Hartmut Bitomsky interview
(Interviewed by Satoshi KUZU, Akira KUDO, Tetsuya MIURA)
Dust, this tiny object
--At first, we would like to ask you a basic question. It is about the unique subject of your film, the dust. How the dust attracts you ? Why did you choose the dust for subject ?
Bitomsky: First of all, it was just an idea that crossed my mind. It was somewhere late 90’s, while I was deep into making B-52. Usually, when something comes to your mind, as a filmmaker, especially as a documentary filmmaker, you have to think about potential ideas for film. Sometimes you forget them, and sometimes they stick there. This kind of initial moment is mostly insignificant. You ask yourself, “Maybe it could be interesting”. What attracted me immediately, although I did not know how to make a film on it, is that the subject in itself is odd. The subject as such of course promises to be difficult to make. It is a kind of challenge, to make something that nobody would make a film about it. It has a little bit to do with my pride, “I’ll show that I can do it”. Then, when I started the first research, I found it has a huge paradigm, so many potential elements there. I was quite sure to get over the initial Hitchcockian idea that you have to try something nobody have ever done before. Hitchcock is usually trying to shoot what we have not ever seen.
With my first research, I found that there were so many possibilities, so I started a deeper research, and I was pretty sure that I could make the film.
What attracted me to dust is also simply in the fact that for many centuries, the dust was the tiniest recognizable object that you could see it without any technical support for your eyes. In a way, the world becomes visible in its dust, and beyond the dust it becomes invisible. This border when things become visible, that is exactly where the cinema begins. So, in a way, the dust is the smallest actor in front of the camera. That gave me an interest to go deeper into it. So, it has something to do with recognition. At the borderline of visible world comes into existence.
--I imagine that you confronted two difficulties in making the film about the dust. One is the difficulty of construction, in another word, storytelling as documentary. Another is how to shoot this tiny object. The dust is very fragile to shoot .
B: This subject, the dust, has so many facets. That attracted me a lot. Usually, when you make a documentary, there’s always a given field and very certain borders. If you do something on homeless people, you have to exclude everybody else with normal living or normal apartment, because they’re not homeless. The whole areas are virtually pre-structured. And if you forget to deal with one of the topics set already, people will go after you, they won’t like it if you don’t talk about that important thing or that important thing in the film. So, in a way, there was a little bit of freedom in the subject, because I knew that people didn’t know much about it. Secondly, it it is loaded with so many different topics. How could anybody say what you didn’t deal with this or that. It is more like that there are various melodies, and you just jump from one melody to another melody. It’s symphonic.
--Don’t you think it a risk if you don’t concentrate on just one theme ? There are too many facets, maybe.
B: Can be. Of course I thought about that and I took that kind of risk.
How to shoot the dust
--How can you shoot the dust, I mean, technically ?
B: Well, of course you need sometimes special lenses. For example, there’s a shot, toward the end, after we talk with scientists who try to find out what happens in space with dust, maybe 30 seconds or maybe longer than 1 minute, there you see the little things floating by in the dark. Of course this is not shot in the outer space, it is shot in my living room. We took the dust we found in the house, I collected it sometimes, then we have to set up a complicated lighting, make the room dark, we used a macro lenses. We arranged the situation, made a draft so that that the dust would go some direction. We worked on it almost a day for just one shot. It is a wonderful thing that some dust particles, when hit by light, become like spheres of light, like soap bubbles that are floating as planets through the universe. One couldn’t see that by bare eyes. The camera transforms that.
--I found your lighting was very carefully arranged like classical hollywood cinema.
B: While I’d like to shoot fast, very often the cinematographers face a lack of time for setting up the light.
I have to look at the whole energy of the place when shooting--how tired people or actor in front of the camera get, they have to wait all time long, we have to arrange the dolly move, you need time for focus-puller, time for cinematographer to put up lights-- I have to take care of everything. People get bored or exhausted easily.
For a filmmaker the biggest fun is to prepare a shot – what happens afterwards in front of the camera is less important (laugh). Therefore they rehearse a lot. The camera needs a lot of attention, the dolly move wants to be worked out, the lighting has to be perfect. And it takes hours until everything is synchronized. By that time the people in front of the camera are usually worn out.
As a director you have to take care of the human ecology on the shooting set. And I want everything to be fresh. So I borrow from the method of Direct Cinema making. In order to gain some space for the unforeseen, for the unexpected that only shows up when the camera is rolling. We gain something from this kind of freshness.
For the same reason, I never ask the people my interview questions until before they are in front of the camera. They don’t know the questions in advance, and I don’t know their answers in advance, which means we all have to listen carefully to each other. So, it is challenging for me as for the interviewer.
The camera moves are not really rehearsed. I will outline the general idea of the shot. We mark the varying distances on the floor for the focus puller. And then we shoot. Then I don’t communicate with the cameraman anymore. I give silent hints to the guy who is pulling or shoving the dolly depending on what happens in front of the camera. The cameraman cannot foresee these moves, he has to respond on the spot.
──The camera moves spontaneously in several sequences.
B: Yes, it does. For the focus puller, that is very difficult. You maybe remember the young artist in the film who collects dust. She was very shy. She tried to avoid facing against the camera. What I did was walking along behind the camera in order to get eye-contact with her, which also means that camera has to follow me along eye-line between her and me, then all of a sudden she was in the shot with her face. I tricked her shyness. In a way, I directed her as an actor by walking, and the same way I directed the camera.
--For the mise-en-scene of person, the ecology is important as you said, but for the dust itself, you can’t intervene in the dust, because it’s too fragile. Maybe it’s what makes your film special. I mean, it is the relationship between the subject and the observer. The observer can’t change the subject.
B: It often happens in the documentary film, that the subject also directs the film. That is especially true with dust. We shot in an open coal pit mine. First time we went there, it rained all the time, so we couldn’t shoot. It was wonderful that there was no dust (laugh). The subject was the mine, the big hole. The weather decided that we could not shoot it. We went back there for three times to have a right weather condition. These days, facilities don’t produce a lot of dust anymore because the law prohibits it. Water is thrown over the dust, so you see water, but you don’t see dust, because it’s binding the dust.
--You said it was new challenge to shoot Dust, but we found continuity in your filmography. Your past films have the same materialistic consciousness of the subject.
B: You’re right. I can confirm that. This kind of materialistic approach is almost innate for the documentary. Because the documentary deals with things that they are visible that you can visualize and you can show them. They’re there. Of course it is materialist approach and not metaphysical.
──Nowadays, most of documentary films become less materialistic.
It is true. They are part of the symbolic discourse. It’s kind of coming from the other side. Any pixel, any digit in the content of an image frame can be replaced by another pixel without showing it. In films and photos, you still can see any modification of the image.
There will be a day we don’t have film anymore. It actually will confront us with complete new set of question especially in the area of documentary. Right now, I don’t look too much into that direction. I will make two more films before Kodak stops everything (laugh).
In the film I just saw, Driving Men, I think many parts were shot with an HD camera. This digital cinematography gained quite a bit territory. And they will gain more, I’m pretty sure. What I’m interested in now is to find out how to deal with that.
I used to think that we could rely on the mechanistic relationship between the camera and what is in front of it, and the way how to record and to register any object through the film grain. It is technical and almost mechanical, or physical. This is not the case anymore, we couldn’t rely on this kind of authenticity, on the truth of the image: “It’s true because it was there when I shot. What I shot, it’s the truth, because it’s on film.” I call that “co-substantiality”. Everything that is visible in front of the camera can be made visible on the screen because camera and the object share a certain nature which is their visibility. They are not totally identical, of course, they are slightly different. As Andre Bazin said, it is the ontological question. And he said the image is almost identical to the object it preserves. But there is also a distance. A distance that comes from the framing of the object in the shot.
Accuracy and the responsibility to the subject
--We really appreciate the accuracy of your film. What accuracy means in making documentary ? Or, What is preciseness, because it seems that many other young directors seem to indiscriminately change and dramatize everything by editing.
B: We know that film making means intervention: open the door, move in with the camera - it’s not same situation in that room anytime. We can’t restore the world as it would be without our presence. So, the question is, “Is it more true, if you intervene in a situation or is it less true ?”. I mean intervening through a camera is also an instrument: people confronted by a camera might release what they would not release without camera, because the camera makes the situation. This is what Jean Rouch talked about quite a bit in former days. He started the non-interventionist way, or he thought, but in the end, on the other hand, he ended with the dancing camera. Somebody is dancing, he dances, too. It’ll be a part of the situation.
Accuracy is almost a demoniac demand. You have to be interested in it to a certain extent but you cannot be totally accurate. I think it’s more a question of attitude, if you’re belong to people who exploit other people and try to dominate them, or if you don’t do that. I always say, when you shoot some people, you owe them. Because they gave you a gift: a short moment out of their life or short viewing to their life.
--Even the dust.
B: Of course, even if it’s the dust. That’s why you can never and shouldn’t shoot ridiculing people. I try to stay away from that. Even though a woman in the film who’s kind of a maniac in cleaning houses, I never try to make fun of her. I try to be on the same level, this is my idea, being a documentary director. The question is how you do that. You talked about Man of Aran (Robert Flaherty, 1934), you’ve just seen that, the best film of the festival. There’s a sequence where you see a little boy stretching a fishing line over the cliff, which is a beautiful moment. And you could shoot that in one shot. But Flaherty makes one shot after another of the boy. So he is very elaborate. When he pulled up the fish, the fish was actually dead (laugh). And the boy moved it as if the fish were alive. But still, he gives us an idea of brightness of this type of fishing. He is honest to the little boy, and the people from that island, by being very elaborate, by trying to open all of the facets of that little moment, not only with one shot. With the each brief shot, we see the refrain and rhyme of the previous shot. There’s a kind of esthetic relationship. Within the craft of filmmaker, with the materialistic existence of the people or the subject, so, in a way with a good shot, you honor these people that gave you something. It asks you, as an artist, to do the same as they’re doing, in your field of filmmaking. There has to be an equilibrium. That’s kind of my philosophy of filmmaking. Then, if you manage that, it’s accurate. Though it’s metaphorical, I know.
--The last scene of Dust --the one with the clean room, reminds me of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). And, at this point, storytelling by voiceover changes the direction to the opposite.
B: Yeah, I wouldn’t say it is the essence of the film, but, I mean, the origin of the dust is us. Attempting to deny the existence of dust means, in the end, denying ourselves. If we want to get rid of the dust too much, we have to get rid of ourselves, because we are the origin, or the source of the dust.
--You use the found footage in your film. Please tell me about your choice of them.
B: One is from Wagonmaster (John Ford, 1950), I love this film very much. It is also very symbolical. I love this sequence just for its own sake, and I knew, one day I will use it for film. Then, when we made this film, it came back to me. So, I wanted to use that. I discussed this with my crew and my sound man said, “Don’t you remember the silent film The Wind ?”, he meant Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind (1928), so, we send a taxi to his home, because he had the VHS tape, and we took it for the film.
--You shot the monitor ?
B: Yes, I did it on purpose, I wanted to give the more shoddy grainy appearance. We didn’t use a fix camera position, but we re-framed or re-photographed it. We had a big TV monitor, and I told the cinematographer, just how to move around, pan, tilt with camera, again with the idea of calling for chance, hazard and coincidence, which gave it a different look. I work with archival found footage on many occasions. Something I’m interested in is the question is how much you can be an auteur if you don’t shoot own materials. Then, when came to editing, I started to think where would I put the John Ford piece. Then I thought: in Ford’s film move from one place to another, they don’t like where they come from and they go for a place that might be close to paradise – but it is an exile! Maybe they get there, we don’t know it. But this walk of the people through the dusty desert, this mode of unending transition through hardships and unfriendly places: this is what all our lives are about. They are our self image, that is a section of our life, we are born into this world, we move through it, with hopes, with fears, with possibilities, with our demons, and we don’t know exactly where to go. It’s tragic.