YIDFF 2023 International Competition

The Unstable Object II
Daniel Eisenberg (Director)

Interviewer: Abe Koji

Unstable Object: Motivations behind the project

Abe Koji (AK): I was able to catch the screening of The Unstable Object II and was very pleased to see that the audience seemed to enjoy themselves and had many perceptive questions.

Daniel Eisenberg (DE): Even in the second session here we couldn’t stop. It’s wonderful, the engagement was intense here so I’m very pleased about it.

AK: Thank you very much. I was very glad that there were audiences in Yamagata willing to watch a three-hour movie, but at the same time, the content deals with a subject matter that is quite unique for a documentary film. I understand that this project has been a long time in the making, and I would like to ask a bit more about that.

DE: It begins, I think, in 2005 coming out of this moment in which I felt really alienated in the beginning of the digital turn. When we were really paying attention to immaterial labor, intellectual labor, affective labor, and turning away from industrial labor and factory work. There was a time, certainly in my life as a child and into my teens, where everyone knew someone who worked in a factory, who built things, who repaired things, where things were central to daily life. And I think what happened in around 1995 to 2005 was this transition where we became much more conscious of the rise of digital culture, the social sphere of digital culture, and the ways that those were overtaking, supplanting the kind of economy of things. And what happened during that period was things were being made, certainly for someone in the United States, almost everything you could see on the bottom was made somewhere else. And we didn’t know what the daily lives of the people who were making the things that I touched every day, what their daily life was like and what it meant to them. And so there was a kind of alienation from the things that were in my daily life. I no longer knew the people who were making them. I no longer knew where they came from. And also the value of those things was very unstable. Like one year something would be very expensive, the next year it would be one quarter of the price. And that had never happened with that kind of speed before.

I wanted to understand this shift and the process behind it. I also wanted to explore who the people were that made the things I use, what kind of lives they lead, and whether their experiences with these objects are similar or different from mine. As I began to observe them, my understanding evolved. In the first film, Unstable Objects, I selected a factory that dealt with various senses: visual, auditory, and tactile. The initial choice was a factory in Dresden where luxury cars were handcrafted, but it was more spectacle than labor. People were paying not for the cars themselves but for the process by which they were made.

Secondly, I needed to respond to this factory with another factory. And so if people are coming to watch where the visual is everything, I needed to find a factory where the visual was nothing. And so I found a small factory in Chicago of blind and sight-impaired workers where they were making clocks, those kinds of clocks for office buildings. But everything in that factory was touched, felt, spatialized through the hands. And this was really quite a remarkable space because I was also, for the first time, aware of the social space that was being created by the workers. And also with the understanding that they were coming to work not just for money, but to be with each other, to have a space to talk, to be with others. And, you know, these conditions really start to make you think about all the different situations you’re in.

And then the third factory, I tried to find a factory where sound would be central. And so I found a cymbal factory in Turkey where the act of making also is very loud, but it also requires mastery of hearing what the object produces. And in what they call a tuning room or the hammering room, they hammer the cymbals. And there are five degrees of labor sitting literally next to each other. The first one, the second, the third, fourth and the fifth. And the fifth is the master cymbal maker, where he tunes the cymbal to its final sound. But each one gets more refined along the way. But it’s definitely loud. And so I wanted, at least this was a way of organizing my sort of way of getting into these different sorts of factories and different ideas of what a factory produces.

In the second series of factories, in The Unstable Object II, I was really interested in the individual and the mass and this idea. How is that articulated in the factory space? So, yeah, so I spoke about the first factory being a place where each object becomes used by one person only and more of a one to one relationship in the central factory of Maison Fabre with the gloves. And then in the final factory, a single object that looks as if one person wore it out is then endlessly reproduced. So it’s kind of an inversion of the first one.

Sound produces space

AK: In The Unstable Object II, with the selection of these three factories, it seems to follow a narrative structure, so to speak. This narrative composition follows the manufacturing processes, and the way it captivates and immerses the audience in the process is truly enchanting. While the earlier film had a more musical structure, the second film seems to emphasize the social elements through a more straightforward structure, such as with the Rwandan volleyball athlete who lost a leg in the civil war. Overall, I appreciated the lack of excessive expository explanation. Can you tell us more about your approach to the visual structure?

DE: Well, I think you’re astute in seeing this movement towards actually a simpler structure. I think I learn from doing. I learned that I was imposing my own sort of aesthetics in the first film. I wanted to take that away; of course it’s an impossibility, it’s a condition of making cinema—making anything, really—is that you’re putting your sort of aesthetic judgments: you calibrate a shot for a certain length in relation to another, the movement, the rhythm, the sound. So you’re always making those judgments, but I wanted to reduce it to the place where it wasn’t imposing itself into the image or into the structure, although I don’t know how successful that was.

But I do think what I wanted to do was get out of the way of the image, you know, just so that the image can do its own work, or the sound can do its own work and not also impose onto the image narrative information that was—well, I wouldn’t call it beside the point or irrelevant—but excess information for what I wanted the viewer to experience. I don’t need the viewer to know he’s a volleyball player. One knows he’s fit, one knows he’s in good shape, one knows he’s trying to work with the man in the room fitting the prosthetic on him in that particular scene. And it’s a beautiful sort of ending to a sequence in which people feel good about the work that they do and he’s doing something in some ways that’s very very satisfying to him as a worker: to work with this person who gives him the ability to do his sport, to walk properly, and that’s the entire point of that scene. In some ways, them working together is a very beautiful ending for the entire sequence.

But I shot another man who was getting an arm put on, and it looked too performed for the camera, so I didn’t use that sequence. It seemed to bring up too many things outside the frame, and if you’re looking at something in the frame that should be, in this construction, in this film, that should be what you’re considering and that’s the way I thought about that sequence.

So I think that you’re right, I think that it is less musical—but more sound, more directly sensual, and in each place sound produces space in a very active way. And I love the way the sound produces space in the French room because you can hear conversations outside the frame, you can hear people laughing, you can hear machines going and it may be something that you’re not aware of as a viewer. I do not introduce the space until about fifteen minutes into the sequence. Everything is very close and direct and then the space opens up later, so it also works against the convention of introducing space first because I wanted that space to be introduced through sound.

AK: Yes, exactly. In the scene at the glove factory, it starts with a close-up of a woman operating a sewing machine, then moves to the work on the gloves. Initially, you have no idea where or what is being worked on, but gradually, it transitions to showing the glove molds and eventually the entire workspace. I found that approach to be wonderful.

DE: Thank you very much. I’m trying almost always to rethink the ways in which we assimilate images and sound, and what it produces. If we are shown a space in a wide shot, and then a medium shot, it’s also about using the conventions of cinema to flatten our experience. It’s more familiar, and it’s comfortable, but we don’t rethink all of the different things that we’re seeing. If you disrupt that, then everyone asks the question that you’re asking. What am I looking at? What is being made? What are the different techniques to make it? That’s the point of the work, is to ask those questions of very common things. And so I’m always very pleased when I can do common things differently.

How do you decide the subjects?

AK: Regarding the overall structure, it seems that both films have a three-part structure. However, the selection of the factories is different. In the first film, it seems the first factory focuses on the visual issues, the second on aural issues, and the third on sound issues. But in II the three factories are: a prosthetics factory, a high-end glove workshop, and a Turkish jeans factory. How did you come to choose these specific factories?

DE: I knew what I wanted, but I had to search various places to see which one would agree. The factories I chose ultimately depended on who was willing to accommodate my request. For example, the factories that made prosthetic limbs were in Germany, but I also contacted an Icelandic company. The German factory agreed to participate before the Icelandic one, so I filmed there. The glove factory was a bit challenging to access. It’s part of the fashion industry which values its image, so they were hesitant about having a filmmaker document their process for fear of damaging their image. However, I did manage to get their approval in the end. As for the jeans factory, it was even more complicated. I had to negotiate several times, and finally, I contacted a company called Jack & Jones in Copenhagen, Denmark. They mentioned that they produced jeans in Croatia, Turkey, and Italy. I reached out to all of them, and when I contacted the Turkish factory, they asked what I wanted to do. So, I sent them my previous film. I explained that I wasn’t a journalist but simply wanted to document the labor. They agreed, and I didn’t pass judgment on whether it was good or bad. Systems are much larger than individual people or companies. These systems can be socialist or capitalist. I believe it’s an illusion to think that individuals or single companies can change these systems. So, I focus on creating images and sounds as testimonies of the times. I may have my own political opinions, but I don’t want to impose them. In any case, chance, or rather the opportunities that were given to me played a significant role.

AK: Will this project continue in the future?

DE: Yes, well actually, the original intention was to have three films, and in my cinematic ambition, I wanted them to relate horizontally in very specific ways, but also vertically between the three in very specific ways. That I had to stop because it was too complicated. But yes, I do hope to do a third film and to talk about the transition to robotic labor, where the first one is . . . Well, I thought originally it would have three, but now I’m hoping it just has one, and it will be short. So it’s very different from the other two. But what I want is to have a factory where a robot is making another robot. So that it’s not even about the human making the robot, but the robot making the robot, because that’s already happening. And I’m actually hoping to do it here in Japan. There’s a factory right at the foot of Mount Fuji. And I made some initial inquiries, not directly, but indirectly. So if you know any good researchers, I’m open to speaking to someone here to talk to, to maybe help me out and see if we can get into that factory.

But in the end I want to talk about this historical moment. Of course it will never be clean, it will never be direct, it will take a long period of time. But we can see that transition occurring already. And I was involved in a curatorial research project around the image of labor, it’s called Reworking Labor (School of the Art Institute of Chicago Gallery, 2023). We just published a book, and I wrote an essay in this book about this transition that was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, when labor was so erratic and unpredictable that the amount of robot orders was historic. So many workers were replaced already during this two, three-year period. And that’s already been accelerated as well as now with these AI tools that are being put online, so that digital labor is now also being replaced by computers. So the forecast a year ago was that 35 million American jobs would be lost in a very short period of time, over 300 million worldwide. I’m sure that’s a much higher figure now, because when I was writing this essay, we were looking at GPT-3, which had a billion network connections, and now the new model, GPT-4, has a trillion. It’s a thousand times faster, and it’s less than a year from the older one. So the power of these new tools is so great, and the acceleration into the workplace has been so rapid that I think it’s a terribly destabilizing force for all of our societies, and we don’t have the structures in place to deal with it.

Compiled by Abe Koji
Translated by Adam Silverman

Photography: Hosokawa Yoshiharu / Video: Kato Takanobu / Interpreter: Tomita Kaori / 2023-10-06

Note: This interview was done for an online interview collection that was only to be in Japanese. Therefore, the text was prepared in Japanese based on a transcription of the words of the English-to-Japanese interpreter. When funds were found to create an English version, the Japanese text was then translated into English. Please thus be aware that the text above will not necessarily reflect the exact words spoken at the time of the interview.

Abe Koji
Member of the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival Board. Abe received a BA from Tohoku University and left the advanced PhD course at the Graduate School of Tohoku University before graduating. He specializes in 20th century French literature, esp. Marcel Proust, and theoretical studies on documentary films. He authored Proust: Kyori no shigaku (Heibonsha, 1993) and co-translated into Japanese La Vérité en peinture by Jacques Derrida (Hosei UP, 2012).