Braden King's recently-released feature film Here reminds us of cinema's magical, almost limitless narrative and aesthetic possibilities. Shot entirely on location in the Republic of Armenia, Here is a metaphysical, philosophical road film, a love story and travelogue, a meditation on technology's effects on contemporary society and much more, a study on love, loss and the human condition that leaves the viewer at once emotionally spent and renewed, as paradoxical as this may sound.
Red haired, unshaven, rugged loner and American cartographer Will (Ben Foster) has been hired by local Armenian businessmen (read: mafiosi) to chart the Republic of Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Fiercely independent and unwilling to bow to Armenian dictates about women's proper roles in society, photographer Gadariné (Lubna Azabal of Incendies fame) plays the role of a prodigal daughter who has returned home, if briefly, after a successful Parisian opening. Will and Gadariné meet by chance and more or less instantly fall in love, though King has the cinematic foresight to draw their courtship out for close to an hour as the Armenian countryside unravels before their and the audience's eyes. Braden's Armenia is all mountains and valleys, running rivers and country villages, a charming if wild and rough-hewn sort of place. When the two lovers stop near the Karabakh border to enjoy a hot spring that Gadariné remembers from her childhood, the camera and action are so realistic and still, the acting so true to life that one almost feels as if one were swimming alongside the two actors -- a lovely instance of participatory cinematic voyeurism. Using Google Maps a bit farther on, Will shows one of Gadariné's friends the exact location of his house in San Francisco, and in the process reveals the existentially remarkable changes that technology has wrought on our sense of place and scale: What does it mean to be able to show your home on a map to someone three thousand miles away, and what does it really change to our daily lives? Does it bring us closer, or as King perhaps is unconsciously suggesting here, does it further alienate us by giving us an impression of closeness and proximity that is in the end all but illusory? (One wonders what Baudrillard would have thought of Google maps!)
King bookends and intercuts Here with stunning visuals effects: dark screens dotted with lights, celestial maps that mirror the ones that Will is trying to map, as Peter Coyote's sultry voice-overs lull one into a semi-meditative state. King also intercuts the narrative with experimental films by directors such as Gariné Torossian. Here is a particularly rich film because the director is able to successfully explore theoretical and structural issues as well as tell a story, exposing us to narrative film, experimental film and video art all at once.
As the road, seemingly unending, continues to wind, we slowly learn about Will and Gadariné's inner lives, as well as the similarities that draw them together: Both are fiercely independent, both in love with adventure. And Lol Crowley's cinematography is simply stunning at times, all about the play of light against dark. The portraits that he and Braden draw of local Armenians torn apart by war, distance and simply old age, are also remarkably touching.
If you want to be reminded of film's ability to transport the viewer to a different, parallel reality, then Here is a must-see. The pace is slow at times, but it is the same slowness that leads a mountain spring down a hill or the human heart back home.