Throughout 2011 the world will have the chance to view filmed correspondences in an exhibition entitled Todas las cartas –opening first in Mexico City on 27 April at the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco (UNAM), and then in Barcelona, opening on 4 October in the CCCB (Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona), the site of the project’s origin. (1) The inspiration for this expansive exhibition stemmed from the original videocartas exchanged between Víctor Erice and Abbas Kiarostami which were exhibited in Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, and Melbourne, Australia between 2006 and 2008. (2)

This time the specific dyads of ¨paired¨ directors from a host of countries include: Kawase Naomi (Japan) and Isaki Lacuesta (Spain), Wang Bing (PRC) and Jaime Rosales (Spain), Jonas Mekas (U.S.) and José Luís Guerín (Spain), Albert Serra (Spain) and Lisandro Alonso (Argentina), and Fernando Eimbecke (Mexico) and So Yong Kim (U.S./Korea). In all cases the directors share certain characteristics (year of birth, approach towards filmmaking, etc.) but they are also from geographically distant worlds. All of the directors are experimenting with unclear boundaries between documentary and fiction. Previewing many of the videocartas last May in Barcelona, I found connecting threads between the disparate films: a consideration of the familiar and the distant, an homage to the history of the cinema, the constant awareness of death, a focus on shadows, humour, skin, memory, isolation, textures…

Like the Erice-Kiarostami correspondences, the new videocartas take the viewer on an inner journey which is at once whimsical, poetic, and demanding, and in which various temporal periods interact: the time of the filming, the period of contemplation before the response in the filmed dialogue, the time of viewing the short pieces, the meditative time afterwards, and so on. To wander through this exhibition promises to be an entrance into a world of intriguing visual links and overlays, and an exploration of the poetics of cinema through a series of short essays and poetic passages on screen.

Kawase Naomi—Isaki Lacuesta

The cartas exchanged between Isaki Lacuesta (b. 1975, Girona, Spain) and Naomi Kawase (b. 1969, Nara, Japan), explore aspects of fullness and emptiness in our lives. Naomi’s tend to stress fullness punctuated by moments of emptiness. Isaki’s, in contrast, are more restless, stressing emptiness punctuated by moments of connection. Both center on the human form, and both offer a self-reflexive, intimate tone as they explore what it means to get to know someone. Isaki and Naomi focus often on images of loved ones in a sensual, but non-exploitative, manner. In Isaki’s first carta, for example, his camera offers us a long lingering on the face and body (draped in a sheet) of his sleeping partner Isa. As Carlos Losilla has pointed out, Kawase’s cartas are about stability, while Isaki’s are about being in transit.

In Isaki’s first carta, we learn that the two filmmakers had only met once, six months ago (in Las Palmas in Spring 2008), and had spoken for only five minutes at that time. Perhaps to point to this sense of transience, Isaki first offers us a “road movie”– a perambulation through Australia, China, South America, Russia/Poland–but for an uncertain reason. (“We were running away, I won’t tell you what from.”) Narrative lines, very subtle, are connected throughout, such as the one about the man who told them that half of his house is in Russia, the other half in Poland. When people ask him where he lives, he says: “In Poland, it’s warmer!” Later this same line appears in reference to Isaki’s own place in Girona (“The only place I’ve never filmed”).

Naomi Kawase´s first videocarta is a powerful homage to light. While their initial correspondences are rather distinct from one another (reflecting perhaps the way they hardly knew each other), by the fifth one an unexpected overlap of images occurs. These two directors are both from cities known for their deep ties to medieval religious traditions and an illustrious past: Girona (Isaki) and Nara (Kawase).

Isaki’s idea was to write first from what is near, but he cautions that there must always be a distance in getting to know one another. The third carta, this time by Isaki, is set in the rather archaic Natural History museum Darder de Banyoles, and it shows a desiccated view of the world. While I viewed it as a rupture, Isaki told me it was not intended so, but rather as a change of tone. Comparing the videocartas to music, he stated that this third one constitutes a new movement.

Isaki’s sublime postscript to the set of correspondences, filmed in Mali during the location scouting for his new film Los pasos dobles, shows gleeful children running around chasing flying ants which have appeared after the rain. This short scene evokes both the Keystone Cops and Françios Truffaut. (In a somewhat unnecessary coda, Isaki also gives a nod to Spain’s “Mèliés”, Segundo de Chomón, and his film of so-called ¨Japanese acrobats.¨)

José Luis Guerín—Jonas Mekas

The filmed correspondence between Jonas Mekas (b. 1922, Lithuania) and Guerín (b. 1960, Barcelona) is full of a caring regard, and a sense of intimacy with earlier periods of the cinema. Lithuanian-born Mekas emigrated to the U.S. after having been forced to spend eight months in a Nazi work camp. One of the principal figures of the “New American Cinema,” he went on to write for such journals as Film Culture and Village Voice. Jonas Mekas’s videocartas offer an elegiac, and surprisingly youthful, look at his decades of involvement with the moving image.

In his second videocarta, Guerín makes a cinematic pilgrimage in a wintry February to the site of Thoreau’s Walden. Guerín’s videocartas also feature charming tributes to Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, the Lumières, Nanook of the North (1922), Blow-Up (1966), Jacques Demy musicals… Mekas’s replies offer ¨glimpses of my life¨ replete with cats, exuberant dancing, outtakes, and images caught between frames. Guerín’s camera is a flaneur, recording images of travel. Mekas´s retrospective glances provide us with resonant moments, such as the one where he prepares a gallant gift of a silk scarf and tubes of paint to an (unseen) ¨beautiful lady¨ (later echoed by an older woman in the subway waving her scarf to the camera).

I was privileged to see Guerín’s third carta just as it arrived in the CCCB, and suffice it to say that, for me, it served as the central focus of the entire exhibition. What begins as a simple tribute to a young cinephile becomes a meditation on the unexpected vicissitudes of life. It is expertly edited and unforgettable. This dignified homage evokes a powerful response, even upon repeated viewings. Like Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958), Guerín gives away the ending –the fate of the lovely young woman who captures you with her gaze– part of the way through.

Jaime Rosales—Wang Bing

The correspondence between Jaime Rosales (b. 1970, Barcelona) and Wang Bing (b. 1975, Shaanxi, PRC) is not the usual exchange of cartas but rather two short tales with ethnographic echoes. In ¨T-4 Barajas Puerta J-50,¨ Rosales´s camera, equipped with a telephoto lens, captures faces in long moments of waiting. This depiction of an ordinary day in the sterile atmosphere of a major international airport reawakens the viewer to subtleties in that site of transition and transport. A woman puts on mascara carefully, almost ritualistically, and people move in and out of focus. The cavernous, echoing airport terminal is contrasted with the small dramas taking place, almost unnoticed, except for the camera’s attention and the low buzz of voices.

Wang Bing’s parallel correspondence of 2009, ¨Xi Yang Tang¨ (“Happy Valley”), paints another haunting picture, this time in a remote Chinese village whose residents make their living through raising potatoes and livestock. Particularly poignant is a portrait of a parentless family of three small children, where the oldest takes care of her two younger siblings with a mixture of affection, strictness, and neglect. Here too, time stands still but—in contrast to the scenes in the Barajas Airport terminal—we sense that the people in this village are not going anywhere. What had seemed at first a quaint view of a mountain village becomes a shocking landscape reminiscent of Luis Buñuel´s Las Hurdes-Tierra sin pan (Land Without Bread, 1932) .

A recent development in this evolving exhibition is that there will be a new videocarta by Jaime Rosales. The Spanish director was so inspired by Wang Bing´s “Happy Valley” that he has decided to do a remake of it (in Super 8) in a very poor section of Madrid, to show that there are people who live in great poverty in the midst of a major Spanish metropolis.

I will mention two sets of videocartas which I was not able to preview:

Albert Serra—Lisandro Alonso

The videocartas between Catalan director Albert Serra (b. 1975, Banyoles, Spain) and Argentinian director Lisandro Alonso (b. 1975, Buenos Aires) feature a unique configuration. Serra—known for his imaginative adaptations of Don Quixote (Honor de cavallería, 2006) and of the story of the three kings of the New Testament (El cant del ocells, 2008) –produced a 3-hour videocarta for this exhibition (!). Lisandro Alonso, the director of such films as Los muertos (2004), Fantasma (2006) and Liverpool (2008), replied with a filmed response which is, appropriately, one minute long.

Fernando Eimbcke—So Yong Kim

The Mexican and U.S./Korean entries were coordinated by the Mexican partners of the exhibition. Fernando Eimbcke (b. Mexico City, 1970) and So Yong Kim (b. Pusan, South Korea, 1968) have both had strong debuts as film directors with (respectively) Temporada de patos (Duck Season, 2004) and In Between Days (2006). Eimbcke´s second feature Lake Tahoe (2008) won two major prizes at the Berlinale of that year. Kim´s second feature Treeless Mountain (2008) received strong support from Sundance and Cannes. This dyad continues the main pattern in Todas las cartas of pairing one Spanish-speaking director with a director from another culture.

Concluding Notes

Film scholar Ángel Quintana has referred to the videocartas as ¨esbozos del trabajo¨–a kind of working sketch, a diary-like chronicle. This does not mean that they should be taken lightly; rather, they are serious, and often haunting, short films that avoid the facile touristic gaze. As Isaki noted: “the quality and intensity of a work do not depend on the piece’s duration.” They call to mind a statement by Fernand Leger, in his ¨A New Realism: The Object,¨ that film should not forget the ¨spectacular power of the fragment.¨ Particularly intriguing is how one carta opens the door for the next. With this in mind, it is best to view the exhibition as a series marked by a delicate kind of linkage that begins with a desire to correspond. As curator Jordi Balló has pointed out, the videocartas are intimate but not private. They are directed toward the other filmmaker, the public, and the originating director as well. An element of surprise enters into the experience—for the director upon receiving the new videocarta, and for the spectator, moving from one part of the exhibition to another. These filmed correspondences between directors whose lives and work share a certain resonance, inspire us to look for correspondences within our own life and correspondences with others.

Are these videocartas an exploration of a new way to be a director in a new millennium, or are they a reexamination of the roots of the cinema, or both? Certainly the available channels for viewing films have expanded, and Todas las cartas is one large step in that direction.

With thanks to Anna Escoda, Exhibitions Department, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona.

Endnotes

  1. Projections of the videocartas alone (without an exhibition) will take place in Madrid in La Casa Encendida simultaneously with the Barcelona exhibition. A catalogue, including DVDs of the videocartas, will appear in October, in time for the exhibition opening in Barcelona.
  2. For additional information on the Erice-Kiarostami Correspondencia exhibition, see Alberto Elena, ¨Dream of Light: Erice, Kiarostami and the History of the Cinema,¨ in Studies in Hispanic Cinemas 6:2 (2009): 99-110, and Ehrlich “Letters to the World: Erice-Kiarostami Correspondences” in Senses Of Cinema 41 (Oct.Dec. 2006, online, www.sensesofcinema.com).

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.