The concentrationary universe in the films of Lav Diaz (paper)

RPG Conference, University of Stirling, 4 September 2014

Introduction
At the end of 1943, Primo Levi, a trained chemist from Italy, was arrested, and a few months later sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. At the end of the war, he left the camp as a survivor, but also as a living corpse. His treatise “If this is a man” became well-known and is a first-hand account of atrocities committed under Nazi rule. Levi writes about his day-to-day life in Auschwitz and about the many deaths he encountered. He also writes about the torment that prisoners were put through. “If this is a Man” describes the concentration camp as a place of slow death. In one part, Levi writes,

This is hell. Today, in our times, hell must be like this. A huge, empty room: we are tired, standing on our feet, with a tap which drips while we cannot drink the water, and we wait for something which will certainly be terrible, and nothing happens and nothing continues to happen. What can one think about? One cannot think any more, it is like being dead already. (28)

This is only one example of the regular torments in the camps. If not selected for the gas chamber, the prisoners waited for death through starvation, disease, hard manual labour and/or torture. The very focus on suffering and the delay of death shows strong similarities between life in a concentration camp and the life of characters portrayed in the films of Lav Diaz.    In this paper, I will attempt to illuminate this ‘concentrationary universe’, in which Diaz creates conditions of fear, angst, torment and paranoia for the character as well as for the viewer. In doing so, I will draw from sociological writings on life in the concentration camps and a new field of research in the Humanities, which has its origins at the University of Leeds under the direction of Griselda Pollock and Max Silverman. I will also include parts of the interview I conducted recently with Diaz at the Locarno Film Festival, where I asked him specifically about the treatment of suffering in his films.

Slow Suffering
To begin with, the term ‘concentrationary’ is taken from the French ‘concentrationnaire’, which in itself stems from the title of the 1946 book ‘L’univers concentrationnaire’ by David Rousset, a former political prisoner of Buchenwald concentration camp. It has also been used extensively by Primo Levi in his last book ‘The Drowned and the Saved’, or rather by the translator Raymond Rosenthal, as far back as the 1980s.

Pollock and Silverman attempt a characterisation of the concentrationary by juxtaposing the specific uses of concentration and extermination camps during the Second World War. They write,

The extermination camp subjects its victims to immediate death, often within the hours of     arrival at the extermination point. Its space is void of life, attended only by a small work     detail and its SS guards. In the concentration camp, however, death is not the main object; terror and the enactment of the terrifying idea that humans qua human beings can become superfluous are its purpose and its legacy. (2014, 11)

In principle, concentration and extermination camps differed from one another in their uses of time. It was a difference of speed and slowness. In his book ‘The Order of Terror’, German sociologist Wolfgang Sofsky (1997) describes it this way:

The death factory was an apparatus that functioned smoothly, virtually trouble-free, working at high capacity and speed. A death train arrived at the ramp in the morning; by the afternoon, the bodies had been burned, and the clothing brought to the storerooms (259).

In the concentration camps, on the other hand, prisoners often died slowly, as a result of a continuous infliction of hardships. Paul Neurath (2005), survivor of Buchenwald and Dachau concentration camps, contends, “The camp usually kills its victims in less spectacular ways. It is comparable not so much to a ferocious murderer who runs amok, as to a dreadful machine that slowly, but without mercy, grinds its victims to bits” (47-48).

As I am hoping to demonstrate in this paper, a major characteristic of Diaz’s films is the focus on suffering. His films represent characters who are or have been target of oppressive governmental forces, and turn into living corpses as a result of it. What stands out in his films Melancholia (2008), Death in the Land of Encantos (2007), and Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012) is that the characters are caught in a web of persistent fear and terror. Death, while at times desired on the side of the persecuted, is prevented, or rather not granted.

Rather, according to Pollock and Silverman, the aim of the concentration camp, and in extension of the concentrationary universe, is “to submit inmates to a prolonged process of psychological disintegration, reduction to bare life and, hence, to becoming a living corpse” (Pollock, Silverman 2014, 11).

This focus on psychological processes in the characters is supported by the aesthetics Diaz employed for these films, first and foremost by the particular length of his films. The in-depth depiction of fear, angst, and paranoia over the course of, at times, nine hours is an aesthetic of Diaz’s concentrationary universe. It is further supported by the use of extreme long-takes. As Sam Littman (2014) contends with regard to contemporary Romanian cinema, “the long take len[ds] itself perfectly to expressing psychological realism.” There is thus a link between slowness and the concentrationary, which I want to explore in more detail now.

Analysing the concentration camp system as a site of terror, Wolfgang Sofsky (1997) points to the presence of an “endless duration that was constantly interrupted by sudden attacks and incursions. In this world of terror, a single day was longer than a week” (24). This very cycle of endless duration and sudden attacks is most prominent in Diaz’s six-hour film Florentina Hubaldo, which portrays a young woman being subjected to repeated rapes. The film follows her mental degradation as a result of CTE, a degenerative disease of the brain, whose onset stems from brutal treatment at the hands of her father.

vlcsnap-2014-08-25-14h11m25s47Just as concentration camp or even Soviet Gulag prisoners were deemed to be more useful as long as they could work, so Florentina, too, is denied death foe economical reasons. Her body is a mere product her father sells in order to earn a living. Her treatment thus attempts to strike a balance between a sufficient degree of subordination without gravely compromising her ability to “work”. Diaz disrupts this endless suffering of Florentina with attacks on the viewer’s senses, mainly by shock moments delivered through high-volume noise or absolute silence. Juxtaposing almost endless scenes of Florentina’s suffering with sudden attacks delivered through sound, Diaz’s six-hour film is a close representation of the concentrationary universe in which Florentina eventually, after six hours, dies as a result of a continuous infliction of miseries.

Sofsky’s above-mentioned remark about the change of time-consciousness in the camp inmates is similar to the shattered time-consciousness one encounters in Diaz’s films. The very length of his films exemplifies the endless duration of terror and marks the characters’ entrapment in a world of fear and uncertainty about death. Time begins to stretch, a characteristic very similar to that of a traumatic event, which survivors often describe as a slow-motion effect. In the words of Diaz:

At some point, death will come. It’s like a premeditated thing. … hell is coming, and it’s always like that. It’s like a concentration camp. You’re compartmentalised; this is the new group, we need to orient them on how to work on these things, then, next compartment, we will not feed them, and the next compartment is the gas chamber where we kill them. So it’s a part of compartmentalisation. There is slow death.

He adds that the concentrationary “applies so much to the character of the Filipino psyche … It’s exactly the word for this kind of suffering.”

Sofsky argues that this slow pursuit of gradual destruction of the human being “allowed death time” (1997, 25). This argument can be extended to the treatment of characters in Diaz’s films. Neither Florentina in Florentina Hubaldo, nor Hamin in Encantos, or even Renato in Melancholia see a sudden death. Their death, which is not always visualised on screen, comes rather as a result of repeated inflictions of attacks, both violent and non-violent. Death always comes slowly, which aggravates the characters’ suffering to an unbearable degree.

What I would like to highlight in this context is Sofsky’s use of “death time”. Even though it looks unlikely that Sofsky meant to create an entirely new term here, I would like to read it as such as it makes for an intriguing factor in the analysis of slow films. Slow Cinema has been repeatedly discussed in terms of temps mort, or dead time, as a governing factor of the aesthetics of slowness. In very simple terms, dead time in film means that nothing is happening in a scene, often quite literally at the end of a scene, when characters have exited the frame and the camera remains focused on an empty setting. I would argue that more than any other slow-film director, Diaz uses “death time” more than “dead time” in his films. In doing so, he puts emphasis on the use and effects of terror on individuals as well as on entire societies.

The use of “death time” is most evident in Diaz’s eight-hour film Melancholia, a film about three characters, who have self-devised a coping mechanism to get over the loss of their loved ones; activists who disappeared. They immerse into different roles in society, “so that we could regain our feelings. So that we could survive. So that one day, we could live again” as Alberta, one of the main characters, describes it. The film ends with a ninety minutes long flashback of Renato, an activist, and two other resistance fighters trapped on an island, after the military surrounded it. In those ninety minutes, little happens on-screen. In fact, all we see is three men sitting and waiting for their death. Or else, we don’t see anything as Diaz resorts to night-time shots without artificial lighting.

jungle 2Renato, one of the activists, writes letters to his wife, giving an insight into the conditions of the resistance fighters. He reveals that they are aware of death coming, but Diaz refrains from granting them the relief one of the fighters is demanding, as we will see shortly. Instead, Diaz follows the military’s play on psychological warfare and creates an unnerving situation for both character and viewer, through oppressive silence, lack of action, night-time shots, and endless periods of waiting. I want to show you a brief extract of the film, which demonstrates Diaz’s approach, and which also shows the effects of the persistent terror on the fighters.

(extract)

What we could see in this extract is the mental degradation of one of the fighters, whose resistance has been crushed by psychological warfare. The certain death, yet uncertain point of death causes a slow degradation of the character’s mental state, in similar ways we can see in Florentina. The man loses his sanity, which is not only apparent in his erratic and incomprehensible movements and behaviour throughout the second half of this part of the film. Especially at night, his visual and aural perception is distorted by severe paranoia. Here again, as indicated in previous brief reflections on Florentina, Diaz creates a concentrationary existence for the characters.

He generates a so-called “torment of duration” (Ibid., 81), which Wolfgang Sofsky emphasised in his discussion of “camp time” that was very specific to the concentration camps. Time was manipulated; it was slowed down by endless roll calls every morning and evening, or experientially accelerated by sudden attacks and beatings. Diaz’ trilogy of post-trauma contains this very combination of what I would term “time terror” for the characters as well as for the viewer; seemingly endless long takes in which little happens are juxtaposed with sudden scenes that invoke shock.

Conclusion
In conclusion, I would like to refer to Matthew John (2014), who contends that “the horror of the concentration camp system lies not with the abrupt and immediate extermination of human life, but rather with the slow and agonizing decay of the body and mind” (83, emphasis added). This is precisely the feeling you get as a viewer if you have the stamina to sit through a Lav Diaz film.

I would also like to add that the concentrationary is a site of trauma. Just like trauma, “terror [and in extension the concentrationary] destroys the flow of time” (Sofsky 1997, 78). Trauma thus locks the survivor-victim into a continuous, cyclical past. And this is where the concentrationary meets my previous research into the representation of trauma, forming a new powerful framework, based on Diaz’s own experience under Martial Law in the Philippines in the 1970s. He was beaten, locked up in a school house with 150 other families without permission to leave, with the military deciding how much food the people receive per day. People were guarded like prisoners, and shot when they left the school yards because of “communist activities”. Diaz called it “our own version of the concentration camps”. He witnessed atrocities committed against men, women, and children and has lost several friends to torture and extra-judicial killings.

While Pollock and Silverman’s study into the concentrationary is very much limited to art that makes explicit references to Nazi concentration camps, I intent to broaden the area. I am not only led by the aesthetics of Diaz’s cinema, but also by David Rousset’s warning that “it would be duplicity … to pretend that it is impossible for other nations to try a similar experiment [as Nazi Germany did] because it would be contrary to their nature. … under a new guise, similar effects [of the concentrationary universe] may appear tomorrow” (1951, 112).

As I have hopefully demonstrated today, my thesis will, in parts, add to this new research into the aesthetics of the concentrationary, but suggests a different approach to it by focusing on the experience and the time-consciousness in concentration camps and in the films directed by Lav Diaz.

If you want to use any of the material above, please get it touch and cite it appropriately. Thank you!

Edit (22 September 2014): Lav Diaz pointed out that he was not tortured under Martial Law, as described in my paper. I’m not sure why this mistake has occurred. I suppose I start to mix up literature. Thank you, Lav, for clarifying this!

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.

vlcsnap-2014-02-01-16h42m47s38

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.


If you want to use this paper for your own research, please cite it appropriately. Thank you!

Slow Cinema at the Museum!? (Paper)

Expanded Cinema Conference – St Andrews University – 3 April 2013

Introduction

Slow Cinema – this phenomenon of increased slowness and minimalism on screen has been repeatedly discussed throughout the last decade. Nick James’ and Jonathan Romney’s articles in the Sight & Sound in 2010 are perhaps the most known recent examples of public debate on the issue. The focus usually lies on the use of long-takes in slow films, which often provoke a debate on boredom and suffering on the side of the viewer. There are, however, many more aspects that are worth highlighting and I want to illuminate one of them here today; the exhibition of slow films.

Tsai Ming-liang is one of the most prominent slow-film directors. His films The Hole (1998), Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003), and I don’t want to sleep alone (2006) have propelled him into public awareness. His particular style – the striking opposition of lonely, slow-moving characters in bustling cities, combined with humoristic elements and musical interludes – has become a trademark that has attracted not only cinephiles. The French museum and gallery Le Louvre commissioned a film by Tsai Ming-liang as part of their Films by the Louvre project; a project that aims to showcase the museum’s audio-visual productions. Visage was the result of this collaboration; a slow film commissioned byand shot in a museum. Released in 2009, Visage is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

On the other side of the planet, the director of America’s Walker Arts Center commissioned a film from Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose popularity increased over night with the reception of the Golden Palm for his film Uncle Boonmee who can recall his past lives. Apichatpong had produced several films in the past, most notably Blissfully Yours (2003) and Syndromes of a Century (2006). His latest short, Mekong Hotel, was screened at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival. His short film Cactus River for the Walker Arts Center was released in autumn 2012 and can be watched on the institution’s website. I would like to give you two more examples of these directors: Apichatpong produced the short film The Palace in 2007 for the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Tsai’s It’s a Dream, also made in 2007, had been acquired by the Taiwanese Fine Art Museum and was added to its permanent collection. In an interview with Noah Buchan from Taipei Times, Tsai points out that

“It’s the first time that I sold a video installation to a museum and this is the first time for a Taiwanese museum to buy a film as part of its collection. The Louvre was the first in the world to collect film. These events signal that we are now looking at film as a form of art.” (Tsai Ming-liang, quoted in Buchan 2010)

He goes on to say that “gradually, my movies find a home, and that is the museum.” (Tsai Ming-liang, quoted in Buchan 2010). There is a movement towards gallery spaces evident, in particular by Eastern slow-film directors. I propose that this is not a coincidence. Rather I suggest that it has, in fact, a plausible reason, namely the undeniable similarities between slow films and static art, which blur the line between moving and non-moving art, and therefore also question current exhibition practices. Let me elaborate on this point.

Slow Cinema and the Static Arts

Obviously, it needs to be stressed here that there are significant differences between moving images and static art, embodied by the aspect of rhythm as well as the exploration and representation of time. Slow Cinema is of interest in that several slow films merge the two forms of art, blurring the line between kinesis and stasis. I want to highlight three perspectives here:

First, although it had never been officially included in this category and therefore never really seen as such, film is a kinetic art form for two main reasons. By the sheer fact that film is made of moving images, kinesis is imperative. Without kinesis, we would not speak of moving images. In addition, film represents objects of movement, or objects suggesting movement. The representation of kinesis in art is not exclusive to film, however. Frank Popper (1968) traces the history of kinesis in art, with particular reference to the depiction of dynamism in static art forms, such as painting and sculpture. His study reveals that movement was a recurrent theme as early as the mid-19th century in the artworks of Impressionist painters. In part, this can be linked to the Industrial Revolution, when new means of transport, thus of movement, became major symbols of the time. Popper points out that Impressionists were keen on depicting kinetic objects such as railways, horses, water and dancers (Popper 1968: 11) The chosen motifs conveyed a sense of movement, and had been used time and again in later art movements. Especially in the early 20th century, Futurist artists picked up the aspect of movement and heightened its presence in their work. Speed-embodying objects such as cars or trains inhabited a special role in Futurist art.

Of interest to us in this context is the balance between kinetic and static objects in slow films. A close study of films directed by Lav Diaz from the Philippines, for instance, reveals that dynamism is largely absent. His films contain only few elements, which imply movement. One of those rare examples is an ox cart in Heremias Book I, but this one gets stolen early on, so that movement for the owner of the cart is greatly reduced and slowed down. If Diaz represents other objects of movement, such as cars or motorcycles, he does not make them visible to the eye. Interestingly, we can only ever hear them as off-screen sounds, but they are never in any way directly connected to the protagonists. The static camera as well as the little movement of characters within film frames further reinforce the sense of stasis.

With regards to this, I would like to point to a statement of experimental filmmaker Maya Deren. Contrasting cinema and static art, she writes that cinema is

 “a time-form, and [therefore] it is really rather more closely related to music and dance than it is to any of the spatial forms, the plastic forms. Now it’s been thought that because you see it on a two-dimensional surface which is approximately the size and shape of a canvas … that it is somehow in the area of plastic art. This is not true.” (Deren, quoted in Jackson 2001: 51-52)

The validity of Deren’s argument cannot be denied. Indeed, film is a time-based art form, just as music and dance are. They share the characteristic of evolving, of developing in time. All three are rhythmic art forms. The limit of Deren’s argument is reached when we try to apply this to Slow Cinema. Due to the common absence of dynamic objects, as we have seen, as well as the lack of camera and character movement, slow films appear surprisingly static, and therefore less time-based; an aspect, which distinguishes slow films clearly from music and choreographic dance.

A third aspect to consider is the use of sound in film. Michel Chion’s study Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen (1994) contains hints as to why slow films embody stasis. Chion argues that films, similar to human beings, are vococentric (Chion 1994: 5). Research has shown that humans tend to focus on speech first, before their attention switches to other sounds around them. Moreover, our ears are said to react faster to external stimuli than our eyes do. This suggests that the extent, to which speech is used, alters the pace of the film. Slow films contain only little dialogue and music is scarce, a fact that slows down the reading process of the film considerably, as the viewer is dependent on his or her eyes. Combined with little character and camera movement, the cinematic frame appears static and thus has to be read in similar ways to paintings or other forms of static art.

To recapitulate, then, slow films share characteristics with static art forms based on the almost complete absence of kinetic objects or kinesis in general, and the lack of rhythmic speech or music, which demands our eyes to view a film in similar ways we would view a painting.

Lav Diaz and the Art of Painting

To take this a little further even, I want to demonstrate briefly now just how pervasive the aesthetics of static art are in slow films.

In an interview, Lav Diaz made a case in point. He said:

 “My films are just like paintings that are just there. Nothing changes. You can watch it for eight hours, and you can have a more fulfilling experience. Or you can leave the house, go to work, and when you come home, it is still there.” (Diaz, quoted in Baumgärtel 2007)

Diaz’s quote is evidence for my earlier proposition. He describes his films as paintings and reasons this by pointing to the almost static nature of his cinematic work. There is more to this, however, and this will facilitate an understanding of why slow-film directors such as Tsai Ming-liang are leading a renewed displacement of film; from the movie theatre to the gallery.

One major aspect to consider in the study of the relationship between slow films and paintings is the role of landscape and the treatment of nature. Bo Jeffares writes, “[a]s man’s urbanizing programme has increased and his control of his wild surrounding become more extreme, the kind of innocent interest in rustic life … has become an escapist obsession.” (Jeffares 1979: 6) Much similar to landscape painting, the focus in slow films lies on rural areas and nature. This is a key element of Slow Cinema, which only few filmmakers deliberately ignore. Elaborate shots of a landscape force the viewer to linger over what he sees, and thus slow down the narrative progression. The landscape is, what we could term the ‘argument’ in the language of art theorists. It inhabits a dominant role and becomes a character in its own right. It is an interesting point as landscape and character function as a mirror for one another.

A second link to painting is the way characters are framed. Photography popularised the close-up, especially of human faces. It was the key novel feature photography has introduced to the Arts. Nevertheless, painters remained generally keen on illustrating the whole picture, setting the character against his natural surrounding. You have to search really hard in order to find a close-up in a slow film. Filmmakers tend to approach their subjects in much similar ways to painters.

Overall, then, combined with earlier remarks on slow films as being similar to static art, the framing of characters in long-shots, shying away from close-ups, and the presence of landscape which acquired a special place in art in the, what Sherman Lee called, the ‘materialistic’ 19th century (Lee 1962: 3), Diaz’s films can, similar to a vast range of slow films, be read as static paintings.

Slow Cinema at the Museum

How does this affect the reception of slow films, then? Incorporating aesthetics of still art, such as painting, can Slow Cinema evoke a justified response in a movie theatre audience?

It is of interest here that Thomas Elsaesser has described Slow Cinema as the “musealization of the cinema” (Elsaesser 2011: 117). The screening of slow films in cinemas turn movie theatres into sites of contemplation, which has formerly been the case only of galleries and museums. Elsaesser’s point is crucial, yet I propose to read it in a different way. It is more intriguing to speak of slow films as exhibits, which demand a different venue. Reasons for this can be found in studies of video art.

Video artists have long combined aesthetics of static art with those of moving images. A good example is Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho in which he slowed down the original Hitchcock movie in order to extend the narrative over a period of twenty-four hours. It is so slow that movement is barely perceptible. So is 24 Hour Psycho a film, or is it still art?

Michael Newman argues that moving image art recontextualised cinema. It has introduced “a new dimension of reflexivity because of the frame provided by the institution of art and its history.” (Newman 2009: 88) In a nutshell: we associate galleries with contemplation, and cinemas with entertainment. The venue shapes expectations as films, or any other kind of art, are experienced in specific contexts. Therefore, Newman correctly stresses that “once the moving image is placed in the gallery it is implicitly experienced in relation to art that does not move: painting, sculpture, and photography.” (Newman 2009: 96) Having established to what degree slow films share characteristics with non-moving art, it appears evident that the gallery space, as Tsai Ming-liang pointed out in an interview, is the most appropriate venue.

In her study of gallery films, Catherine Fowler argues that “gallery films are different from cinema films, and that if shown in a cinema they would not achieve the vertical expansion that takes effect in the gallery.” (Fowler 2004: 338) Similar to Chinese art, which sees vertical expansion as a method of in-depth analysis, slow films put the same emphasis on depth. This is a prominent element in gallery installations. In fact, in a study of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, Jihoon Kim speaks of “cinemas of the gallery” (Kim 2012: 129). Although slow films are not gallery films per se, I argue that Slow Cinema can be described as a cinema of the gallery. One example from personal experience: The screening of Diaz’s eight-hour epic Melancholia (2008) in Newcastle in March last year took place in a cinema. This, however, was not experienced as such. Sitting on comfy sofas and leaving the auditorium from time to time in order to grab a coffee or give my eyes a break, made it feel as if I had been in a gallery or a museum, a venue which offers me to return to an artefact when needed, and taking a break when desired. Yet, this film was part of a festival at which slowness was celebrated. The movie theatre as a venue implies that the viewer sits down and stays seated until the end of the screening. But this widely accepted and adopted cinema-behaviour-code is not even something the filmmakers themselves imagine. As Diaz points out:

 “I don’t believe in the concept that you have to sit in the cinema for two hours and watch a story that is compressed in this period of time. Cinema can be anything. My films are not purposely done for the cinema anymore.” (Diaz, quoted in Baumgärtel 2007)

Apart from the blurring line between moving image and static art, there is one additional intriguing factor. Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz – these slow-film directors talk openly about the link between slow film and gallery, or slow film and painting. It is remarkable that these directors are from the East, a region whose philosophy has traditionally seen time as irreversible and continuously flowing. This perception of time has influenced people’s artwork, and art tends to be contemplative, following Buddhist and Taoist teachings of a higher understanding. I believe there is a link between this and the push towards alternative screening venues. But further research needs to be done in order to explain this phenomenon fully.

[If you want to use parts of this paper for your own research, please reference it appropriately. Thanks!]