Ann OrenPiaffe: Interview with Ann Oren Maria Giovanna Vagenas January 2023 Interviews Issue 104 Piaffe, Ann Oren’s astonishing first feature film presented in competition at Locarno Film Festival 2022, bestows us with that same enchantment that early cinema viewers must have experienced going to the movies. Theatre of the marvellous, Piaffe seduces us in a gender-fluid, colourful world, where the human merges with the animal, exploring the mysterious universe of flora, while cinema itself is celebrated through the beautiful handiwork of a Foley artist. The film’s curtain opens up with an invitation to watch: we only see two brass circles in front of us, the eyepieces of some sort of old-fashioned binoculars. All we need to do is get nearer and take a closer look. Our expectations will not be dashed; the film will take us on a visceral journey through a series of fantastic events involving submission and control, sexuality and transformation, madness and pleasure. The protagonist of this tale is Eva, a slender girl, with long black hair and a shy, furtive look whom we see right away in charge of a Fotoplastikon. Halfway between a cabinet of curiosities and a scientific instrument, this antique machinery allows us to observe suggestive images of ferns. We are immediately wrapped up in the film’s distinctive atmosphere, old-fashioned and contemporary at the same time, imaginary but anchored in reality, playful yet earnest. Two crucial characters cross Eva’s path: Zara, her sibling, a charismatic non-binary Foley artist admitted to a psychiatric clinic after a nervous breakdown due to his work; and the botanist Novak, who will eventually become her sexual partner. Called upon to replace her sibling from one moment to the next, Eva finds herself bound to create the sound for the advertisement of a drug named Equily, a mood stabiliser, which causes devastating side-effects. Piaffe The core of the film is to be found here, in the soundless image of this advertisement in which an elegant horsewoman performs, with a splendid steed, a difficult and ambitious dressage step called Piaffe. Distantly echoing Muybridge’s Horse in Motion, this hypnotic sequence, endlessly playing, becomes Eva’s obsession. We’ll see her obstinately struggle with all sorts of objects: coconut halves, shoes, boxing gloves, a chain between her teeth, trying to imitate the sound of the horse’s hooves on the sand, the noise of its reins, its breathing. Despite her efforts, no one gives her any credit. Coy and insecure, Eva gets yelled at by the director of the commercial, suffers aggression from her mentally ill sibling Zara, yet she doesn’t give up and sets off in search of sensations and life experiences in a summery Berlin. Her quest is a sensory trip that we vividly sense through the accuracy of the soundscape, the palpable feel of each and every image. Her hand caressing a horse’s shining hide, her feet doggedly imitating the horse’s dance steps in a club, her teeth obstinately biting a vegetable, are small steps in search for the right sound. Determined to succeed, she increasingly identifies with the horse until her body begins to change. More curious than scared when she finds out that a tail is growing on her back, Eva starts living with it, slowly adapting to this radical transformation and finally accepting a long black tail as shiny as her hair. Like a modern-day centaur, the tail makes her different from everyone else but, ultimately, gives her strength and sensuality, allowing her to redefine, according to her own rules, her relationships with others and her scope in life. In a game where submission turns out to be the key to control, Eva grows to become her true self. Piaffe Formally daring yet delicate and touching, Piaffe’s unconventional coming of age story is simply brilliant. With a wildly imaginative and perfectly controlled mise en scène, Oren creates a unique, mesmerising setting that excites our minds and frees our senses. Everything seems effortless, yet there is a striking mastery in each and every detail; the images are grainy and wonderfully sculpted in 16mm, while the pace of the editing perfectly matches the rhythm of Eva’s compulsive dance steps and is heightened by an impressive soundtrack. Colours and objects are fine-tuned. Following a fascinating red-blue pattern: Zara’s phone is red, while the thread Novak employs to tie ferns is blue as it is the cord he uses for Eva’s bondage. Again, the beautiful roses Eva offers to her lover in a swan-shaped vase are red. In this multisensory vortex, dialogues mostly give way to a non-verbal, intuitive, tactile almost animal-like communication. Amidst references to early cinema and borrowings from pop culture, Oren details Eva’s adventures with brio and mastery, in a Berlin painted with quick, confident brushstrokes. The cool brightness of the summer streets, the beauty of a horseshoe-shaped park, the lush ambience of a greenhouse, the jarring journey of the tram, all converge in the city’s glorious club nights where, at last, Eva’s transformed body dances wildly in a joyful trance. Piaffe‘s hypnotic journey immerses us in an intimacy made up of vital lymph and sexual impulses, where plants, animals, and humans mysteriously reconnect with one another to celebrate life, offering us one of the greatest cinematic experiences in a long time. The interview with Ann Oren took place in Locarno, where the film was awarded the Youth Jury Prize. – MGV Could you describe your artistic journey? What initially drew you to the visual arts, and how did you make the transition to your first feature film? Cinema actually drew me to the visual arts. When I was 18, I lived in Paris for a few months and discovered the little cinemas on Rue des Écoles showing cult films and I started watching films almost every day. I remember being blown away by Eraserhead (Lynch) and The Doom Generation (Araki) for example. It was always matinees. I think that’s where I really fell in love with the cinematic experience. Later I studied film, but at the time I was looking to create an experience that would consider the viewer’s body as well, and stayed away from narrative. So, I was making video artworks and video installations in space, featuring characters who exist in the liminal space between performers and audience. Through them I was asking questions on intimacy, identity, subjective realities and explored phenomena like ficto-sexuality (attraction to fictional characters), animality, and other forms of hybridiSation. But at some point, I had an idea for a narrative film that I hadn’t seen before, putting the spotlight on a Foley artist. I just had to make it. I wanted to make a film where I would work with the body of the person in the cinema in order to tell the story, to make it a really visceral journey, for the story to stay with their bodies afterwards, and to work with sound in order to get such a narration across. Viewers understand image manipulation when they see it, but with sound, it’s sneakier, it creeps in, which is the power of Foley. Where did the idea and the inspiration for Piaffe come from? Foley artists always fascinated me. I like how they use their bodies to create sounds, this beautiful handwork, in order to convince the viewer that what they are watching on the screen – is real. One day I had an idea to make a film about a Foley artist that is not creating sounds for a person but rather for a horse and I started writing a story about it. I’m interested in the female-horse connection and also in the psychology of rider-horse in dressage. I wanted to explore this kind of submission theatre that I see between a person and an animal and how it just looks like a dance between the two. I was researching these themes, but because my background is that of a visual artist, I didn’t know exactly how to go about getting a feature film produced and how to start. I just began writing a script and later working with another screenwriter: Thais Guisasola. I did a lot of research and talked to several Foley artists about their process. I thought that maybe the best way to start would be with a short film that I could produce myself. So Passage (13 min, 16 mm, 2020) which is a short film and an installation, was developed in parallel. For Passage I had some audio-visual concepts in mind that you see in Piaffe as well: the Foley artist who dissolves into their own work, embodying the horse’s sound, and created an intimacy between the two through the use of sound. Being a shorter format, Passage didn’t have to be bound to a narrative. That’s how I began. For Piaffe I had to convince people to work with me, because I’ve never done a narrative feature before, and the script was unconventional. It was an unusual proposal but luckily all the right people jumped on board. Piaffe Simon(e) Jaikiriuma Paetau, the splendid non-binary protagonist of Passage, is one of the main characters of Piaffe as well. Simon(e)’s beautiful movements and body have a very strong magnetism. Were they your choice from the very beginning? Actually, in both films, while writing, I didn’t have particular performers in mind. It was more abstract. I just let my imagination go. I work rather impulsively so from the first moment I thought about Passage until the moment it was literally ‘in the can’ it took about two months. It all happened really fast! I knew that Passage was essentially going to be the portrait of a horse’s body and of a Foley artist’s body, so I was looking for somebody who would have a distinct style of movement and a unique presence. I actually met Simon(e) Paetau though my co-author Thais Guisasola. The two made a film together called The Whisper of the Jaguar in 2018, so I saw them first in their film and later we met by chance as we both live in Berlin. I admired their strong presence, a magical mix of wild animality and elegant burlesque glamour, so charming! Casting is all about intuition, I guess. When it came to casting Piaffe later, I realised that Simon(e) is Zara, since Piaffe is a kind of sequel for Passage. Then we had to cast Eva of course and it took us quite a while to find somebody as special as Simone Bucio for the role. Simone Bucio’s performance as Eva is restrained, elegant, and deeply moving. She moves with almost animal grace, delivering a truly breathtaking performance. She is fascinating and she was an inspiration from the very beginning. As I said before, I believe that casting is all about intuition. For the role of Eva it was a long active search, nobody felt right. When I saw Simone Bucio’s picture I was immediately intrigued. When we first met and started talking about Eva, I found her analysis of the character and of the story itself so profound, it was an immediately inspiring process. It was very clear that she is my Eva. She somehow completed a puzzle, because you can only write a character to a certain point. After meeting Simone, the character became complete. Working scene by scene, she never ceased to amaze me. And she does it somehow effortlessly, which makes her so powerful. Eva’s male counterpart, the botanist Novak, is also a distinct character who fits in perfectly with her peculiar world. How did you come up with this role? I needed to build a character that could fit with Eva’s eccentricity. Somebody with seductive qualities, but not in an obvious way, and I thought of a botanist, an expert in the studies of ferns. As Eva doesn’t communicate much with words, I had a feeling that with a plant researcher there would be a strong initial attraction. Novak is the only one that really acknowledges Eva’s transformation and helps her on the road of self-discovery, even if, at the end, she outgrows him. Piaffe Piaffe begins showing the Fotoplastikon, an early motion picture machine consisting of a rotating circular wood structure that seated multiple spectators who looked through a pair of lenses at a line of silent glass slides. What prompted you to create this scene? I just happened to visit the Fotoplastikon once and the cinematic potential hit me immediately. Ideas for scenes were coming to my mind because I just started developing Piaffe at the time. The Fotoplastikon made me think of the origin of cinema, perfect for Eva’s psychological journey in the film working with horse footage, which throws us to Edweard Muybridge of course and his pre-cinematic studies of the image in motion, featuring a horse. The Fotoplastikon appears three times in the film. The option of going inside the circle holding the slideshow, breaking the “show” and Eva becoming the main act herself, was natural to accompany her coming of age with the tail. It was just the perfect setting for her. It’s intriguing to see Eva, who will battle body and spirit to create sounds throughout the film, as the manager of this machinery showing silent images. She is just its gatekeeper. It’s a simple mechanism to operate, a quiet job with a magical old device. She is rather silent herself so it works well as an introduction to her character. Becoming a Foley artist later she has to bring images to life with sound, which she creates with her own body, so we move slowly with her and with cinema history, in the process of making image and sound which create a spectacle together. Where did these enigmatic plant images we see through the Fotoplastikon come from? We shot some of them, some are found and then manipulated but they were not archival. We shot in the Botanical Gardens in Berlin, where there are the most amazing fern-houses. Why did you concentrate on ferns in particular? Originally, I wanted to create a visual parallel between the horse and the plant. When the dressage horse is in full submission to the rider, he curls his neck down and the rider loosens the contact in the horse’s mouth; there’s a submission agreement, so to speak. This is why I was looking for a plant that would recall that neck curl. Ferns grow out of coils. So, at first, it was a visual parallel. But also, the sexuality of ferns is curious: with both male and female parts, they’re like self-fertilising hermaphrodites, so I thought it was an interesting choice for Novak, who later becomes enchanted with the transforming Eva and also in order to think of gender beyond the human characters. The visual centrepiece of the movie – a commercial for a mood-stabilizer called “Equili” featuring a dressage horse and his rider – is a brief soundless scene that loops indefinitely. What is its purpose? The commercial is an absurd catalyst to Eva’s journey to create Foley for a horse and then embodying it. Cinema making is a lot about control, and so are many systems explored in the film, mood stabilisers for instance. They can help those who truly suffer, but are also way too easily prescribed to just about anyone as a quick fix, and are such a contemporary product as a result. What is that doing to society? By having the protagonist of the commercial a horse, it makes Eva’s persistence both absurd and charming. And it is funny of course, the commercial. How did you design the space of the Foley studio? This place feels familiar yet we end up getting lost in it. It was a real apartment that we dressed to double as a Foley Studio because I wanted the studio to be inside her home so that life and Foley work will melt together naturally. She is woken up from bed at the beginning; Zara’s boss is calling her, yelling at her, the job is not done. In fact, she is forced to fill in for Zara, still in her pyjamas, jumping on the task. I think today a lot of freelancers can identify with jumping from bed straight to work. As she gets more into the task, the Foley studio becomes a mess and looks more like a stable. Piaffe Piaffe emphasises the vital bond that exists between women and horses. How did this interesting perspective come to be? All the horse stables we visited were full of mostly women. I was interested in the woman-horse dynamic and in the psychology of dressage riders, their non-normativity by being the horses’ leaders and caretakers at the same time. I say caretakers because they often get the opportunity to ride a horse through the act of caretaking, because riding is a pretty expensive hobby, so they groom someone’s horse and then they get a chance to ride. This is a common entry point to this world. And then they ride and lead the horse; a woman on a horse becomes a much stronger body and moves differently together. This you have to do in order to understand. The actual dressage riding looks very elegant from the outside, but it requires a very fine athletic skill. The rider makes it look like an effortless dance. But it’s far from simple. As a result of the unending repetition of ever-similar actions to match the sound to the image of the horse, Zara experiences a psychotic episode of dissociation while Eva, on the contrary, undergoes an intimate process of transformation. This dual viewpoint is intriguing. Eva has to fill Zara’s shoes as a Foley artist, following a nervous breakdown resulting from their Foley work. During my research for the film, one Foley artist told me that when a Foley artist first starts out, they can experience a psychotic episode because they spend so much time in a completely controlled silent room, building a soundscape layer by layer by layer, and when they step out into the street, they cannot handle the cacophony of sounds that surround them. It’s overpowering. The sibling’s relationship is woven through the Foley work. Eva has to go through the process of working as a Foley artist and experiences a loss of her sense of reality as well. Zara, while subverting normative power structures from within the hospital, is a kind of an alter-ego, an ethereal guide for Eva. So, Zara could be seen as a figment of Eva’s imagination, a side effect of the Foley work itself. I leave that to the imaginary. The two are deeply intertwined any way you look at it. There are quite a few constructs of control in the film. What is the reason for this? I am interested in control structures where the controlled one is fully aware and willing to be in that position. That’s what the film plays with all the time. Eva is discovering her sense of self in front of the outside world, constantly noticing such structures. Who is in control of whom, which is never a clear-cut answer in Piaffe. I’m interested in power dynamics and how they can shift, be subverted or played with between individuals. For example, her tail that is a sign of submission also gives her a lot of power to dominate. You seem to highlight Eva’s desire to be submissive. She is not submissive. She plays with submission. Part of the inspiration was coming from the actual Piaffe movement in dressage, in which a horse trots in place. This term comes from the days of horseback battle when the rider wanted to keep the horse trotting in place and ready to go, in a constant state of excitement. Submission can be turned into a game of controlling your own pleasure as well. Not being the one in motion does not always mean loss of control. In BDSM games for example, the submissive person is always the one in control and the erotic pleasure comes from being looked at. In the beginning, she is read as weak, incompetent, difficult, submissive but later we can see that she has a lot of power over most of the other characters actually. Zara is non-binary, while Eva, although we perceive her as being very female, grows a horse tail that can be easily seen as a phallic symbol. What is your perspective on gender? Is Eva a woman? She’s confused and also trying to figure out what this means to her. Even with her courtship style of Novak, she twists normative gender roles. It’s a part of her coming of age. Zara is non-binary first because Simon(e) is fluid and I embraced that into the character while casting, because it was suitable for being Eva’s guiding force. If Zara were a binary person, it would have given Eva a too specific “gender effective position” as a guiding force. So it perfectly supports Eva’s journey. Beyond gender, sexuality is a major issue for the plant kingdom as well in Piaffe. Indeed, this is why I chose the ferns in the story. Novak explains to Eva that: “Ferns have a complex sexuality. A fern plant produces spores. A spore enters the soil and grows into a gametophyte. This gametophyte produces both eggs and sperms. A sperm fertilises an egg, which then grows into the fern plant. Our concepts of male and female are insufficient to understand ferns.” Verbal communication is kept to a bare minimum. The three main characters in the film, the siblings and the botanist Novak, primarily communicate through intuition, in an almost animalistic manner. It is a fascinating take. It’s a film about the body, about bodily sensations, intuitions, that are so important for the way we make choices. Why do we choose one route over another, one person over another, one decision over another. Speaking of gut feelings basically, they make us “who we are”. We cannot explain them and that’s what makes them thrilling. They are our unique narrative. Considering that our bodies are turning into blobs in front of screens these days, I wanted to bring back the viewer’s body. I wanted the viewer to feel this film with their bodies more than to understand it logically, and this is also how the characters act. It’s a visceral journey which is the strongest effect a film can create in my opinion. And Foley sounds are a major tool to make this possible, they define the particular subjectivity of the character, that you just need to experience in order to understand. It cannot be explained in words. It’s art. We see Eva dancing in a club once at the beginning and once at the end of her transformational journey. Her body totally conveys everything of her misery and longing. Eva is constantly looking at this Piaffe and needs to create an appropriate sound for it, but she doesn’t know where to start. She looks at the looping images. She recognises something like the techno clubbers’ motion in it and then she goes to the club in order to do a certain study of motion with her own body. There she discovers a feeling, like being in an alternate universe, where the outside world doesn’t exist. A club can be a place for self-discovery, or of bodily discovery if you surrender to the music; this is why in the end Eva’s own transformation peaks where she finds herself again in the techno club. In the closing scene, Zara or, most likely, Zara’s phantom, shaves off Eva’s magnificent horse tail. Why? More important than being magnificent, the tail is her sense of otherness, of being different, of not belonging. There is an odd stem under the beautiful tail hair. I don’t want to say anymore because I don’t want to limit your imagination. Your choice to film in 16mm is perfectly in tune with Piaffe’s almost tactile feel. With the reference to Muybridge, the horse, the Foley artist, the Fotoplastikon, I could not have possibly shot this film on video! Also, film is very visceral, its grain brings a more tactile feel. Watching Piaffe, you feel like something is organically sculpted in front of your eyes, enhanced by the sound work of course. Piaffe’s visual universe is sharp, polished, and has striking colour contrasts. Red and cobalt blue run throughout the film. A video journal you created in 2019 called Blue (4:30 min) also revolves around cobalt blue. It started intuitively – blue is related to Eva and red related to Zara, visualising their duality. Making a film I’m painting in motion. Nothing is random. Sometimes there were light leaks in the film material as well. I embraced them, exposing the materiality of film that I love and I used them dramatically, especially the red light leaks to highlight Zara’s spirit, even when Zara is not in the scene but comes to Eva’s mind. In Blue my video journal, which comes from an ongoing artwork series I make, video sketches responding to social media culture, the blue colour is used differently; it is a protagonist. It brings nature and lunacy indoors and into a person’s body and psyche, through the computer screen. In that case blue came from both the light spilling out of screens into space while we consume media, and from ink originally used to write stories, so it’s about sedating oneself with fiction. How did you work on the movie’s remarkable soundtrack and sound design, which is crucial to the story of Piaffe? The sound concept was clear from the beginning, so we had amazing production sound and later some scenes were enhanced with Foley. I had to direct the Foley artists in order to get something specific, especially for everything related to the tail, to find the right sensibility and to establish that it is Eva’s story, her experience with a changing body leading the plot. It’s amazing how this can be finely established with Foley. The techno music was planned already on the script level, and these tracks I discovered while editing and became obsessed with from the musician äbvsd. They were used to enhance Eva’s excitement in some scenes. This clean hard techno operates like an intense heartbeat pumping her blood. Also, the cello theme I came to because its bow is made of horsetail hairs and the instrument’s sound added an anxiety that is also a part of her transformation process, and the musician Munsha improvised on the theme magnificently. What is your approach to editing? How to explain this… I see editing like sculpting with images. As first you follow the script, and then you throw the script out the window and discover what it’s really all about for you. It wasn’t a rational process. Which directors have most influenced your artistic work? Jan Švankmajer, and Maya Deren certainly. Buñuel and Michael Haneke too. Your future plans? I’m currently writing my next feature film. It has to do with the act of touching.