10 great slow films

With new films by slow cinema titans Lav Diaz and Tsai Ming-liang screening at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, we celebrate a mournful, meditative genre in which filmmakers take their time.

Days (2020)

In 2004, critic Jonathan Romney used the term ‘slow cinema’ for perhaps the first time, in a review of Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003) for the Independent. But it wasn’t until the 2010s that the phrase began to take hold. Often considered as a reaction to the fast modern life in western society, slow cinema is, in fact, not so much a response to speed and hyperconnectivity, but to a growing sense of alienation among people around the globe.

With its long takes, its preference for non-professional actors and the favoured use of silence over extended dialogues, slow cinema was not an entirely new form. Its roots can be traced to the end of the Second World War, the arrival of Italian neorealism and that movement’s new emphasis on observing the real. This anno zero gave birth to the ancestors of today’s slow films. Michelangelo Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and, later on in Russia, Andrei Tarkovsky showed the way.

When the world had its second reckoning, in 1989-90, slow cinema became a hallmark of a new post-Cold War world in which, it was promised, people could be free and achieve anything they wanted. The reality differed starkly from the dreams many people had. It’s after 1990 that slow cinema became more prominent and also focused on more sustained durations. The films became longer and slower. Directors from around the world – Lav Diaz from the Philippines, Tsai Ming-liang from Taiwan, Pedro Costa from Portugal, Chantal Akerman from Belgium, Béla Tarr from Hungary – stepped on to the stage.

In the 2010s, in particular, many slow films expressed a resignation and an exhaustion, which is unparalleled by other film genres or movements. Over the years, slow cinema has become the eyes through which we see the unseen: the alienated, the oppressed, the persecuted, the unemployed, the suffering.

From the East (1993)

Director: Chantal Akerman

From the East (1993)

A journey to the east. A journey in the opposite direction that her parents took in 1938 when they emigrated from Poland to Belgium. Chantal Akerman, always conscious of the scars that the Second World War and the Holocaust left on her family and on herself, travels eastwards with her camera, to the former GDR, Poland and Russia.

The moving camera shows people waiting for a train or walking down streets flanked by rundown buildings in the former communist east. For those who lived in those areas in the early 1990s, Akerman’s images inevitably conjure up memories. The silence in the frames and, in particular, of the people Akerman films in their homes is a silence passed on through generations. The atrocities of war and dictatorship take on an absent presence; they become haunting spectres that cast their shadows on to our future. From the East is a slow cinema classic from the 1990s, but the story it tells reverberates well into the 2020s.

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

Directors: Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky

Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

There is a circus, they say. There is a prince and a whale. They travel from town to town, where everything disintegrates upon their arrival. Valuska, Béla Tarr’s innocent protagonist, observes in horror, but also with fascination and awe, how the events in his town slowly unfold; how the town becomes a pressure cooker where intrigues and rumours bring the rising tensions to boiling point; how violence becomes a light(ning) in the darkness of resentments; and how man can forget his humanity.

The mobile camera rests on the heels of the town folk, always close to the action without interfering with it. Instead, the camera becomes a prophetic character that’s helpless in the face of the overwhelming darkness that’s blanketing the town. Made 20 years ago, Tarr’s film is a prophecy of the world we live in today.

Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

Director: Roy Andersson

Songs from the Second Floor (2000)

The films of Swedish director Roy Andersson stand out because not only are they highly stylised; they are also the most absurd, the most deadpan and, simultaneously, the most human films within the existing slow cinema canon. Songs from the Second Floor is the first part of Andersson’s ‘living trilogy’ (completed by 2007’s You, the Living and 2014’s A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) and is not so much a narrative film but a series of vignettes that represent the burden of time, of history and of life itself.

What can be more striking than Kalle, a man marked by problems with both his family and his business, walking along with a crucified Jesus wrapped in brown Kraft paper? What can be more striking than the ghosts of the past that continue to haunt Kalle? His co-worker who committed suicide, the young Polish man who was executed during the war. Everyone has their baggage, their burden. So has society. So has mankind. When Andersson’s films end, one can feel a heaviness of being but also a feeling of surprise as to how absurd our lives are.

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006)

Director: Tsai Ming-liang

I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006)

A group of young migrants, a mattress lifted above their heads, walk through the city at night. It’s one of many iconic images in Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone, as is that of the paralysed man who is abused by his mother, his caretaker. Each scene is one of desire, a desire not to be alone. But what happens if this desire is exploited?

Tsai’s film develops 2 parallel narratives, intercutting 2 universes in which care and abuse coexist. There is the careful nursing of a migrant, beaten up in the streets. His carer, another migrant, has little to live on, yet he does everything necessary to help the stranger get back on to his feet. It’s a relationship of respect and love for other beings, which Tsai reinforces through his careful and patient framing. The parallel universe, that of an upper-middle class mother and her paralysed son, is a universe of disrespect, abuse and heartlessness. Two sides of the same coin, 2 sides of who we are.

Ta’ang (2016)

Director: Wang Bing

Ta’ang (2016)

In 2019, almost 80 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced. War, persecution, hunger, genocide – the reasons for people to seek a safe new home are manifold.

During military operations and violence in Myanmar in 2015, when many ethic minority groups became victims of targeted persecutions, refugees of the Ta’ang minority fled over the border into China. In Ta’ang, Wang Bing, best known for his vast documentary West of the Tracks (2002), follows them on their way to austere camps, where many would take shelter. The sound of war is always present, as is the persistent anxiety of the adults to bring their children to a safe space. It’s those children who are the most difficult to observe through Wang’s lens. Theirs is a childhood on the run, a childhood at war and facing an uncertain future. Wang’s film is a testimony to the power of documentary cinema to become a witness of history.

Almost There (2016)

Directors: Jacqueline Zünd

Almost There (2016)

Sometimes it feels as though life has hit a dead end. We’re stuck in routines and want to break out. Or we’re forced to break out. But how does it feel to leave everything behind and start anew? Jacqueline Zünd follows 3 very different men, who share the desire to leave everything behind to liberate the soul, but who also share the fear of doing so. Bob, Steve and Yamada search for a way out of a hamster wheel that they (and society) had built.

Zünd’s careful, patient and yet passionate observation of each man’s trajectory stays with you for a long time after the film has ended, and not just because the words and images are deeply moving. The film also poses fundamental questions: what is life about? What do we need to be content, to find an emotional balance? And, finally, how can we understand the increasingly common pursuit of something different, instead of something more, which has for so long governed our lives?

An Elephant Sitting Still (2018)

Director: Hu Bo

An Elephant Sitting Still (2018)

The contemporary human condition, the exhaustion after an excessive 20th century, can be seen nowhere clearer than in Hu Bo’s An Elephant Sitting Still. In his first and, sadly, last feature film, the director managed to put on screen what no one else before him has managed. The screen is a mirror of the unbearable weight of being, of life, which often appears as nothing but an endless chain of tragedies.

There is no optimism, only a pervasive fatalism, which runs through the film. Life isn’t worth it, if we repeatedly fail at lifting ourselves out of the metaphorical dumpster. Defeated by time, by society, by conditions that they cannot change, Hu Bo’s characters are paralysed by a world they were born in but which isn’t theirs to shape. This is a quintessential film about the here and now.

Absence (2018)

Director: Ekta Mittal

Absence (2018)

When the Indian government announced a national lockdown and the suspension of all trains across the country in March 2020, tens of millions of migrant workers were cut off from their homes and began to walk hundreds of miles across the subcontinent to join their families. Not everyone returned: some died, some disappeared.

From 2018, Ekta Mittal’s exceptional film is a document of suspended time, speaking to this same state of suspension experienced by families who wait for loved ones who left for the city to return home. In many cases, a father, a husband, a brother disappears and never returns. Families become prisoners of empty time, of a time that has no past or future. They are confined to an eternal present, an eternal search for the missing. In Absence, Mittal endeavours to merge fiction, documentary and experimental cinema to create a unique sense of what it means to lose, to wait and to be surrounded by phantoms.

Vitalina Varela (2019)

Director: Pedro Costa

Vitalina Varela (2019)

A woman, a widow, travels to Portugal to mourn the death of her husband, a Cape Verdean migrant. The premise of Pedro Costa’s latest film, Vitalina Varela, is simple, yet Costa merges themes of mourning with that of migration, the feeling of an eternal uprootedness, of eternal solitude and of a lonely death far away from home. Many migrant workers leave for another city or even for another country, only to disappear in the vast sea of migrants, all looking for a better life. Those left behind wonder, worry and despair. Or suffer in silence, as Vitalina does. Her silence is reinforced by dark, almost black environments, with as little light as the hope of a better future is small for everyone who knew her husband.

This is a film not only about the loss of a loved one. Vitalina Varela is about a deep-seated grief connected to home, family, culture, to what has been.

Spoon (2019)

Director: Laila Pakalnina

Spoon (2019)

What will our legacy be? What will be left at the end of the Anthropocene age with which we ushered in the permanent destruction of our habitat? The world is vast, its processes are complex. And so are the hyper-connected manufacturing processes whose end products fill our shops and supermarkets today. The use of plastic and its effects on the environment have been discussed time and again, eventually leading to the ban of one-way plastic items in the EU by 2021.

In Laila Pakalnina’s onion-like Spoon, the director peels off several layers of what makes our modern life. She uses breathtaking black-and-white cinematography to reveal every step of the manufacturing process of a plastic spoon, showing us factories, container ships, oil refineries. The frames don’t judge, the camera simply records. But the sheer extent of the exploitation of both natural resources and human labour becomes an elephant in the room. At the end of the film, we’re left to ask ourselves: how long are we willing to watch the irredeemable destruction of our environment?