Axel Danielson, Maximilien Van Aertryck • Directors of And the king said, what a FANTASTIC MACHINE
“We live in an image society where the camera acts as an extension of our eyes”
- The duo of Swedish directors talk about their feature-length documentary debut, an exploration of society’s obsession with cameras and imagery
After having enjoyed huge success on the short-film circuit with their playful documentaries, such as 2016’s Ten Meter Tower and 2021’s Jobs For All!, Swedish directors Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck make their feature-length documentary debut with And the king said, what a FANTASTIC MACHINE [+see also:
interview: Axel Danielson, Maximilien …
Equally as playful as their shorts, the feature is an exploration of society’s obsession with cameras and imagery, which starts from the invention of the very first camera and covers everything up to the image-saturated world in which we live today. Cineuropa talked to them as – after Ten Meter Tower screened at Park City in 2016 – the duo prepared to return to Sundance with their feature, which has now unspooled as part of the World Cinema Documentary Competition.
Cineuropa: What was it about photography, imagery and video that you wanted to explore in ...Fantastic Machine?
Axel Danielson and Maximilien Van Aertryck: “Image Literacy” has been our one, single, impassioned focus over the past decade. For ten years, we have been collecting images that have raised questions about the “why” of humanity’s fascination with image. We live in an image society where the camera acts as an extension of our eyes. This, combined with today's algorithms, makes for an explosive cocktail.
We are engaged in what UNESCO calls “MIL” [media and information literacy], and this is our filmmakers’ contribution to it. We learn to read and write text over many years in school, to be critical of what we read and to identify who’s addressing us. It’s about time image was taught in schools in the exact same way. Being able to navigate the media landscape has become a democratic issue.
Can you tell us on a practical level how you went about collecting the archive material?
For many years, we have been collecting fascinating, funny or even scary material which shows something interesting in the relationship between humans and the camera. At Plattform [the Swedish production company founded by Ruben Östlund in 2002], we constantly use YouTube clips as references because the camera captures human behaviour so well.
Five years ago, we looked at the vast collection we had and said that we should make a movie about this. During production, the COVID-19 pandemic also happened, and this led us to dive even deeper into online archives. Finding the right archival footage is similar to knowing when we have just filmed something good ourselves. It feels like going hunting for something; we know when we’ve struck gold. And eventually, all of our “gold nuggets” made it into the final cut.
When you go into this, do you have an idea about the philosophical line you’re pursuing and finding things that support this? Or does the viewing of the archive material cause you to change how you approach the film?
During editing, we spent a lot of time talking about the footage – about how to categorise it, how to decide what those images were actually saying and speaking to. We talked about how to contextualise. It was important for us that the images would not be illustrating a thought; they should rather let the audience think for themselves. We then experimented with the use of a voice-over, as we understood the film would need a subjective narrator.
We used a script to help build the movie’s structure, but it really emerged in the editing. When our colleague Mikel Cee Karlsson (a director himself, and the editor of Triangle of Sadness [+see also:
interview: Ruben Östlund
interview: Ruben Östlund
film profile]) came on board as the editor, the film really started to work. Two structures emerged: one historical, from 1828 to today, and another one that was more associative and made it possible to keep a strong dynamic in the composition.
What things surprised you the most?
After spending weeks on YouTube, nothing surprises us any more! We observed early on that from the beginning of the camera’s history, two ways of using it crystallised: one was scientific, and the other one was to make money. Right from the start, there was also a debate about an image's ability to manipulate the audience. There were already articles dismissing certain images as “fake news”. We find that very funny and fascinating.
Another interesting observation is that the 1980s was a time in which people in a position of power would have no problem explaining exactly what their business model was, on camera! This honesty is something we lack today – a time in which everyone is so “media-trained”.
Do you have any ideas about what your next project may be?
A ...Fantastic Machine book, an expansion of the film in a way in which we can include lots of things that didn’t find their place in the film. We want to craft a publication that can be used in schools to playfully discuss the stakes and consequences of image literacy.
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