Since the Industrial Revolution, children have been massively exploited for work. Even though nation states regulated child labour, there is still a lot of work to do in order to safeguard them. What seems to be particularly difficult nowadays is the prevention of child prostitution. Teenagers without real roots anywhere slip into the hands of men and women, who try to profit from them, who lull them into their vicious circles with the promise of money and freedom. This “business” often happens in the dark, away from the public spotlight, and it is of major concern in Latin American countries. By the name of Tania made me think a lot, it is not a straightforward documentary, or a straightforward fiction film. Tania walks a path between these two.
To survive, I have erased myself. Time doesn’t matter.
Time doesn’t matter. Nor does a human being in a circle of prostitution. This erasure Tania, the young woman, speaks of is at the heart of the film. What matters is not visible, it’s in the off. Mary Jimenez and Bénédicte Liénard create a haunting absence throughout the film, with a lingering camera that tempts us, but that also refuses to let us go where we would like to go, that refuses to see us what we would like to see. In one scene, the camera takes us to the edge of a lush jungle. The green is marvellous, the sound eerie. We see the entrance to a jungle, lined by trees. There is a desire to walk further, to continue this walk and see what is on the other side. But the directors cut. They cut us off and leave us with an unfulfilled desire.
This is the point. There is an unfulfilled desire in Tania, too: the desire to be the young woman she should be, carefree, light, free. Free in all respects. Yet, she is cut off from this desire and taken to an underground world where the idea of freedom is connected to earning money. Tania had a difficult childhood, moving from family to family before she settled living with her grandmother. She has been taught to show strength. Crying wasn’t a way to express sorrow. It equalled weakness. We see Tania in a bus, on a boat, on a journey to an unknown place, unknown even to her.
She offers me a job, but far away. What do I have to do? Serve drinks and dance.
On a boat, the police is checking ID cards. It’s the trafficking police on the search for minors travelling alone. One 15-year-old has to leave the boat. She is considered too young to travel. The framings are tight. We are in between hammocks. Even though the boat is open and we can see the wind blowing in people’s hair, there is a sense of suffocation underlying those scenes. It is almost an atmosphere of suspicion. Once you realise that the police checks ID cards, you begin to worry about the children on board the boat. Are they travelling with their parents? Are they travelling with their “uncle”, their “aunt” who sell them to men in the city? What is going on in everyone’s mind?
I couldn’t help making a connection between Tania and Wang Bing’s Bitter Moneywith a pinch of Amat Escalante’s Esclava. Wang Bing’s film focuses on young people, often barely 18, or officially not 18 at all, who travel to the city in order to work. They face exploitation and conditions that tie them to their place of work. There is no freedom anymore. There is no life. They become part of an exploitative cycle of capitalist work. Esclava is about forced prostitution, a brutal short film that shows what Jimenez and Liénard don’t show.
She takes my ID card and throws it into the river. ‘Now you’re nothing’, she says.
Nothing. This is precisely the subject of the film. It is not so much about prostitution, albeit it might look like this at first. But Jimenez and Liénard, in their aesthetics, in their choice of storytelling, focus on what isn’t, on what is no longer, on what has been lost, on what cannot be reached. After fifty minutes, Tania tells us about the fines she incurs for not having a drink with customers, for waking up late. She says that her debts keeps growing, even though she works every day. Again, nothing – growing debt, no way out.
As well as the loss of dignity.
He raped me because I was a rebel.
Jimenez and Liénard’s film goes deep, travelling into the wound that is sexual exploitation. It’s a traumatic wound, which shows in the non-chronological progression of the narrative. The shifts between past and present, without warning, without explanation, are brutal. Even more brutal are the shifts between the two different pasts to which Tania returns whenever she remembers a little more. Traumatic confusion, for Tania and for us. The poetic feeling to the film is misleading. It’s a bubble, a cover, a lie to make you feel comfortable. But the truth is that the directors take you into the dark, a little deeper with every scene.
Since summer last year, I have slowly but surely made my way through the filmography of Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter, who I have started to perceive as one of the most important filmmakers working today. He is the European equivalent to Wang Bing, albeit more composed. His films allow us to see what we usually wouldn’t see. He tells the stories of those who lack listeners. He is the listener, and so are we. The Year After Dayton, his second documentary, is set in Bosnia the year after the peace treaty has been signed. The 90s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the ensuing collapse of Yugoslavia, were dominated by war in Europe.
I was born in 1988 and was well aware through TV news that my childhood was filled with news of brutal conflicts that felt like sort of next door, rather than at the other end of the world. There was not only Bosnia. The clearest I remember is the war in Kosovo, primarily because this was the first time I consciously heard adults around me speaking of the German army and their work there. We also had a new family moving into the house where we lived. They came from Kosovo as refugees, and one of the daughters became one of my best friends in the early 2000s. I learned a lot about conflicts, about Islam, and human suffering during that time.
The Year After Dayton is with a running time of over three hours a long film, but the time spent on the subject is absolutely necessary. Geyrhalter divides the film into four parts, four seasons, which allows us to see a change within the first 12 months after the Dayton peace treaty came into effect. The Bosnian war lasted three-and-a-half years, which incidentally coincides with the films running time in hours, and it was a bloodshed beyond description, not long after Europe had found peace once more in 1945. But as Geyrhalter’s film shows, the years of conflict became a starting point for a development which we still see today. Several interviewees in the film tell us that life before the war was peaceful because no one cared about the concept of national identity. Croats, Serbs, Muslims – they had lived alongside one another and one’s nationality or religion wasn’t an issue. The war has changed this.
One girl, a refugee who had to flee the violence with her mother, is interviewed while sitting on a blanket in the grass. She tells us about a friend she used to have, her best friend. They used to spend a lot of time together, but now she no longer wants to see her because she is a Serb, and Serbs killed her father. It doesn’t matter that her friend didn’t actually kill her father. It’s the nationality that counts, and she can no longer be friends with Serbs. The selection of interviews shows that the war has created a rift where once used to be a multicultural community.
“Every shepherd knows what’s good and what’s bad, but the governments don’t know this.”
Geyrhalter makes us listen to the simple people, those who were used as pawns and who lost everything. One woman tells us that she has lost 16 members of her family, her husband has lost 17. The people the director speaks to have lost their house, their job, friendships. They have lost limbs. They are no longer the same person. One boy we get to know hasn’t been to school for almost four years. We meet a woman who leaves the house for the first time in four years to see how the streets look like. It is a sad walk. There is little else but rubbles and destruction. Ruins everywhere you look. Geyrhalter films the woman from behind, allowing us to see the landscape of destruction which she sees.
“There is no love after Dayton.”
The Year after Dayton is a film about a huge sinkhole which has opened under the feet of people and which has sucked in everything that life had to offer before the war. Dayton challenges the way we speak about film. I, too, have said earlier that the film was about something. Everything – painting, literature, music, film – is always about something. Or so we have learned. But Dayton is about the opposite. Nothing isn’t an adequate word in this context, although what we see in the film is essentially what has remained after the war, which resembles nothing the people had known before. Nothing remains, and it is this nothing that the film speaks about. It is not just loss that is expressed in the film. There is a deep sense of this sinkhole, a sort of anno zero. The lengthy interviews, a trademark of Geyrhalter, give voice to an emotional void; a numbness that feels like resignation. Life continues, must continue. Yet one can sense change. What we see through Geyrhalter’s camera is the first generation implicated in the conflict. What we can sense, on the other hand, is the struggle of those who come afterwards, those who have to make sense of this brutal legacy.
As with Pripyat and Elsewhere, The Year After Dayton leaves one with an almost bitter aftertaste, caused by several questions at once: what’s next? What has since happened to those we have come to know? Is the memory of the war kept alive? What does the next generation do with this dark past? What remains today, over twenty years after the release of the film?
It seems as though Chinese director Wang Bing gets better and better. Each film improves on the previous one, and with this I don’t mean that he improves on his aesthetics. Wang Bing stoically, stubbornly continues to pursue his traditional aesthetics, which means nothing more than that he simply films in whatever way necessary or possible. His films are not about beauty, about photographic framing, about characters walking towards a horizon and returning (see Béla Tarr). No, each of his films instead dives deeper into Wang Bing’s overall aim of telling the story of his country, of (re-)writing China’s official history. His films are like lengthy books à la Dostoievsky or Tolstoy, using the entire span of 900 pages or more to create a fundamental piece that outlives a single generation.
His previous film, Mrs Fang (2017), had already been an astonishing film, an important cinematic exploration of Alzheimer’s, of our slow death in the face of an impossible disease that doesn’t allow us to go gracefully. The director’s intimate portrait drew controversy. The ethics of filmmaking became an important part in our discussion as critics and cinephiles alike. What everyone was in agreement, however, was that Wang Bing had created something special, something that goes under the skin and that is not so easily shaken off.
Dead Souls, the director’s new film, is a monumental achievement. In over eight hours, shot over the course of more than ten years, Dead Souls, too, is an intimate portrait, or rather a collection of intimate portraits that go under the skin, albeit in a different way than Mrs Fang. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to compare the film to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. On the contrary, one could go as far as arguing that Dead Souls was the Shoah of the 21st century. It’s difficult to explain in words. Both films need to be seen in parallel in order to see the similarities. Yet, I don’t want to place too much emphasis on this, because I believe that Dead Souls needs to be, and deserves to be, seen in its own light.
Wang Bing has always used film in order to tell untold stories. His films, shot without official approval and without treading the official way of making films, i.e. submitting scripts for approval with a final censorship part at the end, fill in those blanks left by history books that merely tell the heroic parts of a country that is fascinating and scarily powerful and dangerous at the same time. History is used to form a common basis for national identity. History is always written by those who have fought and won a war, those who have heroically fallen into the hands of the enemy during the fight for his/her motherland. It is written by those who have ideological interests, by those who have to justify their gruesome acts.
Every country has this famous skeleton in the closet, and China certainly is no different. They seem to be even more secret about some of their excesses than other countries and those “black holes” make for a mysterious and frightening atmosphere. Dead Souls pierces this black hole. Wang Bing holds a torch into it to shine light onto the plights of hundreds of thousands so called rightists, people who have, in the eyes of officials, not been supportive of the movement, or have even been critical of the government. It was the late 50s, and there was a broad sweep particularly against intellectuals. Jiabiangu, the name of the camp complex, where people had been sent for re-education, has hoovered over Wang Bing’s work before. His film He, Fengming was part of his ongoing effort to collect testimony about the period. And so was The Ditch, a failed feature film that aimed at showing what life in the camps was like.
In Dead Souls, Wang Bing returns to his way of filmmaking which he had used for Fengming. This means that what mattered most to him was the recording of testimony. He put the camera on his lap, on a table, somewhere stable (or not necessarily) in order to record a person’s memories of the time. “I am a former nationalist. I had to re-educate myself and adopt communist thought.” This is how Wang Bing’s new film begins. Zhou Huinan, 85 years old, speaks about the time when people had been encouraged to criticise the Party. It was a cunning way of the Chinese government to lure people into the trap that would kill hundreds of thousands in a form of auto-genocide that resembles measures takes by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia later on, or which the Stalinist rulers undertook twenty years ealier. Zhou Huinan’s fault was his criticism of the lack of democracy. The result: a lengthy period at a camp, in which people died slowly in front of him of starvation. Sitting on a bench next to his wife, who visited him several times and who struggles to make herself heard in front of the camera, he seems a proud man, someone who has put the events behind him. He mentions his brother, a highly intelligent man who had been tasked with evaluating already validated town plans. He had been promoted several times, before he, too, was taken to a camp.
A harsh cut brings us into a completely different world. Despite his age and his experience in the camp, Zhou Huinan still embodies life. On the other hand, his brother, Zhou Zhinan, 82 years old, is a shadow of himself. Wang Bing films him in bed, suffering, dying, and tries to get a testimony. This very scene, painful and heart-rendering, hearing the whispers of a once strong man, is essential for the rest of the film. After a rather brief testimony, Wang Bing cuts to Zhou Zhinan’s funeral. In a lengthy sequence of scenes, we witness the burial of the man we had seen earlier, his son struggling with accepting the death of his father. Several times throughout the film, the director notifies us about the passing of those he spoke to. What this creates is a sense of urgency that wasn’t as clear in Lanzman’s Shoah. When I watched Lanzman’s opus, I had the feeling that the director had time for his project. Those he interviewed were elderly, but not yet on the threshold of death. With Wang Bing, this is different.
Dead Souls is an urgent film. Testimonies of men aged over 90, as is the case with Gao Guifan (97) who, filmed with a shaky handheld camera, says little else than “It’s the end. I want to die as quickly as possible. Dead, I’ll suffer less,” are common and one feels the director’s desire to get those testimonies on record in order to allow their voices to live on. Men eating human flesh, men cutting open the dead in order to collect the intestines and eat them, a father killing his eldest daughter so that his family could eat and therefore survive a little longer (this story is based on a rumour one of the men heard), men turning into animals – all of this must not die with those victim-survivors.
“You lose your humanity.”
“It had become banal to see dead people.”
“People no longer resembled human beings.”
Many of those Wang Bing speaks to go into a lot of detail of their ordeal. It becomes a collection of sort, but there are certain phrases that cut into you like a knife, and it’s those that will stay with you. The aim of turning humans into non-humans, of letting them slowly die – “People didn’t go in excruciating pain, they slowly passed away,” says Gu Huimin, 84 years old – is the most evident characteristic of a concentrationary system that has sadly found its application in so many parts of the world. China is no different, but China refuses to acknowledge the existence of those camps and the unnecessary deaths of innocent men and women.
The people the director speaks to are different in the way they have dealt with their past experience. Or perhaps, they are still traumatised and what they have endured and seen has broken them forever. Lao Zonghua, 75 years old and interviewed in 2010, reminded me of Bomba in Shoah, the man who smiles all the time. Lao Zonghua became almost uncomfortable to watch with his persistent laughs about the terrible things he has experienced. Is he one of Wang Bing’s dead souls?
Or are the dead souls those who Wang Bing and survivors look for in the desert? As in Lanzman’s Shoah, those who survived return to the place where everything happened, only to find almost nothing left. Nature has taken over. What’s left are bones and skulls. One doesn’t need to dig in order to find them. They’re there for everyone to see. An open secret of China’s brutal history. Just like Lav Diaz in his eight-hour film Melancholia, Wang Bing becomes an archeologist here. He uncovers, he unearthes. In discussions with survivors, in visiting the place of a silenced auto-genocide to record what is left. Every little helps to piece the country’s unwritten, and yet certainly essential history together for future generations who must know about this, and who, hopefully, take their government to account one day.
“If we’re alive today, it’s at the cost of your lives.”
“Only death could have ended that suffering.”
Zhao Tiemin is visibly angry at what he had been put through. He is the first in the film who speaks without questions needing to be asked. Wang Bing intervenes rarely, letting Zhao Tiemin take over. His testimony is interesting not only regarding its content, but also in the way it is given; openly, freely, without fear, but with a lot of anger. Others, such as Zhao Binghun, are more reserved. This particular man reminded me of my grandpa who felt uncomfortable answering questions about his past and who had initially responded in short sentence to all my questions, followed by “And what else do you want to know?” There is hesitation. Can I say this? Do I want to talk about this? There is, of course, shame and the fear that the memories, if spoken about, become to vivid and painful. Chen Zhonghai, 85 years old, remembers having lied to a fellow prisoner who asked him for a bit of roasted flour. He told him he didn’t have any, a lie. It was about his own survival. The other prisoner died of starvation. One can see the feeling of shame, Chen Zonghai, sitting on a sofa with a jacket over his left arm and his left trouser leg rolled up, the man has endured since then.
For those who have seen Fengming or even Lav Diaz’s six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012) it is possibly evident what the director aims to do here. He blurs the boundaries of listener and viewer. Dead Souls is not so much a film to view, but a film to listen to. While the body language of those who testify in front of the camera can certainly be interesting, it is of much larger interest to simply listen, to lend our ears to those who have something to say. Wang Bing’s film gives them a platform for their experiences, for their shame, for their guilt, for their anger. With this part of history having been silenced, so have been the survivors. Film becomes a tool to break this silence and to allow those who need to tell their stories to find listeners. Only then can a traumatic narrative be turned into a normal life narrative and free the survivors.
But what about the film’s title? Dead Souls. Over the course of eight hours, one aspects becomes undoubtedly clear: those who survived, no longer have a soul. They should have helped their fellows. And this is precisely where Wang Bing is going with this. Humans are no longer humans. They struggle for survival. They have been put into situations where humanity, where souls, don’t have a place. In order to survive, one needs to kill one’s soul, one’s human nature, one’s empathy. The men we see in Wang Bing’s film might differ from one another. They are different in the way they give their testimony, different in the way they narrate their suffering, different in how they have handled those horrible experiences. But they share the tragic loss of their soul.
It is clear to me that Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985) would never make it into a Slow Cinema list. Perhaps, it shouldn’t be. Perhaps, it should simply remain a film apart from the rest in order to preserve its sheer monumentality. And truth be told, it might not feel like a slow film at all. It certainly feels different from the Béla Tarrs, from the Apichatpong Weerasethakuls, from the Pedro Costas of the world. Nevertheless, I would like to jot down some notes and try to establish a to me inevitable link to the nature of Slow Cinema.
I have become aware of the rather limited approach we seem to have in terms of establishing what is and what isn’t slow. Of course, the respective and perceived pace of a film is entirely subjective, and what is slow for me might well be fast for you. At the same time, there seems to be a sort of mutual agreement that slow happens primarily in feature films. Fiction films, to be more precise. Documentaries don’t pop up very often in our discussion on Slow Cinema. This blog is also a good mirror of this. There is, of course, the work of Wang Bing which has been so often used as an example of Slow Cinema. Apart from a sole exception, Wang Bing is, and possibly remains, a documentary filmmaker whose cinematic slowness is so essential to the stories he tells. He couldn’t tell those stories in any other way. At the same time, he seems to be pretty much the only widely known slow-documentary director, who pops up time and again in people’s writings and in their lists.
Why is this? Why do we seem to have problems to classify documentaries as slow? I believe that documentaries are, often in any case, slower than fiction films. It is somewhat “acceptable” to make a poetic documentary, a piece that takes its time and which allows people to tell their stories. Documentaries are only categorised as special when they are particularly long, which is the case with most of Wang Bing’s films, or Claude Lanzmann’s. Shoah is, by and large, the slowest documentary I have seen, which made me think about its “ingredients” and how they compare to the slow films that have become somewhat canonical.
I do not intend to write a review of the almost ten-hour long film. I would fail. And I would fail miserably. Whether one can write an adequate review at all, I have my doubts. There are so many stories to tell, so many emotions to mention, so many complexities to unravel that written words would never do justice to Shoah. Instead, I want to note a few aesthetic particularities, which I noticed were in sync with what I have written about in the last couple of years.
It remains true that not all slow films are long films. It remains true, too, that not all long films are slow films. Shoah is a particular case, however. Lanzmann set out to create a portrait as detailed as possible of what has been called the “Endlösung”. Similar to any major books you find on the subject, there is little you can cut out. The subject is complex, based on so many orders, on so many levels, in so many administrative regions, so much bureaucracy – it is impossible to recount this part of the Second World War in the usual, narrative way. Take the work of Saul Friendländer, “Nazi Germany and the Jews”, a two-part investigation into the persecution and extermination of the Jews. Overall, the French version (as an example) counts around 1,500 pages. A monstrous piece, in many ways. Just like some people argue that the Holocaust defies representation, certain writers (like Friedländer) and filmmakers (like Lanzmann) have shown that the Holocaust dislocates time and space. It dislocates narrative coherence, albeit it needs to be said at this point that Lanzmann tried to allow the “story” of Shoah to progress in an almost linear fashion. The Holocaust defies cinematic cuts, or ellipses to push the narrative forwards faster, to allow the audience to fill in the gaps. There are no gaps. Not only to prevent the viewer from filling gaps with escapist ideas, romantic ideas which they take from Hollywood films, which in most cases always have a Happy End. It is also about forcing the viewer to listen, to hear, to imagine the unimaginable.
Shoah doesn’t cut. It listens extensively to testimony of survivors, of bystanders, of perpetrators. If there is one thing that narrative convention in cinema, which has developed over decades, has done to us is that we no longer have the patience to listen to survivors. We expect them to tell their stories quickly, in a classical three-act structure, and please do not give any details. Our obsession with narrative conventions has silenced survivors. Alexandre Dauge-Roth has noted this problem in his writing on the genocide in Rwanda. The camera in Lanzmann’s film, on the other hand, remains with the one who speaks. Certain monologues of survivors feel endless, filled with horror, and yet it is impossible to stop listening. The very characteristic of Slow Cinema – giving time to a monologue, a dialogue, an event – is crucial here because time, that means long duration in this case, can assign the witnessing function to the viewer. And in becoming witnesses, we lift at least some of the burden on the shoulder of those survivors who were willing to talk to Lanzmann. Long duration, perceived slowness expressed through little to no movement within a frame, and the use of long takes, all parts and parcel of Slow Cinema, become vital in the representation of trauma.
It is of little importance who is speaking in front of the camera. Survivor, bystander, perpetrator – they all contribute to film as trauma. And the two aesthetics I looked at during my PhD research – duration and absence in Lav Diaz’s cinema – are very much the centre of Lanzmann’s work, not only of Shoah, but also of his last film Four Sisters. The latter film shares a lot with Wang Bing’s Fengming, which also consists of a single interview with a single woman in a single room. Minimalism becomes a vehicle for the transfer of traumatic memories. The focus on interviews, of people talking in front of the camera, their words translated on camera so as to keep the authenticity of what happens alive, all of this results in one major theme: absence.
Shoah is perhaps one of the most haunting films, precisely because it doesn’t show anything. It can’t. It is a post-trauma film, a film that is visually set in the time after the traumatic event occurred, but where the monologues position us inside the traumatic event itself. It is common practice in films by director Lav Diaz, for instance, that traumatic events are spoken about but never shown. Perpetrators are mostly spoken of, not seen very often, or not seen at all. Trauma resides in the past. Shoah is one of those films, albeit it must be so by default. The absence of traumatic imagery results from the absence of real imagery of the Holocaust (excluding four photographs that have been found – see further Georges Didi-Huberman). This means that the haunting nature of the event, as well as of the film, is entirely natural, is consequential rather than forced upon from the outside. There was no choice, there were no options – the particular present absence / absent presence, which is so vital to slow films and their treatment of trauma (for example, the films of Lav Diaz or of Pedro Costa) stands at the core of Shoah.
This particular point is most visible, perhaps even haptic if you wish, in the second half of the film. Filip Müller, a Czech survivor, speaks in detail about the process of the extermination; the arrival of a train, the undressing, the hair cuts, the way the people had to walk, their way through the so-called Schlauch, their screams. Lanzmann overlays most of Müller’s detailed description with images of the ruins, the remnants of the Auschwitz gas chambers, with images of what has remained; nothing but the mere skeletons of the past. There’s a friction here; the images of ruins invites one to imagine, invites one to let the imagination wander, perhaps even wonder. Yet Müller’s monologue, in painful detail, doesn’t allow for imagination. He doesn’t allow for gaps, for holes to open up. There is a constant push-and-pull between what we would possibly like to do as viewer, and what the survivor wants us to do, namely to listen.
Nothing is more effective than not showing. Nothing brings out (post-)trauma so well as does a rejection of visibility, of showing. Nothing makes the past more palpable than using time and space invested in listening, and not only simply listening to words. It is about really listening, not just hearing some words. Lanzmann’s Shoah is so minimalist, so simple that it creates an adequate space and an adequate time for traumatic events to resurface in the survivors’ memories, which can then be uttered, be brought to the surface, be brought into the open. Only slowness, only unconventionality, only long duration and absence, only minimalism can do this. Only Slow Cinema, I personally believe, can really be a cinema of (post-)trauma because all types of aesthetics that are favourable of an exploration of post-trauma are at the filmmaker’s disposal. Slow Cinema can become a vehicle for survivor testimony, if used adequately.
(NB: I began this sort of work in my PhD thesis. If you want to read it, it’s available here.)
It’s been weird lately. First, I struggled to find the time to watch films. I was immersed in books, really good ones, and I didn’t want to stop reading. Then, once I had a film I thought would be a really good fit, it turned out that it wasn’t really Slow Cinema. This was particularly disappointing for Sudoeste by Eduardo Nunes from Brazil. The film starts in a superb fashion. It stunned me, and drew me in. I felt like floating in those beautiful long-take shots, magic, ghostly, simply very affective (and effective). Unfortunately, the film’s aesthetic changed somewhat after the powerful beginning, so that I decided not to write about it. A new subject was needed, and I remembered that I still hadn’t seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s early piece Andrei Rublev (1966), which is his second film, after the really good Ivan’s Childhood which was a great portrait of war trauma and young adolescents. Rublev is perhaps not an iconic work of Slow Cinema, but the film shows Tarkovsky’s later trademarks, beginning, of course, with the director’s use of long takes and a camera that sometimes moves independent of the characters it is showing.
While watching Rublev, I couldn’t help think about Béla Tarr and his first social-realist films. The films by Tarr that are now so well-known because of their particular style, didn’t come out of nowhere. Tarr developed it over time, and so Rublev was a stage in Tarkovsky’s development towards perfecting his almost magical cinematic philosophy that we admire today. It’s quite a change to films such as Mirror and Nostalghia, and yet you can see Tarkovsky’s soul in the film, which begins to shine. Rublev is not a philosophical experiential piece the way the director’s other films are. While it does contain important discussions that demand an engagement with the film text, Rublev is almost a straightforward historical epic, which surprised me at first. It was not what I had expected. What I didn’t expect either was that the film would be a strange back-to-the-future piece with scenes that strongly reminded me of Mirror, Stalker and Nostalghia. Everyone would argue that it’s always best to watch a director’s entire filmography chronologically (with the exception of Semih Kaplanoglou’s trilogy, which includes Bal), I found that my watching Tarkovsky’s oeuvre almost the other way around added a magnificent ghostly atmosphere to Rublev.
The film starts with an episode of an unfortunate balloon flight. There is a scene, almost right at the beginning, which shows the fascinating camera work that would later become so vital for Tarkovsky’s experiential pieces. In a long take, one man enters a house, drops what he has in his arms inside the house, then exists the house again. The camera moves freely. It’s floating almost, has its own mind and even though it does follow the character to an extent, it is also taking its own steps. All of a sudden, I was reminded of Alexandr Sokurov’s The Russian Ark, in which the camera followed its characters in much the same way. This type of camera has a dreamy, almost unreal nature to it. Something else caught my eye: once the balloon, which several people tried to keep on the ground before others arrived and attacked them, is in the air, Tarkovsky uses a remarkable POV shot that, once more, reminded me of Sokurov’s mirror lenses in Mother and Son. Now, the copy I have has not been restored, and I wonder whether those particular shots look slightly deformed and mirror-y (here’s a new term for you, which I have just coined….you’re welcome!) because of the age of the film, or the quality of the camera. I’d like to jump to the conclusion that it’s supposed to be like this, because it genuinely brings something disorienting with it, something bizarre, something uncomfortable.
We find a similar “look” later on, when Kirill, Daniil and Rublev arrive at a house, where they seek refuge from torrential rain. There is a jester singing and dancing, before he is being escorted away by the Duke’s men. Here again, the camera lens seems to be slightly deformed, alluding to a rather round picture. It doesn’t feel flat at all, but it’s almost as though the camera alludes to a third dimension. Of course, I could (and I probably do!) read too much into it, because this particular look is not one of the main aesthetics of the film. Moreover, I know that Tarkovsky tended to work with whatever he had and he might as well had problems with the camera. Nevertheless, I like the idea that this deformed view on the world from above and on those people who enjoy the sexually charged songs from the jester is not as accidental as one might believe.
Contrary to later films, Rublev is progressing in chapters, that means chronologically. Although there are dream sequences, which upset the temporal order established by the chapters, the film runs more or less in a linear fashion. The first chapter, which contains the scene with the balloon I have just described, begins in 1400. Fifteenth century Russia was a tumultuous country, never really at peace, and Tarkovsky shows this in particular in the latter half of the film. For financial reasons, he had to cut a lot of battle scenes, which he had in the script, but which he couldn’t realise for lack of funding. Those cuts sometimes lead to disorienting jumps in the narrative that are more startling than sophisticated philosophical omissions. There is, for instance, a scene in which Rublev’s assistant finds a dead swan in the woods. In films such as Mirror, which are deeply rooted in themes like memory and dreams, I wouldn’t have been startled. I would have considered this to be a memory that violently appears (appears violent?) and which has a connection to the stories of remembering and forgetting Tarkovsky tells so often. Rublev, however, doesn’t fell like such a movie at all. Because of its linear, straightforward progression and its non-mysterious images, the dead swan appeared out of place and made me wonder if there wasn’t something missing. Have I missed something? Is the explanation for this still to come? I wouldn’t try to find explanations for anything in dreamy films, but here, I have to say that I was almost annoyed about this scene, which could have been cut easily. (And I cannot believe I’m actually saying this about a film by Tarkovsky…)
Andrei Rublev, as we know, was a painter, whose The Trinity is supposedly his most famous work. Tarkovsky shows very little of his life as a painter. In ways similar to the struggling filmmaker in Lav Diaz’s Century of Birthing (2011), we witness several discussions on art and the role of the artist. The actual act of painting is positioned in the background. Instead, we hear Rublev struggling with the task of painting The Last Judgment: “I can’t paint this, it’s disgusting.” Rublev doesn’t want to frighten people and would rather paint something of a lighter nature. I would agree with the fact that Tarkovsky makes a statement here about the struggle of the artists with his conscience. But the layer underneath that surface is the use of artists to promote certain images. At the time, painters worked on behalf of a duke, or other high ranking state officials. They had to paint what was expected of them, even though, as Theophanes, the Greek points out, their works and even they themselves are attacked for the images and messages they portray in their works. They do so on behalf of someone, and often suffer for it – either at the hands of others, or at the hands of their own conscience.
The theme of conscience is present throughout the film. The tartars attack the city of Vladimir. Andrei, who is in the city to paint the church, witnesses the atrocities. When one of the attackers kidnaps a woman (supposedly to rape and kill her), Andrei kills him with an axe. What has he done? Once the attack is over, and silence returns to the church – the camera shows us dozens of dead, among them children – Andrei is visibly shaken by what he had witnessed, by the sheer violence, by the fact that men are that cruel, that men simply kill other men (“We’re both Russians”, we hear a young man pleading while trying to escape), that Man is no better than a beast. This event leaves Andrei traumatised. He hallucinates and re-encounters Theophanes. Almost furious, Andrei tells him that he has worked for people all his life, but that people are not people, suggesting that they’re mere beasts. Consequently, Andrei takes a vow before God: he would never paint or speak again, the latter of which reappears in another context in Lav Diaz’s Heremias – Book One (2005). This vow is not only the result of what he has seen. I firmly belief that Tarkovsky makes a point on the painter’s conscience here. In fact, Andrei has sinned. Even though he rescued a woman from certain torture and death, he himself has killed a man. He himself has turned into a beast. He himself is no different than all the others.
Tarkovsky plays here with sound and silence, almost deafening silence, which he would later reuse in Stalker and Mirror. There is something ghostly about it, something traumatic, as though the explosion of violence has deafened not only Andrei, but also us. In minimising the sound, slowing down sound effects, the director disorientates us temporally. Andrei’s trauma and that of the village becomes palpable. What follows is a shift in narrative towards Boris, a young man, who pretends he knows the secret of bell making and is hired by the Duke to make a bell. Andrei moves into the film’s background. As a silent monk he is no more than an onlooker, a bystander, visibly angry at first, then quieter in later years. He becomes a silent observer of Boris, whom he seems to use as a mirror of himself; a talented artist, who struggles with himself, with his work, with the burden of having to create. The film comes full circle, picking up the same themes and applying it to another character, whose emotional torment pierces through Andrei’s shield, which he had kept up for 15 years.
It is quite remarkable to me that my first impression of the film was not a good one. I wouldn’t say that I didn’t like the film. It was just too ordinary, compared to what I know of Tarkovsky. And yet, this is, except for one single essay (and conference papers which I have just copied and pasted), the longest post on this blog. Andrei Rublev seems to build a nest in my head after all…
“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 Zerkalo, Crosswinds 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.
What is Austerlitz’s time, and where do I get this from? Well, I didn’t expect my wanting to write a blog post about Jacques Austerlitz when I picked up W.G. Sebald’s magnificent book Austerlitz. It’s Sebald’s last novel, published in 2001, and focuses on a man who is simply called Austerlitz most of the time in the book. Austerlitz is haunted by a past he doesn’t know. For most of his life he had ignored where he was from. Or rather, he frankly didn’t know. His memory blocked a very essential part of his life, his childhood, but this blockage was the cause of his being haunted by a past he could never clearly see. For him, as he says, “the world stopped for me at the end of the 19th century.”
At some point in the book, when Austerlitz meets the author again and continues telling his story or his accounts of fascinating historical facts or architectural designs, Austerlitz makes a couple of remarkable statements about the subject of time. Overall, there is so much you can take from this book that it has become, for me at least, one of the best books I have read in my life.
Austerlitz proposes the thought-provoking argument that “time is of all our inventions the most artificial one”. This might sound strange at first, but it sort of accompanies what I had been writing about on this blog in the early days regarding time, as we know it, as an artificial construct that has nothing to do with nature. What Austerlitz describes here, without directly mentioning it in the paragraph that follows, is man’s invention of the mechanical clock that divided a day into 24 equal hours, each hour into 60 equal minutes, and every minute into 60 equal seconds. Before the invention of the mechanical clock, people lived according to the natural cycle of the sun. That was especially true for farmers who got up when the sun rose and stopped their work when the sun set. I strongly believe that was also true for cave men who ventured out in daylight to hunt (another vital factor here is the aspect of darkness as posing a threat to man, which changed when street lamps were introduced much later).
I also remember Lav Diaz saying that life in the Philippines changed drastically when the Spanish colonisers introduced the mechanical clock. All of a sudden, time was linear and not, as the Chinese, for instance, believed, a river with many different arms and therefore directions, waves, and ripples. Time became a constantly progressing entity that, as you might also remember from my writing, becomes completely obsolete when someone suffers from PTSD. It is PTSD that disrupts the linear time we have created with the invention and introduction of the mechanical clock, but I wonder whether it’s not this concept of linear time that reinforces this traumatic stress because it is expected of us (and time) to persistently move forward. So if a person is stuck in the past, or if the past repeatedly resurfaces (because this is how life is anyway – a mixture of past and present that leads to the future), then this is not an acceptable development. (NB: My PhD thesis explores the themes of duration and time in the context of post-trauma in more detail.)
The mechanical clock turned time into something that can be measured, that can be divided, and that only ever follows a linear progression. Austerlitz continues, “if Newton really thought that time progresses like the current in the river Thames, then where is its origin and which sea does it flow into?” But Austerlitz isn’t done. He asks, “everyone knows that a river has two shores. But what are, then, the two borders of time? What are its specific characteristics that correspond approximatively to that of water, which is liquid, pretty heavy and transparent?”
I don’t have an answer to this question, but I marvel about it and have been thinking about it since the first time I read it. It all makes me think of Chinese philosophy again, and its perception of and approach to time that differs so greatly from our Western standards. In particular, the idea of time having different speeds, different directions – simply put, varying and various characteristics – is something that pops up in my head over and over again when I read about prisons and the concentrationary system in which the concept of time is used as punishment and torture. What happens in those circumstances, especially in solitary confinement, is that people are taken “out of time”. In some cases, imprisonment becomes a place where the linear progression of time no longer applies, but where time instead becomes an utterly confusing, anxiety-inducing construct used for the sake of extracting information from prisoners. This “being out of time” is also mentioned in Austerlitz’s monologue, but in a different context.
He argues that despite our lives being seemingly governed by the mechanical clock, it is and remains the cosmos that really structures our lives, an “unquantifiable vastness” that does not comply with linear progression but that progresses more in the form of swirls, precisely what the Chinese proposed centuries and centuries ago. Time is not linear but circular. This, Austerlitz says, is what governs life in “lesser developed countries” but also exists in large metropolitan cities, such as London. “Aren’t the dead out of time? Or the dying? Or those who are sick and confined to their bed in hospital?” Time stops for them, or progresses differently than the way prescribed by our mechanical clock.
The question I pose (more or less to myself) is to what extent film can help us understand this, can help us see that time is not a linear progression or that there are several people who live “out of time”? Can film, as a time-based medium, do this at all, or will it always fail because film, just like time, is an artificial construct?
I’m not someone who likes lists, all sorts of The best films…, The worst films… etc I never saw a point of social media getting obsessed with someone’s subjective opinion, with someone they have never even met or heard of rating a particular film at the top of their list. I have been asked whether I could put a list of my top slow films together, but I will do it differently here.
First of all, I’d like to thank the over 52,000 people who have dropped by this year. Of those, over 24,000 were unique visitors, new people who have discovered The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. The blog is now five years old. I changed servers last year, so I no longer have statistics for every year. But I think that this year has been the strongest in the blog’s history and I reckon around 200,000 to 250,000 people have so far viewed the blog since October 2012. These are abstract numbers, they quantify what’s going on on the blog. To me, those numbers show the growing interest in Slow Cinema / Contemplative Cinema. It’s not my work the people come here for. I know maybe 0,5% of those who drop by. It’s their interest in this type of film that brings them to The Art(s) of Slow Cinema, away from standard writing, from standard analysis. Those people want to discover what’s beyond the already-written, the already-said, and that makes me very happy. I will keep going for as long as I can, and you can help me with that by supporting the blog on Patreon.
2017 has been a year in which I did not discover single films as such, but rather almost entire oeuvres. I looked through my posts and noticed that, unconsciously, I returned time and again to the same directors; Wang Bing and Chantal Akerman. That was completely accidental. I usually try to vary my writing, but those two directors demanded more attention from me. I watched 4 films by Wang Bing alone; 15 hours of material that really struck me. I started of with West of the Tracks, Wang Bing’s nine-hour long documentary about the collapse of the Tie Xi Qu industrial complex. It was my first long film by the Chinese director, and the more films I watched by him the more I became fascinated by how much you can do with so very little. For those who know Wang Bing, it is a well-known fact that he often works clandestinely, with a small handheld camera and no real crew. He simply records what he sees. West of the Tracks is a masterpiece that was for me this year the perfect introduction to Wang Bing’s work. I had seen one or two of his works before, but that particular film had the effect that I had missed until then: the desire to see more. And so I did; Bitter Money, a superb film about young migrant workers trying to earn a living in clothes factories; Three Sisters, a look at the life of three sisters, aged 10, 6 and 4, who live alone in the mountains as their father is a migrant worker in a city nearby; and Mrs Fang, a film that was my personal discovery of the year. If someone really forced me to name a Film of the Year, it would be Mrs Fang. My aim for next year is to see and review Crude Oil and Till Madness Do Us Part. That would complete my journey through the lengthy works of Wang Bing, and I really cannot wait to see more films in future (although they do take up a lot of time!!).
The second director who stayed with me throughout the year was Chantal Akerman. It is perhaps the coincidence of my embarking on a journey through my family history during the war that brought me closer to the films of Akerman, films that are full of history, memory, and trauma. Of course, there are films in which those themes are not as present. But the two films I did see this year (I should have seen more!) had those very much at their centre; No Home Movie, Akerman’s last film, and News from Home, albeit the former is much more explicit on this and, perhaps with Là-bas, the most explicit film about the family’s past. News from Home is, now that I think about the two films in retrospect, a great companion piece to No Home Movie, a sort of mirror image. Akerman left Belgium to live and work in the US. The film shows us images of the United States in the 1970s. We never see Akerman, but we do hear her reading letters she had received from her mother. There was anxiety in the words of Akerman’s mother; anxiety about whether her daughter could make it, about whether money she had sent had arrived, about not hearing from her daughter for a long time. There was a distance that could only be bridged by letters. Then there is this moving scene in No Home Movie, with Akerman filming a Skype call she had with her mother: “I want to show that there is no distance anymore.” Akerman’s portrait of her increasingly frail mother is superb and, in some ways, went well with Wang Bing’s Mrs Fang.
Wang Bing and Chantal Akerman hardly make for cheery films. And so my counterpart to all of this was the Living trilogy by Swedish director Roy Andersson, comprised of Songs from the Second Floor (2000), You, the Living (2007), and A pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence (2014). With seven years in between each of the films, Andersson took his time to craft a superb trilogy on the human condition, on our mundane lives, our mundane struggles, and yes, also about our WTF actions, actions that make you go “yes, we do this but why the heck are we doing this in the first place?” The Living trilogy is one of the few slow films (or slow film compilation) that come with a lot of humour, even though it’s dark humour. It’s not that often that we find cheery slow films. It’s usually Albert Serra who makes up for the lack of humour in Slow Cinema. This year, I learned that Roy Andersson joins the rank of slow clowns, and I still have all his short films to watch! Very much looking forward to seeing more by Andersson in the next year.
Then there was the marvellous Five by Abbas Kiarostami, which I finally had the chance to watch, and it was one of those experiences that are difficult to forget. It’s primarily the last sequence that still stays with me, the long take of a lake at night, the moon light reflecting on the surface until dark clouds cover it and a storm arrives. An absolutely superb observation of a perfectly natural phenomenon, but filmed in a rather obscure way so that, for a long time, one wonders what’s happening. Outside my director studies this year, Five was the single most interesting film I have seen in 2017.
Overall, 2017 was a good year for slow films…at least on my blog. I have also read quite a bit. There was this great book about contemporary art and time, for example. And, of course, the most wonderful Art and Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. I already have three books in store for next year, so there will be more to come in 2018. More books, more Wang Bing and who else? We will see that soon!
I wish all of my readers a peaceful end of the year, a Happy New Year in advance, and you’ll hear from me again very soon!!
A small book at the bottom of a shelf that is overwhelmed with books on the big names of Hollywood; films, directors, actresses. There, somewhere in between those oversized books, I found the new book on Chantal Akerman, smaller than A5 in size, almost invisible. Written by Corinne Rondeau, this French-language book is the latest work on the Belgian director. Without being too analytical, Rondeau makes reading the book an experience just as watching a film by Akerman is an experience. Rondeau’s work is poetic in writing, often following a chain of thoughts as they come into her head. Her writing suggests continuous movement, circular movement at times, rather than chopped off pieces of thoughts that appear for no reason.
In her little book Chantal Akerman, Passer la nuit (2017), Rondeau suggests that it is futile to see Akerman’s work only in the context of her family’s traumatic past during the Second World War, the silence in the family that had affected her deeply, and her suicide in 2015. Even though, she argues, it is important – and she herself, in fact, returns over and over the aspect of silence as a result of history – it is not adequate, not productive, to consider Akerman’s oeuvre entirely as a result of that. A fair point, given that it is always futile to look at something from a single perspective. Rondeau sets an example, looking even at the small things. Her chapter headings are fascinating at the beginning, simply called “encore” (again) or “où” (where), chapters in which she brings to the fore the essence of Akerman’s work, I find.
There is plenty I would like to mention, but I will point to only a few arguments Rondeau makes, and leave it up to my French-speaking readers to get their hands on the book.
The first argument, which I thoroughly liked, is Rondeau’s explicit view of Akerman working in the context of the words “nothing”, “blank”, and “gap”. These terms appear over and over in Akerman’s films, as visual demonstrations rather than spoken words. Indeed, I find that these terms are particularly prominent in the films I’m interested in: Là bas, D’Est, No Home Movie. Although Rondeau refuses to read those films exclusively in the context of a traumatic family history, these three films are important in the context of memory, memory lapses, the silencing and suppression of traumatic events. It is impossible not to read them in this context, perhaps in the context of the second and third generation attempting to dig up the past that has formed them, affected them in the way they think, feel and behave. Perhaps, this way of thinking, my thinking, makes me feel so strongly about Rondeau’s description of Akerman’s films: “une nuit qui tombe peu à peu”, a slow nightfall. With No Home Movie, night has fallen.
Rondeau argues that it is obstacles that really help us to find a way, and it is silence that help us to find words. Akerman, according to her, makes use of this logic, and uses a kind of aesthetic that she describes as “suspense in absentia”. Tension is there, but it’s not overt. It’s the main ingredient of her films without putting it on the films’ sleeves, so to speak. Tension is present and absent, just like trauma, which disrupts time and space. This “suspense in absentia” is not only characteristic of Akerman’s work, but Rondeau has unwillingly characterised a large number of slow or contemplative films that use this aesthetics. I described it, though in other words, in my work on Lav Diaz. Béla Tarr’s films centre around this absent-present tension as well as more recent works. I’m thinking in particular of the works by Scott Barley and Enzo Cillo, whose videos make this covert tension palpable.
While reading the book, I came across several instances which contradict Rondeau’s initial claim that it was futile to see Akerman’s work exclusively in the context of trauma. And yet, she herself writes about it without mentioning the term. It is more by describing Akerman’s aesthetics that she gets to the bottom of the nature of trauma, which she, at the beginning of the book, so vehemently rejected as the sole centre of the director’s oeuvre. She mentions another characteristic of Akerman’s films: “on s’approche en s’éloignant”. We approach something by distancing ourselves. This is very much an extension of her notes about silence as a necessity to find words, and obstacles as a necessity to find a way. One is important in order to reach the other. The idea of approach through distance reminded me strongly, again, of the nature of trauma. You dig in your memories to find something. While speaking about it, you come closer and closer to the actual painful event, but you often bounce back, you distance yourself, precisely because it causes you pain. Approach versus distance, distance versus approach.
“Où vont les images?” Where do the images go? According to Rondeau, Akerman’s oeuvre centres around this very question. Why do all images move towards the night? Or “How can you remember something that you yourself haven’t experienced?” as Akerman formulated it. Rondeau identifies the circle as one of several main elements that appear over and over again in Akerman’s work, which to me, once more, is the perfect symbol of how the director deals with the effects of her family’s traumatic history. As much as Rondeau would like to disconnect one from the other, it is impossible to do so. This is the one thing that I did not like about the book; the forced attempt of disconnecting the symbols Rondeau identifies in Akerman’s work from the nature of trauma, which is so dominant in the director’s films.
Nevertheless, Rondeau’s book adds a lot of good stuff to existing writings on Akerman. The way it is written – in a fluid, poetic style – makes it a pleasure to read. The book takes you on a journey and makes you hungry, I find, to see more of Akerman’s films. I haven’t seen her complete oeuvre yet, but am very much aiming for doing exactly that!
My journey through Chantal Akerman’s filmography continues. It is haunting to do this with the knowledge that she committed suicide almost to the day two years ago. I mentioned in my post on Là bas that her pain, her struggle, the weight of the past she had carried with her, was palpable in every frame. Chantal Akerman was open about this, and yet she wasn’t. She made it more (c)overt in her films, I find, than in other circumstances. The texts she wrote were full of references to her mental struggles, and yet it is her films that haunt me most. Akerman is similar to, albeit also very different from, Lav Diaz. The Filipino director equally creates a traumatic universe in this films and plays with presence and absence throughout his long films. Even though I know about Diaz’s own traumatic past, his films are less personal than Akerman’s. Whereas Diaz primarily tells the story of his country, Akerman tells her own story. She speaks about her family and the ways in which her family’s contact with the Holocaust has shaped her.
No Home Movie is Akerman’s last film. It is an intimate study of her mother, of herself, and of the relationship between the two. There have been rumours that people booed at the premiere of the film. I do not and cannot know whether those rumours are true. But if they are, they show that some people have little interest in building a relationship with a director and a film. A director is merely a machine creating one entertaining film after another. Film becomes a commodity. No Home Movie is anything but. It is not exactly beautifully shot, it is raw, unpolished. It is a home movie, without actually being one. Some of you might remember old footage of your holidays, when you were little. Our parents or grandparents show us those raw pictures, often utterly unstable which makes it difficult to watch. In the good old times of analogue film, the shaky nature of the home movie image was a classic. The shakiness often became an aesthetic vehicle in order to transmit feelings of joy. Who hasn’t seen those images of children running towards the sea with their arms high up in the air? Or of parents playing hide-and-seek with their children, a smile on their faces, enjoying the leisure, the freedom, the opportunity of being, if only for a little while, a child again.
Akerman’s No Home Movie is the opposite of all that. It shows stasis, it shows one woman ageing slowly and another trying to cope with it. The camera is often positioned on a stable surface, such as a table, recording passively what happens in front of its lens. At times we see Akerman herself or her mother in a long shot, framed with the help of door frames, which represent the mother’s apartment in Brussels as a complex labyrinth. The detached camera is a good metaphor of the distance that lies between present life and past trauma. Post trauma, you continue your life, but your life is different from that of people around you. Yours will always be a different life. I remember those painful passages in Akerman’s writing in which she evoked the silence, the detachment, especially of her mother, as a result of the family’s deportation to Auschwitz. I remember those passages in which she spoke about her dad taking her out of Jewish school, of the family ceasing to celebrate Shabbat. They seem to me like consequences of endured trauma and describe the detachment that Akerman’s camera often visually reinforces. These memories surface in No Home Movie, during long sequences of conversations between Akerman and her mother. They are a repetition of her writing.
The film is not, as it might look at first, a film about her mother. It is more complex than that. Akerman herself is present in a lot of frames. The conversations with her mother in the kitchen, over a meal, are interesting, are simple and yet have a strong meaning, because they return over and over again to the past. It is a past that has marked Akerman’s mother profoundly, and Akerman herself, although she was not directly affected by the persecution of Jews. Instead, she is the second generation that is known to have “inherited” the trauma of their parents. Theirs is a trauma that is the result of silence on the one hand, but also of overt behaviour of their parents as a result of what they have been through. These traumas can affect three generations, although the third generation (as is the case with myself) approaches this trauma from a different angle. Something that struck me is how relatively open those conversations between Akerman and her mother were in the film, knowing that there had been a difficult silence in the past. What the film shows is something I see in my own family; the older my grandfather get, the more he speaks about his trauma. It is as if they want to unburden themselves in order to be able to rest in peace, literally and truly.
No Home Movie contains, I find, a radical break after an hour. The first part of the film is a study of Akermans’ interactions with one another. They’re almost sweet, those scenes when Akerman films her mother while being on Skype with her. When her mother asks why she is being filmed, the director responds so lovingly, heartfelt: “I like filming people, but you more than anyone else.” Or “Because I want to show people that there is no more distance.” It is affectionate, a gesture that seems so personal, and yet it is there for all of us to see. The second part is a shift towards showing the last days or weeks of Akerman’s mother. The film loses its dynamic (on the level of character interaction) and becomes a slow, almost static portrait of an old woman eating less and less; sleeping more and more; remembering less and less; being confused more and more. This intimacy has certain similarities to Wang Bing’s Locarno winner Mrs Fang, which I reviewed not so long ago. No Home Movie doesn’t go quiet as deep, but one cannot deny that these two films have in common their focus on the process of dying, of saying goodbye.
In Akerman’s film, this goodbye is twofold, which gives this film a ghostly appearance. The director had said that her films were about her mother and if her mother was to die, there was nothing left for her to say. With her mother’s death, her filmmaking had lost its raison d’être. It pained me to see the final shot of the film; alone, she closes the curtain in her mother’s apartment and remains in a dark room. It stands in stark contrast to what the film felt like at the beginning. There were scenes of her driving, perhaps aimlessly, through austere landscapes, leaving the sound unpolished. Akerman wasn’t present in those shots. She focuses instead on the vastness in front of her, of the emptiness, but also of the absolute freedom that a landscape such as this can offer. In the end, stasis and death prevail. Darkness becomes a veil and a shadow that, I find, wasn’t (visually) as present in the films I had watched previously. No Home Movie is no home movie. It is Akerman’s personal farewell; a farewell to her mother, to film, to the world. A striking last film whose images and conversations will stay with me for a long time.