Kimpton-Nye interviews maverick director Fred Kelemen at the Buenos Aires
International Festival of Independent Cinema
For me, Kelemen, still in his early 40s, is a giant of European cinema. He ranks alongside Angelopoulos, Sokurov and Tarr. Back in the early 90’s, in an article on cinema, Susan Sontag listed Kelemen’s first film, FATE, as one of a small number of distinctive, special films “still being made” - suggesting Kelemen is a talent not to be missed. I first encountered Kelemen’s work at the London Film Festival in 1999, when I saw his third feature, NIGHTFALL. I was blown away by the intensity of his vision and his mastery of his craft.
FALLEN is set in Latvia and tells of a man’s accidental encounter with a woman about to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge. He fails to help the woman and instead becomes obsessed with her. The film will play at the London Film Festival later this year.
Andy Kimpton-Nye - HOW DID THE IDEA FOR FALLEN COME ABOUT?
Fred Kelemen - I think it’s like an alchemistical process. I think everything I’m doing, I’m doing out of the background of what I experience in my life. I think the question of guilt for example, or the question of the illusionary character of reality, and other things, are questions everybody thinks about at some moments in his life. And maybe at this time it was something I thought about very much and suddenly I had a very strong impulse to make this film and to talk about these questions.
Last summer, I spent 3 months in Riga working with students from the Latvian Culture Academy. I gave a directing and camera workshop there and during these 3 months I also realised this film, so the film was somehow influenced by the atmosphere of the city and society there. On the other hand, it’s a result of experiences I had many, many years ago.
AKN - WHY WERE YOU EXPLORING GUILT SO THOROUGHLY?
FK - Ok, the film is not only about guilt. It’s about many, many other things. But guilt is something we are confronted with, it’s something everybody is dealing with, and always had to deal with. We cannot avoid it, because as human beings we are ethical creatures. Sooner or later in this life we have to question our actions: where do I stand? What do I do? And where does it lead to – what I’m doing?
I think it’s an important topic, and it’s an important question, the question of guilt, because related to the question of guilt is the question of personal responsibility. And, more and more, we have to understand that we are personally responsible for what we do and we are personally responsible for the world we’re living in. The loss of personal responsibility leads to a lot of the problems we are faced with today.
AKN - THERE’S A LOT OF BLEAKNESS IN IT, BUT I SEE IT AS QUITE A HOPEFUL FILM. YOU HAVE THAT WONDERFUL LINE, “EVERYONE WE MEET IS A GIFT FROM HEAVEN”, AND I THOUGHT, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL LINE. SO, ULTIMATELY, IS IT A HOPEFUL FILM?
FK - It’s a very hopeful film. The film shows how it is, but it also reminds us, like an echo from a very distant world, of how it could be. So, there is also this voice of memory, besides this very, not bleak, but somehow lost world. I mean they’re all lonely, every person in this film is very lonely and they stay lonely. But also the film shows a little of what the way out could be, as there is a way out. It’s like an open door. It’s like in a Kafka world: the door is open, the question is if we use it and go through it, or if we don’t use it.
AKN - WOULD IT BE FAIR TO SAY THAT THE WAY OUT IS TO TREAT EVERYONE AS WE WOULD LIKE TO BE TREATED OURSELVES?
FK - For example, yes. If we take one basic ethical idea of Christianity like ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, it’s a very strong ethical demand, very difficult to realise. This one sentence would take us an enormous effort to realise, and if realised, the whole world would be different, because it means I have to love the other like myself. It means, first, I have to love myself. It means I have to accept myself as a complete person, not only the good things, but the bad things. And, I’m sure if we were to reach this level, and if this would be manifested in our everyday actions, I’m sure the world would be completely different. It’s a complete ethic and it would be enough as an ethical value for the whole world.
Another point, which relates to this, is to accept our own lives. Every character in this film has his life, but all of them don’t want to accept it. The woman in the film already has her life when she decides to change it for living with her Russian lover. And she feels regret, and she understands that this doesn’t work, because what she gave up was too important to give up. It’s impossible to make a cut, to say, “Now I’ll start something new and leave this behind.” Because it’s still with you. She goes from the point of trying to commit suicide to the point where she decides to survive, and she goes back to the life she had and accepts the responsibility she has for her child.
The main hero, he has his life as an employee of an Archive. It’s a nine to five job, it’s boring maybe, but we cannot judge it. It’s a normal life, but he wants to escape it. He imagines himself being with a woman he doesn’t know. It’s completely illusionary. In the end, when the woman appears again, his guilt doesn’t finish, because of his failure on the bridge. What changes is that his space of illusion is destroyed. So he enters the space of reality and that’s the moment, when the illusion is destroyed, everything falls to the ground. He has to understand he has his life as an employee of the Archive, and he simply has to go on with this life.
AKN - THE BRIDGE IS A FOCAL POINT OF THE FILM. IT’S THERE IN THE OPENING SHOT, IT’S WHERE MATISS FAILS TO HELP THE WOMAN… WOULD IT BE WRONG TO READ THIS BRIDGE AS A SYMBOL IN YOUR FILM?
FK - Yes, because there are no symbols in this film. I never use symbols. A bridge is a bridge. If you want to go from one side of the river to other, then you use a bridge, because we cannot fly and we cannot walk over water, so we need a bridge. It’s a very simple, practical thing. Generally, I hate symbolism in films.
AKN - YOU HAVE A POLICE INSPECTOR SAYING, WE ONLY EVER GET TO KNOW PEOPLE WHEN THEY’RE DEAD. I KNOW IT’S THE VOICE OF A CHARACTER, BUT DO YOU BELIEVE THAT?
FK - He says, “That when somebody’s dead we start to be interested in him,” Because as long as somebody is alive we believe that he’s alive forever. We don’t realise normally that everything is just temporary. We are mortal creatures and in most cases it only comes to our consciousness when somebody dies – suddenly we miss him. And people walk around each other here in the city, millions of people, and nobody cares for nobody. But, the moment that somebody is dead, it’s a big attraction. As long as we are alive, we are more dead somehow than when we are dead.
AKN - LOOKING MORE AT THE TECHNICAL SIDE OF THINGS, HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT CHOOSING YOUR CAST? ARE THEY ALL PROFESSIONALS?
FK - Yes, they’re all theatre actors. And some of them are really stars in Latvia, in theatre. I talked to some people and asked them, “Who do you think could be right for this and this character?” Then, I met some people, and we talked in a bar. When I met Egons (Matiss) immediately I liked him very much, so we agreed very fast that he would do this. I didn’t see anybody acting, on stage. None of them. It wasn’t like a normal casting. I met them, we talked, we had some drinks and I decided. It’s always better to follow your intuition.
AKN - IN ONE OF THE EARLY BRIDGE SCENES YOUR CAMERA JUST STAYS WITH MATISS, YOU HOLD ON HIS FACE FOR A LONG, LONG TIME. HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH THAT AS A DIRECTOR? DO YOU DIRECT EVERY MOMENT PRECISELY? OR DID YOU EVER HAVE THE ACTOR COMING OUT OF CHARACTER, WONDERING IF THE SHOT WAS OVER?
FK - No, an actor isn’t allowed to stop a scene. Come on. There’s only one person who decides when the scene is finished, that’s the director. They just sit and they wait until the camera has stopped. And they do what they do until I say, “Ok, thank you.” I don’t know what’s going on inside their heads. I’m not inside their heads. When they’re sitting for minutes on a chair and smoking, I don’t know what they’re thinking. Maybe they think of their wives, or their holidays, or when the shot will be over. I don’t know. That’s their secrets. They can think what they want.
But, for sure, we talk about it before. And, after one or two shooting days, they are used to this kind of rhythm and they start to understand it. For example, the main actor (Egons Dombrovskis) told me later that in the first two days he was very aware about the camera and the rhythm of the scenes. For him, it was unusual. But, after two days, he forgot completely and he forgot even that there’s a camera there. And it was quite easy for him to adapt to the rhythm of the film.
AKN - AND THE WONDERFUL LONG SHOT FOLLOWING MATISS UP AND OVER THE BRIDGE, DISCOVERING THE WOMAN THERE, AND THEN MOVING ON, IS IT SPONTANEOUS, STRICTLY CHOREOGRAPHED, OR A MIXTURE OF BOTH?
FK - It’s a mixture, because it’s choreographed, because film is a visual art and it matters what the camera is doing and it matters how something is put in to the image. So, I’m very conscious about the form. But on the other hand it’s improvised, because first I went with him to the bridge and I decided: you stop here, she’s standing here, then you go to this light and when you are in this light you turn and run back. In every location we had, I did the choreography of the shots on location, on the day. It’s a very spontaneous reaction by me concerning the space. So, the way I organise the space and the way I organise the rhythm of the shot is done in the moment of shooting, or just some minutes before.
AKN - WHY DID YOU SHOOT IT ON TAPE AS OPPOSED TO FILM?
FK - It was a very spontaneous project. It was done without any funding. It was just privately financed. So, first, it was cheaper. Second, because of this you are more independent. And my first film, Fate, I did also on video. The whole film was shot on video and transferred to film. And I like very much the effect you have then, because it’s a little more grainy. It’s not film and it’s not video. It’s something new.
AKN - DID YOU CHOOSE BLACK AND WHITE BECAUSE OF THE MOOD, OR DID YOU NOT LIKE THE COLOUR OF TAPE?
FK - No, no, no, I always wanted to do a black and white film. So, it was a present to myself. Second, I think it corresponds very well with the topic of the film. Black and white is like, you know compared to drawings and paintings, it’s like the relationship between black and white and colour. It’s like a drawing, it’s like sketches. The way the film’s narrated, it’s very much fragmented, so the essential things don’t happen on the screen, they happen in the mind of the audience. So, what I show is just some sketches, some lines and the rest you imagine. And this way of fragmented, sketch-like narration for me corresponds with the black and white. And I wanted the very strong contrast - very black black and some overexposed white - which also for me relates with the feelings of the people, because there are no grey feelings in the film – it’s black or white. It’s love, or die.
FK - In all my films the camera follows the main character. It’s like he’s haunting the woman, and he’s haunted by his consciousness/his emotions, and the camera haunts him. It’s in all my films, that the camera is haunting the main character, following him, looking what he’s doing and not taking the gaze away – like children observe, they look and they don’t look away, they never look away. And that’s what the camera is doing, staying with him, and not going away.
AKN - BUT OTHER FILMS GO OFF AFTER A HOST OF DIFFERENT CHARACTERS, DON’T THEY?
FK - Yeah, but I never understand it, because it somehow gives a very strong idea of objectivism in film, because it shows me: now I know what this person is doing, and cut, and now I know what the other person is doing… But in life I don’t know. I have no other possibility of experiencing life than with myself. So, that’s basically the idea of all my films. I have one character, somehow he accidentally comes in to frame, and we decide to follow him. And what he doesn’t experience, I don’t show. The camera never knows more than the main character and that’s why the audience is never knows more than the main character.
I don’t like the idea where the camera shows a character and then leaves a character – to see everything. That puts the audience in the position of God, quite a distant position, because then I know more than every single character in the film. I know what the bad guy’s doing, I know what the good guy’s doing. I always have information nobody else has. I’m always more clever. And I don’t like this concept of cinema. It’s somehow fake. It gives me the idea that now I know everything. The only thing we know is what we experience and nothing more.