Listen to Joana Preiss discuss her film Siberia as part of last month's First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image.
This podcast is presented in partnership with Museum of the Moving Image, where Joana Preiss participated in a Q&A with David Schwartz following a New York premiere screening of Siberia during the Museum's First Look 2013 showcase on January 5, 2013. BOMB will be publishing more podcasts from MOMI's First Look series in the coming weeks.
According to the Museum of the Moving Image, Siberia, "—filmed entirely by Preiss and her then lover, filmmaker Bruno Dumont, mostly in the claustrophobia of a train car on the Trans-Siberian Railway—is an intense and raw observation of a relationship’s denouement. With unflinching honesty and a Direct Cinema approach, Preiss’s documentary is a fascinating psychological exploration of love, dependency, and the bounds of romantic privacy."
DS Can you talk about how this project evolved? I understand there was an impulse to want to make something, to work together, as you say in the film, but how did it come to be this?
JP Yes, we wanted to work together, but in another way. Not in a way we could work together, like he could be a director, I could be an actress, or something like that. We met in Siberia one year before we went back for this film. We were invited together to go to a festival, and we made a profit of the festival to do a movie together. The first thing we were sure about was we will film together, and we will be inside together. What we didn’t do: he’d never been in front a camera before. I did some movies when I was 18, on Super 8, and I did not edit them. So this was my first experience filming. We decided to go to Siberia to film, to take two cameras. Low-quality, mini-DV. And we decided to film each other. But it’s not so simple. I wrote some things, like vampire stories. I had the idea of one of us eating the other one. But finally, the reality was more strong than everything I wrote. So we just filmed what we wanted to film at the moment. And when we went back from this trip, we thought together it was something to do. But we, for many reasons, left the project in the box. And after a few months, I had this obsession to edit and to release this film. So I took all the rushes and I started the work. And that’s it. Well, that’s not it. But . . . (laughter)
DS What were your discussions or thoughts about what you would film? I don’t know if you had sort of, not ground rules exactly, but some idea of what you would be filming? How you would behave or what you would allow yourself to film?
JP No, we never discussed that. Except for what I said before, we tried to play with things I wrote, you know, these vampire stories, but it never worked. We just behaved how we wanted to behave at the moment. It was really a spontaneous way. So the dialogue is not written. But the thing is, because it was a camera, and for example, well it’s not an example . . . I’m an actress. The camera is not even a small camera, it’s not something I don’t see, it’s something. But it’s like nothing. It was something totally natural, but in a way we knew it was a camera, do you know what I mean? So in a way, it’s a really paradoxical thing. We are totally in our mode, we are, but we know it’s a camera. So I think the camera provoked a lot of dialogue and things maybe we never would have had without the camera around.
DS So the idea is not just we were seeing your reality as it would be without a camera. So that’s what’s interesting. It’s like the camera being there creates this new condition, and there’s a commitment. What you and Bruno share is this commitment, there’s a connection to what you’re sharing which is going after this kind of honesty. But then we’re, at the same time, able to see what pulls you apart. I mean things come out in the filming that lead to . . .
JP Yes, totally. That was the first part of the project, but the second part was that I wrote another story when I was editing. There was a trip, a travel, and a relationship with the material. But I invented something. It was not the reality of our relations. You know what I mean?
DS Yeah, so we’ll talk more about that. It was a very long editing process, I understand. So how were you shaping it? What did you think you were discovering or creating in the editing?
JP It’s hard to speak about, because I don’t want to transform your vision and to orient your vision. You can have your own imagination and your own story. But if we’re speaking about artistic things, the thing is, I had 24 hours of rushes. From the travel, from the Trans-Siberian, but, too, from the festival, from the Museum of Irkutsk. I had a lot of stuff like that, and I decided what was interesting for me. And to tell, it was the relation between him and her. The cinema couple, too. She’s an actress, he’s a director. Because I was always fascinated by these couples of cinema. I wanted to know just until where it’s going to be, something about the limits and everything. And I had the feeling the Trans-Siberian part was really important because of the claustrophobia and the tension. Because I was editing by myself for a longtime, because I wanted to see me like a character. It was something between me and me. And after, between me and the trip and my relations and everything. So after editing by myself for many months, it was a long process because I decided the way of the film. The Trans-Siberian would be the fil conducteur, the link. And after that it will be the exterior of the clubs, the streets. And I really focused on the relationship. And a lot of different movies, of course, in every movie, but this could be, I don’t know, a story about Siberia, a story about a lot of different things. And when I choose these things, after that I ask an editor to help me and we had a direction. But it was hard because it was just 24 hours of documentary material, and documentary is not what I wanted to say. It was just like a run. So voilá.
DS It’s going to sound simplistic, but what love means, you know, there’s a lot of talk, of you or Bruno saying, “I love you, do you really love me?” If we talk about your character in the film, you often don’t trust that he actually loves you. But exploring what that means seems to be one of the things that you’re interested in.
JP Yes, but because, what was interesting was when the first time I saw the rushes, it was the reality of exactly what you mean. It’s like, I was really surprised to see the thing I wanted to say, since the other relationship I had. I was always interested in the relationship between women and men because, I think, it can’t work in way, but it’s working. I had the feeling to take this film to say a lot of things about love and relationships, and especially when you are an actress and he’s a filmmaker. So where’s the manipulation? It is manipulation, do you accept that? It’s something really interesting to me, to speak about, to go inside and experiment inside. But in this film, what was really amazing, and bad in the same way, was that he chose and I chose to do the film, and not keep our relationship. After a while we could decide to stop the film, but we chose the film. Maybe because we love cinema more than we love each other, I don’t know.
DS Well it’s interesting, the way he talks about manipulation in the film is interesting.
JP It’s beautiful. When he speaks about his arms.
DS Were you surprised about how what he chose to film or how he filmed? Because you talk about that at a few points in the film. You tell him he’s brazen at one point. So I wonder what you felt was revealed about how you filmed each other.
JP Yes, because what was interesting—and for this reason, I have this sentence at the end, at the end of the relationship, at the end of film—was when he spoke to me about being drunk. It was incredible because most of the shooting of me was when I was drunk. It’s bizarre to say to somebody, “I don’t like you when you’re drunk.” And then shoot every moment of that. But it’s a part of the game, too, I think. But I loved the way he filmed me, actually. I think it’s a really beautiful way and really full of desire, too, but maybe that’s my projection. But I have the feeling that maybe it’s like that, and the way I filmed him was full of desire, too, but was maybe more like . . . I don’t know. I filmed him a lot when he was walking, for example, you didn’t see a lot of his scenes, but I was really impressed by was when he was in conferences. It was really cliché of the man and the woman. It was something so . . . it’s true, we had some other way to film each other. But for example, because we exchanged the cameras, and we exchanged the tapes all of the time, we couldn’t say afterward who was filming this landscape. It was like the only thing we can know is when he was filming me and when I was filming him. And it’s true we had points of view totally different about ourselves, but it was interesting for the film, too.
DS And was he interested or involved in the editing process? I mean, obviously he’s a filmmaker who makes these very enigmatic and mysterious films. And this film seems to offer a lot of insight into him, and will affect how people think about him. And so was he involved in that at all?
JP It’s a big story, actually. In fact, when I started to edit by myself, I invited him to see some of . . .
DS Like rough cuts, or dailies.
JP Yes, exactly. So I invited him several times and I figured out, he always told me some contradictory things, so I was not sure it was a good idea to invite him to my editing. Because I thought maybe he wants me to do the film he wants. And I wanted to do my film, so I figured out really early that I didn’t have to ask him to be there, even just to watch, because it was something I didn’t like for my freedom of the work. But we still saw each other, and we had some discussions. And even with discussions, he tried to put mean things in my brain. Like, “If you could do that, and if you could do that . . .” And I was pretending I was really listening to him, like a teacher, and I was the small director, but I didn’t do at all. So when he saw the film finally, just before it was to show at FIDMarseille, he was a little bit surprised, a little bit touched in a way, moved in a way. And he told me it was beautiful, and then he told me, “It’s your contemporary nostalgic version of our story. But it was beautiful.” But after that—and he was really happy it was in FIDMarseille and everything—but after that it was more complicated for him to deal with a lot of things. I don’t know, it was the first time he was in front of the camera. So it was between two things. You know like, he was happy to be in this film, and it was not a habit for him. Especially in this film, because its really intimate.
DS He has to read reviews of his own films, and there are times when you’re reviewing him. You’re a critic of him.
JP There was a beautiful critique of him in one of the French cinema magazines, which said about him that he’s the actor we don’t have in France, so I hope he saw that and was happy about that.
DS I want to ask you one thing and then open it up to the audience. So you’ve acted a lot, you’ve been in a lot of films. And it occurred to me that maybe, in a way, this was a sort of liberating experience, or interesting experience for you to be in front of a camera this way.
JP You know it’s really strange, because I started to do this kind of thing with filmmakers. I started to work with an Italian independent filmmaker. His name is Tonino De Bernardi. And he has this kind of approach to cinema. And so it was like, yes, it’s totally new, and it was totally complete for me to . . . it’s something different. But I think what I did in the past helped me a lot. In theater, in films, my experience was more . . . not more classical, because most of the time I was acting in independent movies and things, so it was always something different and personal. Because it’s something to have, not control, because I don’t care about control, but it’s something to leave yourself, to have with freedom and control in the same way. It’s something like you’re yourself but . . . it’s something really ambiguous.
DS Something in-between.
DS Actually I did just want to ask one more thing. I know when you were in New York, you were working with Nan Goldin, you were photographed by her. And I thought of at times, her photographs, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and these very intimate photographs that she did, I wonder if that was an influence in your thinking.
JP I didn’t think about that when I was filming and when I did this film, but I’m sure it was. Because I met Nan when I was 19, and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was the first work she did that I saw, and I was really touched by this work. I thought she was one of the first photographers to care about marginality in a beautiful way, you know. So, maybe when I was 19, I thought I was really close to her world and way of thinking, so she probably influenced me, yes, on my work.
DS Any questions. Down here.
Audience Member (Question inaudible)
DS So after you decided to end the relationship he was asking if you actually left, and who did the filming of the material at the end.
JP In fact, the end is a fantasy of the editing. It was always me and him filming, no one else was. But it’s an interesting question because, big time, during the editing, it was important for me to imagine somebody else was filming us. And it’s helped me a lot for the editing, even finally, except for some moments you can see that. But it’s really what I call a fantasy of the editing. It’s like I decided to disappear during the editing process. It was like my story about vampire. One of them eats the other one. And so I decided that I had to disappear. Because it’s something in the relation, in relation with what I wanted to say about the couple, because I have the feeling that it’s maybe something not real. But I had the feeling that when you’re in a love story, you’re a woman and you’re with a man, I have a feeling that the man can stand because his work can compensate for the love he doesn’t have anymore. And the woman is more fragile about that. But maybe it’s just my feeling, and maybe it’s not.
Audience Member (Question inaudible)
JP No, no. Yes. In the reality, I stayed.
DS Back there . . . Okay.
Audience Member (Question inaudible)
DS So, were you surprised by the ending? Or the outcome, the fact that you were in such a claustrophobic situation. Did you expect that it was going to end this way?
JP Did I expect before? No, not at all. I didn’t expect anything, in a way. But it was one of the worst travels I did. It’s true, because you’re closed in a . . . I don’t know.
Audience Member (Question inaudible)
DS Okay. (laughter) He said he sympathized with Bruno being a little pissed off at times, because you acted, perhaps, like a bit of tease.
JP No. I think we were pissed off, but I was pissed off in the beginning of the story. Because it’s something you said before, we have strong character and we don’t want to be manipulated by each other. No one is ready to listen to the other one and to accept to change. It’s like a rapport de force in the beginning.
DS Well what’s so interesting is the way you trusted him, and not trusting him at the same time. And you were very clear about what you don’t trust about him, but there sort of also a complete trust in him, at least his honesty for the film project.
JP Of course, I think it’s because I always talked about the relationship, about the love story, but more and more I watch it and I have the feeling it’s not a deterioration of the love story, it’s a love story. So of course I trust him, but in a way I don’t know. And because we are always like dogs, you know, like who is going to be stronger, or I don’t know what. But sometimes in a relationship it’s like that, you want to be more smart, but finally you’re like, “I don’t know something.” But of course because it’s a love story before everything, we trust in each other. And I think we can see it’s a love story in the way that it’s filmed. Because even he doesn’t like when I’m drunk, and the way he filmed me at this moment is like a love gesture. And a lot of things are like that in the process and in the film.
DS But it’s also a love story about two people who need a certain amount of solitude, and balance, and finding that balance. It’s just really interesting.
JP I think that in the film we love each other, but we don’t know how to love each other. It’s not just for this couple, I don’t want to tell about universality and blah blah blah, but in a lot of cases, it’s like that. You love somebody, and I don’t know why, but it’s something impossible to do more . . . communication.
DS Let’s do one or two more . . . what was your original reason to take the trip?
JP I think, finally, the first reason was to do this film, because we were invited in Siberia, was the first reason. But me, I remember, I didn’t want to go, because I didn’t want to . . . because if I was invited it was to introduce a film I was playing in. And even if I was loving Siberia and people were inviting me and things, this time I didn’t want to go only introduce a film. And so we decided really early we will do this film. So it was for me, it was the main reason finally, well, not finally.
DS Okay. Back there.
Audience Member (Question inaudible)
DS Would there be a version that he might edit that would make him look better?
JP Why, you think it’s not good?
DS Well this guy’s on Bruno’s side, so . . .
JP Anyway, I think if we edited the film by himself, it would be a totally different object, of course, totally. But I have to say, I was really careful . . .
Audience Member (Question inaudible) (laughter)
DS He’s in good shape, it looks like.
JP No, because I have the feeling, and maybe it’s a mistake, that I put me more in danger than him, in the film, you know? Because I show myself a little bit naïve and spontaneous, I don’t know. For me, it was important to show this side of myself, but of an actress. It was something I wanted to caricature a little bit. And him, I had the feeling to choose the moments where I thought he was more fluid. Because a lot of things in the rushes were strange, where he was more a teacher or more somebody who thinks a lot about things, but really in the way to teach to somebody. But I have the feeling I choose the moment for me that were more important, more human. Anyway, to answer your question, I think if he were to edit by himself, it would be another movie. So maybe he would choose sides of him he finds better.
DS But he seems to actually, enjoy isn’t the right word, but he seems to take the opportunity to make himself like a jerk. To oversimplify. But he allows that to happen. So that’s interesting.
JP Yes, because I was really surprised by this, I will say. I didn’t know he was so free and so happy to be filmed. It is not an easy thing, because he never did that before. But he was really a part of the game. Sometimes in the images, he touched himself like that. And not only was he really happy to be captured . . .
DS But he sort of allows himself to be kind of smug at times, but he says, “Sometimes I don’t feel it.” But we were joking before, this might not be the best advertisement for him, for the next girlfriend. But I think it’s actually interesting what he actually reveals.