The Hidden City
Earlier this month, the Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted its 19th annual Film Comment Selects festival, a weeklong showcase of standout feature films from the past year’s international festival circuit, curated by the Film Comment editorial team. Despite the buzz surrounding the more anticipated titles including Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird and Laszlo Nemes’ Sunset, which were the Centerpiece and Opening Night selections, respectively, the festival also featured some more obscure gems that sought to transport us to places we likely wouldn’t have seen otherwise—from the underground sewers of Madrid, to the war zones in Ukraine, and remote rural villages in India—and ingratiate ourselves with people for whom death and desolation are specters that hover over their daily life in one way or another.
The Hidden City opens with a shot of what look to be twilight stars, tiny flecks of light twinkling in an otherwise pitch-black frame. This celestial image then crystallizes into something resembling a birds-eye view of a granite boulder, as some of the speckled dots begin to form spider web-like, capillary striations. The ambiguous sense of depth conveyed in this obsidian frame, set against a heightened aural backdrop of dripping sewage water, serves as an apt introduction to a film that cerebrally plunges us into Madrid’s underground jungle; an unfamiliar, spooky subterranean world whose metro tunnels, sewers, pipes, drains, and metallic caverns form the lifeblood of modern civilization. This vast, intersecting network of tubes are the city’s arteries, though rather than bring to mind such organic associations, Spanish documentarian Víctor Moreno expressly illuminates the austere, artificial industrialized contours of this man-made landscape; a virtually unknown world of intense isolation that can be easily accessed through the portal of a street pothole.
With this project, Moreno quite literally delves into a vital world beneath our feet that we take for granted, but which holds its own uncanny, intricate geometric beauty. The first extended sequence of the film follows underground workers as they go about their duties, which include locating and rescuing trapped animals while traversing rat-infested tunnels. Wading through waist-high sewage water, Moreno shadows the banality of these workers’ tasks with curious patience; acknowledging their thankless, difficult, dangerous and at times gross, yet necessary, labor, essentially taking us on a behind-the-scenes journey. He films them as kind of inverse space explorers who, like astronauts, have learned to navigate an alien, eerie environment whose stillness and black-hole expanse is both limitless and claustrophobic. Working without the use of artificial lighting, Moreno immerses us in this beguiling, at times frightening, labyrinthine space and the mysterious wonder it holds—exploring and excavating its nooks and crannies with stark, intimate clarity that’s complemented by the film’s cavernous sound design. Plunging us into an enveloping, luminal darkness, The Hidden City’s hollowed, shadowy aesthetic forces us to rewire our senses in order to adjust and adapt to this bituminous world—and as the documentary progresses, our other senses become increasingly intuitive and acute. Coupled with the film’s brilliantly augmented, ambient sound effects, Moreno’s cinematic approach becomes an experiential exercise in confronting and challenging our own sensory limitations and deprivations. For this reason, the film’s subcutaneous urban ecosystem is a potent reminder of human beings’ desolate vulnerability in strange new environments.
During the film’s post-screening Q&A at the festival, Moreno noted that in embarking on this project, he set out to invert the “light at the end of the tunnel” visual trope of optimism and redemption. Rather, his inspiration for the film came from a curious desire to refashion this metaphor and probe the “anti-redemptive” state of mind evoked by having the abyss stare back at you. As with the cerebral gray matter in which our unconscious lies, the documentary’s spatial and temporal viscera thus become an allegory for the city’s subconscious, another vast, mysterious territory. This idea of venturing into the unknown is echoed by the sci-fi horror quality of the film’s spaceship-like imagery, and its angular underground spaces are filmed with a calculated precision that’s both sterile and galactic, recalling Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In its own way, the film’s obscure, haunting tranquility serves as a visual mood piece—a meditation of what it feels like to be pushed beyond our comfort zone and embrace the void.
There’s a similar shadowy ephemeral synergy between sight and sound in Ekta Mittel’s Absence, which reflects on a different kind of void, the one left behind by the loss of a loved one. This documentary follows the proliferation in India of rural-dwelling men who migrate to the cities in search of work, and whose whereabouts are completely unknown to the women in their lives, women who aren’t even sure if their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers are even alive. If you’re expecting a penetrable documentary with an accessible narrative, this film is not for you. Rather, Absence operates within the register of a hallucinatory fever dream, one that doesn’t present a story of loss and grief, so much as it is loss and grief itself—manifested in a cinematic “tone poem.” As with The Hidden City, Absence is an atmospheric exercise in stillness and tangible emptiness—and its abstract lack of story is meant to cloak us in the same sense of alienation felt by its subjects. Like these women, we too are meant to be a bit destabilized and confused, mirroring the subtle ebb and flow of anxiety and uncertainty that comes with the tide of mourning. Inspired by the Punjabi-Sufi poetry of Shiv Kumar Batalvi, the film’s illusory, phantasmal scenes summon a particular state of mind invoked by loss and the melancholic, spiritual restlessness that comes with having no closure, one where the only presence felt is that of phantom reveries.
As with The Hidden City, Absence lies in the visual, psychic headspace of the subconscious, and the film’s nondescript settings invoke a universal space whose mystical tone and apparitional motifs evoke birha, which Mittel, in an interview with Film Comment magazine, explains is “the lamentation, pain, and grief of separation, …a state of mind [that] is a place in itself.” Indeed, Absence’s hypnotic serenity effectively plunges us into the psychological displacement that comes with grief and suffering, but her refusal to provide any sort of distinct, unequivocal narrative anchor to the film’s experimental abstraction muddles that message, and undermines the emotional weight of her subjects' plight, because we don’t even know their stories (no one ever explicitly relays the set of events that led them to be separated, and the only times they speak are in veiled, symbolic poetic talk). If we can’t even be invested in their story because there is no story—and if we’re too busy trying to make sense of every frame and its applicability to the film’s topic—then it’s hard to see the forest for the trees. Poetic ambiguity has its place in cinema, but it can also be argued that this place is more stringent in the nonfiction realm of documentaries. In the end, it didn’t feel so much like Mittel was concerned with telling the stories of her actual subjects, so much as using their circumstances as a thematic portal into dream-logic indulgence.
To some degree, absences—or rather, the remnants of what is left behind—can also be felt in Beata Bubenec’s war documentary Flight of a Bullet, which was shot during the height of Ukraine’s still-ongoing conflict with Russia, in the active combat zone of Donbass. Opening on an image of a nearly collapsed bridge that’s been bombed, Bubenec swiftly introduces us to the destruction and desolation left behind in conflict zones. She gains access to her subjects by way of embedding herself within Ukraine’s “Aidar” battalion, a voluntary, fascist anti-separatist faction fighting to reclaim Ukrainian turf annexed by Russia, and her filmic observations sharply elucidate the volatility and banality of war—the sheer boredom that’s only occasionally punctured by moments of terror. Although she had over 400 hours of footage by the time she finished shooting, Bubenec whittles that down to a single 80-minute take, following various fighters as they kidnap and interrogate a suspected separatist sympathizer, talk to lovers back home, and engage in machismo, casually misogynist camaraderie that quickly veers towards leering, potential sexual predation. At one point during the film’s second half, following the interrogation, Bubenec observes a fighter’s 20-minute contentious conversation with his girlfriend, whom he accuses of infidelity, and makes physical threats to as punishment for humiliating him. Because we never see his girlfriend, or even hear her voice or what she has to say, her absence is all the more conspicuous, since we’re solely limited to this man’s flippant bombardment of emotional abuse. Indeed, both on the battlefield and off, toxic masculinity permeates these fighters’ worlds, and their offhanded sexism, homophobic slurs, and total indifference to the thought of taking a life is evidence to that. One of the most disturbing sequences in the film comes towards the end, when one fighter gives Bubenec a creepy proposition (or threat) for her to “make love” with him in the basement, while voicing his taste for lacy underwear. Because Bubenec is the only female amongst this group of sexually frustrated and deprived, testosterone-fueled “reckless renegades”, the whole exchange has an air of menace and palpable danger to it, and the film’s uninterrupted camerawork only ratchets up the dread that Bubenec might actually be raped, for these men conflate attraction and entitlement when it comes to women’s bodies. Indeed, this moment, as well as Bubenec’s overall [dubious] participation in the documentary and her presence in these spaces, hammer home the realization that in society, women are only safe insofar as men allow us to be—a realization that adds new dimension to the sentence that opens the film: “Life lasted only while the camera was on, so I kept it rolling.”