The Slow Cinema of Niklas Hansson’s Films

You won’t see production credits at the end of Dalby (2014), it’s self-financed by Hansson who also writes, directs, edits, performs the music and acts in it along with close friends. We follow a figure (played by Hansson) who meanders and loiters around the desolate, provincial town of Dalby, Sweden while three other figures talk to him through the camera’s lens, urging him turn up for work at the factory. It is an honor to become a “töffe” (a lowlife, a jerk, someone commonly looked down upon for being too ordinary) and work at the factory, where töffar are made and where they go to die, “that is why there are so many funerals.”

Most viewers will be unwilling to find the patience to see Hansson’s film through to the end. Some won’t even make it to the second lonely piano note 5 seconds in. And, spoiler alert, soon after you’ll encounter 3 minutes where a still camera watches the lone figure trudge in the foreground of a vast snow-covered landscape. What kind of film is this you might ask.

Dalby has all of the aesthetic hallmarks of “Slow Cinema” including the use of non-professional actors to depict mundane lives, captured in static, long-durational shots which often include landscapes. Or if you prefer more academic terms: “a protracted depiction of uneventful action, frustrating the narrative momentum and progress conventionally expected from films to tell stories” (Çağlayan 7).  In fact, this weekend, starting on Saturday, Oct 31 at 10:30am (GMT) the annual Slow Film Festival will be streaming on their festival website. Check it out!

Since 2010, Slow Cinema has been discussed as a reaction to the disastrous speed of globalization and a welcome return to cinematic experimentation with aesthetics of the everyday. In this contentious discursive milieu, you’ll encounter unfamiliar names such as Béla Tarr, Ben Rivers, Tsai Ming-liang, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Wang Bing and Lav Diaz discussed in relation to towering names like Tarkovsky or Warhol. You’ll be surprised to know that Paul Schrader, the writer of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and, more recently, First Reformed is one of the major voices at the center of the debate, owing to his book, fundamental reading for Slow cinephiles, called Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (1988, republished with a new introduction in 2018). Recently Schrader argued that the time for Slow Cinema passed, unapologetically aligning himself with mainstream film industry’s tenet that narrative is the driving force of film, he declaimed that there’s no longer anything new to be gotten in the films of Slow Cinema (Russell). Others argue for Slow Cinema as a valuable counterpoint to the pace of modern living and globalization that “compels us to retreat from a culture of speed, modify our expectations of filmic narration and physically attune to a more deliberate rhythm” (Çağlayan 6). 

Any viewer who makes it through the first few piano notes of Dalby will begin to experience its deliberate rhythm, and as the film progresses, you’ll find that the cynicism Schrader directs toward Slow Cinema is equalled in the cynicism Dalby directs toward traditional institutions, like the factory, church, family and state of disciplinary societies (Foucault). As he faces pressure from figures representing the factory, the church, the family and the municipality, we follow the main figure in transition from being a honky (a petname portmanteau of hunk and honey) to become a töffe

All of this pressure is delivered in the writing and performance of monologues by institutional representatives that craftfully blend bits of absurdity and outright deadpan seriousness. It’s all too serious to be taken seriously. Using just enough seriousness and absurdity destabilises the control these representatives intend to effect. The subtlety of just enough (lagom) humor, allows the film to avoid becoming overtly polemical. But to be sure, by portraying the institutional representatives as a little ridiculous, the film issues a critique, although it doesn’t go further. It doesn’t of course, go too far, it doesn’t burn down the institutions. In the end their authority remains intact, but sidelined and unnecessary.

For Slow Cinema to work, the filmmaker needs to be a master of finding and exhibiting subtleties, of framing shots, pushing without exceeding the audience’s patience while creating a welcoming, contemplative mood. If you can allow yourself to be drawn in by Hansson’s meditative sound design and disassociate with the concept of impatience, his film will reward you with just the right amount of subtleties to trigger the magic of slow moving time, when nothing becomes something to contemplate.

Çağlayan, Emre. Poetics of Slow Cinema: Nostalgia, Absurdism, Boredom. Palgrave Macmillan: 2018.

Russell, Andrew. “Slow cinema: what it is and why it’s on a fast track to the mainstream in a frenetic world”. theconversation.com: 19/05/2019

Watch DALBY here

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