Le vrai film est ailleurs – Mark John Ostrowski (2018)

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. 

Sixty Spanish Cigarettes – Mark John Ostrowski (2015, repost)

!!! This film is now available on tao films !!!

There is something sublimely beautiful about Mark John Ostrowski’s film Sixty Spanish Cigarettes (2015). Fifteen minutes into the film, an extreme long shot captures the sea and coast in the background. From the right hand side of the frame, a small boat comes into view. Ostrowski’s camera stays with the boat and follows it. Even in this extreme long-shot, we can see how the boat is moved by the wind and the waves. The sun is shining from behind a few clouds, it seems. The image is not in colour, even though you would perhaps think that. Coastal images in colour are always superb.

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But no. Ostrowski works against our expectations. He frustrates us. Scenes of blissful contemplation are interrupted by hard cuts to a black screen. Those contemplative scenes of land- and seascapes, for instance, feel like a carrot Ostrowski is hanging in front of our eyes. But he takes that carrot away as soon as we have almost reached a state of contemplation. We cannot contemplate everything at once. We have to give it time. We have to be patient in order to reach this desired state. Ostrowski works well in alternating beautifully slow shots with a black screen, the latter making us hyper-aware of where we are.

Paradoxically, Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is about movement, and yet it gives us no feeling of speed at all. We see the protagonist walking through several different (beautiful) landscapes, which reminded me strongly of those used in Albert Serra’s Birdsong (2008). The clouds are brushing slowly over the hills, while the man is often dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape. He is alone, alone on his way to an unknown location. At times, he stops to light a cigarette. At other times, he simply rests. It is this solitude which gives us a feeling of slowness, a sense of pause. The repeated scenes of a man’s walking through an empty landscape brought a wonderful book back into my head; The Philosophy of Walking. If you haven’t read it, please do get yourself a copy.

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Ostrowski’s film shows the director’s superb photographic eye. Many of his shots are beautifully composed. They could easily be photos in an album, or large prints in a gallery. To me, the visual beauty of the film was also its strongest asset; the viewer in awe of nature, in awe of simple but expressive architecture. Ostrowski’s long-takes of those “photos” helped me to pause, to be in the present but also to wonder what the protagonist was really up to. I’m not entirely sure whether this is ever fully revealed in the film, but it is of little interest in any case. Sixty Spanish Cigarettes is more of an atmospheric film than about a set narrative persistently progressing within the film’s 60 minutes running time. It reminded me of Martin Lefebvre’s modes of viewing; the narrative mode and the spectacular mode. Many slow films, which most certainly includes Ostrowski’s film, operate very much in the spectacular mode, even though there is a narrative mode in all. But the narrative mode is suppressed in many instances to give way to contemplation.

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I believe that the film could have been a tick shorter in order to make full use of its shots. I’m not entirely sure when this shot appears, perhaps after around 45 to 50min. There is a beautiful extreme long shot of a landscape at the coast, with the protagonist sitting on a rock or something similar. He has his back turned to us and is looking at the scenery, like us. I expected the film to cut there. It would have been the most fitting and most suitable ending for the film, but unfortunately Ostrowski did not cut there and kept going instead. The final images, to me,weakened the film slightly because they were not entirely necessary.

Nevertheless, with Sixty Spanish Cigarettes, Ostrowski has created a beautiful piece of Slow Cinema, which, regardless of whether or not he continues this slow journey, adds him to my list of directors to look out for in future. If the film runs at a festival near you, I highly recommend watching it!

Hele sa hiwagang hapis – Lav Diaz (2016)

Well, he did it again, and Lav Diaz’s Berlinale entry Hele sa hiwagang hapis is, at the same time, his longest film since his nine-hour film Death in the Land of Encantos (2007). I’m grateful and flattered that the team thought of me for the German translation. It was a stressful piece of work, and even though I was miles away from the actual action, I could feel the tension all the way through my translation work. Even I got tense! The translation job had one advantage: I was able to see the film before it premiered in Berlin. Yet, it wasn’t the polished version, but regardless of that, I would like to say a few things about Diaz’s new masterpiece.

First of all, I need to be honest and say that I wasn’t all too keen on it. That was before I saw it. I heard a lot about it. I was aware that two mainstream actors played important parts in the film. I also knew that parts of the film was shot on a set. The team – cast and crew – was huge, so I was immensely worried that Hele would become another Norte, which I wasn’t a fan of, mainly because you could see that it wasn’t a full Lav Diaz film. Viele Köche verderben den Brei, we say in German, meaning that too many people working on a single project usually leads to a lower quality of the end product. I found that this was the case with Norte, although critics loved it and hailed it as a new era in Diaz’s filmmaking. They considered it a development in his aesthetics and in his approach to film. Thankfully, he made From What Is Before after that, with which he returned to his usual way of filmmaking.

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Hele is a special film. Even longer in the making than Batang West Side (given the endless years of waiting for funding), Diaz was finally able to make his film about the Philippine’s national hero and revolutionary Andres Bonifacio, mixed with an investigation of José Rizal’s death, Spanish colonialism and the oppression of the people that came with it. With Hele, Diaz makes explicit what he pointed to in his metaphorical treatment of colonialism in Florentina Hubaldo, CTE. Spanish colonialism is not in the past, it is present for us in Hele. We see the oppressors for the first time. We experience their wickedness and just how little they actually care about the local population. It is an interesting direction in Diaz’s filmmaking that he approaches the subject so directly. But I found it necessary. After several metaphorical films, which I studied in my doctoral thesis, it seems appropriate to put faces to the atrocities Diaz has only ever pointed to. And, quite fittingly, the Spaniards are unlikeable characters throughout the first part of the film. I found it difficult to sit through the parts where the Spaniards were in focus. Part of it was also that they can be considered a rupture in Diaz’s approach to acting. The Spanish characters are much less at ease with their roles. I couldn’t feel the natural “living” of the role. The Spaniards acted, and perhaps that was intended, because  in a way, it fits to the situation they were in. Spain was losing the Philippines. Economically, it became less and less viable. It was a disaster for the mother country. On top of that, Filipinos started uprisings. Of course, they could not show this. They had to maintain their dominance, their authority. So what is better than “acting” this role? This is precisely the feeling you get in the scenes which focus on Spanish characters.

There is a real shift in artifice-natural whenever scenes change to Filipino characters, Hazel Orencio as Andres Bonifacio’s wife amongst them. Or the tragic woman who helped the Spaniards to conquer Silang; a terrible massacre which cost many people their lives. You can feel the actors living their roles. They are the characters who they play, the usual feeling in a Lav Diaz film. This juxtaposition of acting in Spanish and Filipino characters makes for a really interesting reading. There is also the literally fantastic character of the Takbalang, whom I grew somehow attached to. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is the way Diaz has put this mythic figure of half man-horse into light, often, again, quite literally. Or perhaps it is the fact that I have never come across a real mythological figure embodied by a human character in Diaz’s films, so it is intriguing.

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The visuals in Hele are at times stunning. The camera is not Diaz’s camera. It doesn’t feel like him. At times, it comes close to what we know from Norte. But at the same time, it is sometimes a camera which moves independently from the characters. Not quite as much as in Béla Tarr’s films. Nevertheless, there is a certain degree of independent camera movement apparent. There is also a play with light and shadow. The high contrast black-and-white reminded me strongly of Florentina Hubaldo. Hele is very similar in that respect.

Some of Diaz’s films are not accessible at first viewing. Some of them are deeply metaphorical, so that a straightforward interpretation would fail if you were to use standard Film Studies reading. In many cases, Diaz’s films demand that the viewer becomes active, reading up on certain issues, trying to find out more about the director’s country, his people, his society, his background. He is not the type of director who feeds you easily. You need to work for your food, and I do not mean by this sitting in a cinema for eight hours. You have to do more than this. Florentina was, and still is, perhaps his most enigmatic film, which baffled me when I saw it first. I had no idea what to make of it, until I started to enquire about what Diaz could have meant. Then the film became the most powerful film of his (in my view). Hele isn’t at all metaphorical, but it may be difficult for a Western audience to understand. The same goes for the local Filipino audience if they are not aware of their country’s history. It would perhaps be difficult to make out the characters. I was lucky enough to have done some reading on the subject during  my PhD research but even that wasn’t entirely enough. This isn’t a bad thing at all. As I said before, if there is one persistent thread in Diaz’s filmmaking, then it is his demand on the viewer to leave the cinema auditorium and begin to do a bit of research. That is the beauty of Diaz’s films. They are a challenge. You cannot be a passive viewer. If you are, then it is no surprise that you find the films boring, or that you think the films are all the same. This is no different with Hele. It may be enigmatic, but once you push through those eight hours, it becomes a magnificent piece of work.

Hele is perhaps one of Diaz’s strongest films in recent years. For me, it doesn’t quite reach Florentina or Encantos, but it is also very difficult to put them into relation because they were made under dicferent circumstances. And they all have their very own, and very different, specialities. With Hele, Diaz has certainly proven that, after his last two films which were comparitively short, he hasn’t given up on endurance cinema. He’s still very much into it, and we can only wonder what Meryl Streep thought when she sat down for eight hours in order to see this film!