Slowness, you should get yourself a copy because it is a refreshing take on slowness in various art forms.

Koepnick’s new book The Long Take – Art Cinema and the Wondrous (2017) differs in many ways from the author’s first piece in that it is more focused and therefore also more constrained. If you have read his previous work, The Long Take will feel less liberating. It’ll feel drier and more directed. The book isn’t a journey the way On Slowness was. Instead, it is a directed effort to come to a previously established result. It feels more academic, and here it needs to be said that academic literature just doesn’t feel Slow Cinema. It has always failed at it, and those articles that try to change this have a hard time getting published.

Contrary to On Slowness, Lutz Koepnick focuses in The Long Take much more on cinema, albeit only one chapter is dedicated to Slow Cinema. Koepnick remains faithful to his approach of broadening the subject matter, as he had done before. This isn’t a book about Slow Cinema, it is a book about the uses of long takes in (art) cinema in general. Once more, Koepnick asks us to think out of the box. It is true that the long take is more often than not discussed exclusively in the context of Slow Cinema. I have always had an issue with this and argued in my PhD thesis that this approach was wrong, given that even early cinema contained long takes, primarily because editing hadn’t been invented yet, so actions had to be filmed from beginning to end. Koepnick follows a similar line, writing about Andy Warhol, Ulrich Köhler, Michael Haneke, Francis Alys and Sophie Calle.

Something the author introduces to us, and to the field of cinematic slowness, is the idea of the “wondrous”. According to Koepnick, long takes challenge “what it means to be attentive today” (9). Indeed, the idea of attention, of being attentive, of our patience has emerged (and has been foregrounded) when technology began to speed up our lives. What has happened to our attention as a result of an increased use of technology? As a result of ever quicker cuts in Hollywood action movies? But there is also the wondrous, which, Koepnick argues, the long take confronts us with. One might think of the feeling of wonder coming as a surprise, as a quick sort-of lightbulb that enlightens us. And yes, this is what it does. Wonder comes as enlightenment, in particular when one realises that you have never actually seen something, but have only looked at it.

“Wonder happens suddenly. It ruptures the fabric of time, yet unlike the traumatic experiences of shock, the wondrous neither overwhelms nor petrifies the senses. It produces curiosity rather than fear, rapt attention instead of sensory edginess or mental shutdown.” (9)

It’s not only about wonder to me, albeit Koepnick makes a very good point here. In the end, what often happens if you’re following the idea of yes-boredom (i.e. you’re willing to engage with something that seems to be boring), then you begin to marvel over what you see. It is the extraordinary ordinariness that we keep neglecting, forgetting, ignoring because it doesn’t fit into the concept of progress. We don’t have time for it. But, Koepnick reminds us, the long take can be a way to instil this wonder in us. And it can achieve this through many different ways. The author notes that the long take is not necessarily a form of cinema only. Instead, “it travels across different platforms of moving image culture” (3). As he has done in On Slowness, Koepnick tickles my personal interest in the aesthetic of slow and its links to memory, in particular to trauma. Writing about Béla Tarr and his apocalyptic films, he suggests:

“Long takes like Tarr’s embrace the mechanical time of moving image projection to open a door for the unpredictable temporality of human experience. … their aim is to envisage futures where trauma, fear, and ever-alert self-management cease to have a hold on what we know, how we act, and what we sense.” (12-13)

In On Slowness already, Koepnick noted correctly (in line with Chinese belief) that there is not one temporality, but several temporalities. Lav Diaz has always been emblematic for me in this context. His lengthy films always combine monotony with shock, the slow and the fast. It’s not so much a rollercoaster. It is a smooth, but very affective/effective way of showing that life doesn’t run at the same speed all the time. On the contrary, it varies because of our personal experience. Traumatic experience, for instances, can make you feel as though what happens happens in slow motion. There are other events which may appear to have passed quicker than anything else you have ever experienced. It’s this mix of temporalities that Koepnick (and Diaz) foreground in their work.

Part of this, in Koepnick’s work, is the formation of a new term, which I liked and which made me think: the cinema of thresholds. In his writing on the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang, the author identifies a very specific camera in the oeuvre of Tsai, a form of long take which sits at the edge of movement and transformation. In his own words,

“(The) cinema of the threshold does not present the slow as a mere inversion of today’s speed but rather as a medium to develop fundamentally different notions of movement and spatiotemporal mapping.” (83)

The concept of a cinema of threshold deserves further reflection on what the long take can achieve, although I noticed while reading that despite those very good arguments, Koepnick often notes the long take’s opposition to modern speed, which, if you’re a bit pedantic about it, cancels out the very argument I have just quoted. Nevertheless, the threshold between movement and transformation is an interesting one, in particular in video art. From my work for tao films, I know that there is certainly something marvellous about video art’s use of slowness in order to transform something; a background, an image, our perception, our thinking, our experience. It is not about merely showing us that there is another idea to life, a side that is slower than what we believe is normal. It is instead about transforming something, actively, which becomes a core characteristic of Tsai’s Walker series.

“What we witness in these twenty-one shots is the birth of cinema from the spirit of photography – or conversely a film trying everything at its disposal to escape the demands of forward motion and return back to the photographic.” (78)

Tsai’s Walker is essentially about persistent transformation. I have long argued that Slow Cinema combines photography and cinema, and Koepnick picks up on this. There is a push-and-pull between static and moving images, between movement and stasis without ever being either one or the other exclusively. Tsai Ming-liang’s films, especially his Walker series, invite us to consider the constant flux that not only images, but also we ourselves are confronted with throughout our lives.

All of that said, however, there are downsides of the book, which disappointed me, because I know Koepnick’s earlier works. I loved his precise writing in On Slowness, liberating (liberated) but precise, to the point. His clear language. In The Long Take, you often find expressions such as “some critics think”, “it is often concluded”, “critics argue” without the author noting who exactly argues or thinks this way. His precise writing gives way to generalisations, which is problematic. If you find an argument somewhere, note the author behind it so that others can verify it…first thing you learn as a PhD student. This rather annoying point is combined with a clear lack of proof-reading. In the last five years or so, academic publishers have obviously cut their proof-reader staff, because the quality of books is just no longer the same. The Long Take is by far not as bad as Dirk de Bruyn’s The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art, which was a complete disaster and should have been shredded and republished right away. Nevertheless, it feels as though proof-reading was the least concern of both author and publisher. It’s part of a trend to cut, cut, cut and publish texts no matter in what state, just so that you can be first in a specific field. I don’t think it’s the right direction, but authors and publishers have to decide if they really want to continue going down this route.

As far as the book’s bibliography is concerned, I have to say that it’s rather thin. It should be said that Koepnick makes perhaps more references to women writers than other authors before him in this field. But he has unfortunately fallen into the same trap, every other published author has so far fallen into: one always reads the same names. Elsaesser, Marks, Adorno, Benjamin, Jaffe, Flanagan, Deleuze, Schlosser, Kracauer, Mulvey, Rancière. I would be delighted to find something by Elina Reitere (PhD, Narration in Slow Cinema), or Diana Poppa (PhD, Slowness in Romanian cinema), or seeing my own work. The excuse that one isn’t aware of those works just isn’t convincing and the longer they’re ignored the less convincing the excuse becomes. Books on the subject matter we’re speaking of don’t have to be based on the same authors over and over again. It is a choice that the author takes when sitting down at his/her desk. It is also for this reason that On Slowness felt much more refreshing and a real addition to the field. The Long Take, on the other hand, while containing several interesting points, doesn’t reach the previous book’s quality.

Fresh from the press: new books on Chantal Akerman

I took a literary journey through the works of Chantal Akerman thanks to two new books that have been published on her work. Not so long ago, I wrote about Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit by Corinne Rondeau, which I found to be a great book, something that gave you a sense of how a Chantal Akerman film feels. It wasn’t a dry description, it was a book about experience.

So from that point of view, it was a pleasant surprise to have yet another French-language book in my hand that dealt with feelingssensationsmemories. The most recent book on Akerman, Chantal Akerman – Dieu se reposa, mais pas nous, published just a week ago, was written by Jérôme Momcilovic, who also gave a lecture on the director as part of the major retrospective that is currently running at the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. What struck me first of all, from page one, is the way Momcilovic approached the task of writing about a director whose oeuvre is so vast and so complex (albeit it looks simple at first) that it would be easy to miss most of the essential stuff in a book of less than 100 pages.

Momcilovic begins his book with a quote by Sylvia Plath, American poet and writer: “Light, as white as bones, like death, after all things…” A description of a scene from Akerman’s New from Home (1976) follows, an interpretative description, rather than a mere statement of what one sees. Once more, here’s a book which is very much in line with my own writing. I see it so often that “analytical” books contain more film descriptions than analysis (as we will see later on in this post), and the uses of synopses are, nowadays at least, limited. Brief, two- or three-sentence synopses are fine if you want to give the reader something. All other details are online. Books can focus on the depth and the experiential nature of films if only more writers would do it. In any case, Momcilovic does a great job here, carefully using short paragraphs for each essential thought, an essential feeling that one might have when one sees a certain scene.

The book is not a description of Akerman’s films. Its a journey through it. Not necessarily going chronologically in his writing about her main works, Momcilovic follows thoughts, follows ideas, interrupted by Akerman’s own thoughts on specific films or her filmmaking career. He describes hers as “cinéma errant, nomade, vagabond” (nomad, wandering cinema) which is very much in line with Akerman’s being.

“Le temps n’est pas le même pour tout le monde, mais les films d’Akerman nous ont donné un temps à partager avec eux, temps électrique, dans l’hôtel et à l’arrêt de bus, un temps délimité par le miracle de l’apparition et le deuil de la disparition qui oblige de revenir pour effacer le deuil dans le miracle…On ne sort jamais des films d’Akerman, il faut y rester tout une vie.”

Everyone has a different perception of time, but, Momcilovic writes, Akerman’s films gives us a special time which we can share with her films, with her work, be it at a hotel or at a bus stop. What matters most, however, is that one can never leave a film by Akerman. One has to stay with them one’s entire life. I was struck by this powerful statement and noticed that, without ever expressing it this way, I had the same feelings about the films by Lav Diaz. As Momcilovic suggests in his writing, you can leave the auditorium for a cigarette or for a pee break, but you stay with the film, or rather the film stays with you for longer than any screen time at a cinema. That reminds me of a very important aspect Andrei Tarkovsky mentioned: a good film is never finished at the end of post-production. A good film lives on in its viewer and its meaning is created only by the viewer. This is, Momcilovic seems to suggest, precisely the nature of Akerman’s films.

“Par un réflexe facile à expliquer, parce que ses plans durent et nous font regarder longtemps, l’arbitraire des classements l’a rangée parmi les cinéastes “de la durée”. Mais dire ça, c’est toujours faire peser sur l’expérience des films le soupçon d’une douloureuse endurance, c’est voir les films comme une prison de temps, belle prison mais prison quand même.”

Akerman’s films are regularly classified as belonging to a group of films that focus on duration, Momcilovic says. And yet, this classification – and I agree wholeheartedly here – creates a tension, potentially a rejection on the part of the viewer because it sounds as though those films are an endurance test, a “prison of time”. But, he argues, quite the contrary is the case. Akerman’s films, and I’d like to add all slow films, liberate the view, liberate the viewer, and therefore invite an active engagement with the film text.

Momcilovic spends quite a good part of his books on recurring sounds in Akerman’s films, arguing at some point that no one has forced his/her viewers to listen to the silence of waiting the way Akerman had done in some of her films. And if it’s silence in some parts, then it is the outdoor noise that invades a room through wide open windows in others. I haven’t yet thought much about sound in Akerman’s films, but Momcilovic gave me a couple of ideas, which I’d like to investigate more in future.

I’d like to finish this part of my blog with another quote by Momcilovic, which I found touching and will stay with me for a while: “No Home Movie is not a film about death, but about a gradual obliteration of two images bound to disappear together.”

I wished I could finish this whole post with this quote, but there is still one more book I’d like to speak about briefly. Quite some time ago, I reviewed a book on Pedro Costa, an edited collection that appeared in edition text + kritik (Germany). They published one on Chantal Akerman last summer, edited by Fabienne Liptay and Margit Tröhler. The two books couldn’t be more different from another. One feels like a collection of thoughts, liberated and liberating. The other is a rather rigorous study of Akerman’s oeuvre that allows little room for the reader’s own thought. In nine chapters, various themes are explored, albeit I had the feeling that synopses and detailed descriptions played a major role, which, at times, put me off actually watching more of Akerman’s films because everything was said, and in such descriptive detail that, technically, I wouldn’t need to see the films anymore. This is a shame and something I always dislike about writers, academics, and especially editors who decide to publish stuff like this. Giving away everything from a film means ruining it for the reader, unless you want your readers to see everything beforehand or if you want readers without an intention to discover. That, for me, is a bit how Chantal Akerman felt at certain points.

At other times, the authors make several good points which are useful for my own work. Eric de Kuyper, for instance, argues that Akerman’s work is so extremely autobiographical that it’s no longer noticeable. It’s everywhere, and yet not always as visible or as easy to grasp as in other works either by herself or by other directors. Furthermore, his point on the use of a static camera is interesting. It’s something I had never thought about this way. Kuyper argues that the absolute stasis of the camera highlights the presence of the director, making his/her presence behind the image we see palpable. There is someone recording the scene we see, he writes. I personally always thought of a static camera in the context of an arresting image, of photography, of death in certain ways. Kuyper speaks of presence, meaning life, which makes me rethink a bit what I had argued in the past.

In her chapter on Hotel Monterey and Les Rendez-vous d’Anna, Michelle Koch suggests that the contemplative look at empty rooms and the way certains scenes are edited turns physical architecture into a mental space (or “room”, as Koch writes). I have seen neither of the two films yet, but Koch’s argument reminds me of something I myself have argued in my PhD thesis regarding the use of makeshift and run-down houses in the films of Lav Diaz to reinforce an image of despair and mental upheaval. I also wrote an unpublished essay on the uses of architecture and double framing in the films of Béla Tarr and who immediately comes to mind in this context is, in fact, Tsai Ming-liang. Akerman’s use of physical spaces to evoke a mental space, to me, is consistent with other directors’ uses of physical spaces in order to show their characters’ mental upheavals.

The longest chapter in the book, I believe, is Heike Klippel’s thoughts on Jeanne Dielman, which is situated somewhere between Momcilovic’s free thinking and this very book’s rigorous descriptions. Nevertheless, there are some points to take away from it. I’d like to point out just one here. Klippel suggests that the way Akerman films everything in detail would normally suggest an abundance of information. Her long takes show everything in detail. And yet, especially in Jeanne Dielman, you have this discrepancy between showing and not showing. One example is Jeanne doing the dishes, but she’s with her back towards us. We know what she’s doing, but we cannot see it. So, can we actually know what she’s really doing in detail? Akerman blurs the line between the visible and the invisible, between the idea of showing detailed everyday activities and hiding details, keeping secrets about what’s going on.

Overall, both books have their own way of approaching the rather comprehensive and complex oeuvre of Chantal Akerman. I believe that Momcilovic succeeded in getting to the depth of Akerman, really focusing on the vertical axis (the experiential, the emotional) in many cases, whereas the other book is more for people who prefer a rigorous reading of single scenes. One is French, the other in German. I hope that at least Momcilovic’s piece will be translated into English soon.

Year 2017 in review

I’m not someone who likes lists, all sorts of The best films…The worst films… etc I never saw a point of social media getting obsessed with someone’s subjective opinion, with someone they have never even met or heard of rating a particular film at the top of their list. I have been asked whether I could put a list of my top slow films together, but I will do it differently here.

First of all, I’d like to thank the over 52,000 people who have dropped by this year. Of those, over 24,000 were unique visitors, new people who have discovered The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. The blog is now five years old. I changed servers last year, so I no longer have statistics for every year. But I think that this year has been the strongest in the blog’s history and I reckon around 200,000 to 250,000 people have so far viewed the blog since October 2012. These are abstract numbers, they quantify what’s going on on the blog. To me, those numbers show the growing interest in Slow Cinema / Contemplative Cinema. It’s not my work the people come here for. I know maybe 0,5% of those who drop by. It’s their interest in this type of film that brings them to The Art(s) of Slow Cinema, away from standard writing, from standard analysis. Those people want to discover what’s beyond the already-written, the already-said, and that makes me very happy. I will keep going for as long as I can, and you can help me with that by supporting the blog on Patreon.

2017 has been a year in which I did not discover single films as such, but rather almost entire oeuvres. I looked through my posts and noticed that, unconsciously, I returned time and again to the same directors; Wang Bing and Chantal Akerman. That was completely accidental. I usually try to vary my writing, but those two directors demanded more attention from me. I watched 4 films by Wang Bing alone; 15 hours of material that really struck me. I started of with West of the Tracks, Wang Bing’s nine-hour long documentary about the collapse of the Tie Xi Qu industrial complex. It was my first long film by the Chinese director, and the more films I watched by him the more I became fascinated by how much you can do with so very little. For those who know Wang Bing, it is a well-known fact that he often works clandestinely, with a small handheld camera and no real crew. He simply records what he sees. West of the Tracks is a masterpiece that was for me this year the perfect introduction to Wang Bing’s work. I had seen one or two of his works before, but that particular film had the effect that I had missed until then: the desire to see more. And so I did; Bitter Money, a superb film about young migrant workers trying to earn a living in clothes factories; Three Sisters, a look at the life of three sisters, aged 10, 6 and 4, who live alone in the mountains as their father is a migrant worker in a city nearby; and Mrs Fang, a film that was my personal discovery of the year. If someone really forced me to name a Film of the Year, it would be Mrs Fang. My aim for next year is to see and review Crude Oil and Till Madness Do Us Part. That would complete my journey through the lengthy works of Wang Bing, and I really cannot wait to see more films in future (although they do take up a lot of time!!).

The second director who stayed with me throughout the year was Chantal Akerman. It is perhaps the coincidence of my embarking on a journey through my family history during the war that brought me closer to the films of Akerman, films that are full of history, memory, and trauma. Of course, there are films in which those themes are not as present. But the two films I did see this year (I should have seen more!) had those very much at their centre; No Home MovieAkerman’s last film, and News from Home, albeit the former is much more explicit on this and, perhaps with Là-bas, the most explicit film about the family’s past. News from Home is, now that I think about the two films in retrospect, a great companion piece to No Home Movie, a sort of mirror image. Akerman left Belgium to live and work in the US. The film shows us images of the United States in the 1970s. We never see Akerman, but we do hear her reading letters she had received from her mother. There was anxiety in the words of Akerman’s mother; anxiety about whether her daughter could make it, about whether money she had sent had arrived, about not hearing from her daughter for a long time. There was a distance that could only be bridged by letters. Then there is this moving scene in No Home Movie, with Akerman filming a Skype call she had with her mother: “I want to show that there is no distance anymore.” Akerman’s portrait of her increasingly frail mother is superb and, in some ways, went well with Wang Bing’s Mrs Fang.

Wang Bing and Chantal Akerman hardly make for cheery films. And so my counterpart to all of this was the Living trilogy by Swedish director Roy Andersson, comprised of Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007), and A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence (2014). With seven years in between each of the films, Andersson took his time to craft a superb trilogy on the human condition, on our mundane lives, our mundane struggles, and yes, also about our WTF actions, actions that make you go “yes, we do this but why the heck are we doing this in the first place?” The Living trilogy is one of the few slow films (or slow film compilation) that come with a lot of humour, even though it’s dark humour. It’s not that often that we find cheery slow films. It’s usually Albert Serra who makes up for the lack of humour in Slow Cinema. This year, I learned that Roy Andersson joins the rank of slow clowns, and I still have all his short films to watch! Very much looking forward to seeing more by Andersson in the next year.

Then there was the marvellous Five by Abbas Kiarostami, which I finally had the chance to watch, and it was one of those experiences that are difficult to forget. It’s primarily the last sequence that still stays with me, the long take of a lake at night, the moon light reflecting on the surface until dark clouds cover it and a storm arrives. An absolutely superb observation of a perfectly natural phenomenon, but filmed in a rather obscure way so that, for a long time, one wonders what’s happening. Outside my director studies this year, Five was the single most interesting film I have seen in 2017.

Overall, 2017 was a good year for slow films…at least on my blog. I have also read quite a bit. There was this great book about contemporary art and time, for example. And, of course, the most wonderful Art and Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. I already have three books in store for next year, so there will be more to come in 2018. More books, more Wang Bing and who else? We will see that soon!

I wish all of my readers a peaceful end of the year, a Happy New Year in advance, and you’ll hear from me again very soon!!

Book review: Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit – Corinne Rondeau (2017)

A small book at the bottom of a shelf that is overwhelmed with books on the big names of Hollywood; films, directors, actresses. There, somewhere in between those oversized books, I found the new book on Chantal Akerman, smaller than A5 in size, almost invisible. Written by Corinne Rondeau, this French-language book is the latest work on the Belgian director. Without being too analytical, Rondeau makes reading the book an experience just as watching a film by Akerman is an experience. Rondeau’s work is poetic in writing, often following a chain of thoughts as they come into her head. Her writing suggests continuous movement, circular movement at times, rather than chopped off pieces of thoughts that appear for no reason.

In her little book Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit (2017), Rondeau suggests that it is futile to see Akerman’s work only in the context of her family’s traumatic past during the Second World War, the silence in the family that had affected her deeply, and her suicide in 2015. Even though, she argues, it is important – and she herself, in fact, returns over and over the aspect of silence as a result of history – it is not adequate, not productive, to consider Akerman’s oeuvre entirely as a result of that. A fair point, given that it is always futile to look at something from a single perspective. Rondeau sets an example, looking even at the small things. Her chapter headings are fascinating at the beginning, simply called “encore” (again) or “où” (where), chapters in which she brings to the fore the essence of Akerman’s work, I find.

There is plenty I would like to mention, but I will point to only a few arguments Rondeau makes, and leave it up to my French-speaking readers to get their hands on the book.

The first argument, which I thoroughly liked, is Rondeau’s explicit view of Akerman working in the context of the words “nothing”, “blank”, and “gap”. These terms appear over and over in Akerman’s films, as visual demonstrations rather than spoken words. Indeed, I find that these terms are particularly prominent in the films I’m interested in: Là basD’EstNo Home Movie. Although Rondeau refuses to read those films exclusively in the context of a traumatic family history, these three films are important in the context of memory, memory lapses, the silencing and suppression of traumatic events. It is impossible not to read them in this context, perhaps in the context of the second and third generation attempting to dig up the past that has formed them, affected them in the way they think, feel and behave. Perhaps, this way of thinking, my thinking, makes me feel so strongly about Rondeau’s description of Akerman’s films: “une nuit qui tombe peu à peu”, a slow nightfall. With No Home Movie, night has fallen.

Rondeau argues that it is obstacles that really help us to find a way, and it is silence that help us to find words. Akerman, according to her, makes use of this logic, and uses a kind of aesthetic that she describes as “suspense in absentia”. Tension is there, but it’s not overt. It’s the main ingredient of her films without putting it on the films’ sleeves, so to speak. Tension is present and absent, just like trauma, which disrupts time and space. This “suspense in absentia” is not only characteristic of Akerman’s work, but Rondeau has unwillingly characterised a large number of slow or contemplative films that use this aesthetics. I described it, though in other words, in my work on Lav Diaz. Béla Tarr’s films centre around this absent-present tension as well as more recent works. I’m thinking in particular of the works by Scott Barley and Enzo Cillo, whose videos make this covert tension palpable.

While reading the book, I came across several instances which contradict Rondeau’s initial claim that it was futile to see Akerman’s work exclusively in the context of trauma. And yet, she herself writes about it without mentioning the term. It is more by describing Akerman’s aesthetics that she gets to the bottom of the nature of trauma, which she, at the beginning of the book, so vehemently rejected as the sole centre of the director’s oeuvre. She mentions another characteristic of Akerman’s films: “on s’approche en s’éloignant”. We approach something by distancing ourselves. This is very much an extension of her notes about silence as a necessity to find words, and obstacles as a necessity to find a way. One is important in order to reach the other. The idea of approach through distance reminded me strongly, again, of the nature of trauma. You dig in your memories to find something. While speaking about it, you come closer and closer to the actual painful event, but you often bounce back, you distance yourself, precisely because it causes you pain. Approach versus distance, distance versus approach.

“Où vont les images?” Where do the images go? According to Rondeau, Akerman’s oeuvre centres around this very question. Why do all images move towards the night? Or “How can you remember something that you yourself haven’t experienced?” as Akerman formulated it. Rondeau identifies the circle as one of several main elements that appear over and over again in Akerman’s work, which to me, once more, is the perfect symbol of how the director deals with the effects of her family’s traumatic history. As much as Rondeau would like to disconnect one from the other, it is impossible to do so. This is the one thing that I did not like about the book; the forced attempt of disconnecting the symbols Rondeau identifies in Akerman’s work from the nature of trauma, which is so dominant in the director’s films.

Nevertheless, Rondeau’s book adds a lot of good stuff to existing writings on Akerman. The way it is written – in a fluid, poetic style – makes it a pleasure to read. The book takes you on a journey and makes you hungry, I find, to see more of Akerman’s films. I haven’t seen her complete oeuvre yet, but am very much aiming for doing exactly that!

Costa da Morte – Lois Patino (2013)

The film starts with a beautiful shot of fog hanging over a couple of slim high trees about to be felled. In an extreme long shot, we see first one man, then three men deciding over the fate of the trees. At times, it is difficult to detect movement, and yet this is a film. Lois Patino’s Costa da Morte (2013) is part film, part photo album. Again, it is a striking that ‘slow’ films are often more photograph than film, more static image than moving spectacle. Patino observes. He observes the landscape of the Galician Costa da Morte. He observes the people. He observes their interaction.

Even though Patino does speed up the cuts from time to time, he generally allows the viewer to study the beautiful landscape in detail. It feels as though we are on a journey along the coast, encountering a new piece of land, and, yes, falling in love with it (I did, anyway). Costa da Morte is a succession of strong compositions, which highlight both nature’s beauty but also its incredible power. There has certainly been a photographer’s eye involved in the filmmaking process. Some parts of nature are naturally beautiful, but you nevertheless have to capture it in such a way that it conveys this beauty to the audience. I often find myself disappointed looking at my photographs whenever I haven’t managed to convey the beauty. In fact, it is extremely difficult to do this. Patino manages this throughout most of his film. Visually, Costa is a stunning film that made me wish to return to both photography and film again myself one day.

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Patino combines the imagery with oral history, or simple chit-chat amongst the locals. The latter is particularly interesting because it overlays extreme long shots of people, who appear so tiny in the frame that they trigger thoughts of Chinese painting again and the role and position of Man in landscape. To be more precise, Man was just one part of nature, but it was by no means the “crowning glory” of it. This Chinese aesthetic fits very much to Costa. I haven’t yet made up my mind whether the dialogue between people in the far distance has a positive or a rather negative effect on me. I was drawn into it at first. Then, however, the longer the film lasted, the more I thought that the dialogue actually disrupts the beautiful imagery. It is distracting at times, though I do admit that this is here mainly a matter of being a foreigner, who needs to read subtitles. I usually don’t have a problem with subtitles at all. But with this film, it would be better to be a local, or simple speak the language. Then you would be able to enjoy the landscapes without any interruption.

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Very interesting to me was the dialogue between two men who were hiking up a mountain. One of them spoke about old legends, the other countered it by “what geologists” say about the landscape. Tradition versus modernity, oral history versus scientific proof – I returned to the interview I conducted with Lav Diaz in which he said that he was keen on combining oral with scholarly history, the latter being “very clean” and full of scientific proof, which never takes into account experiences. Costa hints at a similar perspective, but it doesn’t develop it properly. It is not necessary in this film, either. It is just the right degree of involvement with local people and their history, and contrasting this with “neutral” and “objective” history.

Costa is a subtle film at times. We are, after all, speaking about the Coast of Death, which received its name because that is precisely what the coastline was for many ships; a coast of death. Patino seems to draw the circles of death much wider, though. I did feel death seeping through in several scenes. Maybe it was intentional, maybe it wasn’t. In any case, there is a strong sense of something passing in Patino’s film. I’m not only speaking of the oral history, which is crumbling. There are the trees felled, the fires extinguished, the foxes hunted. There is this graveyard Patino spends quite some time on. It feels as if this specific area in Galicia has not only received its name because of the ship wrecks. There is a very eery feeling that death is much more prominent. Everything comes to an end.

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I would describe Costa as a fantastic journey, but also as a journey that took too long. The film is only 81 minutes. It is a comparatively short film that shouldn’t stretch your patience. And yet, it does. An hour would have been enough. It would have made the film more concise, more powerful, more to the point. I felt that the last ten to fifteen minutes stretched it a bit, and even though the footage was wonderful, it felt as if everything had been said by then. The imagery – beautiful as it was – merely dragged the film to an end that should have come earlier. I have very rare moments of actually waiting for an end of a slow film. Unfortunately, Costa was one of the few that made me lose my patience a bit in the end. The film started off exceptionally strong, but Patino lost the strength over time. However, Costa makes for an interesting study of landscape, nature and our relationship towards it. I’m certainly hoping that Patino will make similar films in future.