Festival hyperbole is a real danger – it’s easy to get swept up in a film that you see early on, only to realize that it doesn’t hold up against films you see later in the festival. Fully aware of these risks, I’m still willing to make a bold prediction: I’d be shocked if I see at better film at True/False 2019 than my first film, “Now Something Is Slowly Changing.” Like my festival favorite from last year, The Task, this is not a film for everyone, something attested to by the sizable number of walkouts at the screening I attended yesterday. But for those with eyes to see, Now provides an intellectual and aesthetic jolt to the system.
The fact that the film eschews naming a single director, instead labeling itself as having been directed by mint film office, the production company responsible, tells you something about the interests of the film. Based in the Netherlands, mint film office here tackles the Dutch therapy industry, ranging from corporate seminars on connecting to clients to online self-help to group therapy in its various subsets (roleplaying, dance, animal). It’s a film that investigates a cultural system and does so through a detached aesthetic, relentlessly exposing the absurdities of a system where people pay money to give massages to pigs, and watch videos of a woman who pretends to relax the viewer by brushing their hair.
If all the movie did is allow the shady purveyors of this self-help to hang themselves by their own rope, it would still be entertaining, but might ultimately feel like a fish in a barrel scenario. What pushes Now far beyond this is its concern with the underlying culture that makes these absurdities possible, a concern it reveals in subtle ways. There’s no narrator here, just footage of the groups themselves. At one point, the speaker at a seminar aimed at training life coaches quotes the statistic that ten churches close every week in the Netherlands – yet people, he notes, still feel hungry for a sense of purpose. It’s a case of speaking better than he knows: in the absence of communal religion, people in the Netherlands (and many other places, especially in the West), seek out individualistic means of self-expression. What’s insidious about this, as the film patiently demonstrates, is the deeply corporate nature of this self-expression. From the woman who uses horses to help CEOs become better leaders, to the companies that train their salespeople to detect personality traits in their clients, so much of this world has commercial ramifications that it can be difficult to separate the money from the sincerity.
As fascinating as the film’s intellectual challenge to contemporary society is – it plays like the fulfilment of Philip Rieff’s 50 year old prophecy The Triumph of the Therapeutic – its aesthetics are just as good. It is a patient film, which adds to its difficulty. Most of the shots are long takes I wasn’t counting, but I’d guess that the average shot length is north of one minute. Often framed with precision in a long shot or extreme long shot, meaning that the human figures take up only a small portion of the screen. The effect is to force the viewer to really look, to examine all portions of the often bare screen, and to observe the subjects closely. For attentive viewers, this means simultaneously witnessing the mounting absurdity, and gaining a measure of empathy for the real pain that motivates those who seek (self)help. In a film with such long takes, editing is especially noticeable, and on this front too Now is excellent. The very first cut – a quasi-graphic match between a barn full of pigs and a therapy circle – highlights the wry viewpoint of the filmmakers, and a talent for abrupt and ironic juxtaposition that carries throughout the film. I can’t recommend “Now Something Is Slowly Changing” to everyone, but for those on its wavelengths, it should prove one of the most provocative films of the year.