DISSENT! Wang Bing

IMG_5979_web (c) Michiel Devijver

29 March 2018 18:00, Minard Ghent, in the context of the Courtisane festival 2018.

“I think that the most interesting thing to do in films is not to create a story – in any case, I’m not the kind of filmmaker who sets out to create one. I prefer to look at people. If you look at an interesting person for a while, then you will realize that in that person’s life there is a very interesting story. When I meet someone and his or her story really attracts me, then I decide that I would like to make a film about him or her. When I decide that there’s something really beautiful about that person, and that his or her life really touches me, is the moment when I want to film.”

At the turn of this century, Wang Bing entered film history when he boarded a freight train with a small rented DV camera and started filming the snowy landscapes of the industrial district of Tiexi in northeastern China. For the following two years, the former photography and art student documented the decline of the district’s state-owned factories, tirelessly following the remaining workers in the corridors and expanses of the complexes. Out of the three hundred hours of footage, he created the monumental West of the Tracks (2002): a three-part, nine-hour document of China’s transition from state-run to free market economy, and the ensuing desolation of the working class that makes way for an expansion of cheap and precarious labour. From then on out, Wang Bing has continued to chronicle the everyday lives of those who find themselves in the margins of society amidst the vast and rapidly changing landscapes of 21st century China, unveiling what all too often remains invisible under the guise of its “growth miracle” and its willful cancellation of historical memory.

Driven by an unceasing desire to film and to discover, Wang Bing never ceases to explore new places and situations, allowing himself to be led by chance encounters and the epiphany of the unexpected. From the Tiexi district, he moved his centre of activity towards the northwestern regions of China. In the Gobi Desert, he worked for several years in secret on The Ditch (2010), his only fiction feature to date, which recounts the struggles to survive in Jiabiangou, one of the labour camps that were in use during Mao Zedong’s Anti- Rightist Movement in the years from 1957 to 1961. More southwest, in the province of Yunnan, he documented the lives of a broken, impoverished farmer’s family in a small mountain village in Three Sisters (2012) and the inmates of a decrepit mental hospital in ‘Til Madness Do Us Part (2013), before following refugee families fleeing the ongoing civil war in Myanmar in Ta’ang (2016) and travelling with migrant garment workers to the southeastern city of Huzhou in Bitter Money (2016). Within this internal geography, long-term projects are alternated with more modest but no less powerful ones. During the production of The Ditch, for example, Wang Bing recorded in barely one take He Fengming’s startling testimony of the persecutions that she and her family endured throughout the Anti-Rightist Movement and the Cultural Revolution. While filming Three Sisters, he met two adolescent boys whose daily experience of ennui and repetition in a cramped factory-owned hut he captured in a handful of fixed long shots. And in the course of documenting Huzhou’s urban world of sleepless sweatshops and labourers, Wang Bing spent a week along the desolate shores of the Yangtze River in order to film the last days of Mrs. Fang before she passed away.

From the brutal conditions of modern-day slavery to the barren vestiges of disappearing histories, from youngsters squandering their time to elderly in the face of death, from the industrious to the recumbent, the striking oppositions and reversals in Wang Bing’s work are also accompanied by a common perseverance: a determination to extricate from the core of exhaustion the ultimate fragments of the possible. Carefully navigating his camera through the encountered spaces, respectfully juggling the balance between distance and proximity, he patiently searches to capture the actuality and capacity of people who could be identified as seeming to experience little more than “bare life”. Instead of enclosing those ignored by the radar of History in a confined framework that supposedly befits their miniscule lives, he chooses to give them time to exist, opening up their lifeworld in order to affirm how their bodies, voices and gestures, too, have a story to tell.

In collaboration with CIFA (Chinese Independent Film Archive), KASK / School of Arts and Cinematek, with the support of the Department of Chinese Studies, Ghent University.

Special thanks to Zhang Yaxuan and Xu Lin.

On the occasion of this program dedicated to the work of Wang Bing, Courtisane, Sabzian and Cinematek have collected a series of writings and interviews in a small-edition publication.

DISSENT! João Moreira Salles

no-intenso-agora-1

19 – 20 March 2018, KASKcinema Gent – STUK Leuven.

“The most interesting of a take is what occurs fortuitously before and after the action.”

This quote, borrowed from Werner Herzog, is at the heart of João Moreira Salles’ remarkable film Santiago (2007): a film that was shot in 1992 but was only completed thirteen years later. In 1992 Salles, a trained economist, had already directed several documentaries, after having been introduced to cinematic practice by his brother filmmaker Walter Salles. One day he decided to use the leftover film-stock from advertisements he used to produce with his brother to make a film about Santiago Badariotli Merlo, who had been his family’s butler for over thirty years at their Gávea mansion in Rio de Janeiro. Now retired and living in a small apartment in the Leblon neighbourhood, Santiago appears to be the perfect documentary “character”: a flamboyant and picturesque man who recites poetry, plays castanets and piano, arranges flowers to perfection, and meticulously dedicates himself to documenting the lives of the world’s aristocrats, for which he amassed more than 30,000 pages of notes. The five-day shoot generated about nine hours of material that Salles, however, abandoned in the editing process. “I tried to edit it but I couldn’t do it”, he said later. “The film was to be all about Santiago as an exotic character … a character that already existed before being filmed, I mean, he existed in my head more than anything.” When Salles returned to the footage thirteen years later, he did not return to finish the film he never completed, but to make a different film—a film that looks at his own blindness, how his desire to make a film obstructed his ability to see and how his own class privilege stood between him and his “character.” It is only by looking at the outtakes of the original footage, at those off-moments that would have ended up on the cutting room floor, that Salles is able to discover how the process of documenting leaves the filmmaker as caught on screen as his subject.

Santiago’s telling subtitle: Uma reflexão sobre o material bruto, “A Reflection on Raw Footage”, can as well be applied to Salles’ latest film No Intenso Agora (2017), which he made following the discovery of images that document his mother’s trip to China in 1966—the year when Mao Zedong launched what became known as the Cultural Revolution. The elated expression he discerns on his mother’s face leads him towards an exploration of the fleeting nature of moments of great vitality, moments of living through an “intense now”. Scenes of China and Salles’ own childhood in Brazil are set alongside footage showing the French students’ uprising in May of 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of the same year, when the forces of the Warsaw Pact put an end to the Prague Spring. What do these images of great personal and historical intensity, filmed inadvertently or purposefully, reveal of the state of mind of those filmed and those filming? What can one say of the shared experiences that unfolded in Paris, Prague, Rio de Janeiro, or Beijing by looking at the images of the period? Little by little, the film slides from questioning archival images to questioning the legend of May 1968 itself, in particular the roles played by rhetoric, performance and all kinds of “image-making”. But has the rebellious spirit of 1968 only provided the dominant order with the means to renew itself, as many have come to argue, or can we also consider it as an interruptive force that continues to reverberate today? Now that the approaching 50th-anniversary of the events of May 1968 once again stirs up the longstanding debates on its influence and its legacy, No Intenso Agora encourages us to ask ourselves how its images can help us to surpass the sphere of disillusionment and disenchantment that has kept on lingering in its aftermath. A challenge that touches upon the core of João Moreira Salles’ cinematic research: to probe the mysterious inner life of filmed images.

Santiago-4

19 March 2018, 20:30 KASKcinema, Gent
Santiago
João Moreira Salles, BR, 2007, HD, b&w, 85′

“Thirteen years ago, when I shot these images, I thought the film would begin like this…” This is the first line of narration in João Moreira Salles’ Santiago. A film not simply about Santiago, the filmmaker’s family’s butler, but about failure, about memory and about documentary filmmaking. In 1992, the filmmaker shot nine hours of footage, but aborted the project on the cutting room table. It is by looking at the outtakes of the original footage 13 years later that Salles deconstructs the myths of documentary filmmaking and makes a film that is as much about him as it is about Santiago.

No-Intenso-Agora-4

20 March 2018, 20:00 STUK Cinema ZED, Leuven
No Intenso Agora (The Intense Now)
João Moreira Salles, BR, 2017, DCP, colour, 127′

In the Intense Now explores the revolutions of 1968 as they unfolded across four different countries and their political environments: France, Czechoslovakia, China, and Brazil. Narrated in first person by the director, the film reflects on that which is revealed by footage of the French students’ uprising in May of 1968; the images captured by amateurs during the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of the same year, when forces led by the Soviet Union put an end to the Prague Spring; the scenes that a tourist —the director’s mother —filmed in China in 1966, the year of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution; and footage from Salles’ own childhood in Brazil, during the establishment and rule of a repressive military dictatorship.

DISSENT ! is an initiative of Argos, Auguste Orts and Courtisane, in the framework of the research project “Figures of Dissent” (KASK/Hogent), with support of VG. In collaboration with KASK, STUK, Lieven Gevaert Centre and the Institute of Philosophy (KUL).

About DISSENT!

How can the relation between cinema and politics be thought today? Between a cinema of politics and a politics of cinema, between politics as subject and as practice, between form and content? From Vertov’s cinematographic communism to the Dardenne brothers’ social realism, from Straub-Huillet’s Brechtian dialectics to the aesthetic-emancipatory figures of Pedro Costa, from Guy Debord’s radical anti-cinema to the mainstream pamphlets of Oliver Stone, the quest for cinematographic representations of political resistance has taken many different forms and strategies over the course of a century. The multiple choices and pathways that have gradually been adopted, constantly clash with the relationship between theory and practice, representation and action, awareness and mobilization, experience and change. Is cinema today regaining some of its old forces and promises? Are we once again confronted with the questions that Serge Daney asked a few decades ago? As the French film critic wrote: “How can political statements be presented cinematographically? And how can they be made positive?”. These issues are central in a series of conversations in which contemporary perspectives on the relationship between cinema and politics are explored.

Thesis…

For those who might be interested, the thesis manuscript entitled “Figures of Dissent. Cinema of Politics / Politics of Cinema (Selected Correspondences and Conversations)” can now be found on the website of the Ghent University : HERE.

Hong Sang-soo retrospective Brussels 18/01 > 25/02/2018

HSS

“Let nothing be changed and all be different.” Of all the precepts that Robert Bresson has collected in his Notes on the Cinematograph, this riff on an often quoted historical maxim might be the one that is par excellence applicable to the films of Hong Sang-soo. Since discovering Bresson’s work triggered him to patiently carve out his own singular path through the world of cinema, the South-Korean filmmaker has continued to weave an ever subtly changing canvas of minute variations on the same narrative threads, playfully entwining themes of love, desire, deception and regret.

In Hong’s bittersweet sonatas, typically composed of multiple movements, repeated figures and modulating motives, any relationship or situation is susceptible to variability: there can always be another version, another chance, another time. Some situations present themselves as repetitions, while others accommodate a myriad of storylines that intertwine or parallel each other. Every film contains multiple stories, and is also rich in virtual ones, some yet to be told, others perhaps already told before. Yet for all the doubling, folding and mirroring in Hong’s films, what stands out from their narrative playfulness is hardly a display of virtuosity, but rather, as Jacques Aumont reminds us, a sense of idiocy. This idiocy does not only refer to the innocuous array of trite misunderstandings, misfortunes and missteps that detract characters along divergent or crossing paths, but above all to the sense that everything seems to happen without reason, without a causal or rational order that determines the relations between characters and their environment, between their present and their future. In Hong’s films, there is no particular reason why things couldn’t fall into place differently: every relation entails a multiplicity of relations.

From his feature debut The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (1996) to The Day After (2017), the latest of four films he has released in the past year, Hong Sang-soo has continuously reinvented his explorations of the very arbitrariness and contingency of life’s connections and directions by crafting his own take on another one of Bresson’s precepts: to find without seeking. While the production of his first films was still based on a predefined screenplay, Hong has increasingly refined his working method into a both intuitive and rigorous process of writing and filming. On the morning of each shooting day, he writes out dialogue for the scenes he intends to shoot, gives his cast time to memorize their lines, determines camera angles, and then starts to shoot – most often using statically framed long takes which are only occasionally interrupted by abrupt zooms. The absence of a prefixed template and a receptivity to what transiently comes into view allows for an unravelling of the concrete everyday into unexpected patterns of visual and narrative features, opening up even the most trivial gestures and insignificant details to a web of indefinite resonances.

Stemming from a wariness of generalizations that claim to be transcendent and all-encompassing, this constant interplay between concrete presence – of the people involved and the environments they occupy – and abstract construction is what, more than anything, propels Hong Sang-soo’s singular cinematic investigations into the dynamics of repetition and difference. It might also be what brings his work, film after film, ever closer to the art of cinema as it was once devised by Bresson: as a method of discovery.

On the occasion of the retrospective of Hong Sang-soo at the Brussels CINEMATEK (January 18 to February 25, 2018), a modest publication has been compiled which aims to trace the development of Hong’s remarkable body of work through a collection of essays and interviews that were written and published between 2003 and 2017. Assembled for the first time, they give an enlightening insight into his cinematic universe, which keeps expanding as a variety of variations on an aphorism that he himself has sketched out in one of his drawings: infinite worlds are possible.

An initiative of Cinematek and Courtisane, in collaboration with the Korean Cultural Center in Brussels, Sabzian & Cinea. In the presence of Hong Sang-soo on 18>20.01. Full programme can be found on www.cinematek.be