Can a making-of be a complex anthropological piece of filmmaking? Andrea Bussmann answers that question easily with her documentary short, He Whose Face Gives No Light (2011), filmed during the recording of Malaventura, the first film of Mexican programmer Michel Lipkes. In this documentary, the Canadian director already touches on all of her concerns and intentions regarding cinema, such that her follow-up feature, Tales of Two Who Dreamt (2016), made in collaboration with her husband, the festival-favorite Nicolás Pereda, confirmed her ethnographic approach and her influences from literature, how both of these approaches can work on documentary, and her interest in questioning the concepts and conventions of fiction and documentary forms.
We talked to Andrea Bussmann about her first feature directed solo, Fausto (Faust), a particularly interesting and articulate anthropological reflection on the complex historical construction of the present through literature and mythology and the colonizing influence of the word and fiction on quotidian life. The film, which was shot at the Oaxacan coast of Mexico, received its world premiere at the Locarno Festival.
NOTEBOOK: You reside in Toronto but for personal reasons you have a very close relationship with Mexico. What was your approach to filming La Escondida, on the coast of Oaxaca, and when did you decide to use this beach as the setting for your movie?
BUSSMANN: I am from Canada, but in fact haven’t lived there for a number of years. I live mainly in New York City, with the exception of this year, in which I will be based in Mexico City. My husband Nicolás is Mexican, so we vacation in Mexico and visit with his family yearly.
In terms of the film’s setting, we were invited to stay with a couple who were living on the Oaxacan coast. Nicolás had met them recently and they wanted to work with him on a project. We planned to go to their place on the beach for about three weeks. Nicolás bought me a new camera so I had something to do. In truth, I find beach vacations a little boring after a couple of days! Once I learnt where exactly we were going, I starting doing research about the area.
NOTEBOOK: There is a whole series of characters that pass by throughout Fausto. What was the casting process like and how did you work with the people?
BUSSMANN: No one of the characters were cast in a traditional way. Once I had a theoretical framework and some stories prior to arriving, I just worked with who was ever around. Obviously there is some luck involved. Fernando and Alberto were the couple we stayed with. Victor was a friend of theirs from France, who come to work with them. Ziad was a friend who came to vacation during the same moment we did. Once I met these four wonderful people, I asked them if they would each tell a story for the film. I knew I could frame them as Faustian characters, even with the choice to use their actually names. It was a matter of suggesting the Faust connection, rather than using a more literal approach to the Faust characters. As I got to know their personalities and watched their relationships with one another, they naturally fell into particular characters for me. James, the older gentleman in the film, was an expat American that I met who was living nearby. I interviewed him over two days, and his interview or story was the only one not planned. The only woman on screen, Julia, I had met before I started filming. She had told us the story of the Enchanted House a number of years before. I thought it was a great fit for the film’s themes and location, so I asked her to tell me the story on camera.
NOTEBOOK: The voiceover on the film has this strong sonorous force. Something kind fonetic on it. That brings me to the soundtrack of the film, I found the use of music in the film really curious. You use particularly a couple of pieces quite opposite each other. How did you come to this eclectic selection?
BUSSMANN: There are couple of reasons for this. A bunch of the music was just what happened to be playing in the background on any given night. A lot of the footage is “documentary” in nature, in that I would shoot while we were just hanging out in the evenings. The music that is used in the club and then again with the animals in the museum was free sound, so I didn’t have to worry about rights. I made this film with practically no money. The main costs were the transfer to 16mm and the post sound. I tried to use whatever is available within the constraints I have during a project. The musical motif in the film is a tiny section of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony Number 8. The part that is influenced by the final scene in Goethe’s Faust. I fell in love with this melodic rhythm and I thought could use it not only to set a particular atmospheric tone, but also as a cyclical recurring element that plays with the repetitive nature of time in the movie. There are also a number of references to different works of Faust that influenced my thought process. I enjoy including references in small ways, whether as a musical motif or a line or two of dialogue taken from another Faust work.
NOTEBOOK: Your previous film, Tales of Two Who Dreamt, was an hybrid adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis—maybe not literally, but influenced theoretically by it. Now Fausto has this influence by this myth and Goethe’s work. Can you talk a little bit about your interest in literature and how it influences your cinema?
BUSSMANN: Tales of Two Who Dreamt had quite a different approach to Fausto in terms of being inspired by literature, as nothing of the original shooting was thought of in relation to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The film was originally two separate fims that were shot separately, but that were to have a dialogue with one another. In the end, these two films became one film. It was only in the editing of film that I decided to use Metamorphosis to anchor them. In Tales of Two Who Dreamt, the work and ideas of Jorge LuisBorges, particularly in relation to translation, was an even greater influence than the more-clear use of the Kafka narrative. While there is an obvious link to classic literature in these two films, really literature in general, contemporary literature especially influences my choices a great deal. I read much more than I watch films. I am a bit of a theory nerd. Probably if I watched more films, I would be a better filmmaker. The formal structures and thematic ideas employed by particular authors motivate me to explore if and how I can relate these to the cinematic medium. For example, one of my favourite authors is the Peruvian-Mexican writer Mario Bellatin. I find his work formally innovative. There is even a small homage to him in my film. The one arm zoo keeper who keeps animals that are blind. Mario often references animals and captivity (zoos, aquariums, et cetera). I hope one day to be able to do a loose adaptation of a character from one of his novels.
NOTEBOOK: Relating a Peruvian-Mexican writer to Mexican territory seems natural, but Faust is a German legend. When did you realice the link between this ancient European myth and the inhabitants and landscape of a Oaxacan coast?
BUSSMANN: Although Faust is legend of German origin, so many of its evolving themes over generations are easily connectable to people and places outside of this origin. Even the simplest of themes such as the devil’s contract and the devil’s link to money and capital was as obvious connection for me. Authors such as Michael Taussig in his anthropological work The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, for example, discuss how there are many local tales in the new world that link getting rich quickly with dealings with the devil. In Goethe’s Faust, Faust and Mephistopheles end up being given control of the coast, because of the Mephistopheles’ introduction of a credit system to emperor. Money, capital, colonization, and the devil seemingly go hand in hand over generations and across the globe.
NOTEBOOK: In the narrative of the film, you seem to go the path of Faust. Fausto is always speaking about searching in the voiceover, in the myths, in this storytelling… What were you looking for?
BUSSMANN: You are spot on. The concept of the search and searching was a central idea in the film and in the Faust myth. Much of the time we learn the characters are searching for a shadow, a man, et cetera. The theme of the search was something important for me to use, but also important to continue without a resolution. Faust, after all, wants nothing more than to unlock the keys to the universe and himself—something that, like Faust, we are far from doing. I’m never looking for a particular thing, but I’m always in the process of searching and exploring. I’m consumed by questions, which through the seeking of answer continually opens up new questions. I am forever seeking ways to express all the questions I have in relation to the world around me. It is this constant search that drives my work in terms of constantly trying to discover new cinematic forms.
NOTEBOOK: Talking about looking for new forms, you just mentioned that you transfered Fausto to 16mm…
BUSSMANN: Yes, I wanted to transfer the video to film to create an organic feel that is timeless, which would link with the themes of nature and perception. By just shooting a video image off a computer screen, the image created often lies somewhere between Super 8 and 16mm.
NOTEBOOK: Can you tell us a little about the production worked? I have the impression that it would have been to film the people and the spaces first and then in the editing process to work on all the narrative themes. Or was it filmed with an existing script?
BUSSMANN: The process of the film was a mixture of ideas I had before I arrived and things that serendipitously occurred while there. Working with themes that I could relate to different Faust tales was my foundation prior to arriving. It actually started when Nicolás gave me the camera as a gift. It was a Sony A7s. He knew how much I liked shooting in dark locations, and thought it would be a great small camera for me that required little infrastructure to use (when I arrived to shoot, I only had this camera, a small mic to attach to it and a couple of lens. I didn’t even have a tripod). I was astonished at the camera’s ability to see in such low lighting conditions. Yet at the same time, this evolving technology got me thinking about technology, perception, and our relationship to nature. I had just finished teaching a course on moving images in relation to various artistic practices. During the week on theatre, I introduced the students to The Wooster Group’s production of Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Light. While I played around with my new camera, I kept coming back to Stein’s critique of technology, perception and shifting identities. This is when the seed of using the Faust legend was planted. Many of the stories I planned ahead of time, even though I didn’t have people to work with yet. As I mentioned earlier, I figured I would try to find things when I arrived, because I wasn’t sure who and what I would exactly find. I had always conceived of the film as having a voiceover. I knew I wanted the voice to be that of the place itself, nature itself speaking. This voiceover was simultaneously influenced by Goethe’s character of Lynkeus, the watchman. Much of the voice over script was written while shooting and during the editing process. The narrator tells a mix of fictional stories I created and stories I was told by local people during my time filming there.
NOTEBOOK: During the film I had the feeling that there is a constancy in the dialogues, a demonstration that Fausto, the film, is a self-conscious film of Faust and of this game of mirrors between the concepts that exist about fiction and documentary...
BUSSMANN: The constant in the dialogue comes from the fact that the voice is a character itself—the main character, I would argue. The Faust characters are very much peripheral characters, given no more weight in the film than the local people. The narrator is constantly reflecting on what is real and fiction on screen and for the characters themselves.
NOTEBOOK: I particularly like this idea of working with concept of shadows. This dark reflex, a non-physical representation of something. Something close to reality/fiction duality…
BUSSMANN: A shadow is at the border between what is real (representation of something physical) and what is not (as an immaterial, ephemeral phenomenon). It is at this border or veil of sorts that fiction, myth, literature, and reality rub up against each other to create a bulge in fabric of the visible. It is the invisible though, that makes the visible possible.
Works like Faust, are fascinating because they are simultaneously a legend, in that it is a story that is told and retold over generations, and a myth that addresses cosmological questions concerning the human experience. What we experience is how it is seen or retold over centuries, a history of its representations. Therefore, engaging with a works like Faust, become powerful ways to engage with both contemporary times and the past.
I think there is a great deal of post-colonial theory and literature that speak to the relationship between the constructions of history, reality, and fiction, so I won’t say much here; just that in the film our devi,l Alberto, tells a story that is a testament to this. For those that don’t recognize the story, the devil is telling us without words, the story of how Christopher Columbus stole the moon. Columbus constructs a fiction and through the deception of language convinces the native people on the island now known as Jamaica, that through his God he has the power to steal the moon. We see how fiction as an instrument of colonization laid its very foundations.