Les États généraux du film documentaire 2011 Fragment of a filmmaker's work: Gunvor Nelson

Fragment of a filmmaker's work: Gunvor Nelson

Swedish-American artist Gunvor Nelson is among the most important experimental filmmakers of her generation. Shaped by the San Francisco Bay Area scene in the fifties and sixties, she has had an enormous influence on American avant-garde film since her debut in 1965. The basic subjects of her personal, dreamlike and tactile filmmaking are: childhood, memory, the idea of home/homeland and displacement, aging and death, the female body, the material beauty of natural forces. Gunvor Nelson is one of the few Swedish artists who have been honoured with a retrospective at MOMA in New York (2006).

You're a European artist but you've lived and worked for many years in the States: how can these two cultures and two imaginary assets coexist in your work?

Usually I don’t reflect on what is European and what is American in my art. I spent many years in the US — actually most of my adult life — and the influence of American culture became part of me so slowly that I did not notice what it meant in my work. Of course I could look back and somehow sort out and trace some of the important strains, but I always seem to be concentrated on something new and gratefully leave the analyzing to others. For me it’s clear, there’s a common art culture across countries, and being an artist in Europe or in America doesn’t make that much difference, especially at present when communication is so easy. I prefer to see similarities instead of differences.

Unlike experimental filmmakers contemporary to you — in the sixties and seventies — your work is not identifiable in a cage of simplistic criticism: you have grown a very rare formal freedom.

I don't know if I have a rare formal freedom compared to others. As I grow older I don’t really compare myself to the other artists. In 1965 when I made my first film, together with Dorothy Wiley, I had little knowledge of the avant-garde film culture. I had many years of art school behind me, but no background in film and not really any expectations and therefore was free to experiment, I just wanted to express myself as an artist. We had a lot of fun making Schmeerguntz, a film full of absurdities as life is full of absurdities. It was well received and slowly I got to know more about the avant-garde film scene. This didn’t change my attitude towards making films: I was just making my own personal work. There was such a great culture around me in the San Francisco Bay Area: painting, music, filmmaking, and all that influenced me, of course.

The female body is a recurring theme in your films: what is the creative urge that has led you to work in depth on this subject?

It seems logical that I have made some films from a woman's perspective, from my perspective. Through the close-up lens one can come very near to a subject, so close that new vistas are revealed. Undiscovered territories open up if you can come close enough and any subject, like the human body or the inside of a flower, can become most interesting. Distant shots of a landscape can then be edited next to close-ups and create spatial jumps in the editing that excite me. I have used this kind of cutting in many ways in my films: for example in my video True to Life as well as in my film Light Years. Light Years travels through the Swedish landscape, the distance interrupted by close-up animation, rotting fruit and other small objects. I am most concerned with the choreography of events in my films, what comes next — the juxtaposition of shots and what happens between them and with them as the film unfolds.

Memory and familiar past are from the outset a central theme of your imagination and it's surprising that in your films there are no wounds to heal nor distances to bridge, but a heartfelt and moving domestic bliss...

That is the first time I have heard that a heartfelt domestic bliss was a main ingredient in my films. Hopefully one can discover other layers of meaning through the sound and the picture — in Red Shift, for example — from light and beautiful to dark, scary and dangerous, to absurdities and tenderness. But I don't want the obvious, the films should be open to the viewer's own interpretation and feelings.

In your Swedish films your eyes and your hands dig the landscape in depth and find similarities and unforeseen visions: what is your poetic relationship with the landscape?

I really love the beauty of the Swedish landscape with the dark red old houses in the green surroundings, and in the films Light Years and Light Years Expanding I have tried to show this. But actually I like all landscapes, even cities are very important to me, like San Francisco and Stockholm. I have made three films about the urban landscape, Frame Line, Kristina's Harbor and Old Digs.

Interview with Gunvor Nelson, by Federico Rossin

Coordination : Presentation and debates by Federico Rossin (critic and film curator in different festivals).