Day 6 – Colossal Youth (Costa)

I’m back on the European continent, after having made (film) trips to Mexico, the Philippines and China. I’m in Portugal this time, the home of filmmaker Pedro Costa. It is only the second of his films I have seen. The first one was Bones (1997), which I couldn’t quite get through at the time. I can now see, though, what type of slow-film director Costa is.

Colossal Youth tells the story of Ventura, an immigrant in his 70s, who, like many other immigrants, has been relocated to a new housing estate near Lisbon. He appears to live in the past. The present is a confusing structure he cannot seem to handle. He is confused as to where he really lives, I believe: past? Present? In his old slum? In the new estate? For me he is a walking ghost.

Colossal Youth (2006), Pedro Costa
Colossal Youth (2006), Pedro Costa

Similar to Nicolas Pereda from Mexico, Costa merges documentary and fiction. It is often difficult to tell what is scripted and what isn’t. Sometimes there is the strong sense that the camera simply records without the interpretation of the filmmaker. At other times, you can feel the presence of someone behind the camera.

First of all, very obvious, Costa is not a filmmaker who assigns a great role to outdoor spaces, especially to landscapes. This film in particular is set mainly indoors. In parts, it reminds me of the look of Oxhide I, in that we spend a considerable amount of time in very dark spaces, and the only light is of somewhat greenish colour.

There is, however, and interesting contrast in the film. As I already mentioned, Ventura is relocated to a new housing estate. Both the slums and the estate have their own set of lighting and colours. Ventura moves freely between both in order to see people he knows. We therefore switch between darkness (the slums) and brightness (the new estate). While the changing colour scheme seems to be a natural thing – and indeed, it comes in handy – I wonder whether there is a subtle message behind it.

Colossal Youth (2006), Pedro Costa
Colossal Youth (2006), Pedro Costa

I never got the feeling that Ventura feels very comfortable in his new surrounding. It doesn’t mean that I preferred him being and remaining in the slum. But somehow, he appeared to me more natural in his behaviour. So perhaps, while the above mentioned brightness is natural and most likely not intended, we could say that the brightness – the white sterile walls and the bright light – can function as an indicator of where Ventura feels more himself. I’m really not sure about this. It’s merely an idea.

Costa, to my mind, is the only slow-film director who picks up the issue of immigration of former colonised to the countries of their colonisers, in this case Portugal. Portugal is by far not the only country that faces this issue. France has seen similar waves of immigrants, but curiously enough they never appear in film, or not in a way that does not make the audience loath them (moral panics anyone?). There are few films that handle this issue in a sensitive manner, and Costa’s Colossal Youth is one of them.

What he has in common with other slow-film directors is the depiction of loss and poverty. I pointed out earlier that these two are of exceptional significance in Slow Cinema. And his films, too, are in one way or another connected to the Third World, something I also mentioned briefly earlier. Costa is very different (from the filmmakers I study), but he nonetheless shares many characteristics. The themes of poverty and loss are my main interest here. Somehow I think that Tsai Ming-liang and Albert Serra are the only two filmmakers who add a bit of humour to their slow films. Slow Cinema appears to be a very sad film genre!

Third (Slow) Cinema

In my last post, I hinted at the peculiar phenomenon that quite a substantial amount of slow films are made in third world countries, or that they deal with themes that cover this area of the world. It didn’t let me go and I began to read a bit about Third Cinema, or Third World Cinema. Somehow these two are used interchangeably. I am aware that categorising films like this is problematic, but I’m still having problems with the term Slow Cinema, because my intuition tells me that it’s frankly wrong, and until I have solved this issue it’s going to turn my head round every time I have to use this term in my thesis. There is something that doesn’t quite work for me.

Let us recall: Slow Cinema is often characterised as dominated by long-takes, the use of long shots instead of close-ups, and the scarce dialogue, if there is one. Slow films put people from the margins of society into the spotlight. The everyday is highlighted. Story has prevalence over action. Observation is key.

I am aware that not all films that are regarded as Slow Cinema have been made in third world countries, but I nevertheless wish to put a few things into perspective here. Not least because Lav Diaz, the director I’m working on, comes from the Philippines, a third world country with a long history of colonisation.

Third Cinema originated in Latin America, but the term was then also applied to African filmmaking. At least filmmaking beyond Nollywood. I flicked through a few books about the issue and realised that there is so little written on the subject with regards to Asian films. You can find separate works on Southeast Asian Cinema, for instance, which sometimes highlight the exact same things, i.e. aesthetics, without mentioning the term (which is probably wise, but never mind). Consistency is apparently not a strength in this scholarly field.

Anyway, I came across the works of Teshome Gabriel, who wrote two illustrative essays on third world cinema. I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but safe to say that his observations of third cinema are the exact same we can find today in what is termed Slow Cinema.

A few points:

  • Film aesthetics are indigenised. They represent the country/area of the filmmaker and the themes he aims to put on the screen.
  • Long and wide shots are used preferably, so as to highlight the vastness of nature and man’s surroundings.
  • The focus is on space rather than time.
  • Story is more important than action.
  • Long takes are used in order to realistically represent the (third world) viewer’s sense of time.
  • Close-ups are rarely used as they would not depict man adequately in his surroundings.
  • Silence is dominant.
  • Location shooting.
  • Characters in the films are played by non-actors.
  • Formal aesthetics and oral traditions co-exist.

Is there are box we can not tick here? This all looks very much like Slow Cinema. In the case of Lav Diaz, we can add the box of return to pre-colonial culture, and the depiction of the effects of colonialism and dictatorship on society. With regards to the oral traditions, it is worth stressing that Lav’s films (their narrative) make use of Filipino epic tales.

Generally, if you try to find writings on Third Cinema, it very much looks as if it’s a dead subject. Most writings are from the 80s and 90s. A few books have been published at the very beginning of the 2000s. Since then it’s been quiet.

I wonder whether Slow Cinema is for today’s scholar merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing, because Third Cinema is quite an old and used term, and perhaps debatable.

Did we just give it a new name?