Sunday, April 15, 2012

Two Ways of Looking at Darkness: A Comparison of Scenes from REC and ABC Africa

Few movies have the balls to plunge the viewer into darkness for any extended period.  Cinema is first and foremost a visual medium, as it was exclusively for the three-plus decades before science allowed us to see and hear Al Jolson’s blackface hijinks in all their sickening glory.  When a movie kills the lights, it undermines the primacy of the image and asks that we “watch” the unfolding soundtrack.

Why would one do this and what is the effect?  I want to compare two very different movies: Jaume Balaguer√≥’s and Paco Plaza’s 2007 film REC (or [●REC], if you want to insist on it) and Abbas Kiarostami’s 2001 documentary ABC Africa.  By now I suspect that most people are already familiar with REC (although I only just saw it yesterday), but here’s the premise: Spain, Barcelona, apartment building, firefighters, with a two-person television film crew in tow (attractive journalist, cameraman), are called to the apartment, the apartment has a zombie problem, the Spanish authorities have quarantined the building, now the people inside have to contend with the zombies.  Everything we see and hear in the movie comes from the cameraman’s camera, so if the camera has problems (and if your camera is getting attacked by zombies, it probably will) this is reflected in the film.  Now, I won’t go into too much detail here, because I do not approve of “spoilers,” but there’s a scene where the cameraman and the journalist are in a room together, terrified, having just witnessed some fresh zombie atrocities, when the light on the camera breaks.  Suddenly, complete darkness.  Now, I asked why would one do this and what is the effect, and the answer here is pretty straightforward: because it’s fucking terrifying.  Being chased by zombies is bad enough, but God help you if you can’t see them, if you can’t see anything.  And so the screen is completely black and all we have is the soundtrack, which consists of the journalist screaming something to the effect of, “Holy shit, turn it on, turn it on!” and the cameraman screaming, “The light’s fucking broken, holy shit, holy shit!” We can also hear them bumping into things and stumbling around and everything sounds like chaos, and this continues until the cameraman turns on the camera’s night-vision.  So here we can say (and I guess we’re probably stating the obvious) that the darkness is meant to ratchet up the horror and that it does so quite effectively.

Darkness serves quite a different purpose in Kiarostami’s ABC Africa.  As this movie is probably less well known than REC, I’ll expend a little more detail on its premise.  The documentary has Kiarostami and his cameraman, Seyfolah Samadian, travelling to Uganda to profile the work of activists trying to improve the lives of HIV-positive orphans.  The film has little in the way of structure.  Kiarostami and Samadian film the children while letting the aid workers of the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans give their spiel.  Kiarostami says very little.  He seems to want to let the Ugandans speak for themselves (so it’s kind of like Kony 2012, except with black people).

There’s one scene, however, which breaks from this pattern, and my attention was called to it by Slant.com’s Keith Uhlich, who, in his review of ABC Africa, mentions “a mid-movie section that[…] takes place in total darkness, Kiarostami is on as much of a journey as his audience, each of us engaging—in our own inimitable ways—with a world shrouded in divine mystery.” I read this before I saw the movie, and I was wondering what the scene would look like and whether there would be a hint of divine mystery in it.  The scene takes place at night, and aside from the beginning of the scene, when a match is lit, proceeds in darkness.  Maybe there was nothing to film.  It consists of a conversation between Kiarostami and Samadian, but eventually they fall silent and we just listen to the sounds of a thunderstorm outside.  Then they cut and it’s the next day.

What was the point? Despite the similarities between this scene and the one in REC (two people, one of them a cameraman), the scene in ABC Africa doesn’t seem to do particularly much.  It certainly isn’t meant to horrify (Kiarostami has yet to make a zombie movie; give him time).  It would appear to have little do with the AIDS orphans who are ostensibly the subjects of the film.  But I think it actually serves a distinct purpose; it serves as a respite, for Kiarostami and Samadian as much as for the viewer.  These two have been travelling all day, in a country they’ve never been to before, listening to the Ugandans speaking in English, which is not their first language (definitely not Kiarostami’s and Samadian’s, probably not the Ugandans’ either), meeting with a large number of AIDS orphans (which can hardly be uplifting), and they must have felt their senses under assault.  So how much of a difference, then, to see just blackness and the sounds of the night.  No noise, no demands on one’s attention.  It is the only portion of the movie where we hear Persian spoken; Kiarostami and Samadian can speak without engaging in any mental translation.  And the whole effect is very tranquil.  It’s the sort of thing that one could excerpt from the larger film and watch in isolation.  I’m reminded of a short film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul called Phantoms of Nabua, which takes place at night and which shows a group of young people kicking around a flaming soccer ball.  I remember watching it and not understanding how no one was getting hurt.  I suppose the whole thing must have looked very safe.  It must have conveyed the feeling of “safety” (I was going to say “security,” but I associate that word with war and bloodshed).

One can disappear into the darkness of the night.  It takes the world and turns it into one big hiding place.  Perhaps that’s why Kiarostami or Samadian (I’m not sure who it was) just let his match go out.  He probably felt safer that way.

So is Keith Uhlich right? Is this scene shrouded in “divine mystery?” Probably not.  But in the absence of divinity, it conveys something comparable.  Poets describe night as a cloak, and that implies that you can wrap yourself up in it.  There is something eminently human about the desire to sit in the dark and listen to a thunderstorm and feel safe while doing so.  So I can say that Kiarostami’s night scene conveys a great warmth and a great humanity.

I feel like I’ve digressed here more than I originally intended to.  REC and ABC Africa are just two examples of movies that play with darkness.  I have no desire to advance a grand thesis based on them.

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I notice that my blog so far has been pretty “Kiarostami-centric.” I didn’t intend for this to be the case, it just happened of its own accord.  So if you’re not a big Kiarostami fan, don’t worry, I’ll write about plenty of other filmmakers in the future.

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