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The Art of Walking: Eduardo Williams on The Human Surge

The Human Surge (Photo courtesy of Grasshopper Film)

In Eduardo Williams’s shorts and, now, his debut feature The Human Surge, packs of young men and women wander without purpose but still with great persistence around the globe. 2012’s The Sound of the Stars Dazes Me and 2011’s Could See a Puma, were shot at home in Buenos Aires, 2013’s That I’m Falling? in Sierra Leone and 2014’s I Forgot! in Vietnam. Logically building on this peripatetic tendency, Surge moves from Argentina to Mozambique to the Philippines in three discrete but linked segments. No matter where the characters are, there’s often a basic MO: young people trekking reluctantly to their jobs (or simply deciding not to show up after all), moving from one cramped apartment to another, or simply walking to walk, followed in long handheld shots over astonishingly varied, often difficult terrains. Across jungles, up mountains and down into cramped caves, Williams’s camera moves further and closer away, finding grandeur in the juxtaposition between his (sometimes non-pro) modestly striding performers and their expansive surroundings.

The Human Surge’s opening takes its time to impress. In near total darkness, a young man wakes up and goes about his stumbling morning routine: bathroom, a change of clothes, a lackadaisical trajectory toward the door. There’s a distant roaring in the background, and when he finally steps outside the source is revealed: the streets are flooded, with great torrents of water no one could afford to stage. Undeterred, the man plows through, the camera following; as in many scenes, passing civilians look straight at the lens, obviously nonplussed by someone foolhardy enough to shoot in a disaster zone. But flood or no flood, the young man has to go to work, in this case at a supermarket (another odd, recurring location for Williams). There are visits to family and friends; eventually, the camera zooms into a monitor, arriving in Mozambique. The segue to the Philippines is even bolder, with the camera literally burrowing into the earth, embedding itself in the earth and emerging out the other side. All three segments look radically different: the first was shot on 16mm, the second on a Blackmagic Pocket camera whose images were subsequently recaptured by a Super 16 camera pointed at a monitor, the third on a RED. 

The long walking shots suggest a super-steroidal mutant descendent of Béla Tarr and Gus Van Sant: as long if not longer, loosely planned to get from one place to another while remaining open to interruption from nondiagetically integrated surroundings and passersby, with the handheld element suggesting the physical foot leather fueling the camerawork. Though basically unsummarizable, the film’s three segments share contempt for the exigencies of bottom-tier working life and an ambivalent fascination with technology: that it’s as natural to move from one place to another through a computer as it is through the earth itself suggests the two are, or could be, equally important to our lives. Maybe the perpetual search for an internet café is as valid a quest as any other, a takeaway undercut by the final shots of an automated phone manufacturing facility whose sterile inhumanity is Surge’s lowkey potential equivalent to the Terminator franchise’s Cyberdyne Systems — machines moving of their own accord, with repetitive efficiency and no real indication of how much more they’ll mediate the future. All of this is speculative interpretation: Williams’s movies resist strict extrapolations of meaning, sometimes to the pleased confusion of their creator, as he discusses below. The Human Surge opens in theaters March 3 followed by a DVD/Vod release from Grasshopper Film.

Tell me a little bit about where you grew up and when you were exposed to any kind of noncommercial cinema. I grew up in the suburbs in Buenos Aires. I went to schools where it was very mainly middle class around that time. What I remember about cinema — it started, of course, with mainstream cinema, which the first time produced something similar to what afterwards other types of film have produced to me. The problem was that the repetition of it didn’t produce anything else. If I felt a lot of very strong things about cinema when I watched Star Wars with my grandmother when I was young, then once I saw a lot of films of the same kind, I didn’t feel anything. That’s why I needed to try to see other things. Watching Argentinian cinema a lot, I realized that that was something I could do, different from Hollywood cinema, which was something that was very far away from me and that I could never imagine doing. In school I went to see Lucrecia Martel’s film The Holy Girl. My friends went with me. They really didn’t like it, but I liked it so much. I went with a friend to the cinema every week, even if there wasn’t anything that we liked or wanted to see. Then, when I was in university, my peers started doing their films. That was quite different from the films in Argentina, things I’d seen before. That was good to know. 

Tell me a little bit about your time at Universidad del Cine and how it compared with your time at Le Fresnoy. I assume at some point you started learning about the practical aspects of how to find a producer, how to put together a production, do a schedule, all that kind of stuff? Universidad del Cine was quite diverse, the type of things we learned. For me, the most important thing was to have this group of people that were in the same state as me. We had very practical subjects and also had more about literature or art history. The things I liked the most were the ones that didn’t speak directly about cinema. The technical classes were okay, but I wasn’t very moved by them. But I have a very strange relation with institutions. I think I just wanted to finish and pass through, and then try to look for other ways of learning. When you have to learn something to show it to another person in this very concrete way, I feel it’s very strange. And I think that institutions need that. They need to prove you learned, and that’s not very exciting or interesting for me. That’s why I wanted to shoot a lot after university, and I tried to do at least one short per year.

In France, it was quite different, because it’s not a place where you study. You have a project and you have a tutor. My tutor was Miguel Gomes. That was, I think, the person from whom I learned the most. But maybe I can’t tell you what I learned from him. Our meetings were just, like, drinking beer in a bar, but they were very, very good for me. I really needed that type of meeting to be able to express myself to another person and not be inside the institution. 

I know that you talk in interviews about making films as enabling a way to travel, which changes the movies themselves. At the beginning, I hadn’t traveled almost at all. When I started traveling with the shorts I showed in other countries, I discovered that I was finding myself in new images, and at the same time, feeling that they weren’t new. I really like the strange feeling that everything changes so much and also everything doesn’t change. For my films, it helps me to put my ideas in different situations and to try and put myself in this feeling of going to the unknown that I like when I’m watching films. Traveling helps me to do this. Of course, I think you can do that anywhere, you know? But for me, it’s a good tool.

In order to make these shorts and then the feature, I assume that you were forced to learn the practical side of how to put together a production, that you were forced to become practical in order to make these films, more than you would’ve liked to become practical. I always have to be very pushy. In Argentina and France, the way of producing or making films is very different. In Argentina, we are very used to producing with very little money, or producing between friends, or working for free — maybe more than what would be ideal, but we have to do it and we do it. In France, it’s more possible to earn some money when you do even a short. That’s good, because it helps you be more relaxed with some parts of your life. But then, having money available sometimes doesn’t help, because people are waiting too much to arrive at the desired budget or to get this or that help. Also, I didn’t want to do anything else, and I didn’t have any other job. I didn’t have any other thing I liked doing in life. So I always was very like, “I have to do it and I will go do it.” It’s the only way I can imagine making something interesting of my life.

What are some things you learned about organization that you found to be particularly useful, even if they’re boring? I learned that I like to work with people that are good at organizing things, even if I’m not. I like other people to take care of organization, and the less I can care about that the better.

For The Human Surge you had a 15-page script to start with. What did that look like? I don’t remember very much, but in some ways it was “Scene, exterior day, blah, blah” — these very normal things were there. It was just a script for me and people that work with me and knew my films. It seemed to be very uninteresting for some people, and I can understand that. It didn’t have a lot of sense, maybe. You had to see my other films and then sort of have faith that I could do a film with that. I think it was very good to prove something to another person or to show something in a very concrete way. When I’m writing, I don’t think very much. Lots of things of the film, I don’t explain them. I can’t explain them in words or I find it very difficult.

Jacques Rivette used to talk about the idea that in every movie he would make, he would try to have something in there that he didn’t understand, so that he could go back and watch it and be surprised because it would come from his unconscious. Is that an idea that resonates for you? Absolutely. I have lots of things I don’t understand. When I write I don’t think a lot, maybe because if I thought it would be so difficult to think about what I want to do. Once I write the first version, I think more about it and try to be more conscious, at least about the structure and some of the parts of the film. But then, the other parts, we do them once we are in the shooting, or they happen thanks to other people. The script is quite open, the structure is open and lots of the dialogues are invented by the actors or the non-actors, and so some situations are improvised. There are things I don’t understand because they are said by another person, and also things I suggested that I don’t understand. 

Could you talk about the opening? I don’t know if there is a regular flood season, that you knew that at some point this was going to happen and you’d be ready to go, or if it’s something that happened and you just ran with it. It also seems, honestly, like the kind of thing that on an American production would not be allowed due to insurance concerns. Yeah, I know. I don’t think we had any insurance company when we were doing that. But yeah, I wrote that in the script. That was one of the ideas I had from the beginning. In summer in Buenos Aires, it’s quite normal to have some floods. I was hoping — well, hoping, it’s strange to say hoping, because of all the people that live there it’s a very bad situation — but I was expecting to have this flood in Buenos Aires. We needed these floods to happen in the 10 days we had the camera, the equipment and the people with us. So it was quite difficult. But on the first day, when we went to look for the equipment and the camera from the university, we saw the TV. There was this big, big flood in Cordoba, which is another province in the south, like 650 kilometers away. So we went with a small group of people in a car. It was quite difficult to get there because they were evacuating, of course, and you could only go in a truck with the people that were trying to save their things. They told us the police were not going to let us in. Finally, we did it. That’s the only part [in the first third] that is outside Buenos Aires. We were looking for somewhere to sleep and found on Facebook some people that let us film in their house. I get used to writing things and not knowing if I can do them, but I trust that if I can’t do them, I will look for something to replace that or to change it. So if I don’t do it, maybe it’s better, and if I could do it, it’s because it had to be there, because it’s this thing of believing that what happens will happen and not needing a super-production or the money. 

How long did you have for production? Did you know that when you started making the movie? I’m not sure you did. I had an idea of how much time I wanted to have and finally, incredibly, it was that time exactly. It was more or less a year, not of shooting, but since we started shooting until we finished. I had this idea of doing different shoots and having pauses in between. I had this idea that I wanted to shoot in Argentina. When I started shooting in Argentina, I knew I wanted to go to the Sub-Saharan part of Africa, which is so big. The idea of Mozambique came because of the producers we got — if we shot there, they could help us. That was in May, and the end of shooting in Argentina was in March. Some months later, I wanted to do the other part of the shooting. The Philippines I knew I wanted, because I saw the place in Bohol on the internet called Chocolate Hills that I wanted to go to. But yeah, I had this idea of having a whole year to do the shootings in, and having this moment between the shoots to edit and see what happened, and to try and rewrite or think if I needed to change the next shoot.

I started writing a year before shooting, and then we had four months of postproduction. In total, it was two years and a half, more or less. But when we started shooting, we didn’t have any idea of how we would get the money or get people to help us for the shoots in the other countries. But that was normal for us, or at least for me. And it was much better to start that way than waiting. I didn’t want to wait. 

I‘ve been thinking about this Peter Hutton interview I was reading last night. He talked about how learning to operate a camera was very physical for him. He had to spend a lot of time holding it and figuring out what he could and couldn’t do. You’ve operated quite a number of cameras. What was that acclimation process like? Maybe I’m currently in the physical part. In this film, I only operated myself the Blackmagic Pocket that we used in Mozambique, which is so small. For the other segments, there were a lot of people that operated. The Super 16 millimeter camera, which is an ARRI S2, is quite big and heavy. I didn’t [operate] it. For the last segment, that is a RED Scarlet, and I didn’t [operate] it either. Even if it’s a very light camera, it’s a very physical thing. The movements of my body were all connected to the camera, and I had to practice how to move. Even breathing, if you breathe more or less, especially when you are not walking, it changes something about the camera. I was conscious about this, but I wasn’t very worried about rehearsing or preparing myself. I’ve been using cameras since I was a kid, when I hadn’t any notion about any of these sort of things. When you use a camera for cinema, it’s so, so, so different than when you use it in your life. So I tried to be relaxed in that way. Before I did some shorts where I used the camera myself, but always with small cameras. The short I did in Vietnam was with a GoPro, and I used it myself. But I still fantasize about being able to use the big cameras myself also. Maybe for that, I would need some practice because they are so heavy, or maybe some new idea of how to use them. I think there was also something about not rehearsing, because I wanted to improvise with the camera as the actors were doing. Some very basic things were never improvised, like distances and some speed things.

The walking thing is really a huge part of what you do. Do you always keep this very particular distance? There’s about as close as you can go and as far as you can go, with this big sense of scale and the relationship of the camera to the actor. Do you time the walk beforehand first to see how that works? Even if we don’t rehearse a lot, when we rehearse, most of the rehearsing is about the relation between the actor or the person and the camera. I need to know at least that it’s not going to be so different from what I want it to be. I want to be sure that the actors and the cameraman — if it’s not me — understand that if they have any doubt, not to go to the normal thing they would do. I think with lots of guys that use cameras, or the actors, or even if they are not actors, they have this idea of the distance between camera and person that is more or less the same always. There are moments of doubt, because sometimes there are very long walks, so there can be some moments where they have to solve something during the scene that we didn’t expect. But it’s important for them not to fall in the thing of going to classical relationships and distances between the actor and the camera. I really like this elasticity of being very far and very near and changing the point of view. I think that is something that is in all of the films, not only in the camera or in the actors, but in all of the subjects or parts of the film. This is something we rehearse more than dialogue. Letting the actors and cameraperson not be afraid of losing the character or themselves, and letting this person get lost and then found again, having this thing of being sure about where you are going and not getting desperate if you lose the character, if other people come into the scene or taking this in a natural way — I think it’s more or less that.

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