Before the U.S. premiere of his documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, Joseph Klarl spoke with director Matthew Akers about the challenge of bringing filmmaking and performance art together. The film, which chronicles the preparation and title performance of Abramovic’s landmark 2010 retrospective at MoMA, is currently showing at Film Forum and will be broadcast on HBO on July 2.
Joseph Klarl (Rail): You’ve written that you thought Abramovic’s theatricality might fuel skepticism you had about performance art.
Akers: It did in the beginning. Because performance art is ephemeral you really need to witness it firsthand to experience its power, if it has power—maybe it doesn’t—and all I had to go on was her documentation. When I met her it was seven months before her performance. She’s charming, fun, self-deprecating, and has a manic energy that was not present in the show—all the concepts that were involved in that performance were not apparent to me leading up to it. I was questioning, as any responsible documentary filmmaker would, what the truth was. Am I really going to witness something great? Or is she pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes? I set up that parameter with her right from the beginning. “Look, I have this skepticism. If it leads me down a path of confirmation of that skepticism I want you to be aware that I’m willing to go there.” She was fine with that. That was the solution to making a film about something ephemeral that I was skeptical about: make a subjective take on it rather than pretend to make the purest form of documentation. Unless you’re in that space you’re not experiencing that work, so it was a matter of using everything in the filmmaker’s toolbox to heighten and amplify what was happening through the artifice: sound design, editing, music, all that.
Rail: Do you feel theatricality has a place in documentaries, especially when films about art, like Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop, sometimes blur the line between fact and fiction?
Akers: The line has been totally obliterated in documentary filmmaking. I never once believed that the truth was about a lack of theatricality. The moment you decide that you’re going to make one edit you’ve irrevocably altered the reality of the situation. That’s what documentaries are, not the truth as it necessarily occurred, but the truth as the filmmaker sees it. So the key is to be as authentic to whatever it is that you think happened.
Banksy’s film—he commandeers it at a certain point and it becomes his truth. He makes the subject the filmmaker and that’s occurring all the time. There’s a great film that I saw this year called Tchoupitoulas. It takes place in one evening, but the film was shot over eight months with something like 400 hours of footage, and it’s a documentary [laughs]. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve seen this year.
Rail: Further complicating this whole idea of truth is that you seem to have an attraction to working with performers. Whether it’s with Marina or with others familiar with danger and confrontation: Lemon Andersen (as cinematographer for the documentary Lemon), circus performers (as producer for PBS’s series Circus).
Akers: I do gravitate towards that. I started out as an artist, and I’m attracted to people who are making art. Lemon’s a poet, Marina’s a performance artist, circus people are artists of the body and of entertainment, and I’m interested now in making a film about a musician. Maybe it’s because I’m so fascinated by the process of creation and because I know it so well. Maybe this search has been about finding mirrors—like what Marina’s work became—finding mirrors that reflect my own creativity. That’s what I did with this film, too. She did a performance, it was her own work, but then I tried to make the film my own. The whole filmmaking team, we all try to make it our own because film is collaborative.
Rail: I think that’s evident in the film. Marina’s preparation for her retrospective in your documentary seems much like the work of a director, working with performers and a team of others to achieve a singular vision. At one point, Marina even expresses her desire for the exhibition to appear like a film set.
Akers: I thought that was an interesting statement. We’re all directing our lives through whatever we do creatively and so my expression is a film about artists, vicariously living through these accomplished people and hoping that it will rub off, inform, and inspire me. Marina in particular gave me so much freedom to take license with her documentation, her body of work, and her history, but we also collaborated. She has her agenda, and it was realized because it’s a positive portrayal of what she did and furthers performance art, bringing it into the mainstream, all the loftier ambitions she has, but it could have gone in a different direction and she was willing to take that chance.
Rail: On the topic of immersing yourself in the lives of others, a decade ago in the Rail Marina professed her adoration for Tehching Hsieh, who was fanatically dedicated to one-year performances.
Akers: Yes, he’s in the film. In the beginning you see him.
Rail: Right. She referred to him as “a master.” Now here she is in your film sitting silently for seven and a half hours a day, another extreme feat. And you follow your subjects for months at a time. Do you feel a bond with artists who push themselves to create art over long stretches?
Akers: For sure. There’s a parallel: as a documentary cinematographer I push my body to its limits, work brutal hours for months contorting into uncomfortable positions and capturing hours of footage. I knew Marina picked up on that as she witnessed me filming her and how painful that was. There was a kinship that was created through that. I shot 700 hours of footage just for this film. That’s a major commitment. On Circus, I think a shared 2,500 hours was shot with the other cinematographer.
Rail: How did you reconcile a performance that directly deals with the passage and perception of time with creating a 105-minute film that needed to be heavily edited?
Akers: It was tricky. Finding the right tone and length for the film did not come easily. Up to the last few weeks before Sundance the group of collaborators working on it—both editors, my producer, and the composer—were all struggling with the third act. We realized that the wall of sound in the score made it seem longer than it actually is. So we took the music out and left just the montage of five or so faces looking at Marina and the natural sound of the room. It gives the audience a respite to prepare themselves for the crescendo or the end of the film.
The thing with making movies is that you’re dealing with a fractured sense of time and filmmakers are able to make editorial decisions that don’t seem logical, but as a cinema experience the audience is somehow able to understand their orientation in space and time even though the images are fractured. You’re also able to condense time in a way that doesn’t feel condensed, so it’s about striking the perfect balance between the tone of your presentation and those fractured images.
Rail: You must also worry about altering the visual effect of Marina’s work with your directorial choices.
Akers: When she saw the rough cut she had 16 pages of notes and we duly ignored them. She wasn’t going to have control. Artists are often so worried about the presentation of their work down to minutiae. The fact that we didn’t label any of her pieces as you’re experiencing them in the film was a concern, but it was best we didn’t because reading text is academic and distracting. It would have disrupted the greater goal to seduce you into understanding what Marina’s about to do. We did put music underneath her documentation, which she’s always kept fairly pure. I thought that she was going to kill me, but when she saw the finished film at Sundance she loved it and cried. It paid off, but there’s tension.
Rail: I imagine simply because of the limitations of the film medium. I’m thinking of a shot of Marina at the Guggenheim—when she’s wearing a giant gown in front of applauding passersby—that was affecting but the way you framed it is undoubtedly different than what you’d see in real life in that rotunda.
Akers: I don’t know why the film works. It’s strange because a lot of the sentiment throughout the festivals has been: “I really felt like you transported me there.” And people who were actually there have said, “I was there, but you brought me back.” That baffles me. That was our intention, but I’m not sure why people feel like they’re there because they’re not being looked at. Marina is not looking directly at you, the people that are looking at Marina are not looking at you, so I think it has to do with using the tools of filmmaking to amplify the experience in a way that you could only feel at home, while also not experiencing what you could have felt if you were there. It’s like going to a live sporting event versus watching it on TV. If you watch it on TV you’re going to see angles and perspectives that you could never see live, yet if you’re there there’s energy in the stadium that’s intangible, that you can’t communicate with the passive experience of watching TV.
Rail: I had a similar reaction, but I remember when I viewed “The Artist Is Present” at MoMA I was taken aback by the tears of participants because they occurred amidst this large crowd that I was in. What decisions did you make regarding how to shoot the performance? Were there guidelines given to you by the artist or the museum about how and where you could shoot?
Akers: Well there were no guidelines given to me by Marina. The museum didn’t restrict me too much. I was given more access than anyone’s been given at MoMA, but I still wasn’t given access to the atrium every day and I couldn’t go up to the sixth floor and really cover the re-performances quite the way I wanted to. That’s one of the reasons why it’s not a bigger part of the film, besides just being economical in the story we told. There were also times I couldn’t use additional sound—no boom mic or anything—or big cameras. My presence had to be minimized. Even though I was only supposed to use one camera, I would set up three little cameras and run around and monitor them all. So it was give and take.
Rail: Marina famously exposes herself to others in physical ways, but she doesn’t often have a camera crew following her every move between performances. Did she express concern over the lack of privacy while preparing for her retrospective?
Akers: No, that was part of our bargain right from the first day. I told her that I’d just spent a year hanging out with clowns and acrobats trying to convince them to let me into their trailers. I didn’t want to go through that again. Initially, for the first 12 months of production there was no money for the project so I self-financed it along with Show of Force, the company that produced it. It was a real risk. So I thought if I’m going to do this, I’m going to give up a year of my life, a year of work, shoot I-don’t-know-how-much-footage, and use all my own equipment, I need to know I’m not going to be chasing you down and wondering where you are. She said to me right from that first day that she would give me total unfettered access, and within a week I came to her apartment. I’d never been given that much freedom from any subject and it was a dream come true. She was fearless.
Rail: Do you hope showing the film on HBO will further achieve your goal of breaking Marina and performance art out of the confines of what you deemed “the rarefied art world”?
Akers: I do. When I started the project, HBO was a pipe dream. And then it became a reality at the very end of the performance. HBO sat down with Marina. That was a real confirmation that this would have the wide reach we hoped it would. We’ve gotten worldwide distribution now, and it’s going to open theatrically and on TV all over the place—Australia, Asia, South Africa, South America, all throughout Europe and the Eastern Bloc, Canada. There’s a 60-day moratorium after it airs on HBO, but we could possibly do another theatrical release and a museum tour. The audience seems to really like it so I guess that goal has been realized.
Rail: You mentioned earlier that Marina cried while watching the film, and you’ve said that you hope the final product is as personal and revealing for the viewer as it was for you. What did you learn as an artist from the film and from Marina?
Akers: I learned that—what must be true for any great artist—Marina listens to good advice. Nothing is made in a vacuum, certainly not on that scale. She had an initial conceit for “The Artist is Present” that was extremely complex and curator Klaus Biesenbach really helped her to simplify that. That has been parallel to my experience as a filmmaker. When you create any kind of art, it’s less about inspiration and more about putting in the hours. Marina has been preparing for that performance her whole life and that helps to reinforce my own process. If you go out and work really hard, then you will realize something in the end. Creating anything with lasting value is not about being inspired and getting lucky. It’s like being a carpenter, like whittling away until you have finally achieved what you need. She makes a statement in the film about what it takes to be an artist—how much correspondence, how many faxes, how much e-mail—that I’ve just begun to realize now that the film has a big life. It’s so true. If you do anything on a global scale, on the level that Marina does it, and I’ve just had a tiny taste of that, it’s overwhelming.
Rail: It’s illustrated in the narrative of your film about Marina and her performance artist ex Ulay. He reflects back and says he couldn’t do what it took for Marina to reach the scale she’s at now. He’s an interesting artist in his own right, but he admits it’s laziness that separated him from her.
Akers: That’s true. If you see her outside of her performances, she’s being pulled in every direction at all times. She has boundless energy. I think for her the actual rest comes when she does her performance. That’s when she can be present herself. If I were her I would do performances just to take a break from the insanity.