By Pamela Biénzobas

Humans, animals, landscapes, machines… There has always been a clear hierarchy among the subjects according to their nature, in any kind of discourse. And of course in the creation of art – with cinema, and documentary cinema, not being an exception. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have been challenging that hierarchy for the past decade, in a body of work that a homage held at the 20th edition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival allowed to revisit.

The Tribute was part of the “Film Forward” section, initiated last year by the Greek event to house those titles that propose less obvious forms, in an attempt, yet to prove its efficiency, to help audiences navigate within the vast general program with an indication not about the content (as in the thematic sections Music, Habitat, Human Rights…) but about the form. Covering earlier films done by both Paravel (Foreign Parts) and Castaing-Taylor (Sweetgrass) in other collaborations, up to their latest documentary Caniba (premiered in the Orizzonti section of last year’s Venice Biennale – after which it was reedited in a new version that was shown for the first time ever in Thessaloniki), the retrospective presented a sample of the evolution and variety of their filmography.

A conversation between the duo and Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg, Chevalier) at the Thessaloniki Contemporary Art Center also offered an occasion for them to look back into their work and elaborate on where their approach to cinema comes from.

Véréna Paravel recalled how cinema appeared to her as a means of expression: “I was finishing my studies in France. I often lie, and say I’m an anthropologist, but that’s half-true. I was doing what the French call STS (Science, Technology and Society), which is a mix of History, Sociology, Anthropology and Philosophy. I was suffering from not being comfortable with exploring things and expressing myself through the written language. Everything was shrinking with words.”

By the end of her PhD, she decided never again to write a paper or a contribution to a conference. And somehow, despite her lack of experience or training, film seemed to be a possible way of approaching the world. Having grown up travelling with her parents and moving between continents, without being exposed to television or even to museums, “I was just trying to grasp things. There was a lack of understanding that I needed to fill.”

Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor in a masterclass

While doing a Post-doctorate in Columbia, she discovered the area of Willets Point in Queens, New York, and decided knew she wanted to make a film about that world of chopshops, machines, misery and also so much and such diverse life, that was bound to disappear. The problem, as she was fleeing the written language, is that everyone she turned to asked her to write a treatment. Until she met Lucien Castaing-Taylor from Harvard College’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (which he directs, as well as the Film Study Center), who gave her access to a camera, and she started to shoot for months. As she was “learning in the process”, the more experienced John-Paul Sniadecki came in as co-director of what would become Foreign Parts (2009), which she called a “failed” transposition of her academic background.

While the desire to approach a specific subject aroused Paravel’s interest in cinema, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, on the contrary, knew he “wanted to make a film, no matter what about”. As he was teaching in Montana, before even finishing his studies, he became interested in a community of sheep herders of Norwegian origin, who still practiced transhumance. “I decided to shoot during the summer, and ended up following up for three years”, he recalled of the genesis of Sweetgrass (2009), which he signed along with Ilisa Barbash.

“I had studied ethnographic film in Los Angeles, and I really felt alienated”, as he “couldn’t find the human in them,” and in that “first-world metropolitan observer” and the “embalming gesture in anthropology and ethnographic film.”

At the same time, he was blown-away by the landscape and by the community and their relationship to the animals. He decided to embrace the utopian pastoral genre, so common in painting and poetry, but much less in cinema. But when he realized how hard that life was in reality, he decided to go “for a dystopian gaze at a utopian genre.” He also realized how “people started becoming boring, whereas sheep emerged. They are supposedly the most stupid animals,” but he was trying to take their subjectivity and embodiment seriously.

In these early works, sound was an essential material for both Paravel and Castaing-Taylor. For the latter, working with the precise, industrial and sensual sound around him was a way of engaging the body as part of what is being documented. For Paravel, sound also became a central element in the challenge of composing a film from such an overwhelming space as Willets Point. She often could not even communicate with the people, many of whom only spoke Spanish. “So it was just being there, building trust. That was the beginning for me of Leviathan.” It was a serious question they were confronted to: “how do we collaborate without subjects in a much more profound way than just spending a lot of time”.

Leviathan (2012)

“From fly on the wall to barnacles on the side of the ship with your own bodies.” That is how Athina Rachel Tsangari described the filmmakers’ gaze and also physical involvement in the formidable film Leviathan, that immersive sensory experience that, since its premiere in Locarno 2012, brought widespread attention to the filmmakers as major contemporary voices, way beyond the field of “anthropological” or “ethnographic” film.

Véréna Paravel explained in Thessaloniki that originally it was a “completely different project: we wanted to make a film about fishing in New Bedford (Massachusetts), a very symbolic city that used to be and perhaps still is the biggest fishing port, money-wise, in the United States.” The place, that in Moby Dick is described “almost the same as today”, was their original subject. “Until we went to sea and the sea cancelled out everything else because of our experience there. We intended not to see sea, and now it’s the opposite: we never see land.”

They remember that first trip as being completely excruciating, with five days of violent storm in freezing and unpredictable weather. Eventually, “the whole film became an extension of that.”

They wanted to share the fishermen’s experience, and, having lost three video cameras and a digital reflex camera that fell off board, they found their ally in a small waterproof camera, that they tethered to the boat for certain shots, but that they mainly either strapped to their own bodies, or to a pole that would become an extension of their body, to obtain a point of view “at once extremely objective and also extremely subjective. (…) We were not interested in their (the fishermen’s) or our point of view. We were aiming at the pure experience itself. (…) We ended up wanting more of that point of view that is not completely human-centric. At sea you feel minuscule compared to the nature around you. It’s like an extended collaboration. Or not even a collaboration: as if nature is writing the film itself.”

The duo took part in six fishing campaigns, each lasting from ten days to three weeks, over a year and a half. Daily routine was “very repetitive. Those fishermen work 20 hours out of 24. And we would never work less than them, to be accepted and show we could work as hard. So part of the imagery comes from loosing our bearings and not knowing if it’s day or night.”

Ah humanity! (2015)

Through the choice of the title Ah humanity! for the short film that Castaing-Taylor and Paravel co-signed with Ernst Karel, their usual collaborating sound artist, also from the Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, the spirit of Herman Melville seems to still be haunting their work. Despite the clear quote from “Bartleby the Scrivener”, it is impossible not to think as well of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi’s Oh! Uomo. Beyond the proximity of the title, and even though Oh! Uomo works with archive material whereas Ah humanity! produces its own images, they both try to approach a brutal reality that is physically and emotionally unseizable, somehow intellectually incomprehensible, and and must invent ways of making it visible.

Confronted with the mission of filming Fukushima for a commission by an art foundation (intended as an installation, therefore rarely ever screened in regular theatrical conditions), Castaing-Taylor, Karel and Paravel struggled to find the way of observing and documenting the devastated landscape from a great distance, until they looked at it through a telescope: an instrument allowing to approach the inapproachable, framing the gaze. But in order to record that gaze, the telescope was combined with the camera of a mobile phone, incorporating randomness and limiting the possibilities of control over the image. The soundscape was then composed with, among others, location recording, the soundtrack of Japanese films, and the recording of seismic activity, building up even further on the work’s uncanniness.

somniloquies (2017)

Premièred at last year’s Berlinale Forum, and produced with the support of documenta 14, somniloquies (in lower case) is yet another sensorial experience – though the description seems redundant when referring to the work of Castaing-Taylor and Paravel. But in this case, oneirically sensorial. The filmmakers worked with the amazing archive of a renowned somniloquist. While sleep-talking regularly and loquaciously is quite rare, it is even more rare for it to be kept on record. But Dion McGregor’s roommate Mike Barr recorded his extraordinary somniloquies for seven years. Selections of the material have been released in audio albums and in a book illustrated by Edward Gorey. And, now, in this performance-film that gathered participants to sleep nude in an abstract space. The camera floats and hovers over the bodies, mostly filming them in an equally abstract manner. In a hypnotic journey, while we listen to fragments of McGregor’s extremely diverse discourses (on different subjects and all kinds of registers and “genres”, and even in invented languages), which at times are so articulate and amusing that they retain our attention in a concretely narrative way, we observe at the same time the most often indistinguishable fragments of flesh and skin of unaware sleepers willingly exposing themselves in the most vulnerable state.

Caniba (2017)

The duo’s latest film, Caniba was presented in a new cut, different from the one that had premiered in Venice’s Orizzonti last fall, winning the Special Jury Prize at the Italian festival. It is clear that the filmmakers are still struggling with their subject, seeking the way to transmit their own experience and disconcertion during the short but intense time spent observing and listening to their protagonist. The film’s making actually – and knowingly – is the counterexample that comes to contradict what Castaing-Taylor describes as a general rule in their approach: “we try to hang out for months or years (… and attain) something thematically or sensually authentic, not mediated by language.”

The idea came from Véréna Paravel during the preparation of their trip to Japan for Ah humanity!, as they were not sure they would be able to carry out the commissioned film, and started to look for other ideas to work on at the same time. That’s how they found themselves looking into the Japanese Pink film genre (or Pinku eiga), and Paravel suddenly realized that the actor of one of the films was a man that had traumatized her (and most of France) during her childhood: in 1981, while studying in Paris, Issei Sagawa killed, raped, cooked and ate his fellow Sorbonne student Renée Hartvelt. And the images of the crime scene and remains of the 23-year-old Dutch were actually published in the mainstream press.

Screening of Caniba by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel at Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival

Declared insane, and therefore unfit to stand trial in France, after some time in a psychiatric hospital in Japan, he has spent the rest of his life as a free man in his country, where he acted in porn films, authored books and was a food critic for some time, but now lives in precarious material and health conditions, looked-after by his brother… who in the film appears just as eager as his sibling to share his own sexual arousal preferences: self-inflicted torture, in his case.

Combining sometimes extreme close-ups that mostly isolate Sagawa’s features or the object he is showing, often leaving it out of focus, while his is either remaining in silence or speaking with difficulty (and often in a hardly comprehensible French), as well as some old family footage of the brothers’ childhood, Caniba does not feel like it is creating tension as much as it is suffering from it. As the filmmakers explained, while the reason for the camera’s proximity has to do primarily with the reduced space, the result is a “translation of the experience of being in front of him and not being able to escape”, and the treatment of the face as a landscape of flesh, somehow like the bodies in somniloquies.

And even though they did film a lot of his surroundings, with a mix of naked women, crucifixes, teddy bears and Cinderella, they decided to mostly leave it out, because “it felt we were trying to find kind of explanation, which would be reductive and simplistic.” Instead, Sagawa’s facial traits fluctuating in and out of focus became a way of sharing the fluctuation of his consciousness as he sat there, speaking or not, as well as of the attention of the filmmakers and the spectator in a fascinating but certainly uneasy film.