A summary of Slow Film Festival 2019 by festival juror Giuliano Vivaldi
The Slow Film Festival, held in the small East Sussex village of Mayfield, is now in its third edition. Holding such a festival focused on this significant phenomenon in world cinema in a small picturesque village (once called “the sweetest village of England” by a rather forgotten Victorian poet, Coventry Patmore) without major transport links may seem something of a gamble but its relevance as a cinematic event far outweighs its secluded setting. Indeed, in a mere two days the festival showcased not only an impressive list of competition films, it also offered a selection of special screenings each of which could be an event in itself. The secluded format of the festival generated an extraordinarily intimate and amicable atmosphere without sacrificing the quality of film. Given that some of the most extraordinary names of world cinema (Béla Tarr, Pedro Costa, Chantal Ackerman, Theo Angelopolous, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang, Albert Serra, Carlos Reygadas) are associated with the phenomenon of slow cinema, it is unbelievable that not a single other festival in the world is devoted specifically to the genre. And it is equally unbelievable that it falls to a village of around 3,000 inhabitants to play host to such a central trend in contemporary film.
Ten short films were shown in contention and were conveniently divided into three sessions: documentaries, experimental and fiction. A division that indicates slow cinema is not limited to one particular type of film but can bring out new aspects of all forms and genres. Russa (2018) by João Salaviza and Ricardo Alves Jr. follows a character temporarily released from prison. She discovers that the high rise in which she has lived for decades is under threat of demolition. Salaviza and Alves Jr., however, move away from a purely observational film by forging a Pasolini-like merging of the everyday and the classical. Russa’s speech is very much her own and yet it drifts into dramatic monologues of a heightened fiction. Salaviza’s previous film High Cities of Bone (2017) won last year’s main prize at the Slow Film Festival and indeed we see a thematic connection in both films’ joint concern with forced dislocation and eviction. The second documentary, Tom Schön’s 2018 film Sec Rouge (shot in conjunction with Kate Tessa Lee), is set in Rodrigues Island and recounts the lives of fisherwomen occupied in the traditional métier of octopus spearing as climate and economic change destroys their way of life. The film lovingly depicts both those moments of work and moments of rest which seem essential to Slow Cinema, translating labour into a mesmerizing and shared experience. The final film in the documentary strand was awarded the Special Jury Prize: And What Is the Summer Saying? (2018) by Mumbai based filmmaker and artist, Payal Kapadia. Very much the most experimental of the documentaries, it is a film poem about Kondwall village in the Indian district of Maharashtra. The filmmaker particularly experiments with forest sounds and recordings of village voices. Scraps of conversations are mixed with unusual animated sequences to create a portrait of a village without faces. The fascinating asynchronicity of image and dialogue and the delightfully original use of sound makes for an extraordinary formalist experiment that merited the special jury mention and suggests that the filmmaker will definitely be one to follow.
Purely experimental films were on show next at the festival (and indeed they have been a regular feature). Karen Akerman and Miguel Seabra Lopes (decade long collaborators) chose to recreate a censored text by Herberto Helder, one of Portugal’s most original poets of the late twentieth century: In a Foreign Country (2018). Akerman and Lopes concentrate on censored passages and, in an intriguing twist, we see not the polished film but the negative skeleton. This exploration of censorship is a highly effective transcreation indicating the lacunae of a text ravaged by bureaucratic diktat and time. Eli Hayes’ The Growing Glow (2018) rejects a wilder experimental aesthetic for minimalism: a mysterious radiance breaks through foliage until the whole screen is suffused with light from an unknown source or universe. The film resolutely concentrates on this single but very powerful image-idea. Circulacion en la corteza (Circulation in the Bark) (2019) was another poetically charged short. A four-line poem dedicated to the film provides hints and intimations. Objects are suspended before us. We are momentarily in an ineffable realm that gradually weaves its way into our imaginary. Kaspar Peters’ Nordic Grammar (2019) was the experimental film that caught the audience’s attention (winning the Audience Prize): a tale of lost identity stitching together phenomenally impressive painterly scenes of the far north of Europe. It was a voiceless film (almost) throughout and the gradual disorientation of protagonist and viewer comes to a dramatic finale which, though it may have divided opinion among the jury members, did not seem to discourage the audience. Regardless, the images and sustained disorientation of both protagonist and viewer is surely the kind of filmic experience that one aspires to discover.
The final three short films were fictions of extraordinary power. Bartosz Reetz’s Polish film The Stop (2018) is a short rite of passage based on a series of bus stops and journeys that mark the protagonist’s transformation from adolescence to adulthood. There was nothing superfluous about this film and it surely marks an impressive debut for a promising new filmmaker. The final two films of the competition were masterful in so many ways. Akash Sharma (a student of Béla Tarr’s Film Factory in Sarajevo) filmed a free interpretation of Kafka’s unfinished story Wedding Preparations in the Country (2017). Sharma’s film portrays a factory worker in post war Bosnia-Herzegovina who suddenly ‘remembers’ that he had promised to marry. He requests a work break and journeys to search for his betrothed. The director’s almost obsessive attention to the faktura of everyday life, the sustained narrative and the ability to provide some unforgettable visual and cinematographic moments is hugely impressive. Finally, the jury’s Grand Prix went to Meltse Van Coillie’s elephantfish (2018). An ordinary ship’s journey is overlaid by a grandiose fable. The sense of sea and sailors’ monotony was captured masterfully. As was the dominant role of imagination and dream which eventually leads to catastrophe. This meditation on dead time is something that elephantfish had in common with Wedding Preparations in the Country. Indeed, one feels that this is a topic entirely suited for Slow Cinema. elephantfish shows, too, that even the short slow film provides a viewer with an opportunity to reflect on meditative enigmas as well as provide them with the chance to contemplate and investigate the visual (and the aural) during the viewing process.
The rest of the festival was comprised of special screenings and a unique workshop combining a lecture on walking in cinema and a walk through the outskirts of Mayfield’s muddy fields. On Saturday evening Scott Barley’s Sleep Has Her House (2017) was screened. This film is widely praised by film critics and it is undoubtedly one of the most painterly films of recent years. The film’s abandonment of narrative is most noteworthy, hurtling the viewer into pure experience. Barley suggests Sleep Has Her House should be experienced rather than watched: ‘Let it wash over you like an ocean. Submit to it. Drown in it.’ It certainly does not feel an exaggeration to say that Barley merits being considered one of the best artists working in Britain today. There were also four other films by Scott Barley at the festival, which could be watched as part of a separate exhibition over the two days.
The other special screenings were held on the Sunday and included Babette Mangolte’s The Sky on Location (1982) – a personal meditation on the landscape of the American West. It is a meditation on observation too, and was shot long before the concept of Slow Cinema had been thought up. She described her own task for the 1982 film thus: “While shooting I wanted to establish the mood of the landscape as in a Turner painting. And as viewers of the film we discover how much of what we see is conditioned by what we already know.”
The Sunday afternoon screenings were devoted to two filmmakers from Bela Tarr’s Sarajevo Film Factory. Aleksandra Niemczyk, after last year’s magnificent competition screening of Investigations of a Dog (2017), was given a special slot for her 2016 film Baba Vanga. This was no straight biopic of the Balkan mystic and prophet. Instead, her visions seem to invade the realism of the film and illuminate character, memory and medium far better than conventional narratives could possibly achieve. Slow cinema has proved that it can move into many different genres and offer a complete renewal of the cinematic experience. Luciano Pérez Savoy’s M-1 (2017) follows a drug dealer through Sarajevo in a series of episodes and digressions. The main character stops briefly in a cinema to watch The Quiet Man and then proceeds to a nightclub. Eventually we arrive at a bar where observational documentary hijacks fiction; a gamble that pays off marvelously, for the naturalism of the bar scene carries the film to lyrical heights.
The Festival closed with Daniel & Clara’s Notes From A Journey (2019): a diary of image and sound recorded on a trip through the British landscape. Notes From A Journey is a unique formalist experience that brings to mind Mark Fisher’s exploration of the weird and eerie and recalls Jarman-like cinematic experiments. Again, like other films at this festival it breaks beyond the boundaries of documentary and fiction. As the film critic Nikola Gocić suggests, the film continues in the vein of their earlier work possessing ‘the mutating abilities of Savage Witches, the performative rituality of Sacrificium Intellectus, the wanderer’s mentality of In Search of the Exile, the alchemical qualities of The Kingdom of the Shadows and the introspective sound-only sequences of Black Sun.’ Introduced to their work for the first time at this festival one cannot but wish to discover their whole body of work.
It is rare nowadays to discover a film festival whose focus is entirely unique, and whose setting is similarly inimitable. Hopefully the festival will gain greater recognition in years to come as the quality of films screened in and out of competition is truly outstanding. It is to be hoped, too, that the intimate and companionable atmosphere of the festival will be preserved. What is certain is that the often-repeated statement that slow cinema has come to an end (repeated by the likes of former editor of Sight & Sound, Nick James) has been proved premature. From the evidence provided by the festival at Mayfield it remains a productive phenomenon with a great future.
Giuliano Vivaldi is a writer, translator and blogger on film, cultural history and philosophy.
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