An Interview with Atom Egoyan (Director)
Talking the Science of Film
Q: YIDFF programming often questions the problematic distinction drawn between fiction and nonfiction film. How did you confront this and similar questions at this year’s festival? Did they affect your experience as juror of the International Competition?
AE: I think what was really impressive was the wide variety of practices we saw. The festival was very carefully programmed. It also gave us a sense of many different traditions of documentary. Seeing how these questions played against each other was very stimulating for me as a jury member.
As someone who has done a number of feature film juries, at least 10, I found this the most stimulating jury I had ever been on. Everyone on the jury was so equipped to deal with very specific questions of intent and sincerity, and how the camera was being harnessed to express sometimes very subtle and unusual points of view.
I find that often when I’m on a feature film jury, because of the nature of how they are composed, there are a number of people who are there for figurative purposes, actors or actresses, who have a very specific view of the films they are watching, and are not necessarily equipped to deal with the science of film that a documentarian is. So I felt very privileged.
I was the least experienced person on this jury, so it was odd to be named president. I didn’t come here knowing I was president; it was brought up at the first jury meeting. It just happened. But looking at the other jury members, I was just learning so much listening to them speaking about their craft, about the art form. It was tough making the decisions, but I’ll never forget the experience of being at Yamagata.
Q: You mentioned a “science of film.” What do you mean by this term?
AE: By “science” what I mean is specifically how is a camera being used to depict what’s happening in front. How the choices of camera angle, duration, composition—all the types of decisions that a director makes either in a documentary or a drama—are supremely important in how we understand the subject matter. I found it incredibly stimulating to be in a room where I could talk about this idea without feeling that I was being esoteric.
Q: You also mentioned “questions of intent and sincerity.” What did you mean by that?
AE: One of the things that I learned being on this jury, listening to these senior documentarians talking about their form, was how certain types of shot and certain decisions can betray the intention of a film, that every moment counts. When you’re looking at the more industrialized approach to filmmaking that you see in many commercial features, there is an anonymity to the decisions. You’re not feeling the individual filmmaker making that choice. In all the documentaries that we saw, we really felt the personality of the director. So for better or worse, the jury seemed very intent on trying to discern what informed the choices that were being made. And that’s perhaps what I mean about it being almost scientific. I don’t mean it in the sense that there is any calculation or that there’s a formula. What I mean is that there is a very thorough assessment of all the choices that are being made, and that there’s something that we were looking for collectively, and that we found I think.
Q: This is a very formalist way of looking at documentary, and one tension I imagine exists on a documentary jury is whether to judge films by content or form. How was that tension had?
AE: Well I think you have to think about what’s best for telling a particular story. The film that won The Robert and Frances Flaherty Prize, The Collaborator and His Family, was a very traditional film if you are talking in terms of form, but that was I think the best way to tell an extraordinary story. Because the circumstances were so unusual and the choice to show that family was so extreme, that perhaps a fly-on-the-wall approach was the best way of communicating that.
I think that yes, some of the films that we chose to give awards to were very formalist. Look at a film like Distinguished Flying Cross. In terms of its texture and approach there was a very formalist conceit, but considering how connected the filmmaker was to that story, the story of his father, he chose to use those distancing devices. So that worked for that particular story. So we are not just looking at form removed from subject matter.
Hopefully a great film has a profound vision and maybe a pure form that are harnessed with absolute conviction. That to me is the mark of a successful film.
Q: So your decisions were made based on how well a film tells its story, and that includes both the strength of its content, but also whether form was harnessed in a way that presents that content the best.
AE: Exactly, and that you shouldn’t go in with a predetermined idea of what and how that story should be told. You should sort of try and see what the filmmaker is trying to say, and judge it on its own terms. And that’s not always the easiest thing to do on a jury. Because you need to really look at what a filmmaker was trying to do, and their own ambitions, and not prejudge what it is they should have done.
Q: Do you have any other comments about the experience of the festival?
AE: I’m envious of documentary filmmakers. I think that they are wrestling with these ethical questions all the time, and that that is at the front and center of their craft. It’s a very specific calling, it’s a very special path that someone commits to when they become a documentary filmmaker, and I was privileged to spend this week in that world. And it was a very, very stimulating and exciting week for me.
Q: Do you think it’s going to affect your work at all in the future?
AE: You know, I think that I was daunted by the formation of these people. It’s a different formation that you have as a filmmaker when you are committed to the documentary form. I’ve always loved watching documentaries. Although, I grew up as a child somehow rejecting documentaries because in Canada you were subjected to these endless National Film Board documentaries, and a lot of them were really so conventional and so formulaic. But I remember how exciting it was to see Albert Maesles’ work, and then Allen King’s work, a Canadian filmmaker, and then seeing Frederick Wiseman’s work, you know, and seeing the world that a great documentary could open up.
YIDFF was a complete affirmation of that.
(Compiled by Kyle Hecht)
Interviewers: Kyle Hecht / Photography: Iwai Nobuyuki / 2011-10-15 in Tokyo