The politics of getting someone to think
"The most political thing you can do is just get someone to think", says filmaker and artist Deborah Stratman, jury member at the Festival of Experimental Film and Video 25FPS in Zagreb.
KP: Your films can be seen as documentary and experimental films at the same time. In your development, which film tradition was more important to you?
In childhood, it was neither, I watched only narrative films. But experimental films where first films that spoke to me because I was never interested in a story. I was always interested in a place, a location with its details, in the ways editing was working… I never articulated these things as a kid, but that's how it was.
My middle brother is a real storyteller. He could retell the entire story of a film, but I wasn't as interested in the causality. I like a good narrative, but it wasn't my primary interest. I prefered looking at the way space influences a character, or external stuff in general. So when I started watching experimental films in college, I thought – aha, here's the kind of meaning-making I understand.
As for documentary films, I loved it as soon as I started seeing it, but I've never been interested in documentaries that tell you its thesis right away, that's frustrating. As a viewer, I like when I have to tease it out from the film.
KP: When I watch some of your experimental documentaries like O'er the land, I get a feeling that I am not watching a reality, but a bad dream about reality.
Ha-ha, some of them can be quite dark and heavy. But I'm not, I'm a cheerful person! Heaviness comes out from the current politics that films talk about.
KP: That brings me to your latest film, Illinois Parables. We can see beautiful landscapes and suddenly details of historical violence come to the surface. For start, what led you to make a film about Illinois state history?
The film came out of two things. A religious freedom should have been an episode of the previous film O'er the land that explores our ideas of freedom, but it didn't fit in, it was too big. I used some of ideas about people coming to a place seeking a religious freedom from the previous film.
But Illinois specifically came from a friend who casually said: “I'd like to make a series of 50 films about 50 states. Would you make a film about Illinois?” I thought – oh my God, but Illinois is so boring! But when I thought about it, I realised I'm a perfect person because I lived so long in Illinois, and who else would make a film about it? It is an overlooked state, just as the whole Midwest.
I started looking into some hidden and less-known history of Illinois and I learned about places where something heavy has happened. I wasn't thinking about it as a realm between heaven and Earth, but more as a realm between mute geography and its history. And that was very interesting because it was hyperspecific, but also very general and alegoric. We can all relate to stories about exodus, xenophonia and being pushed out.
Tolerance and exodus are themes that keep coming back in the film. Tolerance both physically, in terms of the landscapes and deadly storms, and socially.
KP: It gives you goosebumps to see quiet places and this hidden, violent history. It is very familiar to viewers in this region. But why is this history so important to us? Why don't we just let it go and enjoy these landscapes as they are now?
I understand why people are frustrated because of history talks, but I think we shouldn't let previous versions of history to be the authority. It is our responsibility to always question it. We should keep questioning previous telling: who was the storyteller, what was the medium, was it told through an inscription in a land (tornado) or a writing, what was the mode of telling, is it an enactment? For example, in 1969 FBI and Chicago police re-staged the assassination of the black activist Fred Hampton and it was broadcasted as news. But it's not news, it's the re-enactment! So at the end of the film, I re-stage their re-staging.
We shouldn't feel burdened by history, but we should keep it alive by asking questions about it.
KP: When you make a film about 17th century Illinois, it is pretty hard to make a film about it. How did you find and choose footage? Was the experimental style important in that sense?
Yes, there is obviously no video footage from 17th century, ha ha! I chose lots of styles and different footage. In some cases I use illustrations, sometimes I use landscape shots with a voice-over from an old journal or diary, sometimes I use role-playing… The guy who plays a role of Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist who created the first world nuclear reactor in Chicago, really is a physicist from Chicago. I like playing with what acting means, with taking the mantel of somebody else's story.
Or Ravenwolf who appears at the beginning, he took a mantel of a first-nation identity. I didn't know him at all, I met him at the location where he just walked into the shot. Icarians, the French socialists, took out a community of the previous group, the mormons, who were pushed out from Illinois. I'm interested in this wearing a cloak from a previous group.
Also I like what happens when very different styles back up one against another: when a landscape shot, painting or a still image come up against an aerial shot. When these different modes and styles of telling come together, they cause a bit of friction and they aerate the peace. But even though the film has different styles, it has a regular pace and a common theme.
KP: Choosing material was also important for your previous film Hacked Circuit devoted to the sound designer Walter Murch and the hacker whistleblower Edward Snowden. It's hard to shoot a film about Internet surveillance and it was also hard for Laura Poitras to make Citizenfour because her main character was mostly missing. So how did you decide to make a film about Snowden by filming a foley studio?
Both infrastructures are hidden. Sound design in film is invisible. We hear the soundtrack, but we don't examine the sonic manipulation. We just let it affect us and don't think how crafted it is, how many tracks exist in a contemporary soundtrack. That is very controlled, but invisible environment. So it served as a mirror for virtual networks and control networks in general.
Apart from that, I love sound design. For a foley artist, every object in their studio has a double identity. It has its use-value, but also its specific sound. So at the beginning of the film we take everything at face-value, but by the end you start to be suspicious about everything.
On one hand your logic knows it's a construction, but we are still affected by it. When there's an empty corner and you hear struggle, it's emotional and you can't turn it off. It's like a Pavlovian manipulation that we don't pay attention to.
I didn't want to make a film that makes everybody paranoid. I hope that the film works as a matryoshka doll. It's OK if you don't know The Conversation, Walter Mirch, Gene Hackman playing a surveillance agent in two different films… If you know these things, it gets deeper. But if you don't, you can just watch it as a documentary about foley artists.
And I love that Gene Hackman's name is so perfect for shooting a film about a hacker!
KP: Sound is obviously very important to you, but it is generally a neglected part of the film, it seems that visual is always primary.
For me, sound is half of film. It is very subversive because, as I stated, we don't think about it consciously. We always see good sound, it makes us feel that what we watch is better. If you have an excellent soundtrack, you remember a better picture.
A really good sound designer is successful in manipulating the audience. It sounds totalitarian, but it is a real pleasure of cinema, of audience leaving their temporality behind and entering my sculpted temporality. And sound does that, it affects us more physiologically. It can make our heart beat fast, it can grab you.
Two eyes have a set distance. The difference between what we see in each eyes is what makes dimension. But the distance between sound and image is totally variable. It can be a small distance just in your head, or that gap can be the universe, and everything in between.
And it's also very pragmatic. You can make meaning with sound that would be too expensive with image. The sound is very rich for me. I'm never tired of it, I'm afraid of over-using it!
KP: Your films are political, but they are experimental. They are not widely distributed and they don't attract mass audience. What political effect would you like to cause with your films?
The most political thing you can do is just get someone to think.
I'm not interested in teaching a lesson. I do admire that cinema can be completely populist, widely available and globally expansive. But I am stubborn and I don't want to shift the way I make films. I think films can be radical and have a voice even though they don't speak to millions of people directly. Even reaching a few people can be radical! And it is politically important to have a conviction not to capitulate to a standard form.
I started doing public art in part because my films have a very rarified audience. People walking down the street encounter our work and that has a different kind of dialogue than watching art in a museum.
KP: What kind of public art do you make?
It is very different, but for example, we set up a public radio tower in the western USA, very near the big interstate. This is like a monument to a public space of ether. In 1996, when Telecommunications Act happened, most of public space of airwaves became privatized. To me it was really depressing because local radio stations and local products, that used to be publically pertinent and a portrait of a community, were gone.
With our radio tower, you can tune in local transmissions, but not FM Radio: you can hear the casino security, the police station, the airport, the truckers radio, the fast-food drive-through, you hear people ordering food… It's a portrait of a place through the radio frequency. It's just another kind of landscape, but one that we don't know much about.