Last October, for the seventh year in a row, a group of aspiring film critics travelled to East Flanders to attend the Young Critics Workshop at Film Fest Gent. More than ever, their forming a band of brothers and sisters in arms over the course of an intense ten-day program bore witness to the power of cinema to bring people together, and to the primacy of its communal experience, both inside and beyond the walls of the theatre. With theatrical exhibition and true social interaction suffering under the strain of a once-in-a-generation crisis, is it any wonder that these young critics chose to write about films that each in their own way deal with community and physicality?
For Joseph Owen, Pedro Costa’s most recent film, Vitalina Varela (2019), sheds a new light on an accusation often levelled at the Portuguese director: that his films are nothing but aestheticizations of the dispossessed. Vitalina Varela exposes the limits of this statement, instead inviting a more expansive understanding of Costa’s poetics as ‘the art of being without’, through which he shows “the individual’s experience as symptomatic of a collective existence.”
Camilla Peeters finds a renewed sense of purpose for cinema in the latest films by Tsai Ming-liang and Hong Sang-soo, paragons of ‘slow cinema’. Both Rizi (2020) and The Woman Who Ran (2020) posses a subtle power that comes into its own when they can be experienced in circumstances that let the viewer become aware of his physical relation to the film. They firmly reinforce the theatre as a cinematic home, resisting the dominant film industry’s urge to dilute the integrity of the cinematic experience.
Within Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2019), Stefan Goncharov discovers a debunking of the Western idea of history as a progressive process that ends in utopia, in a story of companionship inspired by the unearthing of the embracing ossified remains of two men who struggled to carve out a place for themselves in early 19th century frontier culture. Friendship becomes a radical gesture when participation in history is decided by scarcity and commodification.
Finally, Kathy Vanhout examines how the collaborative nature of docufiction is ideally suited to uncover a spectrum of truth when dealing with the depiction of drunkenness. Starting from the Ross brothers’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020), she sketches a history of drunk docufiction, analysing the logistical and ethical conundrums precursors like Lionel Rogosin and Kent MacKenzie faced when making On the Bowery (1956) and The Exiles (1961) respectively.
I saw all of these films together with the people who wrote about them. These screenings will stay with us forever, not only because we worked long and hard on the essays inspired by them, but also because we attended them as a community, coming together for just that purpose in a physical, brick-and-mortar place. The physicality of memory is often underestimated. How many films do we think of fondly because we remember having to run through the pouring rain in order to get to the theatre? How many small and seemingly insignificant cinematic moments do we remember vividly because we were holding a loved-one’s hand while the scene in question played out on the screen? Under the current circumstances no hands were held, but a physical space was still shared, a community was formed. These essays are not only a testament to the enduring relevance of cinema as an artform, but also to the importance of physical interaction for all forms of human creativity.