The Experimental Film Society (EFS) Statement
Twenty Personal Thoughts on Cinema
1. Fostering a creative spirit is vital when it comes to filmmaking. Don’t put your passion on pause while waiting for someone else to approve of your vision. Opportunities aren’t gifted to us; they’re created. Take the initiative to see your vision unfold on the silver screen. Devote yourself to breathe life into your narrative by giving it the attention and focus it deserves. No film arises out of thin air; break the boundaries that confine your potential and ultimately create something personal and poetic. Don’t let anyone or anything stand in the way of your creative progression, and never wait for permission from others to make films.
2. Don’t allow a lack of resources to prevent you from getting started on a project. Even when means are unimaginable, and things look difficult to achieve, there is a way forward. Before you can be successful in unlocking financial support, you must have something concrete to prove its merit. So start working on ideas—even with minimal resources—so you can have something tangible to demonstrate to sponsors. This will maximize your chances for successful implementation and get you on the path to receiving bursaries and funding further down the line. In other words, think outside the box to find ways to jumpstart your project and stay the course. Otherwise, you won’t have anything to show, and the endeavour of success will come to a halt.
3. As you take on filmmaking’s many possibilities and challenges, don’t be afraid to go alone. Self-reliance is critical; strive to achieve as much as possible without relying heavily on others. With your full potential and effort, you will discover just how capable you are. Don’t doubt or underestimate yourself; break through the boundaries and impediments and instead rely on the only thing that you have complete control of: ‘yourself’. Each small accomplishment is a milestone, propelling you towards more noteworthy achievement and learning. Remember that you can do whatever you set your mind to as long as you do as much as possible by yourself.
4. When creating a work of art, such as a film, it is essential to trust your own instinct and creativity. Asking for feedback, advice and aesthetic help from others should be done cautiously and thoughtfully, if at all. Solicit opinions only sparingly and only from trusted colleagues or other professionals who understand the medium in which you are working. Remember that your unique personal touch matters. Ultimately, the artistic merits of your creative endeavour are in your hands. It is wise to heed the opinions of those who have experience in your art form; however, it is equally consequential to remind yourself of the significance of creative expression in your particular work.
5. It is vital to develop expertise in techniques and gain knowledge of the tools at your disposal. Taking it upon yourself to do much of the technical work gives you the freedom to work according to your own standards and criteria. Becoming an authority on many aspects of filmmaking will ensure that you are prepared to handle whatever task comes your way. Digging into the details and understanding how everything works behind the scenes better equips you to make decisions and confidently perform technical duties. Learning the specifics of the various pieces of equipment will also allow you to stay proficient in using the relevant technologies and products that your specific project requires. Developing a basic understanding is critical, but substantially, immersing yourself further can provide you with more profound knowledge and greater flexibility in the field.
6. When it comes to experimental filmmaking, a screenplay is just an organizational tool. It provides helpful information that can help secure funding and navigate bureaucratic hurdles, but it doesn’t reflect the actual craft of filmmaking. Writing a compelling script might seem essential at first glance, but if your terminus is to create a personal poetic vision, the script should be viewed as an outline that can be tremendously twisted, adjusted, fragmented or deconstructed to an extreme level whenever necessary. Grasping the art of experimental filmmaking requires engaging with the moment while staying genuine to your artistic intention. It calls for a keen awareness of yourself and your surroundings, spontaneity, flexibility, and perseverance – skills that can’t be found on the page. You must live the film as you live your life.
7. Navigating the film festival circuit, distribution system, and public screening arena is a challenging process – success depends almost entirely on contacts and connections. If one does not possess these contacts and relationships, their work is unlikely to be considered seriously. Releasing a project without such networking is typically unfruitful. Making industry contacts must be prioritized in order to achieve success in today’s competitive climate. It can be intimidating, but building the right relationships opens a world of opportunities for artists. Leveraging those connections can often lead to constructive outcomes. Aspiring creatives must put in the effort to create an effective network of connections in order to give their projects the best chance at becoming freely available to the mass public.
8. Today’s culture has almost completely transformed how the idea of an independent filmmaker is seen due to the democratization of filmmaking. Times have changed, causing being a filmmaker not to be something so unique or special anymore. After all, anyone can essentially pick up a camera with relatively little effort. There’s even a plethora of online resources available for those trying to express themselves in the world of filmmaking, whether it be full-length features, documentaries, or short/experimental films. Indeed, this day and age no longer comes with pure differentiation in terms of who is a “filmmaker” and who is not. Everyone’s voice is empowered; ultimately, it is all considered independent filmmaking. The only element that still matters is how personal, intimate and poetic your film is.
9. The art of Cinema and the films themselves are the ultimate teacher. Immerse yourself in as much Cinema as possible. Continuously watch and explore the rich history of this medium.
10. Cultivation and development is the key to building lasting, trust-based relationships. Relationships based on depth and meaning reap greater rewards than universally superficial ones. Take the time and effort to forge strong connections with your collaborators and colleagues. Doing so will ensure a more fruitful engagement, and any effort you put in will truly be worth it to the end product. As an experimental filmmaker, don’t be afraid to take risks and go to uncharted territories. Show your creations to the world in any way you can, be it online platforms or physical theatrical screenings. You will see the difference.
11. It’s essential to choose people to collaborate with that you completely connect with and trust. It would be best if you only pursued partnerships with those that you are wholly in sync with and can wholeheartedly believe in. Such relationships offer synchronous, successful working experiences. Look for common ground and shared values when selecting colleagues you want to work with to ensure a compatible collaboration. You may have found a lasting partnership when you recognize individuals who embody these characteristics. Alternatively, working in complete isolation and solitude is the optimal approach.
12. As a filmmaker, it is essential to understand and embrace the importance of compensating performers and technical crew. This includes avoiding the temptation of requesting amateur or professional cast and crew commit their skills for free. An artist fee, or another form of acceptable repayment, is necessary in any creative relationship. Making sure that every talent receives appropriate compensation should be a baseline process, regardless of budget size. A performer’s time and energy should be acknowledged, appreciated, and repaid somehow – this is essential in the world of creative arts. A professional, sensible gesture, such as payment for skills and services, is often the most agreed form of repayment. Ideally, all parties should be open and honest about financial terms and conditions upfront to avoid any hassles or issues further down the line. Overall, compensating performers should remain the top priority.
13. Securing a performance/talent release form from your actors and crew is necessary, so have them signed before the principal shooting. Making sure these contracts are signed should be your top priority. Be cautious if this vital step gets overlooked; things can get incredibly complicated if the necessary legwork isn’t done beforehand. Even if you have the most vivid dreams, you can’t conjure up the vast array of horrific scenarios that could arise from not signing these signatures on the dotted line. To be on the safe side, make sure that all actors have signed their release forms before shooting starts.
14. Never wait upon or depend on other parties/agencies to complete a project; it will be a noose around your neck. Promises and pledges are very easy to give and extremely hard to keep; they constitute a ‘zero currency’. A project can be irreparably damaged after suffering a lengthy delay or a series of postponements, and this is all the worse if these deferrals are made simply because you are awaiting someone else’s creative input. If you feel things are taking up more than the allocated time, terminate the situation and do the job yourself. Through doing this, you will discover even more creative processes and methods; your purview will widen and intensify. The whole process of filmmaking (at any level) involves being a constant student. There is no mastery.
15. Gaining the ability to say no in particular situations can be a challenging but monumental step for a filmmaker. Being comfortable enough in your skin or creative vision to turn down a project, collaboration, or screening is nothing short of brave. With mature judgment and reflection, knowing when it’s best to distance yourself from projects or people that might end up dragging you off course and limiting your creativity is a valuable life skill to build. Taking the proper steps to prioritize yourself and your growth as an artist could prove undeniably beneficial in the medium to long term by challenging you to refine and redefine your craft continuously. Doing so allows you to maximize your limited resources, time, and energy from artistic projects that compliment and energize you the most rather than put a strain on you and cut your stride. The courage to reject an incompatible or unideal offer can keep you focused on crafting the personal and unique work you want to put out.
16. Collaborating with close friends can be a vulnerable situation, especially when finances come into play. The old saying, “keep church and state separate,” emphasizes how crucial it can be to differentiate one’s personal relationships from artistic dealings. To prevent misunderstandings and toxicity down the line, it can be best to step back from the situation entirely. For those who must engage in collaborations with their friends, it is notably essential to create and maintain a professional relationship. Having both people on the same page from the start is integral for a successful outcome and can help protect things from becoming too personal during a conflict. This could include treating collaborators the same way you would externally hired personnel with respect to contracts and payment suites. Taking a proactive stance by declaring clear guidelines beforehand can ensure both parties handle things amicably while also preserving longstanding relationships.
17. As an artist or filmmaker, why confine yourself to current trends? They’re phenomena that merely amount to fleeting fashions. Instead, focus on your individual ideas and subject matters with themes and notions that erupt from your own experiences and the most inner depth of your existence. The current expectation of society is for artists to create direct mirrors and commentaries on its socio-political structure. But instead of making art a vehicle for sloganeering and reductive structures, why not work to create something that generates sensory, visceral, and profound poetic impacts in the people receiving them? Dragging films to a state of over-simplified sloganeering strips away all of the medium’s most stimulating and subversive elements. Taking a step back and pausing to contemplate the situation isn’t challenging; all it takes is a moment to take a deep breath and ease the mind. To bring a unique and individual vision into the world, understanding that excruciatingly personal works of art can challenge standards in mesmerizingly emotional ways is an integral part of filmmaking.
All moving images are connected to the scientific and anthropological origins of Cinema. When you create a film, it holds the same significance as when influential filmmakers like Jean Rouch, Maya Deren, Marguerite Duras, Fritz Lang, Sokurov, Ozu, Brakhage, Tarkovsky, Méliès, or the Lumière brothers made their films. Your film becomes a moment in the history of Cinema, and it is your duty as a filmmaker to acknowledge and respect this history. Never dismiss or underestimate its importance.
Art risks losing its allure when employed as a conduit for political declarations and messages. While it is undeniably true that every artistic creation carries an inherent socio-political undertone, I contest the notion that this forms the principal objective of art. The propensity to overlook the fact that art serves as a playground for the unfettered imagination is increasingly prevalent. If the primary function of art becomes a commentary on our surrounding world, what space remains for the imagination to frolic freely?
Cultivating a sphere for imaginative exploration is imperative, for it is through this process that we discover transcendental perspectives and ways of existence. Imagination, at its zenith, transcends logic, morality, and physical reality; it is not bound by societal constraints or contemporary events. Art should be a haven for the manifestation of the irrational and or illogical, a notion of particular significance in a society like ours that thrives on rationality, categorization, analysis, authority and control.
We require a remaining refuge where imagination can roam unbound, where contact can be made with possibilities and impossibilities yet to be realized and imagined. The most profound artistic works are borne out of the most liberated and untamed imaginations. To envision is to experience freedom.
18. It is an unfortunate reality that money plays a significant role in Cinema and the art world. However, despite this fact, there are ways to navigate this challenge and successfully healthily shape your practice.
19. Don’t define your artistic ideology and beliefs. Demonstrate, exemplify and exhibit it.
20. No rules apply to all filmmakers. Each filmmaker has their own unique set of rules.
When You’ve Got Nothing, You’ve Got Nothing To Lose
“If you’re worrying about how to finance and distribute your movies, then you shouldn’t bother making movies. You make movies because you need to make movies. Everything else is unimportant. If you wait to get the money to make a movie, then you shouldn’t make the movie. If you need distribution in place before you have the courage to make a movie, then it’s not a movie worth making. There are many other ways to make money than making movies. If you need to make money, please find some other way to do it. You make movies to lose your money. That is the purpose of making a movie—to put your life into something—not get something out of it… You must be willing to risk everything to really express it all.” – John Cassavetes
The history of film is so vast and enormous that even in your wildest dreams, you cannot imagine it. Once you start watching films and sink deeper and deeper into cinema, the more you realise just how many ‘classic’ films there are. What even constitutes a ‘classic’ film? There are so many films that have been overshadowed and ‘lost’, which have only begun to resurface.
Cinema is constantly reassessing its own history and chronology. Once you embrace this notion, you come to understand that there is no limit to the number of films you can watch. In fact, the more movies you see, the more you realize how little you have experienced compared to the vast array of films available.
There are a great many films from many different countries that we have never even heard of, and very little information exists about them other than the fact that they are waiting to be discovered and eventually brought into mass culture. It is, therefore, clear that instant mass acceptance or comprehension is no guarantee of quality. So many films neglected in their time or forgotten over the years are popping up like time bombs to make us question the very nature of cinema and our sense of its history. Planting a potential time bomb could prove at least as relevant to the art of cinema in the long term as leading a full-scale invasion of current public consciousness.
Throughout my career, I have dedicated myself tirelessly to my craft, often facing limited funding and, at times, no financial support at all. While having a budget certainly has its advantages – allowing for better compensation for collaborators, the ability to travel to distant locations, and improved promotion for the final film – I have never let the absence of money hinder my creativity. I believe in making the most of what I have and embracing the circumstances I find myself in. However, it is essential to acknowledge that regardless of the budget at hand, if the work being produced does not involve a linear narrative structure, it will likely face many challenges in terms of distribution.
Screening and distributing experimental films is often an uphill battle, given the myriad of challenges that creators face in this niche yet crucial realm of cinema. These films, characterized by their avant-garde techniques, non-traditional narratives, and groundbreaking content, can be hard to distribute and screen due to several factors.
Firstly, the institutional gatekeepers—mainstream cinemas, distributors, and film festivals—often prioritize commercially viable projects over experimental ones. The unconventional nature of experimental films, which may involve abstract storytelling, innovative cinematography, or provocative themes, tends to be less marketable. This bias often results in a lack of institutional support and financial backing, making it difficult for these films to reach a broader audience.
Secondly, financing such films is another significant hurdle. Experimental films frequently lack the star-studded casts or high production values that attract investors. As a result, filmmakers are often left to rely on self-funding, grants, or crowdfunding, which can limit the scope of their projects and the resources available to them.
Lastly, connecting with audiences can be particularly challenging. Experimental films require viewers to engage more actively, decipher complex themes, and familiarize themselves with unconventional narrative structures. These demands can make it hard to build a substantial, dedicated viewership.
Despite these obstacles, self-distribution and self-organized screenings have emerged as vital tools for filmmakers to gain exposure to their work and cultivate an audience. By assuming control over distribution, filmmakers can bypass traditional gatekeepers, reach their audiences directly, and maintain creative autonomy.
Social media promotion is one effective strategy for self-distribution. Platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook enable filmmakers to share teasers and behind-the-scenes content and interact directly with their audiences. This direct engagement can help build anticipation and establish a dedicated fan base.
Partnering with existing screening platforms, such as independent film festivals or art house cinemas, is another powerful approach. These platforms often have a ready audience of film enthusiasts who are more open to experimental content.
Creating their own screening circuit is another viable strategy. This could involve organizing screenings at alternative venues like art galleries, community centres, or outdoor spaces, which not only provide a platform for their work but also help foster a sense of community and engagement around their films.
In conclusion, though the screening and distribution of experimental films come with unique challenges, there are also innovative strategies that filmmakers can employ to surmount these barriers. By leveraging self-distribution methods and forming direct connections with audiences, filmmakers can ensure their pioneering work reaches those who appreciate bold and innovative cinema.
Taking into account all these factors, I maintain a strong belief in the following principle: being rejected by the film industry and feeling like an outsider can actually be advantageous. When you have nothing to lose, fear becomes nonexistent. From a financial standpoint, you possess complete freedom to express your creativity. However, it is essential to possess the self-motivation necessary to continuously pursue your talents, refusing to be sidetracked by unnecessary distractions.
For a Personal Cinema
I firmly believe that it is impossible to fully articulate the essence of a film, as it is an immersive experience. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to curate a selection of films from the Experimental Film Society archive and participate in question-and-answer sessions after the screenings. The programs featured short films from various EFS filmmakers, as well as one of my own feature films. Both programs played to packed houses and were met with enthusiastic audiences. However, two thought-provoking comments heavily challenged my perspective. Although I initially provided brief and polite responses to keep the question-and-answer flowing, I subsequently dedicated extensive time and discussions with colleagues to contemplate these comments. In the following paragraphs, I present my well-considered response.
The comments were:
“The films in this series were so personal, formal, and experimental that no one can communicate with them. There is no way to enter into the world of these works and thus no way to enjoy them at all.”
“Many of these works shouldn’t even be here! I repeat: these works should never have been screened here.”
Essentially, my understanding of these statements is that because the films were ‘personal’ in form, spirit, and content, they cannot be understood, and therefore, they should not even exist. As an underground filmmaker committed to creating intensely personal, formally radical cinema, it is certainly not the first time that I’ve heard responses like these. And they have not just been aimed at my work but also at the work of colleagues and other experimental – or even sometimes relatively mainstream films. Perhaps this reaction of violent rejection is a natural defence mechanism that kicks in when someone is confronted with the shock of an idea that is so alien as to seem fundamentally inappropriate. Of course, the history of alternative cinema is also a history of such confrontations. When a filmmaker gets this type of response, unless they are interested in provoking the audience for the sheer sake of provocation, it is because the viewer’s received understanding of how to ‘communicate’ with a film has been thrown into crisis. As an experimental filmmaker, one hopes that if the film works, this confrontation will result in the viewer’s perception rising to the challenge and that, ideally, they will leave with an ‘opened’ mind or even an expanded consciousness. And not just with a broadened understanding of cinema but with a somehow enriched (or, indeed, disturbed) sense of perception itself.
However, the specific nature of the ‘personal’ aspect of my filmmaking gives this ambition a whole other dimension. Working as I do – with no budget, doing more or less everything myself, and essentially inventing a way of making films all of my own – results in films that naturally emerge as something close to a manifestation of my thoughts and emotions. Therefore, admittedly, there may be certain elements of them that remain impenetrable when not experienced through my individual biology. Yet the remnants and spectres of internal moments that remain on the surface of the work are sufficiently present when light strikes them to communicate enough to an audience for them to form a relationship of their own with what they see and hear. And the emphasis should be on a relationship of their own.
For me, making these films is a process of freely exploring my own often strange and disconcerting perceptual reactions to existing in a world that appears more and more mysterious and unstable the more that I look at it. We primarily perceive this world through sight, sound, and the medium of an individual sensibility. The techniques of cinema, therefore, are ideally suited to investigating personal perception in a way that can reveal the nature of one’s inner relationship with the world to a heightened degree. Likewise, plunging cinema into such murky and volatile waters results in profound research into the capacities, mysteries, and limitations of cinema itself. The filmmaker uses cinema, and cinema uses the filmmaker’s unique sensibility to probe the nature of the other. Each goads the other on, pushing the perceptual boundaries of the other and revealing hidden aspects of the other’s nature. Far from using film as merely a device for illustrating preconceived ideas or conveying information in a conventionally manipulative fashion, this approach can result in confronting the audience with a genuinely unique vision. This vision is as frail, delicate, aggressive, and enigmatic as any person.
What results from this open, exploratory way of working is not ultimately solipsistic but profoundly interpersonal. The filmmaker is not presenting the audience with a pre-digested idea expressed from the position of authority that most films automatically assume. There is no attempt to take the viewers ‘out of themselves’ through entertainment or to ‘make them think’ in the manner of films with a ‘message’. Instead, they are invited to join the filmmaker in an experiential exploration of the atmospheres, emotions, and processes that the film embodies almost in a spirit of co-creation. Each viewer is, to some degree, conscious of their own feelings and reactions throughout the screening. And these reactions are as important a part of the film as what is being projected before them. The experience of watching the film becomes a personal interrogation of the viewer’s perceptions by and for that viewer. In this way, a film can be as much about the viewer as the filmmaker. Since these are films that can only be concluded in the viewer’s mind, not on the screen, an audience can not only enrich but actually alter the film. I like to think of the film as a mysterious object drifting in the void of deep space. Both the filmmaker and the audience are satellites floating around this strange entity, trying to decipher it in their own way. This results in a state of constant exchange: we are not alone because we have cinema through which the viewer and the filmmaker can communicate on an equal level (albeit admittedly within terms set by the filmmaker). And what we are trying to communicate is something ineffable, something that we can perhaps sense but which only the techniques of cinema can make visible.
The difference between this way of creating and the traditional, emotionally manipulative narrative techniques of the mainstream are so apparent as to be almost not worth mentioning. To pitch EFS against Hollywood is redundantly quixotic. Today, with everyone making films and with moving image equipment of one sort or another being almost universally accessible, there is nothing exceptional about a film existing outside commercial structures. Through my own experience as an underground filmmaker, however, I have become aware of other, more insidious orthodoxies that have sometimes emerged from what was once radical. These should be called out.
Cinema is assumed to have an obligation to operate within defined and accepted rules. But those rules are not just the rules of the mainstream. ‘Alternative’ traditions can be every bit as ‘safe’ and pander to the complacent requirements of their consumers as lazily as the most banal soap opera. Examples where this is prevalent, include ‘mumblecore’ films, where ‘rawness’ is all too often an excuse for shoddy filmmaking; materialist films, where the very fact of something being shot on a small gauge format makes it somehow worthy of admiration; and, most tricky of all, films dealing with political oppression or revolt, which simply by virtue of doing so are accorded cinematic merit even if they are no more than reportage. Of course, all three traditions have glorious antecedents in cinema history, often from pioneering moments when such films were still rare events. And still, today, all three traditions do sometimes produce magnificent work (as does the mainstream). But the problem is that they are what is automatically recognised in many quarters as radical cinema, which gives critics and festivals an excuse not to look any further. They are frequently hailed by category rather than quality, and the viewer knows exactly where to stand in relation to them while still being able to feel ‘radical’ or ‘alternative’. This is what occupies the margins, pushing anything else even further towards oblivion. And this sells cinema short.
If the truth be told, the audio-visual landscape of the 21st century is so volatile and measureless that anyone conscientiously working as an artist in it needs to keep on their toes as never before. Not in the sense of ‘keeping up’ with the new, but rather in constantly questioning the value of what they are doing against the vast quantity of moving images flooding the world and the unprecedented ease of creating them. Broadly speaking, we are no longer operating within a linear history of aesthetic development but are instead adrift in a flood of stylistic choices (or simulacra of them), which technology allows pretty much anyone to assume with facile, cavalier ease. We aren’t links in a chain of historical development but denizens of a later era rummaging in the boxes of bric-a-brac left over from that heroic time. This is not in itself necessarily a bad thing. However, if one still cares at all about cinema, it is evident that the responsibility of the filmmaker in this situation is enormous.
Today, it is up to every filmmaker worth their salt to reinvent cinema in their own image. Nothing short of that is sufficient. This reinvention does not take place in a void. The lessons of film history should be studied and assimilated because to exist in the world today is to be influenced by moving images, whether we like it or not. Studying the work of the masters allows us to navigate moving images critically and perceive them outside the context of what is generally fed to us in society. As a filmmaker, it is necessary to formulate your own sense of composition, colour, sound, and rhythm – a voice and a heartbeat that is entirely your own. You must also discover and explore a universe that is unique and personal to you, discarding the alibis of ‘content’ in favour of presenting the viewer with something that they can’t see anywhere else. It is necessary to cut into, or even straight through, reality to reveal the more profound insights into existence that only the tools and techniques of cinema can touch. To forge a cinematic language entirely of your own is enough to accomplish this; films should be born of a particular vision, a personal way of using sound and image. This should be the starting point of a film, and the film should then organically seek out its appropriate subject matter. It should not be used simply to cosmetically amplify or garnish an indifferent scenario.
It is paradoxical indeed that in a world where moving images are our constant companions, interest in their intrinsic powers and properties seems at an all-time low, at least beyond strictly utilitarian terms (usually ‘how can I use this to sell something?’). Rather than the miraculous constructs of sound and vision that they can be, they have become simply the least demanding methods of transmitting information that could be conveyed otherwise. Moving image makers and audiences have settled for a codified and superficial relationship dictated by an accepted approach to the ‘subject’. As a consequence, like the human brain, cinema, TV, gallery installations, internet videos, and all other forms of moving image work tend to chug along at less than 10% of their potential capacity. It seems that films are not generally allowed to directly confront the mystery and immensity of things that we have no way of quickly understanding, such as nature, animals, the cosmos, or our very existence, without trivialising them. Everything must be neatly reduced to bite-size portions of easily digestible information, a weak reflection of the world where ideas can be safely toyed with. Cinema’s vast experiential capacities are capable of so much more than this, but it seems that the majority of people don’t know how to look or listen with any greater sensitivity than students at a lecture absorbing facts.
So what should cinema be? I have always liked Nicole Brenez’s ideal definition of art as ‘a catastrophe’. Cinema should be a catastrophe in the way that life is, in the way that opening your eyes to the world every morning is. Personally, I like to define the cinematic experience as similar to what scientists predict falling into a black hole might be like. You are not only pulled apart but also crushed from below. When you look out of the black hole, you see every single thing that has fallen into it since its birth, rushing at you in a fraction of a second, crushing you into nothingness. Cinema itself is not a black hole. It is a human creation. But it can contain all galaxies and forms of life – even ones we can’t fully comprehend and can only sense.
A filmmaker does not have to have any intentions. They don’t have to have deep thought behind their films. They can only sometimes know what their vision and artwork mean, if ever. Such filmmakers always induce feelings, sensations and emotions in spectators. But what if, contrary to popular belief, one makes films to hide all intentions, erase all meanings and make everything invisible rather than reveal it? Not to describe anything but to poeticise everything.
Ideally, a film should be wordless, imageless and silent. But, the vast majority of the time, these can’t be possible. At least, I believe a film should not ‘mean’ but ‘be’.
As Robert Bresson said: “The cinema is immense. We haven’t done a thing.”
Ghosts and Methodologies
Jean Cocteau famously referred to cinema as “death at work,” and it is precisely this captivating aspect of the medium that I wish to explore in this discourse. Filmmaking is a ritual act, trapping images and re-arranging them to tap their inherent powers, then unleashing them in a concentrated form (the projection of this material into light).
I started making films in the year 2000. From the very first day, I thought of only one concept and that was the discovery of what cinema is in this new millennium. This question has pushed me to continuously experiment and investigate in the laboratory of my filmmaking.
The films one makes are nothing but the haunting shadows and light of the films that one has seen in the past. There is no original film apart from, of course, the very first ones by the medium’s pioneers.
In both my feature films and my ongoing short film series, Homo Sapiens Project, I have been formally experimenting with deconstructing film genres. I have radically minimalised genre elements, attaining what could be described as a ‘ground zero’ of drama through the systematic removal of narrative structures. This has resulted in a series of experimental films that foreground mood, atmosphere, visual rhythms, the nature and subjectivity of the image and the gaze that engenders it, the permeability of the borders between documentary and fiction, and the role of architecture and landscape as palimpsests of hidden histories.
All of this emerges in the ambiguous context surrounding the circumstances of the moment of shooting in contrast to what is assembled in editing. Each image is a single event, and cinema is a dialogue between will and reality. The editing process serves as both a post-mortem examination and preservation of lively, vibrant events captured on film. These moments, brimming with life, colour, and motion, are momentarily preserved within the frame. They are scrutinised, examined, explored, and then reassembled in order to become light, shape, and rhythm once again, but in the form of spectres among the living. This amounts to the idea of film as an ‘un-dead’ medium – any given moment refers to a ‘dead’ moment filmed in the past, yet it behaves as if it were ‘alive’ due to being replayed and edited.
According to Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, the idea that there is a clear line between documentary and fiction is not valid. In my own research and personal experiences, I have come to the conclusion that this distinction holds no real meaning. Once something is captured on film, it automatically becomes a work of fiction. Whether it is considered your fiction or my fiction depends solely on the perspective of the filmmaker. It is important to remember that the camera itself is always an integral part of the scene.
Raul Ruiz said, “In narrative cinema – and all cinema is narrative to some degree – it is the type of image produced that determines the narrative, not the reverse.”
The profound connection between ‘idea’, ‘form’ and ‘matter’ is the cornerstone of filmmaking. When you establish a distinct relationship between these components, the narrative, drama or story can be expressed in a concrete or fragmented manner.
The manifestation of things occurs once they attain a harmonious rhythm and shape. The physical form of the body is the catalyst for the emergence of the soul. The process begins with an idea, followed by materialization, culminating in attaining a definitive form.
In the process of creating a film, ideas are brought to life on paper or through the lived experiences of the filmmakers, capturing the immediacy of the moments. This involves the careful construction of the film followed by the meticulous work on its subject matter. In our work, we encounter a challenging matter that refuses to cooperate. However, it is within this opposition that our personal aesthetics emerge, allowing us to overcome this resistance. This process of working through the struggle between our ideas and the material gives birth to the final form.
Our films are born within ourselves, then die on paper or in the representational stage. They are resuscitated again by the living beings and natural objects we film, capture and record in the world around us, which are killed on film but placed in a particular order and projected on a screen, come to life again like dreams, visions and imaginations.
To my mind, the filmmaker should “be, not illustrate”. As Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet state:
“Cinema is not an illustrative or descriptive tool. You have to build images, and things have to exist within them. There are more and more filmmakers who show a thousand trees, and in the end, you feel as if you have not seen a single oak during the two hours. The image has to stand on its own, and the image is not something arbitrary. A finished image does not describe anything; it is its own entity; it does not describe.”
The commonly held view asserts that it’s virtually impossible to envisage a film without the foundational blueprint of a screenplay; the script, after all, remains firmly entrenched as the bedrock of the filmmaking process. Perceived as the comprehensive compendium of all visual and auditory elements, the paradox lies in the fact that within the confines of the paper, nothing is visually represented, nor is anything audibly conveyed. Granted, scriptwriting is undeniably an art form in its own right, yet it shouldn’t be considered as the sole avenue for creating films.
Every phase of film production should be an exploratory journey; it is not merely an exercise in visually representing a preconceived notion. From the initial spark of conception, through the meticulous crafting of the script, the careful selection of the cast, the exhaustive search for the perfect location, the thoughtful creation of costumes and set design, to the actual shooting of scenes, and finally, the diligent editing process and the harmonious integration of sound and music – each step in a filmmaker’s journey is akin to an archaeological dig. It is a process of continual uncovering, gently brushing away layers upon layers until the true essence of the film is laid bare.
The filmmaker invariably engages with some iteration of a script, which could either be formally penned or exist only as an unwritten concept. These scripts may reside within our collective memories and subconscious, subtly influencing the narrative. At times, these scripts mirror the conventional structure of a screenplay, complete with detailed scene descriptions and riveting dialogue. Alternatively, they can take the form of simple lists, evocative poetry, or visually compelling booklets brimming with images. Yet, in certain instances, these scripts are an enigma, a void – they are absolutely nothing.
Each script is unequivocally unique; every film necessitates a fresh framework and an innovative methodology for its approach.
Indeed, it is not strictly mandatory to commence with a script. However, more often than not, if you opt to utilise one, the script serves as the preliminary phase of inquiry and exploration. In the absence of such a script, the process of investigation and discovery is embarked upon directly.
A filmmaker should refrain from developing an undue sense of attachment towards the script. It is essential to understand that a script, contrary to popular belief, is not an exact blueprint for the final product. Furthermore, its role significantly differs from that of a screenplay in industrial film production. The processes of writing, filming, and editing, though distinct in their execution, share a common approach. They each tap into varying cognitive and physical abilities, yet the fundamental process – the discovery of ideas, experimentation with these concepts, and exploration of their potential – remains a consistent thread throughout this creative journey.
As Jean-Luc Godard expressed in an interview:
“The ideas come gradually, and there is no screenplay. In the beginning, I thought we had to have a screenplay. And then I realised that the screenplay came not only after shooting, but after editing”.
Drawing from the discourse I have presented and taking into account the proclamation made by Jean-Luc Godard, I wish to assert that in this distinct style of filmmaking, the scripts invariably materialize at the terminus and end of each film’s creative journey. They make their appearance when it’s admittedly too late, and their necessity has diminished significantly to nothingness. These cinematic creations now wander the world, having been emancipated from our influence.
The Films That Only You Can Make
I approach all formats, devices, and cameras—including celluloid and video—with an egalitarian perspective, devoid of any sentimental bias. Filmmakers of the 21st century employ any image recording apparatus at their disposal to create their cinematic creations. As Orson Welles famously articulated, “a film is never truly exceptional unless the camera serves as an eye in the head of a poet”. The essence of cinema is intrinsically tied to the technology of its era, and the nature of this prevailing technology inherently dictates the methods employed in film creation and projection. The digital realm represents the technological zeitgeist of our time, and it is incumbent upon filmmakers to fully embrace this digital medium as an expressive tool to propel the evolution of cinema. While cinema offers a retrospective lens, it is equally a portal into the future.
My films are a visual odyssey, a symphony of images and their progression. When sound or music is introduced, they morph into a harmonious interplay between auditory sensation and visual spectacle. Cinema itself is always the central theme, seamlessly fusing my biological instincts with my chosen subjects. My relationship with cinema is symbiotic—I experiment with its boundaries while simultaneously allowing it to experiment with me. I don’t necessarily strive to push its limits, as I am of the belief that the boundaries of cinema have already been transcended by Structuralist filmmakers such as Paul Sharits or in the early cinematic works of Philippe Garrel. It’s a threshold you simply cannot surpass. However, if a filmmaker’s experimental ventures are genuinely reflective of their perception and personality, then the medium’s potentialities are ceaselessly rejuvenated.
“Every film has been made. But the energy persists and the images keep moving, moving in darkness, ceaselessly linking the body and the night in a multitude of shifting rhythms” (Maximilian Le Cain).
Irrespective of whether a film navigates beyond or within the commercial boundaries of cinema, it must consistently engage its audience with daring audacity and unwavering respect. When you allow yourself to succumb to the allure of a film and immerse yourself in its narrative, in that encapsulated moment, you may discover a sense of fulfilment arising from the curiosity and emotions it has adeptly incited. However, when the house lights abruptly shatter the illusion, restoring reality’s glare, the euphoric buzz and emotional fireworks are rapidly snuffed out, and any residual sentimentality evaporates instantaneously. To resort to the everyday phrase and declare the film as ‘over’ would be to understate the reality severely; the cinematic experience has reached its definitive conclusion, its existence eradicated, and its impact terminated. Beyond the final frame, there is nothing but an echoing void. Your human emotions were systematically triggered, and your intellectual capacity was subtly undermined; you were, in essence, held captive in a state of suspended animation, manipulated on both a physical and intellectual level.
Films that merely take their viewers for granted, failing to engage them in a meaningful way, are not deserving of even a fragment of your time. On the surface, they merely represent a linear and rudimentary chart constructed on the shaky pillars of sentimentality. You navigate through orchestrated highs and lows at calculated intervals, eliminating any possible transcendental dialogue between you, the viewer, and the film itself. Employing an onslaught of visuals, score, and script, these films bombard you with identical information on three distinct fronts, effectively holding your emotions hostage. When the house lights finally illuminate, the film relinquishes its hold, leaving behind an experience from which nothing of value can be obtained. It is an act of complete disposability. Films should respect their viewers as intellectual entities rather than persistently striving to manipulate and emotionally commandeer them. The capabilities and potential of the audience are as vast, boundless, and unexplored as the ocean’s depths.
In the expansive realm of cinema, many films are being discovered each day, with an even more significant number yet in the stages of creation. However, the films that genuinely warrant your investment of time are the ones whose narratives initiate their real journey not only within the darkened theatre but also after you’ve stepped back into the world outside. These are the films that accompany you through life’s path, evolving and maturing with you each day, becoming an enduring part of your own personal narrative. In the long run, these remarkable films possess such profound influence and lasting impact that they will continue to resonate long after your own life’s story has ended.
The most prevalent form of populist art often unjustly assumes the intellectual capacity and sensory perception of its audience. It’s genuinely disconcerting, even alarming, to witness the manipulation of an audience’s capabilities and knowledge as their existing understanding is contorted into the vacuous echo of a purportedly ‘new’ experience. This act can be perceived as deceptive, perhaps even abusive. In my perspective, it would be far more rewarding to invert this process, to usher the audience into an environment that is utterly unfamiliar, potentially hostile, and fraught with uncertainty. The audience should be allowed to navigate this uncharted territory without guidance, tasked with the challenge of finding their own path back to a ‘comfort zone’ – if indeed they are able to locate it.
As a filmmaker, during the process of creation and editing within the confines of my home, I am perpetually consumed by thoughts of the grand silver screen, envisioning the playback unfolding in a bona fide theatrical cinema. This vision shapes my aesthetic sensibilities and sets the parameters for my work, all of which are crafted for an ideal, traditional screening context – a dimly lit space furnished with comfortable seating. However, once the film reaches completion, and I am thrust back into the stark reality of screening possibilities, it soon becomes apparent that the options available are exceedingly limited, seldom including the opportunity to screen in an actual cinema. Consequently, one must adapt and consider alternative venues such as gallery spaces, art venues, or even intimate underground locations. Most of these potential venues, unfortunately, only offer elementary setup options. In essence, to ensure your film reaches an audience, compromise becomes an inevitable part of the process.
On a personal note, I have never derived pleasure or satisfaction from screenings that involve compromise. This sentiment stems from fundamental technical issues that have genuinely unsettled me. There are invariably minor problems that I could have amended, given the opportunity. These issues range from poor sound quality, improperly adjusted aspect ratios, and cropped images to unbalanced colour schemes, among others. While these flaws may not necessarily spoil the screening experience for the audience – who might still thoroughly appreciate the film despite these conditions – it is essential for me to acknowledge my own perspective. Instead of obsessing over rectifying these errors and oversights, I’ve evolved over time, transforming these perceived shortcomings into peculiar aesthetics that now inherently characterise my films. Consequently, I arm my films with a resilience born from past unsatisfactory projections, preparing them for relatively ideal future screenings. Thus, the mistakes, errors, faults, and flaws of the past metamorphose into the unique aesthetic of my future films.
And as the great Josef von Sternberg said:
“I don’t have the same reaction to pictures that you have. I view a picture like a surgeon views an operation. If an operation is good and the patient dies, that’s too bad. But the operation is what appeals to me.”
Indeed, I now find myself questioning the validity of concepts like experimental and avant-garde filmmaking. These terms have lost their significance for me. When I first embarked on my journey into filmmaking, I didn’t set out with a predetermined label in mind – be it an experimental filmmaker, a storyteller, or any specific type of filmmaker. Instead, I allowed my instincts to guide me, acquiring knowledge through an intuitive process. This approach has facilitated my steady evolution as a filmmaker, a transformation that continues to this day.
Ultimately, I’ve come to understand that the films I create are the only kind I can genuinely produce. Even if I desired to alter this, it’s not within my power to do so. My creative process is not a matter of choice. My thoughts and ideas naturally align with experimental cinema, but this doesn’t imply that I endorse all aspects associated with this genre. I am infatuated with cinema as a unified entity, drawing inspiration from fragments, nuances, and aesthetic elements across its vast history. My creative allegiance lies with the entirety of cinema rather than being confined to just experimental cinema.
From my perspective, one is always presented with two paths: one is a well-trodden track, shaped by time and frequented by many travellers, while the other path remains uncharted, shrouded in mystery. I invariably opt for the latter. Guided by instinct, I am committed to crafting films using the technologies of my era, striving to gain complete mastery over them, with the ultimate goal of showcasing the cinema of the future. Cinema is undergoing a radical transformation, and I firmly believe that a plethora of opportunities will unfold by creating the films that only you can envision.
The creation of cinema is, in part, a technical work that necessitates considerable expertise to realise any accomplishment, regardless of its magnitude. The skill involved can be categorised into two distinct territories: the first being the industry sector that manufactures commercial products, and the second being the personal artistry that gives rise to art-house or experimental cinema. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that both methodologies are fundamentally technical undertakings that depend on each other for advancing the medium. In this symbiosis, the progression of cinematic art is assured, fostering a rich and diverse landscape of filmmaking.
I feel compelled to assert that, through my observations and experiences, I have arrived at the conclusion that the skills and crafts intrinsic to the film industry are inherently technical and systematic, making them relatively straightforward to acquire. These skills can be honed through a combination of rigorous academic study and practical, hands-on experience, mirroring the industrial and commercial aspects of filmmaking. The process of mastering these skills is reflective of the methodical and labour-intensive nature of the industry, underscoring the blend of craftsmanship and mechanics that define contemporary cinema.
Contrastingly and somewhat intriguingly, I have learned that the personal and lyrical crafts intrinsic to the artistic practice of filmmaking cannot simply be transferred or taught. These skills originate and materialize from a profound contemplation of life and art, a poetic and philosophical immersion into their very essence. Such skills evolve exceptionally slowly, often over an extended period, and it is solely up to the artist to envision and bring them to life from the depths of their own mind, biological makeup, and lifestyle. The development of these skills necessitates navigating a series of intricately complex, experiential internal processes. These processes, often challenging and time-consuming, ultimately manifest in the tangible world through the unique aesthetic lens of the filmmaker, serving as a testament to their personal artistic journey.
It is for this reason that I ultimately decided to abandon the teaching of technical skills and crafts to my students. I have completely phased out such methodologies from the core of my instructional discourse. Instead, I now approach the teaching of cinema as a series of poetic dialogues and shared experiences. The most influential educators in my life were those who encouraged active listening, helping me truly comprehend my own thoughts and ideas. Inspired by these mentors, I have adopted the same technique in my teaching style, aiming to serve as a reflective mirror for my students. In our discussions about filmmaking, I consistently pose questions that encourage introspection. As they grapple with these queries, their responses bounce off the metaphorical mirror, and my ultimate goal is to alter the perception and conceptual existence of this reflective surface. In this way, the ideas we explore together are born from the space between us, a collaborative effort that fosters a deeper understanding of the art of cinema.
A significant issue plaguing the cinematic world in this digital era is the overreliance of filmmakers on readily available technology, often leading to a compromise on aesthetic quality instead of developing their own unique techniques. The creation of a truly impactful film requires far more than just procuring a high-quality digital cinema camera and a laptop. It entails a deeper understanding of the craft, going beyond the superficial aspects of filmmaking. Moreover, a lack of knowledge or proficiency in these techniques cannot be excused by loosely branding one’s film as ‘indie’ or ‘independent’, terms that have increasingly lost their significance in contemporary times. Cinema, at its heart, is an art form rooted in the imaginative application of engineering and poetic science, a realm that needs constant exploration and pushing of boundaries to achieve its full potential.
One of the most glaring shortcomings in the sphere of art, particularly in cinema, is its recurrent tendency to pacify audiences by enforcing an artificial order upon reality. This is typically founded on a fabricated sense of understanding, resolution, and closure that invites collective indulgence. However, it’s crucial to remember that our world is fundamentally a construct manufactured from patterns our brains have deciphered from sensory experiences. Therefore, for each of us, reality is a subjective entity moulded by individual perception and interpretation. One of the remarkable virtues of cinema is its ability to emulate this personal process, thereby offering others a glimpse into a world that is self-reliant and autonomous. On one side, we can perceive another’s experience as if it were our own; on the flip side, these impressions, like everything else, are inevitably sieved through our own perception. This situates a filmmaker viewing their own film in a particularly strange and somewhat intimidating position: they are outsiders observing what has sprung from their own creative impulses.
The impetus to create is a fundamental human instinct. It may originate from the desire to communicate and share experiences, or it could be driven by a compulsion to disrupt or even annihilate existing norms. If this creative impulse can be sufficiently restrained and navigated through the intricate demands of mass consumption and then moulded into a falsely reassuring pattern of conclusiveness, it may be widely accepted and celebrated. However, if this creative urge is allowed to manifest on screen in its rawest, most personal form, it has the potential to unsettle or confound mainstream perceptions, leading to its likely dismissal. The fear of venturing into perceptually uncharted territories might result in some of the more conventional films being remembered while others that push boundaries are suppressed or consigned to oblivion.
But, as Karl Marx says:
“All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, and all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into the air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
The principles of conclusion, resolution, and understanding often serve as effective shields against widespread despair and disillusionment in life. This is possibly because they offer the illusion of control, providing a facade of order, logical structure and rationality to our existence. However, the experience of cinema is deeply rooted in an intensely sensory, dreamlike, and primal human condition akin to ‘sleeping and dreaming’. This implies that its very purpose is to delve into the unsettling nature of disarray and illuminate the untamed oddities of existence. As a natural reflex, most individuals will instinctively resist films that portray this reality too starkly and, characteristic of our unique species, attempt to suppress them. Yet, the creative impulse that fuels these films will persist.
–Rouzbeh Rashidi / Content Revised: Updated and revised as of November 2023.
(Special thanks to Maximilian Le Cain)