What Time is Made Of: A Discussion with Diana Vidrascu

Subject of a London Short Film Festival retrospective, the director talks about the form, research, and the personal elements of her work.
Andrew Northrop

Above: Volcano: What Does a Lake Dream?

In the short films of Romanian-born, Paris-based filmmaker Diana Vidrascu, locations are anything but stagnant. Eroding the familiar and surveying the unexplored, Vidrascu’s inquiries seek to expose the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction, interrogate the camera’s ability to present, and question our reliance on certain structures of seeing. In her latest work, Volcano: What Does a Lake Dream? (2019), Vidrascu deconstructs and reconfigures her own film negatives into a formal exploration of the tectonic activity simmering beneath the Azores archipelago’s volcanic islands. Sitting alongside discussions with locals and the mechanical probing of infrared stills, the vivid eruption-resembling sequence stands as a memorable collision of documentary and structuralist modes.

Vidrascu’s earlier works Silence of the Sirens (2019) and What Time is Made Of (2017) chart more personally-charged investigations that ultimately weave around the experiences of others—the former exploring the Greek myth and Kafka’s interpretation of it via an engagement with Céline Karter, a diasporic collaborator of Vidrascu’s whose process of finding her footing as an actress in France interfaces with the director’s own background as a Romanian expat. In What Time is Made Of, the cinephile notion of a found or lost film is exploited in order to explore the immemorial document of a young Vidrascu conversing with her grandfather on audio tape—a universal-feeling exploration of family history, activated by the markings rendered upon the 16mm film by the movements of the sea. In Gylfaginning–The Deluding of King Gylfi (2017) the solemn landscapes of Iceland are activated by the reading of a historical text, reminding the viewer that the country’s beauty is marinated in a deep history of folklore that we so often overlook in favor of a quick photographic subject.

Speaking ahead of a retrospective program at the London Short Film Festival, Vidrascu discusses the formal strategies employed in her filmmaking, the nature of categorizations, her approach to research, and the personal elements found within her short films.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve frequently worked as a director of photography on music videos and commercial projects. What led you to pursue short films, and when did that transition feel right?

DIANA VIDRASCU: It was about five years ago I’d say, and in a sense, it was a consequence of being exposed to more experimental types of cinema—less fiction work. After I moved to Paris, I was briefly enrolled at the University studying for my PhD in film semiotics, and at the time I was still very focused on the cinematography of fiction films, but I also got a job working for a distributor of experimental film. I was exposed to this style of filmmaking that was completely abstract, non-narrative and different, although just as—or even more—visually engaging than anything else I experienced up until that moment. By 2015, I had  shot my first film in an attempt to absorb this experimental film context, to learn the history and get a sense of how it works.

I consider both Gylfaginning–The Deluding of King Gylfi and What Time is Made Of to be my first films together, because I shot What Time is Made Of first but then I went straight to Iceland, shooting Gylfaginning, and spent the next year and a half editing both films in parallel.

Above: Gylfaginning–The Deluding of King Gylfi

NOTEBOOK: And your films involve landscapes heavily, sometimes in places such as Iceland that have a very dominant style of being represented. How do you approach countering those dominant styles?

VIDRASCU: I realized recently that I’ve more or less been put into this category of landscape films, which wasn’t necessarily my intention. I’m interested in landscape still photography, but I don’t necessarily consider myself a landscape filmmaker. I think it evolved from the fact that I was too shy to involve myself with characters in the beginning, or to delve into a more character driven writing style. I felt more comfortable working with spaces that are devoid of humankind and building my own stories within them.

With What Time is Made Of I felt like it needed to come from a possible pre-history—I was constantly eliminating all of the human elements and marks of civilization from the shots, and was trying to look at the world as if it came from outside of time. Whereas for Gylfaginning I just needed it to be very aloof. In that sense, I believe that they are personal films, and that my research was focused on inward questioning. All the stories and myths that I’m trying to bring to the surface are very personal, and they’re kind of mirrored in these empty landscapes. I also don’t think I’m shooting films just to show the beauty of a place—it’s usually a mere pretext to go deeper, or to research that which is now absent.

NOTEBOOK: Something that struck me about What Time is Made Of is how, amidst a storied tradition of filmmakers engaging with family history, this is filmed in France opposed to Romania, and you’re using audio from the past that was recorded somewhere else. There’s a kind of disconnect that isn’t found in most of the essayistic films about family that we regular see. Could you talk about combining those two objects?

VIDRASCU: I should probably reference Silence of the Sirens first, because for me that’s more of a film about returning home—a home that was left behind—but What Time is Made Of also resonates with the fact that I moved from Romania to France. Around that time my mother gave me this tape—it’s been somewhat of a myth in my family for many years. We knew that my grandfather had recorded us singing and then some music was accidentally recorded on top.

Above: What Time is Made Of

I was 25 when I listened to it for the first time and it felt as if it was a message in a bottle. Not only did I not recognize the voice of my grandfather—because he had passed away almost 20 years ago—but there was this child’s voice that I couldn’t really link to myself. And I thought, “this is just like a message in a bottle that somebody threw into the ocean, but that person might as well have been me.” Building up from that point I started thinking about the sea and different objects that could wash up ashore, like a film can or invented memories. The idea of a structuralist, essayistic film took shape after my encounter with this recording and it turned into a reflection of my condition as an image-maker, more than a pondering on nostalgia or family.

I was watching a lot of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and I thoroughly admired how he plays with fact and fiction in the credits of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives [2010]. I really wanted to experiment with this structure, so, I introduced the “unprocessed film roll” premise, which is proper fantasy, but luckily not many know this is technically impossible. A lot of people believe the film dead straight and say, “It’s so wonderful that you found this film can… did you ever try to find the person who shot it?” And there are moments when I can’t let myself burst that bubble because that’s where the magic of cinema really happens—who am I to break the suspension of disbelief?

Above: Silence of the Sirens

NOTEBOOK: Something that really stands out with Silence of the Sirens is the relationship to myth and the notion of the journey. We see so many journeys in it—the meditation at the beginning is a journey, there’s Celine’s own journey home and so on. There’s a heavily gendered aspect to the Greek myths and the notions of home, and it feels like this film is an interesting course correction in that regard, especially the scene where she translates the myth into Creole. Could you talk about the influence of the myth and Kafka’s reading of it upon the film? 

VIDRASCU: The Kafka text obsessed me for many years. I think it’s quite sublime—it has an unexpected empowering feminine element that’s subdued and very mysterious. However, I wasn’t directly interested in making an adaptation of neither Homer’s myth nor Kafka’s short story. I wanted to experiment more with the documentary form while using different mechanisms.

It might be my most personal film, although someone else is the vehicle of this almost auto-biographical confession. And this happens to be a fictional character as well as a documentary one at the same time. But it reflects in many ways my own history of moving between countries, between different professions and also film genres. And on top of that, being a woman filmmaker and not easily finding my place in the industry, as well as approaching a different filmmaking culture from the one I come from. 

All of these thoughts came together in the form of a film script when I met Céline Karter, after shooting a commercial project together. She was telling me about her family’s history from Martinique, about living in Paris as a young struggling actress, but also daydreaming about the Martinique of her childhood—creating a parallel fantasy space which she can relate to but can only have access to when going on holiday. I partly recognized myself in her story, but also thought that our experiences would resonate well if we worked together.

Above: Silence of the Sirens

I tried to find new ways of writing and directing that could relate to the Kafka text, to deconstruct it and then rebuild it in my own way. And I also let myself be driven by the experience of working closely with Céline and her family; their own approach to the text and their approach to working with me in the form of a documentary, while driven by a fiction story. There was a lot of back and forth between us and the project evolved very organically during its making. Céline helped to direct the scenes from within the filmic space, while I was outside “documenting” what was happening. She was following the directions of a script while investing it with her biographic experience and personal interpretation, partly confronting the authority of fiction. Translating Kafka’s Homeric text to Creole sums it all up almost in an allegorical sense, by confronting not only two languages but also the literary language with its cinematic translation.

NOTEBOOK: In Volcano: What Does a Lake Dream?, you punch in and scan over the infrared still images, while some of the cinematography makes similar movements—almost surveillance like. I wondered if you could talk about those formal choices? 

VIDRASCU: It came from the idea of creating two different camera personalities. One that I wanted to be handheld and lively, where you could feel the reminiscences of realist film aesthetics—like you could visualize the person behind the camera, moving about and discovering the world at the same pace as the audience. And another one, completely timeless: a photographic image that was kind of self-aware and already knew what it was looking at.

Above: Volcano: What Does a Lake Dream?

The camera movement is written from mathematical equations—an animation. I took these large medium-format photographs I shot on infrared film and drove the camera over them, trying to simulate a way of looking at the world that was non-human, out-of-time, maybe coming from the volcano itself, or maybe coming from a geological means of looking at time and space. I wanted to have an aerial view of the landscape driven not by my curiosity or an optical stance, but by mathematical coordinates in space. Mirroring how a volcanic eruption reshapes the landscape, I imagined looking at it with the same implacable force of a gaze that doesn’t qualify space in any way, but only traverses it.

NOTEBOOK: The infrared Kodak Aerochrome stock that you used was made for war or scientific purposes, right?

VIDRASCU: Indeed. I discovered it through Richard Mosse’s project The Enclave, where he was portraying the military reality in the Democratic Republic of Congo using this 16mm film stock. On my end I needed a thermal-like, unexpected camera approach, as if the viewer needs to adjust to the volcano’s eyes—alternating between the red primary filter and this infrared imaging revealing what lies dormant under the surface. In my case I wasn’t studying the military implications of landscape but rather the possibility of different geological layers hiding in the light spectrum.

Above: Volcano: What Does a Lake Dream?

NOTEBOOK: And going back to the earlier question about filming landscapes: the structuralist interventions in this film really activate the island’ spaces in that way that perhaps isn’t expected or found in conventional documentary projects. I wondered if you could talk about that relationship between documentary and experimentation, which I think people do still shy away from or consider taboo… that connection between truth and materiality?

VIDRASCU: For me this is partly a conflictual relationship, because I’m not keen on experimenting in documentaries only for the sake of it or for highlighting certain aesthetics. I usually try to look deep into what my film characters’ needs are, or what the subject requires in order to be seen from the right angle, then I try to improvise ways of looking at it from a different perspective altogether—usually to encourage questioning the subject even further. Materiality should be linked the innate subject of a documentary, in this case a documentary on geological formation but also on the forming of images.

Above: Laboratory pictures from the making of Volcano: What Does a Lake Dream? Courtesy of Johan Härnsten.

I wanted to illustrate a fictional volcanic eruption by means of optical printing, using my film negative to create different mattes. From the negative I started making different generations of high-contrast copies in order to create these special-effects masks. I then printed other images through them as if they were stencils, purposely destroying the actual film in the process, to the point where there was only a skeleton of the original image left. And I thought it was a revealing and interesting reflection of the natural disaster's destructive power. I thought it was a suggestive way to talk about volcanic eruptions, young territories and how landscapes are always in motion in the bigger scale of geological timeline.

NOTEBOOK: I also wanted to ask about the Brocken spectre—the optical illusion at the end—why did it feel right to feature that shot at the end, after all the chaos of the eruption? Was it quite challenging to piece the film together?

VIDRASCU: It was challenging in the sense that—a bit like with Gylfaginning—I spent three to four months prior just researching everything I could get my hands on, into the geological history of the archipelago. With the help of volcanologists like Christian Renggli and Nuno Pereira I studied the probability of an eruption and what type of eruptions are likely to happen in the Azores. So, I was writing the script from statistical probabilities and geology books. By the time I went there to shoot, these stories surfaced in my imagination without me necessarily realizing. After two years of having visited these islands, I was already quite familiar with the space, so I fused my personal impressions with the scientific research many have done before me, trying to find the best voice for the volcanoes lying still underneath.

But the Brocken spectre, this illusion… it was pure chance. I was just up on the mountain shooting this lake at sunset—the “Lake of Fire”—and I started noticing this optical phenomenon unraveling in front of me and projecting the camera’s shadow onto the clouds. I told myself that I needed to shoot the scene until I ran out of film because I couldn’t afford to let it go, seeing it as a metaphor for cinema itself. And the best thing that happened is that it slowly disappeared, revealing the landscape behind the fog, behind the camera somehow. It felt very much like a scream from the inside, fading away into silence. The music composer [Mondkopf] complemented this vision very well with the soundtrack. If you listen close enough, nature, or landscape, or whatever you may be looking at through the camera, looks back at you, answers in its own voice, and you just need to let things develop. I think that’s the magic of shooting film too—knowing that incredible things might happen.

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