Seeing With Another’s Eyes: Slow Cinema and Marginalised Communities
‘You’ll want to get this place on camera, it won’t be here for much longer’, warns a nameless factory worker in Wang Bing’s documentary Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003). We haven’t seen this worker before, and we won’t see him again. His brief presence is ghostly, drifting past the camera into the dust-cloud ridden yard of a soon to be defunct copper smelting plant. It’s hard not to feel that Wang took this strange moment to heart, for the cumulative effect of Tie Xi Qu’s ten hour runtime is that of having witnessed a testimony from a dying world. Wang’s cinema is not alone in the wider landscape of contemporary film in capturing the experience of crumbling communities. In the labyrinthine Fontainhas, a now destroyed shanty town on the outskirts of Lisbon, Pedro Costa’s camera finds similarly raw images of decline. So too with Lav Diaz’s exploration of the troubled communities of the Philippines. In documenting the precarious existences of their subjects these directors use techniques rooted in a distinct cinematic philosophy: ’Slow Cinema’. It is this approach that gives these films their power, and in employing these radical techniques these directors open the door to a relationship with their subject matter which is not available through conventional methods of filmmaking.
First, a historical/definitional note on the term ‘Slow Cinema’. Slow Cinema is not a precisely defined or delineated collection of films and filmmakers; it does not have a Dogme-95 style manifesto dictating what does and does not count as Slow. Indeed, many reject the term (Costa is an example). Nevertheless, it is a useful way of grouping together a set of filmmakers arising largely out of the mid-1990s festival circuit, whose films share important aesthetic predilections. How does one know when one is watching a Slow film? Look for long takes. Really long. Compare the average shot length of Bela Tarr’s Satantango (1994) (over three minutes), with the average shot length of a Bourne film (under two seconds). Further, slow films tend not to rely on creating narrative continuity through editing. Time, real time, is a much clearer presence in these films. A particularly extreme example of this comes in Diaz’s Heremias (2006). When the protagonist sets out on his lonesome journey, we follow him for almost two hours with his ox, soundtracked only by the sound of wind and rain. At one point Heremias finds his path blocked by a fallen tree. Diaz shows us the arduous process of Heremias getting the tree out of his way. The shot lasts almost fifteen minutes and is totally static. Minimal camera movement is another common (though by no means necessary) feature of Slow Cinema. So too is a focus on the quotidian, the seemingly unremarkable. Dramatic, sharp-tongued dialogue is rare: we are more likely to hear people talking about the weather, or watch them smoking a cigarette. These remarks don’t constitute anything like a definition of Slow Cinema, but they highlight some important characteristics that crop up in notable examples of the style. If nothing else we might offer a negative definition: Slow Cinema has a persistent tendency to reject commercial filmmaking tropes, whether that be in its treatment of time, dialogue, narrative, or modes of film production themselves. A potential confusion should be addressed here too: whilst slow cinema often results in extremely long cinema (most of Diaz’s films stretch beyond the six hour mark), it is slowness, and not length, which is my concern here. Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (1959-61) lasts ten hours, but is no slow film. Conversely, Lisandro Alonso’s La Libertad (2001) is hardly an hour long but is a paradigm case of slow cinematic style.
Why have marginalised communities been presented so effectively with slow cinematic techniques? The answer lies in the way slow filmmakers employ time. By slowing things right down Costa, Wang and Diaz are trying to get us to see in a different way. Diaz has explicitly acknowledged that he views his work as an aesthetic ‘reeducation’ for viewers. By rejecting normal parameters of length (for individual shots and for total films), and rejecting conventional approaches to narrative, these films ask us to reevaluate our notion of what is ‘worth’ being filmed. A common response to seeing a film of this style is: ‘couldn’t that have been done in a fraction of the time?’. Responses like this highlight the sort of attitude these filmmakers try to disrupt.
At the heart of looking critically at cinema is the question: why am I seeing this? What makes this image worth being shown, and for this length of time? Why should I watch an excruciatingly slow depiction of Filipino suffering instead of something significantly less demanding on my time and patience? These are important questions, and answers to them can give a sense of why slow cinema matters. My answer is that slow cinema introduces a novel language, whose syntactic and semantic elements are distinct from those of more familiar cinema. Accordingly, these films have to be approached with an eye sensitive to new ways of constructing meaning. To try and ‘justify’ slow cinematic techniques within the lexicon of, say, Hollywood styles is a losing battle. What is required is a new approach to understanding what cinematic representation can and should do.
Pedro Costa’s films best manifest the cinematic language I’ve hinted at. Costa started making films in a traditional art-house framework, yet it was with In Vanda’s Room (2000) that he began to craft a filmic language truly his own. Starting with Ossos (1997), Costa became fascinated by Fontainhas, a poverty-stricken community on the outskirts of Lisbon constituted largely of Cape Verdean immigrants and younger people with drug dependencies. Ossos is situated in Fontainhas, but when one watches In Vanda’s Room the presentation of the same space is utterly transformed. Costa was dissatisfied with filming conventions demanding strict shooting schedules, burdensome equipment, and large crews. Upon finishing Ossos he set out into Fontainhas again, but this time alone, armed only with a mid-range digital video camera. Without script or schedule, Costa made the trip into Fontainhas by bus every day for several years, slowly getting to know the people of the community with greater intimacy; he remarks that they became his ‘extended family’.
What resulted was In Vanda’s Room. The film follows the everyday life of Vanda Duarte, a vegetable-seller living with drug addiction, and her friends and family. The majority of the film takes place within the confined rooms of Fontainhas’s residents. We see them idly chatter, consume drugs, argue and reminisce. Crucially, there is no ‘plot’; the narrative doesn’t take us from A to B. Costa’s camera observes these people, largely remaining static, and holding long, pensive takes. Costa also shows the surrounding environment: demolition is a constant presence in the film, both visually and audibly. At the time, Fontainhas was being destroyed and people relocated to nearby government-provided housing.
Costa constructs meaning differently from other filmmakers. In conventional narrative film, the significance of a given image tends to derive from its place within a plot. This is a crude generalisation, but I think it’s largely true. Why are we seeing x doing y? Precisely because y contributes in some way to telling a story about x: it has a meaning owing to its taking place within a broader narrative. In films like In Vanda’s Room, where there is no conventional ‘narrative’, contextual meaning is absent. Without a ‘plot’, the source of meaning must lie elsewhere. Many other filmmakers reject narrative (take the experiments of Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton), but what distinguishes Slow Cinema is its usage of time to generate meaning.
By rejecting familiar cinematic time, Costa opens up the possibility of a more intimate portrayal of his subjects. Bolstered by the extreme length of the takes (the mirroring of represented time and real time), Costa gives his subjects the capacity to fill the screen with their own time. As the film proceeds, we become gradually acquainted with the rhythms of life in Fontainhas, allowing Vanda, Nhurro, and others to tell their stories. There is a clear manifestation of the political potential of slow cinema here. Costa shows the people of Fontainhas respect by allowing the pace of their own lives to be mirrored in the pace of his cinema. So we hear Vanda and her sister Zita reminisce at length on their childhood in Fontainhas; Nhurro speaks about his difficult relationship with his mother; and at one point two addicts compare their experiences of heroin-induced hematomas. In using screen time this way, Costa's cinema functions as a preserver. Fontainhas is long gone, but In Vanda’s Room is the community’s final testament. Could this have been done in a fraction of the time? In Vanda’s Room is three hours long, but because of the reasons given above it simply has to be if it is to do what it sets out to do. Conventional cinema does not have the tools to deal with a subject like Fontainhas in the way In Vanda’s Room does.
It is worth remarking a technological point which was important in the development of the cinematic language of our filmmakers: the shift from celluloid to digital. ‘Cinephiles’ are often snooty about the use of digital (witness Tarantino proudly exclaiming that he still uses 70mm film). In a sense, they are absolutely right: film has a visual quality which digital cannot reproduce. That being said, one can still recognise the significant virtues digital holds for certain forms of cinema. Digital is significantly cheaper than film: the work of Costa or Wang would be impossibly expensive if they used celluloid. Such advantages paved the way for the slow approach: Wang was able to live with the communities he captures for years, giving his films their intimacy. Digital is also not constrained by shot-length. In using celluloid, filmmakers are constrained to a maximum of ten minute shot lengths, whereas Lav Diaz can shoot his twenty minute plus takes as often as he likes. Digital provides the means for developing alternative cinematic languages which use the notion of duration to their advantage. Slowness is not just an aesthetic crucial to the finished films, it is also one which seeps into the way such films are made.
The importance of testimony and slowness is central to Diaz’s work, a key theme of his films being the history of oppression endured by the Filipino nation. His 2012 film Florentina Hubaldo, CTE is the most direct example of this. Over its gruelling six hour runtime, Diaz tells the story of Florentina Hubaldo, a girl in the rural Philippines who, after the death of her mother, at the age of ten is pimped out by her father to local men so that he can afford to gamble on cock fights. Florentina is chained to her bed and raped by men daily. Throughout we see Florentina desperately try and tell her story to herself, but as the film progresses her memory becomes increasingly fragmentary. At one point she forgets her name; at another she can’t remember what her mother looked like. Why does she continually tell her story? Why does Diaz show her struggle to tell it again and again?
Perhaps the clearest way to understand Diaz’s narrative approach is to see Florentina’s story as a metaphor for the experience of the Philippines over four hundred years of colonialism and years of oppressive dictatorship after that under Ferdinand Marcos. Diaz has spoken at length in interviews about how he sees his films as ways of trying to understand the Filipino nation by commemorating its history. As Nadin Man puts it, ‘Diaz’s films function as cinematic defences against the loss of memory, the loss of the past and thus the loss of the country’s self as a nation’. Similarly with Florentina: she must tell her own story to survive, for to lose her past is to lose herself. Again storytelling becomes central to the preservation of memory, of people, in cinema.
The sheer length of Florentina Hubaldo, CTE makes manifest the slow deterioration of Florentina’s mental state (CTE stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative disease of the brain). Diaz’s films don’t reject narrative in the same way that Costa’s do, but their approach to cinematic time is just as radical. Florentina’s story is told alongside that of Manoling and Juan, who visit Manoling’s brother Hector to dig up some treasure which Manoling has cause to believe his grandfather hid where Hector lives. Until four hours into the film it is not clear how this story and that of Florentina’s relate, until Hector (until this point a background figure) confesses that his daughter Lolita, afflicted with an unspecified chronic lung condition, is not his. In fact, Lolita is the daughter of Florentina, who appeared on Hector’s doorstep many years ago having escaped from her father.
The coming together of past and present is one of the film’s most lyrical features, and in the closing hours Diaz uses the device to particularly striking effect. Perhaps most moving is the pieta image of Florentina holding her child in the river, a moment where chronological time ceases to exist and different temporalities intersect to express common suffering. By breaking down conventional temporal boundaries Diaz allows an expression of common experience between generations, attesting to the grief of a nation which has suffered for so long. Using narrative slowness allows for direct engagement with the experiences of the characters, and provides a means by which Diaz can portray multiple distinct pieces of chronology within a single, time-exempt, frame.
The use of time in cinematically unconventional fashion to represent multiple temporalities at once is crucial to the slow filmmaker’s repertoire. Notable examples include Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) and Theodoros Angelopoulos’s The Travelling Players (1975). Costa’s post-Vanda films use this technique to powerful effect. Both Colossal Youth (2006) and Horse Money (2014) are centred on Ventura, a ghostly figure who wanders around Fontainhas calling on his ‘children’ (fellow former residents of the area). By the time of Colossal Youth Fontainhas had been abandoned, and we see many of its former residents from In Vanda’s Room in new, white-walled apartments.
If In Vanda’s Room is Fontainhas’s final testimony, Colossal Youth is its postmortem. Again, Costa doesn’t employ conventional narrative. But equally, Colossal Youth is stylistically distinct from In Vanda’s Room. Whereas the latter employs a stark, deliberate realism, Colossal Youth is a stranger and more abstract film. The first image of the film is of Ventura’s wife Clothilde throwing furniture out of the window. We then see her holding a knife, cast in shadow, speaking to someone offscreen. She is leaving Ventura. The speech is obscure: Clothilde tells a story of how she would swim with sharks back on Cape Verde, catching the attention of local boys. This sets a precedent for speech in the film: characters talk in narratives. Again there is emphasis on testimony and the preservation of community through speech.
Yet in Colossal Youth Costa freely moves between time frames within a single, static take. Many of the scenes in the film are temporally disorienting. Ventura is asked by an illiterate friend Lento to write him a love letter for his wife back in Cape Verde, and Ventura recites again and again a letter he wrote to his wife when he first came to Lisbon (we hear this letter recited over five times during the film). In another scene Ventura visits a museum he helped build in order to visit one of his ‘children’, working there as a guard. Costa frames Ventura as part of the museum, an artefact in himself, as indispensable a part of Portuguese history as the colonial paintings he is surrounded by.
By distancing the film from linear time, Costa creates a cinematic space in which different temporal zones can co-exist within a single frame. Ventura is a haunting symbol of Fontainhas’s past and present, desperately trying to stay alive by the recitation of stories. When Ventura visits Vanda (now a mother) in her new apartment, neither are capable of storytelling. Instead, they watch television, passively consuming stories that aren’t theirs. With the destruction of the community has come the loss of the ability to speak as they once did, Ventura and Vanda have become silenced by their new surroundings. Similarly in Horse Money (2014), a film which focuses on Ventura’s enduring memory of the 1974 uprising in Portugal, in one of Costa’s most masterful cinematic constructions Ventura (now in hospital) has a twenty-five minute encounter with a life-sized toy soldier which, throughout the conversation, speaks to him in at least three distinct temporal periods. Costa’s work has increasingly blurred temporal boundaries; it is the techniques of slow cinema that have made this possible.
Hopefully what is clear is that in the aesthetic decisions of the three directors discussed there is visible a new avenue for approaching filmic time, one which enables a richer exploration of the relationship between past and present than more familiar means allow. By repositioning figures temporally, Costa, Wang and Diaz allow us to understand them in their own context. Perhaps above all else, slow cinematic techniques provide us with the means of approaching people’s lives with considerably greater empathy: in Tie Xi Qu, Wang’s camera labours with the workers, shaking as he struggles to traverse the icy factory floor. Slow cinema grants us the ability to experience time as the subjects of the films themselves experience it, providing a reality and dignity which a focus on conveying a compelling narrative cannot convey. So to the question ‘couldn’t that have been done in a fraction of the time?’ we must answer:no. Slow cinema asks us not to see cinematic meaning as confined to contextualisation within a narrative, but instead to find meaning in quotidian experience. In doing so, it raises what might have seemed unworthy of the camera’s attention to the prime focus of cinema.