MUBI's retrospective Vandeweerd: Filming the Invisible is showing January 14 – February 20, 2018.
When documentaries intersect with the practice of anthropology, formal and ethical questions can arise. How can Westerners depict and explore complex traditions and trauma outside of their realm of experience without reducing their cinematic subjects to merely an appearance as a talking head? The work of Belgium filmmaker Pierre-Yves Vandeweerd proposes a more metaphysical strategy; with voice-overs, folkloric texts, documents, music and long-duration portraits weaved into complex and vivid forms. Having filmed in remote locations across the Caucasus, France, and Africa, and frequently exploring the psychological effects of war, genocide and mental illness, Vandeweerd’s work has often been referred to as “poetic” on festival circuits. The elements and strategies that his films weave together constitute an attempt to connect with “the invisible,” qualities that the traditional anthropological modes of inquiry cannot account for1, with productions lasting several years and involving thorough immersion and research. In Vandeweerd’s films the soul is laid bare, making for viewing experiences that tap directly into our emotional registers.
In the digital age, we might mistakably think of a text solely as a sequence of typographic characters, with no defined body. But by considering the tactile nature of documents - entities possessed and adapted by multiple people in its lifetime with multiple instances existing, all carrying with them unique marks of use and travel—we can begin to understand the poetic influence of Vandeweerd’s work. His three most recent works The Eternals (2017), For the Lost (2014), and Lost Land (2011) were shot on 16mm and Super 8 formats, with a methodology around the lack of sync-sound emerging—a departure from the filmmaker’s previously digital workflow. As a result, voiceovers, interviews, adapted texts and folklores densely populate the soundtrack of the film; ever-present and possessing the quality of having been burnt into the film’s fiber. Never superfluous, and always of grave importance, these components seek to extract the subjective experiences found within each films’ respective landscapes.
In these rarely documented locations, such as the Moroccan-built wall in Western Sahara—the setting of Lost Land—stories and testimonies are of major significance. The voice is a vessel for transmitting the trauma of the Sahrawi people, many of whom who were displaced from their homes by violence in the 70s, and now live within the proximity of the vast wall, marked by a long-term cease fire between the Moroccan government and the Polisario Front. In one sequence, a woman recites a list of people who have gone missing and their last-known whereabouts, reminding us that catalogue-like texts are just as important as first-hand accounts. The same is true of For the Lost, where the names, serial numbers, date of passing and the afflictions of former patients of the Saint Alban psychiatric hospital are read from such a document.
Set in France’s storm-stricken Lozère region, For the Lost examines the melancholia that can arise within those harsh weather conditions, and the joint proximity of the Saint Alban hospital, whose former patients were buried in unmarked graves beneath the regions’ snow. Meanwhile, a folkloric text outlining how to care for a flock of sheep is decanted from a soft but stern voice, whilst a shepherd veiled in a large cloak—echoing personifications of Death—guides their flock through the region.2 “You will take care to tune the song of your flock, for the lost” informs the voice-over, outlying the shepherd’s symbolic ties to those who have perished in the region, and the role that the sheep’s bells play in directing their souls. Individual gravestones sometimes punctuate the region, contrasted against the snow. Death always lingers beneath the surface, and the shepherd’s actions are always linked back to those lost, and a similar method of remembrance is enacted by Saint Alban’s current patients, who can be heard chanting the names of former patients into the region’s expanse. Furthermore, intertitles mark the different geological features and locations that the shepherd arrives at, listing those who might have perished there.
Lost Land similarly uses geographically-informed intertitles, outlining each new location’s exact distance from the wall, burnings its ever-oppressive marking of the region into the film’s body. Looking back to Faraway Roots (2012), an earlier moment in Vandeweerd’s filmography, it becomes clear how these elements have developed from a previous occupation with the travelogue form, with that film following his journey through Mauritania in search of baobab tree seen from his window in Belgium. It highlights how the country has so many remote nodes, where spiritual, mythical and emotional narratives held dear to the natives can develop and thrive, whilst tapping into universal themes and objects. As a result, Vandeweerd’s own narrative dances amongst them, with the film ultimately underscoring how we take trees for granted in the Western world, which is why the impetuous for Vandeweerd’s initial journey may seem somewhat unusual to some viewers at first. The film follows a more linear path than Vandeweerd’s later works on small gauge film, but it nonetheless underscores the region’s scale: separating each locale with shots taken below trees at night-time on a river, with light mapping the water’s movements onto the branches. That exploration of scale manifests in For the Lost and Lost Land through the intertitles, the fragments of a geological map burnt into the film’s body.
If we begin the think of the rest of the film’s images as textual components too, Vandeweerd’s use of long durational portraits can be seen as unique documents with frayed edges, with the perceived imperfections being the moments where the subjects might lend a piece of their soul to the viewer. Much like early photographic portraits, where the exposure time was of significant length, the duration of capture creates what some might refer to as imperfections; moments where the subject might break their gaze, reveal a vulnerability, an emotion, an adaptation of their posture, or an entire change in their body language. In Vandeweerd’s approach, the portraits forge a pathway to the individual’s subjectivity or emotional state, amplified by the rest of the film’s simultaneous threads.
The portraits in Lost Land transmit more than just the filmed individual’s subjectivity, thanks to the Super 8 format that the film is shot on. Because the cameras are portable, compact and fairly lightweight, and because the surface area of the print is so small, Super 8 film reels are more susceptible to the operator’s minor movements, with Vandeweerd remarking in a previous interview that these vibrations have a secondary identity “emanating from the filmmaker’s sensitivity and subconscious,” particularly because you can hold the cameras as an extension of your own arm3. In the interconnected between the subject, filmmaker, camera apparatus, projector and the viewer that Vivian Sobchack once outlined4, these moments become charged with phenomenological energy—a way of transmitting and sharing lived-experiences between multiple persons. In the contexts of said blueprint, the portraits of Saint Alban’s patients in For the Lost render a sense of unease that possesses the capacity to emit a shared sense of sorrow to viewers who have suffered from, or have loved-ones with, psychological and mental health conditions of any degree. These exercises seek, and often succeed, to extract imperceptible emotions from those recorded—the invisible made tangible.
Vandeweerd’s heightened sound design, governed by the switch to analogue filmmaking, has simultaneously occurred with his implementation of Richard Skelton’s music, from Lost Land onwards. Flowing amidst the palpitations of storms, heartbeats and voices, Skelton’s music is now comfortable embedded within Vandeweerd’s work. “Many of my recordings are directly inspired by specific landscapes that I've visited, and I can therefore be quite protective of their use in other contexts,” says Skelton, referring to his practice of frequently composing in remote locations and including remnants from them in physical releases of his music. But after the pre-existing music merged so well with Vandeweerd’s contexts, Skelton was contacted about collaborating more directly for the former’s latest film The Eternals.
“I trusted him enough by then not to be anxious about trying to write for a landscape that I hadn't seen,” he says. “Pierre-Yves suggested sending me some Armenian music that was resonating with him whilst he was filming in Karabagh. I then used this music as a proxy for the film's landscape, which isn't perhaps as unusual as it sounds. I often think about the process of composing—not as trying to 'capture' a landscape, which is impossible— but as an act of sympathetic resonance. It is my own voice, harmonising with another.” The concept of a voice harmonizing with another is true of Vandeweerd’s approach also. His way of working is so embedded that it avoids the sense of voyeurism that many anthropologists fall into the trappings of, and the most emotional moments in his work feel earned, emergent from the deepest level of understanding and respect for his subjects. If there is a quick way to quantify Vandeweerd’s work, a voice harmonizing with another is it.
In The Eternals, Vandeweerd turns his lens towards the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, a largely empty area residing on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Whilst Armenian soldiers guarding the enclave outline the impact that war has had on their psyche, Vandeweerd simultaneously analyses the psychological impacts of the Armenian genocide; a systemic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians committed by the Ottoman Empire early in the 20th century. As the modern-day political dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan keeps the military in the region at an ever-alert standstill, several Armenians wander the area in a state of deep melancholy, evoking the genocide in an affliction of the soul expressed by the word “tsnorq,” meaning “The deep chant of sorrow… the melancholy of eternity.” Their emotional state can be described as a depression that causes them to wander endlessly, while awaiting and praying for a natural death.
Vandeweerd refrains from merely observing this state, and instead makes an active decision to impart its conditions upon the body and psyche. The sound design regularly highlights the breath—acknowledging how trauma grips our corporeality, not just our subconscious. One of the men excessively rubs his hands together as an extension of his post-traumatic state, with the camera focusing in on those movements, and the sound design amplifying the noise of the skin. These moments contain a haptic quality wherein we might be inclined to feel friction on our own hands as we watch him apply pressure to them and his walking stick. Elsewhere, the camera itself is positioned as an inflictor of their mental condition; tracking and chasing the wanderers across the environment. When we consider Paul Virilio’s observation that cinematic technology developed as a by-product of military equipment and surveillance5, then this forced point-of-view-like embodiment of the viewer as an operational component of trauma wrought by militarized genocide is particularly haunting.
The camera frantically circles around the men in some instances, a visual cue that mirrors their grief-stricken activities of drawing circular chalk markings on the region’s dilapidated buildings and churches. The circle is explained by one of the voice-overs; highlighting its symbolism and ties to the concept of eternity. Indeed, the notion of eternity is regularly revisited; with one of the men reciting the story of the “last man,” a figure who repeatedly lives his life up to 100 years of age before being reborn. This only heightens the film’s explorations of time and the Armenians’ dependence on the minutes that pass until their eventual and long-awaited death. By exploring two traumatic events that have defined the region side by side, Vandeweerd’s film creates a dynamic and exhaustive flow of temporality, where the subjectivity of the individuals affected meet in an emotionally challenging but rewarding cinematic experience.
When we refer to the essay film, we often overlook how widely varied that form can be. Essay filmmakers have long grappled with a range of stylistic approaches; incorporating and absorbing found footage, documents, texts, images, schools of thought, philosophical enquiries and more, creating new forms that are often complex, dialectic and multi-faceted, just like their paper equivalents. Though Vandeweerd’s work clearly fits within the vein of essay filmmaking, it might very well point to a new mode underneath that umbrella; one where unspoken trauma is imparted through less traditional means and supplemented with other texts, inclusive of formal exercises, sound design and music—an ever shifting and evolving apparatus that seeks to impart the often-invisible workings of the soul.