Interview with Peter Mettler

by Daniel Ribas, Catarina Maia / 21 11 2017

In 2017, Porto/Post/Doc presents the focus Peter Mettler Expanded, dedicated to the Swiss-Canadian filmmaker, and will screen his three major documentaries: Picture of Light,Gambling, Gods and LSD and The End of Time. This focus will be complemented by the Yoshtoyoshto performance, a musical and visual experience shared by Mettler, but also Franz Treichler (from The Young Gods) and anthropologist Jeremy Narby. This focus has the support of Swiss Films and Pro Helvetia.

Q: You are still referred to as a key figure of the so-called Toronto New Wave. The labels are not so important but how do you look back to those formative years and in what ways were you influenced by that milieu? 

A: That wave refers to a period in the 80’s when a bunch of us local filmmakers found each other and worked together to make films any way we could. This meant that we did not readily fit in to the industrial model of that time but simply worked on each other’s films. All of these filmmakers output quite different kinds of films but we were excited to exchange ideas and share our skills with each other.I shot several people’s films while Bruce MacDonald might edit or Atom Egoyan or Patricia Rozemamight consult on script. We didn’t take up roles – we just loved film and were open to supporting each other however we could – inadvertently creating a community and apparently a wave. On it went for years as each of us slowly took their specific path ending up in a large spectrum of work ranging from art-house to experimental essay to Game of Thrones! Nowadays we seldom work together but remain good friends, with this deep connection one has with people of your formative past, still occasionally exchanging stories and advice about our quite varied experiences.

I look back at it as a time where we all learned to make a film with whatever means you could. Not to feel blocked or oppressed by the seemingly impenetrable infrastructures of institutions that seem to control the situation. Sticking to one’s one vision and finding your allies, I learned, is the good way to move forward with an intact spirit – and usually results in more meaningful filmmaking.

Of the group I would venture to say that I’m one of the least ‘industrialized’ filmmakers. I work in an in-between zone of fiction/essay/documentary that is very personal and often done alone or with a very small team. I learned a lot about what I like and don’t like about filmmaking methodology during those times. I learned about collaboration and listening, both to better serve a vision that belongs to a director or the film itself, and to better appreciate first-hand the various crafts that are all required in order to make a film work.

Q: Over the last few decades, we have seen a flourishing dialogue between cinema and philosophy. Film is no longer understood as a mere source of illustration for philosophical reflection, film itself can serve as a medium for philosophizing. One could say that’s exactly what you’re doing in many of your films – I’m thinking about Gambling, Gods and LSD but also, of course, The End of Time. Do you agree? Is this relationship something you cherish in your work? 

A: I suppose my first reaction to this question (as one could discuss at length) is that the many varied technologies of our day are so dramatically influencing our perception, our habits, our way of life, that it would be an oversight not to embody philosophical reflection about our being into the medium being used. From the beginning of my own filmmaking I have never seen cinema as just an illustrative tool, but also as a medium that allows us to go inside the head – directly into a state of perception that can be engaged or changed in a myriad of ways. 

The very attraction for me to make cinema, (not unlike music) is to create an experience that takes the viewer on a contemplative journey that engages the viewer’s own experience and ideas. The film is made in the moments that the viewer shares the images and words, states of mind, that are presented as the film unfolds. I didn’t set out to make most of my films with a script, but rather I used a set of themes to explore, going out into the world, discovering with the tools of filmmaking, associations around those themes. So you could say that the whole viewing (and making) of a film is a process of philosophical reflection.

Q: There is also a compelling search for beauty, but you seem to have mixed feelings about the capacity for film to capture – or create – beauty. Is that so and why?

A: Beauty is tricky. It does seem to be largely based on a subjective experience that varies from person to person and culture. To me beauty means to actually be awake and aware, connecting with that which occupies your gaze. I do find nature beautiful, as it is clearly a wonder to behold the creation that we have been born into. Just looking at a drop of water and contemplating how it got to be hanging onto this leaf I see in front of me, imagining its journey through the ages – moves me – and therefore I think it is beautiful. But also our modern, human made creations of art or industry - and also the destructions, I can sometimes see as part of process and evolution, part of growing and dying – beautiful. I think it is the way in which one looks at anything that makes it beautiful or not. Having filmed a fair share of industry and environmental destruction alongside nature (Manufactured Landscapes, Petropolis) I’ve noticed that in many cases people will look at unpleasant landscapes more readily when they are presented in an aesthetically pleasing way. The apparent beauty of the horror makes them actually look at the subject. So this in a way is using a cultural aesthetic as a tool to communicate. In our current film Becoming Animal (co-directed with Emma Davie) the camera is often sloppy, hand-held, full of glitches and bumps. You could almost call it a cell phone aesthetic at times. We look at animals and wilderness.The presence created by the camera I feel makes it compellingly different and aware, creating yet another kind of beauty – even though I might get kicked out of film school for all the ‘mistakes’ incorporated.

Q: Do you feel that the performances you do in the present are the best way to address your artistic concerns? What does the live improvisation brings to your work as opposed to the long-crafted editing approach you used in your films?

A: I don’t know that I have, or will ever find, a best way to address my artistic interests. Making art is an engagement, an exchange with whatever the current theme, intuition, emotion, hypothesis etc might be. There are clearly so many ways that one can engage the mediums of image and sound and text. The possibilities are often framed by the possibilities of the technology itself in combination with the accepted forms of expression (i.e., can you get funding and/or distribution). I have always been attracted to improvisation. From the early days as a 14 year old when I used to improvise on a piano and imagine stories unfolding in my head. I value the discovery process involved in not making films to a blueprint - but rather creating a foundation of ideas and methodology from which to explore. Interaction with the unexpected, with the unknown, often yields surprising and amazing results that you would have never dreamed up ahead of time sitting at your desk.

In filmmaking while there is some room for this out in the field, it becomes more difficult in the edit room – or at least decisions unfold much more slowly. After making Gambling, Gods and LSD I really yearned for what I had always envied in musicians, namely the ability to improvise with each other. So slowly over the years, concurrent to evolving technology, I have devised a system that allows me to do just that with clips of moving images and sounds. I am now able to have 100’s of clips from a wide variety of my own and other sources available to edit and mix and process live (much like a sound mixing board) allowing me to interact with a musician or an orator as they react back to me.

It is a wonderful place of adventure and surprise being able to create associations and juxtapositions, sometimes random and sometimes with intention. I am not in full control and there are many surprising rewards! I can never repeat what I have done in the past because the number of parameters are far too complex to re-create. This has underlined for me the sense that we artists are really just mediums. The works we make, even though they may be called “auteur” are actually informed by our entire culture and experience. We are always producing under the influence of these things. Bringing three individuals together as we do in our Yoshtoyoshto show brings the different experiences of a musician (Franz Treichler, from The Young Gods), an anthropologist (Jeremy Narby, from The Cosmic Serpent) and a filmmaker together to see what an improvising collision will spontaneously bring. We derived this particular show through a series of improvisations that we then shaped into our presentation. Every performance is completely live, each layer and tweak of image and sound manipulated on the spot. It is thus a kind of amalgamation of long-craft editing and spontaneity. So in answer to your question: I feel I will continue to move forward simply embracing the possibilities of our technologies to explore what is meaningful to me. Whether that involves – more classical parameters of filmmaking or other means – that remains to be seen.

Films to be screened:
· Picture of Light
· The End of Time
· Gambling, Gods and LSD

· Yoshtoyoshto

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