Plenty questions for…Lav Diaz

Guernica magazine has published my interview with Lav Diaz today, which I conducted in November 2015 during the retrospective of his work at Jeu de Paume (and later the the Cinematek in Brussels). Here’s an extract of it. You can read the full interview on their website. Happy reading!

Guernica: What was the social and political situation in the Philippines at that time?

Lav Diaz: There is an extension to what happened during the war, when the Japanese rampaged us for four years. The Filipino guerrillas became the core movement: [during WWII] they were called Hukbalahap, the Philippine Army against the Japanese. The communist movement in the country started with the Hukbalahap right after the war. They were called Huks. Then we were under the American system. They gave us this so-called independence in 1946, but we were still part of the Commonwealth of America then. We were part of their imperialist movement.

Guernica: Did you witness any of those communist fights?

Lav Diaz: Not in our [region]. My father was a socialist, but he didn’t join the armed struggle. He was more into the cultural part—education, he focused on that. He didn’t want any violence, so he volunteered there to educate the indigenous people. It was actually very blissful in that area until the fight between Muslims, Christians, and the military in the late 1960s. Although there was this stark poverty and struggle, it was idyllic before then. Education was the center of everything. People were trying to help each other. Roads were being built in the area.

I was growing up in this barrio when martial law was declared.

Guernica: Mindanao has appeared in your films—for instance in From What Is Before. Do you have any specific memories of your life there?

Lav Diaz: Everything that you see there is from Mindanao. From What Is Before—you know, the shoot was hard. But the writing, the creation of the characters, the situations—it’s all from memory. It’s a composition of so many characters, from my parents, from my youth. I just put them together and created a narrative around them. It’s easy to create a narrative for me, because I really know the characters, the locale.

Read the full interview on the website of Guernica Magazine.

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8 Questions for Sebastian Cordes

His poetic observation A place called Lloyd (2015) made Danish director Sebastian Cordes a slow-film director to look out for in future. I had a brief chat with him about his film. My thanks goes to Sebastian, who made this possible!

I always start my interviews with questions about how filmmakers have come across their subject. I find this particularly intriguing in your case. It is not the kind of everyday situation or place we usually find in slow films. So, how did you find this “place called Lloyd”?

As much as I would like to say that I was travelling around South America, and found this magical place on a journey to discover new stories, it was as simple as an article I read in the Danish newspaper Politiken. A classic stumple-upon-story. But I was struck by it, and thought ‘we have to go immediately!’ So we actually managed to get some funding real quick and really nice equipment by the Filmworkshop (under the Danish Film Institute) in Copenhagen, but didn’t want to go into long term negotiations with pitches and budgets with bigger production companies, the story could be gone by then. This is why the budget of the film was something like 10.000 dollars.

I noticed that the film is centred on the people of the former airline Lloyd Aero Boliviano. Was that your choice from the beginning or did that particular approach crystallise during the pre-production/shoot? I’m asking because many of your shots are stunning. Your film could have easily been an entirely visual piece on the subject.

First of all, to call it a ‘former airline’ is not entirely correct, especially if you look at it from their point of view. They still work, trying to get a license to fly again etc. But yes, admittedly, the pictures that accompanied the article attracted me, because of the abandoned nature in it. The dusty hangars, the worn out planes (what a metaphor for loss, to have your wings clipped!). It is not on purpose if it seems centered around something, rather it is centered around the nothingness at the place, and how this apparent nothingness is filled with meaning, pride, history and absurdity. How the buildings have this immanent aura to them.
It quickly became evident that this was a place like no other place I had ever been to. And the film needed to express this, not explain it. This is why there’s almost no talking, and when there is, it’s not interviews, but merely monologues told to the camera. We did not seek out stories that fitted into any predetermined idea of the place, but people came up to us out of the blue, and told us stories, that we then would ask them if they wanted to tell again on camera. So we tried to film, or express, our experience of the place, and stay away from any common logic of storytelling. I’m not really interested in that essentialist way of trying to narrow it to down to what the place is, as if that’s possible. Instead of looking at what it is, I’d rather look at how it is, or just that it is. To quote the first sentence of the Eminem/Rihanna song Love The Way You Lie “I can’t tell you what it really is. I can only tell you what it feels like.”

There are several beautiful shots which stand out. They have something photographic about them. How much time do you actually spend on composing those images? How important are the visuals to you?

This is where other filmmakers usually have eyes wide open and shake their head, especially documentary filmmakers. We would often use 10-15 minutes to set up a shot, and this is after we have gone scouting for that shot, perhaps the day before, taking notes, and if there’s supposed to be a person in the shot, test it out with one of us in front of the camera, notice when the light is how we want it – what time of the day is best etc. And then, we had sort of a silent agreement, me and the camera man, Jakob, that even if we went through all this and one of us had any doubt that we probably wouldn’t want it in the final film, we didn’t shoot it. As if we were filming on celluloid made of gold. This is why we only came back with less than four hours of material, for an 80 min film. Something that people also have a hard time believing.

Don’t get me started on the importance of the visuals. It is a puzzle why form and content is separated in the way it is in cinema still. I simply don’t get it. It seems Aristotle won that battle. The visuals are extremely important to me – it is the same as asking how important is the content. Well, they don’t go without each other. It been a forty years since McLuhan pointed out that the medium is the message, but perhaps it didn’t ring a bell for the people in cinema. And I often feel like an outcast pointing this out, as if it’s even close to being avant-garde to say that. It isn’t in any other art form.

You spend a lot of time capturing the daily affairs of the people. This is primarily achieved through long-takes. Why did you choose an aesthetic of slowness for the depiction of your subject?

Because I’m a lazy filmmaker, basically. But I have good arguments to back it up, if people don’t accept this. No, I honestly believe that A Place Called Lloyd could not have been made in any other way, if we were to be true to our experience of the place. It might be slow, it might be boring, it might be beautiful, it might be experimental, but is more true to that place, as it is now, than a journalistic or historic account. It is almost a naive, childish pointing that structures the film, not a generalising adult or a scientist way of organizing the world. Like the camera says ‘Look at this over here, it’s an empty office. Now look at this, it’s a hangar!’, as if everything has equal value. This is what Hölderlin referred to when he rightfully said, that what a poet can do is to make something interesting, just by pointing at it.

I’m interested in ways of inhabiting the world, ways being in the world so to speak. And the slowness, the static shots, is something that allows for this to unfold. I’m not that interested in events and climaxes. The slowness allows for thought, basically. Your mind starts to wander, and I think of this as a positive thing. Milan Kundera said that speed has to do with forgetting, and slowness is connected to remembering, to memory. I really like this thought. I also remember reading somewhere that in Tsai Ming-Liangs films, the main character is always time itself. I could really identify with this.

The daily affairs is a subject a care a lot for. I’m in favour of looking at the Other as a screen of informations, where you can’t enter the mind or the intentions of him/her, but only have access to the appearance. Then habits become something loaded with enormous potential meaning, the daily actions as something revealing. Especially with the state of the company as backdrop. And if the daily live is repetitive, the film should be too. This is where film has an advantage as an artform, as visible surfaces extended in time.

I remember during a conversation at the Danish Film School between Joshua Oppenheimer and Werner Herzog that I was watching, they came up with the phrase “out of the soil, not out of the head” to describe their approach to style. I like this, even though I have to add that inevitably there’s as head on that soil, that wants to capture something.

There are two very moving interviews, or rather monologues, in your film. Interestingly – considering the subject of Lloyd, namely the death of an airline – both stories describe events that are connected to actual death in one way or another.

Monologue is a good word, because we didn’t use interviews, we would ask them if they would retell stories they told us. I normally use the word stories, but monologue is better actually. Yes, you also mentioned in your review the focus of death in slow cinema in general, and I hadn’t actually thought of it before. This must one of those unintentional but revealing things that a director can’t explain himself.

The place did seem to have an aura of a last breath before death, but this breath has been held for 7-8 years, and who says you can’t turn back to life just before you exhale that last breath.

In my review, I mentioned Denis Côté and Carlos Casas. Your film, I find, is very close to Côté’s style in Bestiaire, but as far as I know you don’t know either of the two directors. So what or who are your influences?

Only by name, I haven’t seen any of their films before, that’s true. I have a lot of influences, I’m basically a big fanboy of a lot of things. And then I copy all of them, and put them in a big bowl and mix it, so hopefully no one notices. With this film, just to mention a few: In terms of editing – minimalist music (especially Steve Reich). In terms of sound and the approach of inviting people into your mediated experience of a place – Harvard Sensory Lab, (and the book Doing Sensory Ethnography by Sarah Pink). In terms of visuals, Andy Wahol and the godfather of Danish documentary film Jørgen Leth. In terms of slowness and the effect on the audience that that a lingering camera can have – Jim Jarmusch, but also Beckett and Camus – the absurdity of continuing without any promise of good in the future.

I tend to read a lot of philosophical and academic stuff (I studied philosophy for four years). Hegel, Zizek, John Cage, Heidegger and Deleuze makes me want to make film a thousand times more than watching films in general. I try to watch more, but I have to force myself to it.

Have the people already seen your film? Have you actually returned to Bolivia since you’ve finished Lloyd?

We were there in February, but haven’t been back yet unfortunately. This is mostly due to funding and festival planning, because we all want to go back. This was one of my greatest experiences ever, the people, the food, the place in itself. This is one of the reasons a make documentary films, however experimental they are. There is a world, that you let yourself plunge into, experience and organise with your camera. That, and my general lack of imagination.

Are you working on a new project already?

I’m working on a hopeless project doomed to go wrong, or at least turn out extremely incomplete. I want to do a film on slowness, or lingering, in itself. Instead of dancing around, using the method of slowness, boredom etc. I want to remove any story that could uphold the film and keep the attention of the audience and try to film the concept of slowness. Can you even film a concept?

I’m thinking of blending the form of Jim Jarmusch’ Coffee & and Cigarettes-like conversations, orbiting around Slow Food, Heideggers notion of boredom and areas like that, with examples of slowness; calligraphy, wandering, wild life sound recorders, sex. And then readings to the camera, like the monologues in A Place Called Lloyd.

After the premiere at CPH:DOX, a couple of people came up to me and said they were really annoyed with the pace of the film for the first ten minutes, but then they gave up being critical. And they told me they had a whole new cinematic experience. This reminded me of Hannah Arendt, my girlfriend has just written an academic paper on her. She said that thinking is fundamentally a destructive force. Dwelling makes you think, makes you reconsider, makes you meet your own conscience. It doesn’t build, it reconsiders. This is a very political intention, of course not in the classical sense.

But I think that by getting rid of a story, I can dig deeper into that notion of opening up to a space where this is possible. Where the audience can be attuned to thought. But the most important here is again, that we don’t explain anything, but invite to the sensory experience of slowness.

 

10 questions for… Jenni Olson

Jenni Olsen (C) Lydia Marcus / www.lydiamarcus.com Photographed July 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, CA at the Directors Guild of America

Jenni Olsen
(C) Lydia Marcus / www.lydiamarcus.com
Photographed July 11, 2010 in Los Angeles, CA at the Directors Guild of America

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a few thoughts on Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road, which is a wonderful piece. I hope you can see it on a big screen some day. Jenni has kindly agreed to answer a couple of questions about her film and her approach to filmmaking. Happy reading, and thanks Jenni!

1) The Royal Road is situated somewhere between an exploration of American history and a personal essay on love. The Royal Road is most likely unknown to the vast majority of your viewers because, as you say in your film, there are only fragments of it left these days. Can you tell us a bit more about it and how you came about making a film about it?

I moved to California from Minnesota in 1992. At some point after I’d been here awhile I started noticing there were these odd bells installed at certain points along the highway. I love finding unusual historical artifacts and researching their histories so that was the beginning of my interest in El Camino Real. I learned that they had been placed their in the early 1900s as a way of memorializing the original trail (but also as a way if encouraging tourists to drive up and down the state — remember this was around the time that automobiles were becoming more popular: You have a car, now here’s where you should go.) Using the road as the central organizing point for the film seemed like a great way to be able to talk about the more serious and generally lesser-known history of California (the decimation of the indigenous population by the Spanish colonizers and the conquest of Mexico by the US in the Mexican American War) while also using the road as a plot device to tell a story of a character going to visit her love interest from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

2) What brought you to filmmaking and what does filmmaking mean to you? What role does it play in your life?

I have a deep and abiding love of cinema that began all the way back in my childhood. I loved watching classic Hollywood movies as a kid and I was a Film Studies major in college — where I also read Vito Russo’s pioneering book, The Celluloid Closet and then created the first gay and lesbian film series on campus (at the University of Minnesota in 1986) and started writing reviews of gay films for the local gay newspaper. I then became the festival co-director at Frameline: The San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival in 1992. It wasn’t until that point that I decided to actually make films myself, and even then they were always very modest productions. 

It’s only recently that I have realized that my style of urban landscape filmmaking is really just a natural outcome of the way I look at the world. I tend to envision the world around me as a series of compositions. I notice the qualities of the light, the textures and surfaces of buildings, the distance and depth of what is in front of me. And I feel compelled to try to capture this on film. 

3) You said you felt compelled to try to capture qualities of light etc on film. Do you think you have succeeded doing this, or are you still looking for the perfect composition?

I am extremely happy with the majority of the footage I’ve shot over the years. I have about five hours of footage total that I was working from to create the film. In this reservoir of images there are still tons of great shots I wasn’t able to fit into this film which will hopefully be in my next project. And I hope I will be able to continue shooting at some point in the future (I can’t afford to these days) and be able to make another film.

4) The film feels very personal. It feels as though, between the lines of history, we can read your film as a kind of autobiography. How autobiographical is the film?

My voiceover is very much drawn from my personal experience but the film is not at all a straightforward autobiographical story. There are many things that are completely fictional in the stories about the women in particular. The woman in Los Angeles is named Juliet mainly because I liked it as an evocative name. She is very much a fictional character (sometimes a mash up of real women, other times totally made up). Since my wife’s name is Julie I have had a few questions from people wondering whether they are the same person. There really is no connection. As W Somerset Maugham once said of his masterpiece, Of Human Bondage: “This is a novel, not an autobiography; though much in it is autobiographical, more is pure invention.”

As a writer I like to use some kind of topic or thing as an area of exploration which helps provide a structure to my storytelling. I tend towards a very discursive style involving a lot of tangents and associations and allusions to other texts so it helps to have something in the center that I can circle around and bounce off of. Virginia Woolf once said something similar about To The Lighthouse and it has always stayed with me. She said that having the lighthouse as an organizing principle was the thing that enabled her to explore all these other emotions and topics. So I very much think of El Camino Real as a similar central device that organizes the film as a whole.

5) I get the impression that you’re very much drawn to literature. Having seen your film, I’m not surprised about that. Is your film perhaps a “visual novel” rather than the photo album I mentioned in my review?

I like the idea of it as a visual novel but maybe creative non-fiction would be more accurate in terms of literary terms. I have a few different terms I’ve used to describe it: as an essay film, as a hybrid film, an experimental film. It has played in many documentary festivals simply as a documentary but it is of course more complicated than that.

6) You make extensive use of long-takes in the film. I had the feeling of sitting next to you while looking at photos you are telling me stories about. What’s the reason for those long-takes? Are they an aesthetic you generally use in your films?

I have always felt drawn to urban landscape filmmaking as a mode of storytelling. The viewer is put into a certain unique state of receptiveness and is made susceptible to feeling their own emotions — the static, open space provides a calming, comforting reassurance that allows the viewer to relax and take in the voiceover. Ideally the images I like to capture are visually interesting in their compositions and content, and yet they are also somewhat mundane — they have to be not TOO visually interesting or else the viewer will be distracted by them. 

The length of the takes is also crucial to creating a spaciousness for the viewer. I always like to establish the grammar of the film in the first few shots so you know to expect these very long takes and can begin by experiencing the joy of just looking at the landscape, relaxing into it and starting to notice the small details of each shot which emerge as hugely dynamic given the minimalist palette of the film — so when a bird flies across the shot, or the light gets brighter or a puff of fog blows past it can actually take your breath away.

I also especially love to have urban landscapes that seem somewhat timeless, as though they might have looked like this fifty years ago. So I crop out as much as possible things that look more contemporary and modern (like newer street signs, billboards and such). 

7) Your voiceover is guiding the viewer through history, if you want, all the while seeing modern, but as you said timeless, urban landscapes. How, do you think, can your long-takes help the viewer reach a state of contemplation despite your voiceover providing a persistent auditory background of interesting information?

I think this meditative state is not the same as actual sitting meditation where one is focusing on the breath per se. But it is in the realm of a meditative state in that one emerges in a more mindful and present state, attuned to the physical environment and seeing the world around us in more vivid attentive ways.

8) The film was shot in 16mm, which, unfortunately, isn’t all that common anymore. Why do you still work with 16mm film?

I have a great affection for the look of 16mm film — the quality of the grain, the saturation of the colors and also the 4:3 aspect ratio since I shoot in regular 16mm, not Super 16. I have an underlying agenda in my filmmaking that is about the joys of being present in the moment, in the landscapes in which we live. In The Royal Road I talk about our exceptionally digital age and the importance of “staying connected to the physical, analog world in which we live.” And so there is something very organic about using actual film to create my films.  

9) Do you develop the films yourself? I’m reminded of Ben Rivers who develops his films in his kitchen sink.

No, I’ve always depended on the kindness of skilled and talented strangers to process the film (at Fotokem in Los Angeles). I’m dependent on many people to create my films and I’m especially grateful to my good friends Sophie Constantinou (my primary cinematographer) and Dawn Logsdon (my editor) for enabling me to fulfill my creative vision.  

10) The 16mm film seems to disappear slowly. Are you worried that you will eventually lose your medium? 

Yes, when I talk about making my next film I do worry that I may not be able to pull it off simply because of the level of effort involved. And yet in some ways then it becomes even more compelling to me to continue to use this medium the more arcane it becomes. It really does feel organic to what I’m trying to achieve in my work — qualities of emotional resonance that actually arise from the medium itself (the grain of the image, the quality of light, etc.) The genuine qualities of feeling these generate in the viewer can’t be achieved through the digital medium even by using digital effects that try to recreate the qualities of film. 

Personal note by Jenni Olson: 

I have to just conclude by saying that I have felt so impacted by the suicide of Chantal Akerman earlier this week and would like to take the opportunity to convey a brief appreciation of her as her work has had an enormous influence on me as a filmmaker over the years. I woke up to the news of her passing on October 6th (my 53rd birthday). As a pioneering filmmaker, Akerman is frequently celebrated for her portrayals of women characters and for elevating women’s stories and offering a unique female perspective in her films. All of which is the case. First and foremost though, she was a filmmaker with a singular vision whose distinctive approach to the possibilities of the medium encompassed a painstaking awareness of the smallest cinematic elements and their potential impact not just on conventional aspects of storytelling but on the emotional, psychological and physiological experience of the audience (of course I identify with this in my own filmmaking and feel deeply indebted to her as an influence). It is this consummate craftsmanship that produced such masterpieces as Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. It is this craftsmanship that created so many stunning works of art that will change the way you see the world, and that will never leave you — even though their creator has. May her memory be for a blessing. 

Today's My Birthday - Akerman's News from Home

Interview with Suranga Katugampala (2015)

A couple weeks ago, I posted a few comments about a short film I was sent through my Facebook pageSon of the lovely capitalism by Suranga Katugampala was an aesthetically striking and haunting piece. I did a brief email interview with Suranga. Here’s what he had to say about his film, his filmmaking and his background. My thanks goes to Suranga for patiently answering these questions!

NM: Your short film “Son of the lovely capitalism” is aesthetically stunning. You play with
long­-takes, long shots, superimpositions and rapid cuts. What is your professional
background?

SK: I’m a professor of multimedia at the Lab Mohole, Milan. I studied computer media and then
cinema. Then I traveled. I studied meditation in Nepal.

NM: There is a certain power in both the images and the sound thanks to the aesthetics
you have chosen. Are these long-­takes a trademark of your filmmaking?

SK: I think it’ s still too early for me to talk about trademark. I’m a young director, I’m 27. I’m
constantly investigating who am I. I believe that the trademark, in this moment of my
life, should be a spontaneous consequence. I don’t want to make my filmmaking a trade issue or simply labeling: for example, “is a film by Suranga” or something. I just want to throw out what I have inside. Tell to the world my thoughts. My stories are tales of urgency. So I don’t think and don’t want to think about a trademark. Now my goal is to concentrate on the telling. If it will give birth to a trademark it will be just a consequence. I love long takes, but I don’t want to think about it as a trademark, but as a need. Otherwise the risk is you end up doing things just for stylistic obligation.

NM: “Son of the lovely capitalism” plays on slowness. Instances of rapid cuttings disorientated me while watching, so there was a form of binary opposition in some ways. And yet, you seem to represent the effects of capitalism on young people with the help of cinematic slowness. Why is that?

SK: There is a binary opposition. Slow, in this case, for me is kind of apathy, apathy of the new
generation, a lack of social energy, a lack of social activism. On the other hand, the speed for me is monotony, monotony of the routine that is nowadays offered by the capitalism. The idea that Man is a kind of machine, that produces according a rhythm. Just like a real authentic machine. In this way, for me, the speed is monotony, the same rhythm. Now, for me, these are two sides of the same question. For me, this is a society that offers a lot, running quickly towards a continuous development, but most of times does not run to anything true and authentic. Many people move in traffic, in the subways. Like ants at work. It is like running on a treadmill. Where are you running? Nowhere, because you’re still. You have the feeling to run, but the fact, according me, is that you are running nowhere, you are fixed in the same position.

NM: You come from Sri Lanka and are now living in Italy. Does your connection to these
two nations find a place in your films?

SK: Yes absolutely. I think I can consider myself in a privileged position. I am fortunate to see
how is the world from two different points of view. I believe this gives me a broader view of
the state of things. In the village of my grandparents I appreciated the meaning and usefulness of the rites and the human need to stay close to nature. Both for a physiological need and for internal peace. I miss it in modern society. I fear that modern man is stressed and this is not a secret. But if the older generation was lucky to see even more, the countryside and nature for
example, the new generation, born in the technology, sees this one uniquely. Returning to the young people, I have the feeling that most of the young people today, did not feel the thrill of “cycling in the countryside and jump into a river “. In short they stay away from nature. I am also very attached to the issue of immigration: Immigration in Europe. I mentioned this for example in my short film Punaragamanaya; returning to where I’m talking about the need of the first generation of immigrants to go back at home. [edit NM: you can find the trailer here]

NM: Where do you draw your inspirations from?

SK: I watch a lot of movies. I follow authors who have worked in the direction that I’m going, but
I think that the point is observation creates inspirations. Not just about outside, the world and
the society, but also an inner observation. So there are times when I don’t watch any movie, but just travel. Travel only a few days, but traveling allows me to uproot from my beliefs and so to have a larger awareness of things.

NM: Can you tell me a little bit about Sri Lankan cinema? It is a well understudied region
in Film Studies, like so many other countries.

SK: The Sri Lankan cinema, in recent years, has seen a great flowering of new directors who act to
bring out the country’s needs. In Sri Lankan film industry there are two major categories. The mainstream films, for example Aba by Jaskson Anthoy, do not leave the country. They remain within country walls, for a local audience. And then we have the art cinema. For example Ahasin vateyi by Vimukthi Jayasundara. This kind of cinema is created by an urgency to raise social issues. It’s cinema that faces the real problems of the country. For example suppressions and taboos. These films usually leave the country to reach the most important festivals and winning important awards. Yet there are social problems have not yet been addressed. For example the westernization of Sri Lanka. There are many emerging filmmakers involved in new arguments post war but they have to deal with high costs that cinema imposes. Nevertheless independent cinema is gaining ground in the country.

NM: You are currently working on a feature film. Will this be an extension of your new
short film?

SK: It will not be an extension but an inspiration. There will be more narrative, but always with a strong presence of silence. Silence, for me, is an essential component of the story. I have the feeling to disarm the audience with the silence, to make them defenseless, inadequate. But this inadequacy is just and illusions, a form of tunnel that leads to a different vision, a silent and more active participation. The film talk about the immigration. Precisely about the conflict between first-­generation immigrants and their children.

Interview with Lav Diaz (Extracts, Part III)

This is the third and last installment of my interview with Lav Diaz. Parts I and II can be found here and here. I have more material, but it needs to be incorporated into my chapters in order to make sense. So you will have to wait another year or so before you can read those passages 🙂

Nadin Mai: The brush was a good point. How familiar are you with the aesthetics of painting? If you remember I tried link your aesthetics to Chinese painting. There are so many similarities.

Lav Diaz: I didn’t become a filmmaker. Maybe I’m a painter or a musician, or a writer. So, it’s one of my passions, painting. Cinema and painting is almost the same in terms of playing with the light. Cinema is light, you know. You deal with the light. The same, painting is about light. You have to apply the same principle, the same philosophy. You’re like a painter. You’re sourcing the light of your work. You put the character, and then you check the sources, the particulars. What are the particulars? It’s about sourcing. The same with cinema. You just start doing the palette, the canvas. It’s about sourcing. Where is the light coming from? The very very first principle is the light with cinema and painting. So it’s almost the same.

NM: Are you still painting?

LD: I stopped. I couldn’t paint because of cinema.

NM: You didn’t have time, or you couldn’t focus on it anymore?

LD: I couldn’t focus. I respect that medium, so I don’t want to make it as a hobby. I can paint as a hobby. But I would feel bad for my peers, the real painters, who are really working hard to do painting, and I’m just doing it as a hobby. [laughs] That would be sad. The same with music. I want to compose songs but then I want to have focus also. I want to concentrate. It’s so easy to create music, really, for me. It’s so easy to compose songs. But then, I have to really focus so that I can be good. I don’t want to make it as a hobby also. It’s an easy thing to do for me, really. Compose songs. It’s really easy. I don’t want to make it like a hobby. Be able to make money out of it. No, no. It’s all hard work. You have to respect the medium. You have to be very responsible. Ethics – you put ethics always. You have to be very ethical. To be able to put (the medium) on a level on an art form.

NM: I don’t know whether you know the writer Milan Kundera.

LD: Of course I know Milan Kundera.

NM: He once argued that “a nation which loses awareness of its past gradually loses its self.” Is you filmmaking an act against forgetting in that sense?

LD: Yes, of course. That’s very true. It’s a very honest statement. If you forget the past, you can’t really move forward. You’re in denial. Everything becomes pseudo. Everything becomes fake. You create a persona. There’s no rootedness. It’s not rooted in anything. … It’s not an honest existence anymore. It’s also about nations that just forget the past. It becomes a myth. … The Philippines are like that. You keep forgetting things. We don’t have a sense of history. It’s a myth. How can you call yourself a nation if you don’t know how to confront the past? If you don’t examine the struggle, it’s not a nation at all. Nation is all about that. There is this holistic view of existence; the past is important. Memory is important.

NM: So you’re the memory-keeper.

LD: [laughs] Sort of. I don’t want to be accused of being a revisionist one day. Somebody will say: all these things are lies. He’s not saying the truth. I may be accused of that one day. I don’t know. I just throw the thing out. I’m just trying to be very ethical and honest about these things. But then, if it becomes a lie one day, then…I’m okay with that. The works are there. It will create a discourse. Then I’m okay with that also.

NM: Have you ever thought of ending your career as a filmmaker?

LD: Every day I want to stop. Every day. It’s just a struggle also.

NM: Why is that? Béla Tarr once said he had nothing more to say. He would repeat himself. So he stopped. And then Tsai Ming said that it’s really difficult to receive funding and he gets tired of it. He’s still making the short films with the Walker, but he doesn’t want to make feature films anymore.

LD: It’s a different position. I know Béla’s position and I can understand it. I love his works. I love him. But at the same time I have my own struggles also. The condition of my country is a different condition. If I stop, then one responsible artist is gone. So that keeps me going. Fuck Lav Diaz. It’s about the work. I want to keep doing the works, so that I can create a model, some template, some model that will even in a very small way help my culture. It’s a responsibility. That’s why I don’t want to stop. But give me the chance, and I just want to go home and take care of my grandson, man. I’m better that way. It’s better for me. I would feel better, because I miss my grandson every day. I love him. I want to be with the children. But at the same time, there is this greater struggle also, this greater responsibility that needs to be done. So maybe in three years I will stop. Maybe in two years. Maybe five more films, maybe three more films and I’m gone. If I say, oh it’s enough, I have this body of work that can sustain the so-called model that I want to do, then I’m okay. I’ll do a Béla Tarr and a Tsai Ming-liang [laughs]

NM: I think it’s quite brave to say, I’m fed up, I quit.

LD: Yes, it is actually. I admire them for doing that, and I’m jealous that they’re gone. I’m jealous. I want to stop also. I want to be with my family. Maybe three, five more films. [laughs]

Interview with Lav Diaz (Extracts, Part II)

This is the second part of my rather long interview with Lav Diaz, conducted at the Locarno Film Festival. You can find the first part here.

Nadin Mai: What I find interesting is that you say you’re a kind of teacher, you want to open people’s eyes, to let them know what has happened in the country and what is still happening in the country. But then, in all of your films you have some really horrible scenes. Especially Florentina is exceptionally strong for that. Even though you don’t show anything explicitly, you would nevertheless like to close your eyes and ears. You just don’t want to be there. So how does this actually work? On the one hand you want to open our eyes, and yet you show something so cruel, where we say: we actually don’t want to see it.

Lav Diaz: It’s a confrontational thing. You have to confront the psyche. Fear is very inherent. And one thing that opens people’s eyes, their awareness, is to confront their fears, destroy the fear. That factor is always part of why people wouldn’t embrace history, the truth of history, because there is this denial thing. One way to confront it is just do it hardcore. You don’t show the thing but it’s there. So it’s one thing to confront the fears. I’m trying to be more dialectical. Destroy the world of fear.

NM: That’s the interesting thing. You don’t really show violence, not on screen. You convey it through aesthetics. In Florentina it’s mainly sound. Why do you not put violence directly on screen?

LD: I don’t need it. It’s there.

NM: Do you think it’s stronger if you don’t show it?

LD: Yes, of course. It’s stronger, because it’s more inert, more inside. The fear is more inside. The fear to confront it. If you see it, then it’s just a horror film.

NM: Do you think the viewer would lose a sense of realism if you showed it? Because he knows that it’s not real.

LD: It depends on the treatment. There are filmmakers who can show violence and it’s still very powerful. And there are filmmakers who don’t show it. And it’s more powerful. It depends on the treatment. You have to adjust to the flow of the story also. When that moment comes, then boom. It’s not manipulated but you gain that momentum and when it’s there then it will destroy their fear. … I want them to destroy their fears also.

NM: Is it perhaps also a budget issue?

LD: It’s a cliché [violence is a cliché]. To be cruel, doing all this gore and blood like Tarantino. And they’re enjoying all these things now. They enjoy the blood. They clap their hands: wow! Blood all over the walls. Wonderful! So the fear is very superficial. It’s not true anymore. While if you show it in a more primal way you gain that kind of momentum that evil is just around the corner. And you know it. Then it’s better this way.

NM: How often are your films screened in the Philippines? I know that Norte made big waves in the country.

LD: Yeah, it’s the most popular. Before that, of course, it was Batang West Side. But Batang West Side has gained this mythical status where people, even those who haven’t seen it, say it’s good. … As I said to you a while ago, only a small percentage of the population has seen my works. But I’m not complaining because I am aware that there is this struggle of, the issue of venues. The people are also so used to Hollywood … If you tell them that the film is five hours, they will not come. The people who come are the followers and the curious. … The curious will be converted or they will hate you more, depending on how they will see the work, depending on the condition they are in when they enter the film. …They cannot believe that there is cinema like that. Their understanding of cinema is Hollywood. So, I’m aware of that. I’m not complaining. But at the same time, like I told you a while ago, there is the burden, the guilt. They say, why do you not do shorter works so that people will see it, if you say you’re responsible? How can I be responsible when it’s already compromised? Cutting it to two hours just because you need to cut it for the audience, then it’s a compromised work already. It’s gone. Don’t do cinema at all. I’d rather be selling barbecues out there. Yes, it’s true. I don’t compromise the work so that you can have a so-called audience. No way.

NM: Why do you think Norte is so popular in the Philippines?

LD: Hard work, and it’s shorter. It’s four hours and thirty minutes, and the producer, Moira and the new owner of the film, they’re tireless. They keep showing the film. They’re very good at that.

NM: Where do you have your biggest fan base?

LD: Europe. Because of the festivals. … I’m very thankful of these people. The critics here in Europe who watch the films and do the programs.

NM: Do you think that Europeans can understand your films?

LD: Yes, of course. It’s also the culture. Europeans are more into digging things. To work hard. To understand cultures. I use the word, they’re not lazy. Europeans are not lazy. … We’re fucking lazy. And put this on the level of the critics. The critics here are more into it than the ones in Asia. There are no books in the country, no books about cinema. It needs to be addressed. How do we treat the works there? Imagine, there have been a lot of retrospectives of my work outside, but not inside the country. It’s insane. Even for me, I couldn’t fathom it. They’re been doing all these retrospectives… But in the Philippines, no. There’s jealousy, there’s resentment, like I told you.

NM: With very few exceptions – Norte is the most recent one – your films are all black-and-white. I personally see that as supporting the narrative of poverty and suffering. Is that why you use black-and-white?

LD: Yes, yes. Colour to me is very very deceptive. It creates a certain aura of lightness. It’s my perception as an artist. Yeah, it’s true. You got it. I want to do black-and-white to give justice to what the film is representing. Like poverty – it’s better in black-and-white. Suffering is better in black-and-white. And beyond poverty and suffering, for me, cinema is black-and-white.

NM: I remember from yesterday [the public conversation at the festival] that you sometimes watch colour films in black-and-white.

LD: Yes, I do that all the time. A lot of works, I don’t want to see them in colour, so I put black-and-white. Some works that are short, I put them on my computer and change the whole thing to black-and-white and watch them. Colour obscures my view. It allows me to not really understanding the work. But when it’s in black-and-white, I’m into it.

NM: You can focus on the story.

LD: Yeah. I’m into it, I’m into it. It’s just there. Maybe it’s just a fixation because I’m so used to watching films in black-and-white. It could be that. It’s just a fixation maybe. A fetish. It could be a fetish. For me, it’s that. Cinema is black-and-white. But I can make colour films. But if I do it, I’m very very careful. Just like Batang West Side, I put a lot of time doing the grading.

NM: Batang West Side had a limited colour palette. That’s completely different from Norte.

LD: With Norte, we did a lot of things in the grading to de-saturate so many things. Because it’s really beautiful, the colours there. So we sat down and I had to de-saturate on so many levels, in so many parts of the film. You see, it’s so beautiful, it’s obscuring the thing. So I have to de-saturate it. More and more and more. The graders are complaining: there’s no colour anymore! Put some more colour. It’s becoming black-and-white. Oh really? [laughs]

(Part III to follow, stay tuned)

Interview with Lav Diaz (Extracts, Part I)

I conducted quite a long interview with Lav Diaz at the Locarno Film Festival, where his new film Mula sa Kung Ano ang Noon ran in competition and won the Golden Leopard; a big achievement not only for Lav Diaz, but also for Philippine cinema. I spent a couple of days with him, Hazel Orencio, Kim Perez, Evelyn Vargas, Perry Dizon and Liryc de la Cruz, which was a fantastic experience. Work being work, I was keen on finally getting this interview in order to understand his cinema better. The following will be extracts. The interview is too long and too broad in scope to publish all of it, so I selected a few interesting points he made in conversation with me. I withhold some parts as they will go into my thesis, and I don’t necessarily want to give everything away yet. Speaking to Lav is a journey, but not a straightforward one. You end up speaking about issues you never thought about before. If the parts below read jumpy…now you know the reason for it 🙂 My gratitude goes out to Lav Diaz. For everything. Final thing, the films I mention below are Florentina Hubaldo CTE (2012), Melancholia (2008), and Death in the Land of Encantos (2007).

Nadin Mai: You said in an email conversation with me that you wanted to make Malay films, but you have not yet completely achieved this goal. What would a Malay film actually look like? What would be the ideal Malay film?

Lav Diaz: Well, I would say that actually I achieved it through the long films without really realising it. I’ve been trying to really push myself too hard and too much, but it’s been there forever since, even with the early works like The Criminal of Barrio Concepcion and then Batang West Side. It’s all about the struggle of the Filipino. … in a sense, without being aware of it, I’ve been doing it. I have achieved it already, that kind of Malay aesthetic, the supposed objective has been achieved, I think.

NM: How much has your upbringing influenced your filmmaking?

LD: Well, it really is a big influence, especially the very sacrificing character of my parents, because they’re very intelligent people, especially my father. He is an intellectual. Instead of just staying in Manila, and be part of the bigger (…) system, he chose Mindanao. It’s still very raw there, very primal. No roads, nothing. He’s a young idealist. He wants to work with the people. His mission is education. They keep working and working. They focus on saving the tribes, on educating them, from hygiene to reading, from building houses to, you know, everything.

NM: So in that sense, do you see yourself as a teacher as well then, just like your father, just in a different way?

LD: In a way. My praxis is cinema. My methodology is different. But it’s still the same. I become my parents, in a sense. We all do. I couldn’t rest. I keep working, making films. There is this sense of mission just like them to just do things. At the same time, you integrate the issue of responsibility. Not just doing things because you want to do it. You have to be very responsible. There is the ethical issue.

NM: How conscious are you on set? Do you plan every shot in advance, the framing, the length?

LD: Sometimes, yes. The location becomes the template, the aesthetic template. So, in my mind I can actually plan ahead and also when I get to the set, everything flows, you know. Something will come up and then I follow it. Everything is very organic, so I can plan, or I can change anytime when I go there.

NM: I know that Tsai Ming-liang only cuts when it feels right. Are you the same?

LD: Yes, yes. If it needs to be cut, then push it into another direction, then I do it. I just follow things. I’m a slave of the process. I don’t want to manipulate or impose things, you know. I just follow it.

NM: I want to ask a question specifically about the three films I’m looking at in more detail. I see them as a trilogy of trauma with characteristics you cannot find in any of your other films. I read about your experience under Martial Law. That was an interview, I think, with Alexis [Tioseco]. You witnessed all kinds of atrocities, not only aimed at other people. You yourself were beaten, too, if I remember this right. Does filmmaking constitute some kind of therapy for you? Why do you feel you need to tell stories about torture, disappearances, you know, all these cruelties?

LD: For one, it’s a cleansing process, personally. And I adjust the cleaning process to my culture, to my people. We need to confront all these things, all the traumas, all these unexamined parts of our history, of our struggle so that you can move forward. It’s a kind of, you know, cure. I always want to tell stories about these struggles. Personally, I want to cure myself of the trauma of my people. And of course, just so that the Filipinos can also have a sense of examination. A more dialectical way of confronting our past, our struggle. Be investigative. Be vigilant. Be more, more…dig deeper. Dig deeper into your soul by seeking the truth about the past. And what are we now? Why are we like this? Why do we have this very, very dysfunctional system? Why do we have this very displaced kind of perspective? Why? Why? Why? So, you have to seek answers, and the answers are from the past. You have to seek the truth from the past, even the lies of the past.

NM: Have you ever experienced repercussions because of your films? Or of your filmmaking? Have you ever had to deal with intimidation because of your films?

LD: Not that strong. I’m just lucky that there are no venues showing the works in the country.

NM: So you see that as a good thing?

LD: Not really. I want Filipinos to really watch the films. But overtly, it’s just not there. You just struggle to show the film in the country. There are no venues. Even institutions…they don’t really help. There are a few who have, but you cannot only show it once a year, twice a year. So in a sense, these things save me. But I’m not asking for it. I’m asking for a better forum for the films. We need cinemathèques, you know. All these forums for the proper presentation of the works. I’m also aware that the situation is not like that. So we’ll have to wait. I know the condition. I also don’t want to compromise the work. I don’t want to cut the work into two hours. That’s what they want. If you can show me a shorter version of Evolution [of a Filipino Family], then I’ll watch it. Come on. And the theatres – if you can cut it into one and a half hours, maybe we can show the film on the weekend. How can you cut an eleven hour work to a two hour thing? It’s just horrible. It’s just stupidity. The film is there anyway. So it can wait. But at the same time, you’re negating the issue of educating your people as soon as possible. You have this thing. My upbringing is very catholic. There is this burden on me that, Man, I’ve done 13 works already and a minuscule part of the country has seen the works. The burden is on me also. But at the same time, I know that my works are very responsible to my culture. That allows the balance also.

NM: Where do you draw your inspirations from? I heard that you talk to older people as well. Is that where the stories come from?

LD: Part of the process is that I talk to a lot of people. People in the streets, people in the barrios. They have a different take on history. They have different versions of history. They have their own oral history. You have to balance that with the ones that are written by historians, the ones that are claimed by publishing it as our history. So you also have to balance that. Our tendency to revise history based on an agenda or a kind of perspective, whether ideological, political or just personal … But with all histories, I can feel a sense of, you know, although they are not so precise, there has been a lot of revision also. There is a sense of essentiality in what they’re saying, especially old people. There is this very very primal thing about people telling histories through their words, especially the old people. You can sense a real connectedness with the past, as opposed to those being written, which is sometimes too scholarly, and it’s so clean. But at the same time, you can actually salute or admire the work put in it. The research, the kind of scholarship that they did, especially the people who are really objective about history. You have to balance these things. The very primal oral history of people who don’t read, they just heard those things and the scholarship of real written history. So you have to balance these things also. I’m speaking for myself as an artist, as a worker, a cultural worker for my country. I want to balance these things.

NM: There is something very specific about the three films that I’m looking at. All main characters are in one way or another threatened by death. You trace the mental downfall of the characters, who suffer as a result of external forces and who barely cling to life. Why is it so important to you trace the aspects of suffering?

LD: Suffering is pretty much an inherent part, not just of the Filipino but of the human struggle. So it’s been there. We have just created our own defences. For my culture, our defense is being very overtly joyful but at the same time there is a lot of misery going on inside. I want to work on the reality of the soul of the Filipino, the psyche, which is sorrow, suffering. That’s one thing. And then, yes, they’re barely clinging to life, they’re actually living dead. I’m just mirroring what’s really…it’s the state of the Filipino. We’re almost dead. We cling to life. Politically we’re almost dead. Economically we’re almost dead. It’s a metaphor for everything that we are… It’s a kind of malady that has been there with us. It needs to be cured, but how? It’s a very systemic problem. We have to destroy the system so that we can actually regenerate everything. We need to destroy the system, so that we can move. It’s a system of dysfunction.

NM: Is that what you’re trying to do with your films, to destroy the system?

LD: Yes, destroy the system. I destroyed the Hollywood system so that I can create my cinema, so that I can represent my culture. So that I can liberate my cinema. I need to destroy the system that has been imposed. It has to be two hours, that you need a cut-to-cut to be able to cut the time, to manipulate time. I don’t want to do that. So I needed to create my own framework, my own methodology. Part of that is about that. Destroying the system.

NM: I find that you’re a rare species in Philippine cinema. A few years ago, Alexis already pointed out that there weren’t many directors in the Philippines who tackle the historical, political and social injustice to the same extent you do. I have seen Nick Deocampo’s “Revolutions happen like refrain in a song” and Raya Martin’s two films “Independencia” and “A short film about the indio nacional”. I have also seen Jet Leyco’s “Leave it for tomorrow, for night has fallen”. But these are really only a few films. Why do you think not more filmmakers go into this direction?

LD: They are more into something else. It’s also the background of these people who do things. A lot of young filmmakers now, their background is more like just being an artist, doing art for art’s sake. Their early works are just a preparation for the mainstream, to do so-called big works, to become big time in the industry. They have different agendas, they have different models. They’re not really doing films for culture. They’re not cultural workers. They work more for their ego. It’s a different breed.

NM: Are they maybe afraid of touching those topics?

LD: Yeah, because it’s dangerous. You defy the Hollywood system. Like, if you go beyond two hours you’re gone. It’s like suicide, a career suicide for them to serious works, to tackle history hardcore, or to move beyond the convention. They will not do that. They’re more worried about their career. They do things for their career. They don’t do things for culture. It’s a different perspective actually that defines these people. I’m not saying that all of them are like that. There are people who are trying to work, like Jet [Leyco]. Nick Deocampo has been there, although he is not doing things lately. He’s writing books. It’s more about their backgrounds really. Raya is a student of history, so you can actually see that in his works. I like history. He’s also trying to understand our culture. Raya is a serious artist. He’s one of the few who can really make good works among the new generation.

NM: Do you think there is, in general, a good generation of Filipino filmmakers coming?

LD: Yes, yes. You can mention Raya, John Torres, Anthony Sanchez, and Jet. They’re the real cultural workers.

NM: So there is a movement now?

LD: It’s a very informal movement. Nothing organised. But people are really working. They want to do things for our culture. They want to tackle history also. They want to be more dialectical about confronting and examining the Filipino psyche. I’ve seen some of the works, and okay, you can sense that they also have that ethical thing, the sense of mission for our country, for our culture.

NM: Would you say you’re an activist-filmmaker?

LD: I don’t even want to use that word. It has become so bastardised. Activism for me is just being pro-active about the things you believe, especially for culture. In my own small way, I’ve been trying to work hard to represent our struggle, to mirror the Filipino struggle, or the Malay struggle for that matter. In a way, it’s my kind of activism. It’s my role. I’m aware of that, and trying to work hard to at least fulfil a bit of an approximation of what needs to be done.

(Part II to follow, stay tuned…)

Interview with Yulene Olaizola (Fogo)

My thanks goes out to Yulene Olaizola, who has kindly agreed to this brief email interview. Her film Fogo (2012) is a fascinating portrait of a fading landscape and its people. Especially her accounts on how she met the people on the island reminds me of my own experience while making the short documentary A Bunch of Gentlemen (2011). A real pleasure. This interview is a nice insight into filmmaking again. Thank you, Yulene.

First of all, Fogo is set in Canada, quite far away from your native Mexico. How did you come across the subject matter?

I was looking for an escape from my daily life in Mexico city, some kind of an artistic adventure. A close friend sent me the info about the new Residency Program from the Fogo Island Arts Corporation. I had only one day to apply. I sent a brief description of my intentions on doing a film in the Island during the 3 moths period of the residency. It was a very vague idea. I just said that I was going to mix documentary and fiction, and that I was going to work with non professional actors, people from the Island.

Three or four months later I received news from the Fogo Island Arts Corporation. They accepted my application and invited me to go there and work. I decided to go there from September – December 2012.

Was it difficult to convince the people on the island to make this film? Have they actually seen the finished product?

It was not difficult to convince them. The complicated part was to find the characters, but once I did that, somehow I knew they would accept. The main character Norman Foley is retired, so I knew he would have the time to participate in the film. I met him at some point during my second month living in Fogo. I was already worried about what I was going to do with the film. I did not have any ideas yet. But I met Norman at a partridge berry festival and he offered me to show me the woods. The very next day we went for a walk trough the woods. Very quickly we became friends and I knew he could be the main character. Soon he introduced me to his friend Ron, and his dogs Patch and Thunder, and together we went to a cabin in the woods; that day I decided to do a film where Norm, Ron and the dogs would go to a cabin. That was the first idea that detonated the simple story of Fogo.

When I watched the film, it was difficult to establish whether your film is fiction or documentary. This appears to be quite common in films that are nowadays termed “Slow Cinema”. What exactly is your film, fact or fiction?

The storyline is fiction, the idea of the Island having to be abandoned is something that I came up with after doing some research on the History on Newfoundland. I read about the resettlement program. It was an organized approach to centralize the population into growth areas. The Government of Canada did three attempts of resettlement between 1954 and 975, which resulted in the abandonment of 300 communities and nearly 30,000 people were moved.

I wanted to portray Fogo Island as if a new resettlement program was happening, without explaining the cause, which can be because economical reasons or something more apocalyptic where the life in the Island is simply dying. In order to achieve this fiction idea, I had to shoot only in abandoned houses, avoiding to see the real Fogo, the modern houses or highways.

Even though the actors where pretending to be living in a fictional situation, all the dialogs where improvised and the shooting was made with a documentary approach, with only two members in the crew, Diego García, the cinematographer, and me. Most of the situations are fiction but based on true events that we experienced while living in the island. For example, going to the cabin with the dogs, drinking a rum bottle in a tiny cabin lit up only by a kerosene lamp, cutting a tree in the middle of the woods all alone, spending time contemplating nature with the only company of two dogs, etc.

Some seconds where made by documenting real situation, like Ron playing with the dogs in the grass, Norm and Ron trying to get warm near a bonfire while is snowing, etc.

I am not sure if the right term to call this movie or other similar approaches to cinema is the term slow. I rather consider this film as a minimalistic bet. Where you have minimum resources and you have to make the most of averting, so in order to work with non-professional actors, you use aspects of their real life to nourish the story and the atmosphere. Where the script is made of contributions from everyone, the actors, the cinematographer and the director.

There is this overwhelming aspect of solitude apparent in your film. Is this a topic that came with the subject matter, or did it, in fact, coincide with a general interest in the aspects of loneliness and mans coping mechanisms?

When I am thinking about a new project, I never think about what subjects I would like to work with. In this case solitude, melancholy, abandonment, are ideas that came to me while living there. But these subjects or ideas are not what you would see if you travel to Fogo Island for a week. The people from Fogo is usually very warm, happy people, and the place is simply beautiful. But once I started talking deeply with the people, especially with the older ones, I discovered a huge nostalgic feeling about the past, when life in the island was different. People have a strong connection with their roots, a feeling of belonging to a place, that you don’t longer find in people who live in the city for example. Somehow I wanted to relate my film to all this ideas but with a fictional pretext.

What I found particularly strong was your exploration of people’s attachment to home. Even though this is set in Canada, is this something that resonates with yourself?

It not a subject matter that I have considered before in my films, or at least not consciously. When a film is born because of a place, I think that the first thing you want to do as a filmmaker is to document the beauties or interesting things about the place, in order to share that with other people. And that is exactly what I wanted to do, but beauty for me is not exactly the nice photo that you see in a truistic image.

I have already mentioned the term “Slow Cinema”. Your film is contemplative in many respects. It invites us to dwell in the surrounding as well as on the fate of the characters who decide to remain on the island. Do you think that your film is slow? Where does this contemplative aesthetic have its roots?

I enjoy the cinema that does not rush to take you to one place. I feel as a spectator, that I need time to transport my self from the cinema theater to the reality presented in a movie. In Hollywood style, in 4 or 5 shots of only a few second each, suddenly you are in the antique Pompei, or in another planet. They gave you the basic information about these universes, but they never give you the time to explore them or to feel them.

What I try to do is to give time to enjoy and discover all those details that can be found after living there for almost 4 months. I always try to do that in my films, and in each occasion, the concept of time is different. In this case, the time that passes in a slow way, or the contemplative mood, is related to how the people live there, always in a close relationship with nature, with weather. And of course time in places like Fogo seems to occur slower that in a city for a example.

I found your film highly photographic. Do you have a background in photography? What is your background in general?

Before I decided to study cinema I did a workshop in photography during high school. I thought I wanted to be a cinematographer, but when I entered film school I realized I wanted to direct. I do like to contribute as much as I can in all the different aspects of making a film, cinematography, sound, editing, production, etc. That is something you have to do if you don´t have the resources. I have produced all my films myself. In this case it was the first time I worked with Diego, the cinematographer. We went to film school together. It was a very close and special collaboration.

You are one of several emerging directors from Mexico, who astonish with their strong works. Do you think there is a certain “New Wave” of Mexican Cinema? I’m speaking in particular of Pereda, Gonzales-Rubio, Vargas as slow-film directors.

It is always difficult to define what is a new wave, or who is part of it. I think there are many new filmmakers from the past 10 years that have won recognition at film festivals, but that are still almost unknown for the Mexican audiences. There are other filmmakers with whom I feel close to, because we are friends, and because we have similar approaches to making films with low budgets and with no commercial interests. Between this filmmakers are: The Axolote group: Rubén Imaz, Matias Meyer and Michel Lipkes. Also the couple Israel Cardenas and Laura Amelia Guzman. Nicolas Pereda. Pedro González. Julio Hernández Cordón, among others.

How are your films distributed?

My films have been only distributed in commercial cinemas in Mexico, with the effort of myself and small Mexican distribution companies like Interior 13 an Circo. Only my first film Shakespeare and Victor Hugo´s Intimacies has been released in TV in iberoamerica, thanks to a deal with Ibermedia program.

I saw that you are already working on a new project. What is this about and when will it be released?

It is once again a very low budget film. Is about 3 Spanish conquistadors who climbed up the iconic Mexican volcano The Popocatépetl, in an expedition in 1519. Even though it is a historic film, the resources we had were minimum, three guys wearing costumes climbing a mountain. It is a co direction with Ruben Imaz and will be released some time next year.

 

Interview with Ludovic Zuili

Last week, I came across French Slow TV. Slow TV as a concept has been a fairly popular phenomenon in Norway. NRK, the national TV station, screens hours on a train, or hours on a boat, or even hours of knitting. Tokyo Reverse (2014) is a French project and is about a man walking through the streets of Tokyo for nine hours (you can find extracts here). It sounds simple, but it isn’t. It is a mind-blowing experience, because the man is walking forward while everything else moves backwards. And this is only the case, because the footage was played in reverse. I’m still in the process of watching it, so a review will be up soon. I had a chance to catch up with the directors of the film, and they gave some interesting insight into the filmmaking process. A big thank you goes to Ludovic Zuili and Simon Bouisson.

1) Tokyo Reverse shows a man walking through Tokyo for nine hours. What has inspired you to make a nine-hour long film?

The idea of making such a long film came from France 4 (French TV channel). For the launch of their new offer, they wanted to start with a Slow TV program, making them the first French channel to experiment Slow TV. The only information we had was the length and the will to add some interactivity in the concept. We came up with the idea of Tokyo Reverse and within 1 month and a half the film was shot, edited, and aired on the 31st of March. It’s very different from any other project we ever did and will probably ever do. It’s very long and yet was made in such a short amount of time.

2) The film is rather hypnotising. The protagonist walks forward, while everyone and everything else is moving backwards. I found it difficult to attune my brain to the movement. It felt as if my brain couldn’t quite decide which movement to follow. Certainly, nine hours screening time is a challenge for most people. Why have you put an additional challenge on top of it?

When we started thinking about a Slow TV program, the first thing that we thought was that we had to try something new. We were sure we wanted to do a “human slow TV” [programme], different from the references we had from Norway. We also knew a 9 hours films is really not something people are going to watch in its entirety but we needed to find an idea that would make them stay, think, that would mesmerize them. After making some test, the “walking backwards” concept became completely obvious.
The challenge of making a 9 hour film in 1 month and a half was crazy but making it with this creative constraint made it way more exciting.

3) The film was shown on French television. For me, Tokyo Reverse would be an ideal project for a gallery. Have you thought about showing the film in a gallery? Why have you chosen TV for this adventure?

Actually TV chose us as we replied to a call for tender and won it. We both think Tokyo Reverse could really be shown in a gallery but we are also proud to be part of a real will from some channel managers to make things change. It’s so different, surprising, exciting as well. The means you can find in TV are not what they used to be but still, there are some budget and we’re really happy if we can keep on creating different TV objects.

4) An interesting fact of the film is your choice of Tokyo. I remember Tsai Ming-liang’s film Walker, which followed a slow-walking monk through the bustling streets of Hong Kong. In a way, Tokyo Reverse is similar. While your protagonist is not exactly walking in slow-motion, it seems as though you try to “slow down” a fast city. What is the reason behind your choice of Tokyo?

What’s the place in the world where it all starts, when it all ends in Paris ? The answer was Japan to us and to the channel as well.
Tokyo was our obvious choice, our first pick, and the channel thought about it as well in the beginning.
At first, there was this idea of making the slow TV program live, filming it live and airing it. It was impossible with the Tokyo Reverse concept though we may want to try it next time !
Yet we tried to respect that first idea in building the film’s chronology respecting the jet lag between France and Japan. At 22:30 in Paris, the sun starts rising in Tokyo and that’s what happened during the airing.
Then there’s the people of course, Tokyo is such a big city, with so many aesthetic, colorful, crowded places that makes the reverse idea even more hypnotic.

5) Can you tell me a little bit more about the actual shooting of the film? I imagine it must have been difficult for the crew, and especially for the protagonist who walks backwards through a busy city.

The crew was composed of Simon filming, Ludovic walking, Nicolas, the Tokyo AD who chose the perfect places to shoot and Hadrien (mister H) [who was] part of the production team that worked on the logistic etc. We also had an actor a day that walked with us and interacted with me at some point. Simon was using a Movi, a new easier steady cam, that is very heavy so it was quite a tough physical shooting for him. I had an earpiece so I could hear everything that Simon told me and he gave me the directions.

Shooting in Tokyo was both pleasant and hard. Pleasant because Japanese people are so polite and humble we never had any problems while filming. Nobody came to us to ask us to stop or anything like that. Then it was very tough, the first hour of the film, when we shot in Shibuya was crazy. So many people, so many directions as well as the noise of the city that made communication between us very hard. But still, it’s one of the best moments of the film. We had to go through this to make it better.

Walking backwards was really hard in the first shooting sessions but became quite natural in the end. The trust I have in Simon made it way easier. Walking 30 minutes backward is I think harder in a psychological way than a physical way. We shot about 5 sessions of 30 minutes every day and the last one hurt our whole bodies a lot but still, we were so excited by the project we could have done more if it was needed !

6) What was the reaction of the French audience after the first broadcast?

We were really interested in how the interactivity would work. In Tokyo Reverse, the character is sharing his thoughts, photos, videos, via the social networks. During the airing all the posts he made came up live on the @reverse account. We knew Tokyo Reverse had the potential of being big on the internet during the airing but we never thought it would be that big. We became a trending topic during the night and what surprises us more besides the quantity of tweets or retweets was how kindly the film was received. We got so many nice words, shares, retweets during the night.
In general, Tokyo Reverse was really well received during and after the broadcast.

7) Do you think Slow TV will be the future of television?

Honestly we don’t know. Slow TV is something that makes TV different, that makes people think, watching TV a way they’re not used to, Slow TV makes difference possible and real. With Simon, we believe it could be the beginning for us and for television of an exploration for new concepts, another way of thinking how TV could be made and we’re looking forward new experiences. The length of the film is one of the keys but we’d also be thrilled in making a crazy 3 minute video (for instance another project we made : https://vimeo.com/44607388 & https://vimeo.com/78580380)

Interview with Michela Occhipinti

In 2010, filmmaker Michela Occhipinti made the brilliant and yet subtle slow film Letters from the Desert – Eulogy to Slowness. I have reviewed the film in an earlier post. I have contacted her to conduct a mini interview with her about her film and her filmmaking. A big thanks goes out to Michela for this, and good luck with your new film!

1) Where did the idea for Letters from the Desert come from?

“The idea of the film came while I was trying to understand how to tell a paradox of our society that deeply touched me. The intent though was to tell it through an equal but opposite symmetry, with a different culture. After having read a short article on a postman in the Thar Desert and on his long peregrinations it was clear to me that that was my story, I just had to bring it into focus.”

2) You are a filmmaker from Italy and gave your film the interesting tagline “Eulogy to Slowness”. Have you been inspired by the Italian Slow Movement, or is this a mere coincidence?

“It has nothing to do with it. I just wanted to celebrate slowness vs velocity. Because in fact in our society the latter is considered the positive between the 2, while for me it is exactly the opposite. We tend to easily classify dichotomies like light/dark, light/heavy, fast/slow, tending to confer the positive pole to the former and the negative one to the latter. There are so many nuances in between though…”

3) Is your film a personal comment on the speed in current society?

“Absolutely. It tells in an antithesis what I perceive as being a far too fast society.
It is a reflection on progress. It is my personal view on the concept of time and space. Of time in space and space in time.

Of the fragility of beauty. A small melancholy. A sort of freeze-frame of a world that is dying out. The photography of a moment of transition. The frame of the precise moment in which a foreign body arrives bringing transformation.”

4) The film is relatively slow. It contains a lot of long takes, and wide shots are a dominant element. Was the use of long takes a deliberate choice from the beginning, or has it come naturally to you once you were in India and became more involved with the subjects of your film?

“It was a deliberate choice from the beginning because I thought it was the only way to capture slowness, to convey it into images. And also to make the audience be in that time and space, dragging them into it.”

5) What significance do you as a filmmaker attach to the landscape in your films? Letters from the Desert is not only about a postman, who loses his job because of the foray of modernity. You have put emphasis on his natural surrounding. Why have you done so?

“The desert itself is not a casual landscape in the film. The most basic depiction of time is the hourglass that contains sand that pours into it marking time, and also here, the wind moves the sand changing the shape and structure of the dunes and the landscape, and thus, metaphorically, also of time. The desert also as a metaphysical place where we go to find ourselves and make silence.”

6) Retrospectively thinking, your film reminds me of Nicolás Pereda’s work. I feel as if you blur the line between documentary and fiction. What is your film, actually? How much fiction is in your documentary?

“I started off wanting to make a pure documentary. I wanted to choose a protagonist and follow him with the cameras.

Once I left for scouting though, I met so many postmen and each one of them had so many interesting stories that I conveyed some of them in the one of my chosen protagonist Hari. So I wrote a script based on these experiences but with open dialogues that I then composed together with my characters.

Also leaving some space to the unexpected.

Therefore the work on the film is not merely of a documentary approach. Letters from the Desert lays in a territory between reality and imagination. India in my film works as an “elsewhere” as opposed to the world from which I, director, come from and where I live in. It is the starting point to develop something that moves on a different territory, the one of fiction, of the cinematographic mise-en-scène and that exactly thanks to this leap transforms into something universal, but also absolutely personal because the subjective filter is me, my work as a director.”

7) Are there any directors that have influenced you in your work as filmmaker?

“I love cinema and watch a lot of films weekly and there are so many directors and films I am really passionate about that to name a few would not do justice. I also do not think I was influenced by some particular filmmaker. Of course, once I started thinking about how to make my film I did watch a lot of documentaries and films most of which were suggested to me by the brilliant D.o.P. who worked on Letters from the Desert, the Spanish Pau Mirabet. Those were suggestions he gave me once I explained what was my vision of my film.

So I saw a lot of Herzog, Humbert & Penzel and many other films of the seventies, especially East European. Thing is that, when I was young, I wanted to be a writer, only to discover very soon that I was no good. So I started to work in advertising, documentaries and cinema sort of by chance and after many years, when I finally found the courage, I went off to South America on a very long trip to direct my first documentary. In the end, I am still telling stories but just through a different media: a visual one rather than a written one. That is why, I think, even though I love cinema, in a way my visual references, as strange as it may sound, also come from literature.

And, although I even talk alone, I think in images. So I would not even define myself a director or filmmaker, but just someone who has something to say on a particular subject and decides to express it by filming because those images of the film are already in her mind. So when I will feel I have nothing to say on a particular subject, I will just stop filming, just as I started.”

8) Are you working on a new film at the moment? Or, will your next film be another slow film?

“I am working on a new film right now. Started with the idea and writing nearly 3 years ago…talking about eulogy to slowness!!

It is a totally different subject, dealing with women body, body transformation, social conditioning that should be shot in Mauritania as soon as we find the financing and international co-producers, but at least I do have a good Italian production. It will not be as slow as Letters from the Desert and also the photography will be different because the subject in my opinion requires a different visual approach and pace. But defintely no thriller!”