“This Kind of Storytelling with Real People is Social Experimentation”: Marcus Lindeen on his CPH:DOX-Winning Conceptual Doc, The Raft
Reposted here from its original publication following last year’s CPH:DOX — where the film won the top prize — is Pamela Cohn’s intensive interview with director Marcus Lindeen about his provocative non-fiction experiment, The Raft. The documentary opens tomorrow for a run at New York’s Metrograph, with Lindeen and various commentators and critics appearing at the various screenings.
Swedish artist, writer and director Marcus Lindeen stepped into documentary filmmaking with a very specific method in mind as to how he wanted to frame people’s stories. His particular obsession within the context of nonfiction is in the performative aspects of insinuating a camera within artificial settings, such as a soundstage, and then asking his subjects to recreate their own stories. This is not something completely revolutionary anymore as many filmmakers are attempting variations on this method with diverse levels of success.
Several years ago, Lindeen was drawn to the story of two Swedish men, both of whom had gone through sexual reassignment surgery to become women. It is only after this is done that both realize they regret it, and eventually they transition back into men. After meeting with them, Lindeen wrote and directed a play based on their lives called Regretters. In 2010, he wanted to make a film based on the play, but instead of using actors, he approached Mikael and Orlando and asked them if they’d be willing to appear before his camera and tell their stories themselves. By then, Mikael and Orlando were both over sixty. They meet for the first time on a soundstage to talk about the one defining regret they both share, mixed with personal archival photos and video. The film turned out to be the first in a planned trilogy of films where Lindeen would use this method of storytelling.
It took many years for him to find another story that would obsess him in the same way, but when Lindeen was leafing through a book of scandalous experiments from the ’60s and ’70s that he had found in a used bookstore, he discovered a story from 1973 called “The Acali Experiment,” also known as “The Sex Raft,” as it was dubbed by the press at the time. Spanish-Mexican anthropologist Santiago Genovés wanted to explore what would happen if a group of strangers was held captive in a contained environment, one in which they had no privacy at all and had no possibility of escape. He built a large raft and called it The Acali and put out an international call for ten volunteers to live and work together with him on this raft for 101 days as it crossed the Atlantic Ocean. His hypothesis, and the basis of his social experiment, was that the group would devolve into violent power plays if he put women in charge of the craft. The captain, the diver, the medic, and the other women all had the most important responsibilities and leadership roles. There were many “human lab rat” experiments of this type during this era but when Genovés’s participants in fact displayed nothing but cooperative, friendly, peaceful communal behavior (and yes, some had brief sexual encounters with one another), it is the scientist himself who devolves into a sadistic beast.
Lindeen knew immediately that this was to be his next film and went in search of Genovés and the participants. He discovered that Genovés had passed away after a long illness, and except for one of the men, his cast would be entirely made up of the women from the raft. He managed to bring them together again 43 years later on a built-to-scale model of the Acali on a soundstage in Sweden to talk about what happened. This footage is artfully intertwined from the material from 40 rolls of 16mm film shot during the Acali voyage. After a long exhaustive search, Lindeen was finally able to unearth the developed film from the archive where it had been housed for the last four decades.
The Raft won the top prize this past week at CPH:DOX, a profound surprise to its director. In a quite lengthy but deeply perceptive statement, the jury wrote, “Its great accomplishment lies in the equal measure of conceptual and emotional elements in the construction…. Two very different forms intertwine and merge surprisingly well. The jury perceives the film as a… monument to the courage of people formerly known as the weaker sex…. We cannot imagine a better metaphor for what it is we’re all trying to do every day in the documentary field.”
The raft model built for the film is also an audio-visual installation that is part of a group exhibition called #whatif at Kunsthal Charlottenborg curated by Irene Campolmi. The show presents a number of contemporary artists attempting to rethink and change current political and social structures through their work, among them Larry Achiampong, Lara Baladi, CATPC & Renzo Martens, Naeem Mohaiemen, and Tomás Saraceno. After he gave a superb master class on his working methods, Lindeen and I went into the gallery, slipped off our shoes, and boarded the Acali for further conversation.
Filmmaker: You work with professional actors in your theater work, and in your film work you collaborate with real people to recreate their own stories from the past within a theatrical setting. What tends to be your entry point artistically into all of that, your way of finding the places that might unleash the moments you’re looking for?
Marcus Lindeen: I’m a control freak like a lot of directors. I think this passion in one’s work to manifest your vision is important. But parallel to that, you must have some kind of openness to spontaneity. Working within a studio setting for me is a way to potentially control everything, and that can work both for me and against me in various ways. In a studio, I can control the lighting, the camera angles and movements, my team, wardrobe, makeup.
Filmmaker: Then what are the reasons for not moving completely into a fictional realm, essentially making a film based on a true story?
Lindeen: Clearly I have a fascination with reality. There’s some kind of nerve that comes into play when there are real people. In both Regretters and The Raft in the studio situations, there can be awkwardness sometimes in the conversations. They don’t always flow naturally; you can feel it’s staged. I like that feeling because it’s not what you expect. If I worked with actors in a completely fictionalized situation, I would strive for it to be seamless and try to avoid any artificiality, making it as natural or authentic as possible. The other way around is to start with documentary elements and add artificiality or theatricality to see what comes out of that. For me as a director, working in this obviously artificial way in a black box studio opens up a whole other toolbox with which I can work more freely with the documentary material.
For the participants it can create a kind of concentration around their stories. They’re not in the comfort of their own homes. They are in a context that is strange to them, in a strange environment, but at the same time it’s all very attentive to them. A lot of people are standing around them eager to hear their story. There can be a lot of pressure with all the lights and equipment around, but ultimately I find it makes them feel safe after a while. And their role is participatory, much more than if you would just follow them around in their daily lives. They realize that they have responsibility to perform when the clapper is placed in front of them. This adds a certain quality because you are asking something from them in a very explicit way. Maybe that’s taboo in a sense in the documentary field. I actually did pay the two subjects in Regretters as if they were professional actors. I think this gives them purpose and doesn’t necessarily affect authenticity. But it does give them the power to say no if something is not comfortable for them.
The other reason I’m fascinated by this theatrical/studio setting is the relationship it can create with the audience. I think that it suggests to the audience that this is not a film that is depicting a “real” event and that you’re supposed to take it in as just information. This suggests that you encounter this as you would when you go to the theater or the museum. You can interpret this documentary story as a piece of art which can give you another entry point into the film because it contains more layers than what it suggests on the surface. In essence, it’s a kind of art contract with the audience. That might sound a bit pretentious but when it comes to documentary film, I think it’s interesting to play with that.
Filmmaker: For me, one of the most striking relationships in this film is the one between Maria, the Swedish captain and Fé, the African-American woman. In your film, it seems as if they are able to fully realize the bond they could have had on the ship 43 years ago if that had been possible. It’s clear that in your film they are able to express the empathy they have for one another. They both suffered a lot, much more than their counterparts did, but they just had to keep quiet about it all. It’s very similar to the tenderness your two protagonists develop for one another in Regretters. This is clear when Fé talks about her spiritual awakening that sailing on this ship had for her and the emotional reverberations it caused when she felt a connection with her ancestors who came by ship over the sea as slaves. Can you talk a bit about the decisions you made about how you might set up or juxtapose certain scenes with certain subjects after meeting them all?
Lindeen: I must confess that it was done with my gut feeling, in a way. Fé is the most articulate, the most analytic participant, close to her emotions. I felt that maybe she could be the one to bring out Maria, who is the polar opposite, very non-verbal and shy with her emotions. But it turns out that that relationship is quite profound. The commonality of their individual repressions and the abuse they suffered at the hands of Santiago and how they’ve come to terms with that, allows them to reclaim themselves in a certain way. Fé experienced racial abuse and Maria this strange sexist abuse and humiliation by Santiago, the person who put her in charge in the first place. The two women represent the strong forces that were present on the raft. It could have been a vital part of Santiago’s research if he had been open enough to listen to them at the time. I think that’s part of the reason why he failed. He was so obsessed that violence would happen in a concrete sense aboard the raft. And, in a way, it almost did. These forces were present in a very powerful way, but it was subtle, and represented by women that he chose to marginalize and abuse. He could have learned a lot if he had sat down and talked to Maria and Fé about what they were experiencing but he didn’t manage to do that.
Filmmaker: Maria brings something up that is so evocative for women especially when she starts to speak about female anger and how that manifests as grief. When a woman cries, it often doesn’t represent sadness so much as rage. But it’s perceived as weakness, someone unable to control her emotions. Women are taught never to show anger; it’s forbidden. When she and Fé cry together, it’s very powerful. What was your directorial impetus for them?
Lindeen: It came very naturally from their conversations together. I haven’t heard women of my generation even talk about something like that. I realized that tears could be an important symbol in the film, as a buffer for female anger and how it’s misunderstood as weakness. There’s also Santiago’s realization that as a “macho” man, he’s never been able to cry because men are not supposed to cry but then he eventually does get to that point where he cries. In a symbolic way, I can see this as a connection point, that tears can somehow conquer the patriarchal structure in the end. Maybe men could be more humble or respectful if they could have adequate connection to their emotions.
Fé shows her own grief in her conversations with Mary about the slaves she felt a connection to. And we had to figure out how to work with tears because I’m quite hesitant to use scenes with protagonists crying. There were tears in Regretters that I chose to cut away. While a lot of documentary filmmakers wait with anticipation for tears from their subjects, it really can just tip over into completely bathetic material.
Filmmaker: When I watched Regretters, I cried the entire way through it and it was partly because of their stoicism and humor about all the emotional and psychic pain they’ve been through.
Lindeen: Yeah, to make the audience cry is perfect! But if the protagonists cry, there must be a very good reason to show that. I find that it can be very exploitative. But in this film tears had a kind of symbolic value. When Fé is sitting on one of the boxes pretending to look into the ocean, the more staged part of the slave story, she was really moved by that and started to cry. And I’m running around like a maniac telling my camera crew to zoom in, zoom in! Get the tears! I felt horrible but I knew I could use that somehow, and I wanted to embrace that moment while also being protective of her. We did cut away from that as well because the tears in the scene with Mary were enough. We didn’t need to have them again and again.
Filmmaker: The Swedish sea captain, Maria, is stunning on screen. The way you shoot her smoking, the way she smokes with such intensity, her squinty-eyed gaze.
Lindeen: Yes! It’s my Hitchcock Rear Window moment.
Filmmaker: She reminded me of Orlando [in Regretters] a bit, his overt femininity creating an ambiguous sexuality, a place where he feels he’s really himself. There’s a macho quality to Maria even though visually she’s very feminine and still quite beautiful. How was she to work with?
Lindeen: Initially, she was hesitant. We both live in Sweden, so she was the first one I contacted. She was so marked by the experience back in the ’70s and all the things that were written in the press about “the sex raft” were shaming for her. She was the very first female sea captain with a real seafarer education and to end up in something that would be remembered like that was hard to take. It was humiliating. On top of that, she was stripped of her authority as the captain by Santiago during the voyage. She was worried that was going to completely ruin her career. She was angry as hell at the situation and at Santiago and has been all this time. When I met her, she hadn’t talked about it at all for so long. It was really hard to win her trust. We had our little moments in the shooting, very spooky moments for me, actually, where I felt anger towards her the same way Santiago probably felt towards her. She wasn’t collaborating or was being too square and formal about stuff or just outright contradictory towards other people’s memories, diminishing the drama. And I would be thinking, “You’re ruining the scene!” I felt she was working against me. But I knew I could not be provoked just because she is showing anger. She needs to be able to be this angry woman. This is her position in the film. But it did make me feel uncomfortable.
Filmmaker: Everyone’s uncomfortable around an angry woman.
Lindeen: But then I would just fall into the same trap as Santiago had, not letting this woman be who she needs to be.
Filmmaker: She’s also the perfect foil for all the other women. Fé is really the only one that acknowledges the validity of her feelings. They acknowledge one another’s pain whereas the others — with perhaps Mary being the exception having chosen to go on this adventure to get away from an abusive husband — had much more freedom on the raft to be those ’70s free-loving, liberated women, like children set free on a playground. And even though they had serious responsibilities, it did turn out to be the adventure that they expected and wanted to have. I don’t think that was the case for Fé and Maria.
Lindeen: You’re right about that. It’s rare that people make this kind of acknowledgement of these two women sharing some kind of precarious position on board for very different reasons. But they’re both outwardly abused. It made their experience very different from the other women. In retrospect, that makes me happy to think that I did end up choosing them to work with one another like that, even though admittedly, I was unaware of that except in an intuitive sense.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about your relationship with the ghost of Santiago and all the things he had left behind that enabled you, ultimately, to craft this story.
Lindeen: I never got to ask for his permission.
Filmmaker: Exactly. However, he is the catalyst that is still moving everything. As a scientist building this experiment, he was the grand orchestrator in a very obvious way. His presence in your film is quite striking for a number of reasons. What was your method in manifesting his presence, aside from deciding to use an actor to do the voiceover? There’s a very strong emotional arc there that, for me, was quite unexpected, this discovery of just how vulnerable he becomes. He does acknowledge that it wasn’t the experiment that failed; he fails himself, in fact.
Lindeen: All that became very personal for me in the end. What I came to realize was how easy it was for me to identify with him. It was hard to come to that conclusion because, in so many ways, his behavior was so bad towards his participants. He was so narcissistic and brutal. The participants had let me know that throughout the filming.
Filmmaker:Was that a cautionary tale for you as the director, or did you only discover this after the 10-day shoot on the sound stage?
Lindeen: I will say that, for some reason, I thought I could treat the fact that he was the nemesis of the film very lightly. Everyone was mocking and ridiculing him as to make it kind of funny and pathetic. His behavior from today’s perspective is pathetic certainly. Because I didn’t really dare to find a personal connection to him, I also failed for a long time to finish the film. It became one of the main factors that delayed the whole process, and that made the editing difficult because I struggled to find a voice for him, a truthful voice that contained some kind of vulnerability and reflection and showed that he did have some kind of breakthrough in the course of the film. Right before we began the final recordings with the narrator, I needed to sit down and write this long letter to Santiago. In a way, it felt so stupid to write a letter to a dead man. But I was using his whole life’s achievement and turning it into my project, my experiment. I needed to come to terms with that. I realized while writing this long letter to him, I wanted to explain why I identified with him. That was my big realization — I am like him more than I cared to admit. I’m making this humongous project that is really, really difficult to manifest — from raising the financing to build the full-size model of the raft to gathering all the subjects and crew needed to make it happen. For what? He was just like me, confused mid-Atlantic, totally at sea to figure out what this is all about! What does it all lead to in the end? I needed to feel some humbleness towards his ambition because I do admire him. I mean he did manage to get this crazy experiment to happen. I could identify with this obsession and the dream of success. I had to encounter my need for total control through his need for total control, the factor, he realizes, that eventually leads to his failure. I felt I had to start listening more to the people around me.
Filmmaker: The films that resulted from the recordings on the ship are extraordinarily beautiful. That must have been exceedingly tricky to reconcile the juxtaposition of this rich fragile material and the crisp, razor-sharp aspect of the filmed material of today.
Lindeen: Initially, we did a lot of tests to try to understand how we could combine the old archive footage with the new studio recordings. What would it be like if we shifted between this stiff, stylized world intercut with this constantly moving world? Because they’re on the sea the whole time, everything in the 16mm footage is in constant motion and the studio raft is not moving at all. But somehow I never doubted that it would work. Many commissioning editors and others around the project were very nervous about how they would mix. I don’t really know why people couldn’t picture it. I knew in my head that it was going to be possible, that we could make very concrete but also playful bridges between scenes from the footage and what we replicated in the studio. It took time to convince people around me that this was the right thing to do, to construct the raft. There was a lot of skepticism. Instead of this very expensive build, the question was why don’t I just use the beautiful archival footage and have talking heads narrating the story? I was frustrated that they didn’t understand my idea. The reconstruction of the raft is a tribute to Santiago. That’s the way I thought of it, as a container of all of the elements of the story, not just the fantastic quality of the story itself.
Filmmaker: When your subjects first walked onto this object we’re sitting on — now part of an installation in a gallery — it must have felt like it was evocative for them, but not in a sense of memory or remembering. It wasn’t like you wanted them to “step back in time” so much as use this structure to make new stories.
Lindeen: Actually, I think they were a little bit freaked out. To have been on this raft for real 40 years ago is something that one could never forget. The memory of that is in the body. When you step into the studio and see that it’s been reconstructed but in a stylized and simplified way, I felt initially that it was disturbing for them, as if it was a ghost from the past. But then the experience came flooding back as they began to explore and move around. We put a lot of money into constructing this, and I didn’t even know if it was going to give me anything because it needed to really help catalyze things between the subjects.
Filmmaker: “The social experiment” is the theme of this year’s edition of CPH:DOX. In essence, that’s what most documentary work is, the notion of recording certain people in certain circumstances to evoke certain outcomes. It’s been bastardized quite a bit by “reality” TV. Here, you very purposefully set up various scenarios to create the different layers of the story of the raft and what happened on it. What is it about social experimentation that attracts you?
Lindeen: To set up something like this in my film work reminds me of my work in the theater. The whole situation of being in the studio is like being in the theater — we have set design, costuming, and actors there to play with me. And even though in this case, these people are not professional actors, they still joined me in the game with a certain understanding after a while how they should participate, what they could contribute. So I try to introduce this experience of working in the theater into the world of documentary filmmaking. I agree with you that this kind of storytelling with real people is a kind of social experimentation.
Filmmaker: And what are the pitfalls, not necessarily from an ethical or moral standpoint so much as in the way you want to create art?
Lindeen: The pitfalls of doing something like this with this specific project did manifest itself a little bit. The women, in a way, all share a similar perspective and the conflict was truly between Santiago and the group. I had only the group present and there was a lot of agreement most of the time. In Regretters, even though they go through something that seems similar, they are really very different and have different ways of thinking about what happened to them and that gives the film a lot of conflict and drama. Here, I didn’t have that in the same way, and I was afraid that the drama wasn’t to be found in the small discrepancies or in the confrontations between them. This haunted me a bit throughout the shooting. That made me realize that if I was going to have conflict in the film, I needed Santiago to be there. This was the understanding that I came to after the 10 days with the others. I needed his presence in the film to create conflict.
Filmmaker: It took a whole year to edit the film. Why was collecting so much material vital for your process?
Lindeen: Eric Gandini, my producer, was having a very hard time with the fact that I had shot so much material. I tried to explain that this is my method of collecting material and that I do the writing of the dialogues in the editing room. That’s why I made banks of various reaction shots and many different takes, so that I can basically reconstruct the conversations later. He thinks that’s problematic because you’re then pushing decisions further along in the process. This method, for me, creates as much freedom as possible. But the amount of decisions that need to be made expand and overwhelm. So, Erik was right. I was definitely overwhelmed. I started working first with Dominika Daubenbüchel, and we struggled to find the trajectory through all the material. After six months of editing together, I needed to take a break to clear my mind somehow and try to understand the necessity of giving Santiago a voice — or not. As I mentioned, I discovered that he really needed to be there for all kinds of reasons. So then it was about finding the right actor. That was a long process before we ended up finding the amazing Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho who has worked with directors like Pedro Almodóvar and Guillermo del Toro. Most recently, he played the lead in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, which was in Venice last year.
Then Alexandra Strauss came onto the project, editor of I Am Not Your Negro. I bonded with her in a strong way. She’s also a writer. She writes novels, and that was very helpful because my process in the editing is so much about the writing of the narrative and dialogues that I collect, to find the perfect mix of spontaneous moments and constructed moments so the script can be written. Editing is scriptwriting. It was a great experience with both editors, but it was Alexandra who really helped me get back on the right track.
Filmmaker: When you watch the final film now, what’s revealed to you in its texture?
Lindeen: There’s nothing really specific, but it’s more like recognizing the whole weave of the storytelling. I’m impressed by our collective work — every single person that worked to make it happen — and that it works very efficiently. When I work in the theater or sit with an audience during a film, I imagine this kind of lasso around the audience. The lasso is tight when the attention’s there, people are listening, following it all with intense interest and reacting fully to it. When there’s a bit of distraction or confusion, the lasso slackens. As a director, my vision is to keep the lasso tight all the way through. At the premiere here in Copenhagen, I felt very relieved. It was the first time I saw it with an audience and the lasso stayed tight. I’m so proud of that achievement. I think it’s a tougher artistic statement to firmly hold the audience like that rather than play the safer card and work more with style and ambience. By trying to make really good, efficient storytelling, you’re risking so much more.