Many wonderful photographers that work with a moving camera use it to make movement seem light and graceful, as though the characters are dancing (Agnès Godard comes immediately to mind); the great Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, by contrast, makes movement seem bulky and blocky. In films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and My Joy, his herks and jerks call attention to the weight of the camera as his subjects stumble, doubly emphasizing the difficulty of moving forward. He’s a good satirist of post-Communist societies, in other words; he’s also very gifted at working with 35mm, whose texture often makes the objects register with more detail than digital video does. This is especially true for Mutu’s preferred color palette, a mix of nighttime blacks and muddy browns that wrestle each other for light.
Photographed by Mutu, Aleksandr Mindadze’s Innocent Saturday, set in 1986, shows a young man running, then playing music and drinking, in order to avoid looking at the Chernobyl nuclear explosion. Many shots show him racing across the city; others show him fighting other men, the camera focusing on flailing hands and arms. Yet it ultimately adds up to a lot of nasty hysteria; it sprinkles the Chernobyl disaster in around the young man’s encounters with his friends and girlfriend as if to try to thrill the viewer with the spectacle of real-life disaster.
Alberto Morais’s The Waves is much quieter, and more successful. It opens with an old man, Fernando (Armando Aguirre), in the back of a car, his wife having recently died; his son gives him a cellphone, which the man doesn’t use during the many subsequent shots that depict him alone. The film eventually becomes a conventional road movie, as the man travels from one city to another with the help of familiar characters (a sympathetic younger woman, her jealous boyfriend, an old friend). Yet, before that happens, The Waves feels wonderfully solitary. Fernando walks around whichever space he’s in, whether his kitchen or an outdoor train station, slowly and silently, and the film’s static camera lingers on empty, de-peopled areas for several seconds after he leaves them.
Aguirre is a thin, slight man who looks a bit like the late Portuguese actor-director João Cesar Monteiro, and like Monteiro’s 2003 film Come and Go, The Waves contrasts a small elderly person with the larger external world that he knows he’ll soon leave. The Waves was shot in 35mm, and I’m sure that its gradations of late morning and early afternoon light reflecting on trees and water would poignantly place Fernando within a tactile, very sensual environment. The digital transfer I watched, though, changed this sensation by flattening the image and turning the bright lights pale. Transferring the film to digital media also changed the way it discussed mortality. Because film reels run out and need regular changing, I would watch static 35mm shots aware that they would have to end soon, and their subjects with them; digital shots can keep subjects in sight for much longer.
The Waves’s digital transfer changed the film. My festival viewing has also included digital projections of movies that were originally shot digitally, with better results. A case in point was the Brazilian Look at Me Again, a mainly outdoors movie whose calm, pleasant color tones helps one to focus on the characters. Kiko Goifman and Claudia Priscilla’s documentary focuses on a transsexual named Silvyo Luccio, currently taking hormones to move from being a woman to being a man. Much of the film consists of him simply talking to the camera, and although he does discuss the difficulties he’s had gaining his family’s acceptance, he also mentions many basic issues about transsexuality with much humor and little sentimentality, ranging from what the sex change operation actually consists of to how he chooses his wardrobe. The film also, thankfully, doesn’t place him in a vacuum. Luccio’s wife discusses how being with him has changed her sexual identity (straight with him, lesbian otherwise), and scenes in doctors’ offices show the couple deciding how best to conceive a child. Luccio has already had one, back when he was unambiguously a woman, and the most disquieting scene of the movie takes place between him and his grown daughter, who says that she accepts his choice to turn male, but will stop calling him as soon as the operation is over. As the film presents their nighttime talk, you develop sympathy for a person who’s lost her mother and much, much greater sympathy for a parent that wants to hold on to his child. Look at Me Again is a very good movie, the kind that deepens your sympathy for people in general.
There are a lot of reasons why Look at Me Again’s filmmakers were right to shoot on digital video—budgetary and logistical, certainly, but more importantly for the casual way this digital camera watches its subjects, and for the light, casual feeling it gives the work overall. Though the movie’s image quality is extremely good, I rarely thought about technique.
The digital This Is Not a Film, by contrast, is overtly formal. Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb’s meta-documentary calls attention to its making from its very beginning. A small camera, planted in a corner of Panahi’s bedroom, watches the Iranian director as he moves about his bedroom; when he leaves, he picks up the camera and takes it with him. Panahi is under house arrest and awaiting imprisonment; he tried to make an anti-regime film, and was officially barred from filmmaking. But This Is Not a Film shows how hard it is to take someone’s camera away. Panahi and Mirtahmasb film each other, Mirtahmasb with a digital camera, Panahi with a cellphone, and we watch footage from both. But even if you do remove the camera, it’s harder to remove someone’s mind and mouth. As Panahi spends the day at home, we also see a TV and computer screen, watch DVDs of Panahi’s previous films, listen to cellphone conversations, and even catch visitors engage with the director in person, adding up to a multiplicity of ways in which people reach each other. The work is not a film, but a number of different, intersecting ones, presented in different ways, including the particular experience you create as you’re watching it.
As for that experience, readers should expect to see Panahi and Mirtahmasb’s work digitally. (Once This Is Not a Film becomes available for online downloading, the extra layer of discourse will probably even enrich it.) Cinema is increasingly being shown digitally, regardless of its original element; examples of digital movies transferred to and projected on film, like Russian Ark and Certified Copy, are much rarer, and even then I’d argue that most viewers end up seeing them in digital copies anyway. The Mostra literature’s practice of listing a film’s current projection format, rather than its original intended one (“digital” under a Paradjanov film, for example), makes a metaphor out of how, for many viewers, the digital version of a film is the only one they’ll see.
This is not to say that digital transfers are bad, because I’ve seen many excellent ones, including in theaters. But a movie’s spirit almost inevitably changes if its presentation does. I never want to see Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film Once Upon a Time in Anatolia in a projection format other than 35mm, something I realized watching it in 35 inside one of São Paulo’s best screening rooms. For one thing, the film needs a vast space to register properly; the opening shot establishes this as a group of men drive along a road at night, and the widescreen length of the road suggests how long their journey has been, and will be. But, as with Oleg Mutu’s work, this quiet, character-driven piece needs 35mm projection for its gradations and shades of nocturnal dark to register. The characters, among whose number include a policeman, a prosecutor, and a doctor, are searching for a murder victim’s body, and the dark presents a physical obstacle for them to overcome in finding it. But each man also carries a secret, revealed gradually, and the dark obscures their abilities to find themselves as well. You need 35mm, additionally, to best show the yellow light that cuts across their faces, splitting them in half with the darkness before bringing them, finally, into the full light of day. You can probably guess that Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is schematic, but it’s also stunning.
I’ve been lucky to see many films in their original formats. Rare is the instance, though, where they absolutely can’t and shouldn’t be seen in transfers, and most should be, so that people can see them at all. (Jonathan Rosenbaum has even argued, quite well, that sometimes watching a digital transfer of a film can improve the experience.) That said, I think it’s important to consider what’s changing whenever you watch a transfer, and that it’s especially important for festivals not just to present the work in the closest they can get to the original, but also to educate viewers about the differences between originals and transfers.
The São Paulo International Film Festival runs through November 3rd. Festival information can be found here.