Fiona Tan • Director of Dearest Fiona
“I like pushing the boundaries of where cinema stops and art starts”
by Jan Lumholdt
- BERLINALE 2023: Creating for both the cinema and the art gallery is something that the visual artist and director clearly thinks is worth investigating
Premiering in the Forum section of the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival, Dearest Fiona [+see also:
interview: Fiona Tan
film profile] is presented as visual artist Fiona Tan’s third cinematic feature. Simultaneously, this is a work created for art-gallery installations, a somewhat delicate process. Introducing her film at Berlin, the renowned artist-director shared some thoughts on her process.
Cineuropa: What are your thoughts on Dearest Fiona as a theatrical feature, compared to its incarnation as an art installation?
Fiona Tan: It’s something that I’m investigating, and I think it worked very well in the cinema yesterday. I know it has also worked in its other manifestation as an installation, which has been done once so far. But the context is, of course, different, and there’s something to be said for both. Yesterday, I kind of missed a certain intimacy and also a certain control that I normally have at an exhibition, with space, seating and sound... In cinemas, there’s an industry standard with sound systems that may not be optimal, which can be frustrating. Also, to me, the screen was a bit far away – it’s a big cinema. But the audience just crawled into the film and were just… in it. It worked. It is quite unusual to make something for both these different venues, and that, I guess, is why so few people even want to do it.
Dearest Fiona has been presented as your third feature. In what ways, if any, would you say it relates to the first two?
The first, History's Future [+see also:
interview: Fiona Tan
film profile], is what you would imagine when you say “feature”, with a script and actors. Ascent [+see also:
film profile], my second one, shares quite a few connections [with Dearest Fiona]. It’s made entirely from stills from a collection I did with 4,000 photographs of Mount Fuji. Ascent is also comparable in its use of voice-over, albeit fictional. In Dearest Fiona, the letters from my father are real, as is the footage – and then they were put together.
The footage is from the early 20th century, and even the late 1800s, shot in the Netherlands and taken from the Amsterdam Eye Filmmuseum’s archives. Can you talk about that process, and how your father’s letters came into the picture?
Eye and I have worked together for several years; I did a solo exhibition for them, and from quite an early stage, they said they’d love it if I could put something together again and that they’d be happy to open up their archives for this. And this carte blanche is something they’ve never granted anyone before. I had a vague idea of a concept of my having lived in the Netherlands for a long time and having sort of made it my home, and then simultaneously looking back at where I come from. And as I had just started looking at the footage, I rediscovered my father’s letters in the back of a drawer. It was a perfect fit to put the two together, as he wrote them when I first came to Amsterdam from Australia.
How did you come to choose images from this particular era?
It’s a very special time because cinema is not yet what we understand it to be – it’s still inventing itself. Also, I have a closer affinity to documentary footage than I have to fiction. I like the honesty, authenticity, innocence, directness and lack of sophistication of this world. I find it precious, and it opens up things for me to work with.
Did you follow any rules or guidelines concerning the letters and their relationship to the images?
The letters are all the missives from the period of a year and a half – not all of them are entirely complete, but they formed an arc, I felt, as a narrative. Same thing with the images. Another rule was that we decided to keep all of the pauses in Ian Henderson’s reading, because his timing and phrasing were just so good. Together with the images, the voice formed a kind of dance.
Regarding your multinational background, is there a special reason behind the fact that your father, an Indonesian-born Chinese man, gets the voice of a Scottish actor? Perhaps your mother’s Scottish descent?
Actually, I was going to read my father’s letters myself. The plan was that an actor would read the text, and I would listen to him, and then he would coach me. But as I heard Ian, I thought, “Maybe I’ll keep this.” He became a character, which the film very much needed.
Is your father still around to experience all of this?
Unfortunately, he died six years ago. But I think he’d be very tickled; my mother is tickled.
Will you continue to work in the field of feature-length cinema? Does it give you enjoyment?
Yes and no. What I think I like is sort of kicking cinema in the shins a bit. I like pushing the boundaries of where cinema stops and art starts. There is, of course, quite a long history of cinema in contemporary art exhibitions. But I’m interested in this in-between area. I’ve been writing more and more, and am very slowly starting to get how you write a script. Or at least how I write a script for my things.
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