Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Aya Koretzky's Around the World When You Were My Age is exclusively showing May 28 - June 27, 2020 in MUBI's Undiscovered series.
Just as in Marcel Proust’s celebrated novel À la recherche du temps perdu, the past in Around the World When You Were My Age emerges when contemplating objects in the present; memories are sparked by images, and incidents not dreamt of in decades reemerge as the central narratives of a life. Rather than a madeleine, a metal box is uncovered and when opened, the days and weeks of a youthful journey are rediscovered, this time with new eyes. The eyes belong to filmmaker Aya Koretzky, and to the film’s subject, her father Jiro Koretzky, whose eyesight has quite literally changed in the intervening years—only one eye retains partial sight. Proust observes in his novel that seeing the universe through other eyes is the only true journey, and Around the World When You Were My Age shows us the world in a way that is thoughtful, compelling, wistful, and fresh. The two narrators together reinterpret what has been documented in Jiro’s diary and collection of images, making the past of fifty years ago vitally present and fully germane to a world in quarantine.
Aya Koretzky documents an essential journey from her father’s youth—specifically a trip from his home in Japan through parts of the Soviet Union, Scandinavia, Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and the United States. Jiro Koretzky leaves Yokohama on a Soviet vessel, having never traveled outside his country before, and notes the “baffling sadness” of departure. The movie follows many such moments in his almost year-long voyage wherein Jiro continuously encounters new cultures and people, recording his interactions and photographing the many places and faces he meets. Compiling his photographs and diary entries from 1970-71 with her own film shot on 16mm in present-day rural Portugal, Aya Koretzky seamlessly integrates these disparate moments in time, crafting a narrative that seeks to learn from the past before it wholly fades away.
Jiro’s diary reminds us that traveling can be lonely and tiring, with landscapes remaining incomprehensible, and communication difficult. But each place has its moments and discoveries: delicious blueberries in a forest outside of Turku, freedom from speed limits on the autobahn, an evening dinner with lively people and music on a street in Italy. Jiro meets kindness everywhere, and discovers the complex life behind ancient and mysterious city names: Beirut, Damascus, Stockholm, Venice, Athens, Aleppo. These places emerge from imagination into reality, and he feels the pleasure of discovering their truths. In Portugal he marvels at the distinctive and stunning stone pavements. They pronounce “a set of values that praise beauty over efficiency” and the vision of a public luxury shared by all. They evoke as well an understanding of human continuity and tradition that transcends our sense of time.
The film not only layers the passage of time between the present and Jiro’s journey fifty years ago, but casts a wider net: both images and music often reference past centuries. Bach, Beethoven, Händel, and Chopin recall baroque and romantic eras. The photographs of Greece seem like postcards from a thousand years ago and many buildings and gardens are essentially unchanged from when they were first built. In Morocco, Jiro notes that “Faraway, very faraway, above infinity, a herd of sheep and the people following it, move in some eternity with no apparent change.” He experiences this eternity, too, in sharing food from a communal bowl with children—a small gathering that sets asides differences and traditions in favor of simple sustenance. Such iconic moments trace continuity back through human history and across cultural divides. Later he recalls how scarce food was during and after the war and that eating delicious things now brings him great happiness. The film is suffused with such pleasures, including the warm colors of analog 16mm film, which help give us “memories as dear companions!” This is most delightfully depicted in the reenactment of the Japanese tale of Momotarō, the peach boy, who is brought to life in the film when Aya’s son Ary emerges from an orange suitcase that floats down a stream to his grandparents.
Much of the film charts this relationship between humans and the natural world. Jiro is a landscape architect by trade and exhibits a careful attention to how humans shape the natural world and what this says about us. His photographs record the massive spaces of Soviet cities, new structures in Scandinavia built for communities that somehow seem isolating, traditional gardens at Schönbrunn in Austria built far beyond the human scale. At times the images present a haunting, even post-apocalyptic vision of a world that remains uninhabitable despite being wholly made for humans. He remarks that in gardens like Schönbrunn plants are mere fodder for an image conceived in the mind, with little regard for the intrinsic qualities of the natural world. In contrast, he points to the constant rearrangement of the natural world in Japanese gardening, which tries to enhance what already exists. He locates a perspective worth cultivating in the work of Antoni Gaudí. As with the Portuguese pavements, it imbues utility with beauty, featuring a spirituality and passion that often seem out of place with modernity.
In keeping with seeing the universe through other eyes, the film plays with perspective in various ways. Many of the images are on their side—forcing us to reorient our ideas about viewing and the subject. One has to refuse the desire to tilt one’s head to the side, to force the equilibrium we expect. Instead, it is vital to relax into the playful upheaval, taking in the image off-kilter, with buildings sprouting sideways, ready to slide off into a world that is both precarious and ephemeral. Images can be blurry or damaged, just as people can appear as abstract bumps or patterns. Jiro’s diaries evoke other arresting images, like the “steak the size of a foot” a friend’s mother cooks. This dislocation is located in the music and soundscape of the film as well, with faint fragments of music sometimes distorted in the background, much as memory is. Jiro notes that “voices cease to be voices” as his ship leaves the harbor, and the familiar world slips away. Yet this use of sound is somewhat comforting. It is in Venice that Jiro finally feels at home in his journey within the murmur of the crowds—the social world is abstract, its chattering and mumbling a reminder that we are not alone.
One of the most striking passages in the film takes place with images from Syria: as Jiro reminisces about living through the war in Japan we see his photograph of the Great Mosque of Aleppo being burned. While this happens he recalls watching napalm bombs falling on Tokyo, and seeing the city burn. March 10, 1945: 100,000 people killed in the city in one night in a sea of fire, with children freezing in the river as they tried to escape the flames. We hear this terrible wartime memory as we see the symbolic destruction of the mosque in Aleppo during the Syrian civil war. Then the film seems to reverse, with another image appearing out of the fire as something lost is restored—this time a mosque in Homs that has been rebuilt. We can recall as well how Tokyo has been reconstructed, more than once. This segment reminds us that what we see as travelers is ephemeral; even sacred spaces are not immune to the darkness of the human heart. Yet it is the curiosity and kindness of strangers that is most memorable in the film.
Aya reveals that as a girl she believed the spirits of the dead surrounded her—that empty space was filled with the presence of others. This film surely builds such a landscape, fostering living connections between the natural world and the life of the mind, mending divisions rather than inflaming differences. Near the end of the film, Jiro mentions that he hears the sound of the mountain in the wind, certainly a reference to Yasunari Kawabata’s great meditation on mortality, The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no Oto). Soon afterwards we see him swinging over an abyss of clouds. This image brings to mind one of the most iconic images of the Romantic period—Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.” But Aya’s vision is a playful and liberating version of this classic notion of man’s relationship with nature. One of the greatest gifts of travel is to be able to interrupt the familiar narrative, the habitual point of view, in order to be open to the unexpected, the strange, and the new. These experiences then live inside us as memories, only waiting to be rediscovered.