Monday, March 10, 2014


Man Ray—known primarily in the art world for his avant-garde photography—produced major works in a variety of media, including film. In 1926, he directed the 19-minute short Emak-Bakia (Basque for "leave me alone"). Subtitled as a cinépoéme, it features many "experimental" filming techniques, including rayographs, double exposure, soft focus, stop-motion animation, and ambiguity, as well as incorporating sculptures by Pablo Picasso. Emak-Bakia can be viewed in its entirety here.

In 1998, the Pompidou Center in Paris, France, mounted an exhibition "Man Ray: Photography and Its Double" drawn from the Man Ray archives donated to the Center's collections in 1994. It was at this exhibition's London showing that Oskar Alegria was surprised to discover that Man Ray's talents included a filmography, albeit limited to four films. He entered a dark room where they were showing Man Ray's films and the first thing he noticed were the words "Emak Bakia", which he found mysterious. As his heritage was Basque, this film Emak-Bakia captured his imagination. He found himself watching the film like a detective or an investigator, trying to determine if Man Ray had made Emak-Bakia near his hometown, but there was no way of gaining a clear answer because the film was essentially visual. If anything, the mystery of the film's production provoked him to search for the inspiration behind Man Ray's film, which at first he thought was a graveyard epitaph, but which gradually revealed itself to be a house near Biarritz where a portion of the film had been made. Thus began The Search For Emak Bakia (2012), whereby Alegria sought to pay an homage to Man Ray by making a film in the same free spirit with which Man Ray endeavored his film, without interference, on foot, and eschewing a large production crew.

The Search For Emak Bakia honors Man Ray but departs from that artist's experimental short in significant ways. It retains its adventurous experimentation, but compresses it into shape through a hybrid documentary impulse, melding a meandering investigative journalism with reflective narrative intertitles more readily associated with an essay film. Alegria incorporates Man Ray's Emak-Bakia into his own film and—through an ingenious use of split-screen—creates a parallel structure between the 1926 original and his contemporary inflection. The result is a circumambulation around a central quest that respects chance to achieve its destination.

In one of the earliest sequences of The Search For Emak Bakia, Alegria ponders Federico Fellini's query: can a clown die? This association intrigued me because of Fellini's attraction to C.G. Jung's depth psychology, which came to characterize the maturation of Fellini's filmic style in the 1960s. C.G. Jung was fond of saying that—in order to bring up the creative contents of the unconscious—one needed to solicit the cooperation of the unconscious. I've never seen a film that has actively solicited the cooperation of the unconscious as much as Alegria's The Search For Emak Bakia. Recognizing creative opportunity in vision's peripheral margins, his film wanders and wonders—sometimes in seeming confusion—as he pursues tangential threads. Just when you're about to think all is lost on the quest, Alegria delivers a deep, resounding and satisfying resolution to his circuitous pursuits.

The Search For Emak Bakia was programmed into the 56th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival where—quite by chance—I met Oskar in the press lounge. We started conversing about the value of retaining family recipes and our mutual backgrounds: his father was a sheepherder, mine a sheepshearing contractor, and—though I had not intended to watch his film—I ended up watching both screenings at the festival and a later screening at the Basque Cultural Center in South San Francisco. Oskar's following ruminations on his own film come from multiple personal conversations, and Q&A sessions with his various audiences.

On the "Knuckle Ball"

Introducing his film The Search For Emak Bakia at the San Francisco International Film Festival, Alegria admitted his difficulty in speaking about the film before audiences had a chance to see it. For that matter, he joked, it's equally difficult to speak about the film after audiences have seen it. "Maybe the best thing," he quipped, "would be to speak during?" He added that neither was it easy to speak about the film in English, let alone Spanish or Basque.

But he wanted to introduce the film to his San Francisco audience with a local metaphor. The day before, he had spent time with a local filmmaker who taught him the fundamentals of baseball, which previously he knew nothing about. Since he was in "the kingdom of the Giants", he decided a baseball metaphor would be the perfect parallel to his film. His afternoon companion had laid out for him all the different pitches in baseball and the one he appreciated the most was the one they called the knuckleball; a difficult pitch, he was advised, and a dying art for many pitchers. The Search For Emak Bakia likewise concerns itself with a dying art and a way of life that is vanishing. As described to him, the flight of the knuckleball is erratic and unpredictable, which Alegria asserted was what he loves about cinema. You will see, he offered, that The Search For Emak Bakia is also unpredicatable and erratic and that it flies like that ball without knowing where it is going.

On the Distinction Between Chemical and Spiritual Restorations

Regarding whether one of his original intentions was to reawaken an interest in Man Ray's filmic work, Alegria ventured that two kinds of restoration could be achieved with movies. There is the classic restoration, what one might call the chemical restoration, as was done by the Pompidou Centre in Paris with Man Ray's films. The original print of Man Ray's 1926 film was badly damaged with scratches and dust and this was the task the Center set out to rectify. But you can also make a second kind of restoration, Alegria distinguished, which is a spiritual restoration. Just as the physical nitrate print could fall into disrepair, so could interest in the film be likewise damaged by the passage of time. Man Ray's four films were made in a non-commercial free spirit. He worked with one assistant and not a production crew. That old way, that spirit, of making cinema also needs to be recovered as a way to work with cinema today, which is what Alegria tried to do with The Search For Emak Bakia.

On Doubting The Free Spirit

When he started this project, Alegria didn't know how to classify it. He thought of it as a commentary on Man Ray's earlier film, which others had characterized as an artifact, and he liked that term. Was he making a movie? Maybe. He didn't know. But he had faith and in the making of the film he kept encountering unforeseen treasures that inspired him to continue. He started the project by wandering in cemeteries searching for Emak Bakia as an epitaph, not as the name of a house. He thought that if he could find the tomb that bore this epitaph—"leave me alone" being an admittedly odd epitaph on a headstone—it would be the start of his movie. Yet even at the beginning of production the best part of the project was the mystery behind everything. The goal was an excuse. Finding the epitaph, and then the house, was an excuse. What was important was to enjoy the journey. For example, if he rented bicycles, then he wanted to enjoy the various bells on the bicycles, that sort of thing, and in the film there is a spirited jingling sequence of bicycle bells. He knew that sometimes when you find the object of a search, the search ends; but, in this case, whatever he found led to further treasures and a continued search. The events on the path itself were the main goal.

When he discovered Man Ray's film Emak-Bakia at a London gallery retrospective, he immediately tried to determine if the film had been shot near his hometown, but the film provided no ready answer. Instead of frustrating him, the mystery energized him. Man Ray could have made a film where he situated the house, showing an exterior, having the viewer enter through the front door, but—Alegria joked—that would have made for a short film. All Man Ray provided were three clues: a window, a doorway, and a shot of the coastline. There was an even more fleeting landscape shot of a car driving up the hill that showed some big white houses in the background. The form of the hills and the architecture identified the landscape as that of Iparralde, which is the north part of the Basque country in France.  The farms in the South have different architecture and the terrain is more mountainous.  That was all Alegria had to work with.

On the Battle Between Journalistic and Creative Instincts

Alegria felt the journalist within him was alive only in the first seven minutes of the film, after which he killed him, and then a more poetic persona emerged. For the first seven minutes he could state with confidence that his film was a documentary, but after that he didn't know what it was. He's still a journalist, and enjoys being a journalist, but considers it more of a chronicling activity than a creative one. He is fully aware of the battle between the journalistic viewpoint and a creative viewpoint. Sometimes they dance together. Sometimes one rules over the other. They strike a balance in which the journalist is always alive. The journalist is the rationalist who researches archives for the location of the house. The journalist is the one who interviews all the old people and elicits testimonials. But when Emak Bakia did not appear in the archives, he took it as a measure of success. In a sense, he defeated himself as a journalist, and that was when the search began to feel good. He believes in the battle and trusts the paradoxes.

He was a having a coffee in a park in Biarritz when he saw the plastic glove blowing around in the wind and thought to himself, "Okay. Let's follow that." That's not the way he would ordinarily pursue a story as a journalist. He certainly couldn't go to an editor and admit he found Emak Bakia by following a plastic glove blowing around on the street; but, in its own way it felt like he was celebrating his defeat as a journalist. An option opened up for him as a creative person. But, yes, these two impulses—journalistic and creative—dance together, much like the plastic glove and the napkin it woos.

On Coursing Rivers and Their Destinations

The first cut of The Search For Emak Bakia was two hours long. He was getting lost in his enjoyment of the search. He even wanted to go to Africa because one of the women who auditioned for the sleeping women sequence slept underneath a tapestry from the kingdom of Benin for protection. The film's thematic courses were like rivers confluencing into each other. Though many questions reside behind the film, his favorite question remained: why do rivers try to postpone their destination? Who knows?

On the Romanian Connection

Biarritz was a main tourist attraction during the Belle Epoque in the 1920s between the two world wars. Everybody vacationed there. There's a grand palace in Biarritz where—if you peruse the desk register—you will find the signatures of Bismarck, Stravinsky, Charlie Chaplin, everybody. There was a strong connection with Eastern European aristocracy. Even nowadays, if you go towards the Grand Palace in Biarritz, you'll find an orthodox church. Romanian people went there because of that connection. The Queen of Serbia also has a big palace there in Biarritz.

He used to think that this part of the Basque country, the French coastline, is magical. There's a special wind there. If you are exposed to that wind, something happens to you. In that part of the Basque country, every hill on the coast has a palace on it, and each palace is full of mysteries. You could make a lot of films there, palace by palace. Sometimes he feels that the hill on which the house of Emak Bakia rests—though a tiny hill with no more than 25 houses on it—could inspire a film. Biarritz rests on the border between Spain and France and, accordingly, there's a lot of surrounding history. Sometimes he thinks that—if he continues to be a filmmaker—he will base all his films on this tiny hill. It's called Parliamentia Hill. He could turn it into Parliamentiawood, like a Basque version of Hollywood.

On the Importance of the Hare

A festival programmer recently phoned Alegria to state that he had counted all the animals in the film and tallied 357 animals. You have 200 seabirds, you have 16 cows, you have one cat in a storm who looks dead, the programmer told him. Perhaps he likes animals so much, Alegria figured, because they're the only ones who look directly at the camera? It's like they know something. They can read human beings.

In The Search For Emak Bakia, Alegria likens his meandering quest to the habits of a hare, which most people mistake as a rabbit; but, there are important distinctions between a rabbit and a hare. They're from the same family, but totally different. Rabbits are born in underground burrows. Hares are born above ground. Rabbits are born with their eyes closed. Hares are born with their eyes open. These are essential differences. The hare raises its ears during Q&A sessions and inspires him to answer audience questions indirectly. Even SFIFF programmer Sean Uyehara joked that he was hesistant to ask Alegria questions because he was never quite sure what his answer would be. Hares are always escaping capture. Rabbits are more comfortable with being domesticated. They can feel safe in a cage. Hares are not as adaptable. One could say that Man Ray acted like a hare. He escaped mainstream art. People tried to trap him. He made four films and had a proposal to make a fifth by a big company with a lot of money but he declined. That's for rabbits. The meaning of Emak Bakia—"leave me alone"—ties into this. Hares can jump into the air, change direction, and land ready to move in a different direction. Like the knuckleball, the hare is unpredictable and erratic. You never quite know where it's going. Here or there? The straight line is for gregarious animals who follow each other. It's boring. It's not free.

The chronology of the story in his film was real. He was a man searching for a house that failed to readily appear so he tried to find other things named like the house. But as he was going along and the film kept growing, he realized that the house was not important; the substitutions for Emak Bakia were not important. The main thing was the path, the search, to be on the way. Thus, the house appears in the middle and not the end of the film and is, in effect, the true beginning of the film. That's when chance began to work hard.

On The Poetic Influence Of His Parents

Commenting on the poetic strength of his film, I asked him who he admired as poets? Alegria didn't miss a beat and said he admired his mother and his father. They were, as he stated earlier, from a tiny mountain village. They taught him how to make a film without knowing they were teaching him how to make a film and those are arguably the best teachers. If you want your child to become a pianist, you have lost your way as a parent because you will have to force them to learn how to be a pianist. The best lessons are involuntary.

His father was a shepherd since childhood. When his parents finally moved to the city in their old age, his father took a pencil in his hand and a piece of paper and for the first time began to write all the words that were disappearing in the Basque world. The names of the birds, for example. Kostalangorri, the bird with the red tail. Zumiriki, the island in the river. He was making a little dictionary. In years since, he has thought a lot about why his father was doing that. The lesson is that if the word for the bird with the red tail (kostalangorri) disappears, the bird itself will also vanish. Words in the Basque culture have tremendous strength and harbor a connection with nature. His father tried to fix things in time and Alegria feels he is doing something similar with his cinema. Perhaps that is the magic of cinema? Through his film, the name of the house was recovered and restored.

His mother always taught him, without knowing she was teaching him, to have a strong faith in magic, which references back to the conflict between his journalistic and creative instincts. Journalists are rationalists. Creative people pursue the magical side. By way of example, he remembers when he fell off his bicycle as a child and hurt his knee. His mother applied iodine to his scrapes and then blew on them. Iodine might be the science; but her breath was the magic. To this day, he doesn't know which made his injury recover more: the science or the magic; but, he's convinced that without the magic there would have been no recovery. And that's the lesson for making a film. You have to know how to fix words. You have to know how to disappear into the white paper or the blank screen. But also you have to use magic for that.

On the Use Of Intertitles Instead Of Voiceover

There's only one intertitle in Man Ray's Emak-Bakia. It's an interesting film, however, because it was made in that moment between Dadaism and Surrealism. You can see that half of the film is Dadaist and the other half is Surrealist. One is more visual and the other has some narrative, though a minor deference. He likes to think that his film is a realistic exercise of a surrealistic movie. He incorporated all the intertitles that Man Ray used in his films. There were 57 of them and he knew each one by heart. For him it was like a cinematic exercise. He used all the intertitles to tell the story of The Search For Emak Bakia. There's one intertitle that says, "Now we are in Paris." So that was easy to place when the project was in Paris. When he was filming the nightmare of the pigs, hidden away in the pig sty, he remembered that one of Man Ray's intertitles read "L'intrus", the intruder, and he thought, yes, that works here. Man Ray used his intertitles in an unconnected way but Alegria wanted to do the opposite: he wanted to use them to tell a specific story, which was in essence a classic story of a man searching for a treasure who finds a princess.

I understood why he decided to use intertitles to advance his narrative rather than a voiceover, but I was curious why he decided the intertitles should be in English? Per the transnational practice of using intertitles in traditional silent cinema, I wondered if he had plans to translate his intertitles into different languages to distribute in different countries? He confirmed he already has translated the intertitles of the film into five different languages; that there existed five versions of the film. The first was in Basque. Then Spanish. Then French. Then English. Now there's one in Italian and the most recent in Hebrew.

Interestingly, the film's title in Basque is Emak Bakia Baita; "baita" means house in Basque, but it also means house in Hebrew! It's a word both languages share. In Arab, "bait beit" is also a house. In Italy, there is a small shepherd's cottage built on the mountains and they call it "baita".  When the film screened in Poland, a Jewish member of his audience said that "emak bakia" in Hebrew sounds similar to the Biblical expression "a valley of tears", implying that Emak Bakia Baita might translate as "the house of the valley of tears."  After a screening in Tel Aviv, he was advised that the newspaper Haaretz had published an article about these linguistic coincidences.  Finally, "baita" is only used in the north part of the Basque country. You can find houses in a river basin that are referred to as "baita", but if they are built near to the river they are referred to as "etxea". It interests Alegria how the words travel with the water.

He explained that he used intertitles not just because Man Ray used them in his film, but because of a mistake. He loves mistakes. He loves accidents. Man Ray's film was full of accidents. Several of his photographs were born from accidents. Someone turned on the light when they shouldn't and it produced magic. For example, some of the best inventions of human beings—like champagne and Viagra and LSD—are accidents. The smokey cheese they have in the Basque country is an accident. The houses of the shepherds were so small that the smoke of the hearth flavored the cheese. Now they have to provoke it; but, originally it was an accident. His usage of intertitles had largely to do with the fact that when he started the film, he couldn't speak French. When it came to editing the first cut, he decided to write it out though intertitles since he couldn't speak French. He had to welcome the accident and believe in it.

Once he finished the film, he realized that what worked in the film was not his presence, but his absence. He's not on-screen. At most, you see his hands. At one point, you hear his voice briefly. He's felt in the film but never seen. He sent the film to a filmmaker in Belgium and he expected him to say something about not using voiceover in the film, but his friend wrote back qualifying that—as much as he preferred voiceover—it wouldn't have worked in this particular film. He said that Alegria had achieved something much more difficult with his film: he had captured the tempo of breathing by the pacing of the intertitles, and not through his voice.

On Richard Griffith

Oskar Alegria & Richard Griffith meet for the first time.
When he was in the cemetery at Man Ray's tomb, waiting for the rain, he found a CD of a musician from Minnesota, Richard Griffith. He didn't know Griffith but he decided to write him and tell him about the project. He thought Griffith had left his own CD, but it turned out he hadn't and he was surprised to hear about it. Once Alegria invited him to collaborate on the project, Griffith thought, "Why not?" Alegria recalled that his first letter to Griffith started with the sentence, "I am waiting here for a week for the rain to come." Griffith responded that he couldn't say no to someone who would write such an introductory sentence. Because he was asking him for professional services, to use his music, Griffith could have charged Alegria; but, he didn't. He told Alegria, "Your project is full of magic and I never say no to magic." That inspired Alegria to continue. Griffith and he have since become friends and exchanged much correspondence. Not only did Alegria use his music for the cemetery sequence, but Griffith offered to write more music for the rest of the film and sent Alegria two more pieces of music, which were used for the closing credits. "For you, Oskar," he wrote, "they're a gift." Although Griffith has seen The Search For Emak Bakia, he and Alegria have not yet met in person. When the film was screened at Telluride, someone from the Walker Art Center proposed a screening and Alegria told her that—since it was in Minnesota—he would agree to the screening if they would have Griffith play live music. They thought that was a great idea. For him that sounded like a magical way to finally meet Richard Griffith.

On Tonino Benacquista

Author Tonino Benacquista sports an Italian name but he's actually French. He's a well-known writer of crime novels. Alegria contacted him because one of his novels was entitled The Sleeping Woman. He had been investigating the dreams of the five women who slept for him in his film. He had asked them what they read before going to sleep and five of them were reading Benacquista. So he decided to pursue this thread of the story offered up by chance. He contacted Benacquista who said he knew what Alegria wanted—that he wanted to ask him about dreaming and sleeping—but he said he didn't know anything about that. Indeed, the characters in his novels suffer from insomnia. That's fine, Alegria responded affably, then that's what I'll put in the movie.

On the Mysterious Door Knocker

As to what became of the original "mysterious" door knocker, Alegria suspects it was taken by the Nazis, along with much else in Emak Bakia, including two pianos. He determined these thieveries from the photos shown him by the Romanian princess, which revealed exquisite furniture, jewels, all of which were stolen. But they couldn't remove the Medusa mantle to the chimney. He wasn't exactly sure, but he believes the door knocker was changed in the 1950s by the new owners. One woman who saw the film began to send him several photographs of door knockers from the island of Malta that were similar to the original. It's a strange door knocker: it shows a young Neptune astride two sea horses. In that sense, with the photos of door knockers that she is sending him, the film is continuing.

On Befriending A Hungarian Princess

When he first arrived at Emak Bakia, he didn't speak French and the first person he spoke to, the gardener, was trying to tell him that someone else had visited the week before but he couldn't understand her. He was so emotional at the time, thrilled to have even found the house, that he was flying, and not grounded enough to comprehend the importance of what the gardener was saying. When he finally gathered that she was telling him an old person had visited the house, he asked who it was and she showed him an envelope with the princess's address, which he wrote down. At first, he thought that maybe this mysterious visitor was a collector of Man Ray's work and was even a bit disgruntled that she had found the house first; but, then again, it was not like the search for Emak Bakia was an Olympics competition. He decided to write her to tell her he was investigating the history of the house and asked her about her visit. Someone helped him translate the letter into Hungarian because, after all, it was his first letter to a princess. She answered very kindly within the week.

She told him she wasn't there for Man Ray; she was there because Emak Bakia was the house of her childhood. She spent the first summers of her life there. For her, that house was very important. She had three major memories of the house. The first was the big Saint Bernard Biri who she used to ride like a horse around the grounds. She remembered the chimney. And she remembered the big lightning storm. That part of the Basque country is known for its hard weather. Since then, he and the Romanian princess have become good friends. Not only is cinema magical for recovering the name of a house, but for making a princess a friend. She is 95 years old.

On Editing and Finishing A Film

Was there a lot of footage left over from The Search For Emak Bakia that Alegria did not use? Yes. He recorded a lot of film that he wasn't able to use in this film, but he has other ideas in mind where he might be able to incorporate that footage. When you work with chance, you never really finish a film, he offered. In effect, The Search For Emak Bakia finished itself and discovered its own completion. When the Princess returned to the house of Emak Bakia for a visit, he thought that would be the appropriate end of the film. He edited it so that sequence returned to the image of the inverted horizon of sea and sky, which felt like a full cycle at first; but, then again, when you work with chance, sometimes cycles don't suffice. While he was in the process of editing the film, he discovered that the clown whose tombstone he examined at the beginning of the film was not really dead so he felt compelled to add that. It was a new cycle seeking completion.

Film is not as accomodating as books in that regard. In publishing, there is a faith in mistakes. In the second edition of a book, the publisher can add an errata which is an honest admission that the first edition was not complete. Alegria loves that books can be honest in that way, whereas films often are not.

After he completed his final edit, he received one of the best phone calls of his life. He had tried earlier to convince the owners to change the name of the house back to Emak Bakia but that proved difficult because French regulations required that the house be named after their corporate enterprises. But then the owners of Emak Bakia phoned him to say they were sitting with their lawyers and drafting new regulations for the house and were able, at that juncture, to rename the house. "What was that strange name you told us?" they asked. He spelled it out for them. This was his happiest moment in the three years of making the film. And yet again he felt compelled to include this development over the closing credits because it felt like an additional gift to the project. Even to this day, he doesn't believe the film is over; it continues.

On Future Projects

When asked what his next project might be, Alegria admitted this is a question he asks himself every day. Though preoccupied the past two years with accompanying The Search For Emak Bakia to festivals all around the world, he continues to have a passion for searching, and for anything on the cusp of extinction. By example, he related how his parents are from a tiny village in the mountains and from them he remembers the lesson that the people who cut the wood in the forest then cord the wood on the side of the house facing the sunset because they know that this wood will burn better.

We have to work with those people or those things that are on the cusp of being forgotten. One proposal that came to him after his screening in Buenos Aires was when a representative from their Culture of Ministry invited him out to lunch and said that they would be interested in supporting him if he would be willing to find the three houses where Marcel Duchamp lived in Buenos Aires. He said he would consider it, only for the purpose of having a business card that reads: "Oskar Alegria, Finder of Surrealist Houses."