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.

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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.

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!

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.

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.

Los Ausentes – Nicolas Pereda (2014)

Knowing Nicolas Pereda’s early work, I’d be inclined to say that his medium long film Los Ausentes marks a new era in his filmmaking. The trailer already looked haunting and different from Pereda’s usual filmmaking. The colour palette is the same, the actors have the same aura around them. And yet, and yet…

Los Ausentes is, first of all, about an old, fragile man who loses his house near the beach. I assume he has lived there all his life, so loss (absence) is at the heart of Pereda’s film. It’s the very core of it, and Pereda perfects his usual aesthetics in order to transmit this feeling of loss to the viewer. Los Ausentes stands out in Pereda’s work because of its camera work. The director has always favoured long-takes, temps mort, and a very minimalist storytelling. But this film goes a bit further. In fact, it reminded me strongly on the films of Béla Tarr and the fascinating work by cinematographer Fred Kelemen (who himself made films, amongst them Krisana).

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Pereda uses a kind of independent camera, which I have marvelled upon when I saw Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (2000). This is also when I first understood Daniel Frampton’s filmind, film as thinking independently. If you put Los Ausentes and Werckmeister next to each other, you can see that they both make use of an independent camera. The camera is not really following the protagonist, unless the character is walking down a road. The camera has its own mind and moves to whatever place or whatever action it would like to record.

I haven’t seen it to such an extent in Pereda’s previous films. I even wonder whether it is an homage to Tarr. The beginning must be at least a very obvious wink, starting with a medium shot of a cow facing us. And then, slowly, very slowly, the camera zooms out and reveals first some kind of structure, which then turns out to be a window frame. The camera zooms further out, very smoothly, totally beautifully, and reveals the old man sitting at a table eating. If faithful Tarr-viewers are not reminded of the famous opening scene in Damnation or the beginning of The Man from London, I don’t know what those people have done with their lives 🙂

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In any case, this independent camera transmits the film’s idea of loss, of the absent, fabulously. It feels as though there was a ghost walking around, looking at things or moving places. At times, we see the protagonists. At others, we don’t. But nevertheless, we can feel an eerie presence. There is someone there with us, but who is it? Los Ausentes is a perfect example of how aesthetics can convey absence. I had come across this very subject in my research on the films of Lav Diaz, but Diaz is doing this in a very different way. This independent camera movement also feeds well into the idea of the fragile, old man losing his sanity. Again, this is a theme that pops up comparatively often in slow films, and it is interesting to see how directors deal with this differently.

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When I saw the old man standing somewhere in the woods, with his skinny back towards me, I wasn’t quite sure whether what I saw was supposed to be real, or whether Pereda wanted me to believe it was a dream. There’s only ambient sound, and because I was in a state of dreaming already because of the superb camera work, I wasn’t so sure anymore what I was seeing or what I was asked to believe. This became even more difficult when the old man’s younger self appeared and it wasn’t clear anymore what happened when and where.

I began to wonder whether the title Los Ausentes applied to more than just the film, because in the end, you do lose yourself in the film. You might be physically present when you watch the film, but where are you mentally? Are you home? In the cinema? In an imagined Mexico? In a dream? In real life? I would say that Los Ausentes is Pereda’s strongest film. As I said before, it looks like his previous films but it feels very different. The combination of narrative and aesthetics is just right, perfect even, and I think that the length of the film – medium length – helps to keep the film focused. It feels like Pereda’s most polished film and I wonder where he will go from here. I hope that we will see more of this!

Another Year – Another Festival

I’m not posting those things very often, but I’m delighted about the success of the slow film that is on the top of my list for DVD distribution; Another Year by Shengze Zhu. I wrote an entry about it not so long ago, a stunning three-hour long film about a Chinese migrant family eating. Well, in fact, the film is about much more and I believe this is the reason for its success. Like many other slow films that have their place on this website, Another Year uses stark simplicity in order to tell stories about the complexities of life.

Shengze’s film has been to several festivals, and the success story continues to impress. Today in exactly a month, on 26 June, the film will have its UK premiere (very important!) at the Open City Documentary Festival in London. And, best of all, the film is a Grand Jury Award nominee. Congratulations, Shengze!

And if you’re in London on 26 June, please do see the film at Open City Documentary Festival! They have more than only Another Year. The programme looks generally pretty slow. They also show Dead Slow Ahead, a film I’m still waiting to see. So go, go, go!

Ambiancé [trailer] – Anders Weberg (2016)

I’m not sure where, or how to start. Usually, those reviews always come with an intro, but how to introduce a seven-hour long-take? If I was asked to summarise the entire seven hours, I would, sadly enough, have to say that it’s about two people (artists Niclas Hallberg and Stina Pehrsdotter) who colour stones black and white on a beach, who often disappear from view only to come back a couple minutes later. Maybe I should also mention that the film also shows those two people putting wooden sticks into the beach sand. This is what really happens in the film, but it’s a crude version of what we see. Seeing does not necessarily mean making sense of something. Any synopsis would fail to get to the bottom of the trailer, and would, perhaps, only put people off. So maybe I should just describe what my mind saw, because this is much more intriguing than what my eyes were seeing.

I’m aware that I run the risk of completely misinterpreting the film. Perhaps what I saw wasn’t intended by Anders Weberg himself. On the other hand, I guess that Anders didn’t create closed-off meaning. Just like the 72min teaser, which I reviewed a while ago, this trailer is, to me at least, a medium to discover yourself. I can imagine that someone who watches the Ambiancé trailer probably sees something else that differs from what my own views. But this is the beauty of it. There is no right or wrong. It’s a kind of experience that expresses itself in thoughts.

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The seven-hour piece is carried by two performers, who do a wonderful job, and who made me wonder whether I was really seeing a film, or whether I was seeing a performance. Is the Ambiancé trailer a performance film? Where does “film” stop, and where does “performance” begin? Ambiancé blurs the line, and it’s for this reason that it’s a superb gallery piece. I wouldn’t want to watch it in a dark cinema, stuck in my seat for seven hours. I have experience with Lav Diaz’s long films, and they’re perfectly fine for cinema. The crux with Diaz’s films is that there is a heavy narrative, sometimes with a lot of dialogues which, after two or three hours, begin to unravel the entire narrative. It is important to stay with it. Anders’ work has a lofty nature to it. It was perfectly fine to take a break and get a coffee, digest the images I have seen, and then return to it. The film was running continuously, but I wasn’t always physically present. Being away from the screen from time to time actually helped me to make sense of what I saw. It gave me space (and time) to ponder the images (well there is only one image, but you know what I mean!!).

So what did my mind see? My eyes saw two performers. One of them was dressed in black, the other in white. My mind saw a dance between Life (white) and Death (black). At the beginning of the film, Anders highlights the words life, death, love, quest and escape. You could take it as something that only drags the film into an even more endless (slow) spectacle. But no, those five words are, in fact, what the film is about. If you really wanted a synopsis, then those are your words: life, death, love, quest and escape. The length of the film (and, in this case at least, also the length of the one take) reminded me of this intriguing part of my trauma research.

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In my thesis on the films of Lav Diaz, I argued that a representation of post-trauma wouldn’t have been possible to the same extent in a two-hour long film. Why not? Because two hours don’t give you enough screen time for an in-depth study of human psychology. Then I came across a five-hour theatre play about the Rwandan genocide, connected to the argument that society and culture impose restrictions on the representation of trauma. A trauma narrative has to have a beginning and an end, it needs to have a climax and a denouement. It shouldn’t be excessively long. It should give the main points, but no details. Those representations are always in favour of the traumatic event, but not of the psychology that follows.

Perhaps, we cannot speak of trauma in the case of Ambiancé. Perhaps we can. I don’t want to read something that isn’t necessarily there. But the trailer is definitely about human psychology; the psychology of loss, of grief, of struggle. The interaction between Black (death) and White (life) makes this absolutely clear. There is an instance when White puts a rope around Black, dragging him along, then sort of tying him up in such a way that Black can no longer move his arms. Life struggles with the presence of death, a presence we are actually fully aware of, but a presence we often suppress and deny. We try to restrict Death’s access to our being, because we’re scared of it.

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At a later point, White lays down in the middle of the frame while Black puts stones onto White. It looks and feels like a burial ritual. Death overcomes Life. But then there is Life enveloping Death with a piece of white cloth at a later stage, a sort of embrace. Death goes down on his knees, Life follows. They look at each other. The embrace is complete. This image of Life and Death looking intently at each other for a long time after their hours-long battle is a sign of acceptance. Life isn’t possible without Death, and vice versa. Both are part of our daily going-ons.

I know from my experience with post-trauma that our, at times excessive, fear of death can be crippling. I’m surely not the only one, who tried to tie down Death because I wanted Life. Years later I would learn to wrap this white cloth around Death and embrace it, which now allows me to live life to the fullest (at least according to my standards 🙂 ). I don’t think this film only appeals to me. I’m sure there are people, who have struggled with grief, for instance, who see a similar representation in Anders’ film.

There isn’t a lot in the trailer of Ambiancé, but that what is there is profound, and this is what counts. However, you need to allow your mind to wander. Don’t try to stop it from going places. In a way, I see Ambiancé as a form of meditation where you can discover yourself. But this will only happen, if you allow it to happen.

Horse Money – Pedro Costa (2014)

It’s kind of sad that you have to wait almost two years for a brilliant film to cross your way. I missed Pedro Costa’s new film in Locarno, because I saw Lav Diaz’s From What Is Before (2014). That was my only chance somehow, because it has never popped up around me. I regret not having seen it there and then. Pedro Costa has convinced me with Horse Money, perhaps even made me a fan. When I saw Colossal Youth a while ago, I couldn’t really get into his work. Cinematographically it was beautiful, but I had issues to follow the narrative. Now, my having matured and having a more in-depth view on themes such as colonialism and the trauma that comes with it, I want to revisit not only Colossal Youth. I also want to see as much of his other films as I can. There is something very attractive about it, very engaging, very enveloping.

Horse Money is an exceptional piece and resonated with my experiences of Diaz’s films. Costa has created a haunting piece. His extraordinary play with light and shadow, the latter being most prominent, renders Horse Money as haunting as it could be. The frames are tight, adding to the haunting atmosphere a feeling of claustrophobia. What is it that holds us so tight, like prisoners? What is it that the characters are imprisoned in? What is it that the characters are looking to escape from, but who cannot flee?

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History. Memory. Trauma.

Three words which are embodied by characters and film style alike. Costa plays on temporal disorientation. Ventura, an elderly man and Costa’s muse, if you wish, speaks of the past as if it was present. He says he is 19 years and 3 months old. When asked whether he is married, he looks at his ring finger and hides it. He walks repeatedly through dark, endless corridors. Passages to the past, passages to memory.

Horse Money is situated on the threshold between life and death. We can never be sure whether the characters we see are alive, a result of a dream, a hallucination, or a simple memory. To me, even Ventura himself was a phantom, a man of ghostly presence who is removed from reality. And so was I. A curious effect I had never experienced with a film before – I felt removed from reality. I felt as though I saw the film from outside my body. The ghostly appearances of the few characters we meet, their almost constant whispering, their positions in dark, shadowy places – I wasn’t really where I thought I was. Where was I, then?

I’m not sure where Horse Money took me. I know that it hit certain spots. Trauma is one of them. I studied Diaz’s representation of post-trauma back and forth, and Costa’s is an entirely different, yet very effective approach. Ventura is paralysed. He’s living in a temporal loop. So are his friends. His shaking hands are indicative of shock, which, it often seems, he has lived through only a few minutes earlier. The date mentioned, however, is 11 March 1975, the day a coup attempt was beaten down by the Portuguese military government. It feels as if it was yesterday.

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Absence. Absent presence. Present absence.

Ventura enters his former work place, a building in ruins. Everything is shattered. He speaks to his boss who is no longer there. He dials numbers on broken telephones. It is an errie atmosphere. The past is well alive in Ventura’s mind, but not in Costa’s screen images. This discrepancy is startling throughout the film, and causes the temporal and spatial disorientation I was speaking of earlier. Above all, however, it is an image of people reeling from trauma. It is an image of paralysis, perhaps most obviously embodied in a single image: that of Ventura, naked apart from his red pants, standing in the streets at night, surrounded by soldiers and an armoured vehicle. He lifts his hands.

“You died a thousand deaths, Ventura,” a friend says. Horse Money feels like the end, but it isn’t. Ventura, struggling with what he calls a “nervous disease”, will die many more deaths before he can break out of the circle of history, memory, trauma.

Another Year – Shengze Zhu (2016)

A three hour long film about people eating – admittedly, this doesn’t sound like a must-see film. And it’s not even just three hours of people eating. It’s three hours of long slow takes as well. We’re not exactly speaking of fast food here 🙂

Another Year should, nevertheless, be on your must-see list for this year. It is an essential slow film to watch and is already my slow film of the year. Shengze Zhu draws a portrait of a Chinese migrant family. This is more than just about eating, although, if you are no more than a passive viewer, you could easily think that. I remember the time when I was younger. When my siblings were still home, dinner was always the time when we were together and talked about our day. It wasn’t dinner. It was a social gathering. Yes, we came together over food, but I found that it was more about exchanging our thoughts and feelings than about the actual process of eating.

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Those memories resurfaced when I saw Shengze’s film. The film has a very simple, but effective structure. It is divided into 13 months. Every meal in a certain month is shown in one long-take. In some cases, Zhengfan Yang, the cinematographer – also known for this films Distant and Where Are You Going? – uses medium long to long shots, partly framed by the inside of a house. A thoroughly engaging approach, because it plays with absence and presence.

In a way, Another Year is an extension of Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II, which is all about making dumplings. In Another Year, you don’t see the cooking. It’s all about eating, and, funnily enough, they do eat a lot of dumplings! The kitchen is something that only exists in the off. It exists in the film’s sound, but the director doesn’t go beyond that. What she does make clear – both through off- and on-screen presence – is the absolutely invasive presence of the television, which is running almost all the time. It adds to the already claustrophobic nature of the room where most of the film is set.

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Why did I remember my childhood when I saw the film? Another Year tells the story of a family, which unfolds during dinner time. In January, the father comes home and the mother complains that she cannot stand her mother-in-law. In February, the mother-in-law has a stroke and is only talked about because she’s in hospital. In March, the mother has moved with her two smallest children to the house of her mother-in-law to look after her. And so it goes on. Every month, every meal, tells a new part of the story, which you have to piece together on the basis of the dialogues you hear. You cannot just sit and stare at the screen. Shengze Zhu asks you to be active.

And if you are, then you notice the currents below the surface. Another Year is drawing a picture of a family under pressure. The film is not a picture of happiness. If anything, the film is a portrait of frictions, of arguments, of anger and of impatience. No one in the film seems to be really happy. It often appears as though life is a chore, and yes, the mother does utter this early on in the film: “My God, why is life so hard?” Money is scarce. She has three kids with her husband being at work all day. Towards the end, she actually complains about this, but it is not even clear what she wants because she feels offended when her husband offers to stay home to look after the kids while she goes out to earn money. So what do these characters want?

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The oldest daughter wants new shoes. Then she wants new socks. And new chopsticks are also necessary. There is an almost constant “I want this – I want that” in the film, but because of the family’s poverty, the characters are stuck and do not seem to be able to move forward. This is shown quite literally by the framing, which is predominantly claustrophobic. The camera is often positioned in a small room where the characters eat, sleep, watch TV and play. It seems as though their entire life plays out in the very room we see in front of us. It’s not a surprise that frictions and arguments are almost a daily routine. There is no breathing space. Nor is there any light. I found that the entire film was pretty dark. Natural light was scarce. I’m aware that the family eats in the evening and that in some months there is no more natural light at that time. Yet, I do believe that the lack of natural light is indicative for the family’s misery. The claustrophobic space and the lack of light are enough to get a sense of unhappiness, of frustration, also indicated by a lot of shouting and accusations between the characters. The dialogues are – at least for this point – not necessary. Their mood, their thoughts, they are all visualised by the film’s aesthetics.

Another Year sounds like a pretty simple film, and yes, it is based on a very simple concept. In the end, we see thirteen family meals, although we don’t really see that, because the family never sits quietly together, and eats. They’re often all over the place, especially the young children. But this simplicity, which I have seen so often in other slow films is giving us a complex picture of an unhappy, poor family, and a society that is still haunted by the one-child policy. It gives us an insight into their lives, into their concerns – simply, by being. Shengze records this being, and captures a fascinating view on a modern working-class family in China. A three-hour long must-watch!