Escaping time

I didn’t expect my thinking about the possibility of escaping time. It’s one of those age-old science-fiction dreams that people have. Time travel is perhaps the most imagined, the most commonly imagined form of escaping time. There is not only the philosophical question of why we would want to escape time, but also whether we can actually do it.

Every year, I’m looking forward to reading the questions for the BAC en philosophie here in France. The BAC is the French school leaving exam just before you go to university. This year, more than in previous years, I felt encouraged to try to respond to one of the questions, even if, perhaps, not in a very philosophical way.

Is it possible to escape time?

Philosophy teachers answered the question on radio at the time. It all seemed straightforward and easy. No, we cannot escape time. But is it really this simple? First of all, the question is tricky because it doesn’t say from which point-of-view you should approach the question. I assume that the question is aimed at being resolved by Western, secular thought only, but it’s not stated anywhere that this is what students should be going for. Let me ramble a bit and see where it takes me.

Time itself, as a word, does not have an easy definition. Natural time is (vastly) different from mechanical time. Natural time, or let’s call it simply nature, has an effect on how we make use of our mechanical time in different parts of the world. The time you live by is different if you’re a farmer than if you are an office worker. You probably have different (shorter) work hours on fields in really hot, southern countries than in the north. At the same time, living in the digital age, time has become abstract and confusing, contradictory even.

The sun rises, the sun sets. Nature has its laws and abides by it. We can’t do anything about it. We go to work from 9 to 5. Working society, too, has its laws, which we usually abide by, but we can tweak the oppression by mechanical time. We change jobs to change our work hours. We can work flexible hours. We can become self-employed and become even more flexible (albeit also more stressed). Digital life, the digital world that has replaced much of our natural world around us (in term of awareness) has its own time. For lack of a better word, we call this time, but it has nothing to do with a continuous progress of time the way we know it. The digital is time assembled. It’s Stop & Go all the time. It’s manipulation, adjustment, repetition. And this, like natural time, we cannot change. The digital seems to have its own life. In the 21st century, natural time and digital “time” bracket our life. In between, we live every day by the mechanical clock that is in sync with no other time form.

If we want to discuss whether we can escape time, we first need to clarify which time form we’re speaking of. Before the advent of the clock, the answer to the question would have been a straightforward “no”. It is true that we cannot escape death, which means that we cannot escape time. Yet this perhaps only really holds true in our societies where, post-Christian belief, death is the literal end of something. The Buddhist belief in rebirth, I would be inclined to say, complicates the thought of death as a stoppage of time. If we began to consider death as merely another phase in our being, then it would no longer appear as the ultimate escape from time. At the same time, the philosophers on the radio argued that we couldn’t escape time because death would always catch up with us. If we continued this Western thought, would death then not be the ultimate escape from time, meaning that, in fact, we all achieve it and that this could, perhaps, even be the sense of life in our post-everything world?

There is little doubt that we can escape mechanical time. Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea is a wonderful example: leave society behind, live in the woods, according to nature’s principles and its own time. Forget about standard hours for doing certain things. Simply be. It doesn’t come as a surprise that villagers on a small Norwegian island plan to abolish the mechanical clock. The island of Sommarøy wants to become the world’s first time-free zone. Of course, the island cannot be free of time. But it can free itself from the chains of mechanical time. The argument behind this is simple. If there are no traditional nights during the summer period high up in the north, everything becomes the same. If you mow the lawn at 4am or 2pm is not a question to be had. It’s broad daylight, so go for it!

So, the answer to the question of whether we can escape natural time depends on the philosophy you follow in life. It is much easier to affirm that we can escape mechanical time. In fact, I believe that we have been escaping time since the advent of photography, and later cinema. But how about digital/virtual time? I would be inclined to say that virtual time behaves like mechanical time. It is artificial, it is imposed on us by ourselves. This also means that yes, we can escape it. It is us who created it, it is us who can abolish it. But perhaps this is too easy?

Walden – Daniel Zimmermann (2018)

Not so long ago, I picked up Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden. Published in the middle of the 19th century, it is now something of an iconic book about nature, about the woods, about the joys of solitary moments. Several times, I have mentioned Umberto Eco’s Six Walks Through The Fictional Woods on this blog, and even though Eco’s work isn’t exactly about the woods as such, but more about the woods as a fictional entity, both books have come back to mind when I saw Walden, an observational, poetic, very slow, very contemplative documentary by Daniel Zimmerman.

A tree is felled somewhere in Austria, transformed into planks of wood, which are then shipped to an unspecified location in the Brazilian rainforest. The story is quickly told and not, in itself, interesting. Until you realise that the trade route seems reversed. You would, perhaps, expect it the other way around. Something else is interesting, too: Zimmermann’s aesthetics. The film starts with a slow, patient pan from left to right. We’re in a fresh, lush forest. It’s quiet and peaceful. We can hear birds lifting off from tree branches, though we don’t see them. This sequence is important because it makes clear Zimmermann’s intention: hear first, then see. Walden targets, first of all, our ears. While the camera continues to pan patiently towards the right, we spot a worker in a hard hat and a security vest, dwarfed by the sheer size of the trees, overwhelming, overshadowing. There is a real grandeur of nature, a real dwarfing of Man.

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann, 2018)

The patient pan to the right, it turns out, is not so much a pan, but a circular movement. Zimmermann’s camera circles 360 degrees around its own axis. I couldn’t help think of the Eastern concept of time; time not as something linear but as something circular instead. Walden uses this concept effectively and lulls us in. After nine minutes into the film, the felled tree crashes to the ground right in front of us. Before we even see it, we only see the trees in front of us vibrating. Then, almost total silence once the felled tree has fallen. An incredible scene, momentous even. All of a sudden, there is this discrepancy between life and death, both in the same frame. The silence is deafening, but so are the distant chirps of the birds that seem to respond to the act of felling. The silence highlights the chirps, makes them appear louder, more pronounced. And even though we might expect the camera to stop, to witness with us, Zimmermann moves on.

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann, 2018)

A second aspect that stands out in Walden. Apart from the use of circular time, the film puts emphasis on time as never stopping. Photography and film, it is true, can halt time, can seemingly give us power over time in that they both allow us to stop for a moment, to go back, to look again. Photography and cinema can freeze time. Or so we think. Zimmermann clearly defies this. His camera keeps moving. At dawn, when the planks are loaded onto freight trains; on the motorway; at the border where the police check the freight on lorries… Zimmermann positions us as passersby. Even though the trade route, or rather the entire process from felling to shipping to unloading, is at the heart of the film, it isn’t really. It is something that happens, just like everything else simply happens. The director’s magnificent camera pans are iconic of two elements of our life. First, a lot of things happen at the same time. Things are always moving, are in flux, and for that, it is difficult to fully pay attention to one single action. In the last century or so, everything has become much bigger, much faster, and, also, simply much more. I know that this is a standard argument, but it is important here because it leads to my second point: we cannot pay attention to everything that happens anymore. We have to select or simply keep going, which is exactly what Zimmermann’s camera does.

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann, 2018)

As mentioned above, sound is key in Walden. Because of the camera’s 360 degrees movement, we do not always see actions as and when they happen. We hear those actions first and only after a long, slow pan we see the action that belongs to the sounds we have heard earlier. In this way, Zimmermann creates tension, a form of slow suspense, and he plays with our expectations. In our culture, seeing is believing. Seeing is truth. We cannot trust our ears alone. We must see. The slow circular camera movement puts this want in suspension. We must wait for what we want. We must be patient. This, too, is Walden. An exercise in patience.

There is something else that stands out. Zimmermann’s camera never moves from right to left. The camera’s circular movement is from left to right, which is identical to our way of reading in the Western world. We read from left to right, as opposed to other cultures where people read from right to left. If the director’s circular movement reminds me of circular time in Eastern cultures, then he puts emphasis on Western culture in the way he moves his camera from left to right. In this way, Walden becomes a complex image of culture(s) and the ways in which we’re all connected. Once more, the film’s story about a tree being felled and then transformed into planks which are then shipped across the globe is, to my mind, only a story at the surface. After the film’s almost two-hour running time, once the circular camera movements penetrate deeper and deeper into the rainforest and the film comes full cycle, there is a sense that this wasn’t so much about the tree, but about something much higher, or, rather, something much deeper.

And I cannot end this post without noting the film’s official description: A slow down road movie. I think we have a new slow genre!

A special slow gift for you

Even after many years writing on Slow Cinema, I still get the same question: where can we see the films you are writing about? It isn’t always easy to respond to that question. Some directors, like Wang Bing, have secured DVD distribution of some of their films at least, if only in Europe. Films by Tsai Ming-liang are easy to get, but only in Europe and the US, I think. Lav Diaz is a special case. And then there are all those new, independent films from all over the world that struggle to find a way to their audience.

For this weekend, I have a special slow gift for you. First of all, subscriptions for tao films come with a 50% discount from 10 – 17 May 2019. Your subscription costs only 2,99€ instead of 5,99€. tao films have a library of over 70 contemplative films, most of which are available exclusively on tao. We stream worldwide and invite you to discover the new generation of slow-film directors from all over the world.

To get your discount, sign-in or register on tao films. Then purchase a 1-month subscription. The discount code has already been applied. Remember, this offer is valid from 10 to 17 May 2019.

Second, courtesy of a wonderful person, The Art(s) of Slow Cinema can offer its US-based readers a 50% discount to the new VoD platform OVID. Your subscription will cost only $3,50 a month for three months  ($6,99 after that unless cancelled). OVID offers the big names of Slow Cinema: Chantal Akerman, Wang Bing, Nikolaus Geyrhalter. There are also Patricio Guzmann and Chris Marker. Ben Rivers and Ben Russell are there, too. So if you were dying to see Wang Bing’s new film Dead Souls or Chantal Akerman’s Là-bas, this is your chance to finally see those.

To get your OVID discount, head over to their site and sign up by selecting “Recurring monthly membership to OVID tv.” Then click “Redeem coupon” in the upper-right-hand corner. Your code is “SLOWCINEMA” (the code is valid until 31 May 2019). And thank the magical person on the other end, who made this possible 🙂

Enjoy the slow weekend with your films. Looking forward to seeing you on tao films!

Closing Time – Nicole Vögele (2018)

The beauty of Slow Cinema is that directors welcome you to their world and let you explore it in your own way. If you follow one director in particular and have seen all of his/her films, then each new film feels like coming home. I hadn’t realised to what extent this seemed to be true until I saw Nicole Vögele’s superb Closing Time, set in Taiwan, in an environment that feels so familiar after several films by Tsai Ming-liang. It is like sitting on that nice, comfy sofa that Tsai Ming-liang had prepared for me and which Vögele invited me to sit on to see her film. It is marvellous to notice the true force of slow films, which sink in and stay with you unconsciously, films that do make you feel as if you are there with the filmmaker.

The wind howls around us. Strong waves brutalise the coast. And then – peace. Absolute peace. The stormy sea gives way to an empty street at night. There is a large part of an uprooted tree on the pavement. Faint music. Rice cooking in boiling water.

This sequence of scenes feels almost like dream. It is like a ferocious journey at first, before it becomes an almost magical dream-like state. The alternation between noise and silence, movement and stillness, is a key element in Vögele’s film. Taipei at night, a city of contrasts. Closing Time tells the story of Mr Ku and his night-time eatery. His life, it happens at night. He chops veg, he cooks, he helps his wife serving customers. Despite the work in the kitchen, the eatery seems to be a haven for peace during the busy nights in Taipei. It’s a meeting point, it’s where workers come to eat, to have a chat. Mr Ku knows a lot of his customers. Eating there means becoming part of the family, part of a circle of people who follow their routine jobs in order to keep their heads above water.

The night in Taipei isn’t black. I was reminded again of the thought-provoking book Nuit by Michaël Foessel, the idea that the night has become something rare. Darkness has become light. The time for rest has become the time for work. Taipei never sleeps in Vögele’s film. The black of the night that used to be is now tinted in cold blue. The night that used to be is now an artificial day. At a vast market hall, shop owners on scooters shop ingredients. After a typhoon destroyed local harvests, people have no other choice but buy their products from the mainland. Mr Ku complains about the costs. Every month, he spends more on the ingredients, but the eatery cannot keep up.

Closing Time is about fragile existences, created by the night, by economic conditions, by a multitude of circumstances. There is life at the margins, a life which we don’t (want to) see, but which continues regardless. People make do. There is a beautiful scene half-way through the film that struck me as one of the most special scene cuts I have come across in recent years. For approximately an hour we follow the fragile existence of people, at times accompanied by the sound of ferocious winds and heavy rain, the coming typhoon threatening the people’s fragile existence even more. And then, Vögele cuts to a park, a literal but also a visual breathing space. There is a man playing the saxophone somewhere. He’s difficult to spot, but the beautiful, peaceful melody is just… it opens your heart.

So does a long, slow pan, which allows us to see the nature outside Taipei, a world that allows us to breathe, but that also shows the clear contrast between the world of the Nachtschwärmer, the night owls, and the world that seems to be out of reach for them. Mr Ku speaks about the necessity to take a break. His fragile existence also depends on his ability to rest, to break out of the hamster wheel which his life has become. Closing Time is very much about this hamster wheel, about the constraints that those at the margins have to abide by. But it is just as much a film about agency, about the liberty to take a decision that allows you to be. Instead of returning home and back to work, Mr Ku takes a detour with his scooter one day. He doesn’t seem to have a specific destination in mind. The only destination he drives towards is a badly needed escape, in much the same way the saxophone allowed us to escape from the eternal blue night earlier in the film.

Vögele’s film is a genuine gem. It feels as though she continues where Tsai Ming-liang had left off. It feels like a continuation of a world that slow-film fans might recognise, but she adds her own touch to this world. In an interview, she once said “For me, it’s not important if I shoot a film in Taipei or in Zurich. I think what really interests me is a really deep humanistic thing. Why are we here? What is human? I think that it’s not important where you do that.” But it’s important how you do it, and Vögele shows in Closing Time that she is well-equipped to explore those questions with her camera.

Taste of Cement – Ziad Kalthoum (2017)

My father’s hand was the city of Beirut.

I came to Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement by accident and it’s one of those accidents that you’re grateful for. Not so long ago, I read a long article on the Guardian about our obsession with concrete. Concrete, stable, over-towering and yet destructive, is perhaps the symbol of our advanced modern societies. Kalthoum’s film is not only about this though. It’s a poetic journey in many ways; literary, cinematically, humanly.

I’m trying to remember my life before the war.

Ziad Kalthoum tells two stories. His film is set in Lebanon. The camera observes Syrian migrant workers who are employed on construction sites around Beirut. They’re rebuilding a country that has been ravaged by war; all the while war is destroying their own country. Syria, where war has been raging for eight years, is always in the background of the film. The country is for a long time an absent protagonist, the main protagonist even, and it’s in the fabric of each character, of each movement, each action. Syria is there.

But it’s crumbling. It’s being dismantled, destroyed. The director, from Homs, puts the country at the horizon. There is a feeling of longing, of desire, but also of anxiety. After a twelve-hour shift on the rooftops of Beirut’s new building complexes, the workers return to Syria. In their makeshift housings, beyond humane, they travel back home via their mobile phones. Social media allows them to follow the war and the ongoing destruction. It is here that Kalthoum merges the two locations of the film; one a war-torn country, the other in a mode of post-war reconstruction.

The sound of the sea is deafening, but the waves stand still.

Kalthoum guides the viewer through the use of a voice-over, through the use of a worker’s memories of his childhood, the times when his own father returned from work abroad, from Beirut, from the construction site. With a taste of cement. The man’s memories are vivid, almost palpable. We can imagine a young boy running towards his father, fascinated by those white hands that show the marks of hard labour. “Cement eats your skin, not just your soul,” the voice-over tells us. The food the father cooked upon his return had always tasted of cement, the young man remembers.

This taste, it is a bitter one. The film begins with breathtaking imagery. Each frame is aestheticised, photographic, marvellous. But the images contradict the voice-over. They contradict the hardships, the war at home. The second part of the film begins to make Syria, the absent protagonist of the film, visible, not only through pictures and videos on the workers’ mobile phones. The slow, almost peaceful movements of the cranes in Beirut are juxtaposed with gun turrets of tanks. The movements are the same, the purpose on opposite sides. Creation, destruction. Destruction, creation.

When your palm corrodes you stop counting the days. Time stops.

Man giveth. Man taketh.

There is a special rhythm to the film. It is contemplative, observational, poetic, but the director disrupts this rhythm several times. Those disruptions, they function as shock moments and as a link to the images of destruction in Syria. The taste of cement is present not only in those who work abroad on construction sites. It is also present in those who are buried underneath the ruins of their houses, in those who dig for survivors.

Kalthoum’s rapid editing towards the end of the film evokes the traumatic shocks of war. The routine and repetitive work processes give way to footage of destruction and of death. It is as though the film comes full circle. It is as though it points to the senseless circle of construction-destruction, the sheer painful irony of Syrians helping to rebuild one country while their own is ravaged. Taste of Cement is a look at our own conflictual nature and one cannot help but keep a bitter aftertaste.

Century of Smoke – Nicolas Graux (2019)

There is one aspect of my work in the field of Slow Cinema, which I like more than anything else: the opportunity to travel the world via the eyes of filmmakers who listen to marginalised people around the globe. For the first time in ten years writing on the subject, I have been taking a trip to Laos, a country perhaps no one really knows much about. Perhaps the capital, at most. But when it comes to life in Laos, a small country in south-east Asia, with almost seven million inhabitants, we know nothing. Nicolas Graux has travelled there to use film as a means to tell the story of Laosan, a young man, married with two children, who is addicted to opium.

This addiction doesn’t come from nowhere. On the contrary. As Laosan tells us in the second half of the film, the family grows the highly profitable plant. The plantations in themselves don’t cause the people to get addicted, but a lot of men in this Akha society are. Laosan’s parents, he tells us, became addicted after the death of his brother. They didn’t know how to handle their grief. Opium became a relief and his father, in particular, is seen smoking time and again throughout the film. This is only part of the story, however. The core of Graux’s film focuses on Laosan himself and the ways in which his opium addiction affects not only his own life but also that of the people around him.

Graux uses breathtaking long-takes in order to situate us in the milieu the Ahka are living in. Tight, almost suffocating close-ups are replaced with wide open shots of the jungle, low-hanging clouds moving along the horizon. Laosan is a heavy smoker, he tells us. As soon as withdrawal effects are setting in, he needs to tackle them by smoking again and, more importantly, smoking more. We see him preparing the drug, we see him inhaling and exhaling. We see the smoke that leaves his mouth and his nostrils. The repeated shift between close-ups and long shots resembles Laosan’s smoking process; the film inhales and exhales. The low-hanging clouds become a mirror for the opium smoke that infests a substantial number of Graux’s frames.

But the film is not only an aesthetically pleasing, visually stunning piece. Graux lays open the problems of opium addiction in society. Laosan is an absent husband and father. He doesn’t know what to do with his life. He has lost all energy, all perspective for the future. He is almost lethargic. His parents, especially his father, urge him to move away from the region and to build a new life somewhere else, to a region that had something to offer. Laosan’s father reiterates time and again that the region had nothing more to offer, and that his son needs to make a move fast. The dialogue between parents and son, shot in an extensive long-take, is ironic in some ways. The father, himself addicted to opium, scolds his son for losing all interest in making something out of his life. It is clear that the problem is the opium, and yet the father doesn’t mention it. Opium – the elephant in the room.

Most heart-breaking is a sequence that focuses on the women in the village. It is they who suffer the most. They speak of their horror witnessing the drastic change in their husbands. They speak of their fears of being beaten because opium makes their husbands violent. They speak of wanting to leave their miserable lives behind, of going to China, of looking for a new man, a new job. Laosan’s wife even speaks of suicide because she can no longer live this life. It’s her children who hold her back. Who would look after them? she wonders. Her plan is to move away as soon as her children are old enough. Until then, she will be locked into a tiring fight against this disease, this addiction that has changed the face of the region.

But perhaps there is hope. Laosan tells us that the Laotian government seeks to prohibit the growth of opium. The young man, marked by over a year of addiction, is hoping for this change, giving him the chance to finally come off it. For Laosan, being surrounded by opium is counterproductive to any attempt at freeing himself from those chains. He hopes for the government, for the prohibition of opium in the country, in order to get clean. It is, perhaps, the desire of a vast number of people. Laosan is only one of many. Graux allows him to tell his story and his camera is a patient observer, which stylistically also reiterates the idea of lethargy. Cinematic slowness becomes an expression of each and every lethargic day spent in the mountains and hoping for better days to come.

I couldn’t help but think of Apichatpong Weerasethakul several times while watching Graux’s film. There is a degree of similarity between Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady and Century of Smoke. Is it the location? The aesthetics? The way of observation? I haven’t found the answer yet, but regardless, Graux walks in the steps of big-name slow-film directors. With Century of Smoke he has arrived at the very heart of Slow Cinema, and he sits comfortably amongst Weerasethakul, Lisandro Alonso and Tsai Ming-liang.

Happy 10th Slow Cinema anniversary

This year marks a special anniversary for me. Ten years ago in summer, I watched my first slow film. It was Béla Tarr’s The Man from London (2007), a stunning feast, which blew my mind. I kept looking at my watch not because I was bored, but because I wanted to see just how long this first take would last. Quite remarkable that it has been a decade already. Since The Man from London, which, I later found out, was based on a book by Georges Simenon, I have seen hundreds of slow films. Not all of them have made it onto my blog, for lack of time, or frankly for a lack of space because I started my blog only three years after my first slow-film experience.

Béla Tarr, Lav Diaz, Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-liang – these were the big names when I started. I came comparatively late to the oeuvre of Pedro Costa, and I still need to catch up with all of his films. But overall, those four directors used to be the core of what was considered to be Slow Cinema at the time. There were others, of course. Abbas Kiarostami, or Theo Angelopoulos. Chantal Akerman was always a bit on the side, because she was the only woman director talked about. Slow Cinema certainly was a male field. The term was coined by a man, the directors were almost exclusively male, and whenever I did see a slow film in cinema or went to a conference, I felt rather strange as being one of only a handful of women. In fact, my work on Slow Cinema has made me become utterly aware of my being a woman, especially when my book proposal was rejected with the reason of the subject not fitting into the publisher’s portfolio, only for them to accept a book on the same subject by a man.

But apart from having me made aware of who I am and where I come from, Slow Cinema had for me something exciting about it. Why? Because it was a sort of genre, or movement, that I more or less grew into. Slow films, or slower-than-the-usual films have always existed, yet it became “a thing” only in the 2010s, once Jonathan Romney published his Sight & Sound piece about the increase of cinematic slowness in films. It felt as though I was witnessing something in-the-making. I still remember the first festival dedicated to slow films. The AV festival in the UK dedicated a whole weekend to Slow Cinema, with a mini retrospective of Lav Diaz’s films. This was where I saw my first ultra-long film, which much later became my main interest because the length not only created an entirely new film experience for me. It also allowed me to see films in a different way, not just as a purely horizontal narrative, but as something that can take its time to get to the bottom of things.

When I did my Phd from 2012 to 2015, debates about and around Slow Cinema tended to become heated. On the one hand, you had devoted followers. On the other, there were people who hated Slow Cinema and they were the ones who advocated the idea of boredom in the context of slowness. “I’m not going to the cinema to get bored.” The debate on Slow Cinema highlighted what most people expect of cinema to be: a form of entertainment that is used to numb problems, pain, concerns – if only for two hours. I believe that the rejection of slow films not only stems from its rejection as a form of entertainment. It is the rejection to see, a rejection of our human condition.

Slow Cinema also showed the nasty business of film criticism, with certain critics leaving the auditorium early and then ripped a film into pieces (which you can’t do with slow films until you have seen the whole film), and with critics who haven’t even seen a certain film they were reviewing. There were books hastily published, which didn’t even try to understand the movement as something that goes beyond a rejection of modernity’s speed. All of a sudden, those who never bothered with the field had a chapter published. If you wanted to be on top of things as a film scholar, you had to join the band waggon.

I believe that Slow Cinema has given me an insight into more than I had bargained for. In the end, the heated discussion died down as quickly as it had begun. Paul Schrader announced the death of Slow Cinema not so long ago. This shows nothing else than his lack of understanding of the genre. It may well look as though Slow Cinema is in decline. Béla Tarr and Tsai Ming-liang have retired. Chantal Akerman, Theo Angelopoulos, Abbas Kiarostami have died. The written output is decreasing.

If one wasn’t actively involved with it almost daily, one could easily agree with Schrader. But this would be a mistake. With the rush over slowness coming to an end (yes, this joke is totally intentional), Slow Cinema can finally be. Maybe directors can soon even do Q&As without being asked the age-old question as to why their films are so slow. They can just talk about the content of their films. Now is the time when some quality writing, some quality analysis can emerge from the silence and the stillness that is slowly beginning to wrap around slow films. It’s no longer about making a quick comment on something that is at odds with our modern times. It is about feeling it, and putting it into perspective.

And we will have ample time to do this, as Slow Cinema is everything but dead. Wang Bing has become one of the most prolific directors in recent years. Nikolaus Geyrhalter continues to investigate the world. Shengze Zhu has just won the Tiger Award in Rotterdam. Jacqueline Zünd seems to become a new female force in Slow Cinema. Apichatpong Weerasethakul is treading new grounds in Colombia. Aleksandra Niemczyk is probably one of the most promising new talents. Michela Occhipinti has premiered her new film at the Berlinale. Bi Gan is making himself a name in the field.

The future couldn’t be brighter, precisely because the public debate has died down. While others declare Slow Cinema dead, I personally am convinced that we are entering a new promising phase, which could even become a sort of golden age for slow films. Let’s see what there is to write for me in 2029!

The spirit of absence

I have long been fascinated by the power of absence. I hadn’t known that this was one element that drew me towards Slow Cinema until I saw my first of a number of Lav Diaz’ films, which so clearly play on the nature of the unseen, the present absence. More and more I also realise that my attraction towards this ghostly aesthetic probably stems from several holes in my family history, which I’m now seeking to clear up. There is always a reason for one’s attraction to a piece of art, or a film, and often one isn’t aware of the underlying reason for being emotionally moved by something.

The fascinating aspect of absence, which, to me, is related to the element of space, is that it distorts our perception of time. In many ways, time appears to pass slower, in extreme situations perhaps even in slow motion. There are various reasons for “holes” in our life narrative. Absence is always connected to a loss of something, and this can take different forms. Death is probably the one we can all identify with, and the days and weeks after having lost a loved one always feel different. Time has a different meaning than before. There is a before and an after.

I have long been an admirer of the writings of Georges Didi-Huberman, whose work seems to overlap with my own more often than not, and the further I move through his work, the more I see just how much value his books and essays have for Slow Cinema. Didi-Huberman is not an expert in cinema, which would perhaps rule him out for a lot of people because he just doesn’t know the field. Interestingly enough, it is probably precisely because he is writing from several vantage points – philosophy, art, history, and yes, cinema – that allows him to see things clearly, to take a step back, and to introduce new ideas. Or to simply open our eyes to what’s really in front of us.

One would not necessarily pick up a study on the Italian artist Claudio Parmiggiani for an informed reading on Slow Cinema. But Didi-Huberman’s in-depth focus on “air, dust, traces, and haunting”, as indicated in the book’s subtitle (Génie du non-lieu – Air, poussière, empreinte, hantise), is exactly what one should pick up for a better, or even new understanding of the uses of absence in slow films. I have long used art books for my work on Slow Cinema, and there is a lot of remarkable material that many people, especially academics who think only in their own field, have overlooked. Claudio Parmiggiani is an exceptional artist, whose work focuses on absence, silence and fragmentation. Ignoring everything I have read, looking at Parmiggiani’s pieces online conjures feelings of loss, of pain, of longing, but also of searching and hoping.

The power of time in form of patience, desire and waiting, Didi-Huberman writes, can never exist without an event, an action, that tears it up. There is nothing like a homogenous forward movement of time. There is a persistent alternation between calm and shock. This shock, as I have argued above, usually comes about through the loss of something or someone. A loss is always traumatic, like when you thought, in your childhood, that your dad really stole your nose when he made this weird finger movement in front of your face. You’re shocked, you cry. The calm disappears. The alternation between the power of time in form of slowness and its shock moments can be found in several slow films, but is most visible in the films of Lav Diaz, whose narratives live of this back-and-forth, especially his six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012).

There is this famous opposition in the works of Roland Barthes: what is and what has been. Parmiggiani, on the other hand, works on what remains. Barthes’ has been is absent, but continues to haunt the present. Parmiggiani shows the residues. He creates a picture of this haunting absence in the form of dust, or imprints. He makes it palpable, brings it out into the open. Didi-Huberman argues that dust (poussière in French) has its own time, it doesn’t follow the rhythms we establish throughout our lives. What’s more, dust survives us. It always will. Even though, as Didi-Huberman points out, dust is in permanent movement, it is perhaps the only permanent remnant of everything we do, of everything that our life is and has been. It’s what remains after our death. Dust is temporary and yet permanent. It is in movement, shifting from place to place, and yet remains where it is.

The survival of traces, of dust, of imprints threatens our own survival, Didi-Huberman writes. Is this the reason why we feel uncomfortable about it? Is this why feel haunted, why we try to run away, in whatever way? The nature of slow films reminds us of those traces, and they usually do so by using the off-screen very effectively (and affectively). Parmiggiani’s work is all about the literal meaning of imprints and dust, at least in his magnificent series Delocazione. In effect, I find that he gives an image to what those two elements can also mean, namely memory. Persistent memories, haunting memories, memories that are transmitted from one generation to the next. Memories survive us, and this very survival, this longevity, threatens us and our calm existence. They bring upheaval, pain, change.

This “dust” forms the core of most slow films that I have seen. I have argued previously on this blog that slow films centre around Barthes’ what has been. In fact, after having seen Parmiggiani’s art, I more and more believe that we’re actually speaking about what remains in those films. We’re speaking about remains, residues, dust. We speak about what survives us, what remains after we’re gone. We feel our own impotence of something much larger than us. Do we not?

An Elephant Sitting Still – Hu Bo (2018)

There are good films. There are bad films. There are exciting films, awesome films, overwhelming films. There are also underwhelming films, those that are total junk and a complete waste of time. There are those exclamations like “wow!” or “no, no, I don’t believe this!”. Maybe even something like “best film of the year for me!”. And then there is Hu Bo’s first and only feature film An Elephant Sitting Still, which he had completed in late 2017 before he committed suicide. There is no word or expression in the three languages I speak that would help me express what I feel about this film.

There are films that make you interested in film, and you pick it up as a study subject at university. Or you pick up a camera yourself. There are films that touch you deeply. Films that make you cry, make you laugh. People sometimes speak of emotional rollercoasters. And then there is An Elephant Sitting Still, which makes me want to stop watching films because I don’t want to stain what I have seen with other films. I would like to keep this film as the last film I would ever see because it is so rich, so pure, so deep.

We are all looking for something in life. You might not be aware of it until you find the one thing that you had been looking for. I have been looking for An Elephant Sitting Still. My now ten years in film, especially in slow film, on a quest to find the answer to something I haven’t even asked a question about, have found what I seem have been unconsciously looking for. And this something doesn’t have a word. Or a feeling. It’s something deep inside me.

Milan Kundera wrote a book called The Unbearable Lightness of Being, later adapted to the big screen. The Unbearable Weight Of Being – this is what Hu Bo captures. The weight of living, of breathing, of surviving, or trying to. The weight of our times. Chantal Akerman always wanted us to feel time. Hu Bo wants us to feel the weight of it. The calculated stillness in numerous extended long-takes functions like the weight of an elephant, several tons that crush you underneath its feet. You fight, but what do you fight for if there is no alternative?

The time spent on fighting the agony, on lifting the weight of time, only adds to the feeling of hopelessness. Hu Bo’s characters struggle with the existential question of what their life is worth. This isn’t a truly pessimistic look at life. It is, rather, an existential look at our times, at our stillness in the face of time.

Hu Bo’s moving images are drained of energy, of colour. The film itself is tired, but uses its last bit of energy on telling its characters’ stories. There is resistance, yet not enough in the face of an overwhelming external and invisible force. Every hour spent with the characters feels like an entire life. It is not just the weight of time that drains the characters. It is their anger, often contained, swallowed, until the last straw break’s the camel’s neck. Then, verbal and physical violence becomes omnipresent, but only briefly, often in the off.

There is a boiling point which the film is headed towards. Not a climax, followed by a denouement. An Elephant Sitting Still is eternal. It is our film, our malaise of trying to make something out of our lives in an increasingly hostile world in which we millennials are the first generation to feel the brutality of this new age in which it is difficult enough to survive and even more difficult to live.

Life as an eternal tragedy. Life as an eternal struggle. For those who live in the here and now, the film becomes an expression of their pain without ever trying to make us feel sorry. Without ever trying to make us cry. Wang Jin, an elderly man who faces the fate of spending the rest of his days in a nursing home, says towards the end: “by not going (elsewhere), you learn how to live with it here.”

Elsewhere is always close. We see one character, up close, and another blurred in the background. Elsewhere. The dream of something better than this. A dream that keeps us going, crawling almost, with the few resources we have left. And yet, Hu Bo’s Elephant is not hopeless or worthless, as the film’s characters think they are. Elephant is the one reason why all of this is worth it.

Endnote: If you expected an in-depth review of the film, I’m sorry that I have disappointed you. The experience of Elephant is special. I have thought for a long time that I shouldn’t write about it at all. I don’t want to talk about it either. Elephant is inside me, and only I have the key to it. Never in my life have I had such an experience, but, as I have said above, all of the struggles in my life were worth it if it meant discovering such a film at some point in my life.

Kaili Blues – Bi Gan (2015)

It is impossible to retain a past thought, to seize a future thought, and even to hold onto a present thought.

There couldn’t be a better beginning to a film than this extract of the Diamond Sutra, the most important sutra in Buddhism. It says so much about the reasons for our suffering. Do we not always try to project ourselves into the future? Are we not always haunted by past thoughts? And what about those wonderful present moments, which we would like to hold onto? There is a constant tension because of our attempts of controlling what is beyond our control.

And yet, this extract of the Diamond Sutra is not only there to make us aware of this curious state of eternal suffering. Chinese director Bi Gan also makes a statement about his film Kaili Blues, his debut feature, and, perhaps, about cinema in general. Especially the inability to hold on to a present thought… it has often been said that photography and film can capture the present moment. Indeed, so they do. Yet as soon as the present has been captured, it becomes part of the past. What is, has been. Bi Gan’s non-linear moving images (I wouldn’t call it a film just now) are a fascinating example of Daniel Frampton’s filmmind. His images are free floating, The film moves to wherever it wants to move. Past, present, future – it all seems to be one. The director’s forty-minute long-take in the second half of the film shows exactly this; the act of floating, floating memories, floating thoughts. We travel by motorcycle, by car. We follow this character, then another, all the while (re)discovering places and scenes that we remember from earlier.

Time has no meaning in Kaili Blues. Everything is. Temporal orientation is impossible and unnecessary. The film is no more than an invitation to float with the characters. A long circular, counterclockwise camera movement to the left, a long circular clockwise camera movement to the right – the camera becomes an indicator of the nature of time. Time is circular. There is repetition, there is rebirth. Freedom, relief, means breaking out of this circle. But Bi Gan doesn’t allow us to break out.

He holds us with lingering shots that resemble thoughts. He holds us with sounds that feel as though they come from our own mind, from our dreams and desires. He holds us. After twenty minutes, it feels as though we have already spent an eternity with Bi Gan’s characters, characters that draw watches on their wrists. The mechanical clock, the imposed partition of time, as an opponent to the very nature of Kaili Blues, the natural passage of time versus our modern perception of it, our modern desire to control time, to impose our rhythm on something that is beyond control – a marvellous point by the director.

Carefully composed, beautiful frames tell a story of emptiness, of distance. There is something missing. There is an absence that cannot be filled, a chasm that becomes deeper and wider with every scene. The independently moving camera opens up spaces and poses questions. If we try to find responses to our questions, time will wash over us like an overwhelming wave in the sea. We will get lost and have no means to catch up.

The reason for Chen’s imprisonment, the reason for Chen’s apparent adoption at a young age and the ensuing jealousy of his stepbrother, the role of Weiwei, Chen’s nephew – there is so much to explore, so many questions to ask, and not a single answer. Instead, we are shipwrecked, safe and secure on a piece of debris, but at the mercy of the sea, which the director keeps moving just like his camera. Long pans, slow zooms – these create waves that shift us to another place, to another time. And we forget where we are. We’re oblivious. In the end we become melancholic, we get the blues, subdued by somber frames, dull colours, and the endless movement in time without a goal ahead.

Bi Gan is, in his first debut feature, already a master of time, a puppet master who knows exactly what strings to pull and when. He follows the story where it wants to go. The camera becomes a companion along the road. At some point the question arose: have I seen this film already? An obscure feeling of familiarity surrounded me. Bi Gan walks in the steps of Béla Tarr, Andrei Tarkovsky, Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s a cinematic heritage he picks up and which turns into his own style. Kaili Blues is only the beginning.