Interview with Malena Szlam and Daïchi Saïto
Nasrin Himada: Let’s start with an introduction — say who you are, where you’re from, and a little bit about yourself.
Malena Szlam: I was born in Chile and lived in Santiago until 2006. My father was a film director and began painting in the 80s, and my mother, a trained cellist, also worked in cinema. As a child I often accompanied them to film sets and clandestine film shoots during the dictatorship. Later, I became interested in visual arts and went to art school at Universidad de Artes y Ciencias Sociales in 2002. During that time, I developed my practice in sculpture, printmaking, and photography. I was interested in the materiality of light so I began exploring it sculpturally, creating installations incorporating 35mm slide projections, photography, hand-made objects, and organic materials. I was intrigued by the perceptual difference between a still and a moving image. Experimenting with my 35mm still camera, I created continuous frameless images for which I built custom-made projectors using spare parts found in a street market. This period marked my transition into filmmaking and my interest in experimental cinema. When I moved to Montréal in 2006, I met Daïchi Saïto. He talked to me about Double Negative, so one afternoon, we biked to the Mile-End, a neighborhood in Montréal, to see the studio space. When we entered, I could not believe what I saw: a large studio equipped with beautiful old analog machines, film projectors, optical printers, and editing tables — reels and film were hanging everywhere. I became part of Double Negative that month. During this time, I started using Super 8 and 16mm film, and learned artisanal techniques of hand-processing. Since then, I have made films and moving image installations. Currently, film is how I explore relationships between the natural world, human perception, and intuition. I try to connect how I observe to an intuitive way of filming, capturing traces of what occurs in present time; it is a meditative experience. When filming, I’m challenged to put an intense awareness into the moment.
Daïchi Saïto: I was born and grew up in Japan. I’ve been based in Montréal for some fifteen years, where I began my filmmaking practice. I was exposed to experimental cinema in Tokyo early in my teens, via literature and music. I was a bookish punk kid, and some writers and musicians I liked at the time would talk about that type of cinema and I got interested. When I was in high school I would play hooky and go to cinemas to watch a lot of arthouse movies and obscure underground films. I left Japan when I was nineteen, hoping to study cinema in the U.S. As it turned out, various circumstances prevented me from pursuing that path, so I decided to shift my attention to other things such as philosophy and poetry, thinking I would become a poet — an ambition I eventually gave up. After a long detour, I came to realize, in Montréal, that I’d rather deal with image than language, so cinema again came into my life. Since then, it continues to be part of my life, for which I’m grateful.
NH: Why is it important to continue to practice in analog? And why is it important to do so from within the context of digital arts today? Has experimental analog film become more invisible? How does it survive as an art form?
MS: Analog and digital are two different technologies and each of them involves specific working processes. The nature of my work is intrinsic to the process of working with film. Form and content are not apart from each other. The language of experimental cinema is constantly evolving and the variety of approaches and techniques is vast. Many artists integrate both technologies, shooting on film, then editing and presenting their work in digital. I believe that any process you choose shapes your experience and the work. In the end, it is a question of being open and choosing the means of expression you want to work with.
I think this is a great moment to work with film exactly because of the context we are living in today. Kodak has discontinued some film stocks and chemistries; film labs are closing down; some festivals and cinemas are not equipped with film projectors anymore; universities are closing their facilities for analog equipment; technicians who know how to fix analog equipment are retiring and not many people are being trained to replace them. But then there are artists gathering and creating independent artist-run film labs, working in an artisanal way, using DIY approaches, and creating an international network. Some artists create emulsions and teach them to other artists, like they do at the Handmade Film Institute in Boulder; Film Ferrania is building a new factory to start producing still photography and motion picture formats. Some festivals and cinemas are becoming unique because they commit to presenting films in their original formats.
DS: There are many reasons why I work in film, but it comes down to the fact that I prefer direct, tactile experience to intangible ones. Working with physical material gives you this immediate sense of pleasure and satisfaction that is basic to human needs. It’s a way of interacting with reality that is not virtual or disembodied. And I am interested in specific formal qualities inherent in the film medium. So my interest has nothing to do with fetishism or nostalgia. I am deeply skeptical of the claim that digital image-making technology will entirely supplant photochemical film. The two technologies can and should coexist, and digital technology should also serve to help analog technology survive in a new context rather than destroy it. Quite often, arguments that insist on the superiority of digital medium over photochemical medium fail to understand that they are two fundamentally different mediums. Photochemical-based image is not a collection of encoded abstract information, but a concrete, physical, tangible phenomenon. It is not a translation, but involves transformation on a material basis. So there is an important ontological difference in the process of image creation. From the maker’s point of view, this is essential. But when people talk about the advantages of digital over film in cinema, they talk in terms of economics, market distribution, accessibility as commodity, product efficiency, &c. — perspectives that are largely conformist and opportunistic.
People have been talking about the death of film for many decades now — it’s been the talk of the town for roughly a third of the history of motion pictures. And in recent years this process of slow death appears to be accelerating with great force. But that does not make me feel pessimistic. On the contrary, I find it quite interesting to be a filmmaker in this time of great confusion. I think film will continue to exist in one way or another, and its obsolescence will allow filmmakers to reclaim it as a truly artistic medium. Film is a medium whose existence has always been dependent on big industry’s decisions, but hopefully it will be less so in the future. Already there exists an international network of artists' filmmaking labs and collectives taking the initiative of reimagining the place of film in this world of ubiquitous digital technology.
Experimental film has never been very visible so experimental filmmakers are used to being invisible, I think. Experimental film is a strange creature whose status has always been relegated to an obscure purgatorial place by both the cinema world and the art world. Recently at a film festival, I saw a Turner Prize artist introduce himself to the audience by saying, “Well, I’m an artist and not a filmmaker.” As if filmmakers were not artists. You find such a mentality everywhere.
NH: What is Double Negative? How did the collective form? What does Double Negative do?
DS: Double Negative is a group of individual artists interested in experimental cinema, specifically in working in celluloid. It started in 2004 with twelve filmmakers including myself. It was a DIY initiative and has remained so today, even though it has gone through some changes. We have a studio and analog filmmaking equipment that we share. Over the years, some members left and new ones came, and today we have nine core members. Apart from maintaining our studio, we organize film screenings and events in various locations in Montréal, as we do not have our own screening space.
MS: Double Negative initially formed in response to what was missing in Montréal: a place to initiate an open dialogue about cinema through a community of filmmakers who wanted to continue making films and seeing new works. So beyond the walls of the studio space where each of us creates our work, for the last twelve years we have been presenting local and international experimental cinema, non-traditional documentaries, and interdisciplinary forms of moving-image art that would otherwise never be screened in Montréal. These events expand into creating a larger context for contemporary cinema through collaborations with other artists, archivists, organizations, and festivals in Canada and abroad: for example, Cinémathèque québécoise, Cinéma Parallèle et Excéntris, Revue Hors Champ, the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto (LIFT), Mark Toscano (Academy Film Archive), Light Cone (France), and Ann Arbor Film Festival (USA). We want to provide filmmakers with a context for introducing their work, and the resources to showcase in original film formats while re-energizing Montréal’s cultural scene, bringing audiences to challenging, unconventional works.
NH: Describe your practice in relation to Double Negative. How does your respective practice coincide with your commitment to the collective?
DS: Experimental filmmaking is a marginal practice, even more so if you work in celluloid today. You need a supportive community to sustain your practice. If there isn’t one, then you need to create it. My filmmaking practice doesn’t require a crew — it’s essentially a solitary endeavour. So if I wanted, I could just be alone and focus only on my own artistic practice and forget about all the things I spend my time and energy on to keep Double Negative alive. But I choose not to do so, because I don’t see any point in making my work in a vacuum. My films don’t talk about social or political issues, but instead it is important for me to think about the mode of filmmaking as having social and political implications. That is why I think my involvement in Double Negative is integral to my filmmaking practice.
MS: Double Negative is a place where ideas and energies gather with an array of visions and artistic approaches. It is a chance to become the makers of an ecosystem, creating the freedom to give form to what cinema can be — not only as an art form but also as a place for creation and presentation.
My artistic practice and involvement in Double Negative are complementary; they affect and inspire each other. The challenge is keeping a balance between both. This is the main reason, I guess, why we haven’t become a more structured organization. We work based on initiative without a rigid structure; it is always evolving and changing.
NH: I am interested in this conversation with you two precisely because I am very curious to hear your thoughts about this art practice that is very specific and that has a small community of practitioners. This magazine’s issue theme is “invisible labour.” Can you speak to the labour (invisible or otherwise) that goes into making one of your films? Walk us through the process.
MS: The process of making my films involves some kind of incorporeal labour, a process of sentience awakening. I often see images emerging from unconscious impulses that are difficult for me to speak of or describe in an eloquent manner. Sometimes they appear in dreams or in waking life. I have developed a personal writing style that is prismatic and evocative, fusing Spanish and English. It helps me, as a first moment, to materialize what had belonged to abstraction and imagination. I guess it has to do with some kind of cognitive language gap and its relationship with mental images — learning how to express myself in other languages (English and French) in my mid-twenties when I also began working with film. These images defy my perception and the limits of what I can actually create. But film, the camera’s playful ground, and the magic of film projection — that thin moment between a still and a moving image, are closer to the kaleidoscopic field of my imaginary.
DS: I’m a slow worker, and my films usually involve labour-intensive processes. The kind of imagery I create requires a lot of patience, attentiveness to details, constant negotiation between chance and control. It’s like a slow walk on a meandering path, pushing my way little by little through trials and errors. I have to be ready to encounter surprises, to be alert, lest I miss hidden signs that might tell me where to go. I feel I spend a major part of my creation looking at still images on filmstrips. So my work is rooted in this act of looking at images that don’t move. It’s an intimate process, a private, silent dialogue between me and the image. All this process is of course invisible to the viewer, who sees the film in projection, in movement. The viewer knows only partially the face of a film. The hidden part of the face is reserved for the maker.
When I think about invisible labour, I think about projectionists and lab workers. They are the quintessential invisible labourers in the world of cinema. And they are being made doubly invisible in today’s digital world, which has no need for them. I have an endless admiration and respect for those invisible labourers, their skills and knowledge, and the care they put into their work. They are part of the whole process of making a film; a film is never complete without them. I do appreciate that collaborative aspect of filmmaking. Fortunately, in the world of experimental film, this aspect hasn’t entirely disappeared, but is becoming rare. More and more, in order to show your films, you have to bring your own film projectors because cinemas don’t have them; you have to project your own films yourself because the projectionists are either absent or know only how to push buttons nowadays; labs are disappearing so you have to salvage the machines and learn how to operate them yourself; film stocks are becoming hard to get, so you have to start thinking about making them yourself; and on and on. The list of invisible labours for the future filmmakers is long.