13 Feb 2015

Experimental Film Society Statement

Experimental Film Society Statement (Part 1)

Jean Cocteau called cinema ‘death at work’, and it is this aspect of the medium that I am chiefly concerned with here. Filmmaking itself becomes a ritual act, trapping images, re-arranging them (montage) to tap their inherent powers and then unleashing them in this concentrated form (the projection of this material into light).

I happened to start making films at the beginning of the millennium, 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 era. 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, except for the very first ones by the medium’s pioneers.

In both my feature films and my on-going short film series, “Homo Sapiens Project”, I have been formally experimenting with deconstructing and decomposing 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. What this has achieved is 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 palimpsest 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. As Donal Foreman says “each image is a single event” and “cinema is a dialogue between will and reality”. In this way the edit is also part autopsy, and the series of filmed events full of life, colour and movement lie frozen in the frame, dormant. They are scrutinised, examined, explored then reassembled soon to become light, shape and rhythm once again but as spectres among the living. This amounts to the idea of film as an ‘undead’ medium- any given moment refers to a ‘dead’ moment filmed in the past, yet behaves as if ‘alive’ due to being replayed and edited.

Godard/Gorin once stated that the distinction between documentary and fiction is false, however I would go with Donal Foreman’s suggestion that the distinction between documentary and fiction is meaningless. Once something is filmed it becomes a fiction, whether it is your fiction or my fiction depends on where you put the camera; “the camera is always part of the scene” (Foreman)

Raul Ruiz said that “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.”

‘Form’ in my view, is the most important and vital part of the 7th art. When you conceive a unique form, the narrative, drama or story can be articulated with it. Or you can simply have the form itself, which is amazingly expressive in its own right.

To my mind the filmmaker should, as Foreman said, “be, not illustrate”.

“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 you have not seen a single oak during the two hours. Image has to stand on its own, the image is not something arbitrary. A finished image does not describe anything, it is its own entity, it does not describe.” – Jean Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet

It is widely believed to be impossible to envision a film without a screenplay; the script is still secured as the cornerstone of filmmaking. It is thought of as the collected information of all that is seen and heard; but nothing is seen, nothing is heard. Of course scriptwriting is an art unto itself but it has very little to do with filmmaking. One mysterious synopsis is enough to make an entire feature length film. Mysteries can be preserved while petty details are dispensed with, exciting and activating the mind. For example this synopsis for Bela Tarr’s “Kárhozat” (1988)

“A penniless drifter’s relationship with a nightclub singer is put under strain when he offers the woman’s husband a smuggling job.”

And as Godard expressed recently in an interview: “…the ideas come gradually, and there is no screenplay. At 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”.

The most enjoyable part in cinema, apart from watching films from the history of cinema, is the actual craft of filmmaking, shooting/gathering the material and editing/montage, both heavily technical processes. After that there is a feeling of loss and nostalgia, each film when it’s done is an absolute death although the film behaves as if it is alive. That is why cinema is all about ghosts and shadows in my view. In this process, if you are lucky, you may find great collaborators and as a result of this you don’t have to endure this feeling alone. Everything else is waste of time for me!

We, at EFS, treat all formats, devices, and cameras, including celluloid and video, as equal and don’t have any sentimental attachment to them. The 21st century filmmaker uses any image-recording device to make his/her film and as Orson Welles said “a film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet”. Cinema is 100% reliant on the technology of its time and the way in which you make films and screen them is entirely up to the nature of that technology. Technology of our time is digital and many filmmakers must embrace it fully in order to express themselves and advance cinema. As much as cinema is about the past, it is about the future too.

Our films are about images and the progression of images. When there’s sound or music, they’re about the interaction of sound and image. Cinema itself is always the subject, experimenting with its forms. Not necessarily pushing its limits, because I believe the limits of cinema have already been reached by Structuralist filmmakers like Sharits, or by Garrel’s early films, for instance. You can’t go beyond that. But if a filmmaker’s experiments are true to his or her perception and personality, the medium’s possibilities are constantly renewed.

“… in a time when 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

Rouzbeh Rashidi – May 2014 (Special thanks to Dean Kavanagh & Maximilian Le Cain)

Experimental Film Society Statement (Part 2)

I recently took part in a Q&A session following screenings of films that I curated from the EFS (Experimental Film Society) archive. The programmes consisted of short films by a number of EFS filmmakers and a feature film of my own and both played to packed houses.  While the overall feedback was very positive, there were two harsh and challenging comments that really got under my skin. I responded to them briefly and politely, not lingering on them unduly so as to keep the Q&A flowing. But in the weeks since, I have given them a great deal of thought and discussed them at length with my colleagues Dean Kavanagh and Maximilian Le Cain. What follows is the considered response that I have formulated.

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 due to the fact that 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 not just 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 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 he or she is 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 he or she 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 pure 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’.

Making these films is a process of freely exploring one’s own often strange and disconcerting perceptual reactions to existing in a world that appears more and more mysterious and unstable the more one looks at it. A world that we largely perceive through sight, sound and the medium of an individual sensibility. The techniques of cinema, therefore, are ideally and uniquely 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 territory results in a profound research into the capacities, mysteries and limitations of cinema itself. The filmmaker uses cinema and cinema uses the filmmaker’s unique sensibility each to probe the nature of the other. Each goads the other on, each pushing the perceptual boundaries of the other, each 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 vision that is truly unique. A vision that is as frail and delicate as any person, and sometimes as aggressive and enigmatic as well.

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 remains conscious of his or her 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. Therefore, the film can become as much about the viewer as the filmmaker.    

A strong audience can not only enrich but actually alter the film. These are films that can only be concluded in the viewer’s mind, not on the screen. 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, both 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 we can communicate, viewer and filmmaker both on an equal level (albeit admittedly within terms set by the filmmaker). And what we are trying to communicate is something ineffable 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 obvious as to be almost not worth mentioning. To pitch EFS against Hollywood is redundantly quixotic. Today, with everyone making films and moving image equipment of one sort or another 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, and which perhaps 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 consumers of these traditions 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 into oblivion. And this sells cinema short.

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 as 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 adrift in a flood of stylistic choices (or simulacra of same) which technology allows pretty much anyone to assume with facile, cavalier ease. We aren’t links in a chain of historical development now. We are 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 but, if one still cares at all about cinema, it is obvious that the responsibility in this situation is enormous.

Today, it is up to each filmmaker worth his or her salt to reinvent cinema in his or her 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 he or she can’t see anywhere else. It is necessary to cut into or even straight through reality to reveal the deeper 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, which 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 – normally ‘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 ‘subject’. In 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 films are not generally allowed to directly confront the mystery and immensity of things that we have no way of easily 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 the majority of people don’t know how to look or listen with any greater sensitivity than students at a lecture absorbing facts. As a Spanish film scholar recently said in conversation: “The truth is most people actually hate cinema”.

A Facebook friend of mine (Daniel Fawcett) put his finger on the problem with this reaction to the art world, one that holds equally true for any area of tepid moving image creation and consumption:

“The despicable state of the art world summarised here in a comment:

“He’s a really compelling filmmaker. I’ve noticed that when his films are shown in galleries people will sit through 45 minutes and no one will leave.”

Is that really the best that can be said about a winning piece of artwork, that people sit through it? Artists, galleries, art schools and critics are participating in crushing the creative spirit. Do artists no longer aspire to create great work, to truly experiment and make works with their whole being rather than all this pseudo-intellectual passionless dross? Nobody seems to take risks anymore, art should aspire to expand our consciousness and to reach beyond our current limitations not just get us a pat on the back and dinner invitations from art world chums. As Campbell said in his acceptance speech “the opinions of the people on the jury matter a great deal” so that’s what it’s all about folks!”

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 on the world every morning is. Personally, I like to define the cinematic experience as something similar to what some scientists predict death by falling into a black hole could be like. When you fall in, 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 even 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 but can only sense.

As Robert Bresson said: “I believe in cinema”.

·       Written by Maximilian Le Cain, Dean Kavanagh & Rouzbeh Rashidi (January 2015)