Julia Dogra-Brazell talks to Helen DeWitt, Head of Cinemas at the British Film Institute 2013

HDW: Your work is very much about film, and specifically Super 8.  As an artist, what is it about that form and gauge that attracts you?

JD-B: Circumstances predisposed me towards adopting Super 8. Expats in 70s Paris would show home movies. I spent my childhood looking at other people’s activities. For some reason, my family never reciprocated. My father filmed when we were on our travels but never had the films developed. I developed these only decades later after discovering his 8mm camera, together with the cartridges, abandoned in my loft.  There was no trace of my family anywhere in these reels. Just the streets of New York, Paris etc. We were not cut out for home movies, I guess. But the de-contexualised fragments stayed with me. Apart from all this, having started with non-digital still cameras as a photographer, I still get a kick out of looking at the quality of light on a particular day on a particular film stock. There is play in specifics.

HDW: Can you say something about the text and texture of your films? How do you make your images and where do they come from?

JD-B: I tend to use the camera as a notebook. Like a street photographer, I simply record things that catch my eye, usually without any preconception of how they might be used later. The clips can stay in storage for years. What happens to these fragments as material, once I have a subject and start work on a piece, is another matter. Some are more ‘worked’ than others. I need distance from the specific memories that locations or gestures generate. But usually, it’s just a question of creating enough density to allow ambiguity back into the equation.

HDW: Where do the sounds and voices come from? Are they, in a sense, selected ‘quotations’, or a more random selection of auditory fragments?

JD-B: It varies. Girl in A Taxicab retains the sound of New York City one month after 9/11. It was a very particular sound and proved useful to the process of making this piece given its subject. In other works, sound is only constructed post-production. The actual texts are either my own or are words and phrases taken at random and reconstituted from appropriate sources. Sometimes there are clues to the source in the voiceover. Sometimes not. It depends on how much needs to be revealed to finish a piece. I should add, rarely is a voice one voice in my work.

HDW: Where do you see your work in terms of cinema?  You are clearly interested in film as material. The work is ‘cinematic’ in term of its cinematography, the focus, depth of field, lighting, montage; and one film is called Plot – possibly a reference to narrative cinema.  Can you talk a bit about your work in relation to cinema?

JD-B: Cinematic tropes or materiality are just grist for the mill. Perhaps I’m more interested in petits récits than cinema itself.

HDW: Is there a sense of fragments of a possible film or a lost film that the viewer is invited to grasp for? Are there are hints of filmic genres- melodrama, film noir, psychological thrillers? Is there a feeling of a kind of opposing momentum to the films in that they have to be broken down to be understood rather than put together in the usual understanding of narrative structure?

JD-B: To answer your last question first, I don’t believe there is an ‘opposing’ momentum. After all, we break down, or ‘analyse’, in order to rebuild or ‘interpret’. Assembling even obscured elements in a way that makes sense comes naturally to most people. Some we call cryptographers. Some we call paranoid. In Plot, I hope the seductive and slightly numbing effect of watching tightly edited rhythmical footage is matched by work that needs to be done to catch what’s passing and make sense of it. Film genres are just broken templates in this process.  One might say, the effect of individual elements or combinations of elements on the eye, ear, as a trigger for memory and so on is an ongoing preoccupation. 

58th BFI London Film Festival 2014

HDW: You also have your work exhibited in the gallery. This obviously makes a huge difference in the way that it could be viewed, particularly in terms if its linearity.  How do you feel about the differences between the experiences of the cinema and the gallery?

JD-B: Certain works, I guess, fit better in one or other context. Before I Left was defined as more of a gallery piece than I’d expected. I still imagine it in a festival: annoying an audience with its visual reticence, burning the retina with its flashes of light. I don’t set out to make something for one type of experience. I like to think that anything I produce is, in any case, only one remove from being taken apart and rearranged. A work can interrupt a programme, be interrupted or be aborted in medias res. End of story.

HDW: Now, of course, your films are on DVD for home viewing.  What do you think that means for the work?

JD-B: In the gallery or cinema we encounter the mysterious effect of the moving image. On dvd, its anatomy, potentially, is laid bare. Given the nature of my work, I can’t shy away from the possibility of close scrutiny. In terms of quality simply – since I now always edit super 8 digitally – I can’t afford to be too snobbish about the final form of the screening print. If the visual integrity of the work itself is as good as I can make it and if I have produced as close a digital transfer as possible, I move on.  To do otherwise is to make work only to worry about whether the buyer will hang it over floral wallpaper. Someone always will.

HDW: Like much good work, Plot is enigmatic. Is it about a relationship, but one that needs to be unravelled by the viewers- references to an impersonal, possibly generic, past; a death; the French language? Are these remains of communication indicating something about the connections and disconnections between close people?

JD-B: Though I film friends and perfect strangers, people referred to in works – the he, she, theys – don’t actually exist. Exceptionally, the absent figure in Plot (the mother) did. But as you suggest, I tried to make something more generic of the situation. Everyone can have a take on it. Including me. I can honestly say, my eye saw what my hand did. In this piece at least, the most interesting connection/disconnection I found revealed or elided is the one that exists in the self between one point in time and another.

HDW: Can you talk a bit about the sense of place in your films? Are location and environment important?

JD-B: Yes and no. I have been drawn to Nyon for twenty years now, where my mother is buried and my father still lives. Needless to say, the town and surrounding areas appear in a number of the films. But while Plot, for example, is most obviously associated with this part of Switzerland, it was also made up of fragments of footage from all over the place including New York, Tel Aviv and Whitstable. The opening to the New York piece, Girl in a Taxicab, was shot in London. The Garden starts in Paris and ends in Sissinghurst, with neither location having any bearing on the subject.  Certain locations, for me, are important on a more primitive level: in that they offer something visual I can’t leave alone. 

HDW: You use many different kinds of language – the handwritten word (“silence”), the spoken words in English and in French, the text on screen, the typewriting.  All say something different.  Are they all “foreign tongues”? Is communication possible?

JD-B: They can be. I don’t know if communication is possible. But we seem to understand enough to increasingly want to forget.

HDW: Can you tell us why poetry is important to you?  What it can say, in terms of the references in a film, but also the poetic structure of the voice-over and film structure?

JD-B: It’s the degree of condensation that attracts. I’ve always loved certain poets. Poetry is the ultimate in sublime approximation. Two cherished memories from my early years are Christopher Ricks drawing out the many different inflections in just one line of TS Eliot and Eric Mottram talking about his own work. Who the hell wants to be in the centre, he once asked me, somewhat rhetorically and in his usual rambunctious manner. Aim to be on the margin. Throwing things.   

HDW: Are you nostalgic?  Are your films a yearning for a lost past, a foreign country? Are they about regret?

JD-B: No. No. And No! Remember that great line from Light in August