The Care of Poetry

An inter­view with Daïchi Saïto

LUMEN: All your films are pro­duced on film, 16 or 35mm, with no dig­i­tal inter­me­di­ary involved. Could you tell us about your work­ing process — of han­dling and pro­cess­ing pho­to­chem­i­cal film, and how you believe your films should ide­ally be viewed?

DAÏCHI SAÏTO: My work doesn’t involve dig­i­tal inter­me­di­ary because I like to keep my process sim­ple. The com­plex­ity of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies doesn’t inter­est me much. I used to write before I started mak­ing films and that was very sim­ple as far as the work­ing process went: you only needed to put words on paper. I am not a painter but I am always attracted to the sim­plic­ity of paint­ing, that all you need is just a flat sur­face to put some paint on with a brush or stick or fin­ger or what­ever. I find that beau­ti­ful, as a human activ­ity. I sup­pose film­mak­ing appears more com­plex than that, with cam­eras, print­ers, pro­jec­tors, film stocks and so on, but the basic prin­ci­ples of the work­ings of those machines and the mate­r­ial are not very dif­fi­cult to under­stand after all. They are man­age­able for me. Direct con­tact with phys­i­cal mate­r­ial and its tan­gi­bil­ity is essen­tial for my work­ing process, and I would prob­a­bly never enjoy mak­ing work by press­ing but­tons and hit­ting keys and mov­ing a mouse in a sense you can­not really access the process of mate­r­ial trans­for­ma­tion that way. That would give me a strange anx­i­ety. Just as microwaves give me a strange anx­i­ety; I pre­fer heat­ing my food on a stove.

Adher­ing to film as my medium, I guess I sim­ply chose to pitch my tent small, so to speakthat’s an expres­sion a Japan­ese poet, Masao Kata­giri, once used in a poem that I read as a kind of advice to younger poets: pitch your tent small. And your small tent could con­tain much more than you’d imag­ine, if you really tried. I just don’t want to pitch a big tent that’s half empty inside.

Since my films do exist as prints or orig­i­nals, I would like them to be viewed on film. I do have video copies of my films, and in some occa­sions in the past I have had to use them for screen­ings, since I am not too strin­gent about it after all, but I emphat­i­cally do not like it. It seems such a nat­ural and obvi­ous state­ment but appar­ently it is not for many peo­ple nowa­days. It’s also just a basic con­di­tion, since there are such things as less-​than-​ideal film pro­jec­tions, and they are many, as we all know. But there’s never an ideal video pro­jec­tion of a film work. That sim­ply doesn’t exist. I am of course talk­ing from a maker’s point of view, and I know it can be quite dif­fer­ent for viewers.

It hap­pened to me once that a film fes­ti­val screened my film from a pre­view DVD copy because they some­how for­got to rent the print. I was not there at the screen­ing, and I only found that out by acci­dent. The fes­ti­val seemed to think that peo­ple at least got to see the film so it was bet­ter than not show­ing it at all. That’s a viewer’s point of view, not the maker’s.

LUMEN: We would like to know more about Trees of Syn­tax, Leaves of Axis (2009), in par­tic­u­lar your impulse to a cre­ate a film of lit­tle more than trees, light, and pho­to­chem­i­cal abstrac­tion. Between Chi­as­mus (2003) and Trees it is pos­si­ble to see a shift of palette, from hybrid inor­ganic and organic imagery (power cables, roads, metal­lic struc­tures, etc.) towards purely organic ones (mostly botanic phe­nom­ena like petals, plants, trees)was this a con­scious move on your part, or might there have been other rea­sons for this?

SAÏTO: No, they were sim­ply the phys­i­cal attrib­utes and spa­tial con­di­tions of the places I was inter­ested in film­ing. Those con­crete things, and the way they appeared to relate to each other both spa­tially and tem­po­rally, deter­mined for the large part how I treated them in filmic terms. I do not really think of imagery in terms of organic or inor­ganic. If a film like All That Rises (2007) con­tains what you call “hybrid inor­ganic and organic imagery,” it only means that I was con­cerned with find­ing a way to work first with the mul­ti­tudi­nous­ness of forms and then arrive at a cer­tain sense of cohe­sion or con­ver­gence with­out try­ing to hold those forms cap­tive within a sys­tem. As for Trees of Syn­tax, Leaves of Axis, I worked the other way round in some sense. I started from a cer­tain per­cep­tual fix­a­tion I had of the space and tried to open it up, expand it, in a cen­trifu­gal man­ner. But this doesn’t mean a shift you men­tion, as it all comes down to the same basic con­cern I’ve always had with forms. I could as well be doing it by film­ing win­dow sills and walls.

It seems to me that, para­dox­i­cally, the more you want to con­tain in an image, the more you need to move towards so-​called abstrac­tion. Obscur­ing or elim­i­nat­ing cer­tain pho­to­graphic details. An ellip­tic pro­ce­dure through era­sure. The process can take dif­fer­ent formsnot nec­es­sar­ily through reduc­tion, but also through addi­tion, lay­er­ing. Lay­er­ing within a frame, and between frames. Like impastoit’s a process of mov­ing out of pho­to­graphic imagery and enter­ing a realm of the imaginary.

LUMEN: Could you also tell us where the film was shot, and whether that place (or places) affected the form of the film?

SAÏTO: Trees of Syn­tax, Leaves of Axis was shot in a park in Mon­treal. Or rather, I should qual­ify by adding, what was filmed there was only a small amount of footage that I used as basic mate­r­ial to make the film. I could equally say that the film was shot in the stu­dio of the Dou­ble Neg­a­tive Col­lec­tive, of which I am part, on an opti­cal printer, which was a major part of the mak­ing of the film besides hand-​processing. Any­how, the park is located in my neigh­bour­hood and I chose a spe­cific spot in which to shoot the mate­r­ial that even­tu­ally became the film.

The trees and foliage in the park had a very musi­cal pres­ence to me. I nor­mally spend quite a bit of time just observ­ing a place before actu­ally tak­ing up a cam­era and film­ing it, and so was the case with this par­tic­u­lar film. Every time I walked through that sec­tion in the park watch­ing the trees and leaves it was as if I could hear music from the space. It was a kind of visual sen­sa­tion that evoked dis­tinct sonic qual­i­ties, and the form of the film was cer­tainly based on that expe­ri­ence I had in the place. In a sense, the film is a round­about way of arriv­ing at that sen­sa­tion, artic­u­lat­ing a sub­jec­tive and per­sonal con­nec­tion with the space.

LUMEN: We under­stand that you stud­ied phi­los­o­phy with some cur­rents of Indian lan­guage (San­skrit and Hindi), and your films, it might be fair to say, are pre­oc­cu­pied with phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence and processes of human per­cep­tion. How greatly did your philo­soph­i­cal train­ing inform your vision of cin­ema or way of real­is­ing it?

SAÏTO: ‘Philo­soph­i­cal train­ing’ is an over­state­ment. It was more like I dab­bled in it just long enough to real­ize that I was not fit for phi­los­o­phy. To be hon­est I don’t know to what extent phi­los­o­phy can really be use­ful for art in gen­eral. Phi­los­o­phy artic­u­lates the lim­i­ta­tions of human cog­ni­tion and per­cep­tion, while art uses the lim­i­ta­tions to pro­duce a sense of won­der. Art takes illu­sion seri­ously; phi­los­o­phy wants to dis­pel it. In its rela­tion to art, phi­los­o­phy is always an ex post facto.

LUMEN: Do you see fur­ther poten­tial for a mod­ern cin­ema that might take this illu­sion (and its nec­es­sary abstrac­tion) so seri­ously? Your own work, in terms of both pro­duc­tion and aes­thet­ics, seems to fol­low a mate­ri­al­ist tra­di­tion forged by Stan Brakhage, or Kurt Kren (in rela­tion to rhythms of light, colour, and time), one that is per­haps becom­ing increas­ingly rare. Are there any film­mak­ers work­ing today that you feel a kin­ship with, or a future of the image that we might want to pursue?

SAÏTO: Well, I don’t know what to answer your ques­tions. When you say “a mate­ri­al­ist tra­di­tion,” I find your ter­mi­nol­ogy both con­fus­ing and mis­lead­ing. You men­tion Brakhage and Kren — Brakhage made Pas­sage Through: A Rit­ual and Kren 3175: Asyl, and those are two films that are very impor­tant to me. But Kren and Brakhage are two very dif­fer­ent film­mak­ers who worked in very dif­fer­ent man­ners. I’d say that there is Brakhage at one extreme of the spec­trum, Kren at the other extreme of the same spec­trum, and you’ve got every­thing else in between. And I am not fol­low­ing either of them in par­tic­u­lar. I am only work­ing some­where in that in-​between area. It is a con­di­tion, I think, that could be a curse or bless­ing, or both, depend­ing on how you see the his­to­ries of avant-​garde film.

As for your last ques­tion, per­haps I could say that I like, and have respect for, any film­maker today who cares for poetry, who is uncom­pro­mis­ing in his or her untime­li­ness, and who cre­ates mal­gré tout.

Bio

Orig­i­nally from Japan, Daïchi Saïto is a film­maker based in Mon­treal, Canada. Saïto co-​founded the Dou­ble Neg­a­tive Col­lec­tive in 2004 and has been active as a cat­a­lyst for the renewed inter­est in cel­lu­loid film­mak­ing in the local artis­tic com­mu­nity. The films of Saïto explore the rela­tion between the cor­po­real phe­nom­ena of vision and the mate­r­ial nature of the filmic medium, fus­ing a for­mal inves­ti­ga­tion of frame and jux­ta­po­si­tion with sen­sual and poetic expres­sions. His Trees of Syn­tax, Leaves of Axis (2009), a film com­mis­sioned by the Images Fes­ti­val in Toronto, won the Best of the Fes­ti­val Award at the 48th Ann Arbor Film Fes­ti­val (USA) and the Jury Grand Prize at the 16th Media City Film Fes­ti­val (Canada). In May 2011, six­pack­film will fea­ture a selec­tion of his work in the in-​person pre­sen­ta­tion series at the Aus­trian Film Museum in Vienna. Saïto has taught film­mak­ing and guest-​lectured on var­i­ous aspects of exper­i­men­tal cin­ema at Con­cor­dia University’s Mel Hop­pen­heim School of Cin­ema, and cur­rently serves as co-​director of Cin­e­ma­Space at the Segal Cen­tre for Per­form­ing Arts in Montreal.