Yesterday afternoon on a sightseeing whirl about the capital, The Courtier and his visiting British friend Dr. B. stopped in at The Hirshhorn Museum on The Mall. This is admittedly not one of The Courtier’s favorite venues, apart from the amusing building itself with its Star Wars/Logan’s Run courtyard. Aside from some of the art of questionable merit contained in the museum however, it was a pleasant surprise to catch “Block B”, a 2008 work by Malay-Canadian filmmaker Chis Chong Chan Fui, at the museum’s Black Box Theater now through August 1st.
The 20-minute film is a fixed-camera look at a high-rise apartment block in Kuala Lumpur, home to Indian workers contracted to positions in Malaysia. This is not some grainy, blurry security camera footage, however, but rather a kind of unblinking eye that takes in all it sees along the passageways of the building. Initially, it is something of a baffling experience, as our own eye cannot absorb everything in the way the camera does; the first few minutes are overwhelming as the viewer tries to understand where he is supposed to be looking. Dozens of people and apartments are visible all in one go, and the brain simply cannot fully absorb all of the information presented to us.
Chong uses dubbed snippets of conversation to direct our own eye up and down across the structure, since the eye of the camera never moves. We both see and hear ladies hanging the washing to dry on a balcony railing, discussing a newly-arrived neighbor, when suddenly one of the sheets slips from their grasp and falls several stories to a balcony further below. Two young lovers meet in a stairwell and share a furtive but passionate kiss, as he compliments her beauty and they talk about their future plans. In the evening candles are lit, strings of lights come on and fireworks are shot from one of the balconies as some of the residents of the complex mark a religious festival, to the delight of their children.
What is remarkable about the achievement of the film, if we are to call it an achievement, is that an empathy develops which seems in the abstract to be hardly possible at all, given that the scale imposed by the camera lens creates an effect that is a bit like looking at a busy colony of ants. Even though we are at a fixed distance (not to mention other ways in which we are distant) from these people, we suddenly find ourselves beginning to care about the residents of this apartment building. Will the girl who lives over here like the new sari that her mother bought her for the festival that evening? Will the family over in that section manage to get their new camera to work so they can record and commemorate the occasion? Chong never gives us the full answer to any of these questions, for the dialogue is both sparse and truncated, as if our ear is turning on and off, selectively picking up bits of these people’s lives.
Despite this selectiveness, as the film progresses we come to feel as though we actually know these people, even if we cannot always see what is bring described. While the concept may sound something like Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s “The Lives of Others”, in truth “Block B” is something far more vast. Like Georges Perec’s masterpiece of 20th century fiction, “Life: A User’s Manual”, what Chong gives us – perhaps unintentionally, as indeed is the case with Perec – a little glimpse of what it must be like to be God. Not knowing Chong’s views on theism does not matter, if the intelligent viewer is capable of looking at this piece and taking something away from it which is more than merely acceptance or dismissal of the film.
In “Block B” we observe, from a distance, what is going on in this small segment of a single apartment block in another corner of the world. And what is simultaneously deeply humbling yet enormously engrossing about this is that our brains, for all of their power, are simply too feeble to take all of it in equally. If this is what omniscience is like, albeit on (relative to the infinite) a small scale, then what a truly amazing, powerful, yet loving person God is. For the amount of love needed to not only have engendered creation but also to keep it all going, as well as to both know and care about it, is simply beyond our comprehension.
While The Courtier as a general rule would rarely advocate anyone spending much time at the Hirshhorn, this film in particular is definitely worth a visit should you, gentle reader, find yourself along The National Mall here in Washington this summer.