[I had an article come out recently in the Finnish philosophical journal niin & näin on two documentary films to have struck me recently. As of now, I'm working on an extended draft of the piece in English, titled "Silk Factory Mazes, Natures Devoid of Men: The Two Paths of Reality-Grounded Documentary Films"... Please find below some snippets of my original Finnish articled translated into English.]
Familiar and foreign, Sophie Fiennes’ Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (2010) offers us a strange documentary mixing downright naturalism with elements of the uncanny: a film in the realist tradition of direct cinema and yet at the same time broaching sublimity in a virtually alienated way. The film brings to the fore the German contemporary artist Anselm Kiefer (born 1945) and his gigantic Gesamtkunstwerk in a derelict silk factory in Barjac, Southern France, where the artist moved in 1993. Seven years later he embarked on the project of transforming the location into a massive work of art. Upon his arrival at Barjac, there was nothing there. It behooved him to map out the vistas to be opened by the buldozers, and to draft the initial sketches of the houses to be built. Little by little, Kiefer filled the once abandoned factory area with criss-crossing alleys swarming underground, houses bristling with paintings and installations larger than human beings, and gigantic towers in the outdoor open space reaching towards the heavens.
Allow me to venture into suggesting, then, that we find in the film the rudiments of a novel form of art. Art is no longer the object of the film but rather its subject: Kiefer’s art works come to life—they performatively happen—qua Fiennes’ cinematic shots. His art is pervasively processual. Her treatment of his art is no less so. To go with the versatile fabrics of the paintings Kiefer constructs “Holy Books” weighing more than a hundred kilos, but before taking their place in the works the books are washed by the waves of the ocean such that the ocean leave its traces on the pages. In their own peculiar materiality, Kiefer’s broken jars, astronomic charts, forests of ash notched in the paintings, or streams of lead reminiscent of volcanic eruptions, all contribute to create an impression of a world of its own. Only rarely do the last touches of the paintings come from the artist’s brush, since Kiefer treats his surfaces with multifarious materials, and all the stages of the working process leave their imprint on the works.
The choice of Kiefer’s art as the subject matter of the film is illuminating precisely because cinematic expression—as the most full-fledged space-time art form—grasps the very processual character of art. Like drama and dance, the film unfolds in both time and space. The visual imagery opens up on a wide screen, and the film always has its duration. Such temporarily bound art forms customarily also have their own voice. In a literary sense, the sounds of Fiennes’ film are made of the crackling fire, the shattering of glass against the floor, and the roar of the buldozers, all of which make Kiefer’s art sensible, virtually smellable. In a figurative sense, Kiefer’s voice as an artist unfolds itself in the swift visual narratives of the film. In other words, film becomes art at those very moments when it follows the processes of creation of Kiefer’s works, which means either working on a new work or the gradual unfolding of a “finished” work in the investigative gestures of the moving camera. Allow me to generalize the observation. Art, in general, unfolds itself in cinema; cinema turns into art once it grasps the birth process of art.
The Iranian master of slow cinema, Abbas Kiarostami’s 74-minute film Five (2003) forms a parallel with Fiennes’ film. Whereas Fiennes has scripted her film precisely, manipulating the images with carefully calculated moving shots and razor-sharp editing, Kiarostami dwells, rather, on the sheer surprises in nature. Five uses no human voice, and in the only scene where human beings do appear, all they do is walk across the screen (as if to express the very disappearance of humanity). Kiarostami like Fiennes leaves himself—and leaves humans—into the background and allows nature to show herself. Kiarostami’s film carries into a climax the transition, adumbrated above, from anthropocentric narration to nonhuman things. The proper subjects of the film, indeed, are elements of nature: bark, waves, white light, dogs, ducks, black light, rain, thuhderstorm, and the Moon.
Five, in sum, is an exceptional one-man auteur documentary, characterized by the director himself as an experimental and meditative work of art, akin to poetry and photography. The film is dedicated to the Japanese master of the static visual narrative, Yasujurio Ozu, who like Kiarostami used extended takes virtually without any visual accentuation, excepting the camera angles and composition. By putting the Ozuesque visual language into documentary use—more specifically, into depicting in an immediate way the simplest incidents in nature—Kiarostami carries further than his master the director’s technique whereby carefully considered gestures are used to minimize the power of the director and maximize the power of the imagery.
Kiarostami’s film is analogous to Fiennes’ documentary precisely insofar as it surrenders expressive power from the director to the nuances of reality. In the Kiefer documentary, man-made art has been transformed into a world, which the film shows in itself—permanently abandoned and therefore perennial. Kiarostami’s film, in turn, demonstrates how the surrounding nature is desolate even when humans kill their time lingering around it. Fiennes’ camera is constantly in motion, thus making Kiefer’s realities to speak. Kiarostami’s camera stays virtually still, letting nature speak: when the camera is on and directed at the unscripted world, anything can happen… With deliberately advanced director gestures, Fiennes creates an impression of a world of its own not entirely unlike the world left to its own by Kiarostami’s digital camera. The subject of Five is no longer the human mind, but the elements of nature turn into animated personae speaking in their own, wordless tongues.
The novel cinematic art arises from understanding how the original and ultimate subject matter of film is not the human world but the humanless, derelict reality, which only a wordless image can translate into its own tongue. It is precisely by stripping visual imagery of too many human sounds that cinematic art may ever more intimately grasp the reality of images always saying more than words. Kiarostami demonstrates the nonhuman nature of cinema by warning us of the senseless projections and intentional illusions, both of which are taken to pieces—with cool rage—by his radical-ecological film. The key to the film about Kiefer, in turn, lies in understanding that while much of what’s shown in the images stems from human hands, the filmed transition of art from transient moments into timeless cinematic narrative is not in itself of human origin.