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 speak—that’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 forms—not necessarily through reduction, but also through addition, layering. Layering within a frame, and between frames. Like impasto—it’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 31⁄75: 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.