INTERVIEW: OLIVER LAXE
Oliver Laxe is the most talented Spanish filmmaker of his generation. In 2010, his first feature, You Are All Captains, premiered at Cannes and won the FIPRESCI Prize of the Directors' Fortnight. This year he returned to the Croisette with his second film, Mimosas, and again won the section in which he competed, the Critics' Week. After such a magnificent start, Mimosas has toured festivals all around the world (Karlovy Vary, Toronto, New York, Cairo...) before arriving here in Spain at the Seville European Film Festival, where he won the Special Jury Prize.
After being fascinated by Mimosas in Seville, I was almost as impressed by Laxe's explanations at the press conference. I discovered a thirty-four-year-old filmmaker with the wisdom of a veteran, like one of those wise old cinephiles whose words always teach us almost as much as their images. Laxe is a heterodox explorer, a rigorous auteur, a tireless seeker... maybe not so much a filmmaker who thinks as a thinker who makes films. I was determined to to discover find out more about this film mystery that is Mimosas, so I stole two hours of Laxe’s time to reflect together about his images.
You have said several times that you wanted to make a film that, on the one hand, would approach the adventure genre, and on the other, would delve on the mystery of the ineffable, which would explain the dual structure of Mimosas.
These are two sides of the same coin. What we seeked was a balance between exotericism and esotericism. Exotericism would be the story, what is visible, what is sensible... and esotericism would be the invisible, the spiritual geometry of the images. I think that in the cinema this balance between story and mystery is very important. Which is also the balance of many spiritual traditions, although today we all suffer from the materialism of our secular times, so we’re left only with the exoteric side. And this decadence, this drift into rationalism and materialism... is also suffered by art, which is another form of spirituality. Art and cinema also become increasingly exoteric, tackling only the sensitive and earthly world, which is important but must be in balance with what is hidden behind things and human gestures, with the mystery.
How is all this translated into a visual language in your film?
I think that this is the question that every filmmaker asks himself, in a more conscious or unconscious way: how to capture the mystery in images. I think there is something mysterious about cinema, in the relationship that is establishes between image and body and image and spirit, or soul. I believe that images transform the soul, caress it, tickle it, shake it, pinch it... in short, there’s something that happens. And I think that what happens has to do with the geometry of the images; that there is a way of making images that makes them vibrate. (...) Precisely because the mystery does not belong to a logical order, it is only through paradox, or through mystery itself, that the un-representable can be represented in some way. In many spiritual traditions you find the idea that it is through a break in the level of logical perception that a person can be invited to another type of clairvoyance... and although in the case of cinema this is something very subtle, I think that it also happens, that there can be a certain type of opening or awakening.
Perhaps what stands out the most in Mimosas is its divided structure, between two times that alternate or jump: an undefined past time in which a caravan travels over the mountains to bury a sheikh in his hometown, and contemporary Morocco, where a group of unique and bizarre taxi drivers fight to participate in an even more bizarre mission.
I would not talk about time jumps or past and present. Our intention with Santiago [Fillol, co-writer] was to somehow evoke the duality between the world of sensible forms and the world of spiritual forms. Very prosaic, very simple: one is the world of bodies and the other is the world of souls. (...) The one of the bodies would be the world of the caravan, because as spectators we identify narratively with this story and, therefore, this is the world that has the same rules as our normal life. In the other world, the one that happens in contemporary Morocco, there are no causal relations but mystery, estrangement... because it is the world of spiritual forms. Anyway, we have given an ambiguity to the film that means that it can be interpreted in many ways. It can also be seen as the world of images, which is a theory of Ibn Arabi, a mystic who spoke of a kind of “inter-world”. We wanted to evoke this idea of an “inter-world”, a world that is between the sensible world and the spiritual world and that connects them. It is a world in which bodies become spiritualized and souls are embodied. A world of epiphanies, of appearances.
It is rather strange that the world of bodies is placed in this timeless, mythical time, and instead the world of souls is so profane or earthy: a city in contemporary Morocco where taxi drivers argue about spiritual issues.
I was very excited by the idea of using contemporary Morocco as the spiritual world, because Morocco sometimes exerts the power of hallucinations: things that are not there, strange beings appear in your way... It's like a very magical and mysterious world. I was very interested in these spiritual entities being normal street people; we called them toothless apostles. In fact, there is a sequence in which they say it, when the boss tells them that Shakib has baraka [that he is blessed, connected] and they answer "of course, we also do". We liked the idea that those fallen angels who are these taxi drivers, who seem more rogue than anything else, said or assumed they have baraka, because deep down they do.
At the beginning of the film there are few jumps between both worlds, so that the stories of each of them are developed for a longer time, but in the last act there is an interesting dance between worlds that culminates when, after the climax of the story of the caravan (the attack of Shakib and Ahmed on the bandits), we cut to some mysterious final shots of taxis moving through the desert.
For me this was one of the structural ideas of the film (and by this, I mean those structural images that exist in us, very close to the soul, and that some of us are capable of translating into images): cutting from the true climax of the exoteric story to a taxi moving forward and getting lost at great speed, full of anonymous people. For me that cut between worlds was a very clear formal or structural image. (...) My intention was that this poetic image, being of anonymous people, would convey a certain human destiny. That it had more a global and eternal conception. They are human beings. I think that when you put three human beings at the end of a film that have nothing to do with the film, by detaching them causally from the film, you are looking at things from a greater distance and giving them a width. That is, it is more the human being itself... it is more the human being as an archetype, in the abstract. (...) In addition, the mantra that sounds here means "I give myself to you, Lord, I abandon myself", which seems to fit perfectly in this climatic moment in which the protagonist, Ahmed, is truly abandoned. I would say that this is a jihadist ending, but in the good sense of the word jihad, in the sense of inner control, of internal war or ego war, which is what nasheed jihad is.
However, I believe that all of this which I am explaining very intellectually is basically something that we feel or that I want us to feel. It seems important to stress that these are just my intentions, and that in a certain sense I think that speaking of my intentions is limiting the meaning of the film, because I think that films should overcome their director, in order to welcome things that are not his. It is clear that the filmmaker has some intentions, but in the end the film hopefully surpasses him, and in spite of the filmmaker expresses things that surpass him. Cinema starts where the author ends. (...) Also, I do not want to accustom the viewer to interpret my films intellectually. Of course I am a filmmaker who likes to think, who searches and investigates... I work with rigor, but I find it delicate to interpret everything that is behind, because it can generate frustration, make the viewer think, "Ah, wait, I have not understood the movie", when actually there is nothing for them to understand, they just need to get comfortable and let the film do its job. The only thing to understand is that there is nothing to understand, or at least understand that this is a film that does not seek instant emotions or conclusion, but a more long-term reaction. Maybe it won’t... maybe it's a movie that will disappear very quickly from the viewers’ memories, I do not know, but my intention was at least that, that the images will accompany the viewer for a long time. Because this is my own experience as a spectator: sometimes I am critical with a movie, and then I realize that images of that movie that I have stayed with me and helped me in some way. It's a mystery; and precisely as a filmmaker I try to work on that mystery, to investigate the cinematographic image in that direction.
Can you talk about this shot?
This shot in which the taxis leave is in some way an invitation to the strange restlessness, to the estrangement... This is one of the things that I most want to work on in my cinema: to show that behind a seemingly normal world there is something which is hidden, which is strange and mysterious. And I think that making people feel that is enough, because the ineffable is un-representable... it's ineffable [laughs]. I do not say it just for this sequence, but in general for my searches as a filmmaker. I believe that Mimosasfeels little the ineffable, it is a little deeper experience, not so instantaneous. But this shot does have a bit of that, with the sun, the fifteen taxi drivers who leave, who move... also with drone music ... It's an invitation to travel.
How about these ones?
These are pretty frustrating images for me, especially the one of the sheikh, which is a shot that I do not remember with affection. Because I wanted to film this death of the Sheikh in the snow, with fog... it had to be an image in which the human body was spiritualized, dissolving into the whole. But we could not do it because for budget reasons we had to shoot in March instead of December, as we had planned. It had to be a contraction film, more winter. And here the Sheikh had to disappear into a haze of snow and fog, it was not such a rational shot.
The shot of Shakib, his arrival in the world of the caravan, is very similar, both because of the shape of the mountain and the scale and the almost monochromatic conception. It seems that here is the intention to relate them, as if Shakib came to fill the hole left by the sheik, or something like that.
They are similar because they are filmed almost in the same place (if you look at the Sheikh's shot there is a rock that can be seen in Shakib's shot), but it was not the intention to relate the two moments, and in fact at some point it bothered me that there were so many symmetries between shots. In this image Skakib acts as an epiphany, it is like an apparition. Ahmed just says, "I thought I saw something". He intuits something, thinks he saw something, two seconds before, but nothing appears. There's something there that scratches him, like electricity that tells him there's something there. And indeed, Shakib appears. Somehow, here we already emphasize that Ahmed is somewhat inspired (...) What was very important for me in these sequences, which is in some way the main idea of the caravan and the human gesture in the landscape, is to film the characters as someone who abandons himself to the road, which is the etymology of the word Islam: the Muslim is the one who submits, the one who subordinates himself, the one who abandons himself to the road. Somehow the movie had to have a balance between metaphysical transcendence (of images and the connection between worlds) and immanence. Immanence to feel like you are there: you notice the smell of the soup that Ikram takes in the fire, you feel the fire, when they smoke... On the one hand there is an invitation to the imaginary journey, and on the other a willingness to transmit the mystery of the purely synesthetic.
Another memorable scene is the attack of the bandits. Like other important scenes, it is filmed in very wide shots, which here also introduce, through the 180º shot/reverse shot, an interesting idea with respect to the point of view: it seems that the reason why we see the attack of the bandits from so far away, from the position of Ahmed and Shakib, is related to the fact that Ahmed has grabbed Shakib, preventing him from going to help his friends and, therefore, forcing him to see the scene from afar instead of participating in it. Just as the camera forces us to be mere spectators, far from the scene.
That's interesting, I think that actually what you're saying is a bit in the very nature of shot/reverse shot. What we wanted above all in these very wide shots was for them to be an invitation to the spectator to travel within the shot, that they can go from one side to the other of the shot, explore it a bit. (...) My intention in these shots, and others, was to transcend a bit the romantic excess with which the human figure is filmed in the landscape in contemporary cinema. I wanted to break that most romantic duality, in the tradition of Friedrich, which I find too modern and therefore superficial... childish. In Mimosas there is also that idea of man feeling small, of course, because we are small, but nothing happens. There is no search for meaning, there is no frustration because meaning is not found. When I give film workshops, I always put Friedrich's famous picture and ask: What is this guy thinking about? And I think the answer is that he’s thinking about himself, and that's what we wanted to avoid.
After the scene of the bandits and the death of Saïd, the last part of the film begins, where everything is accelerated and the distinction or separation between the two worlds of the film becomes diffuse or directly non-existent. The jumps between worlds in this part are for me one of the most beautiful things of Mimosas: they are precise cuts that seem to express by themselves everything that the film contains, as if they condensed an infinite wisdom in an infinitely small time.
The first cut is a moment that I could not describe or analyze... somehow there is a very deep dynamic of looks between Ahmed and the girl, which speaks of their inner scars. My cinema has always been characterized by trying to capture the inner scar of peoples’ looks. I think I've always made a cinema of looks, of portraits, it has always attracted me to do that, and if you see my initial short films, or You Are All Captains, it has always been like this: a face, a thousand stories. I think there is something here, a deep connection between the three souls [of Ahmed, Ikram and Saïd]. In this part of the movie Ahmed goes wandering as alienated, erased... because there is his body, but his soul is elsewhere. (...) Then we cut Saïd praying. In the first viewings that we did with people who were not in the editing we realized that here there was a great disturbance, because we take the spectator's hand and we put him into the story, making him identify with Saïd... and we just killed Saïd. There is a very well-thought game of identification-loss, and the fact of seeing Saïd again after his death was quite disturbing narratively, that sudden appearance of someone who has died. But even though this was controversial from the point of view of the viewer in the end we kept it, because we assume it as our own proposal, our view of the world, because deep down there is an idea that runs through the whole film, which is the idea of transcending of death. When evoking the world of spiritual forms there is a will to quench or calm the anxiety of modern man before his finitude. And here Saïd is in the world of souls, it is the soul of Saïd who is praying. Obviously, we are in the world of representation, and it is inevitable to use a human body to represent the soul, even if it is a bit paradoxical or contradictory. But hey, we allow ourselves the license that cinema offers us. (...) On this shot of Saïd praying, which we shot as a single continuous four-minute take, we worked on an idea that, when he raises his finger to the sky, the sound is cut off and he prostrates, which is in fact what he is doing. The path of the Sufi is this idea of erasing, of being a zero... and when you lift the finger it becomes a ten: the one plus the zero. But the most important thing is that for me to see Saïd praying, to see his devotion, his humility and his love, has been one of the greatest things I have experienced in my life.
After this prayer and Saïd’s accident (his "fall" into the spiritual world), there are four shots which intercut between both worlds: we go from Saïd sitting in the current Morocco to a very similar shot in which he appears seated in the desert; and then we cut to a shot in which we see Shakib approaching on horseback through the desert... just before returning, by cut, to the current world in a shot that again fits with the previous one. It is like a crossed shot/reverse-shot that translates visually, in a concise, beautiful and perfect way, one of the central ideas of the film, that of the connection between the world of souls and that of bodies.
Yes, they are the only two moments in which the idea that both worlds are parallel is evident and underlined, so that the characters are in both places at the same time. This idea of it being a “crossed shot/reverse-shot” is interesting, I hadn’t thought about it, but it's true. We could also call it a “metaphysical shot/reverse-shot” [laughs], that would be the perfect denomination. (...) In this moment, when Shakib returns on horseback to look for Ahmed, is where I find that idea that I told you before of the “inter-world”, that world where the bodies are spiritualized, and the souls are embodied. In addition, in that shot I really like the skyline of the city that is quite abstract against the light, these sharp forms of the typical Moroccan architecture have remained also as a half-mythical city, like the Jewish celestial Jerusalem, and I liked this abstraction very much. Although obviously what I like most about this shot of Shakib, and others that we have talked about, is the level of innocence, truth and love that the character has. We liked that idea that Shakib, disappointed with his friend Ahmed, returns as proof of love, trust and protection... to take him on his horseback. Because although we have spoken of the mystery of the ineffable, of the paradox and the geometry of the images as a vehicle to transmit that mystery, I believe that above all, the best way to transmit it is through love.
The next scene is the ride of Shakib and Ahmed towards the climax, which is edited with jumping cuts and with no sound, in complete silence... which gives even more strength to the words that Shakib then whispers to Ahmed, as if preparing him for the battle that is coming.
We wanted to work with silence, which seemed very evocative and conveyed better the idea that despite being images of bodies, we are in another space, in the space of the soul. Somehow, subtly, I think it evokes that we are in an inner world, in a personal province. Obviously also via the text, which is a usurpation of the Book of the Kingsby Ferdousí, a book that connects with the entire Arthurian tradition and the search for the grail. The search for the grail is found in very different cultures and traditions, probably because in some way it touches very deep fibers of the human beings. We also liked the idea that Shakib, with those whispers, is talking to Ahmed's soul: "Are you there? Are you there, Ahmed? Wake up, Ahmed" "Yes, I'm here". And above all evoking windmills, evoking giants against whom they will have to fight.
In this scene, that contemporary Quixote that is Shakib also repeats a beautiful phrase that he has said other times during the film, encouraging his adventure companions: "If you do it well, I will do it better".
The truth is that I do not remember if this phrase was in the script or if it was something that Shakib said and we keep it. When you work with someone like Shakib you have to read what he does, because Shakib is a person who has a very special connection. The Shakib of the movie is the Shakib of normal life. So, he always brings things, gestures, words... that apparently have the form of madness or idiocy, but deep down they have an enormous significance. We have been inspired by the myth of Nasreddin Hodja, who is a character from the Islamic oral tradition who is a kind of crazy madman. It is a universal archetype, the wise idiot, like Don Quixote and so many others. The one that invites you to another level of perception by telling you something that just sounds like idiotic bullshit. This phrase says a lot about the character of Shakib in the film, which is a spiritual entity but is very humanized: he is someone who suffers, who is frustrated because he cannot help them like he wants. Every time he tells Ahmed to have faith in God, just then someone dies.
In the middle of the horseback ride, there is a wide shot of several taxis advancing through the desert. The first sequence of the contemporary world, towards the beginning of the film, ended with a similar shot of the taxis moving through the desert in the opposite direction, so perhaps these two shots could be related so that this one, inserted before the climax, comes to close the circle that the previous one opened, in which Shakib was driven towards his mission.
No, the idea was not to close a circle, because actually there is a progression: we start the film with many taxis and end up with only one taxi in the last shot of. Well, let me clarify: when I say that this was not my idea or my intention, I don’t mean that this is not in the film, or that it cannot be interpreted that way, but in any case, it happened alone, it was the film (not me) who decided it. (...) For me this is one of the most transcendental shots of the film (it is the only day in which we really had the light that I have been witnessing for five years in the south of Morocco), and placing it at that moment I think serves to add more intensity. If we look at the classic rules of dramaturgy, we are just at the moment before the climax. That is, the return of Shakib would be the second culmination and this shot would be the wake of that culmination, before reaching the climax. We pick up that emotional, aesthetic intensity, and we prolong it in this wake. I have always worked like this, also in my shorts, and I think that working with the images is this: feeling them, seeing their fire and seeing how they relate to each other. My intention is that everything in the film is designed, narratively and cinematographically, to arrive at images like these, to reach a moment in which we manage to knock out the reason. This is one of my main searches as a filmmaker: I believe that when you knock out reason through emotion, or when a narrative catharsis occurs, that is the moment in which the images enter the soul better; in which there is relationship between human soul and image. And everything in the film has to be directed towards these moments. This is one of the images that I would like to accompany the viewer throughout his life.
If it is a moment that has to knock out reason, it is to be assumed that its transcendence does not come from what it means rationally, from what it represents as an image or what the taxis it contains symbolize, but from the image itself, right?
Of course, the image, its movement... I am much more interested in that rather than its meaning: the cinematic parameters of the moving image: where it goes, what came before it, what will come after... because this is what makes you feel something, I think. They ask me many times what the taxis represent, but I don’t want to answer. All I'm saying is that they are not taxis anymore. They are anything but taxis. And I'm satisfied with this explanation. Throughout the film, we have been seeding a strange restlessness or a consciousness of mystery related to taxis, an anthropomorphization of taxis or, better said, a spiritualization of taxis. They are no longer taxis, but spiritual entities.
After the journey on horseback and this shot of the taxis, the climax of the story arrives, the scene in which Ahmed and Shakib courageously throw themselves towards an almost certain death and attack the bandits.
In several screenings we made of the film there were people who suggested we finish the movie with the horse, because it seemed a bit like starting over from scratch to put that final sequence with the bandits, which is a bit more earthly, and they felt that with the horse we already had enough final intensity to finish the movie. But I thought that dramaturgically the film was not finished, that a climax was missing, a moment in which the character of Ahmed really assumed a change. Because when Shakib returns on horseback and rescues him, it is not Ahmed who on his own initiative produces a change in himself. It is through the mercy, indulgence and love of Shakib that he takes the step, but actually he has not yet given it, and therefore it was necessary to close the dramatic arc of the character. And it seemed to me that this last sequence in which we carried the dangers and the risk, the death that awaits them if they want to save Ikram, was perfect to convey this idea that the character for the first time exercises his honor as a knight, and accepts death (or not) in protection of his ethics and values, defending his values over his finitude, and therefore transcending the idea and anguish of death. The knight comes to this world to serve, he does things because he has to do them without expecting anything in return, but obviously the awareness that death does not exist helps him. Ahmed knows that every conscious and loving gesture in the world of manifestation has its luminous repercussion in the world of spiritual forms. It is true that it is still Shakib who pushes him a bit... and this was a doubt we had, because it would have been dramaturgically better if it was Ahmed himself who attacked, fully convinced. But well, we have filmed it like that... and I like it too, because we all need a teacher or a guide to accompany us or help us. To leave Matrix you need someone who is not in Matrix.
I also really liked the Sam Peckinpah aspect of this scene, which related to dying with dignity. It has this jihadist aspect that is also present in Peckinpah’s films, and I liked it. This time I say jihadist in the most popular, televised and mediated sense of the word, and I say it with irony, of course. But above all I like it because there are people who really believe or feel, because of the conventions of the story and how we have been sculpting it, that they are going to win against the bandits. I think it's beautiful that there are people who believe that Shakib's love and purity and innocence are really capable of making a miracle.
Whether or not the miracle works is open to interpretation, because the scene is suddenly cut off in the middle of their run. It makes sense, because what matters is the gesture of love and courage. But beyond the outcome of the story in fiction, the outcome of the film does bring some hope, with that final scene we talked about earlier in which a taxi moves through the desert loaded with anonymous people. That final scene (and therefore the film) ends with an empty shot in that crepuscular desert, which may perhaps be related to the shot that opens the film, that wall painted with a mysterious closed door. Beyond the obvious, already underlined at the beginning of the film by that cut that takes us from the painting to the mountains it represents, the first and last shot of the film also contrast plastically: a flat image, against a perpendicular wall with a door closed; against an open and deep image that extends to the horizon.
It's very nice to see the two shots together, I think it’s a stimulating and creative game that helps me discover things. I had never thought about this, I had not given it any meaning or looked for one. But I believe that all creation makes sense, and since I am a person of faith, I have no urgency to find it or go looking for it. It makes sense and that’s it, and it does not matter if you know that sense or not. More than looking for the meaning of the relationship of these two shots we can think about each of them. The first one is like a microfilm in which the film that will come is evoked: we begin with a city sound that becomes a windy sound, we enter from the world of manifestation to the most mythological world. And that door has always suggested many things to us. When you've seen the movie, returning to this first shot makes you wonder what's there on the other side. And what is on the other side is that halo of dust left by the taxi when it passes to the end of the film: that nebula, that mist... that veil. Both shots have a veil. There is a word that I love and that I think is a good ending for this interview, which is the word reveal. It is a very cinematic word, which etymologically means "to veil again [to hide]". That is, to reveal something, to say or show something, you have to hide it. In other words, in cinema, the way to be more communicative and clearer with your viewer, the way to make a mark in their soul, is through the veil: through darkness and mystery.