Embracing Uncertainty: An Interview with Eduardo Williams

Discussing the feature debut of a young Argentine filmmaker at the Locarno Film Festival.
Gustavo Beck

Director Eduardo Williams

Thanks to his unique approach to locations and a rare sense of style when it comes to shooting groups of characters, the Argentinian director Eduardo Williams has garnered attention worldwide for his shorts over the last few years. I spoke with him about his feature debut, El Auge del Humano (The Human Surge), which will have its world premiere as part of the Filmmakers of the Present competition at the 69th Locarno Film Festival.

Shot on three continents, El Auge del Humano introduces us to different young men who all have just entered adult life and are physically separated by the oceans. The film follows their movements, their bodies in constant interaction and their ordinary lives. Throughout, the filmmaker adds doses of beauty and strangeness and, as the characters share their feelings, something seems to connect them all

NOTEBOOK: El Auge del Humano seems to have been born out of your own shorts. It feels like you preserved the essence of your grammar and style and that you developed them into a feature length film. What it was like for you to move into feature filmmaking for the first time?

EDUARDO WILLIAMS: The thrill, emotions, fears, intentions where similar to the ones I had when doing my previous projects, except this time everything lasted longer. With every project I think and learn new things and at the same time I see all of them as a continuous development. Of course, longer duration was an exciting challenge. How will the different elements and moments interact and develop having more time? I wanted to do a feature film because I thought that in a longer film I could bring new elements for which I didn’t find a good place in the rhythm of short films.

NOTEBOOK: You establish a very interesting relationship between the camera and the characters. In particular, the camera likes to observe groups of people and also show groups of characters in constant movement. Moreover, we often lose sight of them while still hearing their voices. This creates a very unique balance between intimacy and detachment. What is the relationship between the camera and your characters?

WILLIAMS: When thinking or shooting the film I don’t explain myself or others these type of things in words—it’s more of a physical intuition and something that develops naturally according to the atmosphere and basic ideas of the film. I try to put this in words when someone asks me, but it always comes in different ways and never in a very articulated or well ordered text.

It’s usually important for me to have the people in the film surrounded by a bigger environment, trying to create the character through this larger image. This type of image can also create the sensation of not knowing where you are supposed to look and at the same time can attract you by the constant movement that creates a melody between surprise, variation and connection of different spaces and bodies. I tend to think everything in life and cinema as a balance between opposites in tension. The relationship between the camera and the characters also shows this. Some moments it seems as if it was spying on them, and in others it seems to be a part of them. The camera is also used in a quite rough "non-professional" way, creating in my opinion some sensation of reality that is at the same time questioned by other elements of the film.

The combination of different types of camera (16 mm and different types of video) also helps me to create another type of development in this approach to the ideas of artificial and natural. Sometimes I think of the camera as another character who’s following the ones we see, being in their same rhythm and fluidity. For this to happen it’s important for me to create this feeling of a group that flows together during the shoot. That’s maybe one more reason I find it interesting to shoot with people that speak other languages: when verbal communication is difficult it’s easier for everyone to get carried away by other types of communication. I find this very useful during the shooting, as I also try to create this type of communication between the film and the spectator, and I believe that’s one of the main reasons why I like making films.

NOTEBOOK: Your characters live ordinary lives. They also seem dissatisfied with their jobs and with their relationships. This process drives them to embark on a search that, in turn, brings movement and refreshment to their bodies. What is your understanding of your characters as they embrace unusual experiences? 

WILLIAMS: In my opinion, ordinary and unusual are always living together, I don’t believe that some lives are more or less ordinary than others. I feel my characters come from my own desire of not getting stuck, of suspecting movement is a way of thinking, and seeing in infinite unfolding diversity the only possible target. But the characters of the film are not only what I would like them to be, but what each person wanted to do and say during the film. I’m not very sure of what they where meaning or trying to do in some of my favorite moments of the film.

Embracing uncertainty is one of the things I like the most in life and cinema, and I believe is what we were all doing during the filming. I don’t think the actors of the film where absolutely sure of what they where doing, but felt they wanted to be a part of that moment we where passing by. That’s the same for me and hopefully for the future spectators. I feel this may sound like a very magical or strange method, but I remember it as a very ordinary natural unfolding of events. I never speak in this way during the filming, we talk about very simple and concrete things, creating at the same time some special energy surrounding us. What I want to create with the film is very different to this interview, as in it, words are only one part in a cloud of elements.

NOTEBOOK: In your dialogues we sense a tension between poetic lines, dystopian content and the very casual, documentary tone of the actors. From the early rehearsals to the actual shooting of the scenes, how do you guide your actors from the text to the shoot? What is the process of creating dialogue?

WILLIAMS: To start, I just vomit whatever I have in my head when writing the script, and also recollect small notes I make now and then. After that I see how these dialogues or descriptions develop in my mind when time passes: some die, others transform and others seem to get stronger. Then I start meeting people that are interested in acting in the film and I tell them some of the situations, talk with them about anything and make them read the script. In this process they sometimes change things, I add other things they told me, etc. When I travel to new countries I usually have more time to look for new situations or change the ones in the script and hang out with the people that take part in the film. During the shooting, the actors, who haven’t had any previous experience, are free to invent or adapt things. I am also feel free to cut, change and edit dialogues during the editing for rhythm, meaning or any other purpose. So as I try to leave the necessary spaces for documentary elements to be a part of the film, I also feel it’s important to transform everything if I feel it’s necessary.

NOTEBOOK: The first part of El Auge del Humano was filmed in Argentina, your home country. You also choose other countries in Asia and Africa to film the two other parts. Indeed, this global aspect plays a key role in the narrative structure. How was this concept born and how did you develop it into a film?

WILLIAMS: I think this was born when my short films started being shown and I got the opportunity of traveling, discovering the mystery of constant change and repetition, of passing from what you’ve been told or imagined about something to the physical personal experience of being present. I also discovered that traveling could help me to practice new ways to inhabit space and communicate, and this could be shared in the form of a film. Another reason why this changing of country sounded interesting for me is that it helped me create a rhythm between excitement and boredom or surprise and depression. I could develop that into a film with desire, and the best possible balance between adaptation and insistence.

NOTEBOOK: What role do your locations play? The space portrayed in the film has a concrete location but at the same time reveals a suggestive or dreamlike perception. What does it mean for you to create an atmosphere? Do you work with locations as they are or do you change them to create a specific mood?

WILLIAMS: I don’t change the locations physically, but just try to find that dreamy or strange layer that exists everywhere. I’ve never thought of a mood as something specific but as the contrary, that’s why I feel better expressing it through all of the elements available in a film. Of course, I can’t see this anywhere or anytime, so that’s why I chose some spaces over others, they can be more or less ordinary but they are the ones that permitted me to discover these layers. Some locations generate scenes when I discover them, others are first imagined and then found, some others can be the reason to go to a specific country, for instance a photo I’ve seen on the Internet of a specific place in the Philippines made me start thinking of going there. Every written scene changes when I find the location where I’ll do it. All of them are absolutely essential to each scene being an important element in the relationship with the actors, camera, dialogues, light and never just an accessory. It’s also important for me what locations can produce along with movement, creating volume, surprises, confusion, contrast and finally the musicality of the film. 

NOTEBOOK: There are two moments of "space travel." Twice, the spectator is suddenly relocated to different countries and different cultures. The first time it happens through the computer. The second time it happens underground as we follow a group of ants. As the film unfolds, the sense of unity and continuity are preserved between technology and nature but especially by human empathy. Could you comment on these three aspects and your idea of how they can interact?

WILLIAMS: Even if all of the aspects of the film are in my opinion much better expressed in the form of a film than in the form of a text, this one is the one I find more difficult to say only with words. I see technology as another expression of nature and nature as an always developing technology. I don’t think much about human empathy, maybe because I can’t get the necessary distance to think about it, or maybe I think about it with other words. Maybe as curiosity? Or as a way of trying to survive? I’m very interested in continuity, not only in a large scale but also in the small scale of inside and outside. Also seeing separation and borders just as a point of view that can be easily changed and not as a given.

NOTEBOOK: It seems technology is presented as a rudimentary, organic utensil in this parallel to nature. Yet, the last scene introduces a new tone to the narrative and you end the film with its only static shot. Could you elaborate on the ending set in a modern electronics factory and, specifically, the co-existence of perspectives?

WILLIAMS: The ending was very difficult to make, production wise. That showed me that it was very important for the film, as I had to insist so much to be able to do it and still didn’t lose the will. It was a good way of giving the film a final move that condensed many of it’s elements: work, youth, technology, nature, abstraction, contrast, strangeness, and more. The co-existence of perspectives is something that happens throughout all the film, and is what helps me to break the sensation of time as a unidirectional line, as every new perspective opens and re-opens the possibilities of what happened before and what will come.

NOTEBOOK: The film has a very distinct aesthetic concept in how it works with texture, color and rhythms. As a filmmaker, where would you position yourself in terms of artistic references?

WILLIAMS: I recognize most of my references in the observation of what surrounds me (cities, plants, animals, people, colors), in some books I’ve read mainly from young Argentine authors, and in the memory of some feelings or thoughts that came to me when watching films—though I don’t tend to try and remember what film or moment or element of a film caused that. In one time of my life I had a group of friends from which I think I learned about some sort of energy or way of creating projects with freedom and spontaneity. I also suspect that looking at some animals teaches me something about rhythm and movement. I tend to admire people I know rather than characters. I don’t know why, but trying to catalogue, remember or recognize which artistic works could have influenced me feels heavy to me and constipates my thoughts.

NOTEBOOK: Could you share some thoughts on the process of making this film with regards to the production? How did production impact your own creative process and the outcome of the film?

WILLIAMS: It was very important for me to try to have a good rhythm of production. This meant not waiting too long to start shooting once I had the basic script written, and later to conserve the flux of energy from one phase to the other, having also some pauses to rethink each part. Finding different ways to keep up with the desired rhythm was a good challenge. We started shooting some scenes of the Argentinian part that was used later to get help and collaborations for the next part and so on. This was very useful for this project as I believe that text doesn’t seem to be a good way to show it’s possible value. I also thought production problems as possibilities of new ideas and think that advancing through them without losing the rhythm was essential to make the film happen. For me, it was more important to capture the raw energy and effervescent thoughts of everyone in the film than trying to create a polished object.

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