(22/06/07)

Anthea Kennedy and Ian Wiblin are two London-based film directors whose DV feature film, Stella Polare, is the focus of Kamera’s first screening session on 05 July (see links for details). We caught up with the duo to talk about their work.

I understand that the process of capturing the footage took place over the course of years. This method of work reminds me of Agnès Varda’s concept of ‘gleaning’, which she beautifully condensed and metaphorised in her successful film The Gleaners and I (Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse, 2000). Can you describe this approach to work?

The film was made over a period of approximately two and a half years. Although we started out with the idea of making a film that dealt with place and history, and which had contemporary resonances, we didn’t have a script or anything like that. Really we began by responding to our chosen location, Trieste. We made lists of things we wanted to film, like collectors, or ‘gleaners’. As far as the editing was concerned, we had to do this slowly, not least because we both teach during the week. However, this slowness was actually good for the film. It gave us the time we needed to reflect on the material and to decide how to structure it. We couldn’t have done this in a few weeks or months. As for the voice-over, the content of the text gradually evolved from the image – what the images suggested to us at the time of shooting and editing. Naturally, it changed a lot during the course of our work. Initially, we edited the images without any sound. We knew from the beginning that we wanted to build up a completely separate sound track without using sync sound. There’s only one small piece of sync sound in the whole film.

About the themes underlying the film: history, war, terror, memory, to name but a few. I also remember your saying that you filmed in Trieste because of the WWI events that took place there. Can you speak about this aspect of the project?

We’d been to Trieste once, just out of curiosity. We knew a little of its history and were intrigued to see what it was like. First of all, we saw the jetty with people promenading up and down and we were immediately struck by it as a visual image. The city itself felt forgotten and for us seemed to have a sense of melancholy about it which we found very appealing. Geographically, Trieste is on the edge of Italy, near former Yugoslavia. Its national identity has changed several times. In the nineteenth century, it was the main port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and was thus a city of great importance. There are grand buildings from this time that make the city feel more Central European than Italian. This period of Trieste’s history is still reflected in its food: where else could you find goulash with polenta?! Archduke Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo was supposedly the cause of World War One, passed through Trieste on his way to Sarajevo. It was the association of his death with terrorism and notions of empire that was important to us. We wanted to relate these themes to contemporary events post 9/11. The ideas within the film developed during the build-up to the war in Iraq.

In some ways, there is a sense that the history of Trieste is a microcosm of the history of Europe in the twentieth century and beyond. Apart from being part of Austro-Hungary until the end of World War One, Trieste was occupied by the Nazis in World War Two and had a concentration camp. It was liberated in 1945 by Tito and nearly became part of Yugoslavia. There is still a large Slovenian population in Trieste and there are dual language signs in the streets. However, we show very little of this in a direct way in the film as it’s important for us that the city remains an anonymous place. But Trieste’s history was important to the film’s development and is implicit in the film.

It seems there’s such a small number of filmmakers in the UK approaching film the way you do. Why do you think that is? Why is the independent, art cinema scene in the UK so small and often so conventional?

Every aspect of film culture in this country has become very diluted – from funding through to exhibition. There are so few places to watch non-mainstream films these days. Thus many people, especially young people, cannot have any sense of the diversity that exists within cinema. Film in this country also seems very much divided into categories. If your work falls between categories, like ours does, it’s very hard to find a place for funding, screening, distribution etc. There’s a sense of not really fitting in. The situation here is very conservative and competitive without much sense of solidarity or collaboration.

The aesthetic impact and effectiveness of Stella Polare owes a lot to video. Do you think video can achieve a different emotional texture and a rawer sense of time and space because of, as you say, the ‘present tense materiality of the video image’?

We couldn’t have imagined making Stella Polare on film, even if we had had the means. Shooting on video has given the film a kind of ‘tourist gaze’ which contrasts with its serious themes. Yes, video can give a rawer sense of time and space and whilst we’ve exploited some of the aesthetic possibilities of this, we have also used the camera in a very formal way. The shots of the jetty are long, rigorous and static, shot using a tripod, for example. Mini-DV images tend to be flat and lacking in contrast. Shooting the majority of the scenes on the jetty at dusk enhanced these characteristics, giving the images an artificial feel and, at the same time, a painterly quality. The unreality of the colours produced, especially when shooting at dusk, contributes to the feeling of melancholy (we didn’t really change any colours dramatically during grading). We didn’t want to hide the fact that we were using a cheap video format – rather the opposite. In post-production, we blew up some of the images to create an awareness of the digital surface. One such shot is given the soundtrack of a video game. The figures in this image are more or less reduced to pixels and yet at the same time they still have a certain human quality, a vulnerability.

There also seems to be an aesthetic contradiction, which we like, created by shooting the images of nineteenth century furniture, ornate gold frames etc. with a mini-DV camera. It seems to accentuate a sense of time and history. Compared to the depth and beauty of the celluloid image, mini-DV is quite impoverished. But this brings its own beauty. Perhaps there’s no point in comparing the two formats. They’re just very different, like oil paint and acrylic paint. In terms of sound, we didn’t go for the raw immediacy of direct sound. The soundtrack was built up from many different sounds and from silence, so that it doesn’t just mimic the image. We wanted a more mysterious soundtrack to create a sense of the unnamed city at the centre of the film. We didn’t feel this could be done with direct sound.