Interview with Laura Waddington by Olaf Möller
OLAF MÖLLER: How did you actually get interested in cinema? How did your first films happen?
LAURA WADDINGTON: When I was growing up in London, I didn’t realise anything except Hollywood films existed. It was filmmakers who first got me interested in cinema rather than actual films. My father has a gallery. He’d sell paintings to all kinds of people and from a young age I’d go to eat with some of them. One evening we ate dinner with Sam Peckinpah. It’s one of the strongest memories of my childhood. Sam Peckinpah made a joke to one of the waiter’s in Chinese, which caused the waiter to storm out. I’ve never forgotten the mixture of sadism and extreme gentleness in Peckinpah’s eyes and how he talked of the desert and a film set. It was years before I got to see his films, which I think are some of the most beautiful ever made.
Later, Derek Jarman came to our school. Instead of sitting behind the desk, he sat on top of it and swinging his legs, talked with such enthusiasm and simplicity about making films. He created in my mind the idea that cinema did not have to be part of a huge commercial machinery but that it could be something personal and free. I wanted to go to film school but was too young so studied English literature at Cambridge University. After a few weeks, I stopped going to classes. There was a local art cinema and I started going almost everyday. I randomly discovered Murnau, Tarkovsky, Jack Smith, Vigo, Jean Genet. For the next three years I sat in the cinema and read books in the library. I decided I should try and make films as quickly as possible so when I was when 21, I left to New York. I worked on. independent films. I shot my first film The Visitor with friends in a in a hotel room in a weekend.
OM: Why did you change from film to video — besides economics (which is usually just another way of saying, My vision doesn’t fit into this particular economic system…)?
LW: In New York I met electronic musicians who were producing and distributing music out of their apartments. They were circumventing the traditional production structures and this really impressed me. I had the feeling film would eventually move in this direction and that I should start using video. At that time, there was still a lot of snobbery about video. It wasn’t considered a credible alternative to film. At first I found video difficult to work with, I’d been working with black and white 16mm film, which abstracts things. The video image felt very immediate, like television. But I loved the freedom of being able to work alone with a small camera. I found there was room for chance and that the videos were often a sum of their accidents. In this sense, I can say video totally changed my way of filmmaking. With my films, I was imposing a pre-written story: making fictions, shot in enclosed spaces. The videos are experiments and evolve out of things discovered along the way.
OM: You shot “ZONE” with a spy cam. Strange question maybe, but: In how far was your life influenced by the presence of this tool, did it make you walk ways you wouldn’t have otherwise?
LW: At first I kept viewing video in terms of film, like a poor relation. I thought I had to find a way to make it my own. So I made the decision to film without using my eyes in order to completely unlearn. I hoped that if I worked in this way when I came back to using a normal video camera it would be like filming for the first time. I bought a spy camera and sewed it into a Turkish waistcoat. The waistcoat was covered in small circular mirrors and I removed one of the mirrors and put the camera in its place. Then I boarded a cruise ship, crossing the Atlantic. On the ship I had no way of seeing what I was filming and had to learn to trust the movement of my body. After a while I realised the angle wasn’t good – the camera was sloping upwards so I had to adopt a very strange walk, my shoulders hunched over.
OM: Are you more somebody who finds or somebody who looks for something?
LW: I often don’t understand what I’m doing or where I’m going. When I make a video it’s very difficult for me to put into words what it will be. This creates a problem for getting production funds. I work instinctively and the process is as important to me as the result – the meetings, friendships, and accidents that happen along the way. By the time I find something, I’m already looking for something else.
OM: Could you talk a little about the way you created the images for “The Lost Days”, the necessities behind it?
LW: After making ZONE, I wrote The Lost Days, which is a story about a woman travelling around the world, sending back video letters to a friend in New York. I was living illegally in the States so couldn’t travel. I decided to search for people in 15 countries over the internet and to ask them to videotape their cities for me, as if they were the woman in my story. My aim was to refilm and bring together all these images so that a person watching the completed video would believe they were watching one person’s journey. The footage I received was very diverse. Some people filmed two hours of footage; others ten or fifteen and some had filming experience, while others had never used a camera before. There were also technical constraints: as people had filmed all over the world some people had recorded in the European system PAL and others in the American/Japanese video system NTSC. I bought a lot of old video equipment and set about filming and refilming the images off TV screens, passing them through colour correctors, refilming again and again. Finally the video reached a point where the images were so broken up that the difference in video system no longer mattered and slowly the footage began to give the impression it had all been filmed by one person.
OM: And am I mistaken that on occasions the images one sees are not from the location suggested by the voice?
LW: Yes. The images don’t always correspond with the countries the narrator mentions. For example she talks of her memories of her childhood in Argentina over shots of Milan and Moscow or speaks of a visit to La Paz over images of China. At one point there are faces of men in a bus in Datong, while she talks about watching “Johnny Guitar” in a cinema in Paris. I wanted the countries to merge into one in this way because for me it is a story about a woman who passes through places without really understanding them. It is my fear about travelling – the idea that one can end up just imposing one’s preconceptions on a place, finding only the things one wants to find, not taking the time to really look. In that sense the word “lost” in the title also refers to her.
OM: Did you, in the times of “The Lost Days” and “ZONE” when you were working with ‘quasi-aleatorically arrived-at’ pictures, ever consider to stop shooting at all and work only with other peoples’ images?
LW: During those few years I didn’t shoot any of my own images. The only time I used a camera was to shoot commissions for people, for example videos for choreographers, fashion and art people or to refilm images in the way I’ve described for ZONE and The Lost Days. The whole process of making those films and my decision to not to shoot during those years was a very definite choice. When I first started shooting video, I was constantly comparing it to film. My hope was that if I didn’t shoot for a few years; when I finally started to shoot again if would be like filming for the first time. I hoped then I’d stop comparing video to film and accept it for what it is. And that’s what happened when I started shooting again for CARGO and Border. I came to love video for being a kind of writing.
OM: Is there maybe a kind of safety in other peoples’ gazes — and was there some kind of sense of danger that made you look through a viewfinder again?
LW: Actually, it was very frustrating and difficult to not film for so long. But I am afraid of filming. For me to film someone is an enormous responsibility. Because I don’t believe a camera just captures the surface but also something underneath. And that’s very sensitive and intimate. I think a camera has the potential to be something very violent.
OM: Why did you feel the need to talk about love and desire in all of your works save for “Border”?
LW: While I was making ZONE and The Lost Days, I didn’t have any idea of what the final narrative would be. During the editing process, I just concentrated on creating a sort of line or trajectory, a kind a movement through the space. It was only after I’d found this form that I wrote the voice-overs. With retrospect, I feel the love element in the voice-overs was a mistake. The images and my editing were experiments. In the voice-overs, I think I was imposing a sort of preconceived idea of what I felt cinema should be or what I wished my films could be. It feels a bit like a stepping back or pulling away, instead of exploring what was in front of me.
With CARGO, I wanted to make something between documentary and fiction. It was very important for me that the audience question the veracity of the narrative. I purposely included certain contradictions in the voice over; for instance at the beginning I say that I did not speak all summer but later it becomes obvious this cannot be true. CARGO is spoken in the form of a letter to a man in Paris. But during the video this form becomes almost redundant. In the last lines, I speak of a phone call I received from one of the sailors. For me the pull of the sailor and the people I’d filmed had become stronger than my interest in writing to that man. At the end I explain “I never got round to telling you where I’d been” After CARGO, I realised the letter form no longer fitted and that I had to find a new way.
After, with Border I had the constant feeling I couldn’t communicate what I’d seen in Sangatte. I knew it was impossible for me to speak from the point of view of the refugees. All I could do was speak about what it is to come from a society that allowed this situation to happen. I knew I could only leave a very small and incomplete trace. I think Border is a video full of loneliness, and one in which I am mistrustful of my own attempt to speak. In the voice over, I tried to say very little and to talk in an understated way, in the hope the audience would keep in their minds, the incompleteness of the picture I gave. In the last moments of the video, the camera freezes on some car headlights and I address one of the refugees directly. I wanted, by doing this, to turn the narrative on its head. The refugee who I address had, in fact, one day written to me to explain that, for certain reasons, when we were in Sangatte, he had had to lie to me about his life. There was the feeling things were much more complicated than I could comprehend.
OM: Looked at today there’s a very clear sense of progression in your work —did it feel for you like this when you made it, or would you say that this sense of order was something you were looking for in your life?
LW: I don’t really ever know where I’m going but later when I look back at the work, I realise each film or video grew out of the one before. Somewhere in the making of a previous video, a new one starts to emerge, even if it takes me a while to recognise that. It often springs from something very small, a person I meet while I’m shooting, a face, a story. I can’t really impose it. It’s like with filming – it’s often just a process of waiting to understand, letting it suggest itself.
Interview with Laura Waddington by Olaf Möller, The 51st Pesaro International Film Festival Catalogue, Italy, 2005