One of the defining characteristics of Slow Cinema is that quite a number of films, in particular experimental films, question the difference between photography and cinema. Static art and moving image art interact and create a certain pull that only those films (can) have. At the beginning of 24 Frames, Abbas Kiarostami notes: “I always wonder to what extent the artist aims to depict the reality of a scene. Painters capture only one frame of reality and nothing before or after it.”
Moving images have helped make recorded life more realistic. I believe that almost everyone shares this opinion. Cinema had, originally, been hailed at creating an almost too real version of reality. Cinema had become an extension of photography. It can go further. Just the movement is enough to make us believe that what we see is real, or so it seems. Kiarostami, a photographer and filmmaker, blurred the line in many of his works, and therefore posed questions about the nature of both art forms.
With 24 Frames, the question becomes even more urgent. 24 Frames is not so much a film. It is not photography either. It is a question. 24 questions, to be exact, that make us drift into reverie. Most of Kiarostami’s shots are wintry landscapes, like those of a dream land, a land far away, peaceful, yet menacing. Shots, static, that suggest death, lifelessness, silence, contemplation. But death suggests life. Every death creates life in another way. It’s an eternal cycle. Nothing ever dies completely. And so the scenery, the reveries, beautiful, penetrating like the eyes of family members in photographs from a different epoch, begins to move. Snow is falling. Snowflakes are blown towards us. The wind is howling. Deer are running through a prairie after a shot went off. A shot in the off. Far away, and yet very close. The peaceful scenery is disrupted. The shot irritates, shocks, upsets the stillness. The shock of a shot of a deer is almost traumatising. What has happened?
Is this real? Did we have a nightmare? Is this our unconsciousness speaking? Kiarostami’s world is imaginary. It is a journey, several journeys, triggers that make us think about the nature of an image. 24 Frames creates 24 frames of a shamanic journey you are taking with the director. Crows fill the frames, making one think of Hitchcock perhaps. But Kiarostami is different. This is no threat. Kiarostami’s crow is a spirit animal, a prophecy. Wisdom, transformation, the act of change. It is a mysterious creature which, in almost literal terms, transforms a photograph or a painting into a moving image. The crow makes us question, makes us wonder. It initiates a journey into ourselves.
The sea. Endless, raging, wild. But also cleansing. Kiarostami’s sea is an important destination of his journey into the unconsciousness. Rain is falling, the wind is howling. It is a menacing scenery, yet soothing. The sea – a place without limits, without barriers. A place that frees our mind, that allows us to sink into reverie and to go wherever we want to be. That, too, is a journey. A personal journey to a place where we think we have to be. Our journey becomes our destination.
We travel through memories. Can you remember the day we arrived in Paris? Everyone was there. Grandpa wore his nice suit and his hat. He wanted to put on his best clothes for our trip. Can you remember what’s happened to him?
Static images, Kiarostami said, capture only a frame of reality. 24 Frames is a collection of 24 snippets, of 24 mind images, of 24 destinations on a journey that we’re gently taken on. We look through open windows, open doors. Vast landscapes and the sea are at our finger tips. 24 Frames is an invitation, it is a hand stretched out to us. “Come with me,” the film says. “Let me guide you.” There is no other film whose underlying openness is so vast, so liberating, so fascinating, so personal. The film doesn’t allow refusal. It is there to be journeyed with.
I think (although I could be wrong) that this post is a premiere, as it is probably the first post about a slow film from Chile on this blog. It does make me proud a bit, I have to say, because it means that the site keeps branching out. More discoveries from more countries – this is exactly what I’m aiming for. El cielo, la Tierra y la Lluvia by José Luis Torres Leiva was a good guess after I had read the synopsis, and it turned out to be a wonderful, beautifully shot film that was a pleasure to watch.
What impressed me most about the film where the photographic frames that, at times, took my breath away. And the utter and complete defiance of a three-part narrative arc, with up and downs which would normally keep the viewer going and engaged. The narrative progression is flat, like a flatline on an ECG. Perhaps this describes Leiva’s film best. This isn’t a bad thing at all. In the end, the narrative, the story of depressed characters at the margin of society, fits this flatline rather well. Their lives are mostly uneventful. There is not much happening, except for the usual routine that weighs them down. Ana, one of the main protagonists (whose name we only learn more than one hour into the film), is a good example for this cinematic flatline. We don’t know much about her. The director doesn’t provide us with a background story, nor anything else that would be useful to follow her as a character. She is in the here and now. Neither her past, nor her future really exists. Her life seems to be an eternal present, a present which is dragging on, and drags her with it.
Leiva’s mise-en-scène adds to the idea of a flatline, of being dragged through an endless now, through everlasting difficulties that never seem to end. The film frames are drained of colours. They’re dull, uninviting, a perfect mirror of people’s lives. Some frames are cramped, others empty. Both represent the characters’ minds, full of concerns and worries, empty of hope and a future. There is an interaction between the two extremes that manifests itself in the film’s visuals and character development. Ana works in a shop, uncomfortable with her role. She makes mistakes that lead to her being sacked, dragging her deeper into an economic crisis that defines her life. But this is not all. She looks after her mother, who seems to be paralysed and in need of round-the-clock care. Ana pays an elderly woman to be with her mother for the time she is at the shop. At other times, she administers injections to her, tries to feed her. One can feel that death is coming, and one cannot be sure whether it would lighten the burden for Ana, or whether it would, instead, increase her suffering even more.
Ana and the other characters are floaters. They are caught up in a torrent of problems that life confronts them with. But while floating, they also get drowned here and there. It feels as though life is dragging them to the bottom of the sea while they try to keep their heads above water; economically and mentally. The quietness of the film, the lack of dialogue, reinforces this weight, invisible at times, and yet present. We see mental images, mind images, translated into pictures on a screen. There is longing, there is a desire to break out of this circle. In one scene, Ana stands in front of a window. She has just changed and cleaned her mother’s bed sheets. The bed sheets are hanging outside, in the pouring rain. Ana is inside looking out. We can see her in a mirror image of the glass with the camera’s focus remaining on the bedsheets outdoors. One can sense that Ana wants to break out, but she seems trapped. What can she do?
Even more trapped is another important character, who, to me, actually takes the main role in the film, because she embodies everything that is burdensome, everything that functions as a trap. The young Marta is mute. The director doesn’t even make clear whether she is deaf-mute, or mute. Or why she is mute in the first place. Is it physical or a psychological reaction to a traumatic event? We can only assume. Like Ana, Marta is a character without a history. She simply is. This is the defining characteristic of the film; we see what is, not what has been. We cannot be clear about Ana’s relationship to Marta, nor about anything else. At one point, Ana finds Marta at the seaside, crying. She takes her to her brother, not knowing what went wrong. At another point, Marta attempts to kill herself. She walks into the sea and hopes that the waves sweep her away. She is saved. Drenched to the bones, Ana and her friend drive her home, silent. What happened, is not spoken about. Silence is deafening, silence is muting.
Marta appears to be the one character who takes action to break out. She does so in a violent way, but she no longer seems to be capable of bearing the weight of life. She takes action, no longer accepts being passive. Towards the end of the film, she disappears. Whether she has finally succeeded in killing herself – the director leaves it open. Ana and her friend search for Marta, but without success. Has Marta succeeded in breaking out? Is she now at a better place? Ana’s mother is. While Ana stays at Toro’s, where she has been working as a housemaid since she got fired at the shop, her mother, alone at night, dies. The director doesn’t comment on this death. Like Marta, Ana’s mother simply disappears. Is her death Ana’s fault? Is her absence the cause of her mother’s death? What did the mother go through while alone? No answer is given. The director records. He doesn’t answer. He triggers questions, but doesn’t help us finding an answer.
It is only then that Ana, whose facial expressions hardly change throughout the film, breaks down. The weight is too much. She can no longer bear it and seemingly falls apart in Toro’s arms. The camera, in smooth movements, then follows her walking along a wooden path. But rather than following her right up to the end, the camera abandons her, like everything else around her in life. The camera pans further and further, getting embalmed by trees, repeating in some ways the second scene at the beginning of the film. There is a degree of smoothness, a certain degree of peace in this long-take which wants to bring closure to what we have seen. But it cannot hide the fact that there is no closure. This would mean that the film’s characters have access to a past, to a future, but they don’t. They continue to hoover in the present, in the now, drowning in their unsolved daily problems all the while trying to keep their heads above water. Life continues for them, in a flat line.
It’s been several years that I dream of publishing my own journal. I was still a student when I began to think about pursuing this because I was frustrated at being rejected because my subject matter didn’t seem to fit anywhere. Things have changed lot, though, since the idea first popped into my head, although I can say for sure that it has never disappeared. Over the years, my blog has become the most visited site in the area of Slow Cinema. I have readers from all corners of the world (except for Greenland, which I find very sad), and I have gotten to know a lot of wonderful people because of my writing. I have gotten to know filmmakers, cinephiles, but I also came across new films thanks to my readers. In the last five years, I have been able to build a network of people whose interest and thirst for Slow Cinema I’m happy to cater for, and who, at the same time, taught me a lot; about cinema, about writing, about confidence, about myself.
It is thanks to Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais that I’m returning to my idea of publishing a journal. When I held their FilmPanic magazine in my hands, I could no longer shake off this thought. I could no longer ignore it for another couple of years. My guts told me that now was the time. Why is that? Because I feel that this would be the right step forwards; expanding on the blog; inviting other contributors, whom I always rejected because the blog was supposed to be my personal platform on which I developed my own ideas; creating a new challenge for myself; challenging academia and its published content on Slow Cinema.
The Art(s) of Slow Cinema has already given birth to tao films, my video-on-demand platform for contemplative world cinema. The platform went live on 1 January 2017, and after a few adjustments (learning by doing!), we’re now offering a growing catalogue of fiction films, documentaries and experimental cinema. Every month, more films are added and you can either buy the films individually, or you can get yourself a 30-day subscription, which will not be renewed automatically. We’re fair and don’t want to cash in on people’s forgetfulness on having subs with several platforms. So, in case you haven’t yet been aware of this project, you should definitely check it out, because we show films that are difficult to get hold of, or are, in most cases, available exclusively on tao.
The Art(s) of Slow Cinema journal, whose publication in the near future I’m herewith announcing (you should imagine me dance while writing this!), is another step forward, another attempt at expanding on the work I have already done, and at creating alternative content in the context of Slow Cinema. I will take it slow, of course, and start small. There won’t be a fancy design, there won’t be glossy paper, or a team of editors trying to think of what’s best to publish. What this journal will be instead is a space for those interested in the field to publish their ideas and thoughts. The journal will develop as freely as it can, without word limits etc which always inhibit a real development of great ideas. Just as I listen to the filmmakers, who release their films through tao films, I’ll listen to the writers of The Art(s) of Slow Cinema journal and accompany them as best as I can. So what can you expect if not the glossy stuff or a perfectly designed, expensive magazine?
You’ll be able to read exclusive content that you wouldn’t find here on this blog. There will be interviews with filmmakers. There will be filmmaker notes, essays by filmmakers, diaries about their shootings. There will be essays by cinephiles, who have a special interest in Slow Cinema and who love to explore certain themes in more detail in their writing. There will be creative responses to films. There will be a whole lot that you will never find either here or in academic writing. It’ll be a sort of fan journal, if you want to call it this way, albeit this might sound too cheesy and boring.
The first authors have been selected, and they’re working on their respective pieces until the beginning of July. I’m really looking forward to this and feel super excited to take this step this year, as, yes, the first edition will be published this year. Magazines will be available via pre-order only in order to create a sustainable project that does not become a financial burden. I don’t want to prep 1,000 copies if only 100 people want to read it. I don’t have a fireplace where I can burn the rest to heat the house 😀 Nowadays, we need to be reasonable and while I would love to go full-blow on this, I want to do this right, that means careful, thought-through, with the aim to grow if necessary and possible.
Details about the content of the first edition and the pre-order price will be published in due course. I need to collect the articles first and then I can give you an update on everything. Let’s make this happen and please share the slow love! Thank you!
It is 8.30 in the evening. It is dark and wet, although it has stopped raining for a little while. I’m at the RSPB reserve in Loch Lomond, Scotland, and embark on a journey through the reserve. My way is lined on both sides with candlelights, guiding me in my way through the reserve. It is pitch black and the rain slowly begins to fall again. The atmosphere is stunning. I can barely see something but my ears listen to every sounds that comes out of the darkness around me. Not out of fear. It is an engaged and curious listening to nature. It is about being present, which, in some cases, only our ears can make possible. It is our ears that have first become deaf as a result of the drastic change towards a speedier life. It is the ears that have lost most of their real value nowadays, filtering even more than do our eyes. Our ears are confronted with noise all the time, overpowering noise that silences the natural world around us. It takes will and effort not only to listen but also to actually hear (which somehow makes me think of Chantal Akerman’s thoughts on “seeing” and “actually seeing”).
I did listen, and I did hear on 21 October, when I saw Susannah’ Ramsay’s new film poem The Essence of Place, a work that was directly connected to the place it was shown at. Shot at the RSPB reserve it was also shown there, under the night sky, on a huge screen. A walk through the pitch black night allowed for a real sense of the surrounding nature, of life embalming us, of the preciousness that we’re no longer aware of. It was impossible to walk speedily towards the screen; the darkness robbed you of your vision. You had to be careful, attentive to what was around you. Darkness, especially the pitch-black night, is an invitation to slow down. Perhaps it is a demand, a request that cannot be turned down. Slowing down is a must, and is rewarded by a beautiful auditory perception of life around you.
“This is where I am. My body is inscribed in the contours of this landscape… Contemplation, nature’s secret language… I remember those need for words that sorrow brought and left with it long spells of nothing.”
After a walk through the darkness, one begins to see the contours of a huge screen at the horizon. The soundtrack of the film becomes audible. One is almost drawn to the light of the screen, like a moth that is attracted to the light in the pitch-black night. Ramsay’s The Essence of Place plays on a screen that is surrounded only by the vastness of the reserve. It is a short film/poem that beautifully captures – in writing and in image – the simple and beautiful wonders of nature, wonders we have come to forget. In her work, Ramsay demonstrates quite literally what the title of her film suggests: the essence of place. It is a phenomenological thought and conviction, the idea of watching Ramsay’s images at the exact same place where they have been shot. The viewer, the viewed, and the place become one; a sort of symbiosis actually in which we become aware of our relationship to one another and the ways in which our behaviour affects the other. It is awareness that Ramsay’s film instills, from the beginning of your walk through the reserve to the very end. It is awareness that is now more important than ever, and it is awareness that takes time to develop.
“I walked past your footprints again today. I still didn’t hear your voice. Here is where I am, consoled by the beautiful wonder of nature.”
The film, or rather the film experience, made me reflect about the importance of place in the context of film viewing. I said several times on this blog that a place (or space) influences the way we approach a moving image piece. We have expectations when we go into the cinema, and we also have specific expectations when we go into a gallery to see a video installation. Those expectations differ greatly, and it is the place/space that can also influence our perception of whether a film is “good” or “bad”. It is well known nowadays that slow films as shown in a cinema usually lead to walkouts. The cinema as an institution has, in its history, not been a place that invited contemplation. The cinema is a place for entertainment that tends to come with fast cuts. Now, slowness in a gallery is perfectly acceptable because we have come to accept that in a gallery one usually contemplates pieces of art anyway, so if you were to add a slow film into this mix it wouldn’t really upset your expectations. Ramsay goes even further, however, by showing her film outside, in nature, the same nature we see in the film. So where does this position the viewer? How does she position the viewer, and in what way is there an active rather than a passive spectatorship? Lots to think about!
It was in the French national paper Libération that I first came across the work of Annik Leroy. I added a note to myself and thought I really needed to get my hands on her work. Her latest film Tremor – Es ist immer Krieg is my first Leroy film, and I found it magnificent, embalming, haunting. I’m not even sure where to start with this film. It contains so much I’d like to talk about. At the same time, I’d like for the images to linger a bit longer before I try to explain them with words. So we will see where this post will take me and you.
Even though I cannot confirm it for the rest of her filmography as yet, Leroy is known for her meditative films, to which Tremor is not an exception. It starts off with a mind-boggling image that makes one wonder where one is positioned. Where is top, where is bottom? Is the camera tilted, or is it just an illusion? The first image is, I believe a mountain range, perhaps a volcano, but shot with a camera that lays on its side. The sky is to our right and not above us. This disorientation through illusions is one of the main characteristics of Leroy’s film. There are several scenes such as the one I have just described, albeit some of them are much more straight forward.
I love the simplicity of it; a camera on its side, on the ground, recording a lonely tree in a wide field. It’s disorientating, and yet you know what you see. This curious discrepancy keeps one engaged, it keeps one in wonder perhaps, even more so when Leroy turns the camera on its head. We’re on a boat, but the sky is beneath our feet, the water above our head. It’s the opposite of freedom. We have eternity beneath us, but above us…it feels limited somehow. Even though water can have a seemingly endless depth, Leroy’s shot suggests otherwise. It’s more like positioning us like a balloon (as my husband noted) that is stuck at a ceiling, that wants to go further but cannot do so. Leroy keeps us in chains, so to speak, which fits well with the subject of her film.
That said, it’s perhaps not easy to pinpoint a single subject in the film. I believe that Tremor is multilayered, although the focus is history, history of Europe, of art. But it’s also about brutality and violence, about emptiness. Tremor doesn’t contain dialogue, it is a chain of monologues, of book readings in part. Only at the end of the film do we know to whom the voices that accompany us belong.
“We all hate the power we endure. It manipulates us and creates false values.”
“Fascism doesn’t start with the first bombs you drop, or with the terror that one can write about in the papers. Fascism starts with the relationship between people.”
It’s quotes like these that give extraordinary weight to Leroy’s frames, long takes of empty places, ruins, rundown areas.The use of black-and-white and the stillness that prevails in many shots add to the power of the film. Especially the first half of the film is void of people, it feels almost apocalyptic, enhanced by quotes from artists and madmen that makes one think. Tremor is a thinking piece; it is not only a film that forces one to think, it is thinking itself. Yes, there are some films that demand a return to Daniel Frampton’s wonderful book Filmosophy, and I feel as though Tremor is one of those. I never had the feeling that there was a director, if anything the director might have just been a guidance to the film’s development but the film progressed in a way that was natural to itself. It took the director on a journey, not necessarily the other way around.
Tremor couldn’t be more topical and I think that the film was released just at the right time, the world being in tatters due to inexplicable decisions on the world stage of politics. The sound design of Leroy’s film is somewhat ominous regarding this and the monologues we hear: sirens of ambulances; helicopters above our head but we just cannot see them. Are these warning signs? Warning signs of what is to come? Warning signs of our madness? I should try to see the film a second time in order to be able to grasp the full power of Leroy’s cinematic creation.
If you hear people speaking about Slow Cinema, or see lists of films that are usually considered to be part of this genre or this movement (whatever it is), then you will hear or see the name of Wang Bing and his exceptional film Tie XI Qu (West of the Tracks). With a running-time of nine hours, it’s not his longest documentary. Crude Oil tops this with an extra five hours. If there is something that characterises Wang Bing’s films, and this can be partly seen in the lengths of his films, is that he spends a lot of time with the people he films.
West of the Tracks is a cinematic document about the collapse of the industrial complex Tie Xi Qu at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. Filmed between 1999 and 2001, Wang Bing follows the lives and work of primarily temporary workers at factories that will close in the near future. In several segments we are told by the workers that all permanent, full-time employees have already left the factories because they were no longer being paid. What remains are groups of temporary workers, here and there. Spectres. Just like the run-down, half-empty, half-demolished parts of the factories. Wang Bing’s film is a film about absence-in-the-making. Until the end of the 1990s, over 50,000 people had been employed there. Tie Xi is both workplace and living space. Both are disappearing in front of our eyes, and so are the people.
Rust, Remnants, and Rails – the three parts of the film – each focus on their own little cosmos, each part tying the knots a bit tighter on the people who try to make a living, or to simply survive. Rust is the longest part of the film and divided into two parts. The part’s four hours running time takes us through the happenings of a smelting plant, an electric cable factory, and a sheet metal factory. This part, in particular, defies the usual characterisation of a slow film being quiet and peaceful. Wang Bing’s film is anything but. If there is one thing that stood out for me personally, it is the sound track. There is a constant noise in the background. The noise in the factories is almost deafening. Only the electric cable is a bit of a respite to what Rust usually shows us. The colours are mysterious, and, partly, reminded me of Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead, which I reviewed on this blog a little while ago.
Rust is about the factories themselves. Wang Bing follows the workers in several scenes, but the focus remains persistently on the factories, which we enter and exit via lengthy train journeys with the camera attached to the front of a train. These journeys made me think of the first traveling shot in cinema; a hallucinatory journey through empty places and a sort of symbol of Wang Bing’s film. The director records the men at work, revealing the disregard of any safety procedures. Money is what counts. The workers have no value unless they create (monetary) value. Their health and their safety count for nothing. Rust is a document of capitalist exploitation, taking place in a communist country that refuses to acknowledge publicly that it, too, has been seduced by the ideas of capitalism and consumerism, and that their people have to suffer as a result.
West of the Tracks wasn’t made with official blessing. It was shot clandestinely, helped by a small digital camera the director used. This film wouldn’t have made it past the state censorship, like all of Wang Bing’s films. He films what doesn’t exist officially. He writes the stories that have officially never happened. He films the flip side of the country’s enormous boom: the extreme poverty of parts of the population, the exploitation of the workforce in absolute disregard of their health and safety, the rehousing of people against their will, the frank neglect of everyone who does not belong to the top 1%.
Remnants and Rails show all of this in poignant ways. Remnant is set in Rainbow Row, the housing complex that is part of Tie Xi. In contrast to the first part of the film, Remnants is a more intimate portrait of the people who suffer from the collapse of Tie Xi. This is no longer just about the workers, but about their families. Rainbow Row is destined for demolition. The people are promised a new house if they sign up for it by a certain date. Several of the people we see in the film, however, refuse to do so, and risk being homeless once Rainbow Row is getting demolished. What becomes clear in the discussions between the people, which primarily take place in the local shop – a sort of gathering point for them because it has everything, even a telephone – is that the local councils attempt to trick the people, drastically reducing the amount of compensation they will pay to those who lose their jobs or giving them a much smaller flat which does not offer enough space for a family. As a result, some people refuse to leave their house, a protest that leads to their being cut off from electricity in November 2000.
In some ways, Remnants is a look into the future, albeit it is set in the present. Wang Bing focuses primarily on a group of youngsters, amongst them Bobo and Whitey. They’re roaming the streets, speaking about their love interests or about their goals in life (“We’re the same”, says Bobo, “we have no goals.”). I remember one man being worried about his son. He himself doesn’t have proper education, nor does his son. Everything around them is collapsing, and it’s unlikely that his son will have it any better in future. It might as well get worse. Part of this collapse is also the collapse of the human being. The mother of Wang Zhen is diagnosed with cancer. The mood is sombre, and continuously drops throughout the rest of the film. She’s getting treatment and her hair fall out. She shows this to someone in the streets. Wang Bing keeps recording, offering no comment. We’re left with this tragic image. Remnants ends quietly, and as a complete contrast to Rust. It is quiet, almost peaceful, perhaps dead. The majority of Rainbow Row has been demolished. A few people are still living in the area, amongst rubbles, without water or electricity. “Fuck,” an old man says. “It’s as if everyone has died.”
As was the case in the first part of West of the Tracks, Wang Bing often travels by train in the third chapter of the film, aptly called Rails. Even though he depicts a group of workers again, Rails becomes the tragic ending of what we have seen before. The emphasis is placed on old Lao Du and his son, Du Yang. Lao Du has been working on the railways for over 20 years, but he was never employed. He made a living by selling whatever he could find in the complex. “It’s not easy with children,” he says. His wife left him. One of his sons works in a restaurant. The second son is still living with him. The pressure, the stress, the fear of losing everything is drowning him. One day, Lao Du is arrested, and it is not clear when he would return. At the same time, Du Yang, the son, is informed about the demolition of their place. Alone in the small house, he shows Wang Bing photographs of his family and begins to cry when he sees pictures of his mother.
The director’s focus on Du Yang is poignant. Wang Bing stays with him, recording this microcosmos of the collapse of Tie Xi. When Yang’s father is released, Yang appears to suffer a complete mental collapse in a restaurant where he is eating with his father. He cries, he shouts, he seems to have trouble to coordinate himself, he even hits his father several times. What has happened over the years was too much for him. He could take no more. Du Yang becomes the tragic figure of West of the Tracks, a young man, who inhabits the collapse of everything around him.
West of the Tracks is a long and slow film, but the collapse of Tie Xi Du happened very quickly. In the matter of two years, people lost everything they ever possessed. Without Wang Bing, this part of China’s recent past would not have been written. It would have become part of the several other histories that disappeared into oblivion because it wouldn’t be right to acknowledge failure and exploitation. It just doesn’t fit into this image of a rising, prosperous and successful country. As he would do four years later with Fengming – A Chinese Memoir(2009), Wang Bing uses the camera not only to record history, or rather history-in-the-making, but to write history. West of the Tracks is a cinematic document that, despite its running time, needs to be seen. It is not a beautiful film. You will look for beautiful frames in vain. It’s an ugly film, it is not aesthetically pleasing. But neither is the subject matter. What Wang Bing shows shouldn’t and cannot be made aesthetically pleasing. It’s a simple document that asks to be taken as it is; raw, brutal, ugly.
Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007) impressed me with its images that had been shot at night. The almost complete blackness of the night, seen through the eyes of a watchman in his tower at a harbour, was stunning. Most of the film is set in one way or another in the darkness of the night. It has something uncomfortable around it, something mysterious. The night is a time of disguise. It’s not just people who want to disguise who they really are. It’s also trees, bushes, buildings – everything around us looks different than during the day.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 2010, also has extensive night scenes. These are the scenes when mysterious figures appear, ghosts, people who return from the afterlife in order to connect with loved ones they had left behind when they died. The night is a time when the living and the dead come together. Ghosts can only be seen at night.
Horse Money, the latest film by Pedro Costa, is an investigation of memory and trauma. A lot of the film is set in the dark, which stands for the uncertainty about memories. The darkness doesn’t allow to see clearly; memories are everything but clear. It takes a journey through this darkness in order to see clearly, if one can manage at all.
Quite a number of slow films make use of the night. I only realised this when I read a new book, which has just been released earlier this year, and which I picked up in our local book shop in preparation for an installation event I’m working on. It is difficult to think about the night nowadays. There are lights everywhere. Unless you live in the countryside, far away from civilisation, there is a chance that you have difficulties seeing the night as what it is, namely as dark time which embalms you. What I never realised until I had picked up La nuit : Vivre sans témoin by Michael Foessel is that the night / the darkness has a significant influence on how we perceive time, and this might be quite a fascinating aspect to follow when it comes to Slow Cinema. In many action films, the night is used for chases, for police operations, for illegal deeds.
In slow films, the meaning of the night is, in most cases, quite different, as the above examples show, albeit Tarr’s film is based on a crime the watchman watches at the beginning of the film. Nevertheless, the night then becomes something else.
Penser la nuit, c’est penser la manière dont l’obscurité change notre perception, transforme notre rapport aux autres ou modifie notre expérience du temps.
Foessel makes very clear throughout his book that the night changes our perception. The darkness we’re surrounded by makes it at times difficult to see. Let’s take a journey through the woods, for instance. No street lamps, no torch. Just you and the woods. This might be an extreme example. However, it best illustrates Foessel’s point: our perception changes and because of that, our sense of time changes, too. Why is that the case? There is no clarity in our vision. We cannot see details. If at all, we can see no more than silhouettes. This ultimately means that we have to walk slower in order to make our way through the woods. It’s not just our walk that slows down, though. For many people, being alone in the woods at night is a scary thing. You need to be on alert at all times in order not to become the victim of wild animals. Time stretches. The night feels so much longer than it usually does when you go to bed at 10pm and wake up at 7am.
La nuit impose cette suspension au moins le temps nécessaire pour reconnaître une forme ou distinguer un visage.
The lack of clarity, of visibility, means that we need more time in order to identify what is in front of us. We’re not entirely blind, yet our vision is restricted. While we have no problem at all to see during day time, the night challenges our eyes, and slows us down. We depend more on our hearing than on our vision, because we have no other choice.
I don’t want to suggest at all that slow-film directors use the night in their films for exactly those reasons. I’m sure they don’t think about stuff like that at all. But there is quite an interesting link between the meaning of the night in their films, and the cinematic slowness that is employed. In the end, it is not only the character that faces the darkness. If the screen goes dark, the viewer faces the same darkness as does the character. That means that our reading of whatever is on screen (or of what isn’t) becomes a slow adventure and adds to the feeling of slowness of the entire film. I will certainly keep thinking this through and maybe follow this blog post up with another one, one that is more detailed!
Yesterday evening, the Norwegian TV channel NRK, known for its Slow TV broadcasts such as Bergensbanen (a seven hour train journey across the country) and Hurtigruten (a 134 hour journey along the Norwegian coast), has started a new show. There is something about Sakte-TV, the Norwegian term for Slow TV, and movement, journeys, a voyage across a given territory. Reinflytting is a week-long broadcast which takes us on a journey with reindeer from their winter to their summer pastures.
It’s been an exceptionally beautiful and slow start last night, the sun setting slowly and the reindeer moving across vast landscapes. They have been in the same location for over fifteen hours in order to rest and to eat. But they are expected to move further towards their destination later today. I strongly advise you to tune in, which you can do without problems through the programme’s dedicated website (this way please). Below are some screen grabs to give you a taster. It’s well worth seeing. Let me know in the comments what you think of the programme 🙂
Three months ago, I have moved to Brittany after two pretty depressing years in the north of France. Now that the stressful study time (PhD time) is over, I’m trying to take a lot more time for me and my natural surrounding. My new home is a two to three minute walk away from a canal where you can have a daily walk and watch the ducks making their way to whatever place they would like to go. A five minute walk away is a prairie, a sort of wild place; lots of trees, bushes, birds and even rabbits! If the weather allows it, I’ll make sure to walk through this peaceful place, a place where I can breathe, where I can think or not think, where I can just be.
Now, why am I telling you all this, you might wonder. When I walk through the prairie, I’m always thinking of Martynas Kundrotas’ Wanderer, a simple short film about a young wanderer roaming about in nature. I agree, it doesn’t sound like the most spectacular film, and it is, in fact, the least spectacular film I have offered on tao films so far. I have programmed it nevertheless, because I think that Kundrotas’ Wanderer is the closest a slow film comes to what I think some slow film directors want to achieve: bring us, disconnected as we are from our natural surrounding, back to our environment.
I believe that we have lost touch with nature. If anything, we think we’re the master of nature, which is also shown in Western painting. I spoke about Chinese painting on this blog before and how Chinese painters painted Man always in a sort of miniature size in order to show that nature is more powerful, more forceful. The size of humans in Western painting is an indication of what we think of ourselves: we’re the crowning glory, we have the power to control nature. Indeed, our relationship to nature is one of control, power and exploitation. We straighten rivers; we hunt animals just for the fun of it; we cut down trees because they’re in our way; we exploit our natural resources in order to live in luxury. If we do walk through a park here and there, it is only to walk through. It’s usually not in order to stop and look at trees, grass, or flowers.
Looking at the bark of a tree, for longer than a second, as does Kundrotas’ wanderer, is the opposite of our terribly fast life. We need an adrenaline kick nowadays in order to feel alive, and the bark of a tree is everything but. However, the more time you spend looking, the more you see. There is so much life, a life that runs parallel to others, but a life which we aren’t aware of, because we don’t take the time to become aware of it in the first place.
Kundrota’s wanderer roams through fields, touching the grass. He stands at a riverbed in the rain, seemingly enjoying every drop that falls from the sky. While we would open our umbrellas or run for cover, the wanderer remains at one with nature. Water, precious source of life, is something else we merely use without being aware of the meaning of it for us. We have become ignorant, blind, and numb, and Kundrotas attempts to rectify this. Wanderer is not a film that seeks to teach. Rather, in simple, unspectacular frames, the director tries to raise awareness; awareness of what what is around us, awareness of what we no longer see.
He very much follows Chantal Akerman’s mantra, which I described last week. In order to see, you need to look for longer than a few seconds. Seeing means more than recognising. It means getting to know, it means letting oneself drift off maybe for a chance to learn something new. It is entirely up to you whether you take the journey with the wanderer or whether you dismiss the reality of what nature really is and what it means to us, to our presence, and that, without it, we wouldn’t be here.
In the last fortnight or so, I have read two books by Chantal Akerman. One of them, Autoportrait en cinéaste, is, in fact, a sort of exhibition catalogue, published at the occasion of a retrospective dedicated to her work at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2003. This isn’t the usual catalogue, however. Akerman has written most of the book herself. It is personal, and only in parts about her films or her filmmaking. More evident, to me, is the insight into the director’s troubled mental health and her continuous suffering. This becomes the driving force in her 2013 book Ma mère rit, which makes you feel that in those ten years, between one book and another, a lot seems to have changed.
In a way, both books are speaking about the ordinary. There is as little happening as in slow films. Neither has a narrative with an intro, a middle and an end. Ma mère rit even less so than Autoportrait, the former, if I read this correctly, seemingly jumping between different phases of her life without indicating which year it was, without clarifying who said certain things (she uses dialogues, in a way, but without indicating that something is a dialogue and without indicating who the protagonists are, though it’s most often her and another person).
I began to think whether the style in Ma mère rit was representative of her state of mind, sort of jumping from one place to another, speedily, while at the same time being exhausted. So often does she mention her “maladie”, her (mental) illness, that I sometimes cringed. It is, of course, now with hindsight that I was reading this book, knowing that she killed herself in autumn 2015. The book is more personal than Autoportrait. It is very much about her family, specifically about her relationship to her mother, very much in the context of her mother’s accident and her subsequent stay at hospital and her suffering at old age. Trauma is present on almost every page, though you have to read between the lines. And sadly, she does announce her suicide in that book, a death that shocked the world of cinema in 2015.
J’ai survécu à tout jusqu’à présent et j’ai souvent eu envie de me suicider. Mais je me disais je ne peux pas faire ça à ma mère. Après, quand elle ne sera plus là.
But I would like to go into more detail here about Autoportrait which is, while personal, an important read because it contains material on how Akerman thought about film. I think what struck me was the following:
Le livre avait et a sans doute toujours plus d’importance pour moi que le cinéma.
If you read her own writing, you do not get the feeling that she is a passionate filmmaker. In fact, if this was indeed the case, Akerman showed throughout her oeuvre that you don’t have to be passionate in order to make good films. You need ideas, first of all, and she had plenty of those. But yes, it feels odd (primarily because we don’t expect it) if a filmmaker says that the book, that literature, always had and still has more value than film. I don’t think she explains why this is the case, but it is interesting for us to think about. It is true, for me, that literature can give you something film cannot. Most evident to me is that you have to imagine the story you read, the characters, the natural environment, everything. In film, these things are given. Unless you have a striking experimental film, there is, usually, not much left for imagination. Another point about literature is that you have time… Just as Lav Diaz said once, novels can be 900 pages without anyone complaining, but long films are not acceptable. Because books can have any length, you, as the author, can go into as much detail as you want. You have time and space, and so does the reader. Slow films are a beginning, they’re an attempt to rectify this, and I believe Akerman’s https://partenaires.amazon.fr/home/productlinks/customize?asin=B000NDDTCA&request_source=quicklinks&subflow=sp_ shows this best.
The issue of time in film does pop up, in fact, a few pages after Akerman’s argument about literature.
Une rue longtemps. Ou un arbre. Mais pourquoi longtemps et par rapport à quoi et puis c’est quoi longtemps? C’est plus que pas longtemps de tout façon. En tout cas, c’est plus longtemps que pour informer. En une seconde ou deux, on reconnaît une rue, un arbre. Donc, longtemps, cela peut être plus que le temps de le reconnaissance. Cela peut être le temps de la connaissance, enfin d’un peu de connaissance comme d’un peu de vérité.
In her usually, dry funny style, Akerman says that “long” is certainly longer than not long. So, if someone ever asks you, there you have it! But she elaborates on this, to be fair. She argues that “long” means that a filmmaker spends more time on something that would be dedicated to that something if the filmmaker merely wanted to inform his/her audience. What length suggests is that a filmmaker wants the viewer not just to recognise, to notice something, but to get to know it.
She also suggests that waiting for the next (long) take means to live, to feel that one exists. Time, for Akerman, is not only part of a film. It is also part of the viewer. To me, this was clearest in her film From the East. Even though Akerman is using a moving camera, she gave us time to see, another important aspect of her filmmaking.
Regarder est-ce la même que voir, non. Il faut regarder pendant combien de temps pour avoir vu et vu quoi.
To look is not the same as to see. One must look for a long time in order to see. Slow films follow this mantra, especially those films with very few characters and almost empty frames. Static cameras also support the idea of looking in order to see. I think that this single, and, in fact, simple Akerman quote sums up the nature of slow films.
Her death is a big loss for all of us, for film, for filmmaking. However, behind the genius of this “sad clown”, as she had been described by some, there was so much trouble, so much suffering, so many problems, fears, anxieties that no one saw, as the books, especially Ma mère rit, show. But her legacy will remain for as long as we want it to remain.