Perhaps one of the most pronounced examples of—as Variety's Jonathan Holland phrased it—"biting the festival hand that feeds you", José Luis Guerín eschewed the insularly spectacular dimension of the many international film festivals to which he and Sylvia were invited in exchange for actively chancing the discovery of his next film on the streets of various cities, predominantly from the Global South. His discoveries—often desultory, frequently provocative, and now and again incandescent—have been bookended between two editions of the Venice Film Festival, starting off in 2007 in a hotel room where he and Sylvia's lead actresses prepare for their premiere and rounding up the following year with cineaste Chantal Akerman denouncing the separation between documentary and fiction films; in effect, pounding the hybrid nail into the documentary coffin and confirming—perhaps not so indirectly—Guest's structural experiment.
Guest (2010)—Guerín's evocation of global disenfranchisement—resounds with a heady balance of musicality and cacophony as life-affirming musicians compete against life-denying evangelists for audiences while poets rant, drunkards dance, and local political issues are chastened through populist debate in public squares. "Such a beautiful noise, rising up from the street," the lyric goes and it rings in the ear during the film's aerial silences which hyphenate Guerín's journey between destinations, providing a reprieve where all that has been said, sung and shouted at him (and us) can settle into cloud-induced contemplation.
Guest's critical reception at its North American premiere at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival was affectionate but ambivalent. The film's length (133 minutes) and Guerín's preoccupation with giving voice to a broad swath of the world's dispossessed left some viewers weary and restless. Fernando Croce dispatched to Slant: "The trouble with Guerín's evocative two-hour diary is that, attempting to convey a feeling of life continuously swarming away from the confines of festivals, it reveals a dearth of concern for specific subjects that turns the faces and places into an amorphous mass." At MUBI, Daniel Kasman expressed concern that Guerín may have "confused the reality of these places and these people with the poetry of the project." By contrast, I found Guerín's editing assured and the poetic thrust of his experiment fully aligned with the social reality of his subjects. We met to talk about his effort. My thanks to Stephen Lan for setting me up with Guerín.
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Michael Guillén: José Luis, I have read again and again your essay "Work In Progress" published at Rouge; the transcript of a talk you gave at a colloquium "Cinema and Thought: The Filmic Essay" held in Madrid in August 2003. Within that essay, especially in your appreciation of the early silent cinema comedians—namely, Charlie Chaplin—you stated: "All those comedians shot, of course, without a screenplay. However, their first screenplay was architecture." You quoted Chaplin as saying that all he needed to make a film was for some small construction to be built. "If I have a door and a window," Chaplin asserted, "I can do several things."
This basic insight that directing arises from an architectural basis resonates with me. Especially since lately I have been fascinated with various practices of cinematic citation, wherein movies are quoted within movies, or—more exact to my point—whereby movies are constructed from the building blocks of other movies. You could say cinematic citation is itself a form of architecture and that movies are formed—informed—by the movies that have come before them. You've admitted your love for Chaplin. You've admitted your love for the Lumiere Brothers. How much have these films served to architect your own films by way of influence and homage?
José Luis Guerín: It might be pretentious to say my films have been influenced by the art of Charlie Chaplin, though I can honestly say he educated my imagination. Chaplin's films were my first contact with the cinema and this was within a familial context because I went to see his films with my father. I'm not conscious of being influenced by these great filmmakers but they have been my sentimental education; they showed me the world. They influenced me more as a human being than as a filmmaker.
Guillén: I guess what I'm trying to ascertain is if one of the practices of cinematic citation is the relationship between an informing influence and a subsequent sense of homage, whether directly or indirectly? Perhaps that's too vague? In the more traditional sense of cinematic citation, your usage of the introductory monologue to A Portrait of Jennie (1948) to evoke your festival experience of Manhattan struck me as a rather brilliant use of cinematic citation.
Guerín: I had a problem seeing New York and its people: precisely because of the cinematic image of New York that I have from movies like A Portrait of Jennie. As a guest at their film festival for three or four days, I felt separated from knowing the real New York. There are times when I hope that cinema works towards a better understanding of the world, of life; but, sometimes cinema—in its crazy wisdom—suggests the opposite, suggests alienation. Sometimes cinema capsizes into cinephilic fetishism. When I was in New York, I couldn't see New York; I could only see these images from old movies.
Guillén: And it's that precedent that I'm calling cinematic citation and wondering how you use those precedents to construct your films?
Guerín: Ah, now I understand what you're asking. I have made two films in the way you are suggesting. One was Innisfree (1990), which explored the filming of John Ford's The Quiet Man (1952). The other was Tren de Sombras (Train of Shadows, 1997), which explored the origins of cinema: both were dialogues with a precedent.
Guillén: In Guest, I was impressed with the running theme of the evangelists you filmed in many of the countries you visited. Can you speak to what you were thinking or feeling with regard to them?
Guerín: Guest is a film I made without preconceived notions. At the beginning I shot everything, absolutely everything. Little by little, the footage I shot started showing me its own limitations as well as its different possibilities until—by film's end—only certain single images were truly possible. When I started seeing recurrent elements occurring within different cities, it suggested a structure or composition for the film. Because there were themes or motifs in the film that kept occurring, this was what made me realize that I actually had a film and not just a catalogue of possible films.
I noticed transversal relationships that were provided within different scenes. I was surprised by these various Biblical stories that were occurring within the footage and how in a way they led me to the city of Jerusalem, the source of these stories. Images of the Biblical Flood, as well as ideas of portraiture, were elements that continued to appear and became increasingly relevant. Certain words, certain images, continued as leitmotifs throughout the film. For example, throughout the film religion is expressed through different readings, different levels, different layers. On one hand, the film's subjects are just storytellers and Guest features many street poets and storytellers. They're narrators who could be thought of as the alter-ego of myself as the filmmaker. But on the other hand, some are narrators who inspire fear in the heart of the people and at such times only drunk people talk back to them, such that the spectator begins to feel that reason is on the side of the drunks. Guest supports the idea that what is "right" is aligned with those who are fragile. In other cities, how my subjects speak about religion is more poetic or a description of something they grab onto in a desperate situation; but, they're all the same stories even though their meanings continually change as you start hearing them from different perspectives.
Guillén: Guest exhibits a warm appreciation of the Global South and its essay approach stands in an intriguing contrast to films from the Global South programmed into an international festival like Toronto's, which—for better or worse—indulge Westernized narratives. I admired that your film allowed the everyday people of these countries to speak for themselves.
Returning to the idea of homage as one of the practices of cinematic citation, I felt that your love for the Lumiere Brothers was expressed through how you physically carried a small digital camera around with you at all times so you could more easily achieve an egalitarian approach to your subjects. Like the Lumiere Brothers, you evened the playing field between filmmaker and subject and—as you mentioned in last night's Q&A session—you became a character in your own film. In your opinion, is the role of the filmmaker not to separate from his subject?
Guerín: That is a question particularly suited for Guest. It's a question that concerns solidarity. For me it was the practice of solidarity to be with them and it was difficult for me because I am critical of myself and didn't want to put my own voice, let's say, into the film. It was more important for me to see and listen to what these people were telling me as a guest in their lives. I'm not a specialist in sociology, ethnology or politics; I'm just a guest. I listened with curiosity to the stories told me under the guise of looking for material for my next movie.
Sometimes in some movies it's true that the mere act of speaking to others is equivalent to making cinema. You can see that very well, for example, in Pier Paolo Pasolini's documentary Comizi d'amore (1965) where the dialogue of the interviews between Pasolini and his subjects possess a certain tempo. A filmmaker provokes a situation with an "other" which possesses an itinerary and a sequential sense of dialogue. You can pose or insert a question to connect one moment with another moment in the movie. There are syntactical practices in making a movie where a filmmaker can reconsider the dialogue. This sense of conversing with subjects and creating a dialogue to make a movie is opposed to interruptive commentary or even silence on the part of the filmmaker; but, all these semantic considerations are cinema, really. As a filmmaker, it's not possible to delegate this to, let's say, a journalist because the filmmaker is making a movie with the words, he is looking for characters and imagining his movie.
Guillén: Speaking only for myself, the importance of your dialogue with the people of the Global South is its specific reminder to audiences in the North of the necessity of solidarity. Not that we ask them to speak in narratives that comfort us in our international film festivals; but that we allow ourselves perhaps a necessary discomfort in listening to their narratives. Even if we sometimes don't understand them. As in the scene with the Palestinian boys where you literally did not have a translator and were attempting communication through hand signals. Can you talk about filming that sequence?
Guerín: Those boys are the children of people who have lost their lands. This situation was particularly unique in that, as you say, I did not have a translator to help me communicate with them. It was only later while I was editing the film that the scene was translated for me and I realized what they had actually been trying to say to me at the time. Though clearly with Spanish-speaking people I have a closer communication, I nonetheless enjoyed leaving these scenes of miscommunication within the film as part of the film's focus on communication.
Those Palestinian children have lost their homes, their classrooms, their space you might say, and this seemed to me to be a common theme throughout the film, throughout the many countries I visited, of people who have been displaced from their original homes and lands. One of the things that I found most interesting as the filmmaker of this film is that many of the subjects with whom I made contact came from rural backgrounds even though I was talking to them in the cities. This seemed to reflect a global cultural theme of the loss of the rural lifestyle, the provoked migration to the cities, and the creation of individuals who are neither city dwellers nor people from the country; they have become outsiders to both realms. This is something I came to after working on the film that the characters I felt closest to were those in this situation. Metaphorically speaking, this is also something interesting about the film because I too was in the role of an outsider, moving in and out of frame. Although from a comfortable bourgeois position, I was the same type of character as the subjects in my film.
Guillén: I found it particularly interesting that the Palestinian boys had collapsed their understanding of cinema into a television broadcast. Can you speak to that?
Guerín: Of course. It's a paradox. These children have never had contact with cinema projected on a screen in a theater. Their entire experience of cinema has been to watch television. When the boys realized I was making a movie, they kept saying to me, "We are cinema"; not, "We go to the cinema." This is unfortunate. Because going to the cinema is as huge an emotion as going to church. The projected image is sacred and the collective experience of this sacred image in shared silence is an emotional experience. It's a sense of partaking in communion and becoming a community. That shared silence is wonderful.
Guillén: I wish you could attend San Francisco's Silent Film Festival where that emotional experience is brilliantly enunciated. In fact, the Castro Theatre in which the festival is venued is a historical landmark and is often affectionately called "The Church" by San Franciscan cinephiles.
What further amused me (in an uncomfortable way) about the Palestinian boys was their insistence on wanting to know when they could watch themselves as cinema. As a filmmaker keen to the realities of film production and distribution, you responded that they might be able to watch themselves in two years, whereas they were expecting a more immediate turnabout and thought you meant that the film would go "live" at two. They wanted to know if you meant two in the morning or two in the afternoon. That miscommunication about the very meaning of cinema was fascinating to me.
Guerín: And I didn't understand this until later when I was editing the movie. What I realized later was that what was important to those boys was access. With Guest, most of the characters of the movie came to the camera. It wasn't really me looking for characters. People saw me with a camera and they came to me. In that context, that's probably why mainly poor people approached me because they were the ones most hungry to be listened to. They were people without a voice.
Guillén: Which is what I consider the most important lesson of your film: the need to listen. Another recent concern of mine is trying to understand exactly what constitutes a "contemporary" film. Can you speak to that?
Guerín: I don't know what constitutes a contemporary film. I have some ideas. I figure it has something to do with modernity; but, honestly, I don't know what makes a film contemporary. Usually it's about finding a story that reveals some modern signification; to better understand our world today.
Guillén: What made me think of it was just now when you said your subjects came to your camera. As if to say they came to share the space of the camera and its cinematic time. Lately, I've come to suspect that the contemporary is the time that a spectator takes to watch or—in your case the time a subject takes to be in—a film, and how it matches up with the time within the film.
Guerín: Ah. But that's the most ambitious idea of modernity and returns to that idea of access that the Palestinian boys were expressing. Perhaps to achieve the contemporary, the filmmaker must lose all control; must relinquish it. As a spectator, I love the films of the past where the director was a dictator. Stroheim, Murnau, Ozu, all my favorite filmmakers, they controlled every detail of their movies; but, one of the qualities of modernity is that such control cannot exist. Modern filmmakers have relinquished the power of control over their movies in order to be more in alliance with the world and life as it is. Their films are inscribed with chance. This is in sharp contrast to, let's say, Hitchcock's closed studio sets where he would not allow children or animals on the set, precisely because children and animals invite chance.
Then you have someone like Renoir whose philosophy as a director was to slightly open a window or a door to allow a few chances to enter his films—his was not the closed system of Hitchcock—and each time Renoir opened the window to chance in his films, he opened it wider and wider. Taken to its extreme, you have the documentary studies of Andy Warhol who was disposed to capturing chance. Every filmmaker enters into a pact with the real; but, for me what is most important about cinema is the pact a filmmaker enters into between chance and control. You can see this in the movies of the Lumiere Brothers: one part is chance; another part is control. In my film Jonas Mekas speaks of choice and chance. All my movies practice this dialectic.
Guillén: If we have entered, as you say, an age of modernity where the filmmaker must relinquish control in his filming, does he regain a semblance of control at the editing table? Is this when chance can be recognized and assembled into something meaningful?
Guerín: But not only. Those recognitions can be made while a filmmaker is shooting as well. What I encounter by chance converts or contests my inquiries towards controlling the real.
Guillén: Can you speak more about Jonas Mekas and his appearance in Guest?
Guerín: Jonas Mekas has been an inspiration for Guest. You could say he was the film's oracle. Guest was constructed and thought about as it was being shot. My conversation with Mekas helped configure sequences for the film. As inspirational as Mekas might have been for the project of Guest, he transcends the framework of the film. He and I are currently collaborating on a film project for an art center and have been exchanging cinematic letters.
Guillén: Something to look forward to. As "colorful" as some of the countries are that you visited, you chose to film Guest in black and white. Why?
Guerín: Color is not a neutral element of cinema. You work with color or it goes against the film. Guest was such a natural type of film that it didn't allow me to control the color, therefore black and white provided a more homogenous tone and unified the film. At the same time, I wanted to pay homage to a certain history or memory of cinematography. The film was shot with a simple, humble camera; a fact which I didn't attempt to conceal. Still, in the end, it was important for me that Guest would be capable of being transferred to 35mm.
Using black and white situates my formal views of cinema. I work with a simple digital camera in deference to my cinematic heritage, which is associated with the direct cinema of the 1960s, but goes much further back to the Lumiere Brothers, to actuality films, to Italian neorealism. This conversation, this juxtaposition, between the obvious usage of digital material in Guest and its transfer to 35mm is not meant to camouflage the digital but more to translate and transmit my feelings about cinema. Guest is also a film concerned with portraits and black and white seems more suitable to capturing the human face. I could talk for hours on why I use black and white.
Guillén: I wish we could. You've stated now and again that without memory cinema suffers. Can you expand on that?
Guerín: You know, for me it was frustrating to stay in Los Angeles. I've been exploring this idea of cinema and memory and when I was in Los Angeles I didn't see this association between cinema and memory. When I was at their film festival, I asked to see the studios of Max Sennett for example; but, I saw nothing about memory. The United Artists cinema is an evangelist temple but it's not conscious of memory. I asked myself if it was possible to make good cinema in Los Angeles if there's no sense of memory? They have no public space. Neighbors don't speak in the streets. They live in nice homes with nice gardens that are closed off to each other. They have an endogamic relation unrelated to public space with no connection to memory. I think it's very difficult to make good movies without these two things: a sense of memory and a sense of community as expressed through public space. I think American films now exclude the populist life and some critics have proposed that the popular is the same as the commercial; but, they're not the same, they're very different.
I felt an association with the Latin American countries I visited not only because of a common language but because of the strong populism of their streets and public squares; a strength which I feel has been lost in Europe. By contrast to the liveliness of Latin American public space, European public space has become practically mute. Latin America offers a more generous discourse to a documentarian filmmaker, its public spaces are filled with outspoken characters, and this is no longer the case in Europe. For example, the characters you might have seen and admired in films by Jean Renoir or the Italian neorealists no longer seem to exist in Europe today.
Guillén: Here is a question on behalf of Chris Fujiwara: which is your favorite Allan Dwan film?
Guerín: What an odd question! I'm sorry to say I'm not that familiar with the films of Allan Dwan. I have only seen perhaps a total of four films of his over the years, including one of his westerns. So in order to answer Fujiwara's question and not be deceptive, I would need to see a complete retrospective of Dwan's films. Otherwise, I can't get a good sense of Dwan as a filmmaker. But I'm grateful for the question because it reminds me that familiarity with Dwan's films is something missing in my knowledge of cinema. His is a body of work I'm still needing to discover. But why would Fujiwara ask me such a question?
Guillén: I'm not exactly sure. Perhaps he presumed you were as familiar with Dwan's work as you are with other early cinema pioneers? Or perhaps because Dwan was born here in Toronto where we're having this conversation under the auspices of this festival? I don't really know.
Guerín: Dwan's compatriot William Wellman was important to me, as was King Vidor, but Allan Dwan less so. I'll propose to the cinematheque in Barcelona that they host a retrospective of Dwan's work and then I would be able to respond appropriately.
Guillén: To begin wrapping up here, I'd like to single out a few of my favorite images from Guest. Surely a chance encounter as you were specifying earlier, I loved that brief glimpse of the two battery-operated hands clasping each other.
Guerín: Ah yes, I chanced upon those in Brazil. Returning to what you were saying about cinematic citation, it's possible that my attraction to that image of the two hands came from Luis Buñuel's Un Chien Andalou (1929). In that film there is also a hand in the street.
Guillén: The other image I liked was of the animated figure in the shop window that was tapping on the window to attract consumers.
Guerín: Ah, you have a lovely memory for details.
Guillén: Well, Jose Luis, I wish we had more time to talk about cinema. It's been a great honor for me to speak with you.
Guerín: Thank you very much; but, what's most important—more than my words—are your impressions of my movie. Please. I want to read what you write about my movie more than what I say about it.
Cross-published on Twitch.