November 1, 2011 · Print This Article
Portland filmmakers, educators, programmers and film advocates Alain LeTourneau and Pam Minty are in the midst of a Midwest and east coast tour with their avant-doc Empty Quarter. The work is a decade in the making but even beyond that knowledge there is something very large feeling about it. Perhaps this weight is due to the scope of its subject: the three southeastern counties of Oregon (Lake, Harney and Malheur), its wide-ranging citizenry and their activities both quotidian and transformative. I imagine the openness with which a viewer can interact with the piece, though, has more to do with how large and multivalent it feels.
Empty Quarter is formally divergent from conventional documentaries in several obvious ways: its format—from camera to projector—is luminous black-and-white 16 millimeter film; the scenes are composed of lengthy, single shots for which the camera is fixed; the subjects—landscapes and the workers, families and machinery that people them—exist without a narrator’s context, without an onslaught of subtitular text; during those intervening interview portions where direct human voices are heard the screen is completely black (save for those occasional scratches or imperfections the film print will accrue as it makes its way through projectors across the country). It is, as such, in the tradition of other makers who take as their subject the real world. As a documentary, its polemic is apolitical (so far as parties are concerned), but deeply humanistic and with a strong feeling for the strange, beautiful landscape and the industries, families and outside communities with which they function.
Because the film is so open in its presentation, questions relating to urban and rural divides, race and ethnicity within agricultural sector and regions, land stewardship and labor are all invoked. While Pam and Alain were in Chicago screening the film (one hopes they’ll find time for us again on their spring tour of the film), we were able to speak at length about the decade long process of its making, the bold formal elements of the work and the nature of their collaboration.
It seems silly, but sometimes the easiest way to digest works that are formally inventive or distinct is to first think about those differences as an entry into the work. Empty Quarter is a documentary, but will never be described as such without a tag like experimental or essayistic or landscape or avant before it.
Alain LeTourneau: Empty Quarter attempts to create a cinematic experience closer to lived experience. That is, raw and undigested. The viewer would move through and make meaning of the spaces and activities presented. We wanted the relationship to the audience to remain open, allowing the audience to participate on some level. If we had presented a series of opinions or arguments, the viewer would be left in a position of agreeing or disagreeing with the information presented. As a portrait of a place, Empty Quarter is a series of recorded observations. The viewer can enter in to and inhabit the shots/scenes taking away a set of personal reactions, which can then be shared with other audience members, friends and perhaps family. The cinematic experience is intended to extend or ripple out into people’s lives, becoming part of public life.
One of the most striking (and I think best) choices you made in this film is the use of black during the interview segments.
Pam Minty: While all image-based shots are set to sync sound, audio interviews with residents from the area are set to black screen. Our intention in this approach is to give the audience the space to listen in a focused way not competing with the function of visual observation. Many of the issues discussed were repeated across several interviews, so it seemed more appropriate to allow unmitigated sound to convey these shared experiences, opinions and concerns. To some extent, the use of long visual takes informed the choice to give equal or similar weight to collected audio recordings. There was a decision in post-production to mix sync voices more prominently in an attempt to replicate being in the environment and give the audience the opportunity to experience what grabbed our attention most.
Though it seems to hard to imagine this film functioning otherwise the use of black & white seems to work on a number of levels here. It does something to heighten the notion of the work as intentionally produced (as art, as artifice), which seems counter to so much of how most documentaries are made, but it also seems to reinforce the work’s place in a historical trajectory.
AL: 16mm black and white can blur the distinction between seasons, times of day, and tends to focus one’s attention on the activity or landscape being framed, without presenting itself as “reality”. The black and white images are presented as a document or observed record. The texture or grain is also quite wonderful, the way it creates shimmering, almost impressionistic images, unresolved and lower in quality than color.
The whole film is filled with beautiful, evocative images. But without giving too much away, I feel like the final shot (above) is so elegant, so well paced and so well constructed that both times I’ve seen the work someone from the audience has asked whether or not it was choreographed. In itself, it’s an interesting question because the question is not whether the drivers of the farm equipment were directed, but choreographed, but also seems a good jumping off point to ask about how much was done to “direct” the participants in the film.
AL: The final shot in Empty Quarter came out of our experience of observing various patterns that occur in the process or routine of work, whether manual or machine labor. The camera was positioned to present a kind of symmetry with movement in the image, and to unfold in a very subtle way.
PM: We’ve found that audiences have used those terms differently to respond to different images. When machines appear to be moving in a planned way, we’re asked about whether we choreographed the scene. Conversely, when people enter a shot, perform an activity, and (in general) leave the frame, people tend to use the term “direction” in how they phrase the question. Ironically, the most choreographed looking scene, the closing shot, was one in which we had the least ability to manipulate how the corn harvest activity unfolded. Alain’s intuition about when to begin filming in relation to how much film was in the magazine for the tilling of the last row of corn, was critical. Also, his choice to frame the shot as he did lent to the power of that shot. Had he centered the final row tilled, the trucks would not have been symmetrical as they left the frame left and right, and it wouldn’t have happened simultaneously. In a post-film Q&A, he’ll call it dumb luck, but as a witness to that moment, it really comes across as good decision making, being aware of the frame, and keen observation about how the process unfolds.
There’s always something inherently quixotic to the project of documentary. The idea of representing another’s lived experience is always an impossible challenge, but the idea of representing such a gigantic amount of space and the wide-ranging experiences of those who live and work there is even more vast. There are always those in the moving image world who argue for a utopian concept of total representation, of a 360-degree, interactive cinema, and compared to these, the thoughtfully-constructed, single-take scenes of a place seem to argue towards the specificity of your framing and the intent inherent to leaving so much out of the frame.
AL: Total or complete representation sounds like an impossible project. Additional funding would have allowed the film to be longer, maybe three hours, but whether the film would have benefited from this additional material is hard to say. I think we would have enjoyed the opportunity to continue recording and documenting the work, recreational activities and landscape of the area, but even given more material and longer run time, I think it would be difficult to say that we could provide an exhaustive view of the region. We certainly could have shined light on more of what happens in the area. For example, we had an offer to record inside a one-room schoolhouse in a remote part of Lake County, but the completion schedule and our budget would not allow us to incorporate this into the film.
There are a lot of political, social and ecological issues that are hinted at in the film. Compared to most films, or even to most conversations, the film feels balanced (not simply right-and-left, but front-and-behind, top-and-bottom). What lead you to give this film this seemingly non-political vantage?
AL: While Empty Quarter is not overtly political, I would not say it’s non-political or does not on some level engage political questions. The film certainly does not provide any kind of dramatic conflict that is eventually resolved or persuasive argument. In acknowledging our distance from the region and our urban detachment from rural lifestyles, our approach was more of simple observation, which seemed of greater value than a more traditional approach. Looking at—and listening to—the region in an effort to provide a means of thinking about its place in the social and economic fabric of American culture was a critical aspect of our interest in the project.
The same people that have told me the idea behind making a film is to a tell a story also told me that film is the most collaborative of art forms. This concept is obviously based on a large studio system in which hundreds of people do their parts to manifest the vision of a director. The history of avant-garde film, however, takes a central (if sometimes only implicitly or out of necessity) interest in the single artist, the lone maker. Somewhere between these poles lies your own dynamic. Can you describe the process of working as a couple? How do you conceive of our collaboration?
PM: Our earliest experience as collaborators in the production of Empty Quarter was simultaneous to beginning our work co-programming an experimental film series now operating under the name 40 Frames. In 2000, we moved into a warehouse space that could accommodate screenings as well as house our film production facility. As we wound down the production process and moved into post, we transitioned out of programming into the advocacy role we perform now with 16mm Directory, which is the primary activity of 40 Frames. We’re both working on independent films now as we distribute Empty Quarter. Once these projects are complete, we plan to collaborate on a second film on the subject of work.
Jesse Malmed is an artist and curator. He is brand new to Chicago and Bad at Sports. His work can be seen at www.jessemalmed.net.