Birds, Orphans and Fools (Juraj Jakubisko, 1969 )
Made shortly after the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia, Juraj Jakubisko’s magical realist fable revolves around three characters orphaned from war and living in a bombed-out church, narratively teasing out the volatility between a ramshackle utopia and a suicidal melodrama. Infused with the ludic anarchy of childhood, this uniquely strange vision bounds from liberatory idealism to cautionary nihilism as if the film is itself the troubled dream of a split nation; wrestling with the spectres of independence, violence and oppression, the anguished political unconscious manifests in a spiralling dream of freedom and its dereliction.
The Hourglass Sanatorium (Wojciech Has, 1973 )
A talismanic stamp-album, mannequins that stir to life, a dusty aviary in the attic and worlds that appear (to reappear) as you crawl beneath the bed; through swaying reeds, down muddy tracks, in cobwebbed ballrooms and the damp corridors of a sanatorium where the visitors to patients lose themselves only to discover that they too have now become patients.
Loosely adapted from the stories of Bruno Schulz, the film meanderingly follows the journey of Joseph as he takes ramshackle train (carriages creaking with half-clothed inhabitants, chickens, and heaped rags) to visit his dying father in a run-down sanatorium. The film’s treatment of Schulz’s text seems shrouded in the heavy sleep of history: drawn through the abstracted shadows of the holocaust (the ghost of the railway, the starvation, heaped clothes, institutional cells in the sanatorium) and stumbling back and forth through time and imagination as though guided by a somnambulist storyteller. Polish director Wojciech Has (The Saragossa Manuscript, The Tribulations of Balthazar Kober) brings a picaresque surrealism to the unfolding disorientation and, in the unreadably wide-eyed performance of Jan Nowicki (O-Bi, O-Ba: The End of Civilization, Family Life) deftly evokes the impression of a damaged childhood – lost in the grief and memory of an adult.
It is an unsettling, melancholy, poetic and occasionally dull, nesting of times within time as – in soporific confusion – the dereliction of grand tales and baroque aesthetics give way to a frustrated dream of returning to the (perpetually) dying father. Incredible, and incredibly strange, visuals combine with the sleepwalking atmosphere to communicate the devastation of intergenerational trauma. Time becomes a disrupted and unresolved circularity while the familiarity of narrative, its footholds and logic, are snowed under the weird misdirection of memory.
Horse Money (Pedro Costa, 2014 )
If the meandering journeys of The Hourglass Sanatorium take the form of a melancholy adventure, the meandering journeys of Horse Money are a more starkly nocturnal existentialism. Where The Hourglass Sanatorium uses Bruno Schulz to explore the uncanny surrealism of unravelling memory, Horse Money tonally approaches the bleak intensity of Beckett to access the hauntings of displaced identity. The fourth of a series of films (Ossos, In Vanda’s Room, Colossal Youth) set in the Portuguese slums of Fontainhas, Horse Money follows Ventura, a Cape Verdean immigrant. Now living in Lisbon, we follow him stagger through the chiaroscuro of badly lit streets, corridors and abstract spaces until it becomes unsure as to whether we are witnessing a literal traversal of the city or an eerily fractured and internal descent. Any dialogue that exists is whispered and ominously inscrutable, takes are slow and the visuals are cloaked in the pitch-black of night and shadows. Taking place in the abandoned dereliction of institutional spaces, alongside more cavernous and stony passages. Horse Money is a uniquely powerful and troubling meditation on the experience of black immigrants during and after Portugal’s Colonial War and the Carnation revolution. With its trembling evocation of PTSD, poverty and displacement, these are the restless journeyings of those who survived and what was lost. When writing on the film, Jonathan Rosenbaum quoted a pointed observation from the director: “Some people say they make films to remember,” Costa has said, ‘I think we make films to forget.”
Phantom Ride (Stephen Broomer, 2019)
In recent years, Canadian avant-garde filmmaker Stephen Broomer has pioneered an intensely poetic and hallucinatory form of film experience. Through a home-brewed alchemy of chemical treatments, Broomer alters the photographic composition of his celluloid in order to prompt blooming, morphing and disappearing iterations of the image. Using rephotographed film to collage new and visionary possibilities for what might constitute and transcend a ‘film’, in works like Potamkin (2017), Tondal’s Vision (2018), Lula Faustine (2020) and Fat Chance (2021), sensory and spiritual experience are brought into feverish séance. These are films that are able to invoke and explode deeply and lyrically informed traversals of cinema history whilst also conjuring an aesthetic experimentation that bridges the embodied physicality of viewing with more mysterious intuitions of consciousness.
As well as being a filmmaker, Broomer also runs a series of highly researched essay films (Art &Trash), writes critically on his research, preserves film and has founded Black Zero,
a multimedia publisher celebrating underground Canadian film. Consequently, his practice is constantly moving in and out of the overlooked, lost or reinterpreted histories and memories of cinema. In his 2019 film, Phantom Ride, archival home video material is ushered into rising overlay like a celestial road movie where the tarmac stream of superimposed roads become a palimpsest of blossoming timelines. As Patrick Gamble in KinoScope explains, the final work is:
[c]onstructed from the films of Ellwood Hoffmann (1885–1996), a retired mill owner who traveled across America with a camera strapped to his dashboard, Broomer’s Phantom Ride is ostensibly an experimental road movie, steered by Hoffman’s travels across all 50 American states. Broomer recreates the ghost-like logic of those original phantom rides by overlaying these journeys with footage from Hoffman’s home movies.
The film grows out of the nostalgia of a fading Americana, a flitting tribute to postcard memories and hot afternoons in the car, before building into a more elegiac winding through memory and into a Whitman-esque celebration of multitudes until, finally, achieving a kind of pitch of religiosity where time and space overrun each other. Time seen passing from the window, returning to loop over and out across the sky that is the road; now turning (and now is turning) into a memory of the two as they meet and diverge in a dense light of other times and places, porously moving in and out of each other’s properties. Time becomes the visual stretch of sky and the simultaneity of roads across roads, just as the miles of America fluctuate in and out of consciousness with the rhythms of forgetting lapsing into the bright clasp of cherished moments. A temporal and spatial disorientation that drives its chorus of memory across a personal archive in the same motion and momentum that draws it across a nation’s landscape.
Memory Exercises (Paz Encina, 2016)
In this evocative meditation on personal memory in the recovery of national trauma, Paz Encina responds to the vast cruelty of the Paruaguyan dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. After overthrowing President Federico, under Stroessner’s regime there were 59 summary executions, more than 300 disappearances and almost 19,000 incidents of torture in addition to nearly 20,000 arbitrary detentions. Having grown up during this period, Encina began making films that used documents, tapes and photographs from what came to be known as the country’s ‘Archive of Terror’. The film moves between archival material that centres on political dissident and father of three, Agustín Goiburú, and sequences of an empty home and children playing in a forest. Drifting between essay film, documentary, oblique autobiography and poetic fiction, Encina’s profound confrontation of a silenced past is mediated through a secluded dream of childhood.
Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomez, 2015)
Frustrated bankers commiserate each other on shared experiences of erectile dysfunction, a plague of wasps is killing off the bees, a cockerel that roams a small village is put on trial for crowing too early, and the carcass of a whale is ominously beached. The director Miguel Gomez (Our Beloved Month August, Tabu) ambitiously weaves absurdist fables into a trilogy of films (The Restless One, The Desolate One, The Enchanted One) where the storytelling deferral of Scheherazade becomes intertwined with allegories of debt and political commentary. An imaginatively rich immersion in the struggles of recession, political discontent and the anger of injustice that braids documentary realism into picaresque convolution. Gomez has created a uniquely eccentric tapestry of cultural identity, one that understands the complex role of storytelling within the national, socio-political, and historical fundaments of identity.
Ulysses’ Gaze (Theo Angelopolous, 1995)
The films of Theo Angelopolous combine slow, unfolding takes and the frequent use of long wide-shots to emphasise the dwarfed and depersonalised nature of figures in a landscape; they are films of sweeping history and politics, the currents and counter-currents of change, and how in the panorama of time, and specifically the hardships of recession, Greece can understand its own cultural memory. In Ulysses’ Gaze, a fog-enshrouded epic of memory, Balkan identity and artistic hubris, we follow a successful filmmaker played by Harvey Keitel (The Piano, Pulp Fiction) as he searches for 3 undeveloped reels shot by the Manaki Brothers. The reels are rumoured to predate the Manaki Brothers’ historic film, The Weavers (1905) which is thought to be the first ever Balkan film. This journey begins to merge its sense of reality with personal and historical memory, drifting from Greece and Albania to Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and ending in Sarajevo. A melancholy pilgrimage for the roots of cinema, Angelopolous’ meditative voyage is concerned with the individual navigating the social and historical. Marxist, mythic and draped in the mist, this is a peripatetic vision of (be)longing; travelling through political and personal spheres of influence in search of fraternity across borders, what emerges in the lost reels is the spectral metaphor for a haunted national identity. To only ever be found in what is lost, uncovered in what is buried and brought to life in its decay, the search for an artefact of Balkan cinema history becomes Angelopolous’ galvanizing odyssey: a troubled journey home.
And now, as time passes, we speed forward through a further list of films, a temporal momentum ticking at our heels…film by film…gaining on us, to see and be regained, again, as now and then, what culture when, we take our seats in the cinema to watch it all back: passing on the screen.
Alexander Dovzhenko’s ‘War’ Trilogy [Zvenigora (1928), Arsenal (1929), Earth (1930)]
Portrait (Sergei Loznitsa, 2002)
Cette Maison (Miryam Charles, 2022)
Mirror (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1977)
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (Jonas Mekas, 1972)
Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)
Innocence of Memories (Grant Gee, 2015)
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Poetic Trilogy [Gabbeh, 1966, The Silence, 1998, The Gardener, 2012]
Eros + Massacre, Kijû Yoshida (1969)
Warsaw Bridge (Pere Portabella, 1989)
Double Bill: Last Year in Marienbad (Alan Resnais, 1961) & The Invention of Morel (Emidio Greco, 1974)
Diamonds of the Night (Jan Němec, 1961)
The Wolf House (Cristobel León and Joaquín Cociña, 2018)
Rey ( Niles Atallah, 2017)