PA: You always shoot your own films, right?
MG: No, never…
PA: Oh, I thought you did. So you bring a sound recordist and a photographer. The first time when I saw Megacities, it reminded me of Mondo Cane, the way that you look at the world like a piece of art almost, you don’t moralize, you just look at things in an aesthetic way.
MG: The comparison comes up once in a while, it is not common but it comes up, and I have never seen the film…
PA: You should see it. There are always some surprising images and it is never moralizing. It is a look at the world that is never moralizing; it is looking at figures and things like a painting.
MG: Mmmm, but people sometimes use it as an accusation…
PA: Yeah. I don’t know why they do that, because for me it is almost like a Buddhist look at the world. Like you are trying to just see what is there, and be non-judgmental in a way. I think the Mondo Cane, the whole wave it brought so many people to the cinemas, there were like 16 million people who went to see it…
MG: That was a lot, and in the sixties or something…
PA: Yeah, in the sixties.
MG: It was Italian, what was the name of the director? I don’t remember…
PA: Jacopetti and then there was another one. But I actually think that Jacopetti was the photographer. They were a team of two, and they were always filming on 35 mm and cinemascope…
PA: And it was beautiful. It is beautifully shot. They would do things like film these little painted Easter egg cracks and with little chickens that were coloured in different colours. So it just looks good and then you can cut to girls jumping on a trampoline in and out of the frame, it is just aesthetics. It is inspiring. And the same in Working Man’s Death, the scene from Nigeria where you have the red and the black and all the colours come through at the slaughter place…
MG: I think the surface always shows a lot, because I was always wondering… It was one of my favourite scenes I ever did because it looks a bit like an art instalment and it also looks very, very beautiful. So that appalls people, because they think ‘why can death be beautiful?’ And I think that is interesting. That is something cinema can actually do, cinema can show you things that make you nod your head and you think what is going on? Why is it like that, without even saying a word? So I am actually interested in that kind of surface…
PA: Yeah, it is. And it also opens up the experience, like it is so much in the look, that is why I always thought you were photographing yourself, because there is so much in the way that you frame the world, that you can open up this non-judgmental look upon the world. You know that scene could be filmed in one thousand different ways, so you just must have a very close relationship to your photographer.
MG: Yeah, it is a close relationship, but on the other hand I am quite a practical person. I don’t want to get distracted by other things. When I started filmmaking, the technical stuff it was much more difficult, much more restricted, so I didn’t want to deal with it. I just wanted to open up the space, and have a sort of mind body of mind filming, and it took a while, but now we don’t even talk, we just film. Do you film yourself?
PA: I film myself. I think it is really difficult to give away the camera, because everything is in the framing. The film is the framing. So it just sucks to work for me as a photographer because I am always looking over my shoulder and trying to take the camera away. So I just realized it is better to just…
MG: I do it, but I only film for other people, never for myself.
PA: Okay, and why is that?
MG: It just makes more sense. I believe cinema is such a way a complex thing, I have a strong vision and I really push through that direction and I want more minds in a way, to challenge. To challenge me and to challenge what I do. Especially with editing, because I think that when I film I get nothing, this is all crap, so many more things so, so much more complex, so many more beautiful things, I think it is all crap. So I have to leave it in the editing room, I couldn’t touch it, I wouldn’t touch it, it would stay there. It is very good in a way as an emotional cleansing to get rid of it, to let somebody with completely new eyes see it. And then you can come back and say what you think, there is that, but it would be hard on me emotionally to work with it…
PA: Right now I am just at the beginning of editing my new film, and I have to see the raw material, and it is a very painful process because I only have myself to blame for everything. But the freedom is really enormous, when you are just one person out there…
MG: Maybe too enormous… So what is your obsession with science?
PA: I like to go into discoveries, I like to ask questions, when I know I can’t answer them. They are just questions that I have in me. I have this rational side of me that likes things that can be measured and weighed, and looked at in old-school scientific ways. But I also like the fields that are not measurable. So the clash between what is immeasurable and trying to measure the immeasurable, is just something that I have always been interested in. So I am working on a film about consciousness and it is really the most difficult one, because that is really immeasurable.
MG: But they belong together these three films?
PA: Yeah, they belong together. Mechanical Love is about what is an emotion, and it is different if it is directed towards something electronic or something that is biological? And why do we feel that an emotion is less worthy if it is directed towards something that is electronic? That was the question that I was looking into. Free the Mind is what is a thought, and can a thought change your biology? And the last one is who is having these emotions and these thoughts? What is consciousness? It is sort of an umbrella over these two first ones. But the last one is definitely the most difficult one.
MG: I felt it was interesting also in Mechanical Love that the simple things work. Maybe that is also a connection to filmmaking. That this animal would work the best for emotion, or if you say, does a robot work? Then the only robot that worked was that little seal, because it is so simple and it triggers so precisely the emotion that I would say the seal is like the three-act movie that always triggers your emotions in the same way. So this seal actually works and the copy of the scientist comes up with nothing.
PA: It is more like an electronic…
MG: It is like an exercise you do, and it allows nothing. But the seal made people happy. So it is very strange to compare these two.
PA: But it is interesting how the human being is so complex, it is really, really difficult to define exactly what makes us human, and how do you feel that something is alive? When you are in a room with an android you actually feel that it is alive, but it is not alive. It is sort of a strange zombie kind of feeling.
MG: Yeah, but I mean, the seal triggered much more of that, so it was way more simple. And then you think like I would see the sense in cloning a human being or try to create it, I don’t know, chemically or whatever, but to make a human robot, you simply think in a modern world, why?
PA: It is just to trying to find out what is human, that is really his quest. He is not making a robot; he is trying to understand himself.
MG: Does it amount to anything for him?
PA: I don’t know. It is just interesting to see, how when the robot is awkward in its movements, he becomes awkward in his movements. They sort of melt together in a conscious way. So I don’t know if it amounts to anything, but he is more like a philosopher. Actually he was an oil painter before he became a robot developer. He is more interested in the visual or the more philosophical side of engineering.
MG: I thought that the tension between the two parts was really interesting, because of that simple fact, that the more simple you get, the more effective you get, especially in that field obviously. I think the seal makes a lot of people happy.
PA: Yeah, it does, it does. And I think Denmark is actually the main importer of the baby seals.
MG: Do you own one?
PA: No, they are very expensive.
PA: Yes, it’s like 25,000 Danish kroner.
MG: You’re kidding!
PA: So it is more nursing homes that have them.
MG: Why do you think Vibeke wanted the two of us to talk to each other?
PA: I actually think that maybe she thinks there is a connection between how to look at things in a more curious way, or trying to put the world under a loop, or trying to look closely at things in a way.
MG: But we look at very different things…
PA: Yeah. But I can see a connection in your films. I can definitely see why. I am inspired by your films.
I think the last one with the whores is interesting because it is the same look, but it is on something that is much more vulnerable this time. And actually, to tell you the truth, I couldn’t get through Mexico…
MG: That was my favourite part… (laughing)
PA: I started watching it, and then I thought this is going to be tough because it is a very tough film to watch. But it is interesting why it is tough, because it is the same look and it is the same way of looking at things in an aesthetic way. But it is just when it clashes with something that is so emotional it gets very difficult for the viewer. I don’t know what kind of response you have had to that.
MG: For me it is strange and difficult, as you say, in the sense that people, when you treat any kind of issue and especially this issue, then they have expectations about how this is going to be, or how it should be, or they see themselves in it. And with that kind of expectation there is a lot of no-nos for them, so they don’t want to watch it anymore, because they see things that they don’t expect. They want to see victims, they want to see a story of exploration, they want to see this and that, and then they don’t look anymore. And I think maybe that is exactly the point where I start filming, where I totally rid myself of that, I am not telling any kind of stories of exploration, or about good or bad, or for or against prostitution… I just want to explore what it feels like if you do it and what kind of impact it has on people. That is way more interesting for me. And it is strange that you say that Mexico is the toughest, on the other hand it is the toughest women who work there. They have balls in a lot of ways. And they communicate with me sometimes in a way more sophisticated way than the others.
PA: But I think that is because I just came through India. The reason why I thought it was tough to watch is because I have two girls, and I think that the girls in India were very young. Some of them were children.
MG: Normally, they grow up there or they buy them, and the rule of the trade is that you have to work when you get your period. There are no NGOs, or no laws or nobody can convince them that it is any different. They don’t understand that. So for them it is not defined by age, it is defined by the development of the body.
PA: But you know, that is why I know exactly why I stopped watching it, it is because it was too close to the age of my older one. I sort of felt: ‘wow if we were in another country, this could be her’. I feel very protective about the younger ones…
MG: But that is also a strange thing, how much of ourselves we see in it. For me it is always interesting that in Megacities, there are two scenes, one after the other. One is a scene with a stripper, which is one of the most discussed scenes in the movie, and there is a scene with a factory worker in Russia, she is also female. For one thing, there were a lot of people who saw themselves, especially women, in the place of the stripper. And I had totally diverse reactions from: ‘Oh my God, this is horrible I would die’ to: ‘I want to try this’ (laughing)… and the second interesting thing about those two things is that they are extremely similar, to the second probably, in length, and many people thought that the stripper scene was about three times as long. So the perception of what you take in from the screen is very, very different. It is almost like when the is dentist is rinsing your teeth you think it is ages, or when you have sex you think it is very long and then again in boring moments you don’t extend time. So time and how you evaluate the scene is something that is quite interesting in film.
PA: So what are you working on now?
MG: I am working on a film where I try to free myself completely from theme and issue. I’m doing a film called Untitled and I will travel the world for a year, and I have no theme, no goal or nothing. I am sort of making my goal to watch with curiosity to the maximum.
PA: I think this is a very open approach to reality, and it is very relieving to see something where you just watch things as they are. I always want to structure a story, it is almost in me, I can’t help it, I always want to structure a story. And when I see thing that are on the other side, I think it is really opening up things for me, because I always structure things in stories in a way. So how do you finance that?
MG: (Laughing) I sometimes tell people it is hard to get money for a movie, especially like that, or for a movie that is difficult. But I think if you really want to do it, you find a way to convince people. So it is not only a question of what is possible and what the so-called money people give to you, it is also what you want. I mean if you are like obsessed with doing a film about the human brain you will get it. But if you are obsessed with doing a movie about the human brain on a very poetic level, you will have a harder time to get it, because it is all theme driven and they are all formulas or whatever, but you will find a way if you really want it. So it is also a need, I think filmmakers and artists have a strong need, they will find ways. It was always bureaucratic, you had to convince a pope or you had to convince some people who are sitting in some television station, and know nothing about art, but you have to convince them, it is sort of part of the game, for you too no?
PA: Yeah, but with the consciousness film I am actually trying to keep television out as long as possible, because I feel that it is always restricting in some ways, and for a film about consciousness there shouldn’t be any feelings about what TV station it should end up on or how long it should be. I want to keep it open, open, open, open as long as I can.
MG: So do you start your film when it is not financed?
MG: Oh that is funky.
PA: Because I film myself, so I can just grab the camera and then I start. I just start at a little corner. Right now I am filming a Danish theoretical physicist, who is trying to plan his funeral. He is not about to die, but he is kind of old. I just thought that was an interesting contrast, in him trying to discover if there is a god or not, trying to really see if there is a structure in the world, and if there is a structure is it driven by some kind of conciseness or not, and if I die should I be buried by a church, if I don’t really believe in God? Or maybe there is a god. I like this concrete thing that he is considering; what happens to my body when I am dead? And also trying to figure out if there is a god or not.
MG: How old is he?
PA: He is 74.
MG: Are you yourself connected to the world of scientists, or do you go out and search for them when you have a theme you are interested in? Or are you a scientist yourself?
PA: I am not a scientist. But I think the way we work as documentary filmmakers and the way that scientists work, if they are free, is very similar. It is trying to open up a box, and then you are really happy if there is another box. You are not happy if there is a full-stop or if this is just a box. You are not looking for an answer; you are looking for a new question. And that is sort of the same way that a scientist, if they are working with a big issue, not if they are producing penicillin or, you know, if they are working with big questions, it is the same way…
MG: I love what you just said, because it is like the opposite of so many documentary films that I have seen in my life work. They approach a theme and then they already know the answer, and they moralize it, and then it is over. It is like a leaflet you hand out in the street for political parties or whatever. But I think this comparison with the box in the box in the box, is a beautiful one.
PA: But I think it is the same way you work.
MG: Of course. If there is a place that has no second box, I will leave it. Or if the theme ends where it should end, then it is of no interest.
PA: So, the next film, where are you going to start in the world?
MG: In my garden.
PA: With a micro-cosmos?
MG: I don’t know. Actually my cameraman is already working, and I said we leave in early December, but you should start filming my garden. So once in a while when I come home, I see him standing in the garden filming, and then he shows me pictures and we discuss the leaves, and the barks, and my cat.
PA: There is an amazing satisfaction in filming nature…
It is strange that the things we thrive on as human beings, and that we love to see in life, they fall apart when you film them
MG: Of course…
PA: You know the film I am doing now is nature porn…
MG: Yeah, but then again you get so… It is the same as with commentary, almost every film I start to write the commentary, and I never use it. And also I love to film nature, and I love to film this and that, and it easily adds up to an hour or more.
PA: Yeah, I know.
MG: I am doing a 3D documentary at the moment, and they asked me to do a commentary, this is in an assignment, not totally my work, and I wrote commentary after commentary, and it looks nice and my editor reads it and she says it is such a beautiful commentary. And then we have it read and put to the images, and then it crumbles and it sounds like a nature film or afternoon TV for kids. But I really want to challenge myself in a way so I said one of these days I am going to write a commentary or an inner voice of my own that is actually in the film, because it is probably one of the most difficult things you can do. And also to film nature, that is why I came up with this and said to my cameraman: ‘Well, we are not leaving until you are capable of filming my own garden, because that is probably the most difficult thing of all, that we have to film on this trip’.
PA: But, you know, I have found an excuse to film nature because the other film I’m working on is set on a farm, so I can just spend days filming a leaf. And it is okay, because it is a film. But when you use these macro-optics and you get to see things that you can’t see with your own eyes, it is an amazing discovery, when you go into the ground or into the earth with macro-optics, and you can see little micro-organisms and stuff. It is just a whole world that opens up, which is really a lot of fun.
MG: Yeah, I can imagine. But nature also has this side that sometimes you discover things like you just said, you see the most beautiful thing and when you film it, it is totally banal. Like a sunset, I mean film one good sunset, try, just one moment of a sunset that is anything. I have never seen a good sunset, in my life, in a movie. So it is strange that the things we thrive on as human beings, and that we love to see in life, they fall apart when you film them. And then again there is so much beauty in the most horrific things. Like people always says my films are aestheticized and it is totally ridiculous, because you cannot make the world more beautiful than it is just by shooting.
PA: You can look at it in so many different ways.
MG: You can look it, yeah, but beauty is the splendour of truth maybe. But nothing but that, it is not like you go there and say: ‘Oh, let’s put a light there and that looks more beautiful.’ But death can be beautiful, and that is maybe the challenging thought and what people sometimes don’t want to see in a way.
Beauty is the splendour of truth
PA: So do you lean on some kind of spiritual belief? Or do you have something that inspires you?
MG: I always say that I am Catholic Agnostic. I love the whole concept of church treated as art though the centuries. If churches weren’t built for God, they were built for art, and they were built for understanding humanity or the spirit of man. I couldn’t say I believe in God, that is too drastic for me, or maybe I do and don’t know it, but I think that art in a way was pushed by religious beliefs. Because through religious belief people had more of an idea of how to make art or why.
PA: It was like the frame. I am just thinking when you go out into the world it is like a pilgrimage in a way. You just go out and you are open, you are going to make some kind of film, but what are you looking for? When do you stop, when do you feel this is a little piece of my journey?
MG: Do you know that?
PA: I have no idea.
MG: Yeah, me neither. But I know it unquestionably when it is…
PA: When it is there.
MG: When it is there, I stop and I don’t go away anymore.
PA: I think that maybe I am looking for comfort. You know trying to see death in a beautiful way, or trying…
MG: You are looking for harmony in the world.
PA: I am looking for a reason why we have to die, because that is something that bothers me every day. Every day I think: ‘I could die today.’
MG: Really, when you wake up in the morning?
PA: Yes, every day.
MG: Come on.
PA: Yes. It is true. There is one point every day where I think: ‘I could die today.’
MG: Yeah, but then you live long.
PA: I have no idea. But I think that is what is driving me, I need to figure out: why is it like this?
MG: People who are hypochondriacs always live longest.
MG: And if death challenges you all the time, then it is far away. (Laughing)
PA: I don’t know. But it seems like, when you have this perspective you go out into the world, you have no agenda, there is some kind of pilgrimage in this journey.
MG: I think what you just said is one of the core of things, like talent these days is very often confused with ideology or with some kind of belief about what art should be. But immediately when you see a film or a painting, you get the sense if somebody clicks, if somebody can see things. And it is totally unexplainable. I mean you can see it with Leni Riefenstahl, you can see it with Eisenstein, so I think that there is this moment where people, for whatever reason, are capable of that kind of pilgrimage.
And I think that documentary is in a way such an important and wonderful tool, because it is the only art where you can be in the moment of where you are. As you say, it can be a leaf, it can be the slaughtering of a cow, it can be whatever – you can film anything.
PA: Yeah. I think it is a luxurious situation to be in, that you are just sort of living your work in a way.
MG: But if it is not there, you can get very desperate. It is not always there. People think reality waits for them, or that it is a supermarket, but it is not always there.
PA: So what do you do, if you feel that it is not there?
MG: I don’t know, I drink… (Laughing)
PA: Good choice. (Laughing)
MG: It doesn’t matter what you do, you challenge your time anyway, you watch TV or do something silly, read books or whatever, I write a lot. I start all films through writing, and through taking photographs…
PA: Still photographs?
PA: From the beginning I liked to write, but then I got through this whole application system, where you had to write, and write, and write, and now if I write something, I am not going to show it to anyone, because then they want you to write even more. There is this strange thing in documentary, where people, the investors, they want to know what is going to happen. And I can’t tell them what is going to happen.
MG: Of course, that is the biggest the cat bites its tail in the world…
PA: Yeah, but when I cracked the code to Mechanical Love, which is why I feel that Mechanical Love is the one that is closest to me, when you can discover that there is an area in the world that you are interested in, then you are not so vulnerable, because then you are just: ‘well, I am going to work with this whether I get the money or not, because it is what I am interested in and it is just what I do’. So there is this other stability.
MG: I love the scene where they are singing the German lullaby, I watched it three times when I saw the film.
PA: Yeah, she is the real hero. Because she is just like in Blade Runner, she is just like Harrison Ford who loves Rachel. He loves her even though he knows she is an android, but he loves her, it is just love. But it is so provoking, people want to give her a teddy bear, why can you take away that robot and give her a teddy bear instead, or you can talk to your canary bird, which has like zero intelligence, but you cannot feel like that with a robot?
MG: I also love the levels of all the others, how they are complaining and how they try to sing. And the best part is in the beginning where the robot sort of squeaks and it fits the song in a way, and then they are all complaining. That has many nice levels. (Laughing) It was my favourite scene.
PA: It is my favourite scene too actually. I thought it was so stressful for her, and she was with her love and it was just like a child behaving badly at a dinner party…
MG: You are from a generation where you have never filmed on film, no?
PA: Yeah. We only filmed on video.
MG: I was in awe in loss, because I was so used to these, for me, constructive restrictions. I mean you have this kind of roll of film, and you think about how to use it then, and what proportion to use. And I always like the softness of film and the beauty.
PA: Yeah, it is beautiful. I really hated that they won, the enemy won, because we cannot put it in the cinema. I don’t really understand it, I think it is because, we as filmmakers have not been strong enough to say: ‘If the film has to end in the cinema, it has to been on film. It is a room that is made for film’.
MG: Yeah, but you cannot mourn the world going in another way.
PA: But if we had decided, you know worldwide, every director and photographer, this is how we want to end up, this is the format. Then there would be an industry where people would pass on their knowledge to the next generation.
MG: That is naïve, because that is like saying we can end corruption if nobody is corrupt anymore. That doesn’t work. And you see that film is also a very strong industry-driving thing, and that we are just working a small mouse-hole of the industry. On the other hand for us, when I started filmmaking, the availability of film material and of a camera, and of a lens, was so enormously difficult that you hardly could do it. I would work as a camera assistant and then steal raw stock film. Nowadays it is nothing, because as you say, you buy old lenses or you buy new stuff, you just go and do it. And if you are not good, there is no developer to complain. So it is a different situation. I have to adapt now, I have to find solutions to how to film differently. Maybe I would even stop if film still existed.
PA: It does exist. The problem is the cinemas are not showing it. I think that Free the Mind was the last one that was made in a lab in Denmark. But I was just saying that if we all gathered, if we all did our films on film and then did the transfer in Denmark, then it would have survived.
MG: You think so?
PA: Yes, I think so.
MG: I would rather mourn the shooting quality of the film than the projection quality. At the moment, I am trying to think of how to use digital cinema in a constructive way. Because projection quality is sometimes very nice.
PA: Yeah, you can always sense it. You can sense if it is alive, or not.
MG: Sure. I have never done it. But since it is new for me, maybe the challenge is fun. But I will also take a Super 8 camera, just in case. (Laughing.) That I always loved.
PA: Yeah, it is beautiful. It is like how you remember things. It has a sort of nostalgic…
MG: Sure, but the next generation does not remember it.
PA: That is what VHS is going to be. They are going to think that VHS is romantic.
MG: Yeah, that is romantic, because that was such crap. Everything connected in the nineties to tapes, and also the filming format that was videotapes, was real crap.
MG: Everybody was raving how good it is, and what?
PA: No, it is going to be a tough transformation for you to start shooting on, but on the other hand the cameras now, when you have all these options to use these different lenses, is maybe not bad.
MG: It is not bad. It is not that different, actually the new generation of cameras, if you use the old style lenses then they come up pretty nice.
PA: So it is going to be fun. I look forward to seeing it when you come back in a year, where you have been…
MG: Me too. And you will have finished your consciousness film… _
Directed by Michael Glawogger.
Austria, Switzerland, 1998. 90 mins.
Directed by Paoli Cavara and Gualtiero Jacopetti.
Italy, 1962. 108 mins.
WORKING MAN’S DEATH
Directed by Michael Glawogger.
Austria, Germany, 2005. 122 mins.
Directed by Phie Ambo.
Denmark, 2007. 79 mins.
FREE THE MIND
Directed by Phie Ambo.
USA, Sweden, Netherlands, Australia, Finland, Denmark, 2012. 80 mins.
Directed by Michael Glawogger.
Germany, Austria, 2011. 110 mins.
Directed by Phie Ambo.
Denmark, 2001. 90 mins.
Phie Ambo. Trained at the National Film School of Denmark, graduating as a documentary film director in 2003. Famous for her feature-length documentary films true to the tradition of poetic, personal and cinematic language, Ambo deals with essential topics such as family relations, love, creative processes and artificial life. Phie Ambo has directed a number of award-winning films for cinema, including major works such as Family (2001), Gambler (2005) and Mechanical Love (2007). In recent years Ambo has been especially interested in pursuing work of a more thematic nature in the form of a trilogy focusing on the relation between science and human existence. In Mechanical Love (2007) which travelled widely on the international festival circuit, Ambo explored the relationship between human beings and robots and the nature of emotion itself. Released in 2012, Free the Mind deals with the impact that thoughts have on both the mind and the body. The last film in the trilogy, Ripples at the Shore, is about consciousness and is scheduled for release in 2014.
Michael Glawogger is a director, writer and cinematographer and his work in each of these roles displays a broad spectrum. His recent works range from the literary adaption Kill Daddy Goodnight (2009) and the quirky comedies Slugs (2004) and Contact High (2009) to his essayist documentaries Megacities (2009) and Workingman’s Death (2004). He not only moves back and forth between cinematic forms and genres, but also between filmmaking, photography and writing – and between gentler and more forceful tones.