ISABELLE INGOLD AND VIVIANNE PERELMUTER: “THE POINT WAS TO FOCUS ON WHAT RESISTS, AFFIRMS LIFE”

ISABELLE INGOLD AND VIVIANNE PERELMUTER: “THE POINT WAS TO FOCUS ON WHAT RESISTS, AFFIRMS LIFE”

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Isabelle Ingold (left) and Vivianne Perelmuter (right) © Susanne Weck

By José Sarmiento Hinojosa

We recently found Allieurs, Partout (Elsewhere, Everywhere, 2020) by Isabelle Ingold and Vivianne Perelmuter, premiered at Rotterdam Film Festival last year. Immediately, the unique qualities of the work of Isabelle and Vivianne permeated our screens. A poetic work of subversion through the deconstruction and re-utilization of found footage from the sphere of the apparatus of control of society, the all-seeing eye which monitors our every move. But in a radical act of détournement, the filmmakers hijack those images and use them to retell the personal/universal.

The story of an Iranian immigrant, Shahin, is not only a personal tale, but a universal story of the declassed, the invisible, errant people who live in an eternal limbo, in transit through their land to a new land which is inherently hostile. Images, conversations, thoughts, they are all intertwined in Elsewhere, Everywhere as a strong poetic/intimate/political work of what we don’t want, or don’t get to watch, a work that challenges us as spectators through feeds of webcams and the internet, to find the humanity behind the pixel, the poor image, to find the presence of the other in our lives. We talked with Vivianne and Isabelle about their outstanding work of cinema, their own experience with Shahin, and the reality of migrants in Europe.

Desistfilm: Vivianne, Isabelle, can we talk about how you came across the story of Shahin, and were able to keep up with his conversations, recordings and such?

Isabelle Ingold: We met Shahin by chance in 2016 in Athens. It was our first trip to Greece. We came for a very different film project, which in the end we didn’t do. On our way from the airport to the city, we had this vision: a huge building with many people on its deck. They looked like passengers on a cargo ship. Driving further, we could distinguish tents outside on the ground, children, veiled women.

We then noticed old panels on stakes, in front of the building: “Domestic flight”, “International flight”… The ancient Athens airport, the place by excellence for traffic, had been converted into a camp, a place where you get stuck.

We stopped. We couldn’t move, leave or enter. All of a sudden, there was a crowd movement. In fact, there was a curfew for the indoors part of the camp which required those who had a place inside to return no later than 10 p.m. Outside, it was more informal, with no surveillance, wide open on the road.

Among the people coming in, there was a young man who smiled at us. After a suspended moment, staring at each other, we started talking. It was Shahin. He was just about to turn 20. He was alone. His youth, his grace, his vitality, his curiosity about everything, embraced us. We met him again, several times. As much as he was hopeful, he was helpless. We introduced him to an NGO composed of people of his age who accompany migrants in their steps. They advised and helped Shahin. They also asked him, as he spoke a bit English, to volunteer and translate for Iranian and Afghan migrants. He did so and was very happy of it, of doing something of his days, something he could be proud of. A way also for him to meet new people and be invigorated by the exchanges with them.

We met also other refugees when we came to pick up Shahin at the camp. Often we had to wait for him to show up, and, meanwhile, people come to us. They ask questions or show on their cellphone, images of their dramatic journey on the sea. The way Shahin talked to us, and what he told us, were quite different. At the beginning, he didn’t talk at all about the hardest painful experiences we went trough. He rather asked questions about life in Europe, or talked about his dreams, about life in Iran, about his family. Shahin was always very sharp, sticking to small precise facts. We could feel he was especially close to his mother, a quite young mother of 35. As we continued scouting for the other movie project, meeting Shahin and witnessing the daily camp life became more important to us. But we felt that this encounter and all it entails could not be captured by a film, not be transmitted through it. For the first time, we thought about an installation where the body of those who watch and listen interacts physically with the place where they are, with what they witness, like if all your body is committed. The idea was to have several rooms but one would be the chore of the installation’s path, with a triptych made up of three projections on the wall. On the left, Shahin’s face, on the right that of his mother, they talk to each other, separated, in the center, by a long and single shot of the camp, filmed very early in the morning until the sun rises. It was a wide shot, neither too far nor too close. You could see the rituals of the people as much as their living conditions. We talked about this project to Shahin, and asked him and his mother if they would agree that we record their phone conversation. They did. Actually, it was a Skype one. They usually talk without image but we asked them to have one this time.  The next months, we came back several times to meet Shahin and we did a second recording of him talking to his mother. Shahin’s life and mood had changed. This installation was shown at the end of 2016, in France and Los Angeles.

Vivianne Perelmuter: In the meantime and after, and till now, we kept in touch, through texts messages and chats.  The necessity of the film Elsewhere, Everywhere (Ailleurs, Partout) arose later. One day, in 2017, Shahin wrote that he had just arrived in England. He was thrilled. We went to visit him some months later, and it was a shock: he was like a different person. As open and curious he was when we met him, he was now mistrustful, sad, angry without the energy of anger. Why? Wasn’t the worst behind him? Again we were working on another movie but to understand what happen, to fathom the why and how of this transformation, we dropped the other project and decided to make this movie. Immediately, we thought about using the recordings made in Greece and part of the chats and texts we exchange with Shahin during these two years. In England, we made another recording with Shahin reading the immigration office’s questionnaire.

Desistfilm: This use of appropriated material from different sources from the internet, specially webcam and security cameras’ feeds, which is fundamental in Elsewhere, Everywhere, speaks about the subversion of the images from this biosphere of the apparatus of control and vigilance we’re subjected to in our daily lives. Can you talk about the process you went through to get these images and to reuse them?

Vivianne: The choice of this type of footage appeared at the very beginning of the project. It echoes Shahin’s entire journey in a world so seemingly open and yet so controlled, so divided. But more directly and intrinsically, it was linked to Shahin’s concrete situation in England, a so connected isolation. He remained locked in his room, avoiding any contact as much as possible, observing the outside world almost exclusively through the net, especially live webcams, and among them, surveillance ones. What can he, and all of us see of the world through this type of images?

We had to immerse ourselves in this universe, and find out. We went to the four corners of the world and its every nook and cranny; big cities, small villages, isolated places, indoors and outside spots. We lived in different time zones, setting our clock at 3 in the morning to be in Russia or China or the United States, or elsewhere, at a certain time. We try to keep our mind and eyes as fresh open as possible, like when you discover a foreign land. As Didi-Huberman said, “the gaze must first disarm itself for afterwards, and only afterwards, rearm itself”.

“Rearm”… Of course, working with this type of images required tearing them from their primary function (surveillance) and their deadly effects. But to do this, it appeared to us that we should not criticize them from the outside but from the inside, accepting to be surprised, to experience its charms, its specific contribution. Otherwise, we would be reduced to finding only what we came to look for, and that, in return, inevitably, would fuel our demonstration. Above all, it would only double the violence that we claim to denounce.  We are not saying that all films made in this direction necessarily falls into this trap. But that was just not our approach and our purpose. We wanted to place ourselves, and thus the audience, in an uncomfortable position: facing ambivalence. Watching is an ordeal.

Actually, our main concern was not so much, at least not only, to criticize but to perform concretely another use of this footage, another modality of attention. The point was not to evacuate their function, nor the disturbing state of the world, but to focus on what, here or there, resists, affirms life.

Isabelle: We established a protocol. It started with a list of “no”: no extraordinary events, no accidents, no crimes, no catastrophes, in short, no violence represented in the image, whether police, military or individual. If any violence will be expressed it would be that of the image itself, and of what our character had to experience.  We would look for the almost nothing, the sensitive, the daily detail, the infra-ordinary as Georges Perec put it. It can be people’s gestures, their posture, the singular configuration of a place, a city, a street, a restaurant, it can be a light that changes in the sky or on a sidewalk, a rain which suddenly begins to fall, the particular texture of an image – something, like the burst of shards of reality in images that, “by nature”, tend to de-realize the world and our actions. The other part of our protocol consisted of filming live webcam images in real time, that is to say we were recording at the very same moment the events were happening somewhere in the world, in front of a CCTV camera. We didn’t know what would happen, what could happen.

Vivianne: Again this uncomfortable place, facing a continuous flow that crushes the present in a direct with no memory, an immediacy unable to settle, to sediment.  But strangely enough, in spite of all this, with a patient and keen attention, details could bring back a feeling of duration, re-inject time, even if only the tenuous gesture of a young baker, passing her hand behind her neck. It could tell her idleness, her weariness, her grace too, and appear thus as the result of a whole process: her work before this gesture, her entire journey to the bakery, her life until that tiny gesture at that precise moment, ephemeral.

Desistfilm: There is something to be said, not only about the sources of your images, which are rough digital imagery of vigilance (the poor image, if we think of Steyerl), but also of your subjects: immigrant workers, people in the streets, the declassed. The intrinsic connection with your subject, Shahin and the narrative proposal is a carefully constructed poetic artifact of resistance. Can we talk about the montage process of the film and how was this film put together?

Isabelle: Initially, we had three concrete materials: the phone Skype conversations between Shahin and his mother, the chats and text messages we had exchanged with him, and the reading of the Immigration office’s questioning. A little later, the idea of a narrator’s voice (a female voice) that would embody our place as filmmakers and reflect our relationship with Shahin came up, as well as the evolution of our way of seeing him. The text was not yet written, we will write it while we edit.

But before all, at the base of the project, as a congenital element, there was a principle that determined the construction of the film, the editing, the mode of narrative and the choice of its materials: it was the central role given to the off-screen. There would be no images of Shahin, neither of the people he talks to, nor would there be images of his sea-crossing, his life at the camp, his stay in prison. These narrative elements, remaining invisible, driven by the sound, essentially, will emerge only in the audience’s imagination.

Vivianne: It was a way for us to disturb the usual regime of perception, to fracture the profusion of images, especially about migrants, and the communal feeling of “having covered the question” which anesthetizes our emotion. Not seeing what you expect, as well as being guided by sound, opens up another space of perception and listening, of attention. The principle of a radical off-screen necessarily induces freer relations between images and sounds. And it manifested itself as a fairly free working method as well.

Isabelle: Moreover, there was no previous script. We wrote the film throughout the editing process. It was a constant back and forth between searching for images on the net, some kind of filming, and editing. Actually, it was between what we looked for and what we found. We started from a narrative element, for example, a moment in the conversation between Shahin and his mother, and we jumped online, looking for images that could embody the mood of the conversation, or a thought in it. We weren’t trying to illustrate what they were saying; we weren’t looking for a metaphor either. We were looking for a physical sensation, an echo. For instance, we started from Shahin’s feeling of wonder or of melancholy, and we sought an image that could make it vibrate, either by a correspondence or, on the contrary, by a counterpoint. Because sometimes, the opposite of that feeling can better enhance it, giving it another dimension. It may be a light in the image, it may be a color, it may be a sensation related to space, it may be micro events; it may be the silhouette of a person. Something in the image reverberates what Shahin feels at that very moment. And this also works in the other direction: the feeling of Shahin, what he says, helps to see a tiny detail in the image, to give it depth, to color it differently.

Vivianne: The off-screen also allowed us to refine Shahin’s presence as main character. He’s on one side, very singular, by his voice, what he tells, how he tells it, always through a very personal point of view (it’s this young man and not another); but at the same time, his feelings and thoughts, his experience, are like expanded, lifted to a common fabric, an universal frequency where each of us can find echoes in his or her own life.

This is connected with the second principle we set at the very beginning. As for image, we would only select words, heard or written, which stick to small events of Shahin’s life. Even the more striking, more dramatic events would always be told from a subjective point of view, through sensitive tiny details.

As filmmakers, we would exclude any comment, any discourse on, any political statement. We have been very careful about this: not to tell the audience what to think. They must make their own way, watching carefully, feeling and thinking by themselves, and it implies not knowing what to think first.

If we didn’t have a script, we did have in mind the movement of the film: from darkness to light, a slow approach that replays Shahin’s journey. In fact, there are two different currents. On the one hand, a horizontal movement underground, which retraces the course from his native country to England, via Greece. The Immigration Office’s questionnaire serves as its backbone, with spatial and temporal markers. But in detail, more substantially, there is another logic, more sinuous, more unpredictable, which guides the editing: that of Shahin’s inner journey. This is the story we wanted to tell.

And it brings us to the third principle that led our work: the narrative mode.

The story could not be told in a clear and coherent linear way, as required by the Immigration Authority, but rather like a puzzle whose pieces do not quite fit together, or like a labyrinth. No one is a monolithic whole, and no life is a seamless, coherent thread. Crossing geographical states, Shahin also and more deeply crosses internal states. And these states, their changes, this mental logic, would guide the film and its rhythm. We can even say that the film would intimately, physically expose them, so that it would no longer be just a film about this journey, but in itself a journey, which audience members should go through, in their turn. A true experience that would not only call for their consciousness, but should involve their bodies, their senses, all those more silent layers deep down inside, which remain below a clear thought, below words, but which in return nourish them.

This is why we are thrilled that you talk about our work as a “poetic artifact of resistance“. For the logic of the film is poetic. And poetry is not a fantasy nor an escape from reality, but quite the opposite. It is an “imagination for the real” as Goethe said, to imagine a reality other than what it is, and to even realize that it is already other, perhaps in germs, more fragile… So, pay attention to these germs.

Desistfilm: Working as a duo in a film like this usually means a shared compromise of work with different responsibilities. Which were the roles you two took in directing this documentary? What was the experience of shared roles as directress like?

Isabelle: There was really no specific role assigned to one or the other. Each of us had her own editing station. We managed moments to share the footage we collected, or to point out a new webcam, a new place. So we worked on the same footage but each of us on her own. When one of us finished a scene or found the beginning of one, she showed it to the other or just talked about it.

Vivianne: However, if there were no role assignment, our temperaments and working methods are quite very different and somehow roles appear. Isabelle advances very quickly. She explores, draws a structure, while I knit in order, in detail, already working on the sound editing. Actually, for this film, we start editing the opening scene and the last one, then Isabelle was launched like a rocket while I recovered my slower pace of editing.

Isabelle: Throughout the process, but not all the time, we show each other the fruit of our respective work, and this can lead to disagreements, but mostly to mutual stimulation which results in a new sequence idea or an adjustment of the structure. When we start to find the film, each work again on her own, on a written timeline. After that, we try to combine them.

We had already co-directed several films together in the past. On the shooting set then, there is a distribution of roles, even if it is not strict. We can interchange on occasion, but usually Vivianne does the picture and I do the sound.

Desistfilm: How did you decide which conversations were you going to recreate, the ones you were putting to text and the ones we hear as a recording, and why? What was the logic of presenting the words and thoughts of the other in the film?

Vivianne: What mattered to us was to reach and render the complexity of the character and of the situations he went through. Diversifying the materials was a way of doing it. They had to be very heterogeneous, with specific tones, styles, and different contents. So they could complement each other but also diverge, even contradict each other.

We choose words, thoughts, information, which multiply the facets of Shahin, compose a plural image instead of a steady univocal and flat one. The editing intertwines them without attenuating their discrepancies, holes and shadows, on the contrary. It highlights contrasts. For instance, between “official words” – Shahin’s answers to the Immigration Office – and the most private and intimate ones that he exchanges with his mother or with us. Even on this private register, a gap appears between what he says to his mother and what he confides in us. Among other reasons, Shahin cannot tell his parents the whole truth of what he is living through, to spare them worry and pain. It’s also and simply that Shahin, like everyone, does not speak in the same way, neither say the same things depending on whom he is talking to. This is the case even between friends, all the more so when one is facing with an authority, with its very own logic, its specific questions, its goodwill or its indifference or else its mistrust.

The immigration office’s questioning is a very interesting although painful documentary evidence; it has to be part of the film. It is based on a paper document where the questions asked and the answers given by Shahin were transcribed word for word. It allows us to learn precise things about Shahin’s journey, through very specific questions: what studies did you do before leaving Iran? How long did you stay in such and such a place? How much was the smuggler paid? What kind of contact you had with him? The questions in themselves were also very instructive by what they revealed. You can notice that they focus on certain facts but totally elude others. For instance, there are no questions about the sea crossing, its conditions, while other episodes were questioned several times, in different ways. So, the portrait they draw is ultimately incomplete and biased.

Our choice was to ask Shahin himself to read the questionnaire, the questions and his answers, as they were written down on the paper. Thus, this official and cold document could become the lively opportunity for performative act for him who experienced it as a crucial and painful moment. A re-appropriation of what was imposed on him.

The other materials we have chosen convey another way to talk about the same episodes, or about totally different ones, they bring back another dimension of what Shahin went through, what he felt. Shahin’s conversations with his mother were essential from the start. Based on their intimacy, they give up personal events, daily events experienced by the son as well as by the mother. Rather in a casual way or an emotional one. It was not only the dramatic facts which were narrated but also those, more tenuous, that make the ordinary frequency of life: the joys, the habits, the boredom, the blues… A wide range of affects generally eluded, forgotten, when we speak of migrants.

Isabelle: A whole part of the emotion and the meaning of Shahin’s conversations with his mother played out between the words, through the intonations, the laughter, the tears. They embodied both the bond between mother and son, and the distance between them, the separation. With us, Shahin expressed more directly, straight his feelings and thoughts. So they could go through a written form. Besides, we indeed mostly exchange with him through chats and texts messages.

Nevertheless, there were things that we have seen, felt, or things that Shahin had confided to us, which did not appear in our written exchanges. That’s why we added a fourth thread in the film: the voice of the female narrator (Vivianne’s voice). It’s totally different from the other materials, and draws another portrait of the young man. It also entails another kind of narration, with a more literary text, working on temporality in a very free way, as close as possible to the inmost way of living time: through sudden flashbacks, flash-forwards, or this stranger time layer reflected by the future perfect’s tense. But this thread has no privilege over the others.

Each one is only a fragment of a story, or rather a story in itself which, assembled with the others, constantly reframes our perception of Shahin, and does not “close the case” by ending. For Shahin is complex and changes all along. Even in a brief moment, his affects and thoughts fluctuate, not only under the circumstances of his particular situation of asylum seeker. Shahin is also simply a young person, and as such goes through drastic changes of his mind and desires, during the two years of wandering in Europe.

Desistfilm: The sound work in this film, both in its scoring and sound editing is crucial. Can you walk us through the process of making this happen in the film?

Vivianne: First, we need to point out that we often start with sound when we edit a sequence. Before the image, we place a sound (not always the voice), and its rhythm, its texture, the more or less large space that it suggests, lead us. And they lead us in a mysterious way, surprising ourselves, since, immersed in a civilization of the image, we are used to functioning differently. Sound frees us from a certain rigidity of image, it opens up another relationship to reality.

Isabelle: For us, the soundtrack is a whole whose various elements are inseparable. However, to talk about it, we can distinguish two aspects. The first is the voice. Here, a polyphony of voices. All of them lead the story, none is associated with a body in the image. But the way they’ve been recorded, gives them more or less fleshly stuff. Two were recorded, like a voice-over, in rather silent conditions, close to those of a studio, except that it was not a studio: an hotel room in England, an apartment in Brussels. The conversations with the mother were recorded in Greece, where Shahin was. We recorded the real situation. For all voices, it was not only what they say that matters but their inflections, their tessitura, their pitch, their color. Especially since they speak different languages: English, Farsi, French. We liked that there was also a polyphony there. Polyphony dismisses the status of an unique and omniscient voice-over.

Vivianne: The other aspect of the soundtrack concerns all the proper sounds, the drones, the music. The stake for us was to find the rhythm, the atmosphere, the texture and the sound landscape, that would resonate not only the so particular images of the webcam, but, through them, our contemporary world, or rather our experience in this world. The shift of the image, the blurring, the pixellisation, etc., seemed to correspond to this inner experience: we constantly zap, not only on the TV remote control but in all the folds of our daily life. Our cell phone rings, we are torn between here and there. The profusion of sounds and information parasitizes, clouds our thinking. But, as always, the peril, let’s say the zombie side, is entangled with its opposite. There is also a richness, a pleasure, an emotion, a beauty. So we worked with electronic sounds: clicks, parasites, drones. We tried to musicalize them. Sometimes we mixed them with extracts of music or with acoustic sounds, other times we interrupted them with the eruption of an organic sound: rain, wind. We composed moments on the brink of saturation, others more sober.

We avoided the naturalistic synchronicity between images and sounds. We were looking more for a texture connection between them, or of tempo, or of mood, in short of sensation. In order to break any homogeneity and to surprise, we distilled some “realistic” synchrony. When the rain suddenly falls, for example. It is an irruption, a break-in inside this “virtual” universe. It also creates a contrast that enhances the organic consistency of the rain sound, the power of nature, and, in turn, the proper texture of electronics. At another moment, we added sound effects to the gesture of an employee in the all-white kitchen of a restaurant. The woman is motionless, only her hand relentlessly stirs her coffee with a small spoon. Synchronous, the sound is not however that of a spoon against a cup, nor do we place it on all the movements of the spoon. We just wanted to underline, in dotted lines, the movement of this hand which reflects probably a habit of this woman. We looked for a sound that could be mixed very low, while being heard, but almost unconsciously. We mixed it with a sort of repetitive electronic drone. Together, they draw the attention to this little hand in the large kitchen, and make you feel the gap between the body of the worker and the cold and clean place, the loneliness of this woman.

Desistfilm: Did your work with Shahin opened your field of view on the lives of different immigrants and refugees in France and other parts of Europe? What were the main issues you detected in your research?

Isabelle: With this film, with the closeness to Shahin, we learned to avoid shortcuts, hasty, summary opinions, even if they are based on a genuine impulsion and the need to take a stand. Following in Shahin’s footsteps, we were surprised to discover that what we believed to be an advantage, a specific asset of English policy towards migrants, could prove, in fact, to be very difficult for some to live, especially young people. In England, asylum seekers awaiting their response are housed and are granted a small sum for food. In return, they cannot work, and this is what proves to be grueling, especially for young people who need to be active, to do something with their day. Maybe only few people felt this way but it was Shahin’s experience, with a devastating feeling of wasted time, of prematurely aging. Specially since he was suspended in this terrifying time of waiting.

Whereas in Greece, he started living in a camp, without any resources. As often with migrants today, he had to throw away his luggage during his journey. So he had nothing, just the clothes he was wearing and a cell phone. It was a tough time, but he had the right to work, and at one point he did. He became a translator for a second NGO. Doing so, he earned money and at the same time, improved his English, he felt he was making progress. He was able to earn enough money to share an apartment with other migrants. Shahin was very enthusiastic about England first, and critical of Greek politics. Then he put it into perspective. That said, it is undeniable that the procedure is much faster in England (around 6 months) and better organized, than in Greece and France.

Vivianne: The second thing that struck us was the criteria for obtaining refugee status. One of them mentions an element endangering the asylum seeker’s life. But it specifies a danger of death. However, it seems to us that the circumstances which, in a country, do not allow someone to blossom, to choose his/her life, which locks him/her in a restrained, stifling life, giving this person the feeling of a life wasted, is just as deadly. Besides, do we Westerners need such specific reasons to move around, to migrate? Except, a constellation of desires, immediately legitimate since one feels them.

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