Now that we have to maintain physical distance, our experience of cinema has become a solitary delight. But in this time of confinement, we can find our cinephile community in the non-endemic space of the online environment. In the next weeks, Sabzian will select three films a week, available on online platforms. You can find more information about our online selection here.
Ingmar Bergman has once called Peter Watkins’ Edvard Munch (1974), the first film of this week’s selection, a “work of genius”. A biography of the Norwegian expressionist painter, it testifies to the personal affinity felt for Edvard Munch by the director, who acknowledges in the artist’s life the hardships he himself has encountered. It is, by Watkins’ own admission, his most personal film. The British filmmaker has dedicated his life to develop an exceptional and uncompromised oeuvre. Edvard Munch is one of his most vigorous, fiery and confidential films, that has left a scorching mark in our hearts. The film is available for viewing at Tënk, with French subtitles.
For the second film, we opted for Wang Bing’s Three Sisters (2012), available on Doc Alliance. On Sabzian, we’ve repeatedly drawn attention to the work of the Chinese documentary filmmaker. In 2018, Sabzian, Courtisane and CINEMATEK compiled a publication on Wang Bing, which later became available on our website as a Dossier. Three Sisters brought him to a broken, impoverished farmer’s family in a small mountain village in the Chinese province of Yunnan. As Wang Bing has put it himself, “Three Sisters is set in a poverty-stricken environment, but the film as a whole is not about poverty, it is about the lived experience of the girls’ existence.” Many films that are discussed in our dossier can also be viewed on Doc Alliance. Here you can rent Three Sisters.
On 27 March, Olivier Assayas would have presented his text together with his film of choice, The Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1975), at the State of Cinema, our yearly tradition where a guest of honour holds the art of film against the light. To compensate for the postponement of that evening, we invite you to discover one of the recent films of the French director: Doubles vies (2018), in which the digitalisation of the book world serves as a mirror to reflect on the future of cinema. Now, you can rent his film Doubles vies on Univers Ciné.
Edvard Munch (Peter Watkins, 1974) | Watch here
Three Sisters (Wang Bing, 2012) | Watch here
Doubles vies (Olivier Assayas, 2018) | Watch here
Late 19th century in Norway. Edvard Munch is a promising young painter but he is also a man tormented by his love dramas, the fear of falling ill and tapped by an idea: to be recognized at the height of his talent. Wounded by critics, rejected by the bourgeoisie to which he wants to belong, he ends up finding refuge with the anarchists.
“Edvard Munch is the most personal film I have ever made. Its genesis lies in a visit to the Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo, in 1968, during the time of a screening of several of my films by the Oslo University. I was awestruck by the strength of Munch’s canvases, especially those depicting the sad life of his family, and was very moved by the artist’s directness - with the people in his canvases looking straight at us. I also felt a personal affinity with his linking of past and present, e.g., in the large painting showing the anguish of his family as his sister Sophie is dying: the artist and his brothers and sisters are depicted as adults - as they were in the 1890s when he painted this scene - even though the event had taken place ca. 20 years earlier. On another occasion, I was also very moved by Munch’s masterpiece ‘Death of a Child’, hanging in the National Gallery in Oslo; in this painting the artist is broken, and has, in an almost desperate frenzy, blurred the form of his earlier depiction of Sophie’s death. This painting, in its time, was attacked as being “incomplete” - a charge which branded certain of his other works as well.”
“The director is also unusually detailed on the texture and technique: you hear the brush scratching, and see exactly why he’s opting for knife, brush and oil, lithographs, woodcuts or etchings for the work at hand and his changes to canvases are detailed. Like Van Gogh, a near contemporary, Munch met with fierce resistance from the art establishment. Many reviews are heard, including phrases like “nonsense and ugliness” and “it must have been painted by someone almost mentally deranged” (a comment Munch reproduced in the red background to The Scream).”
“The effort needed in order to see the edges of objects as they really look stirred a dim fear, a fear of what might happen if one let go one’s mental hold on the outline which kept everything separate and in its place.
When trying to think about what might be the reason for this need to make objects keep themselves to themselves within a rigid boundary I remembered reading: “The outline is … the first and plainest statement of a tangible reality.” (Gordon: A Step Ladder to Painting, p. 19).
Thus the outline represented the world of fact, of separate touchable solid objects.”
Cristina Álvarez López3
“With Edvard Munch, Peter had the journals to know what Munch said, but the director allowed a number of his amateur actors to improvise responses to Munch and when they addressed the camera. There was a loose script to the film, which overlapped sounds and images, and even had quotations from the diaries, but when I was watching him edit, only on very rare occasions did he even bother to look at it. Also, in one instance, Peter did not take kindly to some of my questions about why he was doing something in a specific way and responded with the following: “The way I work is like the film itself. I’m fusing together all the different levels all the time… Much of this is not conscious, which is why I’m not going to disturb and formalise the process by which I created that, which was very often an entirely subjective experience. I refuse to put that into rule books. I refuse to lay it out so anyone else can analyse it.” (...)
By the time he is making Edvard Munch, his methods of making films have become immensely complicated, and the risks that he is taking are greater than anything he has ever done before. Although it focuses on just ten years of the artist’s life, the film has political, social, artistic, sexual and historical contexts that flow together, like the many layers of paint on some of Munch’s paintings.”
- 1. Peter Watkins on Edvard Munch, pwatkins.mnsi.net.
- 2. Rob Mackie, “Edvard Munch”, The Guardian, november 2007.
- 3. Cristina Álvarez López, “The Outline: MILNER/WATKINS/MUNCH”, Laugh Motel, september 2019.
- 4. Robert Greene in conversation with Joseph Gomez, “Portrait(s) of the exiled artist”, BFI, september 2016.
New Left Review: How did you meet the three little sisters there? As your film shows, they are living mainly by themselves, without parents to take care of them.
Wang Bing: Sun Shixiang’s tomb is on a high mountainside. On our way back downhill, we happened to pass this village. We stopped our car there and saw the three children by the road. This was three years ago, when the eldest sister Yingying was seven and not yet going to school. By the time I started shooting, Yingying was ten, and the two younger girls were about six and four. I started chatting with them, and they took me back to their home and cooked some potatoes for me. It’s like that in the countryside. I am used to the ways of village life; they don’t feel strange or alien. I don’t feel intimidated or hesitant about going to a stranger’s home in a village. It isn’t a big deal for me.
Did the life the three children were living remind you of your own childhood?
When I was growing up in the 1970s, life was still very poor in China. Everywhere, across the whole country, people didn’t have enough food to eat or clothes to wear. Of course this kind of material poverty left deep impressions in our memory, with many details. Since the 80s the country has basically been on the path away from this poverty-laden state. From the 90s on, problems of this sort have gradually been put behind us. Therefore to a certain extent poverty for us is a question of memory. Then when you come to this mountainous region, all of a sudden you’re confronted by the same poverty, right in your face.
It is true there was general poverty throughout the country in the 1970s, but wouldn’t you say it is a new phenomenon for parents to leave such small children behind to fend for themselves?
Yes, this is a new phenomenon, occurring in a period quite different from the past. This is not to say that people always used to live a happy family life. Instead, it was primarily a state with a high degree of certainty. People’s private lives were restricted by society: you could not easily get a divorce, or go away and leave your family of your own free will. The problem was not merely the ideology: we could see that all our activities were controlled. In those days you couldn’t daydream about leaving, if you no longer wanted to live with your wife or husband. It was actually impossible. You didn’t have the freedom to search for your own personal life. Again, not that people were living very happily in those days. These are two different things.
These problems have emerged now, but this is not necessarily completely bad; to a large extent it is due to economic developments. In fact, with many people working hard their whole lives long, economic relations exert a powerful control over people’s lives – much more powerful than the ideological control of the past. Why? It is simple: look at this small village, poor and remote – all the capable young workers have gone to search for employment elsewhere. You could say that the economy is worse – more horrifying: it exploits people by getting them to make the effort voluntarily, of their own free will.
Three Sisters lasts two and a half hours, with many long shots, mainly following the children’s daily life, with limited dialogue and no voice-over at all. Yet the images were so powerful that, when we saw it at a packed theatre, the audience was transfixed from beginning to end. This suggests you have great confidence in the images’ ability to connect with the audience?
The film has two versions. One is 90 minutes long, made for a television programme. Usually films for television are about 50 minutes, so this is already quite long. The other version is for theatre and lasts for 150 minutes. As I said, a film establishes its connection to its audience through the camera. It is not that the images are necessarily very attractive or appealing. I think what matters is the manner in which the filmmaker works. When you keep on watching, when your attention is continuously trained on something, why is it that you want to look at it, and then to show it to your audience? There has to be something people care about, something that carries on growing. The inner richness of the girls’ characters, all those details of their lives – these keep unfolding, offering the audience the chance to reflect on this increasing complexity. The children radiate kindness, instinctively. Even the younger one helps feed the pigs and goats. It is a very poignant, simple relationship between human and animal. Many things in this film are actually very simple, but it brings out the basic realistic side of human life and feeling, through the life and feeling of the children. A rich film is not an advertisement. It says something about human existence, about the basic things in our life. Three Sisters is set in a poverty-stricken environment, but the film as a whole is not about poverty, it is about the lived experience of the girls’ existence.
New Left Review in conversation with Wang Bing1
“But like the Straubs, Wang searches for the “strategic point,” the single position from which all the action of the scene can be recorded. Caroline Champetier, who worked with the Straubs on Class Relations, has aptly expressed what is at stake in this search: “All the work comes in attempting to respect the existing space, as intelligently as possible, to render account of its lines of force; it is important not to falsify the lines.” The difficulty for Wang was discovering this point in the cramped rooms of a small hut. What are the lines of force? They are defined, first of all, by sources of light, the fires, and the doorways, the television set in the aunt’s house. Beyond these, the camera finds slight diagonals that emphasize the same few possessions, bowls, a stool, or a basket. Outside it is a matter of finding the right distance from the people and knowing when to stop to let them move off into the distance. For Wang, the camera must not be too close: the people are always shown full figure. Only when they stop will he sometimes move in for a closer shot, and these shots provide the strongest sense of exhilaration in the film.”
« Comme son titre l’indique, Doubles vies présente en apparence une façade et, à son envers, un autre agencement de ce qui se donne à voir au premier regard. Ce double jeu est en réalité un trompe-l’œil, un whodunit hitchockien. Pendant presque 1h50, une galerie de personnages tente de comprendre le passage du livre au numérique et les changements que cela représente pour le monde de l’édition. Ils discutent sans fin, théorisent, polémiquent et s’affrontent, chacun avec leurs arguments avant même parfois de dire le contraire, avec une telle vitesse qu’on ne parvient plus à assimiler ce qui se dit. Au bout du compte, tout le monde s’y perd et personne ne sait rien ? Tout irait beaucoup trop vite, à l’image de l’époque dans laquelle nous vivons ? Ce serait poser une analogie trop évidente et sous-estimer l’intelligence du nouveau film d’Olivier Assayas. »
“Ik wilde een film maken over ideeën, een film die zich zou mengen in het actuele debat”, legt [Assayas] uit. “Omdat het lang duurt om films te maken, komen ze vaak te laat. Ik wilde dat de kijker in zijn eigen leven nog middenin het gesprek staat dat de personages voeren. Op een gegeven moment realiseerde ik me dat ik een komedie aan het schrijven was, omdat die ideeën waar het om draaide alleen op hun plaats vielen via humor en ironie.”
Joost Broeren-Huitenga in gesprek met Olivier Assayas2
Marta Balaga: Why did you decide to focus on the publishing world and not, say, cinema?
Olivier Assayas: I thought that was where these issues hit the hardest. At one point, Guillame Canet’s character says: “Why not just go fully digital?” He has a point, but the reality is that people actually like books. A while ago, everybody was convinced that e-books would be the future, and it didn’t turn out like this at all. The original title of the film was actually E-book, but I dropped it because I thought it was a bit too technical and too cold.
In terms of cinema, the biggest part of the digital revolution has already happened. The medium changed in several major ways during the 1980s and 1990s, when there were still things you couldn’t represent, simply because they were too expensive. Now, these boundaries don’t exist any more. The very core of the medium has changed, and so has the way we consume films. But the reason why I have devoted my life to cinema is because I love the big screen. I still feel its magic, even when I go to a multiplex to watch some bullshit American blockbuster. Netflix and others like it are operating in the space of ambiguity; they are hiring renowned directors to use their names and show this is the kind of content they can provide. But I don’t care – I still want to see Alfonso Cuarón’s new film on the big screen.
Marta Balaga in conversation with Olivier Asayas3
“Assayas lijkt met zijn ingehouden démarche dus vragen te stellen over wat hedendaagse cinema vermag. Daarbij dient het verhaal over de digitalisering van de boekenwereld als spiegel om over het lot van de filmkunst te reflecteren. Series lijken de rol van cinema over te nemen en de kijkervaring is verbrokkeld over allerhande schermen. De publieke omgang met het beeld vindt al langer niet meer in het reservaat van de filmzaal plaats. Het is individueler, vluchtiger en vliedender geworden. Deze verschuiving vraagt voor Assayas niet om moraal maar roept vooral de vraag op naar de overlevingskans van de filmische schriftuur. Zonder nostalgie onderstreept hij de specifieke kracht van cinema, hoe die ooit heeft gewerkt maar ook hoe die vandaag nog steeds kan werken, waar ze ook beleefd wordt. De filmische blik, zo observeert Assayas, leeft door op de kleinere schermen, maar dan als onhandig object van verlangen. De wereld van Netflix knipt de band met cinema niet door maar haalt die voortdurend aan.”
- 1. Guillaume Richard, “« Doubles vies » d’Olivier Assayas : La Grainothèque,” Le Rayon Vert, 15 janvier 2019.
- 2. Joost Broeren-Huitenga, “Olivier Assayas over Doubles vies. ‘Ik identificeer me met alle personages, inclusief de idioten’,” De Filmkrant, 11 januari 2019.
- 3. Marta Balaga, “Olivier Assayas • Director of Non-Fiction. “At one point, I realised I was making a comedy”,” Cineuropa, 2 september 2018.
- 4. Gerard-Jan Claes, “Cinema stand-in,” Sabzian, 17 april 2019.