Interview with Laura Waddington by Saskia Walker

Saskia WalkerRevolver Magazine - no17, 2007, Berlin, 2005,

By Saskia Walker

Saskia Walker: How did you begin to make films?

Laura Waddington: I’d wanted to make films from when I was very young but when I finished school I wasn’t old enough to go to film school so I studied English literature at Cambridge University. I really disliked it. I found it very dry and academic so I stopped going to classes and went to the cinema. I basically went to the cinema for three years and watched films. After, I wanted to start making films as quickly as possible. I’d watched quite a lot of New York experimental films and was interested in the way experimental filmmakers were working, making films in a way similar to how you write a book or make a painting. As soon as Cambridge was over I left for New York. I worked on film shoots for the first summer and then I enrolled in a course for two months to learn the technical aspects, how to use a camera etc. I made my first film with the equipment from that course. It was about a hotel chambermaid who takes photos of the possessions of an unknown man whose room she cleans. I made two short fiction films and then started moving toward video.

SW: So you started using video and travelling with your video camera.

LW: At first, I was working with 16mm film but I think I was making films how I thought you had to make films or copies of the films I liked, instead of experimenting with the language itself. And because 16mm was so expensive there was little chance to experiment. I’d write something and we’d go into a hotel room for two days and work very quickly, often shooting only one shot of each scene. I felt I wasn’t really learning the language of film. Around that time, various people asked me to shoot video for them, for instance a fashion designer and art people. Actually, I found it difficult to work with video in the sense that I found the image very immediate, almost like television but I felt this was a challenge and that I should try to use it. Also, I was thinking I was never going to find money to make films but that whatever I’d always find a way to keep shooting video. I decided since I was unhappy with the video image, I should try filming without looking. I bought a spy camera and a Turkish jacket covered in small mirrors and I hid the camera underneath one of the mirrors and walked around wearing this jacket. Actually I wasn’t interested in spying at all. My idea was to gather a lot of footage that I could rework later on. I felt video was in some ways close to CDs and I preferred the texture of scratched records, which I felt were closer to film. So I decided to gather video-footage and then destroy it. I travelled on a cruise-ship across the Atlantic. For five days I just walked up and down, night and day, filming. I came back with about forty-five hours of footage, which I then filmed and re-filmed off a television screen until the image was nearly destroyed. And that’s when I really began getting interested in video, by destroying it.

SW: The other film you filmed in a similar situation to this was on a cargo ship

LW: It was for the Rotterdam Film Festival’s 30th birthday. They contacted ten filmmakers around the world and asked us each to make a video diary in a port. Years earlier when I’d filmed on the cruise ship, I’d later had the impression I’d missed the real film; that it was a cruise ship with 1500 passengers and 1000 sailors working aboard, mostly Filipino sailors, and they weren’t allowed on deck except to serve the customers. The rest of the time they had to stay beneath the decks. I’d go out on deck at four in morning, when a few of them came out to clean the decks, and they’d tell me stories. So when the project with the port came up, I thought I’d like to find Filipino sailors and make a film with them. I wanted to go to east Africa, but no one would let me on because of being a woman. So I found a cargo ship that was going to Syria and Lebanon. I travelled with the sailors for five or six weeks and that was CARGO.

SW: In Border, you film something that we rarely see in the news and in cinema: people living outside the world where images exist. You have found a way of filming which is very poetic, in the most positive sense of the word. You don’t “inform” the audience about what is going on, instead you show it.

LW: With Border, I knew I wanted to make a film about the clandestine routes immigrants were taking to get to Europe but I didn’t know at first that the film would be about Sangatte. I decided to travel along the routes Afghan and Iraqi immigrants were taking to England. I travelled in Kurdistan and I had some problems with the authorities there. I was very touched and impressed by some of the Kurds who helped me. They stayed in my mind and when I returned to France, I was curious about the Kurds who’d made it to Sangatte. So when I turned up in Sangatte, I think perhaps I turned up in a slightly different way than some of the journalists. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make a film there, I also wanted to meet people, to see if I could help, talk to them or something.

I went to Sangatte for the first time in September 2001, after these travels. It was a strange situation because the camp was run by the Red Cross, who had been invited there by the French government, which for me was very different than if the Red Cross had set it up independently. The police were outside and the Red Cross controlled who went in, journalists had to have official permission. I slipped in one afternoon and spoke with some very young Afghan guys. They were fifteen or sixteen years old and had just arrived from Kabul, hidden in lorries. The journey had taken them six months. I remember it was raining really hard. The camp was an awful hangar, an enormous sort of barn with a corrugated roof. I’ll never forget how loudly the rain resonated on the roof. I think there were about 1200 people inside. It was like hell. And I thought I couldn’t film there, that I couldn’t find the right distance or way to film. I felt it would be like filming caged animals. So I went away and thought I couldn’t make a film, that there was not a way for me personally to film there.

But for months it kept on running through my mind. In March 2002 I thought I should try to go back there.  I had this idea to go at night on the roads, around the camp. So I’d go out on the roads at eleven, midnight, two o’clock with my camera. The refugees were very surprised to see a woman on her own and to see that I was not actually filming. I had the camera looking down at the ground and I’d just use it to record conversations with them. I explained to them that the quality of the sound on my camera was too bad to actually use the sound recordings and that it was just for me to be able to write transcripts later on. I did that during a few weeks and then it was the refugees who suggested I come with them into the fields. They were very frightened of being filmed and often didn’t like journalists so I was quite surprised but they said they’d trust me if I really didn’t film their faces. I said to them: “Look, I am using this small camera and have to open the shutter really wide because there’s not enough light in the fields so you are all going to look blurred.” And they trusted that. That’s how it worked and I got to know them more and just moved ahead like that.

SW: What language did you speak with them?

LW: Towards the end, I learned a bit of Sorani, the Iraqi Kurdish dialect. I only learnt about two hundreds words but it was enough to make small conversations and some of them were really happy about that. Many of the Afghan refugees I got to know spoke four or five languages. Those who’d made it to Sangatte were often the elite, some were highly educated and they’d spent a lot of money to get there, often more than 10.000 euros, which is an enormous amount for someone from Afghanistan. It normally meant they’d had to sell a house, a car etc. A lot of the Iraqis who arrived at the beginning had quite a lot of money with them and then you had this syndrome at the end of more and more poor, desperate people arriving. A lot of the Iraqi Kurds who arrived in that period, didn’t speak anything but Sorani. They were often Kurds from the country, whereas the Afghans I met were more often educated people, normally from Kabul.

I didn’t only film in Sangatte. Around August 2002, some of the refugees I knew in Sangatte told me I was never going to understand the situation unless I went back along the route they’d taken. I’d already travelled in Kurdistan and some other places and with smugglers in Romania but they wanted me to go to Lampedusa (an Island near Sicily, where many people were arriving), and Patras (in Greece, where people are trying to jump on the boats). And also to Rome, where a lot of immigrants were sleeping in the park. I told myself I should go, even if didn’t film, just to see. I went and I also filmed footage there but I don’t feel I found the right way to film. With Sangatte, I went back during many months and got to know people well, I found my way, but with the other places I felt I went there too quickly and worked in too journalistic a manner. The things I saw were horrific; there was a little island where suddenly a small boat would arrive with about two hundred people crammed inside, who hadn’t eaten for two weeks. I didn’t feel comfortable filming and I felt the things I filmed were very bad. I came away from the whole experience with I think 130 or 140 hours of footage (including Sangatte) and I just cut it down.

First I just put the images together and tried to find a movement; to instinctively re-create a movement through the space. As I mentioned, I had gathered many transcripts. Nearly everyone I met had made incredible journeys. A lot of them had spent two years getting there and each of their stories was more astonishing and awful than the next. At first, I recorded a voice-over in which I read out these stories. However, when I cut the images and voice over together it fell apart because I had filmed in a very personal, subjective way – just one person moving with a camera through the fields – and the images clashed with the stories, which were much more powerful, and pulled you away from them. I felt in the end one needed to listen to these stories in a black room – that it was not possible to look at something at the same time – because they were so strong. So as a last resort I wrote the present voice-over. I had a lot of difficulty writing it because I had seen so much and it was difficult to describe. I didn’t know what I could add. I came to the conclusion that the best thing was to write something that said almost nothing, in the hope that the audience would feel I wasn’t describing enough, that they would feel the gaps. I wanted to speak more through the silences. So I went through several voice-overs and this is what I wrote at the end, just before the first screening.

SW: How long did you work on the film?

LW: It was complicated because I shot it between March and December 2002 and then I had production problems. It got blocked in legal problems till June 2004.  I showed it for the first time in August 2004 at the Locarno Film Festival. I got it into the festival on a rough cut and I had two months to get it ready for there.

SW: So you cut it at home on your own computer?

LW: I cut it in Italy on a small laptop with a portable hard drive.

SW: How do you finance your films?

LW: Each film is a very ad hoc process and it depends partly where I am living at the time.  With Border, the money came from a fashion designer Agnes b. The slightly strange thing with me is that I am making quite un-commercial videos but having to operate in a commercial context to get the money, working with a lawyer and selling it like a product. I know I have to compromise somewhere so I compromise on the money aspect. I think I am a kind of in between filmmaker, because I am doing those things in a commercial way but when I actually make the film I am working alone with a very small camera in a very slow and instinctive way. I do most of the distribution myself and this too I do like a business. I take at least a year after I’ve finished each video and I try in that year to show it in a very wide variety of places. I charge very high prices to some places and often refugee places or NGOs show it for free. I have a sliding scale.

SW: You showed your films in festivals and on TV but also in many other contexts such as the European Parliament. Do you choose them or do they find you?

LW: It’s a mixture. It’s very important for me to show the work in as many different contexts as possible. I don’t understand the attitude of people who say: “It’s an experimental film, you can only send it here or there.” I don’t believe in that. I send out tapes everywhere, about three hundred tapes a year. Sometimes people say to me: “Why the hell are you showing your films there?” But then I discover that one person was touched and for me it’s only one person who needs be moved. It’s like a small conversation.

SW: I am interested in the discussion about filmmakers and television, because I have the impression that now every filmmakers who wants to make a serious film, says they won’t show it on TV or take the TV money but that they want to make a film that will be shown in the cinema. And I wonder about this attitude, where to show work and in fact with television I agree maybe it is possible to change the way television works, because you can reach a lot of people.What do you think about this? Where to present films, in galleries or in an art context, or in a bad TV context?

LW: Art-galleries are the only places I refuse to show work. That’s the only market I really don’t like. (Laughter)  I have shown Border as an installation in exhibitions, for instance they offered I could put it in a barn in the middle of the country. And actually it worked very well. It was near the French frontier. Television is something strange for me, I don’t watch it and when I do, I often get a physical reaction to it but I’ve always believed it could have been something amazing, that it could have become a laboratory, something people could have participated in but then it got lost and went off into other things. However, my feeling is a lot of people can’t take the time to come to a screening like this so it’s very important for me that if one person sees it, it’s worth it. So I wouldn’t say no to television. But I’d say no to work in conjunction with television if they told me what to do or how to edit or how long it must be. But in terms of showing something on television, once you’ve made what you want, it’s another avenue and if one or two people like it because they tuned in in the middle of the night, that’s great. I mean it’s a great tool if you use it and don’t get used by it.

SW: We are not used working in such an independent way here

LW: I lived in New York for seven years and there weren’t really any ways for most filmmakers to get funding for their films except independent ways. So you’d hear a story for instance that someone’s uncle was a taxi driver and he’d done a collect among all the other taxi drivers for his nephew’s film. There was actually an independent film made that way, I don’t remember which one. And there were a lot of stories like that, people having to find their ways. So it was a surprise for me when I first lived in Paris, nearly all the filmmakers I met were used to getting state funding, which meant that they could make much better quality films in some aspects but I think maybe some spontaneity was lost compared with what I’d seen in New York. I think the money thing is difficult because it is always a bit of dance with the devil, you have in some way to censure how you work, something is changing because of that dynamic. I also think government money comes at another kind of cost.

SW: There is always the same question: Weren’t you afraid in the fields? Weren’t you afraid alone with all those sailors?

LW: Everywhere I showed CARGO people asked me the same question: “Weren’t you afraid as a woman?” To tell you the truth, and actually people never believe me, I didn’t set off thinking I am a woman, it didn’t cross my mind. I was asked to make a video and I took a cargo boat and it was actually only when I was on the boat that I realised: “Oh no I am a woman!” The boat got stuck for eight days and the sailors were getting very bored, the captain made them paint and repaint the ship. It was very frustrating for them and we had no idea when we’d be able to move again and then I did begin to think we are stuck and I am the only woman. But I never felt it was dangerous, sometimes uncomfortable. I think as a woman the best thing is to do what you believe in. If you turn up very aware that you are a woman, people are going to think of you as that.  The sailors did keep asking me: “Why aren’t you afraid?” And I just asked them: “Why should I be afraid of you? “And in the end they said: “Oh yes actually we are nice. Why should you be afraid?”

SW: Are your films different because of being a woman?

LW: I work with a small prosumer camera, which looks like a tourist camera, and often people actually don’t believe I am really making a film. They often joke about it. In Sangatte, a refugee from Kabul sent me an email, once he’d reached England: “You really are a filmmaker! (Laughter) I looked it up in the internet.” And I said to him: “You never believed me? And he said: No! A lot of us never believed you!” (Laughing). When I got into trouble people really helped me and I am sure they wouldn’t have done that for a man. I don’t think the refugees were dangerous in any sense but the smugglers were. However, in the end they were charmed, this “what is she doing here?” sort of thing. For sure being a women and moving through that space changes everything, I don’t know if it’s better or worse but you are making a completely different film.

SW: Are there fiction films that you feel are able to talk about the situation you showed in Border?

LW: It’s a very complicated situation and I made the choice to present it in a very narrow, personal way. But I think it has to be talked about in many different ways. The best fiction film that I saw on the subject is by Abderrahmane Sissako, a filmmaker originally from Mauretania and Mali and is called En Attendant le Bonheur. It’s a story about people trying to cross through the sub-Saharan countries. It doesn’t matter if it’s Sangatte. This situation is happening everywhere. What’s frightening is that they are now trying to outsource the problem. The Europeans are realizing that if we have camps like Sangatte on our soil, the question of human rights enters in so now we are pushing it out, making Europe clean to respect human rights. But we pay for and send arms to Morocco to shoot people when they try to climb into the Spanish enclaves; we let refugees be sent back to Libya and Libya has never signed any sort of refugee convention. They are torturing refugees in Libyan jails. Sangatte is just a small symbol of something that is happening everywhere.

SW I think about Loin by André Techiné that I really liked, which talks about people in Morocco, trying to leave the country under a lorry…

LW: Yes and there is this a film I liked by Arnaud des Pallières, in which you see people trying to reach and cross Europe in trucks, cutting in and out of the main story. It is a very difficult situation to depict well. This was what tortured me after all these travels: I don’t know if you can describe it and if one can add anything. Maybe the films contributes to a debate but do the debates achieve anything? I showed Border in the European parliament and they talked constantly about dignity, as they so often do, but they change the laws, in a way that makes it worse and worse, day by day. I don’t know if these films have any political effect at all.

(The conversation between Saskia Walker and Laura Waddington took place on 21.11.2005 in the auditorium of Ladoc-Lectures in Köln.)

Published in German as “Interview: Laura Waddington” by Saskia Walker, Revolver Magazine, No17, 2007, Berlin