What does it mean to wait? What does “waiting” mean nowadays when everyone seems to be always, eternally busy? Are we still waiting, or have we essentially replaced waiting by simply doing stuff? I use this blog post in order to respond to a post on Geyst blog that ended with the question “what does it mean to wait?” I felt that there is plenty to say, also in regards to slow film. If waiting has perhaps indeed been almost replaced by us doing stuff in order to keep ourselves busy – while waiting for the train, the bus, a friend to arrive – then it is slow films that return us to the idea of waiting, the feeling of time standing still.

Chantal Akerman didn’t want people not to notice time passing. The point of her work was to make the viewer aware that time was passing. We notice the power of time, I would say, most often when presumably nothing is happening, exactly in moments of waiting. Time feels heavy, feels burdensome. “With my films, you’re aware of every second passing through your body”, she famously said. What is important (and characteristic of slow films) is the act of waiting, in several different ways. For one, it’s the characters who wait. Think of Lav Diaz. In Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004), I think it is, that characters are walking from one village to another, but because of the heat they take several extensive breaks. They sit in the shadow, simply waiting for the sun to subside. Diaz said once that this was characteristic of the Filipinos. The heat, the humidity – it’s too much, so people sit down and wait for the heat to subside. They wait, doing nothing.

Béla Tarr…what would Slow Cinema be without Béla Tarr? The endless, now almost characteristic scenes of people in front of windows, looking outside, looking for nothing in particular. They just sit and watch. We don’t know whether they wait for something to happen, or whether they just stop and allow time do its work. Whether it’s DamnationThe Man from London or The Turin Horse, these scenes are iconic, and they force us, the viewer, to wait, too. Because as Akerman suggested, the viewer is always waiting. We are waiting for the next take to commence, for the current one to stop. Slow films pause, and they develop in their own time. Events are not cut short, which would suit our impatience. Something is always happening in action films, something that relieves us from the claustrophobic feeling of time, the heaviness of time. Time is flying, it’s passing as fast as could be (albeit this is artificial and misleading).

When people who dislike slow films try to reason their feelings towards this type of film, they tend to say that nothing happens on screen, i.e. that it is boring. This “nothing happens” is, in fact, another word for “you actually have to wait for something to happen and we don’t have time for this”. People are impatient. Waiting seems to mean being passive, perhaps being impotent, immobile, all the while being told everywhere that time is running so fast that you’re losing it when you wait a minute or two for the bus. You cannot wait. You need to haste, or else you will lose those precious two minutes. One could perhaps say that people who reject slow films for the simple reason that nothing happens never learned to wait, or forgot the joy of waiting. Because what does waiting mean? What does it do to your body, your mind?

I mentioned several times on this blog that slow films helped me to slow down and deal with PTSD. PTSD introduces an incredible speed into your life, which causes severe anxiety. It’s not just that you’re scared of death. It’s the fact that you can no longer keep up with the speed around you, which makes you unstable and insecure. So what happened was that slow films helped me to pause, and, yes, to wait. Waiting does not mean doing nothing, although it appears as such to a great deal of people. It does not mean being passive, although some people would tell you otherwise. Waiting means being in the moment, being in the present, being present, something that has become increasingly difficult. There is “no time” to be in the present, but this is only the case because we don’t take time for it. To wait means to be mindful. It is a chance to take a look at what surrounds you, at what is going on in your body and mind.

This state is embodied by characters in slow films, when they sit and look out of the window; when they sit in the shadow of trees doing nothing; when they sit in the fields and watch the sky. They’re in the present moment, and the directors ask us to do the same. Be with the characters, be in the moment with them, and become mindful of our surrounding. Become mindful of time, as Akerman suggests, yet without feeling anxious about wasting it. Slow films are a way to see the chances of doing nothing, the liberties of waiting, even the joy in waiting. If only more people took their time to wait and considered the pleasures of nothingness and emptiness… Just how enjoyable is the end of Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea? A man sits at a fireplace outdoors, the soundscape gives us a feeling of being there with him. He’s doing nothing. He simply watches how the fire consumes the wood. A beautiful scene, seemingly endless, that allows the viewer to be.

Day 22 – Two Years At Sea (Rivers)

Ben Rivers needs to be included in this year’s advent calendar. When I watched his film first time round at last year’s Slow Cinema weekend in Newcastle, and heard more about him, he was immediately a point of interest. Perhaps this was the case because he made and still makes films the old-school way. Analogue film, developed in his kitchen sink. This alone says a lot about his approach to filmmaking. It also says something about slowness.

Two Years at Sea (2011), Ben Rivers

Rivers’ approach stands in contrast to, say, Lav Diaz. What I gathered from reading about slow-film directors, I could figure that making a slow film is relatively fast. Or can be, if the funding is right. Let’s think about a mainstream blockbuster for a moment: There are so many cuts in them that it must be a real pain to maintain an overview of all the shots (angles etc). I only ever made short films at university (apart from the 12mins documentary), and they weren’t slow. It was difficult to keep on track of things, and even though I know that I’m not a professional at all, I always imagine blockbusters to be a jigsaw of 300,000 pieces, which takes ages in the editing room to put back together.

I remember Béla Tarr having edited The Man from London in a week. Lav Diaz isn’t exactly slow either. It’s easy. A static camera, a long take. There’s nothing much to edit. If you’re clever and successful enough in your filmmaking, all you need to do is glue the long-takes together. This is not to say that slow-film directors don’t have editing skills. Not at all. It’s just an entirely different way of editing for some directors.

Rivers slows down the whole process of filmmaking by developing the film himself. He’s one of the few directors who have so far remained with analogue film. Tarr was another director who would have never touched digital (though I suppose he probably does now during his teaching in Sagreb).

Two Years at Sea (2011), Ben Rivers

Two Years is a lovely treatment of solitude. Of a happy life in solitude. While in other slow films, solitude is a state the characters long to escape from (as evident in Tsai Ming-liang’s films), Rivers uses solitude to show its beauty. The film doesn’t contain any dialogue, or rather monologue, as we’re all alone with Jack in the middle of nowhere in the Scottish Highlands. It tells the story of a man in his own world. In a happy world, in a world free of everything. There is no dependency apparent. Jack is a free man.

The film cuts to old photographs from time to time. We see Jack’s history, memories of the past, time arrested. The two media visually recording history come together here. And again, Two Years is at times more photographic than – what is the word, cinematic? Filmic? Rivers has a sharp photographic eye. Combined with a static camera, he joins the club of slow-film-or-photo-album directors. I can’t wait for his new film, he did in collaboration with Ben Russell!