Slow reconciliation with nature

This morning, I left the house at 8 o’clock. I went to a bridge that is close to my flat and that overlooks the canal Saint Martin in Rennes. I waited a bit but decided to walk a little closer to my flat again. The canal to my right and new apartment buildings to my left, I was waiting for the sun to rise. It was a cold night, it had snowed the evening before too. I stood there for an hour, not moving much, my gaze fixed on the horizon…just there, behind the tree tops, I expected the sun to appear. I’m sure that the construction workers who could surely see me wondered why I was standing there doing nothing. But even though they could stop even for a minute to marvel about this wonder of nature, the beginning of a new day, they don’t do it. Time is money. Every lost minute means delay, and delay costs money. So, naturally they keep working while I’m watching this fireball slowly appearing behind the tree tops. A wonderful sunrise in the cold at 8.36am but not visible until 9am. I could see the small changes in the colour of the clouds behind me as they slowly turned pink. The sun had an effect on everything before I could even see it.

It was this morning that I thought a bit more about something I heard on radio the other day. France Culture posed the question whether we should reconcile with nature, and if so, how. I didn’t hear the entire broadcast as I had only just stopped teaching and was on my way home. The broadcast reminded me a lot of slowness, contemplation, of the idea of taking one’s time to really see. The reason I’m writing something on this blog is because they spoke about film. I had hoped they would mention slow film, but they didn’t. A missed chance but perhaps it’s something I can start here on The Art(s) of Slow Cinema.

One of the guests, Anne-Caroline Prévot, looked into the representation of nature in Walt Disney films for a research project and found that the face of Disney has changed a lot. No more Snow White’s singing with birds. Away with characters dancing in the green, appreciating the beauty of nature, being one with it. Since the 1950s, Prévot argues, Disney has adapted (I would even say reinforced) our decreased interest in nature, in its marvels. Nowadays its films show more brick buildings, city life, cobble stones people walk over than characters appreciating nature. It’s how life is these days. In the last decades, waves of migrants from the countryside have moved to the cities in order to find jobs. Countrysides are now deserted. France and Germany, for instance, face critical “medical deserts” where everything has closed because only a handful of people live in those regions and it wasn’t financially viable to keep even one doctor there. Life is city life nowadays, and cinematic representations very much go with the flow.

That said, we’re speaking about mainstream representation here. It is mainstream that shows us where and how we life, and that can propel us into the future. It is independent cinema that can remind us of what life should be, and could be. Slow Cinema, I believe, is one type of cinema that reminds us of the marvels of nature. Not only, I should say. But one of its main characteristics is that films are primarily set in nature, something Walt Disney has gotten rid off in the last couple of decades (apparently since the 1970s). It looks at empty places, places where people have stopped looking. It looks at those “deserts” that have become so widespread in our developed countries. But, most important of all, they function as a reminder to be. Not to make something, but rather to accept our surrounding and see the beauty in it. For that, it needs time, time which slow films give us. A film I recently saw comes back to my mind: Abbas Kiarostami’s Five. I’m also thinking of Lisandro Alonso’s films (La Libertad, etc), Alamar by Pedro Gonzales-Rubio or Semih Kaplanoglu’s wonderful Bal. 

These are, of course, narrative films. I believe that experimental films can go even further because they can dwell even longer without necessarily having to push a narrative forward. But there is also a wonderful book titled Cinema and Landscape by Graeme Harper and Jonathan Ryner. I’m aware that the broadcast was really about nature, but if you mention film you might want to take more than 2 minutes in really exploring how cinema represents our attitude to nature, but also how film, as a widespread form of entertainment, can help us to reconcile with nature. I strongly believe that Slow Cinema can do its share there and is already doing so. It’s not as visible as one might want it to be, but it’s there and good change is often a result of grass root movements…so maybe we’re seeing something in the making here!

(Little reminder: the tao films advent calendar is now available on our website. 24 short films until Xmas. A new film every day. Check out our website and check yesterday’s post for more info.)

Mourning Cinema

For parts of my work on Lav Diaz’s Melancholia, I read Richard Armstrong’s Mourning Films (2012). It wasn’t quite as helpful as I thought for the actual content of my chapter, but there was something else that popped up while reading the conclusion of the book, namely the question whether Slow Cinema is Mourning Cinema. At least in part. I’m aware that not all slow films are rather depressing. Albert Serra, for instance, is the comedian amongst slow-film directors, so he wouldn’t fit into this “new” category I have in mind.

What initially put me onto a track of Mourning Cinema was Armstrong’s suggestion that “the mourning film is defined by the obscure play of the seen, the withheld and the opaque” (184). Nowhere is this clearer than in Lav Diaz’s films. This is exactly what I’m interested in and it comes up in pretty much all my chapters; absence. The use of absence and emptiness is a means in Diaz’s films to convey meanings of loss, grief and melancholy. The unseen is as important as the seen in his films. You cannot read his films by looking only at the visible. It is the invisible that brings to the fore the characters’ inner turmoils. Interestingly enough, in mourning films, according to Armstrong, geography plays a role. Mourning as an interior feeling happens against the exterior of the environment. This is perhaps most visible and most accomplished in Diaz’s Death in the Land of Encantos.

Anyway, this was only the beginning of my thought process. The eureka effect came with the following: “These are slow contemplative works that are dedicated to a narrative progression tied not to active agendas but to a passive process of psychological healing” (186). Now, the psychological healing is relative. Not all slow films that involve some kind of loss depict the following healing process. But the main thing is the deliberate pace of the films and the focus on characters’ psychological development. This is, to me, the main characteristic of Slow Cinema, combined with the aesthetic of the environment mirroring the characters’ state of mind.

Again, not all slow films can be, but a great many films should be seen in this context. In addition to the films of Lav Diaz, there’s, for instance, Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo, an impressive study of loss and the coping mechanisms of people who do not want to give up their livelihood on a small island that decays more and more. There’s Semih Kaplanoglu’s Bal, in which a young boy tries to cope with the loss of his father, the only person that actually made him speak, a person he looked up to. There is, of course, Alexandr Sokurov’s Mother and Son, which I don’t have to describe in detail here as it is such a well-known film. All of Tsai Ming-liang’s films are based on some kind of loss, some kind of grieving for something that is not there. Even Béla Tarr’s films feel eerily empty about loss.

Loss – no matter what kind – is naturally leading to mourning. It does not always entail the death of a person. Death is rather metaphorical and concerns any kind of loss, or sudden absence of something. I would go as far as suggesting that it even concerns the threat of an absence, the threat of loss. This alone can put someone into a state of mourning.

So can Slow Cinema also be termed Mourning Cinema? In some ways, yes. There are more and more types of film that have the exact kind of characteristics as Slow Cinema, without being termed like it. Again, Slow Cinema is just a – sorry to say this – stupid novel description of something that we have seen all the way through film history. So I reckon that all of these slow films fit into other, way more known types of film, which have already received wide attention.

Day 24 – Surprise (me)

I finish this year’s advent calendar with a self-experiment in slow-filmmaking. It’s one thing to watch slow films all the time. But as I was to find out, it’s an entirely different matter to sit behind the camera and keep quiet for only five minutes just so that you don’t ruin the sound. It was fun to do, though, and I enjoyed it. You can find the video at the bottom of today’s entry.

The last 23 days have taken me to many countries. I was in Argentina with Lisandro Alonso, and in Mexico with Nicolas Pereda. I was in imaginative, historical spaces with Albert Serra, and in dark and evils spaces with Béla Tarr. I found myself in cramped apartments in China, in vast spaces of Turkish forests. I was in Japan, Iran and Sweden. Oh, and not to forget, I joined a couple of monks in France. The films I watched were a glimpse of suffering in the Philippines, of longing in Taiwan, of past memories in Thailand.

Over 37 hours of slow film. I cannot deny that it became difficult towards the end to find words for the films. Watching a slow film is, I find, an entirely different experience. Slow films really take you on a journey. You spend so much time with the characters that you feel as though you have been through what they have been through in two hours.

It was a great idea, though. It is one thing to watch a slow film here and there. It is a wholly different matter if you watch 23 films in a row. It gave me a real grasp of what Slow Cinema is about, how many nuances there are, what themes they actually tackle, and how similar and yet different the filmmakers are in their approaches.

I hope you enjoyed the excursion into slowness. This blog will now return to the usual weekly or fortnightly posts, and film comments whenever I’m lucky enough to find a diamond somewhere.

Merry Christmas!

Day 21 – Bal (Kaplanoglu)

Semih Kaplanoglu’s Bal (2010) is the most wonderful coming-of-age story I’ve seen so far, especially in the context of Slow Cinema. I remember that I saw this one in cinema, one of the few slow films I had a chance to see on a big screen. I was moved by the depiction of a young boy’s growing up, of his fear of speaking, and of his deep love to his father.

The film is set entirely in the woods. There is the constant sound of the wind in the trees, and the chirping of birds. There is this image of untouched and vibrant nature. It is a peaceful backdrop to an otherwise tragic story, as we learn at the end of the film. The quietness of the nature, I find, is a fitting indicator of the quietness of young boy Yusuf.

Bal (2010), Semih Kaplanoglu

Yusuf doesn’t talk much. At home he only talks to his father, and he generally prefers to whisper. It is as if he doesn’t want to disturb anything or anyone. So while we follow the life of Yusuf, our ears are inevitably pointed to the sounds of nature around us, because this is in some ways the main reference point for us in the film.

In some way, Bal follows Yusuf’s struggle to achieve his biggest goal. He wants to get a badge for being able to read in class. The camera is often positioned in such a way that we see Yusuf through the glass in which the badges are stored. You can see that he wants one. But Yusuf only ever reads comfortably when his father is around. Unless he knows the text he is supposed to read, he stutters uncontrollably.

Bal (2010), Semih Kaplanoglu

In other ways, Bal explores an intimate father-son relationship. Yusuf’s father collects honey for a living, but bee hives have become rare and he has to travel longer distances in order to collect a useful amount of honey. Sometimes, Yusuf accompanies him. On one day, his father suffers from an epileptic fit and Yusuf looks after him. Later on his father sets out on his own, and you can gather the impact his absence has on the young boy. He is afraid of his father not returning home. Fear, anxiety – these are two key themes of the film.

Bal is the last part of a trilogy. I was a bit annoyed when I read it, because it’s always best to see a trilogy in the successive order it’s meant to be seen. Sut and Yumurta are similar in their (slow) aesthetics, but you can tell that Kaplanoglu has greatly developed his style. What I found particularly interesting is the direction of the trilogy. It is not about Yusuf growing into a man. It is, in fact, the other way around. At the beginning of the trilogy, in Yumurta, Yusuf is a middle-aged man. Bal stands at the end of the trilogy. The film explains a lot about the other two films, especially about Yusuf as such, his way of being, his behaviour.

The Yusuf trilogy is for me a work in progress, although this is perhaps the wrong expression. What I mean is, you grow with the filmmaker. It feels as if he is learning while making these films, and both Kaplanoglu and the viewer end up with this bittersweet, beautifully shot film about the anxieties in a boy’s childhood at the end of his learning process.

Day 7 – Los Muertos (Alonso)

Et voila, I am back on the South American continent, in Argentina to be exact. Lisandro Alonso is for me a special slow-film director. Not only because he is the only director who could really make me sleep within the course of a film (and his films aren’t very long). Although, watching his films and feeling tired is not necessarily a bad thing. It is merely a comment on the combination of camera movement, use of nature sounds, and the slowness of life in the middle of nowhere.

Los Muertos (2004) was Alonso’s second feature film after La Libertad (2001). In the film, we follow Vargas, an ex-prisoner, on a journey to find his daughter. The journey takes him through beautiful landscapes, and reminded me of the cinema of Bela Tarr. The two directors are utterly different from one another, true. But it is also true that both put emphasis on the aspect of walking. In general, walking or travelling are major themes in Slow Cinema.

Los Muertos (2004), Lisandro Alonso

In Los Muertos, Vargas is walking, but also going by boat for quite a substantial amount of time in the film. He’s floating on a river, and we get a sense of freedom somehow. It is a different way of walking / travelling from the ones we see in Tarr’s films. I get the feeling that the characters in Tarr are always walking against some obstacle. It reminds me of the characters in Satantango (1994), who walk in brisk wind. Or the characters in The Turin Horse (2011). Again, they walk against brisk winds. However, Alonso puts his characters into a more peaceful environment, which allows the viewer to be at peace as well. To just float one a boat with Vargas.

Los Muertos also reminds me of the beautiful Bal by Semih Kaplanoglu. Los Muertos is by all means a sound film. There is little said, or even done for that matter. But the sound of nature, of the water, the trees in the jungle, Vargas’ walk on a dusty road – they all make the film into what it is. It is also the sounds that lull you into a deep sleep if you don’t watch yourself.

Los Muertos (2004), Lisandro Alsonso

The combination of natural sounds and peaceful walking through the jungle, equally says something else about the type of slow film Los Muertos is. For me, it is clearly a landscape film. Vargas is by far not the only character, but the surroundings, the environment he lives in and travels through, are equally important to the “feel” of the film. As is so often the case in Slow Cinema.