Political geology, portrait of a place, shapeshifting, anthropocene dreams, radical nature, landscape as protagonist, portable ecologies, geography and imagination.
TEXT BY GUEST WRITER ELA BITTENCOURT: The Cinema Seen from Merapi
“One of cinema’s greatest powers is its animism,” Jean Epstein.
Some ten years ago I had the rare experience of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. I’ve since considered this trek as a series of stark contrasts – between the mountain peak that from the base appeared breathlessly picturesque, and the cratered, lunar rock that greeted climbers at the top; between the fantasy of the sprawling vistas that we hoped would unfold before us, and the icy mount whose vapours obliterated our vision; and lastly, between the quasi-mystical experience of the body’s slow toil, and the alienating, brutal hostility of the final ascent.
I recalled these oppositions when watching Malena Szlam’s latest 16mm short film, Merapi, shot around Mount Merapi, one of the planet’s most active and deadly volcanoes, located on the border of the Central Java region near Yogyakarta, Indonesia. In the some of the film’s early images, the landscape is presented in a naturalist vein, at times verging on the bucolic. The whispery mists and the delicate cadence of light and of greenery seem akin to 19th century landscape painting. But other shots reduce this landscape to a jagged diagonal line and blocks of dark green and black. This crisper, nearly flat composition is Szlam’s first deconstructive gesture, which shows she’s interested in more than Merapi’s immediate aesthetic appeal.
Perhaps I’ve recalled my climb because Szlam’s films so often incarnate the tension between natural beauty – in the Romantic, sublime sense, which invaded my own imagination – and the mechanical pulsation of the film apparatus. In a way, both remind us that nature cannot be tamed, albeit through different means. The former transmits a sense of nature’s autonomy and wholeness, whereas the latter denotes human interference. Between these two lies an idea of the encounter with nature as irreducible yet singular.
What else to make of cinema and volcanoes?
In his book, The Cinema Seen from Etna, the filmmaker and theorist Jean Epstein juxtaposed the two as forces possessed of concrete materiality – rock, celluloid – yet infinitely mutable, capable of sudden eruptions, which in turn point to the flux of perception.
Epstein’s central thesis was, in fact, that no art proved as perfectly suitable to capture the essence of our lived, embodied, material experience as cinema.
Epstein saw Etna during its violent eruption. In his recollections, the earth around Mount Etna shudders and the ensuing silence seems deafening by comparison. In Szlam’s film, by contrast, Mount Merapi appears to be in a docile or illusively stable stage. And yet Szlam manages to make us feel this illusiveness. The mountain acts as the focal point centring each frame, but since Szlam shows it from different sides, sometimes with more than one view overlapping within a single frame, it mutates before our eyes. But no eruptions follow, and it’s then left to the camera and to the way that changes in light enact their drama (making the earth seem as if awash in lava) to enact the mount’s deadly potential.
The film shudders. When it stammers and bleeds red, we feel how quickly this environment’s apparent calm can be disrupted. The shudder also conveys the animist force believed to reside in the mount’s formations. Reality is then a composite. It contains the visible and the hidden, and the film and its accidents manifest these two outcomes simultaneously.
Is this what Epstein meant when, referring to cinema and to Mount Etna’s “majestic vitality,” he argued that “the dance of the landscape is photogenic”? I can’t help but notice how well this idea of dance, or choreography, serves to describe Szlam’s approach. When the image pulsates or turns around its axis, sweeping the mountain peaks, it not only reminds us of the filmmaker’s body, its gestural force, but also of its constant reinsertion into the natural order.
Perhaps this insertion is so keenly felt in Szlam’s film precisely because it has no human figures. It’s a peculiar communion through absence, not so different from religious feeling wherein belief transmutes absence into presence.
Being and becoming.
Like the volcanic eruption that is lava’s flow before it solidifies into mass.
When thinking of Mount Merapi in this way, it’s easy to understand why local Javanese traditions describe it as housing ghosts or the spirits of ancient ancestors. Szlam’s film captures this idea through its double temporality: the relative stillness of some images, which evokes eternity and essence, and the flicker of others as singular instances of vision.
Before reading Szlam’s comment on how the trees around Merapi are believed to serve as portals to the underworld, I was struck by a particular mirage. As Szlam’s camera patiently takes in the landscape at some distance, certain trees – black cutouts rising against dimmed light – stand out like pointed sentries. A singular tree towers in this undulating landscape, its uprightness and the bulge of its branches forming in my mind’s eye a contour of a human body.
Am I the only one who sees it? Then again, landscape as a genre, be it painting, photography or film, has always been an exercise that reveals the subjectivity of seeing.
Szlam’s film, however, ultimately goes beyond psychic or purely associative projection. Beyond the alchemy of vision, sociopolitical and economic layers are inherent. The mount is part of the syncretic beliefs of the Javanese people, but the volcanic rocks also form the basis of the local economy, particularly in the cement production and construction. Szlam’s film hints at the latter in presenting the concreteness of Merapi’s rocks, observing them with a cool, nearly scientific detachment as if to decode their mineral content. Here we’ve finally reached the substrata where spirituality is anchored in earthy experience, and destruction and rebuilding, the rituals of death and renewal, find their concrete manifestation.
Ela Bittencourt is a writer and critic currently based in São Paulo. She contributes to a number of international publications, including Artforum and Frieze.
About Malena Szlam
Malena Szlam is a Chilean-born, Montreal-based artist and filmmaker working at the intersection of cinema, performance, and installation. Her work has been showcased at key festivals including Toronto International Film Festival’s Wavelengths, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Edinburgh International Festival and CPH:DOX.
Merapi (excerpt) is part of