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A Conversation With Danish filmmaker Jorgen Leth

Jorgen Leth interview by Wendy Dent
Festival dei Popoli, Florence 7 December 2005


WD: This festival was very unique in that it expanded my definitions of what documentary is and this is what stunned me about your films, is they were staged and it really broadened my idea of what documentary is but made me wonder where is the line, where is the definition? Once you start to have actors and you make a comment about society, but even drama is a comment on humanity so I am wondering what you feel about that?

JL: The borders are floating. And they should. These borders are - I am exploring the borders between fiction and documentary. And that is what we do in Five Obstructions and that is what I do in several of my other films like The Perfect Human, Life in Denmark, Good and Evil, Notes on Love.
They are all films that are starting from a documentary observational point of view, anthropological even, but they are all playing with the border line to fiction. Because it’s a... they have a subjective storyteller first of all right, first of all, always. There is a subject who is putting this together. And like to cross this line in different ways.
I also made once a feature film in Haiti called The Foreign Correspondent, or Haiti Express. From 82. It was inspired by Graham Greene, a Graham Greene novel. And it’s about a foreign correspondent. It has two actors in the main roles. And it’s a story. But I put the story in real actions, in real political events. It is shot in Haiti during Duvalier and I use actual people from the political world as counter, as extras or whatever you call it, as actors in the scenes, together with my professional actors.
You see I play with these lines, crossing these lines in different ways. In The Perfect Human, in The Five Obstructions it’s obvious that there are several of the obstructions which are fictional. Like the number 3, the one in Brussels, it’s a fictional story.
But you could also say that when you see the films, why is it so fascinating, that is because there is suspense in it, like in a real thriller. Something like that. There is suspense. You want to know if I can manage these obstructions. If you kill me before I reach the end of the film or something like that. So that is intriguing. And that is why a good documentary storytelling is very much on a level with a very good fiction film. Because they all tell a story. And they do it with a different means.
And for me I think documentary films have a fascinating power because they deal with, we deal with reality, and we are dealing with real things and there is a strong feeling of authenticity in the drama that we are telling about.

WD: Definitely. And also in your films there is also a strong feeling of humour that comes across which I don’t see much in documentaries. And I was preparing myself for a week of tragedy. And your films brought so much light heartedness.

JL; Good

WD; And that was really intriguing. And this is something else which bothers me, is that documentaries seem to play to have to be very tragic or they are entertaining, like Michael Moore, and that has become fashionable, with 'Super Size Me', it has become a new fashion of documentaries and I am wondering how you see documentaries filling the mainstream. Your documentaries are obviously not part of that, no?

JL; Yeah. Well I am not part of the political documentary, like Michael Moore, I don't like Michael Moore's films at all. Because they are arguing too much. But I like to be playful with the aesthetic, with the storytelling strategies. I like to be playful.
So when I do a film about Denmark I try to avoid to do a social, what I wanted to do, what I really wanted to avoid when I did that in '71, I don't know if you saw it? I wanted to do a film about Denmark but I wanted to avoid a social realistic kind of... you know, I thought, it was so boring that most documentary films at that time in the 70s, they were dealing with an objective truth, or something like that, by telling stories about social situations - about the misery of people etcetera, in social settings.
You know, I found it very boring so I wanted to avoid that totally. That is why I began The Perfect Human, to construct scenes, and isolate people from the environment, isolate people from the social context. And show people just in an empty room. And of course that is a very playful method. And out of this method I think there is certainly a... the sense of humour has to be a part of that. Otherwise it becomes too dull and too.... But you can't plan that. That is something you either have or you don't have.
You have a sense of humour or you don't have. In Haiti, you cannot live in Haiti without a sense of humour. I can assure you that. Otherwise you would be sick; you would run out immediately, because of real obstructions in daily life, nonsense that you deal with. But you know I am armed with a sense of humour.
And I can deal with surreal and absurd situations, in a country like Haiti where everything is upside down. And I can only do that because I have a sense of humour. And I can laugh of the craziest things that I see. And of course if you can create something out of this, if I can write something worthwhile out of that or do films about it, then that is a salvation for me in such situations. And I think that is a... that is a very basic motivation for making art.
That you can... that you understand chaos. By controlling it. By telling stories about it. You see? So that is something I think about quite a deal. I think you know that I am good at living in Haiti because I understand what is happening there, I understand that people are lying about things. And that is something that you don't accept in other societies. But in Haiti I accept it a lot. And I like the place, the social games in Haiti more. And I can be inspired by those things. I can get inspired by such things.
And I get inspired basically by seeing things upside down. Trying to interpret them in a crazy way. And that is maybe what you are hinting at when you say that my films have, can provoke your sense of humour.

WD; That is right. And my imagination.

JL; Yeah I think so. That is why I said I think that is important.

WD; Also you have been very uncompromising actually as an artist. And when I talk to other people, so much of what I see is that because of the politics or the economics of the film business people have made so many sacrifices for their life but also their art. And you were speaking the other day about wanting to make a pure and clean film. And it struck me you have managed to hold your ideals so strongly. And I wonder how you have managed to do that. I don't know if there is an answer. It’s quite remarkable.

JL; You know I think it’s a compliment you are giving me. And I am proud of that. Because I think also, I believe it has been possible for me to keep up my creativity without compromising anything. So I still feel that I have a fresh approach to each new film that I am doing. I don't feel that I am repeating myself in that way. I sometimes repeat motifs as I explained the other day. I like that. But there must be freshness in approaching each shot, and that is essential to me. It’s essential to keep the rules of game and keep the films clear and clean. And not compromise. Certainly I would never compromise on beginning to tell, to do a normal narrative film; it doesn't interest me at all.

WD; Do you get pressured though, in your career, that you should do a narrative?

JL; Yes sometimes, yeah absolutely. Sometimes I have been, other people have tried to persuade me to do some. But I feel bored by the thought. So I stepped away from that.
WD; So do you have career goals now? Or do you feel that you are doing what you want to do? Are you at the pinnacle? As a career?

JL; Yeah I am at the pinnacle I think. I mean Five Obstructions was certainly a major work. And I feel that I still have big works to do. And also I feel that at this point in my life, in my career, so to speak, I have no time for doing small or unimportant things. So I think it’s getting more precise, more - in a way more ambitious, film by film. If I succeed in doing The Erotic Human I am sure it will be a major work in my career. And I am consciously sorting out - I have a lot of offers now, in this time of my life, I have... especially after Five Obstructions everybody wants to have me make films. And I have many ideas for smaller films. But I hesitate to do the smaller films because I want to reserve the time for doing the more important things. So that is how I feel.
And the same thing with my writing. I am probably at my highest level of writing right now. I have just written a new volume of poetry coming out in May and it’s probably some of the best I have ever written.
So that is very good, to know that. That I am not on the down slide. Down hill.

WD; Yeah, you are going up!

JL; And I have to of course economise with my energy. I am very conscious about that. I don't have endless resources now. So I have to concentrate also for that reason, with my energy. I have to use it precisely.

WD; So I am wondering as well for that reason, it struck me why are you here at a film festival because you have such amazing things to be focusing on, that is why I was asking a bit before about the jury. What does it give you?

JL; That is good that you asked that question. Because of course this is something that I have often considered. And I have made choices. Because of course when you make films regularly, like I do, you are always invited to festivals. Always. And if you are not careful, and you know I feel this thing extremely clearly with the Five Obstructions, also New Scenes From America, that the invitations are endless.

WD; You could spend all year doing that

.JL; You could spend the whole year. This is exactly the error that Thomas Vinterberg was doing, which cost him a lot I think. He spent an entire year after Festen (Celebration), his famous break-through film, to travel to festivals. It’s very tempting for a young filmmaker. I have travelled to lots of festivals during my life. But I am very conscious of economizing also with this activity. You can't go to everything.
With Five Obstructions I could have been travelling for two years probably to festivals. And that would have been totally destructive, to my creativity. It would consume me totally. So with that film I was very selective. I chose to go to places where I haven't been, I haven't been. So I went to Taiwan. Of course I went to Venice with the film that was the world premiere. But I didn't go to Toronto. I went to Venice and then I said well now I have a break. I don't go to Amsterdam; I don't go to Toronto, I just go to Venice and present that. That was where the film broke through and that was the world premiere, and there was a lot of attention about it.
It was almost winning the prize of the category, the Contre Corriente I think it’s called. The counter stream section.
I was in the competition with Lost In Translation and everybody tells me that I was, you know, this film was almost winning. And it was a really important festival for this film, the world premiere. And then after that I lay down on the festivals and only later I decided to go to Taiwan and to Mar Del Plata in Argentina to be there. Because I have never been there. So I wanted to, I like to travel. But with moderation you know. So I wanted to go to places where I hadn't been before and to see people that... And also of curiosity. For me it was curious to experience that this film was loved by everybody. Especially young people.
In all countries, in all cultures. In Taiwan it was a cult hit you know. And I saw that, the same thing, in Argentina. And I saw of course that my friend Lars Von Trier is really a hero with young people in many countries all over the world. And that is the main reason for the curiosity for that film. But then when they see the film they love it simply because they can see the playfulness of... and I am very admired for what I am doing in this game of Lars Von Trier's.
That is fun. That is really fun. It has been very satisfying to have this experience with that film in the festivals. I went to the premiere in New York of course, which was extremely important, at Film Forum. It played for more than a month there, and it was a fantastic New York premiere. I travel quite often to New York from Haiti. And I still when I go to New York meet people almost every day who have seen that film, who come to me and compliment me. Almost every day, if I walk. That is much more than in Denmark. Much more than in Denmark.

WD; So it energises you and gives a lot back, doesn't it.

JL; Yes of course it gives me back something. And of course I also realize that the Five Obstructions has something that it can give to film students. Because it is a film about creativity, about creating a film. So it has two things which work very well for me in the interaction with an audience. And that is, that it’s quite useful to open up how you make a film, how creativity, what is creativity, how... it’s a way to explain my methods, my poetic methodology, my aesthetic strategies. And also of course it opens, as it has been seen, it opens a new interest for my earlier works. That is clear. There is lots of retrospectives planned.

WD; What is it like having a retrospective of your work though?

JL; Oh it’s good.

WD; How do you feel when you look back on your work?

JL; Well I must admit that I am generally pleased with my - because I see the coherence in the work. I can see where it came from. And I am very faithful to the inspirations that I had earlier on in my life.

WD; Yeah and you have been uncompromising.

JL; Yeah uncompromising. I can see that in my own work. I come from one thing to another, building on top of something I did. And also I am faithful to my colleagues from that period where everything started in the mid 60s I would say more or less. And through the 70s there was a lot of interaction between artists of different arts. So it’s sculptors, painters, and filmmakers. And I feel these inspirations are still alive. I talked maybe a little bit about my film Motion Picture and that is a film that you should see. It’s a very very simple film.
And I don't know if you know about the film maker Tomas Gislason. He made a portrait film of me, Heart and Soul, and he is a close associate of Lars Von Trier, and he always tells me - he is a very talented young filmmaker, he is not that young, he is 40. And he always tells me Jorgen don't forget to see your own film Motion Picture. Every time I start a new project he wants me to get back to the basic, the rawness of this film. The raw energy in this film. So that is a film that I recommend you to see. Motion Picture. It’s a very - very simple film. It’s done on no money at all. It’s done on a simple camera. Bell & Howell I think. And we use every metre shot in the film. There is not - no cutaways at all. No cutaways at all. And it's a very interesting film. Everything happens within the frame. Within the frame of the camera. And we use every metre of it. It’s absolutely simple.

WD; It’s amazing because actually in ways that open the boundaries of documentary but at the same time you are imposing so many. And I had never heard that before. But you said set rules. And I see, I don't do that in my work. So you opened that door. And that was a quick question I had, you see so many films at the festivals - well you said before you hadn't had a chance because you are promoting your own work, but is there an overriding strength and a weakness that you see in young filmmakers today? Because now we have a whole new technology, I can shoot all I want. Is there something that is coming across?

JL; Yes absolutely, I see interesting work. I like films myself. I like to shoot on film. But I have done, I don't know if you have seen Haiti Untitled. But that is the first film where I use both DV and film, mixing it. And then coming out in the end with a 35 print, like in Five Obstructions I am also shooting a lot on DV. But the main parts, the essential parts on film. I like film.
I like the idea of exposing film. I like the idea that every minute costs money. I think it gives a discipline. But I see, that said, I see big possibilities with DV, certainly. It’s another- it’s a kind of handwriting. And I can see a lot of talented young filmmakers understanding that. That you can use this camera to create your own handwriting. And also understanding the texture of DV. And believing in the idea of transferring this DV shot material on to film print. Which is something that you can see done with a lot of strength by some talented filmmakers? One of them is Tomas Gislason, another one is my own son Asger Leth who has just done a film about Haiti. A very dramatic film about the gangs, the political gangs in Haiti. It was shot most of it on DV. Some of it on 16mm and mixed after that. And there you can see the use of - and that is what I like most of it. I don't like the shabby... shabby...
I think the temptation or the compromise, using DV and cheap cameras, is that you feel that it’s not worth anything. But that is not how you should think about it. You should contrary see that as a very alive material that could constitute a kind of, a real handwriting. But I mean it may be much cheaper to do film today, by DV, but it’s not easier to do art. You still have to have a mind, a creative mind, to do a good film. It’s not that easy. It’s easy technically. But you still have to have your mind for that. You still have to have, to be a sensitive person.

WD; You still have to have something to say, a story to tell, like you spoke about.

JL; You have to have something to say, right. Right yes. But I see a lot of talent. I do see a lot of talent. I do see a lot of new ideas because of the new technology, absolutely. And I believe that new technology, it gives new language. And gives new innovative emphasis on using images and sound.

WD; It’s amazing because actually in ways that open the boundaries of documentary but at the same time you are imposing so many. And I had never heard that before. But you said set rules. And I see, I don't do that in my work. So you opened that door. And that was a quick question I had, you see so many films at the festivals - well you said before you hadn't had a chance because you are promoting your own work, but is there an overriding strength and a weakness that you see in young filmmakers today? Because now we have a whole new technology, I can shoot all I want. Is there something that is coming across?

JL; Yes absolutely, I see interesting work. I like films myself. I like to shoot on film. But I have done, I don't know if you have seen Haiti Untitled. But that is the first film where I use both DV and film, mixing it. And then coming out in the end with a 35 print, like in Five Obstructions I am also shooting a lot on DV. But the main parts, the essential parts on film. I like film. I like the idea of exposing film. I like the idea that every minute costs money. I think it gives a discipline. But I see, that said, I see big possibilities with DV, certainly. It’s another - it’s a kind of handwriting. And I can see a lot of talented young filmmakers understanding that. That you can use this camera to create your own handwriting. And also understanding the texture of DV. And believing in the idea of transferring this DV shot material on to film print. Which is something that you can see done with a lot of strength by some talented filmmakers? One of them is Tomas Gislason, another one is my own son Asger Leth who has just done a film about Haiti. A very dramatic film about the gangs, the political gangs in Haiti. It was shot most of it on DV. Some of it on 16mm and mixed after that. And there you can see the use of - and that is what I like most of it. I don't like the shabby... shabby...I think the temptation or the compromise, using DV and cheap cameras, is that you feel that it’s not worth anything. But that is not how you should think about it. You should contrary see that as a very alive material that could constitute a kind of, a real handwriting. But I mean it may be much cheaper to do film today, by DV, but it’s not easier to do art. You still have to have a mind, a creative mind, to do a good film. It’s not that easy. It’s easy technically. But you still have to have your mind for that. You still have to have, to be a sensitive person.

WD; You still have to have something to say, a story to tell, like you spoke about.

JL; You have to have something to say, right. Right , yes. But I see a lot of talent. I do see a lot of talent. I do see a lot of new ideas because of the new technology, absolutely. And I believe that new technology, it gives new language. And gives new innovative emphasis on using images and sound.

WD; I was wondering what Andy Warhol would be doing, if he had that now. And what you would do in recreating the 66 Scenes From America without Andy Warhol now. That was quite a coup. How did you arrange that? Were you friends with Andy Warhol?

JL; No I didn't know him.

WD; You didn't know him?! How did you manage this?

JL; People told me I couldn't approach him, but I didn't believe. He was my hero. And I went around toThe Factory, you remember his studio was called The Factory. I went down there and I simply moved in to his studio and he was working, and I approached him and told him the idea about the hamburger. And he was- for some reason I had, I could talk to him. And he could see I was sincere. And he trusted me immediately. And when I described the idea of the hamburger he understood immediately this was a real, it’s a scene he would like to do, it is a true AndyWarhol scene. So then we agreed that he would come that day. And he came.
With his body guards. And we had no communication apart from that.
I was very nervous, I was afraid he wouldn't come, he wouldn't appear. It was in a studio, a friend of mine's photo studio in New York on 14th Street and 5th Avenue, and I was waiting and I was very nervous. And when he came I sent our assistant down to buy some hamburgers. And I told him, I told him markedly make sure you buy some in neutral packages. Because I was really afraid that Warhol would refuse to do any reference to commercial products because he was so conscious about his own value. But I shouldn't have worried about it.
The first thing he says when he is presented with three different hamburgers is "Where is the McDonalds?". And I said well I thought you would maybe not like to identify... he said "no that is the most beautiful". And I said well we can send for one, there is one around the corner. "No, never mind, I will take the Burger King".
That is how it happened.

WD; Did he let you direct him?

JL; Yeah.

WD; Yes? Was that intimidating, to direct Andy Warhol!?

JL; Yeah! I was so in awe of him! But I told him, I knew I could tell him, I knew what I could tell him. I said to him you simply have to eat this hamburger. And then after you finished, you have to eat it, after you finish you should just tell the camera, to the camera, my name is Andy Warhol, I have just eaten a hamburger.
But so many things happened during that scene. I mean first of all, uncontrollable things. And plain errors from my side. For instance one thing - I forgot to give him a glass of water. That is essential when you are eating a hamburger. And when you see his suffering, his throat..

WD; He is gulping.

JL; He is gulping. And I felt so... I felt so moved. By his fragility. His frailty. What is the word, frailty or fragility?

WD; Yes frailty.

JL; Yeah frailty. His... He is almost transparent, right. And I thought well I should have got this glass of water. He didn't complain. And I gave him a new bottle of Heinz ketchup without thinking that it’s difficult to put it out, you know. So all of these difficulties of course were a big gain for the film because it created a sense of something happening.

WD; And a tension there.

JL; Yes. And then he, as you can see, he is very creative. And he is eating, he is shortening the hamburger at some point, right. You see that, he chooses..

WD; He takes one bun off and then he folds it, yes.

JL; And then I like the whole thing he is doing, I think it’s so handsome. The way he is putting away the things. Like a true artist. A true sculptor. I think I may be over interpreting this. But I really think it’s a piece that is so beautiful, this whole scene with Andy Warhol. It's so much Andy Warhol. And it’s so much him that he would never consider starting it and breaking it off, you know. He would never say well where is the, I need a glass of water or something. He wouldn't. He knows that this is about time. This is about time and space. That is pure Warhol, pure Warhol.

WD; How many takes, do you remember?

JL; One take.

WD; One take?!

JL; Absolutely. One take. A magic take.

WD; Amazing. Would you ever let anyone do a documentary about you or do you think you would be so wanting it to be clean and pure observation that you wouldn't be able to stand that? Because you could be, I am sure you are regarded as a master as well.

JL; There has been made, there is a very good portrait film made by Gislason. And it’s quite a good film. You should try to see it.

WD; And you liked that?

JL; Yes I am pleased with that. And then later I am in Five Obstructions. So.. And now there is a young film director in Denmark who is doing a film about me as a poet, purely as a poet. I am reading poetry and I am performing sometimes.

WD; Fantastic. I look forward to reading your poetry. I had never come across it before but I will now. I will now. It’s very good.

JL; I have had a lot of it translated to French. And some to English. Do you know there is an American literary magazine called Ninth Letter.

WD; OK Ninth Letter. I will look for it. I mean for me personally this is one of the great things about the festivals, because I wouldn't have come across you, and that is my own ignorance and not having studied enough and being so busy making my own films, but that to me is what has been the gift of festivals to me, rather than distribution as yet. But I wonder where for you do you think being here, seeing festivals, what difference does this make in the world of films? Has it helped your career at all, to be at film festivals?
JL; -yes.

WD; Is it something that is just about marketing?

JL; I think it’s important. I think it’s important for seeing what is out there and what they are doing. And for me even, I am 68 years old, and I am not getting, I am not arrogant with the... I am not, what can you say, arrogant is not the word. I can still be very impressed with what my colleagues are coming out with.
And I am very happy for having served in this jury because normally as I told you earlier today, normally when you travel to festivals you go there to promote your own film basically. And you use the time and you use the energy to meet people and to talk about your own film. And it leaves no space for seeing other films.
But when you are in the jury you are bound to see the films. And in this case you actually see a selection of what is important at this moment, in 2005. Late 2005.
Which films are important. This is a very-very qualified selection that you have here in Firenze. Mario Simondi is always doing a very good selection. I have noted that in earlier catalogues. This is the first time that I am at this festival. It’s a good selection. And it gives a very good view of different message of different parts of the world. And I am very happy in having seen that. And I think that is part of your education as a filmmaker.

WD; It is.

JL; To see other people's works.

WD; And then to have to debate them, to contemplate them.

JL; Yesn yes and that is great.

WD; And that is why I thought it must be an amazing experience to be on a jury, because you would all have, you have such a distinct style. And what you are seeing would be markedly different to your own taste, yes?

JL; Yes. Absolutely. But here there was a lot of satisfaction. Very few films that were in the selection of the international competition, there were very few banal trivial films. I would say more than... more than half have first of all a good story to tell. And a different message to show. And the films we have chosen to honour tomorrow, I cannot tell you which ones, but they all have very different qualities.
And I think we were very conscious about pointing out the variety of methods and styles represented in this. And that was a very good experience for me. I said yes to this hesitantly sometime ago, also because Mario Simondi has been asking me many years to come.
And then finally I thought well I would try to do it this time. Also because some of my films are being distributed in Italy. So I wanted to come. And certainly I don't regret it because I would not have seen those films without being here.
Not a chance I would have seen them. Not a chance. I would never. How would I have known about those films? I could read them in catalogues but I am not that organised that I could ask for them to be sent or something.
So this is a very great chance. And it’s a good chance for you as an audience to pick up on what is happening in international filmmaking. You have to go to here, or Amsterdam, or to... to Cinema du Reel in Paris. Or maybe in Toronto. The small Toronto festival, documentary festival.

WD; Hot Docs.

JL; Yeah Hot Docs, I like that. Hot Doc. And Marseille maybe. But you have to, and these are the places, these are the meeting places for these films. Amsterdam is probably the most important. And Sundance of course.

WD; Hmm, because they do, it challenges you. And as I mentioned it’s redefining my own ideas about documentary. And I think I will make that my last question because I don't want to keep you late. But I was trying to write, and trying to actually summarise or define your work and I couldn't. And maybe it’s because my mind is still swimming with the ideas and the experimental style, but I was wondering do you define your own work?
Do you say my style is like this, and if so, well what? How do you define yourself?

JL; No I don't want to define it too much.

WD; It would be a mistake wouldn't it. It’s interesting; it’s nicer not too, isn't it.

JL; Yeah. I don't want to simplify. I can see an anthropological angle. It is definitely a playful pseudo-anthropological angle. But I don't want to simplify.

WD; I am glad you said that. It makes it very much impossible to write about your work though without -because you don't want to limit it, and it’s exactly that.

JL; No I will leave it to ...

WD; Every moment you see it, you will have a different interpretation.

JL; No I will leave it to the critics. And to the audience to find different... I am always curious to see what people think about my work and write about my work. But I would rather leave it to them to observe it. I am not giving the interpretation. I am giving you the work... That's it

Interview by Wendy Dent
Florence Festival dei Popoli7 December 2005

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About Editor

Chatelin Bruno
(Filmfestivals.com)

The Editor's blog

Bruno Chatelin Interviewed

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