Thursday, May 31, 2012

Learning through seeing: an interview with experimental documentarian Sabine Gruffat

Posted By on 05.31.12 at 10:55 AM

Some of the native Detroiters of I Have Always Been a Dreamer
  • Some of the native Detroiters of I Have Always Been a Dreamer
Sabine Gruffat’s I Have Always Been a Dreamer (a choice selection of this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival, which we cover in this week’s issue) is less a documentary than a city symphony—though perhaps it’s closer to the mark to call it a city double concerto. The movie compares the recent development of Dubai with that of Detroit; and while Gruffat’s sensitive to issues like labor relations, crime, and sustainable design, she’s clearly more interested in creating images than social analysis. It’s an eyeful, containing some of the most assured sound design and Steadicam work I’ve encountered in a low-budget feature since Ben Russell’s great Let Each One Go Where He May (not coincidentally, Russell assisted with some of the sound recording). The other day, I talked to Gruffat about her working methods and what she learned in making the film. Our conversation follows the jump.

Ben Sachs: Where do you live these days?

Sabine Gruffat: I teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; that’s where I am for most of the year. They have this MFA [program] in experimental documentary. I know that’s kind of an odd combination . . .

It sounds like a good idea. I’m glad to know that people want to make experimental documentaries; I get so sick of nonfiction movies with the same pattern of talking heads, stock footage, and all that.

Exactly. With [I Have Always Been a Dreamer], I made a conscious decision not to have any talking heads—or to have them, but not have the sound be in sync—because you can tell so much with images. But with a talking-head documentary, the images are usually at the service of the text. I always wonder, “Why are we watching this?” When people have to read images, it makes them so much more aware.

One thing I like about the film is that every scene seems to be based around a different experiment with the camera or with the combination of sound and image. These formal games—like the nonsync sound during the interviews—end up shaping the information that the movie imparts.

The nonsync sound—it’s terrible to say this—but I stole that from one of [my partner] Bill Brown’s movies called Buffalo Common. There’s a shot where [Bill’s] talking about an interview he’s conducted, and you see the guy talking to him, but you don’t actually hear what he’s saying. I thought that was so smart. It just kills the legitimacy [of the interview], because he’s making it clear that what you’re seeing is the filmmaker’s version of what this person’s saying . . . And it puts [the spectator] at a farther perspective, which I liked. The interview doesn’t seem as real.

At the same time, [before] every interview, I asked the interviewee how they wanted to be pictured in the film—whether there was a particular location they wanted to go to or something like that. Like, [Wayne State University professor] Jerry Herron wanted to be photographed in front of the statue of Cadillac in Detroit. So, the subjects had control over the images in that way.

Before you show any people, though, you present these authoritative images of the buildings in downtown Detroit. It creates the impression that these are the main characters of the film and that the people are just filling things in.

Well, it’s sort of a city symphony film; it starts out [as] pretty lyrical. Then it becomes more of a conventional documentary, and then it goes back to the first mode. But the other thing about that beginning section is that you’re seeing the buildings [of Detroit] without seeing the streets below, which makes it feel like you’re in a real city. I purposefully did that; I want to say, “Look, here’s this city and it’s just like any other city. It’s got beautiful buildings; the skyline’s gorgeous!”

But I felt that in both Dubai and Detroit—even though I had more of an inside perspective on Detroit, since I lived there for a year—looking at the surfaces of things first would be more interesting than going straight to the facts.

Gruffat, shooting in Detroit
  • Gruffat, shooting in Detroit
But landscapes can communicate a lot too. You do learn something about a place by staring at it.

In Dubai, I didn’t even go inside the buildings a lot of the time. I’d just look at the billboards that represent the buildings, because I was interested in how the city wanted to show itself to the world.

You end up creating strong impressions of Dubai that way. In the movie, it often feels like no one actually lives there—as opposed to Detroit, which you show as being full of life.

But Detroit is as empty as Dubai! When the U.S. Social Forum happened in 2010, there were more people in Detroit than at any other time that year. The difference is that, in Dubai, there’s no public space. You can’t sit outside anywhere; all the social life has moved indoors. So, like, women check out men at the mall . . .

When I first moved to Detroit, I was amazed that you could shoot anywhere and there was no one around. The worst thing that could happen was that someone might steal your camera.

What motivated you to shoot the film on 16-millimeter?

I like how when you see [16-millimeter], it already looks like something from an archive. The images feel stuck in time, but because of that, they also feel timeless. They’re not going to get any older, because they’re already old. At the same time, a friend of mine recently showed some of his work on 16-millimeter, and the first question he got [in the Q&A] was, “How do you make your movies look all Instagram?” (laughs) So now, it’s apparently the Instagram look.

But I learned on 16-millimeter, I shot on it before . . . It has its limitations: the camera’s heavy, the tripod’s heavy, the film’s expensive. But since you don’t want to spend a lot of time shooting, you’re forced to really think about the shot, the lighting . . . And also, you never know exactly how an image is going to appear on film, because the changes in light and exposure can alter the way something looks [on film] before you process it. But I think that’s good; I like these limitations.

Do you plan to continue working in this format?

I think so. It’s a nice format. But I might shoot on Super 16-millimeter [which is a wider format] next time. It depends on the project. For this project, [standard 16-millimeter] made sense. I initially thought that [Dubai] was the city of the future and [Detroit] was the city of the past—and so [standard 16-millimeter] seemed to represent this level playing field. But as I was shooting, I realized that both are really contemporary cities.

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