The Open City Documentary Festival, taking place across London between the 5th and 10th of September 2017, will present three films by Belgian filmmaker Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd: Lost Land (2011), For the Lost (2014) and The Eternals (2017). The films, shot mostly on 16mm and Super 8, are poetic essays exploring the lives of those affected by exile, conflict, loss, and the ecology of harsh environments, hauntingly soundtracked by British Avant-Garde musician Richard Skelton.
Ahead of the festival I interviewed Vandeweerd concerning the aesthetic and thematic connections between his films, his anthropological approach and the role of language in his cinema.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve studied anthropology, amongst other subjects, and you’ve worked as a teaching assistant in a Philosophy and Literature department. What led you to utilize filmmaking as an extension of your research?
PIERRE-YVES VANDEWEERD: The first area I worked in as an anthropologist, at the beginning of the 90s, was Niger in West Africa. My research revolved around the possession cults in the Hausa region. This was probably my founding encounter with the invisible. I quickly had the conviction that words were unable to account for these “states” of the body and the mind. That is when I first resorted to using a camera. Whilst filming these possession dances I also discovered how cinema is a magical act, and how it can allow us to feel and experience the presence of the inexpressible.
NOTEBOOK: Your films feature many interesting portraits. We share powerful gazes with the Sahrawi natives in Lost Land, for example. These strike me as the most anthropological, and powerful, moments in your work. Their temporality reminds me of Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests—portraits spanning the length of a film reel. What influenced you to capture portraits like this?
VANDEWEERD: I filmed Lost Land on Super 8 film, which is silent. What amounted from this was that each person filmed in the form of a portrait did not have to worry about speech. Each one of them could then concentrate on being in front of the camera for the duration of a reel (3 minutes), handing over the full power of their gaze. I wanted to trigger the insistence of each gaze—a look that is addressed to us, bearing inside it the marks of exile, of exhaustion, but also carrying an energy belonging to people who have experienced danger, who have lived, resisted and then survived.
In this film, which was shot in Western Sahara, I filmed many other faces of men and women. In order to capture as many bodies and faces as possible on a single reel of film, I had to be in a state of concentration and alertness, all the while looking for the next subject. These performances, captured with this style of in-camera editing, become a dazzling collection of movements in which the subject’s bodies and expressions succeed one another in fragments across the duration of a reel, amounting to a choreography of lost people.
NOTEBOOK: This year’s The Eternals continues your use of portraiture, but also introduces a series of shots where the camera chases the Armenian survivors of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave as they run. What led to these more frantic sequences?
VANDEWEERD: The Eternals accompanies, in their aimless wandering, men who are inhabited by a feeling of melancholy which has arisen from their eternal grief. This psychological disorder is also known as “Cotard syndrome” in the medical world. It was and remains common amongst people who have survived the traumas of war or genocides. This melancholy often arises from the inability to accept having survived when others perished.
Many of the Armenian survivors have been struck by this psychological distress. Today, this presence and expression of eternal melancholy can be found amongst the young Armenian soldiers sent to war. But one could also say that most Armenians, without suffering from Cotard syndrome specifically, live everyday in a state of melancholy because the spectre of genocide incessantly haunts them.
During the shoot, I asked Armenians how this constant melancholy manifested itself within the body. One of them answered, “It is as if at every moment, a danger could occur somewhere… And one has to constantly be ready to escape, to run away to save oneself.” This is when I suggested that I run with them to capture them during these moments when the heart and the soul quicken in pace due to fear.
NOTEBOOK: Prior to Les dormants (shot on Super 8) you shot digitally. We don’t see film being used as much in documentaries these days, perhaps because the logistical and budgetary requirements are perceived as shortcomings. How does the use of film formats shape your workflow?
VANDEWEERD: My first films were shot digitally. With Les dormants, at the beginning of the project I wished to give an account through film of this in-between state, common to the elderly and to young children, that is called acedia, which is also found among the anchorites who, by a voluntary effort of deprivation, looked to encounter the presence of the invisible.
I had decided to film my grandmother, at the end of her life, as well as my daughter who had just been born. Both seemed in that state of in-between; one still being here while already not really being here, the other being already here but not being really here yet. When filming them digitally, what I felt about this common state bringing them together could not be seen visually. I then decided to film them on Super 8. Once the first images were developed, I realiszd that they were both, in every frame, engulfed in the aura and mystery that I had felt.
In view of my use of film since, I believe that a real presence of light resides in the analogue image, emanating from its own energy and from the subject it liberates—both of them connected in the materiality of the film. Which is not the case with digital images, wherein the image shows light and what it illuminates, but there is no presence.
NOTEBOOK: On your website you mention that the use of a hand-cranked Super 8 camera in Lost Land allowed you to utilize your body as an extension of the image, because if you shivered it would be registered on the camera. Could you elaborate on this sentiment?
VANDEWEERD: I have the impression that digital cameras are often too heavy or too light, that they are not well adapted to the bodies and hands that carry them. The images that they produce regularly contain shaking. But this shaking is rarely the expression of your own interiority, it is often more the consequence of this technical reality.
You can carry a Super 8 or 16mm camera with your arm stretched. It then becomes part of the filmmaker’s body; the extension of their hand and of their interiority. It allows more intimacy—au corps à corps. The shaking that inhabits these images are first and foremost vibrations, but they are vibrations emanating from the filmmaker’s sensitivity and subconscious.
When I am shooting for a feature, I rarely exceed 13 hours of footage. Each 3 minute reel demands that I am in a particular state of alertness, concentration and acuity. This state also allows me to let go during the moment of filming, to lose control and surrender the power of representation. We could consider these vibrations, which live within the image, as a manifestation of this state.
NOTEBOOK: What led to your collaborations with Richard Skelton? It’s interesting how his music is so tied to grief and having been embodied in whatever location was inspiring him at the time. He strikes me as having a nomadic spirit, like many of your filmic subjects.
VANDEWEERD: Whilst discovering Richard Skelton’s oeuvre around ten years ago, many images came to me whilst listening: steppes, ruins, stones, isolated spaces in desolate places, megaliths, telluric landscapes… The movement of his music is perpetual, rising and uneven, just like the movement of nomadic people. It seems to me that we share the same taste for traces, for what has disappeared and for that which nevertheless remains present, for a form of paganism inscribed in the elements of nature. We have never met, yet our paces and processes seem to progress and ease away beside each other, converging in the essence of a film.
From the moment I know I will use it during the editing process, his music accompanies me during shoots. It incarnates itself not as a soundscape but as a narrative element in itself. His music is like a wind that, by blowing endlessly, discovers and unearths hidden traces or footprints. It also evokes an internal breath that resides secretly in all of us.
For The Eternals, I wished to adapt a piece by Komitas (an Armenian monk and composer, who survived the genocide, and died in France from an overwhelming melancholy). This piece is called “Krung”. I sent Richard the original version of the piece, its diverse interpretations, and its score. A few months later, Richard sent me some variations, inspired by his own thought process. These are the chants heard throughout The Eternals.
NOTEBOOK: Your films explore liminal states of being, particularly amongst survivors of conflict. Your work has been referred to as ‘poetic’ in that sense. Are there any philosophers, anthropologists or writers who have had a particular influence on any of your films?
VANDEWEERD: Literature and essays have always fed my thoughts, and anthropological works allow me to approach each new location with a certain knowledge of the place.
The works of Walter Benjamin, Aby Warburg, Annie Dillard, Antonin Artaud, Gilbert Rouget, Giorgio Agamben, Sadegh Hedâyat, Georg Büchner, W.G. Sebald—among others, are inseparable companions during my travels.
But I think that each important encounter that takes place during my shoots feed my thoughts just as much as these seminal works. Especially when it concerns people resisting and surviving. A rare energy emits from them, which is born from a life that is fighting against death.
NOTEBOOK: The term “poetic” can also refer to how you construct your films’ narrations. What we hear from the shepherd in For the Lost is an amalgam of many individual voices and experiences, correct? Could you tell me more about this process?
VANDEWEERD: Kathleen Raine (poet and translator of William Blake) has written, “Choose your myth and live it.” This is what I tried to do in several of my films, particularly in For the Lost and The Eternals.
With For the Lost, I had found the traces of an ancient practice specific to Lozère consisting of going out with a herd of sheep in the mountains during snowstorms so that the sounds of their bells could guide people who were lost. From shepherds’ testimonies and written recommendations written in Occitan about this ritual, I wrote a text that punctuates the film. But beyond the poetic beauty of this practice, I wished to fully experience it so that other lost and forgotten people could be evoked.
The fact is that the word tourmente in French can mean both a snowstorm and a quivering of the soul. The word égarés (the mislaid/lost astray) refers to the people in Lozère who get lost in the mountain, but it was also the name given to the 3000 patients of the psychiatric hospital of Saint-Alban who were buried in a mass grave between 1880 and 1980.
I thereby came to own a herd of 150 sheep for three years. I had bells made for them which I chose different harmonies for, and one winter we crossed the snowstorms by following the recommendations linked with the ritual. Simultaneously, I found the names and medical reports of most of the 3000 égarés of the mass grave. I carried out my study across several months with current patients of the Saint-Alban hospital. Some of these medical reports are read by a doctor in the film and tell how the disorders of the soul and of the mind were, and remain, incorrectly examined through reason. Today’s patients recite the names of the égarés and bring them back among us.
NOTEBOOK: The inhabitants of the Lozère region use the word ‘blizzard’ to refer to both a bewilderment of the soul, and to the weather around them. And in The Eternals Armenian survivors use ‘tsnorq’ to encapsulate their feeling of eternal melancholy. You choose to unpack these particular words on title cards—there’s more in Lost Land too. What led to this emphasis on the subtleties and evolution of language(s)?
VANDEWEERD: My cinema is inscribed in the real but my films are not documentaries that explain, analyze or try to convince the viewer of a particular situation or issue. The way I conceive cinema is as a sensitive experience revolving around the abilities to share, live and feel. And every spectator can find freely the meaning they wish.
At the same time, cinema is not a loose exercise. That is why I resort to displaying these words and their definitions, so that they become beacons for the audience. They use the conciseness and refinement of the dictionary, displayed each time with their literal meaning as well as their poetic expansion.
NOTEBOOK: Lastly, are there any locations you’ve considered for future projects? Do you see yourself continuing to focus on people emotionally affected and/or exiled by political and environmental events?
VANDEWEERD: I don’t know yet where my next film will take me, but it is very probable that it will take shape in a desert once more…