Silent Light: Q&A at MovieTowne
What was it like working with the Mennonites? Their religion doesn’t permit images but I think some of them accepted me as they figured out I was interested in the real Mennonites. They speak their language in the film so, in a way, the movie is a document of their culture. They don’t produce music or books so the film fixes a moment of culture.
How come the wife didn’t die in the movie? Maybe she died—I don’t know. Maybe she didn’t come back. I don’t know. I rely on my vision, sort of like a hypnotic trance or my dreams. It’s not so much about telling a story as it is about sharing feelings and pure vision.
Why do you shoot in real time? I wanted to give time to look at the images and to listen. I gave each shot the time needed to really see it. I feel as though an earlier cut would mean the scene would be gone before it could exist in the proper time. I feel as though the entertainment standard doesn’t give you sufficient time. A person could go to a museum and look at a painting. Some would look at it for hours or weeks, even months, but most people just walk in front of it. I find that most of cinema these days is just illustrated literature and that shots are just tools used to tell a story. I believe in making what you’re looking at imperative instead of just a tool from the narrative . . . I guess that’s what happens to all of us, we’re trying to get back to a conceptual understanding, working back somehow. I guess that’s why some people use drugs and take medication—it’s an attempt to get back to feeling and touching.
You work with inexperienced actors. How did you choose your cast? It’s ideal for me to think of characters, not actors, but to focus on the cinematic language and framing dialogue. I went for a few years to the shops and fields and villages and searched for the faces that would be best for the film as they’re similar to the characters.
How did you make out with the language barrier? Yeah, I don’t speak German—well, maybe a word here and there but I told a translator what I wanted the actors to say and they said it. I have no idea if they actually said what I wanted, and I don’t care, really. They could have said, “I like popcorn” when I wanted them to say, “I want to go to the car.” No, really, it doesn’t matter what they say. The film was about constructing every best take, about capturing the energy felt, the breathing, rather than the specific words that were said.
Are there other directors whose work you admire, who you look to when making a film? No, mostly not, but I suppose that everyone is a product of where you are and what you’ve seen and what you’ve eaten—it’s all a part of what you are. But I guess in a way my film is like The Word, which is 1950s Danish film set in a religious society. But that happens around a miracle and, in my film, there is no miracle. It’s mostly about where I have lived and the places and people I see.
Not to be pragmatic but, in the film, is it possible that she didn’t actually die, that she was in a coma of some sort and the doctor was an idiot? Yes, there is a remote possibility. I guess in a way I was poking fun at the medical community. I have a skin problem and I’ve seen many doctors. They would say, “Well, it’s probably because of the pollution in Mexico City.” And I’d say, “I’ve lived out of Mexico City for years now.” And they would say, “Well, it’s probably too much pepper,” and I’d say, “I don’t eat pepper.” I guess it was a bit of sarcasm on my part. [Referring to the fact that, in the film, the doctor told a grieving widower that his rail-thin wife had died of a massive attack of the heart. When asked why that would happen, the doctor gave alcoholism and obesity and possible reasons.]
Why the long opening and closing sequences? I wouldn’t know. It’s not something concrete. I just wanted to capture the feeling of seeing dawn and dusk . . . To condense into seven minutes without time-lapse effect, to show power and to evoke real feeling in a film in minutes instead of a sped-up version. To get you into the world and then bring you out again. Going from large to small and then the opposite.
I noticed that the camera enters each scene straight on and meanders after the character. Yes, I never liked to shoot a face from an angle. I always like to look at a person on centre. In this film, the Mennonites ordered each shot—they demanded that position. It was an organic way of shooting. They are the centre of the photograph, everything existed for them to be captured. It was about getting the most out of people.
How has the film been received by the Mennonites? They are a conservative community; there were unusual challenges. A large part of the community doesn’t approve of the film. Not the subject, but that it’s anathema, as it’s a film. The sex scene with Johan [main character] took place in a motel not far from his house. His wife had a problem separating fiction and the film from reality, as this was a place so close to his home and it seemed too real. She came to me to complain and was angry but we spoke about it and in the end everything turned out alright.
In Battle in Heaven, you tied a string to the actors and would tug on it when you wanted them to move. Did you do the same thing in this film? The moments are created by actors themselves, there is a strict rhythm and timing. I don’t want to make it sound like they are puppets, it’s more about providing a cue. The actors bring their own presence and energy and their humanity in the end.
What is your next project? I don’t know yet. I’m taking a little break. I’m not the kind of director who has many screenplays and is just waiting for money. I need to feel the next film.
How did you finance Silent Light? With some Mexican funds for film, some German funds and some French funds. Also, some television sales to Arte, the Franco-German culture channel. But mainly from Mexican funds, about 60%.
What sort of feedback have you received for Silent Light? Some people have insulted me. Some have hugged me. Others couldn’t care less. But most people like it.
And it’s been in a couple festivals, hasn’t it? Yes, it’s done well in festivals and has won many awards. I’ve been lucky.
A two-part question: First, there is a very graphic sex scene at the beginning of Battle in Heaven. How did you shoot that? And second: do you have any plans to shoot a movie in Trinidad? There is a saying: With money, even dogs dance. Ok, no, I’m joking about that. The actress is just a very free person. We thought it was an important scene and she trusted me and she trusted the film. She’s very free; in a way I think she liked the idea of shocking people.
You didn’t use a prosthetic penis? No. In a film, if you eat an apple you eat a real apple. If someone dies in a film then of course you have to fake it as, well, the poor guy would suffer. But when you are doing fellatio, nothing happens to you, nothing goes wrong. I just didn’t see the point of using a prosthetic.
And the second part of the question? Well, maybe now that I’m here, if I ever had the impulse maybe. But I don’t have a program; I only respond to what I feel.
What was it like working with your wife as editor? Oh, it was very handy. She edits and then prepares food. No, I’m kidding, I cook most days. It’s great to be able to share that part of my life with her. But I don’t think it would have worked if she was on set. It’s important for us to work on our own. The editing took three months, that was a good time.
You shoot using a 1960s lens from Russia, is that right? Yes, and if the image appears a little blurry, it’s not because it’s not in focus. Lenses back then weren’t as sharp as they are today. I think video lenses today are too sharp, more so than the human eye, which is not that sharp. I find that HD images are like metal.
You came in at the end of the film. Is it frustrating for you to see it projected in different ways? Yes, well, of course, it’s better if it’s well projected. But a film has to live his or her own life. The first time it screened I was a little nervous as I wanted it to be perfect. But now I can’t think that way. I would only be suffering.
A scene from Silent Light, which will be shown again at MovieTowne, POS, on September 28 at 8.00 pm