This is the eigth installment in our 6 Questions series, where we email creators, curators, and other people we admire with 6 questions about their work and process, and then share their responses with you. You can read our previous interview with renaissance woman / documentary filmmaker Amy Finkel here. -Ali
We’re in love with Eva Weber. One of our favorite documentary filmmakers, Eva tackles subjects that may seem mundane — such as personal storage units or animal herding — and manages to capture the key details that make these ordinary things appear exceedingly beautiful. She’s currently partnering with Vendela Vida on the screenplay adaptation of Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, but paused for a moment to answer our questions about her documentary work. Here’s what she had to say:
1. Tell us about the concept behind your recent short, “Reindeer,” a beautiful film that caught our eye. There’s no narration, just visuals and atmospheric audio. At what point in the process of making the film did you know you wanted to focus on this type of footage?
I was always fascinated by the idea of going to Lapland, and seeing reindeer and Northern Lights, so when Nowness approached me about making a film about reindeer in Lapland in the run-up to Christmas 2011 I jumped at the chance (albeit, I never managed to see any Northern Lights, but I did see plenty of reindeer). The original idea was to make a film about reindeer racing. A unique part of Sámi culture, young jockeys compete to find out whose family owns the fastest and strongest reindeer. Unfortunately, a couple of days before we were due to travel in early December, we discovered that the racing hadn’t started due to recent weather conditions. It was unusually warm, temperatures were around 5 to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit, which meant the herding of the reindeer had been delayed but also there was not enough snow to seriously start training the reindeer for racing, let alone for the racing to take place. Once we got to Karigasniemi, Which is a tiny town at the border between Finland and Norway, we therefore had to re-group and started to explore our surroundings; the only brief at this point was to capture the energy and movement of the reindeer.
I realised very quickly that I wanted to film at the herding pen where the reindeer are corralled and then separated coming down from the mountains. We visited the pen on our first day, and I was fascinated by the place, it had a very distinct atmosphere, even completely deserted. I wanted to capture the eerie isolation of the Artic landscape and capture the sheer adrenaline rush and excitement of the herding. At the pen, the energy of the reindeer is incredible, I will never forget standing in the middle of the animals frantically running around us in circles as they were being separated. What was amazing, was standing in the path of the running reindeer and barely being brushed by them. At the incredible speed they move and with those antlers it’s amazing how they manage to avoid obstacles in their path. Originally, the idea was to do some interviews with local herders but also people involved in racing; and whilst I did interview one person, I very quickly decided that I did not want to use this in the film. For me, the power of the images was enough to carry this short.
2. We’ve noticed that you are fond of long, lingering shots that focus on seemingly small details or movements. What influenced you in developing this aesthetic?
As a filmmaker, my passion is to make beautifully photographed films that explore subtleties and nuances of meaning, films that look at the small details and microcosm to say something about the bigger world we live in, and that let us experience the world in new ways. For me, the success of a film relies on mood, quiet observation and rich, sensual details. I am a great believer that the theme and subject of a film should go hand-in-hand with its aesthetic. When I set out to make a film, I have a very clear idea of the themes I want to explore and this informs the whole filmmaking process for me, from the interviews, to the visual style, to the way I approach the sound design. So for instance, in my film ‘The Solitary Life of Cranes’ I was fascinated by the idea that there is almost another world above London; yet most of us never look up to notice cranes or their drivers. The drivers in turn can see everything going on below them, yet their only way to connect with the world they are building is by watching it from a distance. This is a film about intimacy and distance, and the space that separates us from others, and I felt the visuals should hint at our characters’ isolation in the environment they inhabit. In the process of making the film, I decided very early on that I wanted to divorce the image and sound in the film to reflect the way the drivers are separated from the world they are building below. My aim was to make a film that transcends individual stories, and for me, the detached stylistic approach invites the viewer not only to engage in the portrait of individual people, but to recognize in them bigger, more universal emotions and experiences.
3. Tell us about your interview process. What do you do to encourage your subjects to open up in conversation?
I normally try to have preliminary chats with all my characters before the interviews, to get some background but mainly for them to get to know me and get a sense of what I’m hoping to achieve with the film. I tell them about the film, but also about the process and what I like to do in interviews. Before the interview, I tend to write up a lot of questions, pages and pages actually, approaching the same topics/questions from various angles. Yet, for me, these questions are more reminders and I try not to actually use them during my interviews. Instead I try to approach the interviews more as a conversation between me and my characters, as I want their answers to sound more like observations or internal monologues, rather than formal interviews. My aim is to allow them enough space and time to further explore subjects and ideas that come up and to try and go beyond the questions that I had thought of. I tend to talk quite a bit myself during my interviews, sharing my experiences and thoughts, again I feel this helps to make them sound more like conversations but it does mean that my interviews tend to be fairly long. I also tend to do audio interviews, as I find them less intimidating and more intimate, therefore, allowing the characters to relax more and open up.
4. How do you make sure your films are honest?
I’m not sure any film can ever be completely honest or objective beyond that they are an honest expression of a filmmaker’s feelings about something or how they see the world. In the end of the day, I see a film, documentary or fiction, as an expression of myself, so for me it is about whether a film is true to what I think and how I see the world. Rather than being unmediated moments of reality, films are for me a ‘creative interpretation of reality’ (to quote John Grierson, although I’m not sure he would agree with my interpretation of this) which is informed by my own take on the subject. While I obviously try and capture the thoughts and realities of my subjects, my films are in the end shaped through my own experiences and interpretation of their situation. Yet, I always try and keep an openness to change my ideas about a film or a subject, during the interviews, the filming or in post-production, and to respond to what is actually unfolding in front of me.
I once wrote a piece about the film ‘Lessons of Darkness’ by Werner Herzog, saying how much I admired his approach to film and truth; and the way Herzog, for the sake of storytelling, blurs the line between truth and fiction in all of his films; be it his documentaries containing fiction, or his fiction films containing fact. He is not afraid to unashamedly manipulate the audience to set a certain mood for a film (as with the opening quotation in ‘Lessons of Darkness’); or to stage, script or fabricate whole sequences, if he feels there is no other or better way to unearth the deeper truth in a documentary.
5. What have you learned from the business side of filmmaking (distribution, getting funding, etc.) that you would share with aspiring documentary filmmakers?
I feel that, in particular, when you start out, it is important to go out and meet distributors, sales agents and financiers as much as possible, to understand what they are looking for, to attend markets and festivals and to build your own network. I remember attending Docs for Sale at IDFA with one of my first short documentaries, ‘The Intimacy of Strangers’. The film didn’t get into the festival, but I decided to attend the market nevertheless, not so much in hope of selling the film but to make contacts and maybe get accepted into other festivals. I can honestly say that I am still benefiting from this today; and that I am still in touch with a lot of the people I met then for the first time – and have started working with some of them since then.
6. Many of your past projects have been documentaries, but you are currently working on adapting a book, Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, for the screen. Are there any tactics you bring to screenwriting that you learned from working on documentaries?
[No comment — to be continued, as Eva’s screenwriting process progresses.]