Psycho-geographies of the World to Come: A Conversation with Trevor Mowchun at the Montreal Premiere of His First Feature Film
On April 15th, 2016, my colleague Trevor Mowchun invited me to join him in public conversation at the Montreal premiere of his first feature film World to Come, hosted at Concordia University by Afterimages. I agreed without hesitation after screening the film at home. World to Come is a bold example of how formal sensibilities generally associated with the avant-garde can be sustained across a feature-length film. It begins with Doveed returning to his hometown to confront the neglect of its troubled past and address his own spiritual crisis that has developed since he left. The film experiments with what Mowchun describes as “cinematic consciousness,” operating largely through the intersections of cryptic imagery, metaphorical montages and dense soundscapes to express the “psycho-geography” of a disenchanted religious community startled from its ritual slumber. Based on actual events which still remain undisclosed, the film pursues a narrative-stylistic excursion into repressive conspiracies of silence, theological fantasies of justice, and the uncanny conditions under which the social fabric is sundered and restored again. World to Come puts its formal dexterity to the test of crucial subject matter – child abuse at the hands of religious authority – and the result is a film that challenges the audience to consider more deeply the role of art in forging a better world in the wake of atrocity. This challenge transcends the specific situation that the film grapples with and speaks to the need for a broad spiritual/artistic awakening across Western society as a whole. It was a great pleasure to discuss the nuances of the film’s call to action with Mowchun and the receptive audience who had gathered for the screening. What follows is a transcription of that discussion along with some additional thoughts filled in by Mowchun after the fact. The film is on the festival circuit now. If it comes your way, get out and see it! – Randolph Jordan
My long-time collaborator on this film, Daniel Eskin, wishes he could be here for the Montreal premiere of our first feature film World to Come. Daniel sends his regards from Australia where he currently resides. Despite his absence it has been a real collaborative journey making this film—a process spanning many years, artistic phases and technological shifts. Some of you have a sense of what we went through making it; others are just discovering it now. I won’t dwell much on this mostly uneventful backstory fit with the usual ups and downs of independent filmmaking; suffice it to say that the lengthy and circuitous production eventually became a part of the film itself. Since the beginning of this project, over 10 years ago by now, Daniel was my collaborator all the way through, and while we didn’t always agree we usually knew why we disagreed and how to make those disagreements as productive as possible.
I’ll offer just one or two notes before we watch the film. I’m thrilled to be here in the J.A. DeSève Cinema, a state of the art theater at Concordia University where I have taught film classes before, showing my own work rather than acting as a teacher and under no obligation to have all the answers regarding what you’re about to see! It’s interesting being in the university right now for the Montreal premiere since my own trajectory as a filmmaker has passed through my work in film studies and philosophy where the theoretical understanding of art, for lack of a better word, has pride of place over the practical. I suppose the bulk of my formal training is in the study as opposed to the making of film; I chose to study film formally and make film informally, for reasons which I won’t get into here, but regardless of this choice there has always been a cross-pollination between my studies and my practice. As I was learning about the nature of film and its languages, as I was reading and writing about film in undergraduate and graduate programs, all the while I was working on this film which seemed to open up a different way of thinking about the medium and struck me as an ideal testing ground for various responses to the old question “What is film?” From the perspective of film studies I was trying to understand how film can work as a language, how that language might be expanded, indeed what kind of language is comprised of images and sounds in addition to words, and how these investigations could funnel into the filmmaking process itself. I would say the work of film theorists proved to be as vital as the films I admired, equally fueling my interest in experimentation with narrative and form and montage as you’ll see in the film. In the end, film was a means of thinking through the material for which no other medium seemed appropriate or right for the task, film being a rich composite of multiple mediums and harboring an essence which film theory has described as dynamically mutable, affording filmmakers the chance to penetrate the depths of their subject matter in many different ways.
On that note I’ll just mention as a kind of disclaimer that the film is steady, perhaps relentless in its pressing upon the boundaries of narrative fiction conventions as it seeks in certain places to find new forms of expression. There’s an argument floating around that film style can’t serve its own ends, that it must be forever grounded in the narrative or at least answerable to a narrative at all times. While some of that may be true, I think that in World to Come the style is what actually tells the story, which means that the result isn’t exactly a story any longer as we normally understand it. What comes through the style is, I hope, the film’s own way of thinking, as I like to put it, and how the film thinks will be as important or more important than what it thinks, perhaps because one of the primary themes of the film is precisely the process of learning how to think about the very thing which had been previously repressed or deemed unthinkable. Thinking is the first step towards facing the truth and being up to the challenge of real life consequences.
I’ll wrap up this introduction with a technical note which may be of interest. We shot on super 16mm film but wound up with a digital workflow in the end despite our intentions otherwise. Since it was produced over such a long period, 10 years at least, the film stands as something of a portrait of the radical and rapid technological changes in the medium as we found ourselves first resisting and then adapting to the new digital technologies in post-production. With every technological change there are new possibilities and necessities in equal measure, and if you move from one to the other you really see how impactful such changes can be—if you’re not careful you can get carried away, as they say. Shifting from film to digital can feel like a shift in consciousness—suddenly we were free to sculpt our images which were always meant to speak for themselves. This is a delicate balance that also has to be “thought through.” – Trevor Mowchun
Randolph Jordan: As I mentioned to you before, there’s no way you could have anticipated this, but of course Spotlight just won the Oscar for best picture with similar subject matter but you are treating it in a very different way. I don’t know if anyone here has seen Spotlight and knows what I’m talking about but it has to do with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Actually I haven’t seen it. [laughs]
Trevor Mowchun: I must confess I haven’t seen it either, but I watched the trailer last night out of respect for the coincidence. [more laughs]
RJ: Anyway I know that it’s on a lot of people’s minds and I’m certain that you’re treating it differently here – can anyone confirm that? [nodding from the audience] Right. Thank you. So this is a good way in to ask why you’ve treated this topic in this way, pushing against narrative convention, as you said. Why approach such a difficult subject matter in such a difficult and rather oblique way?
TM: The simple answer is that it was never a question of “approach” or “method,” the process was far more organic—nothing academic about it. But to unpack this a bit, I guess the most obvious thing about the film’s “story” or “content” is the way that it treats the delicate issue of sexual abuse within a religious community, and the best way to speak to the film’s unusual approach is to start by stating our reluctance as filmmakers to be too dramatically explicit and narrowly sociological when it comes to this issue. For example, there are no clear-cut flashbacks to the buried past or detective-like sleuthing or desperate yet strangely satiable thirsts for justice. The real thrust when Daniel and I were talking about how to do the film was to admit that the culture of silence and repression surrounding these acts of atrocity and trauma—this inconspicuously toxic climate of a routine, almost amnesiac denial and avoidance of abuse—struck us as actually quite palpable within the Winnipeg Jewish community long after the perpetrators were absolved and, what’s worse, guilty of a different kind of violence performed in solidarity, as it were. I guess it’s the old idea that silence is destructive and violent itself, the silence of avoidance and a denial that is rarely if ever declared. It seems like it’s quite harmlessly passive, a put-your-head-in-the-sand sort of scenario, but there is an injustice to that and perhaps even a kind of madness, and so we wanted to focus more on the aftermath—the way of life and the type of “world” that gets created when a community is unable to properly cope with the past, rendering the present uninhabitable or almost unreal. That’s where the film experiment comes in. Rather than tell the story of abuse and atrocity and the possibility of justice, to detail the resonance of trauma long after its “cause,” to condemn a religious institution’s primary investment in its authority and dignity in the face of controversy, and so on, instead we wanted to show how a community simply can’t live normally in such circumstances and to ask the question of how the basic material and spiritual conditions for human life might be restored. What this meant for our experiment, as a kind of hypothesis, is that not just people but time itself is affected and impaired—people struggle to communicate, there are gaps between them and gaps within themselves, the silence is unbearable like a perpetual knock on the door or ring in one’s ears, and there’s a sense in which life has stopped, people are asleep, and there’s a nightmare experienced in broad daylight, in full waking consciousness.
RJ: To elaborate on this idea of the world stopping, there’s a moment towards the end during the lawyer’s voice-over narration, something to the effect of: “The outside world still goes. You can’t see it, but it’s there.” And you have images of the world outside his house, which are relatively still. But you can hear things going on outside the frame. This strikes me as metaphoric for the way so much of the film operates, because so much depends heavily on offscreen sound environments, over which you have demonstrated a tremendous amount of control (which is very impressive by the way). And this is much more pronounced in a proper theatrical exhibition space like this than when I listened to it at home. There’s a lot going on with the soundtrack that fills the world with life and ties things together. You mentioned to me that you spent a lot of time making field recordings separate from the shooting locations and that you spent a lot of time on the post-production sound mix, so I’ll open it up to let you talk about the role of sound in relation to the image, so often separate from the images in this film and yet inextricably linked at the same time.
TM: Yes, it’s a good way to approach the film’s specific style, or way of thinking, when it comes to figuring out a way to re-ignite a unified sense of time and space and normalcy within the film world. Life has stopped for many of the characters, has ceased to matter or make sense, yet the film still shows (sees and hears) the flow of life. In a sense Howard knows that life is dead for him; a big part of his suffering is that it continues without him. As for the main character, Doveed, his journey can be experienced as trying to find the coordinates of the film’s wide-open and sometimes metaphysical perspective—its openness and acceptance of a world that moves innocently along, without hiding its tracks, persisting in the present while the human beings with unfinished business watch it from their windows. After Doveed’s confrontation with the troubled Howard character, there’s a significant development in the film’s form: the black spaces that permeate the film earlier on now disappear, and there’s an attempt on the soundtrack to make the sonic elements start to become a little bit more fluid with a sense of things unifying or reaching a kind of cohesion. On the level of the film’s form there’s an attempt to unify or re-integrate picture and sound more fluidly or harmoniously at the end. It’s an attempt at expressing or embodying—again, narrative representation is too explicit when it comes to these things—some kind of way forward or opening up, at least for the main character Doveed and his quest for redemption. And I guess for the viewers as well. I mean you hear it in the last shot, the clock starts to tick and a sacrifice has been made and time seems to have been recalibrated. The film ends with a sense of time with which most films begin, for the very concept of narrative seems to take it for granted that time always has a pulse.
To speak more specifically about the formal unifications of the soundtrack, in the nature soundscapes there are a lot of efforts made to differentiate between the four seasons, which only come together in the last section of the film, culminating within the half-inside half-outside space of the garage where Howard is found hanging. The vortex of sound and extremes of light and dark bring the spring, summer, fall and winter together, teetering on a mysterious perhaps transcendent threshold. There’s a lot of energy and movement here, a sense of life despite death and which the characters are finding their way back to, all working formally within the interplays of picture and sound where the elements of life coexist rather than add up “to something” (we may add them up in our own way if we so choose, resulting in an interpretation, one among many). And it is at this moment that the Hannah character, faced with her father’s death or “sacrifice,” turns her attention towards a door swinging in the wind, a tiny fleeting opening into the home where the camera meets her gaze, the camera being the ultimate “opening” onto the world as seen in its own image, cleansed of human prejudice. In other words the “resolution” is not communicated through narrative information as would normally be the case and which we would probably find in a film like Spotlight—if we were to watch it. I’m inclined to say that the resolution here is the possibility of a new beginning, a rest in time and space, rather than a mere solution to a problem.
RJ: It’s true, the soundtrack is possibly richest in the last scene that you’re describing. It’s interesting that this happens in conjunction with the final image of death, the lawyer who is hanging in his garage. So he has become still, but the world around him has reanimated. It hadn’t occurred to me consciously that you had blended the different seasonal environments together at that point, but I think it comes through in a way, if not in the listener’s recognition of the blending, at least there’s a certain sense that there really is something rushing through the space, that there is accumulation as we’ve arrived at this point of the stillness of his body. A corner has been turned, and life might come back to the community.
TM: This is the strategic reluctance to be too explicit about resolution or redemption, though there’s also the risk in being too subtle, again it’s a fine line worth walking. When you’re working on the level of form, particularly with the subtleties and intensities available on the soundtrack, and trying to inflect narrative events and express meanings that will not be clearly stated in dialogue or through convention, what you’ve just said about the surge of reanimation in conjunction with the lawyer’s death is a perfect example of a suggestion or evocation that requires our active engagement as spectators, not just our minds but what we experience unconsciously, that is, corporeally. To do this visually might harbor its own degree of concrete disclosure, but when you start to work more with the soundtrack the pictorial clarity or symbolism can be deepened or even somewhat upended, and as I already mentioned it can be a tool for subtle evocations and inflections, for clues too small to function as keys. I guess this is one of the pleasures and powers of music—we’re not necessarily or better yet merely conscious of what we’re experiencing, but we feel it more and our intuitions are more in play. Consciousness is as much a limitation as an expansion of thought, in art as in life. We were going for an atmosphere of social alienation and religious disenchantment within a world that stands by, waiting for us to wake up, and we needed to find and create some sort of cinematic equivalent for this phenomenon rather than represent it or “storytell” it. And since cinema can remarkably approximate our experience of the world, an experiential “equivalent” of the world of this film is in a position to appeal to as many of our faculties as possible. I think this is one of the old ambitions of the avant-garde, exemplified in film by Stan Brakhage who’s going to show you, as is his wish, vision itself in all its aspects (many of which are actually non-visual), and somehow film is the medium that is best suited to this kind of embodiment. Most films represent, tell stories, adopt the language of literature, and so on, but unlike literature film is quite free to show and not tell, in other words to show something that cannot be reduced to words. It’s a fine line, you know, and there’s no guarantee that it’s working absolutely because it becomes a personal experience at that point and that’s where the viewer is allowed to experience it within him or herself. And if the viewer follows it or understands it in their own way then he or she has managed to appropriate or even digest it, and the film enjoys a different kind of inner afterlife. At least this is what is possible when a film’s aesthetic admits a sense of free play, where some sense of structured ambiguity is maintained or woven throughout, and a refusal of the cliché is pursued despite the fact that here lies the great artistic battle against all odds—against the cliché and all its forms rather than, say, the pressures of commerce.
So the soundtrack of the film became a whole separate aspect of the film’s making, as it should be in the case of an experimental narrative. Most of the shots didn’t have sound recorded at the time. It was almost as if another stage of production emerged after the shooting to just focus on sound. This part I was doing mostly myself, using a digital Nagra to record soundscapes around Winnipeg (Foley was done separately from this and much more swiftly). The soundscapes which we liked best seemed quite self-sufficient; they were like “sound-shots” which could set the tone for a sequence, in effect undermining the pride of place attributed to the image. This aspect of production proceeded without a script, solitary and somewhat nomadic, conducted separately from the rest of the production—one of the reasons why the film took so long to make.
RJ: To follow up on this effort you put into capturing and working with the sounds, and connect to the point you just made about Brakhage who was trying to create an external realization of processes that we experience internally: there’s something about the film’s narrative itself that mirrors this, characters dealing with something that happened behind closed doors that they’re trying to push out into the open. It struck me the first time, and even more this time, how much your images and sounds of the natural environment permeate interior space: we hear things outside when we’re inside, you do a lot of cutting where the main action takes place inside but there are many intrusions of shots from outside in various locations around Winnipeg. And it occurred to me this time, during that last scene in the garage, how many leaves there are on the ground that have blown in from outside. There’s a realist element to this given all the wind and such in this scene, but there’s also a symbolic element here about opening flows between interior and exterior space. Something similar happens with that early shot on the airport luggage conveyor belt, which starts in the back end of the airport, the kind of thing that passengers don’t usually see, and goes all the way out to the front end in a single take where Doveed retrieves his bag. This seems like a summation of what the entire film is trying to do, taking something that’s hidden in the back rooms and bringing it out into public view. You do this also with the image cutting and the sound.
On that note, I’d be interested to hear anything you might have to say about the importance of the locations themselves shot around Winnipeg, a lot of beautiful images of the town, much of it focusing on the natural parts of the city space, which you then fold into all the interior spaces.
TM: One of the most recurrent and perhaps significant patterns or devices in the film is this oscillation between the interior and the exterior realms. You hit the nail on the head in your perceptive account of these reversals and slippages which may work towards the gradual emergence of the darkness of the unconscious into the clear light of day. Indeed cinema has a remarkable penchant for interrelating and sometimes blurring these two “worlds,” for using outside elements to characterize or explore the inside and vice versa, and it is one of the primary techniques that we used to characterize not just an individual’s being-in-the-world but also the life of a community as a whole, you know, a social context having a mind or life of its own with many layers or strata of consciousness and behavior. We took that seriously because the film focusses on a community living within this complex aftermath in which the present is shadowed or haunted by the past; and because direct communication about this past is prohibited or paralyzed, it comes out in different ways, often as an uncontrollable outpour. Practically speaking, the process is one of characterizing the psyche of a community geographically; you’re in between an individual and a group, so in a way the mind of the community is not strictly an interior phenomenon, it’s an exterior one as well, perhaps all exterior, implicating the surrounding geography and charging seemingly objective images with a subjective current that cannot be easily linked to a particular individual. If the film is going to try to characterize the psyche of a community in its everyday modes, it therefore has to listen instead of explain, to pay attention to patterns in gesture, ritual, environment, utterance and even the unconscious, and start to feel its way towards a kind of global awareness of certain connections and social patterns, treating them as no different than those of nature, and this despite the fact that these very links within the community are fractured or breaking and in need of urgent repair.
Sometimes we were very specific and quite blunt in selecting a particular season or location, or other aspects of the natural and urban environment, to suit a character’s mental skin, as it were. For example, take one of the most disturbed and traumatized characters in the film, Doveed’s childhood friend Alex who lives down by the train tracks in a kind of back room space, cavernous and blood red. On one hand we visually associate him with urban decay and the incessant sound of the trains from the yard, but when the film presses in on his tight quarters it does so by travelling through a dark corridor dotted with grand windows reminiscent of a temple. It’s a mixed, perhaps contradictory, metaphor featuring both spiritual decay and the remnants of a path towards a light which never completely fades, a glimpse of hope maybe. Such devices end up being virtually expressionistic—purely audio-visual gestures, embodying the character’s form of life, what it’s like to inhabit his skin, how he occupies a psycho-geographic place in a community which has lost its way, but without using the traditional conventions of storytelling or exegesis to do that. We always thought it was more important to feel this character rather than feel for him, so to speak. It was the adventure of the film to search for techniques and find a cinematic language that could actually do this kind of work—and works of art must work, after all, and live and die by their results.
When I look back on our intentions and results I would do many things the same today, yet the irony is that the material in which I believe in the most can’t be repeated because a lot of it was unplanned, written after the fact. In any case it was great to have the freedom to experiment, both on set and in the editing room, and while Daniel and I knew that we would have to endure shortages of resources and logistical problems as the price of this freedom, in the end it was ours to have and honor with a now-or-never type attitude. We tried our best to take advantage of the opportunity, perhaps knowing it would never be quite like this again!
RJ: I’d like to hear you comment on a specific aesthetic detail: the recurring images and sounds of water. I’ll run through a few specific examples that stood out to me and get you to comment on them. Right from the beginning when Doveed arrives home we hear the sound of the pot boiling in the kitchen while the cooking is happening. Here the sound is quite threatening at certain points, like when Doveed’s sister hears the sound of her brother knocking at the door she is startled, and the water boiling sound jumps out on the soundtrack at that point. Then when we first meet the lawyer in his office we can see a rooftop swimming pool outside his window, and when he takes the elevator down to the ground and goes outside there’s an emphasis on a puddle with trees reflected, and someone throws something into it causing ripples. Doveed also uses water as a metaphor for sin at one point, worried about dumping his own sins into an already full reservoir that might then break and flood the town, which was interesting. Then of course the bathtub scene, where the lawyer’s daughter Hannah is running the bathtub and over the course of the tub filling up we cut to a variety of different things on the image track, like a gentle stream, while continuing to hear the sound of the tub. Then there’s the thunderstorm with the dramatic sounds of rain. And the dripping tap leading up to Doveed’s fiery speech at the synagogue. There’s a consistent pressure of water on the film throughout.
TM: Yeah, that’s almost an exhaustive list! The pattern is intentional of course but I hadn’t realized just how pervasive it is. The first thing I’ll say is that I have a fondness for nature and the elements, and there are a lot of elemental details in the film including fire and earth, although perhaps not as prominently featured as the water motif. At the time I was immersed in Andrei Tarkovsky’s films and was interested in trying to “psychologize” his metaphysics, as it were, by incorporating the four elements as aspects of character development, for instance with the case of the Doveed character who is discovering within himself a trauma that awakens him at the beginning of the film to his own repressed ruination. This complex and often precarious process of reconstituting one’s being, you know, I feel like that’s an elemental process in a way, that the elements are at play—at least metaphorically— in a human’s being’s spiritual reconstitution. Tarkovsky was always reluctant to admit that his representation of the elements had a narrative or symbolic function, which is a frustrating response to what is ultimately very enigmatic phenomena onscreen. That they’re just supposed to be there, affording a sense of ambiguity or stratified layering of “life textures,” and you bring to it what you may. But I always prefer to avoid this kind of romantic reticence.
The water theme in World to Come has at least a couple of narrative functions. One revolves around a particular ritual in Judaism practiced during Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, where you’re supposed to acknowledge your sins, represented by pieces of bread, and then cast them away into a body of water as a symbolic act of purification and renewal. But Doveed finds this ritualized casting away, and naïve view of water’s cleansing powers, to be in itself a problem of perpetuation in place of purification. The mere act of recording a sin by throwing it away and letting the water dissolve its venom is felt by Doveed to account for the torrential accumulation of guilt. Later on in the film the water is still carrying these pieces of bread, finding their way back to the shore as if rejected by the forces of nature; and in a revelatory moment at land’s end Doveed sees them washed up before him and all along the shoreline, accumulating like refuse, each “sin” perfectly intact and unaffected by the religious ritual performed as if by rote. On the one hand, as you pointed out, he realizes that the community is drowning in their own sins, but on the other hand an equally strange event occurs: he witnesses a pack of seagulls starting to devour the bread, giving the appearance that the sins do disappear when you throw them away, consumed and removed by chance, and it’s possible to carry on as if they have been duly registered and absolved, one by one, by the great omnipotent judge. For Doveed, however, this belief is turned on its head, compelling him to bring the injustice to light on his own terms and in a way that cannot be deflected by ritual. For a film with a relatively minimal narrative you do have to thematize the image patterns that you’re developing without overdoing it, without transforming these images and sounds of the natural world into symbols through and through. You have to preserve some ambiguity or flexibility for the viewer to be able to bring something to the table and develop an interpretation. This is only possible if you enable it by not taking your own interpretation too far as a filmmaker.
RJ: This business of throwing the bread into the water and getting eaten by the birds, it’s almost as though you’re making an environmentalist critique of this religious ritual. Because of course this ritual doesn’t work from an ecological standpoint. It’s the equivalent of large corporations dumping toxic waste into the river and letting it get carried down to someone else’s shore. So it’s somebody else’s problem now. But of course it comes back into the system. And that’s what’s happening in the film. Attempts to discard the past are only bringing it back into the community to harm everyone there. There needs to be a different process of dealing with this. Thank you for enabling that interpretation!
Let’s throw it open to questions from the audience.
Q1: I want to comment on how extraordinary it was that you captured the stagnancy of both domestic life and communal life, and how this was juxtaposed with the bustle of urban living and how these areas clashed in the film. I’d like to get your thoughts, without killing it by over-explaining things, about how those two environments bear against this idea of messianic time and redemption that’s running through the entire film.
TM: Thank you for the perceptive insight into this subtle tension between coexisting forms of life onscreen and how the time of redemption may be at stake. Indeed, the stagnancy and solitude of the private domestic world is juxtaposed with the speed of urban vehicles, industrial activity, and the regimented continuities of daily life in a city like Winnipeg which is uniquely comprised of peaks of intensity and lulls of tranquility. Perhaps this theme returns us to the idea of time coming to a standstill for people who are either trapped in a moment or blindly forcing their way forward through time in a futile attempt to rejoin the current of life. I think these tensions or frictions of time as represented by the equal unnaturalness of stasis and bustle can lead us into what is ultimately the film’s most important metaphysical theme, the messianic and the redemptive, both of which are evoked through the film’s title. The somewhat cryptic title positioned at the end of the film, after the door shuts on this world, ends up being part of the film itself because it’s not obvious what the idea of the “world to come” refers to exactly; and even if one is familiar with the meanings of this phrase in the Old Testament, its connection to the film is far more symbolic than expository. But as you’re suggesting these metaphysical or theological aspects are at work or perhaps lurking within the concrete realities and banalities of the everyday life of this community. It’s always been a source of fascination for me to look for the extraordinary within the ordinary, or wait for the otherworldly to disclose itself in a way that might be overlooked for lack of monumental grandeur. I think this is common amongst many filmmakers willing to experiment with the medium in this way and who have a spiritualist or metaphysical idea of the world that is being discovered and contemplated rather than imposed. The sacred is not rendered profane by running it through the ordinary, on the contrary. And if you’re going to try to explore how redemption might work on a certain plane that is beyond consciousness, it’s interesting to keep the action and the spaces ordinary, even banal, hence deceivingly ordinary, to see if this idea of messianic time or a redemption that is not necessarily pronounced, not necessarily a human expression, can emerge with some clarity as a possibility or glimpse into what a spiritually sustainable future might look like for a community destroyed by the very people in charge of its integrity. It’s the idea of inviting the old enchantment back into the world, call it the spark of re-enchantment. Here, as in other metaphysical films, the world in its current state is fundamentally disenchanted—the death or silence of God is palpable and weighs heavily on the way characters in these films search and find meaning only in searching. In World to Come you have a religion, but the substance or force of spirituality seems to have abandoned it, leaving an empty shell. But at the same time disenchantment might be the first step towards the possibility of re-enchantment, call it redemption, perhaps because disbelief is dissatisfaction with the old ways of believing—and a new belief may just bring knowledge into the heart of what we call faith. So what are the conditions for the re-enchantment of this community and the world as a whole, and how exactly is the possibility of redemption to be seized as the key to some sort of future which can be called the world to come? While the film is unable to provide anything resembling a concrete answer, we did attempt a cinematic speculation with the final scene in the garage—light pouring in, the dance of leaves, a door flapping in the wind, the confluence of seasons, the marching tick of a clock, a musical wind, the lawyer’s suicide and his daughter’s questioning gaze. . . No moral resolutions are to be found, just spatio-temporal activations and transformations. One could do more, one could do less, but at the time—and probably still now—I would be hesitant to overly narrativize the theme of redemption and the messianic at the risk of some sort of empty wish-fulfillment.
Q2.1: Picking up this idea of sensorial or transfigurative kinds of communication that you’re experimenting with very successfully for this film: the elements that you’ve chosen, visually and sonically, to be able to piece together this kind of communication, they don’t come from convention or from grammar or tradition, at least not fully. They really come out of you and your collaborators, your experience making the film, and your experience as a filmmaker. That’s one way we could start by trying to suss out what you’ve discovered in these elements and their purchase, influence, and what happens to them when they’re made into a film. So without psychoanalyzing yourself, or even going into too many details about what it was about this or that element that you stumbled upon while making the film, maybe you can help us understand how these elements come together by talking about any elements you stumbled upon that maybe you left out of the film, that you felt didn’t work?
TM: It’s funny, as a filmmaker you can end up stumbling upon something you thought was essential but which turned out to be superfluous; and so the only way to know if an image has value, whether preconceived or improvised, is if it actually contains the knowledge you need to understand what you are trying to achieve. Discovering the film as you’re making it is key, I think. The creative process is enlightening—it’s a process that opens possibilities, turning some of them into necessities, and it allows you to trust the ideas that you could not have conceived independently of the process, in other words abstractly or in the vacuum of our so-called best intentions. One shot that I always liked that was in the cut for a long time but ultimately cut out was of puzzle pieces scattered on the floor in front of a fireplace. The pieces were flipped over on their back side, blending slightly into the hardwood floor, the fire having died out after an all-night burn. You see them in the bottom of the frame bathed in morning light, and if you look closely they stretch beyond the frame, suggesting the endlessness of disconnected yet autonomous fragments. With the wood reduced to blackest cinder the puzzle pieces remained intact, even the ones lurking within the cracks of the fireplace. I always loved that shot, and sometimes I do regret cutting it. For a long time it always had a special place in that rather surreal dream sequence near the end of the film, a dream without a dreamer as it were, standing as some sort of cryptic statement about allowing the “pieces” to stand apart, as if that were the only path left to wholeness. But at some point during the editing process, when the film started to stand out more clearly against the cinematic “fat,” it was cut out because it seemed to do too much of the thinking for the film. It struck me as a kind of over-exertion on our part to conceptualize the sense in which there are pieces here that might not go together, either because we have lost our conviction in the power of the whole or simply don’t know what the whole would actually look like if there was one. It also struck me as an explanation or even an excuse for the film’s fragmented style. It all seemed to be too forcefully stated, almost spoon-feeding, a moment of statement in a film otherwise committed to powers of suggestion. And so on these grounds it was cut, despite the difficulty of letting such an image go, having worked perhaps too hard on a single image to explain the logic of the film’s use of imagery, which is of course not logical at all but rather artistic or poetic.
Q2.2: It may also be too indebted to the metaphorical significance of the puzzle pieces as used in Citizen Kane.
TM: Yeah, it’s true, perhaps another reason for why I was suspicious of it. You do a great scene until you realize it’s not quite yours, not germane to the film you’re making. You want to be inspired and sometimes guided by your influences rather than overly instructed by them and not wear them too visibly on your sleeve at the risk of slipping unintentionally into pastiche or homage. You need to be strategic with that, use what you know, build rather than repeat, and never forget the task at hand which is ultimately a responsibility to the subject matter—creativity as responsibility. . .
This issue of influence is actually quite complex in regards to this film. On the one hand we were young and impressionable, but on the other hand we created a method of working that seemed to foreclose the intrusions of influence. Allow me to explain. When discussing World to Come it’s important to remember, at least for me, that it was conceived and shot quite a long time ago by now. The editing took a long time and then there was the whole sound design, epic in its own right, but throughout it all I was very much a believer in this idea of having few beliefs, in other words having limited stylistic preconceptions and thematic prejudices about the material, and certainly no sense of obligation to the codes of a genre. Daniel wrote the first draft of the script in response to a local tragedy and a personal experience of its aftermath. However the bare bones screenplay to the best of my knowledge was never really present on set, it had a limited impact on the overall mode of production—probably a nightmare for some of the cast and crew accustomed to a more schematic or “textbook” approach to filmmaking. Aside from covering the narrative basics it wasn’t that useful other than to get on the same page, literally, and have a reason to go out and film, to rethink the text in cinematic terms, a process which can often take you back to the drawing board. I was quite close to Robert Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer at the time—a filmmaker’s uncompromising set of ideas or ideals about film—particularly the idea that shooting is going out to meet something, you know, rather than executing preconceived notions which can turn out to be inadequate or even misconceived once you start working with the terms of reality itself, so much the opposite of the intellectual abstraction which can occur during the writing or planning stages. We agreed on certain narrative parameters and what to look for visually—some of these visual motifs were worked out in a separate image script—but in the end it was very much an experiential process of venturing out of the zones of intention and finding cinematic materials out of which the film could be built. Film can take as much from a medium like architecture as literature or theater, and I think it’s fair to say we both wanted a world in place of a story. Building up the film into a living environment in its own right, and you could move through it as you see fit, and in this way, one hopes, it can stand the test of time and become artistically sustainable, so to speak.
Q3: You mentioned that the film took a very long time. Was there any profound change in the aim of the film between your initial conception and its completion?
TM: Much changed or perhaps I should say much grew over time, but I think the tone was set very early. The tense quietude, the deep melancholy, all the hesitations in speech and pauses in time, there’s something also very peaceful about this set-in sadness because it has just been persisting and looping as a matter of course, everyone can be seen as spiritually asleep until Doveed starts fingering the shards of glass. All that seemed to be clear from the beginning and was captured to the best of our ability throughout the production process. But at a certain point the process itself took over due to our improvisational methods and also making the best of various logistical delays during which new material was developed. In this sense films like this are difficult to fully account for in terms of intentions and results.
I recall there was a time when the film was a bit longer and even more cryptic and fragmented. I guess working with Daniel, in the end, led to a productive balancing or calibration of this avant garde instinct, and as the primary writer he took it upon himself to remind me of the film’s historical basis and thematic parameters, which was challenging for me until it became clear that these compromises are actually quite vital. Usually these kinds of films are the work of a single filmmaker in opposition to the industry, committed to cinematic art and pursuing what is usually described as a personal vision, the “all-powerful auteur” who is guiding and designing and orchestrating all you see and hear; but in our case it was always the two of us, with different strengths and interests yet sharing, I believe, the same foundational set of intuitions. Collaborating forces you to check your intuitions and not always give yourself the benefit of the doubt—you are not allowed to make your film, as it were. With differing sensibilities there were a lot of compromises I suppose, but I think they were constructive in the end because all decisions had to approved, not by producers but by an equal creative collaborator advocating for the needs of the film rather than the needs of the filmmakers or anticipated audiences. Of course we wanted there to be enough shape so that it could stand as a narrative, but at the same time it should be expansive and flexible enough to accommodate dream spaces and expressionistic digressions into the minds of characters, this fusing of natural surroundings and interior or physiological aspects of the characters. So I think the film was refined significantly and some sort of balance was sought. But at the same time you have to accept the material that you have to work with and be true to that material. What we had to say and show was contained in what we shot, there and only there, and rather than push that material against the grain we had to accept it for what it was and try and present it openly and interestingly, to try and make the film’s aesthetic provocative and amenable to interpretation, to private experience, which I hope it managed to do for some if not all of you. It’s not meant for everyone, which is only to say that it’s seeking to summon the unique individuals without which there is no audience.
Q4: The confrontation scene between Doveed and the lawyer really took me for a loop because the film had been so oblique up until that point, and continued to be oblique afterwards, but here you get a really direct, long-take and straightforward head to head between two characters. The only thing that made it a bit oblique as well was how the camera moved through the space, seeming somewhat reluctant to catch up with the confrontation head on as it passed through various rooms showing different aspects of the space while the dialogue between the two characters ensued, often offscreen. I’m wondering if you ever thought of cutting that scene out in order to maintain the oblique tone more consistently across the film, rather than disrupt it with this protracted moment of digression from that tone?
TM: This is a great question, which goes to the heart of the film’s form/content dialogue that we’ve been trying to unpack. I will start by saying that ideally we wanted the form and content to be in genuine dialogue with each other, which means that the form might have to change depending on what’s going on in the content, but I will be honest and say that for a long time I had deep reservations about including this climactic long-take scene in its entirety, exactly for the reasons you mentioned—the rupture in form and tone is a bit jarring, the film didn’t quite prepare us for it, and afterwards the film seems to reconstitute its oblique and poetic nature. But over time and through long conversations with Daniel, I started to see that it was absolutely necessary to have it—the lives of the two main characters are destined to intersect, and Doveed decides to do something, to act in an extremely bold way and commit a real deed, as if the world of the film is something he feels must change and where the possibility for change depends on him—oh the passionate naiveté of youth! I saw that if Doveed is going to overcome his passivity and act rather than think (the latter being mere hesitation), then as filmmakers we have to act as well, not just by following Doveed’s actions but above all by changing the action of the form, for example by progressing from the static to the moving shot.
I also think that the transformation in the aesthetic is interesting or significant on its own, for stylistic and tonal consistency is not necessarily an aesthetic virtue, in fact it might be seen as contradictory when the changes occurring in a narrative have no impact on how the narrative is coming across. If you’re following the film on a formal level—and that’s asking a lot I realize—then you’ll sense the switch from mostly static shots, highly fragmented through cutting, to a camera that suddenly starts to move right when Doveed finally says, “The truth is that we’ve all been hiding, all of us in this room, until now. . .” Doveed here is addressing the synagogue congregation of which his family is also a part, but I always wanted this address to extend to the viewers in the theater in addition to those sometimes overly passive viewers behind the camera called “filmmakers”—all of us in this room. So formally I believed that this punctuated “until now” moment was the call for us as filmmakers to face this reality ourselves head-on—to stand up from behind the camera and become agents as opposed to witnesses. We tried to give this lengthy confrontation scene an almost first-person quality using the steadicam, charging it with our proximal perspective as filmmakers struggling to face the decisive moment of truth, a moment which cannot be mastered—hence the quality of imperfection in this shot which I like to regard as intentional in this respect. The one-on-one confrontation between Doveed and Howard flows into Doveed’s public condemnation of the community, the fragile surface of the social fabric is breaking, the film is breathing heavily, sweating perhaps, working up its courage, trying to keep up with the battle of wills, trying to stay focused—the focus slips are those of an overwhelmed camera consciousness. . . And when it’s all over it becomes quiet again, very quiet: Doveed rests on the stairs, Howard returns to his work, nature resumes its course. But out of the silence comes a surge of music to lead nature into a kind of dance. The natural world, which always seemed indifferent to the affairs of the community, mounts a thick storm cloud throughout the course of an evening, almost hiding itself. And with nature gone the only source of illumination is from a small lamppost perched on a bridge that will act as our guide through the film’s exposed underworld.
Since the Concordia University screening event hosted by Afterimages (on which the preceding interview is based), World to Come finally had an opportunity to play at The Winnipeg Film Group Cinematheque in the city in which it was made. People from both the film and Jewish communities, along with some of the most passionate cinephiles in the country, came to experience the film over 4 screenings, two of which I had the pleasure of introducing. Since the film is meant to be experienced “inside oneself,” the members of an attuned audience will likely go their separate ways with it, watching the screen quietly and in some cases with a kind of vague concentration that can be tough to gauge. You have little to no sense of what really goes on during these screenings, what people think or feel about the film when they allow it to play inside; afterwards someone may be so bold as to relate their impressions directly to you, or throw a glance somewhere between exasperation and exhaustion, or start talking amongst themselves where you may be fortunate to pick up an impression—but even then the experience can and perhaps ought to remain a private affair. During my introductions I decided to prepare the audience for a challenging cinematic experience, both in terms of the complex style and controversial subject matter specific to a dark patch in Winnipeg history. Despite everything I found the overall reception to be remarkably open-minded and supportive, and I was surprised to learn that some of the greatest enthusiasm for the film came from members of the Jewish community who, as far as I could tell, were in no way partial or polarized in their stance on the issue of abuse and the community’s mismanagement, caring more about the aesthetics than the politics let’s say, or seeing the two discourses as uniquely linked. In the end, regardless of one’s connection to the tragic backstory, it was clear that people came to see an experimental drama rather than a docudrama, an art film 10 years in the making. My initial trepidation that the film’s oblique and uncompromising nature would simply alienate viewers was finally lifted in all the feedback I received, positive and negative—wonderful comments fueled by the sense of imagination and curiosity so vital to the power of art to transcend its local context and become universal. – Trevor Mowchun
World to Come screens at the Gimli Film Festival on July 24th, 2016.
- World to Come - Afterimages Screening Event - flyer by Trevor Mowchun