Creating a special optical experience

The 44th Thessaloniki Film Festival, which ended last weekend, flirted with the East – witness the tribute to Central Asian cinema and the retrospectives on Wong Kar-wai, Shinya Tsukamoto and the renowned Georgian filmmaker Otar Ioseliani. But the annual cinematic celebration had an ace up its sleeve that was all western: Canadian Michael Snow, who has a chapter to himself in the history of cinema and art. A central figure in this year’s New Horizons section, the director is associated with avant-garde cinema and the restless search for new techniques in film and photography. At 74, he continues to experiment with various art forms, from sculpture to jazz. You are a creative Jack-of-all-trades: director, artist, musician and academic. Which of these professions do you identify with most? I certainly don’t feel like an academic, although I teach. Usually, I introduce myself as an artist who works with many media. Each one of them furnishes further possibilities and leads me onto new paths. In the films and photography projects that I’ve done, this element is seldom present. Everything – from structure to images – is very carefully planned. What’s important is to do a lot of different things. Do your activities have anything in common? There may be a connecting link between my photography and my films. In both I try to exploit the possibilities the media provide me to the utmost. To cut a long story short, I do things which can only be done with a camera and photographic lens, taking into account their peculiarities and the limitations they impose. Films are always bound by light and duration. Photographs always have a flat surface and that can’t change. The nature of my work both as director and photographer thus has something to do with transformation: I’m called upon to reproduce a theme that has three dimensions through a medium which gives it only two dimensions. How difficult is it to be constantly experimenting, seeking new means of expression? After all, it’s a process you’ve been engaged in for 50 years. It’s not difficult at all. I have hundreds of ideas but not the time to realize them. That’s what drives me crazy: finding when and how to proceed with all the schemes I have in mind. Most times I have to be patient and wait for years. Where do you get all these ideas from? As I explained before, my work is based on and shaped by the medium in my hands. For my movie «La Region Centrale,» I wanted certain shots and a movement of the lens which – with the camera technology of the time – I couldn’t get. So… I had a new type of apparatus made that was capable of moving in all directions: horizontally, vertically, laterally or in a spiral. I placed it in a deserted region and filmed it in a single pan. That was the idea behind the film. Objective eye In an age where viewers are bombarded daily with thousands of images, what could make us watch a movie which is not a Hollywood mega-production or an art house movie? To make something good on a cinematic or photographic level, you have to love the nature of those media. My films don’t resemble narrative works, where what you see on screen is always accompanied by a sense of disbelief that is constantly suspended, because the stress is always on realistic elements. I like giving the viewer the opportunity to see things more objectively, and not through my own subjectivity. Apart from the realism of the image, we should give him the possibility of making a connection with the work or film as an object that transforms and adjusts an image: how an image is changed, in short, into something other than what it was at the beginning. Is there a moral in your work? The only thing that I wanted to offer is a different kind of optical experience for the viewer, in relation to what he has been used to seeing. I think that it’s important to ask him or her to show respect for what’s in front of his or her eyes. The message doesn’t always have to be obvious and easy to grasp, but the other person needs to devote some time and energy to realize what you want to say with your work, to concentrate on what they’re watching. Do you like using the written word in your movies in a different fashion? In your film «So Is This,» the words appear separately in single shots on the screen, making up whole sentences. Words are also images. I like using the written word in this way, to give it a role that we’re unused to. Its form goes beyond the context of meaning. In this film, the length of time we see the word is also important. It’s not gone with the wind as with the spoken word, but it hangs in front of us for quite a few seconds. What do you think of Hollywood? The truth is that I’m so absorbed in doing my own thing that I don’t go to the cinema very often. I believe that today there is far more variety in what we call commercial cinema than in the past. Let’s say there have been a lot of documentaries, such as those by Michael Moore, which met with great success. Do you think the American culture industry will efface all else? There are no simple answers to that question. American culture has unimaginable variety and occupies various levels. On the one hand, there is the industry which churns out cultural products in music, cinema, etc. that most people like. But there is another facet to American culture: creativity, talent and spiritual wealth. Cornerstone of avant-garde structuralism Michael Snow was born in Toronto, Canada, in 1929. He has been involved in directing, the visual arts and music. Globally, he is known as the cornerstone of structuralism on the avant-garde scene and his films and works have been displayed at some of the biggest museums in the world. The Canadian government has bestowed on him its greatest distinction, that of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He is also honorary professor at Yale University.