As an object, a letter is a lesson in immortality; it exists in a form of forgotten meanings that only change when the recipient allows them space to breathe. Its language is pure and uncorrupted by the corporeal, a beautiful (or horrible) surprise that will move to express what cannot be spoken; a link to our unconscious thoughts and desires. Once sent on its way to a potential explosion that may never arrive it seems to beckon a residual calm that allows cathartic contemplation and a sense of serene somnambulism that is broke only when the answer arrives. Epistolary novels reached their apogee in the 18th century with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werthers.
With Life May Be (2014), Janus cineastes Mark Cousins and Mania Akbari revive a reformulated medium with added poetry, with the combination of language and visual oratory that persuades with its looping cadences and elementary statements of exile, nudity, Iran, existence and affirmative questioning. The film came to fruition after Cousins wrote a letter to Akbari and to his surprise she replied to him. After that an Iranian critic suggested they exchange visual letters with each other. It’s not a new idea, one immediately thinks of Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona’s exhibition of Abbas Kiarostami and Victor Erice’s visual epistles in 2006 which morphed into Correspondencia(s), five stand alone films that doubled José Luis Guerin-Jonas Mekas, Albert Serra-Lisandro Alonso, Isaki Lacuesta-Naomi Kawase, Jaime Rosales-Wang Bing and Fernando Eimbcke-So Yong Kim. Life May Be is a film that revels in its subtlety, in a time of anti-intellectualism it repeats Walt Whitman’s proclamation of arts for art sake, for the glory and the sunshine of letters, which ultimately is simplicity in itself.
Mark Cousins is a nomadic shaman of cinema, a true soldier of form who comes back from the far reaches of the anti-hegemony of Western narrative conformity. He’s a truly necessary voice within film criticism – a modern missionary whose aim is to introduce the virginal to those moments that change a future that promised banality towards adventure and a transcendental moment of cinema for which no one will ever be the same. Meanwhile Mania Akbari was Abbas Kiarostami’s close collaborator in Ten and a filmmaker and artist in her own right. After battling breast cancer and while in the midst of making her film From Tehran to London (originally titled: Women Do Not Have Breasts) Akbari was forced to flee Iranian in under the cover of darkness and reside in London where she continues to work.
So two different cineastes. Two humans. Two cultures. Two different languages; but with a lack of boundaries and showing that we can use cinema and image to communicate feeling as well as doings. This is a film that surpasses Babelesque conundrums, it listens, watches and exists in stillness which is encapsulated in Cousins first shot that stops and watches the mist rise against the hills of the highlands of Scotland – if Pedro Costa is the master of dark interior space here Cousins subjects himself of the outside and the air of possibility of exploration that one finds in all his work. The guiding spirit of Life May Be must be Virginia Woolf. In Cousins’ first letter he mentions Woolf to Akbari and the flat she lived in at Gordon Square; in her last letter Akbari visits the famous door next to Birkbeck College’s Screen Studies Department and gives us a coup de cinema that strikes a frisson between Apichatpong Weerasethakul and the magic lantern that birthed cinema kicking and screaming into existence.
In a coda we see a kinetic joyful illumination of YES. YES to living, YES to answering the call to welcoming everywhere to be the centre of the universe; a universe we all contribute to, a universe that welcomes a borderless cinema. A cinema that Cousins has called other, an ‘other’ which save us (the living) from mediocrity and as Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem locates us in a trance that Cousins’ words awake us towards a joyful acceptance of existence which was Brahms’ aim: to focus on the living rather than dead (which was the focus of the Requiem Mass in the Roman Catholic liturgy)
Life May Be screened at a special event at the Barbican in December 2014.
D W Mault | @D_W_Mault