“Everything You’re Feeling or Seeing in the Moment Comes Into the Story”: Director Iva Radivojevic on Her Borgesian Tale of Wanderlust and Connection, Aleph
“One September day,” begins the title card at the head of the New Directors/New Films-premiering Aleph, “I met Rodrigo near 23rd Street for lunch. He talked about microcosms, labyrinths, connectness and Borges…” And with those deceptively casual opening lines, filmmaker Iva Radivojevic takes us on a globetrotting (10 countries on five continents!) journey through the porous borderlands of documentary and fiction that’s as much philosophical as it is observational. Traversing both map and territory, Aleph draws its inspiration from the Jorge Luis Borges short story of the same name, a brief tale that literalizes the Hamlet quote (“O God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a King of infinite space…”) that is its epigraph. But rather than dramatize the Argentinian writer’s tale of a poet with a secret talisman — a tiny sphere that allows the viewer to gaze on any spot in the world — in his cellar, Radivojevic is inspired by its conception of vision and connection. To enable in narrative form the idea that each point in the universe can be linked to another, she draws also on the old Surrealist game of the Exquisite Corpse, in which stories are created through a series of handoffs with end points of one tale forming the beginnings of another. For Aleph, that means starting in Bueno Aires with the story of a movie-going librarian, Clara, who can no longer feel and whose dreams lead her nocturnal self — and us, the audience — to a desert guide in Timimoun, Algeria. Bits of narrative, seemingly stray lines of dialogue, visual allusions and echoing themes continue to motivate the geographic shifts as the film goes from a diner in New York to a Greek monastery, a nightclub in Kathmandu to a radar station in the polar Arctic. The poet Anne Waldman provides voiceover as “The Dreamer” while the film’s soundtrack is as perapetetic as its storylines, with cues including ‘80s Yugoslavian punk, the Argentinian composer Mauricio Kagel and the Thai singer Angkanang Kunchai.
But what’s most remarkable about Aleph is that while its methods may seem intricate and its central conceit rigorous it’s ultimately a deeply sensual and thrillingly experiential work, one full of the sorts of unexpected visual pleasures and musings on cultural differences and commonalities found in Radivojevic’s wonderful early series of short documentary essay films, Iva Asks. Of course, Aleph is realized on a much larger scale, and in the interview below I begin by asking Radivojevic how an informal conversation over coffee led to a work whose artistic sprightliness belies the complexity of its expansive realization.
Aleph has its final screening at New Directors/New Films on May 11.
Filmmaker: There’s an aspect of Aleph that made me want to treat it like a puzzle, to figure out all the connections, the links, the circling backs. And then there’s also an aspect that made me just want to surrender and just experience it without worrying about missing all of those things. I’ll confess that I started watching in the former mode but about halfway through switched to the latter.
Radivojević: I’ve heard that before — you have the decision somewhere in the middle to do one or the other.
Filmmaker: Has then been a surprise to you, that response? Had you given thought to how specifically people would receive the film?
Radivojević: I knew from the beginning that it’s a film that you would just kind of have to surrender to because you start to think too much about it then you may actually not enjoy it. But I like the way that you described it, that either you’re trying to put the puzzle together or you surrender. It is a film I think you have to come back to to discover all the connections and the nuances.
Filmmaker: So let’s start at the beginning. Who is Rodrigo?
Radivojević: Rodrigo Reyes!
Filmmaker: Ah, okay — I wasn’t sure.
Radivojević: Part of that is thanks to you because it’s through 25 New Faces Rodrigo and I met. We kept in touch and then he sort of prompted my idea of Aleph. I hadn’t read the story before. I was telling him about the idea for the film, and he gave me two tasks. One was to read Aleph, the story, and then the other one was to watch Luis Bunuel’s The Phantom of Liberty for inspiration. He said to do those two things and maybe things would start to make sense, and they did. I almost took it like an assignment, a challenge: “Let me see what I can do with this.”
Filmmaker: And why do you think after Evaporating Borders you were open to that challenge?
Radivojević: Well, Evaporating Borders was such a personal film and also a very heavy film for me that I needed something very different just for the creative process. But also, when I was doing the Iva Asks series, I ran into two different friends who said basically the same thing, which was, “These shorts that you’re doing, they’re starting to talk to each other. It would be interesting if they created one long work.” And that did sound interesting. I think my work in general a little bit has to do with fragments that kind of collect and connect to a whole. And so I knew [Aleph] was going to be this sort of fragmented piece with a thematic thread, but I didn’t know what the thread would be. And then in that conversation with Rodrigo, he was talking about my work as sort of microcosms that represent the entire universe. And that’s where Aleph came in as starting point.
Filmmaker: From a production point of view, it’s a funny first title card because it’s got a real casualness to it. You know, “I’m just having lunch with a friend.” But then the outcome of that lunch is something very complex, not just the movie itself but the way in which you would have to make it. Tell me about the challenge of this way of working. Did you really go to each place and allow that place to suggest the next in true “exquisite corpse” fashion?
Radivojević: Yes. I mean I had to devise sort of a plan of how it was all going to work, and it was this circular labyrinth we enter into and then people are connecting and leading me towards the end of the labyrinth. It was going to be very serendipitous, very given to chance, and the people themselves would be writing the film with me. And each story is a little bit different. We started in Argentina because that’s the land of Borges. In Argentina I met four different women and collected their stories, and then I wrote those stories into one character. One of those women performs the character, the talented Guillermina Pico. And another of the women I interviewed, had a dream that she’s sailing on a boat towards Algeria, and there’s a man waiting on a shore who has something to tell her. And so I’m saying, “Okay, this is a sign for me” because I was trying to pick up on dreamscapes to connect me to the next location. The next location is Algeria, then, and we were looking for a man of a certain age, like in her dream, who had something to show us. One of the conversations [the characters] have in Algeria is about stars, and how there are no stars [in the sky] in New York. I was speaking to a friend — again, so many friends! — and we were trying to interpret stars in a different way. He told me about Zarko Lausevic, this Yugoslavian actor who was a very famous from my childhood. He actually killed two people in self defense; I had no idea he had committed this crime. He was living in New York, and so I approached him and he was willing to be in the film and we wrote that piece together. So, yes, each person led me to the next one.
Filmmaker: What was the production timeline of the movie? Normally for a film like this you’d have preproduction going in all of your countries at the beginning, but in your case you didn’t even know what the next country would be.
Radivojević: I had to give myself some rules. The idea was that I’d have about four or five weeks in each place, and in that one month I needed to collect stories, find a perfect person to perform the story, and in some cases gather the crew. When we had the crew my cinematographer would join me in the last week to film whatever the story I had written. In some cases — for example, in Algeria — I reached out to my friends, and they connected me with a production company or a fixer and so on. Once I got [to the next country], the production company would be in place but the process would be the same. I still had to go and search for the story. I still had to go and find a person to perform the character. But I kind of really enjoyed the process because it all happened in the moment — like, what can I make from whatever is immediate to me right now? I also injected myself with a lot of art, writing and music from each place, and that provided so much material for generating a story. You know, it was easy for me because I had already done this so many times in the Iva Asks series but without [Aleph‘s] specific structure. It’s what I love to do most, and when I’m most comfortable — eating with strangers, chatting and so on. The most beautiful part is the immediacy of it — everything you’re seeing and feeling in the moment comes into the story. And everybody’s influencing what the story is.
Filmmaker: I very much thought back to Iva Asks when watching this. And I love that you went back to this aspect of your earlier work as opposed to, as some documentary directors moving into fiction do, make something much more conventional. Was the fact that you had done Iva Asks something that gave financiers confidence to support you with this experimental structure? Was this a hard film to get financed?
Radivojević: When you have a feature and those shorts, for example, behind you, okay, you’ve done something to be trusted. But a lot of this funding came from documentary funders, and for documentary funders, you need to know who your characters are, that you have access to them, what your storyline is. So it’s actually very scary for them to support a film like this. The first funding we got was from BritDoc, from a pitching session. It was very little money to get me to Argentina. And then we had to convince [funders] from the first story that we edited together about what we were thinking. It really took two or three [stories completed] to get all the funding in place. Madeleine Molyneaux, my brilliant producer, came on board at that point and gave the production the energy and the drive it needed. Once people got the idea of what we were trying to do, they jumped on board, but that’s also what slowed down the production so much because the funding was coming in so slowly. It’s also so unconventional — it’s not narrative, it’s not a documentary, it’s some kind of a hybrid thing, but even in the hybrid space it’s so “what is this?” But going back to your original question I get really bored trying to do the same thing that I’ve done before. It always has to be something that [challenges] my own comfort level. So to just go into straight narrative, it would have been interesting but I just need something that not only excites me but excites the whole idea of cinema — making and watching and experiencing.
Filmmaker: The film seems to be nodding to different forms or styles or even other directors as it progresses. I picked up the Jarmusch Coffee and Cigarettes vibe in the New York section, and then in Thailand there’s maybe a bit of Apitchapong [Weerasethakul] and a slow cinema nod. What informed the stylistic shifts the film goes thorugh?
Radivojević: Each story definitely has its own pace, rhythm and texture. Jarmusch for sure was a reference for the New York section. I actually watched one of Apitchatpong’s short films that’s on a boat but after I had already filmed [that section of Aleph]. But of course, Thai culture is full of ghost stories and myths. More than anything what influenced each story were the readings that I was doing at the time, different poets and writers I’m referencing for each segment, and that [reading] informed the styles, the looks, the setups.
Filmmaker: Who were some of those authors?
Radivojević: In Argentina, I was reading this woman called Bhanu Kapil, who wrote a really wonderful book, The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, where she interviews women across India. That was one of the inspirations of how to go about collecting stories. I read Lewis Warsh for that part as well; he’s a great poet who died recently. Roland Barthes and and Mohammed Dib for the Algerian section. Lots of folkloric myths for Thailand. And John Cage for South Africa. There’s a lecture he gave at a university that’s in a book called Silence. The entire lecture is structured as a series of questions, one after the other, so I decided to have this conversation between the two selves [in the South African section] just as series of questions.
Filmmaker: The film has such a clear sense of its own structure, particularly to hear you talk about it, but I felt throughout the film this constant desire for that which couldn’t be explained, or connected. The transcendental, perhaps. There’s this line in the South African section, “I wish we could feel like Alice Coltrane sounds.”
Radivojević: That’s part of also Borges’s writing, the idea of this grand dreamer who has constructed the entire universe. We are kept outside, blinded, and we’re trying to poke through to get glimpses of the universe, but we can never feel the whole thing. So that’s who Anne Waldman [the narrator] is — she’s this person who has devised the library and who gives us hints along the way. And we’re trying to burst through with some small ideas of what you are describing.
Filmmaker: Why did you choose Anne Waldman to be the narrator?
Radivojević: Anne is such a monumental figure, you know? She’s created so much at the Naropa Institute, and she’s a brilliant poet. And also she, she channels this kind of dreamer in the vein of Borges. It was so lovely to speak her to on the phone. It was the middle of the pandemic, and it was a kind of conversation that immediately lifted my entire being. She was able to jump fromart to politics to life to the past, future and present. It was such an Aleph conversation! I heard a talk in Thailand when I was there about storytelling and folk tales and how usually we associate the folk tale teller with this wise older woman figure, and that’s what she kind of represented.
Filmmaker: What were some of the challenges of creating a single feature film out of these different segments? You worked on the edit with Jay Rabinowitz, who has worked, of course, with Jarmusch.
Radivojević: I was editing each story as I went along in production because I had to know where I’m going next and how it was going to proceed. The challenge was once you have all the segments, how to really make them flow. I had an idea as we were going along, but as a finished piece it really had to cohere in a more significant way, which is where we started. Jay is amazing. We all edit in very different ways, obviously, and he pays attention to minute details that I, as an editor, do in a different way and, especially in a film I have directed, might be blinded to. And then I also brought in Sarah Enid Hagey, who is a good and very talented friend of mine. She was concentrating on this sort of “Alice in Wonderland” effect — how do we seep in little hints, little connections? For example, taking the South African section and sprinkling it throughout the film. The [actor in the South African section] appears in Argentina when she’s watching the cinema — you see the cup pouring the coffee. He also appears in the cinema in Nepal on the big screen. Little things like that. And of course the first actress appears in New York [in the cafe]. So we started introducing little different kind of connections. You know, when I get stuck in my editing process, I just bring reinforcements to see what I don’t see.
Filmmaker: What’s an example of something Jay would have just discovered that you might not have?
Radivojević: There was this really beautiful moment in New York, where he’s on the tram going from Roosevelt Island to the city. [The woman] says, “I’ve grown up with your images, I know your pictures, your films.” And there’s a moment where he takes off his hat and he [shudders], like he’s overwhelmed, you know? Jay placed it in such way that when she says, “I’ve seen your films,” it’s like he’s responding to her and that he’s already stressed out. Before, [the gesture] was completley disconnected. It’s not a big thing, but it was a huge thing in the moment.
Filmmaker: You worked with a DP on the film, Jimmy Ferguson, while you also shot parts of the various sections. What informed your way of working with a DP when you’d also be a shooter?
Radivojević: This was a challenge for myself. I wanted to do specific stylized setups, very specific looks, that I can’t do by myself. I’m a great cinematographer, but I’m not a lighting person. And directing is just overwhelming already. But I also wanted to retain some of my own [shooting] because, for me, photography is so personal and intimate. It’s almost like my own meditation process that I wanted to retain in the film. So, for example, in Argentina, all of the outside locations, most of them were just me going around the city and filming. And then Jimmy came, and we shot everything that has to do with the characters. The same with Nepal. Jimmy is very, very meticulous, a perfectionist, and he just knows his stuff. I would show him images, and he could do whatever I wished for, and that was a real pleasure.
Filmmaker: There’s another line in the South African section that landed for me, when he says, “It’s useless to think in binary terms about success and failure.” That spoke to me, somehow, about the journey I was going on through the film, that journey from trying to connect and make sense to just surrendering.
Radivojević: It’s also just like the things we all think about in terms of our lives, you know? What’s success, what’s failure, failures are also successes. I wanted to sprinkle out these kind of questions that have do with our own livelihood, life and the idea of being alive. What does it mean to be alive, what does it mean to be happy and what does it mean to love? All these different things that enable us to deal with reality.
Filmmaker: Obviously we’re thinking about all of these questions in new ways after the last year. But, for you, as a filmmaker, how has the way you think about these questions changedsince the time you made Iva Asks?
Radivojević: It’s a very good question. I’ve been having this discussion with many friends over the last few days. I think what I’ve come to realize is that to focus on one thing is a bit of a trap. I make films, but I also do many other things. I like to camp on the beach. I like to read, I like to draw. I like to be communal. I like to be helpful. To focus my attention on this one thing is… it’s binding in a way that is oppressive. Of course I’m going to make more films, but there’s a book that I’m planning, and a series of drawings. I have a communal garden on the island. To be creative is the most fulfilling thing, but that creativity can spread into many different ways.
The other thing is that I have realized how happy it makes me in work with other people. A few friends, over the pandemic — Sierra Pettengill, Brett Story, Farihah Zaman and Hira Nabi — we got together and we wrote with very specific constraints about what was going on with us [during] the pandemic. It was a collective piece of writing, and it helped us – it was very touching and, and generous and it helped us get through. Now I’m doing a series of drawings with Sierra in which we have constraints. I enjoy collaborating a lot. And one of the things that I want to do also in the island is take over this old stone house and build a small art space so people can come and do self residency work. It’s all about creating in small ways and not to be so dependent on outcome. To be more involved in the process. And to be there with the success of that, even if it stays in our notebooks, you know?
Filmmaker: How have your ideas around travel changed since you did Iva Asks? This has obviously been a year without travel for most of us, but, going forward, in an era of climate change there is more awareness about the costs of travel.
Radivojević: For me, as someone who left my country as a young person and who changed countries a lot, travel is so embedded into who I am. After all the travels of Aleph I kept saying that I’m going to start taking freight trains and boats instead of flying. But now I’m personally at the point of my life where I’d just like to stay put, and that feels good. What does it mean to be in one place?
Filmmaker: Is there anything you want to add?
Radivojević: I just need to stress that there were so many people involved in making of this film, and everybody’s input was reflected in the filming in one way or another. We would be filming in Nepal and my A.D. Kiran would say, “Why don’t we change this line to this line?” And I said, “Yeah, why don’t we ?” Everybody wrote the film with me, and everybody edited the film with me. My name is there as director, but it’s really a collective process of an entire village of people from all over the world.