Jørgen Leth is stranded. Usually, he would return to Haiti around this time of year—the Danish filmmaker, poet and sports commentator has had a home on the Caribbean island since 1991. But the chances of returning this year are not looking good. “There are no airlines flying in, everything is broken,” he laments. “Haiti is broken. It has been before, but now it's serious. So I don't know where I will be in two months. That's a terrible feeling to have at my age. I need calm; I'm old enough that my perspective on life is a little bit shorter. So I don't like to be in an uncertain situation.”
The legendary director, who turned 82 earlier this year, is being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at IDFA this year, and is also presenting his new film I Walk in the Feature-Length Competition. That film chronicles a tough period in Leth's connection to Haiti, which he calls “a lifelong love story”. After the massive earthquake that devastated the island in 2010, Leth found himself quite literally unbalanced. Walking had become a challenge.
Almost unthinkingly, Leth started filming the slow path to recovery—his own, and Haiti's— on his phone. “I was really impressed by the way it was possible to put a personal imprint on this material,” he says. “It was necessity that forced me to create the language of this film, pure necessity, because it was the only camera I had. The sensitivity, the way the material looked, was fantastic to me. That phone became a very real instrument for me, the lens I looked through for this sensitive language. The framing becomes so natural, so crazy in a way—I like that craziness. It became a very egocentric process, to show my own body in these new, extreme circumstances. Show how I digested what was happening around me.”
There was no predetermined plan, no screenplay, no end goal to this work, he says. At first, he didn't even think of it as something that would become a film. But gradually, as the observations began to accumulate and his son Asger (also a filmmaker) urged Leth to keep going with this, a storyline emerged. Everything happened naturally, Leth says, citing a sequence in which he travels to the jungle of Laos as an example. “Nobody told me to do that and it has nothing to do directly with Haiti. But at a certain point, I mentioned this idea of the jungle to Asger. It's an idea I wrote down many years ago, just one of many notes in a notebook: the mystery and impenetrability of the jungle, the symbolic value of that. So Asger said: why don't you go to a jungle? The two editors liked that idea very much, Tómas Gislason offered to go with me, and that's how it came about. It was not something that was conceived long before; it was just added to the vision, and it became a very natural part of the film. I'm very proud of that.”
In this sense, Leth says, I Walk is probably the most radical of his films, which have always been intensely personal. “In observing life, I've always been very frank in dealing only with the things I'm interested in, not what anyone else told me was interesting. I always tell film students they should make personal films, and I've done that all my life. I've always been egocentric in that way—all my stories are my own stories. I've always been part poet and part journalist. I'm very interested in that connection. I don't much enjoy films that are just information, devoid of sensuality. Sensuality is the main thing; that's the driving force for me. There should always be a dialogue between the two. Journalism brings a framework of real curiosity, which is then treated with the sensuality of poetry.”
For Leth, I Walk is a confirmation of the spontaneous way of making films he has long propagated. “I'm very happy with the fact that I'm still able to, and still interested in making experimental films. I did that early in my career—my first films were experimental films; no budget, just an idea. My base has always been more in the avant-garde than in film history, I think. My poetry has always been very related to my films. In this film I've succeeded in putting them together in a more direct way than ever before.”