Some have said that Cinema is dead—Godard, Tarantino, Greenaway to name a few. Besides a few international and avant-garde filmmakers, the modern era of movie-making no longer showcases film at all, but instead a display of sound and image recorded digitally. The physical medium of film, the tangible celluloid on which images are sculpted, may, in a sense, be dead, but nay should it suggest that cinema itself is dead.
Others have interpreted the statement ‘cinema is dead’ to mean that the art of film is dead, not merely that film itself is a forgone medium. This understanding details the emergence of commercial cinema amid the mainstream and describes the modern era as some lesser form—a non art. To define, major film theories agree that the art of cinema involves creative and passionate filmmaking. This stands in opposition to the majority of mainstream films being released these days—assembly line blockbuster productions which lack a creative or personal voice. And yet, for every mainstream blockbuster there are a handful of independent attempts at art cinema, at cinema with a passion, at the creation of art. Sometimes these films even make it to the mainstream—Moonlight just won Best Picture, didn’t it?
Considering the time we live in, a new digital age where literally anyone and everyone can be a filmmaker, how can Cinema be dead? If the art of cinema, what makes film alive, has to do with passion, creativity, self realization through the capture and presentation of sound and image, then there’s nothing stopping an inspired person from creating film. And like a tree falling in the woods, if a film is made which no one sees, is it still a film?
With this in mind, this article will look upon the films of emerging director Raz Vahn and the idea within new digital cinema that anyone with an iPhone can become a filmmaker. Though without training, a film camera, a budget, equipment, distribution, or even viewership, Vahn has made a series of short films which erupt with a raw passion for cinema which transcends these factors. His films, which have grown in quality since first narrative short, Falling, and first two ‘inspired music videos’ Water and Home, demonstrate one exceedingly important concept within cinema theory, that the art of cinematic creation comes from within. and needs not have high production values, a masterful script, or notable actors; it comes from the raw passion of an artistic impulse which is exercised through the creative act of cinematography or filmmaking.
Vahn’s films display the creative and passionate filmmaking which may be attributed to the pioneers of film such as the Lumiere Brothers, Thomas Edison, and Georges Melies. These films too featured what we would call today poor production values, but we would never estimate that Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumiere, 1895), A Trip to the Moon (Melies, 1902), or Annie Oakley (Edison Company, 1894) were non-films. These three are examples of the finest filmmaking of its time, examples of filmmaking itself, during a a time when a film reel lasted less than 10 minutes, only shot black and white, didn’t support sound, and was such a low fps that one might be even be able to pinpoint the individual photographs which make up the flicker.
Though using an iPhone and dispelled as a non-filmmaker for such lack of technology, training, and production values, Vahn is able to shoot a high definition colour film which reaches critical flicker fusion. Whatever naysayers have against the idea of low budget self-made films—and I don’t mean ‘home movies’—have no weight when we consider that everyday people today have in the palm of their hands a greater advent for filmmaking than those early pioneers of cinema ever did.
That said, cinema has evolved significantly since Edison, Melies, the Lumiere Brothers, and Eadweard Muybridge forged the path. We went from actualities to realism, from realism to formalism, from formalism to new wave, and so on. This occurred internationally at different moments. Soviet realism began in the 1910s and the Italians donned ‘neo’-realism in the 1940s. The French faced a new wave in the 1950s, while Taiwan began in the 1980s. Americans proliferated a commercial cinema which has certainly monopolized the industry, forcing many of the great international and independent films with ties to film history, theory, and the art of filmmaking into the festival scene.
While Vahn has yet to be featured in a festival, he’s made ten or more short films in under a year. He works independently and does it for the love of cinema. His films are a form of self expression and they are made more for himself than for any viewer watching them. He makes these films because the creative spirit of filmmaking is in him, but the near-dead world of cinema has no space for him (he hasn’t gone through all the proper channels to be called a filmmaker!!!).
But his films are rather impressive.
While several of Vahn’s films, such as the more recent Numb, breaks copyright laws and isn’t meant for any kind of festival or commercial release, it is undoubtedly 7 minutes of honest, passionate, and creative filmmaking. On first glance it’s clear that he has been influenced by Terrence Malick and Tsai Ming-Liang. The inspiration clearly came from within and naturally found its place in Vahn’s thoughts and decisions for framing and cutting the film. In spite of using an iPhone without accessories, such as the lenses used for Sean Baker’s infamous Tangerine (2015), the images are crisp. On a bright snowy day, the whites and blues reflect light through windows and water, painting a grand impression of beauty in a cold city wherein a skytrain commute becomes transformed.
Having gained some chops, however, Vahn has begun turning to the idea of filmmaking for festivals and commercial viewership. Having seen and been involved in screening the submissions for festival shorts programs before, it’s clear to me that Vahn is doing something more interesting and more genuine than what is currently seen in the festival circuit, and for this reason his films provide great value to international viewership.
His short film Remember is a heartfelt documentary of his Grandmother’s dramatic life growing up in Romania during the war before emigrating to America. It’s a deeply personal film that mostly chronicles family togetherness in the face of hardships. He couples cinema verite with home-movie nostalgia, interviews with evidence in the form of photos and conversation. The film uses voice over which overlaps distinct formal techniques such as montage and long takes, which leads to an epilogue of Velvet Underground on a bright sunny day wherein the resilient Grandmother, whom we’ve heard so much from, walks outside to the brighter future she once dreamed but today has realized.
Vahn’s most recent film, Iced, might be his strongest work yet. It is a a 27 min avant-garde horror film with meticulous editing and a finely crafted mise-en-scene. Primarily a psychological character study, Vahn places viewers in the opposite perspective of a conventional horror, similar to what Dexter does but without the running commentary. While holding a narrative, there are few words and little explained; instead, Vahn opts to use images and sounds to convey a reading of his film. The atmosphere is felt, while the film’s on goings remain rather enigmatic. Like with Numb, he uses shots of nature, of snow, of reflections, and of ice to convey elements of narrative. Speaking through form and metaphor, the narrative becomes all the more affecting, leaving viewers a bit shaken upon its final frame.
Iced is now ready for festival submission, and will be privately released Friday, March 31.
For all Vahn’s publicly available films, please visit his Vimeo Page.