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Nuestro tiempo | Carlos Reygadas

Nuestro tiempo | Carlos Reygadas

[…] Ambiguity is something we have trouble dealing with. But the fact is, in real life, almost everything is ambiguous, even the relationship we have with ourselves.

[…] However, I personally, as a film viewer, don’t like circus films so much, because I prefer paintings that are not telling me what to think or what do or what to look at, or anything. They don’t even tell you how long you have to look at the painting.

[…] Because the thing is, everything is layered. We are composed of thousands, millions of layers. They are intermingled and move around, and are like gas layers, not brick or skin, they’re gases.

[…] I think the essence of art is in rhythm. That’s why I really like poems because they sum these things up so powerfully.

INTERVIEW WITH CARLOS REYGADAS

Pamela Jahn: You’re playing one of the lead characters in your film alongside your wife and two children. How did involving your own family in the project in this way influence the creative processes, such as writing the script and shooting?
Carlos Reygadas: The process doesn’t draw so much from our lives as you might think, or as your question implies. The children were meant to be there for practical reasons - because I simply didn’t want to shoot with other children. I wanted to work freely without having to deal with other parents, and I miss them and I wanted them to be near us. Then, I tried to look for an actress for a long time as well as for an actor. I couldn’t find the actress and, during the casting, Natalia would help me by reading the lines of the male part. I saw that she could do the role very well and thought she would be great. I have always shot with non-actors, so I proposed it to her, and she was very brave and accepted. First, I thought it could maybe be slightly problematic because it could raise some symbiotic questions such as  “what does this mean? And does this expand the line between fiction and documentary?” But then I thought that would be a banality. Because the truth is, you know, they are my family because you’re a journalist. But most people don’t care who the director is, they don’t even know what the director does.
A friend of my son said to me: “You have a photographer, you have a sound guy, and you have people doing the clothing. So, what do you do?” And that is really interesting. So, this is all really banal. The person in the film is not my wife. Even the children are not my children. They’re not exactly what Roland Barthes said about photography and mortality [in his book Camera Lucida as he was search for an image of his lost mother]. I think differently about that, but they’re not us. There’s a process of transfiguration, if you want, and they’re anybody else. Of course, it can be meaningful, but it’s just superficially meaningful, it’s secondary. In terms of me acting in the film myself as well, it was a little more complicated, because I thought people could think about this as a re-enactment of life or a happening, but it’s not at all. It’s fiction. Luz silenciosa [2007], for example, which is in German and with Protestants from the countryside, is the film of mine that I actually feel the closest to. The fact that it’s your clothes, even your body, doesn’t make it more personal or more autobiographical. This is really a secondary thing. I gave my body to the film, that’s it. I remember Chaplin said, “When there’s no actor, the director comes in”. It’s like making films at the beginning of cinema. Back then, they did it all themselves because that’s what they had at hand. I’m not trying to create a metaphor or symbiotic kind of thing, questioning language in film and reality and all that.

Why do you think your doubts about putting yourself in the film weighed more on you?
Because then it was the four of us. If it had been me first and Natalia had been the last, that would have probably also been the moment when I would have paused. It weighed more on me not because it was me, but because I would complete the four of us. First, the two children - that wouldn’t be a big problem, then Natalia - that started being a problem, and then me - I was the last one to come in. And at that time, I thought that this would be too much. Just because I was the one who would close the circle, not because it was me in particular. 

Did you get to a point during the shooting where you thought “Oh god, what did I get myself and my family into”?
No. Because I didn’t get them into anything. Some people… I never use these words, like “bourgeois”, but let’s accept it for a moment. In the bourgeois morals or schemes, in a really broad sense, it’s about what we project. It’s all about observing the proprieties, about keeping our intimacy, our pudency separate. I believe that where pudency resides or exists, our intimacy is not in our clothing, not in our room, not in our bedroom, not in all the superficial things, not even in our body. All this pudency about the body, to me, is basically just religion, guilt. For me, our true self, our intimacy, resides in our brain, in our heart, in our soul. So, it’s not about whether I get naked in front of you right now, I wouldn’t mind doing that. It’s just my body. My intimacies lie somewhere beyond my actual body. Someone said to me “I would never put my children in this situation; I wouldn’t expose them to that”. Expose them to what? I’m not exposing them to anything. They’re working with their father, helping him do his work, that’s all. 

[…] The fact that it’s your clothes, even your body, doesn’t make it more personal or more autobiographical. This is really a secondary thing. I gave my body to the film, that’s it.

What exactly were you looking for in the female character? What was it that your wife had, that none of the other actresses you saw for the role could portray?
That is a good question because I don’t have an answer for it. It’s very mysterious. It’s like when you fall in love with someone, superficially, you become infatuated. Or, you like someone physically and you feel something very powerful. Usually, it’s unpredictable, even if you say something like “I like blondes that are this way or that way”, like you are designing a robot or something. All of a sudden, you see someone, and that’s the person you like, but you had never thought about how the other person you like should be. Most likely, the person you like is someone very unlike the one you thought you would like. So, I don’t know what I am looking for in general. I just have to see and I just have to feel something. I’m just looking and looking and looking. Imagine you go to the countryside and you are looking for a place to live but you don’t know what you want until you find the place, and you know that’s it. But it’s not that you were looking for a hill this size, and this and that, you were just looking; the funnel is open so things can come into it. In Natalia’s case, what happened, even though I know her and she’s my wife, what I found in her I only found when she was giving these answers to these actors. That’s when I saw something in her and I thought that it could be her. But I didn’t know. I knew her, but I didn’t know she could do that.

Like love at first sight.
Like love at first sight, yes exactly. How can you say who you’re going to fall in love with at first sight? It just happens.

[…] Ambiguity is something we have trouble dealing with. But the fact is, in real life, almost everything is ambiguous, even the relationship we have with ourselves.

One of the key elements in the film is the relationship between husband and wife, but there is also the relationship between the two men. It’s a very complicated triangle.
I know. I have a good relationship with my brother who I have known for 45 years, and even I can’t identify very well what’s going on. What I’m trying to say is that only in codified fiction – by which I mean most films that are part of the entertainment industry, and all of television – everything has to be explained. You have to understand what’s going on because ambiguity doesn’t really work on airplanes or when you watch films like that on TV. Ambiguity is something we have trouble dealing with. But the fact is, in real life, almost everything is ambiguous, even the relationship we have with ourselves. Most of us don’t know exactly why we do this and that, and why are you dressing that way and I this way. If I were Spielberg, I would know that green means this and that’s why she’s wearing this skirt. But you just wore it and then you probably realised you wore the wrong thing and you think, “Why did I do this”? Because we’re never in full control of everything. So yes, this relationship is strange. You could think of the American guy as being an opportunist. He’s hiding everything. He wants work and he wants money, and maybe even the wife since the beginning, and he’s just pretending. Or, maybe he’s really innocent and he just wants to do his job, and he finds some good companionship in Juan, and he’s used by the woman for sex. I don’t know, I really don’t know. I want to present things that way. It’s not relativist. It’s not that you can say anything. It’s something very clear. It’s not post-modernist. It’s clear but it is a vase, a container – for the contents you bring in. 

In other words, the audience has to make up their own mind what they think about him, and about these relationships.
That’s why I like photography or painting so much, because the painting just presents itself for you to see it. And that’s why some people look at a painting and become ecstatic and some others examine it for five minutes or one minute, or don’t consider it at all as it doesn’t appeal to them. But the painting is just there. Most of cinema doesn’t serve that purpose; it’s much closer to circus, because in the circus the master of ceremonies has to make sure you see the elephants and everything that’s going on, and now the clowns and everything. Most of the scenery is like that. However, I personally, as a film viewer, I don’t like circus films so much because I prefer paintings that are not telling me what to think, or what do, or what to look at, or anything. They don’t even tell you how long you have to look at the painting. In cinema, although I try to respect the viewer as much as I can and I don’t tell him what to think or feel, I do have to force him to watch for a certain time. It’s in the nature of the medium. Some people hate you for that, because - imagine you also took people to a museum and you would force them to regard a Tiepolo painting for ten minutes like that, they would probably kill you. They’ve understood everything from reading the little paper down there, why would they look at it for ten minutes? That’s the way people feel in terms of film, too. A lot of people.

Coming back to the conversation you had with your son’s friend about what a director does. How would you explain it?
The director is the person responsible for what the film is and what he does is he brings his own uniqueness into the film. That’s his role. This uniqueness comes out naturally once all the decisions have been taken by this single, responsible mind that considers only his own values and his own tastes, and his own judgments for everything he does. He’s not trying to be validated by the majority of the masses, or by the money. For me, the interesting thing is to be able to feel someone else’s vision, their personality, their existence, and that’s what the author or the director brings to it, and he makes millions of decisions all the time, of course. For example, two very important decisions in terms of the photography. He says something as simple and as complex as when to start pushing on the button of the camera and when to release it. That’s something that cannot be taught in schools and film critics never discuss this, but it is so important.
The director also decides the framing, if you know something of visual language. As a cinematographer creates the language, film directors are photographers and they compose the frame. The frame comes here or there. You see Kubrick, for example, he knows well that here with a 35mm lens is not the same when you’re using a 50mm lens, although the frame can be exactly the same. It changes, and all those things that the director brings in, and at the end, that shows. It’s adding up to a vision, an individual vision.

You leave a lot of freedom for interpretation, to avoid imposing anything. How do you balance being in control with that kind of openness?
Yes, you’re right. I have full control of the container but it’s still a container. It’s as if I would be making a bottle. The person who makes the bottle, I’m sure he knows all the engineering of the bottle, but it’s a matter of nature. So even though I know everything about the bottle, it’s a bottle by definition, so you will always be able to put whatever liquid you want in it.

Generally speaking, your previous films seemed more concerned with existential questions than Nuestro tiempo appears to be – at least at first viewing. Was it your intention, this time, to pursue a more straightforward approach?
I understand your question, and I think in this film it seems like it is clearer what it’s about. However, because it is a bottle, again, it’s a container; it’s still not very, very clear, but maybe this one seems to be more clear since it’s about a couple that has some problem with an American guy, and then they deal with the crisis. That’s about as much as you can say. Then, there is the question about the relationship between the two men, and the woman and the man, and someone will probably ask me “Do they have sex”? and I say, “Well, that’s up to you. I don’t know, you come up with it”. You hear a story in the news and maybe someone killed someone you knew more or less, so you have an opinion, but then there’s a family guy that comes, a relative, and he has another opinion. Then the police have another opinion on the murder, and the psychologists, and these can all be plausible opinions, or really stupid opinions, but no one really knows. Even the murderer and the victim, they would all have different versions, but I’m not trying to make a film like Rashomon [1950, Akira Kurosawa], or like Hitchcock, with three different versions of the actual truth. No, what I’m trying to talk about is more the subjective experience, the subjective-ness of experience, of life. This is what I’m trying to unfold for you. 

How does the landscape relate to the story and the characters in the film?
That’s a question I hear a lot. Let’s really think of it. For example, we say the moon is the female, the sun is the male, and then there’s mother earth. This is all rubbish, of course, because the earth is neither a woman nor a man. It’s a place where there’s life, thanks to the fact that male and female were born and there’s grass and plants and other things. The same thing happens to me when they say the house is a character or nature is a character. I’ve heard this since I made my first film, Japón [2002]. Landscape is a character. I’ve never understood that to be honest. No, it’s just a place where things happen and it just happens to be there. If you like it, it probably shows in the film. If you don’t like it, you cover probably it up. I really like the countryside, I love the sound of animals, I love the sound of wind, I like rain, I like it when it’s foggy. I don’t like it when it’s too sunny, I need a hat. Maybe because I’m bald. But I like the countryside a lot, and maybe that shows a lot in the film, but I don’t think it’s a character. It’s just a beautiful landscape.

[…] Because the thing is, everything is layered. We are composed of thousands, millions of layers, they are intermingled and move around and are like gas layers, not brick, or skin, they’re gases.

Do you think about the animals in a similar way?
Of course, bulls are just bulls, they’re just there. We are here. And because we ponder our existence, we invent metaphors and allegories and symbols, but they’re not objective, of course. Freud says that masculinity is the horse. It’s a construction, it’s exactly like the moon being the female, and all that, it’s obviously not the case, so in our minds we come up with metaphors that help us to think or to codify our thoughts. Because the thing is, everything is layered. We are composed of thousands, millions of layers, they are intermingled and move around and are like gas layers, not brick, or skin, they’re gases. Everything is multifaceted and keeps on changing. You go to a mountain, you see it one day, you like it. The next year you go and you think it’s smaller, and you don’t feel what you felt the other time. Sometimes you feel very excited, sometimes you don’t. That’s all, of course, because we are changing, permanently, as individuals, but the truth is that reality is also changing, all the time. Even that door is changing all the time. That’s why your perception of things changes, but the problem is that, unfortunately, we Westerners think we know better. We know everything. We know so well. We codified everything. That’s why, in a way, we ruin life. That’s why children are usually happy, unless they’re abused, but children are usually happier than adults are because they exist before codification. We should be more humble, really, because we know much less than we think. That’s why we keep on failing and failing and failing and failing. 

In your film, there is a confrontation between modern society and tradition…
Basically, I think that people have been abused for so many centuries, from the conquest of Mexico until today. Even before, religion and powerful states created some order; but religion is finished now, at least in Mexico. Religion is not going to church and all that, it’s the real fear of God, the real believing that there’s a hell. No one believes in that anymore. Maybe one out of a thousand people. Therefore, this is finished and now there’s money, and now there’s new gods that are all about self-benefit. This together with the tradition of piracy and colonialism….  a place that has been subject to colonialism is basically a place where being a pirate is what has been shown to people. So, Mexicans now have just stopped refraining from being pirates. Mexico now is like the point of the iceberg of the most simple, elevated form of capitalism, which means money is the most important thing, and if money is the most important thing, why wouldn’t I kill you if you have ten Euros in your pocket, and I can kill you and have the money?
Not for ten Euros though, they do it for much more money. It’s that, people fighting, these drug wars, and the violence. It’s appalling and, in the end, it’s about capitalism, the most elementary fashion. It’s the same thing that happens on a higher level, but there it’s more organised, and they make sure it doesn’t harm the people as much. But in Mexico, the protection of all those rights, those values, is very poor so people suffer a lot.

This is not a Mexican problem though, it’s universal.
Yes, it’s universal, but specific countries like India and Mexico suffer particularly because they’re at the crossroads. And still Mexicans, I don’t know why, but they are very happy people. It’s a wonderful country, even though it’s in a huge humanitarian crisis. The most unjust country in the world perhaps, not because of wealth, disparity, and worse things than that, but because of the abuse of humans all together. But it’s still a wonderful country; I just really don’t understand why.

[…] when something is as extreme as those things are, it seems as if you’re condemned to talk about those things. But I have a right to talk about what I want.

Despite the abuse and violence in your country, the family you’re portraying in your film lives a very idyllic existence.
You know, this is the thing. Imagine now, we’re all humans; we all live more or less the same lives, but when something is as extreme as those things are, it seems as if you’re condemned to talk about those things. But I have a right to talk about what I want. It would be so sad if I would be condemned to being someone talking about politics all the time. Imagine all Mexican films talking about kidnapping, which is already quite a lot. Or all American films talking about Trump. It would be so pathetic to see all American films talking about politics and weapons and people shooting up schools.

Do you believe in the theory that humans are born to be good?
Aristotle has been asking himself that question and we all have. Aristotelian philosophy says a human is born with this innate principle of doing good and avoiding evil. In Batalla en el cielo [2005], my second film, I talked a lot about that and it’s a subject matter that interests me very much. I still wonder, I don’t know. To be honest, maybe most humans, yes. Maybe a third of humans, yes. Maybe a third of humans don’t care much and maybe… not a third, maybe 5% of humans are not that way. If you see dogs, if you see other animals, they’re all very different.

[…] I think the essence of art is in rhythm. That’s why I really like poems because they sum up these things so powerfully.

Elsewhere you talked about the process of creating a certain rhythm in relation to your films. How does that work?
Yeah, we’re very used to associating rhythm with music, but that’s not what I mean. The Japanese know a lot about that. Rhythm can be everything. The patterns in your dress are rhythm. For example, a typical thing in rhythm is the rhythm of a sound, a dialogue, the space, the speed of walking, the actors, the way they pronounce words, if they bring their voice up or bring it down. The editing process. A door closes, dark, sound rhythm, everything is rhythm. Architecture is rhythm. Nature, everything, and when you find balance, when you find harmony or the contrary, it’s all because of rhythm. The fact that humans can create and feel this rhythm together… I think the essence of art is in rhythm. That’s why I really like poems because they sum up these things so powerfully. They can seem very opaque, but then they become so clear and they sum up everything.

Does the rhythm change for you with every film you make?
Yes, each one of them or each part of them has its own rhythm, and even within, parts of it can change. That’s why there are long films that feel short and very short films that feel very long. Something that feels boring or long is not necessarily bad, maybe that’s a rhythm and everything will be justified afterwards. Then the slow boring rhythm can become something very powerful. That happens in music, too. In the huge operas by Wagner, this is so clear. There are so many things that seem to just have terrible rhythm, oppressing, long, but then everything adds up to something and it makes sense. And of course, if you like it, if you can connect with that.

First published: April 04, 2019

Nuestro tiempo | Film | Carlos Reygadas | MEX-FR-DE-DK-SE 2018 | 173’ | GIFF Genève 2018, Solothurner Filmtage 2019

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