Homo Sapiens – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2016)

Who, or maybe what, is Homo Sapiens? Wise man, they say. But is Homo Sapiens just that? Does Homo Sapiens stand entirely for the human being we are? I’m not so sure. And I think Nikolas Geyrhalter’s superb poetic piece Homo Sapiens is, in effect, posing this question without giving answers.

Geyrhalter does not focus on the living aspects of Homo Sapiens, but of what Homo Sapiens has left behind. His film is about abandoned places, empty places, spaces where nature takes over as if man has never been there. Man exists as a spectre. He is in the buildings Geyrhalter films, the buildings which are not far from collapsing, from falling into pieces. He is in the abandoned playgrounds, in the abandoned train stations. He hovers like a ghost over every single image of Homo Sapiens. You can feel him, but you will never go beyond this feeling.

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What takes over instead is a beautiful, intriguing soundscape. I closed my eyes from time to time to listen to the sounds. I could never tell where I was, but did that really matter? The sounds took me into an eerie, unnatural world, which at times reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, reinforced once I opened my eyes again and saw abandoned buildings. It felt like being in a zone, in Tarkovsky’s zona, where life and death exists in the same image.

The images might be static. They might show nothing interesting. What is interesting instead is what is going on in your mind. We’re speaking of yes boredom here. If you’re willing to take on a film of 90 minutes which shows nothing but run-down buildings, you begin to create your own narrative. What games did the children play in that playground overgrown with grass? What film did they show in that decayed filmhouse? How many people used to come every night for their evening entertainment? Who was the person who left his or her bike under a shed at that abandoned train station in Japan?

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Why did the people leave in the first place? I started to wonder why the places I saw had been abandoned. I began to think of Fukushima. I began to think of war. I had all kinds of things in my head. In fact, my mind felt very different from what the images showed. My mind was busy making up fictional stories about what happened at the places I saw. I made up fictional stories about the people who shaped those places. Who were they? And, more importantly, when were they there?

Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens is full of fascinating shots. Almost every frame is a beauty in itself. It’s incredible how much beauty you can find in destruction and abandonment. Homo Sapiens achieves this through perfect framing. This reminds me again of something I have read somewhere (God knows where!) and which applies so well to slow films: it doesn’t matter what you show. It’s a question of how you show it. You can show the most simple things, but they can become complex and special depending on how you show them. This is the case with Geyrhalter’s film.

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I suppose many people would just walk past those abandoned places, but he makes us stop for a moment. He makes us look at them, and he gives us time to appreciate what we see. Wee see the past, the present and the future. We see what we built. We see what is now decaying. And we see how the planet will look like after Homo Sapiens is gone. Regardless of what we’re building right now, nature will take over. It is nature that is wise. It is patiently waiting for its time, for its time to breathe and for its time to expand.

Los Ausentes – Nicolas Pereda (2014)

Knowing Nicolas Pereda’s early work, I’d be inclined to say that his medium long film Los Ausentes marks a new era in his filmmaking. The trailer already looked haunting and different from Pereda’s usual filmmaking. The colour palette is the same, the actors have the same aura around them. And yet, and yet…

Los Ausentes is, first of all, about an old, fragile man who loses his house near the beach. I assume he has lived there all his life, so loss (absence) is at the heart of Pereda’s film. It’s the very core of it, and Pereda perfects his usual aesthetics in order to transmit this feeling of loss to the viewer. Los Ausentes stands out in Pereda’s work because of its camera work. The director has always favoured long-takes, temps mort, and a very minimalist storytelling. But this film goes a bit further. In fact, it reminded me strongly on the films of Béla Tarr and the fascinating work by cinematographer Fred Kelemen (who himself made films, amongst them Krisana).

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Pereda uses a kind of independent camera, which I have marvelled upon when I saw Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). This is also when I first understood Daniel Frampton’s filmind, film as thinking independently. If you put Los Ausentes and Werckmeister Harmonies next to each other, you can see that they both make use of an independent camera. The camera is not really following the protagonist, unless the character is walking down a road. The camera has its own mind and moves to whatever place or whatever action it would like to record.

I haven’t seen it to such an extent in Pereda’s previous films. I even wonder whether it is an homage to Tarr. The beginning must be at least a very obvious wink, starting with a medium shot of a cow facing us. And then, slowly, very slowly, the camera zooms out and reveals first some kind of structure, which then turns out to be a window frame. The camera zooms further out, very smoothly, totally beautifully, and reveals the old man sitting at a table eating. If faithful Tarr-viewers are not reminded of the famous opening scene in Damnation or the beginning of The Man from London, I don’t know what those people have done with their lives 🙂

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In any case, this independent camera transmits the film’s idea of loss, of the absent, fabulously. It feels as though there was a ghost walking around, looking at things or moving places. At times, we see the protagonists. At others, we don’t. But nevertheless, we can feel an eerie presence. There is someone there with us, but who is it? Los Ausentes is a perfect example of how aesthetics can convey absence. I had come across this very subject in my research on the films of Lav Diaz, but Diaz is doing this in a very different way. This independent camera movement also feeds well into the idea of the fragile, old man losing his sanity. Again, this is a theme that pops up comparatively often in slow films, and it is interesting to see how directors deal with this differently.

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When I saw the old man standing somewhere in the woods, with his skinny back towards me, I wasn’t quite sure whether what I saw was supposed to be real, or whether Pereda wanted me to believe it was a dream. There’s only ambient sound, and because I was in a state of dreaming already because of the superb camera work, I wasn’t so sure anymore what I was seeing or what I was asked to believe. This became even more difficult when the old man’s younger self appeared and it wasn’t clear anymore what happened when and where.

I began to wonder whether the title Los Ausentes applied to more than just the film, because in the end, you do lose yourself in the film. You might be physically present when you watch the film, but where are you mentally? Are you home? In the cinema? In an imagined Mexico? In a dream? In real life? I would say that Los Ausentes is Pereda’s strongest film. As I said before, it looks like his previous films but it feels very different. The combination of narrative and aesthetics is just right, perfect even, and I think that the length of the film – medium length – helps to keep the film focused. It feels like Pereda’s most polished film and I wonder where he will go from here. I hope that we will see more of this!

Another Year – Another Festival

I’m not posting those things very often, but I’m delighted about the success of the slow film that is on the top of my list for DVD distribution; Another Year by Shengze Zhu. I wrote an entry about it not so long ago, a stunning three-hour long film about a Chinese migrant family eating. Well, in fact, the film is about much more and I believe this is the reason for its success. Like many other slow films that have their place on this website, Another Year uses stark simplicity in order to tell stories about the complexities of life.

Shengze’s film has been to several festivals, and the success story continues to impress. Today in exactly a month, on 26 June, the film will have its UK premiere (very important!) at the Open City Documentary Festival in London. And, best of all, the film is a Grand Jury Award nominee. Congratulations, Shengze!

And if you’re in London on 26 June, please do see the film at Open City Documentary Festival! They have more than only Another Year. The programme looks generally pretty slow. They also show Dead Slow Ahead, a film I’m still waiting to see. So go, go, go!

Please help – The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD

As part of the set up of the forthcoming The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD platform, I have started a crowdfunding campaign, which seeks to cover current labour costs and costs of the server, payment provider and content delivery network. Every small contribution helps. And you even get a voucher code for a curated theme of your choice! 🙂

Please spread the message. Please consider donating. Please make this platform happen!

On behalf of the involved artists, thank you, thank you, and thank you.

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Slow Cinema VoD – Update (3)

Today, I would like to list the directors whose works I have chosen for The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD. These directors have submitted their films after the first call for films, or I have asked them whether they’d be interested in the project. That these names appear here today does not mean that the Call for Films is now over. It remains an open call. I simply want to announce the first batch of participants.

Yesterday, I finished watching the submissions. For some films, I only needed to see the first frame and my decision was clear. For others, I had to let the film do its work on me before I could decide whether it would be good to include it or not. From the submissions I have received since January, I have chosen the majority. Let me give you the names now before I continue with my thoughts on them:

Simo Ezoubeiri, Sebastian Cordes, Yulene Olaizola, Michela Occhipinti*, Félix Dufour-Laperrière, Tito Molina, Felipe Guerrero, Zhengfan Yang, Homer Etminani, Pablo Lamar*, Christos Gkotsis, Martin Meija, Liryc de la Cruz, Shengze Zhu, Yotam Ben-David, Miguel Hilari, Jaime Grijalba, Allison Chhorn, José Fernandes, Diego Amando Moreno Garza, Jenni Olson, Martynas Kundrotas, Blaz Kutin, Mark John Ostrowski, Sorayos Prapapan, Yarr Zabratski, Peter Sant, Oren Contrell, Mirac Atabey, Dina Yanni, Nandan Rado, Kevin Pontuti, Scott Barley, Mikel Guillen, Lois Patino*, Tiara Kristiningtyas*, Panahbarkhoda Rezaee*, Salvatore Insana, Manjeet S. Gill, Ion Indolean, Yefim Tovbis, Regina Danino, Krishnendu Sarkar, Karel Tuytschaever.

Those names which are labelled with a stars are not 100% certain yet. I’m trying my best to chase up the directors (or find them!), but I haven’t yet been successful. If you can help in any way, please let me know.

Some filmmakers have submitted more than one film. There is a great mixture of amateurs and “professional” filmmakers. I have an almost even number of feature and short films, which is fantastic. I thought that I would receive more short films than anything else, but this is not the case.

The chosen films are either made in, or the directors come from the following countries:

Mexico, USA, Canada, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Italy, Spain, Greece, Israel, Belgium, Lithuania, Romania, Slovenia, Ukraine, UK, Turkey, Austria, Morocco, Australia, India, China, Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand. 

Unfortunately, there is only one film from Africa so far, but I’m nonetheless proud that the Call for Films has attracted films from all continents. I had always hoped this would be a global platform. Obviously, I couldn’t influence the film submissions. Yet there was the risk that I would end up with films from predominantly Western countries. Another fear which was unfounded. South America is very strong, a fact I like most. I’ve always had a strong feeling that there are plenty slow films being made in South American countries. I have three films from Mexico so far. Not a surprise, if I see the countries general output of good arthouse cinema.

This morning, I set up a Facebook group for all directors who have been chosen from the first batch of submissions. From now on, there will be a direct and quick contact between me and them regarding the project development. New members will be added as we go along with the project.

One final point, we have Cinéma Fragile on board, a French film collective focusing on film haikus. Their films are freely available on Vimeo. They will remain free, but The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD will show them, too.

Any questions? Any more films? Please contact me!

Edit: You can now donate to our crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe.

The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD – Project Description

Here it is, as promised – a little later than I had hoped for but better late than never! Please find the full project description of the forthcoming The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD platform in the link at the end of this post.

I reckon that the basic idea behind the VoD platform has been clear for a while. What has changed during my trip to Berlin is the thought of creating a curated platform, meaning that for two or three months, The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD will focus on a particular theme, for instance architecture, or experimental film, or short films. Whatever comes to mind, and whatever fits to the film submissions I’m receiving. The focus on curation allows me to breathe because what I do not want is chasing films all day long only in order to get the platform running. This goes against the slow work – good quality ethics I’m pursuing 🙂

In the end, very much depends on the films I’m receiving and how many films I’m receiving. I would therefore like to renew the Call for Films, in case you haven’t seen it yet.

You can find the full project description here. Please read this if you’re interested in taking part in this VoD platform, and get in touch if you have questions or even films!

Edit: You can now donate to our crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe.

 

Where are you going? – Zhengfan Yang (2016)

If the film’s title were a question about the direction of the filmmaker, then I would respond to it with “higher and higher”. Where Are You Going? is Zhengfan Yang’s second feature film. His Distant was a true marvel to watch and his second one is even stronger. Visually, it is very different from Distant but narrative-wise I would say it is stronger, cleverly constructed and even though you’re driving through Hong Kong for over two hours, your attention will not wane precisely because Zhengfan uses the frustration principle for the creation of revelatory moments, which make you want to watch more.

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Where Are You Going? is an apt title for a film, which puts you in the seat of a taxi, or a bus, or anything on four wheels that takes you from A to B. The standard first question a taxi driver asks you becomes a metaphor in Zhengfan’s film, though. The film is not only divided into several car journeys across Hong Kong. I found that, more than anything, the question was metaphorical for where the characters (want to) go in their lives. Who are they? Zhengfan doesn’t show them. Sometimes we’re not even sure whether there is someone with us in the car which is travelling through the night or through the busy streets of Hong Kong under the sizzling sun. Their voices are the protagonists. The characters become a face only through their voices, and those voices create not only a personality but an entire life of that personality in front of your eyes. You cannot see the character, but you get to know him/her in an astonishingly detailed way.

Every character has a story to tell but only reveals pain, frustration, anger and sorrow slowly and gradually over the course of a long-take. The viewer gets a glimpse of Hong Kong society through the eyes of people from very different backgrounds and social status. There is the young female banker, who is confronted by her taxi driver over her alleged false promises to her customers that they would make lots of money by investing in risky bonds. He himself was cheated out of 2 million HKD by someone like her, he says. While this could be a straightforward black-and-white story, Zhengfan portrays a banker who pursues the job she doesn’t like only to pay her bills, earning, in effect, less than than the taxi driver and being under persistent pressure by her boss to sell bonds. If she fails to sell a certain amount, she’d get fired.

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We get to know a mainland Chinese couple who wanted to leave the mainland behind in order to search for a better life. A very impressive dialogue between husband and wife, a dialogue that speaks of homesickness and the frustration of discrimination in Hong Kong. While she has enough of trying to get on her feet in the big city (going as far as saying that her “better life” means that she reaches the wall when she stretches her arm out, implying they’re living in a tiny apartment), he is willing to sit this out for another two years, after which they would get a permanent residence permit. She’s dreaming of Canada or Australia; he worries that their parents will consider them a failure if hey returned to mainland China. Pressure from all sides – this is a common theme in pretty much all conversations we hear in the film, be it pressure in family, in society, amongst friends; it’s everywhere.

And while the voices in the background speak of saving money, hating the city, childhood memories, or being set up with a man from mainland China, the images take us through Hong Kong. Zhengfan makes sure to give us as elaborate an image of the city as possible. There’s one chapter, whose name I cannot remember now. I can only remember that it contains the word “corridor” and it was so fitting. A rather narrow motorway leads us through run-down houses, houses in desperate need of repair, houses you wouldn’t want to live in, but which at the same time are most likely the most affordable housing there is in Hong Kong. So while you have the motorway so close to your window that you can almost touch the cars, you have the neighbouring tower just as close. It’s a take that gives you a real feeling of the claustrophobia in the city. At the same time, you see at the horizon all those skyscrapers that we know of Hong Kong; the offices, the expensive apartments, the stuff only rich foreigners can afford.

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Where Are You Going? tells much, much more, and if you’re really attentive, you can see certain connections between the characters. Not all of them are unrelated. Zhengfan has added some connections in there, which makes the entire journey through Hong Kong city, its society and its people even more enriching. The idea of spending over two hours in a car driving through the city is perhaps not very appealing. But the concept is fascinating and riveting in a special way. You see nothing but the streets and other cars, and yet the film is full of humanity, of emotion. You may find this an odd thing to say, but Where Are You Going? is a film which makes you see if you open your ears.

P.S.: Very attentive viewers may find a place where Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker went!

Plenty questions for…Lav Diaz

Guernica magazine has published my interview with Lav Diaz today, which I conducted in November 2015 during the retrospective of his work at Jeu de Paume (and later the the Cinematek in Brussels). Here’s an extract of it. You can read the full interview on their website. Happy reading!

Guernica: What was the social and political situation in the Philippines at that time?

Lav Diaz: There is an extension to what happened during the war, when the Japanese rampaged us for four years. The Filipino guerrillas became the core movement: [during WWII] they were called Hukbalahap, the Philippine Army against the Japanese. The communist movement in the country started with the Hukbalahap right after the war. They were called Huks. Then we were under the American system. They gave us this so-called independence in 1946, but we were still part of the Commonwealth of America then. We were part of their imperialist movement.

Guernica: Did you witness any of those communist fights?

Lav Diaz: Not in our [region]. My father was a socialist, but he didn’t join the armed struggle. He was more into the cultural part—education, he focused on that. He didn’t want any violence, so he volunteered there to educate the indigenous people. It was actually very blissful in that area until the fight between Muslims, Christians, and the military in the late 1960s. Although there was this stark poverty and struggle, it was idyllic before then. Education was the center of everything. People were trying to help each other. Roads were being built in the area.

I was growing up in this barrio when martial law was declared.

Guernica: Mindanao has appeared in your films—for instance in From What Is Before. Do you have any specific memories of your life there?

Lav Diaz: Everything that you see there is from Mindanao. From What Is Before—you know, the shoot was hard. But the writing, the creation of the characters, the situations—it’s all from memory. It’s a composition of so many characters, from my parents, from my youth. I just put them together and created a narrative around them. It’s easy to create a narrative for me, because I really know the characters, the locale.

Read the full interview on the website of Guernica Magazine.