Matthew Lee Chronicles 60 SECONDS OF SOLITUDE IN YEAR ZERO

Just before Christmas 2011 I got the opportunity to fly to Estonia to see a truly special piece of cinema; a one-off project to be screened once and once only anywhere in the world; a compilation of short films featuring a truly stellar lineup of both famous and up-and-coming directors. How could I say no? We've already run one impression of the event on Twitch, from director Simon Rumley (Red, White and Blue) who contributed to the finished film and attended the screening. Here's my writeup of the trip, and everything it made me think of - part travelogue, part opinion piece, part review. It's long, it's rambling, but hopefully someone out there likes it. 

Sixty directors. Sixty seconds each. Total free reign over that minute of film (well, within reason). The finished compilation to be screened just once anywhere in the world, with a live soundtrack. The only copy burnt after the performance (you heard). This was 60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero, a project that finally came together to celebrate the end of the Estonian capital Tallinn's stint as European Capital of Culture 2011. So what was it like?

It didn't feel like anything especially momentous to start with, crammed into a tiny Avro 787 straining its way across Europe with the little girl in the seat directly behind mine busily giving my kidneys a massage. I don't get to travel much, so flying still fascinates me - watching the countryside far below glistening through gaps in the blanket of cloud, all that poetic license - but I was tired, with my legs crushed under the weight of the nice man in front who thought nothing of leaning back and taking a nap on an economy flight, regardless of whether there was anyone behind him.

So I thought to myself, why? Why organise something like this? Other than to put on a show, obviously. I got the email at pretty short notice, so I didn't get to rave about it to that many people but everyone I told thought the idea sounded nuts. Sounds great, they said. When's the DVD coming out? They're burning the film - doing what now? Whatever for? And other than the lofty mission statement on the website I found myself a tad lost for words, to be honest.

Now if you 'follow film' in even the most vaguely intellectual sense, you've probably heard of some director or other (maybe famous, maybe not) coming under their government's thumb for questioning the status quo. Whether it's Jafar Panahi imprisoned by the Iranian government or Liu Ye hounded by the PRC and SARFT over taking Summer Palace to Cannes, it's the recognised face of creative individuals being stifled by people who're none too keen on what they're doing.

Free Michael Bay

But even in an open, democratic society filmmakers rarely get true freedom of expression, when making a name for themselves means they get hounded into an early grave to make that lofty idea more commercial. Sure, they can turn down the money, and the CG, and the big names on the poster - although no-one will see the finished article bar critics and the hardcore, and it won't be anything like they saw in their head. Obviously this is not remotely comparable to a director being jailed for thought crimes, but it's still not freedom. Unless you're especially pedantic. Or Michael Bay.   

So in that sense 60 Seconds is still just as rebellious, I guess; 'flying in the face of the cynicism of marketing, production, business operators and the moral majority', as the website proudly states. There's no money in it, no further exposure, beyond whatever impressions the people who got to see it pass on. It's one big Dadaist fanfare, blast of punk rock feedback or some such breathless metaphor, and it's one brief moment of progress and innovation against all the odds (I mean, this thing took years to assemble).

Even though I was only there for two days or so I got the idea Estonia seemed like a good place for it. We're talking about a country still only a couple of decades newly independent, with the shadows of Soviet occupation everywhere, even when you're just passing through. There's the obvious stuff, like the spiel these guys will happily break into about how sure, the KGB headquarters used to be right over there, or how this bar's stayed exactly the same since practically back to the war.

But there are relatively subtler indications, too - the juxtaposition of Eastern bloc and Western consumerism, the wide-eyed enthusiasm in the way their English translations read, even something as (relatively) mundane as the language with which the in-flight magazine talks about their economic and cultural achievements. It's not as if you can understand any country's national identity inside forty-eight hours, of course but I got the definite impression that even when these people had accomplished some pretty significant things, they were more pleasantly surprised their homeland hadn't collapsed in the process than they were interested in rubbing your nose in it.

I Just Did My Thing

Put it this way; the hosts had a small party of directors, industry types and film critics trailing around Tallinn gawping at everything - in a receptive state of mind - and they were more interested in joking about how, over the past few centuries, their country got kicked around like a football between the different factions busy trying to carve up the Baltics. They've got a vibrant press, a thriving tech sector, low exposure to the Eurozone crisis... all this with Belarus scowling from two doors down, and yet the most these guys slap themselves on the back with is a quiet laugh at the baffled tourists who can't believe there's free wifi everywhere.

There's a viewing platform over Tallinn, in the streets of the old town, where you can see almost the whole city in one go - the chocolate-box medieval buildings, the skyscrapers, and on a good day all the way to the old Soviet tower blocks in the distance, apparently. It feels like a country with a definite sense of self, of its potential and its limitations, where the US debates American exceptionalism or Britain struggles to convince people it's still relevant. If you tried 60 Seconds anywhere else you'd get mobile phone companies or soft drinks sponsoring the broadcast rights around the world. Estonians just get on with it, apparently, and try not to take things too seriously.

Not that anyone else appeared to be taking it too seriously, either. Two directors had a spouse and child in tow. The majority of the guests turned up for the guided tour earlier in the afternoon, and casually networked over dinner. There was a TV crew wedged into the aisle of the coach down to Tallinn docks for the screening asking what different passengers were expecting, and people seemed to find this quietly hilarious. You could read it on one interviewee's face: what do I expect? Who the hell knows? I just did my thing, right?

So what was it like, after all that?

It was cold, for one. If not quite as cold as we'd been led to believe (the friendly festival employee who collected me from the airport saw what I was wearing and looked so alarmed I started thinking I'd collapse from hypothermia the moment I stepped off the coach). But still, late evening in Eastern Europe, a thin snowfall dropping around the giant screen standing on Tallinn's cruise ship docks, the crane behind it  and the barge for the musicians alongside - now that felt a bit more momentous.

Patterns Exploding

There was a speech from the barge on 60 Seconds as bold statement in an era dominated by commercialised cinematic drivel - much of which probably went over the heads of the crowd, I'm guessing. Or maybe that's just me; it sounded a bit too Godard for my taste. Applauding the directors did fall a little flat given so few of the sixty were actually there, and the top deck of the barge was so cramped half of those who were couldn't even make it to the front to wave.

But what was it like?

Understand this was sixty short films back to back in the space of an hour. I started to forget some of them almost as soon as they'd gone past. I think we all did, even the people who were taking photographs - so if I miss something out this isn't necessarily a reflection on what I thought, just my brain being unable to process all this visual information in any kind of coldly analytical way.

I remember the music starting - the live score was almost as varied as the shorts were, but it kicked off hard, a thundering beat pulsing under Ken Jacobs' entry, which was all flickering geometric shapes like an old TV test card interspersed with found footage - kids in a playground, I think, people sitting at park benches. Several of the films were like that - abstract patterns exploding and reassembling, leaving after-images at the back of my mind for the next few minutes.

Some were people playing with a single visual idea, rather than basic lines or forms. Marina Manushenko - I think I remember a woman's name? - did a gorgeous little piece on reflections seen in puddles of water, where it was hard to tell which was the person and which the mirror image. Vimukthi Jayasundara had a lightbulb at night casting shadows through swaying leaves. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Uncle Boonmee Remembers His Past Lives) had a school of multi-coloured CG cubes coiling through an empty factory behind a solitary worker.

Meditating On... Something

Oddly some of the big names felt like the weakest; Park Chan-Wook just contributed what I think was a brief moment from Cut (I've still not watched all of Three: Extremes) and Kim Jee-woon had the final scene from A Bittersweet Life. I loved that film - I consider it painfully under-rated - but that particular minute didn't seem as if it belonged. Maybe it was just my interpretation of it, but Kim definitely cut it in a way I didn't like, even at sixty seconds.

There were no rules on using offcuts, just to clarify. I did wonder about the significance of this: I spent some time chatting with Malaysia's Edmund Yeo (I had no idea who he was, we just got picked up from the airport at roughly the same time) and was floored by his entry when it came on screen. So many of the shorts were great, but left about as much impression as a waking dream, yet this was beautiful - achingly lovely visuals with a snowbound landscape, flower petals floating down a slow-moving river, two women in split-screen silently meditating on... something.

As it turned out there was a private party later to celebrate the Capital of Culture closing ceremony, held inside a converted hangar of some kind on the other side of Tallinn Bay (we took the barge there). Hundreds of people in evening wear, buffet laid on, a giant stage, musicians performing, dignitaries giving speeches, the works. Given I don't speak a word of Estonian I got a little dazed, to be honest, watching the dancers hanging from the ceiling while a chorus of opera singers celebrated... well, something.

Yeo wandered past again at that point, so I made small talk some more. No, his sixty seconds wasn't original either - it was unused footage from two short films he'd made, The Last Fragments of Winter (a fantastic piece of work) and another I don't think he named. But he'd put a fair bit more effort in, added the split-screen, tweaked the colour balance, juxtaposed the two women, things like that. It reassured me, to an extent. Park and Kim could have slaved over their respective minutes, but neither of them struck me the same way. Still, I digress.

Bullshit On A Giant Screen

Cult horror director and producer Brian Yuzna had genially submitted multiple shorts when invited, explaining he'd told the organisers they were welcome to use more than one if any of the other contributors couldn't make the deadline. Two made it in, funny, charmingly freakish little pantomime vignettes; one where a man acts out a werewolf transformation sans FX (it was a lot better than that probably sounds), another that felt like a playful jab at the Pygmalion myth (it was a lot less pretentious than that probably sounds).

He wasn't the only one to try comedy - one director, whose name I can't remember, even submitted an apology for not having thought of an idea in time - an entertainingly profane bit of self-deprecation with his letter typed out on screen and set to a jaunty piano loop. That also got a few laughs from the crowd. Although flashing 'Bullshit' repeatedly on a giant cinema screen will do that, I suppose.

There were serious moments, too. Several directors tried narratives, of a kind. Some kept it relatively ambiguous. Adam Wingard (Pop Skull, A Horrible Way to Die) contributed a gorgeously smutty little piece - a man filming a sleeping woman, a couple kissing passionately against a neon city backdrop, slowly revolving lights broken and refracted into crystalline patterns of lens flare. No explicit story beats, but definite depth and subtext - arch, languid sleaze that still managed to be both haunting and unsettling.

On the other end of the spectrum, Naomi Kawase had a kind of tone poem to her young son (who was effectively the only prominent actor to turn up) - one minute of watching him staring out of the window of a speeding car, the sun in the distance. Nothing too complex on paper, but elegantly done, and still surprisingly emotive. Though the director didn't seem to speak much English, if any, leaving several of us reduced to a clumsy thumbs up to show our approval after the screening, as the barge ploughed across Tallinn Bay.

More Wistful Than Frightening

Jes Benstock, one of the documentary filmmakers behind the Living Cinema collective (The British Guide to Showing Off) had a similarly contemplative piece. Strung together from lo-fi camera footage, it was a grab-bag of quickfire scenes shot from the perspective of a baby - adults looming overhead, scenery rushing past, soft toys lurching out of the shadows towards the camera. Benstock explained he'd intended it as largely ambiguous: an infant doesn't find this stuff scary, it's the way it gets filtered through our preconceptions... but it felt more wistful than frightening, like searching for meaning in a trunk full of old photographs.

And Twitch favourite Simon Rumley (Red, White and Blue, The Living and the Dead) submitted perhaps the only short with virtually no artifice at all. The movie theatre where he spent his formative years discovering a love of cinema, long since shuttered, was finally due to be torn down, and Rumley spent his sixty seconds filming a brief but heartfelt sendoff in front of the site. Something of a surprise, maybe, for anyone who's seen one of the man's films (dark, cynical, gritty) but earnest enough it stuck with me where many of the rest evaporated.

There were more - Fridrik Thor Fridrikkson's mournful, elegiac black and white drama as a man downs a glass full of ashes and walks down to the sea, Norbert Shieh's superflat, new wave camera following a surveyor who walks into an empty field and discovers a giant crack in the earth - but again, too many of them have just gone for good.

Viktor Kaganovich was an absolute pleasure to talk to, for example, and I was desperate to catch his name on screen so I could see what kind of a filmmaker he was... but while I remember I liked it all that sticks in my head is the opening shot of curtains blowing in the wind. Best stop, then, before I end up making things up.

Someone's Not Getting Paid

I chatted briefly with Norbert Shieh and Bruce McLure in the hotel, and they showed me the manifesto the organisers distributed to all the directors - while the booklet was a thing of beauty, you can see the text on the project's website. I thought it looked intimidatingly pushy; I will not, I reject, I refuse. Worse, it even quoted Godard. Still, the two men waved it off - are you sure they're taking it that seriously, McLure asked?

Perhaps not, I had to admit. I'd just seen the grand funeral pyre promised at the end of the performance fail to materialise. The projector (and presumably the film) went up in flames, but the screen itself failed to catch fire. Yet while the creative director was visibly frustrated ('Someone's not getting paid tomorrow') it didn't last. We'll leave it there, he announced brightly. Let people use it as a free cinema venue. A joke, perhaps - I'm not sure the port authorities would be too keen - but hey; you may have struck a blow for progress and innovation, but life goes on.

I'm not sure anyone involved with 60 Seconds had any fully formed idea about why they had to do this that could be reduced to a pithy slogan, and I'm not sure it matters - any soundbite they could think of would probably just be doing the whole thing a disservice. Ultimately I think it's enough just to prove that something like this can still happen, whether or not everyone working on it really knows why it should.

It was patchy, true, occasionally awkward - not surprising, what with so many different directors working on one hour-long film - but it was a fantastic collection for the most part. It was beautiful, frequently stunningly so, heartfelt, emotive and intelligent. So maybe the journey ended up being something momentous after all. I'm absolutely floored I got the chance to see the film, and the setting was almost as much of an experience - I didn't carry away any great epiphany about the creative process, but I don't think that was ever the point of the exercise.

It was sixty directors given freedom of expression; gently nudged in one general direction, maybe, but free from worrying about what the audience would think, keeping the festival happy, the returns, the ancilliaries, anything. And though it's easy enough to say this, it did feel all the more special for there being (apparently) no chance it would ever be repeated. 60 Seconds of Solitude in Year Zero was to all intents and purposes a true one-off, the kind we simply don't see any more, and for all its minor flaws its unfettered outpouring of creativity makes it one of the highlights of 2011.

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