Happy 10th Slow Cinema anniversary

This year marks a special anniversary for me. Ten years ago in summer, I watched my first slow film. It was Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007), a stunning feast, which blew my mind. I kept looking at my watch not because I was bored, but because I wanted to see just how long this first take would last. Quite remarkable that it has been a decade already. Since The Man from London, which, I later found out, was based on a book by Georges Simenon, I have seen hundreds of slow films. Not all of them have made it onto my blog, for lack of time, or frankly for a lack of space because I started my blog only three years after my first slow-film experience.

Béla Tarr, Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-liang – these were the big names when I started. I came comparatively late to the oeuvre of Pedro Costa, and I still need to catch up with all of his films. But overall, those four directors used to be the core of what was considered to be Slow Cinema at the time. There were others, of course. Abbas Kiarostami, or Theo Angelopoulos. Chantal Akerman was always a bit on the side, because she was the only woman director talked about. Slow Cinema certainly was a male field. The term was coined by a man, the directors were almost exclusively male, and whenever I did see a slow film in cinema or went to a conference, I felt rather strange as being one of only a handful of women. In fact, my work on Slow Cinema has made me become utterly aware of my being a woman, especially when my book proposal was rejected with the reason of the subject not fitting into the publisher’s portfolio, only for them to accept a book on the same subject by a man.

But apart from having me made aware of who I am and where I come from, Slow Cinema had for me something exciting about it. Why? Because it was a sort of genre, or movement, that I more or less grew into. Slow films, or slower-than-the-usual films have always existed, yet it became “a thing” only in the 2010s, once Jonathan Romney published his Sight & Sound piece about the increase of cinematic slowness in films. It felt as though I was witnessing something in-the-making. I still remember the first festival dedicated to slow films. The AV festival in the UK dedicated a whole weekend to Slow Cinema, with a mini retrospective of Lav Diaz’s films. This was where I saw my first ultra-long film, which much later became my main interest because the length not only created an entirely new film experience for me. It also allowed me to see films in a different way, not just as a purely horizontal narrative, but as something that can take its time to get to the bottom of things.

When I did my Phd from 2012 to 2015, debates about and around Slow Cinema tended to become heated. On the one hand, you had devoted followers. On the other, there were people who hated Slow Cinema and they were the ones who advocated the idea of boredom in the context of slowness. “I’m not going to the cinema to get bored.” The debate on Slow Cinema highlighted what most people expect of cinema to be: a form of entertainment that is used to numb problems, pain, concerns – if only for two hours. I believe that the rejection of slow films not only stems from its rejection as a form of entertainment. It is the rejection to see, a rejection of our human condition.

Slow Cinema also showed the nasty business of film criticism, with certain critics leaving the auditorium early and then ripped a film into pieces (which you can’t do with slow films until you have seen the whole film), and with critics who haven’t even seen a certain film they were reviewing. There were books hastily published, which didn’t even try to understand the movement as something that goes beyond a rejection of modernity’s speed. All of a sudden, those who never bothered with the field had a chapter published. If you wanted to be on top of things as a film scholar, you had to join the band waggon.

I believe that Slow Cinema has given me an insight into more than I had bargained for. In the end, the heated discussion died down as quickly as it had begun. Paul Schrader announced the death of Slow Cinema not so long ago. This shows nothing else than his lack of understanding of the genre. It may well look as though Slow Cinema is in decline. Béla Tarr and Tsai Ming-liang have retired. Chantal Akerman, Theo Angelopoulos, Abbas Kiarostami have died. The written output is decreasing.

If one wasn’t actively involved with it almost daily, one could easily agree with Schrader. But this would be a mistake. With the rush over slowness coming to an end (yes, this joke is totally intentional), Slow Cinema can finally be. Maybe directors can soon even do Q&As without being asked the age-old question as to why their films are so slow. They can just talk about the content of their films. Now is the time when some quality writing, some quality analysis can emerge from the silence and the stillness that is slowly beginning to wrap around slow films. It’s no longer about making a quick comment on something that is at odds with our modern times. It is about feeling it, and putting it into perspective.

And we will have ample time to do this, as Slow Cinema is everything but dead. Wang Bing has become one of the most prolific directors in recent years. Nikolaus Geyrhalter continues to investigate the world. Shengze Zhu has just won the Tiger Award in Rotterdam. Jacqueline Zünd seems to become a new female force in Slow Cinema. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is treading new grounds in Colombia. Aleksandra Niemczyk is probably one of the most promising new talents. Michela Occhipinti has premiered her new film at the Berlinale. Bi Gan is making himself a name in the field.

The future couldn’t be brighter, precisely because the public debate has died down. While others declare Slow Cinema dead, I personally am convinced that we are entering a new promising phase, which could even become a sort of golden age for slow films. Let’s see what there is to write for me in 2029!

Another Year – Another Festival

I’m not posting those things very often, but I’m delighted about the success of the slow film that is on the top of my list for DVD distribution; Another Year by Shengze Zhu. I wrote an entry about it not so long ago, a stunning three-hour long film about a Chinese migrant family eating. Well, in fact, the film is about much more and I believe this is the reason for its success. Like many other slow films that have their place on this website, Another Year uses stark simplicity in order to tell stories about the complexities of life.

Shengze’s film has been to several festivals, and the success story continues to impress. Today in exactly a month, on 26 June, the film will have its UK premiere (very important!) at the Open City Documentary Festival in London. And, best of all, the film is a Grand Jury Award nominee. Congratulations, Shengze!

And if you’re in London on 26 June, please do see the film at Open City Documentary Festival! They have more than only Another Year. The programme looks generally pretty slow. They also show Dead Slow Ahead, a film I’m still waiting to see. So go, go, go!

Slow Cinema VoD – Update (3)

Today, I would like to list the directors whose works I have chosen for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD. These directors have submitted their films after the first call for films, or I have asked them whether they’d be interested in the project. That these names appear here today does not mean that the Call for Films is now over. It remains an open call. I simply want to announce the first batch of participants.

Yesterday, I finished watching the submissions. For some films, I only needed to see the first frame and my decision was clear. For others, I had to let the film do its work on me before I could decide whether it would be good to include it or not. From the submissions I have received since January, I have chosen the majority. Let me give you the names now before I continue with my thoughts on them:

Simo Ezoubeiri, Sebastian Cordes, Yulene Olaizola, Michela Occhipinti*, Félix Dufour-Laperrière, Tito Molina, Felipe Guerrero, Zhengfan Yang, Homer Etminani, Pablo Lamar*, Christos Gkotsis, Martin Meija, Liryc de la Cruz, Shengze Zhu, Yotam Ben-David, Miguel Hilari, Jaime Grijalba, Allison Chhorn, José Fernandes, Diego Amando Moreno Garza, Jenni Olson, Martynas Kundrotas, Blaz Kutin, Mark John Ostrowski, Sorayos Prapapan, Yarr Zabratski, Peter Sant, Oren Contrell, Mirac Atabey, Dina Yanni, Nandan Rado, Kevin Pontuti, Scott Barley, Mikel Guillen, Lois Patino*, Tiara Kristiningtyas*, Panahbarkhoda Rezaee*, Salvatore Insana, Manjeet S. Gill, Ion Indolean, Yefim Tovbis, Regina Danino, Krishnendu Sarkar, Karel Tuytschaever.

Those names which are labelled with a stars are not 100% certain yet. I’m trying my best to chase up the directors (or find them!), but I haven’t yet been successful. If you can help in any way, please let me know.

Some filmmakers have submitted more than one film. There is a great mixture of amateurs and “professional” filmmakers. I have an almost even number of feature and short films, which is fantastic. I thought that I would receive more short films than anything else, but this is not the case.

The chosen films are either made in, or the directors come from the following countries:

Mexico, USA, Canada, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Greece, Israel, Belgium, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Ukraine, UK, Turkey, Austria, Morocco, Australia, India, China, Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand. 

Unfortunately, there is only one film from Africa so far, but I’m nonetheless proud that the Call for Films has attracted films from all continents. I had always hoped this would be a global platform. Obviously, I couldn’t influence the film submissions. Yet there was the risk that I would end up with films from predominantly Western countries. Another fear which was unfounded. South America is very strong, a fact I like most. I’ve always had a strong feeling that there are plenty slow films being made in South American countries. I have three films from Mexico so far. Not a surprise, if I see the countries general output of good arthouse cinema.

This morning, I set up a Facebook group for all directors who have been chosen from the first batch of submissions. From now on, there will be a direct and quick contact between me and them regarding the project development. New members will be added as we go along with the project.

One final point, we have Cinéma Fragile on board, a French film collective focusing on film haikus. Their films are freely available on Vimeo. They will remain free, but The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD will show them, too.

Any questions? Any more films? Please contact me!

Edit: You can now donate to our crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe.

Another Year – Shengze Zhu (2016)

A three hour long film about people eating – admittedly, this doesn’t sound like a must-see film. And it’s not even just three hours of people eating. It’s three hours of long slow takes as well. We’re not exactly speaking of fast food here 🙂

Another Year should, nevertheless, be on your must-see list for this year. It is an essential slow film to watch and is already my slow film of the year. Shengze Zhu draws a portrait of a Chinese migrant family. This is more than just about eating, although, if you are no more than a passive viewer, you could easily think that. I remember the time when I was younger. When my siblings were still home, dinner was always the time when we were together and talked about our day. It wasn’t dinner. It was a social gathering. Yes, we came together over food, but I found that it was more about exchanging our thoughts and feelings than about the actual process of eating.

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Those memories resurfaced when I saw Shengze’s film. The film has a very simple, but effective structure. It is divided into 13 months. Every meal in a certain month is shown in one long-take. In some cases, Zhengfan Yang, the cinematographer – also known for this films Distant and Where Are You Going? – uses medium long to long shots, partly framed by the inside of a house. A thoroughly engaging approach, because it plays with absence and presence.

In a way, Another Year is an extension of Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II, which is all about making dumplings. In Another Year, you don’t see the cooking. It’s all about eating, and, funnily enough, they do eat a lot of dumplings! The kitchen is something that only exists in the off. It exists in the film’s sound, but the director doesn’t go beyond that. What she does make clear – both through off- and on-screen presence – is the absolutely invasive presence of the television, which is running almost all the time. It adds to the already claustrophobic nature of the room where most of the film is set.

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Why did I remember my childhood when I saw the film? Another Year tells the story of a family, which unfolds during dinner time. In January, the father comes home and the mother complains that she cannot stand her mother-in-law. In February, the mother-in-law has a stroke and is only talked about because she’s in hospital. In March, the mother has moved with her two smallest children to the house of her mother-in-law to look after her. And so it goes on. Every month, every meal, tells a new part of the story, which you have to piece together on the basis of the dialogues you hear. You cannot just sit and stare at the screen. Shengze Zhu asks you to be active.

And if you are, then you notice the currents below the surface. Another Year is drawing a picture of a family under pressure. The film is not a picture of happiness. If anything, the film is a portrait of frictions, of arguments, of anger and of impatience. No one in the film seems to be really happy. It often appears as though life is a chore, and yes, the mother does utter this early on in the film: “My God, why is life so hard?” Money is scarce. She has three kids with her husband being at work all day. Towards the end, she actually complains about this, but it is not even clear what she wants because she feels offended when her husband offers to stay home to look after the kids while she goes out to earn money. So what do these characters want?

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The oldest daughter wants new shoes. Then she wants new socks. And new chopsticks are also necessary. There is an almost constant “I want this – I want that” in the film, but because of the family’s poverty, the characters are stuck and do not seem to be able to move forward. This is shown quite literally by the framing, which is predominantly claustrophobic. The camera is often positioned in a small room where the characters eat, sleep, watch TV and play. It seems as though their entire life plays out in the very room we see in front of us. It’s not a surprise that frictions and arguments are almost a daily routine. There is no breathing space. Nor is there any light. I found that the entire film was pretty dark. Natural light was scarce. I’m aware that the family eats in the evening and that in some months there is no more natural light at that time. Yet, I do believe that the lack of natural light is indicative for the family’s misery. The claustrophobic space and the lack of light are enough to get a sense of unhappiness, of frustration, also indicated by a lot of shouting and accusations between the characters. The dialogues are – at least for this point – not necessary. Their mood, their thoughts, they are all visualised by the film’s aesthetics.

Another Year sounds like a pretty simple film, and yes, it is based on a very simple concept. In the end, we see thirteen family meals, although we don’t really see that, because the family never sits quietly together, and eats. They’re often all over the place, especially the young children. But this simplicity, which I have seen so often in other slow films is giving us a complex picture of an unhappy, poor family, and a society that is still haunted by the one-child policy. It gives us an insight into their lives, into their concerns – simply, by being. Shengze records this being, and captures a fascinating view on a modern working-class family in China. A three-hour long must-watch!