A Permanent Erection for the Eye: Athina Rachel Tsangari’s The Slow Business of Going Domitila Bedel November 2001 Experimental Cinema Issue 17 Introduction translated by Stewart King Introduction The Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema is for all lovers of cinema a true opportunity. Here, at the end of the world, the films that make it are those bought by the big distributors for their big cinema chains. There are still a few distributors willing to bring certain independent films – those that open your eyes a little more. But the truth is that, in this large city, only two or three cinemas provide such an outlet. For this reason, the Festival is a fiesta. Suddenly, for two weeks, one has the opportunity to see an entirely new range of films: auteurs one has heard about but whose work has never reached the country; many unknown names; plus retrospectives, homages to filmmakers unknown to the majority but adored by a few. Suddenly one has the opportunity to see cinema. As it’s only two weeks long, they’ve hardly started to sell the tickets when you break in and try to hog as many as possible. Your choice is made on instinct or recommendation, but the truth is that nobody knows – not one hundred per cent, anyway – what it is they are going to see until the lights go down and the projector lights up. I want you to understand that this Film Festival, as ought to be the case throughout the world, is a sublime experience. In my own case, it was my first time at the Festival as a cinema studies student; I had previously attended in other years, but this occasion filled me with a special sense of expectation. I wanted to see everything, to camp in the corridors and never leave the air breathed there. This is difficult to express, but perhaps if you close your eyes for a minute you can imagine it. I was submerged in this adrenalin rush when I first met the magical Athina Rachel Tsangari, at a session of Chris Marker shorts. She and her collaborator Matt Johnson were under the wing of a friend of mine who acted as their ‘angel’, their Festival guide. We introduced ourselves, she timidly gave me a pamphlet from the Cinematexas event that she runs and a postcard for the film about to be shown in a few days. It was in this way that I met Athina’s first daughter, The Slow Business of Going (2000), and I say ‘daughter’ because Slobiz (as the filmmaker refers to it) is a woman, and one of those women with a strength obvious in the way they walk. My meeting with the film was exactly that: a meeting. There wasn’t a moment to doubt, to look at my watch to check how long it had to go. I didn’t want to go to the bathroom, nothing …perhaps only the desire to smoke a cigarette… but that happens to me with all good films. If I had to describe what I felt watching Slobiz, I would appropriate this phrase: “a permanent erection for the eye”. Not for its erotic content; its beauty, intensity of images and content provoked this reaction in me. Athina constructs and deconstructs many textures on a visual level, and she has an individual way of dealing with each episode (divided by cities). This patchwork has some crocheted squares, others embroidered and some simply stitched. On the narrative level (if one wants to be clinical) there are some problems. There is a basic story – Petra Going (Lizzie Martínez), a young nomad who is part of a project and has orders to travel ceaselessly, accumulating audiovisual material in a camera that has been incorporated into her eyes (if this isn’t a definition of a cineaste, what is?) – but this plot gets a little lost. Firstly, because it is not really in-depth, and secondly because – as the following e-mail interview explains – the script was an interactive one in which various people participated. This aspect of the pre-production seems to me very worthwhile, very playful. Today, when it comes to making films, there is an eagerness to have a serious set-up which is almost industrial, scientific. Finding out that there are still people who believe that making a film can also be a playground, and that filmic materials have the consistency of plasticine, is a relief. Seeing the film, one feels the playfulness and good vibes that went into making it. This is appropriate, because The Slow Business of Going marks a ‘before’ and ‘after’ for those to whom it speaks. Thanks to this film, I realised that cinema can be made in another, more intimate way, more self-referential – not because of its documentary or autobiographical nature, but rather because it speaks of its own way of making and organising its game. It took five years to make. Imagine how natural this process was: they didn’t only keep the project up and running; it needed those years in order to grow, to really be. And this naturalness is what makes one leave the auditorium more refreshed after seeing it. With The Slow Business of Going, Athina and Matt marked and inspired this young Argentine woman with the desire to one day show everything which she (like Petra) has recorded in her own inner apparatus, her camera-eye – invisible to you but so visible within me. So I offer cathartic thanks to these filmmakers from the end of the world. * * * Interview Domitila Bedel: I noticed that the story is credited to you, and the script to five people including the main actor, Lizzie Martínez. When you decided to make the film, did you have a particular story that you wanted to tell? An idea that drove you? Or was it more the case that you had a lot of experimental material, and arrived at a story that would allow you to incorporate it? Athina Rachel Tsangari: I did not ‘decide’ to make this movie. It sort of happened on its own, sometimes despite myself and itself! Throughout the five years of its making, it ended up being more like a quilt, a patchwork of autobiographies, geographies and genres. The basic premise was that of a woman nomad, Petra Going, who collects images and experiences through her eye-lenses, in order to download them in a central memory archive for the use of vicarious others. Kinda like being a filmmaker with no other gear than your own body. The rest evolved through intermittent movement – an obsessive process of moving and collecting and then resting to look at what we gathered, then starting again. More often than not, I thought that this process would never end, and in a way it still hasn’t, it will continue onto the next film and the one after that. The script for each episode was developed in collaboration with mostly amateur actors through an involved series of improvisational workshops. Each actor was asked to imagine and sketch out their own one-night scene, unleashing their wildest fantasies about what could occur between them and Petra in a hotel room somewhere in the world – with only three conditions: a. no sex; b. no violence (at least in the literal sense); c. they weren’t allowed to know anything of Petra’s other encounters. Subsequently, Lizzie/Petra and I built her character deconstructing, undermining or reorienting her partners’ fantasies of her. During rehearsals, which sometimes resembled battlegrounds and other times roller-coasters, each pair negotiated their personae through improvisation, until finally they inhabited the same story. During subsequent rehearsals we reduced the action and dialogue to the bare minimum, eventually ending up with the shorthand version, the collapsible models of our stories. A murder turned into a choreographed embrace; a sexual act was disguised as a tango; a life’s worth of angst became a musical; desire and nostalgia materialised as a swimming lesson; fear of solitude exploded into slapstick comedy. I find three-act structure to be limiting and predictable in most cases. Slobiz became something like a nineteen-act structure, but there is a structure nevertheless, and a fairly rigid one. A reviewer wrote once “the lack of plot is keenly felt” and I wasn’t sure whether to take it as a compliment, or as a negative critique of my heresy against ‘acceptable’ narrative dogmas. Slobiz was made in a highly collaborative manner, working very closely with actors and crew. I was influenced by the working methods of Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, Altman, and Godard to a certain extent, considering the actor and not the script to be the main engine for the story. After working on a scene for several weeks, or even months, we would choose a hotel, get there in a small caravan, check in for a weekend and shoot. It was an exhilarating and exhausting process that taught us a lot. Keeping up this process for five years, oh boy, that is a whole other story. Having such a strong, idealistic team that stayed with the film until the bitter end – that’s when the infamous independent film paradigm really works. It’s dependent cinema actually, where the film team works as a cooperative, a transient collective, as terribly romantic as this term may sound. DB: I found, not only in Lizzie’s performance but also in the construction of the scenes, a very theatrical tone. The title of the movie, if I remember correctly, comes from Samuel Beckett. Are you paying homage to the theatre? AT: I consider Beckett one of my spiritual godfathers. I grew up reading him in French, although it took me some time to understand his characters. Their fatalism, existential conflict and schizophrenia are very close to Greek tragedy. I think Beckett’s influence is rather apparent in the movie, in the deadpan acting style, and in the spirit of the dialogue in scenes such as the stranded soccer players in Tangiers. “There should be no point in leaving, if I couldn’t just as easily stay…”, says one of the characters. The rocking chair strapped on Petra’s back is a direct reference to Beckett’s Murphy. A rocking horse/suitcase: a perfect metaphor for a metropolitan, urban nomad. I studied theatre as an undergraduate. I grew up in Greece, a country with a very strong theatre tradition, and I’m talking about contemporary as much as ancient drama. The performance style of my actors was more informed by the codified stylisation in classic Greek tragedy or comedy, or the early silent movie era, rather than Method acting in cinema. I was not interested in realism. In retrospect, I think it was insane for me to use down-and-dirty directing methods of improvisation and ‘actor jamming’ to get to a kind of acting that could not be further from naturalism. Sometimes it worked, other times it failed spectacularly. DB: I loved the locations you use, from the hotel rooms to the lake in the final scene. All of them are perfectly chosen. How did you find them? Were you already familiar with some of them? How did you choose to integrate the documentary material that you shot over the long production period? AT: The vast majority of the interior scenes were shot in hotel rooms in Texas, masquerading as their various international counterparts, while exterior footage was collected in all the actual cities (NY, Havana, Tokyo, Ho Chi Minh City, Prague, Moscow, Mexico City, etc.) by myself and a few other friends (appointed agents). It is indicative of the film’s critique of globalisation that everyone in it speaks one homogenous language, the Esperanto of English, and that all hotel rooms, from Tokyo to Tangier, look exactly the same. Slobiz aspired to be a meditation on the symbolic topos of thresholds, be they geographical, social or emotional. In the end, it really doesn’t matter whether we shot on location or not. I wanted that craving by the audience for the exterior, the exotic, the tourist shot, and I was happy with my decision not to succumb (in most cases) to the ‘money shots’ of my eighty and some hours of documentary footage. It was a process of elimination of identifiable specificity. DB: What camera did you use? Which film and tape stocks? What about the animation/graphic design elements? AT: We shot on super 8mm, 16mm, mini-DV, and 35mm stills, then manipulated all the footage on After Effects, an advanced image manipulation software, then transferred the final cut of the film to 35mm. Many people have called Slobiz a ‘multi-media’ film. I’m not a fan of the term multi-media, although I’m guilty of using it for lack of a better one. I prefer calling it ‘stitching’, ‘quilting’ or ‘mapping’. I’m excited and amused by the lo-fi/hi-fi approach. I used what I had at my disposal, each time stretching everything to its limit. I had iZone sticker photos blown up to 35mm. I had my collection of travel documents and memorabilia become the title sequence. We shot the documentary super 8 footage off the wall with a digital camera in order to process it with After Effects. The whole thing was ‘homemade’, operating on necessity rather than because of a fetish with media. DB: What do you think now when you see the film? Are you able to judge it? AT: Once I’m done with a film, it’s torturing for me to look at it. I tend to see all the mistakes, things that I could have done differently. Slobiz is now out of my system, after a very long ‘pregnancy’, but at the same time I’m still too close to it to judge it.