Transcript from post screening Q&A with Scott Barley, director of Sleep Has Her House, at Slow Film Festival 2019. This Q&A was led by Nadin Mai.
NM: I don’t really know where to start! So I watched Sleep Has Her House for the first time three years ago when you sent it to me and it was also the last time, so I was very nervous going into this screening because I wasn’t sure what I would feel, because it was such a powerful experience the first time round. And I noticed that I had actually blacked out most of the film in my memory. But I kept this strong feeling ever since. Could you say something about film as experience, especially about your films as experience.
SCOTT: I’ve always felt that sensation should come prior to communication, prior to the message. I remember reading for the first time Gilles Deleuze’s book Francis Bacon: the Logic of Sensation and for me even though it’s not a book on cinema that’s the best book on cinema there is because I don’t think there’s much to communicate with art, especially true art. I don’t want to sound pretentious because I don’t know what true art is, but at the same time I know for certain that I put everything into this film. I was suffering with the worst depression I’ve ever experienced. I attempted suicide twice during the making of this film and in a sense this film was a vessel to pour life into. Something to see through, something to live for. And all of my corporeality went into it. Daniel & Clara are here as well and I think they really understand that inherently cinema is something about the body and I was discussing with them earlier that I think Slow Cinema has this magical way of being a conduit of achieving something that brings us closer to our bodies. Even if we are fidgeting, scratching our arms, scratching our heads, yawning. We cough and we feel very self aware and slow cinema makes us more aware of those things. But I think that’s really healthy because most cinema tries to shut down any kind of corporeal response.
NM: What’s striking about Sleep Has Her House is that there’s no trace of human beings. It’s all about nature. Why is that?
SCOTT: I made about 20 short films leading up to this feature. And this feature film felt like the culmination of everything that I had done previously. My initial background is fine art, but I was really interested in painters like Anselm Kiefer and Leon Kossoff, Frank Auerbach, where there is this liminality between painting and sculpture. Because the thickness of the application of materiality on the canvas, it brings about a sculptural relief and that really galvanized my passion for painting. But it also made me think about the digital, which is so facsimilesed, so flat – how can I appropriate painterly tactility to cinema. I don’t know if I’m answering your question at all. Yeah. It was a culmination. No human beings. Maybe some of you have seen my short films, and a lot of them feature a human hand. And that will be the most of a human intervention, and the rest will just be the environment, the landscape. I think we’ve been in a strange time, since 1750 but especially now, where we are grappling with this folly of trying to supersede nature when we are nature itself. Any attack on nature is our suicide if you like and it doesn’t matter how successful we are at inventing new ways of subduing and overcoming nature, it’s going to be a Pyrrhic victory at the very least. So the hand in my short films is about that reaching out to nature but not quite touching it. Almost like pressing your hand against the glass of a mirror. You’re not really touching anything. And with Sleep Has Her House I wanted to remove all those superficial mirrors of the body and nature and instead focus on the mirrors that are the earth, the stars. They are one and the same. While I was making a short film in 2014 and 2015 called Hunter, again I had a really bad bout of depression and I had to stop working on the film for a long time. I had to quit my job at Tesco. And then one day I went out into the garden of my house and I sat under the stars and I was thinking, well, we know, for example, that if we’re looking at the sun, we’re looking at the sun just over eight minutes ago because of how far the light has to travel. We also know through scientific research that we’re about 79 percent made of star dust and I thought could it be possible on a really clear night, hypothetically, even with a really good telescope, that we could actually see the star that gave birth to us. Because of how far the light has to travel. And there’s a sort of oscillatory quality between one’s body and a dead star. And that was the focus in Hunter and the focus in this film. I don’t believe that anybody has a real purpose; I think that we manufacture purpose and I think that’s healthy because we live in a very absurdist world. And it gave me some sort of closure that though I may not have any purpose, one day, maybe, I will reunify with the star that birthed me. And maybe that’s the same with everyone else in this room. The same for everyone else on this planet. And that felt good enough.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Obviously we’re here watching slow films, but it was an incredibly restless film. And what I’m interested in is the restless of dead matter. Could you expand upon death and mutability, and upon that oscillation you mentioned.
SCOTT: I don’t know why but I’ve always, since I was young, liked taking photographs of dead birds and any animal that was dead because it made me feel more alive. And I think that’s a very natural thing because the liminality between life and death is so vicinal, it’s almost nonexistent. It’s very vulnerable, very tenuous. And I don’t think human beings, especially of my age, your age, face that enough. So I’ve always been drawn to that. I remember reading a book by one of my favorite writers, he was a philosopher, Georges Bataille. He wrote several essays based on his experience of seeing a photograph of this Asian man being tortured. And the torture was called slow cutting, and what they do is they put a blade in the fire and then they remove the flesh until you’re just a skeleton. They try and keep you alive as long as possible. It’s the most heinous torture you could imagine. But what Bataille found was that because of how long this person was kept alive he was able to, at least from his face, from the expression he had, enter into a religious experience. Somewhere between life and death. I think that we can have a real transcendent experience. I was saying this to my friends who I’m staying with ten minutes down the road for this festival last night. The film that did it for me was actually my first slow film experience and that was Werckmeister Harmonies by Béla Tarr. And when the film finished, I just… I suppose I blacked out. I couldn’t see. I was looking down at my body. I couldn’t see anything. And I didn’t have control over my limbs. I was crying and crying in this paroxysmal state. And eventually I looked down at my chest and I could see my rib cage. But it was not flesh it was bone, just bone. Bone and blood. And from that… this probably seems nonsense but it’s what happened… this huge white tree grew so fast from my chest, from my bones, and I followed it up with my eyes and as I reached the apex of this tree there was this mercurial white light, this blinding white light. We can get close to that Tibetan idea of Bardo, we can reach that place while living. That’s what I felt with that experience. I’ve never experienced it with any other film and I’ll never watch Werckmeister Harmonies again, even though it’s my favorite film because I know it won’t give me that same incredible… there isn’t a name for it. I’m not saying for a minute that my film can do that for anybody, but that’s what I try to aim for in my films. I try and bring about some sort of state in the spectator that transcends the normal state of consciousness. Because you’re aware of death, you’re aware of life and the liminality in between.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You know the imagery of the blue. That’s the only non-natural imagery in your film. And I wanted to know what that was and why you had that when everything else was natural imagery.
SCOTT: I think that is natural! We are conditioned to block out the majority of reality that is out there all the time. A dog hears much higher frequencies than we do, so they get a sense of reality that we don’t have access to and when I was making this film I was thinking back to my experience watching Werckmeister Harmonies and just that sublime out-of-body experience and I think we can all be privy to that. Some people reach it through certain breathing techniques. Some people reach it through certain kinds of yoga. There are many different ways to try and reach that state, but it is available to us. So I don’t really feel that there is a separation as such between the natural world that I show in the first eighty seven minutes and then the final three. For me the final three minutes is like the hope for renewal. A rebirth, a cleansing. A sense of optimism. I think that that sort of state can be reached by anybody. You know, if you go into a flotation tank, you’re just with yourself, you’re with your breathing and darkness and you’re there for an hour, for two hours, and you realize just how much your mind is capable of creating its own universe. How much it is intrinsically connected to the universe. I’ll also add that with the storm most of it is a black screen. You’re provided with the sound. Because I was trying to make something so visceral, so intense, whatever I could have shown you as an image would not be as strong as what any person here could have conjured in their own. I wanted you to use your own imagination, your own sensitivities, to really feel something, in the same way as if you were to read the book. You’re imagining how a character would look. You have a certain baseline sense because of how they respond to different characters, but you don’t really know how they look. So if you were to read the same book, each and every one of you would have a different vision of how that character would look, and I wanted that same experience to be projected onto a film.
NM: Sleep Has Her House is very much a journey. I wonder how did you find the end of this journey? When did you know that this is the end, this is the end of my journey.
SCOTT: Part of it was because I felt better, because I had rid myself of this depression. You were talking about the blue light. I went back and forth between ending the film just with the end of the storm and not including the blue light at all. But it felt too nihilistic. I felt like I needed a little bit of hope in there. Nadin has a platform for slow cinema and I premiered the film on her platform on the internet. For about four months I had the film pretty much done but I was going back and forth between including the blue light and not including it. In the end it just felt right to have this moment of abstraction, and this sense of beyondness.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you, that was sublime. I was wondering how you feel the cinematic apparatus allows a different experience to that of the natural world. How can representation feel more real than reality?
SCOTT: You could be standing on a cliff top, or on a mountainside and the sun is setting and you are quite happy. I think most people in this room, most people in general, would be quite happy to watch the entirety of the sunset in real time. It’s a very majestic experience to watch the sun setting. But for some reason, we don’t like watching that in films, and I’ve never understood that. I think because we are taught these unspoken laws around cinema that the shot should only be so long. If not, what is its purpose? Is it being pretentious? Is it trying to trick you? In this film, there’s a sunset sequence and I filmed it in real time but I sped it up by 3.5 times. So it ends up being just over twelve minutes. But because how the naked eye registers images you don’t notice it is anything other than real time. The other thing I should say is pretty much every image in this film is not just one shot. I shoot everything on my iPhone. I’ve done that since 2015. I could be in Devon and I see some wild horses and I film them and I think that’s great. And then I go to Scotland and there’s a beautiful sunset. So I film that. There’s some mountains in Scotland, so I film that too. And I create a visual diary very organically over a period of time in different places, often hundreds and hundreds of miles apart, often months apart. I then try and invisibly stitch them together. It’s like a form of collage, but without drawing attention to the collage. I hope every shot in that film feels like it’s just one shot. It’s all about trying to draw us closer to what’s outside. And hopefully when we get there, there will be no need for this. You can just go into the forest or wet your feet in the ocean or stand on top of a mountain and feel really small. But right now, that’s what I’m focusing on. I don’t make political films. I don’t make films with a social commentary. If there is any social commentary, it is that we’re trying to turn our back on nature and yet we are nature. And these long takes are trying to take us back to nature. And I think digital can do this better than film. Because with film if you have four hundred foot of film you’re limited to about eleven minutes of shooting. With digital, you can just go on and on and on. You can really get closer to the visceralities between reality and cinema. There’s nothing more strange and uncanny than reality. So that’s what I’m trying to explore.
NM: I know you’re working on a new film. Is it difficult to start a new project, to keep working on it after such a strong film?
SCOTT: For a long, long time I didn’t think that there would be another film in me. I still don’t. I rely on self-doubt. It’s a strong creative currency. I like to feel lost when making a film. I don’t buy into this tortured artist bullshit, but at the same time, I think the majority of us put too much focus on money as being some sort of cultural capital for making things. It’s utter rubbish. If you feel something, if you’re passionate enough, go and do it. You know, that feature film was made for less than £200. Whenever I hear other filmmakers say they’ve got this great idea for a film but they don’t have the money for it, I question their passion. It’s taken me a long time to find that passion again. I’m still searching to be honest. It’s a horrible experience making a sophomore feature. Especially because this film has done quite well. I don’t want to repeat myself but I also don’t want to alienate the people that have been able to find something in this film. At first I wanted to make the antithesis to this film and have lots of people and dialogue and almost no nature but now I feel there’s more courage… not enough credit is given to filmmakers or artists who don’t reinvent themselves with each project but just chip away, and take a slightly different vantage point. Anselm Kiefer, he’s been doing the same thing for forty/fifty years, and I think he’s the greatest. Nathaniel Dorsky – each one of his films is absolutely beautiful, wondrous, but you probably wouldn’t be able to tell them apart afterwards because they have so much in common. When you see a snowflake falling, and another, they look the same, but when you look at them under a microscope they’re completely different and that sort of subtlety is profound.
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