Andrei Rublev – Andrei Tarkovsky (1966)

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 MirrorStalker 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…

Vanità – Kevin Pontuti (2017)

A bare room. The walls are seemingly made of cold stone. The lighting is low, the darkness overpowers the image, which director Kevin Pontuti has created at the beginning of his new short film Vanità (2017). The image itself could be mistaken for a medieval still life, a painting that represents the dark ages that have left their indelible marks on our present lives. Pontuti, a visual artist first and foremost, uses his skill to merge the art of film with the specifics of a still life painting in this film in order to strengthen the concepts of dark- and coldness, and which foreshadows what is to come.

Pontuti creates an almost palpable soundscape at the beginning, a soundscape that makes the scene come to life. One could think, believe even, that one is part of the film, standing there off-screen and looking at the old wooden table. The result of the director’s sound design is an immersive nature that cannot be shaken off throughout the film’s duration.

Vānĭtās – emptiness – permeates every scene of the film. It is not only about the utter scarcity of the mise-en-scène. There is also the actual process of emptying oneself. This is primarily metaphorical, as is often the case in Pontuti’s work. In Onere (available on tao films), for instance, this metaphor is one that symbolises the burden of identity, the burden of the I, in the form of a shapeless, and yet almost human-like “package” that a woman carries through the woods under extreme efforts. In Vanita, Pontuti is more explicit in his representation, but he remains faithful to his approach of not showing. Rather, his work demands of the viewer to interpret, to read, the frames he has constructed. What underlying meaning is there in a woman pulling hair out of her mouth? Is it an extension of Onere’s burden, a burden one wants to rid oneself of? Why does this woman, previously calm, brushing her hair, vomit excessively only to then return to complete normality as though nothing has happened? Is there a meaning?

Pontuti’s latest instalment of his Poetry of Penance series represents strongest the sentiments of horror, of darkness, even of violence, albeit not explicit, that the viewer might associate with the Medieval Ages. What remained under the surface in Onere comes to the fore in Vanità. The horror of the unexplainable, of the mysterious, is the core of the director’s representation of vānĭtās, which comes to life through the strong acting of his regular lead actress Alexandra Loreth, who lives her role despite all the horrors that comes with it in this film.

More than perhaps his previous works, Vanità asks one to reconsider the idea of film. Pontuti has created a cinematic piece that challenges our belief that films must be seen in cinema, by seemingly merging static and moving image art. Vanità is more than just a film. With the help of utter simplicity, it creates strength and challenges, and poses questions that are not always easy to answer.

(The original title of this short essay is “Vanità – The horror of the unexplainable” and is part of the promotional efforts following the release of Pontuti’s new film.)

Bitter Money – Wang Bing (2016)

I don’t know whether it’s only my perception of it or whether there is indeed a real surge of interest in the films of Wang Bing here in Europe. It is strangely satisfying to see an advertisement in your daily newspaper for the director’s Ta’ang on DVD, followed by the announcement of this year’s dOCUMENTA (Kassel, Germany) that they will host a full retrospective of Wang Bing. And then I browsed aimlessly through the website of French-German TV channel ARTE and what did I find? The director’s new film Bitter Money.

As, for instance, West of the TracksBitter Money is an impassioned look at the life of workers in China. To see these two films almost side by side is a very interesting matter. Tie Xi Qu as well as Coal Money are about (quite literally) the dirty work: extracting coal, manufacturing metal sheets and electric cables in factories that are below any health and safety standard. Especially West of the Tracks, to me, showed the older generation. There were several men in their late forties, early fifties who hoped that their children would have a better future. In some ways, Bitter Money seems like an investigation into whether this hope has materialised.

What Wang Bing’s film shows first of all is the shift in China’s economy. Bitter Money is a film about China’s textile industry with a particular emphasis on small private sewing rooms. The director does not explore the conditions in the main clothing factories, but focuses instead on the many private sewing room owners and those who work for them. As is common practice with Wang Bing, he singles out a few workers and follows them throughout the film’s two-and-a-half hours running time. It starts in a claustrophobic room in which several young people sit together. It appears to be one of the girl’s last evening at home, as she is taken to the city for work. Wang Bing keeps all of this anonymous. I’m not sure whether he ever mentions the name of the teenage girl, or whether he wants her to stand in, anonymously, for all the other young people who migrate away from the Chinese countryside in order to look for work.

The girl previously said that she had changed her age on official papers, which seems to be doable in some parts of China but not in others. It’s likely that she did this in order to be considered as eligible for work. Situations are dire in the countryside and people do whatever it takes in order to earn money. The girl is making her way to the city first by bus, then by train. Wang Bing remains for a very long time in this train, a night train it seems, filming the people sleeping, exhausted from the previous part of their journey. Others play cards, but overall it’s quiet in the train. It startled me when the people arrived in the city (which is also kept anonymous, if I remember correctly) and the sound level increased immensely. You get a real sense of the bustling life in the city; the people, the cars, the honking, the sheer speed with which everything is happening.

Initially, Wang Bing follows a group of three young people, amongst them the teenage girl and her cousin. He stays with them for a little while, while they move into their new home – an austere room with only the very basics with the busy street right outside the window (“This is what it’s like when you work far from home”, one of them says) – before he shifts his focus away from them. The story of the teenage girl who changed her age to make it to the city for work merges with the story of a thirty-something woman who fled her abusive husband. I believe that this man, whom we later see hitting his wife, is the only one who is clearly named throughout the film. Wang Bing singles him out and thereby forces the viewer to recognise the man whenever he pops up in the director’s frames.

And this he does when his wife comes to see him in his shop (“their shop”, as she insists) in order to ask him for money. The marriage had been problematic since the beginning, but it boiled over when she invested in a small textile company. Now, her body is covered in bruises. Wang Bing remains outside of the shop and films the violent encounter between husband and wife, the former repeatedly threatening that he would kill her, that he would skin her alive. He repeatedly grabs her by the throat and hits her, all the while Wang Bing keeps recording. Ethics are a thoroughly interesting subject in the director’s films, and it would need another post in order to explore this in more detail. Suffice to say here that I did wonder when (if at all) Wang Bing would have interfered in this lengthy, very uncomfortable scene.

In the meantime, the teenage girl’s cousin is returning home, which sets the actual exploration of working conditions in motion. The young man complains about the long working hours – he begins at 7am and works till midnight with no lunch break – and decides that this isn’t a life for him. This is followed by the first extensive sequence showing people manufacturing clothes, seemingly in a normal house, upstairs, with only a sewing machine and pairs of scissors. It’s very rudimentary, and looks almost clandestine. There is one girl in this group of people who doesn’t look older than 14. Indeed, Bitter Money, as mentioned above, shows the young generation more than anything else, and investigates whether they have a better life than their parents had hoped for.

After two-and-a-half hours, I’m not sure I can say that they’re better off. If you look at West of the Tracks, you could say that there are less health hazards in the textile industry, at least in those areas that Wang Bing shows us. However, there is little else that sets those young people off from their parents. Worst of all is, perhaps, that they don’t have a home to go to. The workers live together in austere rooms. Their actual homes are often so far away from the city that they can’t go home without taking too many days off work, which means a huge loss of money. While workers in West of the Tracks seem to be long-standing colleagues who have spent half their lives together, workers in Bitter Money appear lonely. They work together, but they usually don’t speak. It’s about making the most shirts, the most coats during the day. Anything that can distract is avoided. If a worker isn’t fast enough, s/he gets sacked. In this way, there is a persistent change in the work force and it’s not possible to strike up year-long friendships that help the workers through hardships.

What Bitter Money shows is the individual rather than the collective. Compared to the director’s other films I have seen so far, this one looks very polished and quite deliberately edited in order to follow a three-act structure, something I have already noticed in his testimony film Fengming, a Chinese memoir. Bitter Money lacks the spontaneity that West of the Tracks showed, something that made the film unpredictable and that gave you a real sense of witnessing something. Despite my liking the film, I would say that the director didn’t manage to get to the bottom of what’s happening the way he managed it in West of the Tracks, which perhaps is down to the time spent on the subject matter. For both films, he spent over 2 years filming, but the end result is very different: there is a nine-hour piece on the one hand that contains all details of the collapse of an industrial complex, and a two-and-a-half hour film on the other that, to me, is strong, but could be much stronger if it had been given more time to breathe. I begin to wonder whether long running times aren’t best for documentaries, because you know that if a director has filmed for two years and the final product is comparatively short, a lot of material has been cut.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

My, my, my…another strong arthouse film this year. And another one which is too good to be written about, if I’m honest. There are films which cannot be described in words. Sebastian Mez’s Postcards from the Verge (2017) is one of those films, a film that, like postcards, takes you on a journey into a different land. That land or these lands, to be correct, are Israel and Palestine.

The film starts with a black screen and no sound. After a while, the image of a fire burning in the far background of the black frame shapes up. The camera remains with the fire, lingering on it, focuses on it. This very first shot gives us an idea, a feeling, of what the next seventy odd minutes will be like: they will invite us to observe, to be in the very moments the director proposes to be in.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

Mez’s film consists of chapters. Each chapter has a very specific aesthetic, especially visually. The first chapter stunned me because it felt as though I was looking at something through a third eye. The frame was structured in such a way that it gave the impression of an eye through which you observed, in wide angle shots, the landscape of Israel and Palestine. The director uses a stark black-and-white contrast for most of his frames, a contrast that is, for someone who loves black-and-white photography as much as I do, a real pleasure to look at. It’s the sort of visual aesthetic that makes my heart jump.

For a very long time in the film, there is nothing but images. Mez shows us the landscape of conflict, a conflict that has been ongoing for several decades, and which seems to find no end. There is one frame that struck me. It was a landscape shot, a slow pan, if I remember correctly, but perhaps my memory tricks me. What is important is that there is a tank in that landscape and because of the director’s use of high contrast black-and-white, you don’t see it at first. To me, this is a very good depiction of this conflict. Violence, and everything that embodies it, has become part of the fabric of those countries. Wherever you go, there is military; in the streets, at checkpoints, etc It has become normal, and no one sees it anymore. Just like you might not see the tank in that very frame because it is no longer standing out in a region that is in constant upheaval.

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

At some point a voice over comes in. The voice over disrupts the contemplative nature of the images and comments on the conflict. But it’s not going into details. It’s a simple observation: “I think peace will be difficult to find because we want the same thing. The Jews want Al Aqsa to destroy it and build their own temple on it, and the Arabs want Al Aqsa to pray.” The viewer is left with this thought, an idea that seems viable but that goes beyond the complex political circumstances that we have come to know. It is an observation from the inside, with a take on the conflict that goes beyond the violence that saturates our thinking.

Mez lets us alone with this thought, and continues his visual journey through the landscape of conflict – in a letter boxed super-wide angle (does that even exist?), for example. The effect of this is interesting. The wide angle allows us to breathe. We can easily shift around our gaze on a horizontal axis. At the same time, however, the letter box around the image contracts it. It limits our gaze on a vertical axis. And the (metaphorical) vertical axis is the one of feeling and experience (if we think back to Maya Deren’s thoughts on the subject). A contracted vertical axis in a film about a conflict where feelings are numbed…

Postcards from the Verge – Sebastian Mez (2017)

Which brings me to the film’s fourth chapter, titled Vivid Memories. Overall, the film is like a photo album, and this becomes most evident in Vivid Memories. The frames are almost still images. Or perhaps they are still images. Or maybe Mez uses super slow-motion. In any case, these images are an embodiment of remembering, of vivid memories, just as the title of the film’s chapter proposes. The frames felt like memories. They reminded me of parts of Chris Marker’s La Jetee. There is something tangible in those images, often dreamlike, blurry at first, then becoming clearer with time.

With Postcard from the Verge, Mez has created lasting images, postcards that stay with you. The final chapter of the film speaks about silence. In fact, it doesn’t. This chapter is quiet, almost completely silent…

Interview with Lav Diaz (Extracts, Part II)

This is the second part of my rather long interview with Lav Diaz, conducted at the Locarno Film Festival. You can find the first part here.

Nadin Mai: What I find interesting is that you say you’re a kind of teacher, you want to open people’s eyes, to let them know what has happened in the country and what is still happening in the country. But then, in all of your films you have some really horrible scenes. Especially Florentina is exceptionally strong for that. Even though you don’t show anything explicitly, you would nevertheless like to close your eyes and ears. You just don’t want to be there. So how does this actually work? On the one hand you want to open our eyes, and yet you show something so cruel, where we say: we actually don’t want to see it.

Lav Diaz: It’s a confrontational thing. You have to confront the psyche. Fear is very inherent. And one thing that opens people’s eyes, their awareness, is to confront their fears, destroy the fear. That factor is always part of why people wouldn’t embrace history, the truth of history, because there is this denial thing. One way to confront it is just do it hardcore. You don’t show the thing but it’s there. So it’s one thing to confront the fears. I’m trying to be more dialectical. Destroy the world of fear.

NM: That’s the interesting thing. You don’t really show violence, not on screen. You convey it through aesthetics. In Florentina it’s mainly sound. Why do you not put violence directly on screen?

LD: I don’t need it. It’s there.

NM: Do you think it’s stronger if you don’t show it?

LD: Yes, of course. It’s stronger, because it’s more inert, more inside. The fear is more inside. The fear to confront it. If you see it, then it’s just a horror film.

NM: Do you think the viewer would lose a sense of realism if you showed it? Because he knows that it’s not real.

LD: It depends on the treatment. There are filmmakers who can show violence and it’s still very powerful. And there are filmmakers who don’t show it. And it’s more powerful. It depends on the treatment. You have to adjust to the flow of the story also. When that moment comes, then boom. It’s not manipulated but you gain that momentum and when it’s there then it will destroy their fear. … I want them to destroy their fears also.

NM: Is it perhaps also a budget issue?

LD: It’s a cliché [violence is a cliché]. To be cruel, doing all this gore and blood like Tarantino. And they’re enjoying all these things now. They enjoy the blood. They clap their hands: wow! Blood all over the walls. Wonderful! So the fear is very superficial. It’s not true anymore. While if you show it in a more primal way you gain that kind of momentum that evil is just around the corner. And you know it. Then it’s better this way.

NM: How often are your films screened in the Philippines? I know that Norte made big waves in the country.

LD: Yeah, it’s the most popular. Before that, of course, it was Batang West Side. But Batang West Side has gained this mythical status where people, even those who haven’t seen it, say it’s good. … As I said to you a while ago, only a small percentage of the population has seen my works. But I’m not complaining because I am aware that there is this struggle of, the issue of venues. The people are also so used to Hollywood … If you tell them that the film is five hours, they will not come. The people who come are the followers and the curious. … The curious will be converted or they will hate you more, depending on how they will see the work, depending on the condition they are in when they enter the film. …They cannot believe that there is cinema like that. Their understanding of cinema is Hollywood. So, I’m aware of that. I’m not complaining. But at the same time, like I told you a while ago, there is the burden, the guilt. They say, why do you not do shorter works so that people will see it, if you say you’re responsible? How can I be responsible when it’s already compromised? Cutting it to two hours just because you need to cut it for the audience, then it’s a compromised work already. It’s gone. Don’t do cinema at all. I’d rather be selling barbecues out there. Yes, it’s true. I don’t compromise the work so that you can have a so-called audience. No way.

NM: Why do you think Norte is so popular in the Philippines?

LD: Hard work, and it’s shorter. It’s four hours and thirty minutes, and the producer, Moira and the new owner of the film, they’re tireless. They keep showing the film. They’re very good at that.

NM: Where do you have your biggest fan base?

LD: Europe. Because of the festivals. … I’m very thankful of these people. The critics here in Europe who watch the films and do the programs.

NM: Do you think that Europeans can understand your films?

LD: Yes, of course. It’s also the culture. Europeans are more into digging things. To work hard. To understand cultures. I use the word, they’re not lazy. Europeans are not lazy. … We’re fucking lazy. And put this on the level of the critics. The critics here are more into it than the ones in Asia. There are no books in the country, no books about cinema. It needs to be addressed. How do we treat the works there? Imagine, there have been a lot of retrospectives of my work outside, but not inside the country. It’s insane. Even for me, I couldn’t fathom it. They’re been doing all these retrospectives… But in the Philippines, no. There’s jealousy, there’s resentment, like I told you.

NM: With very few exceptions – Norte is the most recent one – your films are all black-and-white. I personally see that as supporting the narrative of poverty and suffering. Is that why you use black-and-white?

LD: Yes, yes. Colour to me is very very deceptive. It creates a certain aura of lightness. It’s my perception as an artist. Yeah, it’s true. You got it. I want to do black-and-white to give justice to what the film is representing. Like poverty – it’s better in black-and-white. Suffering is better in black-and-white. And beyond poverty and suffering, for me, cinema is black-and-white.

NM: I remember from yesterday [the public conversation at the festival] that you sometimes watch colour films in black-and-white.

LD: Yes, I do that all the time. A lot of works, I don’t want to see them in colour, so I put black-and-white. Some works that are short, I put them on my computer and change the whole thing to black-and-white and watch them. Colour obscures my view. It allows me to not really understanding the work. But when it’s in black-and-white, I’m into it.

NM: You can focus on the story.

LD: Yeah. I’m into it, I’m into it. It’s just there. Maybe it’s just a fixation because I’m so used to watching films in black-and-white. It could be that. It’s just a fixation maybe. A fetish. It could be a fetish. For me, it’s that. Cinema is black-and-white. But I can make colour films. But if I do it, I’m very very careful. Just like Batang West Side, I put a lot of time doing the grading.

NM: Batang West Side had a limited colour palette. That’s completely different from Norte.

LD: With Norte, we did a lot of things in the grading to de-saturate so many things. Because it’s really beautiful, the colours there. So we sat down and I had to de-saturate on so many levels, in so many parts of the film. You see, it’s so beautiful, it’s obscuring the thing. So I have to de-saturate it. More and more and more. The graders are complaining: there’s no colour anymore! Put some more colour. It’s becoming black-and-white. Oh really? [laughs]

(Part III to follow, stay tuned)

Absence and Presence in Lav Diaz’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (Paper)

Absence and Presence in Lav Diazs Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (2012)

9 April 2014, Research Seminar, University of Stirling

Introduction

In summer 2012, I sat in the Edinburgh Filmhouse and waited for the screening of Florentina Hubaldo, CTE, the new film by Lav Diaz, writer-director from the Philippines, now perhaps best known for his latest film Norte The End of History, which screened at last year’s Cannes festival. In fan circles and for somewhat hardcore cinephiles, he is most famous for his lengthy metaphorical treatments of Philippine history and the country’s social malaise: Melancholia, eight hours; Death in the Land of Encantos, nine hours; and Evolution of a Filipino Family, ten hours. And this is the average. He is, in fact, working on a film that has a running-time of fifty hours at the moment.

In any case, I knew Lav’s eight-hour film Melancholia from a screening in Newcastle. Sitting in a comfy seat, I felt prepared with food and drinks to my feet. What I wasn’t prepared for was the new kind of power he has infused his new film with, a power he transmitted by a unique choice of aesthetics, which he has never used before. After a six-hour traumatic ordeal, for both the viewer and the main character, the film ends with a young woman, Florentina, sitting in a chair, her nose bleeding and her left cheek swollen. She experiences difficulties to retain her posture while keeping a cool cloth to her head. Looking directly at the viewer, she mutters: “My head hurts. My head never stops hurting. It never stops.”

Florentina Ending

Florentina repeats herself over and over again. She speaks about having been beaten by her father, about having been chained to her bed, strangled, and about having been sold to men. After a twenty-minute static long-take, the young Florentina loses her strength and her consciousness.

Florentina Hubaldo is a metaphorical treatment of chronic trauma as a result of 300 years of colonialism. Rather than transmitting the theme of trauma through aesthetics such as flashbacks and rapid editing, as is the case in contemporary trauma cinema, Diaz represents trauma through the use of repetitive loops in the present narrative, a slowness evoked by long-takes and the overall film length, as well as through the play of presence and absence of sound and images.

What is particularly striking in this film is the absence of on-screen violence. The film uses the rape of a woman as a metaphor for the rape of the country under Spanish, American and Japanese rule. If anything, you would expect the depiction of rape being the centre piece of the film, especially if you’re familiar with Diaz’s films and know that he tends to stage painstakingly realistic representations of rape in his other films, such as Century of Birthing. In Florentina, he deliberately positions the viewer as listener rather than as eye-witness. He puts emphasis on sound; Florentina’s screams, her cries, and the sound of the chains her father ties her to bed with. Throughout the film, Diaz stresses the role of listening – of listening to Florentina’s repetitive monologues about her ordeal, of listening to her being raped without being able to see her, of listening to both atrocities and peace.

For this reason, I want to analyse Diaz’s unique juxtaposition of sound and silence as a means to convey the ideas of trauma, loss and mental decline, caused by CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain that develops slowly and gradually over years as a result of persistent brain injuries. Before I go into a detailed analysis I want to show you an extract of the film so that you get a feeling for the film’s atmosphere.

[extract]

Main

This extract is an example of Diaz’s juxtaposition of sound and silence, a juxtaposition of joy and sadness, of the Giants and Florentina. The Giants are giant paper-mâchédolls, which are the main attraction during the Higantes Festival, an annual celebration near Manila in honour of San Clemente, the patron of the fishermen. They are an indicator of past events and belong to Florentina’s childhood, in which she regularly seeks refuge.

And indeed, Florentina does find refuge in the Giants throughout her ordeal of repeated beatings and rape. At the end of the film, she recounts that she is always with the Giants, especially in her dreams. They keep returning and they dance together. But the Giants also appear in hallucinations, which arise from Florentina’s mental decline. In several scenes, Florentina interrupts her actions because she appears to see something. Diaz does not make use of traditional eye-line matches here, so he refrains from making explicit what exactly Florentina sees. But he leaves clues for us.

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Scenes such as those are often altered with images of the Higantes parade. Handheld shots show children looking up to the Giants and trying to grab their huge hands. Florentina also looks up to something or someone. She holds out her hands as if she tries to grab something. She repeatedly dances around just as the Giants themselves do. Her behaviour – though evidently trance-like – is that of a child’s at the Higantes parade, and therefore an indicator for her hallucinatory imagination of past events.

So, what exactly does this juxtaposition of sound and silence evoke in the viewer?

For once, if you sit through the film, it is a deeply unsettling experience. The sudden switch from sound to absolute silence in scenes such as these disorientates the viewer as sound functions as a unification of images. Moreover, silence disrupts temporality. This is very similar in the case of trauma, which equally disrupts temporality and a linear narrative of the self, which is locked in a temporal loop.

Confronted with a disrupted temporality, linearity and unity, the viewer is left in a position similar to that of the on-screen character. Florentina appears disoriented and in a trance-like state. She is abandoned and has no means of protection. Similarly, there are no reference points for the viewer. As Diaz positions the viewer predominantly as a listener, his denial of auditory information leaves us nothing to go by with. Together with Florentina, we are entirely naked and struggle to find sensory information to hold on to.

Over the course of the film, Diaz alters scenes of absolute silence and scenes of sound three times. Two of these alterations have a direct connection to the Higantes festival. The parade of the paper-mâchédolls and people accompanying them with brass instruments , as we have seen in the extract, creates a scene of what I would call acoustic stress. The volume of sound appears not only higher in contrast to the absolute silence that preceded it. Overall, the sound volume throughout the film is much lower. In some cases, it even needs a manual increase of volume through the remote control in order to hear ambient sounds. The sound of the parade, on the other hand, appears artificially, and deliberately, heightened for the purpose of rupture. They function as shock moments, and as attacks on our auditory senses.

Similar to repeated attacks on Florentina’s body and mind, the viewer is forced to go through a similar ordeal. We are confronted with repeated attacks on our senses. Acoustic stress occurs mainly in alleged scenes of joy, which is indicated by the children, who repeatedly try to grab the hands of the massive dolls in order to walk alongside them.

In contrast, scenes of absolute silence often succeed scenes of acoustic stress. Half an hour into the film, Florentina takes care of the goats in her father’s backyard. She puts them into a small shed, and then turns around to face the viewer. Her eyes seem to follow something, and a cut discloses that she is imagining two Giants in front of the garden.

Two Giants in front of fence

The sound does not fit the image because it contains children’s voices and the sound of instruments. They are absent from the image, however. This scene is followed by absolute silence; a close-up of a hand, which tries to grab a Giant’s hand. But it is not a child’s hand we see, as we would expect from the context. In a handheld shot, we see Florentina’s hand attempting several times to hold one of the Giants’hands, but she fails repeatedly. Her failure is juxtaposed with a scene of severe noise. The use of acoustic stress not only wakes Florentina from her dream or hallucination. It is also a reminder for the viewer that scenes of absolute silence do not belong to the realm of the real. Drenched by heavy rain, Florentina stands in the woods and stares into nothingness.

Florentina is a character who sees rather than acts. She has little control of her situation. When she wants to gain control of her plight, for example through escape attempts, she is subjected to violence at the hand of her father, which renders her passive. She is merely an observer, which means that she cannot control the events she is subjected to. If we were to apply this to trauma theory, we can also say that Florentina’s passiveness is an indicator for disembodiment. She observes situations from the distance and with detachment so as to supposedly minimise the impact of traumatic events. This is a common means in trauma survivors, especially in rape victims.

Returning to the juxtaposition of sound and silence in relation to Florentina and the Giants, the sudden rupture in the soundtrack not only acts as a literal loss of sound; it refers simultaneously to a much deeper and more symbolic loss: Florentina’s loss of childhood. This is implied in the alteration of scenes of joyous children and Florentina’s lonely walks at night through the streets of an unnamed city. It is also underlined in scenes in which we see Florentina’s hand failing at grabbing a Giant’s hand. Before she loses consciousness at the end of the film, Florentina reveals that “The Giants keep on returning. I asked for their help. I hope they come back. Those Giants. I hope they come back. Because they will help me.” It is suggested that being able to hold a Giant’s hand, as all the children do, would generate a feeling of security for Florentina. It would indicate hope and a relief from suffering, but she fails at securing this several times until close to the end of the film, when her brain functions are failing more and more.

Silence in Diaz’s film thus appears to be an indicator for Florentina’s loss of childhood. Yet, in fact, he alters the meaning of silence throughout the film. While the absence of sound can function as a metaphorical image of the loss of childhood and of innocence, in other scenes silence implies the reverse.

After Florentina disclosed some of her horrors for the first time in the film, a straight cut brings us to the woods, in which a small girl, supposedly Florentina, jumps around as if playing. Indeed, later in the film she explains that “we [the Giants and Florentina] are always playing. We play hide and seek in the forest. We run around the rocks. We frolic under the stars. We dance.”Her child’s play in the forest amidst absolute silence underlines the themes of peace and innocence. The forest thus plays an essential role in the creation of a feeling of innocence and peace. It is a repeated motif of refuge in the film.

Florentina on rock

It is established as such at the beginning of the film, when Florentina flees from the hands of a man, who wants to buy her. She escapes into the forest and waits for her grandfather. Later in the film, when she makes an attempt at running away from her father, she hides in the forest again. She tries to find a hiding place behind bushes and trees, and then crouches at the right hand side of the frame. A little later, she lays on a rock as if resting. These scenes are accompanied by peaceful ambient sounds, which emphasise Florentina’s feeling of safety, and which also gives the viewer a moment of escapism.

Yet, the forest is only a place of assumed safety. Florentina is caught by her father, dragged home on a leash, and chained to her bed. She also discloses that “Mother and I always hide in the forest. We crawl on the ground …but father saw us, and caught up on mother.”Hence, on the one hand, the forest is an idyllic place of peace for Florentina, in which she repeatedly seeks refuge and seemingly plays with the Giants, who give her a sense of joy and childish innocence. On the other hand, the forest fails to protect Florentina and causes her, her mother and her grandfather harm. Her mother is beaten to death following her escape to the forest. Her grandfather, too, is beaten. Thus, the forest is merely a fairy tale escape, which, in reality, aggravates Florentina’s suffering.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, then, I would like to point to a statement by Lav Diaz made in an interview: “I want them to struggle also.”With them, he means us, the audience, and the range of sound he uses – from acoustic stress to absolute silence – forces the viewer to struggle in metaphorically similar ways to the film’s main character, Florentina.

The sudden disruption of sound, and its replacement by absolute silence is used to convey aspects of trauma, in particular the effects of disorientation and loss of temporality.

The scenes of absolute silence have two main functions. First, as sound can support a preferred reading induced by the director, absolute silence allows the viewer to read a specific scene in his or her way. Second, the absence of sound deprives the viewer-listener, of the main sensory information, rendering him or her as helpless as Florentina.

It is the first time Diaz has experimented with the power of sound and silence. Throughout his six-hour film, Diaz exposes the audience to repeated shock situations, which are similar to the chain of traumatic events Florentina has to endure; a repeated bashing of the head against the wall, as Diaz describes it, sowing the seeds for a slow degeneration of the brain and the gradual loss of memory, sensory perceptions, and, eventually, of life.


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