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The Phenomenon of Slow Cinema

I first came across the term while reading a magazine. A part of the ‘slow movement’, it is set in opposition to the fast-paced environment we have created for ourselves. This includes fast food, fast fashion, fast delivery services, fast cars, fast music, and fast films; essentially, it’s everything that can be consumed and forgotten in no time. The ‘slow movement’ wants us to slow down and appreciate moments, people and places. So, how does film tap into this?

It is sometimes said that Slow Cinema is a cinematography style, and yes, cinematography is the most distinctive aspect of these films, but not the only one. Slow films also contain very minimalist narratives, sometimes no narrative at all. I believe the genre is defined more so by a feeling than a story in these movies. The extreme long takes over wide-shot landscapes, city views or empty interiors are the subjects of the story in most cases, and the characters only guide the viewer’s attention to these. Slow films are often very lengthy, taking up to 12 hours’ screen time, whilst some are the standard two to three hours, but the narrative is not complex and does not drive forward. So, why do filmmakers create these movies if nothing is happening in them?

“I think that what a person normally goes to cinema for is time”, claimed the film director Andrei Tarkovsky. If we are committing our time to go to the cinema, why do we expect it to be full of action, aggressive editing and packed with information? We already experience this in everyday life, especially whilst living in big busy cities, and online. Slow Cinema is supposed to immerse you in another world and explore it, encouraging you to contemplate the images in front of you and forget about your reality.

This genre of art cinema counters the mainstream films of contemporary Hollywood, in which the length of an average take is 2 seconds. Most of the filmmakers of the movement are also outside of the US and Western Europe. Many of the slow films that I have watched are Russian (by Andrei Tarkovsky or Alexander Sokurov), but there are also many Eastern Asian directors (to name a few: Lav Diaz, Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul) that contribute to the genre. Some critics have praised these movies for their artistic qualities and rejection of a consumerist approach to cinema; others have criticised them for being boring and hostile for audiences. I agree that they are not easy to watch, especially when one is used to mainstream productions, but they do have qualities that are absent in mainstream cinema.

I recently watched Under Electric Clouds by Aleksei German, Jr, and I had to split my viewing time between two evenings because I couldn’t concentrate. I think what made it harder to view was the fact that I was watching it on my laptop instead of the more immersive movie theatre, so I was constantly distracted by my phone, noises from the kitchen, and the awareness that I still have things to do for the next day and that the movie was taking me nowhere. The movie takes place in near-future dystopian Russia, and is composed of episodes in which characters from different backgrounds depict the uneasy world that they live in. It is hard to pin down what the movie is really about, until you reach the very end when all the plots somewhat tie together, yet still it doesn’t give you an easy answer. A lot of scenes are happening in real time and the dialogue often seems irrelevant or ambiguous, but you can see that the actors are really into their characters and it feels almost like a stage play. The cinematography, although gloomy and depressing, is truly beautiful, and ultimately, the slow pace of the movie allows us to appreciate this.

Even though Slow Cinema might be not for everyone and is a challenge to watch, Hollywood could learn a thing or two from it. In my last excursion to the cinema, I watched Murder on the Orient Express. I love detective stories so I was looking forward to it, but I left the movie theatre disappointed. Despite the fact it had an excellent cast and the cinematography was both beautiful and inventive, there was something wrong that I could not pin down at first. After giving it plenty of thought, I decided that it must be the pace. It felt as though the script was being read to the audience over pretty pictures; I couldn’t ponder who the murderer was because there were people on the screen blabbing all the time (and that moustache was very distracting). The film feels just like a bunch of things happening, which completely failed to engage me in the mystery, and this is because it didn’t take the time to create the world and immerse the viewer in it.

Slow Cinema might be just a fancy and pointless art form for some, but it does make you wonder where the golden mean is when it comes to pace in film. Its purpose is for you to appreciate the artistry of a movie, but falls flat when the audience is expecting to be easily entertained, so be prepared upon viewing. Slow Cinema can be best described as a visual novel, with little dialogue and long descriptions of places and ideas that make you sink into the depicted world.

Under Electric Clouds is showing on until 10th December 2017.

A beginner’s viewing guide to Slow Cinema:

Russian Arch (2002) – A film shot in one 87 minute long take. It takes place in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, where the viewer is taken on a walk through the palace’s rooms, each representing a period of the Russian history.

Sleep Has Her House (2017) – An exploration of a world without humans. Directed, edited, animated and shot (on an iPhone) by Scott Barley.

Humanité (1999) – a grieving policeman has to investigate a rape and murder of a 11-year-old girl. The film concentrates on the emotions and mental states that the man is going through before and during the investigation.

A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016) – An 8-hour long meditation on the history, themes, and the real and fantastical stories connected to the Philippine Revolution, directed by Lav Diaz.


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