Photo: Terry Richardson

by José Sarmiento Hinojosa

Actress, model, dancer, singer and now filmmaker, Joana Preiss must be one of the most active artists from the current French scene. She recently released her worldwide acclaimed documentary “Siberie”, in which she documents the disintegration of her relationship with French filmmaker Bruno Dumont in a long ride along the Russian Siberian plains. She spoke with Desistfilm about the experience of recording such an intimate event, about her life as an actress and her long experience as an artist.

Desistfilm: Joana, you’ve been touring the paths of modeling, acting and singing, and now you reveal yourself as an (accomplished) filmmaker. How do these different aspects of your work relate and differ? Do you feel there has been an inner evolution in you while your career changed lanes?

I have a feeling every single thing I’ve been doing all this time until now, in music, in singing, in acting, even in modeling, were experiments in order to accomplish my film. This film is the result of every single different thing I’ve experienced until now. Everything was complementary… I couldn’t choose one medium from the other because all mediums are related to each other, and they are a kind of answer to each other. All of these things were important for me because they helped developed every single different aspect of my work from the inside out. I introduced a lot of my work and life experiences and I introduced a lot of my past into that movie, as well as I introduced a lot of my travel into my own work and myself. Every aspect of my work helped build this film. It seems like a normal evolution for me from the beginning; since I was dancing as a kid (10 years of classical dancing -from 5 to 15 years old – ) until this first film: Singing classical Repertory (romantic German lieders, oratorios..), improvising and inventing some strange voices , gave me some incredible material to act : it gave me the breathing, the rigor and endurance. Posing for photographers helped me to relax in front of the camera and to be used and watched, and to receive the light. Classical dancing gave me the attitude and the tension, the grace and the concentration. In fact I never thought these different aspects of my work differed, I had in mind actresses like Marlene Dietrich, Hanna Schygulla, Ingrid Caven and Barbara Loden, and artists like Sophie Calle, Cindy Shermann, Sam Taylor Wood and Louise Bourgeois… And directors like Orson Welles, John Cassavetes ,Rainer W. Fassbinder and Vincent Gallo.

Desistfilm: Was becoming an actress a natural thing after your modeling work? How did you begin as such? Was it a pleasant experience from the beginning?

I became a model after being an actress and a singer. It seems weird but it’s the truth. First I was a singer (I did classical singing studies and at the same time I did some concerts and some experimental performances with contemporary composers) I was an actress in theater (10 years with Pascal Rambert) and in cinema when I became a model, which was easier for me because it was not my first activity, because I wasn’t 16 and because I was already considered a muse. This “paranormal activity” started with Nan Goldin, who I met when I was 19 in Berlin. Pictures were done in an artistic way, we were friends and she photographed me a lot in Paris and in NYC. After being in Vogue photographed by her, Nicolas Ghesquiere asked me to be a part of his catwalk, to be a “top” model for him, and after that Virginie Viard and Karl Lagerfeld asked me for Chanel and Ann Demeleumester and Helmut Lang and Haider Ackerman, etc., etc…”Defiler” was the most stressful thing I did (compared to cinema theater or performances and concerts) but very attractive and very well paid too. I did these popular pictures with Terry Richardson for French Vogue (the famous portrait with the cigarette came from that series) and with Corine Day for Italian Vogue and for Vivienne Westwood, and with Paolo Roversi , David Bailey etc… it was exciting and fun, everything came by chance quickly, step-by-step and because I’d been an actress and a singer first.

Desistfilm: Christophe Honoré and Olivier Assayas seem to have you as one of their favorite actresses. How has the experience of working with these two filmmakers been? Which other filmmakers you’ve worked with have left an impression on you?

They trusted me first, they looked at me as I’d never looked at myself before. Both of them discovered me as an actress in theater and as a singer in concerts (Olivier came to see my earlier theater work and Christophe came to see Gilgamesh in Avignon which was in sunflowers field, the play started as soon as the night came and finished at 2 in the morning, I was acting singing moving speaking screaming dancing… it was crazy and intense. It was a (total) show about an older text of humanity found in Mesopotamia). Working with both of them was a story of trust. They trusted me as an actress and as a person. Christophe wrote some characters especially for me. It was an incredible story of fidelity with both of them. I had the feeling of growing up with them. They have a different but typical way to work, and I learned a lot from both of them.

I loved working with Pia Marais and with Nobuhiro Suwa, it was really great for many different reasons. They are both genius and generous but I had the feeling sometimes my work with them was too short. I get involved deeply in every single project I work for and in whatever I’m doing so it was sometimes a little bit frustrating trying to be deeply involved, since time seemed so short to me.

But it´s because I have a big appetite for my work and for cinema without measure. I loved working with HPG too because he changed every single word just before the shoot and just before the set, so he asked the actor to be aware and new in his feeling and reactions. He asked deeply for improvisations, he refused to see and to feel something he could’ve already guessed about someone, so sometimes it was a little strange at the beginning, but that was brilliant too. He pushed me to find new things relative to my character, my acting and my feelings. I loved working with Claire Doyon too, it was intense, deep and sensitive and we have some more projects together. Right now I’m working with Antoine Barraud and we’re making a film, a work in progress with a really small poetic & talented team and I’m (playing) a hysterical tragedian actress; I’m also working with Tonino De Bernardi, who I love to work with because he’s passionate and his life is deeply mixed with his cinema: He’s filming me singing which is also an important part of my work and my life.

Desistfilm: What do you recall as being the most emotionally difficult shoot of your actress career? How do you handle the pressure of this work?

I can’t answer precisely. I have the feeling everything’s emotionally difficult when you are an actress and when you’re totally involved in a film with a story, a character, a director, a team… I think to be an actress is one of the most difficult jobs to do because it’s relative to your deeper feelings, and you can’t separate your life from your work. But that’s only my position (which I pushed intensely during my film Siberie where my life is mixed with my work. It’s a kind of paroxysm.) But to be an actress is marvelous and wonderful too because you can be a child forever. It’s important to stay as kid when you act (when you are). You come and pick up fresh and clear feelings from childhood, and that’s fantastic. The fact is you have to stay strong and fragile at the same time and you have to play with your deeper feelings all the time. You have to be moved and to be ready for all kinds of strange situations and anticipate them in a virginal way with all the background and the experience you have behind. You have to feel totally free and open-minded and to play with your imagination most of the time.

Desistfilm: Sibérie must be one of the most intimate and accomplished documentaries of 2011. How did that process start? Why did you decide you wanted to register your voyage with Bruno (Dumont) and what was behind that decision? Did you have a feeling that your relationship was deteriorating?

I met Bruno in Siberia one year before the shooting. We fell in love and we were invited to go back to the same country one year later… to travel to different places, taking the Transsiberian railway. So we decided to go and do a film together in this country and this situation. We had a deep desire to work together. We felt the landscapes and the situations were really cinematic and we decided to go with two very low-fi cameras and only ourselves. I wrote some short ideas and short fiction synopses about vampires, but when we started the trip we just figured out that reality was more interesting and stronger than everything we tried to do with my vampire ideas… We saw our relationship deteriorating in front of the camera. I’m not sure the relationship could’ve deteriorated as well if the camera wasn’t there. It was painful but static too to see all of this happen in front of the camera. No one could put the camera down to try and save our love story. We were obsessed with the film and work in progress. Some dialogues and some situations exist only because of the camera… (Sometimes the camera is like a weapon…). The film came to be to the detriment of our story.

“Sibérie is one of the main characters of the film for all the reasons you describe. It’s like a mirror with of the raw and honest meditation of love, it’s a perfect décor for this “triste geographie des sentiments”, and the train helped us to have these kind of lonely feelings, increased by our “huis clos” inside the Trans cabin, in front of the big window, on the exterior as a big travelling shot with the immensely rugged inhabited landscapes”.

Desistfilm: Was Sibérie planned as a documentary beforehand or was it the result of what happened? When did you  think “okay, this has to be a film”?

Sibérie was probably the result of what happened beforehand (although some situations were introduced by the camera) but we trusted the film from the first second we shot. Then after we were absolutely sure it was a film, when we discovered  for the first time the first 24 hours of footage. The footage was painful but absolutely cinegenic. We thought about a very fragile and very strange film. But a Film nonetheless  And then I decided to edit by myself, I edited for many months, and when sometimes I lost my trust or desire it always came back like a power, like a certitude even if I had so many doubts all along. I couldn’t abandon the project even if I was suffering. It became a total obsession.

Desistfilm: I guess that being in that editing room had to be a revelation for you: to revisit the dissolution of your relationship, watching how life became art in front of your eyes. How was the process of selecting what would and what wouldn’t be on screen?

It was exactly that. The editing room had to be a revelation for me: to revisit the dissolution of my relationship, watching how life became art in front of my eyes. I reinvented all the story in the editing. For this reason my film is a fiction.

I edited by myself for a long time (almost two years on one old and slow computer at home) I tried many different ways to find the center of the film and the precise subject I wanted to talk about. After trying many directions, I was sure about the transsiberian and about the slow deterioration of the love story. I needed to edit by myself all of that time to appropriate all the fabric and to take distance with myself, watching me as a character….To find my precise character role in this film and to find Bruno’s precise character, and the main subject. After that, I knew precisely what I wanted to show in story, form and context.. After all this lonely time and all this lonely work I invited a young and great editor to work with me. We worked for many months, days and nights (the fabric was really fragile) with discussions too; I tried many things to find the most precise way for what I wanted to show and what I wanted to say.

Desistfilm: Sibérie is an aptly titled documentary: The rugged, inhabited plains of Russian Siberia almost work as a metaphor for this raw and honest meditation of love. Do you think the environment you were in (the isolation, the territorial alienation) permeated your interactions with Bruno, as you were forced to be alone and contemplate the actual truths of your relationship?

Sibérie is one of the main characters of the film for all the reasons you describe. It’s like a mirror of the raw and honest meditation of love, it’s a perfect décor for this “triste geographie des sentiments”, and the train helped us to have these kind of lonely feelings, increased by our “huis clos” inside the Trans cabin, in front of the big window, on the exterior as a big travelling shot with the immensely rugged inhabited landscapes. We seemed obliged to face the truths of our relationship. Without escaping it. But I can tell as well, on the other hand, that the landscapes and life in Siberie gave some breathing air to the claustrophobia. It reinforced the claustrophobia and gave it some air at the same time…

Desistfilm: How much of Joana, the actress, and Joana the human being was in Sibérie? Do you think your actress formation led to you “performing” from time to time in the shoot?

I think I felt really spontaneous and free in front of the camera in that story (even if the story was so intimate) because of my actress formation. I have a kind of normal exhibition because of my profession. It’s like a “deformation professionelle”. I like to be in front of the camera I’m playing with. But I have to say: My character is a mix between my human being at that precise time in that story and what I chose to show of myself during the shooting and what I was playing with during the shooting and the character I wanted to extract and to show when I worked on the editing and the story, after the shooting. I chose some parts of myself which built a new character. It’s still me but it’s not me. It’s a schizophrenic position. A dissociate situation.

Desistfilm: Are you interested in venturing further as a filmmaker? Do you have plans for the future in this area? As an actress, are there projects or filmmakers you would like to pursue? 

I started directing a new film in Super 8 in Andalucia. I wrote a story about a strong and wild character I’m passionate about, and a non-actor is playing this guy… I started to film him in the desert. I’m working by myself without any team, I’m doing the sound and the photography by myself and I feel very free in that desert, and in that way. I filmed and recorded sounds in a documentary way sometimes. I have too many projects as an actress with some filmmakers I’ve been working with for months, with new filmmakers and for some new projects I’d like to pursue.