Almost There – Jacqueline Zünd (2016)

A caravan in the centre of the frame. An empty parking lot. The caravan neatly divides the frame into two equal parts. It’s a beautiful shot that, despite a faint male voice in the off, sets the tone for themes of loneliness, emptiness but also will and resilience. “Employees form a group. Overnight you become an individual,” a Japanese retiree tells us. Jacqueline Zünd, following three men in the US, in Europe and in Japan through a life-changing situation, proves herself to be a quiet but detailed observer, letting images rest, letting them breathe and wash at our shores.

Bob Pearson is a 50+ man, single. His ex-girlfriend pushed him to do something with the rest of his life. He became aware that he could die any day, and that there might not be a tomorrow. The camper van tour they had planned together has turned into a one-man show, just like the nightly stand-up show Steve puts on in Spain after having left a life of lies about his sexuality behind in England. Yamada, acknowledging that he had been married to his job, struggles to be “an individual”, struggles not to be part of a strictly formed hierarchy that his job had given him. He’s retired, now what?

Each one of those three men has a particular personality, a particular nature. They seem to be different types, but all three share one thing: they started anew. They changed their lives, their lives needed to change. Something in them pushed them towards taking the jump, the jump into the cold water of trying something new, facing the unknown. “If I want to do something, I want to do it now,” says Bob. Almost There is intrinsically tied to the process of ageing, of our having to face the reality of death, all the while trying to push it aside, push it further away, one more day, one more week. Maybe if I did this or that, I could say that I had a more meaningful life? Maybe I didn’t take enough risks, risks I could take now? 

Of course, the real protagonist is time. It’s not only the process of ageing that makes the forward progression of time evident. There is also a fascinating push-and-pull between stillness and movement, between a stop and a forward jump. Zünd follows Bob on his journey with his camper van, more on the move than standing still. At times, he sits in a bar to have a drink, at others he gets a quick hair cut. Apart from those brief moments, Bob’s life feels like being constantly on the move. “I’m always scared,” he says at some point. He seems a lonely person. Zünd breaks her aesthetics, almost brutally, in order to insert family photographs of Bob, at a time he was younger. He had never been a particularly happy child, nor a particularly sad one. And yet, it becomes evident that he seeks solitude. He wishes for company here and there, but one gets the feeling that this coat of solitude seems to suit him well.

It is here, again, that time becomes the main force. As it does with Yamada. Shortly after his retirement, he didn’t know how to handle his “new life”. He struggled to fill his time, but, after a friend suggested it, he began to read to children. Zünd follows him on his journey, a particularly touching one, I found, one in which a father admits that he had never done anything for his children and that now he seeks to rectify the wrongs he had done. He’s making amends. He uses the time he has left to make up for the time he has already spent. Interestingly, Yamada’s film segments are a pool of stillness as opposed to the segments of Bob and Steve. At the end of the film, it feels as though only he has managed to find his place, his role in this new life of his.

This is different with Steve. Zünd follows him through the streets in Blackpool (me thinks!) and Benidorm in Spain. Zünd’s frames are beautiful, painterly almost. They’re frames worth printing. They put the film characters in an extraordinarily expressive surrounding that makes them appear small but dominant at the same time. They seem lost, but also in control. As Steve says towards the end of the film, he wasn’t sad or angry. If you were to feel this, you would be lost in the world. While Zünd’s frames, and her almost continuous music does make one feel sad for the characters – so much that I did have watery eyes at some point – there is a fascinating, opposing optimism in the film. It’s a sort of optimism that does not express itself through the film’s aesthetics. It opposes it. It does not openly embrace it.

It’s this specific clash that makes Zünd’s Almost There a gorgeous, a powerful, a deeply moving piece. I saw it for the first time two years ago, and it didn’t let me go. Zünd’s images have haunted me until today, and it’s not only the images that stayed with me. The film is telling a simple story about life, a universal story, but a story that we tend to push away: we’re ageing, we’re inevitably walking towards death. During my PhD research I came across the concept of TMT, Trauma Management Therapy. It’s said that we are naturally afraid of death, daily. But we do everything to keep this in check. One way of doing this is seeking something that would make us immortal in one way or another, to achieve something. I think that Zünd’s Almost There is a good demonstration of this, specially prominent in the story of Yamada, whose reading, we feel, will make him immortal, if only, perhaps, to the school children.

Almost there. Where? Zünd, I believe, brings us closer to ourselves. Ourselves as humans. The characters seem specific, but they speak from their souls, our souls. The film is human, and I’m not sure if I can name a more human film, a more down-to-earth human film that is this powerful. It is perhaps one of the best films of all time for me personally, and an absolute must-see, especially for those who love contemplative cinema. 

Uzak – Nuri Bilge Ceylan (2002)

One of the three films I recently bought with the support of my patrons is Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak, a film from 2002 and, even though not his first film, possibly the first well-known film of the Turkish director from Istanbul. It’s my third film by the director. After I had seen his latest film Winter Sleep, I really wanted to see more. I was curious to see the director’s development over almost two decades of filmmaking. Uzak was the beginning of my starting to watch Ceylan’s films chronologically. Let’s see what I will find!

The story of Uzak is quickly told: Yusuf, a rather uneducated factory worker, travels to Istanbul to stay with his cousin Mahmut while looking for a job as a sailor. Things are not going to plan, however, and Yusuf prefers following a woman around the city rather than look for a job. He lacks motivation but so does Mahmut. The two couldn’t be more different, more distant. I return to the meaning of distance further below, because it is multi-layered and speaks volumes.

As is the case in Winter Sleep, Ceylan’s 2014 film about the divide between rich and poor, and an investigation of power, Ceylan’s outdoor shots in Uzak are gorgeous. In Uzak, the director plays with different lenses, similar to Alexandr Sokurov (Mother and SonFaust). Ceylan doesn’t go as far as using mirrors, however. Rather, he uses painted lenses (or maybe even broken lenses?). In one scene, the top half of the frame is tainted in a very slight brownish colour, something that visualises the weight felt by Mahmut and Yusuf. It’s also a weight that comes from nature; the heavy, endless snow weighs down on the trees. The film feel claustrophobic throughout the 100 odd minutes with the exception of an outdoor scene in Anatolia. There doesn’t seem to be breathing space, neither for us nor the characters. Ceylan’s experimentation with lenses work well here because they reinforce this idea of claustrophobia, of weight, of heaviness, precisely because Ceylan positions the extra layer of light brown at the top of the frame.

In my head, I returned time and again to Winter Sleep, noticing the similarities Ceylan has kept up over the years. The use of snow is only one of many things. Ceylan uses it effectively to create an atmosphere of both peace and beauty, and of subtle, but boiling tension between his characters. Yusuf and Mahmut are different in everything they do…and stand for. Yusuf is a rather uneducated character, poor, aimless, without much motivation. Mahmut has worked his way up to become a renowned photographer in Istanbul. He has climbed the social ladder but now he no more than pretends to belong there. For him, “photography is dead.” He attempts to behave according to his position in society, but does so without motivation or aim. He simply aims not to lose face. It is for this reason that one evening he puts on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. It’s supposed to be for intellectuals, so he pretends to be interested but switches to a porn VHS as soon as Yusuf has gone to bed. In the end, the two characters are not as different as they might look like at the beginning of the film. In their heart, they are the same. They are only different because Mahmut plays a role that doesn’t seem to suit him. It is like a heavy coat that he cannot take off.

Ceylan contrasts rich and poor, educated an uneducated. But the quest for love remains the same for both characters. Both Yusuf and Mahmut long for love, the latter presumably still in love with his ex-wife who leaves for Canada with her new husband. The former sees a young woman in the streets when he arrives at Mahmut’s place, but whenever he is close to her or wants to approach her, something or someone comes between them. Unfulfilled love – a current that is running under the main storyline and unites the characters that seem so different. It is also here that the theme of “distant” and “distance” comes into effect. Ceylan creates several distances in his film. There is the distance between the two male characters and women. There is something they’re outside of. They cannot get into this world of love, of emotional bonds. It’s something that happens around them, as we see in one scene in which Mahmut sits in a restaurant by himself, having had dinner. A couple arrives. He knows her, she keeps awkwardly looking over to his table without trying to raise the suspicion of her partner. Mahmut leaves, avoiding the situation, putting a distance between it and the situation. Happiness with a woman – that happens elsewhere.

There is a distance between Ceylan’s two protagonists, as I have mentioned. There is also the distance between social classes that often cannot be overcome. Mahmut has alienated, distanced himself from photography, arguing time and again that photography is dead. Ceylan creates several forms of distance, all of which (apart from Yusuf having left his home) are an expression of his characters alienating themselves from their outside world. They close up, they detach themselves from what is happening around them, while at the same time longing for being a part of something, for joining. Uzak is essentially a film about growing isolation and solitude; it is about an often self-inflicted distance the reasons of which aren’t explained in the film. Indeed, this is one of the trademarks of Ceylan’s films: things are the way they are. The director doesn’t try to explain them, he simply shows them.

I’m not sure whether I can agree to the general opinion that Uzak is Ceylan’s best film. It is a good film, beautifully shot, and intelligent. But I would not (yet) go as far as declaring it his best work. I need to see the rest of his films first before I can judge this properly. I loved Winter Sleep but haven’t so far been able to put it into the context of the director’s full filmography. We will see!!

Interview with Yulene Olaizola (Fogo)

My thanks goes out to Yulene Olaizola, who has kindly agreed to this brief email interview. Her film Fogo (2012) is a fascinating portrait of a fading landscape and its people. Especially her accounts on how she met the people on the island reminds me of my own experience while making the short documentary A Bunch of Gentlemen (2011). A real pleasure. This interview is a nice insight into filmmaking again. Thank you, Yulene.

First of all, Fogo is set in Canada, quite far away from your native Mexico. How did you come across the subject matter?

I was looking for an escape from my daily life in Mexico city, some kind of an artistic adventure. A close friend sent me the info about the new Residency Program from the Fogo Island Arts Corporation. I had only one day to apply. I sent a brief description of my intentions on doing a film in the Island during the 3 moths period of the residency. It was a very vague idea. I just said that I was going to mix documentary and fiction, and that I was going to work with non professional actors, people from the Island.

Three or four months later I received news from the Fogo Island Arts Corporation. They accepted my application and invited me to go there and work. I decided to go there from September – December 2012.

Was it difficult to convince the people on the island to make this film? Have they actually seen the finished product?

It was not difficult to convince them. The complicated part was to find the characters, but once I did that, somehow I knew they would accept. The main character Norman Foley is retired, so I knew he would have the time to participate in the film. I met him at some point during my second month living in Fogo. I was already worried about what I was going to do with the film. I did not have any ideas yet. But I met Norman at a partridge berry festival and he offered me to show me the woods. The very next day we went for a walk trough the woods. Very quickly we became friends and I knew he could be the main character. Soon he introduced me to his friend Ron, and his dogs Patch and Thunder, and together we went to a cabin in the woods; that day I decided to do a film where Norm, Ron and the dogs would go to a cabin. That was the first idea that detonated the simple story of Fogo.

When I watched the film, it was difficult to establish whether your film is fiction or documentary. This appears to be quite common in films that are nowadays termed “Slow Cinema”. What exactly is your film, fact or fiction?

The storyline is fiction, the idea of the Island having to be abandoned is something that I came up with after doing some research on the History on Newfoundland. I read about the resettlement program. It was an organized approach to centralize the population into growth areas. The Government of Canada did three attempts of resettlement between 1954 and 975, which resulted in the abandonment of 300 communities and nearly 30,000 people were moved.

I wanted to portray Fogo Island as if a new resettlement program was happening, without explaining the cause, which can be because economical reasons or something more apocalyptic where the life in the Island is simply dying. In order to achieve this fiction idea, I had to shoot only in abandoned houses, avoiding to see the real Fogo, the modern houses or highways.

Even though the actors where pretending to be living in a fictional situation, all the dialogs where improvised and the shooting was made with a documentary approach, with only two members in the crew, Diego García, the cinematographer, and me. Most of the situations are fiction but based on true events that we experienced while living in the island. For example, going to the cabin with the dogs, drinking a rum bottle in a tiny cabin lit up only by a kerosene lamp, cutting a tree in the middle of the woods all alone, spending time contemplating nature with the only company of two dogs, etc.

Some seconds where made by documenting real situation, like Ron playing with the dogs in the grass, Norm and Ron trying to get warm near a bonfire while is snowing, etc.

I am not sure if the right term to call this movie or other similar approaches to cinema is the term slow. I rather consider this film as a minimalistic bet. Where you have minimum resources and you have to make the most of averting, so in order to work with non-professional actors, you use aspects of their real life to nourish the story and the atmosphere. Where the script is made of contributions from everyone, the actors, the cinematographer and the director.

There is this overwhelming aspect of solitude apparent in your film. Is this a topic that came with the subject matter, or did it, in fact, coincide with a general interest in the aspects of loneliness and mans coping mechanisms?

When I am thinking about a new project, I never think about what subjects I would like to work with. In this case solitude, melancholy, abandonment, are ideas that came to me while living there. But these subjects or ideas are not what you would see if you travel to Fogo Island for a week. The people from Fogo is usually very warm, happy people, and the place is simply beautiful. But once I started talking deeply with the people, especially with the older ones, I discovered a huge nostalgic feeling about the past, when life in the island was different. People have a strong connection with their roots, a feeling of belonging to a place, that you don’t longer find in people who live in the city for example. Somehow I wanted to relate my film to all this ideas but with a fictional pretext.

What I found particularly strong was your exploration of people’s attachment to home. Even though this is set in Canada, is this something that resonates with yourself?

It not a subject matter that I have considered before in my films, or at least not consciously. When a film is born because of a place, I think that the first thing you want to do as a filmmaker is to document the beauties or interesting things about the place, in order to share that with other people. And that is exactly what I wanted to do, but beauty for me is not exactly the nice photo that you see in a truistic image.

I have already mentioned the term “Slow Cinema”. Your film is contemplative in many respects. It invites us to dwell in the surrounding as well as on the fate of the characters who decide to remain on the island. Do you think that your film is slow? Where does this contemplative aesthetic have its roots?

I enjoy the cinema that does not rush to take you to one place. I feel as a spectator, that I need time to transport my self from the cinema theater to the reality presented in a movie. In Hollywood style, in 4 or 5 shots of only a few second each, suddenly you are in the antique Pompei, or in another planet. They gave you the basic information about these universes, but they never give you the time to explore them or to feel them.

What I try to do is to give time to enjoy and discover all those details that can be found after living there for almost 4 months. I always try to do that in my films, and in each occasion, the concept of time is different. In this case, the time that passes in a slow way, or the contemplative mood, is related to how the people live there, always in a close relationship with nature, with weather. And of course time in places like Fogo seems to occur slower that in a city for a example.

I found your film highly photographic. Do you have a background in photography? What is your background in general?

Before I decided to study cinema I did a workshop in photography during high school. I thought I wanted to be a cinematographer, but when I entered film school I realized I wanted to direct. I do like to contribute as much as I can in all the different aspects of making a film, cinematography, sound, editing, production, etc. That is something you have to do if you don´t have the resources. I have produced all my films myself. In this case it was the first time I worked with Diego, the cinematographer. We went to film school together. It was a very close and special collaboration.

You are one of several emerging directors from Mexico, who astonish with their strong works. Do you think there is a certain “New Wave” of Mexican Cinema? I’m speaking in particular of Pereda, Gonzales-Rubio, Vargas as slow-film directors.

It is always difficult to define what is a new wave, or who is part of it. I think there are many new filmmakers from the past 10 years that have won recognition at film festivals, but that are still almost unknown for the Mexican audiences. There are other filmmakers with whom I feel close to, because we are friends, and because we have similar approaches to making films with low budgets and with no commercial interests. Between this filmmakers are: The Axolote group: Rubén Imaz, Matias Meyer and Michel Lipkes. Also the couple Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman. Nicolas Pereda. Pedro González. Julio Hernández Cordón, among others.

How are your films distributed?

My films have been only distributed in commercial cinemas in Mexico, with the effort of myself and small Mexican distribution companies like Interior 13 an Circo. Only my first film Shakespeare and Victor Hugo´s Intimacies has been released in TV in iberoamerica, thanks to a deal with Ibermedia program.

I saw that you are already working on a new project. What is this about and when will it be released?

It is once again a very low budget film. Is about 3 Spanish conquistadors who climbed up the iconic Mexican volcano The Popocatépetl, in an expedition in 1519. Even though it is a historic film, the resources we had were minimum, three guys wearing costumes climbing a mountain. It is a co direction with Ruben Imaz and will be released some time next year.

 

Day 22 – Two Years At Sea (Rivers)

Ben Rivers needs to be included in this year’s advent calendar. When I watched his film first time round at last year’s Slow Cinema weekend in Newcastle, and heard more about him, he was immediately a point of interest. Perhaps this was the case because he made and still makes films the old-school way. Analogue film, developed in his kitchen sink. This alone says a lot about his approach to filmmaking. It also says something about slowness.

Two Years at Sea (2011), Ben Rivers

Rivers’ approach stands in contrast to, say, Lav Diaz. What I gathered from reading about slow-film directors, I could figure that making a slow film is relatively fast. Or can be, if the funding is right. Let’s think about a mainstream blockbuster for a moment: There are so many cuts in them that it must be a real pain to maintain an overview of all the shots (angles etc). I only ever made short films at university (apart from the 12mins documentary), and they weren’t slow. It was difficult to keep on track of things, and even though I know that I’m not a professional at all, I always imagine blockbusters to be a jigsaw of 300,000 pieces, which takes ages in the editing room to put back together.

I remember Béla Tarr having edited The Man from London in a week. Lav Diaz isn’t exactly slow either. It’s easy. A static camera, a long take. There’s nothing much to edit. If you’re clever and successful enough in your filmmaking, all you need to do is glue the long-takes together. This is not to say that slow-film directors don’t have editing skills. Not at all. It’s just an entirely different way of editing for some directors.

Rivers slows down the whole process of filmmaking by developing the film himself. He’s one of the few directors who have so far remained with analogue film. Tarr was another director who would have never touched digital (though I suppose he probably does now during his teaching in Sagreb).

Two Years at Sea (2011), Ben Rivers

Two Years is a lovely treatment of solitude. Of a happy life in solitude. While in other slow films, solitude is a state the characters long to escape from (as evident in Tsai Ming-liang’s films), Rivers uses solitude to show its beauty. The film doesn’t contain any dialogue, or rather monologue, as we’re all alone with Jack in the middle of nowhere in the Scottish Highlands. It tells the story of a man in his own world. In a happy world, in a world free of everything. There is no dependency apparent. Jack is a free man.

The film cuts to old photographs from time to time. We see Jack’s history, memories of the past, time arrested. The two media visually recording history come together here. And again, Two Years is at times more photographic than – what is the word, cinematic? Filmic? Rivers has a sharp photographic eye. Combined with a static camera, he joins the club of slow-film-or-photo-album directors. I can’t wait for his new film, he did in collaboration with Ben Russell!

Day 11 – Into Great Silence (Gröning)

I guess after films about suicide and rape, I more than deserve a little retreat. Why not join a few monks in a monastery for a change?

Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence (2005) is a wonderfully poetic portrayal of life in voluntary retreat and solitude, far off any civilisation. In the region of Dauphiné to be exact, in the mountains of Chartreuse, France. To be fair, the film could have been slower. I mean, the takes could have been longer to make it look even slower. Yes, the takes are on average much longer than in other films. But what I find most interesting in this context is the importance of subject matter in the demonstration of slowness, rather than the long take (or the aesthetic in general).

Into Great Silence (2005), Philip Gröning

Monks are not exactly in a hurry, so their presence in the film and their day-to-day life alone have an impact on the perception of how fast (or slow) the film runs. This also points to a natural way of filmmaking. You cannot cut slow activities every two seconds. Nor can you leave a car race going on for ten minutes in one long take. Just as Lav Diaz said in many many interviews: long takes come natural.

The film (narrative?) is interrupted from time to time by what we know from the silent era as intertitles. I’m not overly familiar with the Bible, but some of the titles definitely contain passages from it. Gröning never gives a source for the passages. Maybe he appeals to the familiarity of the viewer with the Bible? In any way, they set a nice simple tone to the entire film, though, so, in fact, it doesn’t matter much where exactly the passages come from.

Into Great Silence is a documentary. I should perhaps mention this, as it therefore differs from the other films I have so far reviewed this month. At the same time, it is a nice contrast to them. Gröning doesn’t seem to have a set aesthetic in mind. His shots keep changing from still to moving, from beautiful photographic double frames to pretty much medium close-ups of the monks’ faces. The latter fact is what distinguishes Silence from the “usual” slow film. While in some cases the monks are set against their environment, they are just as often portrayed in detail. Facial expressions are a means to convey meaning, and Gröning makes use of this from time to time.

Into Great Silence (2005), Philip Gröning

The strange feeling I had about the film is the aspects of confinement and freedom. The film is set entirely in and around the monastery. We never really leave the grounds. The monks are almost always filmed with walls in the background. The framing – if we thought about it logically – could create a sense of restriction. But the strange thing is, it doesn’t feel restricted at all. Perhaps, it is the aura of the monks that made the film feel so smooth and free.

Silence kind of makes me want to go on a retreat. But not in winter. I’m not too keen on freezing while trying to calm down my mind. I don’t think it would work.

Day 8 – Vive l’Amour (Ming-liang)

Time for a bit of love on the second advent. Or maybe not, because Tsai Ming-liang’s Vive l’Amour (1994) is, as all of his other films, not exactly uplifting. But let’s start from the beginning.

Vive l’Amour stands, with Rebels of the Neon God (1992), at the beginning of Tsai’s career. The film was made almost 20 years ago, and when I saw it it reminded me of something Béla Tarr said (I think it was him, but I can be very wrong here): I always make the same film.

It is not so much that Tsai makes the same film over and over again, but if you are familiar with all of his films, you begin to notice the similarities of all of them. It is not only the actor, Kang-Sheng Lee, who appears in every one of his films (who made an impressive appearance in Walker). It is also the themes that remain the same. I mentioned in previous blog posts that poverty is a major issue in Slow Cinema. This is not the case in Tsai’s films. What is striking in his work is the treatment and depiction of loneliness and longing.

Vive l’Amour (1994), Tsai Ming-liang

To my surprise, I had difficulties labelling Vive l’Amour as a straightforward slow film, even though I know that it is often listed as one. I wondered whether I have perhaps become too used to slowness in film that it has become hard for me to judge if something is exceptionally slow, or just “normal” (as in, normal speed like in real life). The film is not a fast film, but I find it faster than his other films. Considering Tsai’s development as a director, his films have over time become slower and also more photographic. L’Amour is not photographic at all, an element that I found specially interesting in his other films such as I don’t want to sleep alone (2006).

There is also more movement in L’Amour than in his other films. Again, this is not to say that the film is fast. I’m merely trying to point out differences in filmmaking that are evident. Tsai has, however, already included his seeming obsession with tight corridors and double framing. And his love for melons!

Vive l’Amour (1994), Tsai Ming-liang

Already, his characters are suffering from loneliness, and even though there is, as usual, sex involved in his films, there is actually little intimacy between the characters. Whenever I watch Tsai’s films, I cannot help but think of a poem by Alfred Wolfenstein, a German poet, whose vivid Städter from 1913 describes the gradual isolation and loneliness of people living in (big) urban spaces. For me, every film by Tsai is an illustration of this poem, an illustration of how cramped urban spaces encourage anonymity and solitude instead of social living. But even though people choose to live in solitude, they long for love and social interaction. This discrepancy naturally causes problems, and Tsai is a director who has picked up this issue time and again, and made some wonderful films out of it.