The World Slowed Down: The Films of Fred Kelemen

Ian Haydn Smith
Frost (1998)
Full Speed Ahead Sunday Rivette Week

Of the many trends New Horizons has highlighted over the last decade, few have had as much traction at the festival as Slow Cinema. An all-encompassing term for a variety of styles, the one overarching principle has been to offer a respite from contemporary mainstream cinema's penchant for furious pace and lightning-quick editing. 

(In this regard, Michael Bay could rightly be considered the anti-Christ - the purveyor of a kind of cinematic mayhem that involves a vertiginous approach to cutting that the director himself describes as 'fucking the frame'.) Before Slow Cinema became common parlance, several directors had already engaged with and mastered this approach to filmmaking. Among the best is Fred Kelemen. Some might know him by his work as the cinematographer on Béla Tarr's The Man from London (2007) and The Turin Horse (2011). But as the retrospective playing at the festival reveals, by then he had already established himself as a powerful director in his own right.

Kelemen's filmography is small. There is Kalyi - Age of Darkness (1993), Fate (1994), Frost (1998), Nightfall (1999), Fallen (2005) and Sarajevo Songs of Woe (2016). Alongside these films, the retrospective will screen his two collaborations with Tarr and Jospeh Pitchhade's Middle Eastern drama Sweets (2013) which Kelemen also shot.

These films demand your attention. Little may appear to happen in them. But that's only because the drama of Kelemen's work lies in the minutiae of movement and expression. Not that his films are quiet. There are eruptions of sound and music that dazzle and disorientate. These elements combine to form Kelemen's worlds of despair. (As the filmmaker himself has noted, "Darkness is black velvet upon which the world is painted".) Bleak though his films may be, they are alleviated by the fact that Kelemen is no misanthrope. His characters may endure hardship and pain, but Kelemen's compassion for them is evident throughout.

This retrospective offers the chance to see Kelemen's most recent work, the portmanteau Sarajevo Songs of Woe. The filmmaker knows the Balkan city well, having taught at Tarr's prestigious film school, which is based there. The film, comprised of three stories, is both universal and specific - dealing with the pain of human relationships and the scars of recent conflict.

Amongst this small body of work, arguably the defining Kelemen film is his stunning three and a half-hour 1998 opus Frost. In it, a woman and her young daughter escape from a brutal drunk and traverse a bleak German landscape. Marianne wants to travel back to the place she grew up in. But we know before she does that this place, no matter its material presence today, is formed of her memories. And so she is destined to wander. It is a transformative work, a film of stark emotional power that gips the viewer like a vice. In one sequence, Marianne dances in a room as techno music blares out. In any other film this might be a momentary respite for a character - an escape from life. (Which, as Cathy Burke's character showed in the most exquisite scene of Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth [1997], does not have to be a trite moment.) But the scene continues. And continues. And continues. Marianne is not experiencing an emotional epiphany. She is driving herself to exhaustion, to the point where her demons can no longer keep her awake. It is an extraordinary scene, but just one of many by this singular filmmaker.

Ian Haydn Smith

Ian Haydn Smith is a British writer and editor. Formerly the editor of the International Film Guide, he is the co-author of New British Cinema and author of the forthcoming The Story of Photography. He has attended New Horizons since 2008.

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