Interview with Experimental Film Society (Part Two)

in collaboration with Federica Iodice
On this blog it is available an Italian version, translated by Silvia Tarquini: http://j.mp/EFS_seconda_parte
This interview is part of an Artdigiland project supported by Academy of Fine Arts of Naples, Italy

The Experimental Film Society is an independent collective of people who work in the field of experimental cinema,  founded in 2000 by the Iranian director RouzbehRashidi, and based in Dublin.  EFS is a project which brings together filmmakers from all over the world, with a common interest in researching "alternative" cinema.  


In Il disprezzo Moravia writes: «Screenwriting seems a kind of rape of the intelligence»... How do you usually deal with writing?

Le Cain: Speaking for ourselves, we have an aversion to working in such a way that we have a blueprint and we go out and illustrate that. To try to enslave all the various techniques and possibilities, not only of the equipment and the situation but just what you encounter as well. What’s happening on a particular day, what the light’s doing, accidents, the inspirations of a location. We’re interested in all these things, how powerful they can be in themselves. In seeing how we can give them the space to develop into a film. So just the idea of going out and saying, okay, we need X, Y and Z in this scene and in order to do that we need this shot and that shot and we’re going to do this… That’s not how we work. But, for example, someone like Claude Chabrol, who we admire very much, would work in almost exactly the opposite way to us. For him, writing the script was a really difficult, agonizing process and he suffered. And then when he went on set he enjoyed himself and in some interviews he said it almost didn’t matter which take of a performance he used. So when the script was finished, that was the hard work done and he basically went out and very skillfully illustrated it. But also, in the film industry, the way a script is often used is as a way of controlling a film. Like a contract, a way interests other than the filmmaker can maintain control. I guess we couldn’t function very well in that situation. 

Rashidi: Also, perhaps it’s worth mentioning that it’s a choice you have. You have a choice to make a film like Kurosawa or Hitchcock or Kubrick… You know in advance what you want to make, you have a very clear vivid idea in advance, you have a blueprint. Or it’s something like the early films of Philippe Garrel or Werner Schroeter. It’s like a discovery, it’s about images and sound. It’s about not just the limitations of cinema but of yourself, too. We always prefer to start with image and sound rather than text. It’s not necessarily better than the other way, it’s just another way of making films. We just happen to be like this. I think even if I want to make a film from a script, I can’t. I might write a script if I need it to get funding. But I just can’t illustrate, I don’t have this ability. It’s not a conscious decision for me, I just can’t do it.

Le Cain: I tried and it was a catastrophe! I got funding to make a film from a script and the film turned out completely differently. When we describe the way we make films, many people find it very strange. But Rouzbeh mentioned musicians and music earlier on and if you look at music, at the freedom which musicians have, especially improvisational musicians, that´s what we’re doing in film. It´s not so strange looked at it in this context.

Ten Years In The Sun (2015) by Rouzbeh Rashidi

Ten Years In The Sun (2015) by Rouzbeh Rashidi

I read your statement. It begins with a sentence by Jean Cocteau. It says that cinema is death at work. Every film is a near death experience. Is it this concept that pushes you to go on with your work?

Rashidi: I think so. What he’s saying is obviously open to interpretation but for us... Maybe I am just too influenced by horror cinema but for me cinema has a very undead quality. Like a vampire. Something that is half alive, half dead. It´s in limbo. It’s not in hell or heaven, you know. It’s somewhere in purgatory. Like in a constant agony. So you have images, you film something and it’s finished. But when you edit it and you release it, it has a new life. It´s like a strange cycle. But it’s about the medium as well, the way films are screened in darkness. And the strange contraptions and machines that cinema used and even abused, like Zoetrope or the magic lantern to create a phantasmagorical situation. It´s always about horror. There’s like a haunting quality to it. So I think this sort of cinema is very important for us.

Le Cain: And also memory. It´s a memory, an audio-visual record of something. It´s a memory that can be subjective or objective, but it´s something that you can take out and actually work on, manipulate and examine. And I think that, at least from what I´ve read, what Cocteau meant with that expression was the fact that this video which you’re taking of us now [he points at the camera recording the interview], if you look at it in a month’s time we are going to be a month older but in the recording we are going to look exactly the way we look today. And the extension of that is that possibly, if this video survives (we still don’t know what’ll happen to digital technology), when we’re dead and gone this image might still be here. You can see people ageing, you can see death at work.

Rashidi: Yeah. And, also, I´ve been developing some ideas with Max and he once said something which is very important to me as well. He said that I want the cinema to have the same quality as the Lumière Brothers, when people saw the train coming towards the screen in the very first films. The true sense of cinema for what it was. We always try to create this atmosphere for ourselves. It´s very important for us. We make films firstly for us, each person for himself or herself, and than for friends and than for a wider audience. So it´s about our own metabolism, the way we treat cinema. I think it´s very important to establish this fact. We don´t just plan and have like a marketing strategy and do something specific. We do things very organically.

Le Cain: But maybe just to elaborate about the Lumière Brothers and that sort of reaction… I didn´t mean it in terms of the latest Hollywood 3D film. You know, obviously when people saw that train coming they ran and screamed. It’s not like we want that. But for us, it’s the sense of moving images as being still in the process of invention and there still being something quite miraculous to that. Which is something I think a lot of people really find ridiculous. And this is where, I guess, maybe we differ from a lot of artists working in video. What we don´t like is the way that today, with moving images everywhere, they’re so taken for granted. And somewhere along the way moving images became basically a means of delivering information rather than something experiential. It’s just a means for communicating things and often in a way that functions because it´s the easiest and the laziest way of doing so. So we refuse, perhaps quixotically, to take any of it for granted.

Rashidi: Also, I was reading an interview by Fritz Lang and he was talking about his last film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, and he said «I am just looking for or trying to conceive an image that stands out for itself». For example, he was talking specifically about the assassination scene at the beginning. It´s so easy to show us assassinations. One person kills another. It´s so easy. Just to convey information. But he specifically created this small pin or needle. And the way he shot the girl… I don´t know why but it stands out. It´s always in your mind. The way he shoots things, when this character with big feet comes into the room. And just one shot that last three seconds. But the way he shoots it, you know, it´s so mysterious… And I love this aspect of Fritz Lang. He´s one of my all-time favourite filmmakers. We try to do this. Try to create an image that can stand on its own as a kind of seperate unique entity.

What reaction do you get from the people who look at your movies?

Le Cain: All sorts! But we say the only one we don´t like is indifference. We don´t like people to be unaffected. If people hate the stuff, that´s fine. If people walk out, that´s great.

Rashidi: Yeah, for us the worst would be if you watch the film and don´t interact at all. If it doesn´t effect you.

Le Cain: Because the audience, involving the audience in the process, is a large part of what we are trying to do. Rouzbeh had a line which might be exaggerating a little bit, but that´s still very nice: We provide the base line and the drum beat. And it´s up to the audience to provide the melody and the lyrics. In that we want people to be conscious of themselves and their reaction and in that way hopefully it becomes a process of co-creation. Because we mentioned it before: we know what our film is on the last day that we finish editing it. Which means that we are like viewers coming to it the first time, we are surprised by it as well. We have to stand back and sort of figure out of what it is that we´ve done. And, in that sense, we hope the audience can join in that process a little bit. And each one of them can maybe come away with something completely different.

Rashidi: Also I think our films, as well as motivating the audience’s psychological and mental capacities, also encourage physical interaction as well. For example the way we use flicker, fast editing, heavily saturated colours… Or like the wall of sound, a sea of sound that we unleash upon the audience. It´s really about the limits of film and audio as well. So it could be a challenging process for them. But I think it is rewarding.

Le Cain: The very worst reaction I ever got to a film was: «I don´t think I got it». As if there was some sort of intellectual key which can suddenly unlock everything and then they’d say «Oh, that´s what you meant!». You know, as if we’ve got a piece of information which we´ve gone away and concealed from people in a very clever way, just as a sort of intellectual game. And if you look at it in a certain way or you have a certain piece of information: «Ah, that´s what you were saying!». We have no idea what we’re saying! (Laughs)  You know, it´s experiential. We are trying to, I guess, in some way overwhelm ourselves as well as other people. And then, all together, trying to fight our way out of this experience. It really depends on who and what you are and how that succeeds or fails for you.

And in your statement, you talk about catastrophes. Do you think that’s the only ending for cinema?

Le Cain: Life is a catastrophe!

Rashidi: Yes!

Le Cain: There’s been a lot written about the idea of the end of cinema. And now we’ve gone beyond that. It´s constantly mutating and re-emerging in very strange, surprising ways. Nicole Brenez once said, if I remember rightly, that all art should be a catastrophe. And I like that definition a lot. Looked at in certain respects, I’m not sure how responsible, or even socially responsible what we do is. We’re trying to provoke, not in the sense of childish provocation through annoying people, but we are trying to provoke something. To create something that somehow shakes people. And exactly how that works, we aren´t sure. It´s going back to our films being literally experiments. I’m not sure if they’re safe experiments. And I’m not sure to what end other than just to see what the shock is, to see how the nervous system reacts. You know, it comes down to perception as well. How does anything hit you when you’re crossing the street? You don´t know what you are going to see on a moment to moment basis.

Rashidi: And I think what is important for us too is, for example, when you are watching a film in a cinema or a gallery or a museum. That´s fine. But what happens when you leave? I think we are interested in that as well, in trying to inject something into the audience. Something that lasts days, months or years after they experienced it. And you remember that you lived that image or sound in the cinema or what have you. But also you somehow want to recreate it. To go back to it. I think this is important. To cause unlimited questions that you don´t have any answer to. It becomes like a constant engagement. When you see a film by Philippe Garrel from the '70s, it’s always with you. This image that you cannot escape, always haunting you… This guy on a horse… And this image is kind of stuck. Not like you just watch something and then it´s gone forever. Any Hollywood film can do that. But, you know, what you can do with film… The word ‘experimental’ has so many negative sides. We don´t even necessarily want to be experimental. But we want to do something perhaps different. Something that lasts with the audience. That they can live with.

So what is the real feeling at the end of a film?

Rashidi: It´s a very strange kind of feeling when you start a film and when you finish it. You always have this feeling of loss and emptiness. Again, for me it´s always drastic. You know, because I’m a very drastic person perhaps. I love to look at things in an exaggerated way. Because there are so many things in life you can´t do. And the only reason to be sane is the insanity in filming. It´s a practical way to live for me as well. You know I have so much energy. I am a very energetic person. And I want to do so many things. I want to travel but I can´t, for example, let´s say beacause of financial reasons. I just want to give an example, it might not really be the case. So what you can do is just to bring down all this energy into filmmaking in order to remain sane. But what happens during this process has a very strange entity. And when it´s gone, you perhaps have an emotion of loss and emptiness. To this day, after making so many films, I still don´t fully understand it. But I think that´s the only way of survival for me. The cinema has a very therapeutic quality. It’s like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the great Thai filmmaker, says: «I make films to remain calm and in order to have peace in my life and then I share that with the audience, too». I really strongly believe in that sense of filmmaking. I don’t know if you want to elaborate on that a bit?

Le Cain: Well, I think we are all very personally motivated to make films. Probably to the point that even if no one ever saw them, we´d still go on making them, just as you said, to remain sane. Even if there was no film in the camera, we’d have to pretend, we´d have to do something. I have my own very personal reasons that are slightly different. I guess it has to do with somehow mediating the way one perceives the world and then what one objectively sees outside of oneself. And there is sometimes, in my case anyway, such a huge chasm between them that there has to be something in between. And fortunately cinema has provided me with that. I won´t elaborate!

What projects are you currently working on?

Rashidi: We have some very ambitious projects. For example Maximilian is finishing up his crowd-funded feature film, Cloud of Skin. But we also have a collaborative Experimental Film Society film, a 12-hour feature film being made gradually over time by myself, Max, Dean Kavanagh and Michael Higgins. It's going to be experimental science fiction and it comes from the video project I've been developing since 2011 called Homo Sapiens Project. Homo Sapiens Project is like a laboratory of experimental filmmaking, full of tests and tryouts and errors and things like that. That’s how I approached it. But it reached the point that I really want to have something very concrete and very substantial emerge from it so we're working on that at the moment. But each member has different personal projects as well.

Homo Sapiens Project (191-199) By Rouzbeh Rashidi, Dean Kavanagh and Maximilian Le Cain.

Homo Sapiens Project (191-199) By Rouzbeh Rashidi, Dean Kavanagh and Maximilian Le Cain.

Le Cain: Cloud of Skin, which we shot in last November, also sort of emerged from this collaboration as Dean and Rouzbeh co-produced it and Dean stars in it. I’ve started work on another feature which is going to be shot gradually over the next year or so called The Scorpion’s Stone. I´m shooting with an old mini-DV camera, standard definition. It´s also, purely coincidentally, going to be extremely long. It´s going to be seven and a half hours because that´s the length of a night’s sleep. And I´d like to screen it in a context where people are welcome to fall asleep during it.

Any ongoing projects?

Rashidi: Yes.  It's a film called The Last of Deductive Frames. We initiated that project a few years ago and so far we’ve made maybe 90 minutes and it's an open project, anyone can come and contribute a ten-minute section. For the first series of these films, we had one simple rule: each film had to be ten minutes and, as we move along, we’re going to keep that previous rule and add new ones. That´s a side project for us. We also have another project called Cinema Cyanide. It's a sound project between myself, Max and Dean. What we were doing with sound in our movies was the point of departure for the project. We are very much interested in drone, ambient, noise… This sort of sound art. So we do that as well.

Le Cain: We like to keep busy! 

Interview with Experimental Film Society (Part One)

in collaboration with Federica Iodice
On this blog it is available an Italian version, translated by Silvia Tarquini: 
This interview is part of an Artdigiland project supported by Academy of Fine Arts of Naples, Italy 

The Experimental Film Society is an independent collective of people who work in the field of experimental cinema,  founded in 2000 by the Iranian director Rouzbeh Rashidi, and based in Dublin.  EFS is a project which brings together filmmakers from all over the world, with a common interest in researching "alternative" cinema. www.experimentalfilmsociety.com


What do you mean by experimental film?

Maximilian Le Cain: On the one hand, it’s sort of a good shorthand way of telling an audience that what you’re going to get is something unusual. It’s not going to be a traditional narrative, it’s not going to be a documentary in the sense that most people understand it. It’s going to be something hopefully unexpected. But, more importantly, the way we work is quite experimental. We take the elements of cinema and we play with them and rearrange them and work on them in such a way that, speaking generally, we really only know what our film is going to be on the last day of editing. So it really is a process of experimentation. And Rouzbeh goes even further, he’s often compared himself to Dr Frankestein!

Rouzbeh Rashidi: If I were to add anything, it would be something like Jonas Mekas always says: if you think narrative cinema is like a novel or literature, experimental film is something like poetry where we have atmosphere, where we have ambiguity and obscurity. Vagueness, I suppose. This is a very straightforward, simple answer but I think it works. But, as Max said, it’s a very complex question.

Le Cain: I think this approach is also connected to the fact that we’ve never accepted that the process of inventing cinema has come to an end. We’re still trying to find out what it is. And it’s not just a case of technical development, how things are used. It´s experiments in perception and in montage. The whole field of cinematic language.

Rashidi: And it’s about making personal films. Again, this is a very simple way of looking at it, but it works. If you truly are personal, true to your senses and to your metabolism in the way you make films, there is a purity in this. You make your films first of all for your friends and for yourself and only then think about a wider audience.

Le Cain: In making personal films in the way that we do, we sort of treat ourselves as material for cinema to perform experiments on as much as us experimenting with cinema. We put our subjectivity in the Petri dish, inject the cinema virus, heat it up a little and see what effect emerges. In this way we find out something about ourselves and hopefully something about the nature of cinema, too.

Who are the current members of Experimental Film Society?

Rashidi: Well at the moment we have nine filmmakers but Experimental Film Society also works with a large number of people beyond that. We have worked with large group of filmmakers from all around the world. At the moment we have Max Le Cain and myself. We have Dean Kavanagh, Michael Higgins who are both in Ireland, Esperanza Collado who is based in Spain, Jann Clavadetscher who was based in Switzerland but is now based in Dublin. We have Bahar Samadi. She used to be in France but now she’s moved back to Iran. And there’s another Iranian visual artist with us, Atoosa Pour Hosseini, and she is based in Ireland. And there’s Jason Marsh in Wales. So, nine of us.

What persuaded you to join together in this ‘research group’?

Rashidi: It's a good question. I started Experimental Film Society in 2000 in Tehran. When I wanted to make films in Tehran there wasn't any kind of film collective active to join and make experimental films. There was a very strong traditional documentary filmmaking practice and also a narrative filmmaking one but there wasn't any kind of pure experimental film collective. Also there were artists who were producing moving image art, video art. But I didn't feel any kind of affinity with any of these groups. I wanted to have something that is purely related to the history of experimental cinema and comes from a very cinephilic background. So I decided to form this society. That was the main reason. But it grew. It grew from a very individualistic origin with just myself. It grew when I found like-minded people. In 2004 I came to Ireland and I brought it here with me. And in 2010 I met Maximilian Le Cain and we’ve been collaborating with each other ever since.

Le Cain: I guess what the group has in common is a certain sense of personal filmmaking. But there are no hard and fast regulations about who joins. It´s really something that has grown quite organically. And that has changed quite organically over the years.

Your catalogue boasts roughly forty movies available on video on demand. An actual visual memory of your project. How did this archive arise and develop?

Rashidi: Well, the work catalogued on video on demand on Vimeo especially favours feature length and medium length filmmaking done over the past five or six years. We have other short films available elsewhere online as well. Each of us has developed a very personal and unique system of filmmaking that is completely organic as Max said, completely independent. I felt that perhaps if you could get all this in one place and release it all as video on demand, it would be a nice thing to do. We do a lot of screenings and our main priority would be ideally to screen these films in a cinematic space or in a gallery or in a museum. But because of the fact that most of us are very prolific we don´t have a chance to show many of our films, so I thought it would be interesting for the audience to have everything accessible in one catalogue.

Le Cain: And those 43 films on VOD are only a portion of the Experimental Film Society’s output. And only the work of four Experimental Film Society members. There’s so much other activity. Other films made by current and former members just to start with. There have been installations, expanded cinema performances, exhibitions, albums… Just about any direction it could go in, it's going in or has gone in at one stage or another. So the VOD films are just one element of it.

Rashidi: Exactly.

The way of approaching moving images has completely changed in the digital era. You use both: old formats, such as analogue film, mini-DV and VHS, as well as DSLR. How do you decide which format you'll work with?

Rashidi: It really depends on each member, on the practice that each member has developed through the years. I, for example, can only speak for myself. I'm deeply interested in digital technology. I started with VHS filmmaking in the late '90s, and I was always really fascinated by the new technology. It’s really something that I can own the camera and do everything myself without having to rely on anyone. So from the very beginning I knew that video and digital filmmaking would be my main focus, so I always tried to kind of push this idea of how to explore it. The camera for example: the camera that we use for filming now, these days, is digital so therefore it's very interesting to me because it’s contemporary. So I just wanted to push the limits of what I can achieve with it, like for example colour rendering, internal color rendering. Finding different aspects of the digital camera that are unknown to us because it's very new technology. But, obviously, other members have different practices. For example, Esperanza Collado exclusively works with 16 mm and celluloid material because the nature of her work dictates it. It varies from member to member. But we welcome both, we welcome everything, every system of capturing the moving image, we treat them all the same, we don't have any kind of nostalgic attachment to anything or favour one thing over another.

Le Cain: What I would say is that each member has a very particular approach to different formats. I don't think anyone involved in this makes something on a given format just because it's the easiest available one. There’s always some sort of conceptual or personal take on why it's being used.

Reminiscences of Yearning by Rouzbeh Rashidi

Reminiscences of Yearning by Rouzbeh Rashidi

Rashidi as it happens in Reminiscences of Yearning, your cinema is made of doors which open other doors, it looks like you're always trying to exceed the limit. Could you tell us about your point of view?

Rashidi: Yeah, it's a good question. I think the subject of all my films and everything I have ever done is cinema itself. It's about the medium, the history of cinema. So I think all I have been doing from the very first day of filmmaking is reacting to and interacting with the history of films. I don't use cinema as a tool to tell stories. I simply don't have the ability to do that. But what I have been doing and what I am capable of is… When you watch a film you digest information, audio and visual. So I have to digest and then I have to release this process back on to the screen. What I have been doing is finding ways to do this. Finding forms and visual poetry, if you want to call it that. Some of it is more aggressive, some of it is more subtle. But basically all I have been doing is playing with the history of cinema and the history of my own limitations as well. So what you said about the phantasmal quality of film is very important for me. All my films are about ghosts: the supernatural aspect of cinema, if you want to call it that. It’s like a seance: everything that has been lost forever cinema can bring back to life again. I have always attempted to do something that I don’t fully understand myself. It's about discovery, it's about exploration, bit by bit. If I tell you that I fully understand what I’ve been doing up until now, it’s a lie. I really don't know. You know, I get signals, I trust my subconscious, and I also trust my technical approach as well. It's really about the craft for me. I’m like a musician who plays piano each day, not necessary creating masterpieces but in order to practice and perfect and enhance his quality of creating music. I ‘play’ cinema that way. That´s why, for example, I have Homo Sapiens Project. It´s like a constant way of finding new techniques.

Damp Access by Maximilian Le Cain

Damp Access by Maximilian Le Cain

Le Cain, your camera is physically connected to the body. It’s an eye that seems to look for a new dimension hidden in the dark night. Could you tell us about your idea of cinema?

Le Cain: I guess the question there is to what extent is the camera actually an extension of the body and to what extent does it become a sort of an intermediary between your perception and what is around you? This is something that interests me very much. Sometimes I shoot in very different ways and I allow this to be dictated to a great extent by the technology I’m using. Also, I often find that I’m looking for accidents. I am almost looking for the camera to tell me what to do. For instance, I might be filming something: set up a shot, do something, move the camera, do something else and perhaps accidently leave the camera running while I was repositioning it. And it´s the section that was filmed accidentally while the camera was being moved that I end up using. I think all the way through the process of making a film, I want to be constantly surprised and hopefully surprised by what I end up with. So I guess I’m looking for ways to almost trick the camera into giving me something slightly different than what I expected. But I’m very interested, especially at the moment, in the notion of the camera as a sort of consciousness in itself. For example, I recently wrote something about some films a friend of mine has made and this writing goes into quite a bit of detail about home videos. About the way that maybe you find a video shot by someone and you don´t know who it is. You watch it and perhaps there’s not that much happening in it. But there’s a strange tension in someone maybe just walking around shooting one thing and another. They’re not a professional filmmaker so they’re not thinking in those terms, they don´t have that sort of discipline. In one sense maybe nothing happens, but in another sense you don´t know what’s happening and you don´t know where this person is coming from. Who is making the decisions? Who is regulating the time spent on each shot? Who is regulating the rhythm? I’m very interested in these sorts of ambiguous areas. And maybe that´s the strand of my work that relates most to what you are asking?