The Q&A session following the TIFF08 screening of Albert Serra's Birdsong (El Cant Dels Ocells) started off contentiously with one fellow pointedly asking Serra: "Why?" Mark Peranson who played Joseph in the film and joined Serra on stage after the screening, commented that the same question had been asked of them a couple of days previously and Serra decided the appropriate response was, "Why not?" Serra added goodnaturedly, "Why are you alive?" The fellow who asked the question would have none of it and angrily retorted Serra's response was not a fair answer. He insisted he had asked Serra a fair question and wanted Serra to give him a fair answer. The audience did not necessarily agree as the man's one-word question was drenched in critical accusation and—because he would not let go and was disrupting the Q&A session—Serra summarily responded with exaggerated confidence: "Because it's a masterpiece" and stressed that—long after the fellow was dead and gone and buried in his grave—his masterpiece of a film would live on. That earned him applause even as the man who asked the question sulked in silence.
The session stumbled forward with the next question coming from a woman who wondered why so much of the film was shot in darkness? Suffering no fools, Serra answered that every scene that was shot in darkness was because it was dark. He didn't use artificial light and—if he shot a scene at night in the desert—it was night in the desert.
I wanted to shift away from what was beginning to feel like an uncomfortable accusatorial atmosphere to the Q&A so I expressed my appreciation for Serra's unusual interpretation of the story of the Traveling Magi: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. The story of these three Wise Men—some say astrologers—who follow a star in the East until they arrive in Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus with tribute gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, was perhaps best promoted in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12). "Usually," I said, "when you think of this story, or the way this story has been presented to us through Matthew's narrative and Christian art over the years, it arrives overly-dramatized." By contrast, Serra's focus on the quotidian physicality of the protracted journey of the three wise men seemed intriguingly fresh to me, expressing the arduous vigil of their quest. Serra agreed that he wanted to approach the story differently. Most of the historical representations of the Traveling Magi are dramatized after the fact and he wanted to consider what it might have been like as it was happening. He wanted to strip away the theological overlay of thousands of years—which places the story of the Traveling Magi in direct service to the spiritual legitimization of the Christ Child—and return the story to original physical events. In some ways these original events have become heavy-laden with accrued narrative significance and Serra was interested in what some might perceive as the profane secular root of what was to later become one of the most lofty and sacred of Christmas tales. By choosing such simplicity and lack of narrative adornment, Serra—in effect—reduced or abstracted the legend to its essential poetry. He defended this choice. Too often in films Serra feels every image has to be perfectly understood and structurally connected to each preceding or following image. If you are reading a poem, however, each line does not necessarily connect specifically to the next one. Often the power of poetry lies in how it leaps from one image to the next. This might not work for a novel, but it works for a poem and he wanted his film to be more like a poem than a novel. Another fellow expressed how amazed he was that—with all the artificial drama stripped away—so much humanity shone forth.
Regarding the languages spoken in the film, Peranson responded that he was the only one who spoke in Hebrew, the others spoke in Catalan, and he and the other actors didn't understand each other. Their dialogue was thoroughly improvised. "It was an interesting experience, to say the least." This freeform approach to how the film was made day to day, including which scenes they chose to shoot, the looseness of the script—which essentially was a mere 35 pages, not in dialogue form—the improvisational development of the scenes rendered without cuts and with the cameras continually rolling, sometimes with Serra offering commentary, often times not, was all part of the unique experience. Serra qualified that—even though the actors may not have understood each others' languages—they did have a communication about what the scenes were intended to represent. Though there was much freedom and experimentation on the set, there were also very necessary directions in which the film was going, and the actors instinctively moved in those directions. Peranson added that—as in old silent films—communication was achieved through emotional literacy. By watching people's faces, their gestures, you knew what they were "saying" and expressing, even without language or—in their case—in spite of differing languages. Further, Serra commented, most of the actors he works with are non-actors so they couldn't be worked with like you would work with professional actors. They don't understand certain directorial terminology. In gist, the film was an achievement of the balance between freedom and necessity. In his review of the film for Cinema Scope, Robert Koehler wrote: "This is the Bazin root, alongside Catholic conviction and adherence to film's capacity for modern art-making, which is to find meaning and form out of a necessarily rough process that's very willing to stumble and make mistakes. In fact, errors are the point." (Cinema Scope, 35:55.)
"There was only one rule on the set," Serra stressed. "Never answer me. Never look at me. And never stop acting, never stop playing the role." He wanted his actors to react spontaneously, freely. Sometimes he would shout nonsensical instructions not so much to guide them as to purposely force reactions out of them, to force them to pull something natural up from within themselves under pressure of the reality of the set, with the cameras rolling. They might not know what they had to do but they knew they had to do something. Serra found this an interesting way to work because it's a real freedom, even for him. He didn't always know what would happen because he didn't always know what he wanted them to do and that uncertainty afforded intense reactions. Ultimately, he felt this matched the temper of the tale because, in truth, the Traveling Magi were true pioneers, making it up as they travelled along, just as the actors had to do also.
One young woman asked if walkouts surprised or upset Serra during screenings. He replied that he didn't mind. He doesn't blame spectators who don't like the film he has made; a film which admittedly—he, as a spectator—would want to watch. The bottom line is that it is the film he wanted to make, whether or not audiences receive it well.
Serra was asked why he chose to score the scene where the Magi encounter the Christ Child when music was not used anywhere else in the film? The title of the musical piece—cellist Pau (Pablo) Casals' "El Cant des ocells", which he adapted from a Catalan folk song—became the film's title. The encounter between the Traveling Magi and the Christ Child was a difficult moment to stage and—though he scored the film with the instrumental version of Casal's "El Cant des ocells"—the lyrics for the song tell the story: the Christ Child is born, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, all of nature is happy because Jesus is born. It seemed an appropriate piece of music for the moment.
After the Q&A session, Serra, Peranson and I got together for glasses of pinot grigio to discuss the film. As Albert Serra is a spirited conversationalist who speaks in a rip rap broken English, frequently repeating statements with ever rising levels of enthusiasm as if striving for the perfect pitch of enthusiasm, I've elected to forego my usual transcript mode for more of an essay format. Otherwise, he might sound downright crazy; even though—come to think of it—that's one of his most attractive qualities.
Confirming that—though the film was in black and white—it was shot on digital, I admired its look, which reminded me of the ethnographic photography of Mexican masters Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Flor Garduño and Mariana Yampolsky, characterized by tonalities defined by the desert's sharply-angled light. Desert's light is a poetic genre all to itself.
Serra had mentioned that—during the filming—Peranson had likewise been filming a "kind of making of" documentary, Waiting For Sancho. I wondered how they negotiated that? It wasn't a problem, Serra answered, because there was a lot of freedom on the set and Peranson was unobtrusive with his filming. No one really even knew he was making a making of documentary and no one really cared. Peranson added, "It was a small little camera. No one could tell. It was just a handycam I was shooting on."
I was curious about Serra's methodology in developing the film since—as he mentioned—there was no true script, only a 35-page guideline. I wondered how he achieved the look of the movie? Did he arrive on location and simply look around to see what was present to be filmed? Though there was much improvisation during shooting, Serra replied, there was equally much preparation before shooting, where the decisions were made about how the film would look. He did several tests on different cameras for color timing (though the film was printed in black and white) and explored different blow-up processes from digital to film. Though improvisational, the film was not accidental. A lot of work was accomplished before they arrived on location.
I commented that the film achieved an iconic stature through the use of low camera placement and asked if that had been his intention? Serra disagreed that the camera was placed low. First of all, there were two cameras shooting all the time. He suggested that, perhaps, what I was perceiving as low camera placement was actually more the strengths of the digital camera to be within the action, on foot level with the actors? Digital achieves an immediacy. The world of the digital camera is 360° and so, perhaps, my sensation of low camera placement was simply that the camera was in the middle of the landscape? Or perhaps what I perceived more, I offered, was that his compositions were consummately frontal, and thus iconic? That he agreed with. Others have said—and he agrees—that his compositions resemble Middle Age paintings. Perhaps that was the iconicity I was picking up on? Sometimes the digital plane is very flat, reducing perspective, and it creates the sensation in the viewer of being a witness. In that sense, Birdsong is like a gallery of paintings where the images might not literally connect but which—at the same time—can be read in a sequential narrative. It's like if you go to a church and see a sequence of paintings about, let's say, the passion of Christ via the stations of the cross.
Though Peranson has performed in some short films, acting in Birdsong was his first true acting experience and he's not really sure he'll ever act again, as "acting is not really my thing." Besides, if he were to act for someone else, he's aware it couldn't possibly be the same experience as acting for Albert Serra. Often he was sitting for hours with nothing to do except to pick up his camera to film what others were doing. Serra offered little direction and different languages were being spoken on set, which he couldn't understand. The experience was further surreal because he arrived on location at Fuerteventura and Tenerife 15 hours after intensively preparing for the Vancouver International Film Festival, which he programs. He was on location for five days and was basically in three scenes. There was a scene where the magi were at the top of a mountain looking at the clouds that lasted no more than a minute on the screen and which took nearly all day to film. That's why, Serra explained, Peranson's making-of documentary is called Waiting For Sancho. "Sancho" is the nickname they gave Lluís Serrat, who played the role of Sancho in Serra's previous film Honor de cavalleria (2006), his rendition of the story of Don Quixote. Serrat is stout and it took him considerable time to climb up the mountain. There were no cars to drive him there nor helicopters to lift him to the top of the mountain. Everyone got to the top way before him and had to, essentially, wait until he arrived before they could continue; thus, Waiting For Sancho. Peranson has detailed his experience in the Summer issue of Cinema Scope ("As High As the Eagles: On the Set of El Cant dels Ocells", 35:57-58) and, of course, through his own film Waiting For Sancho.
Pursuing my appreciation of the film's physicality, Serra confirmed that he prefers to shoot outdoors. He hates indoor shooting. One of his idols is John Ford who—when asked why he liked to shoot westerns—responded that he liked to shoot in the countryside where you can hang out with friends, eat together, work hard together, and sleep like a baby at night. It was exhausting to shoot Birdsong. They would wake at 6:00 in the morning, have to walk two hours to get to location, and then have to wait another hour for Sancho to arrive.
Birdsong further reminded me of Brueghel's painting of the Fall of Icarus, in that this tragic event is framed within an immense, indifferent landscape. In fact, when you look at Brueghel's painting of the Fall of Icarus, it's hard to locate the falling Icarus. He's diminutive by contrast to all that's going on in the painting. I felt Serra was striving for something comparable in Birdsong. His landscapes are immense and often the magi are nothing more than three little stick figures moving across hills. This was the challenge Serra set for himself. He wanted the film to be like a poem and—though frequently poetry can be achieved by close-ups on facial expressions—he wanted instead to create a poetry of distance and duration. I commented that his usage of time was interesting. Instead of using dissolves to abbreviate the passage of time, Serra elected to simulate real time with long takes. Peranson qualified that there weren't that many long takes in the film, just the one really long sequence where the wisemen are walking over the hills, which Robert Koehler describes as "almost like an Aboriginal walkabout." I mentioned that—during the screening—people started laughing at that sequence because there was something comic about its neverending quality. In fact, Serra responded, the take had actually been longer. He actually did cut it down and only because the camera accidentally moved to follow the actors. Perhaps he could have cut it down even further; but, the fact is that he himself loves to observe long takes where attention shifts into meditation. I offered that I think why the audience laughed was because the sense was that the wisemen were lost and were actually walking around in circles. There was something hilariously profane about that. Where was their sacred certainty? Where was the star to guide them?
Following up on the one woman's question about why so much of the film was dark, Serra added that it made sense to him that the Three Wisemen would have been traveling at night, when it was cool and when they could be guided by the star, rather than during the heat of the day. And yet, I countered, you presented the sun as the star emerging from the fog, which I found an interesting idea; the sun is, after all, a star. This is the richness of imagery, Serra stressed. Why did he use the sun as the star? Who knows why? Again, it's like poetry. It doesn't make any sense to read a poem and question, "Why this line?" Not all the lines have a perfect meaning or a closed meaning. He had them following the sun because he liked the light and it led into the next scene where the building was lit by the light. It was a visual aesthetic. Interestingly enough, Peranson shot the same sequence in his documentary without knowing it was going to be in Serra's film. They both responded to the light and the sun appearing through the fog like a star. Maybe the Biblical narrative got it wrong? Maybe the Traveling Magi were following the sun the whole time?
In the press notes for the film, Serra said something I liked. He said Birdsong was not a film about faith but about faith in the film, which he confirmed. To counter all that is potentially gratuitous in a film, you have to have faith that it will express something spiritual or artistic. It's an abstract approach to filmmaking. By comparison, if you view a painting by Mark Rothko, for example, you have to have faith that there's something important there to perceive. Maybe it's all blue or all red and yet you know he intends something by it. In 20 seconds you take the painting in and, without faith, you are lost; it means nothing to you. But the ability to have faith—what Carlos Castañeda used to call "having to believe"—is, perhaps, the gist of the religious impulse.
I asked how the two of them got hooked up together? Peranson explained that Serra had come to the Vancouver International with his first film and they became friends. When I asked why Serra wanted to cast Peranson as Joseph, he said it was because he worked for free. In Serra's mind, Peranson looked like he could be St. Joseph and—when Peranson arrived on location—he reminded Serra that he was Jewish and could speak Hebrew, so they decided to use it.
Being that he worked in digital, I asked Serra how much footage he had to work with? With the two cameras, eight days of shooting, he came up with about 110 hours of footage. Of that, there were 35 hours of footage with sound. How did he then shape it in the editing room? That, Serra replied, is difficult to explain. It's a question of sensibility. He does his own editing. With his first film he gave the rushes to a professional editor who returned with something very stupid so—because of that experience—Serra realized he needs to do the editing himself, which he did on Birdsong, albeit with the assistance of his friend Àngel Martin who spent equal time on location.
Talking about faith, Serra never used a playback monitor on location and it wasn't until he sat down to edit that he actually discovered the film. In all humility, however, he emphasized that's exactly how the masters did it. They didn't have cameras that allowed instant playback. They had to rely on faith and hope the rushes would prevail. Buñuel, John Ford, Ozu, never knew what they had until the editing room. Peranson countered that he believed they watched daily rushes. Serra remained unconvinced that while shooting in the desert John Ford had the opportunity to view daily rushes. I sent them to their respective corners by saying we could research all of that later. The value of not watching a monitor while making a film is that you feel the film, Serra continued. Besides, even when he sits down in the editing room to look at footage, sometimes he likes an image early in the week only to reject it later in the week. What would be the worth of correcting oneself on a daily basis on set?
Peranson articulated that the value of shooting on location without a monitor is that the boundary between shooting and not shooting completely vanishes. There's no "action", no "cut", no direction even. The other day when he was watching Birdsong, Peranson thought that in a way the film is also about filmmaking. When he was editing his own Waiting For Sancho, he realized how much the film approximated the reality of filmmaking. When Serra directed the actors to walk to the top of the mountain to look at the clouds because they were beautiful, it followed that when the actors were being filmed they said, "Look at the clouds; they're so beautiful." The experience of how the film is being made is what you experience watching the film.
Photo of Albert Serra courtesy of Mark Peranson, Cinema Scope. Cross-published on Twitch.