LSFF INTERVIEW: Experimental Filmmaker Sylvia Schedelbauer
The London Short Film Festival is returning for its 16th year, screening a multitude of independent short films from across the world. The festival kicks off from 11th-20th January 2019 playing at some of London’s most historic cinematic venues.
I spoke with Sylvia Schedelbauer about her experimental film Wishing Well, screening as part of the International Competition: Unearthed. Wishing Well is 13 minutes of flickering images made up of thousands of frames meticulously woven together and sometimes atop each other to create a unique audio-visual experience. At times harsh to the senses, at times a dreamlike meditation, Wishing Well is an exploration of the abstract which will speak very differently to different viewers.
Read our interview below.
AD: I’d love to start our conversation with talking about the role of experimental cinema. It’s not a medium that possibly many audiences have an opportunity to experience – because it falls more in the category of art rather than regular narrative cinema. What draws you to the form of experimental storytelling?
SS: I started out with more personal documentary essays and I felt very constricted and confined to what I was saying. I felt that it was very limiting and inhibiting. Experimental cinema uses not only images but also editing where you put together things that don’t seem to belong together and I felt like there are so many avenues that open up spaces and I found that very liberating. I found it liberating to know that everybody can create and see their own meaning in my movies and have their own relationships. I don’t have to dictate it to you. I’m not telling you what to see.
AD: How has your filmic style developed throughout time and over the course of the films that you’ve made?
SS: If you start watching my earlier films, you’ll see a trajectory and you’ll see that every new film has grown out of the last one because every time I continue developing the editing style. Wishing Well basically came out of Sea of Vapours (2014). That film had a different focus and they’re about different things but my editing really is an artistic process and helped develop a cinematic language which really is strictly also tied to the fact that I have to work with the means I have. I work with the editing software and I don’t have teams or big productions. I work with the footage that I buy and that’s the most expensive thing to transfer the footage from film to digital. That’s the production cost. It’s working with the means I have and the material I have and with my agency and that’s it. So it really comes close to the work of an artist in their studio, you work with yourself.
AD: So Wishing Well is screening as part of the London Short Film Festival program and they describe it as a “pulsating, lysergic-infused memory trip through the currents of the forest.” Can you talk a little bit about what you’re trying to explore?
SS: I think my flicker work is indeed quite hypnotic and that’s something I want, I want it to be physical I want it to be hypnotic. I want the viewer to be drawn in. I also what them to feel overwhelmed. It’s supposed to be a very visceral experience, when you see it on a large screen with loud sounds it’s quite overwhelming. A lot of people love it but then a lot of people hate it because it’s too much, it’s almost violent. I wanted it to be a physical experience in that sense. Over time you get drawn in and move into a more mediative state that you enter in.
With Wishing Well, I was always interested in the forest as a cultural metaphor and cultural motif. It has so many different meanings in literature but also in film and art. To me, I’m very fascinated with the motif, it’s like an archetype on one hand but it also stands for subjectivity. It stands for psyche. It has a lot of meaning in psychology and it could stand for consciousness. I was very interested in that idea. Whether that translates is a different thing, but that was the hook, my main motif.
I’ve really been interested in creating something that touches upon environment and the disconnection of humans to the environment. So with the film I wanted to create a connection. In a sense it’s almost like looking at an abstract painting except that it’s moving and in motion.
AD: My background is in narrative storytelling where you always have a destination in mind. What is it like crafting a film where you almost don’t know where you are going to end up?
SS: It’s tricky and you have to trust your process. I knew that the movie was going to have different sections. It has sections: from normal colour, to the blue section, to the pink section to the brown/yellow section. So there are colour chapters and these really are markers of change of pace. But they are also a result of the process because I worked on these parts over a course of time. The blue section actually came first, it was the very first thing I did years ago. Then there is time in between, you have the work on other projects or travel and by the time you get back into the process you don’t remember. So, then you continue, and it turns into something else. On the one hand it’s structural on the other hand it’s also a result of the interrupted process.
AD: Right, so is it fair to say that the film is growing over time with you?
SS: Yes, that’s fair to say.
AD: You use the blink cuts or the flickering effect throughout the entire film from beginning to end. It’s extremely hypnotic once your brain adjusts to this way of seeing the images. What draws you to the flicker?
SS: I like the hypnosis. That’s something I’m interested in. To allow the viewer to enter a state that is not driven by thought or by rational but to be drawn into a different state or frame of mind where you perceive in an altered state. I can’t take drugs, that’s really the funny part because I’m almost allergic to it. So when everyone says it’s like an acid trip, I think ok, that’s good to know.
AD: Well I’ve never been on acid but I could only imagine that this is what it is somehow like.
SS: So the editing is really a structural economic thing, an artistic expression, a language but also I am interested in what it can do. What flicker can do or where I can take it. I’ve developed my own language using the flicker but it’s not like I invented the flicker. It’s been around for a long time.
AD: You’ve screened Wishing Well around the world. It premiered at Berline Film Festival and gone around Europe, The US and Australia. How have audiences been receiving it? What interpretations and feedback have you gotten?
SS: I think most people see it and think “what is this? I don’t even understand what I’m seeing? I don’t even know what I’m seeing,” and that’s great. I’m very happy to get this response.
One friend of mine who was an early advisor on the project and listed as a consultant, he saw it and along with a couple of different unrelated people and they felt that it is about the Anthropocene. There is one section in the middle of the crazy water part, right after you see the boy with the water, there are built in a few images of post hurricane destruction. You see houses that have been destroyed by hurricanes and you see some imagery that hints at a catastrophe. The film is not literally about that but in a sense it’s somewhere imbedded in there. Some people have seen it and said this is about the relation of humans and nature. Humans destruction on nature. So that’s somehow in there too. Some people have picked up on that, not extensively but they’ve talked to me and said, this is what I saw. Then some people just enjoy the film as something colourful.
AD: Do you enjoy discussing other people’s interpretations?
SS: Yes, of course I do. I think, oh great, thanks!
AD: Have some of these interpretations been completely new to you?
SS: It’s not so much what have other people have seen but there have been people that have called it a fable or parable. People who went more down the fairy-tale path because of the boy and the title is wishing well and forest motif’s that often appears in children’s stories.
In November, I was at a festival in Windsor, Canada. Media City Film Festival and there was a program where my work was shown as the very last film within the program. In the program there were two films made by filmmakers who passed away this year and the whole program was very multilayered and very emotional and melancholic. So, within that context, all of a sudden in relation to the other films, I felt Wishing Well felt so lonely. The boy character was almost existential in which ultimately, we are all alone. All of a sudden within that context I myself experienced the film in a completely new way which I hadn’t seen or experienced before. I cried afterwards, not right afterwards but it kind of reverberated and I saw my own loneliness in the film as well. So that’s what I love about experimental cinema, you can have these very unexpected emotional responses.
AD: It’s incredible how the medium of film never can exist in a vacuum. Here, within the context of seeing it with other films can bring in other themes.
SS: That’s right, so I’m really looking forward to seeing it in a new context next week, for London Short Film Festival.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length.
Get your tickets to the London Short Film Festival. 11th—20th January 2019.