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Interview with Andrés Duque

For Andrés Duque filmmaking is intuition. In his method not knowing is just as important as the how, when and where. Duque, who was born in Venezuela but built his career in Spain, resides currently in Barcelona. Right now he is in Helsinki, invited by Cuarto Cine, a pedagogical program organized in the frame of Cinemaissí Latin American Film Festival 2019.

Interview with Andrés Duque

Done on the 2nd of October 2019, at Bar Angleterre, Helsinki.

Text and photo by Eino Antonio

For Andrés Duque filmmaking is intuition. In his method not knowing is just as important as the how, when and where. Duque, who was born in Venezuela but built his career in Spain, resides currently in Barcelona. Right now he is in Helsinki, invited by Cuarto Cine, a pedagogical program organized in the frame of Cinemaissí Latin American Film Festival 2019. His visit is accompanied by a short seminar about self-referentiality in cinema, held at Aalto University, and a retrospective of his feature lenght films, screened at the Orion theatre.

Central to his filmography are a markedly subjective point of view and the experimental. Strongly influenced by Jonas Mekas, his language embraces the digital video format in all it’s rawness and flexibility. An explorer and improviser, in his works the intimate and the material, the magical-mystical and the political intersect.

With his latest feature lenght film Carelia – International with Monument (2019), which was very recently awarded the Best Documentary Film and DOCMA Awards at Alcances Documentary Film Festival, Duque began an investigation into the mysterious territory of Carelia, living with a Russo-Carelian family that strives to keep alive shamanic customs, while also inquiring into the forgotten victims of the stalinist purges, buried in the depths of the Carelian forests in Solovetsky. His next project is a sister work, focused on the Finnish side of the modern Carelian legend.

It’s your first visit to Finland, how have you liked it so far?

I’ve only been here for a few days but I think I’ve already started to experience your country from the Russian side with Carelia. I’ve already done two other films in Russia, Oleg and the Rare Arts (2016) and Nastasia’s hands (2015). Curiosity took me to cross the border and wanting to see what magical aspects your culture can have.

Could you tell me about the first film you made in Russia, the documentary about Oleg Karavaychuk (1927 – 2016), the infamous and eccentric Ukranian composer known for collaborating with many important soviet-era directors such as Sergei Parajanov?

Karavaychuk came from the academic side of classical music but he was always a punk, which was what interested me most about him. He was an irreverent person in all aspects of his life. I thought I could learn many things from him, about art for art’s sake. He was made in a way that can’t be found anymore.

A very Russian character, with a big soul.

Yes, and with delusions of grandeur, but I love these kind of characters. Many criticized me for wanting to do a movie about Karavaychuk, because many in the world of classical music consider him a clown. And I liked that. It might be a romantic vision, but for me an artist is someone who is on that fine line between the clown, the madman and the genius. And Karavaychuk fits that description perfectly.

He had a gesturality that had me completely seduced. I don’t need subtitles or a translator to understand Karavaychuk, what he is expressing with his body, his music, it’s a connection that doesn’t need anything else. Anyhow, during production our translators wouldn’t last a day. I would hire one, we would meet with Karavaychuk and at the end of the day they would always quit because of Oleg. And sometimes Oleg would see the translator and say “No, I don’t want this person in front of me”. But I finally found one, Alexei, who understood Karavaychuk perfectly and got very well along with him. At the end of the first day he told me, “Andrés, please, I have to continue. The vocabulary of this man is so elaborate, so learned, so twisted, that I am in love with this work.”

At first Oleg didn’t want to see me. He was a hermit, living his bohemian lifestyle, and from time to time he would meet with his friends. At the beginning I had spent 25 days in Saint Petersburg and I couldn’t meet him, he didn’t want to meet me, his friends would tell me they wanted to help me but didn’t know how. So I decided to stay a week in Moscow because I hadn’t yet had the opportunity.

Then Boris, a very close friend of Oleg, calls me telling me that he is with Oleg in Moscow, and tells me to wait in a certain place at a certain time. They would pass with Oleg and then we would see what happens. It was an ambush. So I went there with my friend Karina, we were both wearing wearing blue that day and when Oleg appears, also dressed in blue, without knowing who we were, he tells Boris “Look, what a nice couple, they have the same tone of blue as me. There is a chromatic coincidence, let’s go speak with them”. (Laughs) Imagine, after 25 days of looking for this man that doesn’t want to speak to you he approaches you and gives his hand saying “Hello, I am Oleg Karavaychuk. Have you seen we coincide with the colour? Let’s sit here on the grass and speak”. So I am always saying that I did the film thanks to the colour blue, and that explains a lot how his head works, how difficult it was to find the same tune. It was madness, but the kind of crazy that I like to delve into when I’m making a movie.

So he finally accepted to do the film but it must have been hard learning to work with him. How did you do it?

It wasn’t easy. First of all, he didn’t respect me. I didn’t take it personally, of course. He let it be known that he was a genius, and as a genius, speaking with you, a mere mortal, made no sense whatsoever. I thought for a long time about how to make friends with him. And one day I met a dancer that was his friend and saw how he treated him, like a child. Not in a bad way, but in the sense that the friend himself became a child and stimulated Oleg’s creativity telling lies. He would invent a ridiculous story and Oleg would believe it. I realized this was like opera, everything has to be very dramatic and expressive.

And starting from there I started to elaborate different strategies to entice him. I would tell him (with a dramatic voice) “Oleg Nikolaievich, I’ve been to the zoo and seen two albino peacocks there”, and then we would go to the zoo and look for peacocks that didn’t exist. In reality what was important to him was playing, the logic of the game, and not the peacocks, he would forget about them.

And then I started connecting with him, he started having a certain affect for me, and I realized there was a way there. And even then there was no way to understand each other or know what the movie was going to be like. Anything I would propose to him he woul say it was nonsense and throw it in the trash. Or he would have ideas and say to me “We’re going to make a film where I sing while I ride dolphins in New Zealand”. He would ask for impossible things.

But one day he said something that I liked very much. He told me: “Andrés, you’re a filmmaker of improvisation and I’m a musician of improvisation, this film should be about improvisation”. And I agreed with him. But how could we do it? How could we keep inspired the most bitter man in the world, which was the image he loved to project: someone people hated and we’re afraid of. And I started developing a series of mechanisms starting from the idea of playing.

You mean like that beginning shot in the Hermitage? I think it’s fantastic, because you manage to capture the essence of someone with almost nothing. How did you propose that to him?

The tactic was to take him to the Hermitage and make the same route a character does in Nevski Prospekt, a story by Nikolai Gogol. Oleg is a fanatic of Gogol. He himself is a gogolian character. One of the first fights we had was when he started speaking about Gogol to me and I answered honestly that I had never read Gogol. He told me: “It’s over, me and you can’t go on speaking to each other”, and he left.

So I went to a bookstore and bought everything by Gogol and read all of it, which I now thank him for, what literature! So in the Hermitage I ask him “Oleg Nikolaievich don’t you think we have taken the same route as in Nevski Prospekt?”. I ask our translator Alexei if he’d brought by any chance the book, and of course, it just so happens that he had it with him, what a coincidence! I started reading it and Oleg would repeat it because he knew it by heart. And then I had him inspired, he recited Gogol and became Gogol. I had my camera waiting for the moment when Oleg would enter the hallway, ready to shoot. So we had to prepare the improvisation. And that’s the beginning of the movie, it was a moment that I couldn’t control, really. We didn’t know what would happen but we knew that it would probably be interesting. He had a control of space that was simply brilliant. Physically he was a very little man, very fragile, but he would turn into a monster, he would fill that enormous Hermitage hallway with his whole being.

I managed to enter his bubble and that in itself was the triumph. My job was finding moments where I had him inspired, because the rest of the day he spent damning everything. With Oleg there was the danger of letting him ridicule himself. And of course I have sequences that could destroy him, but I thought his magic was so beautiful that I didn’t want to do it.

Did he like the movie?

Yes, he loved it, and his friends told me that he wasn’t one to give away compliments offhandedly. He thanked me and told me, “Andrés, you have made such a fragile, such a playful film, even Wagner would be proud”. (Laughs). And I have no idea what would Wagner have to do with fragility, but I took it as a compliment because Wagner to him was God. And I had a lot of fun. It was very tiring, for everyone. There were seven or sometimes eight people trying to shoot him, and we would all end up exhausted, yet the next day we would get up hoping to see him again.

I think you’re some sort of a painter or a portraitist. And at the same time you’re a landscape artist, because you’re interested in unexplored regions. Like in your short film It’s not the Image it’s the Object (2008) where you eat the stickers out of a sticker album called “Men, Races and Customs”, where each different sticker is like a different landscape. And you also have something of a Goyesque tenebrist, right? For me the most interesting moments in your films are when you do portraits with long takes that capture interesting details.

Yes, they have an emotional curve, a tension. The long takes are there because there is a beginning and an ending, not because I’m interested in movies with unending sequences. With Oleg it was like that. It wasn’t easy to convince my producers that the movie was going to be about not cutting Oleg. It was so beautiful when he’s telling you something, how he starts and ends his story. Cutting him was an aberration, an infamy. That was something he thanked me for, he was so accustomed to being cut and left into little stubs, he felt I had let him be free. I wanted to give time to observe him. When I got the moment when Oleg sways with his eyes closed, and you understand there is an interior music, I told myself “I’ve got the movie. The film I wanted is this one”. The spiritual Oleg, almost like in Butoh theatre.

You accept then being described as a portraitist.

Yes obviously, portraits interest me very much, because my idea of cinema has a lot to do with convivence. I suddenly see someone that interests me and I want to make a film about it. In fact I believe the portraits I’ve made are just a few because they have been about such difficult persons: Oleg, Ivan Zulueta (Ivan Z, 2004) and the schizophrenic Rosemary (Parallel 10, 2005). I mean, I am always so sure that I want to do a film about them that I don’t mind if I have to spend three years doing it. And I’ve understood that it has something to do with the kind of madness that I connect with. They are people that have become outcasts, marginalized, even out of their own choice, because they guard a secret. They have such a pure creativity, so genuine, so honest, that it’s that which makes them want to go separate ways with the world. And it happened with Oleg. I realized that because, apart from what people thought about him; that he was a clown, that he wanted to act the part of a clown, or the fact that he was a genius or a shaman; I understood that there was a man, an artist that wanted to do a movie because there was a coincidence with the colour blue. And somebody who understands that, is an artist. And even when we used to fight a lot and there were difficult moments, I always thought about the colour blue and used to say to myself “Blue will save us”, and indeed the next day our issues would be resolved. I knew that he too had to pay attention to the colour blue and take it to the very end, wherever that may be, even if it was us killing each other with a knife. Perhaps it could end up in a movie, which was what happened.

Could you tell me about your latest feature Carelia – internation with monument?

Carelia starts when I’m with Oleg Karavaychuk visiting his neighbourhood in Saint Petersburg, a scene that is also in the movie. He was telling me how this area isn’t really called Komarovo, it’s called Kellomäki, and he starts evoking this Finnish and Carelian imagery. I didn’t understand why he was telling me this. At one point he had seen my films, all of them, and he had hated them, all of them. He told me they seemed horrible and ugly to him. That’s another thing I liked about Oleg, he had no filters, he said everything to your face. And I also learned to do this with him and I think he appreciated it, because it was putting honesty first, and he obviously wouldn’t be offended with anything. But he said to me that the only film he had liked was the one I did about my father (Dress Rehearsal for Utopia, 2012). He told me “There is something shamanic about this film because you follow the death of your father, something related to Carelian culture”. I ask him what is Carelia and he starts speaking about Kellomäki and telling me how it used to be Carelia. Then he tells me how he is Carelian, and I tell him “Oleg, you’re not Carelian, you’re from Kiev”. And he answers “No, I am Carelian, and you’re Carelian too”. We were close to the Gulf of Finland and he pointed towards Finland and said “Andrés, the gates of Europe, go for the Carelians!” (laughs). And I did what he told me and started reading about Carelia.

I was very interested in the period of the Second World War. I was also very drawn to the fact that the region was nominally called the Republic of Carelia yet it had never been a country, it had never been a territory with established political frontiers. Then I found out that there were a few authors and artists who had been inspired by Carelia. Jorge Luis Borges wrote Death and the Compass (La muerte y la brujula) which was inspired in Carelia and the Kalevala and he didn’t do it out of any historical interest or because of wanting to tell the truth but in order to imagine it. Of course there’s Elias Lönnrot but his purpose was to unify those myths for a Finnish national identity, even if what he did in the end was to create his own legend, composing the orally shared stories into an epic work. And then there’s this very important Catalonian artistic photographer called Joan Fontcuberta who in 2002 did a fictitious photographic essay where he invents a voyage into a Carelian monastery where they dress him in shamanic fashion and teach him to do miracles. It’s done in comedic tone and entirely fictional. So I tell myself I am going to continue this curious tradition of imagining my own Carelia. But I am also going to be the only one that in order to investigate Carelia is actually going to go there, because neither Fontcuberta nor Borges did this, they invented it out of fantasy.

Your next film is also about Carelia but now filmed on the Finnish side. What’s going to be your point of view?

Well, being there I realize that these forests also have a tragic history. People were executed and buried there during the stalinist purges. So I’m very interested in the period of the migrations of the Carelians to Finland. I also find out that the Ahnenerbe, which was the Nazi institution for searching aryan roots, was very interested in Carelia and Carelians, who they thought to be the origin of the Aryan race. In 1936 they did an expedition to Carelia in search of these roots and made film and sound recordings of the voyage. I’ve been searching for those recordings for a year and a half now and so far I’ve only found the audio recordings. But essentially I’m interested in finding shamanic and magic aspects of these people who migrated during the war. And I’d also like to thematically unify the magical with the political and the historical. The magical detonates the political. In Carelia the family I portray are constantly trying to remember the past but something is preventing them. When I arrive to Solovyetsky, which once was a gulag and is now turned into a Disnelyand, I realize there’s nothing left. Now there’s a Russian Orthodox church, all the walls painted white, with expensive golden altars. The gulag’s history has been erased.

Politics is something that always intersects in your films.

And it had never become so explicit. Well, yes and no, it has always been there.

Are you going to do deal with political themes from the Finnish side as well?

I don’t know yet, I’ll have to see how the project develops. The story of the nazi expedition interests me, I’d like to tell it and show how totalitarianism, how both communism and nazism had an interest in Carelia, and how Carelians had to pay for it. And how obviously there were communist Carelians, Carelians that wanted to be Finnish, and Carelians that wanted to be Carelians.

On your website you define yourself as a Spanish filmmaker of Venezuelan origin. How do you identify?

As a filmmaker (laughs).

You make films very much related to cultural identity yet you resist defining yourself.

It has to do with a natural rejection of my own roots, but not because I wouldn’t like my culture, I love it. But when I started in cinema I understood that the market and the logic of the industry forces them upon you. If you are a filmmaker born in Venezuela yo can only make films about your Venezuelan culture. This seemed perverse to me. I liked to say, as did the beautiful catalan poet Ramón Llull, my life will be to travel the world and to be from every place. You have only one life and I want to know the world to the very limits it can reach. I don’t want my films being forced to be about Venezuela or Venezuelans.

But sometimes these themes inevitably comes out. Something that caused me a lot of problems when I started making films and I didn’t have as much visibility in Spain was that I wasn’t considered a Spanish filmmaker even when I was making all my movies there. The curators didn’t include me in the programs of my generation because to them I wasn’t Spanish, I was Venezuelan. I told them: “Wait, you’re telling me that you’re a fascist, because I have a Spanish nationality, a Spanish passport and I pay my taxes here, yet I’m not Spanish. I prefer being told that my film is shit than this.” And they told me this with all the ingenuity of somebody who is racist because he was educated that way. Even when they were of your own age and had gone through university. I thought this had to be worked on and became very militant. I started telling I’m a Spanish-Venezuelan filmmaker, because I don’t want to say that I’m Spanish, I want to say that I have two nationalities. And this would bother them even more, they wouldn’t recognize that such a thing existed. I would tell them “of course it exists, it’s me”. It’s like being born with two genders. Well, I have two nationalities, two identities, I am a bit Venezuelan and a bit Spanish.

So you do identify with something, with two nationalities, it’s not the case that you’re entirely internationalist either.

To be frank, I don’t care (laughs). But I’ve assumed it with an idea of activism. Because I believe this will help a lot of people who are arriving now in Spain and want to do cinema. Nowadays it’s not as relevant anymore, intelligent people in Spain have been able to understand it and they defend it. Actually, there is a woman who wrote a doctoral theis in Catalonia defending that I am a Hispano-Venezuelan-Catalonian filmmaker. She told me that she had been in a meeting where film critics were debating if I should be considered a Catalonian filmmaker or not. And I thought, “from having to fight the battle of being considered a Spanish filmmaker I now also have to fight for being Catalonian!” Anyway, it isn’t a problem anymore, now I laugh about it, but at that moment I needed help.

Could you imagine yourself making films in Latin America?

Yes, but just as I could imagine myself making films in Asia. Not because of being Latin American, because that would just be flirting with a certain market. If I’d decide on doing it it would because there’s a theme, a character like Oleg who’s waiting for me there.

Then it could just as well be Venezuela as it could be Carelia.

Exactly. It would be because I connect emotionally with somebody, not because of having roots or answering to some affinity. Those are just traps of the film industry.