2015 was a fine period for me. I went to the Mumbai Film Festival, something that I’d been meaning to do for some time now. I could also go to Experimenta to meet and interact with several interesting artists and curators. I wrote a little more at this blog than I had last year and I also started a blog in French that I hope to write more for in the coming months. I watched fewer films and read fewer books than any of the preceding few years. (I had read more books and seen more movies in the first 6 months of 2014 than I did in the whole of 2015.) Yet, I had a much more wholesome experience these past 12 months. For one, abstinence made movies better, providing me the necessary mental space to deal with them more meaningfully. But more importantly, my rejection of the voracious cinephilia that I was practicing helped me better integrate the films I watched with real world experience and further disabuse myself of the notion that cinephilia is a worthy activity in itself. As a result, I could give films their proper place in my life – an act of relegation that ironically made them more valuable. I think I harmonize myself better with the world around now, which I am convinced is what any ‘-philia’ worth its salt should ultimately be about. I look forward to further cutting down on films and books the coming year.
The year was full of surprisingly good films. Besides the following list (strictly consisting of works that world-premiered in 2015), I was really, really impressed by the masterfully-directed Carol (Todd Haynes), the nervous energy-dynamics of Standing Tall (Emmanuelle Bercot), the perspective-bending Scrapbook (Michael Hoolboom), the structural intelligence of Interrogation (Vetrimaran) and the fascinating image-making and commentary of The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos). Other films I liked very much are The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien), Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg), Digging for Fire (Joe Swanberg), Masaan (Neeraj Ghaywan), My Golden Days (Arnaud Desplechin), My Mother (Nanni Moretti), Night Without Distance (Lois Patiño), Results (Andrew Bujalski), Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino) and the three cine-essays by Mark Rappaport.
1. Francofonia (Aleksandr Sokurov, France)
At a time when Daesh funds itself by trafficking cultural artifacts and Europe announces asylum for threatened art works, Sokurov’s marvelous, piercing film offers nothing less than a revisionist historiography of art itself. For Francofonia, History is not the content of art but its very skin. Museums flatten time, and justifiably present their contents as the highest achievements of a culture, obfuscating, in effect, their history as objects involved in power brokerage, class conflict and market manipulation. Sokurov’s film flips this perspective inside out, identifying art as being frequently the currency of diplomatic power possessing the capacity to purchase peace and as being instruments in service of totalitarian collaboration. Napoleon, who made art the object of his wars, perambulates in the Louvre alongside Lady Liberty Marianne, personifying the antipodal instincts of not only this emblematic institution, but also of European civilization itself. Sokurov’s complex film, likewise, holds together with great equanimity and curiosity antithetical views of museums, acknowledging simultaneously their timelessness and particular historical meaning(s). Francofonia poses questions about nationality, ownership and, really, the value of art and leaves your head whirling with its far-reaching implications, making sure that you will not approach art the same way again.
2. No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium)
The jeu de mots in the title says it all. Not only is this deeply death-marked, Ozuvian film an unordinary home movie, but it is also a film about not having a home. Composed of footage shot in the filmmaker’s mother’s Brussels apartment and recorded video-conference sessions between the two, No Home Movie contrasts Akerman’s professional nomadism with the perennial confinedness of her mother Natalia. Between Chantal’s constant off-screen presence and Natalia’s self-imposed captivity (within the apartment as well as the computer screen), between Here and Elsewhere, lies the film’s true space – a part-real, part-virtual space of filial anxiety and affection. Akerman’s matrilineal counterpart to Porumboiu’s The Second Game (2014) investigates heritage and origin as the director meditates on what she has inherited from her mother – a reflection that continuously brings Akerman back to an examination of her own Jewishness. A document of physical decline and decline of the physical (“Je t’embrasse” over Skype), the film crystallizes a collective Jewish narrative of eternal exile through the personal history of the director’s mother, while vehemently refusing to reduce the unique being of Natalia Akerman the individual. Akerman’s harrowing swansong is cinema’s own Camera Lucida.
3. Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
Taxi opens with a shot of downtown Tehran photographed from the dashboard of a car. Announcing Panahi’s first cinematic outdoor excursion since his house arrest in 2011, this shot sets up the dialectics that would define the film: home/world, individual/social and freedom/captivity. Through the course of Taxi, the spied-upon filmmaker drives around the city in the guise of a cabbie, chauffeuring clients-actors from various strata of the society, and realizing a pre-scripted scenario with them whose urgent, didactic purpose can’t be more obvious. The Iranian state has forged a private prison for Panahi from the public spaces of Tehran, allowing him a mobility and false freedom that’s regulated by its watchful eyes. Panahi turns this power dynamic upside down, transforming the private space of the vehicle into a public space for debate, discussion, instruction and critique. Watching the film, I was constantly reminded of that saying beloved of Wittgenstein: “It takes all kinds to make a world”. Panahi’s very presence in the film – his image, his voice – becomes an audacious act of political defiance, a gesture of tremendous existential courage that stares at the possibility of death floating in the air. Taxi makes cinema still matter.
4. The Pearl Button (Patricio Guzmán, Chile)
A beautiful marine cousin to Guzman’s previous film, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), The Pearl Button turns its attention from the arid stretches of the Atacama to the waterfront and ice field of Southern Patagonia. Threading metaphor over metaphor, the director fashions a typically associative, richly suggestive essay film that turns the nature documentary form on its head. Guzman’s film plumbs the depths of the ocean, trying to uncover traces of suppressed, unseen history embodied by countless “missing people” – a project that derives its impetus from the filmmaker’s bittersweet childhood experience of the sea. Despite Chile’s economic indifference to its 4000-kilometer-long coastline, he notes, the sea has been indispensable those in power, serving first as the entry point of the European invaders, who wiped out the Patagonian natives, and then as the dumping ground of political prisoners during the Pinochet regime. Guzman teases out the different values that the sea holds for him, the autochthons and the Chilean state, in effect politicizing and historicizing that which conventional wisdom takes to be apolitical and ahistorical: geography and the perception of it. The result is a film of immense poetry and horror – a horror that only poetry can convey.
5. Shift (Alexandra Gerbaulet, Germany)
The most impressive debut film of the year, Alexandra Gerbaulet’s ambitious, intoxicating Shift excavates the evolution of her hometown, Salzgitter, along with that of her family with archaeological care and scientific detachment. In Gerbaulet’s heady narration, anchored by a powerful, quasi-declamatory, rhythmic voiceover, Salzgitter’s transformation from a Nazi mining stronghold and concentration camp, through a waning industrial hub and to a nuclear waste dump parallels the gradual disintegration of the Gerbaulet family under the weight of unemployment, sickness and sexual repression. The filmmaker closely intercuts photographs and diary entries of her mother with impersonal material from popular and scientific culture, weaving in and out of both registers with ease. Gerbaulet’s film is literally an unearthing project, as the director scoops out the various historical, political and geographical layers of this war-weathered city whose tranquil current-day model housing sits atop a makeshift Jewish graveyard consisting of camp workers buried using industrial debris. “Man gets used to everything, even the scar”, declares the narrator bluntly. Shift unscrambles such a habituated view of things, observing the tragicomic tautologies in which history revisits the city. The more you dig, it would seem, the more of the same you get.
6. A Century Of Energy (Manoel de Oliveira, Portugal)
One of my favorite films of the year is a commercial for a major power corporation made by a 106-year-old artist. Manoel de Oliveira’s last work of his 84-year long career revisits his second film White Coal (1932), a documentary about power generation at the Central Hydroelectric Plant at Ermal, Rio Ave, founded by the filmmaker’s father. The silent film is projected indoors as a string quartet and a trio of ballerinas interpret the film in the space before the screen. Oliveira moves beyond the primary purpose of chronicling the evolution of renewable energy in the past century, charting the evolution of cinema itself during this period. Splicing together shots from the older films with images of the same locations today, he synthesizes a densely dialectical film that brings into dialogue silent movies and talkies, film and digital cinema, youth and old age and power and grace. Part tribute to the legacy of his father, part meditation on his own long life and transformed perspectives, Oliveira’s film is celebration of the beauty of forms, natural and man made, whose final shot – ballerinas moving like little windmills at the crack of dawn – captures something like pure energy – a supremely befitting parting shot.
7. Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, USA)
Thomas McCarthy’s dramatization of Boston Globe’s exposé of child abuse in the Church is a robust, smart procedural that is less about picking apart the Catholic establishment than about elucidating the epistemological processes of the Information Age. Set at the transitional period between print and online news media, the film underscores the soon-to-be-outmoded physical nature of journalistic investigation. There are no antagonists of the traditional kind in Spotlight. The only obstacles to the knowledge required to carry out the exposé are the numerous procedures and institutional protocols that have for objective the protection or publication of information. It is telling that the entire film is about a pack of newswriters seeking information that’s already out in the open. What’s more, the film recognizes that the Spotlight team’s attempts to mount an institutional critique is itself inscribed within kindred ideological biases, operational strategies and structural iniquities of Boston Globe as an institution and that the metaphysical crisis that their story can potentially wreak amidst readers is but similar to the disillusionment the newsmen experience vis-à-vis their Protestant weltanschauung. With relatively uncommon formal and ethical restraint, McCarthy crafts an arresting film about how a society’s narratives are made, predicated they are as much on the dissemination of information as on their marginalization.
8. The Event (Sergei Loznitsa, Russia)
Sergei Loznitsa’s formidable follow-up to Maidan (2014) furthers the earlier film’s exploration of the aesthetics and mechanics of revolution, capturing a people coming together to make sense of a political limbo. Without context or a framing perspective, the film drops us straight into the streets of St. Petersburg just after the attempted reactionary coup d’état in Moscow in 1991. Confusion and mundanity – not heroics and determination – reign as we observe the formative process of a people’s movement and the imagined/imaginary social glue that causes individuals to cohere into a group. State apparatuses compete with each other for imposing a narrative onto the events, while the very toponymy of the city becomes an ideological battleground. Working off priceless archival footage, much of which is incredibly reminiscent of the filmmaker’s own cinematographic style, Loznitsa provides an invaluable glimpse into the unfurling of history, chronicling how numerous banal, unsure gestures and actions snowball into Historical Events. If Eisenstein’s better-than-the-original recreation of the October Revolution was the abstraction of materialist history into ideas, Loznitsa’s film, taking place at the same Palace Square 63 years later, rescues history from the reductions of ideology and brings it right back into the realm of the material.
9. In Transit (Albert Maysles & Co., USA)
A remarkable American counterpart to J. P. Sniadecki’s The Iron Ministry (2014), In Transit unfolds predominantly as a series of interviews with a mixed bag of travellers on board The Empire Builder, a long-distance passenger train running over 3500 kilometers and spanning almost the entire width of the United States. The accounts of passengers seeking out professional and financial breakthroughs evoke the pioneer myth hinged on a “Go West” imperative while the stories of those aboard in search of their ‘calling’ demonstrate the essentially spiritual, even religious nature of their pilgrimage-like journey. The diversity and range of the interviewees and their interactions help the film depict the train as a miniature America, à la Stagecoach, and carve out a quasi-utopian space in which members across class, race and gender divides get an opportunity to converse with each other without personal baggage. Nonetheless, In Transit is less a cultural vision of a possible America than an existential meditation on what makes people embark on these journeys. One elderly war veteran remarks that he’ll never be able to see these plains again. To cite John Berger, “the desire to have seen has a deep ontological basis.”
10. Wake (Subic) (John Gianvito, The Philippines)
One of a piece with Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) (2010), Wake continues its precedent’s important investigation into the ecological consequences of the presence of America’s largest military bases in the Philippines during most of the 20th century. Like Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), Wake is guided by the spirit of Howard Zinn’s approach to history and sketches an economically-founded account of US-Philippines political and cultural relations – a history that seems to be have been lamentably wiped off from the Filipino national consciousness. Gianvito juxtaposes images from the Philippine-American war with current day images from the contaminated Subic naval base area, suggesting, in effect, the poisonous persistence of an agonizing, unacknowledged history. Wake is imperfect cinema – unwieldy and resourceful – and employs fly-on-the-wall records, talking heads, on-screen text, photographs and news clips to mount a potent critique of a historiography defined political amnesia and economic opportunism. More importantly, it is a necessary reminder that imperialism is not always about presence, action and exercise of power but sometimes also about the refusal of these very elements, that history is not only a matter of events but also processes and phenomena and that geography is always political.