Film and Flesh: On Kawase, Kieslowski, Varda, Akerman, and Tait

I wanted to say: film believes it can preserve what you are doing at this moment. But you, from where you are, wherever it may be, whether you have gone away still bonded to the sand, or the wind, or the sea, or the wall, or the bird, or the dog, you will realize that film cannot do that.

— Marguerite Duras, The Atlantic Man (translated by Alberto Manguel)

 

One of the most powerful things about the medium of film is its capacity to seemingly preserve the dead. Now that we have home videos, photographs are not enough. To see our lost loved ones walking and smiling, or to hear their voice, is an overwhelming experience. Film appears to capture the sensual reality of a person in a way that photographs cannot. The camera seems to contain the soul of a person, something closer to who they were when they were alive. Home movies feel like resurrection, like you can reach out and touch someone who is forever lost.

I no longer have any videos of my father. During an unexpected move in 2015, we grabbed the photographs but overlooked the VHS tapes. When he died in 2006, it was another world–one where smartphones were not yet ubiquitous and people still took photographs on disposable cameras. My family was working class, and we didn’t have a digital camera or camcorder when I was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s. All I had were some VHS tapes with a few birthday parties on them. I watched the tapes shortly after his death. Even though I no longer have the tapes, I have the memory of what was on them. I have my own inner film constructed from the fragments that I remember.

It was a birthday party. I was maybe 2 or 3. We were at my grandma’s house. She’s dead, too. The images flash in my mind as I write. Me sitting in my mother’s lap, laying my head on her chest, putting her necklace in my mouth. My grandma in the kitchen holding me. My dad trying to assemble one of the presents I received. He’s around 30. I’ll soon turn 30. He doesn’t know he’ll be dead in a little over a decade. None of us know what’s coming. The movie captures us in that one moment that both is and isn’t lost. The movie caught it and, even though the tape has disappeared, I remember the movie.

I wish I had that film of him. I wish we’d grabbed those tapes. I wish he was still here. I can’t forget the experience of watching those home movies. Putting them in the VCR (I don’t even own one now), sitting on the living room floor, seeing the scenes flash on the large television (no flat screens back then). It felt like he was with me again, like it had all been reversed, he was back, he came home. But he never came home, and he never will. The movie was an illusion, a beautiful illusion.

The truth is, film is a lie. The dead are not alive, even though they move and smile on the screen in front of us.  A memory of a movie is a second movie that only I will ever see. I can only describe it in words now. I have language as a substitution for the lost film. But words can’t bring him back. Film can’t bring him back either, but the film at least let me pretend for a little while, it gave me a reminder of the physical reality of him. He was once right beside me. Now, his absence consumes every room. The film gave me his presence again.

If I could go back, I’d do what so many women filmmakers have done–I’d document the living before they die, record their skin and hair and voices so that I never forget them. The camera would defy death; it would tell death that you can take the body, but I have a copy, I still have this person with me that you stole. I could show the footage to other people. I could have physical proof of the dead’s existence. They were here. I loved them. They loved me. We knew each other. We were together.

I think of Naomi Kawase’s 1994 film Katatsumori. In it, she records her aunt who adopted her and who she also referred to as “Grandma”. In one scene, her aunt is outside and Kawase is standing at a window watching her, she reaches out her hand almost as a way of touching her from afar. It feels like a gesture of preemptive grief for the time when the aunt will be gone (she died a few years ago) and will be untouchable. The hand forever frozen in the act of reaching out for the person who is no longer there. She records her aunt’s face. I think about how sometimes we stare at a person intently, trying to memorize everything about them. In Katatsumori, the camera seems to function like Kawase’s own eyes, taking the aunt in, recording her face and body, committing her to memory for Kawase.

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I’m reminded of a scene in Kieslowski’s 1979 film, Camera BuffThe film is about Filip, a Polish factory worker who buys a camera for the purpose of filming his newborn daughter. But what begins as a personal endeavor steadily becomes something more when Filip’s employer asks him to film the company’s 25th anniversary jubilee and submit the film to a festival where it wins third prize. Soon, Filip is obsessed with his camera and instead of focusing its lens on his daughter or his wife, he places it on the gray, desolate world around him, producing insightful documentaries for the television news. In the early days of Filip’s amateur film making, he captures a poignant moment for his friend Piotrek. He briefly films Piotrek driving up to the apartment building where he lives, exiting his vehicle, and smiling up at his mother who leans out of a window. This moment will become even more important when Piotrek’s mother dies. After her funeral, in his time of intense grief, Piotrek asks to watch the film.

He sits in a darkened room with Filip and other friends and looks at the screen as that moment in time comes back to life. He watches himself drive up to the apartment building and smile at his mother. She appears at the window, her face materializing out of the darkness; she is a beautiful blur, resurrected for only seconds.

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Piotrek asks to keep the film. Then, he reflects on the meaning of the moving image. He most likely has many photographs of his mother, but this is the only film he will ever have of her.

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I think of Agnès Varda, who, in The Beaches of Agnès, shares profoundly intimate footage of her late husband, Jacques Demy. When she knew he was dying, she took her camera and recorded close-ups of his hair, face, and skin. The camera is almost more than an eye; it becomes a hand, caressing Demy, touching his flesh the way a lover would. Varda continually circles around to Demy in her work. She made several films about his life. His memory was precious to her, and she repeatedly engages with him through the medium of film almost as a way to keep him alive and present in her life. In The Beaches of Agnès, she explains why she had to film Demy before he died

 

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In her film, The Gleaners and I, Varda turns the camera on herself, filming her ageing body. She records close-ups of her hands, her graying hair, and reflects on the horror of growing old. In The Gleaners and I: Two Years Later, Varda says that it was only afterwards that someone brought to her attention the parallels between filming Demy and filming herself. She was not conscious of it at the time. Now that Varda is gone, this footage is all the more precious.

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It seems obvious, but, as filmmakers, these women needed to film. Film is how they understand the world and how they make sense of their lives. It’s understandable that their reaction to the eventual loss of a loved one is to record their “very matter,” as Varda says. These films are not just about the dead who are recorded but also about the one doing the recording, the women holding the cameras and their relationship to the subjects–the love they feel for their mothers and spouses. It’s that thread between the filmmaker and the person on screen that makes the documentaries so poignant, so haunting.

I think of Chantal Akerman’s final film, No Home Movie, which is an intimate look at Akerman’s mother, Nelly, who eventually passed away. In the film, the mother is already slipping away, and the camera seems to be a way for Akerman to hold on to her for as long as she can. Her mission is to dissolve distance. She even films herself video chatting with Nelly. It’s as though this is a rehearsal for the way that Akerman will interact with Nelly after she’s gone–only through video. In the scene, Nelly exists on a screen. She can’t be touched or held, and that’s ultimately all Akerman will have once her mother dies–a recording, a remnant, a face on a screen. But, in that moment of their chat, Nelly is alive and that’s what the camera captures. For that time, distance does not exist. Mother and daughter are still together.

 

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Ultimately, death is the greatest distance, the distance that cannot be dissolved or bridged.

Finally, I think of Margaret Tait’s A Portrait of Ga, a short 1952 film of the director’s mother. It’s a poetic documentary that shows Ga engaging in everyday tasks, like reading a book, tending her garden, and eating a sticky candy. Tait provides voice-over narration, but it’s not a particularly personal or emotional film. Rather, it’s a playful and light-hearted look at Tait’s mother. Unlike some of the other films I’ve mentioned, there’s a joyousness about it. It’s not grieving Ga, it’s celebrating her life and spirit.

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All of these films live together in my mind, along with the home movie of my father. They are films that try to arrest the corporeal essence of their subjects, mostly for posterity, as something to watch when the subject is gone, but are the films enough? Can they ever be enough?

I don’t want a film. I want him.

Movies are what we settle for in the aftermath of loss. Film is neither substitute nor replacement, it is artifact, something we salvage from the ruins. It is not the dead, it is not the person we ache for, but it is a connection to them, a moment of almost holding what is lost forever, and maybe that’s all we can hope for, even though the dead’s presence on film only seems to magnify their absence in real life. The artifacts and the ruins we are left with rarely comfort or soothe me, they are only reminders of what is missing.