8 Questions for Sebastian Cordes

His poetic observation A place called Lloyd (2015) made Danish director Sebastian Cordes a slow-film director to look out for in future. I had a brief chat with him about his film. My thanks goes to Sebastian, who made this possible!

I always start my interviews with questions about how filmmakers have come across their subject. I find this particularly intriguing in your case. It is not the kind of everyday situation or place we usually find in slow films. So, how did you find this “place called Lloyd”?

As much as I would like to say that I was travelling around South America, and found this magical place on a journey to discover new stories, it was as simple as an article I read in the Danish newspaper Politiken. A classic stumple-upon-story. But I was struck by it, and thought ‘we have to go immediately!’ So we actually managed to get some funding real quick and really nice equipment by the Filmworkshop (under the Danish Film Institute) in Copenhagen, but didn’t want to go into long term negotiations with pitches and budgets with bigger production companies, the story could be gone by then. This is why the budget of the film was something like 10.000 dollars.

I noticed that the film is centred on the people of the former airline Lloyd Aero Boliviano. Was that your choice from the beginning or did that particular approach crystallise during the pre-production/shoot? I’m asking because many of your shots are stunning. Your film could have easily been an entirely visual piece on the subject.

First of all, to call it a ‘former airline’ is not entirely correct, especially if you look at it from their point of view. They still work, trying to get a license to fly again etc. But yes, admittedly, the pictures that accompanied the article attracted me, because of the abandoned nature in it. The dusty hangars, the worn out planes (what a metaphor for loss, to have your wings clipped!). It is not on purpose if it seems centered around something, rather it is centered around the nothingness at the place, and how this apparent nothingness is filled with meaning, pride, history and absurdity. How the buildings have this immanent aura to them.
It quickly became evident that this was a place like no other place I had ever been to. And the film needed to express this, not explain it. This is why there’s almost no talking, and when there is, it’s not interviews, but merely monologues told to the camera. We did not seek out stories that fitted into any predetermined idea of the place, but people came up to us out of the blue, and told us stories, that we then would ask them if they wanted to tell again on camera. So we tried to film, or express, our experience of the place, and stay away from any common logic of storytelling. I’m not really interested in that essentialist way of trying to narrow it to down to what the place is, as if that’s possible. Instead of looking at what it is, I’d rather look at how it is, or just that it is. To quote the first sentence of the Eminem/Rihanna song Love The Way You Lie “I can’t tell you what it really is. I can only tell you what it feels like.”

There are several beautiful shots which stand out. They have something photographic about them. How much time do you actually spend on composing those images? How important are the visuals to you?

This is where other filmmakers usually have eyes wide open and shake their head, especially documentary filmmakers. We would often use 10-15 minutes to set up a shot, and this is after we have gone scouting for that shot, perhaps the day before, taking notes, and if there’s supposed to be a person in the shot, test it out with one of us in front of the camera, notice when the light is how we want it – what time of the day is best etc. And then, we had sort of a silent agreement, me and the camera man, Jakob, that even if we went through all this and one of us had any doubt that we probably wouldn’t want it in the final film, we didn’t shoot it. As if we were filming on celluloid made of gold. This is why we only came back with less than four hours of material, for an 80 min film. Something that people also have a hard time believing.

Don’t get me started on the importance of the visuals. It is a puzzle why form and content is separated in the way it is in cinema still. I simply don’t get it. It seems Aristotle won that battle. The visuals are extremely important to me – it is the same as asking how important is the content. Well, they don’t go without each other. It been a forty years since McLuhan pointed out that the medium is the message, but perhaps it didn’t ring a bell for the people in cinema. And I often feel like an outcast pointing this out, as if it’s even close to being avant-garde to say that. It isn’t in any other art form.

You spend a lot of time capturing the daily affairs of the people. This is primarily achieved through long-takes. Why did you choose an aesthetic of slowness for the depiction of your subject?

Because I’m a lazy filmmaker, basically. But I have good arguments to back it up, if people don’t accept this. No, I honestly believe that A Place Called Lloyd could not have been made in any other way, if we were to be true to our experience of the place. It might be slow, it might be boring, it might be beautiful, it might be experimental, but is more true to that place, as it is now, than a journalistic or historic account. It is almost a naive, childish pointing that structures the film, not a generalising adult or a scientist way of organizing the world. Like the camera says ‘Look at this over here, it’s an empty office. Now look at this, it’s a hangar!’, as if everything has equal value. This is what Hölderlin referred to when he rightfully said, that what a poet can do is to make something interesting, just by pointing at it.

I’m interested in ways of inhabiting the world, ways being in the world so to speak. And the slowness, the static shots, is something that allows for this to unfold. I’m not that interested in events and climaxes. The slowness allows for thought, basically. Your mind starts to wander, and I think of this as a positive thing. Milan Kundera said that speed has to do with forgetting, and slowness is connected to remembering, to memory. I really like this thought. I also remember reading somewhere that in Tsai Ming-Liangs films, the main character is always time itself. I could really identify with this.

The daily affairs is a subject a care a lot for. I’m in favour of looking at the Other as a screen of informations, where you can’t enter the mind or the intentions of him/her, but only have access to the appearance. Then habits become something loaded with enormous potential meaning, the daily actions as something revealing. Especially with the state of the company as backdrop. And if the daily live is repetitive, the film should be too. This is where film has an advantage as an artform, as visible surfaces extended in time.

I remember during a conversation at the Danish Film School between Joshua Oppenheimer and Werner Herzog that I was watching, they came up with the phrase “out of the soil, not out of the head” to describe their approach to style. I like this, even though I have to add that inevitably there’s as head on that soil, that wants to capture something.

There are two very moving interviews, or rather monologues, in your film. Interestingly – considering the subject of Lloyd, namely the death of an airline – both stories describe events that are connected to actual death in one way or another.

Monologue is a good word, because we didn’t use interviews, we would ask them if they would retell stories they told us. I normally use the word stories, but monologue is better actually. Yes, you also mentioned in your review the focus of death in slow cinema in general, and I hadn’t actually thought of it before. This must one of those unintentional but revealing things that a director can’t explain himself.

The place did seem to have an aura of a last breath before death, but this breath has been held for 7-8 years, and who says you can’t turn back to life just before you exhale that last breath.

In my review, I mentioned Denis Côté and Carlos Casas. Your film, I find, is very close to Côté’s style in Bestiaire, but as far as I know you don’t know either of the two directors. So what or who are your influences?

Only by name, I haven’t seen any of their films before, that’s true. I have a lot of influences, I’m basically a big fanboy of a lot of things. And then I copy all of them, and put them in a big bowl and mix it, so hopefully no one notices. With this film, just to mention a few: In terms of editing – minimalist music (especially Steve Reich). In terms of sound and the approach of inviting people into your mediated experience of a place – Harvard Sensory Lab, (and the book Doing Sensory Ethnography by Sarah Pink). In terms of visuals, Andy Wahol and the godfather of Danish documentary film Jørgen Leth. In terms of slowness and the effect on the audience that that a lingering camera can have – Jim Jarmusch, but also Beckett and Camus – the absurdity of continuing without any promise of good in the future.

I tend to read a lot of philosophical and academic stuff (I studied philosophy for four years). Hegel, Zizek, John Cage, Heidegger and Deleuze makes me want to make film a thousand times more than watching films in general. I try to watch more, but I have to force myself to it.

Have the people already seen your film? Have you actually returned to Bolivia since you’ve finished Lloyd?

We were there in February, but haven’t been back yet unfortunately. This is mostly due to funding and festival planning, because we all want to go back. This was one of my greatest experiences ever, the people, the food, the place in itself. This is one of the reasons a make documentary films, however experimental they are. There is a world, that you let yourself plunge into, experience and organise with your camera. That, and my general lack of imagination.

Are you working on a new project already?

I’m working on a hopeless project doomed to go wrong, or at least turn out extremely incomplete. I want to do a film on slowness, or lingering, in itself. Instead of dancing around, using the method of slowness, boredom etc. I want to remove any story that could uphold the film and keep the attention of the audience and try to film the concept of slowness. Can you even film a concept?

I’m thinking of blending the form of Jim Jarmusch’ Coffee & and Cigarettes-like conversations, orbiting around Slow Food, Heideggers notion of boredom and areas like that, with examples of slowness; calligraphy, wandering, wild life sound recorders, sex. And then readings to the camera, like the monologues in A Place Called Lloyd.

After the premiere at CPH:DOX, a couple of people came up to me and said they were really annoyed with the pace of the film for the first ten minutes, but then they gave up being critical. And they told me they had a whole new cinematic experience. This reminded me of Hannah Arendt, my girlfriend has just written an academic paper on her. She said that thinking is fundamentally a destructive force. Dwelling makes you think, makes you reconsider, makes you meet your own conscience. It doesn’t build, it reconsiders. This is a very political intention, of course not in the classical sense.

But I think that by getting rid of a story, I can dig deeper into that notion of opening up to a space where this is possible. Where the audience can be attuned to thought. But the most important here is again, that we don’t explain anything, but invite to the sensory experience of slowness.

 

A place called Lloyd – Sebastian Cordes (2015)

If there is a film that takes the ideas of absence and nothingness almost literally, then it is surely Sebastian Cordes’ new film A place called Lloyd (2015), a moving portrait of the Bolivian airline Lloyd Aereo Boliviano gone bankrupt. The story in itself is not unusual. Many companies go bust every day throughout the world. What makes Lloyd stand out from the crowd is its particular focus on the (former) employees, who still return to their work as if nothing has happened. Paperwork is being done, material is being cleaned – it all appears to be a routine job. Yet the disastrous bankruptcy and the fact that the employees still haven’t been paid their salary hangs over the film like a ghost. It’s a characteristic present absence which is felt throughout the film’s running time.

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Lloyd, in its aesthetic approach, reminded me of the first Denis Côté film I saw, which was Bestiaire (2012). In a way, we see people at work (though in Bestiaire the focus is obviously more on the beast than on man), but there is a certain sensation of absence, of loneliness, of isolation that characterises both films. It is often said that slow films show “nothing”, which always reminds me of the famous “watch paint drying”. But even that is something! Anyway, the reason why this idea of nothingness fits so well with Cordes’ new film is the narrative he has captured. It is the particular combination of aesthetics – empty or half-empty frames, a minimal soundscape – and a narrative of loss.

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To me, Lloyd fits perfectly into my belief that slow films tend to deal almost exclusively with death. I’m not speaking of literal death. I am more interested in metaphorical death. In this case, it is the company which has seen its death, and therefore a part of people’s lives has gone. Again, the aesthetics are supportive of that. Cordes proves to have a photographic eye. Most shots a superbly composed. He captures the beauty of simplicity and it’s fascinating that he has found this in deserted hangars and offices. But he has also found it in the interaction of those elements with nature. I remember those lovely shots in which the rain comes down on a deserted aircraft…

I want to return to Bestiaire for a second. The visual similarities cannot be denied. I cannot say whether Cordes intended it to be this way. Regardless, the imprint of the Canadian director is very much present and felt. But Cordes creates more than a visual document. He lets the people he observes in their routine speak. He lets them speak to us. The effect is that we are no longer detached from what’s happening miles away to a few employees somewhere in Bolivia. Lloyd becomes a personal portrait of what this company meant and still means to its employees. In each shot, you can feel the pride of the people of having served one of the first airlines that had been set up in the world. Their pride swings in everything we see and hear.

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Lloyd is certainly character-centered, more so than perhaps other slow documentaries. Another one I can come up with is Solitude at the end of the earth by Carlos Casas, although the landscape plays an important role there. This isn’t quite the case with Cordes’ film, even though the actual place where the documentary is set is important in that it creates this atmosphere of absence, of loss, and of metaphorical death. Nevertheless, this is the story of people and Cordes’ Lloyd is a wonderful portrait of those the film depicts. The film shows that Cordes is a talented upcoming slow-film director whom you should follow if you’re particularly interested (like me) in contemporary, very recent slow films.

Slow Cinema in the News (February 2014)

This blog goes from strength to strength thanks to my readers. The views are now beyond the 10k benchmark, and I have readers from all over the planet. This helps enormously to make people aware of fantastic slow films, and it’s great for me to learn from you. Not all slow films show up in the news. As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is something of a move towards “popular” Slow Cinema. These are films from directors, who you will find everywhere nowadays. I’m hoping to tackle this move with the help of you. It’s been a pleasure so far. But let’s shift to the news of this month:

Nicolas Pereda, slow-film director from Mexico, known for his films Interview with the Earth (reviewed here) and Summer of Goliath, has a new film, which apparently ran at the Berlinale. I must have overlooked it in the programme. The film’s title is Killing Strangers (Matar extraños), and is, in fact, a collaboration with a Danish director. Every year the CPH:DOX festival in Copenhagen encourages a European and a non-European filmmaker to work together. It’s called DOX:LAB. In 2012, it was Pereda and Jacob Secher Schulsinger. The trailer looks wonderful. Not that I expect something else with Pereda. Here you can read an interview with Pereda and Schulsinger.

Without an official release date yet (as far as I know), Lisandro Alonso’s new film Untitled Lisandro Alonso Project has already attracted a sales company, namely Mexican based NDM. They have acquired world sales rights. NDM also holds the rights to Carlos Reygadas’ latest film Post Tenebras Lux.

The 16e Festival du Film Asiatique de Deauville (France), which is to take place from 5-9 March, has special screenings for Tsai Ming-liang, as an homage to him and his work. They will screen his latest feature Stray DogsGoodbye Dragon Inn, and What Time is it there?

Tsai’s Journey to the West premiered at the Berlinale and, as far as I can see, the reviews were throughout very good. Here you can read an interview with Denis Lavant about working with Tsai. Remaining with Tsai, there’s a two months long retrospective of his work scheduled in Belgium from March to May. They screen gems like I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone and Visage

In Jerusalem, at the Cinematheque, they organised a retrospective of Fred Kelemen’s work, both as filmmaker and as cinematographer. Amongst the films chosen for this programme, were Tarr’s The Turin Horse, for which Kelemen acted as cinematographer, and his exceptional Frost, which is part of a trilogy. I watched it at the Slow Cinema weekend in Newcastle in 2012, and can only recommend it. 

Mexico will be home of Slow Cinema next month. The FICUNAM festival will screen Tsai‘s Journey to the West, the new film The Joy of Man’s Desiring by Denis Côté, Lav Diaz‘s Norte The End of History, Albert Serra‘s Story of my Death, Ben Rivers‘ new film A Spell to Ward off the Darknessand finally we have the two slow suspects Costa da Morte by Lois Patino and Manakanama by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez. Slow paradise?

Finally, a few videos for you:

Intriguing interview with Denis Côté about his film Bestiaire. You can, in fact, watch a couple of his earlier films on his personal vimeo page. I wanted to link to a YouTube video. Lav Diaz’s Century of Birthing appeared on the platform. But it has been removed. Culture – deleted. What more is there to say!?

Slow Cinema in the News – January 2014

Here’s a brief rundown of news from this month. I tend to tweet these things, but I think it’s a good idea to summarise it all once a month. Better for you, and for me.

The first stills from Tsai Ming-liang’s new film, Journey to the West, have appeared onlineThey are few, but they look SO good. Very photographic. And much similar to Walker, as expected. You can find the stills here.

Journey to the West – New Film by Tsai Ming-liang

That said, The Cinema Guild has acquired the right to Tsai’s Stray Dogs. Fantastic news. This means that we will have the pleasure of having yet another Tsai DVD at home.

Carlos Reygadas has received two nominations for this year’s Cinema Tropical AwardsPost Tenebras Lux is nominated in the category Best Film, while Reygadas himself is nominated for Best Director. Good luck!

Irish filmmaker Pat Collins, who made the beautiful slow film Silence, shows his new film, Living in a Coded Land, at the Dublin Film Festival. I hope it will make its way to the UK. It was a pain to get a copy of Silence – only sold in and distributed within Ireland. Here’s what Collins said about his film:

“For this film, I’m most interested in topics like the legacy and impact of colonialism, privilege, the residue of paganism, our disconnection from and our connection to the land. But the task is to create unexpected links between the past and the present, to look at the past to illuminate the present.”

Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul and other independent Thai filmmakers have launched their own sales company, Mosquito Films Distributions. Aim is it to increase the visibility of Thai film in the film circuit. Good news: the omnibus feature Tsai contributed to, Letters from the South, is in their hands.

Denis Côté, whom I have mentioned in this blog in relation to his film Bestiaire, also has a new film, which is to premier at the Berlinale. Title: Joy of Man’s Desiring. Stills and a trailer have emerged, and it looks intriguing. Very similar to Bestiaire in a way. I really like this type of filmmaking.

The Joy of Man’s Desiring – New Film by Denis Côté

Apart from this, Slow Cinema is having a good start of the year with films at Göteburg, Rotterdam, Glasgow, Tromsö, Portland and Berlin. As far as I can see, there are a lot of newcomers on the slow horizon, especially in Rotterdam.

Bestiaire (Denis Coté)

Thanks to a reader of my blog, who made me aware of another slow film, I had the chance to dive into a hugely photographic piece of cinema. A while ago, I wrote a short post on Bovines by Emmanuel Gras. It is a film without dialogue. Just pure beauty. And cows. It traces the often overlooked lives of cows throughout the four seasons. It still is the most peaceful slow film I know.

Bestiaire by Canadian filmmaker Denis Coté is not much different at first sight. It is about (wild) animals in Parc Safari in Quebec (“Africa in the Heart of Canada”). Again, the changing seasons play an interesting role. Bestiary, or The Book of Beasts, was a medieval collection of physical descriptions of animals, often written in such a way as to highlight an animal’s special meaning or position in the world.

Bestiaire, Denis Coté

This seemingly little detail is in fact very significant. The animals we see in the film – horses, giraffes, bears, zebras – have been deprived of their special meaning in the world. They are all the same. They are an object of attraction for both the employees, and the tourists, who flock to the park in spring and summer.

They have been deprived of their special meaning because they have been put into captivity, where they cannot be the animals they really are. They cannot be wild. In winter, especially, when the animals are put into indoor shelters, we see, for example, zebras wanting to break out of their cage. Thus, the first half of the film is a bit depressing if you have a heart for animals.

Bestiaire, Denis Coté

The very fact that tigers, zebras and ostriches have lost their special meaning by having been put into captivity, can perhaps be seen as a concept for “subjects” (i.e. humans) in Slow Cinema as a whole. Are the characters still “special” and “distinct”? Are they not all in the same cage, the cage of poverty, oppression? The cage of loneliness and emptiness? Does it then really matter where the characters come from (geographically)? Just a thought…

Aesthetically, Bestiaire is stunning, though. It feels like a photo album from time to time. Coté is certainly one of those filmmakers with an incredible eye for frame composition. The camera is always static, as is often the case in Slow Cinema. I suppose that many shots happened by pure chance because it looked as if Coté had put the camera somewhere and had hoped that an animal or two would cross the frame. So while Coté certainly tried to set up the camera in such a way that he could get interesting shots, it is not all due to his work as director / cinematographer. He was very much dependent on the movements of the animals. I therefore see Bestiaire is a collaboration of man and beast, rather than “a film by Denis Coté” alone.

Bestiaire, Denis Coté

Watching Bestiaire might make you think that Coté is a slow-film director. In fact, he is, but his films are less Slow Cinema. I watched his film Curling yesterday, and though it did start off like a Slow Cinema film with regards to its aesthetics (long-take, static camera, medium or long shots etc), Coté moved away from those aesthetics halfway through the film, which confused me a bit. I don’t think there was anything in the narrative that could have asked for it, but then, don’t question a director’s aesthetic choices. You’re wrong about it more often than not.