A response to the themes of Slow Film Festival 2019 by film critic Savina Petkova.
Since its inception in 2016, the Slow Film Festival has grown substantially, bringing audiences and filmmakers from all around the world to the historic village of Mayfield, East Sussex. Hosted by the whole village, and hospitably so, the Slow Film Festival took place over two days, transforming a school and some local pubs and cafés into sites of rigorous conversation and artistic exchange. Filmmakers, jurors, spectators and the festival team amalgamated into a single entity bound together in spiritual and creative pursuits. The dense programme was carefully curated into strands of shorts (Documentary, Experimental, and Fiction) screened during the first day, while the second day presented feature films which plunged the spectators even further into the atmosphere of duration and its relational nature. As much as the Slow Film Festival is a platform for ‘slow cinema’ (everyone present was attuned to the stylistic similarities harboured by this umbrella-term), it is even more a place of meeting, of relationship formation. As long as such festivals exist, the communicative power of cinema remains unyielding.
By taking a closer look at a slower pace, these films testify to the uncompromising human urge to meet, to share, to communicate. The topoi of such meetings are never pin-pointed, since relationships can spring up in the most unexpected of places or times, and the multitude of realities converge only in an attentive gaze. A gaze that is characteristic of slow cinema. In both short films and features, the Fiction strands discussed here stratify our well-known reality in a surreal way, and by this I allude to a cloak of heightened sensitivity, manifesting itself in the ordinary-rendered-uncanny (Wedding Preparations in the Country), dream-like (elephantfish), and within the traumatic potential of the past (Baba Vanga). Togetherness, as the desired aftermath of a shared journey, is the subject of both The Stop and M-1, whose protagonists seem to find the healing power of intimacy on the margins.
Bartosz Reetz’s authorial debut, The Stop, tells a story of adolescence, or more precisely, that exact moment of emancipation which functions as both a stoppage and a propeller to the future. Jakub, a Polish student, takes the bus to school every day and that quotidian ritual becomes his rite of passage. The short film explores how the protagonist fits into his hometown, the bus itself, and the school he attends. A character study of the in-betweens of time and space, The Stop encapsulates both a beginning and an end. Its crisp black and white cinematography is attentive to geometrical compositions and the construction of social space they imply. A delicate but valiant debut, the film chimes well with its other two companions in the Fiction Shorts strand.
Daily life is a structuring mechanism also in Wedding Preparations in the Country by Akash Sharma, a mentee of Béla Tarr, Lav Diaz, and Atom Egoyan. Alija lives alone. By day he works in a waste paper factory. At night he watches the TV in solitary silence. The density of his everyday routine lies heavy on his life and yet levity prevails because it is easy to go on like this, in crushing apathy. A humanist allegory for post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, the film captures a specific kind of Kafkaesque uncertainty in both past and future. As difficult as it may be to make a film that’s literally going nowhere, Sharma shows exquisite taste for the unknowable and stranded being.
Stillness in reality is often countered by outbursts of dreamy imagination, as in Meltse van Coillie’s outstanding Competition winner, elephantfish. Against the endlessness of the sea the ship’s all-male crew draws comfort from the repetitive routines of painting, cleaning, cooking. But though everything seems regulated, the film submerges its spectators and characters in an eerie underworld. Participating in a collective dream world may seem like a challenge, yet elephantfish glides through the human subconscious as easily as on the surface of the sea. The film’s visual flexibility counterpoints any stasis that might be a result of sea-life, unearthing hidden desires, or maybe even madness-at-sea. In the end, we’ll never know who is dreaming, but being invited into someone else’s dream is more than one can hope for.
In Baba Vanga, Aleksandra Niemczyk approaches a historical, albeit quasi-mythological figure that has been a formative presence in recent Balkan times. The closest thing Bulgaria has had to a prophet, Vanga (Vangeliya Pandeva Gushterova) was a mystic that reportedly began to have visions of the future after she went blind. Her life was associated with the paranormal, with healing skills, and clairvoyance. What Niemczyk represents in her eponymous film is a product of thorough research but it differs to an utmost degree from a historical recapitulation. In its elastic storytelling, the film is composed of outbursts of memory, revelations, and episodic meditations on the loneliness that knowledge brings. Young Vanga picks up cups and plates and pans, she boils water and serves tea, and all those acts of touching and feeling the world are commingled with an ineffable grief for a world which is already lost (Vanga predicted an approaching apocalypse, as well as man-made disasters such as 9/11). The film’s sensitive approach to Vanga’s life reveals the immense possibilities of slow cinema as a form of reconciliation between past and present, on an individual and societal level.
M-1 is a subtle interweaving of personal and collective history. Its composition is so strict that the end seems the most integral, structural centre; much like the flow of history in which events only make sense in constant dialogue with past, present and future. Luciano Pérez Savoy’s symphonic feature presents a portrait of a city – Sarajevo at night – through a single character, M, a mysterious and taciturn drug dealer. We observe the distant protagonist and assume his point of view as his desires and longings flow, seemingly at random, through the cityscape. But that randomness is in fact a spiral, and the destination is not a place, but a group of people singing and lamenting in a cafe. The film’s distancing mechanisms are transformed into bridging ones through patient contemplation and compassion. A fully-fleshed ethical stance is communicated by the film’s pace and documentary observation, and through the adoration for sparse colourful details (such as yellow clothes) – traces of luminosity that testify to the existence of human tenderness. By the film’s end, M settles in with the company of wartime generation Roma people as they drink the night away at a locale. Savoy’s particular, affectionate filmmaking deserves the highest praise. His focus on faces and expressions allows each person to unfold not as a character but as an agent in their own right. M-1 is a profound and touching testament to humanism, not the abstract kind, but the most visceral, intimate grace in the presence of another.
Slow cinema, and particularly the Slow Film Festival, can teach us a thing or two about life and the way we form relationships. The ethics of looking are deeply embedded in the essence of these films. Only by looking closely, and for a length of time, can we truly see the Other – be it human or nonhuman. What remains after those two days of screenings is a feeling of togetherness; a shared disposition of lending a loving look to the screen.
Savina Petkova is a freelance film critic and a PhD student at King’s College London.
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