Experimental cinema, Robert Fenz

Robert Fenz, Paris, April 2015

My name is Robert Fenz, I make films in 16mm, still.

Do you go to a lot of festivals?

I don’t go unless I have a film in a festival, and if the festival brings me, I’ll go.

Do you have your films in fiction, documentary?

More and more they are in an art context. The way in which non-fiction is described is quite changing now, so I was, when I began to make films, positioned in something called experimental filmmaking but I’ve always considered myself to be documentaries. Now has been invented a new term called experimental documentary, so now it’s easier to live and bridge in the two worlds, it seems to be a festival thing. First has been used here at Cinéma du Réel, and it’s used in other festivals now. I have no problem with the word experimental except it’s so vague. John Cage like to say, because his music was always described as experimental, that he was okay with that because this act of asking questions and not knowing for sure what’s going to turn out was something that he found agreeable. He didn’t love the word, and I never have, but it’s one word that we can use.

I want to know what experiment means to you. 

Well I think it’s rather than repeating a pre-existing structure of form, you’re trying to invent a form that fits the subject matter that you’re exploring at the time you’re making the film. Every film that I make has a different structure, of course I have some constance in my strategy but ideally successful films for me are those that manage to mire or expend on a subject that they are exploring and investigating.

A Japanese girl mentions in 37 stories about leaving home, by Shelly Silver, that she wants to make films, good films because they would shock. 

It’s hard to shock these days, so that’s a hard ambition to have, I think. It was easier to shock thirty years ago, then you just take off your clothes or vomit, something like that on screen and it’s shocking. Successful… I mean, a film that works based on the decision the filmmaker has made, and what they want to pursue. I need to be more clear. For example, you could have a filmmaker like Chantal Akerman who has an idea and then goes, in her non-fiction – her fiction is quite different – but in her non-fiction she goes to a place, then has ideas and researches the subject matter, but allows the events of the day, or the week, or the time she’s there, to influence and shape the project. Because for her, as I understand it, it makes it more true to the moment of filming, which is all we can never be true to. Before and after, is something else.

During the first screening, before we watch Forest of Bliss and after Correspondence, you mentioned Robert Gardner was taking risk.

He certainly was taking risk because he was going to places that were difficult to be in. Of course he was, perhaps, fortunate in how he managed to travel, which was with the support of Harvard University, and that means economic but also institutional support overall, which is not something to be thought of lightly: when you’re in another country you have to face lots of different rules, maybe quite different than your own, in your own country. But risks, I think what I wanted to speak about after my film Correspondence is that film always requires or contains a risk because you don’t know what’s going to turn out. When you’re filming with film, the material, you can’t see it, and you’re going to have to count on a laboratory to do good processing, and the fact you make the right decisions in terms of exposure, frame, light and duration. These are all questions that are answered in digital technology in the moment of filming and create a different result. My position is that with film you think differently about life and about what it means to record life because of its limits. And those limits are important but also give you a structure to expand and explore ideas in a very particular way.

How do you feel as a traveller? 

It’s exciting to travel and make films because you are able to always do something that I think every filmmaker wants to do: somehow imagine oneself in the head of another person or in the reality of another person, something that we can’t achieve obviously. But travelling lets you transplant yourself and imagine yourself in different ways, that hopefully will let you learn something more about your own relationship to being alive.

What does it mean to you when I ask: “do you control your life”?

Interestingly I’m of course very concerned with freedom, but naturally life and making a living factors into decisions that I have to make, that I prefer not to make. Like for everyone really. So I don’t know if I feel out of control. I’m committed to what I do because I love it, and I’m committed to love, and I use film because I love film. And just because commercial considerations had entered into this field, I don’t abandon my love for money. Love, there is no control, right.

I guess one control we can have is to know that there is a margin of unknown, and uncontrolled, to actually be aware of that.  

Yes, and be okay with that. That night I showed my film I also spoke about chance and improvising, and chance is something that I’m interested in for very clear reasons in relationship to film but also in music and in other areas, in other creative activities. Chance is something that you would let yourself open to the unexpected, and that chance can direct in what project you make. Which is powerful because it has somehow the feeling more of what it is like to be alive, and which things happen that you can’t control, but in accepting that you can make something more powerful out of your life and out of your film. Improvisation on the other hand is something that’s much more directed, it is directed as opposed to chance. Chance, you are open to, but improvising comes out of a training, and you ultimately get different results because of the combination of things that can happen as you’re filming, that would produce these different results. Improvising in relationship to travel is quite essential as I travel in many places that require improvising in the day-to-day life, culture; that’s just the fact of life.

What kind of chance do you give to the viewers? Do you think they have a margin?

Yes, ideally. I made a series called Meditations on revolution, I was thinking about the word in a political context but other ways as well, for example I filmed in Cuba for the first part of the project but the last part is of jazz musicians in New York. So revolution meaning a complete turning over from one state to another, and this was something of interest to me and still is. I use film because it goes through a chemical process, to me that also is reflecting the aim of the work in a physical way. It completely transforms from one state to another.

Correspondence is a film that I made because I met Robert Gardner. I knew of his work, I had seen Forest of Bliss, admired the cinematography and began to correspond with him through email. Over some period of time, he asked me to come work with him, I did do that, through doing that becoming very familiar with this materials because he shot in 16 almost exclusively, no finished work in 35 in fact. Later years he started to shoot digitally, but he wanted, for archival reasons, preservation reasons as well, to blow up the 16 prints to 35. I became quite familiar with this work and at some point in the years, maybe 5 years after I work with him, we discussed my making of this film.

You said by Forest of Bliss you got interested into his work.

I’d seen Dead Birds and also Forest of Bliss, and I was interested in him especially because of course he filmed in different places, but he also had a very strong visual style. His framing and the decisions he made, I considered very powerful. I wanted to know more about his methods of working. In some way Gardner was my post-doctorate work (laughs). I’ve been fortunate to have studied with and work for or with different filmmakers who share a certain concern for the image being the primary means of articulating their ideas in a motion picture; which seems obvious but it’s not always obvious, because we rely on words quite a lot and other means to explore our thinking. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but just like sound, and arranged sound is what music ultimately is, filmmaking is an arrangement of images first, and everything else can come after, and does, but isn’t required.

Which effect do you think it has when you present a film without sound?

Even the earliest films had some sound, you know they had an organ playing. To choose silence and making a film is unusual for a spectator to experience. First of all, you look at editing differently. You might look at how images relate to each other in a quite different way. Sound, depending on how it’s used, but I’d say commercially is used mostly to help images, it has a secondary position, it doesn’t have an equal position to the images. When you have silence you have to look harder, but also you are obtaining information in a quite different way than through the use of words and the use of sound. It comes out of focusing and concentrating on different dynamics that you would normally in a film that contains sound. Again it’s the collision of images, how the images relate to each other over time, that you have to absorb like you would absorb a piece of music. It doesn’t have to be literal, it can be abstract, and there can be a sense rather than anything absolute. Silence is useful to me because it creates a space for contemplation, and thinking about what the theme or the subject of my film is without being told how to think. Of course I’m making a frame and I’m paying attention to light, and that does create an emotion or a particular sensation that’s not specific, but it’s present. It still allows more of collaboration with the audience ideally, than if I had a message that I felt I needed to dictate.

You create a free space?

I hope so. Again, I am shaping the movement of the work by the editing and choices of framing and duration, but I do think that because I’m not telling people what to think, that there is hopefully room to think.

Would you use text in some of your works? 

Text I might use, I haven’t used. I have an interview in one of my films. That’s of the jazz musician in New York, and it’s seven minutes, and that’s the only words I have in any film, other than titles, opening titles and titles.

You’ve been making film for twenty-two years, how do you feel with the medium and the material, the possibilities?

Again, it’s happened many times in cinema, many times there is a transition taking place that’s being pushed by technology. Of course there is a lot of business interest that invested in digital technology, and that is something that we are going to have to work with. Since it’s better than it used to be, and it may improve still, and by improve I don’t mean sharpness, it’s sharp enough already, but improve in terms of ease and perhaps better camera design. For me digital cameras have taking film back five hundred years. Camera design, the Red One can create one kind of project, and the Aaton, and a Bolex, whatever camera you choose gives you a different possible relationship to your subject, the images that are created are different thus the idea that is communicated is different.

That’s something last in the rush to digital making. It wasn’t really a rush, it’s been going on now for probably fifteen years that digitals has been trying to break through and unfortunately it’s thought of as something that apposed the analog rather than complimented it. People who designed camera, and the technology was to make something that was as good as film, when I always believe they should have made something that was different than film, because film is enough and it’s still a wonderful material to use.

My hope is that it will continue to exist and coexist with digital forms of making. As it stands right now, digital is not an archival medium. Unless the companies involved make a large point of preserving the work over time, and that would be always changing the recording to the new formats as they’re developed, much of what’s being produced will disappear in the next ten years. It’s not something people think about much because they don’t want to, and the industry doesn’t push the fact because they pretend it doesn’t exist.

Hollywood always had a bad relationship to preservation. Profit is the only think that matters to them, but given that that’s the case you would think they take care of preserving things that they make. I’m told by various sources that they are not, just as they didn’t in the early years of the cinema. Much will be lost unless people begin to think about creating a better digital system that would preserve moving images and others, photographs etc., in a significant way. We don’t really know what works, but we do know that film material works. Black and white, for example, has a reputation. We haven’t experienced it yet, but it has the reputation of being able to exist eight hundred years. For museums and other places that want to have access to moving images, people should still shooting film. I would hate to think that it’s only going to be a handful of people whose images represent the period of time we are living in.

You mentioned you like black and white. 

It’s very stable, but colour is wonderful and last quite a long time too. Kodak has improved their colour negative in the seventies. They made 35 negative but not 16. They were famous for having made films in the seventies that were very unstable but their colour negative stocks now are very stable so they could last a hundred years or more, which is quite a lot already. If you think that along the way, you can transfer it to more stable technologies or make new prints that would last for another hundred years, then it seems like it could go on for ever. A hard drive crash or even the Cloud… One of the founders of Google said in an article, in the BBC a month ago, that we were living through the digital dark ages: every body is taking pictures but nobody is thinking about preservation. That means that anything that mum and pap is taking to record the kids as they’re growing up -unlike the seventies and eighties in the States where people shot Super 8 and slides and photographs, these documents still exist-whatever is being produced now has no guarantee of existing in the way that that other negative had a guarantee of existing.

I consider working with film material maybe what oil painting was: it was using a particular material for a certain result, and I don’t know of another art that has lost its material in the way film is.

Your view is that we’re losing the material, do you hear about other opinions that would follow the change? 

Who knows, I suppose that there are people who think that. I guess time will tell. It can be exciting to be able to make things with very portable equipment that seem to reflect, to have a freshness to them because of their ease of use and the consistency of the product that they make, the reasonably good image that’s produced. There can be a freshness, and certainly with the portable cameras. I’m less impressed by the professional cameras. I guess if I were to go to shooting with digital format, I would probably use an iPhone or something because really, I wouldn’t want to think about it, because it’s not… it’s just numbers, and number crushing as far as I’m concerned. Maybe there is another kind of mystery, that’s exciting to me.

You mentioned that Robert Gardner practiced video too. 

Yes, he made some videos in the nineties. The truth is he partly used video because he was loosing his sight, and since there is an autofocus on a video, digital camera, that was convenient for someone loosing their sight. There is an advantage to digital technology.

What’s an “independent independent filmmaker”?

I think that he was simply saying that there is no such thing as an independent filmmaker, because we are all looking for money, and we have to get it one way or the other. You can keep your productions low-cost, but one argument again for digital technologies was that it is low-cost but on a professional level it ends up equalling. The prices are not so different, film material isn’t the highest cost that any film production.

Aside from the economics of what it might mean to be independent, I’ll acknowledge that person is independent when they are asking questions with their camera, not trying to reproduce a pre-existing form, and allowing the form to be constructed by the subject matter. There is that level of experimentation in any new project. Of course any artist would bring their skills and talents with them in any new project so there will be consistencies in what’s produced, but the shape of a project can be altered and changed based on the subject matter. Whatever subject matter might be. It could be borders or it could be wonderful homemade noodles, whatever. As long as they are not trying to fit into the clothes that somebody else has made, then there is a level of independence in them, our persons making.

Does acknowledgment has an influence on your work?

Yes, it gives you the courage to continue to work. We pretend we don’t need acknowledgment but of course acknowledgment helps you decide to make something else. There are practical reasons too: if you show in film festivals then you can ask for money, that’s sort of more of it. If you’re making shorter films or more abstract works and your intention is not to make a feature, a festival really doesn’t matter that much other than something to put on your resume.

In terms of the spectator, of course that matters to have somebody, because filmmakers work mostly alone, independent ones do (laughs). They edit alone, they might shoot alone. To find and be able to have eyes other than your own, look at what you’ve made, is of course a wonderful thing to have happened. It’s what people want, even though I never would say that someone should created a film for any particular audience. I’ve had such a variety of people seeing my film that I don’t know in the end of the day if I’d imagine one group or another what, how that would have benefited me. I do benefit, in some way, from the fact that many of my films are silent, though I didn’t speak of the fact that others had have sound. Either music or actual sound, location sound, which I use because location sound, contrasted with abstract images give you a sense of being present in a way.

In The Sole of the Foot, you used the sound to. 

Yes, but in Foreign City and Crossings also. There is two other films that I use that kind of sound with. That was an incredible thing when they invented dual system sound: you could have a sound recorded separately from the camera. That happened in the sixties and liberated film cameras from sound recording machines. That was strong because up until that point, sound had always been seen as something that was married to the image, and there was a thinking around it.

Jean-Pierre Beauviala, the inventor of the Aaton, was against. He was asked to design a camera that would have sound recorded on the film by a leftist group in Argentina, and he refused because he did not want to make sound a slave to the image. I am in agreement with that sensibility still.

The trouble with digital technology again is that most often we record our sound through the camera, and even production houses rarely need for independent sound to be recorder although it would be much better. We come back to a certain sensibility. To me sound is art and images are art, they are two art forms, potential art forms that when brought together can create something else that is dynamic and interesting. To create subservient relationship is not something of interest to me.

What do you think of the absence of translation on Robert Gardner Forest of Bliss

I had a conversation, and I won’t name names (laughs), with somebody who I respect. It’s not that I had never thought of it but they pointed out that their problem with his lack of translation was not that he did not translate everybody, but that he did not translate his central character. That, they seemed to think was a bad decision.

Now, at the time that the film was made, a lot was talked about around that fact that he didn’t translate. I know from knowing him that he chose not to translate because he was making a film that was non-fiction, but he always understood everything that he made subjective. By reinforcing his otherness by not translating, and not suggesting a familiarity with his subjects he was remaining more true to himself as other; as somebody from Boston, as somebody coming into a culture that then had maybe some reason of access to, but not any long term access. At the same time he loved photography and he loved soviet cinema. He loved a cinema that was driven by images and in his love for photography, photography also doesn’t require translation. The images themselves give you the thought of the maker. He was very much in line with that.

Because he was working under the umbrella of anthropology, they were expectations made on him by anthropologists on that period that the film was made -and still exist today, although that’s changing-: a certain requirements at fact, to present facts, but I think they’re still trying to figure out how to do that. When you make a frame, you’re making a decision, so subjectivity always plays a role. You can turn on the camera, leave the room, you’ve still made the frame. You’ve decided what should be recorded. In the end of the day whether the camera decides, or the length of tape, or length of hard-drive, the machine decides, you still made the decision to shoot this rather than something else. Even a surveillance camera has subjectivity: you’ve positioned it to look at a particular point of the street or the bank, rather than some other place (laughs).

I really enjoyed that there was no translation, so you can dive into it.

Yes I agree with you, and in Forest of Bliss he remains true to something of compatriot of his believed or desired, which is Ricky Leacock. Ricky Leacock and his own work wanted the spectator to have a feeling of being there, where it was that he was feeling. I certainly think Forest of Bliss provides that kind of an experience, as much as any film might. That comes together with our experience of not understanding because we’re not of that place, so he is true to that sense. I don’t think you have to be a Western European or someone from the United States to share. Somebody in India who isn’t from Benares, and has never been, can share that sensation too of being in a place and trying to comprehend it.

And we focus on other languages.

Other languages, visual languages. I guess that’s the point I’m trying to make: his rules were cinematic rules, they are the rules of cinema, if they are any, to break or to use. The rules of anthropology were not as important to him.

Even for anthropologists who were waiting for it, they could focus on other kind of languages, get a meaning of things that are happening without speaking the language. 

That’s true, and let’s not forget that any film made is just a part of something. No film is going to have every solution. Because films are so powerful, there is often this idea that a film should answer every problem, have a solution to every problem and answer every question. But a film is something that somebody makes and it’s from their point of view hopefully, and if it succeeds at that then you have that. Then you can have a thousand people make something else, and if they make something interesting I want to see it.

Do you think the cinematographer is a sociologist? 

Oh no, maybe of a kind yes, it could be. Again I guess it would depend on the cinematographer. A cinematographer of course is sensitive to light, is sensitive to people, is respectful of the people that they film, is more of a listener-with-their-eyes, then they are a talker. Anyway, camera records. There is, I’m sure, that quality, but that’s the beauty of film: if you think about it and as people used to think about it, every thing can exist in the film space. There is so many of the other arts or sciences that can somehow inhabit or become a part of a cinematic space, of a film. Now, that space that filmmaking provided is being occupied by computers, and computers have expanded, in some ways the reach of what one can do in a particular space, but it’s much more one-and-one in a way and in general, and that we go home and play with our computer and travel with them somehow. While film was something much more… clearly it was directed, and even if you don’t like directing, it created a space of imagination that people could share in a communal way the exploration and the imagining of the person who put it together for them. Which is personal.

What’s personal?

That’s personal. I think that you don’t need to meet the filmmaker or even talk to them to be able to have a very personal interaction with them through their ideas on the screen. I guess that’s music too or anything, a painting.

Do you have some views on the future? Does the future inspire you in some of your works?

It should inspire me. I guess I have to look more and more for that in the way that I make things. I don’t see the future as being dictated to by technology, at the moment it is being dictated to by technology. My future is maybe a place where the past, present and future will exist in a more comfortable way than it is at the moment, and maybe that’s just a filmmaker’s prospective since we’re always dealing with memory and with the moment, and with the future in some fashion. Even as simply as we are not able to see what we’ve made, that’s going to be the future. It’s the result of what we’ve produced but that only exists in our imagination until we see its manifestation through the chemistry of a lab. Then at that moment that we see it, we’re referring back to the past because it’s a collection of images that we can now see again, that were only in our mind’s eye, and then see again and refer back to something that took place, but only in pieces.

So it’s wonderful, film has that beauty and wonder to it. I think that that can be something that exists in the future, I don’t know how exactly. I think at the moment moving images are being too much dictated by commercial considerations, and I’m not talking about what Hollywood actor that you use: it’s because there has been a massive and radical transformation in the infrastructure of moving images, that’s still playing out. It’s only two years that all the cinemas got their 35 projectors replaced by digital projectors. Martin Scorsese, he said: 99% of moving images have been made on film, so if it’s only 1% now that has been considered to have been made digitally, we don’t know yet what that technology can produce. That is something different than what film technology produced. If it would be an extension of it, if the advantages that it can provide would actually be advantages in the end or what? I think that is unwritten. I don’t know if I’m optimistic. I’m always interested. I’m not pessimistic, never, no. That’s terrible word, and I would never want to feel that. And I don’t.

Is there enough time to be pessimistic?

No there is not enough time, and there is too much to be interested in.

What is the impact of internet?

These kind of technology can empower the individuals who use it, but it also gives a person a sense of power that actually doesn’t exist, that’s been determined for them. That’s maybe where I would say one should have more caution or more consciousness about how we use this technology and what it’s been used for, but it also just deals like television did with people loneliness.

You know, if you can’t walk down the street and check your messages every two seconds, if you can’t seat at a bus stop and not have any moment to reflect, even if it’s just waiting for the bus or what I’m gonna cook for dinner, because you’re constantly using these tools to not feel lonely. That’s what it is about, that’s what TV did: connecting everybody so they wouldn’t feel alone.

It keeps away our fears and anxieties, but we don’t deal with the problem. 

And we can have answers to so many questions so quickly, but it doesn’t let us read through the question.

In terms of moving images, I would like digital technologies to standardize. I’d like them to find a format they’d like and then commit to it, like they did for films in the 1920s. Once they do that, then there is that limit and there is that end. It’s not a new camera, and then it’s not a new hard-drive, or new editing software etc., etc. They would made a decision that this is good enough, which they may never do because they make so much money. Apple’s driving it with introducing something new every year: two different things, the same thing but everybody jumps on it because it’s a little faster with a bigger screen. They keep that addiction going and I think that’s the problem.

That’s not to say film isn’t addictive, it is, but that standardisation in the twenties helped makers deal with it. Twenty four frames per second, films stock changed to a point, to a degree, but many things remained constant in the technology and that allowed a healthy, vibrant infrastructure to be created. People had jobs for their lives, which is quite amazing, not something true if you’re chasing digital dragons because things change too often, too quickly. That’s good for a short-term money profit but not good for longer term creativity in my view.

I just am waiting for that day though, when that recorder is the recorder that we decide we should use and in a year there is not gonna be another one that looks more or less the same, with the same components but has a little twist. Bigger button maybe, I don’t know (laughs).

It can be a real activism to be a filmmaker today!

Turns out to be (laughs). I don’t need to drive a horse-drawn cart, but there was a craftsmanship to film, to the use of film and not only by the maker but by everybody involved in how it was created, processed and dealt with. There was so many technical people on the stream of the production of a film, much more than the director and actors, the tail end so to speak.

I noticed that in the last ten years when certain technicians are fired they’d disappear. Not because they die but because they have to find different professions. Up until 2005 there was work for a lot of people in Hollywood, say negative cutters, and then the work ended within a week, more or less. You had people who are maybe fifty, and then they had no work, just out of work. Now they have to retrain into something back, but the film never coming back to any degree or stabilize, these people would be lost, you couldn’t get them back. It’s important to keep training people, and keep it alive, because it feels different, and it makes you think different, and the way it makes you feel and think is too important to be lost.