Notes from the LFF: Hors Satan/Outside Satan (Bruno Dumont, France, 2011)

Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, French Cinema, Uncategorized

Are we living in the end times?

Personally, I don’t think so.

But, then again, while I will be sad to die (this is a lie – I won’t be anything except dead), and while I’ll be sad (and pretty excited) to see some other planet crash into Earth, or whatever fate awaits humanity and the rock we float on, this will not be the end of things.

I view it pretty simply: molecules, matter, light, and all of that ‘primary’ stuff that goes to make up the universe will still be around. They will never not be around. Perhaps they cannot not to be around. So an absolute end to all things? No, I don’t think so.

Hors Satan is one of a small bunch of recent art house movies that features a miracle (more than one in this film, in fact).

Miracles are relatively common place in the mainstream – impossible things happen the whole time, whether or not these are given a religious context and whether or not they are recognised as being miraculous.

Given that the mainstream peddles in impossible/miraculous illusion on a day-to-day basis, miracles there are not as interesting as when they appear in art house cinema.

Why? Because art house cinema is ‘for’ and ‘by’ ‘intellectuals’ – which stereotypically might have overlap with what I shall call agnosticism. Here, I don’t quite mean agnosticism in the sense of ‘I am not sure what or whether I believe in God or not,’ although it’s linked – hence my choice to use this word.

What I mean by agnosticism is a certain suspicion with regard to miracles: people do not get up from the dead and walk in everyday life (not without the help of defibrillators, anyway). Or if they do, there might well be a ‘scientific’ or ‘rational’ explanation, to which we do not necessarily have access.

Now, just to be clear, I think that you can believe in God and still be agnostic if we accept this definition. And note that this agnosticism is not meant to rule out miracles – it’s just to want thoroughly to question the evidence for them.

This in and of itself might place too great an emphasis on ‘science’ – but my point is not that such a ‘scientific’ view is without potential flaws. It is simply that, according to this view, miracles would push the bounds of credibility.

A second – linked – reason why miracles in art house cinema are more remarkable (and push the bounds of credibility) is that art house cinema – a very problematic generalisation, I confess – often (but not exclusively) is made in what we have come to accept as a ‘realistic’ style. That is, few elements are obtrusive, be that the acting, the mise-en-scène, the cinematography, the editing, or the soundtrack.

Instead, everything plays in seemingly real – and not stylised – locations, with the camera retaining some distance from events, not moving in an ostentatious fashion, and with edits taking place when they perhaps ‘need’ to, rather than ‘for the sake of it’. Since these films try to look like everyday life, and since miracles do not take place in everyday life, it is intriguing – and all the more surprising – that art house films would choose to portray miracles in this style.

Art house films might be weird as far as their status as a film is concerned. To give an example, Hors Satan itself has long takes, in which little happens and in which there is little dialogue as the unnamed lead character, played by David Dewaele, walks around the countryside of the north of France, seemingly praying to the countryside, and taking away and giving life as he sees fit.

But, even though we seem increasingly to find our real lives intolerable if they are filled with silence and little movement, such silence and stillness in a film might yet be thought of as realistic – because reality is not the crash bang wallop of the mainstream movies.

That is, as far as films go, Hors Satan is ‘weird’ because it does not conform to the norms of mainstream filmmaking – which bring with them an implicit contract whereby the audience ‘expects’ miracles to happen. But this ‘weirdness’ for a film might still be termed realistic, because life itself is slow and often quiet. And so when a miracle happens in a ‘weird’ and slow and supposedly ‘realistic’ film, it seems as though something even more weird must be going on.

Along with Stellet licht/Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany, 2007) and Lourdes (Jessica Hausner, Austria/France/Germany, 2009), then, Hors Satan is one of a handful of high profile and recent art house ‘miracle movies.’

Why is the story of a miracle, as happens in Hors Satan, linked to the ‘end times’ I evoked at the outset of this blog?

My proposed – and admittedly general – answer would be that we live in times when it is hard to find something to believe in. Almost any religious belief is – especially beliefs held so strongly that one would want to share that belief with others and perhaps even try to persuade them of the truth of those beliefs – quickly derided as ‘fundamentalism,’ as is the seemingly irrational and rabid refusal to believe in capitalism.

In other words, ‘realists’ are supposedly atheists, as the religion bashers such as Richard Dawkins aim to make clear. Being realists, there would be little space for miracles in films made for ‘intelligent’ and ‘realistic’ people, and also made by ‘intelligent’ filmmakers who shoot using the technical and formal conventions of ‘realism’ (realism as a style of filmmaking).

In the postmodern era, in which the so-called ‘grand narratives’ that previously could explain the world and our position therewith have been overthrown but not replaced, it would appear that there is nothing to believe in anymore.

And yet with mankind’s fragility ever more thrust in our own faces, it is perhaps natural that humans would turn back to religion – or at least the belief in some power/force/energy/design/divinity – in order to have some rationale behind the human project, and perhaps also to convince us that we do not need to be out there in the streets murdering and stealing simply because we know that no punishment – either Earthly or divine – awaits us.

(I am intrigued by the fact that the day on which the human population on Earth reached seven billion in number, the news seems to mourn our demise – not enough food, not enough warmth, not enough oxygen to keep us going. That is, the human race is numerically at its strongest, and yet the discourse seems overwhelmingly to emphasise that we are at our weakest.)

Now, I personally think that none of Silent Light, Lourdes or Hors Satan actually believes in the miracles that they depict – and also believe that none of them is a ‘Christian’ film attempting to woo its viewers back to the church because if we don’t pray now, then, Pascal-like, we might lose our bet with God.

The reference to Pascal is perhaps apt. For Pascal himself argues – in the same section (233) of his Pensées in which the wager appears – that we cannot have access to the infinite, or to God, because we are finite – and the infinite is not just a ‘big number’; rather, the infinite is without number.

That is to say, Pascal is talking about a faith without proof – precisely, a faith. Ostensibly, then, a miracle – as ‘proof’ of God – eliminates the wager; once you’ve seen a miracle, you just believe because you have seen God and don’t need to, nay cannot, doubt anymore.

Here is where what I perceive to be the failure of these three films to believe in their own miracles perhaps becomes interesting. For the miracles in each film function for me not as proof of God, but as evidence of our need for beliefs as a whole.

There is nothing stopping anyone from reading these films – perhaps Lourdes especially – as being literal accounts of miracles. However, for me these films are about the need to fill a void that has been created by the drive to render the world scientifically comprehensible (even though science itself remains full of mysteries, with the Higgs-Boson itself sometimes even referred to – even if jokingly – as the ‘God particle’).

In other words, Gödel notwithstanding, our comprehension of the universe is incomplete – and this is in part perhaps because of the lack of anything to believe in. Belief, then, might yet (even if not forever) remain a vital need for humans, a meme of such power that we cannot ignore it.

Although I have not discussed Hors Satan or any of the films mentioned in much depth, I just wanted to get across these brief thoughts.

And as a brief add-on, I found it interesting that We Need to Talk about Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA, 2011) dared to look precisely at our belief-less, postmodern society from the perspective of a mother whose love for her son is only ambivalent (and vice versa) at absolute best.

Not only does this for me confirm Ramsay’s status as one of the leading lights of British cinema (my top quartet typically would be Winterbottom, Meadows, Arnold and Ramsay), but it also stands in stark contrast to the ‘king’ of postmodern pop, Quentin Tarantino.

In a very informative book about film and ethics, Lisa Downing writes that Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2 (USA, 2003-2004) ultimately offer up the myth of motherhood as, for Tarantino, a final ideological barrier that for him is absolute – and not a social/cultural convention that is contingent (i.e. need not necessarily be true or real under different circumstances).

Kevin is prepared to take a step in that direction and to question even this myth.

Dumont’s film has a set of concerns entirely separate from Ramsay’s – and perhaps from all of the films mentioned here.

But if nothing else it is an interesting – and beautiful – meditation on what the times are such that they might be ending.

Confessions from the LFF: Ha-shoter/Policeman (Nadav Lapid, Israel, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Israeli Cinema

Without wishing to over-generalise, the French philosopher of cinema, Gilles Deleuze argues that thought begins when action ends. Or, more specifically, when we are no longer capable of action.

He says this because actions typically are defined as being things that we do automatically. We might decide to do something, even in a split second. But the action itself is automatic. What happens between actions is thought; and the more intense one’s thoughts are, perhaps the less action one will carry out.

In Tropa de Elite/Elite Squad (José Padilha, Brazil/Netherlands/USA/Argentina, 2007), Deleuze’s name is specifically crossed out on a blackboard at the beginning of a scene in which one of the young cops who will become a key part of the Elite Squad, Matias (André Ramiro), chooses which contemporary theorist/philosopher he and his classmates will do projects on.

The moment is perhaps coincidental, perhaps a tongue-in-cheek visual gag – probably missed by most viewers – made at the expense of film theorists. Namely, those who sit around thinking about film rather than actually going out there and making films.

Nonetheless, if Padilha and his collaborators want to rub one in the eye of film theorists and others whose ‘sitting around thinking’ is perceived as useless to society, this raises some interesting questions.

For, in not being a theorist but in going out there and making a film instead, Padilha becomes a man of action. And this act of filmmaking is suitable for a film that, seemingly, endorses, or at the very least explores, the call for, precisely, action in response to the critical condition of society.

That is, Trope de Elite – as well as its sequel Trope de Elite 2 – O Enemigo Agora É Outro/Elite Squad 2 (José Padilha, Brazil, 2010) – seems to support the efforts of Capitão Nascimento (Wagner Moura) not to sit back and think but to take action. And by ‘taking action,’ I mean enact a zero tolerance policy on drugs and gang violence in the favelas (and elsewhere) of Rio de Janeiro.

There is also a moment at the end of Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s Un homme qui crie/A Screaming Man (France/Belgium/Chad, 2010) in which a title card appears saying words to the effect that he who sits around refusing to act is doomed, both physically and spiritually. That is, the film, which features a father, Champion (Youssouf Djaoro), who does nothing while Chad and his family fall apart, suggests that ethically, perhaps even morally, the time to act is nigh – and that, again, sitting around thinking has done nothing to stem the tide of exploitation (Champion looks after a swimming pool in a Western-style hotel) and inequality that continues to sweep our planet.

While Tropa de Elite verges on the reactionary in its condemnation of Rio gangs and its support for the misunderstood nature of the militaristic squad that it depicts (that is, the film seemingly endorses state violence towards its transgressive citizens), Un homme qui crie seems to call for the awakening of a more revolutionary spirit that will not take state-authorised exploitation sitting, or lying, down.

However, while Tropa de Elite (and its sequel) and Un homme qui crie seem to espouse slightly different political outlooks, both seem to present a call to arms.

And, as we have seen from global south to global north, from student movements in Chile and the UK to the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street, both film(maker)s – from Brazil and Chad – seem to have their finger on the global pulse. That is, now people are starting to act – be they oppositional or reactionary forces endeavouring through violence to put down whatever insurrections they encounter.

Although the world is perhaps calling out for a (quite general) definition of what precisely constitutes violence in order to get a better legal handle on what is going on, if nothing else, my point here is slightly different.

My point is that I have not decided how to act yet – and I may never do. I am still thinking about all of this – and, indeed, finding it ever harder to think about the ‘state of the world’ precisely because it is so complex (and brought to me by global media networks). I may know where my allegiances lie in principle, but I am still a coward, scared that I will do ‘the wrong’ thing (because I am still waylaid by notions of right and wrong, even though I think beyond good and evil).

On 24 June 1963, John F Kennedy misattributed his words to Dante when he said in Bonn that ‘the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who retain their neutrality in times of moral crisis’ (Dante said in canto 3 of the Inferno that those who were neither for nor against God were in a special region near the mouth of hell; Kennedy was on a roll at the time, though, since two days later he told West Berliners that he was a donut).

But while I fear that there is some truth in Kennedy’s words, and that – impossibly – we will perhaps endure the return of some absolute standard of good and/or evil against which the decision not to fight will make us more lousy than those who fight for it, I also feel that I want to remain partisan regarding my neutrality. Even when I act, my actions are my own; my neutrality is my action, whatever hatred it might elicit from others (should it last forever; who knows when I shall reach my crisis point and emerge, grenade in hand, to man the barricades).

This scares me; I suffer anxiety that I am not ‘occupying’ – and on the whole can only see reasons not to join either side.

Anyway, the reason why I am ‘confessing’ the above is because in some respects Policeman at the London Film Festival this year helped me to relax some of these issues.

On the surface, the film might fit into the ‘reactionary’ camp of Tropa de Elite in that the film examines with some sympathy (by which I mean, ironically enough, neutrality) the life of Yaron (Yiftach Klein), himself an über-macho member of an Israeli ‘elite squad’ that deals with Palestinian terrorists.

Yaron struts around with his shades on, consistently doing push ups, pull ups and finding any excuse to exert his alpha status, even over his fellow squad members, whom he high fives and hugs in a fashion that, to avoid the ‘on steroids’ cliché of crap film journalism, is like Top Gun (Tony Scott, USA, 1986) injected with the super-juice that they pump into the much-more-interesting-when-scrawny Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) in Captain America: The First Avenger (Joe Johnston, USA, 2011).

Yaron is a seemingly loving husband, but he is also under investigation for killing a Palestinian child and old man during a raid (something that the team decides to blame on a guy in their squad who has a brain tumor and who is likely therefore to die, or arouse sympathy), and he may possibly fool around with, and most certainly flirts with, a 15-year old waitress in a bar.

Yaron eventually comes up against a group of young terrorists – not from Palestine, however, but from Israel. These terrorists, whom director Lapid said at the Film Festival were inspired by his reading about the Baader Meinhof group, believe that the rich are too rich and that the poor are too poor – and that ‘it’s time for the poor to get rich and for the rich to get dying.’

As a result, they take hostage two billionaires, together with the wife and daughter of one of them. In what is perhaps the most naïve and inept piece of terrorism ever seen on film (though surely not in real life), the group of upper middle class Israeli revolutionaries take their hostages to the basement of the hotel where the kidnapping took place. There, they allow men purporting to be ‘press photographers’ into the room, even though they never asked for these men to come (of course, they are police photographers after intel). And – behold/spoilers – the anti-terrorist squad arrives and does its job.

In some senses, the utter naïveté of the ‘terrorists’ is astounding, heartbreaking and disturbing. In other senses, so is their conviction – their conviction that calling to the elite police squad outside that they too are being exploited will lead them to put down their weapons and demand for social justice themselves.

But their folly is not what consoles me in my neutrality. Rather, it is Yaron who – sort of – consoles me. Yaron shows nerves during this mission in a way that presumably is very uncharacteristic of him. Nonetheless, he enters into the room (another idiotic aspect of holding hostages in a basement: the counter-terrorist unit will turn out the lights and use night vision goggles, making you as terrorist utterly defenceless), and carries out his mission.

In doing so, he kills Shira (Yaara Pelzig), a young and in some respects ‘lost’ poor little rich girl, who gives Jane Fonda a run for her money in believing with conviction in her righteous quest to adjust the fact that Israel is dominated by hoarding rich while the poor work for less than minimum wage (Palestine is deliberately not even broached as a topic).

Looking down at her body, we see that Yaron is, perhaps, beginning to ‘crack’ – that his transition from action man to thinker is beginning to take place.

Don’t get me wrong: the price for Yaron’s ‘conversion’ is terrible and I am not saying that the lives of others is a worthy price for one person’s decision – after years of action – to pause for thought. However, while it seems as though the world is demanding an escalating level of action, Policeman in its own way seems to be suggesting a pause for thought.

And not just by Yaron, but perhaps also by the kids who wind up dead for their stupidity. Some more forethought, some more thought, on both sides, might possibly have avoided the bloodshed.

If Tropa de Elite seems to endorse the use of force to take out insurrectional elements of society, and if Un homme qui crie suggests that you are foolish not to take up arms in times of trouble, then Policeman perhaps suggests that trouble might be avoided if we all thought a bit more. If we looked and saw – saw deeply – rather than acted based upon superficial evidence.

Notes from the LFF: Hello! Shu Xian Sheng/Mr Tree (Han Jie, China, 2011)

Blogpost, Chinese cinema, Film education, Film reviews, Uncategorized

It is opportune that I saw Mr Tree in the same week that I taught about Sixth Generation Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke in two separate classes.

For, Jia acts as producer of Mr Tree, and Han Jie’s film, while by no means a Jia Zhangke ‘rip-off,’ definitely contains themes that are also of close concern to Jia, especially the effects of modernisation on rural life.

I shall deal more with Mr Tree below. But I’d like to reflect a little bit on teaching Jia Zhangke, not so that I can write about Jia specifically, but so that I can deal with the reception of Chinese cinema – and art house cinema more generally – in the West, and also to illustrate to those who might be interested what studying cinema at university can involve.

This week I used two different Jia films for two different modules that I am teaching this term. The first film is Shijie/The World (China/Japan/France, 2004) for a module that I am teaching on Digital Cinema. The reason behind this choice was to explore the ways in which digital cameras have reinvigorated the possibility for filmmakers to create ambitious projects on relatively low budgets, and which offer up an alternative view of the world to that which seems increasingly to be replicated not just in mainstream Hollywood cinema, but across all mainstreams worldwide. In other words, The World serves as a means to explore how/whether digital technology enables independent and artistic world cinema.

And the second film is Jia’s first feature, Xiao Wu/Pickpocket (Hong Kong/China, 1998) for a module that I am teaching called Guerrilla Filmmaking. The aim of this module is, in the spirit of De fem benspænd/The Five Obstructions (Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier, Denmark/Switzerland/Belgium/France, 2003), to set my students regular and short film projects on certain topics and involving certain formal constraints. As well as making the films, the students are invited to reflect critically on their projects – explaining what they have learnt, from the practical to the political to the philosophical. The students are also invited to talk about how they get their films seen once they are in existence.

The reason for showing Xiao Wu was/is not because this is a film made on a micro-budget, as per other films that I show my students as part of the module, including my colleague’s activist film, Chronicle of Protest (Michael Chanan, UK, 2011), as well as my own two features, En Attendant Godard (UK, 2009) and Afterimages (UK, 2010).

The reason for choosing the film is because Xiao Wu was made without a permit. Jia just went into the streets and filmed – and this is noticeable from the variable sound quality, from the inconsistent lighting, and especially from the way in which ‘extras’ – in fact just people in the street – often turn and look directly at the camera, while the actors – all non-professionals – carry on regardless. In other words, Xiao Wu serves as a means to explore the possibility of simply going out into the street and filming, guerrilla-style.

A phrase that seems to get repeated a lot at the moment is ‘go big or go home.’ In some senses, my Guerrilla Filmmaking module is precisely not about going big – but about working out how to use the means at one’s disposal to say what one wants to say. Not to make a film for the purpose solely of trying to please others. But about using film as an expressive (and supremely malleable) medium to convey one’s own thoughts and ideas. The module is intended to encourage students precisely to think and to have ideas, then, and to endeavour to put these into audiovisual form.

Anyway, with regard to my classes, I introduced Jia, the director of both films, as belonging to the so-called sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers – the previous five generations taking Chinese cinema from its early origins to the 1930s (first), through to China’s 1940s cinematic heyday (second), Chinese cinema under Communism (third), the (lack of) cinema of the Cultural Revolution (fourth), and the rise of the fifth generation in the 1980s and 1990s, the fifth generation including filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.

Obviously, the latter two are still making films, as anyone who has seen Ying xiong/Hero (Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong/China, 2002), Shi mian mai fu/House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, China/Hong Kong, 2004) and Wu ji/The Promise (Chen Kaige, China/USA/South Korea, 2005) will know.

Now, while Chen and Zhang have both moved into blockbuster filmmaking, as the above examples demonstrate, they still plough the same thematic fields that they explored in their early, career-making films. That is, they make historical films, often featuring strong heroines, exploring China’s past to reflect – often critically – on the present, in particular the myth of nation-building and unification (even if their films can be read in a reactionary way, as Hero perhaps most clearly exemplifies in its decision to have a rebellious asssassin not kill a tyrannical leader because the latter’s work in unifying China, even if achieved by the sword, is finally understood by the assassin to be a ‘good thing’).

By contrast, the sixth generation, with Jia as one of its figureheads, concentrates more upon the contemporary, taking in issues of forced migration within China – particularly for the purposes of modernisation, urbanisation, and the alienating side-effects of globalisation.

Many sixth generation films were made without permits – such as Xiao Wu (The World, by contrast, was Jia’s first film to be made with a permit; more on the film can be read here). As such, they are often defined as ‘underground’ films, although this title can be misleading in that ‘underground’ can function as much as a brand as it does a qualification for unauthorised – and therefore supposedly ‘authentic’ – portraits of the nation’s contemporaneity.

Now, Jia’s films are ‘slow’ – consisting of ponderous long takes in which minimal action takes place; the emphasis often seems to be less on characters and more on the spaces and places in which the ‘action’ (or lack thereof) takes place.

For this reason it perhaps came as no surprise that my students – all bar one – said of The World that it is ‘boring’ – and, more controversially, that the filmmaker has a ‘duty’ (I can’t recall if this was the exact term used) to make ‘interesting’ and ‘entertaining’ films.

This prompted a diatribe from their lecturer (me) about the attention economy in which we live, and the foundations of which are built upon computers (i.e. digital technology) in their various guises (including iPhones, iPods, iPads, and the like – cheers, Steve Jobs). That is, that boredom is intolerable in the contemporary age, and that everything must happen at the accelerated pace of the entertainment industries, with what David Bordwell has defined as ‘intensified continuity‘ and which Steven Shaviro more recently has called a ‘post-continuity‘ culture at its core.

In contrast to this, there are – on a general level – filmmakers who feel the need to represent the fact that for all of the attention(-deficient) economy that bombards the bourgeoisie, and for all of the ease of movement that the global rich enjoy – both actual and virtual, there are many people who are left behind. Whose lives are slow. Who cannot and/or who do not want, perhaps, to lead their life at the speed of light.

Do these kinds of lives, I put to my students, not merit depiction? Who decides what is ‘cinematic’ and what is not? And would making an ‘exciting’ (i.e. ‘fast’) film about lives that many people might deem ‘unexciting’ (and ‘slow’) not be an inappropriate if one were trying to remain faithful to one’s subject matter and/or one’s own ideas thereupon?

Without wishing to overlook the specifically Chinese provenance of Jia’s films, or indeed the very constructed nature of his fictions (we cannot read them as entirely accurate representations of Chinese reality, even if he uses devices that typically we associate with that ethos), my argument in class also proposed that there is no consensus on what constitutes ‘entertaining’ with regard to film – and that perhaps there should not be such a consensus, otherwise all films would look and feel the same.

Now, I am not sure how convincing my diatribe was. One of my students – the most vocal critic of The World (Xiao Wu was ‘better’ because it had something of a plot – and, perhaps crucially, is 50 minutes shorter) – has blogged in spite of my defence of Jia that he (and I paraphrase) should not make this kind of film, since alienating audiences (there is no specification of what kind of audience is being considered here, the assumption being that all audiences are the same) is one of the worst sins of filmmaking.

I would link to the student’s blog – because I do not want to deprive them of their input in the dialogue I am creating. Alas, the blog is on a site closed to all outside of my university (and even then you need to be registered on the software, Mahara, that hosts it). So, apologies for those who wish to but cannot read the blog – perhaps especially to those who would agree with the student’s outlook on filmmaking in general and this film in particular.

Now, I want to try to avoid coming across as high-minded and condescending to my student(s) – for they are entitled to their thoughts, even if I also find it mildly frustrating to make a case for art cinema that is duly and adamantly cast aside for the sake of imposing a pre-existing set of criteria regarding what constitutes ‘good’ cinema (i.e. I probably am both high-minded and condescending at the last).

I also am wary about ‘picking on’ one or any of my students, not least because this one is certainly engaged and a keen participant in my classes. That is, I greatly appreciate what this person contributes to my classes, even if I do not agree with them, and even if I feel the need to encourage in them a more critical perspective.

(Interestingly, when it was established prior to showing it that Xiao Wu is, in the words of another student, ‘what we would call a “festival film,”‘ this also brought about a greater level of (perceived) engagement – as if one cannot watch films ‘properly’ without being given the correct prompt/lens through which to view them.)

This blogospheric excursion into teaching the cinema of Jia Zhangke may have exposed my limitations as a teacher, in that I failed to convince my students about the validity of The World, and to a lesser extent that of Xiao Wu, the ‘boringness’ of which – apparently – outweighed any interest in what Jia was trying to do; i.e. I could not get my students to consider what The World is, since they preferred instead to talk about what the film is not.

Furthermore, this excursion into teaching Jia Zhangke might also have exposed the limitations of top-down teaching as a whole; others involved in education, at any level, may share my sadness when I see value judgements made repeatedly in spite of insistent attempts to foster not simple judgement but critical engagement.

However, I mention all this as a preface to discussing Mr Tree, which, as mentioned, was produced by Jia and which shares with his films a similar set of concerns, because the issue of pace and boredom lies at the heart of what in different ways I have elsewhere defined as the war of/for our cinema screens and the political, perhaps even ethical, dilemmas facing filmmakers when making films about certain subjects.

Han Jie’s film is, like Jia’s films more generally, contemplative. Shu (whose name means ‘tree’ and who is played by Baoqiang Wang) is a drifter-type, who is a little bit crazy, a little bit weird.

He has a job as a car mechanic that he soon loses after inflicting upon himself an accident: he uses a blowtorch without the face mask and temporarily blinds himself, prompting his boss to let him go. He falls in love with a local deaf mute, Xiaomei (Zhuo Tan), and endeavours to woo her without much success – at least initially.

The local kids kind of ridicule Shu, although he seems well connected, hanging out with the local businessmen (who are trying to oust his mother from their family home for the sake of developing the land for business purposes; there is a coal mine in the area). He drinks, has the odd fight, wanders around his town, goes to the big city in Jilin, the northern province where he lives, and spends a bit of team cleaning up the school that a friend from his hometown runs, and he finally gets married to Xiaomei.

Except that on his wedding day, Shu is miserable. This is mainly because he has begun to see the ghost of his dead brother – a brother who apparently was hanged by his father from the tree in which Shu sometimes hides – and who is thoroughly ‘modern’ in his corduroys, hipster haircut, cool girlfriend and jacket.

Xiaomei makes love to him, but then leaves Shu, because he does not care for her. Shu then predicts accurately that the local mining industry – which has also already claimed the life of one his other local friends – will cause the water in the area to stop flowing.

Something of a prophet, it would seem, Shu then seemingly becomes rich by advising the mining company how correctly to bring to an end the malpractice that thus far has characterised it.

However, Shu’s ostensible success is revealed latterly as a fantasy, as is his reunion with a pregnant Xiaomei. In other words, Shu becomes mad, not least because his life is marked by the death of his brother and his friend. His descent into incoherence, however, seems to reflect the insistent modernisation that the village/town is undergoing through the mining company and other forces: people are moved out of their homes, and the ‘traditional’ ways seem to be disappearing as people are offered TVs and other mod cons to accept the questionable business plans for the area.

Even though Shu seemingly goes mad, he is still a character that seems to be able to see. As mentioned, he is temporarily blinded at the start of the film, but there is a strong emphasis on vision and visuality in the film, more often than not associated with Shu. He may be a living anachronism, incapable or unwilling to go along with the times, while his former friends get increasingly rich, but perhaps that is because he realises more than anyone else the confusion and chaos that is descending upon Jilin and the industrialisation of one of China’s most beautiful provinces (it is one of the ‘four major natural wonders of China’ – along with the Three Gorges Valley, the Rimmed Trees that also are in Jilin, and the Stone Forest of Yunnan).

Indeed, Shu seems to have these changes inscribed physically on his body: he moves in a twisted and awkward fashion (a great performance from Baoqiang), and often bears cuts, bruises and scars.

Furthermore, not only through his name, but also physically do we see Shu in connected with nature: as mentioned, he hides up a tree, but he also walks and runs most places – and he certainly does not have easy access to the good cars that his local friends seem to have. Even Shu’s brother drives a taxi, suggesting that he is moving along with the times, rather than being left behind as Shu is.

As such, Mr Tree is an interesting film that implicitly critiques what can be interpreted as the modernisation of China, which in turn leads to the disappearance of traditional ways of life – embodied here by Shu.

The film’s eventual descent into fantasy makes of Mr Tree a film that is only questionably realistic (although this critique – bizarrely – never seems to be made against, say, Miracolo a Milano/Miracle in Milan (Vittorio de Sica, Italy, 1951), a core film of the influential Italian neorealist movement, from which both this and Jia’s films seem to take inspiration, and which itself has an entire fantasy ending featuring, as implied by the title, a miracle made only more bitter by the fact that it is fantastic and impossible).

Nonetheless, as per much sixth generation filmmaking (if the term still applies – how long can a generation last before becoming a new one?), the film is a politicised glimpse into contemporary Chinese life.

It is only fitting that the film adopts the ‘slow’ pace that it does, filming predominantly in long shot to ground Shu and the other characters in the space/place that they inhabit rather than to have us view the film as simply a character portrait.

Again, this is not to overlook the complex roots of the film in Chinese culture – my reading might seem to ground the film uniquely in a genealogy of films and style of filmmaking – but it is to suggest that aesthetic strategies (how one shapes the look, feel, pace, and intensity of a film) are strongly tied to the political.

Hero this film neither is nor could be, interesting though Zhang’s most accessible work is in and of itself. For my part, then, I can only continue to reiterate, perhaps narcissistically (if I can never convince anyone who thinks otherwise), that judging films according to criteria of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (with good being fast and exciting, bad being slow and ‘boring’) is pointless. It is better, rather, for us to think about what the film seems to be saying.

Not just to watch the film as entertainment, but to read, or to think about the film – perhaps even to find about the cinematic, industrial, and cultural contexts – among others – in which the film was made.

This is what I try to do as a lecturer in film. Sometimes I feel very strongly about it; the attention economy has us in its grips, and we will overlook many important – nay, vital – things if we do not pay enough respect to that which surrounds us. Some films try to do this by being deliberately slow. This is not bad; it is a strategy for trying to induce thought and thoughtfulness.

While I personally think that there are ‘problems’ with this ‘strategy’ (it is too teleological, it perhaps stratifies film into entertainment vs art house modes that rarely meet, and whose audiences rarely meet, and I am certain that one can think critically about Hollywood or any other mainstream style of cinema), it remains an important one.

If my choice of films and my teaching style run the risk of boring my students, a ‘problem’ that I might be called into account for when I have to proactively to address the feedback that my students eventually will give me for my teaching methods and choices, then this is just an issue that I/they will have to face together.

While I like fast films, too, I want to emphasise here how I am in praise of slow films – and why. I hope that this blog might help to convince someone – anyone – that slow films (all films?!) are important and not to be overlooked…

Notes from the LFF: Mourning (Morteza Farshbaf, Iran, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Iranian cinema, Uncategorized

Mourning is one of the three Iranian films playing at this year’s London Film Festival – and I will be blogging about all three once I have had a chance to see them.

Mourning tells the story of Arshia (Amir Hossein Maleki), a young boy whose parents abandon him one night after a row.

The next thing we see is a car traveling through the Iranian countryside, a nice black 4×4 drifting along dirt tracks and surrounded by lush grass dancing in the wind.

Subtitles appear as if in error on the bottom of the screen – we can hear no spoken words. But after some time we realise that this is the conversation taking place in the car in sign language between Kamran (Kiomars Giti) and Sharareh (Sharareh Pasha), two middle-aged deaf and dumb people who have taken Arshia into their care after his parents’ departure.

En route, Kamran and Sharareh come across a car crash in a tunnel. Kamran leaves his vehicle and goes to investigate. It soon transpires that Arshia’s parents have seemingly died in this car crash, meaning that Kamran and Sharareh will have to look after Arshia from now on.

Mourning is not quite a real time movie, but all of its action takes place over a night and a day, as Arshia, Sharareh and Kamran try to come to terms with the death of the former’s parents, and to envisage a future for the young boy that has been left behind.

The car seems to be a staple motif – and setting – for various Iranian films, with Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran/USA, 2002), 10 on Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran, 2004) and the more recent The Hunter (Rafi Pitts, Iran/Germany, 2010) emerging as prominent examples. Given that director Farshbaf is a Kiarostami protégé, this perhaps comes as no surprise.

The car suggests a simple paradox: it enables mobility while at the same time being an enclosed space. What is more, the use of tunnels along the way in this movie, and in The Hunter also, suggests further layers of enclosure – and darkness.

Given the prominence of these visual motifs – the car and the tunnel – it becomes hard not to read Mourning allegorically.

That is, the film does play as an affecting character piece in which Arshia, who seemingly can both lip read and sign, must learn in a brutal fashion about the death of his parents (which we never see), and in which Kamran and Sharareh run through a range of responses to the death of the child’s parents, from the pragmatic (they are the best placed people to look after Arshia) to the darkly comic (Kamran complaining about how Arshia needs the loo every few minutes).

But the film nonetheless – perhaps in a ‘bad’ way given Fredric Jameson‘s belief that Westerners cannot help but read ‘Third World’ literature, and by extension films, as national allegories – seems to be less about the characters whose lives briefly we share, and more about the place in which the story takes place.

Given the overwhelming silence of the film, the allegory is far from over-stated. And yet the abandonment of a child, his adoption by kind, mobile, but ultimately confined-to-the-car ersatz parents, whose voices literally cannot be heard, and whose language is alien to all but the happiest few, seems strongly to suggest an Iran whose youth has also been abandoned by rowing parents who will drive each other to death, and whose institutional support is minimal.

This reading is without question simplistic – as well as arguably problematic given the perennial issue of for whom this film was made and to whom it will most likely appeal (your average Iranian Joe, or well-to-do Westerners who have time to worry about a land so foreign to them as Iran). That is, in (over-)determining Mourning as a ‘message’ film, I have almost certainly overlooked its power to affect viewers in diverse ways, some abstract (such are allegories) and some physical.

But to stick to the allegorical, the film ends with Arshia in a tunnel. We see a protracted shot of the tunnel – a gaping black hole in the middle of the screen, the impenetrability of which suggests an uncertain future. And then we see a reverse shot: daylight at the end of the tunnel, but with darkness all around us. The light seems ever-so-close, but we do not approach.

Having also had the chance recently to see The Green Wave (Ali Samadi Ahadi, Germany, 2010), a guerrilla film involving tweets, amateur footage, voice recordings, talking heads interviews and animated versions of blogs concerning the Green Movement, Mourning becomes even more resonant.

The Green Wave documents the repressive violence that surrounded the wave of protests against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s seemingly fraudulent re-election to office in the 2009 Iranian presidential elections.

There have since been arrests, murders and brutality aplenty – condoned if not directly authorised by the government.

And what is being protested is not just a stolen election but the deprivation of the right to a democratic society based upon choice.

Iran is a country with a huge youth population – not least in part as a result of the Iran-Iraq war that ran from 1980 to 1988, and which resulted in 500,000 to 1,000,000 deaths. In other words, with the adult generation of the 1980s depleted and scarred by war, it is those who have grown up since who now are the driving force, or the main constituent part, of the Green Movement.

As such, Arshia seems to stand for all Iranian youth – stuck in a tunnel, having lost his parents to internecine disputes, and with new, surrogate parents who do not necessarily speak his language – however benign-willed they are or wish to be.

Given the difficulty with which filmmakers can make films in contemporary Iran (and given the arrest of some 25 filmmakers recently in Iran), it seems that allegory is the only means through which filmmakers can make any political points – even if the use of allegory risks confusing that message (if the message could be anything but confused if it were to pay respect to the complexities of the world and perhaps of Iran in particular).

As such, my take on Mourning as being allegorical is reinforced, since films like The Green Wave cannot be made in Iran, as that film’s German production location makes clear. Farshbaf must be political – like Kiarostami his master – by avoiding the overtly political.

Once again, this is not to overlook the film’s poetic nature: beautiful landscapes filled with human and humane people who live and love like anywhere else on Earth. But politics and poetics do not have to be mutually exclusive; indeed, the film’s patiently long takes – especially of Iran’s luscious green grass – lend to Mourning not the howl that The Green Wave evokes, but a calm, reasoned, certain appeal to a better future…

Notes from the LFF: I Wish (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2011)

Blogpost, Film reviews, Japanese Cinema, Uncategorized

Kore-eda Hirokazu’s latest film looks set not to get distribution in the UK. Or at least does not have any at time of writing. For this reason, I wanted to see it at the 2011 London Film Festival.

Indeed, avoiding premières of films that I shall no doubt see in the fullness of time seems low down on my agenda of trying to see films at this year’s festival. Rather, I have tried to see films I am unlikely to see (on a big screen, at any rate) anywhere but here.

Kiseki/I Wish is a light-hearted tale of separated brothers, Koichi and Ryu, the former of whom lives with his grandparents and mother, the latter of whom lives with his dad, who is lead singer in a band.

Like Hirokazu’s previous Dare mo shiranai/Nobody Knows (Japan, 2004), this film is about family – in particular disrupted families that struggle to stay in touch in spite of the prevalence of mobile telecommunications technologies (which feature prominently in the film).

Furthermore, given I Wish’s interest in inter-generational relationships, the film also shares common ground with Aruitemo aruitemo/Still Walking (Japan, 2008), not least because this films shares Still Walking’s lighter tone, not least in its characters’ forging of friendships in spite of adversity, while Nobody Knows is comparatively gruelling in its vision of abandoned Japanese children.

Koichi is studying in Kagoshima under the shadow of a permanently smoking volcano, about which no one seems to be doing anything (like running away in case of eruption).

It becomes hard not to consider the threat of natural disaster as supremely ironic in the light of the recent Tōhoku earthquake. And yet, in spite of these parallels, the possibility of natural disaster seems to function more metaphorically here.

That is, Koichi takes the volcano himself as a symbol for his frustration at being separated from his brother, and at his parents’ separation in general.

He and Ryu – and friends – decide to meet up to wish for a miracle, a miracle that will come to pass if they are at the spot where two Shinkansen/bullet trains cross paths on the line between Kagoshima and Fukuoka, the town where Ryu lives with his dad.

The Shinkansen functions as a symbol of hope: perhaps humans and their astounding ability for technological progress will sidestep the dangers that living in/with nature seems to entail.

However, more fitting – for me – would be a recognised synthesis of man and nature. That is, the volcano and the bullet train both can share the same world, a world that Koichi eventually, if ambiguously, wishes for instead of the reunion of his parents.

Ryu, who is all of eight years of age (Koichi is perhaps ten or eleven), upbraids his father – as his mother has done – for not being responsible enough towards his children as he pursues his dream of being a rock star. The father is not without success, but childhood neglect does seem to be a prevalent issue, both for Ryu and for Koichi, whose mother goes out with old school friends instead – arguably – of looking after her son.

Grandparents, both Ryu and Koichi’s real ones and an old couple with whom they stay on their Shinkansen pilgrimage, step in to help this young generation.

However, the film does not seem to offer an outright critique of the middle generation. Not only is the film relatively sympathetic towards them (there are no villains in this film), but they also seem to be prey to circumstances that are in part beyond their control.

Koichi and Ryu’s mother takes a job at a supermarket, a job about which she is ashamed given that most of her peers have better jobs and pay (or so she says). Their father, meanwhile, pursues his childhood dream, as mentioned.

One gets a sense of how one must choose between family and a career, be that a supposedly ‘infantile’ desire like becoming a rock star, or having a ‘better’ job than supermarket shift work.

To choose family seems to preclude great financial success. Furthermore, to pursue independence as an artist (the father’s music is described as ‘indy,’ which Koichi explains to Ryu as meaning that one ‘has to work harder at it’ than a mainstream success) seems also to get in the way of family.

Since the film does not judge the parents, the question becomes: what kind of a world is it that we live in such that the following choices become our only options: either you make money, or you pursue your dream, or you have a family?

There is no definite answer to this question, except perhaps that this simply is the world we live in, and perhaps it is better to have this world than no world at all – the ‘lesson’ that Koichi seems to learn as the film progresses.

There is a scent of the global financial crisis underwriting I Wish, which does the arguably clichéd trick of having children pronounce the most profound wisdom. But if it is a question of economics that has shaped the kind of world in which the above are the only available options, then perhaps the wilfully naïve thoughts of children can be recognised as a return to insightful simplicity in an era that preens itself like a misunderstood romantic on account of its own forced complexity.

The real complexity here is not forced; it is the natural emergence of a community regardless of what else the world (and humanity) throws in its (own) path.

The film is shot with Hirokazu’s characteristic handheld camera, allowing his performers to live on the screen, together with relatively common long shots that also ensure that his characters are contextualised in a world characterised by competing technologies and temporalities, dreams and desires.