The Underground Film Studio: An Interview in 12 parts. Part 2: A Revolution in Progress: From First Artistic Steps to One+OneFebruary 24, 2018
Podcast 13: Imaginary Futures, Media Theory and the Cold War Origins of the Internet. An Interview with Richard BarbrookApril 17, 2018
-By Bradley Tuck-
Ladies and Gentlemen, if you would allow yourselves to join me on an exploration, indulge in me and I will indulge you. I present for you a dream, a chain of thoughts to follow, like primitive man watching shadows and lights flicker on the rocks of a cave, we see patches of light in the darkness, coloured shapes swim across the screen. Let us lose ourselves in these moments, see flickers and faces emerge. From this place we can go anywhere, see anything, only our own imagination knows the boundaries.
Grappling across the projections of artifice, excavating the chameleonic tones of reality, we set out on our third of twelve missions. Caught between the intellect and the heart we embark on an exploration that entails both their warfare and their union. The nature of reality, fantasy, dreams, magic and the longing for freedom will be interrogated from multiple and competing perspectives, through a process of dialogue that frustrates our ideas and subjects them to scrutiny.
In this third part of our interview with The Underground Film Studio, we discuss their film Savage Witches (2012), the process of its creation, and the themes that emerge from it. The film can be watched here, and you can purchase the DVD here.
The Underground Film Studio is a collaboration between Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais based in the UK and Portugal, where they make both long and short experimental films, as well as editing and publishing their own magazine ‘Film Panic’. Throughout 2018 they will be collaborating extensively with Exploding Appendix as resident artists and, alongside this interview, will be collaborating on events, screenings and film projects.
Savage Witches (2012)
BRADLEY: We’ve already covered a lot of ground. Let’s rewind a little. Can you tell me about 28th November 2010? I think that was an important day for both of you. How do you remember it? At what point did you realise you were going to start collaborating?
DANIEL & CLARA: That evening was the launch of issue five of One+One Filmmakers Journal, after the event we all went to a restaurant and that’s where we met for the first time. We all had a lot to talk about, there was a debate at the event where we discussed what independent cinema had become in the UK and how filmmakers could find alternatives to the structures and processes of industrial filmmaking, so much of the general conversation was around these topics. After the event we both kept in touch and continued talking about cinema, art and the films we wanted to make. We aren’t the kind of people who can just talk for long, sooner or later talk has to become action, we both like to see how all our ideas work out when we actually try to materialise them, so after only a couple of weeks of correspondence we got together and started planning Savage Witches. The core ideas of the film materialised very very quickly, after about ten days we had a first draft of the script. We set about planning how to make it straight away. It was incredibly exciting, we felt pretty much instantly like we had found a kindred spirit and knew that together we could do something ambitious and unique. It’s amazing to us that that first conversation that started on 28th November 2010 continues to this very day!
Much of our first exchanges were about a shared passion for particular films and filmmakers, Derek Jarman, Ken Russell and so many more. At that time we were both particularly obsessed with Vera Chytilova, Jeff Keen and George Kuchar, these three incredible filmmakers somehow gave us the tools we needed to bring Savage Witches to life. We were so excited by how they brought the spectacle of cinema and a very cinematic language to their own personal world, their lives and the world of cinema collided and melded together in such a way that any distinctions between playing, putting on a performance, making films, imagination and real life were just pulverised.
We spoke a lot at that time about artifice, not wanting to make something realistic but to create something plastic, brightly coloured, energetic and expressionistic. We felt bored and frustrated by a lot of what we were seeing in cinema, it was the time of “indie-film” and more often than not that meant realistic dramas about 30 year olds mumbling about relationship problems – we were bored out of our minds with this mundanity and pessimism, the focus on conventional relationship dynamics between men and women and limited ideas of freedom. Savage Witches was a reaction to that, we wanted to create a cinematic experience that exploded from the screen and sent shock waves through the body, a reminder of the beauty and horror of being alive. Our aim was to liberate our senses and activate the imagination! Ultimately Savage Witches is the seal of our creative union, it has been described by several critics as being our manifesto in film form which we believe to be a very accurate observation. It is our ode to cinema, all that we love about the movies and creativity, we set out to make a living breathing motion picture that was wild and free!
BRADLEY: Ken Russell, Derek Jarman, Vera Chytilova, Jeff Keen and George Kuchar are great film-makers to watch together. If you were to make a festival screening a selection of their films along with Savage Witches they would work really well together. They aren’t particularly ‘realistic’. They are very artificial. They often feel closer to paintings, or theatre. They are experimental. They are quite often vibrant and colourful. They are very often fun and playful. Savage Witches certainly feels continuous with that.
Is this the sort of film you had in mind when you were writing the script? What did you have in mind when you were writing the script? I’ve known some people who haven’t seen the film, but knew about it and assumed it was a horror movie. I guess people assume that films about witches are probably going to be horror, but this isn’t a horror story about witches. It certainly isn’t a historical drama about witches either. It isn’t a children’s fantasy film about witches, although there is a whiff of that I think. Yet it is about ‘witches’. How much and in what way would you see this film as an exploration of witches and witchcraft?
DANIEL & CLARA: Broadly speaking the film is a fantasy film and where there are elements that may be used in the service of horror by other directors for us they became moments of fantastical magic approached with a childlike wonder. More than anything else this is a film about the magic of cinema, the magic of illusions and cinema’s great power to be able to bring the imagination to life. The film itself is an act of magic, cinema as witchcraft, filmmaking as spell-casting.
We love horror films but often feel disappointed by them, so many times potentially great horror films are let down by the simplicity of good versus evil narratives. We really wish that there were more films that didn’t get stuck on this duality, more horror films that are about the confrontation with the horrors that exist within ourselves, about facing the great mystery of being alive and not about making heavy-handed moral judgements.
Two of the central literary influences on Savage Witches are Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, both of which were much more present in the early drafts of the script. In fact the first versions were much more Faustian tales about two girls who sold their souls to cinema-demons in order to experience total creative freedom. There was even a Mephistopheles character in the first few drafts but over time, while working through the narrative and particularly when we started workshopping the script with the actresses, we felt that we needed to get away from the simplicity of a dark and light duality. We decided to make the film much more about hitting against the limits of one’s own creative freedom. In some ways the film itself, and sometimes us as directors, became Mephistopheles catching up with the actresses in order to take payment for the deal!
Coming back to the question of witches and witchcraft, we truly believe in magic and believe that artists and acts of creativity are rooted strongly in magical traditions of the past. The ability to materialise fantasy, to transform reality and to transform oneself are magical acts. The making of this film itself was an act of witchcraft and the ‘Savage Witches’ of the title are as much us as they are the two actresses. During pre-production we did a lot of research into historical accounts of witches in Europe and also into their portrayal in literature and folk tales, a lot of the elements present in the film were gleaned from this research. There certainly isn’t much about the film that could be considered to be representing a historical account of witches but we think the film is strongly in the tradition of witch stories – at its core it’s an expression of the feminine in search of its own power and on its own terms.
There are several ways we could have approached a film about witches, they could have been presented as old crones, earth-mothers, dark sorceresses or mysterious temptresses but we chose to present them as two young women who are still existing as children, who still have a childlike wonder and reaction to the world around them. They are naïve in a way, innocent maybe is a better word. Savage Witches is an innocent film, we wanted to make the film as children seeing moving images for the first time, as if it was our first encounter with the creative act of filming something and watching it back projected on the wall – it is a sort of primitive spectacle. But the innocence doesn’t last long, we can tap into it but we can’t stay there because of course we are not innocent at all. The film tries to remain innocent but is continuously disrupting itself, running away from itself, it tries to remain in the indulgence of audio/visual sensations but the outside world keeps creeping in! Sometimes the film-fantasy wins and transforms the world, sometimes the outside world wins and manages to hold a mirror up to the fantasy, it’s a back and forth game, a dialogue and a chase around itself. What makes it interesting is that it keeps moving and never reaches a fixed point, not even in the final moments of the film. Ultimately there is no separation between fantasy and reality.
Savage Witches (2012) workshops
BRADLEY: What I love about the film is that it is an absolute joy to watch. There is something really fun and playful about it. It is true that it does work like a children’s fantasy film, but the enchantment seems to seep in from the form itself. It is an adventure story, but the real adventure doesn’t come from the story. It comes from the montages, the colours, the animations and the many formal experiments that come to make the film. Many children’s fantasy films explore dream-worlds (Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and so on), but this has something of the texture of dreaming that you don’t usually get in a children’s fantasy film. It is an experimental film, but it has the joyfulness of a children’s fantasy film. It is a real pleasure to watch and it is actually a bit of escapism (in a good way). That isn’t what people tend to think of when they think of experimental film. It is an experimental film that also works as an escapist fantasy. One of my favourite scenes is a scene where the two actresses describe their characters whilst drawing them over the printed pages of a book. I also really enjoy some of the montages, like the one where they destroy the world by destroying pages of an encyclopaedia, or the one where their photographs are dancing over photocopied pictures of them that have been coloured in the background. Another great moment is the moment where it suddenly switches to a storyboard and then turns into an animation. It is really fun. There are so many visual treats. That is what makes it such a joy to watch.
DANIEL & CLARA: We are pleased that you described Savage Witches as joyful and playful, this is exactly what the experience of making it was. That’s not to say it wasn’t difficult or complicated at times, but the overall feeling was one of great pleasure and excitement to be spending our time experimenting and exploring the various ways of filming and creating moving images. We poured every possible approach to creating images into the film: hand-painted animation, cut-out animation alongside VHS, super8 film and HD video all processed in various ways, sometimes using effects in camera and fabrics or filters over the lens, and other times we projected the footage on the wall and refilmed it in different formats. The whole process was exploratory and one of play, a systematic play but play nonetheless. For us play is an essential element in art making because it has the ability to surpass our intellects and rationality and when lost in play unexpected things can be stirred to the surface that we could never reach in a rational way, in this way play is similar to dreams. Play could be seen as the active form of the passive dreaming/viewing experience.
Savage Witches (2012) 3
BRADLEY: Yes, I think people underestimate the importance of play. I am currently editing a podcast interview with Richard Barbrook. He wrote a book called Class Wargames. It is an exploration of a boardgame created by the Situationist artist and theorist Guy Debord. One of the interesting aspects of the book is the way gaming, and in this context, wargaming, turns out to be far more interesting and illuminating than you might have thought: Gaming reveals things about art, politics and strategy. The military has often played games, it is a way they can practice, test out strategies and tactics without actually killing people. One of the points that Richard talks about in the podcast is that during the run up to the UK 2010 election a hung parliament was considered a real possibility and if that happened a coalition government between the conservatives and the liberal democrats would have been likely. Realising this the civil service had gamed a potential hung parliament. The liberal democrats had not. Had they done so they might have realised that they had more power and more cards that they could have played. Had they gamed it they may have gone into the negotiations with a very different attitude.
There is also a reason why children play games, aside from fun. It is a way of learning and growing to understand the world. Our brains struggle to grapple with the world in all its complexities, especially when we are dealing with hypotheticals and abstractions. That is why it is important to tell stories, create thought experiments, toy with things and play games. They are ways that we can start to think about complex situations that we might have struggled with if we approached the issue as a very abstract armchair philosopher. The fact that they can be fun is a bonus. It gives you an added motivation.
It seems to me what you are grappling with in this film is the possibilities of cinema and creative freedom. The story is one way you approach that issue. The creative experimentation is another. It is grappling with this film down to the very texture and make up of the sounds and images. It is also a film whose process bleeds through into the film. It readily reminds us that it is simply a story. It isn’t real and the actors talk about their characters and their experience of being the actors within the film. At what point did you decide to let the process seep into the film itself and what made you decide to do that?
Behind the scenes of Savage Witches (2012)
DANIEL & CLARA: But it is real! A real story, a real fantasy and a real experience that we all had and that the viewer has too. That is reality! We strongly believe the film could be described as a documentary as much as a fiction but it is an honest documentary as it doesn’t pretend to offer an objective truth but multiple truths all at once without cancelling anyone else’s out. Savage Witches could be described as a documentary of the reality of fiction!
It’s worth us offering some personal distinctions between different types of play as we currently see it, all of which are valid but existing for different purposes. It sounds that, based on the example you give, you are primarily speaking of play in the context of games, specifically games that have an organised set of parameters in which those involved can play at different scenarios to explore possible outcomes of different actions, this will certainly be a creative process but where the results are valued by their practicality. The type of play that we use differs as it is not about practical or even quantifiable results and we don’t have a clear system of judgement which decides the value of the outcome based on what it can reveal about art, politics, strategy or anything else. In a way its value is based on feeling.
We are interested in play as a sort of chaotic ritual, where we cast a spell in which we become fully alive through the game, that place where the line between the so-called fantasy/reality divide not only disintegrates but becomes irrelevant. Through play we can shed off layers of behavioural habits, superficial and temporal things such as opinions, moral judgements, theories of any kind etc., and live in the total present – when play is really working this is what happens. It’s like when you are playing as a kid, it might start as a light fantasy, say that your bath tub is a pirate ship and you are the captain, but if the play is really working suddenly within a split second you actually become the captain and the tub actually is a ship. Ideas become facts, it is reality. As we get older this dimension gets harder to access and the act of really playing becomes stigmatised and seen as foolish and the behaviour of crazy people, but we feel it is important and necessary for our mental well-being to have a way to access it. Through play demons can be faced and exorcised or transformed, one becomes well-acquainted with all the complex parts of themselves, you can learn to truly see, and the endless possibilities of who you can be and what life can be continuously open up before you. It is not a linear organised process, it works in spirals and chaotically but through it life’s possibilities become limitless and beautiful.
A lot of these ideas fully emerged for us during the making of Savage Witches. We hadn’t planned it, we just instinctively set off in the direction of the film and this is what we found. The original draft of the script, although experimental in form, was essentially a closed narrative but once we started working with the actresses things started to shift and change bit by bit. We spent several months in a studio workshopping the script with the actresses, this involved working out characters, developing back stories, inventing new scenes, playing with masks and costumes, working with movement to music, and telling stories. Bit by bit the line between character and actor vanished until Gretchen & Margarita were just another part of Christina & Victoria and vice versa.
We were all playing roles, as we all do through our whole lives, but we consciously cast ourselves in these roles and then had to navigate our way through them, find out how we felt about them and where they came from within us. We were in the roles of directors, playing at steering the ship and keeping us moving, and Christina & Victoria were as the actresses and the characters, two child-like young women who want to play, dress-up and have adventures all the time. As the workshopping went on it suddenly dawned on us how fully alive we were in these roles, that the actresses who had only met a few weeks previously were now spending all of their time together, staying together and doing all the things the characters would do. They truly became them, or you could say their characters truly came from them. And then a weird split emerged between us, they became so child-like that we found ourselves shifting into a role that was more like teachers or parents, we had set out to make a film about creative freedom and had become to a certain degree oppressors! Some of these realisations only came to us later after the filming was complete but we certainly all felt it and responded to it during the shoot.
It was towards the end of the workshopping that we decided to abandon pretty much all of the narrative elements of the script and just keep the dialogue and a list of scenes that we could then rearrange in any order during post-production. For us this was a necessary liberation, we all knew the story too well and felt that if we shot the script as it was our creative discoveries would cease. We had come so far and to end the exploratory process there would have been a tragedy, so we needed to create a way to be able to go further out of our comfort zone and into new territory. For the actresses this caused a great distress, they felt betrayed by us and sad to lose the story on which we had all spent so much time and energy, this tension permeated the whole shoot and became central to the experience of making the film and the final narrative as it is on screen. The final edit as you can see it in the film now was created from all of these experiences of the shoot and the material gathered through that process, it’s all there in the final film, a document of its own making.
Savage Witches (2012)
BRADLEY: My reason for mentioning the wargames example was to demonstrate that, contrary to the stigmatisation of play, play mediates all aspects of adult life and failure to do it can actually make you more vulnerable in the adult world. I think this goes for those forms of play that seem less utilitarian, more chaotic and less goal orientated. Play in general makes us more dynamic and helps us understand the world on different levels. This is one of the reasons why, developmentally, it is good for children to play. Nonetheless, I agree with you, Savage Witches isn’t engaging in any utilitarian play where the play has a clear outcome or insight it is driving at. It seems to be done for the sake of the creative process itself.
I would like to try and get a better handle on what you mean by fantasy, magic and reality. It is certainly true that our fantasies and our beliefs have a real bearing on us. If I believe that my friend has died, even though she hasn’t, I will still be just as upset as if she had. Likewise, if I encounter a mirage, but don’t realise it, I may likely respond in the same way as I would if I was encountering the real thing. The sun doesn’t rise or set, but it makes sense to talk about it rising and setting precisely because of the way it appears for us. On the other hand, if I pick up a loaded gun, but fantasise that it is a toy gun and go around shooting people, would you say that my reality is equally valid? If my mother dies, but I have a fantasy that she is still alive, and I keep the body in the house, and then dress up as her and go around killing people, isn’t there something going wrong in my brain? Isn’t Norman Bates, at least in Hitchcock’s film, not facing up to something. He is failing to take ownership for his own sexuality and to acknowledge the death of his mother. Furthermore, if you didn’t have a concept of what is fantasy and what is reality you may well be dead by now. At certain points it is an important survival mechanism. At a certain point living in a fantasy becomes escapist in a bad way, and also potentially dangerous. I suppose this brings us back to Gretchen and Margarita. On one level (other aspects of the film aside) you could read this film as a moral parable about the dangers of not distinguishing between reality and fantasy. They don’t listen to their teacher and by the end they are dead. There is something about their creative journey that seems escapist and dangerous. So I guess my question is, when and on what level, is it important to distinguish between fantasy and reality and when is it not?
DANIEL & CLARA: This is an interesting and important question for us so we’ll try our best to articulate our thoughts about this and hopefully not veer off on too many tangents. The answers should be given and understood within their different contexts: we, as artists, are primarily talking about these ideas within the context of the experience of viewing and making art, and also the context of human perception/psychology. There is of course also a lot that could be said within the context of the scientific study of outer-world reality but this is not our area of expertise, so for the sake of this discussion we’ll assume that in a general sense we know what we are referring to when we say ‘reality’. That it refers to the ordinary outer world in which we all feel at home, within which we all participate and uphold in relative agreement. What we’ll attempt to articulate here is what we mean by fantasy and how fantasy is also experienced as a reality – that fantasy for us is not a fake thing, not secondary to outer-world-reality but something that intermingles with it and has an actual tangible effect on it.
In regards to the possible reading of Savage Witches as a moral parable you’ve suggested, we’ve never considered this and it raises some questions: are Gretchen and Margarita dead at the end of the film? The final moments of the film show them looking into the camera and smiling, so are there several ways this could be interpreted? We are not saying you are right or wrong in the possible reading but feel that it’s important to make sure that its interpretation remains open – we do see them burnt at the stake in an animated scene, the narrator also tells us that they will die but then we also do see them open their eyes and smiling. We personally wouldn’t read the film as a parable as the film offers contradictions for every attempt to pin it down to a message of this kind but of course that doesn’t mean that it can’t be read this way. As creators we are certainly not in control of the meanings and readings of our work, it even changes and shifts for us constantly and each time we view the films they seem to mean something different. It’s as if when we change, the films change also. What is interesting is that the viewer selects and interprets based on their own personality, their own intellect and feeling, current mood, obsessions, desires, fears etc, to a certain degree we all see what we can see and are unable to see the rest. And we should make clear that even if these readings aren’t our readings, even if we might reject them on a personal level, that doesn’t mean we reject them in their right to exist, they are in fact none of our business, they belong to the viewer, as the film does when they watch it. When we watch a film, even the seemingly simplest of films, we are having a very personal and uniquely complex sensory experience that can impact on us profoundly. This subject is of great interest to us and something we consider a lot when developing the narrative forms and audio/visual language of our films.
So maybe in some ways this illustrates our idea that we all experience the world through the veil of our own inner life. Our perceptions and judgements cannot be trusted to be the objective truth but only our own truths, which constantly shift and change from moment to moment. That there are in potential a lot of, or maybe infinite, readings of Savage Witches is in part because of our desire to contradict and disrupt the intellect, and also because we all as viewers will only ever see ourselves in a work of art, our limits will always be reflected back at us. This is what is so wonderful about art, and the greatest art is a mirror that sharply reflects our limits back at us while stirring in us the realisation that all limits can be extinguished. This is what we seek in art as viewers and what we strive to offer in our own work.
We live in an age where more value is given to external experiences than to inner experiences and inner experiences are often talked of as being not real. Dreams are spoken of as not real too, but they are real, we all experience them, they happen to us, they are experienced as facts. Maybe we could say there are different levels to the experience of reality, but we don’t believe that one level has more validity than another, a dream is not of less value than other situations that can be objectively verified. They have different ramifications for our existence and experience of the world but they are of equal value and equal importance to us as human beings.
When we say something is valid, we don’t mean something is good, right or better than something else, we simply mean that it is of importance, it has a certain authority, it should be acknowledged and taken seriously, even if we do not experience it ourselves. In regards to your example about being in a fantasy and shooting people with a gun, we would say that that reality is equally valid. We can say that the action is wrong but the fantasy is a fact of actuality. What would we gain by denying the reality of that fantasy? It certainly would not make a wrong right, and it would not help us understand why something like that happened. But perhaps if we were more open to acknowledging our fantasies, daydreams and unconscious impulses on their own terms, these could be perceived and lived out as inner experiences, any actions derived from them be carried out as symbolic actions, instead of misdirecting our inner impulses and projecting them onto outer reality in a harmful way. This sort of thing is happening on a daily basis to all of us everywhere, we are projecting out into the world our idea of how the world is and we are acting according to our projections, we see what we choose to see and live as we want regardless of the implications. All of us experience this, from world leaders down to one’s neighbours and everyone in between.
An obvious negative example would be the current destruction of the planet – how many of us still eat meat, drink milk, wear leather shoes, shop at high street stores, buy items wrapped in plastic and use electricity regardless of the fact that all these things are causing rapid widespread destruction and that our resources are running out – we all know that we are destroying the world around us but we carry on as normal. On a smaller scale how many of us have relationships with someone who we treat unfairly or badly, we criticise them behind their back because they don’t do things how we think they should do them? This is because we project our idea of who they are onto them and of course they don’t fit into it, we fail to recognise that we are clinging on to an image that has nothing to do with them and is in truth everything to do with us. Similarly, we mostly choose to ignore factual evidence that our actions are destroying the world because to admit that would mean to face up to a lot of unacknowledged emotional baggage. We have been taught from childhood that we are truly powerless against “the way things are” and that we are never to challenge the concept of progress. What is deemed desirable and good has been pre-decided and given to us, and we feel so depleted of energy from how much we suffer with jobs/debts/relationships/lack of purpose and lack of love, that we crave any small comfort and to change our habits would be world-shattering. To face up to this would mean to enter into tremendous grief for all that has already been lost, to accept probable defeat as the situation is most likely irreversible, to face up to a lot more things that have been hidden beneath the surface and have to be dealt with, because emotions come up all tangled in complexes and take great strength to deal with.
Both of these are examples of how we believe inner life is intertwined with outer reality, they simply cannot be neatly separated. This is how the human creature moves through the world, we project our desires/fears/feelings/complexes out onto the world and interact with the world accordingly. This is what we call reality. We pretend we are rational, in control, moral etc. and we try to separate neatly inner life from outer life but it can’t be done, the distinction is impossible to make. But by acknowledging the importance of inner life, the reality of our fantasies, the far-reaching effect of our unconscious impulses, we may begin to work with these on their own terms, not to be at their mercy but to turn them into tools.
In some ways the investigation of this question of reality/fantasy is central to our work, our aim is not to arrive at a clear distinction but to understand within ourselves how we experience reality and the reality of fantasy and how that makes us who we are. Our hope with our films is that they can also offer to the viewer a catalyst for their own exploration of themselves, an exploration through the magic mirror of our art that reflects back at them the various parts of themselves. Instead of offering films with fixed messages, answers or easily digestible information, we offer experiences and fantasies that can be experienced as realities. Cinema is fascinating in this aspect, that as viewers when we watch a film we can become active participants in the dream. Far from being a way to escape reality, through art we can get closer and closer to an understanding of ourselves. Art more than doing anything else reveals some sort of truths about the human condition, this can happen in many ways but in the arena of our art we draw attention to the unique experience of each individual and say that whatever they experience is right, it is valid and it belongs to them. Their reality is important and it is up to them where they go from there.
BRADLEY: Yes, we could probably go on forever on the question of fantasy and reality. There are a lot of small technical distinctions it might be useful to employ in order to strengthen your case, but we don’t have time and we could probably write volumes on this. I certainly have a lot of questions about Savage Witches itself, so I will try not to be too tangential.
It seems like you might say something like this: If you were trying to cross a canyon you would want to know whether a bridge was real or a fantasy. Yet even though it is often necessary, on a practical level, to make a distinction between fantasy and reality, our actions and beliefs about the world are still coloured, shaped and structured by our fantasies. We don’t have a completely unbiased access to the things themselves.
In this respect, it strikes me that we might describe you as phenomenological filmmakers. I never find it particularly easy to describe phenomenology as a movement, but it literally means the study of appearances. The philosopher Edmund Husserl, in trying to find a rigorous method for the study of appearances, talked of putting certain questions in brackets. There are many things we may know about our brains, about the world, about mathematics and so on, but instead of asking what do we know, or what is real, Husserl wanted us to put these questions aside (in brackets), and ask the question of how do they appear. All prior knowledge and natural interests are put aside. In doing so he points out that the world has not disappeared. but our attitude has changed. Instead of drawing upon our prior knowledge or our everyday assumptions, we start to describe how these things appear to us. We might still talk about the scientific or the ethical, but our attitude has changed, we start by describing how the scientific or the ethical appears at a subjective level. This was important for Husserl as he saw phenomenology as being a foundation for all other intellectual and scientific disciplines. Yet you could also do a phenomenology of a mirage. A mirage would still appear in a particular way, and, for Husserl, that mirage would have a particular structure.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty certainly took a lot of influence from Husserl, yet his approach was more eclectic drawing on the work of artists, writers, physiologists and psychologists. In Paul Cézanne’s approach to painting Merleau-Ponty uncovers ideas continuous with Husserl’s phenomenology and similar trajectories in psychology.
“By remaining faithful to the phenomena in his investigations of perspective, Cézanne discovered what recent psychologists have come to formulate: the lived perspective, that which we actually perceive, is not a geometric or photographic one. The objects we see close at hand appear smaller, those far away seem larger than they do in a photograph. (This is evident in films: an approaching train gets bigger much faster than a real train would under the same circumstances.) To say that a circle seen obliquely is seen as an ellipse is to substitute for our actual perception what we would see if we were cameras: in reality we see a form which oscillates around the ellipse without being an ellipse. In a portrait of Mme Cézanne, the border of the wallpaper on one side of her body does not form a straight line with that on the other: and indeed it is known that if a line passes beneath a wide strip of paper, the two visible segments appear dislocated.”
Merleau-Ponty, Cézanne’s Doubt
In Cézanne’s approach, Merleau-Ponty sees an attempt to rediscover objects from the lived perspective; art as phenomenology. I wonder if you would see Savage Witches as doing something similar.
Going in a very different direction we should discuss how magic, or the language of magic, has been useful for describing the creative act. I guess we can find this in everything from William Blake to Surrealism. Two filmmakers that spring to mind are Kenneth Anger and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Kenneth Anger drew a lot from the occult rituals and magick of Aleister Crowley and had some connections with the Church of Satan. Sometimes this meant occult references, but it also tended to materialise as enchanting and intoxicating images which mixed surrealism with homoeroticism. Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), for example, is a dizzying mix of imagery with occult references, and watching it can feel like a bit of a religious initiation ceremony. With Jodorowsky we also get religious iconography, often with a violent intensity that is both shocking, strange and disconcerting. Jodorowsky was also influenced by the tarot, and shamanic practices, although there is a whole plethora of religions referenced in his work, often mixed up in very unexpected ways. As well as making films he has developed a therapeutic approach of psychomagic that combines shamanic practices, surrealist inspired poetry and the kind of theatrical therapeutic techniques that you might get in, say, Fritz Perls’ gestalt therapy. I think it is interesting how, in both, talk about magic is used to describe how the use of intensely charged imagery, ritual acts and symbolic references are used to bring about some process of transformation. Would you see Savage Witches as continuous with these filmmakers’ forays into ‘magic’?
In contrast to Anger and Jodorowsky’s positive attitude toward magic, in the history of witchcraft sorcery was something you were charged with, not something you identified with. If Savage Witches could be said to return to the history of witchcraft it seems not to be done from the perspective of the witchfinder, but the witch, or some positive idea of magic. Maybe you could tell me a little more about your original research on the history of witchcraft and if it relates at all to the film’s theme of magic as creative expression?
Savage Witches (2012)
DANIEL & CLARA: It sounds like there are some correspondences between what we are doing and the approaches of phenomenology as you describe them, but it seems that it is more the case that phenomenology is bringing to philosophy and other intellectual practices an awareness and approach that is already intrinsic to art. For us and for artists in general, it is always the case that we start from the subjective perspective and there is an understanding that reality is not a fixed thing, it is in fact different to all of us and it’s constantly changing. Our approach has grown from our experiences, our process as artists and our engagement with the works of other artists. Also, perhaps it would not be enough to say that Savage Witches is attempting ‘to rediscover objects from the lived perspective’, because we are mostly concerned with exploring possibilities and transforming ourselves with our work. The only goal, if it can be called that, is to be able to feel deeply that it is right to be alive and for us to be just as we are in each moment, without fixing what that means but allowing for that to be fluid, for us to change and transform as we go. We seek the tools to be able to say ‘yes’ to life and everything that entails: the joy, the struggles, the horror, the beauty, the confusion – all of it. It is not about understanding but about being.
The ability to materialise fantasy, to transform reality and to transform oneself are magical acts. They are also creative acts, and in many ways, as you point out, the language of magic serves the creative act well. It is a language that is close to poetry, close to the body, to instinct, intuition and imagination. It functions according to different principles than both our common day-to-day and also academic language, it doesn’t emphasise rationality, denotation, material reality, causality, linear temporality, patriarchal supremacy and human supremacy over other living things in the same way our common language does. The language of magic is grounded in an awareness that humans are just another creature walking on this earth, the reality and consciousness of all living things is recognised and respected. It is a language that is not used to describe and define things, but to activate and transform things. It is the language of going beyond duality, a language of metaphor, nonlinearity, emotions, myth, storytelling and the unconscious.
In truth we didn’t understand magic in this way before we made Savage Witches, we were attracted to it but we only came to understand it through the process of making the film and going deeper into the images that we were producing. The element of magic was there from the first drafts of the script but at first it was being used more as a narrative device that enabled us to play with the artifice of cinema and to experiment with visual effects and techniques. It was a way for our characters to reclaim the power of their imagination and for ours to able to manifest too. If we look at the history of witchcraft in European culture we see a document of the fears the rationalistic patriarchal society projected onto individuals, often women. The methods to ascertain whether they were guilty or not were totally irrational and often very cruel, but the persecutors were not interested in admitting their own irrationality and cruelty, they had to rid themselves of these things that were considered evil by projecting it all onto others and punishing them for it. Most likely the women condemned as witches weren’t even witches at all. But other accounts of witches and magic can be found throughout the world in all cultures which do not have the same kind of negativity attached, they are more integrated into their collective consciousness and don’t represent danger in the same way they do for Europeans. In many other cultures magic is often more grounded and a part of daily life, it’s not only for witches but for everyone, it’s about healing and regeneration. We carried some of the baggage of these superstitions within ourselves and the making of the film became a way to let go of these misconceptions, it enabled us to move past some superficial ideas about what witches and magic are to discover that sometimes we just need to look at something closely, to play it through and put ourselves in that role in order to know what it really is. So Savage Witches in a way became an awakening or reawakening of the witch within us.
Savage Witches (2012)
BRADLEY: I am not sure I agree that artists have always come from the subjective perspective, or, at least, if they have, they have conceived the subjective in extremely different ways. I would certainly doubt that artists throughout history could find a common agreement that “reality is not a fixed thing”. For example, if you contrast Leonardo da Vinci with Paul Cézanne I think we get how radically different they conceived art and artistic practice. If Cézanne was closer to phenomenology in searching for a lived perspective, Leonardo da Vinci was an important forerunner to the empirical natural sciences. He was not just an artist in the sense that we would understand it today, his work covered a huge amount of disciplines many of which were scientific and mathematical. He studied engineering and was an inventor. He studied anatomy and conducted autopsies. He studied astronomy, botany, history, geology and many other things aside. Rooted in his approach was an empirical drive to understand nature. Nature here was not something to be discovered as rooted in our lived perspective, as it was for Cézanne, but existing independent of us. It was something that could be studied, measured and understood in terms of geometrical three dimensional space. Although his paintings and sculptures often dealt with religious themes, in technical approach they are not particularly different to his drawings of anatomy from autopsies. Da Vinci’s approach was to discover nature as independent of the lived perspective; Cézanne’s approach was to recover a nature that was rooted in it.
In light of this I wouldn’t see phenomenology as “bringing to philosophy and other intellectual practices an awareness and approach that is already intrinsic to art”. Rather, I would argue that these artistic and intellectual approaches tended to emerge in tandem. There is a reason why Leonardo’s artistic approach, and the artistic approaches of his contemporaries, emerged in a similar period to the empirical natural sciences. There is a reason why Cézanne, and his contemporaries, developed their art at a similar time when ideas around lived experience, phenomenology and psychology were being developed. Although your work may take insights from heretical sects and non-western approaches towards magic, I would also argue that your work seems continuous with an exploration of subjectivity that has developed (in different and conflicting ways) in Romanticism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism, and so on. Other art movements, such as Russian Constructivism and Futurism, or Pop Art, in prizing industry, technology or mass production, seem more critical of this emphasis on artistic subjectivity. Your approach to art, of seeing art as concerned with the subjective perspective is a historically specific one. Not all artists have seen it that way.
One of the things that I find interesting about your approach to art, and this it shares with both Da Vinci and Cézanne, is that it seeks to resist a kind of armchair intellectualism. It is very much grounded in doing. It isn’t simply attempting to represent, it is an exploration. The way you describe your approach almost sounds like therapy at times.
Let’s get back to Savage Witches, albeit from another philosophical angle. I want to discuss the concept of freedom that is explored in this film. In the film Gretchen and Margarita tell us…
“Let’s not spend our lives trapped like all these slaves. They cannot see how fake they are, going around in circles to reinforce the lies. They dance like in a bad ballet and overact like in a primitive play. Jailers and inmates all of them, let’s break free, like wild creatures, like savage witches wild and free!”
There are many competing conceptions of freedom, but one distinction that seems worth exploring here is the freedom to follow one’s instincts versus the freedom to act on your own rational decisions and choices. Defenders of the latter tend to describe the former as a kind of slavery to one’s instincts. True freedom, they argue, is not following every impulse, but having the freedom, and developing the capacity, for rational self-determination. Setting aside the teacher in the film (who seems pretty authoritarian and conformist), and education systems (which are often very flawed), there seems to be a positive conception of ‘The Teacher’ that corresponds to this latter conception of freedom. Teachers are there to help develop capacities in their students, to endow them with critical skills, so that they can make decisions for themselves. In this respect, teachers are there to make you more free.
Gretchen and Margarita seem to reject this notion of freedom as rational self-determination. They seem to see freedom as the absence of restraint, including the absence of self-restraint. For them freedom seems to be closer to being ‘wild animals’. Their conception of freedom is closer to the former.
I wanted to ask you where you stood on this issue of freedom. Do you agree with Gretchen and Margarita? Or is your stance more critical?
DANIEL & CLARA: There are many ways we could interpret Gretchen and Margarita’s conception of freedom if they even have one. They are certainly driven to seek for a feeling of freedom but they don’t offer a clear idea of what freedom is and the way they express it changes as the film goes on and is filled with several confusions and contradictions. These characters are not closed psychological units, they are not fixed – they are masks that the actresses put on and off many times throughout the duration of the film, they don’t have a finite perspective or fixed ideology. We believe that there is something of value in putting ourselves in this position of holding a tension of opposites and contradictions. What we’re seeking is an experience, not a conclusive definition. For us personally when we talk about freedom we are talking about the relationship we have with ourselves and the world around us. To seek freedom is to seek to be at ease with yourself and the world, to be free of anxiety, depression, fear, prejudice, phobias etc. To not take on what others project onto you and not to project out on others and the world our own limitations. To be free is to be able to deal with everything from within and without that we consider to be obstacles and restrictions, in fact to stop experiencing them as such. When you are free obstacles transform into sources of rich experiences and new understandings, they are no longer experienced as frustrations and oppressions.
All of the elements in the film are a part of the whole; the actresses, the characters, us, the words, the actions, the sound, the music, the colour, the performances, the locations etc., and if we are to interpret the film in any way we must attempt to take all these elements into consideration. It’s not just in the words spoken that the ideas or meanings lay, it’s in the way they are spoken, the colour of the light in the scene, the place they are, how it is cut, the dynamic of the sound mix, the scene that precedes and the scene that follows – all of these are a part of the meaning. These elements can work against or with what the characters say, or more often they will add layers and extend upon them. Sometimes words are abstract, they are used for sound and texture, sometimes for the imprecise images they evoke, and then of course sometimes for what they seem to be directly, but a film is created from many elements so we should always be suspicious of taking dialogue on face value. In the case of a film like Savage Witches, where there is also an obliteration of the usual separation between the fiction and the creation of the film, there is also the added questions of which actions or words belong to Gretchen and Margarita, which are ours, which are the actresses’, what is scripted and what is spontaneous, and can we even make a distinction between these things? The world around us cannot be organised and controlled or even understood, it is a chaotic push and pull that looks different from every angle, yet within all this chaos and mystery we must find a way to feel that our existence is worthwhile and honour that.
Savage Witches (2012)
BRADLEY: I certainly agree with you that the context of the film matters, and, yes, there are contradictions in the film. There are multiple layers. There are ambiguities. There are competing perspectives. Yet, despite the contradictions, the multiple layers and ambiguities, I would still argue that the film is not saying nothing. It is saying something, albeit a ‘something’ that is, at times, contradictory, multilayered and ambiguous. To stand somewhere, however ambiguous that ‘somewhere’ is, is still to stand somewhere.
Approaching these ambiguities raises all sorts of issues for film analysis. It is very hard to describe a film as a whole, taking in all the contradictions. When we try to describe the film as a whole we can easily miss important details. When we focus on the details we can easily lose sight of the film as a whole. Describing a film often requires a bit of zig-zagging. It requires that we look at the big picture and the little details simultaneously. Sometimes that means focussing on the little details and building towards a bigger picture incrementally. It often requires that we frustrate our easy readings of the film. That requires a bit of artistry, and sometimes a bit of mischief. Earlier, when I mentioned that “On one level (other aspects of the film aside) you could read this film as a moral parable about the dangers of not distinguishing between reality and fantasy.”, I was wholly aware that such a reading would not sit easily with the film. The film as a whole seems to revel in Gretchen and Margarita’s fantasies. It seems complicit. It also blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy itself, so it would seem strange if it was also a moral parable about the dangers of not distinguishing fantasy and reality. Nonetheless, I think it is useful to propose that reading, not because it gets to the core of the film, but because it frustrates our easy reading of the film. Plus I do think there are aspects of the film that would support this reading. It does seem to use narrative devices that are often used in moral parables. It is a story about two seemingly naive young girls who seem to be searching for fun, fantasy, freedom, adventure, but what they find does appear much darker. Maybe you could interpret the film as trying to subvert that parable. I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that it was simply endorsing that parable. It doesn’t strike me that it is doing that, but it does seem to me it is worth raising this reading precisely because it frustrates our easy readings and draws out some of the tensions and contradictions in the film.
When I quoted the section that goes “Savage Witches, wild and free”, I did so because it is an interesting line from the film. It is poetic and quite beautiful. It also raises issues about how freedom is conceived. I do think that the characters have a conception of freedom. It might not be an intellectual conception of freedom. It might be vague and contradictory, but they do have a conception. The reason it is interesting to discuss their conception(s) of freedom is that at times they seem naïve, or could be interpreted that way. When we are teenagers especially, our understanding of freedom seems to be bound up with having as little restraint as possible. It can be about casting off the shackles of our parents, teachers and grown ups in general. In other contexts we might need a more nuanced conception of freedom. In other contexts, the freedom to reason, choose and take responsibility for our actions might become more pressing for us. The reason this matters is because the theme of freedom (especially creative freedom) is not unsubstantial in this film, rather, I would argue, it is a major theme and it is worth grappling with on all its levels.
I feel like we have only just brushed the surface on issues of fantasy, reality, magic and freedom. As these sections continue I am sure these themes will resurface. Nonetheless I think you are right to emphasise the film as a whole. There is something about it, especially the formal experiments and the process by which it was made, that make it quite unique. You are right to emphasise that these themes do not manifest as theoretical abstractions, but via the artistic process itself. The form, the tones, the colours, the different methods, that really does matter. All these themes that we are discussing seep in through the process and through the artistic and technical feats of the film. So, in a way, maybe the best way to get a handle on these themes is to return to discussing the process and making of the film.
I find it very interesting that you describe the film as a documentary. I certainly see that. I find it really interesting that some of the processes are showing in the film itself. I think I can understand why it would be frustrating to be actors in this film, especially if you are used to more conventional film approaches. It is a hard film to envision when you are just filming it. A lot of the magic seems to have come about in post-production. Post-production must have taken such a long time! Yet if you were acting in the film you wouldn’t see all of that, and if you departed from the script too much then I can imagine for the actresses it would be a bit like losing your anchor. All you would have is trust. How did they respond to the film after it was made? Maybe you could also tell me a bit more about the process, both filming and post-production.
DANIEL & CLARA: We don’t usually show anyone our films before the premiere screening, we always want people’s first experience of the films to be on the big screen in a cinema as they’re meant to be seen but when we announced the film was finished a few weeks before the premiere, Christina and Victoria were really eager to see it and asked if we could show it to them beforehand. The tensions of the shoot were still lingering between us and we were nervous about what they would think but as it had been such a small production and they had been so deeply involved in the life of the film it seemed right to let them be the first to see it. So we had a private screening for them and it was wonderful, they absolutely loved it and were both incredibly happy how it all turned out. They said that the film was both totally surprising and exactly what they expected at the same time!
The period of post-production was quite long, it took about twelve months as there was a lot more involved than simply editing the footage. Running parallel to the edit, we were working on the animated scenes and experimenting with processing some of the sequences in different ways, most of the footage was transformed quite dramatically in one way or another. We worked a lot with VHS, projecting it on the wall and re-filming it with other cameras, sometimes in HD, sometimes back to VHS, adding and changing the colours as we went. We were seeking to create the most vibrant painterly effect we could achieve, an image that was fluid and with colours that constantly shifted and mutated rather than being hard-edged. We were fascinated by the different textures that can be created with various types of footage and processes, and how these can really alter a scene. Most films don’t explore this element, usually films have one visual tone that remains constant throughout but we wanted something that was more dynamic and continuously leaping to different types of images.
We explored several approaches to the animations, there were some cut-outs hand-coloured with felt tip pens which were then animated on the computer, there were some frame by frame photos of the actresses, and some sequences which were filmed live action but then printed as single frames and hand-painted. Through this process we really dissected the film, we took the entire thing apart, inspected it, interrogated it, transformed it then pieced it back together again. It was hard work but fascinating and a lot of fun. It was through this minute work that we started to really get our heads around what cinema is and what we felt we could contribute to the art form, during this time we made the first notes for what would eventually become The Quest For The Cine-Rebis, our manifesto which was published in 2016.
There were a couple of different edits of the film which had quite different structures and several scenes that didn’t make it into the final cut. There was one edit which we thought was the final one, it was the day before we had to lock it and show it to the composer so she could start on the music, we exported it and watched it all the way through one more time just to see if the export had worked okay. But at the last moment we realised the whole thing wasn’t quite right and then we had to completely tear the film apart and reorganised all the scenes in a 24 hour editing marathon! That version had most of the same scenes as the final version but in a different order, a lot of what is in the second half was near the beginning and vice versa – there was also a couple of extended sequences of the characters in a painted den with their pet rabbit Bambit, where they talked about memories, some falsified memories, some real, some belonging to the characters, some to the actresses. It was interesting stuff, it had more of an emotional tone than appears anywhere else in the film, but in the end it had to go.
The film’s music was created by Fiona Bevan, who is mainly a singer-songwriter, but we’d been wanting to collaborate on a project together for a long time and when the script for Savage Witches was coming together we knew this was the right one for us to do with her. She was very enthusiastic and loved the spirit of the project from the start, she even met the actresses and helped to raise some funds by doing a live concert in London. We also shot one scene with her in Brighton, which ended up being cut from the film. Once we had a locked edit, Fiona watched it through and then we got together for a day and discussed the structure and the ideas behind every scene, but after that we left her to it and she started creating the music, putting it where she felt the film needed it. Fiona was really interested in finding ways to mirror in her music-making process the same approach we took to the use of cameras and creating the images. She recorded in different ways using her laptop as well as her mobile phone and various mics, and a mixture of toy instruments as well as an old electric organ, violin, piano and things she had around her house. She started sending us bits of music and various experiments to see what we’d think, and so we then had a back and forth process, until it was finished. The music really is another character in the film, sometimes bringing out a playful childlike feminine tone, sometimes a rough and raw soulful beauty, other times a pensive introspective mood. Fiona is also a savage witch, she embodies the same spirit of the film and her music skilfully moves between the different perspectives and layers of the film’s consciousness.
The foley and sound design was the last part to be added to the film, it was all created in a few days in collaboration with Simon Keep, at his home studio in Suffolk. It was in this film that we first started using a process that we have used ever since, that is shooting the film silently and recording all of the sound and dialogue in a studio after the edit is complete. There are a couple of moments of location recordings still present in this film but on the whole it is studio made, even quite a lot of the dialogue was dubbed in a studio so we could process it and transform it in the same way we did the images. We went scene by scene and built the sound layer by layer, recording all the foley ourselves, every footstep, shuffling and breathing, so for this part at least we fully embodied Gretchen and Margarita ourselves. Since then we’ve be doing all the sound recording and design in this way, for us sound design is as important as the image and every other element of a film. We always approach the whole film as an opportunity to see what is possible, at every moment we ask: how can we go deeper? How can we go further? What are we not yet seeing? Nothing should be taken for granted and done in a certain way simply because it is the industry standard, or any other standard. Savage Witches put us in direct contact with each element of what makes a movie, and we feel, even if only for ourselves, that we have expanded the possibilities.