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?

The River Used to be a Man

It’s been a while that I watched a good slow film. My head rarely thinks ouside Lav Diaz’s films at the moment. I’m trying to re-watch Florentina Hubaldo (and will post a review here later), but it’s a lot tougher than I had first experienced. So I’m taking it slow.

I came across The River used to be a man by accident. It’s a German film by Jan Zabeil that was released last year in its home country. I don’t think it has ever made its way to the UK, and IMDB agrees with me on this point.

The river Used to be a Man

The film tells the story of a German, who, after the apparent death of his guide, gets lost in the Botswanan wilderness. It is a slow-paced film, though not a painterly slow film the way I would study it. However, The River that used to be a man confirmed a few things that I realised only a short while ago, and which still make me think as to how I could fit this into my writing.

The film is wonderful at depicting the African wilderness, the loneliness it evokes. But also the untouched nature we can hardly find these days, especially in our regions. We see peaceful sunsets and smooth rivers. The main character, for me, in this film is nature. And strikingly, the native who initially travels with the German explains to him: “Here’s the house of the animals. It’s the house of all the animals … we’re on their island”. Nature is the host; man is merely a guest, as is the case in many other slow films.

The River Used to be a Man

What made me think is the subtle point on modernity, and the way in which we humans, especially from the First World, have forgotten how to live in a simple manner. When the native dies, the German is on his own, in the middle of nowhere. He struggles to manouvre the canoe-like boat, and falls into the river because he cannot keep his balance. He cannot hunt. At night he hears a lot of sounds from animals, but he cannot identify whether or not the animals around him could be dangerous as he possibly has never learned to identify them in the first place. He didn’t need to, living in a city. Finally, he can’t light a fire because his lighter doesn’t work. The first thing he asks for when he wakes up in an unknown village after he had been picked up by a native when unconscious, is a telephone and a shop.

It sounds like the typical ignorant Westerner. And yet, it is only a subtle theme that runs through the film. This very theme brought me back to an earlier thought that a substantial amount of slow films are in some ways connected to the Third World, or in more specific terms to developing countries. They are made by directors from developing countries, or deal with issues that touch upon those regions. This doesn’t apply to all slow films, but it is nevertheless quite a large number.

We have Lav Diaz from the Philippines; Yulene Olaizola, Nicolas Pereda, Carlos Reygadas and Francisco Vargas from Mexico; Lisandro Alonso from Argentina; Abbas Kiarostami from Iran; Apichatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand. Michela Occipinti’s film Letters from the Desert is set in India. The River is set in Africa.

I wouldn’t go as far as terming these films Third Cinema, but I find this development striking. Other slow films come from what we call the Second World. Bela Tarr and Alexandr Sokurov are the most known examples. I’m not trying to put the films into boxes. However, this is where the term “slowness” comes in again. For whom are those films slow? For the audience, and the audience comes mainly from the capitalist, speedy First World. From urban areas with bustling streets. From hyper-modern civilisations, whose days are structured by the mechanical clock.

Considering the geographical backgrounds of those directors, it is inadequate to term the films slow. The term can be derogative, and in this case, I would say that, indeed, it is. It is merely looking down from our big modern horse on countries that are still a bit “behind”. But behind what? What is the merit?