Photo: DocumentaMadrid

By Mónica Delgado

In the recent edition of DocumentaMadrid, multimedia artist and filmmaker Johan Grimonprez presented his new documentary, Blue Orchids, an appendix about the global corruption and weapons trafficking, which forms a diptych with Shadow world, his previous documentary feature. In this film, the filmmaker returns to interview a strange and fascinating characters, and together he builds a tale about one of his conceptual motifs, the figure of the double and the media as simulacra and ideological trap. In this visit to DocumentaMadrid, Desistfilm talked to him about some political aspects of his most representative films.


Desistfilm: How do you see the evolution of your work after Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y?

Johan Grimonprez: Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y was released right before 9/11 and then 9/11 sort of made the world, or me… there was a reinterpretation of that film because it was the story of an airplane hijacking. It’s as is the world was confirming what it is about.

Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y was based on the lecture of a book of Don DeLillo, Mao II. Double Take was a collaboration with a British novelist, Tom McCarthy, but it was also a fiction, and that narration is what takes you through. It’s is true that Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y is digging deep into the past, and Double take is also a reconstruction of what was happening at the beginning of the sixties, the tension between television and cinema, when television was on the rise and cinema was closing down, and it was true history trying to tell us something about today. Now Shadow World and Blue Orchid are based on interviews, because it’s a journalistic endeavor, so the construction of the narration is happening through the interviews. So it’s a very different departure. I think it depends with each project, but for me if the story isn’t challenging it’s not worth it, so the evolution from Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y to today is that I put myself through more challenges.

Desistfilm: We’ve seen that you use literary quotes in the same manner that you use found footage. How do you work with this motif?

Johan Grimonprez: It’s not only literary quotes but also musical quotes. Archival but also… it’s like, Hitchcock used to say that film is like life but with the boring things cut out. And so, it’s already in itself, if you’re holding a camera to the world you’re editing already. Cinema Verité was a failure because of that. You could never imitate reality, you’re always cutting or editing or recontextualizing. So all these things are recontextualizing, making it into a fabric or a story that puts these things together. It’s pretty much what that sort of things relate to. In Blue Orchid when it says “murder has been committed” the music stops, so you have a bit more of silence. So it’s not only the text, but also the sound, the music that recontextualizes. I would say that this is an iconoclastic gesture but at the same time it reinvents the context, the question, or the subtext.

Desistfilm: Double Take is the film that made you famous. Is the ghost of Hitchcock still following you? Shadow World picks up this game of the double as well.

Johan Grimonprez: Well, the ghost of Hitchcock is hanging in all cinema, sort of scholarly studies; there’s a book about Hitchcock coming out every month. Insomuch that Thomas Elsaesser he was the dean of Film Studies in Amsterdam Film School, he said: “we have now the Marxist Hitchcock, we have the Althusserian Hitchcock, we have the feminist Hitchcock, we have the post-Marxist Hitchcock, we have the Deleuzian Hitchcock, you know, we have all these different Hitchcocks, because it keeps on being proliferated in cinema studies, which are devouring the ghost of Hitchcock. So it’s not only me suffering from it (laughs). But I made a film about him and his Doppelgangers, where one of his Doppelgangers was my father, my real physical father. So maybe, if Hithchcock was obsessed with the ghost of his mother, maybe I’m obsessed with the ghost of my father, so we have to commit patricide (laughs), because there’s this Freudian feminist scholar who talks about the fact that next to the Oedipus complex we have the Eurydice complex, next to Orestes. Orpheus goes down in the underworld and it’s not something about our mothers or fathers, it’s more about looking who’s in front of you, who is the parent who is in front of you. It’s a very different approach to psychoanalysis.

Desistfilm: There’s a sensation of returning always to this corruption as part of human nature, a feature that you pick up on your films Shadow World and Blue Orchid…

Johan Grimonprez: In Blue Orchid, there’s a part where Chris Hedges talks about connection, where he refers to Dostoyevsky “Hell is the inability to love, and that’s what kills people”, and there’s something that opens up. I think because he’s gone through the worse of what humanity is capable of; he comes to realize that the redemption comes from connection. And so, if you’ve seen the worst of humanity you sort of realize the opposite. With Shadow World was the same. You can keep on saying what’s wrong with the world but is the way out? What’s this other view of the world? So we have Michael Hart, I talked a little bit about it, but also we have, for example a neurologist in the University of Manchester. He talks about tickling, and he says “you cannot tickle yourself, you need the other to tickle you” and he’s talking about the fact that inherently consciousness is relational. And we he have him also in the diplomatic section of Shadow World, and so there was something hopeful that I think it would’ve been more of a balanced film maybe? If all these things would’ve juxtaposed the enormity of what Shadow World is all about.

But nowadays I’m working on the idea of the commons, for example we interviewed Martha Benavides, and she was talking a lot about how she creates gardens to put fighting rivalry camps together and in the garden she would invite people from the enemy to come plant stuff, and so she would create gardens that would start a dialogue. And the garden is sort of the commons.

I agree there’s a lot of talk about that’s wrong with the world, but there is also a lot that was part of Shadow World… For example, Shadow World starts with a thousand hundred people embracing each other. The Christmas truce and it ends also with the soldiers embracing each other. There is a little suggestion that there’s another world out there, that another world is possible. But I think it’s as crucial to also to reveal that politics have been sold out by lobbyists,  and this is no conspiracy, you know, conspiracies are always a short hand to wipe the truth from the table, and to end the discussion.

Desistfilm: How did you decide to go back to a more conventional form of documentary filmmaking in Shadow World?

Johan Grimonprez: This is a question also of perspective, because PBS would say “why do you have things about love in the film?” I thought they would be upset with all the things that we were revealing about weapons dealing but they were upset about the fact that we had people talking about love in the film. So we have Eduardo Galeano talking about the kiss-o-drome… They wanted to cut all that out. For them it was absolutely not conventional, it was too poetic. It depends on which perspective you’re talking about. But, as I said before Shadow World indeed has different constraints, so I would not do justice to the journalistic veracity of certain things that would jeopardize the end of the film. The end of the film was to reveal.

You know, if the world is upside down, the stories that we hear about the world are experimental, because the politicians have become the experimental artists, and the filmmakers have to become more “hard fact” to reveal what’s going on. I think there’s something contradictory about the world, what I would call an ontological shift, in DIAL H-I-S-T-O-R-Y and Double Take is very much about media manipulation, about manipulation of images. But nowadays, we live with genetically modified food, and we don’t know what we’re eating anymore, we don’t know any more who’s the politicians, or if what they’re telling us is true, so I think it’s so crucial to have these journalistic endeavors that actually just do the opposite. So in that sense, it’s experimental beyond experimental. Maybe the storytelling is more conventional.