CaSFFA 2021 – FREM (2019)

So far the Czech & Slovak Film Festival of Australia has taken me from rural cultural comedy to intense urban paranoia. Today’s selection takes a hard left away from narrative into a more abstract exploration of arctic landscapes and the lifeforms existing within them. Its transformation of natural environments via an implied science fictional lens invites comparison with Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Last and First Men (2020) (reviewed here), which used narration and music to suggest that a series of monuments scattered throughout former Yugoslavian territories were the remnants of a bygone civilisation. FREM (2019) takes a contrasting approach, stripping back the narration to a few introductory sentences before allowing the images and sounds to speak for themselves.

Viera Cákanyová (writer, director, cinematographer and editor) opens the film with some old analogue footage shot on a beach. The low resolution of the source material is immediately apparent in the digital artefacts created by its transference to a high definition non-analogue medium, large squares of blurred colour and mismatched frame rates distorting the original picture. Cákanyová’s opening narration draws attention to the analogue source of the imagery, establishing a connection between the breakdown of picture quality and the decomposition of the biological matter from which all life on Earth, including ourselves, is formed. After a rapid-cut montage of human life viewed through a nostalgic haze, she introduces the topic of artificial intelligence and our hopes that it might help to solve the big human problems like climate change and immortality. She interrupts this topic with confronting imagery of a deer being gutted, followed by another montage of deceased animal life, before raising the question of whether we could expect an artificial intelligence to have the same priorities. The narration breaks up into distortion, the subtitles change colour, Cákanyová’s voice is distorted and manipulated, played back and forth in garbled, disjointed electronic forms… and that’s about it for any direct authorial voice.

The rest of the film plays out against the Antarctic wilderness – a cold, still environment more in keeping with the emotive terms normally used by humans to describe a machine intelligence. There is a constant presence of breathing on the soundtrack from this point forth, creating the suggestion that the camera shows the point of view of a (potentially post-human) artificial intelligence. The camera roams around the landscape with no apparent aim, investigating whatever grabs its interest – the shapes of the ice and rocks, the swell of the sea, the occasional sign of life such as a seal. Apart from the sound of breathing, the sonic landscape is an electronic distortion of the natural sounds one might expect to hear, sampled and transfigured until it is effectively unrecognisable without close attention. The visual surroundings are similarly subject to blurring and fragmentation, if less frequently – and it’s unclear whether this is an accident of technology or a deliberate choice on the part of the unknown observer. The first half of the film culminates with the discovery of a visual distortion which appears to be physically present, a two-dimensional disc hovering over the ice – the view pans from one side to the other and back to the first side, at which point it reveals itself as a window into the past, a vibrant green Cretaceous landscape through which a procession of sauropods can be seen.

The transition into the second half begins with a hole drilled into the ice. Drone footage takes a spiralling path as it tracks the lone trail of footprints back to a hut belonging to the 42nd Polish Antarctic Expedition – although in this context it’s a lone splash of red, with an inhabitant (Martin Kovacík) whose tiny naked form can be seen venturing into the sea. Human sounds begin to join the natural environmental sounds as part of the sonic landscape – fragments of songs, excerpts from television broadcasts, and one key recording in which the unseen speaker tells how he is unable to discern any logic to what is going on. The film concludes with the discovery of a second portal, one which – by implication – extends into the future rather than the past; a future of darkness and stars and fragments of ice spinning in the blackness, what must the remnants of our own planet after its inevitable destruction.

Cákanyová is a Slovakian filmmaker known for her experimental approach to creating documentaries. She made FREM for the public broadcasting service Czech Television, following it up with White on White [Biela na bielej] (2020), a video diary documenting her stay in Antarctica and her interactions with various artificial intelligences. Unfortunately I haven’t had the opportunity to view this, so I can’t actually confirm the accuracy of any of the suppositions I’ve made – but part of the pleasure of watching a work such as this is allowing your mind to form its own connections as it attempts to discover/impose some meaning, much like the artificial neural network theoretically behind FREM. Among the rest of Cákanyová’s collaborators, I’d single out her sound team for their contributions in complementing the visuals to create an immersive experience. Dominik Dolejší, who was responsible for the final mix, began his career in sound design on her film Gottland (2014) – an adaptation of Polish author Mariusz Szczygiel’s “Gottland: Mostly True Stories From Half of Czechoslovakia”, winner of the 2009 European Book Prize. Also beginning his film career under her auspices is saxophonist and electroacoustic composer Miroslav Tóth, who worked with Cákanyová on Slovensko 2.0 (2014), which appears to apply a FREM-like approach to Slovakian history and society.

Having spent almost 1000 words writing about FREM, it may seem counterproductive to be say that this is one of those films that really needs to be experienced rather than described. It’s a consciously alienating experience – that’s part of the point (assuming I’ve interpreted the creator’s intentions correctly) – but if you’re not immediately put off by my description, then it may well be for you.

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