MIFF 68½ – Outside the Oranges Are Blooming (2019) / The Plastic House (2019)

Outside the Oranges Are Blooming [Lá Fora as Laranjas estão a Nascer] (2019)

Written, directed, photographed, edited & co-produced by Nevena Desivojević

The various descriptions I’ve read of this 20 minute documentary film romanticise it as the portrait of a man who finds a connection with the wilderness that he can’t find with his fellow townsfolk. While I can see some of the pieces that might support such a view, this seems to me like a huge imposition of personal interpretation onto a film which can’t bear its weight.

The director has chosen to focus her attention on a man who’s clearly uncomfortable with being the focus of the camera, and accentuates this alienation by in one scene filming him shifting uncomfortable for 15 seconds before she asks him a question. Although there are shots of the town at night, the only evidence we see of human habitation other than the central figure is a single shot of the other townspeople attending church and a poster warning of a thief in the area. Later in the film, perhaps lashing out due to the unwanted attention, the man suggests that the director’s camera would be worth stealing and speculates about what might happen if somebody snuck up behind her.

The real star of the film is the surrounding landscape, an eerily beautiful area of low-lying fog, twisted branches, forested hills and trickling water. The only living creatures we are shown in these areas are a herd of wild goats, apart from two brief glimpses of the man in the far distance.

The final scene of the documentary is inside the man’s house as he sits at the table and gazes into the fire. The director observes that “outside the oranges are blooming” and the man gives her a funny look, apparently not knowing how to respond. I find it difficult to see this as anything more than the director’s heavy-handed attempt to impose poetic meaning onto a prosaic situation (unless the phrase has some specific cultural idiomatic meaning I’ve been unable to uncover). If the central character had been stripped away and the focus shifted purely to the surrounding environment, my experience of the film would have been a lot happier.

The Plastic House (2019)

Written, directed, photographed, edited, composed & co-produced by Allison Chhorn

This was a more effective, and affecting, experience than its companion supporting film. This is in no small part due to the contrast in technique and approach between the two filmmakers. Where Desivojević imposed herself into another person’s environment, Chhorn almost withdraws herself entirely from the narrative, despite it being ultimately about her own grieving process.

Allison Chhorn has created a semiautobiographical piece about coping with the loss of her parents. The film begins with a tight shot on a bathroom sink. A cutting noise off-screen precedes the appearance of a clump of hair in the bowl. This is repeated, before switching to an extreme close up of a section of Chhorn’s hair being cut. This is the closest the camera ever comes to her. While she appears in front of camera during much of the film, she is typically seen from behind in the medium distance while working in the greenhouse. On the rarer occasions when we see her at home, she is filmed turning away from the camera to sleep, or seen side-on from the other side of the room with headphones in place, listening to a simple synthesised tune of her own composition.

After the opening scene, a dashboard-mounted camera takes us through the journey of a car to a roadside location with flowers. A hand-written caption flashes up: “Mum”, followed by the years of her birth and death. The car moves off again, takes us to a similar location, and we see a complementary caption for “Dad”. The rest of the film comprises Chhorn’s refurbishment of a row of disused outdoor greenhouses (most likely belonging to her parents), stripping away the dead plants, refitting the plastic sheeting over the framework and planting anew (runner beans, possibly other plantlife). The work is slow, solitary, quiet, peaceful. The few times we see her at home are the only times we see hints that not everything is OK – a crack in the wall is visually associated with the vines and girders of the greenhouse on its first appearance, but every time it reappears the accompanying cracking sound (one of the few instances of sound which doesn’t come from the environment) increases. The crack becomes associated with holes in the plastic sheeting, which become wider tears as the increasingly turbulent outside environment intrudes.

Two thirds of the way through, the director provides her only direct verbal communication. A book by Faulkner is picked up from a bedside table. We see a page from the book with text underlined in pencil: “In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.”

It’s after this point in the film that things begin to come apart, as the violent thundercrack of an overwhelming storm is accompanied by rapid crosscutting between filmed and constructed images, an event which is all the more effective for its extreme contrast to the “slow cinema” approach taken in the rest of the film. After the devastation of the immediate aftermath, it’s not long before the film comes to an end with its most peaceful and beautiful image, which could be interpreted in a number of ways by the viewer and is all the better for it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s