Experimental cinema, Shelly Silver

Shelly Silver, Paris, April 2015

My name is Shelly Silver, I live in New York City, I work in the moving image, still image and installation, and I’ve been doing so since 1980. I also teach, I’m head of the Visual Artist Department in Columbia University.

Shelly, you have your films screened in a lot of festivals, you attend a lot of them, have you seen a change in documentary festivals? How do you position there with your work in-between documentary and fiction?

I was just in DOK Leipzig in November, I had a smaller retrospective there, and I was on the Young Cinema Jury, so the first long film in a documentary. I have definitely seen a change in documentary festivals. There has always been interest in my work at documentary festivals but I’ve rarely entered into the main competition. For example in 2004 I was in this festival, but in a section called “Détours”. But now, people’s view of documentary and fiction has changed. I think people are more open, more flexible about what they think of as documentary and fiction. The format also, many festivals demanded 35mm prints, now of course that’s completely changed, almost everything on the festival is shown on digital video.

Has this expectation ever had an impact on your work, on your creation? 

Technology has an impact on my creation but I don’t think that I’ve ever changed the work based on what I thought people would accept. I’ve always made the work in the hopes that people would accept it, or change over time and accept it, which is exactly what happens. So I feel very lucky that finally a lot of the work… even the more difficult work is circulating well.

One of the characters in your film 37 stories about leaving home states that she would like to make films that shock people. What do you think about this statement?

She did make films that shock people, and they were very, very strong, and I think that’s great. I think there really is a place for films that shock people, and I think she meant societally, that she would make films that would put women in situation where they aren’t traditionally. She was quite a strong filmmaker, very young, and she had just won a prize for the most aggressive film at the Image Forum Festival.

Well done. How do you feel about the gear, the camera? What is your relation to the microphone and the camera? 

I haven’t always shot my films, but most often I have. Part of that is budget and part of that is the kind of films they were. The houses that are left was shot with a large cast and crew, and on the one hand that was interesting, the director of photography was very talented, and on the other hand he demanded such a big production that I felt very far from what I wanted to make.

Lately I’ve done the camera on all my most recent films and I just love it because I loved to film. I loved to see the world that way, and I loved not to have to translate what I think I want to the cameraperson. I just discovered how to shoot while I’m shooting, so it’s very organic.

Does it give you access to special aspects in a relation with the subject, and on the other hand does it prevent you from access to certain aspects?

 It’s different from film to film. For example with 37 stories about leaving home, I was doing camera, I was asking the questions but then there was someone interpreting, someone who had to translate. So of course it wasn’t as direct as if I was asking the questions, I couldn’t ask the questions directly because I didn’t know Japanese.

With In complete world I decided to also have someone do the interview. Even though I was behind the camera I talked a lot from behind the camera and asked more questions so, of course it’s a kind of barrier, but I don’t see it so much that way.

I never used to like filming with a tripod but now I love it because then you see the world, and they you set up the tripod and the camera sees the world in a different way, so there is a kind of separation. Then I set up the frame and whatever happens, happens. I get the footage and I look at the footage back in the editing room and often I’m very surprised, because what I saw was different from what the camera saw.

So you still get surprised?

 Yes, that’s what I love about filming, each project is filmed in a very different way and I think I always privilege the image, the image is very important, I’m very precise. But then the image of Touch is very different compared to Frog Spider Hand Horse House. In to Frog Spider Hand Horse House there is a lot more detail, it’s higher resolution camera, it’s a little bit colder, there is less green, I had less of a zoom length, so it’s a bit wider whereas Touch was shot in HDV, the image has more green, there is less depth of field, and this was very important for that film.

How did you get to have such a unique style in terms of language? You manage to set different dialogues at the same time, with image and text. How did you evolve in that?

 I was between the art world, the film world, the popular movie world and television, and the use of language in the early 80s was very common among women artists like Jenny Holzer or Barbara Kruger. I really liked their work and the way that they could put language to the front and question language. On the other hand of course they don’t really deal with moving image. I thought: “Ok how do I add that to the images and how do I create complexity and almost too much information for the viewer to take in at the first viewing”, like a book you have to read a second time or third time and you still discover things. Yes I like complicated things, or sometimes subjects need to be complicated to explore them.

I really want the viewer to be active, with many films you just enter them and you watch them for an hour and a half and the story, and it’s sad or it’s happy, but you don’t really get involved in making the film with the filmmaker. The way I put things together I try to make the viewer think things true with me, having to put it together somehow with me, rather than just watch what I have to tell them. 

Do cinematographers and the audience should have an ethics of work?

 This was a question that I raised at the beginning of my talk: what can cameras do, what should they do, what’s the responsibility of the viewer, the director, the audience, the people being filmed. And I think yes, yes there is responsibility everywhere and there is ethics everywhere and the ethics change.

Someone asked me that they film someone and then the person didn’t want to be in the film: could they ethically use them? And this is not a question for me to answer. If you think of Shoah and Claude Lanzmann, he openly filmed people with spy cameras and told them that they were not gonna be filmed, not gonna be recorded, but then it went into a film that what broadcasted all over the world. He ethically felt like he should do that because they were evil people and people needed to know what they thought and what they did.

For me it’s quite different, that I have an ethics when I interview people, that I want to try my best to represent them based on what they wanted to say. It’s a big weight but it’s also a big pleasure, to try to… and you’re never a 100% successful, right? Because even if you interview someone for the camera they also are editing themselves so it’s always a kind of partial. But still, with 37 stories about leaving home that was a big weight because I wanted to be absolutely fair to them: they gave me a gift of all of these stories and I had to edit them done and still capture the essence of what they wanted to say. Then working on a foreign language that was even harder.

Don’t you feel discouraged with finding the essence of something? It’s not the first time you mention, there is always something constructed, how do you deal with that?

 Well in a way that’s part of the material that I’m talking about. You know that there is no essence of me. If you interview me tomorrow, or if I’m drunk, or if I’m in another situation I may say something, somewhat different. I think that all of us are sort of fluid in the moment and what’s so wonderful about the camera or recording devices that capture something conditional in the moment, but still you want to be fair to this conditional moment. Also this whole idea that we speak through language: it’s not like you take my brain and put it in the microphone. So how do I portray myself, how do I speak to you and how do I want to be seen, all of these things are really interesting to me.

How did it feel to be a foreign in Japan?

I wasn’t completely foreign, because I had a place there: I was in a residency and people knew me for my films. The weird thing about Japan is on the one hand it has this long history that’s so different than mine, and culture that’s so different, but the U.S. basically occupied Japan for a while and the military was still present. There are many things in Japan that are more American than American because when the Japanese culture takes something in, they are much more precise. Swimming pools are very more American than in the U.S. and the rules of where you get undressed and how you get undressed are very precise. So on the one hand I felt very familiar and on the other hand it was very far. People were very generous and very curious, so that made it easy, whereas when I was in France in 1993 people were less curious, I had to learn French pretty quickly because otherwise it would have been very lonely.

In France we use the term “cultural production” a lot. There is a theory about what culture is and what mass consumption is. What do you think about that in the cinema field?

In the U.S. there is a big divide between Hollywood and everything else: documentary, fiction, experimental, everything that’s not Hollywood. They begin to come together a little more because Hollywood is sort of failing, I think. The films that are being made in Hollywood are just terrible, and maybe because they’re getting scared, then they go more conservative and for the biggest audience possible. I think the one thing that might be saving the moving image in the U.S. is that it gets cheaper and cheaper to produce. Young people are even doing feature films on their cellphones. This is just extraordinary, this kind of access and the distribution that you could do on the Internet. There is a lot of terrible work being made this way, but then I see it from my students, just incredible work that I never would see, from points of view that I want to know about. I think it’s a very great moment.

What could hold Europe back a little is maybe that everybody expects very big budgets. Relative to me, even students have bigger budgets than me, and that means that people sometimes make films in a more conservative way because they feel like they have to make it to get the money. I was just in DOK Leipzig and we gave the prize of the Young cinema to a Tunisian filmmaker who basically filmed on a little home video camera and it was just amazing, it was just amazing. I wonder now if for his second film if he’ll be more conservative because he will have access to coproducing, and that doesn’t mean the film won’t be extraordinary: I would like more money to make my films, but sometimes when you make films with producers, they think of what film would be successful, or we have to stick more to genres.

This is where I’ve been able to be very courageous because I just made the decision: “ok, I’m going to make whatever film I want”, and my only problem would be budget. There is certain films that I would have trouble making if the budget is too big, but I don’t otherwise have to change the way I make films at all. I used to work in the industry for 15 years, I was paid really well, I was treated really well. Then I saw, “if I want to have a good life, I should just stay in the industry. But if I’m going to be independent filmmaker, I’d better make exactly the films I wanna make, that I think should be made”. That was a very conscious decision.

Would you add something to define an independent filmmaker?

It’s a very big range. Independent for me is that I’m independent of money. But I’m also independent of anyone telling me what the film should be. For other people in the U.S, independent film would be medium budgets made outside of the Hollywood system, basically the same film but a little bit newer and fresher. It depends, in the 60s, independent film and experimental film and narrative film, they were very close. Like the Anthology Film Archives, you had everyone from Jonas Mekas to Milos Forman to Andy Warhol coming together to show films. Now if you go to Sundance Independent Film, the same boy meets girl on a train movie, but with a lower budget.

What is it in France?

In France I think the French producers are a lot more adventurous. ARTE is more adventurous than our television stations in the U.S. I think that it’s much better here, I don’t know if they still have funding for women film directors, but this made a very big difference in France: you have some strong women directors whereas in the U.S it’s almost no one because there is no support, there is just no, no support.

I find subtle the way you talk about men in films: it’s not obviously feminist, we can’t really put a label on it. It’s similar to the other works: you give freedom to think what we want about it.

I would say absolutely, I’m a feminist. 100%, however you want to define that. But you know, we are so much more than our genders, right. So, to put this weight on women and men… the films rubs up against these issues but I don’t want to nail anybody down. I like this kind of play, and then anybody could enter the films. You know, it depends on the film. With The houses that are left, it’s basically three women and two men, somebody is going to die out of the four people. When I was writing the script, I thought: “who should die? Should the women die, or should the men die? No, the men should die, this is fine”. Just because I have the choice, I’m writing the story and it’s not that I was against the men but I just felt like it was important for the women who are trying so hard to figure out how to live, that they had the chance to figure out how to live.

Clearly, all stories, all fiction stories are wishful filming stories in some way and women have not taken advantage of that at all. Woody Allen, every film is almost the same film where an eighty-year-old man is going out with a seventeen-year-old woman, it repeats, and repeats, and repeats, then people believe that’s the way the world is and they accept that world. That, I’m strongly against. There, I think that men really have to give the voice to women, because now it’s our turn to wish the way we want the world. That, I feel very strongly about and that was the nice thing making Touch, because even if Touch is the story of a man, he’s an older gay man and he strongly wants to have his desire fulfilled, and the making of the film is really the first step in this way. During the film, he lies and he seduces, and then at the end when he sees Woody Allen filming, he says: “oh well, we all lie. Woody Allen lies but Woody Allen gets to show the film to millions of people, why not me?”.

You talked about independent as the same time as experimental, do you think it is linked? How would you define them?

You could divide this up. One is the history of experimental film, which is pretty precise and almost entirely male. I come a little bit out of that tradition but it would have to do with a kind of formal experimentation. For me experimental film, if I use the word broadly, each film is a kind of experiment that I’m trying in. Same thing with independent film, you could say independent in its broad sense of the word. I’m dependent on people to watch it and somehow on festivals like this, whatever. But independent film historically in the U.S. is meant this narrowded filmmaking that’s not Hollywood. Cassavetes would have considered himself an independent filmmaker somehow for a lot of the films because they didn’t get studio funding.

You said Woody Allen repeats the same narration, the same structure, and it gets in people’s head…

When you tell stories or when you show images, you change the world. In that way fictions films, even though they’re fiction and it’s just a story, they become real. Then we see the world that way, our relationships that way. This is even advertising, this is what advertising does. You repeat the same image of this is the way a woman should clean her toilet, then that’s the way women clean their toilet, right, and that’s the women job to clean their toilet therefore. It reinforces the statu quo but also promotes a future statu quo. It’s very dangerous and also very amazing. That’s part of the filmmakers’ responsibility and the audience responsibility to be open to different stories or different ways of looking at things that also make more demands on the audience. I think people become much more sophisticated in what they will watch, partly because of the Internet.

How do you link it?

 A lot of the Internet is awful, all these one-minute clip unedited footage. People already see this is unedited, or this is from someone’s point of view, it’s not from God, God didn’t give us this movie. This is from the point of view of someone in the demonstration, someone of the government or a surveillance camera. Also now most people make little movies themselves, birthday parties, so they understand that you edit them together, something you edit out, you put the camera there, or you focus, don’t focus. There is more sophistication and even within Hollywood films the storytelling becomes more complicated. You jump from place to place, have different characters, cut to black. A lot of the things that I was doing in the eighties, now people are doing. Or you have something that’s between documentary and fiction. Reality TV, mockumentaries, this is all entered to the general public, for better and for worst.

We still wouldn’t find somewhere else what we find in your films: you manage to open the space for freedom really well. How do you manage in Meet the People to make everybody wonder if the characters are fictional or not? I thought you took people’s real characters and emphasized them. 

With each person there was a connection so that part of the acting was themselves, and part of it was this acting. Each of them really gave a lot of themselves, even though they were playing a character. And this looking, directly into the camera, it’s so magical and so fake. Nobody would do this, but because they do this you feel a direct connection with them, you feel like they’re talking to you. All of them were just so direct. That was great.

Sex as a topic appears as often as death and life, why those topics for you?

This was a kind of taboo when I was starting out, to deal with any kind of sexuality. I felt it really important, because a lot of the film and video festivals in the eighties, it was all about sex, but it was all men: all the women were naked and all the men were dressed. I got really angry but I also thought: how do I speak about my own desire, how do I speak about myself in relationship to sexuality, and also how do I provide this opportunity. Women are objectified all the time and, so, an opportunity for a man to be objectified. Not only objectified but sort of be in that position, partly. This is something that continued all through my work. If you look at We, or Getting in, and then The Lamps, it’s just a thread that continues, it’s really important. It’s also an interest of mine, and a way of cooking people, dealing with the taboos. It pushes me and the audience on a different level, more of the level of skin.

You know, the biggest assumptions we have has to do with patriarchy, gender, and sexuality. It is such an interesting moment now: it’s “LGBTQIA” now, because everything just expands. I could say tomorrow to you: “I’m a man”, and I don’t even necessarily have to change anything about my body, or even change the way I dress but I just identify today as a man. I have several people who have children who refuse to be boy or girl. They just refuse. This is very exciting because so much of the problems of the world are built on this kind of gender cement, so I think I will definitely continue working in this way.

One word about the control topic? To have control over one’s life?

 Maybe it’s a question I ask myself a lot. My films are very controlled in certain way, they’re very open but then when I finish them I think that they all are strong in this sense of me trying to make them what they want to be through a kind of integral decision-making. But also with my own life, I just ask myself this question. Do I have too much control, not enough control? I said in the artist talk, I still have this question that the three women in The houses that are left have: how should I be living my life? This is probably because I didn’t take the ordinary path of family, children, I only recently got a fulltime job. I lived half a century with no fulltime job. When you live that way, and also when you make film after film in very different ways, you’re always asking yourself why. Why this film, why am I living there, why don’t I have house? You know, just everything is very exciting but falls apart very easily. Although what you realize, as you get older, is anyway we’re all going to die and it’s conditional so maybe I just shouldn’t be so preoccupied.