Interview with Els Van Riel undertaken by James Snazell via e-mail during June-August 2015 with images provided by Els Van Riel.
JS: How important was it for you to have your work screened at the 52nd Ann Arbor Film Festival and can you describe your experience of being at the festival that year?
EVR: Having Gradual Speed screened at AAFF 2014 went beyond any dream. It was a great pleasure to go to the (by then) 52nd film festival which I found a most inspiring and encouraging event for contemporary filmmakers. I never expected that Gradual Speed would be selected to be part of the festival, and then to top that with receiving an award was all one wonderful surprise.
I'm not at all a professional film festival-goer. In Belgium we have the Courtisane Festival in Gent, where I worked on a number of occasions as a projectionist and also more recently, the Brussels Cinematek is organizing the ‘L'Age D'Or’ again after having a break, both festivals are for art cinema and I try and attend them as much as possible.
When making Gradual Speed I never really thought about how to give it a future in terms of it being screened. This work was launched as a very personal research, with the starting point for it being the empty white screen on which to project a different way of looking, and a wish to explore tiny bits of the world in a focused, slow, deep-digging way. This approach was done at the same time as looking to honor our slowly vanishing analog, silver print 16mm-filmmaking world in the now primarily digital image world.
JS: I get the sense that Gradual Speed marked a change from a lot of your previous work by way of the fact that it is a piece for single screen as opposed to being installation based. In what ways does screening your work at a film festival differ from presenting your work in a gallery context?
EVR: May I, rather than focus on the concept of the film festival, look to focus on the distinction between a cinema space and a gallery space? I assume most film festivals still happen in good old cinema theaters, right?
A gallery mostly shows more than one work at the same time. The visitor decides on staying with one piece according to his own time schedule, and will be continuously distorted or attracted by any nearby exposed work. Also very often daylight or artificial light keeps all-round attention awake and open for spatial and thus also for actual time perception.
A cinema visitor walks into a dark theater, sits down safely in front of the empty white screen, waits for the lights to be turned off, and then sits through the commercials, (in our former Arenberg Cinema Theater in Brussels, we even had majestic blue curtains closing after the commercials, a gentle music playing during a short pause, and then the opening of the curtains again for the actual film to start. I miss this.)
This environment and its rituals play an important role in the cinema experience. One’s expectation gets time to warm up, and therefore is allowed to add a lot of weight to the whole experience with all eyes focused on the one spot, the white screen. What more suspense do we need? 'IT' is going to start! Scary! Exciting!
I very much love this initial moment before the start of a film, often more than the actual film screened.
Gradual Speed is based on this moment of 100% expectation. This is also why the soundtrack is based on the optical crackly sound of the film-leader - the sound that precedes the created soundtrack. Because of this expectation, filling up the white screen for a certain amount of time and asking for the full attention of a group of people at the same time carries a major responsibility.
Gradual Speed is my very first standalone film, albeit that the soundtrack was made in collaboration with composer Chiyoko Szlavnics; work previous to this was invariably made to accompany music, composed and improvised, so that responsibility for the work becomes shared. I’ve also done a lot of installations that have been created to be seen in a space, as part of an exhibition with a curated concept, very often amongst and inevitably in relation to other works in the exhibition. Even if I were to build a cinema room in a gallery, the work beside it would bear an influence upon it.
A cinema space makes time for a film work to stand naked, fragile, solely on its own its soul exposed. A gallery space wraps and covers up work by its own context (or the one of the curator.)
JS: For those who aren’t familiar with the work Gradual Speed could you say something about the production and the importance of how some of the processes involved in the production stage come to influence the final output of the film itself.
EVR: From the beginning of the project I had the idea that speeding up a camera's motor while filming would give exciting results. With not only the image receiving time to appear slowly, but also the speed of the filmed movements would change gradually.
The addition of this technical idea alongside the idea to start off with the expectation of the white screen was the initial point of departure. This materialized into the work being a complete white blank out at 2 images a second and then a very slow speeding up of the camera to 24 fps all done in full B&W photography showing the beauty of 16mm film growing into a piece that enables a tribute to the slowly vanishing techniques of celluloid filmmaking.
During the process, I chose images according to the whites and blacks that I was looking for, I filmed many, cut out almost as many, left in some chosen ones and worked to the point where I needed to control and manipulate the gradual changes of some recordings slightly more. The professional film lab couldn't do it without a large amount of money. So I went to our artist run film lab in Brussels, LABO BxL and worked a few months in the darkroom printing negatives while changing the bulb's voltage, doing tests, redoing takes, having internegatives made, redoing them again. Until in the end, when editing, I was able to play with both handmade prints and the original takes by repeating the same images in different printing qualities, and working with the different textures. Only at the very end the different images found their place in a certain narrative order, and a rhythm developed. The deadline for the work was for the Courtisane Film Festival, 2013.
20150929 Els van Riel GRADUAL SPEED 7
JS: How long did Gradual Speed take to develop? Was it a work that slowly developed over a long period of time and was it a work that developed organically or was there a definite starting point where you said yes I want to make a film in the following way.
EVR: The first tests and initial filming were done in the summer of 2009. It took me more than 3 years to get to the finish. I must say that the financial part ate a big chunk of time as well.
I started with a vague wish and some technical experiments. The experiments lead me from one to the other. One image started asking for a certain next one. Though the images shouldn't form sequences or scenes to lead to any possible interpretation but their own, I wanted the images slowly narrating themselves in order to celebrate the miracle of film making-and watching.
In the final editing it felt as if the images found their proper place in the rhythm themselves. At the end I tend to believe that the initial idea maybe did get lost in the process, but found itself back only in the finished work, as if the working process made a circle. For sure the DIY Labo work was not foreseen in the beginning, but it became a necessity as part of the work, and I'm very happy that it got me there.
JS: You have been based in Brussels for many years and have worked particularly with 16mm film. How has your practice developed whilst being in Brussels? Would you say you have developed your work in isolation or has it developed through a sense of some kind of filmmaking community, and by this I mean a sense of a network of galleries, cinemas and exhibition spaces? For instance, I know you have spent much time at LABO which can be described as an artist/filmmaker-run space/laboratory dedicated to film processing and research. How important is such a place in terms of being able not only to experiment but also to be somewhere where sharing of knowledge and exchange of practices and know-how occurs?
EVR: I finished a technical course at a photo and film school at the end of the eighties here in Brussels. I never went to any art school because I never felt good enough; I probably wasn’t good enough. But in that film school I learned how to work with 16mm film, next to video (U-matic in those days). I love photography equipment, I prefer working with chemical and mechanical equipment that I completely understand, rather than with computers whose digital programming language is not mine.
I believe, as a kid, I first held a photo camera in my hands because I liked pushing buttons, as any kid does, and the click sound of the mirror clapping up. Only much later I slowly started exploring how to make interesting images. This exploration has never stopped. It keeps on being a real problem to me, how to make interesting images always to be solved in my next attempt.
I worked as a photographer and video maker for different local artists and documentary-makers. I have and continue to improvise on new contemporary music with video-equipment, and made one video-installation The Remarkable Absent, based on what video came to be for me when dv-tapes appeared. I continue to make film installations, and have now almost twenty 16mm-projectors as well as fifteen loopers to hand that I had originally made for an installation Moving Portrait. All this 16mm film-equipment I rent out, and as part of this I often help organizations and artist filmmakers with what they are doing in Brussels and Belgium, some of whom are my friends. I think I can say now that I'm embedded in the Belgian filmmaking and artist community, or at least in a small part of it.
Before Gradual Speed my own practice happened in isolation. I have worked for a long time with a professional lab, Dejonghe Postproduction, and developed bits and pieces in different basements here and there, and shown work here and there.
I have known the people at LABO BxL for the last 20 years; we exchange equipment, meet at exhibitions and film houses, and since Gradual Speed, I've become an active member of the collective. We share knowledge and equipment, have started organizing workshops, and we look to keep celluloid filmmaking alive. Young film students and artists find their way into the collective. The challenge now is to keep personal and common work in balance with the danger being that not only space but also time gets consumed very easily into community practices.
JS: What work are you doing at the moment? Has the work you are doing now progressed or moved on from Gradual Speed? Perhaps there are certain things you explored in Gradual Speed that you have looked to explore further.
EVR: I am preparing a film based on the science of light, its physical necessity and at the same time the science's poetry. I don't know at this point where it will end up.
I guess my work keeps on exploring the basic elements of filmmaking, as Gradual Speed did, including an empty white screen, time, light, shadows, a bit of chemistry and mechanics, and how to make strong images with them. Or how to make moving images strong enough to help us grasp anything about anything and everything, and keep our eyes and minds (or mind's eye) open.