The Island at the End of the World (2005)

By Robert Koehler

Of the several “retros & focus” sections that BAFICI has organized this year–organizers swore to me weeks ago that they would trim down from last year’s bulging 15 or so retrospectives, but being true cinephiles, they simply couldn’t help themselves, and have arranged 19 for our viewing pleasure–I most want to catch the surveys of Luc Moullet, Malaysian filmmaker Ho Yuhang and 23-year-old Filipino artist Raya Martin. Now, 23 seems like an awfully young age to have a retrospective, but as I noted to Quintin earlier today, BAFICI appears to be in the mood to select filmmakers with three features under their belt: Not only Martin, but also Ho and that jolly Godardian Canadian, Reg Harkema (of whom more later).

Martin and Ho are among those from both countries who are hotly under pursuit by festival programmers and East Asian film lovers alike, since it’s become quickly apparent over the last year of the festival circuit that both the Philippines and Malaysia are becoming homes to critical masses of young, extremely independent filmmakers (most of whom work mostly in digital video, though not exclusively so). I can speak better at this point on the Filipino situation, since I’ve yet to see the several Malay films that have hit the scene, most prominently in Rotterdam. The Dragons & Tigers jury I served on last year at the Vancouver film festival opted for one of Martin’s bright and original contemporaries–John Torres, and his dreamy, fleecy doc-turned-fiction-turned-doc, Todo Todo Teros. The Èminence grise, so to speak, for both Torres, Martin and others like Khavn is Lav Diaz, who makes some of the longest films currently on the planet; his Evolution of a Filipino Family ultimately clocked in at around 11 hours, though I may be missing an hour or two. Diaz’ syntax is for a radical revision of plan-sequence, with frequently static shots that can last up to 20 minutes or more, and yet are stuffed with temporal excitement and even historical and cultural information.

In Martin’s case, his first full-length work, The Island at the End of the World, seemed to have begun as more of a project than a proper film, and yet its development into a quietly powerful study of Itbayat, one of the archipelago’s northernmost isles (and one of its most isolated) is part and parcel of the filmmaking process itself. I speculated afterwards that Martin may have structured his video documentary (filmed with a light DV-cam in the summer of 2004, when Martin was around 20 years old) in roughly the chronology in which it was shot; he and his camera arrive on the island by bi-plane, and then start exploring the people and the landscape, and, each step along the way, the journey itself lends greater meaning to the entire work.

Some of my Argentine colleagues, including Diego Lerer, chief film critic for the Buenos Aires daily, Clarin, disagreed, noting that Island is structured in such a way that we watch various jobs practiced by Itbayat’s residents, each job given a discrete section of its own. In the end, it’s difficult to tell whether the film was more deliberately constructed along the lines Diego suggests, or matching the process of a visitor’s discovery as I saw it. It may also be some combination of the two; in any case, work and labor are indeed central subjects of a film ostensibly about an island more often than not cut off from direct contact with other Filipino islands, and because of Martin’s unquenchable curiosity and generosity, his open interest in how these residents live their lives literally consumes his film.

Memories of the fisherman in Visconti’s La terra trema flood back to the mind when watching extended sequences of the island’s fisherman hauling in their catch or struggling to simply dock their tiny wooden boats in hellaciously choppy waters along rocky shorelines. Quintin rightly observed that Martin certainly earned the locals’ respect and must have lived among them long enough with his camera in tow that, by the time he films them, there’s not a drop of visible self-consciousness of the camera’s presence. The effect is of a kind of pure, immediate naturalism, impelled by energetic curiosity and drive, creating a strange, gorgeous sense of a visitation. Martin never hides or lies about his outsider’s status, nor does this seep into alienation. Instead, Island provides a record of moments as they actually happened, unfettered and sympathetic without the slightest whiff of cloying attitude. I look forward immensely to his next film in the retro, his fiercely debated 2006 A Short Film About the Indio Nacional. Go, Filipinos….

Essential Argentine film of BAFICI (so far, it being only Day 4!): Rafael Filippelli’s exquisite Musica nocturna. No less than the current (Fernando Peña) and most recent (Quintin) directors of BAFICI inform me that Filippelli, nearly 70 with fairly few films–mostly documentaries–to his credit, has never before made a film approaching this one. There is something both startlingly new for Argentine cinema in M˙sica, while a sense of graceful maturity and the illusion of effortless craftsmanship marks it as something almost classical.

What’s new is a style that beautifully blends an unapologetically intellectual and highly civilized perspective on art–actor (and sometimes director) Enrique Piñeyro plays a creatively blocked author, while actor Silvia Arazi plays his cynical, burned-out playwright-wife–and a rigorously objective mise en scene of such painful beauty that I haven’t seen on screen since the unjustly barely-seen German films of Sohrab Shaheed Saless. Filippelli’s characters are upper middle-class, middle-aged flâneurs, wandering the nighttime streets of Buenos Aires (the city has never, repeat never, looked so sweetly nocturnal and even–do I risk a touristic faux pas here?–Parisian, and I include the magnificent nighttime sequences in Adolfo Aristarain’s masterpiece, Roma), mixing talk of personal concerns and art matters together in a magnificent jumble of half-sentences, mini-thoughts, barely formed arguments, and impulsive utterances for which there may be no turning back once they’re uttered.

There are too many moments to itemize in a film that runs barely 80 minutes, but a few stick in my head right now: Piñeyro standing at his apartment balcony looking down on the street below at no thing in particular, while a Schubert sonata (the same heartbreaking one used by Bresson at the end of Au hasard Balthazar), leaving the balcony to go inside, coming back out, leaving again, coming back out (what is he doing? living); Arazi and a novelist friend played by Horacio Acosta walking around the deep, deep late night streets, speculating on what it’s like to go to school reunions, and what he thinks of Piñeyro’s work-in-progress; Piñ;eyro sidling up to an elderly gentleman at a bar, and sliding into a discussion about how good story ideas can come from newspaper articles; and, choicest of all, the final scene at home between Piñeyro and Arazi, which is the most realistic depiction of a married couple that I’ve seen on screen since Cassavetes.

The pair have tired of each other, and yet somehow barely tolerate each other in the way of tired, old friends. They lightly tussle over what to play on the CD (and this says everything about the film’s cultural reference points): Olivier Messiaen’s piece written in the concentration camps, or a 16th century choral work. Another day passes, and Piñeyro’s author is no closer to finishing his book. Is there a crisis? No. Instead, there’s a strange sort of peace that descends over Musica nocturna, and long before it’s over. Piñeyro speaks on the soundtrack of how, in listening to music, he learned from Beethoven that all art that matters contains an essential abstraction that remains, like a granite-hard kernel. The film’s speculations and its very nature are of a part in this regard.

I thought afterwards that this is the film I had always hoped for from Ingmar Bergman and never saw: A mature contemplation of contemporary civilized people, but stripped of the psychoses, neuroses, psychology and obsessions on God’s existence that often weighed on Bergman’s films, and created a superstructure that was an elaborate distraction from this couple over here, in this corner, having this interesting if frustrated life together. Why don’t we simply film that? This is what Filippelli has done…..

(Day 3 entry.)

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