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DIFF 2011 | Day 4 | Slow Down

by Roger Young, Sarah Dawson, Sihle Mthembu / 25.07.2011

The combination of a press office interview fuck up and the lack of a Mahala transport budget sees me in an unparalleled bad mood. I end up not going to anything I’d planned and eating mint fudge on the beach. I watch a bit of a surf film on the big screen. I drink free wine. I don’t care. Dawson is AWOL. I have a conversation with another member of the press who says he flies down every year just to party and never writes more than 400 words on the DIFF because, “no one cares about art films”. I’m thinking about giving up on covering anything ever again. I am tired of crumbed prawns, I just want a cinematic head fuck, I’m sure they’re there somewhere but I just can’t seem to get to them. We wonder why the arts are fucked in this country, we wonder why no one can make a living out of it, and then we totally disregard the ability of the discourse in the media to encourage engagement and interest. Oh well.

Sarah Dawson

Given that it was Sunday, and that the general mania of the festival was beginning to take its toll, I opted to see only one film. The fact that that film was Bela Tarr’s new work also contributed to this in a significant way. It needs a whole day to itself. A week even. I love that the programmers of the festival have the kind of integrity required to keep bringing films like this to the fest, knowing full well (from experience) that they are far from being crowd pleasers. It’s this ethos that makes DIFF into the internationally respected event that it is.

THE TURIN HORSE Director: Bela Tarr. (Hungary 2010)

Bela Tarr began his career in film at age 10, acting in Hungarian TV adaptations of Tolstoy. And he has ended it with The Turin Horse, which he has said to be his last film, which I saw last night at the Sneddon. Tarr’s first choice of career was philosophy, but he was not allowed entry to university after having criticised the Hungarian government at the age of 16, and so he went full time into making film. And the world should be grateful for this, because, in this misfortune a master was born.

His films are about ideas more than stories. They create room for thought on the part of the viewer, rather than distracting from it. Tarr is not known for what one might call “economical” filmmaking. His films take as much time as they need to be told. Not only in duration, but in moments. The Turin Horse runs for 2 and a half hours, but consists of only 30-something shots in total. That means that where in an ordinary Hollywood-style production, you would see a cut approximately every 5 seconds, in The Turin Horse, the shot is broken only every five minutes. The score consists of a simple ascending/descending minor scale on an organ accompanied by detuned cello for the entire duration of the film. Given our conditioning to certain forms of media, the majority of viewers are likely to find their eyes and ears becoming bored. And indeed, as I also witnessed in a screening of his last film, The Man from London, a couple of years ago, several viewers realised within the first third of the film, that it want for them and walked out.

A deeply thoughtful film, it takes as its point of departure the story of the horse that brought German philosopher Friederich Nietzsche to psychological breakdown: he sees a cab driver whipping the stubborn beast who refuses to move, and is moved to the point of embracing the creature, sobbing into its neck. He then goes home and lies demented and mute in the care of his mother and sisters until his death ten years later. But the film is not about Nietzsche. In fact this scene occurs only in narrated voice over. The film is about the heaviness of existence. It documents the life of the cab driver and his daughter for 6 days, in their Spartan rural existence, in the midst of an unusual and ominous wind storm. Their routines do not change. And by the end, the viewer is familiar with every item they own, every mannerism and habit of the characters, every texture of their stone cottage.

What does change is a gradual slowing down of the earth around them. As though the Universe is reaching a kind of stasis. As though the kinetic force that propelled it into existence is running down. The film ends on the eve of the 7th day, and it is a kind of anti-creationist story. An apocalypse, but a banal one. Their daily meal of one boiled potato (the boiling of which Tarr makes us watch) starts out voraciously, and ends with reluctant nibbling of a raw potato unable to be cooked since the fire refused to burn, for no other reason than the laws of combustion have just given up the ghost.

Cinematographically, The Turin Horse‘s slow, fluid black and white steadicam is close to perfection. Almost unbelievably so. As if it were a facsimile of the director’s fantasies. All the elements are of the mise-en-scene are flawless and convincing, from the constant wind across an extensive landscape, to the acting of a despondent horse, within extremely long steadicam shots that cant be tricked. The performances don’t seem like performances at all. They have a timeless, mythical quality – gaunt and weathered, as if they embody the fatigue of the drive for daily survival we all feel in the undercurrents of our existence, no matter our context.

The film is a desolate, claustrophobic and oppressive experience. It can only be watched in a cinema. Watching it at home would be project in vain. Not least because you might just chicken out at some point. The film only does the work its supposed to do if you can’t get away. It’s endurance cinema, and not for everyone. In fact, its cinema that will be actively despised by the majority. It is difficult cinema but it is great cinema, and well deserving of the Berlin Jury Grand Prize it won this year. If you like the work of masters like Bresson, Tarkovsky and Fassbinder, you will find The Turin Horse to be a masterpiece. If you have not heard of them, you will hate it. It is a film only for those who actively seek out this kind of engagement, both philosophically and cinematically. It requires commitment and a willingness to expose oneself to the films central propositions – the destructiveness of humanity, and the quite separate destructiveness of forces of that are not human, and the need to accept that we must both claim and relinquish responsibility in a world that is destined to one day reach its end.

Sihle Mtembu

MAMA AFRICA Director: Mika Kaurismaki. (Finland, Germany, South Africa 2010)

It is generally accepted consensus that Miriam Makeba is legendary. She is like many from her time a kind of talent whose politics were not disengaged from her art. Mama Africa a documentary film that attempts to account for her life had its first screening on African soil last night. The film was scheduled for an 20:00 start, at 21:00 we had not even entered the cinema. The less said about that the better. Or the fact that when the film started the celluloid went on a period. For a few minutes we were treated to a stop and start affair, the cracking noises of a projector about to head into retirement and the winces of a crowd who did not come for this. But when technical order was restored there was some gain to be made.

Directed by Mika Kaurismakithe, the film is a pyramid of research. The result of a well managed creative process. Kaurismaki does a laudable job at placing Mazi (as she is affectionately known in her family)in the context of her social situation. When Makeba died she had been scheduled to start filming the documentary two months later. Without any dedicated interviews for this process the film makes intelligent use of the most important tool of Makeba’s life- her music, yet maintains a strong narrative path that makes the use of that music never seem tedious.Her rendition of Soweto Blues will surely never be outdone. On screen were treated to a observing a transformation of a Makeba as a little songstress in the 50’s to a musical powerhouse in the 60’s. The gaps within that transition are filled by her closest friends including the likes of Dorothy Masuku, and Hugh Masekela. They piece the puzzle with the most rare kind of archive, the memory.

Surprisingly despite her iconic image the film makes no apologies for Makeba’s understated sexual prowess. Although not clearly targeted Makeba’s private life is a grey area in which the director uses as a tool to break down Makeba’s views of the world at certain points in time. This is significantly visible in an interview where she speaks about the emancipation of black artists, this was filmed during a time when she was married to Stockely Carmichael. Mama Africa as a film is masterclass on making the bio-docie without the subject.

Day 5 Schedule:

Roger Young:

PROSECUTOR (Canada 2010)
VIVA RIVA! (DRC, France, Belgium 2010)
THE DYNAMITER 73′ (United States 2010)

Sarah Dawson:

END OF ANIMAL (South Korea 2010)

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