Carta from Abbas Kiarostami to Victor Erice. Courtesy of the CCCB, Barcelona.

Putting the cinema “front and centre” as a site for contemplation within the walls of the museum is an intriguing new trend. (1) But when I first heard that Víctor Erice’s work would be shown as part of a museum installation, combined with films and artwork by Abbas Kiarostami, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. A modern installation can be “confrontational” or “edgy” – words that do not come to mind when thinking of Víctor Erice’s films. What I found in a recent trip to Barcelona was an exhibition that was at once challenging and inspiring, not confrontational at all.

The installation, which was exhibited in the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB) from 10 February 10 to 21 May, moved to La Casa Encendida in Madrid from 6 July to 24 September. Afterwards, it will travel on to the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, from 7 February to 30 April 2007.

The correspondences between the Spanish director Víctor Erice and Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami include: close birth dates in 1940, a courageous stance before censorship and industry pressures, a minimalist style, a thematic focus on childhood and landscape, a nuanced contemplation of time. The curators, Alain Bergala and Jordi Balló, refer to these similarities as a “creative rapport”. One creative world sets itself off from the other, but also enriches the other. The installation also compels us to ponder the correspondences between the still and moving image, and between the museum and the cinémathèque.

The curators actually proposed the idea of the installation to the two directors on the same day: Alain Bergala to Abbas Kiarostami, while both were at the Cannes Film Festival; and Jordi Balló phoned Víctor Erice. The directors had met personally before, at the Thessaloniki Film Festival, and they responded enthusiastically to this particular invitation.

It would be difficult to comment on all aspects of this multifaceted installation, so I will attempt to highlight just a few of the offerings. (2)

Introducing the site

The CCCB is an organization dedicated to exploring the sociohistorical life of the city (starting with Barcelona, but extending out to urban spaces in general). The visitor enters the CCCB downwards, as if entering a cave, then passes through a spacious reception area before ascending on a seemingly endless escalator, as if climbing a mountain. This adds to an air of contemplation and separation from the tumult of the streets.

Spectators

The role of the spectator in the installation is a complex one. In the press booklet, the curators call this relationship between the installation and the visitors “an unprecedented three-way cinematic experience” which invites us to consider “how to make a visit to an exhibition a personal, sustained experience of the gaze of each spectator”. When one first arrives at the floor of the installation, two large moving-image “portraits” of the two directors greet the viewer. Suddenly, one man (Víctor Erice) turns to the left with a half-grim, while the other (Abbas Kiarostami), in dark-tinted glasses, turns to the right and walks away. These filmed “portraits” take place before natural settings, and set up a relaxed and engaging tone that continues throughout.

To enter the installation from two different points that link in the middle is the initial choice offered the viewer. (3) Entering Víctor Erice’s section, toward the left, the visitor is greeted with a split-screen presentation on the “Art of Infancy”. To the right, through the entrance dedicated to Abbas Kiarostami’s work, a somewhat more abstract split-screen presentation on the “Infancy of Art” awaits the viewer. Neither parallel nor completely overlapping, these two themes point to salient aspects of the work of the two filmmakers. The images that appear on either side of the screen are drawn from a host of films by Erice and Kiarostami.

In the introductory seventeen-minute film, Art of Infancy, Bergala explores how Kiarostami and Erice have presented the everyday world and the mysteries of childhood. This split-screen presentation is divided into categories with subheadings such as: speaking to each other, speaking to one’s parents, encountering a stranger, children of ruins, the world is fantastic, and doors to the future.

The nineteen-minute Infancy of Art offers images by the two directors grouped into the following categories: the primordial camera, primitive frontability, the elastic camera, the time that really makes day and night, filming real people, the melancholy of (solitary) men together, paths and perspective lines, trees, shot scale, species scale, the mysteries beneath the earth, stormy nights, rebirths. Here the focus is on the documentary nature of a cinema of origins.

While the split-screen sequences might confuse the eye at times, they do serve two important functions: as a brief introduction to interlinking themes and styles frequently used by the two directors, and as an invitation to the spectator to move beyond a simple consumption of images. The films loop around, both inviting and resisting immersion. Now and then there are surprising moments of symmetry (when two figures from two different films look upwards at the same time, for example); at other times, a dark background or a common sound serves as the stylistic link.

From this introduction, we then enter the rest of the exhibition area where we start to notice some recurrent themes:

Childhood: What are the correspondences between one childhood and another? How does childhood merge into adulthood?

The City: What is life like in contemporary Madrid, San Sebastián, Teheran?

Natural Landscapes: Both artists’ works attempt to take measure of the landscape, reminding us of the ephemeral and the monumental (with Kiarostami introducing notes of a grand scale that complement the more delicate tones by Erice). The directors share a love of natural patterns, with all their paradoxical repetitions and unpredictability.

“Forest Without Leaves”

Kiarostami’s freestanding installation, “Forest Without Leaves”, invites the viewer to explore a “forest” of life-size artificial trees constructed of metal tubes covered with photographs of bark. The display of Kiarostami’s photographs (“The Roads of Kiarostami 1978-2003”) leads the viewer into a contemplation of landscapes free of the human form. One particularly striking large-scale photograph shows a rugged mountain range with a flock of birds taking flight overhead like a kind of divine calligraphy.

Sleep, Dreams: From the (2 minute 48 second) dream sequence from Erice’s El Sol del membrillo (The Quince Tree Sun or The Dream of Light, 1992) to the Kiarostami installations of the sleeping couple, and the (separately) sleeping infant, the idea of the cinema as a stage between waking and sleep permeates the installation. Kiarostami’s 98-minute installation piece, “Sleepers”, and Erice’s ten-minute scene of a baby sleeping, “Alumbramiento” (“Lifeline”, a segment of Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet, 2002), partake of what Dominique Paini calls “the carpet-screen factor”: we view those images of sleep, on breathtakingly white sheets, spread out before us on the floor of a black room.

As the rotting quinces in El Sol del membrillo lie along the ground in the night, lit by an eerie, almost supernatural light, the sound of the baby, waking up in “Lifeline”, can be heard, crying from the other room. These are planned and unplanned correspondences

Perhaps it doesn’t ultimately matter if we turn left or right since both “sides” eventually meet. The section for Erice has a subdued light, as if one were entering into a cinema hall, with images arising from the darkness, while the section for Abbas Kiarostami, with large and smaller photos full of “empty” white spaces, seems almost blinding at first glance. Although there might appear to be an imbalance in one’s first pass through the installation, closer viewing reveals that both “sides” of the installation offer moments of amplitude and minimalism.

La Morte rouge

La Morte rouge (Sololoquio) is a new cinematographic essay by Víctor Erice composed specifically for this installation. In his voice-over, the director recounts his first film-going experience, when he was taken by his older sister to a movie “palace”, the Gran Kursaal, in 1946 to see The Scarlet Claw, a 1944 B-grade Sherlock Holmes movie (chosen by his sister from among the ones playing that day). The film, set in the Canadian village of La Morte Rouge, stars Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, and is directed by Roy William Neill. Erice’s recounting of this early adventure becomes both an autobiographical work and an exploration of early cinema and of the effects of Fascism, as well as a metaphysical musing on what endures in memory.

Historical and geographical specificity interact with universal childhood fears in this short film. The idea that the monstrous comes in many forms permeates Erice’s films. It is certainly the case in La Morte rouge where the most seemingly innocuous character, the postman Potts from The Scarlet Claw, turns out to be a murderous actor Alistair Ramson (Gerald Hamer), who is intent on wreaking revenge with the aid of a menacing garden tool in the shape of a large claw. But there are other monsters. In the “No Do” propaganda film preceding The Scarlet Claw, a well-dressed, portly man from dictator Francisco Franco’s government hands out money to women and children who are down on their luck. What does a child at his first film know about who is bad and who is truly good, who appears innocent and who is actually a murderer in disguise? How can a mere child see through those layers of deceit?

Recalling the ominous character of Potts in The Scarlet Claw, the young boy returns from his first movie viewing with his older sister with a morbid fear of postmen (a fear his sister exacerbates by taunting him every night with the whispered reminder that “The postman is coming!” (“Que viene el cartero!”). Fears instigated by cinematic images mix ineluctably with memories of terrors caused by air-raid sirens to remind us that the distance between a child’s fears and world realities is not so large. The theme of disguise (of actors, even of the director of the film who assumed the pseudonym of Roy William Neill (4)) reminds us how fiction and reality are mixed in the mind of a child. Nowhere is Erice’s dry sense of humour better shown than in his presentation of the “assassin postmen” of his childhood imagination. And, as the director pointed out to me afterwards, there is a rather amusing (but unplanned) coincidence that – in an installation devoted to correspondences – he should introduce the figure of the postman as a precursor to nightmare visions.

La Morte rouge. Courtesy of the CCCB, Barcelona.

In La Morte rouge, there are also visual correspondences to Erice’s earlier films: the close-up of a woman’s long fingers on the piano keys, the sound of the clock ticking, the light of the projector, filled with specks of dust, like smoke, in the viewing room. As curator Jordi Balló sensitively writes of Erice’s œuvre, it is “a fragile body of work, with a painful coherence” (5). But in contrast to his earlier work, in La Morte rouge (as in the screenplay, “La Promesa de Shanghai”), Erice has decided that it is time to show the images of the effects of war in a straightforward manner, without allusions, without the filter of a child’s limited framework. As film scholar Alberto Elena reminds us in his essay for the installation catalogue, La Morte rouge combines “historical temporality and mythic time” (6). There is an urgency in La Morte rouge – an urgency to show what was only implied in the earlier films. There is also an elegiac tone to the film – not only a sense of the washing away of childhood, like those footprints in the sand that open the film, but also of the passing of a certain kind of film-viewing experience, a certain kind of image that is more veiled and enticing.

The movie palaces of our childhoods, like the Gran Kursaal of San Sebastián, now linger mostly in our memories. Outside of the viewing room for La Morte rouge, a small screen offers the spectator images of movie palaces of earlier years and today, photographed by Erice. Empty halls, once full of the excited noises of waiting spectators, and sepia-toned photographs of musicians and actors who are no longer with us, point both to the fragility and the persistence of memory.

The Silence of Paintings

In another part of the installation, Erice guides the visitors to a new encounter with painting, one that passes through darkness and ambient sound. Paintings by the Spanish artist Antonio López García (one of the subjects of El Sol del membrillo) emerge gradually from a thick darkness and from recorded sounds that reflect natural surroundings (a sudden rain) or, in another section, the more mechanical roar of city noises that Erice has called “the clamour of the world”. For example, as the painting “Gran Via” (1974-81) “emerges” from the darkness, we realize that, although the painter stood in the midst of the city with the noise of passing cars and pedestrians surrounding him, all transitory elements were erased from the final painting. What we see is a city scene that is both immediately recognizable and ethereal. What Erice has constructed is a meditation on stillness and duration that both encompasses movement and denies it. Due to the overlap of sounds from other parts of the installation, some of the impact becomes diffused. This unusual viewing experience is completed when, with the gradual softening of the light to darkness, the picture becomes less and less visible, and the recorded sound re-emerges.

Another window onto the relationship between painting and the moving image appears in the “Apuntes” (“Notes”) section – a series of free-standing small screens with short clips taken in the summer of 1990, preceding the filming of El sol del membrillo. These apuntes include short sequences (almost short essays) of the painter working in his studio, painting “Madrid desde el Cerro Almodóvar” (1990-2003), interacting with his family, and so on – all offering insights into the final process of filming the beautiful El Sol del membrillo.

In a separate room, the “painter’s dream” sequence of El Sol del membrillo also seems to emerge from a thick blackness. Here we see the image of the painter sleeping and recounting, in voice-over, his dream of childhood: a dream of a quince tree seen in a strange light and the rotting fruit beneath that only he could see. This extracted segment from the longer film loops over and over, so the visitor might leave at will or remain briefly to enter and re-enter a realm where dreams prevail.

Cartas

Carta from Victor Erice to Abbas Kiarostami. Courtesy of the CCCB, Barcelona.

Filmed with small mini-DV digital cameras, these cartas (letters) between the two directors appropriately occupy the central section of the installation where (at least in Barcelona) the two “halves” meet. While much of the rest of the installation (except for La Morte rouge and the Bergala films) draw upon earlier work, the cartas represent a new exploration and serve as the heart of the installation.

The cartas open with the director’s hand and a fountain pen. As Carlos Losilla reminds in his review, “El mar encerrado en un museo” (“The Sea Enclosed in a Museum”), “writing resides in the origin of the cinema.” (7) Here we see writing, literally, on the screen. Language becomes a salient feature right from the beginning, with the subtitles (in Castillian Spanish and Persian) considered as part of the creation of the author, not as a later addition. (When the installation moves to France, new subtitles will have to be added – in a language both directors understand but which is not their native language.) This process mirrors the way the public has been considered as a participant right from the beginning, rather than being added as an afterthought.

The filmed letters link but are far from symmetrical. They link one to the next but they also link within the world of the writer. Erice’s cartas focus on children and their reactions to nature and to film. Kiarostami’s, in contrast, play with perspective. The pleasant asymmetry of the cartas both reveals and conceals the writer. We see Erice writing a letter to Kiarostami in a refined handwriting. The letter, in Castillian Spanish, is never really given a formal mailing address. Abbas Kiarostami replies, writing from right to left, in a dynamic Persian script that covers the postcard. And suddenly I realize what should have been obvious: that the subtitles are not just for the benefit of the viewer but for the initial recipient of the letter as well! Kiarostami reported how moved he was when he received the first carta from Erice. Truly it is a wonderful event when someone takes the time to compose a correspondence – not for a general email list – but with one sensitivity in mind. Yet they are also, as Spanish film scholar Miguel Marias notes in his review of the installation, like “a modern version of messages in the bottle” (8).

El Jardín del pintor. Courtesy of the CCCB, Barcelona.

In the first nine-minute letter, El Jardín del pintor (The Painter’s Garden, filmed on 22 April 2005), Erice takes us back to the garden of the studio of Antonio López García and his wife María Moreno, where he filmed El Sol del membrillo more than ten years ago. Now for the first time we see the glorious blossoms of the quince tree (which has been moved discreetly into one corner of the garden). Where the artists and their daughters had first stood, we now find grandchildren, Andrés, Carmen and Aurora. Each child follows his or her own artistic style: Andrés prefers detailed observation (like his grandfather); Aurora favours a light, impressionistic approach; while Carmen is obviously the extrovert of the group. The lyrical Erician dissolves give this brief filmed letter a poetic tone. An unexpected rain shower drives the children under umbrellas as they describe their creations directly to the camera. Then we hear the mother’s voice helping the youngest write “para Abbas”, which the child accomplishes with a charmingly backwards “s”. This carta ends with the sound of a child’s laughter.

Kiarostami’s somewhat surreal ten-minute reply, Mashhad (filmed on 5 September 2005), takes the viewer uncomfortably close to the hide of a cow, whose black-and-white shadings appear like some unimagined map of the world, until he pulls the camera back to reveal the cow in its entirety.

Erice’s twenty-minute reply begins with a whimsical tribute to Kiarostami’s letter: a dresser on which rests a porcelain figurine of a cow and a photo of Erice as a child rather gingerly posing with a cow. (We can recognize the child from his appearance in La Morte rouge.) The director then takes us to an elementary school in Arroyo de la Luz, a small town in the southern Estremadura region, where a class of eight- and nine- year-olds is just finishing a viewing of Kiarostami’s Khaneh-ye dust kojast? (Where is the Friend’s Home?, 1987). We hear the film before we see it as we are offered a Yusujiro Ozu-like montage of school stairways and halls. At the suspenseful ending of Kiarostami’s film, one student holds her hand before her mouth, hardly breathing, and another bites her nails.

Following the viewing, the teacher skilfully guides the students through a discussion of the film, compelling them to record details as precisely as they can. In this community of immigrants and workers, the children are offered a window onto another culture that, under investigation, doesn’t seem so distant from their own. Continuing on with the discussion, the teacher moves on to ethical issues: “Was it okay that the father punished the boy when he returned?” “Did the boy do well?” When the quietest (but most intently listening) child emphatically says, “Sí”, the director offers us a freeze frame that – like so many of his images – speaks volumes.

At the close of this carta (bearing the date 22 October 2005), we hear Erice’s voice as he contemplates, from his seat on a train leaving the southern Spanish town, how, thanks to the cinema, those children in the town in northern Iran now have many friends in Arroyo de la Luz. He also muses how children, who have no real concept of national borders, consider the entire world their dwelling.

Kiarostami’s twelve-minute reply, El Codony (The Quince, filmed in December 2005), begins on an equally whimsical note, with an indication that one quince from the courtyard garden of the painter Antonio López García has “escaped” on a branch that hung beyond the garden wall and thus, according to Persian tradition, now belongs to the community. We watch as children try to shake down the errant quince. When it falls, a jazzy trumpet melody accompanies the quince’s erratic journey along the changing waters of a stream. The theme of “no frontiers” from the previous letter is carried on in this reply, as the quince at times drops out of sight and then is spotted again further down the river. Suddenly, a shepherd catches it, takes a bite and, returning to his sheep, allows them to nibble on some of the quince as well! This unplanned event seems to complete the “narrative” of the errant quince until, suddenly, the camera pulls back from the close framing on the shepherd and his flock to reveal that he is positioned in a vast landscape of layered brown hills, with a contemporary note: a road with cars running along. In contrast to the upbeat “travel music” that accompanied the journey of the quince, a more majestic baroque music is heard as the shepherd moves his flock off-screen (with one recalcitrant sheep lingering for a while behind the others).

These four cartas compel us to ponder: What does it mean to correspond with another person? To send greetings, queries, invitations from one geographical place to another? What do those correspondences become when they are gathered in one site? When they linger on film? This type of letter does not need an “assassin postman” to be delivered. It doesn’t need a stamp – stamps imply nationalities and borders. It doesn’t even necessarily need paper. Yet it does require effort and choice and reception. The filmed letters are full of chance events but are also aware of their multiple audiences.

While viewing the cartas, I was suddenly reminded of the classical Japanese ‘linked verse” poetry form called renga. Only in this case it is not elegantly dressed Japanese courtiers seated beneath cherry trees sipping sake, but rather two directors (both of whom admire classical Japanese directors) who use new technologies to produce “linked verses”. As a classical Japanese literary form (that is still practiced to some extent today), the renga consists of stanzas of poetry that link through a word, theme or mood, or through contrast. Like Erice’s first carta, the initial stanza in a renga sets the tone for all that follows, and the next verses provide extensions or commentaries. As literary scholar Ueda Makoto explains, the renga show “unity in variety/variety in unity […] a playfulness within a serious framework, and “the rhythm of actual human life, with its swiftly changing pace, its totally unpredictable turn” (9).

What kind of movement is conveyed in those moving letters? In the case of Kiarostami, the movement is between the extreme close-up and the sudden, revelatory long-shot or panoramic panning shot. In the case of Erice’s cartas, the movement is a subtle revelation in the face of a child discovering and expressing new ideas through painting, cinematic images and words. With Kiarostami’s contributions, I sometimes wished for more of a sense of how the personal and the historical interact, yet I also felt how refreshing it is to experience a communication between kindred spirits that is not encumbered by all the political tensions that divide us.

There will be several more cartas (letters) between the two directors by the time the installation reaches its final days. After that, according to Balló, the works will have a “life of their own”.

Contemplation of time

The cast of “Lifeline”. Courtesy of the CCCB, Barcelona.

In his writings (quoted in the material for teachers), Erice stresses the need to maintain a humble, interior gaze as a filmmaker, almost like a fisherman waiting for something fresh to bite. This kind of stance is certainly apparent in Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), Kiarostami’s 74-minute film of five long sequences of oceans from different locations, an homage to Ozu, which offers the spectator the narratives Nature is constantly providing us, although we often forget to pay attention.

In another room spectators can view “Lifeline” (from Ten Minutes Older: The Trumpet), which immerses us in the world of village life. Time becomes a central concern for a sleeping mother and baby (again, the theme of sleep) as blood starts to seep from the baby’s umbilical cord that has been inadequately tied. This tribute to slower rhythms of life, and to a community rallying together in an emergency, is filmed in a sepia tone that evokes long-treasured photographs. (10)

We must not be fooled by the slowness, calm and “everydayness” of the work of these two masters of the cinema, as seen in “Erice-Kiarostami, Correspondences”. Underneath the simple and, often, resplendent images is a tightrope that most of us would be afraid to walk.

El taller del cineasta

Accompanying the installation, from its inception, is an ambitious series of workshops for children developed by Núria Aidelman, Laia Colell, Gonzalo de Lucas and Anna Fabra of the association, A Bao A Qu (a name mentioned in a story by Jorge Luís Borges). The workshops for teachers and students follow two basic models: one for children of ages 8-13, and the other for older children, up to the age of 18. They address questions like: What does it mean to spend one’s life making films? What objects, people and situations might be interesting to film? The fledgling filmmakers (and film instructors) are encouraged to observe, then design a plan, carry out the filming and finally reflect on the process. (11)

Before viewing the wonderful Kiarostami short, Nan va Koutcheh (The Bread and Alley, 1970), the children are first instructed to listen as well as to watch – to listen not only to the obvious soundtrack but also to the silences, the moments of still anticipation, the dog’s threatening growl. Following each viewing, the museum instructors review the students’ memory of what they have just seen, compelling them to recall in more detail and to draw connections.

In preparation for viewing the sequence from El Espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973), where Ana (Ana Torrent) and Isabel (Isabel Tellería) first are seen running across the expansive plain to the “monster’s” abandoned hut, the students are instructed to try to observe how the director uses the camera to show Ana’s emotions – her sense of anticipation and fear. Then they are given two boxes: a golden one with thirty images from Erice’s films (gold being the colour of the quinces), and a blue one with thirty images from Kiarostami’s films. The images extracted from the Erice and Kiarostami films are ones that might speak most directly to the children: a boy taking a picture (Mossafer (The Traveller, 1974)); Estrella (Icíar Bollaían) bicycling up a path (El Sur (The South, 1983); a mother seen in silhouette, hanging up a washed sheet (“Lifeline”); a group seated in a circle beneath a large, protecting tree (ABC Africa, 2001); and so on.

The students in the workshop sit in groups of two under clipped-on lamps for better visibility, as this is indeed an exercise in studying images carefully. Some of the dyads line up the images from the boxes in straight lines like cards in Solitaire; others toss them out and work with them in large, unruly circles. The workshop instructors circulate and offer suggestions. From their boxes each group is to choose five images in total – three by one director, two by another – and connect them to make a story. The children are given a wide latitude in their joining of the images – either a story with a simple plotline, or a connection through association or contrast – but they must alternate one image by Erice, and then one by Kiarostami, linking an uneven five images in total. Each of these introductory storyboards shows an awareness of new “correspondences” and dialogues between the images. The final step for the dyads is to pick up smaller versions of the images they’ve been working with, glue down their final sequences on white paper, and film a short explanation of their work. Working in pairs forces them to communicate (to “correspond”, if you will) and thus enrich the artistic process.

A separate space behind a large folding screen is prepared for the initial film viewing and the students’ filming sessions. As the students present their contributions to the camera and explain their designs to the filmmakers (either addressing them formally as “Mr” or more familiarly as “Abbas” and “Víctor”), they wave to the camera and receive applause. An expectant hush settles over the excited hum of voices in the room at those times, as curious classmates crowd around a corner of the screen. This serves as a reminder of a respectful attitude toward the cinema (so different from the frenetic atmosphere of the multiplex). In this way, filmmaking becomes something less distant, more approachable, but at the same time the children become aware of how difficult it is to construct a story in visual terms. The children’s’ filmed storyboards serve as their “replies” to what they have seen in the exhibition.

In the taller del cineasta that I attended, the children were primarily immigrants to Barcelona from Pakistan, The Philippines, Morocco, Ecuador and Peru. One of their teachers informs me that approximately 80 percent of the people in the nearby barrio of Raval are immigrants and that the majority of the parents work as labourers or in the service industry. He asserted that the neighbourhood was poor but hardworking, and in many ways the immigrant population has helped turn around a section of Barcelona that was rapidly going downhill. On the other hand, he expressed discouragement that few of the students graduate high school and even fewer go on to college. Those sobering statements contrasted with the eager faces before me and placed the taller in a new light. The schoolteachers seemed worried about whether their students will do well on the assigned tasks or not, but I found them enchanting.

The children in that workshop were indeed fortunate to have one of the filmmakers present in the taller. Víctor Erice told them that, for him, making a film is a way of learning about others, “about you” – how a film arises from life, not from an idea. He reminded us that when we see a moving picture on a television or computer screen, we are larger than the image, but that was not how the cinema was originally intended to be. He went on to advise the children that, in making their own “film”, they needed to ask themselves certain questions: Who will the protagonist be? How will they provoke a sensation (something that is more difficult to analyse or explain than an idea)? The students proceeded to ask the director questions that were both ingenuous and insightful. One girl, who was filled with many questions by the experience, asked me privately if Erice makes films starring Angelina Jolie!

The Spirit of the Beehive

In the workshop, Víctor Erice was particularly charmed by the storyboard of two of the children entitled “The Duck Goes to the Cinema”. Unlike some of their classmates, that group had written out their story in longhand and he gently suggested ways they could continue on with their thoughts, leading up to an open question at the end. I was fascinated by two girls who constructed a story about “Fear”, with three dark images sandwiched between two images full of daylight. Another of the group’s stories was about a poor, solitary boy who goes to look for work; then someone gives him work (symbolized by the moment in The Spirit of the Beehive when Ana offers the apple to the fugitive), and then the boy continues on in search of other work (the “zigzag” road from Where is the Friend’s Home?). This reflects the observation of Gonzalo de Lucas, one of the workshop organisers, that the stories of the immigrant children tended toward the realistic rather than the fantastic. Some of the other titles were categories (“The Seasons”); others were introductions to whole experiences (“The Children Who Wanted to Paint”). One group entitled their storyboard “Agradecimiento” (“Gratitude”). For the children who had only recently arrived in Spain, it was probably easier to communicate through images than through newly acquired words in Catalán. It was also very possible that, for these immigrant children, both the Iranian village of Bread and Alley and the Castillian plain of the sequence from Spirit of the Beehive were unfamiliar geographical locations.

What might the word “correspondence” mean to these children? For some, it has a mathematical connotation. I hear the word used in the subway system around Barcelona to show how a side route spins off from a main one. But the idea of corresponding by hand is equally foreign to many of this “email generation”.

It is somewhat unfortunate to have to work with fragments of complete films in this way, but the only remedy would be to have the luxury of time to screen the entire feature film either before, or as part of, the workshop. On the other hand, despite the fact that the images are extracted from their original contexts, the students are able to see that images are not arbitrary, and that finding correspondences is more than a game.

Another workshop in the overall educational plan focuses on an everyday object in the children’s lives – trees – and helps teach about framing and scale. One of the cardboard teaching tools for this particular workshop combines images of trees by such artists as Egon Schiele, René Magritte, Piet Modrian and Vincent Van Gogh, a 16th-century Persian miniature and “Beautus de Liébana” (an 8th-century Spanish miniature). For the older children, there is a workshop that focuses on faces and light, and includes experiments in how different lighting affects how we view a face. The children then go on to experiment with filming one scene from various points of view. This moves them beyond the kind of thinking encouraged by digital images, to a closer approximation of what was entailed in the cinema in its original form.

These workshops help the children develop an active gaze, so much in contrast to the kind of passive reception encouraged by blockbuster films today. After finishing their workshop exercises, the students return to the installation and view it again with “new eyes”. They can now feel a sense of closeness to the works on display and have truly taken the first step towards becoming cinéastes or, at least, cinéphiles.

Concluding Notes

An installation of the work of two living directors offers a vibrancy that fights against an overly neat “packaging” of directors whose lives and work are finished. It also presents its own unique challenges. “Correspondences” has both the sense of a polished presentation and a work-in-progress. According to co-curator Jordi Balló, these two specific directors were essential to the project from the beginning. This “Correspondences” is not conceived as a prelude to other similar works; rather, it is a one-of-a-kind event, taking place sequentially in three cities. Again, a Japanese analogy comes to mind: the tea ceremony (ochakai), where a certain host, and certain guests, create together a unique, and ephemeral, time together, never to be repeated in exactly the same way.

The design of the Erice-Kiarostami installation moves away from the pretentious. It has a warmth and generosity, and an overall calmness, that contrast with the bombardment of the senses and rapid pace of life in the city.

Two different artists. Two different men. Two different countries. Two different languages. Boundaries. Points of communication. Scores of spectators, each with his or her own stories, listening, gazing, moving between darkness, light and the resonant image. Just as no two lives ever run completely parallel, so no two sensitivities are ever perfectly in tune. The installation is to be praised for resisting the desire to impose too much symmetry on the two sets of works.

Letters. Points connecting and branching out. How many of the correspondences in our lives do we really control? How many happen without any help or – what is perhaps more true – without any interference from us at all? The correspondences extend out horizontally across space and time. Silences, notes of a song that pass from room to room. Correspondences that reveal a human hand, a light sense of humour, a conversation of images. Letters to the world.

Leaving the installation to the noisy construction and crowds of the surrounding streets, I ponder how images projected onto a screen linger longer than waves on a beach. Longer even than fruit that begins to hang heavy on the tree. Childhood fades, but the memory of childhood, even with its traumas, leaks through life the way blood leaks through a white cloth. The beach at San Sebastian is not the same as the beaches in Five, nor is it the one I (the spectator) used to walk as a child along the Carolina coast, but there are corresponding sensations. The shadow of the scarlet claw hovers menacingly on the ceiling of the child’s room. Is this universal? Or is the universal element the bombed-out buildings? Or the child’s sudden act of kindness? The expanse of the forests and fields? Or is it just the footprints in the sand?

The author would like to thank: Víctor Erice, Jordi Balló, Carlotta Broggi and other members of the CCCB staff, Ramón Espelts, Helena Rotés and her family, and Luisa Villalba.

A shorter print version of this article originally appeared in Cinema Scope 28, 2006.

Endnotes

  1. Recent museum exhibitions highlight the work of such filmmakers as Jean-Luc Godard, Agnès Varda and Jim Jarmusch, as well as visual artists, such as Douglas Gordon, who use cinematic images in their work.
  2. A full consideration is offered in the beautifully illustrated and designed 160-page exhibition catalogue, in English, Catalán and Castillian Spanish, published by the CCCB.
  3. Originally a plan of alternating rooms for each director was considered, but then was discarded as too sterile.
  4. Neill’s real name was Roland de Gostrie.
  5. Catalogue, p. 18.
  6. Ibid, p. 108.
  7. In La Vanguardia: Culturas, 26 April 2006, pp. 5-6.
  8. Miguel Marías, “Risks and Revelations”, in Rouge 9, 2006.
  9. Ueda Makoto, Literary and Art Theories in Japan (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Center for Japanese Studies, 1991), pp. 39, 46, 53. For example, in one renga composed by three poets at the hot spring, “Arima in 1491”, the first poet (Shohaku) starts with the lines (in translation): “Thinly covered with snow, the leaves look brighter along this mountain path.” Socho continues: “the pampas grass by the boulders will be more enjoyable in winter” and Sogi adds: “lured by tree crickets I left my home early,” and on and on. Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson (Eds), From the Country of Eight Islands (New York: Anchor Books, 1981), p. 254.
  10. For a more detailed description of this film, see Juan Egea and Linda Ehrlich, “Víctor Erice’s La Promesa de Shanghai and Alumbramiento: The Promise of Words, The Promise of Time”, in Cinema Scope, No. 23, Summer 2005, pp. 19-23.
  11. The workshop calls to mind the Chilean documentary, Cien niños esperando un tren (100 Children Waiting for a Train, written and directed by Ignacio Aguero, 1988), the story of Saturday workshops for a hundred children who had never seen a film. After watching excerpts from films by the Lumière Brothers, Charles Chaplin and La Ballon rouge (The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse, 1956) and studying about aspects of film vocabulary (camera angles, film genres, etc.), the children joyfully design their own films using drawings.

About The Author

Linda C. Ehrlich, associate professor at Case Western Reserve University, has published articles in Film Quarterly, Cinema Journal, Literature/Film Quarterly, Film Criticism and Cinema Scope, among others. She has co-edited (with David Desser) Cinematic Landscapes (University of Texas Press). Her second book, An Open Window: The Cinema of Víctor Erice, appeared in the Scarecrow Press Filmmakers’ Series in 2000 (with an expanded paperback edition in 2007). Her audio commentary on The Spirit of the Beehive (El Espíritu de la colmena) appears on the Criterion DVD of the film.