The Creation of Things – Alyam, Alyam by Ahmed El Maânouni

In the words of the filmmaker and historian Ahmed Bouanani, it’s impossible to summarize Ahmed El Maânouni’s Alyam, Alyam. It’s a film about how things are done. 

The submission to individual aspirations, the possession of one’s life, and the idea of extracting oneself from shared existence are all alien to the Moroccan family shown in Alyam, Alyam. The film was made in the spirit of bringing up a national audience, of creating images that decolonize perception, from which Moroccan viewers can learn to look at themselves and, consequently, as Bouanani writes, to judge the society in which they live. The form of Alyam, Alyam and Bouanani’s proclamation delineate a functional explanation of cinema, which identifies its meaning in the facilitation of a common, popular self-recognition, and that necessitates attention to one’s own social relationships in order to establish a relationship with the film itself. It’s educational art, but it doesn’t teach solidified preconceptions. Rather, the lessons fall into place in the moment the viewer appropriates them. 

This process was hindered by the lack of distribution. El Maânouni’s had no access to the cinema space, and his lessons didn’t take shape for years. The lessons engaged with matters of urgency – Alyam, Alyam stages the representative generational conflict between a young peasant, Abdelwahed, who sees emigration as the only solution, and his family, who expect him to take responsibility for them after his father’s death. Abdelwahed refers to necessity; for him, emigration is not a desire, and the appeal of Western life isn’t gratification, but the minimum conditions to maintain life: less dust, less wind, less coughs, less xerodermia, less wounds on the palm. For his mother and grandfather, the family is one, it is inseparable; it’s one with its land and animals as well, which are not to be capitalised on for the advancement of individual plans. Abdelwahed’s intention doesn’t so much strike the family on account of its specificities. A more severe disturbance is rooted in his very consideration of independence, his imagination of new routes that replace the self-evident, integral continuity of inheritance, namely the inheritance of land, responsibility, and providence. Abdelwahed’s family understands religion in the most self-dissolving manner, in light of which a solitary effort to improve the conditions of life on the earthly world is irrelevant. They’re only here for a while to take care of God’s land, the prospect they look forward to is elsewhere.

El Maânouni observes a temporally and geographically distinctive phenomenon, but emphasizes the universal pain of this cessation. The motif of an ending culture in Alyam, Alyam doesn’t merely signify the knowledge about agriculture and the pre-industrialized living space, but also the way people think of themselves.

A particular composition depicting a debate between Abdelwahed, his mother, and his grandfather reoccurs in the film. It’s a deep-focus medium shot, recorded in celestial clarity; the mother and the grandfather find shelter in the shadow of the house while Abdelwahed sits under the sun. It’s exemplary to the images showing conversations. The film consists of numerous long talks but they are never separated from other activities or reduced to the dramaturgical use of verbalizing a situation. The conversations mostly take place during work like the spindling of wool, the forming of dough, the picking of potatoes. They are never about work, which is done with pristine routine, but if work requires greater focus the talking pauses. This element of distraction marks out the vitality of these scenes. The “actors” in Alyam, Alyam perform conversations in a living environment: while they’re in a dialogue, events take place, make noises, and leave traces behind. The people in the scene rarely look at each other; they contemplate, they are partially involved in the dialogue, partially in something else, work, fidgeting, the tumult in the backdrop or a sleeping relative in the same room. The long takes of Alyam, Alyam register the incidents that make a conversation imperfect and dynamic.

El Maânouni’s form of decolonization is not that of agitation but of observation and distance. Alyam, Alyam is an occasion to experience duration and the environment of creation, that of an argument and that of bread. 

Daybreaks by the River: La Seine a rencontré Paris by Joris Ivens

The silken images of Joris Ivens’ La Seine a rencontré Paris are ephemeral. They only register momentum: the flicker of reflection, the drain of textile, the traces of a turning boat. The compositions are not reminiscent of their interwar predecessors, which were made in harbours and aimed at depicting the city’s relation to the river amidst industrializations. They are not wide enough to show the crowds of Das Lied der Ströme, an East German film co-directed by Ivens that relates the triumph of the working class to the civilizational character of rivers. La Seine a rencontré Paris is not directly about production or the conquest of riverbanks. The montage is clean and effortless; it draws a continuous arc between two ends of the city. Manual labour appears in the film but it is elevated, rounded, dreams of muscles and sweat set to fly in awe of rapids and whirlpools. The poetry of Jacques Prévert determines how Ivens films the Seine and the work, passion or strolls that happen in proximity to it. The poet is concerned with the ever-fleeting channels of water and their involuntary rush from the present. He recognises that the essence of this object is the very impossibility of it being seized. So he just dances around the idea of the Seine, charging its aimless existence with metaphors and personifications.

And Ivens observes the Parisiennes: dogs, children, lovers, people working, posing, running, finding a cigarette. He looks at the surface and tiny agitations of time. As opposed to his other films about the relation between a river and a city, La Seine a rencontré Paris doesn’t focus on the utilisation of the river. This film is also about modernity, but the Seine doesn’t become a device of modernity. Rather it provides a modern problem, namely spare time prescribed and framed by production with a backdrop. It’s an unaware companion to daybreaks, detachments from functionality and progress. The Seine can be a void to loose oneself in, or a body of distinct, personal meanings that all bypassers uncover. The film only gives voice to Prévert’s experience, but it’s the allegory of a collective impression each individual experiences differently. Its banks host a ceaseless social event, filled with the noise of free interaction, but it’s also an agora one can flee by letting the monotonous bluster of the river absorb the ruminations.  

For some, the Seine doesn’t mean daybreak. The river, with the words of Prévert, is the factory itself. Even with a slight shift in perspective, Ivens sees workers. His elegant, dignified shots grant them with the strength of the river. In parallel planes, he films parallel movements; in one the workers push debris with a shovel in front of them, in the other a train crosses a bridge a the same speed as the shovels.

Ivens’ images encapsulate the awe felt for the Seine both as a sensual milieu and as an abstraction. Of all his films about urban life, it’s the most concerned with the sentiments – in La Seine a rencontré Paris the formal sublimity of the river is not juxtaposed against the oppressive presence of mechanics, but enriches the spiritual life of the citizens. 

Some find it just like any other river, Prévert recalls in his text, struck by the ignorance in the observation. For him, the Seine is sovereign. It floats freely and never ties itself to just one partner, rather it pulls away the memories and imaginations of all those gazing at it, channeling them out of Paris as it streams beyond the city’s gate. 

Viennale 2021: Sermons from the Stomach – Lav Diaz’s Historya ni Ha

Religious themes don’t expressly dominate but subtly adhere to Lav Diaz’s Historya ni Ha. The way the boundless, deep-focus images offer themselves to be inhabited by the pious protégés of a charismatic puritan invoke the idea that there is always enough space under God’s roof. A teenage boy who can’t sleep alone, a sprightly nun, an apprehensive sex worker and a water-loving carabao find shelter in the firm presence of Hernando, a ventriloquist and his puppet, Ha. Hernando retires, breaks his relationship with speech and decides to only communicate through his vivified companion. 

There is a populist appeal in Hernando’s artistry, the faith in emancipatory entertainment for a powerless audience but one that seems to be distant from the reality of his work. As a popular star, Hernando grew to experience performing mostly as a routine of pleasing and schmoozing with the corrupt and the heartless. It is suggested that he was involved in the crushed Huk movement, an anti-imperialist, communist uprising in the 1940s and 1950s. Yet, his quiet resentment is not political bitterness; in fact, he retains a belief in pedagogy and the force of exemplary behavior and well-meaning advice. Hernando’s reclusion from bodabil – the Philippine variation of vaudeville – is rather to halt the degrading self-exhibition on international tours and in luxurious ocean liners where his appreciation is the primitive laughter of drunken plutocrats. His return to the Philippines from the last barnstorming in Japan is marked by revelations that signify insecurity in the country’s future and his private life as well: president Ramón Magsaysay – a Messianistic figure in the national canon – dies in an air crash and Hernando’s fiancée marries a wealthy man to help her family. He sets out on a journey, passing through a landscape of constantly reshaping creeks and increasing mud. The mise-en-scène intensifies, lamps flicker, the sound falters, stray dogs enter the frame. Hernando wades in the menacing tempest, going after a modest and useful life, or just letting himself be absorbed by an internal dialogue about the thinker’s responsibility or the rain itself. Eventually he meets these fellow travelers in need who hope to get to an island full of gold. Taking the hand of a lady who tries to stay standing on high heels in the middle of sweeping flood and guarding a boy’s dreams are more urgent for Hernando than purging solitude. 

Sanctity and intellectual connotations feel both attached to him – he could write lyrical letters to his fiancée about how the dilemmas he discusses with and through Ha are mirrored Hermann Broch’s Der Tod des Vergil or how he feels attracted to the self-subjugation of the characters in Lev Tolstóy’s Voyna i mir

But Diaz’s form is much more sparing and classical than Broch’s and his protagonist appears much less of an ideal than Tolstóy’s ascetic aristocrats. 

Around Hernando’s enormous soul, there’s flesh and blood: we see him dirty and witty; we see him desire and hazard. 

With its kicking directness, traces of a vital, storming production, themes of traveling and gold, Historya ni Ha aligns well with Diaz’s work and there’s even a motific continuation from Lahi, hayop. Yet, his new film is often light and warm, revering the orientational skills of vagabonds, paying attention to the ceaselessly moving ears of a carabao and concluding with the relevance of education. Violence is also reduced – only in one moment of piercing stylistic intelligence, Diaz silences the film and shows barbarity in a discreet yet devastating montage. In the quiet, we can hear the atrocities from inside sharper than is bearable. 

In the end, Hernando becomes a teacher, a profession (or vocation) that was extensively looked at in this year’s Viennale. I’ve long struggled with the dominant (and unanimously positive) notion of education’s role in contemporary progressive discourse. The trust in social mobility easily forgets that even in the most helpful pedagogic environment, the concept’s success is dependent on talent and performance, virtues of a system that necessitates social mobility, which is beneficial for gifted individuals but leaves the existence of their original location within society untouched – thus it will be taken by someone new, for whom such ascent is impossible. 

Similarly to the other defining (and real-life) teacher in the festival’s selection, Dieter Bachmann from Maria Speth’s Herr Bachmann und seine Klasse, Hernando provides an alternative. Gold is not the solution, he says to the angelic teenager who wants to support his entire family from his adventure to the distant island. The objective of Hernando’s persistent, ritualistic incantation and teaching of – what I understood as – the alphabet isn’t to arm the children with tools for competition and prevalence. It’s laying the foundation of what can be learnt together, a worthwhile common knowledge, a set of references and values that holds people together and enables them to share experiences and imagine a future through similarly understood words. And for him, it’s coming back to life and speaking his own voice again, it’s the choice to be around people instead of getting lost in the woods.