I have long been fascinated by the power of absence. I hadn’t known that this was one element that drew me towards Slow Cinema until I saw my first of a number of Lav Diaz’ films, which so clearly play on the nature of the unseen, the present absence. More and more I also realise that my attraction towards this ghostly aesthetic probably stems from several holes in my family history, which I’m now seeking to clear up. There is always a reason for one’s attraction to a piece of art, or a film, and often one isn’t aware of the underlying reason for being emotionally moved by something.
The fascinating aspect of absence, which, to me, is related to the element of space, is that it distorts our perception of time. In many ways, time appears to pass slower, in extreme situations perhaps even in slow motion. There are various reasons for “holes” in our life narrative. Absence is always connected to a loss of something, and this can take different forms. Death is probably the one we can all identify with, and the days and weeks after having lost a loved one always feel different. Time has a different meaning than before. There is a before and an after.
I have long been an admirer of the writings of Georges Didi-Huberman, whose work seems to overlap with my own more often than not, and the further I move through his work, the more I see just how much value his books and essays have for Slow Cinema. Didi-Huberman is not an expert in cinema, which would perhaps rule him out for a lot of people because he just doesn’t know the field. Interestingly enough, it is probably precisely because he is writing from several vantage points – philosophy, art, history, and yes, cinema – that allows him to see things clearly, to take a step back, and to introduce new ideas. Or to simply open our eyes to what’s really in front of us.
One would not necessarily pick up a study on the Italian artist Claudio Parmiggiani for an informed reading on Slow Cinema. But Didi-Huberman’s in-depth focus on “air, dust, traces, and haunting”, as indicated in the book’s subtitle (Génie du non-lieu – Air, poussière, empreinte, hantise), is exactly what one should pick up for a better, or even new understanding of the uses of absence in slow films. I have long used art books for my work on Slow Cinema, and there is a lot of remarkable material that many people, especially academics who think only in their own field, have overlooked. Claudio Parmiggiani is an exceptional artist, whose work focuses on absence, silence and fragmentation. Ignoring everything I have read, looking at Parmiggiani’s pieces online conjures feelings of loss, of pain, of longing, but also of searching and hoping.
The power of time in form of patience, desire and waiting, Didi-Huberman writes, can never exist without an event, an action, that tears it up. There is nothing like a homogenous forward movement of time. There is a persistent alternation between calm and shock. This shock, as I have argued above, usually comes about through the loss of something or someone. A loss is always traumatic, like when you thought, in your childhood, that your dad really stole your nose when he made this weird finger movement in front of your face. You’re shocked, you cry. The calm disappears. The alternation between the power of time in form of slowness and its shock moments can be found in several slow films, but is most visible in the films of Lav Diaz, whose narratives live of this back-and-forth, especially his six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012).
There is this famous opposition in the works of Roland Barthes: what is and what has been. Parmiggiani, on the other hand, works on what remains. Barthes’ has been is absent, but continues to haunt the present. Parmiggiani shows the residues. He creates a picture of this haunting absence in the form of dust, or imprints. He makes it palpable, brings it out into the open. Didi-Huberman argues that dust (poussière in French) has its own time, it doesn’t follow the rhythms we establish throughout our lives. What’s more, dust survives us. It always will. Even though, as Didi-Huberman points out, dust is in permanent movement, it is perhaps the only permanent remnant of everything we do, of everything that our life is and has been. It’s what remains after our death. Dust is temporary and yet permanent. It is in movement, shifting from place to place, and yet remains where it is.
The survival of traces, of dust, of imprints threatens our own survival, Didi-Huberman writes. Is this the reason why we feel uncomfortable about it? Is this why feel haunted, why we try to run away, in whatever way? The nature of slow films reminds us of those traces, and they usually do so by using the off-screen very effectively (and affectively). Parmiggiani’s work is all about the literal meaning of imprints and dust, at least in his magnificent series Delocazione. In effect, I find that he gives an image to what those two elements can also mean, namely memory. Persistent memories, haunting memories, memories that are transmitted from one generation to the next. Memories survive us, and this very survival, this longevity, threatens us and our calm existence. They bring upheaval, pain, change.
This “dust” forms the core of most slow films that I have seen. I have argued previously on this blog that slow films centre around Barthes’ what has been. In fact, after having seen Parmiggiani’s art, I more and more believe that we’re actually speaking about what remains in those films. We’re speaking about remains, residues, dust. We speak about what survives us, what remains after we’re gone. We feel our own impotence of something much larger than us. Do we not?
There are good films. There are bad films. There are exciting films, awesome films, overwhelming films. There are also underwhelming films, those that are total junk and a complete waste of time. There are those exclamations like “wow!” or “no, no, I don’t believe this!”. Maybe even something like “best film of the year for me!”. And then there is Hu Bo’s first and only feature film An Elephant Sitting Still, which he had completed in late 2017 before he committed suicide. There is no word or expression in the three languages I speak that would help me express what I feel about this film.
There are films that make you interested in film, and you pick it up as a study subject at university. Or you pick up a camera yourself. There are films that touch you deeply. Films that make you cry, make you laugh. People sometimes speak of emotional rollercoasters. And then there is An Elephant Sitting Still, which makes me want to stop watching films because I don’t want to stain what I have seen with other films. I would like to keep this film as the last film I would ever see because it is so rich, so pure, so deep.
We are all looking for something in life. You might not be aware of it until you find the one thing that you had been looking for. I have been looking for An Elephant Sitting Still. My now ten years in film, especially in slow film, on a quest to find the answer to something I haven’t even asked a question about, have found what I seem have been unconsciously looking for. And this something doesn’t have a word. Or a feeling. It’s something deep inside me.
Milan Kundera wrote a book called The Unbearable Lightness of Being, later adapted to the big screen. The Unbearable Weight Of Being – this is what Hu Bo captures. The weight of living, of breathing, of surviving, or trying to. The weight of our times. Chantal Akerman always wanted us to feel time. Hu Bo wants us to feel the weight of it. The calculated stillness in numerous extended long-takes functions like the weight of an elephant, several tons that crush you underneath its feet. You fight, but what do you fight for if there is no alternative?
The time spent on fighting the agony, on lifting the weight of time, only adds to the feeling of hopelessness. Hu Bo’s characters struggle with the existential question of what their life is worth. This isn’t a truly pessimistic look at life. It is, rather, an existential look at our times, at our stillness in the face of time.
Hu Bo’s moving images are drained of energy, of colour. The film itself is tired, but uses its last bit of energy on telling its characters’ stories. There is resistance, yet not enough in the face of an overwhelming external and invisible force. Every hour spent with the characters feels like an entire life. It is not just the weight of time that drains the characters. It is their anger, often contained, swallowed, until the last straw break’s the camel’s neck. Then, verbal and physical violence becomes omnipresent, but only briefly, often in the off.
There is a boiling point which the film is headed towards. Not a climax, followed by a denouement. An Elephant Sitting Still is eternal. It is our film, our malaise of trying to make something out of our lives in an increasingly hostile world in which we millennials are the first generation to feel the brutality of this new age in which it is difficult enough to survive and even more difficult to live.
Life as an eternal tragedy. Life as an eternal struggle. For those who live in the here and now, the film becomes an expression of their pain without ever trying to make us feel sorry. Without ever trying to make us cry. Wang Jin, an elderly man who faces the fate of spending the rest of his days in a nursing home, says towards the end: “by not going (elsewhere), you learn how to live with it here.”
Elsewhere is always close. We see one character, up close, and another blurred in the background. Elsewhere. The dream of something better than this. A dream that keeps us going, crawling almost, with the few resources we have left. And yet, Hu Bo’s Elephant is not hopeless or worthless, as the film’s characters think they are. Elephant is the one reason why all of this is worth it.
Endnote: If you expected an in-depth review of the film, I’m sorry that I have disappointed you. The experience of Elephant is special. I have thought for a long time that I shouldn’t write about it at all. I don’t want to talk about it either. Elephant is inside me, and only I have the key to it. Never in my life have I had such an experience, but, as I have said above, all of the struggles in my life were worth it if it meant discovering such a film at some point in my life.
It is impossible to retain a past thought, to seize a future thought, and even to hold onto a present thought.
There couldn’t be a better beginning to a film than this extract of the Diamond Sutra, the most important sutra in Buddhism. It says so much about the reasons for our suffering. Do we not always try to project ourselves into the future? Are we not always haunted by past thoughts? And what about those wonderful present moments, which we would like to hold onto? There is a constant tension because of our attempts of controlling what is beyond our control.
And yet, this extract of the Diamond Sutra is not only there to make us aware of this curious state of eternal suffering. Chinese director Bi Gan also makes a statement about his film Kaili Blues, his debut feature, and, perhaps, about cinema in general. Especially the inability to hold on to a present thought… it has often been said that photography and film can capture the present moment. Indeed, so they do. Yet as soon as the present has been captured, it becomes part of the past. What is, has been. Bi Gan’s non-linear moving images (I wouldn’t call it a film just now) are a fascinating example of Daniel Frampton’s filmmind. His images are free floating, The film moves to wherever it wants to move. Past, present, future – it all seems to be one. The director’s forty-minute long-take in the second half of the film shows exactly this; the act of floating, floating memories, floating thoughts. We travel by motorcycle, by car. We follow this character, then another, all the while (re)discovering places and scenes that we remember from earlier.
Time has no meaning in Kaili Blues. Everything is. Temporal orientation is impossible and unnecessary. The film is no more than an invitation to float with the characters. A long circular, counterclockwise camera movement to the left, a long circular clockwise camera movement to the right – the camera becomes an indicator of the nature of time. Time is circular. There is repetition, there is rebirth. Freedom, relief, means breaking out of this circle. But Bi Gan doesn’t allow us to break out.
He holds us with lingering shots that resemble thoughts. He holds us with sounds that feel as though they come from our own mind, from our dreams and desires. He holds us. After twenty minutes, it feels as though we have already spent an eternity with Bi Gan’s characters, characters that draw watches on their wrists. The mechanical clock, the imposed partition of time, as an opponent to the very nature of Kaili Blues, the natural passage of time versus our modern perception of it, our modern desire to control time, to impose our rhythm on something that is beyond control – a marvellous point by the director.
Carefully composed, beautiful frames tell a story of emptiness, of distance. There is something missing. There is an absence that cannot be filled, a chasm that becomes deeper and wider with every scene. The independently moving camera opens up spaces and poses questions. If we try to find responses to our questions, time will wash over us like an overwhelming wave in the sea. We will get lost and have no means to catch up.
The reason for Chen’s imprisonment, the reason for Chen’s apparent adoption at a young age and the ensuing jealousy of his stepbrother, the role of Weiwei, Chen’s nephew – there is so much to explore, so many questions to ask, and not a single answer. Instead, we are shipwrecked, safe and secure on a piece of debris, but at the mercy of the sea, which the director keeps moving just like his camera. Long pans, slow zooms – these create waves that shift us to another place, to another time. And we forget where we are. We’re oblivious. In the end we become melancholic, we get the blues, subdued by somber frames, dull colours, and the endless movement in time without a goal ahead.
Bi Gan is, in his first debut feature, already a master of time, a puppet master who knows exactly what strings to pull and when. He follows the story where it wants to go. The camera becomes a companion along the road. At some point the question arose: have I seen this film already? An obscure feeling of familiarity surrounded me. Bi Gan walks in the steps of Béla Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s a cinematic heritage he picks up and which turns into his own style. Kaili Blues is only the beginning.
The end of the year 2018 was, in France at least, a period in which the media focused on the subject of time. The quantity of things published was impressive and made me think about the possible reasons behind this seemingly mutual choice of journalists and podcasters alike. What happened in 2018 that became the trigger for a return to the subject of time and a reminder that time, as we know it, is an artificial construct?
It was, perhaps, Donald Trump and his presidency. In part, at least. An American president, impulsive, tweeting, can quickly take over the news. What I noticed last year is that it felt as though news faster than ever before. One tweet by a politician was enough to create a newsworthy item. Breaking news was the order of the day. Trump, Brexit – you name it. 2018 was characterised by immediacy, heightened by social media and people’s use of it for “news”. I don’t want to write a political post, albeit I could because there is so much to say about last year. Instead, I want to focus on the issue of time today. In an earlier post, I already wrote down my ideas on the theme of waiting, triggered by a blog post on the subject.
Today, I want to go into a bit more detail because I think that if we speak about Slow Cinema, we still don’t speak enough about the subject of time itself. Academics love to explain slow films with Bazin and Deleuze, but this approach has always felt incomplete, or even inadequate to me. It is Sylvain Piron, who, in his magnificent book L’occupation du monde, writes about, what he calls, an artificialisation of every part of society. This, I believe, can also be found in the debate on Slow Cinema. There is no natural conversation about it, but slow films are being explained by artificially constructed frameworks that we have created merely because we humans have to categorise everything in order to keep track of what is happening around us.
The simple aspect we forget while creating artificial frameworks is that time is an illusion, a question of perspectives rather than a universal truth, as physicist Carlo Rovelli describes it in his new book on time. There is, he suggests, neither space nor time, but instead a continuous progression of processes. Not so long ago, I spoke of Sylviane Agacinski’s thought-provoking book Le passeur du temps, in which she argues that everything is always passing, is in constant transformation. Nothing remains the way you see it right in this very moment. In a second, it’s already different, which, as we may remember from previous readings and discussions, makes it difficult to define what the present moment is, because the present is fragile. If you speak about “the present”, it sounds like a stable temporal entity, but it’s the opposite. What’s present now, is already past in a nano second. So what does this say about time? Rovelli puts forward a pretty good argument. Reality, our reality, is merely a fragment. No one’s reality is the ultimate reality. We create those fragments in order to handle the world. He describes this process, in fact, as a way of blurring of what is around us. In order to contemplate the world as it is, we need to fragment it. We do this, for example, via time, and time is nothing but a marker of our unawareness, of our ignorance.
For Rovelli, time is primarily an emotional and psychological experience, which resonates so strongly with everything I have thought to express on this blog in relation to slow films. From the beginning, I have considered slow films as an experience, rather than as a sort of movement that is defined by frameworks, which tick certain boxes. I have reviewed over 250 films and have seen more without having (yet) written about them. If there is one thing that I have learned, then it is about the necessity of experiencing the films before one poses questions as to what they mean, why they are so slow or so long, and why the director didn’t cut at a specific point. Slow Cinema is, if I take the argument of Rovelli to heart (which I do), the perfect illustration of what time is: an experience, a passing experience, a continuous movement towards something – the end in most cases.
It is, I believe, this experience that we struggle with. In a fast-paced, knee-jerk epoch, are we still capable of truly experiencing something? In order to experience something, this something needs to last, and what actually still lasts? The 21st century, in particular, has cut short everything. Except, that is, for slow films. They last. Their duration allows us to experience, which can be a scary experience. Maybe this is why people say that they are bored. Perhaps they are just scared of letting something happen to them und use boredom as an easy way out. This something – it matters little what it essentially is as it is different for everyone – appears by itself, but one needs to wait for it. We spend so much of our lives waiting, we don’t even realise it anymore. It is so normal to wait for the bus that we no longer notice it as something out of the ordinary. Besides, as Reiner Niehoff and Sven Rücker explain in a three-part podcast series on waiting, everything is being done to make this period of waiting look and feel as though we are not waiting at all. Newspapers and journals in the GP practice, games on mobile phones while waiting for the bus or the metro. We keep ourselves busy all the time, even during periods of waiting.
Waiting, Niehoff and Rücker say, doesn’t have a quality in and of itself. Its goal is to end the period of waiting. What I found truly thought-provoking, even though it is so simple and easy to recognise that, precisely, I had never thought of it before, is that no one chooses to wait. Waiting is always imposed upon us. We have to endure it and we are at its mercy. This alone tells us why we struggle with waiting. Of course, we like to be in control, and if we are not, it makes us anxious, angry or simply uncomfortable. Whoever it is who makes us wait has power over us, because s/he plunges us into a hole of non-productivity. Remember that time is nothing but a psychological experience? In waiting, we can feel this most strongly.
Do you wait for the director to cut the scene? Do you wait for something to happen? Do you wait for the film to end? The key here is that we perceive a slow film as a form of waiting, and then we say “I don’t have time for this”. Some people might even say that the director shouldn’t steal or waste our time. At the same time, I consider waiting for something to happen in a slow film as the one way of waiting that is not imposed from the outside, but from the inside. Waiting is imposed on ourselves by ourselves, and we project this fear of waiting and our disappointment onto the director, who merely shows a passing experience without any obligations. Because we are, as Rovelli suggested, busy with “blurring” our surrounding, it becomes difficult to accept those films as they are. Instead, we consider them as time experiments, as a “tour de force”. People’s rejection of those films comes from their misconception of what time is, and I think that seeing the subject from a different angle might help them to find their way into the films one day.
Here we are again. Another year comes to an end. It’s not easy to look back at 2018, which began with a complete breakdown of body and mind and which ended with complete exhaustion. In between, I tried to watch films and write articles. On top of that, I have managed (don’t ask me how!) to create a new baby: The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine.
But let’s look at something else first. Social media as well as news sites are full of annual Best-Of lists. I don’t think in lists, as many people do. Classifying everything is one of those quirks of our time, primarily because we can. Social media, in particular, allows us to judge everything. Whether continuous and subjective judgment of good and bad brings us forward, or helps the art of cinema in anyway could be a lengthy debate at a workshop, or a conference. I think the issue is that some people watch too many films, and I have trouble to believe that they can actually savour each one of them them or choose wisely. I was forced to take a step back this year and watched less films than usual. But I can say that all films were good. And so they were last year. To me, it’s about giving a film time to make an impact. This can come after a few days, sometimes even after a few weeks. If, by that time, you have seen another 20 films, the impact of a really good film will be drowned by all the others. Images merge and become one. In the end, it’s like a slow coffee filtering process. The more time it takes, the better and stronger the taste.
This is quite literally the case with Wang Bing’s new film Dead Souls. Eight hours long, with the film getting stronger over the course of it running time – this is really what, to me, cinema is all about. Yes, I could say that Dead Souls, a collection of testimony from survivors of Chinese labour camps, was the best film I have seen this year. But then, so is Elsewhere by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, which really drew me in, and which is still with me, even months after I have seen in. Both films create the weight and the urgency with which they tell their stories through the use of long duration. The filmmakers took their time with their subjects. It was not only about listening, but also about understanding the stories the people in front of the camera tell us. This is perhaps the element that stood out most for me this year. It was a year of seeing and of listening to people.
Seeing – this reminds me most strongly of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielmann. It’s one thing to watch the ordinary in Slow Cinema. It is something entirely different if one watches Jeanne doing her routine housework until this routine cracks. I had thought it would be a laborious viewing session, but it was a revealing experience instead. And so was Jacqueline Zünd’s Almost There, a truly marvellous poetic documentary that made me think, and almost cry. It is unfortunate that it’s difficult to find female slow-film directors. I’m sure they’re there. The challenge is to find them. Jacqueline Zünd is a great example of exceptionally good female filmmakers, with an eye for detail and an ear for (extra-)ordinary stories.
My year 2018 was a year of long-form cinema. I have mentioned Geyrhalter’s Elsewhere and Wang Bing’s Dead Souls already. This year, I also took the time to watch Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah, Lav Diaz’s four-hour long The woman who left and Andrei Tarkovsky’s equally long Andrei Rublev. There is something about long-form cinema that, for obvious reasons, the average film cannot give you. Long-form cinema can be the ultimate example of vertical cinema, a form of cinema that gives you a real insight, an in-depth exploration of a subject matter. Of course, it is not easy to find time for long films, but every time I do it I have to say that spending a couple of hours with a single film is worth it and I start to like them more than shorter films.
This also shows in my posts. I have written 15 posts less this year than in 2017, and yet I have written 7,000 more words. There was more to say, more thoughts triggered by the films I have seen. And despite the longer posts, people keep reading The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. Thank you! 2018 was the most successful year ever and even more people than last year found their way to the site. Thank you to everyone who is linking to it!
So, what’s next for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema? At the beginning of January, the first 20 copies of Issue 01 of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine will be shipped. The paper version, with previously unpublished material by artists, filmmakers and cinephiles alike, is a new way forward to broaden the output. I want you to read other opinions, other views, instead of always only my own 😉 If you want to check the first issue, do take a look at the contents and you can order it via tao films.
I’m hoping to publish the magazine twice a year, but it really depends. I’m not pushing it. If the content for a new magazine isn’t there, then I will wait until it’s all there and ready. Slow film, slow magazine. A new project for 2019 is a Slow Cinema podcast. Once I have recovered and recuperated my energy, I will start experimenting with different things and see how I can best approach this. Each episode will be a more in-depth analysis, or a conversation with someone about a film I have previously written about on the blog. That’s the plan. How it will look (or sound) like in the end, we’ll see. But this will be the next step for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema.
The first post in 2019 will probably be thoughts on seven podcasts, which deal with the concepts of waiting and slowing down. I’ve come across them this month and found that there was a lot in them, which I’d like to expand on here on this blog. Apart from that, however, I will take 2019 the way it comes. I have two more films by Nikolaus Geyrhalter to watch and the rest is open. Let’s see what I’ll find!
Finally, I’d like to take the opportunity to make you aware of my profile on Steady. Steady works a bit like Patreon and offers you a chance to support the growing body of work I’m doing for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. It becomes more and more demanding, but it is work I have been doing happily for free. I have also said that the blog will always be for free. And I stick to this. On the other hand, you can support me on Steady and make it a bit easier for me to dedicate myself to this work. Take a look and if you could circulate it, advertise it or contribute, I would thoroughly appreciate it. Thank you!
I wish you all a fantastic end of the year, and I’ll see you in 2019!
After months of work, the very first issue of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine is now available for pre-order via tao films. It’s thanks to Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais that I have finally made the move towards my own journal. It’s been thought of for years, but I had never actually had the guts to do it. Now, after six years of blogging I’m happy to welcome the first paper version of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema into the world.
With a cover designed by Swedish filmmaker and artist Sebastian Eklund, the magazine comes in A5 size and is 84 pages strong. It comes with a professional fastback binding. I’m super chuffed to have wonderful people on board.
Filmmakers Aleksandra Niemczyk and Sebastian Cordes write about their approach to film, and give you an insight of the behind-the-scenes of their films Centaur and A Place Called Lloyd respectively.
Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais reflect about the state of cinema in the 21st century, to which Maximilian Le Cain responds in a separate essay.
Catlin Meredith from Her Head in Film writes about the meaning of home in Yulene Olaizola’s Fogo, which we are streaming on tao films.
Myself, I investigate the aesthetic of absence in the films of Lav Diaz.
All of this, and a 20% discount of your tao films subscription, can be found in the magazine.
In order to keep possible financial losses at bay, I will collect orders of twenty magazines before they go into print and are then shipped. It’s a sort of on-demand service, which allows me more flexibility and avoids financial hassles. In the end, we must not forget that this is the first issue and I have no clue as to how successful this will be. I’m taking it safe 🙂
International shipping is available, of course. The price is 10€ for the magazine and 6€ for shipping. Shipping from France is pretty expensive. I wished I could offer it for cheaper, but it’s sadly not (yet) doable. Maybe I’ll have found a better option for issue 02.
As soon as the first batch of magazines is ready for shipping, a shipping date will be communicated to each buyer individually. I’d be eternally grateful if you could spread the message, in whatever way possible. And, of course, if you have any questions about the magazine, do drop me an email: email@example.com
My thanks goes to all contributors and supporters. This magazine wouldn’t have been possible without you!
It seems as though Chinese director Wang Bing gets better and better. Each film improves on the previous one, and with this I don’t mean that he improves on his aesthetics. Wang Bing stoically, stubbornly continues to pursue his traditional aesthetics, which means nothing more than that he simply films in whatever way necessary or possible. His films are not about beauty, about photographic framing, about characters walking towards a horizon and returning (see Béla Tarr). No, each of his films instead dives deeper into Wang Bing’s overall aim of telling the story of his country, of (re-)writing China’s official history. His films are like lengthy books à la Dostoievsky or Tolstoy, using the entire span of 900 pages or more to create a fundamental piece that outlives a single generation.
His previous film, Mrs Fang (2017), had already been an astonishing film, an important cinematic exploration of Alzheimer’s, of our slow death in the face of an impossible disease that doesn’t allow us to go gracefully. The director’s intimate portrait drew controversy. The ethics of filmmaking became an important part in our discussion as critics and cinephiles alike. What everyone was in agreement, however, was that Wang Bing had created something special, something that goes under the skin and that is not so easily shaken off.
Dead Souls, the director’s new film, is a monumental achievement. In over eight hours, shot over the course of more than ten years, Dead Souls, too, is an intimate portrait, or rather a collection of intimate portraits that go under the skin, albeit in a different way than Mrs Fang. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to compare the film to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. On the contrary, one could go as far as arguing that Dead Souls was the Shoah of the 21st century. It’s difficult to explain in words. Both films need to be seen in parallel in order to see the similarities. Yet, I don’t want to place too much emphasis on this, because I believe that Dead Souls needs to be, and deserves to be, seen in its own light.
Wang Bing has always used film in order to tell untold stories. His films, shot without official approval and without treading the official way of making films, i.e. submitting scripts for approval with a final censorship part at the end, fill in those blanks left by history books that merely tell the heroic parts of a country that is fascinating and scarily powerful and dangerous at the same time. History is used to form a common basis for national identity. History is always written by those who have fought and won a war, those who have heroically fallen into the hands of the enemy during the fight for his/her motherland. It is written by those who have ideological interests, by those who have to justify their gruesome acts.
Every country has this famous skeleton in the closet, and China certainly is no different. They seem to be even more secret about some of their excesses than other countries and those “black holes” make for a mysterious and frightening atmosphere. Dead Souls pierces this black hole. Wang Bing holds a torch into it to shine light onto the plights of hundreds of thousands so called rightists, people who have, in the eyes of officials, not been supportive of the movement, or have even been critical of the government. It was the late 50s, and there was a broad sweep particularly against intellectuals. Jiabiangu, the name of the camp complex, where people had been sent for re-education, has hoovered over Wang Bing’s work before. His film He, Fengming was part of his ongoing effort to collect testimony about the period. And so was The Ditch, a failed feature film that aimed at showing what life in the camps was like.
In Dead Souls, Wang Bing returns to his way of filmmaking which he had used for Fengming. This means that what mattered most to him was the recording of testimony. He put the camera on his lap, on a table, somewhere stable (or not necessarily) in order to record a person’s memories of the time. “I am a former nationalist. I had to re-educate myself and adopt communist thought.” This is how Wang Bing’s new film begins. Zhou Huinan, 85 years old, speaks about the time when people had been encouraged to criticise the Party. It was a cunning way of the Chinese government to lure people into the trap that would kill hundreds of thousands in a form of auto-genocide that resembles measures takes by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia later on, or which the Stalinist rulers undertook twenty years ealier. Zhou Huinan’s fault was his criticism of the lack of democracy. The result: a lengthy period at a camp, in which people died slowly in front of him of starvation. Sitting on a bench next to his wife, who visited him several times and who struggles to make herself heard in front of the camera, he seems a proud man, someone who has put the events behind him. He mentions his brother, a highly intelligent man who had been tasked with evaluating already validated town plans. He had been promoted several times, before he, too, was taken to a camp.
A harsh cut brings us into a completely different world. Despite his age and his experience in the camp, Zhou Huinan still embodies life. On the other hand, his brother, Zhou Zhinan, 82 years old, is a shadow of himself. Wang Bing films him in bed, suffering, dying, and tries to get a testimony. This very scene, painful and heart-rendering, hearing the whispers of a once strong man, is essential for the rest of the film. After a rather brief testimony, Wang Bing cuts to Zhou Zhinan’s funeral. In a lengthy sequence of scenes, we witness the burial of the man we had seen earlier, his son struggling with accepting the death of his father. Several times throughout the film, the director notifies us about the passing of those he spoke to. What this creates is a sense of urgency that wasn’t as clear in Lanzman’s Shoah. When I watched Lanzman’s opus, I had the feeling that the director had time for his project. Those he interviewed were elderly, but not yet on the threshold of death. With Wang Bing, this is different.
Dead Souls is an urgent film. Testimonies of men aged over 90, as is the case with Gao Guifan (97) who, filmed with a shaky handheld camera, says little else than “It’s the end. I want to die as quickly as possible. Dead, I’ll suffer less,” are common and one feels the director’s desire to get those testimonies on record in order to allow their voices to live on. Men eating human flesh, men cutting open the dead in order to collect the intestines and eat them, a father killing his eldest daughter so that his family could eat and therefore survive a little longer (this story is based on a rumour one of the men heard), men turning into animals – all of this must not die with those victim-survivors.
“You lose your humanity.”
“It had become banal to see dead people.”
“People no longer resembled human beings.”
Many of those Wang Bing speaks to go into a lot of detail of their ordeal. It becomes a collection of sort, but there are certain phrases that cut into you like a knife, and it’s those that will stay with you. The aim of turning humans into non-humans, of letting them slowly die – “People didn’t go in excruciating pain, they slowly passed away,” says Gu Huimin, 84 years old – is the most evident characteristic of a concentrationary system that has sadly found its application in so many parts of the world. China is no different, but China refuses to acknowledge the existence of those camps and the unnecessary deaths of innocent men and women.
The people the director speaks to are different in the way they have dealt with their past experience. Or perhaps, they are still traumatised and what they have endured and seen has broken them forever. Lao Zonghua, 75 years old and interviewed in 2010, reminded me of Bomba in Shoah, the man who smiles all the time. Lao Zonghua became almost uncomfortable to watch with his persistent laughs about the terrible things he has experienced. Is he one of Wang Bing’s dead souls?
Or are the dead souls those who Wang Bing and survivors look for in the desert? As in Lanzman’s Shoah, those who survived return to the place where everything happened, only to find almost nothing left. Nature has taken over. What’s left are bones and skulls. One doesn’t need to dig in order to find them. They’re there for everyone to see. An open secret of China’s brutal history. Just like Lav Diaz in his eight-hour film Melancholia, Wang Bing becomes an archeologist here. He uncovers, he unearthes. In discussions with survivors, in visiting the place of a silenced auto-genocide to record what is left. Every little helps to piece the country’s unwritten, and yet certainly essential history together for future generations who must know about this, and who, hopefully, take their government to account one day.
“If we’re alive today, it’s at the cost of your lives.”
“Only death could have ended that suffering.”
Zhao Tiemin is visibly angry at what he had been put through. He is the first in the film who speaks without questions needing to be asked. Wang Bing intervenes rarely, letting Zhao Tiemin take over. His testimony is interesting not only regarding its content, but also in the way it is given; openly, freely, without fear, but with a lot of anger. Others, such as Zhao Binghun, are more reserved. This particular man reminded me of my grandpa who felt uncomfortable answering questions about his past and who had initially responded in short sentence to all my questions, followed by “And what else do you want to know?” There is hesitation. Can I say this? Do I want to talk about this? There is, of course, shame and the fear that the memories, if spoken about, become to vivid and painful. Chen Zhonghai, 85 years old, remembers having lied to a fellow prisoner who asked him for a bit of roasted flour. He told him he didn’t have any, a lie. It was about his own survival. The other prisoner died of starvation. One can see the feeling of shame, Chen Zonghai, sitting on a sofa with a jacket over his left arm and his left trouser leg rolled up, the man has endured since then.
For those who have seen Fengming or even Lav Diaz’s six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) it is possibly evident what the director aims to do here. He blurs the boundaries of listener and viewer. Dead Souls is not so much a film to view, but a film to listen to. While the body language of those who testify in front of the camera can certainly be interesting, it is of much larger interest to simply listen, to lend our ears to those who have something to say. Wang Bing’s film gives them a platform for their experiences, for their shame, for their guilt, for their anger. With this part of history having been silenced, so have been the survivors. Film becomes a tool to break this silence and to allow those who need to tell their stories to find listeners. Only then can a traumatic narrative be turned into a normal life narrative and free the survivors.
But what about the film’s title? Dead Souls. Over the course of eight hours, one aspects becomes undoubtedly clear: those who survived, no longer have a soul. They should have helped their fellows. And this is precisely where Wang Bing is going with this. Humans are no longer humans. They struggle for survival. They have been put into situations where humanity, where souls, don’t have a place. In order to survive, one needs to kill one’s soul, one’s human nature, one’s empathy. The men we see in Wang Bing’s film might differ from one another. They are different in the way they give their testimony, different in the way they narrate their suffering, different in how they have handled those horrible experiences. But they share the tragic loss of their soul.
The end of the year proves to be busy, and it’s not easy at the moment to sit down and watch a film. I hope that I soon get to see Wang Bing’s Dead Souls. This is the one film I still want to see this year, if I don’t manage to see more than one. Although I should. There are still two Nikolaus Geyrhalter films waiting for me. So much slowness, so little time. This irony… 🙂 In any case, I need to prepare an article on the uses of sound and silence in the films of Lav Diaz because I have been invited to Lyon for a study day on the director. I might publish this one either here on the blog or in the next issue of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema magazine.
In any case, there is an outstanding project from, believe it or not, seven years ago. In October 2011, I wanted to submit a paper abstract to a conference on landscape and film in Ireland, but had never found the time in the end. At the same, my interest in Slow Cinema was still in its early stages. Nevertheless, I knew that there was a special relationship between the landscapes, the streets, the empty and degrading houses of Béla Tarr and his films’ characters. In many ways, what I have noticed in the films of Tarr only returned once I began to discover the work of Lav Diaz. These two directors are special in their assigning a sort of character status to their landscapes, turning them into ghostly characters that mirror the characters’ inner psychological landscapes; their pain, their angst, their suffering, their devastation.
Anything that surrounds a character becomes a character itself. This isn’t the case with all slow films, so I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is a particular characteristic of Slow Cinema. Béla Tarr, however, used to be one of those few directors who persistently followed this alley and who also assigned a special role to his camera. Everything became a character, everything played a decisive role, and everything added to the heaviness and power of his films. For that conference in Ireland seven years ago, I had planned to look at how the landscape/the surrounding becomes a mirror of the characters’ psyche. In particular, I had wanted to look at Karrer, who is, of course, the main character in Tarr’s Damnation, and at the woman he seems to be infatuated with. I believe that Damnation is really the first vertical, in-depth film, which looked specifically inside the characters. Characters began to have extraordinary depth and were more than just elements used to push a narrative forward.
We just follow the real psychological process, not the story, not the verbal information. … If you have a chance to make some really deep things, I think everyone can understand everything. The question is always the deepness: how you can touch the people. (Béla Tarr)
At the same time, Damnation is perhaps the most obvious example of how directors can use landscape in order to underline the characters, if I could say it in this way. According to interviews, Tarr spends a lot of time looking for the right background to his story. And it pays off. He selects his landscapes carefully, making sure that they’re in perfect alignment with his characters and his stories. The beginning of Damnation is already a good pointer towards this. It is perhaps the most iconic opening of all of Tarr’s films, perhaps even of all slow films (I’m sure you think the same!). We watch cable cars passing by, a remnant of the city’s coal mining past. The sound is perhaps even more incisive. I can still hear it when I think back to the film… The camera slowly, very slowly zooms out and we realise that we don’t actually watch the cable cars, but a man (Karrer) watching the cable cars. We watch someone watching something. This is repeated several times in Tarr’s oeuvre. Just think of his 1994 seven-hour masterpiece Satantango, in which we watch an old doctor watching his neighbours. Bernhard Hetzenhauer wrote a fantastic book about this, Das Innen im Aussen, which, if you can read German, is a must-read.
The cable cars, buckets that used to carry coal from one place to another, are a pointer to the past, the death of the mining industry having plunged the village into its own death spiral. The houses we see are in a sad state. The persistent, continuous rain adds to the atmosphere of something passing by, of something that is clinging on but knowing that it won’t have strength for much longer. The decay of the houses foreshadows the decay of the characters. If anything, it is perhaps the rain that acts as the most faithful interpretation, or rather mirror image, of Karrer who is in love with the wife of another man. He doesn’t accept being rejected and, in the end, loses everything.
Take it or leave it, this is what you’re stuck with. What can you do? You lose your words, yet you cannot go. It’s been over for a long time. It’s good that utopia exists. Good to know I won’t be here for long. Take it or leave it. (song in Damnation)
The identities of landscape and character overlap in Damnation. They merge to become one. When Karrer offers the woman’s husband to do a smuggling job for him in order to get him out of the way, he becomes morally corrupt. He would do anything to be able to continue his love affair. Karrer’s offer shows his own downward spiral, the moral corruption becoming a picture of his internal degradation. Tarr intercuts this degradation with scenes of the village. Damnation is interesting because throughout the film, the focus remains on the actual characters alone. The director presents a village that is pretty much emptied of people. The only constant companion is the rain. This makes is easy to establish a link between the few characters we follow (Karrer, the woman and her husband) and the empty landscapes we see in scenes before or after them. Who is of more importance in the film?
Interestingly enough, there are scenes that question the importance of the characters and which focus more intensively on the landscapes, or the surroundings in general. This is helped with Tarr’s independent camera, independent in the way that it moves wherever it wants without necessarily following a character. There is one scene that makes this absolutely clear. After initially having rejected Karrer’s offer to go out for dinner, the woman allows him into her flat and they have sex. This sequence says more than a thousand words. The camera doesn’t bother much with the couple. It looks around the room, panning slowly and carefully to allow us an in-depth study of the austere flat and the rundown streets outside. The non-passionate and loveless act between the two characters is seemingly unimportant. What matters is the expression of the characters’ inner lovelessness through the expression of an austere mise-en-scène and natural elements like rain that carve deeper and deeper holes into a slowly dying internal and external environment.
Writing on the film Barren Lives by Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Jean -Claude Bernadet suggests that the structure of the film
“is not conditioned by the action of the characters, but rather by nature: it is the rain and the drought that decide the beginning, the middle, and the end of the film.” (in Representing the Rural, p156)
One cannot deny that Tarr follows the same principle in Damnation, perhaps more so than in his other films with the exception of his last film, The Turin Horse. What characters may not be able to express is expressed through their surroundings as metaphors. Tarr’s characters are not easy to read. There is little emotion involved. Everything happens inside them. When Karrer leaves the woman’s flat after they had sex, he doesn’t give any hint as to how he feels. But for once, the rain has stopped. Things brighten up. It is nature that tells us about Karrer’s feelings, not Karrer himself. Tarr makes himself deliberately dependent on nature, on psychologically charged landscapes in order to give his seemingly flat characters an extraordinary depth.
The end of the film is most emblematic of the director’s pursuit of blending characters with their surroundings so that they become one. Over the course of two hours, Karrer slowly disintegrates, as does the village. With nothing left, Karrer becomes no more than a dog, on all fours imitating the stray dog who barks at him, drenched in rain and mud. Damnation is a story about the life of a dog in human disguise, whose mask drops ever so slowly, but continuously, just like the persistent rain slowly but surely swallows the village. It won’t leave any traces, and Karrer, too, will disappear.
A curious title, a provocative message from director John Mark Ostrowski, whose work I came across for the first time during my work on tao films VoD, where we show his previous film Sixty Spanish Cigarettes. The real film is elsewhere, somewhere else, not here, not now. But where?
A female voice introduces the film. She speaks in broken French, seemingly still learning the language. The voice over, animating the black screen, allows for an almost magical journey. Where will this film go? Speaking in metaphors, the woman uses a poetic language to lure us in. She speaks about love, about the sea, her words inviting us to float with her words, which we use to look for meaning; the meaning of her words, the meaning of the film’s title, the meaning of the woman’s memories.
Music sets in. The black screen gives way to a close-up shot of water. Waves push and pull a large flag, entangling it in a swirl of different currents that make it no more than a toy. It’s defenceless, vulnerable to the surrounding forces. Ostrowski cuts the sound of the water, deafening us, disorienting us, but also guiding us with dramatic, yet minimalist music. A foreshadowing of something elsewhere, something to come, or something that has already been. The flag – an important metaphor in the first part of the film, a symbol of belonging, of identification.
We get to know Sofia, the woman whose voice has led us into the film, and Javier, an elderly man, who suffers from a bad cough, who looks poor, but whose words radiate with power. Javier is a philosopher. He carries around a flag that he found in his grandparents’ house. He assumes that his grandparents attached great meaning to this flag, so he kept it. But “My flag, my own flag, I don’t know what it is,” he says. Instead he tells Sofia that everything is the same everywhere, yet one always makes one’s own out of what one loves. The almost intimate, very open conversations between Sofia and Javier are special. They add a counterpoint to the film’s long takes, bring substance to them. “We all come from the same womb. I don’t consider myself white, or black, or yellow. I consider myself human,” Javier says.
Ostrowski surprises when he introduces a third character, Pablo, Javier’s son. Sofia has a lightness to herself that contradicts the seeming heaviness of Javier. The Fisherman’s Guild, where they stay, makes him heavy, makes him suffer. “I can’t breathe. It’s a struggle.” He’s slowly dying, slowly wasting away. His own place, that where he is from, causes pain. It wants him to leave. There is a palpable gentleness between Sofia and Javier, an intimate relationship based on mutual (non-sexual) love. The role of the human soul plays an important role here. Ostrowski is showing soul mates, two people who speak the same universal language.
After Pablo’s unexplained disappearance, the film takes a more sombre tone. The lightness, the philosophy – everything has lost its meaning. Instead, Ostrowski’s film turns into a haunting ghost that weighs heavy on the two characters. There is an attempt at continuing, but one can feel, as a viewer, that something has changed. The film isn’t the same. It is mourning Pablo. It is mourning Sofia. It is mourning Javier. At one point, there is hope. Sofia notes that Pablo had been seen playing the guitar in the streets. We will never know. What we witness instead is the cut of the gentle ties between Sofia and Javier, a birthday present for the latter, heartfelt, but also a farewell gift that bares too heavy on the man who struggles breathing in this damp surrounding in the Fisherman’s Guild. Metaphorically, literally.
What remains in the end are traces; traces of an incredible lightness, of thought-provoking conversations, of two characters that have shared a bond. What remains are the traces of a film. Elsewhere.
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?