To me there’s a number of interesting ways in which watching a film in B&W is different to a colour film. Firstly, it somehow seems more like dreaming. I love that wonderful sense of waking from a dream that sometimes strikes me as the end credits role and I stagger out of the cinema blinking into the light of a normal day.
This year we have three B&W films in the WOW programme – The Turin Horse, Embrace of the Serpent and The Big City. In some ways the fact that the latter is shot in B&W is unremarkable as Satyajit Ray made virtually all his films in B&W.
Shooting in B&W can seem like the film takes place ‘out of time’, or at least not in a clearly defined time period. At times this can make a film’s exploration of human psychology and motivation seem eternally relevant, not just a story about a particular social milieu at a particular time.
It’s this aspect that works for The Turin Horse, one of the great works of 21st century cinema that deals with the existential crisis we are facing.
“The movie exerts an eerie grip, with echoes of Bresson, Bergman and Dreyer, but is utterly distinctive: a vision of a world going inexorably into a final darkness.” Peter Bradshaw, Guardian
Full of memorable images, it takes place in an unspecified past, when horse was the main mode of transport. This could of course be more a question of where it’s set – in a remote rural location - than when it’s set. It deals with an impending sense of social breakdown and ‘the end of a way of life’ that depends on the natural world. Or at least the peasant family depends on the cooperation of their horse!
“The themes are death, compassion and endurance, but it isn't clear how specific the allegory is. At the end, however, you feel... that you've had an experience.” Philip French, Observer
The many interlinked environmental problems we are all facing seem to me to be weighing more and more heavily on filmmakers' shoulders as they explore our gathering sense of climate breakdown, resource depletion and mass extinction. Director Béla Tarr announced that The Turin Horse would be his last film, and unlike most directors who make such announcements he has stuck to his decision. Making films (and indeed running a film festival) seem like trivial pursuits when facing ‘the end of civilisation as we know it’.
Two of this year’s programme, Embrace of the Serpent and The Dead and The Others (which is shot in colour), immerse the viewer in the rainforest. In both the sound design plays a huge part, making you feel trapped in an unfamiliar space, surrounded by teeming insect life. Both films combine a strong, almost documentary-like, realist approach to telling their story with an attempt to get under the skin of people who have a more mystical view of the spirit world that they perceive all around them.
While both are filmed in similar terrain, curiously it is the B&W imagery of Embrace of the Serpent that I have found the more memorable, that seems to capture the essence of life in the rainforest more forcefully.