Rouzbeh Rashidi is a prolific experimental filmmaker based in Ireland, founder of the Experimental Film Society and champion of underground and experimental films from around the world. His latest film Ten Years In The Sun is an epic cinematic journey through mysterious landscapes and environments populated by enigmatic characters who move and speak as if under hypnosis. Like a fragmented transmission from another dimension the film feels as if it has been created by an alien race in a language that we can follow and feel our way through but never fully comprehend, it speaks to us through our senses, beyond the confines of the intellect and resonating through our bones. This is not a film of statements, it is a glorious world that is to be entered and experienced, a foreign land through which we are invited to wander. But even though I call this film alien it has elements that are familiar to us, stylistic moments that bring to mind science fiction, b-movies, horror films and detective stories. While watching one can tune into this world, it speaks in another language but some of the words are the same, the common ground is the language of cinema.
You have described before a process of trying to reach a “ground zero of drama through the systematic removal and breaking down of any narrative structures”, could you tell us how this process played out specifically in Ten Years in The Sun? What was your starting point and how did the process evolve?
Well Ten Years In the Sun is the continuation and progression of my 2012 and 2013 feature films HE and HSP: There Is No Escape From The Terrors Of The Mind. These three features, and my latest film TRAILERS, are children of my ongoing film project Homo Sapiens Project (HSP). HSP is a series of short experiments and trial/error sketches rooted in a scientific approach towards filmmaking. HSP is my laboratory and within it I have made a series of videos in which I have tried to dissect and analyse film genres, specifically horror and science fiction. I have always been fascinated by the many elements that these two genres possess. Though these two can merge they still remain two very specific moods of representation. There has always been great potential in these two genres for experimentation, and indeed much has been done. However, I want to submerge them totally into an experimental cinema; to calculate and explore their history in relation to my own. If I want to summarise my entire cinematic philosophy it would be this: placing my image/sound experiments into a petri dish and then make hypotheses and theories called films, which are entirely fiction and fabricated. Therefore film genres and the history of cinema is the most crucial aspect of filmmaking for me. As the great Fritz Lang said, “I am not an artist. I am a craftsman.” This quote has always been haunting me. As for Ten Years In The Sun, and perhaps even more so in TRAILERS, I have pushed these ideas to their extreme limits until the form itself begins to break down. Therefore the process is very crucial in these films.
Even though the film doesn’t have a plot in the conventional sense it certainly has a tangible structure and precise rhythm that gives it a narrative momentum, it keeps moving forwards almost musically from one moment to the next, ending with a sense of completion and resolution. Could you talk about your approach to working with structure, rhythm, pace and narrative?
I am very glad that you mention musicality. This is exactly what I am trying to do. Creating cinema with rhythm by structuring, juxtaposing, pacing, lights, shadows, flicker, sound and all the rest. We always tend to believe that cinema is a story-telling tool but there are many other ways in which cinema can express. For example this quote by Nathaniel Dorsky is extremely important: “In film, there are two ways of including human beings. One is depicting human beings. Another is to create a film form which, in itself, has all the qualities of being human: tenderness, observation, fear, relaxation, the sense of stepping into the world and pulling back, expansion, contraction, changing, softening, tenderness of heart. The first is a form of theater and the latter is a form of poetry.” I see my films exactly like any other films whether in mainstream, art-house or underground. There is always a sense of some logical progression of sound, images and emotions, just like a symphony. My films are a system of imagery and editing, which is carefully designed and wired, I then give this to the audience for them to ingest or even be ingested by it. A machine of images which the audience can travel through and with, creating a mental and physical response. I don’t encourage my audience to necessarily understand the film but to grasp it with their senses, which is their system, one that consists of a group of sensory cell types that respond to a specific physical phenomenon and that corresponds to a particular group of regions within the brain where the signals are received and interpreted.
There is a distinct horror and sci-fi atmosphere that you seem to be evoking and exploring throughout the film, it seems to be in a dialogue with classic Hollywood genre cinema as much as experimental cinema. Can you talk about that a bit, how you draw influences from various corners of cinema?
In a general aspect I think, like any other artists, we draw inspiration from our own personal life and experiences, this is so basic that I won’t dwell on it. On a more practical level I feed entirely on the history of cinema, a history that I constantly engage with and in many ways experience as my own history. I really enjoy being in the constant state of cinema and to look at the world through that window. As I said earlier horror and sci-fi films from the early days of cinema up until the late 80s really fascinate me. A great deal of these films are not necessarily masterpieces but they have a vast wealth of cinematic ideas (such as sci-fi films of 40’s-50’s-60’s, Hammer Horror Films, Amicus Films, Universal Horror, Giallo and many others). The fear of the known, the unknown, extraterrestrial life, space, extinction, evolution, human-settlements, forgotten civilizations and such themes really evoke something in me. Naturally when you want to approach such concepts you automatically engage with horror and sci-fi attributions. I really want to know and find out how much I can employ these elements into my own film practice. I guess because I consume such cinema and I love all kinds of cinema including experimental cinema, it is only natural that I experiment with genres. Jacques Rivette said something fascinating which I deeply believe in: “People who go to, say, one film every two weeks and tell themselves, “I will see the great films, but not the others, not the commercial movies,” I think those people have no chance of really seeing cinema. I think that cinema is only accessible to those who accept that they must consume the “mainstream.” On the other hand, the consumers of mainstream cinema who reject [Marguerite] Duras, [Robert] Bresson, [Jean-Marie] Straub or [Werner] Schroeter, are also people who refuse cinema”.
Ten Years in The Sun is a very evocative title, it sort of has the ring of a novel you might pick up while on holiday to read by the pool, a mystery or a sort of romantic travelogue, it makes me feel this is a film about looking back or the passing of time. Could you say a few words about the title?
Titles for me are very crucial. Most of the time I start a film with a title and a single image or scene in mind. After that it’s only a matter of expansion and reaching the full maturity of the film. I think I encountered Ten Years In The Sun in one of Walter Benjamin’s articles. It really made me think about a strange and mysterious universe!
There is something about this film that feels like the closing of a chapter, there’s a sense of completeness on one hand and the opening of new doors on the other, is that the case? Could you talk about different phases in your work and how this film relates to what you have made before?
In Ten Years In The Sun, and recently in TRAILERS, I really wanted to play with ideas such as telecommunications, transmission and the processes of sending and propagating analogue or digital information signals via cinema. Our species are constantly producing data. We will be extinct – totally wiped out from existence at some stage (I might be wrong and that’s why I am not interested in facts and only fiction) and what is going to happen to devices and signals that we have already broadcast into space and elsewhere. What if another creature would find this data or these broadcasts and examine them, just like a flight recorder, this digital or analogue information has become civilisation’s black box. With Ten Years In The Sun and TRAILERS I wanted to make a film that would tune into these mysterious signals and materialise such information. For example, one day you are playing with a radio and accidentally tune into a strange frequency with an unidentified and unknown language, sound and music. You can’t understand it but nevertheless you are experiencing these phenomena. Also I believe even within our societies and specific cultures we are massively alienated from one another and in some cases we might appear completely alien to one another. Something as simple as going to a pawn shop and finding a VHS tape with footage that has no affinity to you whatsoever, but yet you will watch it and maybe even become obsessed with it. Perhaps that’s why there is a sense of a page being turned, I have literally re-ingested my older films, eviscerating and mutating them into Homo Sapiens Project. I pursued a certain path to what became the only natural conclusion for me and I then cannibalised what I had made. Films that were like old memories were torn to shreds and then rediscovered as found footage, nothing goes to waste. Perhaps at the same time a new chapter is beginning.
You have several collaborators that you work with frequently, many of them are filmmakers themselves. How have they influenced the way you work and how does your collaboration work?
Our works are deeply connected and I can’t imagine working without my colleagues. We support each other all the time and make films for one another firstly, and then we share them with a broader audience too. Over the years we have formed a very strong bond and so on set we don’t even have to talk to each other. Everything is ready to go and “action”, therefore it is a very practical way of filmmaking with extremely low budgets. And also it must be said that from the aesthetical point of view we constantly inform and nourish one another.
Something we have in common is the use of several formats, moving with ease between cameras such as VHS, DSLRs, DV, Super 8 and others. For many people the questions of film vs digital linger on but I feel like those discussions are beside the point now, we are living in a time not of either/or, what we have available is what we can use to express ourselves. How do you feel about that?
I despise this battle between film vs digital, I think only insecure creatives and fanatics are interested in such concepts. I respect and enjoy working with all the formats and use them according to the specific project that I am engaged with. A clever filmmaker will never restrict herself or himself and will always open her and his mind to new adventures and possibilities. As for me, I am deeply interested in digital technologies especially the reasonably affordable DSLR models and other new prosumer cameras. I really enjoy working with these devices and I always try to push them to their limits.
It’s not easy to find screening opportunities for feature length experimental films, especially for those which are longer than 2 hours. How have you dealt with this?
As the founder of EFS I arrange, curate and present the short and feature film work by EFS members at screenings internationally and nationally. I have also built a large network with other experimental film collectives around the globe for the purpose of screening work. I host screenings of their work in Ireland or abroad and in return they host a screening of EFS work in their respective countries. In order to support this system I have worked non-stop on all lines of publicity, the most successful of which has been social media, such as Facebook, where the EFS page has gathered close to 22,000 (February 2016) fans and climbing. I really want to use the full potential of internet, social media and of course any other means of generating opportunity for my films and those by my EFS colleagues.
You are currently working on a new installment of your Homo Sapiens Project series, can you tell us about the series and how it has evolved?
After four collaborative feature films: Jean Speck (1860-1933) (2011), Persistencies of Sadness & Still Days (2012), Weird Weird Movie Kids Do Not Watch The Movie (2013) and Forbidden Symmetries (2014) EFS embarked on its most ambitious feature film project to date: Homo Sapiens Project 200 – The End of an Era – Entertaining the Invalid. We have an abundance of plans for this 12 hours+ film, which will reach completion over the next few months. HSP 200 will be a feature film made for both a human and a possible extra-terrestrial audience. A brief synopsis as follows: an extra-terrestrial creature records its observations for its own unknown purposes, seeking out the places that light cannot reach. Filmmakers are Maximilian Le Cain, Dean Kavanagh, Michael Higgins and myself.
Finally, what can you tell us about your new film TRAILERS?
TRAILERS is my latest, biggest and perhaps most ambitious feature film to date which has just been completed. It rests at 180 minutes and was made with the generous support of Arts Council Of Ireland. You can find out about it here: http:// trailersthefilm.tumblr.com/