INTERVIEW: ULRICH SEIDL
Director. Screenwriter. Producer. Voyeur. Misanthrope. Cynical. Social pornographer. Scoundrel. Provocative. Pessimistic. Humanist. Ulrich Seidl defines himself with this string of adjectives on his own personal website. It is understood that the negative adjectives are opinions that have been published about him over the years, but the fact of using them as a cover letter already confirms that at least one of them is true: Ulrich Seidl is a provocateur. As provocative is his latest film, Safari (2016), which stimulates exciting debates on topics as varied as animal abuse, inequality and racism. And as provocative are his responses to this interview, which encourage both the interviewer and the reader to go further, to move away from the obvious, to seek for themselves the keys to the film.
You have described Safari as a movie about people who go on vacation to kill. This idea is expressed in the first 4 planes of the film (after the opening of the man playing the horn), which show us the transformation of this first marriage from archetypal tourists to expert hunters.
When I start shooting a film I never have a clear idea of how I'm going to make it. I do not know which scenes I will use and which ones I will not, and even less where I will use them. The structure of the film arises later in the edit, where I take everything I've shot and try to give it a chronology and a structure that works like a film. I start to roll and I'm improvising as I come up with ideas of how to incorporate different elements. In the case of this first scene, when I was shooting I liked to introduce from the beginning the two key aspects of the film. My way of approaching my projects is to be in contact with the characters and ask myself how I can portray them, and in this case it seemed right to show first of all that they are going on vacation, that is the beginning, and then there is the theme of hunting. It was important to open with both sides, because the theme of the film is not hunting, but going on vacation to hunt, which is something much more complex.
Were you worried about the formal contrast between the hunting and cutting scenes (shot with a dirty handheld camera) and all the others, which have the unmistakable stamp of your style (long, wide shots with symmetrical, tableaux-like compositions)?
The central element of the film is hunting, and therefore for me the first question was how to stage and shoot the hunting scenes. And I decided to work with handheld camera because it seemed the only technically viable way to get as close as possible to the hunters. The only way to show the reality of what is happening there was to be as close as possible and shooting without cuts to preserve the temporal continuity of the expedition. This allows me to bring the viewer closer to the hunters and their emotions, which was my main objective with the film.
Apart from this practical reason, is not it true that the handheld camera is a better way to reflect the tension of the moment and the emotions that hunters feel when they kill?
Yes, there is also something of that. The reason why I chose handheld is purely practical, to be able to show the hunt in the most realistic way possible, but it is true that I liked to express the emotions of the hunters with the camera, since they are an important part of the film. I think all their emotions are very clear: the anxiety before finding the animal, the tension when they are going to kill it and the emotional release that they feel when they have hunted it down. They feel almost like after an orgasm.
You said before that the structure of the film arises in the edit, when you order all the material that you have shot. How did this very precise structure emerge from scenes that are repeated alternately, progressing in parallel? I mean, interviews become more and more sincere; the hunting (and cutting) scenes revolve around larger and larger animals; the trophies accumulate more and more and end up sharing the shot even with hotel workers; the portraits of the workers become more intimate...
All this arose in the editing, when I sat down with the material and I began to structure it to compose the film, and in this process one of my main ideas was this, that the images were becoming more and more intense. So yes, that was my goal, that the scenes were gaining strength and intensity. On the other hand, the structure of the film owes a lot to the fact that we shot it in two blocks: in the first shoot I limited myself to shooting only the hunting scenes and interviews with the hunters, in which I made the maximum number of questions to understand them as best as possible, and then I returned six months later to shoot all the scenes of the black workers, and that's when I started to see how the movie could be structured.
Since you mention this dichotomy: at the end of each hunt the portrait is made with the pieces, and in the second filming you filmed those portraits of the black workers eating the remains of the animals after they were cut. How do you relate portraits those portraits to each other?
It is clear that they have a very strong relationship, of course. If they did not relate, there would be no movie. The contrast between those two images was the central idea of the film, or one of them. But for me it is very difficult to analyze my films. I do them, but I do not reflect too much on why I make every decision. So although it is clear that these images are related and that is very important for the film, I can not explain what that relationship means to me.
The last scene of the film is an interview with the owners of the hotel in front of a bar counter. I am curious to know why it is the only one that is not composed with the frontality and symmetry of all the others, but that it is shot with a diagonal angle and a much less formalised shot.
I am not at all satisfied with how this was shot, but the message was so important that I decided to incorporate it into the film. It was very problematic to shoot the interviews with them, because in all the previous shots, in the living room, they did not relax and it became almost inhuman, without any emotion. That's why I chose this new staging in the bar, so they felt less gripped by the camera. Aesthetically it is a scene that I do not like at all, but I kept it because what they say is very important, since their speech becomes a reflection on human beings. I wanted to close the movie with that phrase, when he says that if there were no human beings, animals and nature would be much better off.
Speaking of the message of the film, you have mentioned on several occasions that you do not want to judge your characters or their hunting passion. But what about their racism? Do the shots of black workers posing in front of hunting trophies contain a judgment on inequality and colonialism?
They are shots that appeal to the emotions of the viewer, but each viewer has to see how they affect him, or with what he associates those images. Each person freely interprets what he sees, I can not tell you what to think. If my intention was to formulate a clear message I would do it with a dialogue, I would not use an image. What I do is play with the images so that the spectator reacts to them and interprets them as they wish. The film is a hypothesis: if 100 people see it, they will see 100 different movies. In fact, in the projections of my films it is very usual that before the same scene someone starts to laugh and the one next to them is indignant, because it does not seem funny at all to them.
And similar reactions happen with Safari, right?
Yes. The hunters who have seen the film (both the protagonists and other hunters) are delighted with it, because they feel completely identified with what they see. And people who are against hunting or the mistreatment of animals are also happy with the film, or identify with it, because they interpret it as a plea against hunting which confirms all their ideas and their indignation. That is, each one interprets what they see according to their own convictions.
It's funny that the hunters are never there when the animals are butchered. It seems that hunting and butchering are two separate worlds, and that they are delighted with the hunt but stay away from the dirty side. Do the protagonists or other hunters also identify with these scenes?
Yes, they also agree and are happy with those scenes. In the movie the hunters are not in the quartering scenes because they are there on vacation. They go there and hunt several animals every day, so the first time they may be interested to be there and see how they skin and dismember the animals, but not always, because they lose interest. But they are very aware of all that, they know what is done with the animals and how it is done, so that does not disturb them at all. (...) On the subject of hunting I think it is important to add that people who oppose hunting should also oppose the usual practices of the food industry, where animals are treated in an absolutely unworthy manner. Those who oppose hunting should be equally vocal in their opposition to the way meat is produced. We all know how it is produced and it is very easy to point out others for things that do not concern us, like hunting, because we are not going to hunt. However, we all eat meat, and we know how the meat we eat is produced, so we should be outraged in the same way that we get angry when animals are abused in hunting.