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The image constantly shifts. One moment, it’s a string of old photos of buildings passing rapidly across the screen. The next, it’s a slow pan across a black and white Chinese scroll with collaged elements — magazine cutouts of an old bus, an airplane, and several people animated via stop-motion. Sometimes it’s archival footage. Sometimes it’s simply black. At points it even appears to show light reflected off an extreme close-up of a painted canvas superimposed on a landscape.
Breathless Animals, premiering in the US this weekend at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real documentary film festival, reminds us that reality has many rhythms. The first feature by Chinese filmmaker Lei Lei, it accrues meaning through many images tethered together thematically. Documenting someone’s life doesn’t necessitate moving from beginning to end, or even linearly. As the late Harun Farocki wrote in The ABCs of the Essay Film, “Even images that are far apart comment on one another.” Indeed, the experience of watching Breathless Animals is like feeling the distance between images, a chain of visual echoes.
Loosely speaking, you could call the film an oral history of Lei’s mother growing up in Maoist China. It takes its title and structure from a series of violent dreams featuring animals she had as a child. In one dream, she runs over a cat’s stomach and has a deeply felt experience of its body breaking “like the spine of a human being.”
Rarely, however, does the dialogue or sound correspond to the images. For instance, in the final section, Lei’s mother recalls being gifted a bike by her father upon her being accepted into university. But the visuals are ads of shiny and colorful new metal chairs from the 1960s and ‘70s. Why are we shown this? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s linked to a new financial condition. Maybe it’s about industry. Or maybe it’s that the metal of the chairs has a particular shiny quality, which the film highlights via close-ups of their gleam. By disconnecting image and sound, Breathless Animals opens a wonderfully speculative space. The viewer’s mind wanders from zone to zone, configuring different versions of events.
The movie often plays the sound of an analog machine — a tape recorder or film projector, perhaps — being rewound and fast-forwarded. It is one of the most prominent motifs. The audience never sees this machine, just as we never see the animals Lei’s mother speaks of, or any of the violence inflicted upon them. We hear someone fumbling with buttons, or something being wound. During certain sections, ambient electronic music pulses in time with the images, but the unseen machine and all the effort put in to get it to work are what dominate. This draws our attention to the story’s interstitial nature. Reality, and whatever constitutes it, exists in fragments. Not in a series of major historical events, but in the accumulation of in-between moments.
If a film could have a stutter, Breathless Animals has it in the best possible way. On a basic level, images literally get caught stuttering. The stop-motion cutouts pulse round and round like mechanical ballerinas holding a single pose. On a larger level, the pacing is like an intentional stutter. The staccato cadence thrives on skips and jumps, which more authentically captures the experience of memory than traditionally linear documentaries. While the film traces a specific life, its open, hybrid format welcomes our questions. What strings together reality? What is a faithful expression of the real? Who authors it, and what do they exclude?
Breathless Animals will screen as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real on April 27 at the Francesca Beale Theater (144 West 65th Street, Manhattan).