I had the idea to initiate a conversation with two filmmakers from different generations but with similar preoccupations. Two Franco-Australian filmmakers came to mind, two female artists whose work is characterized by a stunning fullness: Viviane Vagh and Jayne Amara Ross. Aside from their Australian roots, similar themes abound in their work and it was these similarities that I wished to explore further. This interview sheds light on a profusion of communal influences: both filmmakers show an interest in world mythology and its archetypes, place significant importance on the use of music in their films and employ the artisanal tools of analogue cinema.
Their work, however, also clearly differs on a stylistic level. Viviane Vagh often creates short pieces in which the editing process creates a full and complex image, visual palimpsests that play with density and layers, in the manner of Jason Pollock’s paintings. Jayne Amara Ross’ films exist as filmic poems. Her writing informs and enriches the content of her films, creating poetic narratives with a linear construction akin to works of fiction. She has worked extensively in the medium of performance as an active member of the live cinema collective FareWell Poetry, in which the soundtracks to her films are re-created in a live setting.
Despite diverging approaches to format, the use of language (both French or English for Vagh, English for Amara Ross) and the process of collecting images (a quotidian activity for Vagh, and a disciplined and deliberate process for Amara Ross), one also senses a shared attraction to narratives culled from the collective unconscious, and the impetus to explore the archetypal identities of the intimate and feminine realms. These points of convergence, brought to light by this interview, give birth to a sort of Janus, multiple and seductive, and apparent in the films chosen for the Collectif Jeune Cinema’s recent screening of their work in Paris.
Raphaël Bassan: I will refer to the first films I saw of yours: Viviane’s Ombres et Lumières in 2005 and Jayne’s The Freemartin Calf (2010) that I first saw in 2012. Despite the different stylistic approaches, I seem to detect a similar, fertile ground.
Viviane Vagh: I formalized, with the Petite series (2000-2006), something which resembles a continuum of reflection on the childhood memories that haunt me, on freedom and the feminine. I understood, by making experimental films, that creativity must be free and fluid. The strength of the experimental format is its ability to render real-life experience in an unadulterated fashion. My innate desire to film had to mutate into a voice for personal expression. This journey is apparent in the Petite series, in which the female identity develops with increasing intensity. The process of examining the content of my memory brought many female archetypes to the surface, and their presence permeates all my work. I had written and made movies before, I was an actress in theatre and film, but I needed to commit to a more personal process in order to burrow deeper inside myself.
Fluidity and Intimacy
RB: In the Petite series there is a kind of continuity, whereas in Ombres et Lumières – which, in my eyes, forms a trilogy with Soulsearching (2005) and Free Women (2009) – we are confronted with an exponential visual wealth which becomes denser with every image.
VV: By working on visual recurrence, I am trying to understand my obsessive need to express myself through art by trying to re-evoke striking and significant moments from my childhood that have marked both my artistic and geographic journeys. I think that in some way this phenomenon also preoccupies Jayne: this need to express a synthesis of an identity divided between two cultures. This process became conscious in my filmmaking, beginning with the Petite series and my first forays into experimental film.
This ‘petite” or ‘little girl’ was my neighbour in the Butte aux Cailles, a Parisian neighbourhood that has been my home for over 20 years now. She was eight at the time. I started the series in 2000, I really love to film my close environment. The 9 Petite films form a mosaic-like portrait of a little girl who encounters other women of different ages, exploring the essential themes of love, death, sexuality and freedom. In a sense the Petite series is a kind of diary film, the “Petite” is in fact symbolically all these women projecting her future, or inversely she is remembering her past.
RB: Can we speak of a similar theme in The Freemartin Calf in which the dominating emotion is that of the Mother who fears her own solitude?
Jayne Amara Ross: For me, the ideas for my films begin in written form, in poetry or prose. But I do concur with Viviane’s understanding of female creativity, and the idea of fluidity in construction and realisation. Maya Deren said that women are particularly good filmmakers because of their innate sense of becoming. Within our bodies, and in our relationship to the world, the sense of perpetual transformation is evident. Nothing is frozen or static, everything is subject to constant movement and evolution.
The Freemartin Calf propounds two aspects of female creativity: a spontaneous incarnation personified by the Daughter, and a more cerebral one personified by the Mother. The Mother sees her Daughter as her ultimate achievement. When the young girl begins to show signs of maturity, she ceases to depend on her mother. Confronted with the idea that her child no longer needs her, the Mother begins to see her own death as an inevitable truth.
As soon as you put forth a narrative in which more than one character interacts, you cannot escape the idea of confrontation. Even within one sole character this is true, the self is multiple and in a constant state of conflict. In Viviane’s Free Women, I also see the fullness of the female self, and its multiple manifestations.
RB: But in this case it is different; it is more militant than psychological…
VV: Yes, nevertheless it is within the very esthetics that lie the different confrontations I intend to portray in my work.
The Art of the Palimpsest
RB: Jayne, your approach seems less immediate than Viviane’s.
JAR: I use a lot of hand-painted 16mm and other abstract material alongside more narrative, traditional cinematography in order to portray an interior reality. I don’t use this type of abstract footage in the same manner as Viviane, whose desire is to create a visual palimpsest. In my films, the more painterly, abstract images are there to translate the subjective experience of the characters. It is in the interaction between the literary and visual metaphors that the content is fully communicated.
RB: In my mind, Viviane’s films are closer to the profuse lyricism of Stan Brakhage, while yours remind one of films from the silent movie era, or, more recently, those of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin.
VV: My work is guided by something personal which comes from deep inside me and which I have to exteriorize or even purge myself of. If we evoke Brakhage, I immediately think of the Dante Quartet (1987). In this film he updates the notion of the palimpsest; using different techniques, he paints directly on the filmstrip to mirror the tumult and chaos of hell. This film was a great inspiration to me, it refers to such a powerful text. By creating a cinematic palimpsest, superimposing one layer on top of another, one creates a whole film in hiding beneath, ready to leap out at the tiniest scratch on the filmstrip. For me, all these coats or layers represent the different stratum of the archetypal memory.
The films of the trilogy mentioned above (Ombres et Lumières, Soulsearching and Free Women), to which we can add Coming out (2011), are all films created as palimpsests. I start with images shot on Super 8 or 16 mm film, and in the digital editing process, I superimpose this material, working it over and over until I achieve the images I want the spectator to witness, and the powerful restructured resonance I want to give them. I like the notion of recycling my own images.
When I was Jayne’s age, I travelled around the world for a year to study the nature of street theatre, especially in India and Indonesia. I discovered the meaning of archetypes and rituals. I spent time with the Indigenous Australians and was immersed in traditional Aboriginal life in the Northern Territory of Australia. I was invited to fish turtle and led through bush fires, and learnt about telepathy and premonition. It was then that I understood that my work as an actress was not sufficient. Aboriginal art is so close to the source, to poetry, to intuition. To come back to my use of palimpsest, I have always connected it, to the realm of mystery, dreams, myths and rituals.
JAR: I can see how my films have been likened to those of Guy Maddin. I like Maddin’s work, but he isn’t a direct influence. The use of silent action in my films is merely to create room for voice-over narration. Filmmakers like Béla Tarr or Maya Deren (as much for her films as for her written work on the art of filmmaking) are sources of inspiration to me, but I mainly work instinctively.
As a teenager, I wrote and directed plays at school. But something happened in my eighteenth year and I lost my stage fright, and my love of theatre with it. I then spent two years writing feverously and spending copious amounts of time in the darkroom, teaching myself to mix raw chemicals for my developers and exploring the possibilities of celluloid manipulation. Up until now, the discipline and rigour necessary to shoot, and then hand-process, celluloid was an important part of the process, and in many ways integral to my identity as a filmmaker.
In 2004, whilst living in the UK, I made my first film The Woman with the Severed Side (2005). After spending 3 years in the north of England, I came back to France with finalised scripts for As True As Troilus (2009) and The Freemartin Calf. I like to put pen to paper before I begin to shoot, everything stems from the writing. In many ways I see my films as poems, or cinematic poetry. I don’t shy away from the potentially nauseating use of bold symbols, of meta-narratives, and references to pre-existing mythologies. Experimental film should allow one to experiment, to play around with conventions, and that only seems fun when you are playing with fire! My principal desire is to create an environment in which a shared emotional journey can take place, a communion of sorts, and I suppose this is also why I like performance film, the directness of it.
Myths and Archetypes
RB: If I am right, As True As Troilus is a film that refers to classical mythology.
JAR: Initially, I was drawn to the story of Troilus because I liked the idea that it was a sort of fake Greek myth, drawing on a character mentioned, in passing, by Homer but reinvented by Giovanni Boccaccio in the form of a pastoral poem in the 14th century, then by Geoffrey Chaucer in his epic narrative Troilus and Criseyde in the 1500s, and finally by Shakespeare from which the title As True As Troilus is quoted. I was enamoured with Chaucer’s use of the myth as an extended metaphor for the narrator’s experience. By referring directly to the mythological story, the narrator is able to communicate the extent of his own tragedy to the audience, without losing his modesty. I was attracted to this narrative process as a description of the primary function of mythology. And I also felt close to the philosophical deliberations on the subject of truth, fidelity and determinism, which are prominent in Chaucer’s version.
RB: You have spoken about cultural references; let’s now talk about your relationship to Australia.
VV: It would not be fitting for me to speak about Australia in a global way, or to have a single point of view. All Australians are the children of fairly recent immigration; I for instance have multiple origins: French, Greek, Slavic… The question of language seems to me to be crucial for both of us, an inspiration for our filmmaking. The common source of language is psychoanalytical or philosophical. Whether the language employed in our films is developed in words or images, there seems to be a shared attraction there.
JAR: I don’t have the same connection to Australia as Viviane does. I left Australia when I was a young child and never really felt at home there. But whilst I don’t feel like my Australian nationality had any part in the creation of my identity, I do feel profoundly Anglo-Saxon.
VV: I find we are very similar in the way our origins are fragmented.
RB: You juggle between myths and ‘expanded cinema’.
VV: I am attracted to beauty as I see it, what seems harmonious can be conflicted and dramatic. My traumas are translated by mental images obtained even more through the editing process than by the direct description of a dramatic situation. I work with editing as I would with a paintbrush; it is like trying to find the right alchemy with my images to express what I want to say.
I integrate the notion of drama in my performances and my installations through music, song, and dance, and the projection of my images, organized harmoniously within a clearly defined structure in a determine space.
JAR: I have always wanted to perform my poems. And all the soundtracks to my films carry a poetic voice-over. I also listen to a lot of music. FareWell Poetry was born of a desire to integrate live cinema, spoken word poetry and live music into a cohesive whole, a full experience. Committing film, a static medium, to a live setting in constant variation, satisfied the desire for risk-taking that I missed so much from theatre.
VV: I feel that we are both drawn to, and driven by, the exploration of archetypes and the desire to communicate with a universal language. For me, this could stem from my origins and the influence of different cultural references that have moved me or which I may have encountered during my travels and in literature.
JAR: Unlike Viviane, I didn’t grow up in a family in which cultural and religious education were imposed upon me, and art wasn’t something that was discussed at home. I began to read up on various mythologies as a teenager. I needed a language that would allow me to exteriorize an internal dialogue, something that was in harmony with what I felt I was experiencing spiritually. My love of James Joyce led me to discover the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and his notion of the monomyth. Like Jung, Campbell explains universal psychological patterns by referring to the archetypes of world mythology. Different myths, from different cultures, are built upon a single, universal narrative. Mythology is a language that manages to encapsulate the complex nature of human experience, and allows us to communicate those experiences to others.
VV: By comparing our two films Raphaël, you seem to have identified this phenomenon of archetypes expressed through an artistic language…
Language and Music
RB: You are both perfectly bilingual, is there a language that you prefer?
VV: I dream and speak, both in French and in English, my father was Franco-British, we spoke several languages at home, but mainly French and English. I like mixing these two languages in my life as well as in my films and my performances, these two languages whose roots are so intertwined.
JAR: I have a sensual relationship with the English language. I like its bold rhythms, its sonority, and I don’t feel the same about French. My vocabulary is also much richer in English. English seems to me to be a more masculine language. I think that there is something carnal in being a woman that writes in English, something that can be incredibly powerful.
RB: You both work closely with musicians; music seems to be an indispensable part of both your work.
JAR: I always have a very precise idea of what I want for the soundtracks of my films, of what I think the music and sound design will add to content and meaning. I have a great love of music and I enjoy the privileged relationship that I have with the composers that I work with. I have been very lucky to work extensively with Frédéric D. Oberland, who is a French composer of great talent, as well as other wonderful artists such as Agathe Max, David Roocroft and Stéphane Pigneul.
VV: I work with my husband, Jonathan Levine, who composes the music for my films. We are alike in approach and research, and there is a great fluidity in this exchange.
RB: There seems to be something more pastoral in Jayne’s work, more so than in Viviane’s.
JAR: I try to create environments that participate in the symbolic content of the stories that I wish to tell, all the spaces in my films are interior spaces.
VV: I choose the spaces which correspond best to my subject. The same internal identity is developed in all of my filmography, even if, at times, it is more concrete than in the “trilogy”. In Ground Zero (2005-08), completed a few years after the events of 9/11, I filmed traces of entropy of this dramatic event (in black and white Super 8 film), and, again, this resonates with the notion of palimpsest in my work. I chose to confront the visible traces of the event and this allowed me to produce a type of personal political documentary. Soulsearching is more allegorical. But the same themes, alienation and suffering, are present there.
RB: What kind of satisfaction do you get from the process of creating your work?
JAR: For me, it is necessary that the tools that I use allow me to enjoy the experience of creating a film on a daily basis, because that is what I am confronted with every day, not with the finished product. Having an artisanal practice of filmmaking allows me to have a physical relationship with the format itself, run my hands over the developed image, nurse the rolls of film from shooting, to processing, to the creation of artisanal effects and editing. My use of black and white Super 8 and 16mm is also about personal taste, and the personal pleasure that I get out of the process of creating the images.
VV: For me, it is an initiation, a ritual, an interior transformation process; working with art, is my asceticism! I am constantly filming, I archive memory, I recycle my own images as if to create another memory or story, without really knowing where this may lead me while I am in the process, even though I have a clear mental idea of where I am heading.
JAR: Viviane is inspired by her daily experience, she has a spontaneous approach to collecting footage, but I am the opposite, I like to write and prepare before I shoot. I cannot seem to collect footage without having a precise project in mind.
This interview first appeared in Bref magazine (#110, February 2014). Reprinted with kind permission of the editors and authors. Translated from French by Jayne Amara Ross and Viviane Vagh.
Viviane Vagh is a Franco-Australian artist who lives and works in Paris with her husband, composer Jonathan Levine.She studied and worked in France with well-known film and theatre directors such as Antoine Vitez (Ecole de Chaillot) and Daniel Mesguich (Théâtre du Miroir), in England at RADA and Actor’s Center London, and in the U.S. with John Strasberg. During more than 20 years, Viviane was an actress for the theatre as well as film and television. More recently she has worked mainly in the visual arts and the performing arts, as author, director, video artist and experimental filmmaker. Vagh has participated in international events such as Marseille-Provence Capitale Européenne of Culture (2013), Nuit Blanche Paris, The Light Festival Chartres France (2007), Athens Video Arts International Festival (2009, Gotland Museum of Modern Art Sweden (2014), The Glass Cube, Melbourne Australia (2006), Galerie Bievre Paris (2005), and in international experimental film and video festivals and exhibitions. Viviane was the grand winner of Abstracta International Film Exhibition, Rome in 2011 for her film Coming Out.
Spotlight on Viviane Vagh http://sensesofcinema.com/?s=Viviane+Vagh
Selected Filmography: “Petite” Series (2000-06), Super 8 Experience, Paris-Beaubourg (2004-05), Ombres et Lumières (2005), Fidèles au R.D.V. (2005-06), Soulsearching (2006), Le Monde de Weimu Li (2006), Now You See Me, Now You Don’t (2007), Ground Zero (2005-08), Free Women (2008-09), Where Did Maria Go? (2009), Jenny Alpha Toujours Vivante (2011), Coming Out (2011), Paris Paris (2012), A Certain Place (Inside) (2013) Intuito Palimpsest (2014).
Jayne Amara Ross is a Franco-Australian spoken word artist and filmmaker. Navigating between the experimental and fiction genres, her filmmaking is most obviously characterised by her love of hand-processed analogue cinematography and live poetic narration. Since 2009, her films have been shown in various European festivals (Côté Court, Filmer La Musique, Les Rockomotives, Festival Signes de Nuit) and international galleries and museums (CCA Glasgow, MAMCS Strasbourg, la Cinémathèque Française, le 104, SixDogs Athens, ATK Hanoi, Bio Paradis Reykjavik) and she has toured France and the UK with FareWell Poetry, a live cinema collective of which she is the co-founder. In 2011 she was awarded a grant from Le Centre National des Arts Plastiques (France) and in 2013 she was selected to participate in The Weight of Mountains filmmaking residency in Northern Iceland. She has produced 7 films to date, two of which have been released on DVD in the UK. She is currently working on new film material and recording a second album with FareWell Poetry.
Filmography: Spákonufell (2014), Sans Manifeste (2014), Persephone II: The Wasteland of Drift-Limbs (2014), The Golden House: For Him I Sought the Woods (2011), The Freemartin Calf (2010), Persephone, A Soft Corpse Comfort (2010), As True As Troilus (2009), The Woman with the Severed Side (2005).