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. 

The Ditch – Wang Bing (2010)

Wang Bing’s films have been high on my watch list for quite some time. West of the Tracks, a nine-hour documentary, is still waiting for me. But DVDs can be exceptionally patient, more so than humans! I finally got round seeing The Ditch (2010) after a recommendation by Michael Guarneri, who thought that the film’s content chimed well with my work on Lav Diaz. And it sure does, and yet it’s so very different.

If you’re looking for a nicely photographed film, then The Ditch is not for you. It’s a simple film. The style is pretty rudimentary at times. I’m not saying that Wang Bing has chosen to make the film look amateurish on purpose. Nor am I saying that he cannot do any better. For some reason, regardless of the director’s reason and background, the style fits well to the content. Set in 1960, The Ditch tells the story of inmates of Jiabiangou, a “prisoner correction camp”, or simply a labour camp, in the Gobi Desert. The film was shot without official permission on the actual location. So that gives you an idea of how far Wang Bing is willing to go in order to tell repressed histories of his country. It also explains the rudimentary aesthetics.

Wang Bing is best known for his documentaries, and if you didn’t know that The Ditch is supposed to be a feature film, you could be fooled. I found the aesthetics very documentary like. I had the feeling that Wang Bing was present at something that was, in reality, unfolding in front of him. It may have been the handheld camera. It also felt as though the characters didn’t mind the camera. They just “lived” their roles, so I felt torn between what The Ditch really was; documentary or fiction. I knew that it couldn’t be a straightforward documentary, and yet the aesthetics reminded me of it.

The film is a strong image of suffering and slow death, exactly what you find in Diaz’s films. But it’s portrayed more head-on, down-to-earth without any intention to create something special. This would have turned the suffering into spectacle. By remaining at a distance, Wang Bing counters this risk.

I do feel as though The Ditch should have been longer and I’m not saying this because I like long films. In order to get to the bottom of such a subject and the psychology of the characters you need to spend more than 90 minutes with them. I’m aware of the restrictions the secret production brought with it. Nevertheless, an hour more would have been sufficient to add more power to the film.

The prisoners suffer from cold and hunger. One inmate is seen eating the vomit of another. Another is killing and cooking a rat, for which he is later punished. We also learn in conversations between characters that inmates cut flesh off dead inmates out of sheer desperation over their hunger. The characters’ psychology isn’t as visible as it is in Diaz’s films, which use their duration in order to demonstrate the power of the concentrationary system, i.e. terror, degradation, reducing the inmates to bare life, aiming for psychological disintegration.

And because all of this needs time (the main component of the concentrationary), the film is too short for its in-depth portrayal of the subject. It’s good but too short. Some shots are beautiful and give you a sense of the vastness of the Gobi Desert. There’s no escape possible for the inmates. There’s nothing but emptiness surrounding them. There’s no hope. Even if you tried to escape, it’ll likely mean death. Nevertheless, I would like to see The Ditch as part of a bigger project, a project that positions time/duration more in the centre because it is essential for this subject.

I believe that The Ditch needs a second viewing. I became extremely irritated by the arrival of a female character, who shattered my sensation of seeing something unfolding in real time. She’s the wife of an inmate who had died 8 days earlier and I don’t understand Wang Bing’s decision to include her. His film was extremely focused, to the point, and powerful. The woman was terribly artificial in her acting. She was over the top and got on my nerves. I found her unrealistic. Coming from the city, carrying a handbag – that’s fine. But carrying the handbag around in the desert while looking in despair for her husband? Taking shovel and handbag? And while the men are all wrapped up and freeze, she can stay a night without blankets and is perfectly fine.

It all felt like stupid mistakes as seen in Hollywood films; completely over the top, nonsensical things. With her arrival, I became impatient with the film, which until then had been great. The female character was not necessary and took away screen time for the actual portrayal of suffering. This may be the reason why I thought that the film was too short.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to more Wang Bing films. I was my first, and certainly not my last!

Death in the Land of Encantos – Lav Diaz (2007)

I believe that I keep mentioning this film, but I have never really made a proper (blog) case out of it. So let’s go into a bit more detail about Lav Diaz’s painful trip through the Land of Encantos.

Encantos is a docu-fiction hybrid, akin to the works of Nicolás Pereda, a Mexican slow-film director, who plays with our expectations of fact and fiction. Diaz’s film was, in fact, originally a documentary. It is set in the aftermath of typhoon Reming, which hit the country in autumn 2006, only a month or two after volcano Mayon erupted. The strong winds and heavy rain caused havoc in the cities surrounding the volcano, such as Legazpi City. The rain water mixed with the volcano ashes that have remained after the eruption, and produced a deadly lahar that swept through villages and cities. Over a thousand people died, many of them were buried alive.

Diaz ventured out to record footage of the aftermath. He also conducted interviews with survivors, which you see in the final film. You even hear him in the background asking questions. When he saw the footage on his computer, he decided to construct a fictional narrative around the disaster that befell the region. The final product is a film that uses the devastated landscape in order to mirror a devastated character; Benjamin, or Hamin, “the great poet” as he is called by his friends Teo and Catalina. He returned to the Philippines, supposedly to look for the body of his former lover Amalia. This is only a small piece of Hamin’s complex struggle against losing his sanity, though.

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Hamin lived in Russia for seven years. In Kaluga, to be exact. He received a grant and residency for teaching. I’m not entirely sure whether I believe this or not. There are things that let me doubt his version of leaving the Philippines. Perhaps the most subtle pointer towards it is the fact that Kaluga used to be a place for exiled politicians during the period of the Russian Empire. It also used to be a place for prisoners. Put this into the context of Hamin being a persecuted artists for inciting a revolution, and you start to re-think his story of grants, residencies, and teaching.

Hamin is a broken man. Just as “broken” and devastated as the landscape that surrounds him. The framing and the camera angles support his mental decline. The frames are generally empty. It’s like what the mayor of Legazpi City said after the disaster: “We now call this a black desert”. Desert means death, and this is what you see in every frame. Houses are buried in lahar up to the rooftop. They have become coffins for their owners. The trees are bare. New rivers have formed as the water from the sea has swallowed substantial amounts of landmass. The camera is hardly set straight. It’s more tilted than anything else; an element that emphasises the idea of an upset equilibrium, both in nature and in Hamin’s mind.

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The poet was deemed too dangerous for Philippine society. He was arrested, and tortured so as to break his spirit. His hand was crushed, his penis electrocuted, he was sexually abused, and – intriguingly – he had what he called acid injected into his brain (as I found out a fairly common strategy used by the CIA in the past). On top of this, guilt is crushing him. He never visited his mother, who was in a mental institution because of uncontrollable schizophrenia-paranoia. His sister committed suicide by jumping of a building. His father died of loneliness. It is a demonstration of what Catalina says later in the film: artists are selfish. They only care about their art but they care little about the people around them.

The film is, in fact, full of discourses around art and artists. It’s a discourse on colonialism and the influences of Western culture on Philippine society. It’s a discourse on political activism and the still very present threats of kidnapping, torture, and killing. Compared to Florentina Hubaldo, there are several different layers of discourse. I mean actual dialogue, rather than mere images. Encantos is rich, and it tackles so many issues of what Diaz calls the “Philippine struggle” that the nine-hour run time is more than justified. It could even be a tick longer.

The images are strong. Every single frame has its particular strength. The expression of Hamin’s struggle is visible in every frame, and if we only see an empty bit of devastated landscape. This landscape is Hamin. But on top of the visuals, the dialogues are heavy. Very philosophical. Very thought-provoking. This combination creates a piece which weighs heavy on the viewer. An intellectual piece which requires thinking and commitment. Only with thinking and commitment you get to the bottom of it (and you may actually want to watch the film more than once – ha, commitment!).