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The Light Within: An Interview with José María de Orbe

An interview with José María de Orbe.
At the International Film Festival Rotterdam this year one of the few new films I really liked was José María de Orbe's unusual quasi-documentary, Aita.  I had this to say:
Aitá (José Maria de Orbe, Spain) develops sublimely what is undoubtedly an old pictorial idea: the study of light as inextricable from the study of death.
De Orbe’s modest semi-doc fixes its steady gaze (an unmoving camera) on a house aching towards dilapidation, barely maintained by a groundskeeper (outside) and an old caretaker (inside), toured by local school children, looted by other groups of older children, emerging from the foliage yet descending back to the earth, or, even more suggestively, descending into the crackling film footage of bygone silent actualities, mysteriously projected on the night-shrouded walls of the quiet mansion.
The celluloid flickers are the only fantasy in the film—the rest is but light, the old man going from room to room, passing through or handling upkeep, receding shadows of the deepest black flattening spaces as awesome light sources cast their near-holy shades into the empty chambers. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that interrogates light, that produces that rare question in the viewer, a wonderment at the source of light and, intrinsically, its meaning.  The film is made up of various gradations of grey between this chiaroscuro (in the press notes, de Orbe mentions Rothko), yet its colorwork is as minute as the range of grey is meticulous and infinite, deep rubies popping out of a corner illuminated by a window and the whispered shock of shadowy green against the flat modernist palette produced from the combination of the old opulence and the current decay.
The documentary on the house and its light is humanized through the old man’s wandering upkeep and his playful conversations on death and dreams with a local priest.  Pointedly, there is no real sense that the man is dying, but rather that the vessel which contains him and infuses him—this ancient house—is dying, and may have the power to take those within with it.  A beautiful, architectonically soulful poem of light and death.
I unfortunately caught the last public screening of the film at the festival and therefore missed meeting Mr. de Orbe in person.  Thankfully, the filmmaker was kind enough to engage in a conversation over email, and in so doing I hope brings some of this wonderful, small film to life.
NOTEBOOK: What was the origin of this film project?
JOSÉ MARÍA DE ORBE:Some years ago, I inherited my family house, which dates from the 13th Century—this is where the film was shot. The house is currently uninhabited for several reasons. I wanted to build something creative where decadence had previously existed. To transform decadence into beauty. 
NOTEBOOK: What do you see is the difference between the "creative" and the "decadent"?
DE ORBE:Decadence can also mean destruction. To create can also mean to be born or re-born. I wanted to create where destruction has taken place.
NOTEBOOK: How do you view your own house? Is it a home? A historical relic? A museum? How close do you feel to it?
DE ORBE:The house is a piece of history, personal and public. I don't know how I fit there, because the house is in the middle of a transition, from private to public, so I feel in the middle of a process—not in terms of property, more in a philosophical sense. I’ve always asked myself this question and never found an answer. Now I know that the house is part of a film, a character by itself, and, as a filmmaker, this makes sense for me. It's my supporting act to the house, whatever it means.
NOTEBOOK: Your film thoroughly explores the house spatially, but the area surrounding it, its geography and history, is only hinted at.  Where is the house located, what is the area like?
DE ORBE:I didn't wanted to show the surrounding areas of the house because the film would have become less mysterious and more obvious.  The house is actually surrounded by a magnificent park with huge trees, and is in the center of a small town which in the last years has developed into terrible constructions, as most of the Basque Country has.  But I didn't wanted to make a film about the urban development and speculation.
NOTEBOOK: Aita contains elements of fiction and fantasy, but it seems fundamentally a documentary of architecture and light.  How do you see the film?
DE ORBE:I see Aita as an exploration of spaces and light, but also as a haunted house film.  Ultimately, films are only possible because of light, as is also true about life itself. The house becomes alive every time the housekeeper opens the windows and lets the light pass through. Whether the film is a fiction or a documentary, I don't know, because the line between fiction and documentary is becoming very thin.
NOTEBOOK: Where did the idea of projecting films against the interior of the house come about?  How did you achieve this effect—was it as simple as literally projecting a film on the walls?
DE ORBE:I spent much time in the empty house, walking and taking pictures. At one point, the walls started to talk to me in a way only I could understand. I realised that the textures of humidity and decadence were the silhouettes of the house's former inhabitants from the past. I came up with the idea that they could become alive through film projections on the walls.
I didn't wanted to create these images with actors, so I went to the Basque film library and I searched for the first films made in the Basque Country. These films, made in the early 20s and 30s, had footage missing and were incomplete. They were truly “found footage” films. In the 1920s the first “found footage” films where made in the Soviet Union because they didn't have the film stock to shoot. So they used footage filmed by others to create their own pieces. I found this idea very inspiring.
I choose the films because they had personal meanings for me—nothing that could be explained in a rational way. I wanted to put on the screen my own feelings about my family house, and probably, about certain facts (politically and socially) that the house should have been witness to in the past.
I manipulated the images with different abrasive materials to create textures in the films that could match those from the house's walls. I was looking for a visual dialogue between film and walls. The main idea had something to do with the decadence of a noble house and the decadence of film in the way it used to be. These images, in 35mm acetate film, where projected straight into the walls. The film projector was adjusted to the original speed of the footage, about 16 to 18 frames per second. There was no further intervention in post-production.
NOTEBOOK: What politcal and social facts do you mean? The politics of the film seem very subtle, an undercurrent. How does the house and your film project with it relate to Basque history?
DE ORBE:Basque history is full of wars, like Europe's history. Sadly, it's part of us. Today, the Basque Country is still under a terrorist war, which has his roots in previous wars, like the Carlist and the Spanish Civil War. The house has been part of this history, having taken active part in these wars and others. As a former castle, it has been involved in every war in the Basque country for centuries. This is something you can feel when you visit the house. It's printed in the house's stone walls, in the basement, not only physically but also in the house's atmosphere. I wanted to recreate this atmosphere, but not in an explanational way. Do you know César Vallejo's poem “No one lives in the house anymore”? This poem expresses in a very precise way what I mean.
NOTEBOOK: How did you arrive at the dialog scenes (the man and the priest, the outside caretakers, the tour group, the teenage robbers, etc.)?  Why did you want these scenes within a generally documentary format?
DE ORBE: All the characters in the film are people that are somehow involved with the house in their real lifes. The robbers where real ones that had entered the house some months earlier. All the lines belong to the actors because there where no script. The dialog scenes where shot in the same style as the contemplative house scenes—I didn't shoot reverse angles, etc.  There is always one point of view, like in a painting. It’s a matter of semantics. There are only two reverse angle shots cut into the film, and they where shot in that way for a very specific reason. The idea was to establish a mirror effect between the ordinary and the extraordinary.
NOTEBOOK: A mirror effect?
DE ORBE: In the film, an atheist, like the housekeeper, feels the existence of the supernatural. His hours in the house combine routine aspects of life—like cutting the growing ivy from the walls, or eating an apple—with the searching for death's presences, the haunting mystery of the house. Every ordinary act has a reflection in the unsual.
NOTEBOOK: Aside from documenting the house at its center, I saw Aita also as a tremendous documentary of light, the way it enters and falls into spaces, a mystery of where it's coming from and what it means.  How did you work with your cinematographer to shoot the house?
DE ORBE:The film was shot in high definition video—otherwise, I wouldn't have found enough money to make it. We shot about 70 hours of footage. The films projected in the walls are real projections from 35mm footage. Past and present come together with one common aspect: the light. The film is a tribute to light. Light is everything.  I worked together with the cinematographer (I'm a photographer myself) in a very easy way: observation. We spend hours observing the light until the right moment to shoot. If the light wasn't what we expected, we didn't shoot. It was very easy.
NOTEBOOK: How much did you "dress" the house?  Or did you film it as it existed before you arrived and as it exists after you left?
DE ORBE:We didn't change or add anything. The house was and still is the way you see in the film. This was part of the philosophy of the project.
NOTEBOOK: How do you see your film functioning in relationship to the material and memory of the house and its existence in the world?  Is the film an homage to the house, or a work of archiving and records, or perhaps something else?
DE ORBE: For me, making a film is a state of mind, and Aita's state is that of love and death. It's a legacy to my son. I couldn't find any better way to express him certain ideas. Spectators can have other perceptions and interpretations because it's a very open film that works probably in several directions, and I believe that all of them are complementary. The film is not a narrative in a conventional way, but it tells a story.  And for me, it's very important to give space to the spectators, to find some emotions without the manipulation that is becoming too common in actual film.
Thank you for this very interesting piece and interview. Films and experiences like Aita don’t happen too often, and it was nice to be able to hear from Jose.

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