Teodosia Dobriyanova on Dane Komljen’s ‘All The Cities of the North / Svi severni gradovi’ (2016)
THERE IS SOMETHING ABOUT THE SERENITY of rainy August days that stretches the afternoon hours. Too much and almost nothing at all happens both simultaneously and paradoxically in an undefined time span. Life in those hours passes like a slow film, substituting the actuality of its temporal stretch with the perception of it. “How long did it last?” is an unessential question; this I learnt from one of my teachers who, after a screening, would ask us “How long did this film feel?” Five minutes? Three hours? A bit too long? A lifetime? This question is particularly relevant when it comes to “Slow Cinema”. As loose as the term is, slow cinema by definition functions as an exhibition space for time to manifest itself.
Incapable of going to this year’s Locarno Film Festival, I decided to revisit one of its last year premiers — All the Cities of The North by Bosnia-born director Dane Komljen. A brilliant example of post-Communist Eastern European “Slow Cinema”, the film’s loose plot follows the story of two men and their almost ascetic life in an abandoned building complex. The communist regime in the country has been gone for quite a while, judging from the decaying socialist buildings somewhere in the southern part of what was once Yugoslavia. As the two men live segregated from society, it is only natural that the latter’s norms don’t apply in that little utopian world where the relationship between the unnamed protagonists exists devoid of any need for definitions. And when definitions are stripped off a relationship, what remains is love and purity — sensations that, as human beings, we should all be able to relate to.
With its unsteady camera, completely diegetic soundtrack and occasional dialogue that happens only in voice-over, All the Cities of the North possesses a documentary charge that constructs a bridge between the reality of the film and our own. In a scene reminiscent of the work of Chris Marker, the action is substituted with a series of still photographs containing landscapes and buildings belonging to the so-called ideological architecture of 1960’s-70’s Yugoslavia. The voice over that provides us with this information is also the human element that brings us back to the film, thus making us realise that what we just witnessed was a man telling us a story he just heard from his “comrade”: “I heard this story with only one ear. As I listened, my head was on the pillow, my face staring into his.”
Living on their own and with nothing more than the essentials for their survival, the two men have little in their life routine but each other. As a result, most of the film becomes a celebration of the little details that construct our quiet moments spent doing nothing – the softness of the afternoon light, the sound of crickets outside, the steam ascending from boiling water on the stove. After all, one of the virtues of slow cinema lies in letting us perceive the world in the same way we used to do it as children—in the little details that give poetry to the everyday.
While this philosophy is maintained throughout the whole film, the utopian reality of the two men is disturbed by the sudden appearance of a third person. As the third man settles in to the place, the balance maintained between the two initial inhabitants inevitably change. In this abandoned place, where nature slowly prevails over culture, we realise that just as humans beings, buildings and ideologies, love also has its limitations. Keep it in a vacuum too long, and it expires. The film lasts as long as this realisation takes – an hour and a half, a lifetime, the evolution of whole civilisation.
A minimalist fable of life and love, All the Cities of the North strips its characters of any cultural attributes to manifest the complexity humanity has imbedded in its very nature.