Arresting trauma – Martti Helde’s In The Crosswinds (2014)

“On the night of 14 June 1941, more than 40,000 innocent people were deported from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The aim of this secret operation – done on Stalin’s orders – was to ethnically cleanse the Baltic countries of their native peoples.”

In the context of my research into the representation of post-trauma in the films of Lav Diaz, I have published a few posts here on this blog, which equally dealt with the subject. There is, first of all, a rather personal account of my dealing with PTSD and how Slow Cinema helped me to become more mindful. There is also an article on the link between Slow Cinema and Cultural Memory. In fact, throughout my research and my trying to come to terms with my own experience, I have realised that trauma research focuses almost exclusively on the aspect of speed (as mentioned in my PhD thesis). There is little doubt that life after trauma is different. Anxiety and panic introduce an aspect of speed to one’s life that seemingly spirals out of control. But there is also an aspect that tends to be forgotten: an aspect of duration and slowness. It can take a while before post-trauma, for instance, manifests itself in the body/psyche. Traumatic memories return over and over again, a circular repetition that makes the actual post-trauma life seem endless. You can read more about the aspect of slowness in the context of trauma in my thesis.

In my thesis, I have argued that Diaz’s use of absence and long duration effectively (and affectively!) represents post-trauma without ever showing the traumatic event that has led to the character’s suffering. What matters is the time spent on the character and on his/her suffering. Quite some time ago, I have come across an Estonian film, which I rewatched yesterday and I cannot not write about this film. Perhaps, it is not a traditional, straightforward slow film, and yet it is a film that uses slowness, duration and absence for a representation of post-trauma (or trauma-in-the-making), but in a completely different way.

The film begins with white letters on a black screen. There is no sound. The quietness reinforces the meaning of the dates and numbers that characterise the deportation of over 40,000 innocent people. Filmmaker Martti Helde sets a historical context and explains that his film In The Crosswinds (2014) is based on letters written by Erna Tamm, who had been writing to her husband from whom she was separated during the deportation. For me, Crosswinds stands out as a remarkable experiment on how trauma can be represented on screen without turning it into a spectacle, which is always an ethical problem filmmakers have to negotiate. There is one characteristic in which Diaz’s and Helde’s representation of traumatic events are similar: the directors’ use of absence. Neither Diaz nor Helde show traumatic events on screen. Even though Helde does focus on the actual deportation, his approach to its representation allows for empty space that needs to be filled by the spectator. Atrocities such as mass killings and rape are not shown on screen. Helde shows the before and after, or a voice over informs us about the traumatic event. Yet, the director positions us, confusingly, within the traumatic event without showing all the terrible details, all the while making sure that we cannot be mistaken about what’s really happening.

“Heldur, time has taken on another dimension. The temporary has passed. We measure time by the news that reaches us. That way the days and weeks seem shorter.”

All of this might sound like films I have spoken about before in the context of slowness and trauma. And yet, Crosswinds stands out in one specific way, and it addresses several themes I have mentioned on this blog before. The film has, in fact, two sides to it. Each follows its own temporality, its own aesthetic. Let’s begin with flashbacks, memories of the good times, times before the start of the deportation. The film starts in greyscale. A voice over says, “I received your letter. I’m in your homeland.” The camera, with its beautiful and graceful movements, explores a backyard. There is a blooming apple tree, Erna sorting the laundry. Inside the house, we see her, her husband Heldur and her daughter Eliide having breakfast. The sun is shining. It’s a wonderful image of peace. They talk to one another, but the viewer is excluded from their conversation. Helde silences the voices and focuses instead on ambient sound in order to reinforce this image of quietude and peace. These times of before return once or twice during the film. The main emphasis, however, is placed on the deportation, the journey to and life in Siberia, and the struggles of the deported to survive.

The deportation set something in motion that one would call traumatisme in French. The English language doesn’t have a clear-cut distinction between the traumatic event and the psychological reaction. Not all traumatic events lead to PTSD, albeit PTSD is the only term that makes it absolutely clear that you’re speaking about something post trauma. In Helde’s film, the impact of trauma (the event) is represented on screen by a literal arrest, a stoppage of time and of movement. Crosswinds is a film, in which, in the majority of scenes, characters do not move. They’re standing still, arrested in certain positions while the camera circles around them. It feels as though you’re walking through a haunted past, photographs that have arrested the atrocities committed on Stalin’s orders. It is as though the deported are put to rest (albeit not in a good way). When Erna’s family is arrested, we don’t see the actual arrest. Helde places all three characters on the back of a lorry, sitting still, watching in fear. The soundscape tells us that officers smash glass in the family house. But only the sound tells us of this violent attack. There is no image of it. When the lorry arrives at the local train station, the camera circles around hundreds of to-be-deported people: children, women, men, old and young, rich and poor. There seemed to have been no one who was spared. Everyone on the platform stands as though arrested. The violent scenes we know from Holocaust cinema, in which the spectator is confronted with crying children, begging mothers, shots in the air, forceful commands etc are not present here. What happens instead is that life comes to a halt. Trauma arrests time. Trauma disrupts the continuation of time towards the future. It’s a ghostly atmosphere. It is as though the people on the train platform are already dead, still, stiff, a mere memory of the past (to get a better idea of what I’m speaking of you should watch this scene!).

“We’re prisoners of nature. I wonder if there have ever been any prisoners with so much space that you long for boundaries.”

Crosswinds focuses on Erna’s story, her attempt at survival, the tragic loss of Eliide, who became weaker by the day. Starvation is rampant. So are diseases. Erna’s daughter is one of many who survive the deportation, but not life in Siberia. In a voice over, we’re told that of the 51 women in Erna’s train waggon, 42 made it to the destination. One mother killed herself and her child on the journey.

Every woman is expected to work. They chop wood day in day out, in freezing temperatures with little food that is not even enough for a child. Erna strikes up a friendship with Hermiine, but even she cannot protect Erna from sexual assault and rape in exchange for a loaf of bread. The camera is constantly in movement. It is as free as the camera in Béla Tarr’s films, but its function is different in Crosswinds. Helde’s camera is searching for something or someone. It is always looking for something, not knowing what it would find. There are a lot of empty frames which the camera uses as a cue to keep moving, to keep looking. Here again it might be worth returning to my post about the filmind in Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo in order to see how a film can be created in such a way that it appears to have its own mind, its own ways of thinking. Apart from ZerkaloCrosswinds stands out as the other great example of this.

It takes almost fifty minutes before we see Heldur again, separated from his wife on the platform. Because of Erna’s letter, we learn that the men were deported into another direction. Whereto – this isn’t mentioned at all, but those with knowledge about the war have an idea of what this means. Heldur, dressed almost in rags, head shaven, stands in front of a table behind which three Soviet officers are seated. Helde let’s us guess that this is a make-shift tribunal where Heldur is sentenced to death. The camera spins around the room, while everything else is in arrest. This sequence of scene is the clearest in which the film’s aesthetics represent the action on screen. The non-movement, the two-fold arrest of Heldur (as a prisoner and as a character who doesn’t move), the ghostly images, foreshadow his fate. His non-movement means nothing other than his death.

“Because what is freedom worth if you have to pay for it with solitude?”

It takes the death of Stalin for Erna to be able to return to Estonia. Although she had promised Heldur that she would try to find him after the war, she no longer has any idea of where to look for. “Maybe below the soil?” Erna’s words are poignant, and it took her 47 years to learn that her husband had been murdered. What remains are still, arresting and arrested images of the past that continue to haunt. Because of their stillness, the images Helde has created stay with you. The long duration of the scenes, the stillness of the image, the haunting (visual) absence of atrocities all contribute to a remarkable film experience that, to me, represents perhaps most adequately the post trauma.

The aesthetics of absence and duration in the post-trauma cinema of Lav Diaz

Now that the PhD has been awarded, I’m happy to make my thesis, the first coherent study of the films of Lav Diaz, available for you to read. I’m currently working on a monograph, which will use this thesis as a basis, but which will be more personal, less academic and which will contain one more chapter. I’ll write a little something on Diaz’s Locarno winner From What Is Before (2014) which I really thought needs mention in the context of post-trauma, but which I couldn’t really fit into my thesis. Please feel free to get in touch about the thesis if you want. Please feel free to comment or even recommend further reading which I would be happy about. Here’s the abstract of the thesis. You can find the download link below.

Aiming to make an intervention in both emerging Slow Cinema and classical Trauma Cinema scholarship, this thesis demonstrates the ways in which the post-trauma cinema of Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz merges aesthetics of cinematic slowness with narratives of post-trauma in his films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012). 

Diaz has been repeatedly considered as representative of what Jonathan Romney termed in 2004 “Slow Cinema”. The director uses cinematic slowness for an alternative approach to an on-screen representation of post-trauma. Contrary to popular trauma cinema, Diaz’s portrait of individual and collective trauma focuses not on the instantenaeity but on the duration of trauma. In considering trauma as a condition and not as an event, Diaz challenges the standard aesthetically techniques used in contemporary Trauma Cinema, as highlighted by Janet Walker (2001, 2005), Susannah Radstone (2001), Roger Luckhurst (2008) and others. Diaz’s films focus instead on trauma’s latency period, the depletion of a survivor’s resources, and a character’s slow psychological breakdown. 

Slow Cinema scholarship has so far focused largely on the films’ aesthetics and their alleged opposition to mainstream cinema. Little work has been done in connecting the films’ form to their content. Furthermore, Trauma Cinema scholarship, as trauma films themselves, has been based on the immediate and most radical signs of post-trauma, which are characterised by instantaneity; flashbacks, sudden fears of death and sensorial overstimulation. Following Lutz Koepnick’s argument that slowness offers “intriguing perspectives” (Koepnick, 2014: 191) on how trauma can be represented in art, this thesis seeks to consider the equally important aspects of trauma duration, trauma’s latency period and the slow development of characteristic symptoms. 

With the present work, I expand on current notions of Trauma Cinema, which places emphasis on speed and the unpredictability of intrusive memories. Furthermore, I aim to broaden the area of Slow Cinema studies, which has so far been largely focused on the films’ respective aesthetics, by bridging form and content of the films under investigation. Rather than seeing Diaz’s slow films in isolation as a phenomenon of Slow Cinema, I seek to connect them to the existing scholarship of Trauma Cinema studies, thereby opening up a reading of his films.

You can download the full thesis here.

Default Setting: Bored

Just last week I read Jakob Boer’s interesting paper “As Slow As Possible: An Enquiry Into the Redeeming Power of Boredom for Slow Film Viewers” (2015). I’m partly immensely grateful for this paper. I’ve lamented for a while that Slow Cinema scholarship is running in circles and there’s very little new material that comes out of it. We’re still discussing mainly the subjective issue of (slow) time and its roots in Neorealism, which isn’t exactly true. Based on Matthew Flanagan’s PhD thesis, Boer, too, refers to these roots.

His paper is an investigation into the aspect of boredom, also often discussed in the context of Slow Cinema. But Boer’s paper is a philosophical take on the issue and therefore makes an interesting point within Slow Cinema studies. It’s clearly audience centred, which I find particularly vital for the study of Slow Cinema. Slow Cinema is a form of cinema driven by experience for the viewer. I personally think that you lose the whole experience of slow films if you try to read them exclusively through the lens of film theories. As scholars, we’re obliged to do it, but it’s not always helpful and maybe (hopefully) Slow Cinema teaches academics to back down a bit, ease up on theoretical framework-thinking.

What is Slow Cinema? A genre, a movement? Neither? Boer takes the stance that Slow Cinema is a genre. The most widespread term is ‘movement’. I haven’t really made up my mind and, in effect, it doesn’t matter that much. It only does in scholarship, so that we can put these films into already existing categories. The viewers possibly don’t waste a minute about those things. If there’s one thing that Slow Cinema really does is visualise the extreme differences between academic and viewer, and the former often forget that they’re also the latter.

What strikes me in Boer’s article, but not only in his, is that it is assumed slow films create boredom by default. Boer does consider the positive effects of boredom, such as creating contemplation. But it seems as if you have to be bored first, and then, if all goes well and the boredom turns out to be positive, you reach a state of contemplation. Contemplation is seen in the context of boredom. Can I not contemplate a film or an image, say a painting, without getting bored? That is the ultimate crux here: Boer’s paper is, among others, based on Heidegger’s thinking on boredom. Because this literature is there, it feels as though we have to make Slow Cinema fit.

But isn’t it a fact that Slow Cinema challenges existing literature? I’m wrapping up a thesis on the way Lav Diaz’s slow films challenge both Slow Cinema and Trauma Cinema. You can make it work, but you need to be a bit creative. I do believe that slow films do not create boredom by default. If it was like this, it would mean that people would only go see those films because they wanted to be lazy. It reminds me of this well-known media model of the passive spectator who merely sits in his/her seat and the messages are injected straight into his veins…or his brain, for that matter.

When I read Boer’s paper I had this very model in mind, wondering whether active spectatorship has ever been considered. I don’t think that someone who’s bored is actively engaged in a film. And yet, for most slow films you need to be actively engaged in order to grasp the meaning, the narrative, the twists and turns. There’s more happening than writers often make readers believe. But rather than many different forms of action happening in time, Slow Cinema depicts often only one action. And yet, lots is happening, but not necessarily on the time-axis. It’s more about depth. I mentioned Maya Deren in one of my early posts. She talked about poetry being vertical (rather than horizontal), because it describes and investigates themes in depth. For me the vertical means depth, the horizontal is the surface. Slow Cinema is vertical, and you have to be actively engaged in order to dig your way into the film. Even contemplation can distract in that matter. I know that myself – give me a beautiful photographic shot and I forget the narrative.

I think a study of boredom would perhaps make more sense for films like Warhol’s Empire or similar video art. I don’t think it’s applicable to slow-film viewers who watch fictional narratives or docs. They do not see Lav Diaz’s films to get bored. They want to go on a journey, and if your journey is boring, then you have clearly done something wrong.

The different slowness in Evolution of a Filipino Family

After my initial thoughts on Lav Diaz’s Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), I am now in the position to say a bit more about it, though I need more time studying the content. My time is now spent drawing up a shot-by-shot analysis, which, as you can imagine, takes ages for an eleven hour film. These things are incredibly helpful, but become a real pest if you work on Lav’s films 🙂

What struck me during the first two hours of detailed viewing didn’t strike me at all the first time round. I suppose we’re all agreed that Lav Diaz is a slow-film director, and we don’t question it. A look at the film’s aesthetics however shows just how much Evolution goes against the unspoken rules of Slow Cinema. And yet, it is a slow film. Why?

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The reason for this is – and I mentioned this before – the very narrow definition of Slow Cinema, which is based on only a handful of characteristics; long-takes, little dialogue, often static camera, no elaborate camera work in general, emptiness, both of characters and of the environment. Evolution contains long-takes, and the most famous is probably the scene in which Kadyo, bleeding from a wound inflicted by knife, first walks then crawls down a deserted street. That is a twenty-minute take. It feels endless, but it is one of the very few very long takes in the entire film. In fact, there are plus-minus 158 takes in the first two hours (interrupted by archival footage, the scenes of which I have not broken down separately). This, I think, is more than in his usual eight to nine-hour movies. I don’t want to quantify Diaz’s films. But my point is that he does cut quite quickly in Evolution. There are periods of six or seven cuts occurring in only sixty seconds. That is fast for Slow Cinema.

The film also contains substantial camera movement. There are persistent pans and tilts. There are even zoom ins and outs, an aesthetic characteristic you will not find in his later films. The cuts to radio drama studio recording completely disrupt the slow, rural feeling. There is very little “dead time.” There is always something happening, so there is nothing that could invite the usual “This is boring” argument, because Diaz does push the narrative forward and does not waste time in doing so. There are also very typical “mainstream” shots. Not many. But they are there; reaction shots, for instance. In Slow Cinema, you usually do not see what the characters see. We are not granted visual access to what the characters see. Not immediately. Nor are there usually changes from medium shots to close-up to make it clear what a character looks at or fumbles around with. Access to visual information is, in fact, limited in Slow Cinema. Evolution holds pretty much against it.

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We need to remember that Evolution is Diaz’s first real arthouse film, and I mean real. He made Batang West Side before, but Evolution looks like the beginning of a new era in his filmmaking. So his using these aesthetics is not bad at all, or things we should complain about. Rather, my point is that Evolution is a slow film without its complying to a lot of characteristics. If you take a very close look at it, you wouldn’t label it Slow Cinema. And yet, it is.

Slow Cinema is not only about the aesthetics. I’m inclined to say that it has more to do with the time consciousness that is created within certain films. Evolution‘s narrative stretches over ten years. The eleven hours running time give Diaz and the viewer immense time and space to follow a part of history. It is the subject matter that supports slowness, if the characteristics are not foregrounded. A repeated example I give is Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac I & II. It’s over four hours long, but it wasn’t slow at all. It was just long. The story of a nymphomaniac is not exactly a subject matter that promises and invites slowness. On the other hand, if you follow a family, and record their history over a period of ten years, then this is bound to be slow.

I’m obviously walking right into the trap here, because my argument could be read this way: only long films can be slow. This isn’t the case. Again, I would like to point to the time consciousness. This is not only achieved by time itself (via long-takes or length of films). It also comes with subject matter, and this does not only involve the mundane, even though critics of Slow Cinema make us believe this. Diaz is a good example of this. His films are not about the mundane at all. You will not find someone staring out the window for ages, as is the case in Béla Tarr’s films. You will not find yourself watching a character on the loo until his/her bladder is totally emptied, as is the case in Tsai Ming-liang’s films. You will not find characters traveling without doing anything else, as is the case in Lisandro Alonso’s films.

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None of those characters have something to do. They are waiting for something to happen. In Diaz’s films, something has happened already, and the characters react to it. They’re set in motion by an event, often a not very mundane event – we’re speaking of torture, for instance, or rape. But they are in motion, and they have been put into exceptional circumstances. The time consciousness here comes from the way Diaz treats the psychological development of the characters. Take Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012); repetitive monologues, degrading mental state, increasingly fading memory – time passes. In Encantos, Hamin shows more and more repercussions of the torture and persecution he had to endure.

Trauma is a very good subject matter for Slow Cinema, actually, as I argue in my doctoral thesis. Trauma Cinema, as it is defined by scholars, is usually characterised by flashbacks, rapid editing, shaky camera movements, etc Given these characteristics, Trauma Cinema cannot be slow. But trauma is slow. It is slow in its onslaught and in its development. The healing process is slow, too. This is where Diaz’s “time consciousness” and Evolution comes in. Despite its aesthetics, it is creating a sense of slowness by focusing on the development of trauma, not only in a single character, but in a whole family, and in extension an entire society. These things do not appear in a blink. They take time. In Evolution, it takes eleven hours.