Focusing on the Out-of-Focus By José Carlos Avellar
To define the issue down to a single picture and a few words, perhaps it’s fair to say that the 22nd Fribourg Film Festival focused on the out-of-focus — and not solely because most of its films came from nations whose cinema has yet to come into focus on its own (Malaysia, Jordan, Chad, Costa Rica or Kazakhstan, for example).
And not just because the films dealt with out-of-focus characters, such as workers without jobs; poor families where the father or the mother have left; lost migrants that do not speak the languages of the places they’ve found themselves.
I say “out-of-focus” mostly because, in the most representative films of the festival, the method of constructing the frame — and, in a larger sense, the method of constructing the narrative — is based in keeping a figure out-of-focus. In many films, we were invited to see something that is not there in the screen.
Flower in the Pocket, by Liew Seng Tat: A woman is trying to fix the electrical wiring in her room, but we do not see what she’s actually doing up in the ceiling; the frame only shows her legs over a chair. A boy falls down in the kitchen and cuts his arms on a broken bottle; we can only guess what has happened as he disappears through the bottom of the screen, followed by the sound of breaking glass.
Recycle, by Mahmoud al Massad: The protagonist prepares himself to travel from Jordan to Iraq, to sell cars and earn money to buy a new house. Religious problems there do not allow him to conclude his transactions; he loses the cars, but we do not see what has happened, since the camera was not there with him.
Here’s just one more example of the out-of-frame imagery we saw at the festival — and perhaps the most radical one. Wang Bing’s long documentary Fengming, A Chinese Memoir (He Fengming) is mostly presented as a single, steady shot. When Wang’s subject stops talking to go to the bathroom — abruptly abandoning her train of thought to simply state “I have to go to the bathroom” and leave her seat — or to answer the phone, the camera stays put. As some other thing happens out of focus we’re left waiting in the empty, silent space until she returns to her seat to pick up her testimonial where she left off.
At first glimpse, we are presented with images that frame just part of the action, losing many details. But to be more exact, we have images that focus exclusively on the moment, on what is truly being expressed in the scene, not losing that element in a sea of insignificant detail. What we actually find in those frames is the essential feeling that something is missing in the lives of those characters.
Teeth of Love (Ai qing de ya chi), by Zhuang Yuxin: The acknowledged suffering of the central character, Qian Yehong, makes her refusal to succumb to grief seem like the only way to survive. Maybe she misses her would-be boyfriend from her school years, the one that assaulted her with a brick (and crushed his own foot with another brick) before drowning in a river. But what we have is the story a Chinese woman who forces herself out of frame, who forces all of her feelings out of frame, acting as rationally (or, more precisely, as mechanically) as possible: Making fun of the schoolboy who loves with her; terminating her pregnancy to avoid incriminating her lover; accepting a marriage to a man who lives and works far away. At the end, when she asks a dentist to extract a tooth without anesthesia — an act that takes place out of frame — she’s trying to feel something, even excruciating pain, that will connect her to the lover, wife and mother she never allowed herself to be.
The mother is absent in Flower in the Pocket to take care of the Chinese boys in Malaysia; there’s just a possible memento of her, in the photograph of a woman that the boys’ father tries to eat with an angry hunger. And the father is not in the house to fix the electricity; there’s just a possible memento of him in the motorcycle helmet sitting on top of a cupboard in the dining room.
The mother is absent in The Path (El Camino), by Ishtar Yasin; instead, the young Saslaya and her mute brother Dario have left their grandfather’s home in Nicaragua to find her somewhere in Costa Rica.
The boyfriend is absent in A Stray Girlfriend (Una Novia errante) by Ana Katz, and that is why Ines loses herself in long-distance calls and aimless walks around a tourist hotel somewhere far from Buenos Aires.
And the mother is also absent in With a Girl of Black Soil (Geomen tangyi sonyeo oi), by Jean Soo-Il: Only the father is present (stricken with health problems, he loses his job as a coal miner and falls into alcoholism) for his two kids, a nine-year-old Young–lim and her mentally handicapped elder brother Tong-gu. Certainly the most precise, simple, dry and sophisticated of all those out-of-focus cinematographic constructions we saw in Fribourg, this South Korean film demands the constant, active participation of the viewer in order to perceive the essential information that isn’t directly visible in the frame.
But it needs to be said: The frame, and indeed all frames in the film, does not appear to be a picture with some missing information, with elements literally absent from the screen. The part first appears to be a whole. And just after being received as a whole, each frame can be understood as a fragment, as one link in a complex chain that belongs to a structure which invites us to keep processing the emotions we receive to see beyond the scenes we’ve already watched.
What is already clear and tragic in the picture — the loneliness of Young-lim; the hopelessness of her drunken father; the misery around the impoverished houses surrounded by rats and asking for rat poison; the mechanical order of the coal mines’ owners to keep profits high while organizing “social assistance” to the jobless miners — all that we see, we see more clearly if we follow the path the film’s structure offers us in montage. Each piece of the film with this essential motion-picture characteristic — its unfinished image, its unlimited existence — asks to be understood as a non-stop moving image.
And once the projection ends, the film keep playing in the viewer’s memory and imagination: Like other good films in the Fribourg program, and better than any one of them, With a Girl of Black Soil speaks immediately to the critical viewer, inviting him to take part in the storytelling process through the interpretation of its imagery.