RADICAL APPROACHES to the COMPLEXITIES of Today's Film and Media, with Special Interest in POLITICS, PREJUDICE and FEMINISM.
The Sensory Ethnography Lab
Interview with J.P. Sniadecki, Stephanie Spray and Véréna Paravel
MacDonald: How did the three sections of Sichuan Triptych come together? Did you originally imagine a Triptych?
Sniadecki: Yes, the film was originally conceived as a three-part film. It was the summer of 2008; the Tibetan uprisings had broken out in March; the earthquake devastated Sichuan in May; and the Olympics were a month or so away. I arrived in China in June after the uprisings and the earthquake, and was only going to be there for three months that summer, so I knew I couldn’t stay in Sichuan for the year or more and work towards a film that would contain within it a sense of depth and investment that long-term projects can produce. At the same time, I felt compelled to respond in some cinematic way to the immensity and tragedy of what had happened in China in 2008. I felt a particular connection and responsibility to Sichuan, having spent the previous summer there shooting Chaiqian (Demolition) and working on a video for a medical exchange program to serve Sichuanese orphans in need of treatment for orthopedic and burn complications. But what could I do in three months?
I thought it would be interesting to make something elliptical, something like a visual essay piece—but relying almost entirely on image and sound without voice-over or explanatory title cards—about the way national events shape the everyday and, conversely, how the everyday refracts the national event. I still wanted to work in a mode that allows the lived-experience, environment, and rhythms of the local world shape the film. But I wanted these very localized experiences and sensations to be placed in dialogue with the tension of the uprising, the tragedy of the earthquake, and hubris of the Olympics.
It was a bit of a challenge to film the first part of the triptych, which was set in a small monastery town in a Tibetan area of western Sichuan, because there was a ban on selling foreigners bus tickets from Chengdu (the provincial capital) out west to any Tibetan areas of Sichuan. So I had to first take a bus to Ya’an, the furthest west they would sell, and then find transportation out to the city of Kangding, where the grasslands and mountains of Greater Tibet begin. To get even further out into the grasslands, I had to hide on the floor of a minivan that left Kangding at 5:00 A.M. in order to blow past the checkpoint.
Once I got to the town, which was actually relatively calm during the March uprisings, the military presence was quite intense and for the first few days I tried to lay low and keep my shooting to a minimum. As time went on, though, I became more and more bold (or maybe just more and more impatient), and filmed more often and more openly. I was surprised when the only reprove I attracted was the scene included in the film when the young soldier jogs over to me and asks me politely not to film his platoon doing exercises. This is totally understandable, because filming the military is illegal in most every country I can think of, including China.
For the second part, I worked with the same organization for which I made the medical exchange video. I volunteered to help with donations to a school in Qingchuan, a county in northern Sichuan that was hard-hit by the earthquake. At the time, all the New York Times articles were coming out about the shoddy school construction and enraged parents seeking justice. In this climate, access to the disaster site and the ability to film were extremely restricted. As soon as we showed up in Qingchuan, the local officials were on top of us and held us for questioning for a few hours. I was only able to shoot twenty minutes of footage there, and most of it ended up in the second part of the triptych.
The final part of the film was much less complicated to film, as the migrant worker and his peasant family you see depicted are actually friends I made on the worksite while filming Chaiqian (Demolition). I begin with the father—who is actually the man who praises the camera’s functions during an evening meal in Chaiqian (Demolition)—working on the demolition site of a school severely damaged during the earthquake. The Olympic torch is supposed to pass nearby (and the gathered crowd actually never gets to see it, because the security surrounding the torch was so tight that they constantly re-routed the torch’s itinerary and only official invitees were able to catch sight of it), but he is too busy working to join the expectant crowds. Later, we follow him to his countryside home outside the city and he sprays his rice fields, prepares dinner for his family, and sits down with some beer and rice wine to watch the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games.
MacDonald: What the three films have in common is a focus on aspects of Chinese life that are international issues/events: you provide a sense of how these big issues affect “people on the street.”
Sniadecki: Yes, that was the goal from the beginning. I had been reading the work of anthropologist Veena Das, who has done fascinating studies on how national events and tragedies in India (for example, the 1948 Partition, as well as the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 and the subsequent anti-Sikh riots) ripple into daily experience, weaving raw pain and a grinding, droning form of social suffering into the fabric of the everyday. In terms of film form, I was also interested in challenging myself (and the audience) with a rather open-ended treatment of the relationship between the large-scale event, the local ecology, and the “people on the street” or in the fields, as it were. Oftentimes, when you bring conceptually abstract and disparate things together, there can be pressure to designate clear connections, causal relationships, and definite propositions. Sometimes the results of such moves of delimitation are illuminating; other times, they seem like an awkward reaching towards something untenable. I wanted the film to have an atmosphere of possible meanings that were subtle, less ambitious, and grounded in the triangular experience of the filmmaker, film-subject, and film viewer.
MacDonald: The final shot in Sichuan Triptych is loaded with implication. We see the little girl “singing” the Chinese national anthem to open the Olympics, on a tiny television in a humble worker’s home. Again, the class issue is apparent—as is the gap between the immensely high-tech, spectacular opening of the Games, probably the most high-tech in history, and the very low-tech world of manual labor. Your camera contemplates the space of the man’s home, which includes the tiny black-and-white television on which we see the spectacular opening of the Olympics—three layers of reality, and three layers of time, in one.
I also see a declaration of cinematic principle here: your one-person method of making media is as far from the elaborate production of the Games as is the working man’s home—and the shot suggests that you stand with the worker, as opposed to the New China represented by the Beijing Olympics and by the worldwide media system that broadcast the Games.
Sniadecki: Well, in that shot, I am literally standing/sitting in the living room with my friend, the migrant worker. And, yes, my rather lo-fi, personal approach to filmmaking is a far cry from Zhang Yimou’s lavish opening ceremony. But that final sequence of shots in Sichuan Triptych is loaded with not just one implication, but rather with many possible implications. This ambiguity, rather than nailing down a singular meaning, raises questions and leaves space for multiple (and even competing) interpretations and inquiries. The little girl, who reportedly hails from Sichuan, is actually lip-synching the national anthem as that adorable congregation of children—each selected as a representative of one of China’s 56 ethnic minorities—carry the national flag to the PLA soldiers, thus demonstrating national ethnic harmony.
This moment not only refers back to the two earlier segments of the triptych—the PLA soldiers receiving the flag recall the military drill march through the “ethnic” Tibetan town, and the singer’s Sichuan origin serves as an homage to the earthquake—but also raises questions about official representation of the nation-state in China: How is it conceived? What is authentic? What can be trusted? Who is speaking for whom? And, as you pointed out, we view this national spectacle of ascendancy and harmony through the poor TV reception of a small, gritty screen in a peasant’s rural home.
But, in addition to registering the stark contrast between the power and pomp of the ceremony and the modest living conditions of my friend, it is important to note that this shot can also be construed in another, perhaps countervailing way. China’s economic miracle would not be possible without the back-breaking labor my friend from the countryside contributes to urban growth, and he is singing along with the national anthem, enjoying a celebratory meal he earned with his urban labor, perhaps feeling somehow a part of the big Olympic party in Beijing. This pride can be read as a testament to the degree to which the standard of living and the opportunities for economic improvement in individual lives in China have increased in the past thirty years. Party supporters would point out that this is all due to its leadership, and detractors would say it is in spite of it. Regardless, I wanted all these possible meanings to operate in that final shot.
MacDonald: Stephanie, what motivates you to work on the particular subjects you choose?
Spray: This is a surprisingly difficult question, Scott. In Kale and Kale , Monsoon-Reflections , and As Long as There’s Breath , I focused on the everyday lives of antiheroes, people who get by in life by tolerating rather than overcoming their problems. I gravitated toward some of these subjects not because they have the usual kind of charisma you find in many documentary subjects, but rather what I saw as the filmic discernability of the weight of their being—for lack of a less clunky phrase (I believe the subject who most exemplifies this is Bindu, the middle-aged woman and field hand in Monsoon-Reflections and As Long as There’s Breath).
In my work I’ve been interested in how this quality can be evinced through subtle movements and expressions, and perhaps conveys a sense of “realness” or personhood that unsettles presumptions about cultural or racial difference and the inequalities they perpetuate. I’ve sometimes thought that these films offer an implicit criticism of the thinness of most representations of poverty in the “third world,” but that’s an aftereffect rather than a guiding logic or motivation for me. I hope that, if the films are about anything, they’re not about moralizing or re-educating so-called Western audiences (although it’s okay if they do that), but something much more basic about experience itself.
Why this is important to me, I’m not sure. I do think that the aesthetic of these films is, to a degree, inherently political and posthumanistic, but I’m not sure if that is what motivates my work at its core. An additional and implied subject in these three films, and maybe all my work, has been time itself, about how its texture varies as it unfolds in the moving image and in our lives, which is one reason why I’ve kept my shots relatively long.
Of course, much of this is an intellectual explanation of what is simpler in practice. I’m frequently motivated by the joy of experiencing the world through the camera, or what Jean Rouch called the cine-trance, which I think is most evident in Untitled . I love how the frame allows me to re-order and direct experience, opening up new possibilities for knowing. Using the camera as an extension of the body in this way is physically challenging, at times exhausting, but also exhilarating.
MacDonald: In Kale and Kale , how fully are you meaning to play against assumptions? For some American viewers, the two men would look like pot-heads; is your gradual way of revealing their spiritual dimensions partly a way of teasing out the viewer’s prejudices?
Spray: The structure of the video is built to work against assumptions and stereotypes; however, I was more concerned with caste stereotyping than I was about whether or not the uncle and nephew would be perceived as potheads. Both Kales are Gāine, a caste of “untouchables” who traditionally play the sarangi, the stringed instrument you see at the end of Kale and Kale. I wanted the piece to unfold in such a way that it would emphasize their lives in the village, where they can carry themselves with more dignity than when, crouched at some stranger's doorway, they beg for a living. In Nepal marijuana is associated with the dreadlocked god Shiva, who is said to smoke in the Himalaya; and it has other religious connotations. So I wasn't fixated on smoking marijuana as a taboo to exploit, but as a fact of their lives within a cultural context that, admittedly, I don't care to explain to the audience. Of course, the two men do smoke an inordinate amount of weed and cigarettes and I could barely get a shot without a pipe or a dangling cigarette.
I suppose I've always thought of what you refer to as their spiritual dimension as their humanity, which I wanted to illustrate in their relationships with one another and with me the cameraperson. When I made Kale and Kale, I hoped that my camerawork would somehow evoke some of this.
MacDonald: What is the name of the ritual that occurs well into this piece, where the offscreen voice says “Put it on auntie too”?
Spray: The young woman who gives me the red dot (called a tikka in Nepali, tilak in Hindi) is the younger Kale’s daughter; she is a regular vessel for the goddess Kalika, who inhabits her body from time to time to send messages and make predictions. The girl had just done puja, a ritual to an image or embodiment of a deity (a rock or statue—what Christians call idols) that can involve all of the senses—recall the end of Forest of Bliss; that’s puja.
I don't mean to lead you astray with the goddess possession stuff, since anyone can do puja. The main point is that the food offered to gods or goddesses, frequently fruits and sweets (there’s animal sacrifice in Nepal, so meat too), are then given away to humans as blessed food, calledprasad, and through its consumption a person is more fully and physically connected to the goddess. I've heard tikkas explained as blessings and as a kind of souvenir, an outward sign of that blessing.
I'm not Hindu, was raised Pentecostal, but am nothing at all now—a recovered hardcore teenage Christian.
MacDonald: I assume you shot the material you use in Monsoon-Reflections  and As Long As There's Breath  over a long period of time, though you use the cycle of the day as an organizing principle.
Spray: I've always thought that the two movies run a bit outside of time or against time; some of the shots are rather long (especially for the subject matter and quasi-narrative structures) and are concerned with mundane activities (I’m interested in subtle facial expressions and body language) and when pieced together they could represent one day, or not.
It’s been my hope that the videos give a sense of the way time can drag on in these villages, the way time is filled or killed with hanging around—epitomized by the long smoke break—and by doing extended, banal tasks such as grooming. Here in Nepal, people speak of “time pass,” using the English words, which designates a category of activity that allows one to cope with the burden of time, which to me feels at once lighter and yet thicker than time in the U.S. Monsoon-Reflections or As Long As There’s Breath could be one day, or several days, but the main idea is that days often blend together, especially since some subjects seem to have lost the will to keep track of the details of calendrical time.
MacDonald: Why the hyphen in the title of Monsoon-Reflections?
Spray: The title is a translation of the equivalent title "varshaa-vichaar" from a Nepali epic poem, Reflections on the Seasons, by Lekhnath Paudyal [written 1916, published 1934]. Hyphens are used throughout the Nepali-language poem to make compounds, which are called samaasaas in Sanskrit (where they are normally not hyphenated). Since Nepali is a modern language and the poem is relatively “modern,” hyphens are used throughout to help contemporary Nepali readers deal with extended multisyllabic compounds, such as theruttingelephantbespeckledwithpearllikedots, which are a hallmark of Sanskrit but difficult to make sense of today in Nepali or Hindi. Hence, varshaa-vichaar (monsoon-reflections) and not varshaavichaar (monsoonreflections). I retain the hyphen for the video as a subtle, if not obscure, reference to Paudyal's poems.
MacDonald: Are you still shooting film?
Spray: Most certainly still shooting, loving it, and not planning to stop anytime soon. Recently I worked with a collaborator, Pacho Velez, on the production of a super-16mm film on the one and only cable car in Nepal (it goes to and from the temple of the wish-fulfilling goddess). We’ve jokingly been calling it “ethnographic sci-fi” and, if the film doesn’t self-destruct, it should be strange and fun. In our conversations we’ve been thinking about it quite formally—as a series of extended shots portraying individual trips with different passengers inside 5’ X 5’ cable cars, structured over the course of a single cable car day, lunch break and all. A single trip is roughly the length of a roll of film, so extended shots should work nicely. We cast Bindu, Bhakte, and my Nepali moms (from Monsoon-Reflections and As Long as There’s Breath), and a number of people who we met along the way, including two Babas and a bride and groom. It’s borderline fiction, although you could also call it documentary. We plan to start editing in January.
I am still working with the family from Monsoon-Reflections and As Long as There’s Breath and hope to make a longer piece in the next year or two. I'm trying to find other ways to depict “time pass,” as well as Bhakte’s alcoholism and Chet’s bitter depressions, with a compassionate eye, and in such a way that they maintain a kind of onscreen dignity. I feel that if there is any redemption from the darker sides of these two personalities, it is found in Bindu’s admirable strength. I feel that I've just skimmed the surface with Monsoon-Reflections and As Long as There’s Breath, so I’d like to try once more to see if I can get it “right.”
I am forging ahead, but definitely look forward to doing more work close to “home,” where I can work without so much of the power/image politics mixed with guilt or the wondering if I should feel guilty when I don’t, which is also perhaps why I’m so much looking forward to the cable car film: for once it’s not about the suffering of brown people, but about holiday time, wish-fulfillment, and cool technologies: Aaton film cameras and Austrian cable cars (we borrowed the Aaton that Gardener used for Forest of Bliss from the Film Study Center).
MacDonald: Earlier you mentioned James Benning; your work with sound often evokes his films.
Spray: Yes; his films made a strong impression. 13 Lakes was the first that I saw, and is a favorite, and I had the good fortune to see the other Benning films that played at the Harvard Film Archive a few years ago. As a kind of homage to 13 Lakes, I’ve been working on a sound project about the lakes of the Pokhara Valley, but with a twist: I’m primarily interested in what lies under the surface—literally, as well as metaphorically and acoustically (I use hydrophones). I plan to compose the pieces with reference to local stories about drownings and malevolent water spirits. Called “7 Lakes,” it will be the dark, twisted sister to 13 Lakes (the serenity of which Benning pierces here and there with sound—the gunshots in the Crater Lake shot, for example). I’m also working on a sound project focused on the growing glacial lakes of the Khumbu region, including the Gokyo lakes and Imja Tsho.
Véréna Paravel/J.P. Sniadecki
MacDonald: What was the instigation for Foreign Parts?
Paravel: At the end of the spring Sensory Ethnography seminar in 2008, others were going to exotic places: Shanghai, Timbuktu, the Nile…but for me Queens, New York was a paradigm of exoticism. Ever since moving to New York, I’ve been fascinated by the Number 7 subway line through Queens, which passes through the neighborhoods of about a hundred and fifteen different nationalities and ethnic groups.
Sniadecki: It’s maybe the most diverse space in the world.
Paravel: Originally I had the idea of making an essentially anti-ethnographic film that would foreground ephemeral encounters, fortuitous interactions between people and places as I walked the full twelve miles under the Number 7 tracks. I would go traveling the world in my own backyard.
With this idea in mind, I started walking in Flushing and immediately the experience of walking-cum-filming was totally different from what I had expected. I felt totally there and totally empowered. I was filming everyone and everything. Sometimes people would come up to me to be filmed. One guy was handing out flyers and when he saw me filming, without saying a word he removed his shirt and began to dance in front of me, and soon I was filming his torso from maybe five centimeters away. Later, without saying a word, a woman opened her shirt to show me a scar that went all the way down her body. The camera and I were perhaps the catalyst for such craziness, and at times I felt like all the excess and insanity I was witnessing was beginning to inhabit me too.
MacDonald: This is the material that became 7 Queens?
Paravel: Right. I finished it in 2008 in the fall seminar.
I film and shoot still images obsessively; it’s almost a disease with me. I’m less interested nowadays in working with words, especially of the academic, discursive kind, than I am with sequences of images and sounds. We are, after all, imagistic creatures before we are linguistic ones. We all inhabit, are also inhabited by, fragments of imagery, of sounds, of partial memories, of sensations, felt, remembered and mis-remembered. Images of all kinds loom far larger in our cognitive and corporeal make-up than good English or French—than sentential language. Working with a camera and sound recorder gives me far freer reign to delve into all this unruly wealth of sensorial material than huddling over a keyboard.
As for what motivates my choices of subject, it’s hard to say. I don’t think any of us really knows. The real reasons are more unconscious than conscious. But I think there are always at least three factors in the mix for me. The first is, no matter how interesting something may be on paper, or as an articulated theme, there has to be a strong aesthetic dimension to it if I am to be drawn to it cinematically.
The second is that I respond to the world filming, much as I do when doing ethnographic fieldwork: I surrender to it body and soul. It colonizes my whole being, which takes a huge toll on me, but is also what makes both filming and fieldwork, at their best, so fulfilling. My life ends up conjoining with the lives of my subjects, and in the process I end up confronting myself, and all of my anxieties and obsessions, at the same time as I confront the world outside me.
And thirdly, there also has to be an intellectual aspect to the subject that intrigues me, that surpasses my aesthetic and corporeal engagement—something that sparks my curiosity, or a desire to make connections between the visible and the invisible, or the personal and the public, or the poetic and the political. That said, I have no interest in making films that seek to answer a question; I’m not a “militant,” as we say in France, an activist who wears her politics on her blouse—issue-based films generally leave me cold.
MacDonald: One characteristic of many of the films that have come out of the Sensory Ethnography Lab is the particular attention to the soundtrack. In 7 Queens, as in Foreign Parts and J.P.’s films, the sound is multilayered and dramatically expands the world revealed in the imagery. Is it fair to say that when you two are drawn to subjects it’s as much for how they sound as for how they look?
Paravel: Basically, when I approach a subject—people, a place—I’m constantly interrogating myself about how to access it on multiple levels. And to be sure, acoustic connections are as important for me, as alive in my mind, as vibrant in my body, as those we deem exclusively visual. There are as many acoustic protrusions to a person or a place that one can attach oneself to cinematically, as there are visual or tactile protrusions.
Right now, I'm working with Lucien on a new project about commercial fishing out of New Bedford, and spending a lot of time on one-hundred-foot groundfish dragger and scalloper boats out in the Atlantic, and in many ways it’s the sound of the boat at sea—its incessant engine, the winches, the waves, and the boat’s wake—that determine how I respond and react, and so shape the rhythm and tone of what and how I’m filming.
I should add that Ernst Karel, who also works at the Sensory Ethnography Lab, and mixed 7 Queens and Foreign Parts, has really taught me how to hear—his minimalist aesthetic and the rigor with which he listens to the world have marked my work.
Sniadecki: Sound has an allure all its own, and in all projects I am equally focused on sound and image. Sound-making (and recording) is also place-making, because sound both flows from and floods into bodies and environments, forming a kind of sonic orientation and meaning.
MacDonald: What exactly spurred your interest in Willets Point?
Paravel: I was shooting 7 Queens and happened upon and started filming an old car being literally shaken apart by a forklift truck. That encounter, that shot, ended up becoming the first shot of Foreign Parts, and led me into the whole maze of auto shops that make up the junkyard at Willets Point. When I first entered the junkyard, someone told me it was too dangerous for me to be in there—and I immediately knew this was going to be the subject of a film. From then on, I came back to Willets Point obsessively and started to get to know people.
What intrigued me from the get-go were all the contradictions I witnessed there—for me, the U.S. is an automobile culture, with both the putative freedoms and the imprisonment that cars represent in American history. Cars in the junkyard were at once being deconstructed and reconstructed—recycled into an infinity of fragments and spare parts, and also serving as shelters, as homes even, for many of the “homeless” inhabitants I found there. Cars as shrines to the culture of the country, its ethos of individualism, freedom, and conquest, but also as detritus, as rejects, as garbage—which is just the way the politicians and city of New York look at the people who scrape out a living there.
Sniadecki: When I first went to Willets Point with Véréna, we hadn’t worked out how the collaboration would go; we just started, and immediately the camera was floating between us with no problem. I remember one particular shot early on, made with the camera on a tripod. We were shooting a wall of rear-view mirrors and we framed a shot together, focusing in on one particular mirror, just as a guy working there walked into the mirror’s reflection and sat down, perfectly framed. We looked at each other and knew this was going to work out.
MacDonald: Foreign Parts goes through the four seasons; how much time did the two of you spend at Willets Point?
Paravel: While shooting 7 Queens, I spent almost all of that summer there, alone. And then J.P. and I spent the better part of two years going down there whenever we could find the time.
Sniadecki: We’d go back at least every month, sometimes twice a month. Of course, we would have preferred to live in New York, but at the beginning we couldn’t afford it. Plus, Véréna has two kids and a husband, and I had my Ph.D. coursework to do, and at the time, Demolition was getting screened in festivals, so I was travelling. We’d take the bus five hours from Boston, drop our stuff at some friend’s place, go straight to the junkyard, shoot all day, take the subway back to Brooklyn, sleep on our friends’ floors, wake up at six and do the same thing the next day.
We went every month for a year and a half. Well into the process we got some funding from the LEF Foundation, and were able to rent a room in Flushing and spend a full six weeks at Willets Point.
MacDonald: Were you always shooting when you were at the junkyard? Shooting video, you can easily end up with five hundred hours of footage.
Sniadecki: We filmed quite a bit, but we often put the camera down and hung out with people. We didn’t have a plan for this, like we’re gonna hang out for six months without the camera and take notes, then turn on the camera (which can be an effective way to make certain films). People work very hard at Willets Point, and work ethic is respected. To fit in, we needed some sort of labor to do. So, from the very beginning, we figured we’d just dive in and get to work; for us, filming and recording sound feels more like work than writing on a note pad with a pencil.
Some days we would hang out all day and shoot for four hours; other days, we would shoot four minutes—it just depended on the dynamics of the days. We definitely spent a lot of time not filming, sometimes drinking and talking until very late at night, probably later than we should have stayed (Willets Point can be a dangerous area at night).
MacDonald: A characteristic of many of the Sensory Ethnography Lab films is the relaxed way in which they negotiate the presence of the filmmaker filmmaking.
Sniadecki: It’s not my impression that we all agreed not to eliminate the presence of the filmmaker from the film. There was a particular moment in the development of anthropology when the field critiqued itself for not bringing forth the positionality of the ethnographer, which led to the “reflexive turn” where, instead of writing themselves out, anthropologists were including their reactions and their emotions and background and presence in their work.
That said, I don’t think that reflexive moves or involving the presence of the filmmaker is automatic within Sensory Ethnography, nor do I think that anthropologists are the only ones who are working reflexively.
Paravel: When we were filming Foreign Parts, we often had discussions about how to proceed, and if and how we might enter the film. We were open to everything; nothing was verboten and nothing was pre-ordained. We tried to follow the rhythm and the pace and the gestures of the place.
It seemed wrong to us to play the game of pure observational cinema à la Wiseman, where theoretically there is nobody behind the camera. We didn’t want to saddle the film with the weight of a fabricated absence. We were always trying to be shaped by the place, more than trying to impose an approach, a style, an idea on the place.
Sniadecki: It’s a question of being in a position of receptivity where you are marked by the people in the place you’re filming. When I first started to make Demolition, I didn’t want anything to do with self-reflexive filmmaking. I’d seen a number of films that had what seemed to be a token reflexive moment, and I didn’t like them—as if you could put a little bit of your voice here and there and be somehow absolved of some ethical dilemma by acknowledging your presence. I’d come to feel that my earlier film, Songhua, would have been better if you hadn’t heard my voice. I don’t feel that way now, but at the time of shooting Demolition, I was going to keep my voice and my presence out.
But even early on, my approach in Demolition was to let the experience of being there in that place shape the way I was making the film. As it turned out, conversations between the workers and me became part of the experience, and it would have been totally disingenuous to cut those moments out. If reflexivity happens to trigger or ignite or activate; if it produces something useful or interesting for the film, why say it’s off limits? Every shot carries the cinematographer’s sensibility and emotional state in some way.
MacDonald: How much footage of Willets Point did you end up with?
Paravel: A hundred and fifty hours.
Sniadecki: As we shot, we would watch the rushes and log as much as we could. We cut a trailer early on, and to do that we looked at a lot of the stuff on tape. When we received the LEF funding, we started shooting High Def, so in the end we were working with two different formats.
At a certain point, Véréna said, “We’re done shooting; we have to edit; we have to finish this film,” which was probably a good call, although I feel as though we could have filmed for a few more years. We stopped shooting exactly when we were starting to express certain, less obvious layers of Willets Point.
Then we watched all hundred and fifty hours twice…
Paravel: And cut the material down to forty hours…
Sniadecki: Then very quickly we made an eleven-hour assembly.
Paravel: At the end, we were editing eight-nine hours a day, using Final Cut Pro.
Sniadecki: Then I went to China, and we continued editing by email, sending files back and forth.
When we got down to the two hour mark, we had to think about the balance of many different elements. What was most challenging for us was how to disclose and deal with the political backdrop of Willets Point, which could easily have colonized the film and taken away from the other aspects of the place that we wanted to communicate. I don’t know that we struck the right balance; we went back and forth about it, up until the very end, when we had a deadline for a screening at the Locarno festival.
Paravel: What was guiding me was the idea of making a film juste—I don’t know how to say that in English. A film that was just, fair, adequate to its subject, that found the proper balance between all the themes I was trying to pursue. We needed to arrive at the right ratio between the car as creature and the human creature.
MacDonald: During recent decades, there’s been a lot of discussion about the ethics of filming other people, a discussion that can ignore certain realities. I think my favorite moment in Foreign Parts is when the guy doing a sort of horsey dance performs for the camera, then says, “Thank you,” as he leaves. We forget how important it is to be noticed and to feel noticed.
Paravel: Thank you for saying that. I’m really happy about that shot. It’s a quintessential 7 Queens moment—a kind of spontaneous combustion that came out of an accidental encounter.
The man’s performance has a beauty to it because of his agency and his confidence in front of the camera, and because it happened by serendipity rather than by hard work on our part—it’s not as if we won his acceptance through two years of patient, earnest ethnographic fieldwork whereby we sought to insinuate ourselves into a position of invisibility that would get him and everyone else to forget about the camera and numbly accept our presence. In a sense, there’s a whole world encapsulated in that one shot, all the comprehension and miscomprehension that unites and divides people from each other, all the complexity of his being, and simultaneously the impossibility of communication between people. It’s dialogical, but at the same time a false dialogue. What comes out of his mouth is more guttural than verbal.
The shot deploys all the stages of the interpersonal encounter: approach, seduction, exchange, gift and counter-gift, and finally abandonment. He interpolates us, he has an a priori conception of what a camera is, what it can do, what it does despite itself, and what, for that brief moment of play, he can do with it—for himself, for us, for unseen others. He offers us something; he offers the world something, in his performance. And at the end—this is the abandonment—he escapes from us, and also from the film, and from the spectators who would imprison him within the carapace of a cinematic character. He surpasses the film, as all human beings do in the end.
Sniadecki: That gentleman, who goes by the nickname of Crazy Horse by the way, is in some sense the director of that scene; he’s the one calling the shots. We were just in a stance of being open to what he wanted us to see.
MacDonald: Did the Willets Point people get to see the film?
Sniadecki: The unofficial (but for us official) premiere was in the junkyard, and the interaction between the film and those who came to the screening was kind of amazing. Almost everyone who was in the film saw it. At the time when the film was premiering, Luis was back in prison. But everyone else who had any kind of role in the film and also many people who weren’t in the film came to the screening that we’d organized with UnionDocs and Rooftop Productions. They helped us bring a screen, a PA system, and a projector to Willets Point. People would stand up and holler when they’d see one of their friends or when they’d see themselves in the film.
Paravel: Actually, Foreign Parts came alive to me, became a film, the day we showed it in the junkyard.
Sniadecki: We were pretty anxious about what the response would be. But during the screening Marco, who owns the diner and is in the film, leans over and goes, “Ah, it’s beautiful. You captured all the rhythms and beauties of this place.” We were surprised and excited that he found our approach and aesthetic pleasing, thinking he might have been anticipating a more activist film.
Paravel: I think he, and the others too, understood what we were trying to do, and I think they appreciated the film and recognized themselves in this portrait.
People from Willets Point also came to the New York Film Festival screening the next day, and later, to the MoMA screening. At the end of the New York Film Festival screening, I asked Julia, the little woman you see dancing sometimes, “How was it?” and she said, “I slept so well.” I think she enjoyed just being there; she’d been living in a van for seventeen years. And there was a very beautiful moment at MoMA, with Joe, the one legal resident of Willets Point. He was sitting at the back. Somebody asks us a question and suddenly Joe is standing up, answering the question, and everybody is listening to him. At the end, somebody thanks us for the film, and as I’m about to answer, Joe takes the microphone and says, “Thank you!” It was his film, too.
MacDonald: I understand you two are planning a new project.
Sniadecki: Yes, we’re planning, scheming, looking for money. In south China there’s an island called Hainan, and on that island there’s a town called Haikou. I found a building with an abandoned lot right behind a good friend’s house. It’s a concrete slab shell where a bunch of Miao migrants (in English we would say Hmong) from south China, northern Laos, and Vietnam have moved to reclaim this space and make it their own. They’ve built living quarters in there, and they go out into the city to collect plastic bottles for recycling. In and of itself, this is fascinating, but there’s also a gigantic sand mound next to the area—they go to the ocean once a week and dig up sand to deposit there and then sell to construction places (actually not such a good idea because salt in the sand is bad for cement). The children play on this sand mound, transforming it into a playground. So we’re going to work on a film about Miao migrants, recycling, and the magical sandbox of the imagination.