“As a filmmaker I like to respond to things around me” – an interview with Douwe Dijkstra
By Andreea Patru
While most filmmakers use technique to create parallel universes or to conceive perfectly polished images, Douwe Dijkstra reveals his tools in order to demystify the art of cinema. Based in Netherlands, Douwe is an up and coming experimental filmmaker who is interested in exploring quotidian matters through the tools of mixed media. His last short film Voor Film (in English: Supporting Film) is a commissioned piece that premiered at Go Short – International Short Film Festival Nijmegen and got selected for the daring Lab Competition from the Clermont Ferrand Film Festival this year. His preference for a mix of techniques could be seen also in his previous short, Démontable, also selected at Clermont Ferrand in 2015, after a premiere in Rotterdam International Film Festival, which is a bitter-sweet depiction of war and its effects on our daily routine. His style is already well defined, breaking the rules of the conventional three-act storytelling. Douwe focuses on the process as much as on the outcome, for instance, turning an investigation about how to make a film in Voor Film in the film itself. He uses different mediums in order to obtain an original short film that oscillates between documentary and animation. The viewers’ point of view is depicted in order to address the stereotypical in filmmaking in a bold attempt to make a film out of a research on the craft itself. The universe of the Dutch director blends visible green screens in an humorous “behind the scenes” moments with CGI images, special effects, stop-motion animation and classical actual shooting and the result is a postmodern piece of cinema. In Démontable his witty and mature perspective follows this “deconstructionist” path in order to create a critical view on war and violence served as a daily meal. His filmography also includes: The Washing Machine (2005), Backpacking (2006) and Pinball Man (2006), Beguine (2008).
Andreea Patru spoke with Douwe for Desistfilm in an attempt to unveil the fine line between conventions and experimental.
Desistfilm: I’ve noticed that your films reveal not only a story, but also the making off of it. Why do you want to reveal to the audience how it’s done? Is this a statement?
Douwe Dijkstra: Filmmaking is often all smoke and mirrors. And as people are familiar with filmmaking techniques through making-off documentaries, that makes for interesting possibilities of using the ways of constructing a world as a narrative by itself. I think there can be as much meaning in the act of making as in the result. And I like it when the line between them blurs, for me that is an important part of telling a story. The strange ballet on a green screen or improvised pyrotechnics can be funny, but these moves can also be very telling performances. I like to take a step back and film what I am doing with a second camera, you never know, it might end up in the film.
In Démontable I use it to show my artificial relation to the subject of war. And there is also a directness and honesty about showing how it is cooked. Although some audiences have to get over what they are accustomed to, I believe the result can be as immersive as when all tricks are carefully obscured. The documentary short film that I am currently working on is also all about exposing how it is made; in it I try to turn the green screen into a character.
Desistfilm: Your short Supporting Film addresses the audience and its preferences in a direct mode. It’s like you’ve done a research about which are the ingredients of a good film and now you’ve just delivering the process without the conclusion. In fact, the conclusion of your research becomes your film. Did this research help you in any way to reach or to better understand your audience?
Douwe Dijkstra: It was hard to get people talking about these things without mentioning specific movies or characters, but I kept this as a strict rule: describe what you see, don’t mention any names. What I was looking for were personal preferences or observations about movies and the ritual of watching them. And you are right, the film itself is the conclusion.
Many people take a lot for granted when they go to the cinema, the Hollywood formulas, the genres. I loved hearing some critical comments on film clichés: how they are familiar and safe, and how they can sometimes kill the experience. I don’t know if I came to understand my audience better. But I know that I was amazed by how some people can view the world of cinema with the wonder of a child. Even if they don’t like the story they might enjoy the backgrounds, the costumes or the music.
It’s early for me to say something about my own relationship with the audience. I love to sit in a cinema and experience the response of people to my work, to feel it resonate. And of course I talk to people about it, but the people that dislike or don’t understand your work don’t say much.
Desistfilm: Where do you feel that your work is better screened, in cinema/film festivals or as part of video installations in art spaces?
Douwe Dijkstra: Both Démontable and Voor Film were made with the big screen in mind, I don’t like to show these films to people on a laptop screen. The scale of things that are happening in the shots are suited for a projection on a large format. Démontable started out as a three-channel installation in an art space, edited as a loop, so you could enter the space at any time. The one-channel short film version of this piece does have a beginning and end. And it did run a few times as a loop in exhibitions too, but I prefer to see this version in a movie theatre. A dark room in a museum works, but for many films it’s second best to a cinema where you see something from the beginning to the end. Voor Film was made more specifically with a movie theatre in mind. When seen in this setting, together with an audience, it displays a Droste effect of you looking from a movie theatre to an audience in a movie theatre that is watching a film.
Desistfilm: How important is humor to your work, and how do you modulate its role in your work?
Douwe Dijkstra: In the process of making films humor is one of my main motives. Not necessarily in explicitly making jokes in the narrative, humor is in the details, it’s the fun. It gets me going in making unusual connections and start creating. In a film itself humor keeps your audience engaged, and it helps your film flow. I don’t like jokes that are too obvious, they can fall flat. But when used in the right way humor can introduce people to difficult topics. And I like it best when it creates a mixed feeling, something uncomfortable. Some people told me that they were hesitant to laugh about funny scenes in Démontable because they also read the poignant message underneath. That was the best compliment I got for this film, that it achieved this feeling of doubtful enjoyment over something that is absurd and therefore worrying and funny at the same time.
Desistfilm: The toy soldiers from your short film Démontable depict very vividly a war against common everyday like objects like a fan, a cup of coffee and other mundane stuff. The ironic part is that it’s a war against the average objects, yet taken very seriously. Explain your option for this mixed media reconstruction of Don Quijote’s behaviour.
Douwe Dijkstra: In a literal sense the soldiers are waging war against objects, but in the film this war is going nowhere, and that’s not the point either. The noise is a constant, it’s the permanent clutter of war and violence from the news that is present even at the diner table with all its real images and sounds. Yet it feels distant, abstract and maybe even routine. The mixed media are all about our relation to this mixture of realities. And the Don Quijote theme crossed my mind a lot when making the scene with a soldier who is playing badminton against the wind.
Desistfilm: How do you explain your preference for meta-film? How do you select which medium to use and why do you utilise them in that way?
Douwe Dijkstra: I think this is because I work very inquisitively and curious. I’m always playing around with whatever I get my hands on, and all ideas and accidents along the way can become part of the film. For this process I try hard to keep filmmaking hands-on in a literal sense. I prefer to use real objects and costumes, or real smoke and fire if I need this in the image. A very important part of filming these components is the element of trial and error, something I don’t encounter that much when working digitally. And although there is a lot of computer compositing involved in getting different elements together, I want them to look and feel real and not generated. More and more, I like to show this process as part of my work. I guess I am moving from compositing a complicated collage to something that is – seemingly – more transparent and simple.
Desistfilm: Does the mise-en-scène of your work follow a general structure, or a basic, foundational one, concerning, for example space and the placement of your characters ?
Douwe Dijkstra: When I don’t have specific reason to do it otherwise, I tend to go for clear and mostly centred compositions. I do try to depart from this actually, because I don’t want to get all Wes Anderson on it. It can become over-aesthetic, predictable and boring. But I have a strong urge to go for a distinct composition, because I want it to communicate clearly and maybe also because I am more focussed on movement and editing. In Voor Film and Démontable most shots are very clear, often centred and with few camera movements. It’s a bit like you are looking at a stage in a theatre, perceptible spaces that feel close, an approach that fitted both projects.
Desistfilm: You’ve done some commissioned pieces, how do restrictions and rules affect your work??
Douwe Dijkstra: Rules work for me. Also, even when I’m working on my own projects I try to maintain some rules that create a focus in my open creative process. As a filmmaker I also like to respond to things around me. You can find all these things in a commissioned project. But I have to be very picky in how these conditions work for me. Some people see something you did and basically ask if you can repeat the trick for their purpose. But there has to be some real research in a project, some experiment, to make it interesting. So it is not very often, but the commissioned projects that I do are helping me work on my own films, which is what I want to do more than anything else.
Desistfilm: Is your practice informed by theory, do you have any relation with other experimental artists? What is experimental to you and what do you want to explore next?
Douwe Dijkstra: To me, something is experimental when it is created in a process of trial and error, opposed to writing the whole thing down before I start shooting. There has to be a process of going back and forth between actually making things and reflecting on that and questioning my ideas about it. I always like to say that I start with a bad idea, and go from there. It won’t be something that I already think is bad, it’s just that it’s no problem if it later turns out to be. Because I have to get from ideas to images first. In the beginning of this process I prefer to have little theory, just the desire to perform and see this idea and some wild courage.
As I go along I read a lot about the topics I’m working on, or discuss work-in-progress with other artists. Film festivals are a great way to meet new people to talk about films or plans and to discover your own position in filmmaking. Whether people consider the end result of this process experimental is more determined by comparing the work to other films; sometimes my work is labelled as experimental, sometimes it is not. That does not really matter to me. But I do prefer to see the experimental categories at film festivals, because there you find most films that surprise you by flouting the conventions of filmmaking.
The next thing I am exploring is the combination of composited images and VFX with documentary filmmaking. I took my green screen to the streets of São Paulo and shot portraits of many different individuals. The resulting short film will be a remix of my point of view on this enormous city called ‘Green Screen Gringo’.