in conversation with Joanna Hogg
How do you succeed as a filmmaker, despite the increasing challenges? Award-winning British director Joanna Hogg talks to four by three magazine about her films and collective A Nos Amours, the fascination and fallibility of memory, artistic inspiration and expression and the importance of cinema.
You are currently working on your fourth feature film, but have previously worked in television. What motivated your decision to start making feature films?
JH: I don’t have a simple answer to this question. From as early as 1979 I was planning to write and direct my own feature films. Then later on after film school I took a little detour for 15 years in television (laughs). At a certain point I asked myself whether I have the energy to start again to make films, knowing it hadn’t happened before. Spurred on by a miserable experience directing a TV series on the Isle of Wight, I made this big push to make a feature film in the early 2000s. But I didn’t really know where it was going to go, as you can’t foresee the future.
When I was making Unrelated I wasn’t sure if anyone would ever see it. So I just took it step by step. There wasn’t any pressure to make it successful other than my own desire for it to work. We made it on a small budget, which was the point of it. I thought that if I have a go at making films again then it’s got to be completely on my own terms, without any compromises. It felt kind of amateur which I liked, but with a huge drive to make it happen.
Unrelated actually reminded me of the French director Eric Rohmer’s body of work. Are you inspired by other filmmakers or do you find inspiration outside of cinema?
JH: I love Rohmer’s films, but I have difficulties with that connection, probably due to my admiration for his work. There is no other storyteller like him and I couldn’t begin to try and convey what he conveys. So I feel a bit shy about any comparison. However, I asked Kathryn Worth who plays Anna in Unrelated, but who hadn’t acted for some time after drama school, to watch Rohmer’s The Green Ray.
When I’m working on a new project, I resist watching contemporary films. Of course I value what’s happening in cinema now, but it seems easier to digest a film from the past. It’s the same for literature. I’m drawn towards the classics as inspiration for my films. When I write scripts I treat the work as literature and then turn it into cinema at a later stage. I do enjoy the act of writing.
Do you believe that discovering something during your formative years holds a particularly strong spell of fascination and admiration even later on in life?
JH: Yes! Absolutely! Although the way you put it makes me think that there might be a sense of danger in it too, in the sense that one is treading with not necessarily light footsteps over ones past. I find that a memory of watching a film also contains a memory of the particular place, be that physical, mental or emotional. Re-watching films can lead to either the film not living up to the expectations of the memory or it having an entirely new and different meaning.
Recently I watchedEdgar Reitz's Heimat 2, which I had first seen in 1993 when it was shown on the BBC. I realised that there are some episodes, which I honestly don’t remember at all. That made me question whether I ever watched those episodes in the first place or whether I have just completely forgotten them. This was very shocking to me because my memory of watching Heimat 2 is so vivid and there are some moments that are still so striking in my mind. This makes me question how people write their memories claiming to remember a particular piece of dialogue from their life. How possible is that actually? Or are we just constantly re-inventing our past? Those sorts of questions concerning memory are what I am working through in a new project.
Your films are visually striking and your compositions often reminiscent of paintings. A further link to the visual arts can be established through your narratives, as Christopher in Archipelago and D in Exhibition are artists. What is your relation to the visual arts?
JH: I am certainly interested in the visual arts and I go to a lot of exhibitions. However, Christopher became part of Archipelago because he was someone I knew and not because I was looking to have an artist in the film. I was having painting classes with Christopher and found him to be a very interesting presence, so I asked him to be in the film.
In Exhibition I wanted to explore different forms of artistic expression, with a more contemporary feel to it. The film came out of a different set of ideas, which were more about the architecture and how the house felt like a gallery space. The characters of D and H grew out of that exploration.
Not only was there a shift toward contemporary art, but also a shift in focus toward the body and the body in relation to the space around it. What is it about the female body that made you want to make it more central in your film?
JH: I am still interested in that area and I am not sure whether I can articulate what exactly it was. I also feel as though I have shed Exhibition, even though I am exploring the same themes in other ways in my new project.
You have also curated a retrospective of Chantal Akerman’s work together with Adam Roberts for A Nos Amours. Chantal Akerman once said in an interview that “I won’t say I’m a feminist film-maker . . . I’m not making women’s films, I’m making Chantal Akerman’s films.” Do you relate to her statement?
JH: I understand why Chantal Akerman responded that way. It’s a frustration about work by female directors not being seen on its own terms. It’s a lazy thing to classify films by women only in this way.
What was your motivation behind developing your large-scale project on Chantal Akerman?
JH: Adam and I wanted to find a way of showing Chantal’s fascinating body of work. We liked the idea of a long and slow retrospective. We thought very few filmmakers could sustain such a long project but her work is constantly surprising, working with different textures, shades and ideas. It’s very exciting how she moves from the very comedic to the very sad and melancholic. It was possible to sustain a two-year project on her work without ever getting bored of it, while always being surprised, engaged, entertained and moved.
As a motivation behind establishing the collective A Nos Amours you once raised the concern that 'A new generation is growing up who actually don’t know the work of directors like Tarkovsky.'. Why do you feel it is important to watch certain films?
JH: The obvious answer is that if you are interested in cinema or are a student of cinema then you should know about its history. But then there is the experience of actually watching a film projected in a dark space. It’s interesting that you are asking this question here and now (Close-Up in London) as there is a renewed appetite for projecting films on celluloid or in their original versions and uncovering rarely seen or lost films. Since we created A Nos Amours in 2011 there has been an influx of new collectives; Misc Films, The Badlands Collective to name a few. But even though the cinema landscape has changed, Adam and I still feel there is much work to be done.
But do you feel that there is something inherently valuable about watching certain films beyond a knowledge of cinema’s history?
JH: Well, there is the pleasure in watching those films and there is just so much to be inspired by. It is also doing a huge disservice to those films that are put away on a dusty shelf, making them inaccessible to most people. Adam and I are very aware of this and we did show a few Tarkovsky films early on, but then we wanted to be more adventurous.
The Akerman retrospective came out of this sentiment. We also wanted to go beyond single screenings of films. We noticed that the same people were coming back to our screenings and that there we were building up a community. We really enjoyed these gatherings each time and it certainly gave Adam and I a reason to leave the house and not watch films alone at home.
Speaking about communities, the development of your films is very interesting, as you start off with a very large and extended family and then narrow it down to the nucleus of the family, only to further zoom into the life of a couple in your last film. Was this trajectory a conscious decision or a natural progression?
JH: I was always interested in the idea of a couple as a family. But I had to make the other films first. I knew that a long-term relationship between two people would be the hardest thing to look at, which explains why it took me a while before I made Exhibition.
What is also striking is that there is always some absence in your family structures. In every family there is an absence of some kind, such as the husband, the father or the children…
JH: It’s true that I am generally interested in the notion of absence in a family or things not being resolved or being missing. But this makes me think about what absences are present in the film I am working on now (laughs). There are indeed absences, just in different ways. However, I am also working with a new timeframe. The other films have been very contained in terms of time and place, whereas the timeline of my new film is across a decade. Plus, there are multiple families within the narrative.
Where do you see yourself artistically going?
JH: I don’t like thinking about it. It has taken me a long time to make feature films. I start to think about how much time I have left and how many films can I fit into that time. It can all get a bit existential. It is about each individual film. When I was younger my thinking was more competitive, telling myself that I had to make a certain number of films by a particular age. I never met any of those deadlines. So I have come to the point where I am taking it step by step.
From the experience you have gained, is there any advice you would give to young filmmaker now starting out?
JH: The difficulty now, and I feel this myself, is that I question all the time the relevance of the work I am doing. The reason why Adam and I founded A Nos Amours is because we want to keep cinema alive. But it is also a fight, as television is overtaking cinema in many respects. People are looking for different experiences and watching films at home or preferring to watch series. Yet we continue to believe in cinema as a shared experience and the value of sharing in a community.
Giving advice to young filmmakers is always difficult, as I am not sure about the future of cinema. I guess someone starting out now should have an open mind and consider different forms, rather than only thinking about cinema. But if everyone is discouraged from making films then it’s obviously not going to survive. So I should really give the opposite advice!
The reason why I wasn’t making films at an earlier stage was partly because I had very ambitious ideas which needed big budgets and 35mm. Maybe that way of thinking grew out of film school. Then it took quite a turnaround of thinking for me to realise that this just wasn’t going to happen like that. So I had to accept a different way to make films, not only digitally but also very cheaply with a small crew. It is easier now to make films with the technology available. Somehow back then it felt to me like a terrible betrayal. But if I hadn’t adapted, I wouldn’t have made any films at all.