La tierra y la sombra – César Acevedo (2015)

Land and Shade – when I saw the trailer of the film a couple of months ago I was fascinated by the look of it. There was a sort of feeling in there which I know from Béla Tarr’s films. César Acevedo’s La tierra y la sombra is, for those who have seen it, of course very different from Tarr’s work. However, there is something in the camera work, which reminds me of just how well certain slow-film directors use their aesthetics in order to take their viewers on a journey. Not just a visual journey, but also a spiritual journey perhaps.

Acevedo’s film tells the story of a family who lives amongst sugar cane plantations. Alfonso returns to the land he had left behind more than a decade earlier. His estranged wife kept the land, but things have changed. Alfonso’s son, Geraldo, is suffering from an unspecified lung disease, which seems to derive from the dust and the ashes which are an almost daily companion for the family because of the work in the plantations around the house. Is it a strong form of asthma? Is it lung cancer? Acevedo never clarifies this, but he doesn’t have to. Geraldo’s lung disease is not just his disease. It serves as a metaphor for the increasing suffocation the family is facing.

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Geraldo’s wife and mother both work in the plantation. As it turns out much later in the film, Geraldo himself used to work there, but he was forced to retire because of his disease. There is discontent in the group of workers. Pay is low or non-existent. Their boss repeatedly promises them pay, but the workers never receive it. Work in sugar cane plantations is shown as exploitation in La tierra y la sombra, and the film therefore tackles an important and sadly still very topical issue. In effect, both wife and mother receive their pay only when they’re no longer needed and are asked to leave the plantation for good.

Geraldo’s increasing difficulties to breathe is not just a symptom of economical issues. There is tension within the family as well, which Geraldo’s persistent cough and suffering is only too emblematic for. There is tension between Alfonso and his estranged wife, who never seems to have forgiven him for leaving. There is also tension between Geraldo, his wife and his mother. Geraldo’s wife is torn between leaving the land and moving with Alfonso to a nicer environment where, she is sure, Geraldo could recover. But Geraldo doesn’t want to leave his mother. So, in this household of four adults there is nothing but tension and suffocation, illustrated by Geraldo’s worsening disease.

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This tension is bubbling under the surface. Acevedo doesn’t show arguments. He lets us feel what is happening. Primarily, of course, through the film’s aesthetics. Inside the house, darkness prevails. Because of Geraldo’s disease, the windows have to be kept shut. This darkness embodies the tensions between the characters. It is the “shade part” of the film. Acevedo knows how to use windows, however. At times, they’re opened; at others, they’re closed, and whenever they’re open(ed) the frame is glowing with beauty. The presence of daylight after minutes of darkness is a relief. It’s a visual breath which the film is taking. Something Geraldo can no longer do.

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But this visual breath, this hope if you want to read it this way, is also embodied in the character of Manuel, Geraldo’s son. He’s very much accustomed to his father being in bed all day long, and no longer questions it. He knows that the windows must be shut. But apart from that, he is a child. He learns how to make a feeding table for birds. He enjoys the kite Alfonso bought for his birthday. It is likely that Manuel’s joy is only starting to show with Alfonso’s presence and the fact that someone is there for him while his mother is at work. Perhaps, Alfonso is the daylight, the hope. He allows Manuel to be a child under difficult circumstances. Manuel reminded me at times of the young Yussuf in Semih Kaplanoglu’s Bal/Honey. The boys are characterised pretty similar and both have to deal with the eventual death of their father.

La tierra y la sombra is a wonderful film. Aesthetically, it is very strong, and it’s a beautiful film to look at. However, the aesthetics are not self-indulgent. They serve a meaning most of the time. At other times, the camera seems to be independently moving around the place to discover what else is there, something other than the characters. La tierra is Acevedo’s first feature film as director, and from what I can tell after having seen it, there’s definitely more good films to come from him.

New books on Pedro Costa & Béla Tarr

The initial wave of I-want-to-be-the-first has subsided, and after quite a few not very good books on Slow Cinema or on slow-film directors, we’re slowly (of course, slowly) getting to a point where it is worth opening books on the subject because they have been researched properly. Or because the authors have taken the time to experience the films without trying to squeeze them into theories and statistics. This has been done already, primarily by András Bálint Kovács. When Béla Tarr had the book in his hand and saw Kovacs’s attempt at turning his films into statistics, into numbers, he said “Fuck off”. Yes, he really said this and spoke about it in one of the worst interviews I have read with any filmmaker, published on MUBI. But that happens if people try to force a meaning onto a film that isn’t there and the filmmaker has been trying for twenty-odd years to avoid this in interviews.

Anyway, this year saw the publication of two very good books. One of them, a German-language book, deals with the work of Pedro Costa. The publisher is quite impressive, to say the least, and I took the chance of suggesting an edited collection on Lav Diaz. They were very open to this and will discuss it in their next meeting (fingers crossed!). Edition text + kritik focuses on one director at a time, and they avoid turning a director’s work into mere theory.

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The book on Pedro Costa – with its simple name Pedro Costa – is somewhere between a thorough introduction to the director’s work, and an elaborate investigation of his films which goes beyond introductory remarks. It is a journey through Costa’s entire oeuvre. What I enjoyed most in this book is the authors’ focus on Costa’s collaboration with his actors. Those who know Costa and his films are aware of the close collaboration, which somewhat started with the famous “Stop the faking!” expressed by Vanda Duarte after the production of Ossos (1997). Costa began to live with his actors. No, he lived with the people, who then became his actors. Non-professionals, who live their roles. It seems as though this is the red line that is woven throughout the book.

The book consists of seven chapters. The eighth is a written contribution by Pedro Costa himself, or rather it is a text written by Costa which, for the first time, was translated into German for this particular book. There is a general attempt at really understanding the artist and his work. The book is not an attempt at creating something that isn’t there, at telling the filmmaker what his films are really about, which scholars love to do. Pedro Costa reads like a genuine exploration of Costa’s approach to filmmaking, to the subject he chooses and to his aesthetics. One chapter in the book deals with (non-) images of violence in Costa’s films, especially in Casa de Lava (1994). It is a fascinating piece which is complemented by another chapter on aspects of ghosts. To me, those two go hand in hand, and they’re not only characteristic of Costa’s work. The themes of violence and ghostly haunting are pretty widespread in slow films, especially those that deal with a people’s colonial past.

If you’re German, or a German-speaking cinephile who’s interested in Costa’s work, this book is definitely for you. I’m surprised that this book is the first coherent piece on the Portuguese director who’s been making films for decades. I wonder why English-speaking scholars have not yet picked that up. More than journal articles doesn’t seem to be in their interest. I wonder why that is.

So while German scholars have produced the first book on Pedro Costa, France slowly but surely turns out to be a hub for really good books on Béla Tarr. The new book Béla Tarr – De la colère au tourment has been published in March this year. Jacques Rancière’s book Le temps d’après was great already, but this new book tops this. First of all, the book is a feast for the eyes, which makes it a more entertaining read than the German book on Pedro Costa. You can see that a lot of work went into the design of the book; the screen grabs, positioned one underneath the other, have something of photo strips.

Even more so than the book on Pedro Costa, this new book on Tarr tries to explore and convey what a Béla Tarr film feels like. There are two chapters, if I remember correctly, which are very theoretical and which make for a difficult read. I do believe that the authors of those chapters kind of missed the point. But overall, the book is about what we see when we watch a Tarr film. It is about how it looks like, how it makes the viewer feel. I could be wrong and just read something into all this, but to me the book seems, perhaps not openly, but nevertheless focused on the viewer and the viewing experience.

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The interesting aspect is that a viewing experience is always individual. What I feel during a film may be very different from what you’re feeling. But somehow I, as the reader, felt pretty much on the same wavelength as the authors. It’s not difficult to guess why this is the case. I believe that the authors let the film happen to them, which is so important to Slow Cinema. I could see the films right in front of me while reading the book. Tarr’s cinema, his fans would probably agree with me, is special. It has a certain something, which is difficult to put into words. This new book manages it somehow, and while discussing the characteristics of Tarr’s oeuvre as a whole it is at the same time exploring vital aesthetics of Slow Cinema in more general terms. There’s talk of the emancipation of the gaze, of hypnotic emptiness, of a “tactile” experience of film.

The book is divided into three parts, and starts with a long interview with Tarr, which is revealing and I’m grateful that the interviewers didn’t ask the same old questions. We actually learn something from it, which is rare these days. Interviews, especially those with slow-film directors, tend to revolve around the themes of “Why are your films so slow?” or “Why are your films so long?” In some ways, this one is a very moving interview. Tarr also speaks about no longer having enough oxygen as a filmmaker to work in his country. He always thought he would make more films. He never saw himself teaching at a film school. He wanted to create a new genre of Hungarian cinema. But it all came different. He had to close his production company, stopped filmmaking, because of the political situation in Hungary. He isn’t the first to say this. The most recent high-profile example is Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

This new book on Tarr is definitely a must, if you can speak French. It starts to dawn on me, after previous experience, that you might need to look for something in a language other than English, if you want to read something that is not overly academic and tries to complicate everything by pretending to explain films to you which perhaps shouldn’t be explained. So far, the best books I have read about slow-film directors are not in the English language. I’m looking forward to a book on Slow Cinema in French or something. Maybe this will be better than what we have come across so far. Anyway, if you speak either German or French, or maybe both, go get yourself those two treats!

tao films – The tao website

A major step forward has been taken yesterday with the finalisation of our logo and the set-up of our website. There’s nothing much to see for the moment apart from our logo, the launch day and a link to the GoFundMe page. But oh boy, this looks as zen as I had imagined🙂

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Please help me share the website (http://tao-films.com) and promote it. It would greatly help the cause. And please do remember that the Call for Films is still open, and that we’re still seeking financial support for our VoD platform. You can also now follow us on Twitter via @TaoFilmsVoD. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Là-bas (Chantal Akerman, 2006)

Là-bas. Down there. Down there has many meanings in this film of Chantal Akerman, her first, last and only film set in Israel. Down there – geographically, perhaps. Down there, là-bas – down memory lane. Down there, in the abyss of memory. Down there, in the darkest memory of 20th century history. Of a family. Of the Jewish people.

Akerman is not just in Israel. She is in a different world, a world of memories. She’s in the past. Akerman is like a ghost throughout the film. We can hear her make a coffee. We can hear her brushing her teeth. We can hear her footsteps. She’s there, and yet she isn’t. Her body is there. Her mind isn’t.

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She’s absent. She is là-bas. Speaking of exile, of suicide, of spending her childhood indoors in Brussels because her mother was too afraid of letting her out. She speaks of the childhood she never had, but could have had in Israel. She’s speaking of her aunt, who received electro shock therapy in order to deal with her depression.

Towards the end of the film, Akerman speaks of a university professor who came to see her. He said: “It is difficult to get out of prison, especially out of your own prison.” Akerman’s film is almost entirely shot from inside the apartment she is living in, often through the same window, through the same curtains. Visually, this film is a prison. It hardly ever moves beyond the apartment window.

Just like Akerman herself. In a voice-over she says that she doesn’t go out much. One reason is security. One day she went out and noticed that something wasn’t right. She asked a man what had happened and he told her about a suicide attack.

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But it’s not just that. It is not just the outside world. It’s also là-bas, the inner world, the inner turmoil, which imprisons her. In every word, in every phrase Akerman uses – French, English or even Hebrew – there is pain. There is sadness. There is depression. After this film, after everything I felt during those just over 60 minutes, I’m not surprised about the path she took on 5 October last year. It’s all there, in Là-Bas, which she had completed nine years earlier.

There aren’t many words I have for this film. What I do have are feelings, and it is impossible to put them into words. Là-bas made me thoughtful about many things, and I would urge my readers to watch the film if they’re not familiar with it. It is an important piece in Akerman’s filmography and deserves to be seen as such.

tao films VoD – Further info

I would like to use the time to explain a little more about the VoD platform. Things have developed quite a bit since I posted the original project description online. I also think that a great deal of people (including filmmakers) don’t read it🙂 So maybe it’s a good opportunity right now to describe the forthcoming platform for which we are seeking the support of the people on GoFundMe, in more personal terms. This is what the platform is; a personal project, not a matter of business.

tao films VoD will go live on 1 January. It is a platform which seeks to support underrepresented or even completely unknown filmmakers, whose aesthetics are very much contemplative. There will be feature films, short films, and even experimental installation pieces. There will be films from Mexico, films from Thailand, films from Morocco, films from all corners of the world.

My intention is it to show films which have no distribution (yet). This does not mean that the films can’t run on festivals. Of course, they can. Festivals are fantastic opportunities, and I wouldn’t prevent anyone from experiencing this. But we do seek to have exclusive rights for 3 consecutive months during which the film should not be shown on any other platform.

The VoD is not meant to be the end of a film screened. I know that when a film is shown on VoD, it has usually finished its theatrical run. This is not what I’m interested in. In many ways, I think, the VoD could be the beginning of something new, something larger. The platform will generate exposure for the films, so if something else comes out of it, I’d be very proud and happy to support the filmmakers in every way I can.

I envision the forthcoming tao films VoD as a community project. It is not my project, or that of me and my brother. Yes, we’re hosting the films and prepare everything for their streaming. But we ask the filmmakers to join in. In the end, they know their work best. For instance, the filmmakers will be asked to upload their films, enter information about their work and about themselves.

Filmmakers and hosts work together to make this platform happen, which I believe is the way forward if you want to have a lively community, a sort of friendship, and not a model which is based on profit and nothing else. We will also make it possible for the viewer to contact the featured directors directly, in the hope that this encourages a vibrant community. I’m sure viewers will be interested in this, and the platform will be less anonymous than all the others we know. There will be a direct link between us, the artists and the viewers. I see us as a family, and nothing less.

The platform will have pay-per-view and free content. The free content will be accessible in form of a permanent collection. A sort of pool of all kinds of shorts – I mean short shorts – or films that are already showing for free on other platforms. Then there will be pay-only content, which features feature and short films. At the moment, the costs are set for 4,99€ per feature film and 0,99€ per short film. But this is not confirmed and may change. The pay-only content will change every three months, and the films will then be deleted from our servers.

Everyone involved will profit in the same way from the platform. tao films VoD will not be a competition. We’re all working together on this. Hosts and the filmmakers involved receive an equal percentage of the money the VoD platform makes every month. tao films VoD will be the most equal distribution method you can probably find. 

I’m still waiting for confirmation about the registration of “tao films” as trademark. But what I can say for sure already is that I have tried to register the name for film distribution, film production, exhibitions, book publishing, journal publishing, photography work, and more.

The logo is in the works. The contracts will be up for debate amongst the chosen filmmakers any day now. As I said, it’s a community, and I want this to be a fair distribution vehicle. If the filmmakers can help, then I’m more than happy to listen to them to make the platform better and fairer for all.

And now it starts to sound like a political speech, which is why I should stop myself🙂 I just live for the project. I don’t like describing it. But feel free to contact me and ask questions, especially if you’re a filmmaker! Drop me an email via theartsofslowcinema@gmail.com

For a Son – Suranga Katugampala (2016)

Suranga Katumgampala is a director I have followed with great pleasure for two or three years. The first film of his I saw was Son of the lovely capitalism (2015), a stunning portrait of alienation in a world of expanding capitalism. For a Son is his first feature film, and it is a strong one. Suranga follows his intention to look into the aspects of migration, and how it can cause conflicts between generations. But not only that. Migration can also be the root of alienation and anger in individuals. Himself a director from Sri Lanka living in Italy, he’s an artist following those who share the same fate. With For A Son, Suranga makes this more obvious than in his previous films.

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For a Son focuses on a Sri Lankan mother and her son who grew up in Italy. She is a caretaker of an elderly, very fragile woman, who repeatedly complains about her son who never visits her, or, if he does, only ever comes when she is not around. It takes a while before Suranga reveals just how much these two seemingly very different women have in common. To me personally, their relationship is based on a mutual affection for but disappointment of their respective sons, for whom they have done or still are doing everything but whose love doesn’t seem to be reciprocated. But then, this would be too easy an interpretation.

In fact, For a Son is a complex film, if you watch it with open eyes. For me, it was a difficult film. There were several instances when I wanted to switch off. This is a compliment, rather than a sign of frustration. Suranga really touched me. His depiction of an angry son who always turns against his mother, who actively rejects her, is painful to see, is painful to endure. You cannot help but feel sorry for the mother who works hard to make a life in Italy possible. The second part of Suranga’s film moves towards revealing the deep-seated problems in the son, but never actually resolves the conflict between mother and son, the latter thoroughly suffering from not having been able to enjoy a close mother-son relationship while growing up for very different reasons, one of them being his mother’s commitment as caretaker in order to earn a living.

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For a Son is more than about a son, however. It is more than about the relationship between a mother and her teenage son. It is about a conflict between generation, which deepens with migration. In a way, I know this from experience, although this wasn’t even migration as such. But I did grow up in a united Germany, having been born in 1988. It was an entirely different world from that my parents lived and raised their other children in. This was bound to bring conflicts, and it did. We were one family, but we lived in two different worlds which constantly collided. It’s not only about politics but also about culture. Suranga includes this very topical subject in his film. In a phase of pure anger, the son even accuses his mother of not even being able to speak proper Italian. He himself, so it seems, feels more Italian than Sri Lankan, which is often the case with second generation immigrants. It is one thing to move abroad. Bridging between cultures is an entirely different thing which, in many cases, causes ruptures within families.

And here you can sense that Suranga, while focusing on a Sri Lankan mother and her son, tells a universal story. It is specific, and yet broad, and therefore allows viewers from different backgrounds to see themselves mirrored in this film. But the film is also, to me at least, a  piece of work which allows us, in parts, to understand the anger of second-generation immigrants, who are torn between their actual, geographical home and that of their parents, who are usually keen on keeping their local traditions and languages alive. It is, in a way, a schizophrenic life, which Suranga depicts in For a Son. He shows conflicts on several different layers, which makes his film rich in meaning. For a Son is by far not as experimental and playful as Son of the lovely capitalism, but it is a deeply honest piece with attention to detail. I’m looking forward to more!

tao films

Thanks to very generous funding from some people, I was able to register in France the name I had in mind for the VoD service and the DVD releases.

tao films will be the new The Art(s) of Slow Cinema. Or maybe not the new one, but an extension of it. The Art(s) of Slow Cinema will remain as it is. tao films will be, in about a month, a registered trademark, once they have accepted the application I have sent them today. This way I can use the name without the possibility of someone else using it and then registering it as a trademark, meaning I would lose and essential part of my future projects.

tao films stands for simplicity. It stands for experience. tao films will, both on VoD and DVD, show films which do not necessarily appeal to the intellect but to the body. It orientates itself at Eastern philosophy and the importance to breathe and to contemplate.

So whenever I will now speak of VoD, DVD release and book publication, it’ll run under the tao films umbrella…and I’m SOOO happy🙂

Please welcome the new baby into the slow world!

 

 

 

Centaur – Aleksandra Niemczyk (2016)

I rarely come across a film, which stuns me through its very first frame. The minute Aleksandra Niemczyk’s film Centaur opened, I couldn’t take my eyes off it anymore. Was it the character, the half man, half horse figure which walked towards me? Or was it the ice cold aesthetic and colour which characterised the frame? Maybe it was both. I just knew that I had found a real gem in the field of slow film, and I will try my very best to get this film on board The Art(s) of Slow Cinema VoD, which will go live in January 2017.

Niemczyk, a student at Béla Tarr’s film.factory, is more than just a filmmaker, and this is perfectly visible in Centaur. She is a painter. Filmmaking is only a part of her work, but as far as I could see, she combines the two parts. The visuals of Centaur are stunning. Almost every frame is a beauty. It’s one of those things which made my photographer heart open up again. It smiled, and smiled, and it couldn’t stop smiling and admiring Niemczyk’s framing until the very end.

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But let me tell you something about the content of the film first before I lose myself in admiration of the film in its entirety. Centaur is a film about a love which is challenged, a love between a woman and her husband whose mobility is greatly reduced due to polio. She is much younger than he is, which reminded me of Tarr’s last film The Turin Horse (2011), in which a daughter repeatedly dresses her father because he is too old, too fragile and not mobile enough to do it himself. There is something of that in Centaur until we realise that the two protagonists are married.

Alma and Vlado are one, but what differs between them is how they handle the challenge. Alma cares for her husband every day. She washes him, she helps him out of bed, she does everything. Vlado, on the other hand, is losing patience with himself. He can no longer bare his wife seeing him like this and having to support him in such a way. One can feel that it humiliates him, when he sits in the bathtub and refuses to be washed by his wife. The clash between the two – Alma is hurt by Vlado’s refusal to let her care for him – is visually reinforced, easily – perhaps too easily – but beautifully when Alma leaves the bathroom and enters another room just next door.

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The light, the colour – everything fits there. And it doesn’t even feel as though it’s overdone. There is another striking scene in which Vlado makes his way along a long balcony. He sits on one chair and uses another to lift his body onto it. It is a painful scene, and a painfully long scene, not only for the viewer. The almost endless way of Vlado while, on the other side of the small wall which separates the balcony from freefall, an elderly woman, possibly retired, watches him the entire time from her window. One wonders what she is thinking. One wonders why she doesn’t offer to help. Maybe she has offered to help already, but her help had been refused just as Alma’s has been refused before.

What is Vlado’s goal? We get the feeling that he wants to give up. He’s tired of living like this, without any improvement in sight. But what have his dreams got to do with his situation? Vlado dreams of a figure half horse, half man. The interesting things is that this centaur is the opposite of the centaurs we know from Greek mythology. The centaur in Vlado’s dream has a horse-shaped rather than a human head. I’m not trying to interpret this, but I find it interesting that Niemczyk uses this symbol and changes it ever so slightly.

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The film is “only” forty minutes long, but it contains a lot of visual and narrative material which keeps you thinking for a while. I watched the film as part of last week’s Slow Cinema No 2, a follow-up event to the Slow Cinema symposium which took place in April in London. It’s been almost a week and I cannot forget the first image of the film. It really stays with you. Niemczyk has created an open film, a film which doesn’t end when the credits roll. It continues way beyond this. It has its own life, perhaps like that of Greek mythology. It evolves and develops in your mind. It is as though Centaur was the beginning of a domino effect. The film does something to me, and I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it is time to return to Luke Hockley’s Somatic Cinema and his theory of the “third image” in order to tackle what’s going on in my head.

Monochrome Painting and Slow Cinema

At the very beginning of my doctoral research, I linked Slow Cinema to static art, especially Chinese painting. Traditional Chinese painting, I found, had characteristics that could also be found in the films of Lav Diaz. This was very specific though, and never allowed me to apply it to the whole of Slow Cinema. I’m nevertheless still keen on finding out more about the link between art and Slow Cinema. I do believe that there is more to find in art literature than in film studies literature, which can help us understand the aesthetics of Slow Cinema a bit more.

What set this off was a French language book titled “La peinture monochrome” by Denys Riout. I bought it out of curiosity because I find monochrome art immensely interesting. I find it engaging, more so than pieces of art with several different colours. I was reminded of my preference of black-and-white over colour when it comes to films and thought I should give this book a try. More than half way through it now, I can thoroughly recommend it.

First of all I should say that I see the term “monochrome” in a much broader sense than it is used at the moment. The term is used only for colour, and yes, that makes perfect sense. But what does an artist do when s/he uses just one colour? Or even a no-colour like black or white? The artwork is reduced to a bare minimum. But, as Denys Riout points out in his book, this bare minimum does not necessarily mean simplicity. In fact he uses the term “image parfaite”, or perfect image; a representation through the absence of representation. We could certainly argue that this absence is asking for no-boredom, an active rejection of engaging with the artwork in front of oneself. But this absence is perfect precisely because it doesn’t manipulate you into thinking of what an artwork is about. Absence sets you free. It is up to you what you would like do with it.

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Riout gives more suggestions, which are as simple as they are mind-blowing. I believe the art of monochrome painting challenges our intellectual approach to literally everything we do. I cannot remember where I read this, but the phrase that intellect kills experience becomes clear once you’re faced with a Rauschenberg painting. Or a slow film in which little is happening. Most telling in this context is Riout’s description in the following paragraph:

Là où le lecteur attend une explication, il ne rencontre que l’occultation et se trouve ainsi brutalement renvoyé à la condition plus inconfortable de regardeur. À lui de ‘faire’ les tableaux; c’est-à-dire de leur donner sens. (Riout, 2006: 34)

Riout mentions here the viewer’s uncertainty with an artwork in which no explanation is given. The viewer is left to his/her own devices. Our dislike of uncertainty is deeply rooted in our evolution and its connection to survival. It may seem odd to connect our rejection of uncertainty in art in general, and film in particular, to our survival mode as humans (or animals, actually). But this is what it is. We often forget where our behaviour comes from. Certainty means safety and security. They’re essential for survival. But I don’t want to go on too much about it. It’s just a thought that is worth mentioning, I think.

Another quote I’d like to highlight:

Alors qu’il n’y a rien à voir, our presque … le regard s’attarde sans pouvoir jamais se fixer. … ‘Avec le vide, les pleins pouvoirs’. (Riout; 2006: 45)

Emptiness allows the viewer to move his/her gaze along the entirety of a painting. If there are several different elements with several different colours there is a likelihood that your gaze remains fixed on one element without you ever seeing the painting as a whole. The phrase “Avec le vide, les pleins pouvoirs” comes from Albert Camus,and says nothing more than emptiness giving you plenty powers as viewer. Monochrome art, or indeed emptiness, paves the way for the viewer’s emancipation…if s/he would like to take up this challenge. Because film is time-based, this emancipation is not only achieved through visual simplicity but also through time. The duration of the long-takes allows us to take our time to move our gaze along a frame without necessarily getting focused on just one element.

What I found most intriguing is the thought that monochrome paintings should perhaps not even be called “visual art”. The idea behind it is that whatever you see in, say, Rauschenberg’s black paintings it not actually in the painting. It’s in your head. It’s a spiritual type of engagement with a work of art. So we may ask where the visual ends and the spiritual begins, a very striking thought, if you ask me.

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Now, I do not say that everything I have so far mentioned (and I could say plenty more!) is applicable to Slow Cinema. But there are definite parallels between monochrome painting and Slow Cinema. First and foremost, I believe, we should mention the fact that both are, or tend to be, reduced – aesthetically – to a bare minimum. Complexity comes with simplicity. As odd as it sounds, this is true. The less you’re bombarded with information, the more you can experience what is happening in front of you. You’re given time to feel a situation and you can ponder about what it all means. As Camus says, power comes through emptiness, and I believe that slow films play on exactly that. I would suggest that Lav Diaz is one of the most striking and the most obvious example. But Slow Cinema in general lives off its reduction to simplicity in order to emancipate the viewers. Meanings aren’t given. They’re not imposed. The viewer has to make sense of them (that requires yes-boredom tho).

I also believe that what you actually see in slow films is not necessarily what’s on the screen. Many things happen in your mind, precisely because you have to create a story and make sense of the images and the story the directors give you. You could easily stare at the screen and be passive. Then indeed slow films would be entirely visual. But I suggest that, like monochrome painting, they’re more spiritual than visual. I guess the most recent example for me is Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens (2016). This spirituality is perhaps more prominent in some films than in others. Perhaps it is even more prominent in experimental slow films than in narrative films. Nevertheless, it is a characteristic of slow, contemplative films.

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One last point before I stop for now. Painter Robert Mangold said that after everything had been tried in painting, “la seule façon de peindre un tableau consistait à repartir à zero, puis d’ajouter une chose après l’autre” (Riout, 2006: 208). Meaning, painters had to return to zero and start to reinvent painting. Start from scratch. Start with the bare minimum and then add one element after another without overloading the artwork. I cannot help thinking that this is the case with slow films. I have long argued that the actual roots can be found in the early days of cinema. Film has gradually become more complex in terms of aesthetics. Just think of the latest blockbusters and the special effects used for them. Just looking at the film posters shows that the films are basically the same (and do we not know this anyway?). In order to make cinema again, filmmakers have to return to zero, to the bare minimum. Start from scratch. I thoroughly believe that Slow Cinema is a means to return to the very basics of film, of how cinema used to be, and how, perhaps, it had been imagined in the early days.

I should stop at this point and leave you with this food for thought. I still have half of Riout’s book to go, so there might be a second part to this post in the near future!

 

Homo Sapiens – Nikolaus Geyrhalter (2016)

Who, or maybe what, is Homo Sapiens? Wise man, they say. But is Homo Sapiens just that? Does Homo Sapiens stand entirely for the human being we are? I’m not so sure. And I think Nikolas Geyrhalter’s superb poetic piece Homo Sapiens is, in effect, posing this question without giving answers.

Geyrhalter does not focus on the living aspects of Homo Sapiens, but of what Homo Sapiens has left behind. His film is about abandoned places, empty places, spaces where nature takes over as if man has never been there. Man exists as a spectre. He is in the buildings Geyrhalter films, the buildings which are not far from collapsing, from falling into pieces. He is in the abandoned playgrounds, in the abandoned train stations. He hovers like a ghost over every single image of Homo Sapiens. You can feel him, but you will never go beyond this feeling.

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What takes over instead is a beautiful, intriguing soundscape. I closed my eyes from time to time to listen to the sounds. I could never tell where I was, but did that really matter? The sounds took me into an eerie, unnatural world, which at times reminded me of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, reinforced once I opened my eyes again and saw abandoned buildings. It felt like being in a zone, in Tarkovsky’s zona, where life and death exists in the same image.

The images might be static. They might show nothing interesting. What is interesting instead is what is going on in your mind. We’re speaking of yes boredom here. If you’re willing to take on a film of 90 minutes which shows nothing but run-down buildings, you begin to create your own narrative. What games did the children play in that playground overgrown with grass? What film did they show in that decayed filmhouse? How many people used to come every night for their evening entertainment? Who was the person who left his or her bike under a shed at that abandoned train station in Japan?

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Why did the people leave in the first place? I started to wonder why the places I saw had been abandoned. I began to think of Fukushima. I began to think of war. I had all kinds of things in my head. In fact, my mind felt very different from what the images showed. My mind was busy making up fictional stories about what happened at the places I saw. I made up fictional stories about the people who shaped those places. Who were they? And, more importantly, when were they there?

Geyrhalter’s Homo Sapiens is full of fascinating shots. Almost every frame is a beauty in itself. It’s incredible how much beauty you can find in destruction and abandonment. Homo Sapiens achieves this through perfect framing. This reminds me again of something I have read somewhere (God knows where!) and which applies so well to slow films: it doesn’t matter what you show. It’s a question of how you show it. You can show the most simple things, but they can become complex and special depending on how you show them. This is the case with Geyrhalter’s film.

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I suppose many people would just walk past those abandoned places, but he makes us stop for a moment. He makes us look at them, and he gives us time to appreciate what we see. Wee see the past, the present and the future. We see what we built. We see what is now decaying. And we see how the planet will look like after Homo Sapiens is gone. Regardless of what we’re building right now, nature will take over. It is nature that is wise. It is patiently waiting for its time, for its time to breathe and for its time to expand.