A Cinema of Revolt

By Lee Sze Wei

Diary of Cattle and Gallery are both films that are in revolt with traditional forms of cinema. They are, at the same time, revolting to watch. From a dreary long take of a cow chewing on a plastic bag to a close-up of a young man preparing a meal with a live duck in a cramped washroom (with wastewater almost to his ankles), these films are not easy to stomach. Fiercely singular in their formal execution, the viewer’s experience of these films is one of being thrusted into the abject conditions that their subjects are in, eschewing all forms of narrative devices typical to the filmic medium. The films’ unyielding gaze forces us to confront the daily lives of the cattle grazing the landfill and also plunges us into a communal washroom frequented by an eccentric bunch. 
Filmed in Padang City, West Sumatera, Diary of Cattle by Lidia Afrilita and David Darmadi documents the lives of cattle that inhabit the city’s expansive landfill. From the comic to the tragic, we see the herd of cattle go from roaming the mountainous landfill to waiting by the dumping site for tractors to bring in their next meal. One cow is photographed eating tree bark in close-up; a bull tries to mate with a cow, but gives up immediately after; and yet another cow is shown just basking in the afternoon sun with a sense of contentment. All of these are shot in meditative long takes where the cattle’s appalling living conditions are presented to us with objectivity, free from human intervention. The absence of the human voice compels us to make our own meaning of what we see on screen. Is the film an indictment of our excessive consumer culture? A metaphor for our societal moral sickness? A call to arms to put a stop in contributing to global waste?

What I found to be most powerful is that depicting the cattle in this unnatural environment is an exercise in empathy.
Two particular shots from the documentary best express this. The first shot shows a small group of cattle emerging from those surrounding the body of a deceased cow. The cattle, concerned, nudge and sniff the dead body as if trying to wake it. I found observing how the cattle react – in a manner that resembles human rituals – to be profound. 
Another medium wide shot observes a calf standing looking far off into the distance, shivering in the rain. It then coughs. The moment was unexpected and the calf sounded so human. What initially were thoughts floating in my head, trying to figure out the message of the documentary and the disgust I initially felt while watching them consume garbage turned into empathy. The directors’ confidence in letting the image speak for itself and our innate tendency to anthropomorphise, ultimately makes this documentary short a moving experience.  
The unlikely central character in this next short is the communal washroom and the myriad of locals who frequent it. While Diary of Cattle safely puts us at a distance from disgust, Gallery the debut short film directed by Vo Anh Vu confronts us with it. There is no narrative in the traditional sense; there are just individuals, or groups of people entering the washroom either to shower with money, to relieve oneself (three men at the same time in another instance), to paint, or to get their toenails done while showering with clothes on. The highly un-aestheticized world created by Vo Anh Vu borders on the absurd, and are equal parts comic and repulsive at the same time. The filmmaking is immersive, the use of sound design to create soundscapes draws us in as we know that the washroom is situated in the middle of a bustling urbanized city through the constant noise of traffic and construction. The shots are almost never repeated, the camera is always finding a new way to repulse us through its various grotesque close-ups of the human characters in how they go about their daily rituals. 
I think what Gallery does so well is provide an anarchic revolt against the elitism of high art. It puts forth an argument against the conventional view of what art should be. In the film, there is a male artist who enters the washroom with paintbrushes and a flower tucked behind his ear. He squats down to relieve himself amongst the food waste and plants the flower in the wastewater. He then starts painting items such as a tube of toothpaste, the walls around him and ultimately his face in a manic trance. Ultimately, his efforts result in only partially concealing the nature of the condition in the washroom with his half-finished paintings of masks and figures. The artist seems to accept the impossible nature trying to beautify the squalid washroom as he dejectedly smokes his cigarette and then leaves. It is perhaps that aestheticized art is a facade that could never authentically represent the truth, and seeks only to conceal it.   
By exposing the gritty truths and heightened reality of the locals’ lives in Vietnam, Gallery ultimately forces us to consider if we can accept the film in all its imperfection and its own repulsive cinematic subject matter as art. Conversely, Diary of Cattle’s dreadful depiction of pollution moves us from feeling disgusted to empathizing with the cattle’s resilient existence.

– Lee Sze Wei