UNEDITED INTERVIEW WITH ENIE VAISBURD
Can you talk a bit about your background and what led you to filmmaking?
Growing up in Brazil, I was exposed to films by Bergman, Bunuel and others. I would also see what was shown at the cinematheque, including my first experience of seeing a frame of film burning in the projector’s gate magnified in the screen (both beautiful and horrifying, but also very tangible). In undergraduate school in Israel, although a French major, I spent a big part of my week at the Jerusalem Cinemateque.
In 1988 I moved to Pittsburgh, and started taking film production classes. I was timid at first but the more classes I took, I just wanted to do more. At Pittsburgh filmmakers I was also exposed to experimental film, video art and installation. It felt so much like home to me.
Can you talk about a moment, a film, a screening that really inspired you to become a filmmaker?
A few moments come to mind:
Watching Battleship Potemkin in my neighborhood movie theatre in Brazil with a packed and excited house. Watching Bunuel’s “Exterminating Angel for the first time; watching Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz” four hours a day for a week; being introduced to Remincences of Journey to Lithuania by Jonas Mekas, “My Name is Oona” by Gunvor Nelson and Take the 5:10 to Dreamland by Bruce Conner at the same time; watching Agnes Varda’s “The Gleaners and I”.
There are many films (and filmmakers) that I really love and they have impacted the way I think of stories or images: Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries”; Antonioni’s “Red Desert”, Theo Angelopolos “Landscape in the Midst”, Wim Wenders “Alice in the cities”, Todd Haynes “Safe”, Abbas Kiarostami “The Taste of Cherry”, Tarkovski “The Sacrifice”, Rafi Bukai’s “Avanti Popolo”, Glauber Rocha “Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol”, Maya Deren’s “Meshes of the Afternoon”, Leighton Pierce’s “Blue Hat”, Mattias Mueller “Alpsee”, Bill Viola, Lynne Sachs, Leighton Pierce, Bill Viola, Jay Rosenblatt, Alan Berliner, Ross McElwee, Bela Tarr. …
One of my big joys in film lately was watching Jacques Tati and the Marx Brothers with my kids. The first time I heard my father’s belly laugh was watching “A Night at the Opera”.
What is the genesis of Walk? Can you elaborate on the process of making (title of film)? How important is the process to you?
At the beginning I had two things in mind: I wanted to shoot at various times and circumstances at the same place. In this case it was the Smith and Bybee Lakes in North Portland, OR. I also I wanted to create a sense of place.
I enjoy discovering as I shoot. As I review and think about the experience, themes start to emerge. It is different than writing a script, finessing it and filming. I also enjoy creating connections with seemingly disparate things, so the process becomes about tying in the connections, having conversations about it, reviewing the footage and listening to my reactions to it.
As I visited the space I realized that it sometimes elicited wonder and sometimes fear and vulnerability. At that point I started interviewing adults and children about courage and fear. As I was reviewing the interviews, it became clear that although the adults had experienced tragedy, death, illness and loss and were very articulate in processing these experiences, when asked what made them get through it, the response was exactly what the kids stories were expressing: “I was afraid, but I did it anyway”, “I imagined something horrible but at the end I tried and it was not as bad”. Their stories distilled what the adults were saying and became a parallel to the Talmudic parable at the end. Deborah Eisenbach-Budner, the adult voice in the film, provides the insight and context.
What were some of the film’s influences?
I wanted to create a ritual with my family and document it at the same time. I also was interested on the process and how the film concept would change through time.
Can you contextualize in relationship to your body of work overall. Does this film relate to themes that you typically explore or is this film a departure?
I usually use place and image to support an emotional space in the screen. I really enjoy the possibility of film to make magic: you can create different realities, you can mix geographies, much like the way my mind works.
How does your point of view as a mother and a woman inform your filmmaking? (Some women have felt that if they were to be taken seriously as filmmakers they had to be “closeted” mothers or choose between the two. Is that something you have encountered?)
I think I see filmmaking as a way of leaving some “clues” to my kids, some little rocks on their path so they can find a way to think about life moments as they come. Motherhood makes me wish for play, magic, imagination. It also solidifies the need to tell stories and the reflection on what are the stories that I would want to stay. Both parenting and filmmaking involve repetition, routine and at the end of the day, a necessity to figure out what are the things that we need to let go and the ones that really matter and need to stay. There is also a great deal of troubleshooting!
Does your role as a filmmaker inform how you see yourself as a mother?
It reinforces the need to tell stories, and the need for good, meaningful content and form. Being a filmmaker and a teacher keeps me in touch with young minds and I learn a whole lot from them!
Both involve repetition, patience, empathy.
Did you have reservations about including your kids in the project? Can you share a story about the process of working with your kids?
When making WALK, I was thinking of places in my childhood that I felt very connected to and are now imprinted in my memory. I can remember the smells the wind on my face, the warmth. I was hoping to create that connection to my location, Smith and Bybee lakes, by having the family go back there many times through the year. It started well, but after the forth time going there, my kids needed some incentives and we started hiding logs or rocks when we left to see if they would still be there when we returned. The romantic idea of connection to space was not enough…
It was also interesting to see my kids watching the footage. My four-year-old was pretty concerned when he saw a shot of himself walking on the woods. He kept asking what was he doing there all by himself. We still have to remind him and reassure him that I was right behind him with the camera and his dad was right in front of him. I realized he had not developed a suspension of disbelief yet.
How do you balance teaching, making films, your family, life, etc? Can you share a day in your life doing this balancing act?
I imagine myself on a rolling ball while trying to balance many things in my hands. Or a really cool circus contortionist. I tend to have a lot of respect for people who are just being human with all its flaws and wonders. I have a very supportive family and friends and this really helps. Usually I’m trying to do too many things. My goal is to be fully present in most of what I do, but at this point this is still a fictional concept to me…
We have shared the rationale behind putting together the Kid on Hip program. Do you have any thoughts on being included in this group of films as a screening program?
It is very exciting to me to be part of a program with filmmakers whose work I really admire. I feel that the point of view of motherhood is a powerful one. The films in theis program don’t necessarily deal with the domestic but they represent a certain lens through which the filmmakers see the world. The experience of motherhood requires a balance of tenderness and toughness. It permeates the way I look at politics, art, social concerns and what I make for dinner. It makes me think about my teaching philosophy and the way I work with technology. There is not a tougher obstacle course than the parenting experience.
Mothering also opens up the heart in a gigantic way. It allows the adult in us to look at the world though the eyes of a child, to see the wonder and the magic and at the same time to reflect on the world around us through the lens of hope and possibility. The experience of motherhood ends up being the barometer to how we see the world. The allowance of feeling an overwhelming amount of love and at the same time the perspective of the big picture.
How important do you think a subjective mode of storytelling is in media education? How do you use subjective storytelling in your teaching?
I think it is important to equally emphasize different modes of storytelling in film. Narrative is wonderful but different filmmakers choose to tell stories in different ways and that thought structure should be equally valued. I try to emphasize exploration and experimentation. I also think that introspection in filmmaking is really oimportant and a subjective mode of storytelling allows us to experience the interior world of a character, a subject or an issue.
What are the important messages to convey to women filmmaking students?
Although I keep telling myself that the gender barrier is something of the past, the reality is that if I look at the body of students that I taught in the past 20 years, the majority of the film students are male. I’ve had classes in which I was the only woman in the room. We need women voices in film and I would hope to model to my women students that although the film industry is still gender unbalanced, the possibility of storytelling through film and the powerful stories are infinite. We need more genuine voices and there should be enough room for all. There is an audience for these stories.
Does your point of view as woman and mother affect the way they you see your work in relationship to technology?
The tools are fun and I like playing with new equipment, learning new things or trying a new gadget. However, they are just tools to tell the stories I like to tell. I choose the equipment that matches the concept the best. It is great to know the equipment well and I admire the technitians in filmmaking. But, at the end of the day, it is important to have the ability to understand and convey meaning through all the buttons and knobs and it is important not to loose that perspective.
Do you think there is a relationship between choice of technology and development of concept? Can you explain the relationship between technology and concept in WALK?
Sometimes a project can start with a concept and a formal exploration. One of my first films was a dance film that was shot in 16mm and manipulated through the optical printer. Having concept and formal guidelines really help focus the project. In Walk, I used an Panasonic HGHPX 170. It happened to be the camera I was getting familiar with during the year, before I started using it in my classes, but it also had the look that I wanted to achieve. I like to play.
How do the different changes in technology expand or contract the storytelling possibilities? Can you give an example of how changes in technologies have changed the way you approach telling the story you want to tell?
I like to have long recorded conversations, without many limitations and I like to experiment with images. I used to do that with 16mm, before video, and it was pretty expensive to keep it going. I like to try different things and video gave me some freedom on that regard. I do feel lucky that I started learning film in the end of the 80’s and I still have the single frame as a reference. That made filmmaking very tangible for me. I also love that I have so many options. I worked in HD but after a while, I feel like going back to S-8mm. And I feel pretty comfortable in all of these worlds. Each format has a different kind of aesthetic to explore.
In your opinion, are there particular approaches to filmmaking that academia does not value as highly? How do you think this way of thinking affects approaches to media education?
There is a predominance of expectations by students to mimic what is most largely available. I think students should follow their vision and passion it is our responsibility to expose students equally to different modes of storytelling and filmmaking. In terms of the medium itself, subjective modes as well as narrative and documentary all have a rich, exciting history and a place in the canon of filmmaking. It is our responsibility to bring that to light, to encourage filmmaking that makes us laugh, cry but also makes us wonder and think.