Rotterdam 2016 Interview: Fiona Tan On The Intersection Of Her Art, Film And HISTORY'S FUTURE
Her successes at this year's festival doesn't seem to have gone to her head though, as she navigates her way round Rotterdam with an unaffected air of slight nerves and tentativeness. Once she gets going, however, her sharp interest in all things classical, artistic and psychological definitely shines through. And she's clearly a director who has learned to stick to her artistic guns, even in the face of a sometimes unreliable funding, and the results are certainly different.
ScreenAnarchy caught up with her while she was in Rotterdam to find out what she made of her festival experience and how she went about molding her debut feature from her past experiences as an artist and in life.
What has it meant to you to be included in this year's Tiger Competition?
Well I'm normally a visual artist, so I'm not very knowledgeable about film festivals. But being selected for IFFR has been particularly nice for me, because I live in the Netherlands. That's meant that I've been able to have many more friends and family attend the premiere than I normally would. In fact, I think just about all my neighbours came [Laughs.] So that's been nice.
You also have an art instillation at IFFR this year, could you tell us a bit about that?
Yes, that's actually a group show with four other artist filmmakers, and I will be showing two pieces. The festival are quite keen, I think, to give attention to artists who are artist filmmakers and vice versa. So that means the festival has this sort of fairly extensive extra muros programme of exhibitions, I guess you could call it, all round the city.
I've tried to select two pieces for this. Works of mine that I think relates to History's Future but perhaps in ways that aren't necessarily direct. To me it definitely makes sense, anyway. It's a video instillation called "News from the Near Future," which is actually the name of a piece which we made entirely from found footage. We made it from news reels.
Then the second piece is a sound piece called "Brendan's Isle," a seven-minute piece that you listen to on headphones. It's meant to be like it's just for one person, and for me that piece is sort of like a film with no images. Instead you have to make the images in your head while you listen to it, so I thought that would be a nice sort of angle to take.
It does seem to me that you like to go beyond film a lot in your work. It seems like you often draw inspiration from things like painting or literature, for example.
Yes, I suppose my work's always like that. I did notice when I was working on the script for this film, though, that it was all already there in my mind. It was almost as though I just had to open a draw and then all these images would fall out, and they'd quickly fall into place. I just sort of immediately thought, okay, I'm just going to go with this.
So it's true what you say, actually. It's only now when people start asking me questions that I realise how much painting is actually in the film. But I suppose that's just all my training and years of going to museums and looking at fantastic art works that's done that to me.
So what about Greek mythology, did that influence this film much?
I suppose I was thinking a lot about Cassandra, and this idea of somebody who is blind but still able to see into the future. So that's obviously there in the film. I mean, I suppose with probably almost anything in art, you can probably trace it back to the ancient Greeks. But I always think that's wonderful, because for me I think that just makes it much more visually interesting.
I think above all I'm particularly influence by the idea of the fool, though. I love the idea of the fool actually being the wisest person around. I guess for me that was what the character I've called "M.P." is. He's kind of a fool, but he's our guide through the film and through Europe. I suppose he doesn't know what he's doing, but he helps us see things about ourselves, I guess.
There does almost seem something Promethean about the kind of continual affliction that M.P. experiences.
Yes, well he's in a very difficult place really. I think people who really, really do lose their memory... you know, that must be absolutely awful. At the same time, though, I suppose he's also quite a magical figure. I mean, hey presto, he just manages to change his vestiges and cross borders, and survive somehow, even though he doesn't seem to have any money.
Do you have any personal experience of memory loss in your family?
Not of amnesia no, not so directly. I do know that my fascination for researching this project has come from my mum, though. My mum is a biologist, and as a kid I read a book she had lying around called The Man with the Shattered World by Alexander Luria. Now Luria is this very famous, very important and grounding psychiatrist from Russia, and he had some extremely interesting case studies and wrote about them.
One was the man in this book, the mnemonic man, who couldn't forget anything. But of course that proved to be absolutely debilitating, because he'd wake up in the morning and the clock would say six o'clock, so he'd think, okay, I don't have to get up yet and then go back to sleep; except when he woke up, the clock would still say six o'clock for him, because he wasn't able to forget anything so he couldn't replace it with anything new.
It sounds like this has influenced you a lot.
Yes, definitely. There was also this description of a soldier who had been seriously brain damaged in the war. This man lived for about twenty years after this injury and would keep a diary even though he could only talk with difficulty. In this diary he described his life, and it must have been amazing, because for him conceiving size and dimension was quite difficult. So sometimes he'd feel like his leg was the size of a building. His vision was also quite impaired especially on one side, so sometimes he wouldn't be able to see his own left side and he'd become overwhelmed by these sensations.
But his memory was also so severely impaired that the only way he could write would be to sit next to the radio and listen and listen until he heard the word that he wanted to write down. Then he'd have to quickly write it down. So quickly in fact, that it would be written in automatism, because if he'd taken the time to write out what he wanted to say letter by letter he'd have forgotten what he was writing by the time he got to the end of the word. That must have influenced me a lot... Sorry, I could go on about this kind of thing for hours, you'd better stop me - but it's fascinating.
Not at all, it's nice to hear you speak with such interest about your subject matter.
Yeah, while I was working on the project I remember thinking, oh jeez, this could take me a long time. I could research this and make ten films about it or something, just writing about, physical, mental and medical conditions. In this case, though, I was more interested in taking that as a sort of starting point for enabling a no-one, a sort of Mr. Nobody - which to get back to the Greeks is what Odysseus used to call himself whilst he was walking around as a sort of beggar - so M.P. is this kind of Mr. Nobody or persona non grata, but in a different way, because it enables him to wander right across Europe.
Were you ever worried that the kind of references or allusions in your work might be inaccessible?
I'm sure my works probably are [Laughs darkly.] It doesn't really worry me though, because I think that, personally, a good film is one that you want to see more than once. And I don't see why it shouldn't be like that, or why you shouldn't be able to appreciate a film on different levels. I think that should be the case with my film. Each time you watch it, you should be able to see something different or see different ways in which stuff is interconnected, rather like being in a mirror palace. Or like being in one of those sort of interchangeable storage units I use so often in my film.
In some ways the film is very much like that, isn't it? Like a series of little boxes all next to each other, like lots of mini films within the film itself. Then there are also all these people living inside them, in their own little world. I suppose that's also what M.P.'s trying to achieve.
But maybe the film is overloaded and too complex to be mainstream. Like I said, though, that's just not what I'm about - it's not my ambition.
So how do you go about scripting this kind of series of boxes structure in your film?
You just kind of piece it all together, I guess. I don't know. I always have notebooks on me and things I'm interested in or reading, and at a certain point I suppose you notice that they keep on coming to the surface. I mean I think everyone's a bit like this, but my mind really does work very associatively and visually: I will think of one thing, and immediately I'll have all these images sort of popping out at me. So as long as I can write those down [Laughs.] Then I can look back and think about it, and think yes, that makes sense - somehow.
But it also seemed like your film was shot in very naturalistic settings.
Yes, very much so.
So how do you match these ideas to settings in the real world?
I suppose I'm just quite lucky that I've traveled quite extensively as an artist. I do have to travel quite a lot, and many of the places in the film I've been to. On my travels I've also been able to really notice the effects of the crisis - or crises, depending on which one you want to choose - because it's very different in every country in Europe, and I guess that's something I've tried to tap into.
But while the effects of the economic crisis have been quite specific, I guess at same time everyone can understand how terrible it is to lose everything, wherever it happens. So I would see these things playing out in different places, and I guess they were then all just there in my mind, ready for me to slot in where I wanted. Then it was just a question of structuring it because, you know, it's a very episodic piece, it's like Don Quixote - he's just wondering, and has all these various episodes or encounters. So it was mostly just a question of, okay, who does he meet next? And then, what's the best way of linking that together to make a good narrative?
And how do you translate that into the way you'd frame your shots?
Well, I would story board everything. I would draw absolutely everything - and I mean everything. But that also meant that we were able to shoot very quickly, which we had to do, because we didn't have much money. It did also make life so much easier, though.
I guess I'm just lucky to have had that training. It mean it was pretty easy for me to just sit down and quickly sketch what I wanted. Plus, I reckon I'm so visually trained that I almost always knew what I wanted exactly [Laughs.] And I'm lucky that I had a camera man who was happy to put up with that too; because not all of them would, I don't think.