An Artificial Reality: Amalia Ulman Interviewed by Amy Chabassier

In her debut film, El Planeta, Ulman considers the tension between reality and artifice while referencing older cinematic styles.

A young white woman with shoulder-length, brown hair and wearing a gray plaid blazer crosses her arms and looks directly into the camera in a waist-up portrait against a clouded gray photography studio backdrop.

Courtesy of Amalia Ulman.

Amalia Ulman recalls that she saw El Planeta from beginning to end in her mind before its very inception. Leo (played by Ulman) and María (played by her real-life mother, Ale) are complicated, vulnerable main characters experiencing an impending eviction. The film focuses on the details of their lives rather than solely contemplating the situation: an approach to extol empathy over pity. The characters progress as living beings with particular desires, not limited to basic necessities.

Shot in black and white, Ulman’s first film combines documentary-like shots with abstract editing. The atmosphere of Gijón, Spain, and its constituents play into the story of the film: mundane chit chats, a buzzing radio, and disparate sounds fill the background, while elderly people walk streets scattered with deserted stores. Ulman interrupts these shots of the city with brief, silent close-ups framing a specific character within the narrative, alluding to silent cinema-style editing. Jump cuts equally find their place, interrupting the linear projection of the film and permeating a more subjective interpretation. Most distinctly, abstract dissolves reminiscent of PowerPoint transitions structure the film, exposing an artificiality that literally cuts into the narrative.

As Ulman references precedent filmmaking styles, she illuminates her own interest in reality and artifice in film, a nod to her prior work on Instagram in which she fabricated a fictional social media persona and storyline for herself. Real-life moments mingle with manipulated elements there, just as autobiographical realities join fictional narratives in her film. With its merging of influences and coalescence of art practices, Ulman’s work establishes itself as a daring and remarkable first impression in cinema.

— Amy Chabassier

Amy Chabassier I was at your film screening with Rooftop Films a couple weeks ago. In your Q&A there, you mentioned that you saw the entire film El Planeta beforehand, from beginning to end in your mind. Were you mainly referring to the narrative, or did you also have an idea of how you were going to film and edit everything?

Amalia Ulman I’m a very visual person, so I did see it visually with the cuts and everything. I knew what I wanted every scene to look like.

ACWas the use of black and white also something you saw from the very beginning? Why was that important to you for the film?

AUYes, it’s hard to film that city in color because of the climate. It’s a very gray place, and shooting in color kind of looks white anyway, so it was a conscious decision from the get-go to do it in black and white. One of the things I did see very clearly was the opening scene where María’s drenched in water carrying the box. Then I just worked as hard as possible to get the closest to my mental idea of the film.

Two women sit with their heads leaned back into hair-dresser sinks. Both women clutch designer purses with two hands and look up toward the ceiling.

Ale Ulman and Amalia Ulman in El Planeta, 2021, black-and-white digital video, seventy-nine minutes. Directed by Amalia Ulman. Courtesy of Utopia Distribution.

ACThe abstract dissolves throughout the film made me think of PowerPoint transitions. Where did you get the idea or desire to incorporate them?

AUThe film is conceptually related to my practice as an artist, but those transitions are more visually related. I’ve done multiple video essays using PowerPoint presentations. I like using ready-mades, and those transitions are the ones that come with the editing software that we used to make the film, Premiere. That’s one of the only things that is visually directly related to my work, which I thought was very important. I didn’t want to compartmentalize my art practice and my work as a filmmaker, but rather make a continuation of it all.

ACThe brief, silent closeups that interrupt the film to show a character’s face reminded me of silent cinema. They prolong images of each character within the narrative. The editing style in general is also reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s own first feature, Breathless, in which he utilizes similar jump cuts. Could you speak about your influences a bit and how you came up with these cuts? Was this ode to silent film intentional?

AUSimilar to Godard, I was looking at Hollywood, especially 1930s pre-Code cinema. I think he was looking more at noir, detective stories and things like that, but it’s a very similar relationship where you don’t have the budget, and you’re somewhere else, but you’re taking these references until it becomes something new. For me, the closeups were a reference to 1920s–30s films. It’s not completely retro, just a nod to it. It’s similar to the way Godard took all those references from noir cinema, transforming them into something different.

A black-and-white film still in which an older blond woman stands on the sidewalk in the background-center as a younger brunette woman wearing fishnet stockings walks between two cars in the foreground and looks to her right.

Amalia Ulman and Ale Ulman in El Planeta, 2021, black-and-white digital video, seventy-nine minutes. Directed by Amalia Ulman. Photo by Rob Kulisek.

ACYou play with reality and artifice throughout the film. You act with your real-life mother, and many shots throughout the film are descriptive (of the city streets, the empty stores, people walking), yet you break up the film with these artificial dissolves that remind the viewer of the medium and of your presence behind the camera. This seems to touch on your previous work: the Instagram project where you distort a sense of reality, assimilating both realistic images and fake impressions. How did this interest in artificiality versus reality develop?

AUI’ve always been interested in fictional narrative, especially in unexpected places, so I was drawn to Instagram and the use of social media, which, especially at that time, was based on this idea of showing the “real you” and pride moments and so on. Of course, that isn’t true at all because people would frame whatever they wanted to and show a different reality based on how they frame what’s around them. On the other hand, in my video essays I’ve also used medical lingo, the aesthetics of scientific papers, and things like that to create fictional narratives. I feel like my general interest in that maybe comes from the fact that I’m Argentinian—I mean, I grew up in Spain, but my grandparents are from Argentina, and my family is from there. In Argentina there’s this very twisted connection with reality. It’s a colonial place, so out of survival people do tweak where they’re from or alter how they look to seem whiter. There are all these fantasy stories about peoples’ backgrounds and their European connections and all that. Growing up in Spain I had that culture behind me, and I could see other versions of reality where people didn’t care about that as much. I guess that informed the way I look at the world in general.

ACEl Planeta is a very sad film, yet it doesn’t dwell on this sadness. When the electricity is shut off, it hinders Leo’s ability to dry her hair; that’s the most prevalent perspective of the debt they’re in at that point in the film. In this sense, little details mean a lot. Characters are not confined to their own boundaries; they live beyond them. Could you speak about how you decided to showcase these situations?

AUIt was important for me to show a realistic approach to what it is like to get evicted; it’s a strange rollercoaster rather than a straight line where suddenly you’re on the street. There’s a whole process of things happening that remind you that everything is falling apart. In this case with Leo, it’s not a big deal, but she had a shitty haircut, so she has to style it, and she’s already going through a lot, so that makes her feel even more insecure. And the fact that she can’t do anything about it, and there’s no electricity: that’s the cherry on top of everything that’s happening. I feel like in real life it’s always the little details that trigger people into a fight or a breakdown, things like that.

A close-up black-and-white film still depicts a younger brunette woman and older blond woman sitting in the backseat of a car as the younger woman helps the older woman with the clasp of her bracelet.

Amalia Ulman and Ale Ulman in El Planeta, 2021, black-and-white digital video, seventy-nine minutes. Directed by Amalia Ulman. Photo by Rob Kulisek.

ACHave you and your mother ever acted before? Or ever acted together?

AUNo. I’ve been in front of the camera, but that was different because it was mediated by technology and done on my own. My mom has never acted in films before, so it was our first time acting together.

ACI know you’re currently working on your next film. In terms of editing style, how do you feel your next project might look and feel? Are these stylistic elements personal to El Planeta or more so to your style as a filmmaker?

AUThe next film is going to be very similar to El Planeta in tone, and the humor is going to be very similar, but it’s going to be different in many other ways: it’s going to be in color; the music is going to be made by the same musician, Chicken, but it’s going to be Colombian music; and it’s going to be set in South America. So of course if you change all these elements, a lot of it will be different. There’s going to be an interesting use of technology in the sense that we’re not using any spectral cameras. There might be different ways of editing, elements that are conceptually similar to and reference the transitions in El Planeta but aren’t quite the same. That’s how I see it in my head; now this is the second film I’ve had in my mind. (laughter) It looks different, but it’s going to have a similar tone.

Amalia Ulman’s El Planeta will be showing at IFC Center through October 14.

Amy Chabassier is a film critic based in New York. She holds an MA in cinema studies from NYU and works for Giant Pictures as a distribution coordinator.

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