Walden – Daniel Zimmermann (2018)

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

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

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann, 2018)

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

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann, 2018)

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

Walden (Daniel Zimmermann, 2018)

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

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

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

Day 21 – Bal (Kaplanoglu)

Semih Kaplanoglu’s Bal (2010) is the most wonderful coming-of-age story I’ve seen so far, especially in the context of Slow Cinema. I remember that I saw this one in cinema, one of the few slow films I had a chance to see on a big screen. I was moved by the depiction of a young boy’s growing up, of his fear of speaking, and of his deep love to his father.

The film is set entirely in the woods. There is the constant sound of the wind in the trees, and the chirping of birds. There is this image of untouched and vibrant nature. It is a peaceful backdrop to an otherwise tragic story, as we learn at the end of the film. The quietness of the nature, I find, is a fitting indicator of the quietness of young boy Yusuf.

Bal (2010), Semih Kaplanoglu

Yusuf doesn’t talk much. At home he only talks to his father, and he generally prefers to whisper. It is as if he doesn’t want to disturb anything or anyone. So while we follow the life of Yusuf, our ears are inevitably pointed to the sounds of nature around us, because this is in some ways the main reference point for us in the film.

In some way, Bal follows Yusuf’s struggle to achieve his biggest goal. He wants to get a badge for being able to read in class. The camera is often positioned in such a way that we see Yusuf through the glass in which the badges are stored. You can see that he wants one. But Yusuf only ever reads comfortably when his father is around. Unless he knows the text he is supposed to read, he stutters uncontrollably.

Bal (2010), Semih Kaplanoglu

In other ways, Bal explores an intimate father-son relationship. Yusuf’s father collects honey for a living, but bee hives have become rare and he has to travel longer distances in order to collect a useful amount of honey. Sometimes, Yusuf accompanies him. On one day, his father suffers from an epileptic fit and Yusuf looks after him. Later on his father sets out on his own, and you can gather the impact his absence has on the young boy. He is afraid of his father not returning home. Fear, anxiety – these are two key themes of the film.

Bal is the last part of a trilogy. I was a bit annoyed when I read it, because it’s always best to see a trilogy in the successive order it’s meant to be seen. Sut and Yumurta are similar in their (slow) aesthetics, but you can tell that Kaplanoglu has greatly developed his style. What I found particularly interesting is the direction of the trilogy. It is not about Yusuf growing into a man. It is, in fact, the other way around. At the beginning of the trilogy, in Yumurta, Yusuf is a middle-aged man. Bal stands at the end of the trilogy. The film explains a lot about the other two films, especially about Yusuf as such, his way of being, his behaviour.

The Yusuf trilogy is for me a work in progress, although this is perhaps the wrong expression. What I mean is, you grow with the filmmaker. It feels as if he is learning while making these films, and both Kaplanoglu and the viewer end up with this bittersweet, beautifully shot film about the anxieties in a boy’s childhood at the end of his learning process.