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A Land Imagined: A Conversation with Nicolas Rey

About Rey's experimental 16mm feature, _differently, Molussia_, which adapts a book on totalitarianism the filmmaker has never read.
Nicolas Rey

Above: Director Nicolas Rey and a 16mm contact printer.

The most mysterious encounter I had at the Toronto International Film Festival was with Nicolas Rey's differently, Molussia, a 16mm feature film in the Wavelengths section that will be playing at the New York Film Festival in its Views from the Avant-Garde sidebar.  The film adapts a book by German philosopher Günther Anders that the filmmaker has never read. In truth, the mystery is probably in the echoing series of encounters within the film, not just mine created by watching it. Rey, widely familiar with Anders' philosophical writings, only had second hand access to the book upon which his film was based, the novel "The Molussian Catacomb", written in the 1930s, which takes the form of a dialog between two citizens of an imaginary fascist country, Molussia, which has striking similarities to the contemporary Germany of the time. Left unpublished throughout Anders' life, and the book is now published but has only been translated into a few languages, none of which Nicolas Rey is fluent in. The director's understanding of the book was created both by Anders' own references to it in his philosophical writings—references to a work that remained unpublished at the time of reference—and later by reports from Rey's friends who could read it in either its original German or the languages in which it had been translated. Thus the change in title of the “adaptation” to differently, Molussia—a world imagined in sound and image with only partial, elliptical and suggestive hold on its source.

The film itself takes the form of nine chapter-titled segments, separated into reels and randomized during projection, that on the soundtrack feature a combination of extracts of the book read in German and location-based field recordings, and on the imagetrack landscape footage of fields, buildings, highways. It is an expression of construction and investment: with each episode of images and of text, the audience has to construct in their head the picture of a world as told by people talking about that world, whom we gradually realize are just two people, a sort of teacher and a sort of student, and whom we gradually realize are talking in the dark of a prison.

What we imagine from this recited text is then paired with Rey's imagined images, images of a contemporary country which may or may not bare some resemblance to the fascist state that reveals itself variously through the soundtrack. The gaps between the text, which often feature stories that appear as allegories, and the striking images of an unusual, gravely, steel-blue texture that somehow both specifies and generalizes what's being filmed, is at the heart of the film's mystery and its question about the world. Echoes and emptiness within and between the text and the images, especially in the randomized order in which the chapters are presented, make for a distinctly untotalitarian film which is nevertheless positing something about its images of today and our projection into them. The audience's experience with differently, Molussia is a mysterious but engaged activity, a projection that, like the film, like Anders' Molussia, contains an inextricable combination of fiction, fantasy and history.

I had the chance at the end of the festival to sit down with Nicolas Rey and talk to him more about his process of making this unique construction.

NOTEBOOK: I'm coming mostly from a place of ignorance; I haven't seen your other work, I know little of contemporary French experimental cinema, and this movie I found profoundly, evocatively mysterious. So I was hoping to start simply, and discuss the production of the film. Making a feature length film in 16mm, let alone a non-dramatic one, is getting increasingly rare...

NICOLAS REY: Well, it's been 15 years or so since we set up a small artist run film lab named L'abominable; we all had another workshop in Grenoble called L'atelier MTK that had opened the year before. They were people who did performance work using 16mm—Cellule d'Intervention Metamkine, it's called—and they opened this hand-processing lab around 1994 mainly for their own use, thinking “well, we're not going to use it every day, so we can open it to people who want to come learn how to process and print their own 8 or 16mm film.” It was a big discovery for me, at the time I was just starting making films; I made a documentary video at the time, and at pretty much the same time I started making a film using the ability to process 16mm there. And very fast I knew that's how I wanted to make films. At the same time, I discovered what television meant, because of my documentary. It didn't fit television's standards or expectations; at the same time, I could make a film using hand processing and making whatever I wanted. Although, it was very time consuming...more like a solo experience. But I thought: “This is how I want to make films.” A number of people had come from Paris to work in that workshop in Grenoble, and so after a year they were overwhelmed not just by people from Paris, but people from Geneva, people from everywhere flocking in to use their tiny two room lab. “We can't go on like this! There's a need for this. You should set up your own labs wherever you are, there's ten people from Paris. You should start a lab in Paris!” So that's what we did; we got lucky enough to find a place, pieces of equipment from the start. It grew up into what L'Abominable is today, and we kept it open to new members. We don't do service, but it's a place where you can learn how to process and print film.

NOTEBOOK: So it's like a teaching facility, too, in a way.

REY: In a way—it's transmission. It's not academic teaching, but it's transmission to other filmmakers, and they get proficient enough they can teach others, help run the lab.

NOTEBOOK: A bit like a cooperative?

REY: It's a bit like that, yes.

NOTEBOOK: And this is financially viable?

REY: Well, the place was so small and the space was almost free. And we supported ourselves also with making workshops for kids, we started to get a little funding, and we're trying to get more, especially as we got evicted from the place where we were for fifteen years, last summer, and we had to find a new place. We found a new one under the auspices of the city counsel, so it's public space, it's large and almost free. It's not forever, it's only for a few years because the building is getting torn down...

NOTEBOOK: Of course!

REY: Of course! But we're trying to get stronger so that we can face the next...when we have it. Get funding, have a couple of persons on staff, especially since of course nowadays, since fifteen years ago, what's at stake is very different.

NOTEBOOK: I would think that fifteen years ago having a place like this was more about control, doing this thing in the space you want with the people you want, but now it seems like it's a rarity for such a lab to even exist. So I would think it's less about people wanting such a space as needing the facilities.

REY: Yeah, and in the beginning the lab was really linked with the experimental film scene, now anyone who needs to use film wants to use it. So the question has become, “How is this going to continue? How will we continue to produce films?”—and show films on film, for curators; it's a very important issue which we're trying to address by running this lab.

NOTEBOOK: Shooting this on 16mm and hand processing it, especially based on material that is political, like Günther Anders' book, is this inherently politically material aesthetics?

REY: I got interested in Günther Anders' writings because of his writing about technique and technology, and his criticism of the technique, of how technology rules the world even more profoundly than our governments do. Like, for instance he would say “What can be done, will be done,” and he wrote that already in the 1950s! The way that needs are being created just to market new products of technology. He was very critical of progress. And what a perfect example of what's happening with the technique of cinema today, and the way it's being imposed I think is very brutal. So, yes. I sort of took a chance, or relied...I couldn't read the book, so I relied on believing that I would relate to it because I related to Günther Anders' writings I could read, the ones that are translated.

NOTEBOOK: And his own references to his unpublished book, right?

REY: And his references to his book.

NOTEBOOK: You didn't read the book...was it read to you, or it was excerpted for you?

REY: A few people read it completely and I discussed the book with these people, and in the end Peter Hoffmann read it and he selected a number of chapters, knowing my films, knowing me. These chapters we roughly translated so I could have an idea of what was in them. And then we worked with those, with this corpus, and recorded a smaller amount of it, and then recorded a smaller amount of that, and put in the film an even smaller amount.

NOTEBOOK: In a way, I see two strands here. Translation is one, but I wanted to talk about that later. The other is fantasy. You are adapting a book you haven't read, and in turn the book is about a land you don't and can't see. You're visualizing text you haven't fully read that describes a place that is fictional. The end result is several steps removed.

REY: I have to admit I was very impressed by the strength of the text, when I finally got to read what I could read of it. It was quite a rencontrer, a meeting, with that text. I owe a lot of whatever the strength of the film has to that.

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel like, for you, the process of making the film has filled in the gaps of not knowing the full text of the book? Or do you see it as starting from the text and moving to a different space?

REY: I think it's not filling in a gap, it's maybe paying its tribute to the text? And, well, for those who can actually access it, it can make people want to read that text, and read Anders.

NOTEBOOK: As an English speaker, it's quite frustrating but quite incredible to encounter your film. It seems like you've done the only English translation of this work and it is such a unique way to experience it, basically translated twice over and also through images. But it also creates a new life for it, passing along your imagination of a thing you don't know completely to an audience who now will have their own imagination of Anders, based on your imagination. Where was this footage shot? Was it all from the same area?

REY: No, it was shot in, I don't know, ten or twelve shooting periods, and in different parts, mostly France.

NOTEBOOK: And the process of shooting: did you know the kinds of spaces you wanted to find or were you searching and found the images?

REY: I just relied on the intuition that if I went out to film "Molussia" there would be something. Again, I relate to the way Anders analyzes the world, I thought it would be feasible to hear the text and put it together with whatever images I would feel like doing. I tried to film Molussia in a way that a country can be shown. Sometimes in a very familiar landscape, one you wouldn't notice when you go past it. But if you start watching it it can start triggering ideas like, “what is this building made for?” and “what's going on in here?”—things like that. I went out a number of times; at the beginning it was unclear what I wanted to film, but processing the material and watching the workprint...when I was going to the next shooting period I would already see things that would connect together and go from there.

NOTEBOOK: Did you start with the text and then select the sections you wanted to record?

REY: No, that came in the end.

NOTEBOOK: Ah, so you found the images before identifying the texts.

REY: Yeah, because I started learning a bit of German—as I had originally wanted to actually read the book in German—I started filming and it took me a long time to “master” the material, since it was very old, it wasn't very easy to process it right so that it would yield an image I would have interest in. So that took a number, already, of months, so I could find the right technical procedure for that. I started accumulating material and started working with Peter and waiting—he lives in Germany and in Spain, so it took a while before he could find the time to come to Paris and to pick the chapters that he found were relevant.

NOTEBOOK: When you started shooting it, at that point several of your friends had read the book and had talked to you about it?

REY: Yes, because the copy of the book I bought about ten years ago. I have long had this fantasy of making a film from it. One person had read it ten years ago, and a couple others in the meantime. I knew a bit what was in it. At one point, there were other ideas about it I didn't go for. All of this took a long time to settle down, and to say “okay I'll make the German...with Peter...mostly off but there's a few texts I'll film in sync sound.” It just takes me a lot of time [laughs], that's all there is to it!

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk more about this specific look of the film? You said it was quite difficult stock to process, is this because it was old? I saw it was Agfa...

REY: It's reversal stock. It was given to me actually by a person who had seen my films in Berlin that I met one day in the lobby of the cinema. He explained to me he had overheard a conversation in a cafe that someone had a massive amount of film stock in his basement, and he convinced the person to give it to him. He gave me a couple cans to try at the time, and then he was thinking maybe of using it himself. At one point I asked him for a number of cans he could give or sell me . He ended up giving me the whole quantity. So it's funny, the film stock was from someone's basement!

NOTEBOOK: How old is it?

REY: It's from the 80s, I guess. There is no date but from the label I'd say from the 80s.

NOTEBOOK: By this point has the material changed?

REY: Yeah, it gets grainier and the self-exposes in places and not in others. Also, the colors are's harder to color time, grade, than fresh stock. It's totally out of the range of fresh stock. So you have to work on a very special grading procedure. It would drive a professional man nuts [laughs].

NOTEBOOK: But you enjoyed this arduous task...

REY: Yes! Well, you know, I make a workprint because I like projecting the material. I edit on a flatbed, only the sound is digital. But I have this print, this workprint. When I make it I already start grading, not as strict as for the final print, but I make a workprint that is graded, so along the way I learn how to work with the material.

NOTEBOOK: This unique color palette, it's a combination of the inherent qualities of the Afga stock and something you did in processing it?

REY: Yeah, I cross-processed it, so it's processed as a negative. Then it's printed, and it's also printed in a specific way, bleach bypass. I just try to find the right procedure to give it justice. I had done a similar process for another film earlier, working with a Russian stock when I made this film that was crossing Russia called Soviets Plus Electricity [2001], I shot on outdated Super-8 Soviet stock that was a copy of Afga in reversal, actually. I think that, apart from the technical procedures, I was interested in the atemporal look that it has. It looks ancient at the same time it looks now.

NOTEBOOK: It feels like an artifact from now.

REY: Yeah.

NOTEBOOK: Agfa...that was a Germany company?

REY: It was Belgian. Well, Agfa was German, but Gevaert was Belgian and they merged, so it's now Agfa-Gevaert.

NOTEBOOK: Ah, I was just thinking how if this was German stock, used to visualize a book that took place in a fictitious country that seemed a lot like Germany at the time...

REY: It's more Gevaert, more Belgian.

NOTEBOOK: A reach!

REY: It would have been nice; it would have been true for Soviets Plus Electricity.

NOTEBOOK: At what point did you integrate the camera machines into your shoot [the film employs two machines, one spins the camera on its horizontal axis with the wind, the other spins the camera along the vertical axis]? From the Q&A at the festival you were talking about building these machines sort of for fun in the lab.

REY: The wind camera I already have in mind earlier for Schuss! [2005] but it didn't work out. But we had started designing it at the time. I was interested in things about the random aspect and it pushed this aspect. The randomness of wind, of the revolution of the camera. I think it's what I enjoy about the technique of film, and I think I enjoy the fact of dealing with tools that are sort of “man level,” in a way.

NOTEBOOK: Sort of tactile, right? You put your hands on it and it does something.

REY: Exactly. It totally gets lost in digital filmmaking, I think.

NOTEBOOK: At what point did you integrate the idea of having nine randomized reels? Are these actually reels, are they nine equally divided 16mm reels?

REY: They are not equally divided but they are nine reels delivered in nine cans, some are five minutes and some are longer. That came very early. Like with the machines, I could have dropped it if I thought it didn't fit, but I again thought about that idea of the randomness. Well, to put it that way, I'm interested in the way that the audience builds the film in its head when it watches it, taking in the images and the soundtrack. In my films I try different arrangements, and I had this idea before. It seemed to relate quite well to Anders' ideas, I'd say...

NOTEBOOK: In what sense?

REY: You know, incidentally, I just read the second volume of “The Outdatedness of Man” that was published in France a few months ago in French. In the final chapter of the philosophy books he says “this is the final chapter, but that could have been different, it could have been in a different order”! [Laughs.] There's a question of the philosophy and a question of the book. The book is perfectly chronological, because it starts with, like, “Day 1: Night,” and then “Day 2,” and then there's the subtitle of the chapter, the ones I have used in the title cards....

NOTEBOOK: The texts in your title cards are directly from the chapter subtitles?

REY: Yes, they are the titles of the chapters from the book. Sometimes they are very short...but each time it is a little story, they are all independent from one another, in a way. So it just made sense. It also made sense because the chapters that are presented are just a few from a book I haven't read. It really is, it becomes, an extract.

NOTEBOOK: You say these reels are randomized, but isn't their order actually determined by the projectionist?

REY: No, no—there's a little set of cards and the projectionist can shuffle the cards to help him decide on the order, or he can just take the cans and flip them around, but I made a set of cards that are all the same on one side and have the title, number and color of the reel on the other.

NOTEBOOK: You handled the sound design yourself?

REY: Yes, the recording I do when I go out shooting, I sometimes record sounds where I'm filming, sometimes I record just sound, or I'm filming without sound—it depends on the interest of what's around. With the sound I had recorded, I got interested in those that had rather long duration with variation built...not built into it...had occurred during it. I actually started by editing text against—or, not against [laughs]—in tension with those sounds. That's how I started to edit, I made a number of soundtracks without dealing with the image. Then you realize you can't just do anything, there has to be some tension between the text and the sound, and it was very simple, because every time it was just one long piece of sound and the text together with it. But the placement of the sound, it could be at the beginning, at the end, in the middle, there are a number of combinations that were possible. So I made these soundtracks and then I started editing the image without the sound, I tried to produce, let's say, crossings of landscapes that I thought were possible projecting without sound. That took me already a while, and when I was done with that, I started confronting the two, and that was the editing, to put it together.

NOTEBOOK: So you began with episodic sonic units and then found the images to match the soundtrack?

REY: I didn't make the image units, or edits, thinking about a particular sound. I made the image units so that they stood themselves, so they could stand by themselves. And then I started trying to see what would happen between those soundtracks I had made and the image. The process is quite interesting to me. That's why sometimes I knew that I wanted some parts to be mute, also, and it wasn't a problem if the recording was shorter, or it could go all the way to the end of the reel.

NOTEBOOK: The production path was created by encountering the material, and the material determining the workflow.

REY: Yes. Because of the importance of the is the first time I made a film from a literary source. Just for this film, this is the first time I did it like this—it is a peculiar way to edit.

Amazing story! I’d like to see more of this stuff. Nicolas Rey is a special person
Great interview, and a valuable one. Definitely one of the strongest films playing at the nyff…

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