Les États généraux du film documentaire 2017 Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Guy Sherwin

Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Guy Sherwin

You studied painting at the Chelsea School of Art in the late sixties: you made paintings that functioned as modifiers of shadows and light effects. The shadows they cast were as much the work as were the pictures themselves. How much has this approach fed through into film, which you began making in the seventies?
My interest in art came partly from a fascination with perception, how our perception is not a stable thing, it can play tricks and ultimately one must always be in a position of doubt or uncertainty about what one is seeing. Such thoughts were probably behind my experiments in light and change which ultimately led me to film.

When you began your career in the seventies, the British experimental cinema and film theory were much involved in political filmmaking and structural films: even if you were at the core of the movement – being in the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative (LFMC) and teaching printing and processing – your work is truly far from these currents…
This is debatable. Many of the more abstract films made at the LFMC were rationalised in political terms (as an attack on the oppression of illusionistic narrative for example). I didn’t discuss my own films in those terms but was sympathetic to the argument. However I did feel that a more personal aspect to practice at the LFMC was sometimes lacking and the need to redress this partly informed my Short Film Series. “Structural” has always been a difficult and ambiguous term, but taking it to mean either an analytical practice, or an art form that foregrounds its own structure, I have been strongly influenced by both aspects, but have rarely described my work in this way.

From your first films, you have adopted a pensive and self-reflexive film form: the nature of filmmaking, the basic qualities of cinema such as light and time are the main ingredients of your work. It’s a kind of return to the “pencil of nature”, to the very roots of the Lumière brothers’ practice.
Yes, this is closer to how I describe my work. The LFMC was hugely influential here. Its central project was to rigorously explore every aspect and avenue of film practice in the attempt to liberate it from corporate dominance as well as habits of viewing. As such, not just the camera and editing, but the film strip itself, the printing and processing, the projector, the cinema space, the relation of filmmaker to viewer, of viewer to film, all these were addressed. This exploration was not only technical but fundamental. It was an exciting time to be involved in such an avant-garde movement.

The first elements that impress the viewer of your films are their rhythm, the texture of the black and white 16 mm images, the sensibility for landscape they express (let’s say John Constable), and their particular poetic resonance (let’s say William Wordsworth): music, painting and poetry are the all-bearing elements of inspiration for your works, cinema seems to be less important for you as a source of inspiration... Who are the filmmakers and artists that influenced you?
You are right, as a fine artist I have no special interest in stories. In much the same way as painters, poets and musicians, I see the world more through the connections between things – in a lateral rather than linear way.
At different times in my career influences have included Cézanne, Giacometti, Vermeer, Jasper Johns, Agnes Martin, Kurt Kren, Peter Kubelka, Malcolm LeGrice, Johann Sebastian Bach, Steve Reich, Michael Snow, Fluxus, John Cage, Tony Conrad, Andy Warhol, Annabel Nicolson, Yoko Ono, Stan Brakhage, Wojciech Bruszewski, Chris Welsby.[1]

Some of your films were made during a long period of time. How important is the editing process for you, and how important is the spontaneity of the shooting? Do you write a script before filming or do you always find new things as you work? How often do you discover new things during the optical manipulation of the film? And how much do you want to control this process?
There is no single answer here. Some of my films such as Short Film Series (which is really at the heart of my work) were made by trying to think through all the elements in the film before shooting. The camera then captures what happens to fall into frame. If it doesn’t work out (and many don’t) then I have to rethink and reshoot. Portrait with Parents was made at the first attempt whereas Metronome took three rolls before I was happy with it.
Some of the films have a long gap between shooting and completion because I didn’t have the equipment readily available to complete them (Prelude, Views from Home). Having easy access to equipment is important to me. Messages took a long time since the process of gathering the material was so long. As a domestically produced film with no deadline and little budget it is very easy to “overrun”.
Some of the films avoid editing altogether (or in the case of Short Film Series delegate editing to the curator). In other films editing is a foregone procedure that is simply enacted (Railings). One film that uses conventional editing is Filter Beds and here there were three stages in the film production all equally long: shooting the film, recording the sound, editing both together.

Your personal and family life is at the origin of many of your films, but at the same time you never adopt a home movie or film-diary style. How much of your intimate feelings do you want to reveal in films? We could start with the metaphorical use of mirrors in your work…
Does a home movie or diary-film style make it more likely to reveal one’s intimate feelings? I don’t regard making art as self-expression in the obvious sense. For me it is more a means of discovery of the world of the moving image that film makes possible. However it is possible to look back on my films and recognize personal things that I was going through that have informed the films in some way.

In your films, there’s a peculiar style which makes me think of music: to what extent has music influenced you? And how do you manage to make a kind of translation from sound to image and vice versa?
Music is a big influence and I’m glad it shows. Questions of timing, rhythm, development have all been dealt with in music for centuries whereas film has had but one century and much of it spent in thrall to narrative ideas of construction. Since 2003 I have made many films and performances, often with Lynn Loo, which discard representational imagery in favour of line, shape, rhythm, movement and the sounds that these graphic forms generate. Here the originating influences would be Len Lye or early Hans Richter.

What is the place of chance in your performance work?
I’m happy that my films have been chosen for this documentary festival because (unlike staged feature film) chance is often present in documentary footage. Chance gives the image life and spontaneity. Conventional film is subject to so much control that it feels dead by the time it reaches the screen. In contrast to this my more recent work (not shown at this festival) has been mostly in the form of live performative interaction with film in which the film projectors become players in the projection event. [Examples of this can be seen in my DVD Optical Sound Films].

Interview with John Smith by Federico Rossin.

1. A “Fragment of a filmmaker’s work: Chris Welsby” was programmed during the 2010 edition of the festival.

Debates led by Federico Rossin.
In the presence of Guy Sherwin.