The Human Surge (2016), dir. Teddy Williams
Por Iván Zgaib
*Esta nota fue publicada originalmente en la edición de junio de Senses of Cinema
Eduardo Teddy Williams’ figure was reflected in the shining tiles of the hotel. It was a grey November day and the smell of the rough sea flooded the entrance hall every time the doors opened. Hidden in the hood of his blue jacket, Williams waved at me from the other side. I saw him sitting in a corner, his arms wrapped tight around his legs, which rested upon a velvet couch. He looked tiny in the middle of the hotel’s wide, deserted corridors. As I approached him, I could not help thinking that he resembled one of his characters: those wandering creatures who seek to keep themselves casual in an environment that sometimes prevents them to do so.
With his first feature film, The Human Surge, the Argentine director travels from the urban nooks of Buenos Aires to the rural worlds of Mozambique and the Philippines. There, the spaces that at first sight seem distant are revealed to be connected through little gestures: Williams’ protagonists are young people trying to escape the tedium of routine work. The group of friends become here a sort of tribe; a refuge from which they try to resist an alienating world. Always consistent with his characters, Williams’ register seems to reveal a quest to establish parallel realities where there is no room for automatism. It is a cinematic look that moves between a realism and a rarefied atmosphere which pushes the film to fantastic territory. In one scene, characters walk down a flooded street that makes the city look as if it were hidden under the sea. Later, a group of friends takes refuge in the dark depths of a tree trunk, building strange images that could have been taken from an old fable.
In The Human Surge, the story is not subject to classical narrative structures, but develops in a rhizomatic manner, oscillating its focus between different characters and places. The camera acquires a central role, transforming itself into a steady gaze that (almost without cuts) explores and connects spaces that usually appear fragmented. In one of the film’s most accomplished moments, Williams follows the initial protagonist through the shelves of the supermarket where he works. Suddenly, the camera moves away and turns its attention to another character, starting a long take that travels outside to the streets of Buenos Aires and ends up in a room in Mozambique. At its best, Williams’ film brings a revealing formal approach to characters and spaces. At its weakest, The Human Surge includes some redundant sequences that feel confined to an empty form of aestheticism.
When I met Williams in November, his strange film was screening at Mar del Plata Film Festival in 2016 after winning the Filmmakers of the Present Award at Locarno Film Festival in August. As I write this, it’s been a couple of weeks since The Human Surge was released in theaters in the United States. In the following interview, Williams reflects upon many of the elements of his first feature film: from the use of analog and digital cameras to the images of people expressing their sexuality in front of webcams. The Human Surge, with all is accomplishments and flaws, projects an interesting image of the potential of contemporary cinema.
There’s something that I find very interesting in your film, which is related to the way of exploring spaces and characters. How did you approach this exploratory look and what kind of role did the script play in the more traditional sense?
There was a mix of those two, I think. There was a script, a structure. There are some scenes which had the dialogue written beforehand and the guys who acted had to follow that. Then there are other scenes that were done with more spontaneity. Some of these were totally free; maybe there were some indications about the general progress of those scenes, but there was no script for the dialogue; and there are also some scenes which are a mix of those elements. There is a little bit of everything.
Regarding the spaces, I had the idea of coming back to some places which are very common for me in Buenos Aires, but I also wanted to discover other neighborhoods that I hadn’t visited for some reason. Because sometimes you go to the same places, so I wanted to get to know other places and people from other places, even if they were from Argentina. In the other countries there was nothing already known to me, but the people who participated in the film had their daily spaces and I also liked to take them to places they didn´t know which I discovered while spending time and moving around the city.
I think there is something in the film which oscillates between these two: it goes from a very strong sense of everyday life to a place which is stranger or more mysterious. But it’s always in touch with something very common and ordinary. I think this is present in the spaces, in the dialogues and almost everywhere in the film. And then there is also this idea of exploring, which I tried to expand to everyone involved in the film, not just me. I wanted everyone to feel that spirit of exploration. Some of them explored new places or how it was to make a film, because most of the protagonists hadn’t participated in a movie before.
These places seem to have a central role in both the form and the narrative: the film progresses as it connects very different characters, spaces and cultures. What was your motivation to intersect stories from these parts of the world?
I guess it comes from the time I started to travel with my short films.1 Before this I had hardly travelled outside of Argentina, and the experience of changing the language and the landscape was very strange for me. This happened more often when I started to do short films and I found myself in situations which reminded me of what I like about cinema: to hear people whose language I don’t fully understand but to be able to see things that I wouldn’t see otherwise. So that opened new ways to look around me, to see these places which were so different.
There was also this strange discovery that nothing is really that different. This is very mysterious to me and I don’t understand it completely, but I’m curious about it and want to keep moving towards it. And I liked that for the film: that things could suddenly change a lot, but then it seems like they didn’t; that on the one hand you change spaces, languages, colours and textures but at the same time everything seems to be part of some sort of continuity. In a way, it’s as if everything could come from the same place. I wanted to see all these things in the film. Then there was the challenge of connecting these places, and so I came up with ways that I found interesting.
You mentioned that the film comes from your own experience of travelling around the globe and from the notion of the working life causing sorrow as you tried to earn money. It still strikes me how the film distances itself from your personal experience: it could have been an artist’s movie about artists, but the characters represent different realities, even different social classes. Was this something you sought to look at in these environments?
Regarding the working life, I think it depends on who is watching. There are people who think it’s about work and others who don’t. It’s something that I like because I wanted it to be that way. I liked the idea of having different subjects connected rather than a main topic separated from what surrounds it.
As to the social class question, I think there was an intension to be in different neighborhoods and social classes from Buenos Aires. Most of the guys (who act) are from the periphery of the city. In the case of the other countries, it’s difficult to see it from the outside. Sometimes I see some people who think the guys from Mozambique are from a certain social class, but the social class depends a lot on the city, on where they live as much as on their incomes. I think the way of living is very different there. In Mozambique, for example, the guys may have an income considered low in Argentina, but their society isn’t like ours. They didn’t have that much in the economic sense, but they had a lot of other things: a good education, a broad knowledge of the history of their country. So for me it’s difficult to think of them as “poor”.
A lot of people told me “you want to film the poor”, and I thought it was very weird to label people like that. I was interested in making a film about people who has to work in order to survive, which applies to almost everybody. Sometimes cinema shows an upper class, because the people who get to film belong to that social class. So I noticed it draws a lot of attention when a film is not from an upper middle class.
There are also many people who tell me they were expecting the characters to commit a crime or something of the sort, which unfortunately seems to be very normal in cinema. I even heard this from people that I know who aren’t racist monsters, but they still have this thought in them. They are used to watching films where, if the characters aren’t upper middle class, there will be someone who’ll surely commit a crime or will be involved with drugs or living a “marginal life”. I didn’t think: “I’ll make a film about poor people who don’t commit any crimes”, but it’s something that turned out that way.
So I see it as a minimum contribution for people to watch a film where those characters aren’t linked to criminality, but to see them talking about their thoughts and fantasies about the society in which they live in. It’s something which is usually kept for the “non-poor”, because the “poor” can only talk about their economic problems. Which is fine, it’s good to talk about that. But I think it was also good to show something different. I never intended to film “poverty” though, but to meet people from other places. And if you are open you’ll probably find different realities.
There is something peculiar in the way you cross spaces with different temporalities: there are urban spaces, but there are also other places that seem to be totally rural, where technology is also always present. And at the same time, you filmed all this with both digital and analog equipment. Why did you decide to shoot it that way?
There was an interest for using different cameras to obtain different methods of moving the scenes forward. In the case of the scenes we filmed on the streets, it was obviously very different to shoot them with a huge camera, since it attracts the attention of people. The resources are also very different. When you work with analog you have very limited material to shoot, and that changes the way of working. The tension you feel in each scene is stronger. When you go digital, the possibilities of shooting aren’t the same. I also liked the film to progress in certain textures of the image. I liked that the final passage in the Philippines was this very digital moment, which at the same time is the part where we see more wild nature. I liked to put that together. I liked that the film could go from the city to something more natural, but with the technology always present.
There’s something about the past and the present which is related to the use of analog cinematography at the beginning of the film. I realized that nowadays it looks like an “old image” for a lot of people. It happened to me when I screened a short film in analog, next to other short films which were shot in digital. People said mine looked old. So for The Human Surge I liked the idea of playing a little with that: we start with an image that looks old and we move towards and image that looks modern, but at the same time we go to the nature, which is supposed to be more “primitive” than the city. I thought that mix of temporalities was good and confusing; to not be clear if we are going to the past or the future.
And then there was also the question: how was this going to look? I like to have a camera and to adapt myself to it. I didn’t know what was going to happen with a Blackmagic Pocket in Mozambique. And the idea was that I would use the camera at times, and then other people would use it. We used the analog camera in a less solemn way. We used it as if it was a small video camera. And liked that; to use it in a way that wasn’t so perfectionist.
Regarding the camera, there are some moments in which its presence is revealed: it moves, it trembles, it jumps. There are even some moments where the characters look straight into the camera, as if they are recognizing there is a recording device. Why did you want the film to take this form?
I think I liked to have moments like that: to not be conscious all the time that there is a camera, but to have moments in which you remember there is a camera or a person. It’s this feeling of how the cameraman is walking, which reminds you that there is someone behind it. But I also think it suits the kind of characters we have in the film; maybe they would use the camera this way. You think about that while watching the film and it creates a connection to the situation. Sometimes I feel disconnected when the cameras are so perfect, or when you feel the machine that is moving the camera in this sort of floating perfection. It obviously depends on the film. But the way of filming I chose made me feel much more connected to the situation, at least for what I was looking for with this film.
And I liked the looks of the people on the streets because it happens with some people, not with all of them. But those moments create a strange atmosphere, like an alert feeling from the street. So the camera becomes this thing that isn’t so visible or so invisible. It’s in that mixture between being a character and an external vision that helps to create this odd atmosphere.
Regarding your choice to work with non-professional actors: how did you approach this and why did you decide not to work with professionals?
There were many actors in my first short films. And then I started to find non-actors more interesting because of my way of working. I go there, I meet them, we talk. And what I like the most is that they aren’t so conscious about the process of making a film, and that is very useful for me. It enables them to be more unconscious of what happens around them when we shoot.
Especially going to other countries, I was interested in meeting people beyond whether they were actors or not. I also wanted to meet people who were open to welcome me in their homes, to spend time together. And I did the same thing in Buenos Aires: we went to their neighborhoods, we walked, we talked. I believe I have more chances of finding unique people in non-actors because it is a larger group. And I didn’t need anything from the actors’ technique, which sometimes is necessary for other films. I didn’t need them to do anything particular in terms of the acting. My idea was also to adapt myself to them and to adapt the film to the characters.
Sometimes, not always, the actors’ method ends up standardizing them, making them look alike. With non-actors, I thought I would have a better chance of finding people who talked differently, who moved differently. And our way of working implied that mistakes couldn’t be wrong. If they forgot something, it was alright. I think that helped us, because they could relax and create new things without feeling pressure.
I also found the way the male body was filmed very interesting; I think it’s something a little unusual outside of what is usually considered ‘queer cinema’. I’m especially talking about the scenes where the characters get naked in front of a webcam to make money. How did you approach those scenes?
There is a lot about that which is very intuitive, in the sense that I look at what interests me and I show it in the way I’m interested in. So this doesn’t always come from a process of thinking. Those scenes were especially spontaneous. It was different to make them in Argentina and in Mozambique, because I think the ideas of sexuality aren’t the same. In Argentina I looked for people who didn’t have problems with being naked in front of the camera. Then I explained them the situation: some of them knew what it was to be in front of a webcam to make money by showing the body, and there were others who didn’t.
And the shooting was quite informal, without asking them anything specific. There was a camera placement and some indications for them to move, so they wouldn’t be static. We shot this with an analog camera and we only had one reel to do it, which is around ten or eleven minutes. I obviously knew that this scene wouldn’t be done in fifteen minutes, so we did it with only me and them in the room. I would stay there and wait until I thought something interesting could happen. The challenge was to find moments that were interesting but also some others which were normal, like seeing them a little bored and not doing something striking all the time.
I was also interested in seeing this from another point of view: maybe not showing it from the same point of view that you have when you can go and see these cameras on the Internet. I liked the possibility of getting some distance to see it from a point of view that I could see in cinema but not on the Internet. And then much of the scene came from my own surprise when I see those webcams and I find situations and ways of experiencing sexuality which are so different. There are people who take it in different ways. Sometimes you can see their homes, other times you see that they have their mother talking to them from the other side while they are doing something sexual; or someone walks in wearing weird slippers and they are chatting. I liked to see these different expressions of sexuality, which in this case are related to work and money. And it has to do with using sexuality as a way of escaping the kind of common jobs which are very boring or empty. But this also brings the idea that, at the end, you end up in the same situation of begging for money, which can be a little weird. The idea was to show all this.
In the case of Mozambique, I felt uncertain about what they would think or feel regarding the webcam scene. In general, the guys I found didn’t know about it but they thought it was funny. Others knew very little about it. I think porn in general wasn’t very widely seen there. Homosexuality is legal but is much more complicated that in Argentina. So I didn’t know how they would take the idea of sharing a sexual moment between male friends, but at the end they were very relaxed. I explained them that they would be part of the scene only if they wanted to. And what came out of the shooting was their own creation and I thought it was great. They took the situation from the absurd and I found that was interesting.
In regards of the ways of filming the body, I think it has to do with showing it as part of the environment. That is why the film has so many long shots. I liked to not separate it from something greater that surrounds it. I also wanted to use some close-ups which tried to transform the body into something stranger. There aren’t that many shots like that, but we used some as a way of moving away from the frames we are more used to seeing in films.
You also have tracking-shots which show this relationship to the environment. There are moments in which the camera detaches itself from the characters: it goes away and then it finds them again, but the space where they are is now different and that creates a visual shock. How did you come up with this strategy?
There is something about changing places that I like very much. There are these places that change by only walking or moving through them. And I thought it was interesting for me and for the film to get to know these places that change so much, these places that surprise you. Then there was the idea of not creating the feeling that this is prepared for you: you don’t feel this is prepared for the audience. There isn’t a hermetic mise en scène, but something that makes you feel like you are chasing someone that escapes for a while and then you find him. I liked this fantasy of going after someone who you find on the streets. I also thought it was good to have this change: when you have a closer view of the body you can focus on it, and when you distance yourself from it you can concentrate on the space. To have those changes within the camera movement would allow us to see people in different ways: when they go, they come back, they change places, they get lost. This gives dynamism to the frame, which I thought was good.