Kelly Copper and Pavol Liska's The Children of the Dead is showing February 20 - March 20, 2020 on MUBI in the series Direct from the Berlinale.
In 2016 we were invited by the Austrian art and performance festival, steirischer herbst, to make a project in the Styrian countryside.
We knew we wanted to ground ourselves to a particular place—to go deep, to make something which would be rooted in landscape and land, time and tide. We were drawn to the heimatfilme and bergfilme genres, that naively celebrate landscape and rural life (in reaction to the horrors of WWII) and we were looking for a Austrian text to build this work upon... when someone suggested we should read Elfriede Jelinek’s Die Kinder der Toten, a 666-page epic entirely rooted in the Styrian landscape, a book in which the historic past is quite literally buried in the land in the form of mute zombies that return from the dead and wreak havoc on a local gasthaus. The novel is also inspired by the 1962 American B-movie Carnival of Souls, by Herk Harvey. Austrian high literature meets amateur American B movie?... sounded right up our alley. And pretty quickly we knew that this would have to be our starting point—somewhere between horror and heimat.
We were generously granted free reign by Ms. Jelinek, to adapt her novel for this film—which was important, because we had no direct access to it. We cannot read the original German, and there is no English translation. So, our very loose adaptation is based on other people’s descriptions of what is in the book. A Frankenstein monster of half-remembered plot points, mixed with our own experiences visiting the region, conversations with the people who live there, local ghost stories, and town gossip.
We primarily work in theater, and the work we make is usually created in private and then brought to an audience of local spectators. However, for this project, we felt it was important to make something not for an audience of—but with them. Not to bring an art product to the rural population, but to really put them at the center of the work and to try and create something together. For Die Kinder der Toten, we worked only with people from this region, even in the main roles. It was important to us that there would be no separation—no spectators. Instead the camera would be the sole spectator and proxy audience, and we would work with whoever came to participate.
For most of the performers in this film it is their first time in front of the camera; and when they were not acting, they were almost usually assisting in some other way, holding lights, helping with make up and costume.
We knew from the beginning of this project that we had to work with film, that it had to be shot on Super 8. We wanted the images to be both in and out of our control. There are no guarantees whatsoever with small gauge film and antique cameras. You have to let in hair and dust and focal oddities, grain, and flares and flashes.
We also wanted to work in a populist format: Super 8, the successor to 8mm film, which was the first film stock available to the amateur—the first opportunity that people had to record their own lives, tell their own stories. The region in which we were working was known as a place for family recreation, ski weekends, hiking trips... a place that would have been a home movie magnet back in the day when every home had an 8mm camera.
Though we have worked in a variety of different mediums, we have always loved and been especially inspired by film. Our first years in New York, we lived down the street from Anthology Film Archives—which is where we first saw the films of Jack Smith, the Kuchar Brothers, Ken Jacobs, Leslie Thornton... all artists who made work with very poor or minimal means, often working with non-professional so-called “amateur” film stocks and equipment. They gave us courage to make work without subsidy, under our own steam—without waiting for permission.
In Die Kinder Der Toten, film is a kind of character, as well as a medium, through which the dead come back to life. The dead live on in home movies. So film is a medium of transmission—not only of story—but of spirit. It’s a direct link to the ghost world, to the past. Not media, but medium. If you look at the word for film screening or projection in French—it’s séance—exactly the same word used for conjuring up the dead, which is what it must have seemed like to people when they first beheld moving images made of light. Pure magic.