PHANTOM ISLANDS (2018, Rouzbeh Rashidi, Ireland, A+30)
1. Though the film’s synopsis seems to focus on the boundary between documentary and fiction, that is not what I paid attention to at all when I watched this film. As for me, the film seems very fictional, due to the acting scenes of the couple which are interspersed throughout the film, and due to the haunting soundtrack. These factors make the film seem very different from traditional documentaries, which aim to give some useful information to the viewers. So when I watched this film, I paid no attention to the purpose of the filmmaker. I don’t care what the filmmaker was trying to say or to explore while making this film. I only care about how the film affects me. And this film makes me feel as if it is an adventure film which invites each viewer to create his/her own narrative or story.
2. So when I was watching this film, I created my own story while watching it. In my imagination, the film can be used to tell an adventure story like in Dan Brown’s novels or like THE WEIRDSTONE OF BRISINGAMEN (1960, Alan Garner). The film can be used to tell a story of a couple who try to search for the lost treasure of the kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod, or the treasure of Atlantis, or some magical things, or the door to Twilight Zone, or a magical island which has something they are looking for, such as a cure for their sleeping sickness, or a weapon which can be used to fight a witch who once put a sleeping spell on them and put some strange poison in the man’s blood (That’s why the man seems to be in agony from time to time. Hahaha).
In order to find the treasure/magical things/magical island, the couple must search for hidden clues and puzzles lying in castles’ ruins and many other places in Ireland. That’s why the couple are always wandering around, and lead us to experience the beauty of Ireland, including beautiful forests, meadows, and seashores. There is also a man who secretly pursues the couple, in order to get hold of the treasure/magical thing before them. The woman is armed by a magical polaroid camera, which can show us things which are invisible to human eyes. The woman can also talk to animals. Horses, white birds, sheep, and cows provide the couple some useful information. But the most important information/clues about the treasure of Cantre’r Gwaelod/Atlantis or the door to magical island comes from the animals in the aquarium—lizards, turtles, fish, sharks, etc. And the clues sometimes appear in the couple’s dreams. Later, the woman has to make some kind of blood sacrifice with the help of some other people, in order to find the next clue to the treasure/island. The door to the magical island will only appear at the right spot, at the right time when some stars are aligned and the tide is right, and at twilight.
That is how I experienced or enjoyed this film. This film is not made for this purpose. It may be made to explore the boundary between fiction and documentary or explore the nature of images or whatever. But I don’t care. Hahaha. I enjoyed it as one of very few films which inspire me to create my own story while watching them.
3.It is interesting to see that this film is dedicated to Jean Epstein, Marguerite Duras, and Andrzej Zulawski. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet seen any films by Jean Epstein. But I can see how the film is related to Duras and Zulawski. I think the scenes of the couple may be inspired by Zulawski, because these scenes are full of exaggerated gestures. The love of the couple and the quarrels between them are expressed with exaggerated emotions like in Zulawski’s films, I guess.
Some nature scenes may be inspired by Duras, or at least these scenes remind me of such films as AGATHA AND THE LIMITLESS READINGS (1981, Marguerite Duras) or HER VENETIAN NAME IN CALCUTTA DESERT (1976, Marguerite Duras), which tell stories via scenes of empty landscapes.
The difference from Zulawski and Duras is that the films of Zulawski and Duras tell stories, but PHANTOM ISLANDS doesn’t tell any stories, though some viewers like I can create a story by themselves.
4. While I was watching PHANTOM ISLANDS, it unintentionally reminds me of two films by Christelle Lheureux, which are:
4.1 I FORGOT THE TITLE (2008), because I FORGOT THE TITLE also shows us a couple in a misty, mysterious island. It is also an experimental film which tells no exact story. I FORGOT THE TITLE is also very Durasian.
4.2 L’EXPERIENCE PREHISTORIQUE (2003, 80min), because L’EXPERIENCE PREHISTORIQUE presents us images of some Japanese people standing or sitting in a house throughout the film. The original film tells no story, like PHANTOM ISLANDS. But in a way L’EXPERIENCE PREHISTORIQUE tells so many different stories. When the film was shown in Japan, someone was asked to create a story to accompany the film. When the film was shown in France, a French writer created another story for the film. When the film was shown in Bangkok, Prabda Yoon, a famous Thai writer, created a very interesting story about the war in Iraq and its affects on Japanese people for the film. And the film was adapted into so many different stories when it was shown in China, South Korea, Canada, Vietnam, Netherlands, and Switzerland.
So in a way PHANTOM ISLANDS affects me in a similar way to L’EXPERIENCE PREHISTORIQUE. Both films inspire me to create a story by myself, though in the case of L’EXPERIENCE PREHISTORIQUE it is intentional, while in the case of PHANTOM ISLANDS it is unintentional.
5.Because I created my own story while watching PHANTOM ISLANDS, I found that my experience for this film can be compared to my experience for some films of Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jacques Rivette, Teeranit Siangsanoh and Wachara Kanha.
5.1 It reminds me of Alain Robbe-Grillet, because in films such as EDEN AND AFTER (1970, Alain Robbe-Grillet), the focus seems to be on the images of character postures. EDEN AND AFTER is full of strong images. We see characters posing beautifully or strikingly all the time. The relationship between “images” and “story” in Robbe-Grillet’s films is distorted or is very unusual compared to ordinary narrative films. I find that some images and editing in PHANTOM ISLANDS give me the same kind of impressions.
5.2 PHANTOM ISLANDS unintentionally reminds me of Jacques Rivette, because the story that I created by myself somehow can be compared to such films as DUELLE (UNE QUARANTAINE) (1976, Jacques Rivette), which tells a magical story in contemporary settings without special effects or CG. Jacques Rivette is one of my most favorite directors, because he used “everyday settings” or “ordinary places” and created an adventure or an exciting story out of these ordinary places, such as PARIS BELONGS TO US (1961), OUT 1, NOLI ME TANGERE (1971), CELINE AND JULIE GO BOATING (1974), LE PONT DU NORD (1981), GANG OF FOUR (1989), UP DOWN FRAGILE (1995), and VA SAVOIR (2001). Jacques Rivette could turn “ordinary places” into something mysterious or magical. It seems like he saw magic in everyday life. And that’s why PHANTOM ISLANDS reminds me of Rivette, because this film turns images of “ordinary places” into something magical, too, by blurring the edges of the images, and by accompanying the images with haunting soundtrack or sound of invisible things.
5.3 PHANTOM ISLANDS unintentionally reminds me very much of the films by Teeranit Siangsanoh and Wachara Kanha, because these Thai filmmakers made fictional films by using “documentary images” or “images captured from everyday life”. Teeranit and Wachara are zero-budget filmmakers, but they like to make many fictional films. They have no budget to create sets or to hire actors, so they just films many things in their everyday life—views of the roads, views of some deserted houses in Bangkok, views of some wastelands—and also films some landscapes when they travel upcountry, and use these documentary images or “everyday images” to create some fictional stories in their films. In THE LIGHT HOUSE (2011, Teeranit Siangsanoh, 43min), Teeranit can tells us a story of the apocalypse by filming a deserted house. In LOSE (2011, Wachara Kanha, 70min), Wachara tells a fictional story by using some images he filmed while traveling to a seashore. In INVADER (2011, Wachara Kanha, 90min), Wachara tells a sci-fi story about aliens by using images he filmed while walking and playing with friends in a forest. In THE COLD-SKULLED MAN (2013, Teeranit Siangsanoh, 33min), Teeranit tells a sci-fi story by filming images of a farmer living his everyday life. In THE NYMPH or NANG PRAI (2016, Teeranit Siangsanoh, 19min), Teeranit tells a story about the love of a female half-crocodile, half-human, by using mostly documentary images of a tourist spot.
PHANTOM ISLANDS reminds me very much of NANG PRAI, because both films can be divided into two main parts—documentary images of tourist spots and images of actors/actresses doing something. Another similar thing between these two films is that both films show us how “images of something which seems so ordinary” can be turned into something mysteriously powerful or indescribable by the gaze of great directors. In PHANTOM ISLANDS, we see an old man’s face at the beginning of the film. The camera seems to linger on the man’s face longer than usual. And that may be the boundary between documentary and fiction. The scene of a man’s face seems to stop being a documentary and starts to inspire some imagination in the minds of some viewers. In NANG PRAI, we see the heroine combing her hair in an ordinary room for about 5 minutes. There is nothing else happening in the scene. We just see a woman combing her hair while listening to a beautiful old Thai song. In this scene, we see an ordinary woman doing an ordinary thing for a long time. But somehow the gaze of Teeranit can turn images of these ordinary things into one of the most magical scenes of all time in Thai films.
6.In conclusion, I like PHANTOM ISLANDS very much, because it unintentionally inspires me to create some adventure stories inside my head. And I think in some cases the boundary between documentary and fiction doesn’t only depend on the images themselves, but also depends on each director and each viewer. Images or scenes of a tourist spot may be documentary images/scenes in themselves, but when they are devoid of information, and when they are juxtaposed with fictional scenes, they can easily become a part of fictional stories, intentionally as in the case of Teeranit Siangsanoh’s fims, possibly unintentionally as in the case of PHANTOM ISLANDS. Documentary scenes such as the scenes in which the crew of PHANTOM ISLANDS appear in front of the camera or appear in the polaroid photo, or the scene in which a flock of sheep seem to be disturbed by the presence of the filmmaker, may be documentary scenes in themselves, judging by the purpose of the filmmakers, but they can be turned into fictional scenes in my imagination, because the will and imagination of each viewer can play an important part, too.
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