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IDFA 2019 Competition

Jørgen Leth • Director of I Walk

“This whole story was an extension of my personal process”

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- We chatted to experimental filmmaker and poet Jørgen Leth about his highly personal, IDFA-screened documentary I Walk

Jørgen Leth  • Director of I Walk
(© Tomas Gislason)

Experimental filmmaker and poet Jørgen Leth has made his most personal work so far, in which he deals with the trauma he suffered after experiencing a powerful earthquake in Haiti. I Walk [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Jørgen Leth
film profile
]
is an experimental and authentic examination of how the ego deals with ageing and physical decline. The movie world-premiered at the 32nd International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, in the main competition. We had a chance to sit down with the director and have a chat about what it means to make such a personal self-portrait.

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Cineuropa: The 2010 earthquake in Haiti marks a clear starting point in your film; when did you decide that it was so important for your story?
Jørgen Leth: It was a big event in my life. At the time, I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t panic or scream, I just noted it; it was surreal. It was as if I was experiencing everything in slow motion. Later, I realised that I had difficulties relating to the event, and I didn’t know how to deal with the trauma. During the following months, I stayed in Haiti. I just refused to go back to Denmark, because I couldn’t imagine explaining what had happened. I felt the need to stay close because I had lived there on and off for 30 years. As it’s my job to document life, that’s what I did. I always take notes in case I can use them later. This time, I found out that I could document it using my mobile phone. Doing that was transforming me as a person and gave me a means of dealing with this horrific experience. I didn't have a film in mind until my son saw some footage on my phone. He said: “There’s a film in that.” I just went on doing what I was doing, but all of a sudden, it was a project. The story was simply my personal development; I felt very naked and very vulnerable.

How did you deal with the personal aspect?
There is a certain comfort in distance, but I wanted to eliminate that distance in order to be honest about my experience. I think that is what my audience appreciates. I always make stories that have something to do with my personal view on life – take 66 Scenes From America, for example. It is essential for me to work with my own experience and interests, not someone else’s. I had a very spontaneous, non-scripted approach, which felt very natural. The whole story was an extension of my personal process, and I think that’s why it also had an element of therapy in it. It became a life crisis, and I just had to understand myself. In a way, the footage was first-hand information for myself, as it would have been for anyone else. I had been close to the more experimental part of the art scene, and with this film, I went the whole way, I feel, experimenting with ways of expressing myself and transforming this material into something more. I like this idea. It’s like in poetry, when you have very simple language, warmed up to a certain extent and then exploding.

The film ends with an art installation in the jungle in Laos. Where did this idea come from?
My son took out a piece of writing I had done once, about the jungle as “organised chaos”. I always felt the desire to cut myself a path through the jungle because it is so strong as an image. A piece of uncontrollable nature. We wanted to include it as something symbolic. The idea of examining an exact piece of jungle is somehow connected to dealing with the earthquake. The jungle has a strong, uncontrollable energy, but framing it is a very conscious act, trying to control and define it. The red frame we built to frame the jungle is a metaphor for an artistic approach to life. It becomes concrete and tangible. It was a crazy idea, but it was relevant, nonetheless. I work with themes that are not explicable, and it is interesting to make something so that the audience can really grasp it.

In such a personal work as this, how do you decide where the ending is?
I have a piece of writing in it where I say that the end is something you always want to improve. You want to make an ending. It is part of the process, and the trick is not to take it seriously – just end it. It could go on and on, like a symphony, and I could also have cut it earlier. I was almost drowning in material – that in itself was a jungle. It was too much, and I always had the feeling that we were leaving out important stuff. It was good that I gave the editing away to someone else and that I was not in the editing room for most of the time. At a certain point, you feel as if everything is important, but I am happy with how it turned out. The film is simple. I was happy when I saw it for the first time with an audience because I felt like they understood it. There was lots of laughter, and there are many things in it that are funny.

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