Image credit: Paloma Velasco
“Slow cinema” is a term first coined by Michel Ciment in a “State of Cinema” address he delivered in 2003, at the 46th San Francisco International Film Festival. “Made impatient by the bombardment of sound and image to which they are submitted as TV or cinema spectators,” Ciment remarked, “a number of directors have reacted by a cinema of slowness, of contemplation, as if they wanted to live again the sensuous experience of a moment revealed in its authenticity.”
Consider, for example, Manakamana by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez. It’s a highly regarded documentary, released in 2013, set in a cable car that carries diverse groups of pilgrims to visit Manakamana, a Hindu temple located atop a hill in Nepal. A camera in one of the cars records the reaction in real time of real people as they ascend to the temple. Some people talk, some sit in silence and admire the scenery, and others eat ice cream. This focus on the details of the everyday behaviours of people, and their reactions to this journey, offer us insight into the meaning of the temple for different visitors. Hindu pilgrims talk about myths, while tourists react to the sublime surroundings.
The roots of “slow cinema” can be found in the emphasis of some European auteurs on “de-dramatisation” in the 1950s and 1960s. Filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Agnès Varda were noted for their patient exploration of themes of nothingness and isolation.
Subsequently, a so-called cinema of walking arose, represented above all by the later films of the Hungarian director Béla Tarr. His film Sátántangó, released in 1994, is 439 minutes and features long tracking shots that follow villagers as they slowly traverse a bleak and muddy landscape.
Similarly extended takes are also seen in the films of Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz, whose Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004) is said to be one of the longest films ever made. (It clocks in at 624 minutes.) At times Diaz focuses a stationary camera on a stretch of the road, as if waiting for something, only for a character to walk by and disappear out of the frame again. As a viewer I had varying reactions in the course of this movie, ranging from frustration and boredom to a growing sympathy for the gruelling work done every day by an impoverished family of farmers trying to eke out a living.
Another compelling practitioner of “slow cinema” techniques is Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Thai independent film director. Most of his early films were shot in his native country with Thai actors, mostly unknown. Once his films began to gain critical acclaim on the festival circuit, he made his first English-language film, Memoria in 2021, set in Colombia and starring Tilda Swinton.
The marginalized worlds and peoples represented by filmmakers like Béla Tarr, Lav Diaz, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul offer something for an audience to think about. A viewer is invited to focus on the details of everyday life, and to observe its slow rhythm with patience, without rushing to instant interpretations.
Though many key works of slow cinema have won praise and awards at various film festivals, the movement has drawn criticism from some writers. It has been called passive aggressive for the demands the sheer duration of the films makes of viewers. Others decry the elitism of a form that caters to a niche audience. Some contributors to the recent anthology Slow Cinema point out that most slow films, even if they come from Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East, are financed by European institutions. Aren’t some of these filmmakers turning their back on native audiences, while documenting local cultures for the aesthetic appreciation of a privileged global elite?
In his book Poetics of Cinema, the filmmaker Raúl Ruiz gave one sort of response. Ruiz criticized what he called the “Central Conflict Theory,” a device used in most dramatic narratives in which A is positioned in opposition to B which generally positions the audience into taking sides. This is derived from French theories of classic tragedy, themselves inspired by Poetics of the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. For Ruiz, however, a focus on “central conflict forces us to abandon all those events which require only indifference or detached curiosity, like a landscape, a distant storm, or dinner with friends.” Ruiz instead wanted films to explore the plotless mysteries of everyday life with unrushed patience.
At a time where feelings about current events so frequently provoke outrage, anger, and a rush to judgement, perhaps we should allow for art forms that enable us to contemplate diverse ways of being in the world, for telling stories, for being human—and ultimately for being slow.
Bella Okuya is an MFA candidate in Photography at Parsons School of Design