Aliona van der Horst and Salomé Jashi on visual language in storytelling

    • Festival
    • November 19, 2021
    • By Vladan Petkovic

    Two directors with films in the IDFA program, Turn Your Body to the Sun in International Competition and Taming the Garden in Best of Fests, respectively, had a talk at an IDFAcademy event on Friday morning in the Compagnieteater where they discussed how they made them.

    Moderated by IDFA Senior Programmer Joost Daamen, the talk started with the directors describing the content of their films to the IDFAcademy participants and how they got inspired to tell these stories.

    Van der Horst's mother is from Russia and her protagonist Sana is of a Tatar-Estonian-Russian origin, and lives in Amsterdam. Her father was one of six million Soviet prisoners of war captured by the Germans in the Second World War and later sent to Stalin's gulag. As the director put it, "This film is a search for the story that he never wanted to tell."

    Van der Horst remembers exactly how she got to make the film with Sana.

    "She saw my film Love Is Potatoes, which was my personal quest for my family and what happened to them under Stalin. Sana told me she wanted to do something similar about her father, and I asked her if I could join her," the director recalled.

    Jashi also remembers why she decided to make Taming the Garden, about the immensely wealthy former prime minister of Georgia, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who is developing a private botanical garden full of ancient trees that he has had dragged in from all over the country.

    "It was when I for the first time I saw this image of a tree being dragged over the sea, it was everywhere on TV and on social media," she said. "The whole country knew about his idea earlier, but I could not imagine what I would feel when I saw this picture. By now it has become a very banal image for me, but at the time I thought it was like a digital glitch, you see something that's not supposed to be there.

    "It was also beautiful and very poetic, but the story behind it is not beautiful because it's about unchecked power. So, this ambivalence was what attracted me, the multiple layers that exist inside this image."

    Originally, Jashi thought it would be a short film, but she soon realized it would be impossible.

    "I wanted to treat it as a myth, as an allegory, a film in which a tree is not just a tree, but it symbolizes something. It's a huge metaphor, this uprooted, erect tree swimming in the sea," she explained.

    Treating the archive footage

    Asked about how she came up with the visual concept for her film which employs a lot of archive materials, van der Horst said: "Sana told me, whenever she watched archive footage from the Second World War, she would be looking for her father in it. And I started doing the same."

    The director felt the protagonist's need to recognize her father, and that's where she decided how she was going to tell the story.

    "When I saw these images of prisoners of war who are also looking at the camera from 70 years back, it was such a strong impression, it's history looking back at you," she explained.

    But what made this film different from other archive documentaries on the Second World War was the fact that van der Horst got hold of 16mm color films shot by German officers.

    "I thought, this looks like a different war," she recalled. "I tried to make the film using only these 16mm images but it was not enough. And I have a problem when I see a film where you have black-and-white footage and color footage together, because the former has a very different quality, it's very abstract and beautiful, but it is distant."

    Eventually the production found a Russian digital expert who came up with an algorithm to color the black and white footage, mimicking the 16mm films.

    "It works in a different way on your emotional perception," she said.

    Jashi joined at this point and said, "It keeps you in the moment and it touches you much more, it is more real. Black-and-white refers to something from long ago, and color has the feeling of immediacy. It brings the history much closer."

    Van der Horst's reappropriation of images and Jashi’s visual style

    As Turn Your Body to the Sun uses both German and Soviet footage, the director spoke about reappropriation of images. Films and newsreels from the time from either side were used as propaganda, which is why she considers them "contaminated". She explained her process of using this footage and looping some of the scenes a couple of times in a row.

    "It's the process of watching and rewatching that you want to give to the viewer. In one of the scenes you see Himmler visiting the camp, and he touches his nose. The third time I watched it, I realized, it's probably because these prisoners smell. So it's the matter of giving the audience, which also has subtitles to read, time to really see it."

    The talk then moved on to Taming the Garden and a scene Jashi wanted to underline, in which we see the workers uprooting the tree with drills. She considers it an emotional entrance into the film.

    "The sound that these drills and cranes make was crucial for me," she said. "It's like an orchestra of machines that we tried to integrate in the film, and when drills go into the earth, you can feel it in your body. So we took a lot of care about the sound through all stages of production."

    She connected this with her visual approach: "When we would film something, we would film it only if the image also spoke about something else, not just what we see, like with the drilling. Or cutting down trees, which reminded me of taking down statues of former rulers: it shows the change of values, it is violent but also beautiful in an aesthetic way."

    Jashi said that she was quite clear about what visual style she was going for: static and wide.

    "We had to go wide because trees are really big and hard to film. And we wanted to be able to include the scale of the tree and the man, the scale plays a really important role in the film. And the static camera is quite natural in juxtaposition of the movement of the tree. In general, I like the camera to be static."

    The talk also touched upon issues of memory, which both Turn Your Body to the Sun and Taming the Garden deal with in different ways, and the relationship between the archive footage and the protagonist, as well as to the point of view that audience gets depending on the origin of the materials.

    Turn Your Body to the Sun

    • Aliona van der Horst
    • 2021
    • 93 min

      The powerful story of a Soviet soldier who was a prisoner of war during the Second World War and afterwards sent to a gulag. His daughter never got to hear the whole story. Archive footage and personal sources evoke the past in subtle but potent ways.

      More info

      Taming the Garden

      • Salomé Jashi
      • 2021
      • 92 min

        Dozens of rare and ancient trees are transported across Georgia, destined for the private botanical garden of the country’s former prime minister. In absurd scenes, we see an operation that takes away the soul and oxygen from a powerless population.

        More info

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