VOLUMES AND PRESSURES
by Aily Nash
DEBORAH STRATMAN with Aily Nash
From an homage to Scottish physicist Michael Faraday’s teachings, to Icelandic landscapes graced by Auden and MacNeice’s epistolary wits, and her continued examination of landscape’s relationship to power structures, “Forces and Gazes,” a three-part program of Deborah Stratman’s films and videos, screened at Anthology Film Archives on July 22 and 23, and featured many of her rarely seen works. The Chicago-based filmmaker and artist met me for dim sum on Doyers Street, and over some unwieldy Chinese broccoli, discussed the importance of failure, reenactments and narrative, Barbara Loden, Humphrey Jennings, Deborah’s sculptures and public projects, and seeking audiences beyond the rarefied experimental film and art worlds.
Aily Nash (Rail): The final program of the series is a group of “failures” or films that somehow fell short for you. Why did you decide to show these works?
Deborah Stratman: I’ve never done it, but figured if I was a young artist it would have been interesting to hear filmmakers I admired say, “I feel like this film is the worst film I ever made.” I think there is something to that. It might open up the conversation a lot. So I’m either blowing my big chance in New York, or I’m being of service to somebody.
Rail: Did you know these works fell short while you were making them, or is this something that you discovered after they were finished?
Stratman: It’s always after. When I’m working on them, I have no shortage of itinerant doubts about their value—that’s par for the course. But I’m a stubborn producer so I’ll forge ahead as long as I’ve got a basic belief or curiosity in the location and the concept. Sometimes I have a hunch that the material is weak while I’m cutting, and other times I don’t recognize its weakness until after the film is completely finished and I’ve screened it a few times. Conversely, I might not recognize the strength of a film until after it’s screened, or after I’ve had some time away from it. If a scene still grabs me, even after I’ve seen it a million times, if it makes my heart beat a little faster or if I feel a rush, then that always redeems the piece. Some films just don’t have that special somatic something that transcends intellect—they don’t have that thing in them that can survive despite itself.
I usually recognize failure at the end of the post-production, and it’s often a structural problem—like I feel the form doesn’t fit the content; maybe the piece is too long for the strength of the material, or vice versa, the material needed me to go deeper and I never did. By the end, there may be little islands of footage that I still find compelling but the final container just isn’t resolved.
Rail: I was struck last night when you said that if you’d found the running man footage (from In Order Not to Be Here), that you would have used it. Because, for me, finding out at the end that it was a fiction was crucial. Assuming it’s real police footage, it’s so devastating to watch him run. He’s so disempowered, and it’s uncomfortable, as the viewer, being in a position of power and knowledge of the futility of his effort.
Stratman: Like, “I’m the police.” Yeah.
Rail: And during the credits, you realize it was a fiction, and you feel a great relief and there is this powerful reversal of, “Oh wow, he is actually the one that knew all along that this wasn’t real.”
Stratman: I learned that turn was important to the film, but it wasn’t something I knew going in. Me being okay with it potentially having been police-generated footage was more about knowing I wanted a certain series of movements and psychological shifts to happen, and feeling they would happen regardless of who authored the material. But I think the psychological complexity you’re describing which came from the revelation of authorship—what is constructed by the artist versus what is constructed by the State—was an accident whose strength I recognized only later. Revealing that additional layer of control, of Joaquin (the runner) being in control, versus me, the author of fiction being in control versus state control, on top of the general paranoia of the film, and the flipping for the viewer of, “Oh wait, I’m in the oppressor’s position. I’m in the helicopter. I’m the cop”—those weren’t things I thought through in advance, but they were revelations I took advantage of when I saw them.
Rail: You also mentioned that it was important to you that he was free in the end.
Stratman: Yes—that the camera can’t find him. Even that, I didn’t know when I was first thinking about the material. I wasn’t like, “And for sure at the very end of the shot he needs to get lost.” It was something I slowly realized as I looked at more and more footage. I didn’t want to perpetuate the dystopic idea that the machine is always going to find you. I wanted there to be something hopeful in the end, like, actually, you can escape the Man.
Rail: You could have kept it more vague, whether it was real or not, through your choice of credits. Right after it ended, it was revealed that Joaquin played the running man.
Stratman: That’s true, I could have just had his name in the thank-yous. To me, the whole suburban landscape is a kind of theater for a mindset, which is where that horror film feel comes from. To have been thinking so much about space as a construction, and then at the end, employ a structural flip that forces the viewer to become hyper-aware of time and narrative as constructions—I’m mean, you’re watching a film so you’re aware of time as a construction, but I liked really orchestrating that awareness.
You know that film Wanda by Barbara Loden? I love that film. It’s a seminal film for me because she casts herself as this kind of ineffectual, maddeningly passive woman who is totally under the thumb of social norms: These are the kind of jobs you can have because of your economic position, and because of your sex, these are society’s expectations and you’re not going to be able to break out. She knows she’s being wronged, and she knows it’s unethical and that she’s disempowered, and yet she still makes one ineffectual decision after another. It’s exasperating. But at the same time you know she, Wanda/Barbara, is also the director of the film so there’s this really great self-consciousness of social and class positioning and radical feminism that makes for a much more complex read when you consider authorship—authoring one’s life versus authoring the film. I love that the reveal occurs on a level that’s external to the level of the narrative.
It’s not that I was consciously thinking about Wanda when I was making In Order Not to Be Here, but in terms of where control and power happen, and where criticism happens, I wanted the viewer to be in the position of feeling frustrated, trapped, and annoyed, and at the same time to be able to stand back and see another level of control at work—to be conscious of these multiple layers. Which I think happens when you start reconsidering what was unconstructed observation or “documentary,” and what was not? Maybe that happens in O’er the Land a bit, too. Before I shot In Order Not to Be Here, it wouldn’t have been in my repertoire to think, “Okay, I have this idea—I’m going to shoot this helicopter scene.” I wouldn’t have arrived at that solution of fabrication if I hadn’t had a hard time finding it already existing as an image in the world. I came to fiction through the back door, and realized it was actually a stronger decision.
Rail: And those discoveries inform how you might approach your next project, right?
Stratman: Totally. I remember after some festival gave In Order Not to Be Here an award for Narrative Integrity, I was like, “Whoa! Narrative integrity. Do I have that?” I got interested in the way audience attention shifts between narrative episodes versus when you are trying to listen to a story on the soundtrack versus when the scene is observational and your head is allowed to drift. Those shifts have become more and more interesting to me. The shift between “Is she instigating that re-enactment?” and “Did she find a re-enactment that someone else was already doing?”—an event that someone else was already memorializing by ritualizing it. What’s the degree of reiteration? Or is it just first order? Like telling an actor, “I want you to pretend you’re this person?” In the film I’m working on now, The Illinois Parables, there are a couple scenes where I say, “You are Enrico Fermi, and you’re coming up with the mathematical computation for the first chain reaction,” or “You are a 13-year-old girl, and you’re a fire-starter, and you can stare at the wall and start fires.” It’s as close as I’ve ever come to traditional “directing,” and I’m definitely not a natural, so I have to try to find people who just already are the character. Having never been an actor, I don’t really know how to work with them.
Rail: What drew you to reconstructing parts of Village, Silenced?
Stratman: The original concept of Humphrey Jennings’s film—he had asked the coal miners of Cwmgiedd (in Wales) to re-enact the Nazi annihilation of Lidice, an entire village of resisting Czech coal miners that had occurred less than a year before. I think it’s an ingenious film that seemed ripe for re-iteration. It’s an homage. Jennings’s film is so beautiful as a conceptual gesture, and I didn’t know many people who knew the piece. You know how Jill Godmilow made that piece What Farocki Taught? In the film, she remakes Harun Farocki’s Inextinguishable Fire, more or less shot-for-shot, because it was so difficult at the time for people in the States to see it, and she was frustrated—she thought people needed to see it. I really appreciated that as a gesture. So in part, it was wanting The Silent Village to have traction again, and to get people interested in Jennings. Maybe people in the UK know about him a bit more, because he was a seminal British documentarian. But I’d never heard much about him, outside of Rebecca Baron’s film about his role in the Mass Observation movement (How Little We Know of Our Neighbours). It touches on some of my more recent interest in re-enactment, and what it means to ritualize an experience, which I was thinking about a lot in O’er the Land. From football being a re-enactment of theaters of war, to all the French and Indian War guys, to the machine guns—it’s all these various levels of needing to re-enact conflict. So that had already been in my mind. What gave me license to work with Jennings’s footage and cycle through it was his original insight of how to memorialize this total silencing of a place. He thought, “I’ll have them remembered by letting this whole other town become their voice—and they will collectively relive and revoice that silencing.” It’s like telling a story to the next generation so that the story stays alive. And then since I was already interested in the way sound manipulates us, and The Silent Village has that crazy car with the speaker on top, I was like, “Wow, it is literally about sound as an oppressive force or mode of social control.” It’s a very succinct visual metaphor.
Rail: You’d mentioned wanting to access audiences outside of the experimental film world and how that got you into doing public projects. What initially triggered that, and how did you start to seek and find those audiences?
Stratman: What originally triggered it was that I felt like the experimental film audience was so cloistered. It’s a productive and generative space, but we kind of know our own history inside and out. It was about wanting the conversation to be more far-ranging, but remaining stubborn, I didn’t want to change the type of films I was making in order to access a different audience. So instead, I thought, “I’ll just make other kinds of work alongside the film work.” Films don’t exist as a dialogue. I mean, there might be a dialogue about them in your brain, after you’ve seen them. But a film is this thing unfurling in time that doesn’t wait up to have a conversation. To me, they are ultimately monologues. It’s like, “Here is my little time sculpture that I’m making, and I’d like you to relinquish your own time so you can absorb mine for a while.” Afterwards, if the filmmaker is there in person, you can have a conversation about it. When I’m in the position of being a viewer, I take a step towards the project by how much I engage with it—but that’s different than having a dialogue. We make the film in our minds, we meet it midway, but I guess I wanted more of an actual dialogue, something that’s activated more by the viewer or the participant.
Rail: How do these projects and your other non-film work, like your sculptures, relate to your film practice?
Stratman: In the case of PARK, which was a migrating parking attendant booth, I was obsessed with variations of single-person structures that I’d see out in the world, and in the end, it made sense to just make one. The same with Power/Exchange. I became architecturally interested in radio and electric transmission towers, was photographing them, and eventually decided to build my own. I think my interest in cinema has always had a basic investment in sculptural and volumetric form. I don’t think in a very linear way. I think more in terms of volumes and pressures. In my mind, the film is literally some kind of sculptural form, a temporal sculpture that has dimension to it, and I think about building up and relieving pressure more than I think of a causal, linear, “A triggers B triggers C.” So to think about making structures in the world wasn’t such a big leap. Making structures that intervene or interrupt some existing system, that makes you question a system, is also par for the course for how I think through my films. It’s just with the sculptures, temporality gets shifted to the outside of the project instead of being contained within it. It’s its own little without-time thing; but time coddles it. Whereas a film is more like a doughnut with time-jelly on the inside. Or whatever. My metaphors are getting weird.
Rail: Many filmmakers are often very inspired by and reflect on the outside world in their films, and yet it’s so rare for their work to also exist in, or have a dialogue with that world. So I really like that you’re trying to engage that.
Stratman: To activate some other place, yeah. I think of someone like Kevin Jerome Everson, who’s totally dedicated to these communities of various labor and racial and social class, but then you wonder, besides his extended family and the rarefied art world—it’s not like there are venues for that stuff to cycle back in. So on some level that’s the monologue I’m talking about—how to broaden the random, non-art-identifying audience contingent.
Rail: What are your thoughts on depictions—on subjects being represented in the way they think they are being represented (or how they think they are representing themselves to you) versus that being shifted both by how the footage is worked and also by the context in which it is seen? With your ethnographically inquisitive works in particular, I’m curious about how you approach these concerns.
Stratman: I hope there is always space for reaching towards people outside of myself by re-presenting their images. But the process can be nerve-wracking. When I was working on Kings of the Sky, it took me a couple of years to return to the material I’d shot because I felt such a burden of responsibility to not falsely represent the Uyghur culture, about which the West knew so little. My solutions have been to remain true to my voice, and to try and be clear about who I am to the viewer. I do that in some films more than others. In some, I actually include myself physically so the audience has a chance to register my person. It gives them some tools to navigate the gap between me, and who I’m filming. Other times I think it’s enough to be true to my “style”—to let the people I’m filming retain the cadence of their personality, while retaining my own as a kind of super-structure through the editing.
AILY NASH is a curator and writer based in Hudson and Brooklyn, NY. She programs films at Basilica Hudson, and works for the Berlinale Film Festival.