The Age of Crumbs: An Interview with Patrick Wang

December 10, Hidden Smiles: Patrick Wang

Patrick Holzapfel: Since our program series deals with forms of humour, I wanted to ask you how you deal with comedy or humour in your work? Is that something you think about or does it just happen when you are working on and with the characters?

Patrick Wang: I guess the first part of the answer is that humour in all my films has just naturally come up, even though the last few have been dramas. It feels very naturally, as a part of human nature that slips in and out. It has been a lot of fun looking for actors who also understand how to effect that. So there has been a basic conversation about humour not as a genre but just as a thread and recurring moment in life. For A Bread Factory, it was very interesting because if you think about humour in a film you normally think about one type of humour. It’s a very verbal witty humour or a physical comedy humour or it’s a juvenile sense of humour. They seem very separate. Mostly you have one type in each film. Yet, I think a lot of people find very different things funny in life. Just at different moments. So I thought mixing them would be kind of fun and it gives a very unique rhythm to a film. The same could be said about the elements of drama. Some things people might associate with art films, others with TV, and sometimes I think this keeps things unpredictable. It’s about moving with the thing that naturally occurs.

Is the humour already part of the screenplay or do you find it when working with the actors?

It’s all in the screenplay. There are a couple of exceptions but for the most part it’s all written down. The actors execute it really well. They make humour that is marginally funny in the screenplay very funny in the film.

There is a great sense of timing in the film. A lot of absurdities and little ticks people have are a question of timing in your film.

It has a lot to do with what people don’t say but are thinking.

We decided to show both parts of your film back to back. Is that something you prefer or you dislike or is it not important for you? Was it conceived as one film in the beginning?

It was pretty early in the writing but I didn’t know it when I started writing. I knew that the form was bigger than one but I thought for a while it was going to be a mini-series. But it never wanted to be that. Instead it very neatly divided into two in a way that I think produces two views of the world. They make sense next to each other. The differences in form mean a lot more because the film is in those two pieces. I think they do very well when they are close to each other, when you see them in close proximity. Close is good, it doesn’t always have to be the same day. I have always let that be the choice of the programmer.

There is a lot of critical praise for your work and almost every reviewer wonders why you are such a marginalized filmmaker. What do you think about that and how does it work for you, also with funding and so on?

Mostly it doesn’t work (laughs). It’s an interesting question. I also remember talking to Jonathan Rosenbaum about it. My early films were very well received and it’s quite extraordinary to be this unknown after a really warm reception the early movies got. I don’t quite have an answer. What I had in mind, what happens as a trajectory in your career, that you build your audience and making movies gets a little bit easier as you go along, hasn’t happened. I think part of the reason is that there are only a few paths into the pipeline, especially the international pipeline. It’s been said that a lot of my films have not played in a lot of countries. In a lot of countries I am making my first screening with a retrospective. And I think a lot of festivals program after other festivals rather than independently. Yet, all the main review and industry websites have written about my films. So, they are there but it’s a limited number, I think, of people that read and that have enough capacity in their lives to actually explore. I sort of came to the industry as a sort of outsider to begin with. I neither studied film nor was I immersed in film. In a strange way this helped me stay an outsider.

I think this is also very important for your cinema. One can see that it is more interested in the people and places you show than in the next festival.

That is something I was a little worried about. A Bread Factory was the first film that came out of my film experience. When I was travelling to all those theatres showing the movie, almost like the Janeane Garofalo character in the film, that experience changed me. You always worry about being too much of an insider. Is the world getting too small if you are just talking about this particular corner? For me, it was still very explosive, I still learned a lot. I wouldn’t have made A Bread Factory if I had never made a movie before.

And what about your funding situation?

A lot of filmmakers from the US bemoan that there is no public funding of films. I don’t think that’s quite true. We have a tax credit here in New York and you get what amounts to 20 percent of your budget back. That is 20 percent funding for the films, which is very significant. It’s a kind of funding that doesn’t make any judgements on artistic merit. You follow the rules, you submit your paperwork, and you get funding. Every time I have applied – and I have done that with all my projects – with either organizations in the US or the CNC, I got rejected for artistic merits. It’s my slim personal experience, but that told me that, strangely, I do better in a world where they are not judging the artistic merit. So there is some funding. For the first two movies, I funded them myself. For A Bread Factory one friend put in a quarter of the money and that’s the only way that would have happened. Each time I made a movie I didn’t expect any income. When you have no expectations of income it also changes what you are willing to do in the making of the movie.

Let’s talk a bit about your film. You already mentioned that there is a sense of TV series in the film. It’s about a certain mode of narration, a way you have of coming back to the characters… What specifically do you draw from TV?

For me, the TV series I really love are from the ’70s in Europe. Like Fassbinder’s Welt am Draht or Ingmar Bergman’s mini-series. I think they are extraordinary. Of course, also Rivette’s Out 1. They showed me how to dive into people’s lives. When you see the Bergman in comparison to the cut they made, you know, when they made the series into a feature, you see how different it is when you have a feature length to work with. Even if you are Bergman and if you are as dense as possible. But how much deeper do you understand the couple in Scenes from a Marriage if you have gone through the mini-series. But then, looking at the Bergman, it’s pretty limited in time. TV series are generally many more hours. Yet, by limiting it to four hours it stays dense, there is a sense of pressure that the tightness of the form puts on how information can come out. It’s one of my main complaints about a lot of TV series. It has the effect of what people joke about with soap operas… You can come back a week later and they are still in the same scene.

I remember Jacques Rivette writing about our perception of time. He stated that nowadays, which was around the 1960s, we need so much more time to tell the same story than filmmakers from the 1930s did. To me, that rings quite true. In the 1940s, you showed a couple falling in love: in the next scene they kiss, in the next scene they are married. There is a sort of natural density that also has to do with our expectations of stories and of life? It also reminds me of writers struggling with putting words on paper. I think it was W.G. Sebald who said that it started with Flaubert walking up and down in his study to write down one single word and it got harder and harder throughout the decades.

I haven’t thought about it that much but my basic feeling is that it takes less time. The early movies tell a story but the depth of information is not that much. My films leave a lot out, for example. But what they leave out is something we understand from human experience. You don’t need a movie to explain to you what mothers are. So, we can work on and dive into deeper things. To me it’s exciting: taking advantage of human experience and also taking advantage of what we learned from dramatic representation. We have a lot of range of theatre, a lot of range of film history, TV history and many different people are very familiar with different types of visual media techniques. In some ways this lets us move faster. Yet my films are longer than is average. What I like about it is that it leads me closer to a deeper, like a novel experience. I am not the first person to say that but film is much closer to a short story experience. I feel you need a longer form or something very dense to get something that is even close to being novelistic.

Maybe you can tell me a bit about how this might or might not relate to something that comes up in the film called “the age of crumbs“. Are we living in the age of crumbs? What does it mean?

When I was in university I studied economics. There were two issues I did a lot of research on. One was health economics and the other was income inequality. It’s very striking and since the ’70s there has been a lot of research on this increasing inequality. It’s nothing new and it’s nothing new for people in the arts. They have essentially been cut down since the beginning. What’s interesting to me is not that story, it’s how people still survive. Not only what they do but also how their will survives all of that. You take away so many of the resources, yet a certain vitality still thrives in certain places. What’s sad is that you never know what you actually loose. But the fact that something still exists is quite extraordinary to me.

We don’t see a lot of films about cultural institutions. How did you meet this place?

The Bread Factory is based on a real place. It’s a theatre up in Hudson, New York. It is a place I visited as a filmmaker. If you have been to a lot of these community art centres in your life, they feel instantly familiar. When I was in France I also travelled to all the small towns to show my films. I think those places for art there are amazing. I got a kind of energy from being at those places. It’s very funny because they were very happy to see me and I was very happy to see them but neither of us is solving any of the problems the others have. Nobody is going to show up because I am showing up. Yet, we need something from it. So, this idea of art and commerce was on my mind and I was trying to find a place to think about those things. I try to make films that are not about something I already know but more like a scenario for me to learn and think about certain ideas I am having trouble with. This seemed like a nice place because industry and commerce is a very cold thing where you can become very unhappy and cynical. It seemed right to put it in a place which is the opposite, that can provide some warmth, a sort of guiding light as to what’s important.

The Limits of Representation: An Interview with Radu Jude

BALKANROUTEN
14. November 2018 im Filmhaus am Spittelberg

RADU JUDE

2018 Cele doua executii ale Maresalului (Kurzfilm)
2018 Îmi este indiferent daca în istorie vom intra ca barbari
2017 Tara moarta
2016 Inimi cicatrizate
2015 Aferim!
2014 Scurt/4: Istorii de inimã neagrã (Omnibusfilm)
2014 Trece si prin perete (Kurzfilm)
2013 O umbra de nor (Kurzfilm)
2012 Toata lumea din familia noastra
2011 Film pentru prieteni
2009 Cea mai fericitã fatã din lume
2007 Dimineata (Kurzfilm)
2006 Alexandra (Kurzfilm)
2006 Lampa cu caciula (Kurzfilm)
2002 In familie (TV Serie)

Radu Jude on the set of Scarred Hearts

Interview by Andrey Arnold & Patrick Holzapfel

You made quite a few short films and you still make them. Can you tell us a bit about how you treat the short form in comparison to a feature film? Is there any difference between the two for you? Did you make some films as part of a film education program or was it never like that for you?

Radu Jude: I am not making many short films now, I recently made one using some archive footage, it is called The Marshal’s Two Executions and it is just a simple comparison of images – images from the documentary of the execution of wartime fascist leader Ion Antonescu juxtaposed with the images of the same event as it was staged in a feature film which glorifies the Marshal. One can find a lot to think about after seeing this comparison, I hope. Otherwise, I don’t plan on making short films for the moment, not because I don’t consider them a serious form of filmmaking, but because my subjects (or how I think of them) need a little bit more screen time. Otherwise, for me, there’s no difference between the two forms and I consider a film like, let’s say, Un chien andalou as good as Out 1.

How was the creative process behind the scripts you co-wrote with Florin Lăzărescu different from when you wrote alone – and what did you learn from him as a collaborator?

Florin is not only a gifted writer (and speaking about short forms, I must say I consider his short stories to be the best in contemporary Romanian literature), but a good friend as well, despite the fact that he lives far, far away from me. As to what I learned from him, I am not sure I can put that into words, but it has to do with a special way of looking at things – he can notice a small event and see something much deeper in it. And he is a humanist, for sure, while I am a bit colder than he is. For the moment I write alone, I need to explore cinema in directions that don’t say much to him or I use other texts as a starting point (as was the case with Scarred Hearts, based on M. Blecher, or the way it is now with a film I am preparing, which is based on the play Tipografic majuscul by Gianina Cărbunariu).

Are there any “rules“ or principles that you believe one should take into account when filming history or putting history on film?

No, of course not, everyone can do this in his or her own way. The beauty of films is that there are no rules, apart from the ones imposed by others or self-imposed. As for me, I believe that this illusionist reconstruction of the past is not only impossible, but also questionable (after all, why would you want to give the viewers the illusion that “this is exactly how things were 200 years ago”), so I tried to at least find ways of representing the past in a manner that also shows the limits of this representation.

Do you feel that Romania’s treatment of its problematic past(s) has changed in recent times, and if so, in what way?

I think some progress has been made, but it is very fragile. For instance, when I was in high school at the beginning of the 90’s, nobody mentioned the Romanian participation in the mass murders of WW2, but there is some information on this now. On the other hand, in the last few years one can notice a revival of nationalism, put to use in many different ways. For instance, we just had a shameful referendum organized by the state hand in hand with the Romanian Orthodox Church. The referendum was about “the definition of the family,” but in fact it was just a hate referendum to prevent the possibility of equal rights for LGBTQ people. But not only that, the whole campaign in favour of that stupid referendum was filled with nationalism and conservatism in its most dubious forms (“let’s get back to our old Christian traditions,” “let’s not accept the fake values of Europe,” etc.) and all that in a frightening quantity. The fact that many people boycotted the referendum, which in the end was not successful, shows there’s some hope left.

When did you first become strongly aware of the extent of Romania’s historical antisemitism?

It was also while I was in high school, but not because of the school, but because of some books that appeared at that time. There was also a short documentary film, which now seems to be lost, so at least I can mention its name: The Last Jew by Florin Iepan. I still remember how impressed I was when I saw this film on TV.

You have noted in an interview that you don’t believe in the saying that history repeats itself. What do you mean by that?

I was referring to an idea that became some kind of a thinking cliché, the idea that “history repeats itself.” Because I think there are forms of thinking and behaviour that create similar events, but they also have different forms. I don’t think the Holocaust will happen again, but there are other horrible things, it is enough to see one image from Yemen to understand it is happening all the time.

Your films in some way escape typical “auteurist“ attributes. Here you employ intertitles, there you make a documentary with photographs, then you have male and female leads, filming in black and white as well as in colour, different aspect ratios, films about movement, films about being unable to move and so on. Maybe this is a silly question to ask, but how do you find the form for your films? How do you keep free from what already worked before?

Oh, this is (actually, was) one of my big frustrations, that I am not an auteur. I mean, I got over it, but I am still nostalgic for a personal style, a personal vision. I know I will never have it, I got used to this idea. I just make the films in a manner which I discover for each project at a time. That’s all.

Is it hard to get money for your films?

Well, my films are not very expensive and it was a little bit easier for my last project, but it is still very complicated. It helps that today one can make films without so much money. As Godard used to say, if I have only one dollar, I will make a one-dollar film.

Interview Ben Russell : Having Profound Dreams

Auf dem Filmfestival in Rotterdam hatte Ioana Florescu die Gelegenheit, sich mit dem Filmemacher Ben Russell über dessen Greetings to the Ancestors zu unterhalten. Im Gespräch geht es vor allem um die Arbeitsweise des amerikanischen Künstlers zwischen der Substanz profunder Träume, der Kontrolle über den Stoff, das Suchen und Finden von Kollaborateuren, die Arbeit mit der Kamera und transparente Untertitel.

Ben Russell Greetings

Ben Russell

Ioana Florescu: I want to talk to you mainly about your film Greetings to the Ancestors (which competed in the Tiger Awards short film section and won). It is the third part of your trilogy called The Garden of Earthly Delights. Could you talk a bit about the idea behind this trilogy?

Ben Russell: The title is taken directly from the Hieronymus Bosch painting, which is a three panel painting made a very long time ago. It depicts Eden, heaven and hell and the style rendering is very Christian. It’s not very clear which is heaven and which is hell and where this things exist. So it seemed like a really good framework, like another level to think about these three films together, as all are attempts to produce some kind of earthly paradise or utopia in the contemporary moment. It functions as a loose structure. There is also a Stan Brakhage film called The Garden of Earthly Delights. That is also there a bit but it is not quite as strong an influence. The first film of the trilogy is Let us persevere in what we have resolved before we forget which is shot in Vanuatu and deals with cargo cult mythology but also has a bit of Samuel Beckett within it. And the second film is Atlantis, which is a kind of imagining of what Thomas More’s Utopia would be like if it were happening in the present. In fact, Atlantis deals with what the limits of utopia might be. The third section, Greetings to the Ancestors is a bit more directly spiritual and posits another kind of energy within the space of the film. That energy is maybe Christian, maybe non-Christian but definitely looks towards the invisible world, towards embodiment.

For Greetings to the Ancestors you had as a starting point stories about a substance that causes really profound dreams. How clear a concept did you have when starting to shoot? What is the proportion between working with what you found in that place and following your original plans?

Well, I think that it is pretty difficult to go to a place where you’ve never been with a very firm idea of what is going to transpire. So the structures that I set up beforehand are just guidelines for me to figure out where they might lead me. In the case of Greetings to the Ancestors, I initially had three things that I was after. Only one of them materialized but they all led me to other things. I had heard about this traditional healer who also ran a mortuary. He would wear a suit in the front to greet people and then in the back he would wear traditional clothes. So was  he going to be on both sides, in the traditional and the contemporary space. But he didn’t want to be filmed. That was one thread. Another one was the Silene Capensis, which is the root that produces these dreams, that was the thing that that I was searching out. I got in touch with an ethnobotanist in Johannesburg. He put me in touch with this healer which I never ended up meeting but I somehow met this other healer and the other people. So that was still there but I kind of hoped that I would find some Silene Capensis and have some really profound dreams for the time that I was travelling as well. Well, it’s not that easy. So yeah, the short answer is that there are things …they’re just like openings. The research also takes place in this space and it has a lot to do with seeing who is available and interested.

There are many dreams recounted in your film. Which was you criteria for the order in which you arranged them? How did you choose how they would connect to each other and how they should be presented?

I actually didn’t know what anybody was saying until I got back and had it all translated. I was not at all interested in the translation and the interpretation of dreams. I just wanted the people who had a profound experience to speak about that experience in the first person as much in the present tense as it could be. So that is what I asked each of this people to do. The woman who speaks at the beginning didn’t do that. She misunderstood, I think, or it was mistranslated. So she actually talks more about her origin as a single man. It is like a single radical surprise. It was sort of a gift to get that because it actually sets the frame for this other things that happen. I think the remarkable thing about being open to possibilities is that you can be really pleasantly surprised. Things happen, you know. They work out and they work out like…really profoundly.

Can you get back to something you talked about in your masterclass, to the camera? Why did you choose to use hand-held camera? And how does this choice influence the perspective of the film?

In some way it’s really practical just to go with the camera and not bring a tripod and to be able to have your own recording with you and to do everything yourself. If I had wanted or needed to have a tripod or a dolly I would simply have rented one. But it was with the hand-held camera that I envisioned being in this place and moving through there. So I would be the primary presence and the relationships that happens between myself and this people would be initiated and activated through me, through the camera, through this particular kind of agreements. For me the most striking image of the film is the first image of this woman, the first storyteller. I’m 6 foot 2, so I’m pretty tall, and with the camera I need to stand up straight, so I’m even taller and she probably came up to my chest. Which meant that when I was filming her, I was looking down on her. That creates a particular kind of power perspective. I think it is uncomfortable when it first happens in the film. When you first see it and you are not sure what the relationship is. I kept it in the film because when the woman turns and begins to speak or each time she actually turns and looks at the camera, where that power is located shifts. I think it is really important to have those moments take place where a theory is seeded. But for me it’s much more important to have my subjects do the things that they want to do and not the things that I want them to do, or rather to not have them do things. I don’t feel like cinema (or my cinema) is so important that it’s worth offending people or being an asshole. But it totally determines the way that I interact with people.

Greetings to the Ancestors3

You said you have the feeling that your camera creates discomfort. What is just as uncomfortable in your film is the use of sound, sound being also the main connection between this world and the world of dreams.

For me sound is at least fifty percent of the film. Often it is more important than the image because the image has so much authority when it presents itself, when you see it, that you do not really question what it is. But through sound the image can get undermined. So creating other sorts of sonic spaces that challange the way that you are able to watch an image is always very important for me. In case of the dreams depicted, in particular, sound moves everything away from this fairy tale space and more into a visceral space, a space that is somewhere between the screen and the audience.

Do the filters you use at times in the film, red plastic actually, also serve this purpose? Are they also meant to create or accentuate that space inbetween?

Yes. They are really clear interruptions. There’s a hand that’s moving in but in spite of our knowledge of what’s happened, that we know that there is a filter being put in front of the lens, the space changes with this red view in front of us. So it is a way of having a direct effect on the space, of allowing that space to oscilate between present, exterior, interior, to create more movement in an image that otherwise would be really fixed.

The subtitles you use look in a certain way. They are almost transparent at some times. It made me think that they are also a motif of this inbetweenness. They look like that in the other films of the trilogy as well and have an unusual function. Why did you decide to make them look like that?

With these three films it was kind of a strategy, it was a formal thing meant to link them together. But in the first two parts of the trilogy, the text is sometimes altered. In Atlantis there is a sequence where some men are singing and the text is not what they are saying but it appears to be it when they are saying it. It’s a mistranslation. It’s credited, at the end it says „subtitles from Thomas More’s Utopia”. So I think there are two intentions regarding the subtitles. Firstly a formal one. Secondly, subtitles are usually presented as evidence, so as an audience we never have any reason to question this. It’s there, it tells us what is being said, so we never think that there is some kind of manipulation happening. But when the text recedes, it becomes part of the image. Then, in the same way that we question what the image is doing, we also ask questions or think about what the text is doing. I feel like I’ve avoided using dialogue and text for a long time in my work, in part because that’s always where knowledge is located and so it supersedes everything else, it has a authority over image, it has authority over sound, it overdeclares what is happening. So for me using subtitles in this manner is a way to resist all that and to allow text to be image, to have you follow it hopefully the same way. So that you are aware that you are looking at it, you are aware that it is information, that it is this thing that is not trying to disappear, it’s there, it’s part of the film.

Greetings to the Ancestors

Greetings to the Ancestors was a commissioned work. How much freedom do you have when doing commissioned work?

I had a lot of freedom. I actually started doing the film before I got the commission. There aren’t many opportunities in the US for art making. There is not much funding available, there are not that many people supporting it. So it’s sort of a relief for Americans to find opportunities outside of the US to make this sort of work. This was an open call for submissions at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival. They asked for proposals that were related to a particular theme, they had a deadline and they had a certain amount of money that they would provide. They didn’t have any requirements beyond that, which is good. I made a music video once, though. That’s the furthest I’ve gone in terms of making films for people. It’s better for me to make things the way I think they should be made.

Are you working on a film with Ben Rivers again?

Yes, we probably won’t start shooting until the end of this year or the beginning of next year but it is something that we have been talking about for a while. It takes one of the characters from A spell to ward off the darkness and follows him on this sort of secular, spiritual pilgrimmage. It’s great to work with Ben, he’s like totally hilarious, great storyteller, big weirdo.