Wednesday, 26 October 2016
(revised for a MovieMail podcast in 2010. A poem about the same film, Notes on Love, appears in The Long White Thread of Words: Poems for John Berger, published by Smokestack Books in 2016)
As you might expect from a film with such an artless title, Love tests expectations and definitions of the word, not least because the main characters are separated – János has been locked up as a political prisoner in early 1950s Hungary, while Luca is managing as best she can while also visiting Janos’s dying, bedridden mother. To ease his mother’s mind, Luca writes her letters, ostensibly from János in America, where she has invented for him a madly successful life as a film director. Her letters – touching in their transposition of local detail, fantastical in their imaginings, poignant in her need that fills the spaces between the lines – are read through the prism of his mother’s need to sustain her final days through belief in his success.
Appropriately for a film that use objects and associations in a web of visual poetry, threaded through reminiscence, memory and a present darkened by the wearying effort of holding the fear of loss at bay, I was reminded of the film and rewatched it after reading a poem from 1961, also called Love, and written by the Serbian poet Ivan Lalić. Its quiet celebration of physical proximity and the tenderness of ageing together is utterly different to that of the film and yet, through its enquiry into the intersection of time and love, it stands as a promise of unrealised possibilities, of an intimacy that has been deprived from János and Luca, or anyone else who has been needlessly and forcefully separated at the whim of political expedience. Here is part of it:
For years I have been learning your features, where the days
Impress their tiny fires; for years I have memorised
Their shimmering uniqueness, and the latticed lightness
Of your movements behind the transparent draperies
Of the afternoon; and so I no longer recognise you
Outside the memory which surrenders you to me,
And every day I find it harder to tame the current of time
Which does not flow through you, through the gentle metal
Of your blood;
if you change, I change equally,
And with us that world built around an instant
Like fruit around a kernel, woven of unreal flesh
With the taste of lightning, the taste of dust, the taste of years,
The taste of snow melting on the flame of your skin.
The film Love is built around a kernel of absence. As such, it is unsurprising that it concentrates on the objects and textures of lives inhabiting the everyday space of that absence, the grain of waiting that fills the silence between the chimes of the clock in János’s mother’s room.
From the pane of glass that trembles ever so slightly after the opening credits, breaking their spell and leading us into the film, as János’s mother looks out of the window, framed by the reflection of bare, dark winter trees, Love is a film filled with screens and lenses, transparent images of separation and distortion – spectacles, a magnifying glass, window glass, mirrors. In fact, this theme of separation is signalled even before the credits as, to a dark subterranean pulsing, photographs of stamps on a letter, then János and Luca are flashed up, separated in the film itself by black frames.
I don’t think there is an extraneous image in this film. Even the brief linking shots, of leaves in a dark puddle, of Luca walking alone down a cobbled street or sitting in a tram waiting for it to leave, reinforce an feeling of a relationship abraded by arbitrary injustice.
The camera tracks across surfaces: a cracked pavement wet with rain, a metal boot scraper, more rain collecting in the pitted treads of steps, the peeling varnish on fence posts creating its own patterns to spite the smooth surface that was once laid down. And meanwhile, Luca and János’s mother play out their relationship with the coaxing out of familiar stories and the exasperation with helplessness, their teasing dialogue capturing the mixture of affection and resentment that typifies such situations. Janos’s mother is often shown with her hand outside the sheets, needing touch but resentful too that it can’t be her son who touches her: ‘When I die, only my son will touch my hand … if my son can’t hold my hand then I want to be alone.’ Scenes of contact are used sparingly and are all the more tender because of it. When Luca washes her mother-in-law’s hand, sponging it, holding it, towelling it dry, she prolongs the touch beyond the perfunctory needs. It is a brief but central moment to the film. It is a touch that neither prefers but because of the absence of János – one’s husband, the other’s son – it is all they have. There are a number of types of love in this film. This is one composed of fortitude and forbearance, restraint and fear, nobility in the face of injustice; the belief that you may meet again, the acceptance that you may not.
In the space of a few frames, days leak from one to another, as days do during a time of dying. A few steps walked on a street, a bunch of flowers placed into a vase an emptied glass phial and cotton wool on a table carry us through hours and days, as does the brief light from an opened door that falls across the old woman’s bed. The hand and arm that Luca holds is faintly speckled, like the skin of the halved lemon on the saucer near the bedside, on which a light is turned on and off.
The grille on János’s cell door is like the grille of a stove. Inside, he is given a shave, his eyes trying to probe from the barber what this unexpected care might mean. He is without expectation. Even when he is walked along the chain-link passageways and then through a door, his eyes are downcast; anything that wishes for his attention will claim it from him soon enough. After the return of his possessions, an inspection and signing out in the bleaching light of a doctor’s room, the contrast harsh on Janos’s face, he sets out to return to what was once his home. Sudden release does not mean shocked happiness or pleasure, he is too numbed and too fearful for such emotions yet, too fearful that his ground is still uncertain – as when he nearly bumps into soldiers when boarding a tram – and can yet be taken away from him. His taxi driver recognises his look immediately. Political? he asks. Yes, responds János.
At one point, as we watch him through the glass of a window, he buys a newspaper. In a film in which his wife and mother have established a relationship through letters, in which what is said and what is not said dance through their words, nodding at mischievous duplicity and desperate need as they do so, it seems appropriate, and if he but knew it, portentous, that the print has leached through the thin paper, blurring what can be read. How to begin to make sense of his new situation? He makes it home, a sprig of forsythia in his hand, blossom on the trees after a cold, wet spring, but there is no-one behind the net curtain covering the glass of the door of the apartment. The concierge lets him in when he returns. He waits, glances into a mirror that faces him down, leading him to drop his head in shame at the blank weariness he sees in his own eyes. He glances at the door, listens to the glass bowl squeal of a tram taking the bend, peers out of the window beneath the blind, waits, sees his mother’s spectacles in a box of her odds and ends.
Later, after an age of waiting, János and Luca are in the same room.
- Can you get used to me again? asks János.
- I love you, Luca replies.
- I’ve grown old, says János.
Luca washes his body.
- Will you sleep with me tonight? asks János.
- Will you stay with me all night?
- Yes. Every night, as long as I live, replies Luca.
The place where we leave them, a place of tender sadness, forgiveness and a proximity that can finally allow the comfort of weariness, a place where there need be no barriers for nothing can be hidden, calls to mind the words from another Lalić poem, Four Psalms, in which he writes:
I’ll make you a land where words turn of their own accord
into birds, taking on lives of their own
That last as long as they have meaning
A land which won’t go away if you close your eyes,
Like a strip of light under someone else’s door
Extinguished by a stranger’s indifferent act
Love can be many things. At this moment in the film it is the gift of a starting point in the middle of a life.
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2010 after viewing the film and interviewing its director at DocLisboa, the Lisbon Documentary Film Festival, in 2010)
An extensive documentary about toxic contamination from a decommissioned US airbase in The Philippines, John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark) also serves as an extended meditation on colonial occupation, national identity and the erasure of historical memory. One of the presiding spirits of the film is the historian and activist Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States. With Zinn, Gianvito came up with three premises on history that open the film, the first being:
‘All history is selection, and emphasis; neutral neither in origin or effect.’
Vapor Trail (Clark) presents a filmic archaeology of waste. The waste is quite literal; it’s the toxic junk and the heavy metals that remain in the soil of Clark airbase in Pampanga Province in The Philippines. Its effects are still being felt, tragically and lethally, by the many innocent victims who were unwittingly exposed to it after being resettled on the base temporarily after the massive eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, and by those who continue to be exposed to the pollution that has seeped into the groundwater and found new ‘pathways of exposure’ through local rivers to the nearby town of Madapdap. On one level, this is a film about this waste, the lives of the people it continues to effect, and those local people and organisations who are pressing for someone to take responsibility for a clean-up operation. In making the film however, Gianvito found that to get to the root of why this waste was there in the first place and why nothing was being done about it now, he had to go back over a century to a now mostly forgotten war, the American-Philippine war of 1899-1902.
It started out as another film entirely, as part of a debate on the effective uses of sound and image in political documentaries. This issue of ongoing toxic contamination from US military bases was one that Gianvito had read about some time before and remembered, and he planned that it would form one of the filmed sequences to be debated. However, when he went to The Philippines and started filming there, the responsibility he felt to address the problems he was hearing about in people’s testimonies became overwhelming. ‘How can this filmmaker help us?’ was, he felt, the continual appeal directed his way, and to which he responded, changing his film in the face of the injustice he encountered in people’s stories. Being in the position to actually do something about it and bring the issue to wider attention, he accepted responsibility.
Ah yes – responsibility; the word itself runs like a toxic term through the film. The situation lying behind the noxious waste is this: as part of an exit strategy from their decommissioned military bases, the US offered – and the Philippine government signed – an agreement that meant the US could not be held responsible for any problems arising from their use; however, the mess on the bases not being theirs, the Philippine government does not think that the clean-up is their responsibility (even though they signed the contract), and have said that ‘they will not pay a single centavo’ towards addressing the problems caused by contamination. The likelihood of the US shifting their stance is nil – if they clean up one base what about all their other bases across the globe? Unfortunately, waste, whether old and unexploded ordinance, medical waste or harmful chemicals that have seeped into the soil, is inconvenient, not knowing that it has been decommissioned and is meant to be out of action. The people caught in the middle, the ones with the leukaemia, diarrhoea, nosebleeds, lead and arsenic poisoning, the ones who suffer fevers, nausea and persistent headaches, miscarriages, the ones who were born prematurely, or with defects, or who died with their bones still soft, are the innocent. ‘My eye wants to close and doesn’t want to open,’ says one woman, left with a persistent sickness since her stay in CABCOM, the central section of Clark Air Base from where the problems stem. It is a statement that could just as well apply to the US and Philippine governments.
Gianvito and Zinn again: ‘All history is the history of what is remembered, and what is remembered by those with the power to inscribe that memory – and thus open to question.’
A little way through Vapor Trail (Clark) we are shown a brief CNN news report on the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the event that precipitated the ongoing situation. The report is slick, the presenter assuming his concerned voice as he presents a glib synopsis. Its effect, coming as it does in the middle of this committed and compassionate investigative film of interviews and testimony is loathsome, a presentation of one aspect of the human theatre in reprehensible slo-mo. The non-stick commentary and presentation contrast tellingly with Gianvito’s work, which is a film of necessary leakages between subjects and eras, unfinished business, sticky mess and waste, of uncleaned-up experiences told at length and in a person's own words instead of paraphrased into acceptability of length and phrase.
Throughout the film, Gianvito asks interviewees if they have heard of the American-Philippine War (he admits that he himself didn’t know of the war until he read A People’s History of the United States); of those that have, he asks if they know any details. No-one does. ‘I know there was a war,’ says one child, ‘but at school they didn’t teach us specifics’. In a park containing the statue of the Filipino nationalist, radical and revolutionary Andrés Bonifacio, founder of the Katipunan movement that sought independence from Spanish colonial rule, Gianvito asks people nearby if they know who he is. One offers the suggestion that he is a guardian of the park. Bonifacio's statue holds a raised, and now broken, scimitar in his hand.
This loss of apparent relevance for significant events in a country’s past, and over such a short space of time, is troubling. For in the end this film is is about how something as intangible as the loss of historical memory, and the loss of an awareness of how a national identity has come about, can lead to very tangible effects in the form of deaths from polluted land. This is one of Gianvito’s points, for if a citizen was aware that their present country was founded on an act of betrayal and broken promises by America, in which they initially said that they would support Philippine insurgents against their then Spanish colonisers, but instead ended up ‘buying’ the Philippines from Spain for 20 million dollars in 1898 and excluding the insurgents from the negotiations, and that an American General – General Shafter – declared in 1899 that ‘the war is over, no matter what 10 million niggers think about it,’ then maybe that citizen would be more wary about the same country’s intentions in the future. If they were a government official, they might even be a bit more savvy about signing contracts regarding responsibilities for ongoing pollution from military bases.
Vapor Trail (Clark) is a long film, 4 ½ hours, and that’s just the first part. The second, Wake (Subic) is being edited together at the moment from the 90 hours of material Gianvito shot across his three summers in The Philippines on non-renewed visas so as not to attract too much attention to what he was doing. Gianvito is aware of the problems of that such length imposes, but is unrepentant. ‘It demands a lot from you, but I could argue that it should demand even more,’ he said before the screening. ‘It’s asking you to watch a movie – in the bigger scheme of things, what’s that?’
However, the film’s strength lies precisely in its uncompromising approach. It isn’t going away any time soon – and nor is the problem. In fact, with US bases worldwide currently numbering over 700, and, quote, ‘non-traditional security concerns’ apparently justifying their continued presence, it is a problem that is going to be with us for some time to come.
Campaigning documentaries in our time tend to founder in a film wasteland with their neat borders tended by the already converted unless they demand something of you and cross boundaries. This is wholly part of Gianvito’s exercise – to make links and aid practical assistance: a handout at the screening gives the name and address of the Alliance for U.S. Bases Clean-up, Philippines. After such a powerful experience in the film, the responsibility for action is transferred to the audience.
‘The soul of history is economic.’
President McKinley referred to the newly purchased Philippines as ‘a gift from the gods’. In the film we see the same words painted on the front of a lorry parked outside of a backyard waste-sorting enterprise, complete with a large unexploded bomb, near to the fence of Clark military base. Other sorters are at work through the film, men digging down into foul-smelling, foetid earth of decades-old toxic landfill on the ex-Clark Base in the hope of scraps to sell. These are men digging their own graves.
Vapor Trail (Clark) is a thoroughly inconvenient film for all sorts of reasons – not least because Clark Base is now Clark Freeport Zone, a rapidly expanding and economically important commercial centre for The Philippines that certainly doesn’t want to hear tales of ongoing contamination from its land, situated (as its website blurb has it) at the heart of growing markets in the Asia-Pacific region. The ‘toxics’ have been fenced off according to the spokesman for the Clark Development Corporation. What more can they do? But, as one nearby resident says, ‘the juices of the garbage are creeping to Madapdap,’ where drinking water from a pump turns milky yellow overnight when left in a plastic bottle, and if that wasn't enough, also incubates a couple of orange oily lumps for good measure. The flow of rivers runs through the film, but by the end of the 4 1/2 hours, the opening images of flowing water at dawn have assumed a terrible retrospective portent.
I am reminded of Heavy Water, Phil Grabsky and David Bickerstaff’s 2007 film about Chernobyl, which allies poet Mario Petrucci’s words about the disaster and its aftermath to images from the exclusion zone: This side of the fence is clean, that side is dirty. Understand? / You must forget that soil is like skin. In their film they show a farm in the Chernobyl area. A flycatcher rests on a corrugated iron fence, respecting no such niceties of differentiation, as a cat peers over, readying to leap.
Along with Howard Zinn, the other person whose influence is felt throughout the film is Mark Twain, or rather his lesser-known side; the one whose caustic tract against imperialism in general and the American prosecution of The Philippine War in particular, entitled To the Person Sitting in Darkness and written in 1901 for the Anti-Imperialist League of New York, Gianvito quotes from in the film. ‘There must be two Americas,’ Twain says, ‘one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.’ At the end Twain, presciently, proposes a new flag for The Philippine Province, ‘It is easily managed,’ he says ‘... we can have just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.’
Some images from the film: a Sodium Hydrosulfite barrel used as a planter in a street front yard; a billboard with the words Don’t Give Up – Pray, It Works, another, for a washing powder, saying Tide With Sun Power Washes Clean, and lastly, at the end of this first film, children flying black kites over a black river in Madapdap.
Vapor Trail (Clark) makes the point (and this is still current practice today when a state wants to discredit an enemy) that during the American-Philippine War, America downgraded the terminology by which it referred to Filipino fighters for independence from revolutionaries, to insurgents, and finally to bandits and brigands. ‘What do you think of yourself as?’ I asked Gianvito. ‘A troublemaker,’ he replied, and later (only half joking), ‘enemy combatant,’ though adding that ‘ultimately labels are good for washing instructions but not as useful for people’.
Saturday, 22 October 2016
(written for a MovieMail podcast in 2010)
Applauding themselves for their day’s work, a group of rheumy, toothless old men suck at their bread and sausage, gum the tearings from a cooked chicken into submission, and wash their food down with beer and song, while to the sound of a tinny piano in an echoing hall, a man calls up the shade of an imaginary partner for a hobbled dance. He finishes his halting twirls and the other men applaud, while the starving boys they have captured are set free to walk the path away from their guns. Fire the men are commanded, and perhaps they don’t, sending the boys off into the darkness of the woods once more to the sound of their mocking laughter and song.
Diamonds of the Night begins with two boys jumping from the train that is transporting them to a wartime concentration camp. It is a film that takes place in the time between. Between the squeal of brakes on iron rails and the silence that follows the command to fire, between the shouted command to halt and the dull sound of rifle shots thudding the earth. It is a film that takes place in the the distance between the shot and its intended target. The two boys carry their deaths inside of them, but just for now, they are alive, their bodies steaming in the cold air, their chests tight with running, hearing but beyond reacting to the puff of the engine pulling away, leaving them to their fate.
To be in dark spruce woods is to hide without hope of refuge. There is neither home nor comfort to be found on its ground, littered with the branches of uprooted trees. Its earth is thin and fungal, hollow-sounding beneath its browned needles. It is impossible to be quiet in such woods with its rifle snap of twigs and underfoot crunch of debris. Its spikes and broken branch shards threaten to take out an eye, jab at a soft cheek. Its light is old, grey-green and stagnant. It is woodland that must be passed through and endured; this is why we follow the boys from behind as they walk into the darkness that we share.
Their trudge through woodland calls up other journeys. Sunlight through treetops is the light that floods through a tram as it travels across an occupied city; the light that fills the back streets walked through to a rendezvous or uncertain promise. It is while lying in the snagging, prickly brush that footsteps and voices echo off the walls from the cobbled streets. Flaking signs and glimpses of physical intimacy invade the mind – bedclothes airing through a window, a woman leaning out of a window, waiting, while another squats in the shadows. There is a girl in sunlight and a white dog running past passageways, while inside a doorway a woman is stuck in the act of pulling a dress over her head, a broken automaton, or a sea anemone writhed by underwater currents.
Church bells toll the boys’ walk, as does the cuckoo’s broken honk of late spring. The suck and squelch of marshy ground softens the skin that rubs against too-tight leather boots, hardening into the shape of another owner’s feet. A desperate laugh born of this pain sends trees crashing down like hopes of an end to the boys’ journey.
There are few words here, and those that are spoken are necessary. As the boys cross steep rocky scree, deep hunger gnaws. The boy with the boots is hobbling badly now, the boy without trails behind and lies down. He says three phrases: sit down next to me, go by yourself, wait for me, words that shift his thoughts through wilfulness, independence, bloody-mindedness, hate, fear, need and companionship in less than a minute – the time it takes for ants to cover his hands and an eye.
A crust of bread is a rind of plough-turned earth, the hair of a boy’s head as he waits for this bread is woodland moss running with water. He unties the bloodied rags from his heel. Diamonds of the Night takes place between the bark of a guard dog and the opening of a stranger’s door, between the deal made to exchange boots for a half-eaten root vegetable, between the bread that bloodies the gums and the inedible woody clutter of a mouthful of pine cone, between the walk that begins again and the memory of grasped pine branches and heather in sandy earth, as a train wails into the distance.