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Matías Piñeiro on Terence Davies' "Distant Voices, Still Lives"

In a chapter from the Viennale's new book devoted to Terence Davies, director Matías Piñeiro reflects on his 1988 film.
This is one of the texts featured in the book "Terence Davies: Textur #3" (2021) edited by James Lattimer and Eva Sangiorgi and published by the Vienna International Film Festival to celebrate the work of Terence Davies, whose new film Benediction screens at the festival as part of a full retrospective; he also made this year’s Viennale trailer But Why? Textur is an ongoing publication series that explores the work of filmmakers via less conventional approaches, including fiction, poetry, photography and more sensation-based, subjective or anecdotal forms of writing alongside more traditional film criticism. 
In Distant Voices, Still Lives, we witness rituals. There are the rituals of violence that leave traces of trauma. There are the rituals of liberation, comfort and community. Those rituals heal. And they involve singing. Cinema will often occupy this place in Terence Davies´ other films. But here, in this first feature, between work and duties, people gathered together as a community and gently propelled by beer, the ritual is singing. To shoot the ritual of singing, the silence before the performance, its reverberations within the room and the company of other voices must all be included.
What is it about shooting rituals? There is an experience of peculiar satisfaction in these scenes. There is a sense of wholeness, of something given to us for what it is, with nothing asked for in return. There is no debt. It is what it is. This is a liberating act in cinema, for narrator and viewer alike. Rituals have an internal logic that develops in front of those there to watch. They are self-sufficient. There is no need for plotting. Rituals are independent from the rules of cause and consequence of narrative. But they are neither vague nor weightless. They remain. They retain a strength that it is fascinating to watch and powerful to remember. They hold a power within them.
And thus I remember the rituals in Distant Voices, Still Lives. I remember the singing. Davies’ mise-en-scene allows us to witness the relationships between the people involved in the singing. I could stay there forever watching the characters whose stories we have been following, but in these moments I also perceive the actors behind them, those bodies in space and time vibrating together, in tune. There is no need for anything more (even if there certainly is something more, there´s the trauma), but in these scenes of song, the viewer is offered another experience, a vivid impression of the present tense. The act of witnessing these performances, framed as still lives, separated from the rest, outside of the logic of plot, almost outside of time itself, engenders another act in turn, that of watching and listening to gestures, words and gazes on their own terms, with their own inherent value.
These scenes evoke a sense of enjoyment in me that I sometimes forget cinema is still capable of and that I experience in regard to its early years, when films were about seeing a train arriving, workers leaving the factory, a wall collapsing, a parade taking place, things happening on their own terms, again and again. Here, people sing. We witness what simply is, conjuring up other parts of my movie-going experiences: I think of John Ford and his black-and-white marches, Chantal Akerman and her walks in Brussels, Tsai Ming Liang and those insistent tears, Tacita Dean and windfall apples and how I was given the time to watch and listen again thanks to the curious nature of rituals in cinema. And I return to Davies and the beauty of Distant Voices, Still Lives, how he lets us witness his own rituals, how they happen in front of our eyes and ears, their logic mysterious to us, yet finally revealed. 
Images from BUT WHY? by Terence Davies.


Matías PiñeiroTerence DaviesViennaleViennale 2021Festival Coverage
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