Super8: It’s All a Matter of Chance. 3’20’’ and It’s Over.
This interview with Jaap Pieters follows the screening of some of his most renowned Super8 films last February at OT301 with the accompaniment of Gerri Jaeger (percussion, electronics), Hilary Jeffery (trombone, electronics) and Raphael Vanoli (guitar, electronics).

Since then a series of recorded conversations have taken place in a bar in De Pijp, slowly unravelling as one espresso is made and served after the other. These conversations, in which aesthetics, life, music and anecdotes are inextricably intermingled, eventually led to the publication of this interview.

 

So Jaap, how and when did your interest in films and cinema emerge? What are the milestones throughout the development of your aesthetic consciousness? 

My interest in films started with Ingmar Bergman. I was 16 when I saw Ingmar Bergman’s films on television and it blew my mind. I can remember in particular Cries and Whispers (1972). It really struck me so intensely. At that time I “discovered” that a film is not made by an actor or an actress, but by someone who gives body and image to the things he/she wants to show, or express. I used to go to these neighbours’ house when I had a fight at home. I could always sit on their sofa and watch films with them. It feels like it largely made who I am. I felt this intensity, physically inside me. I almost can still smell their sofa. 

I remember watching there also The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966) by Pier Paolo Pasolini. And in that same period, more or less, I came across a catalogue of a Warhol exhibition that he made in Sweden. I remember the first time I opened that book, the “disaster series,” and mainly the car accidents. One picture of a car accident from a newspaper printed 5 times on one canvas. It was the same hammer in my face, like Pasolini or Bergman. 

 

And how come you started filmmaking on Super8? What is the story behind that? 

It all started by chance. I was always hitchhiking to Germany to see some friends’ films. They had a Super8 film studio in their squat and produced very radical things. Since I was so intrigued, at some point they told me: “Why don’t you start filming?” They wrapped this camera in an old pullover, put it in a plastic bag and sent it at home. And then I had this camera. It was 1985. It might have been worth just trying shooting and I made a lot of things that are actually still in the film boxes. 

 

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You seem pretty much committed to the analogical medium of 8mm films. How would you explain your choice of this medium? 

I identify with my images in that speed, on that material and in that length. Many of my films consist of only one reel of 3’20”. This is one reel yeah, and that’s it. This is my unit. Whatever happens in the outer world, I don’t care. It’s like just a shutter in the camera, the light goes out, and that’s how I perceive the reaction of my eye. And then it’s over for me. 

Indeed, there’s a fascination with the film medium’s own temporality, its aging. The use of it, watching it over and over again causes scratches and dust. And, of course, nothing will ever remain undamaged. We need every crack, every scratch in every film. It’s only time. 

 

However, you should probably admit that there are huge opportunities of circulation allowed by digital technologies. Have you ever filmed with a digital camera? 

There are always new opportunities. But to be honest I don’t care. Because my world is a limited one, as I think that everybody’s world is limited. And everything is always a matter of chance. I mean, you can see that from my films. It’s all chance. Whatever you want to call it. And in a sense my films are me, because that’s how I’ve always lived. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to make them. 

Anyhow, my tour in the USA in the fall of 2011 would have not taken place without the Internet. So, in the end you never really know. At one point during my tour between New York – where I was invited by the Anthology Film Archive – and Chicago, I was not able to buy photo film. James Bond, an incredible street man holding a small film theatre in Chicago, and another guy, who arranged the tour, had these two iPhones. So I started using them and taking photographs. And I took hundreds, constantly. I got really crazy. I was sitting in the car for 6-7 hours and I was hysterically taking pictures. “Oh, that’s interesting, that’s funny!” And I loved this border towards abstraction. They have a certain level of abstraction that really fascinates me. Because you drag all those digital images out of context and it doesn’t matter how many you take, it doesn’t matter which angle. Nothing matters. It’s all weird. 

When we ended in Chicago, James Bond came to me and said: “I have a digital camera. It has been standing on my desk for three years doing nothing. I think you should use it. I’m going to get it.” And the thing I never wanted suddenly was in my hands: a digital photo camera! In those 3-4 weeks running around with that digital camera, I took in the end 10000 photographs. I can’t get them out of my memory. They really bring me back into that rolling mood, being on the road, standing on the platforms in subway stations and holding out that camera constantly. I took about 740 pictures of the NY subway and I showed them at the end of May in a programme in Switzerland. 

 

How would you make a comparison between analogical and digital filmmaking? 

They are different materials. It’s like watercolour painting and oil painting. I don’t feel like even comparing them because they are different things, they are not substitutes. For me a digital image is like a photograph of a painting. 

One of the problems with the digital is its seemingly limitlessness. Everything seems to be limitless. All the information seems to be available. All images should be there constantly. On the contrary, I think that the more you manage to limit yourself, the more highly concentrated you are in capturing the essence of what you feel. These 3’20’’ are an interval in which I can concentrate fully on one subject, and it is limited. While an endlessly going video cannot be as dense and concentrated as one of my Super8 roll is. 

 

You stress quite a lot this issue of the transitoriness and finitude of things. Your films seem to capture this intensity, the essence of chance. Here stands your poetics, which is all about chance. Your work is inserted in a specific world-view. This is a metaphysics of pure flow of time, flow of encounters between people and people, objects and people, places, spaces, things and objects with objects. 

Following D.N. Rodowick, it is possible to see a medium – in this case the camera and the 8mm film strip – not only as a passive material thing, but equally as form, concept or idea (2007, 42). So, within this flow of chances you impose a “limitation” through the frame, the action of a shutter, the light you choose, your personal perspective and the length of your recording. In this way you produce meaning. 

Yes, that is true. It actually reminds me of a friend’s question. He once asked me: “Jaap but isn’t this Super8 for you some kind of religion? People sometimes sound nostalgic when talking about starting this engine, the colours and so on..” Well, no way is nostalgic for me. I never had any nostalgic feeling about filming and Super8 or anything. But let’s consider the etymologic meaning of the word religion. One of its meanings is “re-ligare” that is bringing together, putting together, making a unity. And yes, in that sense to me filming with Super8 is a religion. 

 

In the exhibition held last February at OT301, as the first short film Scream Man ends, the spectator gets suddenly aware of the “materiality” of the filmic dispositive through the noise of you changing the reel. A few instants later another dispositive overlaps, that is, the live music accompaniment. Which part does music play in your Super8 programmes? And why are most of your films silent?

For me the fact that within a film experience music accompaniment might at some point become inseparable from the images is problematic. One of the things that really annoys me about film screenings, especially in the case of experimental or short films, is that they seem to have sound to avoid the silence. It’s how I perceive it. On the other side, images with no sound have an incredible extra quality, to which probably most spectators are not used to. In our contemporary visual culture images always seem to go together with sound. Perhaps people today cannot even imagine watching a painting in silence. They listen to a guide’s voice, to an audiovisual guide or to a documentary about what they see. 

At first I had a camera with no sound, later on I started using a camera with sound, but then a different cassette for sound recording was needed. For technical reasons the results of sound recording on 8mm films always appeared to me quite poor. It was always messy. After a couple of experiments I thought: “Why do I bother about sound at all? Am I too afraid of showing my films without sound?” Well, I was just afraid of showing the films at all. “So, ok then,” I though “I’m going to face this!” And I just started showing them, the way they were. For me in the end it’s about the image, it’s about filmmaking in that sense. It’s about the way I perceive the world and about how subjects look for my eye. I’m just the recorder of that. 

I love Hilary Jeffery playing while I’m screening my films. Throughout the different experiments with music accompaniment, in the years I realised that my films have different layers where other people can react on and can improvise around. Sometimes it works extremely well and some others it doesn’t work at all. What was important for me was to find out that I cannot be the “master” that has the final word in the performance. It was really a revealing thing to discover that I can collaborate with people that totally do their own thing, being themselves. 

 

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While you allow your camera to cross by chance this flow of people and objects that you portray in your films, what is the position you occupy? Many of your films, such as Scream Man, Beautiful Views, Taksim Tree and Stringless, seem to cast a voyeuristic gaze on the subjects you shoot. Can you think of yourself in a sort of voyeuristic position? 

Right, do you read Stringless as also voyeuristic in some sense? – Yes! By the way, how did you manage to film him that way? I asked him. But usually I tell spectators this anecdote only after screening the film. He was standing there in the Albert Cuyp Market with this ukulele with no strings. I had been seeing him already for two or three years and every time I run home to take my camera, he was gone. That time I was standing on a balcony of a friend’s house in the market. I saw him. I rushed to get my camera and took 25 guilders from the ATM. I went to the guy and said: “I give you 25 guilders if I can film you for three minutes.” He looked at me as if he could look straight through me. He almost had no reaction so I filmed him and after I was done I thanked him. I handed him the 25 guilders and he took them. Money was therefore a level he understood. All the other words didn’t mean anything to him. I still don’t know if he actually even realised I filmed him, or just didn’t care. It was a level that he couldn’t or didn’t want to deal with. This has been puzzling me for ten or fifteen years. But the thing is, and that’s the whole thing with voyeurism, in the end it doesn’t matter, I think. It’s a moment in time and it hardly matters if you catch it or not.

I watched once a Dutch film in which a junkie was filmed from a window. The junkie was standing there leaning against the tree, nervous. At a certain point, there’s another guy and he gets his dose. You see his reaction and then he’s really hanging against the tree. His hand is in his pocket and you clearly see he’s jerking off and then you see that he’s getting an orgasm, but all standing in this street with his hand in the pocket. All I could say after seeing this film was: “I’m glad I didn’t film this.” Why? Because it would have said something about me, about my own view on sexuality and, on a certain level, about my voyeurism. It doesn’t say much about the guy. It’s his human condition. And it’s human like any other situation. Of course, I don’t know if I wouldn’t have filmed him. Should have it happened opposite to my window, should have I seen him, I think I would have started shooting. But I don’t know if I would have ever shown it.   

 

In almost all of your films there is a figure, an individual, either person or object, that stands out against a background. What does this visual pattern tell about the subjects you film? 

That’s the way I perceive things, the way I see. So, it’s not a decision that I make. “Wow,” I think in that moment, “this is really something that is coming in my eyes.” I’m not the one approaching the subject. The subject approaches my eye to be seen. I’m not looking for something specific. Those things that I shoot are really looking for me, for my eyes, for my mind. And those things that look for me are those things that want to be captured. Therefore, I feel more as a tool, a tool of the things or people that I film, than the other way round. 

All my films are about seeing and perceiving the world and not about a story within, or about a particular content. I would say it’s not important for me. And that’s why I’ve always deemed to be so important to propose a mixture between more abstract films together, say, with the portraits of homeless people. 

This is nothing but a short excerpt from 8h recording. Many more stories about James Bond, Willem, The Rolling Stones, Taylor Mead, Monet, Ruth, Timen, Winde and many more have been told between that bar and Jaap’s apartment.

Interview: Grazia Ingravalle

Photography: Attilio Brancaccio

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