The Experimental Film Society (EFS) Statement
1) Twenty Personal Thoughts on Cinema
1. Fostering a creative spirit is vital when it comes to filmmaking. Don’t put your passion on pause while waiting for someone else to approve of your vision. Opportunities aren’t gifted to us; they’re created. Take the initiative to see your vision unfold on the silver screen. Devote yourself to breathe life into your narrative by giving it the attention and focus it deserves. No film arises out of thin air; break the boundaries that confine your potential and ultimately create something personal and poetic. Don’t let anyone or anything stand in the way of your creative progression, and never wait for permission from others to make films.
2. Don’t allow a lack of resources to prevent you from getting started on a project. Even when means are unimaginable, and things look difficult to achieve, there is a way forward. Before you can be successful in unlocking financial support, you must have something concrete to prove its merit. So start working on ideas—even with minimal resources—so you can have something tangible to demonstrate to sponsors. This will maximize your chances for successful implementation and get you on the path to receiving bursaries and funding further down the line. In other words, think outside the box to find ways to jumpstart your project and stay the course. Otherwise, you won’t have anything to show, and the endeavour of success will come to a halt.
3. As you take on filmmaking’s many possibilities and challenges, don’t be afraid to go alone. Self-reliance is critical; strive to achieve as much as possible without relying heavily on others. With your full potential and effort, you will discover just how capable you are. Don’t doubt or underestimate yourself; break through the boundaries and impediments and instead rely on the only thing that you have complete control of: ‘yourself’. Each small accomplishment is a milestone, propelling you towards more noteworthy achievement and learning. Remember that you can do whatever you set your mind to as long as you do as much as possible by yourself.
4. When creating a work of art, such as a film, it is essential to trust your own instinct and creativity. Asking for feedback, advice and aesthetic help from others should be done cautiously and thoughtfully, if at all. Solicit opinions only sparingly and only from trusted colleagues or other professionals who understand the medium in which you are working. Remember that your unique personal touch matters. Ultimately, the artistic merits of your creative endeavour are in your hands. It is wise to heed the opinions of those who have experience in your art form; however, it is equally consequential to remind yourself of the significance of creative expression in your particular work.
5. It is vital to develop expertise in techniques and gain knowledge of the tools at your disposal. Taking it upon yourself to do much of the technical work gives you the freedom to work according to your own standards and criteria. Becoming an authority on many aspects of filmmaking will ensure that you are prepared to handle whatever task comes your way. Digging into the details and understanding how everything works behind the scenes better equips you to make decisions and confidently perform technical duties. Learning the specifics of the various pieces of equipment will also allow you to stay proficient in using the relevant technologies and products that your specific project requires. Developing a basic understanding is critical, but substantially, immersing yourself further can provide you with more profound knowledge and greater flexibility in the field.
6. When it comes to experimental filmmaking, a screenplay is just an organizational tool. It provides helpful information that can help secure funding and navigate bureaucratic hurdles, but it doesn’t reflect the actual craft of filmmaking. Writing a compelling script might seem essential at first glance, but if your terminus is to create a personal poetic vision, the script should be viewed as an outline that can be tremendously twisted, adjusted, fragmented or deconstructed to an extreme level whenever necessary. Grasping the art of experimental filmmaking requires engaging with the moment while staying genuine to your artistic intention. It calls for a keen awareness of yourself and your surroundings, spontaneity, flexibility, and perseverance – skills that can’t be found on the page. You must live the film as you live your life.
7. Navigating the film festival circuit, distribution system, and public screening arena is a challenging process – success depends almost entirely on contacts and connections. If one does not possess these contacts and relationships, their work is unlikely to be considered seriously. Releasing a project without such networking is typically unfruitful. Making industry contacts must be prioritized in order to achieve success in today’s competitive climate. It can be intimidating, but building the right relationships opens a world of opportunities for artists. Leveraging those connections can often lead to constructive outcomes. Aspiring creatives must put in the effort to create an effective network of connections in order to give their projects the best chance at becoming freely available to the mass public.
8. Today’s culture has almost completely transformed how the idea of an independent filmmaker is seen due to the democratization of filmmaking. Times have changed, causing being a filmmaker not to be something so unique or special anymore. After all, anyone can essentially pick up a camera with relatively little effort. There’s even a plethora of online resources available for those trying to express themselves in the world of filmmaking, whether it be full-length features, documentaries, or short/experimental films. Indeed, this day and age no longer comes with pure differentiation in terms of who is a “filmmaker” and who is not. Everyone’s voice is empowered; ultimately, it is all considered independent filmmaking. The only element that still matters is how personal, intimate and poetic your film is.
9. The art of Cinema and the films themselves are the ultimate teacher. Immerse yourself in as much Cinema as possible. Continuously watch and explore the rich history of this medium.
10. Cultivation and development is the key to building lasting, trust-based relationships. Relationships based on depth and meaning reap greater rewards than universally superficial ones. Take the time and effort to forge strong connections with your collaborators and colleagues. Doing so will ensure a more fruitful engagement, and any effort you put in will truly be worth it to the end product. As an experimental filmmaker, don’t be afraid to take risks and go to uncharted territories. Show your creations to the world in any way you can, be it online platforms or physical theatrical screenings. You will see the difference.
11. It’s essential to choose people to collaborate with that you completely connect with and trust. It would be best if you only pursued partnerships with those that you are wholly in sync with and can wholeheartedly believe in. Such relationships offer synchronous, successful working experiences. Look for common ground and shared values when selecting colleagues you want to work with to ensure a compatible collaboration. You may have found a lasting partnership when you recognize individuals who embody these characteristics. Alternatively, working in complete isolation and solitude is the optimal approach.
12. As a filmmaker, it is essential to understand and embrace the importance of compensating performers and technical crew. This includes avoiding the temptation of requesting amateur or professional cast and crew commit their skills for free. An artist fee, or another form of acceptable repayment, is necessary in any creative relationship. Making sure that every talent receives appropriate compensation should be a baseline process, regardless of budget size. A performer’s time and energy should be acknowledged, appreciated, and repaid somehow – this is essential in the world of creative arts. A professional, sensible gesture, such as payment for skills and services, is often the most agreed form of repayment. Ideally, all parties should be open and honest about financial terms and conditions upfront to avoid any hassles or issues further down the line. Overall, compensating performers should remain the top priority.
13. Securing a performance/talent release form from your actors and crew is necessary, so have them signed before the principal shooting. Making sure these contracts are signed should be your top priority. Be cautious if this vital step gets overlooked; things can get incredibly complicated if the necessary legwork isn’t done beforehand. Even if you have the most vivid dreams, you can’t conjure up the vast array of horrific scenarios that could arise from not signing these signatures on the dotted line. To be on the safe side, make sure that all actors have signed their release forms before shooting starts.
14. Never wait upon or depend on other parties/agencies to complete a project; it will be a noose around your neck. Promises and pledges are very easy to give and extremely hard to keep; they constitute a ‘zero currency’. A project can be irreparably damaged after suffering a lengthy delay or a series of postponements, and this is all the worse if these deferrals are made simply because you are awaiting someone else’s creative input. If you feel things are taking up more than the allocated time, terminate the situation and do the job yourself. Through doing this, you will discover even more creative processes and methods; your purview will widen and intensify. The whole process of filmmaking (at any level) involves being a constant student. There is no mastery.
15. Gaining the ability to say no in particular situations can be a challenging but monumental step for a filmmaker. Being comfortable enough in your skin or creative vision to turn down a project, collaboration, or screening is nothing short of brave. With mature judgment and reflection, knowing when it’s best to distance yourself from projects or people that might end up dragging you off course and limiting your creativity is a valuable life skill to build. Taking the proper steps to prioritize yourself and your growth as an artist could prove undeniably beneficial in the medium to long term by challenging you to refine and redefine your craft continuously. Doing so allows you to maximize your limited resources, time, and energy from artistic projects that compliment and energize you the most rather than put a strain on you and cut your stride. The courage to reject an incompatible or unideal offer can keep you focused on crafting the personal and unique work you want to put out.
16. Collaborating with close friends can be a vulnerable situation, especially when finances come into play. The old saying, “keep church and state separate,” emphasizes how crucial it can be to differentiate one’s personal relationships from artistic dealings. To prevent misunderstandings and toxicity down the line, it can be best to step back from the situation entirely. For those who must engage in collaborations with their friends, it is notably essential to create and maintain a professional relationship. Having both people on the same page from the start is integral for a successful outcome and can help protect things from becoming too personal during a conflict. This could include treating collaborators the same way you would externally hired personnel with respect to contracts and payment suites. Taking a proactive stance by declaring clear guidelines beforehand can ensure both parties handle things amicably while also preserving longstanding relationships.
17. As an artist or filmmaker, why confine yourself to current trends? They’re phenomena that merely amount to fleeting fashions. Instead, focus on your individual ideas and subject matters with themes and notions that erupt from your own experiences and the most inner depth of your existence. The current expectation of society is for artists to create direct mirrors and commentaries on its socio-political structure. But instead of making art a vehicle for sloganeering and reductive structures, why not work to create something that generates sensory, visceral, and profound poetic impacts in the people receiving them? Dragging films to a state of over-simplified sloganeering strips away all of the medium’s most stimulating and subversive elements. Taking a step back and pausing to contemplate the situation isn’t challenging; all it takes is a moment to take a deep breath and ease the mind. To bring a unique and individual vision into the world, understanding that excruciatingly personal works of art can challenge standards in mesmerizingly emotional ways is an integral part of filmmaking.
All moving images are connected to the scientific and anthropological origins of Cinema. When you create a film, it holds the same significance as when influential filmmakers like Jean Rouch, Maya Deren, Marguerite Duras, Fritz Lang, Sokurov, Ozu, Brakhage, Tarkovsky, Méliès, or the Lumière brothers made their films. Your film becomes a moment in the history of Cinema, and it is your duty as a filmmaker to acknowledge and respect this history. Never dismiss or underestimate its importance.
Act as a writing assistant. Transform the following sentence into an academic voice for an article. Correct any grammatical errors in the sentence and enhance it. Once you have created the new sentence, read it aloud to ensure it flows naturally and conveys the intended meaning:
Art risks losing its allure when employed as a conduit for political declarations and messages. While it is undeniably true that every artistic creation carries an inherent socio-political undertone, I contest the notion that this forms the principal objective of art. The propensity to overlook the fact that art serves as a playground for the unfettered imagination is increasingly prevalent. If the primary function of art becomes a commentary on our surrounding world, what space remains for the imagination to frolic freely?
Cultivating a sphere for imaginative exploration is imperative, for it is through this process that we discover transcendental perspectives and ways of existence. Imagination, at its zenith, transcends logic, morality, and physical reality; it is not bound by societal constraints or contemporary events. Art should be a haven for the manifestation of the irrational and or illogical, a notion of particular significance in a society like ours that thrives on rationality, categorization, analysis, authority and control.
We require a remaining refuge where imagination can roam unbound, where contact can be made with possibilities and impossibilities yet to be realized and imagined. The most profound artistic works are borne out of the most liberated and untamed imaginations. To envision is to experience freedom.
18. It is an unfortunate reality that money plays a significant role in Cinema and the art world. However, despite this fact, there are ways to navigate this challenge and successfully healthily shape your practice.
19. Don’t define your artistic ideology and beliefs. Demonstrate, exemplify and exhibit it.
20. No rules apply to all filmmakers. Each filmmaker has their own unique set of rules.
2) “When You’ve Got Nothing, You’ve Got Nothing To Lose”
“If you’re worrying about how to finance and distribute your movies than you shouldn’t bother making movies. You make movies because you need to make movies. Everything else is unimportant. If you wait to get the money to make a movie then you shouldn’t make the movie. If you need distribution in place before you have the courage to make a movie then it’s not a movie worth making. There are many other ways to make money than making movies. If you need to make money, please find some other way to do it. You make movies to lose your money. That is the purpose of making a movie—to put your life into something—not get something out of it… You must be willing to risk everything to really express it all.” – John Cassavetes
The history of film is so vast and enormous that even in your wildest dreams you cannot imagine it. Once you start watching films and sink deeper and deeper into cinema the more you realise just how many ‘classic’ films there are. What even constitutes a ‘classic’ film? There are so many films that have been overshadowed and ‘lost’, which have only begun to resurface.
Cinema is constantly reassessing its own past and chronology, and in accepting that you begin to realise that it is almost impossible to watch too many movies. In fact the more you see the more you begin to realise that you have seen absolutely nothing in respect to what is actually out there.
There are a great many films from many different countries that we have never even heard of, and very little information exists about them, other than the fact that they are waiting to be discovered and eventually be brought into mass culture. It is therefore clear that instant mass acceptance or comprehension is no guarantee of quality. So many films neglected in their time or forgotten with the years are popping up like time bombs to make us question the very nature of cinema and our sense of its history. Planting a potential time bomb could prove at least as relevant to the art of cinema in the long term as leading a full-scale invasion of current public consciousness.
I have worked non-stop, sometimes with modest funding but more often completely without money. Of course, having a budget has major advantages. Collaborators can be better paid, distant locations can be traveled to and the final film can be better promoted. But not having money has never been an impediment to creation for me. Work with what you have, make the most of whatever your circumstances are. Ultimately, however, the fact remains that whatever your budget, if you do not make narrative films your work will be largely ignored.
It does not matter if the film is good or bad; nor does it matter if you submit it to as many film festivals as possible (probably paying an entry fee, which I am against unless it is very low and reasonable). There is a clear set design whereby the majority of experimental film festivals only accept short films, usually 20 minutes or under. Furthermore, this must often be 20 minutes of celluloid and/or a film with a relatively narrative approach touching on socio-political subjects. So the realities of getting screenings for experimental work that falls outside these categories is largely limited to self-organised events. Beyond that, there is nothing. Forget it. Having said that, the internet allows you to release the work online as VOD and a small opportunity exists for people to see your films.
Considering all this, I still hold a strong belief in this formula: the lack of acceptance by the film industry along with a misfit status can help you. With nothing to lose, there is nothing left to fear. Within financial reason, you have absolute creative freedom. But you must have the self-motivation to do whatever you are good at non-stop without paying any attention to unnecessary distractions.
3) For a Personal Cinema
I have always believed that it is impossible to explain a film, simply because it is an experience. In 2015, I took part in a Q&A session following screenings of some films that I curated from the EFS archive. The programmes consisted of short films by a number of EFS filmmakers and a feature film of my own. Both played to packed houses. While the overall feedback was very positive, there were two challenging comments that really got me thinking. I responded to them briefly and politely, not lingering on them unduly so as to keep the Q&A flowing. But in the weeks that followed, I gave them a great deal of thought and discussed them at length with my colleagues Dean Kavanagh and Maximilian Le Cain. What follows is my considered response.
The comments were:
“The films in this series were so personal, formal, and experimental that no-one can communicate with them. There is no way to enter into the world of these works and thus no way to enjoy them at all.”
“Many of these works shouldn’t even be here! I repeat: these works should never have been screened here.”
Essentially, my understanding of these statements is that due to the fact that the films were ‘personal’ in form, spirit, and content they cannot be understood and therefore they should not even exist. As an underground filmmaker committed to creating intensely personal, formally radical cinema, it is certainly not the first time that I’ve heard responses like these. And they have not just been aimed at my work but also at the work of colleagues and other experimental – or even sometimes relatively mainstream – films. Perhaps this reaction of violent rejection is a natural defence mechanism that kicks in when someone is confronted with the shock of an idea that is so alien as to seem fundamentally inappropriate. Of course, the history of alternative cinema is also a history of such confrontations. When a filmmaker gets this type of response, unless he or she is interested in provoking the audience for the sheer sake of provocation, it is because the viewer’s received understanding of how to ‘communicate’ with a film has been thrown into crisis. As an experimental filmmaker, one hopes that if the film works, this confrontation will result in the viewer’s perception rising to the challenge and that ideally he or she will leave with an ‘opened’ mind or even an expanded consciousness. And not just with a broadened understanding of cinema but with a somehow enriched (or, indeed, disturbed) sense of perception itself.
However, the specific nature of the ‘personal’ aspect of my filmmaking gives this ambition a whole other dimension. Working as I do – with no budget, doing more or less everything myself, and essentially inventing a way of making films all of my own – results in films that naturally emerge as something close to a manifestation of my thoughts and emotions. Therefore, admittedly, there may be certain elements of them that remain impenetrable when not experienced through my individual biology. Yet the remnants and spectres of internal moments that remain on the surface of the work are sufficiently present, when light strikes them, to communicate enough to an audience for them to form a relationship of their own with what they see and hear. And the emphasis should be on ‘a relationship of their own’.
For me, making these films is a process of freely exploring my own often strange and disconcerting perceptual reactions to existing in a world that appears more and more mysterious and unstable the more that I look at it. We largely perceive this world through sight, sound, and the medium of an individual sensibility. The techniques of cinema, therefore, are ideally suited to investigating personal perception in a way that can reveal the nature of one’s inner relationship with the world to a heightened degree. Likewise, plunging cinema into such murky and volatile waters results in a profound research into the capacities, mysteries, and limitations of cinema itself. The filmmaker uses cinema, and cinema uses the filmmaker’s unique sensibility to probe the nature of the other. Each goads the other on, pushing the perceptual boundaries of the other, and revealing hidden aspects of the other’s nature. Far from using film as merely a device for illustrating preconceived ideas or conveying information in a conventionally manipulative fashion, this approach can result in confronting the audience with a vision that is truly unique; a vision that is as frail, delicate, aggressive, and enigmatic as any person.
What results from this open, exploratory way of working is not ultimately solipsistic but profoundly interpersonal. The filmmaker is not presenting the audience with a pre-digested idea expressed from the position of authority that most films automatically assume. There is no attempt to take the viewers ‘out of themselves’ through entertainment, or to ‘make them think’ in the manner of films with a ‘message’. Instead, they are invited to join the filmmaker in an experiential exploration of the atmospheres, emotions, and processes that the film embodies almost in a spirit of co-creation. Each viewer is, to some degree, conscious of their own feelings and reactions throughout the screening. And these reactions are as important a part of the film as what is being projected before them. The experience of watching the film becomes a personal interrogation of the viewer’s perceptions by and for that viewer. In this way, a film can be as much about the viewer as the filmmaker.
Since these are films that can only be concluded in the viewer’s mind, not on the screen, an audience can not only enrich but actually alter the film. I like to think of the film as a mysterious object drifting in the void of deep space. Both the filmmaker and the audience are satellites floating around this strange entity, trying to decipher it in their own way. This results in a state of constant exchange: we are not alone because we have cinema through which the viewer and the filmmaker can communicate on an equal level (albeit admittedly within terms set by the filmmaker). And what we are trying to communicate is something ineffable; something that we can perhaps sense but which only the techniques of cinema can make visible.
The difference between this way of creating and the traditional, emotionally manipulative narrative techniques of the mainstream are so obvious as to be almost not worth mentioning. To pitch EFS against Hollywood is redundantly quixotic. Today, with everyone making films and with moving image equipment of one sort or another being almost universally accessible, there is nothing exceptional about a film existing outside commercial structures. Through my own experience as an underground filmmaker, however, I have become aware of other, more insidious orthodoxies that have sometimes emerged from what was once radical. These should be called out.
Cinema is assumed to have an obligation to operate within defined and accepted rules. But those rules are not just the rules of the mainstream. ‘Alternative’ traditions can be every bit as ‘safe’ and pander to the complacent requirements of their consumers as lazily as the most banal soap opera. Examples where this is prevalent include ‘mumblecore’ films, where ‘rawness’ is all too often an excuse for shoddy filmmaking; materialist films where the very fact of something being shot on a small gauge format makes it somehow worthy of admiration; and, most tricky of all, films dealing with political oppression or revolt, which simply by virtue of doing so are accorded cinematic merit even if they are no more than reportage. Of course, all three traditions have glorious antecedents in cinema history, often from pioneering moments when such films were still rare events. And still, today, all three traditions do sometimes produce magnificent work (as does the mainstream). But the problem is that they are what is automatically recognised in many quarters as radical cinema, which gives critics and festivals an excuse not to look any further. They are frequently hailed by category rather than quality, and the viewer knows exactly where to stand in relation to them while still being able to feel ‘radical’ or ‘alternative’. This is what occupies the margins, pushing anything else even further towards oblivion. And this sells cinema short.
If the truth be told, the audio-visual landscape of the 21st century is so volatile and measureless that anyone conscientiously working as an artist in it needs to keep on their toes as never before. Not in the sense of ‘keeping up’ with the new, but rather in constantly questioning the value of what they are doing, against the vast quantity of moving images flooding the world, and the unprecedented ease of creating them. Broadly speaking, we are no longer operating within a linear history of aesthetic development but are instead adrift in a flood of stylistic choices (or simulacra of them), which technology allows pretty much anyone to assume with facile, cavalier ease. We aren’t links in a chain of historical development, but denizens of a later era rummaging in the boxes of bric-a-brac left over from that heroic time. This is not in itself necessarily a bad thing, but if one still cares at all about cinema, it is obvious that the responsibility of the filmmaker in this situation is enormous.
Today, it is up to every filmmaker worth their salt to reinvent cinema in their own image. Nothing short of that is sufficient. This reinvention does not take place in a void. The lessons of film history should be studied and assimilated, because to exist in the world today is to be influenced by moving images whether we like it or not. Studying the work of the masters allows us to navigate moving images critically and perceive them outside the context of what is generally fed to us in society. As a filmmaker, it is necessary to formulate your own sense of composition, colour, sound, and rhythm – a voice and a heartbeat that is entirely your own. You must also discover and explore a universe that is unique and personal to you, discarding the alibis of ‘content’ in favour of presenting the viewer with something that they can’t see anywhere else. It is necessary to cut into, or even straight through, reality to reveal the deeper insights into existence that only the tools and techniques of cinema can touch. To forge a cinematic language entirely of your own is enough to accomplish this; films should be born of a particular vision, a personal way of using sound and image. This should be the starting point of a film, and the film should then organically seek out its appropriate subject matter. It should not be used simply to cosmetically amplify or garnish an indifferent scenario.
It is paradoxical indeed that in a world where moving images are our constant companions, interest in their intrinsic powers and properties seems at an all-time low, at least beyond strictly utilitarian terms (normally ‘how can I use this to sell something?’). Rather than the miraculous constructs of sound and vision that they can be, they have become simply the least demanding methods of transmitting information that could be conveyed otherwise. Moving image makers and audiences have settled for a codified and superficial relationship dictated by an accepted approach to ‘subject’. As a consequence, like the human brain, cinema, TV, gallery installations, internet videos and all other forms of moving image work tend to chug along at less than 10% of their potential capacity. It seems that films are not generally allowed to directly confront the mystery and immensity of things that we have no way of easily understanding, such as nature, animals, the cosmos, or our very existence, without trivialising them. Everything must be neatly reduced to bite-size portions of easily digestible information, a weak reflection of the world where ideas can be safely toyed with. Cinema’s vast experiential capacities are capable of so much more than this, but it seems that the majority of people don’t know how to look or listen with any greater sensitivity than students at a lecture absorbing facts. As a Spanish film scholar recently said in conversation: “The truth is, most people actually hate cinema”.
Daniel Fawcett, a filmmaker friend of mine, put his finger on the problem with this reaction to the art world, one that holds equally true for any area of tepid moving image creation and consumption:
“The despicable state of the art world [is] summarised here in a comment: ‘He’s a really compelling filmmaker. I’ve noticed that when his films are shown in galleries people will sit through 45 minutes and no one will leave.”
“Is the best that can be said about a winning piece of artwork really that people manage to sit through it? Artists, galleries, art schools, and critics are all participating in crushing the creative spirit. Do artists no longer aspire to create great work, to truly experiment and make works with their whole being rather than all this pseudo-intellectual passionless dross? Nobody seems to take risks any more. Art should aspire to expand our consciousness and to reach beyond our current limitations, not just get us a pat on the back and dinner invitations from art world chums. As Duncan Campbell said in his acceptance speech, “the opinions of the people on the jury matter a great deal, so that’s what it’s all about folks!”
So what should cinema be? I have always liked Nicole Brenez’s ideal definition of art as ‘a catastrophe’. Cinema should be a catastrophe in the way that life is, in the way that opening your eyes on the world every morning is. Personally, I like to define the cinematic experience as similar to what scientists predict falling into a black hole might be like: you are not only pulled apart but also crushed from below. When you look out of the black hole, you see every single thing that has fallen into it since its birth, rushing at you in a fraction of a second, crushing you into nothingness. Cinema itself is not a black hole. It is a human creation. But it can contain all galaxies and forms of life – even ones we can’t fully comprehend and can only sense.
As Robert Bresson said: “I believe in cinema”.
4) Ghosts and Methodologies
Jean Cocteau called cinema ‘death at work’, and it is this aspect of the medium that I turn to now. Filmmaking is a ritual act, trapping images and re-arranging them to tap their inherent powers, then unleashing them in a concentrated form (the projection of this material into light).
I started making films in the year 2000. From the very first day, I thought of only one concept and that was the discovery of what cinema is in this new millennium. This question has pushed me to continuously experiment and investigate in the laboratory of my filmmaking.
The films one makes are nothing but the haunting shadows and light of the films that one has seen in the past. There is no original film, apart from, of course, the very first ones by the pioneers of the medium.
In both my feature films and my ongoing short film series, Homo Sapiens Project, I have been formally experimenting with deconstructing film genres. I have radically minimalised genre elements, attaining what could be described as a ‘ground zero’ of drama through the systematic removal of narrative structures. This has resulted in a series of experimental films that foreground mood, atmosphere, visual rhythms, the nature and subjectivity of the image and the gaze that engenders it, the permeability of the borders between documentary and fiction, and the role of architecture and landscape as palimpsests of hidden histories.
All of this emerges in the ambiguous context surrounding the circumstances of the moment of shooting in contrast to what is assembled in editing. As Donal Foreman says, “each image is a single event” and “cinema is a dialogue between will and reality”. In this way the edit is also part autopsy, and the series of filmed events full of life, colour, and movement lie frozen in the frame, dormant. They are scrutinised, examined, explored, and then reassembled, in order to become light, shape, and rhythm once again but in the form of spectres among the living. This amounts to the idea of film as an ‘un-dead’ medium – any given moment refers to a ‘dead’ moment filmed in the past, yet it behaves as if it were ‘alive’ due to being replayed and edited.
Godard/Gorin once stated that the distinction between documentary and fiction is false, however I prefer Donal Foreman’s suggestion that the distinction between documentary and fiction is meaningless. Once something is filmed it becomes a fiction. Whether it is your fiction or my fiction depends on where you put the camera. As Foreman puts it, “the camera is always part of the scene”.
Raul Ruiz said that “In narrative cinema – and all cinema is narrative to some degree – it is the type of image produced that determines the narrative, not the reverse.” ‘Form’ in my view, is the most important and vital part of the 7th art. When you conceive a unique form, the narrative, drama, or story can be articulated with it. Or you can simply have the form itself, which is amazingly expressive in its own right.
To my mind the filmmaker should, as Foreman said, “be, not illustrate”. As Straub and Huillet state:
“Cinema is not an illustrative or descriptive tool. You have to build images and things have to exist within them. There are more and more filmmakers who show a thousand trees and in the end you feel as you have not seen a single oak during the two hours. Image has to stand on its own, the image is not something arbitrary. A finished image does not describe anything, it is its own entity, it does not describe.” (Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet).
It is widely believed to be impossible to envision a film without a screenplay; the script is still secure as the cornerstone of filmmaking. It is thought of as the collected information of all that is seen and heard; but on paper nothing is seen, nothing is heard. Of course, scriptwriting is an art unto itself, but it has very little to do with filmmaking. One mysterious synopsis is enough to make an entire feature-length film. Mysteries can be preserved while petty details are dispensed with, exciting and stimulating the mind. Consider, for example, this synopsis for Bela Tarr’s Kárhozat (1988): “A penniless drifter’s relationship with a nightclub singer is put under strain when he offers the woman’s husband a smuggling job.” And as Godard expressed recently in an interview:
“The ideas come gradually, and there is no screenplay. At the beginning, I thought we had to have a screenplay […] And then I realised that the screenplay came not only after shooting, but after editing”.
For me, the most enjoyable part in cinema, apart from watching films from the history of cinema, is the actual craft of filmmaking: shooting/gathering the material and editing/montage, both heavily technical processes. After that there is a feeling of loss and nostalgia; when it’s done each film is an absolute death, although the film behaves as if it were alive. That is why, in my view, cinema is all about ghosts and shadows. In this process, if you are lucky, you may find great collaborators and not have to endure this feeling alone. Everything else is a waste of time for me.
5) Time Travel Machines
We at EFS treat all formats, devices, and cameras, including celluloid and video, as equal, and don’t have any sentimental attachment to them. The 21st-century filmmaker uses any image recording device to make their films and as Orson Welles said, “a film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet”. Cinema is completely reliant on the technology of its time, and the way in which films are made and screened is entirely up to the nature of that technology. The technology of our time is digital, and filmmakers must embrace it fully in order to express themselves and advance cinema. As much as cinema is about the past, it is about the future too.
Our films are about images and the progression of images. When there’s sound or music, they’re about the interaction of sound and image. Cinema itself is always the subject, experimenting with its forms. Not necessarily pushing its limits, because I believe the limits of cinema have already been reached by Structuralist filmmakers like Sharits, or by Garrel’s early films, for instance. You can’t go beyond that. But if a filmmaker’s experiments are true to their perception and personality, the medium’s possibilities are constantly renewed:
“Every film has been made. But the energy persists and the images keep moving, moving in darkness, ceaselessly linking the body and the night in a multitude of shifting rhythms” (Maximilian Le Cain).
6) The Politics of Nationalism
As an Iranian filmmaker, every so often I am approached by film programmers, festival curators, and other individuals (all from the western political world) who wish to curate a show of alternative Iranian cinema or experimental film shorts by filmmakers in Iran or the Iranian diaspora. This has happened so much that I have decided to blog about it and perhaps raise some awareness, yet I’m sure this won’t have much of an impact because the issues I have found in these proposals are often very deeply rooted in some systematic agenda. In response to a request such as this I usually compile a list of films from EFS or by friends of EFS and send it on. These works are heavily audio-visual and formally challenging, and in 95% of cases I either get no response or a very polite message stating that the films cannot be accommodated into the programme and wishing me the best of luck.
When this happens regularly it makes you rethink and re-evaluate the system. If the films had taken the form of the following scenarios I’m almost certain they would have been accepted and subsequently screened:
-A crowd of protestors running through the streets, shouting against the government and getting hammered by the police. Usually this takes the form of an essay film, compiled with footage shot by various mobile phones and other consumer-end cameras.
-Exploitation of the suffering felt by a certain political/human rights activist group, where the film crew visits their homes in a guerrilla filmmaking style. The structure is more like a vox-pop of talking heads, cutting back and forth from daily life in Iran with some reasonably avant-garde music in place so that they can declare it to be an alternative film.
-Showing the daily life of a group of villagers, nomadic people, or other rural people living in a remote part of the country. The participants are deeply frightened and yet thrilled by the presence of the camera and crew who are targeting them.
-Revealing some factual evidence about disadvantaged people in tough situations with a cinema-verite style, ripping off and abusing the heritage of Chantal Akerman, Chris Marker, Jean Rouch, Albert and David Maysles, etc.
-Imagining Iran as a country in which people are travelling with horses and camels; depicting people in the most primitive situations possible, like animals in a zoo.
-Typical images that define the political (not existential) existence of the Middle East. Utilising a back catalogue of references to images that are already available in mainstream media. Possible dramas will revolve around shrines, mosques, religious iconography, women wearing the hijab, prisons, and popular mass movements.
I find it hilarious that most of these films (and of course there can be exceptions) are completely designed for western viewers and contain no benefit, cultural or otherwise, for any kind of exchange with Iran. A film such as this is simply a crude and kitsch product that the institutions feed off like vampires; perhaps through viewing people like animals they feel better about themselves. This is a sort of fascism that crawls and manifests itself in a completely legal fashion, and it is one that is validated by audiences, festival juries, and curators.
Still nobody says anything and another day passes and this cancer grows. If you try to create something that is beyond this form of image you will appear as an alien, and a potentially dangerous one at that. Here are two quotes by Walter Benjamin, and though they are perhaps unrelated, I feel they shine some light on this situation:
“Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.”
“In big parades and monster rallies, in sports events, and in war, all of which nowadays are captured by camera and sound recording, the masses are brought face to face with themselves. This process, whose significance need not be stressed, is intimately connected with the development of the techniques of reproduction and photography. Mass movements are usually discerned more clearly by a camera than by the naked eye.”
A few months ago I was approached by an individual to make an ‘essay film’ about Iran, employing the typical and banal images that have become the status-quo for this kind of media portrayal. I have no affinity for or comprehension of such displays on this theme and I despise these routine images. The Iran that I grew up in was indeed very different and to this day it continues to be so. Though this skewed, socio-political representation of Iran in the western media is accepted and probably holds some truth, it is still something that I do not understand whatsoever. I have avoided any such similar representation of Iran in my life and indeed in my work. I politely declined that person’s offer.
If you are displaced from your country of origin, no matter where you are or how long you have been gone, the art organisations, festivals and audiences expect you to talk of your birth country in terms of ‘bulletin news topics’ and other such banalities. This type of expectation is increased when applied to countries of the third world, and since westerners are too frightened or anxious to travel there you must act as a delegate filmmaker: travel there, make a dull film and give them exactly what they want to hear and see in order to fortify these perceptions. Nothing outside of this box is accepted. Apparently this is your duty. Once you delve into things on a personal level and with a universal cinematic language, utilising deeply internal imagery you will not only be completely ignored but also systematically silenced. The politics of nationalism, its origins and culture, always seem to haunt you no matter where you go, and there is no escape from it. Perhaps that is why, in my view, filmmaking in its own right is a political act, not simply political by the choice of topic or theme. If you give in and give them what they want you are accepted. If you struggle against these horrible and clumsy perceptions you are rejected, you lose. It is that simple. Thankfully cinema is infinite, unknown, and still being invented.
7) Abandoning the Comfort Zone
Whether a film operates outside or within the commercial parameters of cinema, it should always treat an audience with some form of respect. When you simply ‘give in to’ and ‘enjoy’ a film, within that set moment you may find yourself satisfied with the interest and emotion it has somehow provoked. When the houselights immediately burn back to reality, all of the buzz and sparks are smothered and the sentimentalism is immediately dispersed. To use the common phrase and say that the film is ‘over’ would be quite an understatement; the film experience is well and truly finished with, extinguished, terminated. Nothing exists beyond that final frame. Your human emotions were systematically provoked and your intelligence was heavily undermined; you were in fact held in some form of suspended animation and abused, exploited, and in a manner of speaking, ‘film-raped’.
Films that take you for granted while you watch them are not worth a moment of your time. On paper they map a very blunt and sequential chart built on the foundations of sentimentality. You traverse highs and lows at various strategic positions that eradicate any potential dialogue between the film and you, the viewer. With visuals, score, and script, you are being told the same information simultaneously on three different fronts and your emotions are taken hostage. When the houselights come on, the film releases its grip and nothing can be taken away from the experience. It is an entirely disposable act. Films must treat the viewers as intellectual beings rather than constantly attempting to manipulate and emotionally hijack them. The ability and potential of the audience is as vast, endless and uncharted as the ocean.
There are so many films out there being discovered and so many more that have yet to be made, but the only films that are truly worth your time are the ones that begin after you leave the cinema. These are films that will grow with you everyday for your entire life, and in the end they will outlive you.
The most populist art takes the intellect and senses of the audience for granted. It’s truly repugnant and frightening to abuse the audience’s capabilities and knowledge by manipulating what they already know into the hollow drum of a new experience; this is an act of deception, even abuse. I think reversing this process and taking the audience into a completely unknown, hostile and insecure environment is worthwhile. The audience should be left unguided as they find their own way back to a ‘comfort zone’ – if they can.
8) The Films That Only You Can Make
When I make a film and edit it at home, I only think about the big silver screen and imagine playback in a proper theatrical cinema. Based on that, I set my aesthetics and measurements for a dark space with good seats, an ideal traditional screening context. However when the film is complete and I return once again to the reality concerning the possibilities of screening, I soon come to the realisation that the choices are extremely limited and rarely consist of screening in an actual cinema. Therefore you have to gravitate toward either a gallery space, art venue or a very small underground space. The majority of these have only a very basic setup at their disposal, often an old digital projector and bad sound. In short, you have to compromise in order to have your film screened at all.
Personally I have never enjoyed or obtained any satisfaction from any compromised screening. It comes down to very simple technical reasons that truly upset me, and there are always some small issues that I could have rectified if I was given the chance: bad sound, not fully corrected aspect-ratio, cropped images, unbalanced colours, etc. This may not spoil the screening for the audience who might have truly enjoyed the film under these conditions, but I cannot ignore my agendas and as the great Von Sternberg said,
“I don’t have the same reaction to pictures that you have. I view a picture like a surgeon views an operation. If an operation is good and the patient dies, that’s too bad. But the operation is what appeals to me…”
I cannot stand sloppiness, technical errors, and badly-functioning equipment that essentially leads to a terrible presentation, and it is this that I absolutely despise and loathe about the conditions under which experimental cinema is all too often presented. I love high precision, total accuracy, and the complete authentic screening of a film.
In fact, I am no longer sure about notions such as experimental and avant-garde filmmaking in general. They have no meaning to me anymore. When I started to make films I didn’t set out to be an experimental filmmaker, or a storyteller, or any kind of special filmmaker. I simply followed my instincts and learned things intuitively. I slowly evolved and I am still evolving.
In the end I have realised that the films I make are the only type of film I can make and I simply cannot change that even if I wanted to. I have no choice. My ideas and thinking just happen to be very close to experimental cinema but this does not mean that I approve of everything that this practice includes. I love the whole cinema as one entity and I pick and choose fragments, bits and pieces and aesthetics from its entire history. I prefer to belong to cinema itself rather than just experimental cinema. In my experience you are always given two choices: one is the path paved by time, which has felt the feet of many travellers, and the other path is the unknown. I prefer to go for the latter. My instinct rules that I must only make films with digital media, and I must try to master it fully, ultimately seeking to present the cinema of the future. Cinema is changing radically, and I assure you that a great deal of possibilities will emerge through making the films that only you can make.
Cinema is a completely technical process, and requires great skill to make for any achievement, big or small. The craft itself divides into two sections: one is the industry that produces commodities and the second is the personal craft, which leads to art-house/experimental cinema. Nevertheless both approaches are completely technical exercises that rely heavily on one another for the progression of the medium.
Without exception, all of the great art-house/experimental filmmakers have developed supreme expertise and a unique skill set in order for them to express their visions. I’d like to emphasise the fact that there is nothing except technique in cinema, both in the production and post-production of a film. The craft is in how an individual embraces the technique and brings it to a personal level to achieve their own mode of expression. Whether you choose to tell stories, make anti-narrative or formalistic films, the techniques and technical elements required of the craft will always be the foundation of the film.
This is the biggest problem with cinema in this digital age: filmmakers rely solely on ready-made technology with its low-grade aesthetics instead of developing their own personal techniques. Simply buying/renting a good digital cinema camera and a laptop does not guarantee that you will make a worthwhile film. Furthermore, ignorance of these techniques is not justified by simply labelling your film as ‘indie/independent’, a term which has no meaning these days. Cinema is effectively the fictional art of engineering and science that needs to be pushed to its limits.
The biggest downfall of art and especially cinema is the way it so often comforts the audience by imposing an artificial order on reality based a fabricated sense of comprehension, resolution and conclusion for us to collectively indulge in. The world is actually a construct we’ve built from patterns our brain has identified from sensory experiences, so to each of us it is a subjective reality, based on individual perception and interpretation. The great gift of cinema is that it allows us to replicate this personal process, presenting to others a world that is apparently self-contained and autonomous. On the one hand, we can see as another, experience as another; on the other, these impressions are, like everything else, filtered through our own perception. This puts a filmmaker watching his or her own film in a particularly odd and frightening position: looking from outside at what has emerged from his or her own creative urges.
The creative urge is a very basic one. It might stem from the need to share. It could equally be born of an impulse to disturb or to destroy. If that impulse is sufficiently tamed by being guided through the processes that mass consumption demands and shaped into a falsely comforting pattern of conclusiveness, it might be welcomed. If, on the other hand, the creative urge leaps to the screen in all its raw and personal purity, it is likely to upset or perplex generalized perceptions and will more likely than not be rejected. Fear of the perceptual unknown might cause some tamer films to be remembered while other, more extreme ones are suppressed or forgotten. But, as Karl Marx says:
“All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.”
Concepts of conclusion, resolution, and understanding might serve us well to prevent mass suicide and mania. But the experience of cinema originates in an utterly sensory, dreamlike, and primal human condition: sleep. This suggests that its very raison d’être is to tap into the morbid nature of derangement and to bring to light the ungovernable strangeness of being. Naturally, people will by and large instinctively defend against films that reflect this too directly and, like the very peculiar species that we are, try to eradicate them. But the creative urge behind them will continue.
–Rouzbeh Rashidi / Content Revised: Updated and revised as of September 2023.
(Special thanks to Maximilian Le Cain)