Documenting the Workshops, Part 1

Part 1: Jonas
By Stuart Heaney

At last! Finally a chance to report on the workshops. So, without further delay, let’s get right down to business.

Saturday 8th December – a workshop conversation with Jonas

Firstly let’s briefly recap on our previously discussed sequence of events (see previous posts, below, for further info):
Thursday 6th December: a private walk-through, with Serpentine director Kathryn Rattee, of the Serpentine’s Mekas exhibition followed swiftly the same evening by the In Conversation event in which we saw Jonas discussing his inextricable relationship between his work and his life, with former London Film Festival director, Sandra Hebron and Brit film director Mike Figgis;
and then Friday evening’s sublime screening of Lost Lost Lost (1976), which all the students attended as additional preparation for what follows this bright and wintry Saturday morning…


Having traveled across London on the tube from my East End home, I arrive at the Serpentine Gallery lugging heavy camera equipment across the frosty winding pathways through Kensington Gardens clutching a fortifying coffee. Greeting the young artists working at the kiosk I make my way straight through to the Education Space to begin setting up where’s Head of Education and film lab, James Holcombe, is already waiting.

Fortunately, the news arrives that Jonas is running late, which buys me a little more time to continue setting up my equipment and preparing. I have to find the optimum viewpoint to shoot the HD video using my Canon 5D MkII DSLR camera. There is a circle of seats for the discussion and a wooden chair provided for Jonas, which enables me to position and focus before his arrival. A short while later, while everyone is arriving, without realising the seating arrangements, one of the students sits on Jonas’s seat and we joke about her taking the throne. Indeed the underlying purpose of this day is passing on the mantle to the younger generation.

Suddenly, while I’m still setting up, winding on the 16mm film in the Bolex and preparing the separate sound recording device mounted in the centre of the circle for optimum sound, Jonas, followed by his son Sebastian and his friends Benn Northover and painter and philosopher Giuseppe Zevola, enters the room earlier than expected, causing an outbreak of warm smiles (but leaving me no time to move the obtrusive ladder and trestle table, leaning against the wall and in shot at the back of the room). The sunlight is gentle but crisp through the French Windows, but that’s not the only reason he glows as he enters the room. He seems surprised and delighted by the energy emanating from the vivacious young aspiring filmmakers he is confronted with, all of them eager to talk with him – and by the presence of Bolex cameras. Clutching his Sony PD150 DV camera, the fondness he retains for the Bolex is palpable and he immediately takes to recording the people in the room with his video camera, directing his lens at me, while I am filming him doing so with the Bolex.

It’s unlikely Jonas will ever know what this exchange of lenses means to me (as a younger man his work at Anthology Film Archives inspired me to train as a film archivist): to film him while he in turn records me through his videocamera lens. In a way, without wishing to overstate it, my present self is confronting him with his former self, the 16mm filmer of modest moments of joy (and this is certainly one), while his present self confronts me with my former self – until a few years ago I used to make DV video using the same camera, until I returned to 8mm and 16mm film and more recently took up HD video.

‘You’ve got a Bolex there… you don’t have any video?’ enquires a pleasantly incredulous Jonas. ‘You’ve got the video camera,’ replies James, inducing chuckles all round. Actually, the DSLR I have set up on a tripod in the corner is for the purpose of taking full 2K HD video, but the form of camera appears to have deceived him into believing that I am taking still photos, a deception that induces slight discomfort later on when Jonas expresses his antipathy towards photographers, as opposed to film and video-makers. Clearly thinking of the paparazzi type, in his experience photographers are much more invasive with their desires to get the best shot at all costs, whereas filmmakers, he says, are more inclined to blend into the background. Of course, the label paparazzi originates in cinema itself – in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, after the tenacious celebrity snapper, Paparazzo.

Inevitably, the differences between film and digital video are discussed. Though clearly he bears no animosity towards HD, Jonas himself is not drawn to it, ‘when there is too much perfection in the image there is no longer mystery.’ He is asked why he moved to video from film, a transition which occurred in the late 1980s. He says he felt at the time that he had explored every possibility with the Bolex and that he had begun to repeat himself. Coincidentally, he was simultaneously introduced to video by a friend and was offered the use of a camera (he was actually approached by Sony to test one of their cameras in 1987; it would have been an analogue tape format, such as Video8 – this was before the invention of digital video). Experimenting with the new camera, he discovered that, ‘it opened up a new window of content, and I got interested – it pulled me in.’

However, he immediately laments the lack of possibility for experiment offered by the DV camera (all the while he continues speaking, untroubled by the loud clacking sound of my Bolex). He extols the Bolex’s many functions that enable effects to be done in-camera, spontaneously, at the moment of filming – speeding up the film, slow-motion, shooting multiple single frames, in-camera fades, winding the camera back and re-exposing the film so that you get different moments from the same event super-imposed, under-exposure, over-exposure, etc. Yet, despite the limitations and advantages of both cameras (the Sony allows continuous recording with sound but can’t do in-camera tricks, the Bolex can do the whole range of in-camera tricks but has to be wound up, runs on short rolls of film, makes loud clockwork noises and records no sound), Jonas tells us he now uses his camera in the manner of an anthropologist, to study the behaviour of his fellow humans.

He agrees with Henriette, that many of the people in his film playing around and acting silly for the camera are childish because he films them at times in their lives when they are free to express their joy and to revert to a state of childlike innocence. Aspiring documentary maker Jaha is interested in his treatment of sound, particularly the use of overwhelming spiritual music, such as choirs and Jonas tells us all about how he uses music appropriate to the images, coming back to edit the footage many years after it was shot. Has anyone ever got angry with him for filming them? Only three times he says, including once when the people filmed were meeting in secret. However, there have been occasions, Benn Northover tells us when people have been more affected by Jonas’s films, rather than his filming – one man was even taken paralysed by medics after having been so moved by the experience of seeing As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000).

He seems in no hurry to leave (several times he declares, finger in the air, ‘one more question!’), but even so the time comes all too soon when we must say our goodbyes, much to everyone’s sadness. The big white door opens and he and his friends and family are swallowed up by the ethereal cacophony of his own video installations outside in the gallery space.

After he has gone the students immediately discuss the encounter excitedly, wishing he could have stayed longer. Much is discussed about what Jonas told us of his work setting up the Filmmakers’ Coop, as James talks about the inevitable problems artist-run spaces like have in securing financial support in today’s world. Yet, in spite of the doubts that hang over the future of today’s youth, there is a palpable sense that, bolstered by the possibilities discussed, the students are eager to experiment with the equipment at their disposal to capture those moments of beautiful simplicity in their own lives.

Watch out for forthcoming frame grabs from the video and 16mm film, plus audio clips from this session – please check back soon!

Watch out also for the completed students’ productions and the workshop video , which will screen together at BFI Southbank on 26th January, then again at UAL on 1st February. Once the private screenings have been held the students’ videos and the workshop video will be available online here on this site and on the Serpentine website.

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