"Without DV My Work Would Be Unthinkable"
By Peter Kremski
Extract p. 87-100 of longer interview
Translated into English from the German
At the origin of this text, was a several hour long interview that Peter Kremski conducted with me for a documentary on ARTE TV (France/Germany), comprising interviews with eleven filmmakers about making short films. The recorded interviews were later transcribed and translated into German, where necessary, to create the book, “Überraschende Begegnungen der kurzen Art”. Not being aware of the book’s existence until it was complete, I did not have a chance to review and edit the transcript of the recorded interview, at the time (as would normally happen when converting a filmed interview into print). The interview below has therefore undergone two translations, firstly into German during the making of the book and then back into English. It has been moderately edited after the fact, with a few explanations added post interview (mostly in parentheses) and slightly differs from the German print version and the original English spoken interview. (LW)
PETER KREMSKI: What is your relationship to short film?
LAURA WADDINGTON: I don’t set out to make short films. Both CARGO and my other films were supposed to be longer films but during the editing process they got shorter and shorter, and they ended up being short. CARGO which I completed in 2001, is thirty minutes long. It doesn’t matter to me whether a film is long or short. Its duration should be exactly what the story requires.
Do short films have a different structure?
LAURA WADDINGTON: The short films that I like are extremely simple and have a certain purity about them. They tend to take up an idea and remain very focused on that thread. In general, they are completely poetic or very comic. I think that is the inherent power of short film. If those particular films were any longer in duration, they wouldn’t work because they would need more variety within them, in the same way that a novel cannot be restricted only to a single tempo or theme. With a short film, it works, and it can be very beautiful.
People often associate short film with something experimental.
LAURA WADDINGTON: It’s easier to experiment when you are not dependent on a large budget and don’t have to communicate with producers, at every stage, about what you are doing. And audiences are generally not willing to watch a director experimenting for two hours but when a film is only twenty minutes long, they are much more open-minded to it. When I make a short film, I have the impression that I can really do exactly what I want to do. A longer film demands that a director make more concessions to the audience.
Would you allow the term experimental film for (your film) CARGO?
LAURA WADDINGTON: I don’t think it fits CARGO very well. Perhaps my resistance comes from certain connotations around the word, because the expression is often used in a pejorative way and some people call a film “experimental” just because they find it too slow. At the same time, I think that every good filmmaker experiments, whether he or she is making Hollywood films or structuralist films. Art always presupposes the search for something and therefore experimentation.
How would you characterize your film then?
LAURA WADDINGTON: I find it hard to fit it into a category, To me, it’s a video document. I went somewhere and documented what I saw. But it doesn’t follow that CARGO is a documentary, it blurs a line between documentary and something else. Some people have tried to attach the label “personal video” to it. In my own case, when someone asks me what I’ve been making, I just say: “I went on a cargo ship and I made a video.”
Could you have shot CARGO on film?
LAURA WADDINGTON: It would have been completely impossible because of the situation on board and the fact that the sailors didn’t want to be filmed (a priori). That this film was able to come about and that the sailors’ potential resistance to the presence of a camera, on board, was quickly overcome, is largely due to the fact that I, the filmmaker, am a woman. They told me it was okay because they didn’t believe that a woman would ever manage to make a film about them. I only had a small, prosumer camera with me, the type of video camera that was already familiar to them because it’s the kind of camera that many tourists use (and this added to their impression that I was a sort of amateur and different to a man with a camera). It allowed me to penetrate their world and to live with them and film them as I wished. If I had arrived on board with a large 35mm or 16mm camera and a crew, the film as it exists today would not have been possible.
It’s interesting that you use the term “penetrate.”
LAURA WADDINGTON: I regret saying it because I realise that it can be interpreted in all sorts of ways. Yet, the term does apply here. I was an intruder in their world and I felt that I was, to a certain extent, manipulating the space that I entered into because I was aware that men had already tried to film on other cargo ships but had not managed to get the accord of the sailors and had been forced to disembark. But in my case because the sailors didn’t believe a woman was capable of shooting a film, I was able to film, I didn’t have to run away.
Living as a woman in such an exclusively male world, can hardly have been easy
LAURA WADDINGTON: In such an intense all-male environment macho games, competition and hierarchical struggles are normal. As a woman, you are lucky enough to be able to enter into a different dynamic, and you are treated as something else . Precisely because of the absence of women in their world, and because some of the sailors had not laid eyes on a woman for many months, they were happy to be able to talk to me. I was an outsider, for sure, but I was an outsider who they wanted to be there. Naturally, there was tension, and it was difficult for me at times because I was the only woman amongst so many men. It wasn’t just the thirty men on board. Sometimes we got stuck in a port for several days, including one to which we returned twice where there were seven hundred men. They were military ports (that were closed to the public) and that was a much more extreme situation.
To what extent did you have already have a vague concept of what the film would look like?
LAURA WADDINGTON: The film was a commission of the International Film Festival Rotterdam called ‘On the Waterfront’ and the aim was that each one of the ten filmmakers invited to participate in the project, shoot a film in a port of their choosing, using digital video. I had no idea what I would film but there is always an image that I have in my mind when I set out to make something. It’s always a very powerful image that gets me moving, and in this case, it was the image of a sailor at night on a ship surrounded by the sea. And I found that image, there on the ship.
However, once I am in the location, I don’t want to follow any preconceived ideas, I don’t want to move around on the ship with the aim of catching something specific or in search of a certain visual style. I did nothing but live there and film incessantly – for a period of about six weeks. For the first few weeks I thought I would return home with nothing useful at all, because the sailors were constantly fooling around in my presence. They found it difficult to simply ignore me and to leave me the quiet moments that I was looking for, to film with a certain distance and concentration. This only began to change when we got to Syria. There, the mood became tense due to the difficult political and practical situation in the Syrian ports (and the captain warned me that if the Syrian port authorities discovered that there was a filmmaker on board, I would be arrested and the ship would have to set sail without me, so I was instructed to hide and the sailors, who hated being in the country because of their past experiences there, became focused uniquely on getting their work done and getting out of there). Only then, did I start to get closer to the kind of thing I was looking for. I started to feel that I was getting to something, without being able to say exactly what that was.
After, when I return home, I start to reduce the material and I keep refining down until I arrive at a certain way of dealing with and perceiving the images. In the end, what remains is what I was originally looking for at the onset without having understood what I was searching for.
So for you, the sailors’ world already had something of a dream world quality about it, at the origin of the film?
LAURA WADDINGTON: Not exclusively a dream world. I already had quite a bit of experience of travelling by sea and encountering seamen because of my fear of flying. When I travel from Europe to America, for example, I make the journey by ship. In the process, I have met many Filipino seamen. That’s where the real motivation for this film came from – a political motivation, but political in a very personal sense. I was quite upset about the situation of the Filipino sailors whom I met. I wanted to learn more about it and to recount something about it, in my own way. That was one element from which the film sprang, the other was that vision of the sailor at sea that I mentioned.
This somewhat dreamlike and masculine world of sailors is also a homoerotic topos – present in the work of Jean Genet and from which, for example, short films by Kenneth Anger or Matthias Müller are also inspired.
LAURA WADDINGTON: I didn’t think about that aspect, at least not consciously. If there was any influence in that regard, it will have come from Jean Genet and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Possibly, it was there, in the background but I didn’t consider it until now. Probably it was quite strongly present in my unconscious because Genet’s Un chant d’amour and Fassbinder’s Querelle are both films that left a deep impression on me.
But the way of observing this male world in CARGO is a female way of looking
LAURA WADDINGTON: When I decided to make a film on a cargo ship, I didn’t think about the fact that I was a woman. I know this will sound ridiculous but it wasn’t until I was on the ship and everyone was reacting to it that I realized how strange it was from other people’s point of view that I had turned up there as a woman, alone (at first, the sailors were extremely shocked that I had dared to board the ship and repeatedly asked me why I wasn’t afraid of them. After a while, thankfully this changed and they began to joke that I was “more of a seaman” than them). I had only been thinking about going there to make a film, not about my gender, I only thought of myself as a filmmaker. Now. when I present the film to audiences, a lot of people are shocked. The same questions keep coming up, “What was it like as a woman? Why did you do that? Weren’t you scared?” But at the time, I wasn’t focused on this nor the fact that I have a female perspective. I was just observing and shooting.
Watching the film now, I realize that it is about a woman looking at these men. It is not a film that could have been shot by a man. It is there, from the start, in the narrator’s voice and it continues with something about the narrative slowness. These are doubtless stereotypical notions of what a female narrator is and can be. Nevertheless, I definitely feel that it is there.
The issue that I have with television is that it is built around a masculine way of editing, timing and constructing a narrative (and the concept of an all-knowing objectivity). But I want the audience to constantly keep in mind that what they are watching is a construct. To that end, in CARGO, I intentionally included certain inconsistencies in the narrative, in order to unsettle the audience and to make them question my reliability as author. For example, the narrator recounts a mixture of things that happened and a few things that didn’t (one of her statements is blatantly contradictory). I say things that sound invented but which aren’t – and vice versa. The same applies for certain shots, such as the image of a young woman with an umbrella, on a bridge in Venice. Some audience members believe the shot is staged and a form of fiction but it wasn’t and I don’t mind (their interpretation). I wanted it to remain open and for the viewers to wonder who the woman that they observe there really is and what is she really doing there.
Perhaps this way of doing things was also a form of self-protection. Because CARGO is a very personal film and I wanted to push the audience away from me to some degree. So, even if the film is almost entirely true to the reality as it unfolded, I wanted the audience to question whether it is or not. I want them to doubt my reliability as filmmaker and the reliability of the narrative voice in general.
It has been compared to the work of Marguerite Duras.
LAURA WADDINGTON: It’s hard for me to answer that question. Of course, I love the work of Duras. It is very inspiring to me but I would not attempt to make films like hers. I adore her books, which I have read, but I have not actually had a chance to watch her films, and now I am afraid to watch them for fear that mine might be a bad copy of something that I have not actually seen, because you are far from the first person to say this.
Have there been any critical reactions from the audience?
LAURA WADDINGTON: Yes. Some people have been very annoyed by it. Beginning with certain women in the audience who have got angry that I went on the ship at all. Some other spectators have been upset by the film being so slow. For example, at the beginning of the video, there is a shot of a man, a soldier, fishing off the side of a submarine, in Syria. It lasts for more than three minutes and the same shot is then repeated in a slightly different way, when night falls, at the end of the film. A few viewers felt provoked by the slowness of the first shot and became very disgruntled. They accused me of deliberately provoking them. I don’t actually find the scene boring so it’s difficult for me to appreciate the problem. During the editing process, I didn’t entirely seize how slow the film is. It was only during the first screening. watching the silent passages on a large screen in front of a large audience, that I became fully aware of how time unfolds when it is projected. But while the actions that I observe with my camera are certainly slow, the key factor that creates the impression of very slow time is that I cut out all the ambient sound from the shots. For large stretches of the film, there is a composed soundtrack instead of the original sound, while in the scenes of the man fishing, there is complete silence. I think that demands a lot from the audience.
What was the editing concept?
I didn’t have one. Because CARGO was a commission, the Rotterdam International Film Festival gave me an editing room in the city for a period of about six weeks. Luckily, there wasn’t more time than that or I think I would have gotten completely lost in the material because I had returned from the boat with so many hours of footage. At first, I went through all the tapes and extracted just the key moments that I felt really reflected what it was like to be on the ship (the same shots that were accompanied by a sense of intense presence when I filmed them) and I reduced the film just to those moments. But having done that, I lost my nerve. I told myself surely the film couldn’t consist of so few passages. So, I proceeded to waste several weeks trying to make the film into something that it wasn’t, something more traditional. One or two weeks before my deadline, I decided to revert to my original plan and I took everything that I’d done in the previous weeks apart and returned to the few shots of the first version. Because that’s CARGO: just a few shots.
How did you work on the colours?
LAURA WADDINGTON: I didn’t work on them very much. When I was doing the final online edit, I just heightened them a bit. It was a decision taken in about five-minutes. So more important than what was done to the colours after the fact, was their presence in the original shots. I filmed with my aperture wide open and tried to depict things very simply. For example, you have an image with a sailor, sharply delineated from the sea, and in addition you have the very strong green on board, which was so intense because the sailors had to keep repainting the ship for no apparent reason as soon as we got stuck somewhere (by order of the captain). The composition of the images brings out the colours: a colour here, a person there and in addition the sea.
The pictures have an impressionistic effect.
LAURA WADDINGTON: A lot of people have called the film impressionistic. It’s difficult for me to comment on this. It’s just the way I film and see… When I film, I wait for something to happen. That the images look like this is due to a combination of light, the position of the people in the shots and the speed with which I point or zoom my camera towards them. It’s completely instinctive.
(I also reworked the speed of certain shots after the fact, in a very rudimentary way, to create a slightly off kilter effect, and this time lag possibly contributes to the sense of something impressionistic.)
The picture of the young woman with a red umbrella in the port in the evening has an impressionistic mood like in a painting by Georges Seurat
LAURA WADDINGTON: I shot it in front of my hotel in Venice. I was holding the camera and staring out the window. Suddenly a storm broke and the woman with the umbrella appeared. I watched her and gradually realized from her behaviour that she was a prostitute (waiting to meet a client). It was pure coincidence and she came out of nowhere. This is an example of waiting for something to happen. Several people who lived near the bridge told me that they had never seen a prostitute there before and they were astonished by this shot. Many people think the scene is staged, but it wasn’t. Of course, it looks completely fictional.
As does, to some extent, the scene when I look down from the cargo ship onto the Syrian port and a man on a bicycle appears and starts stealing wood. It is strange: I look out, and he appears. Some people think that this was arranged or premeditated, all the more so because both he and the woman in Venice, perform a similar semi-circular motion. It looks as if I have given them a stage direction to do so. But it is not the case.
The woman with the umbrella appears at the beginning of the film, and the film also ends with images of women
LAURA WADDINGTON: I wanted to end the film on something far from the world of the cargo ship, so I used these images that I shot when I was home in Paris. It has been interpreted by some as a return to a female world. I didn’t think about the shots in those terms but, unconsciously, I think I wanted to balance the film out. The woman you see sitting in the metro (and who several people have mistaken for me) has something almost fragile about her. Maybe I thought this was necessary after all those men.
The world of men seems as hermetic as a prison.
LAURA WADDINGTON: That’s how it presented itself to me, too. The sailors felt like they were locked up in a prison. But they weren’t just locked up, they were forgotten by the world. It was a genuine limbo.
The men were wandering endlessly out there on the high seas with no control over the path they were taking. There was no seeming rationale to the orders they were receiving. They would set course for somewhere and then suddenly a new order would arrive instructing them to sail in a completely different or to turn off the engines for a few days. No one bothered to provide them with an explanation. It is the worst kind of prison sentence: you are locked up without knowing how long your sentence will last and without knowing where you will be taken. It’s this feeling of claustrophobia that I wanted to convey. Even in the ports, the men remained strangers and out of place. They often really wanted to disembark from the ship in a port but few of them ever did. And even those who did disembark didn’t venture far, they didn’t go to the outer edges of where they were allowed to go. Whatever they did, they remained prisoners of the situation.
Limbo is a religious term, a term for limbo.
LAURA WADDINGTON: There is something very eerie about filming in limbo spaces, places where time is suspended. For example, the refugee camps and in-between spaces on the borders of countries which I am making my current film Border about now. One of the things that interests me about such liminal spaces, is that in them individuals are stripped down to their essentials. When societal conventions fall away, you begin to see what a person is really like.
When I was a child, I couldn’t speak English, I spoke a garbled language that only a few people could understand parts of, and for the first seven years of my life, I had to do intensive speech therapy (while being in many ways rejected by normal society). But I loved just observing the world and it was as if I was living completely alone by myself in a separate world. I think I am always seeking out situations that, in some way, resemble that wall of separation that I experienced as a child, and that this pushes me to travel to liminal spaces inhabited by strangers who speak other languages and who act differently inside that temporary suspended space (places where the conventions of daily life do not apply).
And what about if you look at a room like the one in Chantal Akerman’s short film Saute ma ville, in which a young woman is completely alone with herself?
LAURA WADDINGTON: Chantal Akerman creates her own hermetic space in Saute ma ville. She even seals all the doors and windows with duct tape. But it is not a limbo space (it’s different from CARGO, in which I go into someone else’s world and observe the limbo in which people are trapped).
What I find compelling about Chantal Akerman’s film, is the destructive energy she unleashes within that space. She enters the room, which is a kitchen, does crazy things inside it and finally blows it, and herself, up. Saute ma ville means “Blow up my city!” … At the start of the film, there is a title written in large letters: ‘RECIT’ and it reads like a nod to Godard. There are passages in her film that really remnind me of Pierrot le Fou. For instance, at one point, we hear the young woman’s voice exclaim: “Bang Bang!” I think it is Akerman’s own voice but the tone of it immediately makes me think of Anna Karina in Pierrot le Fou.
But Saute ma ville is much more than the first film of an eighteen-year-old filmmaker who happens to be influenced by Jean Luc Godard. One can see Godard’s influence on it but something else, completely new is also going on. Her destructive energy takes over and carries things forward, she goes further than what she has been influenced by. At other points in the film, I was reminded of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton but there are also times when there is no one else behind her, she is only herself.
The filmmaker herself plays the role (of the young woman). The film was made in 1968. Is the film also an expression of the political mood of the time?
LAURA WADDINGTON: I think the film springs from the impulse and mood of a single person and that it could have been conceived at other historical junctures, too. She is doing something in it that other artists have done after her, but in a different way. It makes me think of certain performance art from the 1970s. That is why I don’t particularly think of it as a commentary on 1968; I see it more as coming out of the personal anger and energy of a young person who wants to do so much.
Akerman’s film reminds me of another short film from that time, Martin Scorsese’s The Big Shave. When I think about what a short film is or can be, I immediately think of The Big Shave. It was the first short film that I ever saw and it blew me away. I was about nineteen years old and I didn’t even know that short films existed (I saw Akerman’s and Scorsese’s long films before their shorts). It was so direct and forceful and that quality connects it, in my mind, to Saute ma ville. What impresses me about these films is their urgency, that feeling of being young and determined to make films at all cost. Albert Camus wrote about his first short stories that an artist only ever keeps perfecting his first attempts at expression and that his first work contains an energy and a purity that can never quite be captured again, even if not technically perfect. This is what I feel about Saute ma ville and The Big Shave.
Both films tell the story of a suicide. One of a woman and one of a man, each alone in a claustrophobic room. And both films were made around 1968.
LAURA WADDINGTON: Scorsese’s film is, to my mind, more outwardly political. Watching it, I’m aware of the context of the Vietnam War and that the film is a political statement. Chantal Akerman’s film is a more personal film, at first sight.
Needless to say, in a certain sense, everything that a filmmaker does is political. Just expressing what you think is political, and this can often be even more political than making a direct commentary on a political situation. Seen in this light, it is, of course, political when an eighteen-year-old young woman runs up the steps to her apartment and unleashes a destructive chain of events in her kitchen. Initially, there is a childlike quality about the woman and her actions, which comes out in her strange singsong. Her desire to kill herself only becomes apparent when she starts dancing in front of the mirror. Before doing this, she smears mayonnaise on her face. Whereas her previous actions had a playful and innocent side to them, with her smearing of the mayonnaise, we start to realise that the situation is about to go completely off the rails. The shot that follows, of her in the mirror, makes me flinch: it’s the moment that her determination to self-destruct becomes visible. It is certainly an image that makes a political statement about women, the likes of which have probably not been seen in cinema before. Of course, it can be interpreted in many different ways. The mirror is an accessory assigned to women and through which women perceive themselves and are perceived.
She doesn’t exit the mirror shot either. It is in the mirror, that she lights the gas stove. The explosion takes place off-screen, in the black of a long fade-out.
LAURA WADDINGTON: It is a strong ending and it renders the whole thing perfect. With the black screen, the destruction reaches a climax and the film takes on a frightening quality. During the first part of the film, it felt as if the situation could veer off in a number of different directions. The film was, in some senses, a sort of playful comedy. Then, a darkness began to creep in. The mirror scene already tugs at the nerves but when everything comes to a halt on a black screen, the viewer is completely thrown off balance. The black is literally the end. There is no more concession to us. Now it is finally clear, we have been watching a suicide. It’s an ending in which a great deal of anger is given vent.
A man stands in front of the mirror and shaves. By the end, the blood is flowing. In the credits there is the casual reference: “Vietnam 1967”.
LAURA WADDINGTON: That small line is all that it takes. A powerful political film doesn’t lecture the audience. The scene before it is very intense and the viewer is unable to escape the violence. Coming after it, this line is almost an understatement, but it explains everything. I think that, where a film that makes a political statement in a more standard way lives for for twenty years at most, because it cannot outlast the political conditions that created it once they cease to exist and be remembered., a film like Scorsese’s will endure because of its intensity, and regardless of this reference that explains it politically…
The Big Shave has lost none of its impact, and it still has political force because it incarnates the will and ability of a person to make an extremely powerful statement… I can’t imagine a filmmaker’s work making such an impact on society today. The film was made at a time when it was still possible to shock. But today? How can anyone still shake up an audience to this degree – and in a lasting and subtle way?
… We live in a time where everything is available, but in excess. Anyone can make a film today and in most cases it will not be seen because there is a surfeit of images. These films of Martin Scorsese and Chantal Akerman were still shocking…
You work with video yourself. Has video had a big impact on the short film?
LAURA WADDINGTON: I think the impact of video on feature-length films is ever greater. The strength of short film is in its dense, taut, simple form, this certain purity that it has. When you shoot on 16mm or 35mm film, economic constraints force you to shoot very sparingly and deliberately. The danger of video is that you can keep on shooting indefinitely. So short films that are made on video today, tend to be much sloppier. A formal tightening would be good, and sometimes I think it would have been better if the filmmaker hadn’t had the chance to shoot so much in the first place. On the other hand, of course, it’s great that thanks to video, almost anyone can make a film today. But it’s like poetry. If you have a pencil, you can write a book. That doesn’t mean that it makes for better novels.
How do you assess the mass phenomenon of DV here?
LAURA WADDINGTON: I don’t fully understand why people are talking about a revolution. I have worked, all along, with Hi8 and like the poor quality of its images. I don’t find DV that different to it. It’s revolutionary, of course, in the sense that a lot of people are now using video who previously would have refused to touch the medium. It has become normal to work with video, and the result is it can now be screened everywhere. With the arrival of a new technology comes a change in aesthetics. Because DV is so easy and comparatively cheap to use, it opens up the possibility for many people to make very personal films with it. It is perfect for creating video essays and I am happy about that. My own work would be unthinkable today without DV.
Still, I don’t want to talk about a revolution. For me, what’s revolutionary is when an exciting new filmmaker comes along every now and then, and that is somewhat independent of technological developments. So I don’t find the so-called digital revolution all that exciting. It only has an effect on quantity, not quality, and in terms of cinema, as a mass medium, it is actually becoming increasingly difficult to screen films once they are made (outside the festival circuit). As far as aesthetics are concerned, there will always be people who find exciting approachesa nd possibilities with a new medium. Aesthetically, DV is quite a challenge. At first glance, it seems so perfect (compared with video that came before) but the images lacks a certain strength and presence. You have to deal with that and with it. I am trying to diminish that appearance of perfection…
(Last pages of interview not translated)
Edited English Translation of Chapter 6. “OHNE DV WÄRE MEINE ARBEIT GAR NICHT DENKBAR” from the book “Überraschende Begegnungen der kurzen Art”, publ. Schnitt – der Filmverlag, May 2005, Germany, pp87-105