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History Redefined: How These New Films Let Us See the Past In New Ways

Films often struggle to represent the past in believable ways. But three new films have found innovative approaches.

by the time it gets dark

“By the Time It Gets Dark

This article was produced as part of the Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring journalists at the Locarno Film Festival, a collaboration between the Locarno Film Festival, IndieWire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center with the support of Film Comment and the Swiss Alliance of Film Journalists.

Since its invention, cinema has been used to examine the past. However, few films centered on historical narratives move past dissecting events and into questioning how such events are portrayed and disseminated. But filmmakers continue to innovate with the form and find new ways to push beyond its limitations. Three films screening at the 69th Locarno International Film Festival — Dain Iskandar Said’s “Interchange,” Douglas Gordon’s “I Had Nowhere to Go,” and Anocha Suwichakornpong’s “By the Time It Gets Dark”challenge the construction of history and provide alternate ways to experience history beyond the hegemonic image.

The follow-up to his magical realist action-drama “Bunohan,” “Interchange” examines the tension between Malaysia’s past and present through a series of ritualistic murders, each involving a glass negative of a centuries-old Borneo tribe member that eerily resembles each victim. Inspired by the belief that photographs steal the soul, the film focuses on Detektif Man and forensics photographer Adam as they search for the glass negatives scattered across the city. The images in question, along with their simple captions and academic presentation, immortalize only a specific interpretation of Malaysia’s past, as framed by a European ethnographer. And for their subjects, the consequences are supernatural: the negatives have trapped the souls of a Borneo tribe for centuries, immortalizing them so long as the photos — and the bodies — exist. As a horror film, “Interchange” posits the image, and its lasting control over its subjects, as something to be feared.

Filled with intentional clichés, the film establishes a binary of good and evil, represented by the modern-day city and the jungle surrounding it, and its characters: there’s the sarcastic cop, Detektif Man, the angst-ridden photographer Adam, the femme fatale Iva and the ominous creature Belian. But soon enough, the film reveals that things are not what they seem. When Adam discovers that Iva is a Borneo shaman, who is killing her tribe members to free them, he realizes, along with the audience, that she and her people are, in fact, the victims.

This shift in narrative pushes the film’s argument that the individual must question, unlearn, and relearn history, as Adam quickly changes sides to help her. In its choice to use the visceral, emotional experience of watching a horror film that engages audiences to be a part of the “solving” process, “Interchange” demonstrates that understanding history is, in fact, a visceral, emotional process, that requires much more than an image.

While “Interchange” transforms genre conventions into a lens to examine history, Douglas Gordon’s “I Had Nowhere to Go” abandons representation altogether. Using layered soundscapes, color blocks, and brief still images, the film stimulates — rather than explains — the displacement of its subject, avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas. It follows Mekas from Lithuania to a forced labor camp, then a displaced persons camp, and eventually to Brooklyn, New York after World War II. But as he says, “neither the feeling or the image can be described to one who hasn’t gone through this.” Disregarding the obligation to teach, explain, or even justify the events of Mekas’s life and of his country, Gordon engages viewers with the task of trusting Mekas’s history without the often one-sided and limited images of war and displacement.

"I Had Nowhere to Go"

“I Had Nowhere to Go”

Unlike other biopic-documentaries, in which the subject is explained from an outside position, “I Had Nowhere to Go” invites the viewer to live, think, and feel as Mekas himself, targeting the senses rather than the mind. Additionally, the film also acts as a simulation of displacement. Much of the film solely consists of Mekas’s booming voice accompanied by a black screen, leaving the task of constructing history to the viewer, who must imagine the moment — from Mekas’s first American job to the New York city lights — on his or her own. Mirroring the human mind, which remembers moments at random with little discretion, the film’s sequence of events is chronologically scattered. Whether the events ever occurred at all is also a mystery, as the audience is told by Mekas that they’re welcome to read the film as “pure fiction.” Yet in doing so, the film affirms that the subjective experience, whether fiction or not, is an equally valid narrative alongside objective fact.

A simultaneous critique, celebration, and examination of the blurring line between cinema and reality, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s latest film, “By the Time It Gets Dark,” leaves its audience questioning whether the story before them is real life or a film, or a film-within-a-film, or a film-within-a-film-within-a-film. Hovering over the story is the 1976 Thammasat University massacre, a national tragedy that set the stage for greater Thai military government control. However, Suwichakornpong chooses to focus on characters whose relationship to the massacre is left unclear, and stories that continue to recreate themselves, a greater metaphor for the many ways in which communal memories are continually reinterpreted and remembered. As a film about history that never directly refers back to its history, only pointing from the periphery, “By the Time It Gets Dark” deconstructs the perception of history as something limited to the past, with no weight in the present and future.

Throughout the film, Suwichakornpong complicates time and space with ease. Scenes move from one character to another with little desire to justify their relation to one another, connecting a wide range of characters, including a former rebel leader, a university student, filmmaker, a Thai pop star, and a young woman in search of a job. The film invites its audience to connect these narratives on its own, only tying pieces together with fragmented clues, such as a scene that begins from a tobacco factory, where one character works, and ends with a shot of another character’s cigarette hanging out the window. The fluid, dream-like nature of “By The Time It Gets Dark” presents history as a nonlinear, cyclical force, rather than a linear sequence, underscoring its effort to discuss a dark moment in Thailand’s history, that, as Suwichakornpong explains in the film’s Locarno press conference, is rarely mentioned by the government — though its influence on the people is certainly felt.

What differentiates these three films from others about or concerned with history? The answer lies in their self-awareness. Unlike films that present history without questioning, this trio recognize the artificiality of the image — of photography, of documentary, of cinema. And in their willingness to confront this truth, their own depictions of history take the side of the people, with whom each film willingly engages with, not as an ignorant person to teach or manipulate with propaganda, but as an equal experiencer of real life.

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