Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014: ‘Visitors’ review


Godfrey Reggio seems cursed to be forever looked upon as a perpetrator of the modes and forms of the music video and advert like his comrade in arms, Terrence Malick; but it’s they who have been asset stripped by the parasitical behemoth of those nascent industries. When faced with the conundrum of chicken and egg the mass populace see their work as cliché, trite and advert-like, but the truth is theirs is a furrow that continues a fresh in spite of imitators intent in selling you a pair of running shoes. His latest, the sumptuously shot monochrome beauty Visitors (2013), is Reggio’s first film for close to eleven years when he concluded his Qatsi trilogy with Naqoyqatsi back in 2002.

Those wordless meditations on the human condition and its unknown losing battle with its environment struck a chord with audiences; what with the profound imagery and Philip Glass scores, they demanded to be seen in cinemas and to be experienced rather than watched. Alain Resnais has said that, “there cannot be any communication except through form. If there is no form, you cannot create emotion in the spectator.” Visitors attempts to will emotion out of an audience through form and its unquestioning spiritual enema that Anglo­-Saxon hegemony has blocked audiences with. This latest Socratic poem is a change in form and not a change in form, it opens with Triska, a female gorilla from the Bronx Zoo who stares accusingly at us – the passive, occasionally blinking but always transfixed movie audience.

What follows are images slowed down and shot in beautiful 4K black and white images of humans staring straight at us, whether they be children or adults. This daring gaze brings to mind Abbas Kiarostami’s 2008 offering Shirin, what with its focus on the audience being watched, watching the watchers without either of that puzzle knowing they are being watched. Alongside this questioning of the totalitarian presence of dazing we are shown buildings, disused fair grounds and nature completely alone: the temporary visitors of the title has left. A critical refrain towards this film is that it would be better suited to an art gallery than the cinema, but what is more cinematic than a human face in extreme close-up? Whether it’s Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) with its wallowing in the ecstatic pain of Renée Jeanne Falconetti or the repeated close-ups of Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) as their personalities collapse and coalesce.

The unquestioning close-up is cinema before cinema knew what it was. By looking we attempt to find an answer to the great question of existence, not unlike a child who is mystified by the first glance at a mirror and their strange reflection of self and everyday repeat of the idea of the before and after of Plato’s Cave. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s elegy Break, Break, Break talks of “But oh for the sound of a voice that is still”; in Visitors it’s a fragile stillness (both visually and aurally) that Reggio attempts to find within the detritus of a modern world that doesn’t know that fight is lost and soon the land will return to that voice that is still.

Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 7-12 June 2014. For more of our Sheffield Doc/Fest coverage, follow this link.

D.W. Mault