Eldorado XXI is a critical media practice parafiction attempt. Aesthetically similar to the majority of contemporary contemplative cinema the mise‐en-scène is valued allowing the action to unfold in its own rhythm. Drifting organically into non-diegetic orchestrated sequences, the film also lingers on a direct ethnographic cinema fashion approach combining, visual sequences accompanied by off sounds.
The raised question is how can an individual carry his entire family to hell seeking a desired fortune/wishing to break free from poverty? A random lottery promises the awakening of ones oblivion of oneself. An illusion that leads men to self destruction, moved by the same interests, dealt with the same tools and means in contemporaneity as it has been dealt in the ancient times.
The objective and the subjective were displaced, not transformed; the story remained truthful, really truthful instead of fictionally truthful. But the veracity of the story had not stopped being a fiction. The break is not between fiction and reality, but in the new mode of storytelling, which affects both of them. What is opposed to fiction is not the real; it is not the truth; it is the story‐telling function of the poor, in so far as it gives the false the power that makes it into a memory – a legend.
Let us go back to the words of Glenn Gould: “No Man’s Land is the natural land of the imagination.” It is in this non-place where we assemble ourselves to resist to the silence of the universe, in order not to succumb to the pure panic and the threat of dissolution. The silence of the abysses that is strange to us, but to which we do belong, in a piece of us abandoned to the pure possibilities, to the (un)submissive obsessions of any kind, to fear’s inertia, that we are falsely protected by the conventions.
The film started out as a cinematic experiment: I wanted to portray three members of an atelier community of artists with different disabilities in an open collaboration. I wanted to dissolve the common power structures between the documentarist and the portrayed subject and chose to assist the artists in presenting themselves and their work in their own words, sounds and images. Without making a film about the socio-politics of participation through art, I wanted to make the film socio-politically, to dismiss conceptual coherence by indulging in the anarchic serenity of the artists, filming in an inclusive and empowering manner, rendering homage without advertising, so that the protagonists wouldn’t be subjected to preconceived aesthetics.
The project originally emerged from my interest in anti-psychiatry and progressive notions of dis/ability, like in the experimental psychiatric clinic La Borde in France under the direction of Jean Oury where Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze developed some of their concepts like “schizoanalysis”, or in the project of the poet Fernand Deligny who lived and worked in a silent community with autistic children in the French mountains.
The atelier community of the three protagonists Horst, Bernhard and Michael is singular in its organization because neither social pedagogy nor art therapy is involved. There is no rigid methodology, just spontaneous manners of interaction. The artists work autonomously and are assisted by other artists upon their own request. Many advantages like compassion and solidarity are much better developed in their community than in the art world of the free market.
Although I knew of several great documentaries both on dis/ability and outsider art, I was missing a cinematographic reflection of the naturalised distinction between the observed, supposedly disabled Other and the observing, allegedly sane and sovereign filmmaker. If inclusion should succeed, supposedly abled people are required to develop an understanding of disability that is neither patronising nor spectacularising, but a different original access to reality. That’s why I tried to integrate different perspectives that would not rule each other out but co-exist in an open conversation. It’s also why we produced the film in a collaborative process, co-wrote and co-filmed together with the protagonists and allowed ourselves to repeatedly drop our preconceived ideas about beauty, film, art and love.
It’s true—some will say that I caused the death of Mayer Vishner. That by telling his story, I gave him permission to take his own life. Others—his doctors and his close friends—tell me that the filming kept him alive, giving him a reason to carry on. Sadly, I believe that both are correct…I extended Mayer’s life while ensuring his death.
I first met Mayer when I was shooting the documentary No Impact Man—the story of a family trying to live in New York City with no environmental impact. Mayer was the only member of the local community garden growing vegetables. In his words, the other gardeners were bourgeois flower growing narcissists. Mayer was a true Greenwich Village character, and to him, everything was political. A lifelong radical, he grew up resenting the 1950s post-war conformity he was born into and then switched his focus to the fight against the draft and the Vietnam War. Mayer wasn’t content to just march—he organised, strategised, and made his home in the activist community. One of the original Yippies, he was mentored by the legends—Abbie Hoffman, Paul Krassner, and Dave Dellinger. But unlike many, Mayer never stopped protesting. He never stopped fighting with the world.
The mantra of Mayer’s youth was “never trust anyone over 30.” When I met him, he was pushing 60 and struggling with a world in which the revolution never came. I proposed a documentary profile and he opened his life to me. As our friendship solidified, it became clear that Mayer was engaged in serious battles with depression and alcohol. It was six months into filming when he confided to me that he was preparing for his “last political act”—his suicide. Suddenly, this was no longer a short documentary profile—it was life and death.
I had never before been faced with the tragedy of a potential suicide victim, and I was in no way equipped to handle it on my own. I went with Mayer to his physician and psychiatrist and witnessed as he tried to make the case for his own death to them. Knowing that he was in the care of professionals was essential to my continuing with the project. But I had become part of the story. We’d become close and I didn’t want him to die, but I also understood that he was in tremendous psychic pain. To force him to live in that pain also seemed cruel. The film he wanted me to make had a sad ending, yet the act of filming was keeping him alive. I was stuck.
I did some research and learned that, although Mayer suffered in his isolation, he was in no way a rare case. The suicide rate for men Mayer’s age has increased almost 50% in the past decade. His generation, the baby boomers, a generation that has had such an impact on the way they’d lived, were now choosing, more and more, to take this unconventional outlook to the way they approached death. As Mayer said: “My suicide is part of a lifelong quest for agency for the species and for myself. And as we grow older, more and more baby boomers will feel the way I do.”
It is my hope that Left on Purpose can serve as a point of departure for discussions of the issues at the heart of the film that are so often spoken about in hushed tones—if at all. How do we care for a loved one who doesn’t want to live? What does it mean to help someone in pain? There are no easy answers, but it is important to ask the questions.
Suicide is a tragedy that is never simple and straightforward. For Mayer, I believe there were a number of factors that came together to make ending his life a viable option. Perhaps the most operative factor was his lifelong depression. As a young man he persevered through the difficult times, aided by a close working relationship with his psychiatrist and the support of the community he found in the anti-war movement. By the mid 1970s, the war ended and Mayer’s therapist died in a car accident, leaving him without the support system on which he had so depended. Unmoored, Mayer began to rely more on self-medicating through drugs and alcohol; providing temporary “anesthesia,” but leading to a cycle of depression and dependence that lasted until his death.
Psychologists have long regarded suicide as being contagious — that is, it is a behaviour that is prone to being copied or imitated. Quite a few people in Mayer’s life made the tragic decision to end their own lives. In the late 1970s Mayer’s friend and legendary troubadour of the anti-war movement, Phil Ochs, succumbed to his mental illness and alcohol addition. More impactful in Mayer’s trajectory perhaps was the well-known photo taken in 1971 of young Mayer sitting between Yippie founder Abbie Hoffman and High Times Magazine founder Tom Forcade. Mayer referred to that photo as “two suicides and a procrastinator,” as both Forcade and Mayer’s close friend and mentor Hoffman took their lives. Hoffman’s first wife, as well as his daughter—both of whom Mayer knew well, also killed themselves. I believe that the suicide of these people he was so close to made his decision a real possibility.
Similarly, I believe that Mayer’s politics, while not the cause of his decision to end his life, were clearly a contributing factor. As stated in Left on Purpose, Mayer looked at everything from a political perspective. Mayer defined himself through his freethinking and his rebelliousness. (There was a time when the Hippies in San Francisco tried to “rebrand” themselves as “freemen.”) The fact that suicide is a taboo of church and state no doubt made it more than a personal act for Mayer and turned it into a statement.
Lastly, Mayer also felt an increasing sense of isolation in this age of ever advancing technology. Thought he did still have friends who cared about him deeply, he felt unequipped to be part of the changing social justice movement that had previously so defined his life but that now relied on digital communication. Mayer prided himself on being an organiser. Greenwich Village was just that—a community of people who met in the park, at the bars, clubs and churches. As the age of email and Twitter advanced, Mayer felt more and more disconnected.
We are now moving through a very bleak period in human history – where the conjunction of Post Modernist cynicism (eliminating humanistic and critical thinking in the education system), sheer greed engendered by the consumer society sweeping many people under its wing, human, economic and environmental catastrophe in the form of globalization, massively increased suffering and exploitation of the people of the so-called Third World, as well as the mind-numbing conformity and standardization caused by the systematic audiovisualization of the planet have synergistically created a world where ethics, morality, human collectivity, and commitment (except to opportunism) are considered “old fashioned.” Where excess and economic exploitation have become the norm – to be taught even to children. In such a world as this, what happened in Paris in the spring of 1871 represented (and still represents) the idea of commitment to a struggle for a better world, and of the need for some form of collective social Utopia – which WE now need as desperately as dying people need plasma. The notion of a film showing this commitment was thus born.
In February 1998 I met with Paul Saadoun of 13 Production, a documentary film company based in Marseilles, and we agreed to produce a film on the Paris Commune. During sixteen months of intensive research and pre-production, with the exception of La Sept ARTE in France, all of the major global TV associations which were approached, refused to participate in funding for the film. “I do not like Peter Watkins’ films,” said the Commissioning Editor for the BBC in London. Early in 1999, one of the major art centres in Paris – the Musée d’Orsay – learned of our film, decided to organize an exhibition on the Paris Commune (consisting of contemporary photographs, and the works of Corbet, a member of the Commune), and allocated 300,000 francs to our film budget.
The filming of La Commune took place in July 1999, in an abandoned factory in Montreuil, on the eastern edge of Paris. Working with Agathe Bluysen, one of our main researchers, and our casting crew – principally my elder son Patrick, and Virginie Guibbaud – I enlisted over 220 people from Paris and the provinces to take part in the film; approximately 60% of them had no prior acting experience. Among the cast were a number of people from Picardy and other regions of France, with specific dialects and accents (since many migrants from the provinces took an active role in the Commune). Through the conservative press in Versailles, and newspapers like Le Figaro, we also recruited people from the Paris area to join the project specifically because of their conservative politics (to act in roles opposed to the Commune).
The set in the disused factory was designed and constructed by Patrice Le Turcq as a series of interconnecting rooms and spaces, designed to represent the working class 11th district of Paris, a centre of revolutionary activity during the Commune. The set was carefully designed to ‘hover’ between reality and theatricality, with careful and loving detail applied for example to the texture of the walls, but with the edges of the set always visible, and with the ‘exteriors’ – the Rue Popincourt and the central Place Voltaire – clearly seen for what they are – artificial elements within an interior space.
Cinematographer Odd Geir Saether filmed Edvard Munch in 1973. To implement my plan in La Commune for long, highly mobile uninterrupted takes, Saether and chief lighting technician Clarisse Gatti covered the ceiling of the factory with regularly spaced special neon lights, to give an even luminescence to the whole area, and to prevent the use of traditional lights on the floor obstructing the path of the hand-held camera. Jean-François Priester developed an equally ingenious method for the highly mobile and flexible recording of the sound, using two boom operators with radio-microphones and portable mixing system, which moved around the labyrinthine set.
Broadly speaking, our ‘process’ manifests in the extended way in which we involved the cast in the preparation for, and then during the filming, and in the way that some of the people continued the process after the filming was completed. Our ‘form’ is visible in the long sequences and in the extended length of the film which emerged during the editing. What is significant, and I believe very important in ‘La Commune’, is that the boundaries between ‘form’ and ‘process’ blur together, i.e., the form enables the process to take place – but without the process the form in itself is meaningless.
Before the filming we asked the cast to do their own research on this event in French history. The Paris Commune has always been severely marginalized by the French education system, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that it is a key event in the history of the European working class, and when we first met, most of the cast admitted that they knew little or nothing about the subject. It was very important that the people become directly involved in our research on the Paris Commune, thereby gaining an experiential process in analyzing those aspects of the current French system which are failing in their responsibility to provide citizens with a truly democratic and participatory process. The French education system is definitely one aspect which is not functioning in this regard; its marginalization of the Paris Commune is only one part of a bigger problem – which includes an almost complete absence of critical media education.
The cast research on the Paris Commune in the months prior to the filming supplemented over a year of intensive investigation by our own research team (led by Agathe Bluysen and Marie-José Godin, with Laurent Colantonio, Stéphanie Lataste and Laure Cochener, and working with such eminent historians as Alain Dalotel, Michel Cordillot, Marcel Cerf, Robert Tombs and Jacques Rougerie). Our work necessitated a very broad and at the same time detailed sweep through dozens of different aspects of the Paris Commune and of this historical period in France – ranging from the personalities of the Commune and the Versaillais government, debates in the Hôtel de Ville and in the National Assembly, the role of women and of the Catholic Church and its education system, the problems of sewerage, drinking water and lighting in Paris, military uniforms of the period, music and songs of the period, etc. etc.
At a later stage, the research work involved the actors forming groups (e.g., those playing the Union des femmes; the bourgeoisie opposed to the Commune; the soldiers of the National Guard; the officers and men of the Versaillais forces; the elected members of the Commune, etc.) to discuss the background of the people they were portraying, as well as to reflect on the links between the events of the Commune and society today. In this way, we were asking the cast to contribute directly to the manner of telling their own history – as opposed to the usual hierarchical and simplistic process of TV and filmmaking. This is a central part of the process of our film.
During the filming the cast were also engaged in a collective experience, constantly discussing – between themselves, and with myself and members of the team led by Agathe Bluysen – what they would say, how they might feel, and how they would react to the events of the Commune which were about to be filmed. Simultaneously, Marie-José Godin was preparing the young and older women who played the girls in the Catholic school in the rue Oberkampf and their supervising Sisters, and the two Catholic priests. The results of all of these discussions were then placed – or emerged spontaneously – within the scenes which were filmed in long, uninterrupted sequences, following the chronological order of the events of the Commune. Most of the cast really liked this method of filming, for they found that it offered much more continuity of experience than the usual fragmented practice of filming short, disconnected scenes. Many of the people felt this whole process to be exciting and stimulating, quite unlike the preplanned and prescripted manner of making most films. This process also enabled the cast to improvise, change their minds, relate to each other in actual discussions during the filming, etc. Many found this filming method to be dynamic and experiential, for it forced them to abandon pose and artifice, and led to an immediate self-questioning on contemporary society – which they had to confront on the spot.
There are also a number of scenes in the film in which the FORM was entirely different again: when the camera is static (except for a few gentle moves left or right), i.e., when it covers extensive discussions among various groupings of Communards – during which time the cast speak with each other (with no intervention by myself or the TV Communale) – recorded non-stop, sometimes for up to 30 minutes (the only pause being to change the magazine in the camera). These scenes occur for example when the women of the UDF speak in the cafe, first about organizing as if in 1871, and then about conditions for women today, and when the National Guard heatedly discuss the pros and cons of centralizing decision-making during a revolution.
In both the ‘static’ discussion scenes and in the mobile sequences, people are rarely, if ever, framed in close-up as individuals – usually there are at least two or three people in the frame at the same time. This, and the manner in which people speak with each other, allows for a group dynamic which is very rare in the media today.
Our society, in this new millennium, will desperately need filmmakers, TV producers, and media-workers in general who are willing to resist, perhaps for the first time in their lives, the nightmarish hierarchy and centralization of media power. And to take up the anti-globalization struggle. It should be clear now that the world is in an intolerably dangerous situation, with a hopelessly inefficient, totally exploitative, morally corrupt free-market ideology sweeping aside everything before it – even, apparently, the education system. The mass audiovisual media are not only supporting, they are driving this catastrophe – and clearly need to be challenged by many people both within and outside the profession.
But even more, we need an active and critically conscious public, who will forcefully debate, and finally resist media corruption. Who will seek alternative forms of creative, more open and collective processes to replace the synthetic and divisive experience of the existing audiovisual media. For this to happen, we also need critical (media) teachers, who will equally resist and expose what is happening within the education systems which are allying themselves with the onslaught of consumerism.
I have known Miriam, the protagonist of Tempestad, for twenty years. We have shared all kinds of experiences, joys and sorrows throughout our lives. She has always struck me as a strong, inquisitive and rebellious woman, possessed of an unusually intense joie de vivre.
Miriam was imprisoned in a very violent jail in northern Mexico. She was accused of people trafficking even though there wasn’t a single piece of proof to demonstrate her guilt.
When she got out of prison and we met again, I felt that something vital in her had died. Miriam couldn’t look me in the eyes. And although, on that occasion, we spoke of simple, everyday things, she had a facial tremor that she could not control.
Shortly after that meeting, a package arrived at my house, posted from Cancún; it was from her. It was a box full of scraps of paper she had written on while in prison: poems in which she vomited out all the fear and sorrow of her experiences. The darkness and sadness in her words struck a chord in both my head and my heart. Never before in the twenty years we had known one another had I seen such a dense shadow cast over her, such a profound, immeasurable wound.
My perception of the damage that had transformed Miriam brought me into violent proximity with my own fragility, my own fear.
I proposed to Miriam that we should work together to make a film using her story, and she agreed to share her testimony with us. She told me that breaking her silence about the violence she had suffered in jail returned to her a sense of her own life.
This film explores what fear means in the life of a human being, and what it is we lose when we are faced with impunity. Parallel to the process with Miriam, I embarked on an in-depth research project to seek out other stories that could, in some way, be intertwined with Miriam’s, accompanying the testimony of this film with a second voice. That was when I met Adela, a woman from a circus background who was looking for her vanished daughter. Adela conveyed to me, with the same force as Miriam, the irreversible transformation her life had suffered. Ten years before, her daughter Mónica had left home for university and had never returned. The ineptitude of the authorities and their collusion with the criminals have made Adela and her family doubly victims. They have now gone into hiding after receiving threats, and continue to search for Mónica alone, trying to stay sane despite the uncertainty over whether their daughter is alive or not.
When it came to the formal construction of Tempest, I decided that the narrative device should be a journey across Mexico from north to south. The story therefore begins in Matamoros, northern Mexico, evoking the day on which Miriam was set free and began her journey home, more than 2,000 km away. I followed the route she took, travelling on buses, stopping at sleazy hotels, bus stations and on the highways of Mexico – these days full of police and military roadblocks.
The fact that we do not see the image of Miriam in the film but only hear her voice was one of the most crucial formal decisions in the construction of Tempest. As a result, in this case, her voice is not related directly to a single face but to many faces along the way, creating the sense that what happened to Miriam could happen to anybody living in Mexico today.
I believe that in this country, somebody else has taken control of the course of our lives, of our future, of our desires and our dreams.
The story of Miriam is intended as a mirror in which we can see ourselves reflected not only in her pain and fragility, but also in the dignity displayed by her and the other characters along the way, all of whom – in different ways and from different standpoints – resist accepting that they must live with the fear created by the violence in Mexico.
Tempestad screens during Document 2016 at 8:30pm on Friday 21 October in the CCA Theatre. Buy tickets here.
When we started filming, almost three years ago, the attempt of the Viome workers to take over their abandoned factory, neither us, nor them knew the extraordinary experience that lied ahead of us. What we ended up documenting was an intense adventure that brought mixed feelings of uncertainty and frustration with excitement and hope and provided us with a powerful story with many layers.
The case itself is extreme; workers with no work experience outside the production line, driven by despair, decide to start a small revolution, just for a chance to win back their lives. They want to establish an island of utopia in a capitalist environment and of course they meet a thousand obstacles and conflicts at every level.
They are going against the law, the judicial authorities and the factory’s ex-owners, while they fight to gain some kind of legal status. There are conflicts within the group as well; practicing direct democracy among people with different attitudes, convictions and ideas can be very hard. But what proves to be the hardest, is the inner conflicts each individual has to face as the times are calling for a deep personal transformation. These people in their fifties are forced to develop a new identity, one that will allow them to survive in dignity and withstand the sufferings of an “outrageous fortune”. The giant shifts they have to perform can sometimes seem comic and tragic at the same time.
As a filmmaker I felt the need to present, as deeply and as respectfully as I could, characters with opposing point of views. In a way they all represent pieces of a collective social mosaic that is not indicative only of the Greek case, but reflects most European societies today. Ultimately this is a bittersweet tale of real people whose lives cross with history. I am deeply grateful to all of them for honouring me with their trust and letting me tell their story as an adventure of our times.
Next Stop: Utopia screens during Document 2016 at 5:30pm on Friday 21 October in the CCA Theatre. Buy tickets here.
I visited the town of San Marcos, Sinaloa, for the first time when I was 13 years old with a theatre company (TATIU) that organized plays in rural and hard to reach communities. In 2009, after enrolling in the CUEC-UNAM film school in Mexico City, I heard that this town of more than 200 years was flooded due to the construction of the Picachos dam. I decided to go back to San Marcos to spent some time there and began to get to know the people that had stayed in the flooded town. With the support of the entire community, we produced the fiction short film Venecia, Sinaloa (Venice, Sinaloa), which was inspired by the families that endured the flood.
During my time there, I often asked myself why did some decide to stay in a town that was flooded with not only water but also with fear. After the construction of the dam, the submerged town became a breeding ground for violence. From being a town with 300 families, it eventually went down to only three. It would seem that the flood had arrived as a metaphor of fear.
I then made the decision to take some time off film school to make a documentary inspired by the stories of the people that had stayed there even in the most adverse conditions. Pani was ambushed and shot while driving his truck, but instead of leaving, he decided to stay and rebuild the town. “In life there are no handles… We are floating in the universe”, says Pani, who tries to grab on to life through faith. Everyday, Miro takes food to a cow that was stranded in a small island with the rise of the tide and feels just as trapped in San Marcos as the animal in the island. He feels the urge “to float away” and that the town is doomed to be buried in the mud. After the exodus of most of the inhabitants, Jaimito and Yoya moved from a wooden shack to the town’s biggest house and live day to day enjoying life as it comes. They all have has their own stance concerning the flooded town and life in general: whether it is idealist, pessimistic or realistic. Los reyes del pueblo que no existe (Kings of Nowhere) is their story.
Kings of Nowhere is the opening gala of Document 2016 at 20:00pm on Thursday 20 October in the CCA Theatre. Buy tickets here.
I spent more than three years shooting in the Romany settlement of Sajókaza. The first thing I had to learn was humility. Those people hate cameras. Permission to shoot was eventually granted by some families, albeit reluctantly, and was often withdrawn all of a sudden. I learnt to take things as they happened. I was told to fuck off, experienced pompousness, was bitten by a dog, but was also shown unexpected warmth and humiliating hospitality and got to know – some stereotypes contain a core of truth – a lot of music and partying.
I am not a helper and no activist. I do not claim for myself to lend my voice to the suppressed or to share their fate. I am a guest, a stranger, an outsider. I observe and try to distil a story from the many conflicting impressions.
People in the west tend to believe that everything can be mended by providing enough money and sending experts. But centuries of exclusion are part of many Romany people’s lives. They cannot be helped by money or experts only. But hopefully, they can be helped by the persistence of people like Teacher János – people who have experienced the stigmatization first hand. János and his colleague Tibor have no ready-made recipe. They try something out, they fail, they arouse hostility, they try again. They are revolutionaries who would continue their fight even if they had three fighters and a semi-functioning gun only. Their gun is education. India has proved that education works. There the untouchables simply left the caste system behind by becoming Buddhists. János and Tibor ask themselves why Romany people cannot do the same.
I take my hat off to such stubbornness.
Angry Buddha screens during Document 2016 at 2:30pm on Saturday 22 October in the CCA Theatre. Buy tickets here.