Writer and Film Historian
|On the Road: A Document
|Nuestra voz de tierra, memoria y futuro
|Marta Rodriguez and Jorge Silva
|The Ballad of Sexual Dependency
|The Perfumed Nightmare
On the Road: A Document
On the Road: A Document was commissioned by Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department to publicise the importance of traffic safety in the lead up to the 1964 Olympics. In preparation for parading its modernisation, Japan not only constructed athletic facilities, but an entire urban infrastructure, including massive highways and the world’s first bullet train. Navigating a city newly criss-crossed with roads was perilous, not least for the taxi drivers upon whom Tsuchimoto focused. An act of exposure and empathy, On the Road maps the terrifying space-time compression of speeding traffic and automated signals that organised the city along axes of efficiency and control. Using oblique angles, high contrast and abrupt cutting, Tsuchimoto materialised the alienation and fracturing of everyday life in this age of acceleration. Interspersed with action sequences on the road are scenes of a young taxi driver returning home with low pay and high stress levels. While Tokyo announced construction and growth, Tsuchimoto chronicled car crashes and social misery. Predictably, the film angered police commissioners and was shelved. Tsuchimoto worked with a drivers’ union while filming On the Road and shared it as a tool for politicisation and empowerment. This act of allyship characterised his entire career.
Nuestra voz de tierra, memoria y futuro
This hybrid documentary emerged from five years of collaboration between the filmmaker couple and indigenous groups in Colombia's Cauca region. The region had experienced centuries of exploitation at the hands of Spanish colonisers and, later, European and North American corporations who appropriated lands for mining and agribusiness. Nuestra's narrative is by no means sequential or consistent with conventional arcs of action and resolution. In some scenes, members of the Regional Council of Indigenous People reclaim ancestral land through legal and guerrilla tactics. In others, they re-enact a devil myth central to the region. These re-enactments elevate systems of belief often dismissed as ‘primitive’ on to equal footing with documentary, and were scripted by members of the indigenous community. The re-enacted myth illustrates capitalist expansion via a devil figure who resembles both a conquistador and a policeman – he is a composite of all those who have exploited indigenous people. The plural first-person ‘our’ in the film’s title flags its makers’ hope for better collective understanding. Nuestra’s eponymous voice also gestures at its makers’ eco-political strategy. ‘Our voice’ is neither wholly that of filmmaker or subject, nor even a human – it is also an expression of ‘land, memory, and futurity’.
Filmed on roads and railways in Poland, Russia and former East Germany, this 16mm film retraces Akerman's family history of displacement, and chronicles an unstable time after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Shot from summer through to bitter midwinter, the film itself is in transit, moving between seasons, time periods, political ideologies, and generations of people. But with these physical, political, and existential transitions, the film's long takes create a sense of stasis. Akerman said she wanted to make the film “while there’s still time” – indicating cinema's abiding capacity for documenting that which will soon be gone. This capacity characterises several of my poll choices this year, including Jia Zhangke's Platform (2000) and Nan Goldin's Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1981/5), films that remind us what moving image is: a time-based medium with immense potential for moving us, emotionally.
Another film in my list about history and transition… Set in Jia’s native Fenyang, Shanxi Province, Platform offers an epic social history of the decade in which China moved from Maoism to market capitalism. Following a local troupe of performers, the film uses popular music and clothing styles as subtle temporal signposts for larger cultural and economic transformations. The film's title recalls the community stage used by the performers in the film, and a popular song about waiting on a railway platform. But to me, the title Platform also evokes China's appearance on the world stage, and the film's sense of anticipation as Jia says farewell to one chapter in history and awaits another.
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency
This is a slideshow film. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was first exhibited in 1985 and published as an artist's book the following year. I prefer its slideshow iteration because of its additional soundtrack (ranging from Maria Callas to The Velvet Underground). The Ballad comprises photographs taken between 1979 and 1986 by photographer Nan Goldin of her friends and lovers in Boston, New York, Berlin and elsewhere. Named after a song in Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, the Ballad is a kind of opera itself, filled with eroticism, intimacy, violence, love and loss. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read,” Goldin wrote. “The diary… allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember.” Remembering is a vital part of the Ballad, as many of those photographed later died of Aids-related diseases.
Written and directed by the American actor Barbara Loden, who also played the film’s eponymous lead, Wanda is a portrait of a woman who wanders out of an unhappy marriage and into an equally unhappy life on the road. Wanda recalls both direct cinema and Italian neorealism in its gritty depiction of working-class life. The film opens among murky coal tips in Carbondale, a mining town whose name fits the film’s focus on capitalism’s extractivist violence. Wanda chronicles how a society centred on exploitative labour practices and fossil fuel consumption simultaneously damages a landscape, a community and a woman. Separating capitalism from patriarchy is impossible in Wanda. Loden emphasised that Wanda was not about women’s liberation but their oppression within a system that devalues reproductive labour and pegs women’s market value to their unpaid domestic and sexual services. I love this film because it flies in the face of the generic American road movie's petro-capitalist and patriarchal fantasies. Loden wrote an alternative ending to Wanda but disliked its resolution. Her rebuttal to solutionism announces that if it’s not all right, it’s not the end. There's still so much eco-intersectional justice to be won.
The Perfumed Nightmare
Eric Oteyza de Guia (better known as Kidlat Tahimik, 'Silent Lightning' in Tagalog) stars in this satirical film, which he also wrote, directed, edited, co-shot, and produced. He plays a Filipino jeepney driver fascinated by the American space programme and Western society as a whole. Upon moving to Paris, however, disillusionment sets in... Beneath the film's comedy lies a caution against globalisation and western imperialism that chimes with many Third Cinema filmmakers with whom Tahimik formed alliances, including the Japanese filmmaking collective Ogawa Productions. Tahimik worked as an economist in France and the US before returning to the Philippines to write and make films that questioned neocolonialism and the capitalist structures governing so-called productivity, growth and progress.
This single-channel film installation features 37 minutes of slow-motion replay footage documenting an underwater nuclear test at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, filmed from 15 different military ships and aeroplanes in July 1946. Operation Crossroads, as the test was known, is an episode of military sublime, horrific and compelling as it mushrooms 8 miles high in the sky and sends a white ring of deadly radiation across the ocean. Crossroads was one of several US nuclear bomb tests held less than a year after the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite barbaric atrocities inflicted on Japan, the US considered its ongoing tests as triumphs, broadcasting them on radio and TV, and inspiring a French engineer to use the name of the Marshall Islands atoll for his swimwear invention, the bikini, that same year. Conner was fascinated by the widespread difficulty people had in putting the nuclear explosions' awful and awe-inspiring power into words. The film is wordless, using Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson's synthesised hushing, droning, looping rhythms instead. Conner plays with time throughout, in one instance slowing one second of real time to three minutes on screen, to make us look – and really think.
Imagine taking the World Bank and the IMF to court for their crimes against humanity and the planet, inflicted through imperial exploitation, neocolonialism and globalisation. That's exactly what Sissako does, filming a satirical court procedure where Africa itself is the plaintiff, and the tribunal takes place in a yard of a residential area of Bamako, Mali, where Sissako grew up. Watching Bamako today, as the uneven global effects of climate crisis and its roots in colonial extractivism become increasingly evident, Sissako's sharp delineation of debt dependency is timely and urgent. The film makes me weep at the beautiful song Naam by Christy Azuma, performed during the tribunal, and, as the credits roll, reach for Walter Rodney's book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Understated yet overwhelmingly tender, Tokyo Story is about generational gaps and growing older. It follows an ageing couple from the provinces as they visit their grown-up children in post-war Tokyo. Neither the city, nor their children, seem to have much time for them. As the trip wears on, the parents notice both the virtues and vanities of their children. Ozu's long takes allow personalities to develop in exquisite pace and detail. Social conventions and their subversion stand out in moments of hilarity and anguishing pathos. I first watched Tokyo Story with my own father. I was living in Tokyo and he visited me (from rural Wales, rather than rural Japan, but the parallel was clear). We laughed and cried together and, as if though Ozu's poised camera lens, observed ourselves and the city with a new kind of care.