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Berlinale 2021 — Ebbs and Flows. A film program

13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird (Ana Vaz, 2020)


“Waits for no one.” “Once lost is never found again.” “The most valuable thing one can spend.” Each and every consideration about time in Western society tends to treat it as some kind of scarce commodity; a nuisance that our profit-oriented lives have to race against. Notions as ambiguous as progress and advancement are generally regarded as collective goals, and “to move forward” is assumed as a global modus operandi. Idleness is a waste of time. Rest is a waste of time. Transitions are a waste of time. At the end of the day, it’s all about that end product: an uncertain and aspirational future built from the efforts of a barely lived present and a past we’re encouraged to leave behind. Maybe that’s why the linear nature of “objective time” and our measurement of self-worth by way of productivity fit so well together. They’re both antithetical to the idea of looking back, of self-search and exploration. Perhaps what we’ve been trying to elude can’t really be bypassed. It could be that we’re coexisting and overlapping with it at this very same moment, and lack the means to actually grasp it.

Since its formative stages, cinema has been on a constant lookout for ways to address said sensory schism. Jean Epstein alluded to the medium’s power to create “spiritual impressions” rather than merely rational ones in his writing on the concept of photogénie. Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Eye technique aimed to capture what was believed to be inaccessible to the naked eye. Even André Bazin’s categorical upholding of “realism” was all about the natural world manifesting itself on screen. By different methods and examples, they all sought new possibilities to understand audiovisual language as an expressive form and shared a common purpose in aiming for the transcendental; “The absolute language”; “The pure essence”; “Magic and revelation.” Nevertheless, whatever they could articulate on the potential power of film as an ethnographic tool came from a common place: what we call Western society.

Most of the innovations in cinematic form that have followed as a result of these musings exist within the already established. They’ve pushed towards previously delineated limits still wired to the hierarchy of cause and effect. No matter if subverted, our vision of time never ceases to rely on straight lines and logical associations as reference points; inherited distinctions between the ‘chronological’ and the ‘psychological’ that have been reproduced for centuries. So what would happen if we looked elsewhere? If we let go of catchphrases like “sense of wonder” and actually engage with a more tactile relationship with our surroundings; one of contradictory perspectives and colliding sensations.

We’ve been taught to always look for the clear path, but maybe it’s fine to get lost in the darkness: to close our eyes and envision through the rest of our senses.  This film program looks to showcase works that offer these kinds of affective audiovisual encounters.

Instead of focusing on the observation of cultural phenomena prevalent in ethnographic cinema, this collection of films confronts the viewer with immersive accounts of the subjective experience present in the Berlinale program. These aren’t attempts at contextualizing the ‘Other’, as much as enveloping voyages into historically neglected cosmovisions pushing towards an experiential and intuitive understanding of time as a non-linear entity. Clear-cut rationalism is thrown out of the window as the senses conjure apparitions from other realms of nature. Echoes of the past coincide with their future reverberations, reconfiguring time as a caustic space where the boundaries between the personal and the historic are washed over by elemental forces. Once there, opportunities arise to interact with all that was deemed “forever lost” by Western society; perhaps providing a chance to explore untended aspects of our spirits.


 13 Ways of Looking at A Blackbird, directed by Ana Vaz

“It seemed we were a camera,” says a handwritten note that’s superimposed over the screen. A boy’s voice-over portrays the uncapturable nature of the wind, a force “we can’t see, but can feel.” The monologue goes on as sonic layers overflow what he’s saying; violent gusts distort the microphone recording and feel as if they are blowing against our faces. In said text, the wind is deemed invisible, and it’s also said to exist in the world alongside that which can be seen, cohabiting in a liminal space of primordial energies that eludes plain sight.

Such is one of the “13 ways” that compose the collaboration between Brazilian filmmaker Ana Vaz and high school students Vera Amaral and Mário Neto. The title itself is taken from Wallace Steven’s poem ‘13 Ways of Looking at A Blackbird’, but as we’ve seen before in the South American artist’s oeuvre, narrative structures are just opportunities to explore how different traces of human tradition relate to an ever present sensory ecosystem.

All the interpretations of the different verses start in the same way: a blank screen imprinted with the words being read aloud. As the individual descriptions progress—growing in detail by the second—images and soundscapes begin to manifest as a response, replicating what happens with our imagination as we’re being told a story. Word by word, and sound by sound, we’re being absorbed by the perspective guiding our senses; no longer just ‘living through’, as much as blending in time as the spheres of the modern world and that of oral traditions begin to finally intertwine.

Jai Jumlong, directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong

 A memory lost in a forest of dreams eludes any attempt at recollection. Was it then? Is it now? Was it ever? We’re entranced by the motions of a collection of bodies traversing the thick tropical jungle with no apparent reason or urgency. They partake in mundane activities as a spectral aura seems to steadily move them further into the background. Soon, their actions are overtaken by the hypnotic drone of the river and the creaking noises casted by invisible entities lurking behind the treetops. They look unfazed as they make their way back into the city, yet something feels off; something doesn’t belong. Or maybe, it has all along and they’ve just discovered it.

As with her previous nebulous surveys into the blurring of time and memory, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s Jai Jumlong exists almost as a cinematic mirage. Disconnected threads are juxtaposed in a way that deliberately plays off our compulsive search for meaning, and then proceed to continue disregarding narrative satisfaction. In the Thai filmmaker’s animistic universe, reincarnations and recreations have the same hold on our perceived reality as the present does; occasionally finding ways to even disrupt the same scene.

While this might be Suwichakornpong’s most oblique feature-length work yet in terms of approachability, it’s also the most transparent in its formal inquiries. Once it’s time for the ritual of sleep, frames are split in half and the realms of the oneiric and the ordinary can be seen coexisting asynchronically; suggesting an amplified existence where identities roam freely, and the pulsations of memories can be felt.

Mbah Jhiwo, directed by Alvaro Gurrea

A missing wife. An ailing mother. Muted depictions of hard labor in Indonesia. Such an array of elements might suggest an archetypal narrative within the world of slow cinema, yet Alvaro Gurrea’s debut feature, Mbah Jhiwo, subverts said expectations as soon as its sequences begin to repeat themselves.

At first, it seems like a story about stoic sulfur miner Yono and his pursuit to safekeep those close to him through the rituals and customs of animism. Suddenly, the looming menace of Eastern Java’s rock monoliths begins to engulf the screen, filling it with a yellow smoke whose vividness can barely be registered by a DV camera’s digital textures. Once the alien fog disperses, the film’s universe is reshaped by a newfound devotional tone. The characteristic landscape shots of the first part are now replaced by a series of long takes recreating the character’s spiritual pilgrimage, now a fervent believer of Islam. Once Yono’s quest concludes (once again), he’s thrown back again into the same situation, now as a consumerist urbanite who believes all his problems can be solved through Facebook and who’s constantly drowned out by a sound design fixated on undermining him.

As the palpable divergences between each belief system reshape the same narrative beats to a form of their own, essential foundations traverse unfazed between ontologies; existing beyond any cognitive possibilities. Sulfuric craters; the sustained drone of tropical soundscapes; the same parable of a missing wife and an ailing mother.

Les attendants, directed by Truong Minh Quý

Truong Minh Quý’s newest work is an enthralling miniature built around the power of tactile memory. As two white men strive for intimacy, apparitions from a haunted past are conjured, yet these are not violent specters looking for vindication. No. They’re also on the lookout for connection; for some kind of shelter in which their senses can grasp some form of pleasure and forget—just for an instant—about the open scars still torturing them.

Both past and present prowlers coexist on a desolate hill artificially constructed over an old coal mine. A place once known as a last resource for those in need draws meandering souls seeking a safe haven. As the 16mm shots intrusively frame all kinds of natural and bodily textures, the sounds they emit seem as if they’re bursting through the treetops. Clearly, this is no representational register for these alluring vibrations. This is a sensual one.

Each caress brings a jump in ellipsis that reconfigures time through a sensitive understanding, rather than a rational one; making a case for zipping leather and colliding flesh as potential vessels towards a return to a purer perception.