Les États généraux du film documentaire 2014 Fragment of a filmmaker's work: Eric M. Nilsson

Fragment of a filmmaker's work: Eric M. Nilsson

When and why were you attracted to film and in particular to documentary cinema?
In the beginning, I wanted to do medicine. But during my military service in Sweden, I lived for the first time in conditions of promiscuity and realised that I found it quite difficult to stand. I understood that practicing medicine would be difficult for me and didn't know what to do. Then I met a friend, we leafed through a French catalogue which presented different possibilities of study, say architecture at the letter A, biology at B, and we came across cinema. There was a film school in Paris called Idhec. I said to myself: “Why not?” I studied there for two years then moved back to Sweden.

In what year?
In 1961 or 1962. I thought of making films with actors and the whole shebang, that's what we were taught at Idhec. But for different reasons, in particular bad experiences with the Swedish film industry (the Svensk Filmindustri, SF) I tried to find out if it were possible to find a job in television, which was at its beginnings. I was employed there from 1962 to 1967, when I left television to become freelance. I then found myself, without having asked for it, in the documentary service. I don't regret it at all, quite the contrary.

There is something that seems to me to be at the heart of several of your films: the question of language, the fact that you pick up that awkwardness, those misunderstandings essential to langage with the language of cinema.
Yes, I was quickly confronted with that and that interested me a great deal.

It has to do with the question of form: all through your career, from the beginning of the sixties to today, you have tried to break down the barriers between fiction and documentary, between direct cinema and essay film, constantly trying to find the right place to listen to the language of the body, to the language.
You have to understand that as an employee of a television company, and even after that, I was obliged to make both “normal” films, documentaries where you follow a process, be it the manufacture of steel, of bread or a pizza, and it's thanks to the credit that these “normal” films brought me that I was able to make what one could call little follies, more or less successful. It wasn't exactly a matter of making compromises because these different forms of film give me great pleasure. If what's happening in front of the camera is interesting, there is no reason not to be interested in it. But on the other hand, it's extremely amusing and interesting to do what you want, to write, to use sound and image in order finally to place them both before the gaze of the spectator, that is to say encourage the viewer to look at and follow a reasoning which often trips up, by the way.

Does the use of the word “essay” on the subject of your cinema suit you?
It's a word that's been in use since Montaigne... I don't know. People in Sweden have also used the term to talk about my films. I've never really understood it and in the end I don't ask the question anymore. I call them lek filmer, meaning films where I play. An essay is perhaps something which seems to my ears a bit too serious. As if you were trying something out: no, I don't try, I do it!

There is a recurring question in documentary: the place of mastery and “non-mastery”, that is to say of chance in front of the camera and also in the sound recording.
That's something I often say: the very essence of documentary is precisely that in principle, you never know at all where you are going! Television producers, like the others by the way, demand you present them a project and they expect the idea they have formed of it to appear in the film. But in a documentary, you never know where the process will lead you! What might seem at the outset the central idea begins very soon to slowly shift to the periphery simply because somebody said something or an image was added on.

Has television allowed you the freedom to experiment?
You know, freedom is something which is rarely given to you! You take it. Sometimes it's risky, sometimes it creates conflict, but if you are sufficiently self assured, even to the point of arrogance, it can turn into a cockfight. And this cockfight has to be won.

Is there a big difference between the film project you write and what you are going to find during the shooting and especially the editing? Or do you already have the film in your head from the outset?
At the beginning, of course, I have a hypothesis. It has happened that I've started out with no preconceived idea: the film Vad som helst till synes was made with no initial idea, the whole idea was to not have an idea. But otherwise, of course, I have a working hypothesis which is transformed little by little. As for the editing, I always do it myself. Before I also did the synchronisation of image and sound myself, this pretty boring job which was generally delegated. I found myself thus with an extremely close knowledge of the material. I knew all the images, all the sounds, all the smiles, which was of course marvelous. This allowed me to wander through the material in another way than if I had imaged something quite orderly. I had it all in my head! From that point on, it was very amusing. Of course, you rediscover things in the editing, new possibilities, connections which you didn't know, astonishing or bizarre associations. If only in the gestures: people who speak more or less of the same things make the same hand gestures! The same grimaces! In that way you can pass from one grimace to the other.

And the text for example, the voice that is heard in several of your films, do you write it at the end of the process or during?
The text comes neither before nor after the cutting. There's a moment when the film coagulates, in any case takes form and the text is written at the same time. The choice of the voice is also of enormous importance. The person who reads the text must have a mandate to say what they are saying. You cannot use a child's voice to say things that only an adult is capable of saying. The opposite is also true. If you make a film on Shanes, the pop group I filmed in 1964 I think, the person who reads the narrative is a guy off the street. It was out of the question to hire an actor who would have read the words too well and too vehemently. In Europa 1900 the commentary is read by a young woman. It's important. There are the words, the connotations of the words, the sounds, the voice and finally you move a little closer to the music of the voice also. And then there's the irony which can pass in the way a word is pronounced. The text is extremely important in some of my films, but not in all.

What about subjectivity and identity? Is there a place for autobiography in your films?
I made one film that was more or less entirely autobiographical. Otherwise I make films a bit like the way I am. You can probably know something about me from my films, or at least my centres of interest. You know—I'm going to say something outlandish, but you have to understand—film doesn't interest me. There are things that interest me a whole lot more. I am more of a Homo faber than a Homo sapiens. By the way I don't know if Homo sapiens exists, the question can be asked. I make. I like doing, that's why I like editing for example. I like technique a lot, technical possibilities are enormously important. Since I started making films in the sixties, the technical evolution of cinema has been enormous, whether it be through more or less silent cameras like the NPR Éclair, tape recorders like the Nagra or, previously, the Stellavox... I shot my first films with wind up tape recorders that worked on a spring! You had more or less three minutes of sound each time. There was also the appearance of new, more sensitive film stock. Those are things which were extremely important and which must be respected. You make certain films because it is possible to make them. A film like Shanes was impossible in 1962. I think it's the first film made in Sweden with that Éclair camera that didn't make too much noise and which allowed sound recording at the same time: two people, a camera and a Nagra.

What do you make beside films?
I'm working on an old wooden boat. I also live in a house we're fixing up, an old wooden house from the seventeenth century. I work a lot, I have always made things. I'm manual! People imagine that I'm an intellectual but I don't know if it's really the case.

Interview with Eric M. Nilsson by Federico Rossin

Debates led by Federico Rossin.
In the presence of Eric M. Nilsson.