An interview with Sarahjane Swan & Roger Simian (AvantKinema / The Bird And The Monkey) by Fabrizio Federico, filmmaker, founder of The Straight Jacket Guerrilla Film Festival and author of the Pink8 Manifesto.
Please introduce yourself.
SJS & RS: Hello, Fabrizio. We are Sarahjane Swan and Roger Simian. We've collaborated together since 2010, under the name The Bird And The Monkey, on songs, music videos, short films and writing and we've also had the opportunity over the past few years to produce five video-art installations, featuring multiple projections, music and sculpture. This year we've created AvantKinema to help promote DIY experimental cinema.
I think it's great that you're encouraging people to believe in the talent and risk of DIY low budget cinema, plus breaking down the power and magic of its pure disarming qualities.
SJS & RS: We think it’s important to find time to Do It Yourself as far as films, music, art, self-publishing etc. Take control over the means of creation, distribution and promotion. This gives you more power in relation to what you do. You can learn for yourself out on the frontline how the process works. That way, if you ever do decide to take your work into some more established, traditional systems you can demand full editorial control and you’ll know what you’re talking about. You’ll have a body of work that proves you know what you’re doing. Throughout the history of cinema, each element of the process of creating a film has been put on its own pedestal and made to look like Magic by the corporate players. But the Dadaists didn’t ask MGM, Fox or Warner Brothers for permission they just went ahead and did it themselves. It’s our job as filmmakers to demystify each part of the process for ourselves. The technology is now cheap enough and available enough for anybody to do this. As the Punk zines used to say: you’ve learned three chords, now form a band!
What is your ultimate cinematic message to the world at the moment?
Roger: I think what we do is to bring the world around us into our heads through our senses and our experiences and that data is stored in different cognitive hard-drives, consciously and subconsciously. When we create our films, music, art, writing etc. we’re trying to put some of that material back out into the world through our own filters so that other people can get an idea of our experience of life.
Sarahjane: No, that's not our message. Our message is: be obsessive, be bold, find your magic and sprinkle it everywhere like hundreds and thousands!
Roger: Yes, you're right, that's our message.
What are your plans for making a feature film, and what subject would you pursue?
Sarahjane: At the moment we’re wondering if we can make a feature using Super 8. It’s expensive to do but we’ve got hold of a job-lot of expired Kodachrome 40 and we’re looking into processing this ourselves using coffee, vitamin c and washing soda. There’s a good chance that our subject might be our son who has autism.
Roger: It’s a total experiment and we’ve no idea if any of this film stock will actually work, or if we’ll be able to get a handle on the Caffenol processing, but that makes the whole thing exciting. It must be how the early cinematic pioneers felt.
Tell me about what made you want to make In The Dark I Sat?
Sarahjane: We wanted to see if we could make a Love Story work as an experimental movie. Up to that point we'd been making music videos and we wanted to expand this and bring in narrative at the same time as still using our music. The story of the film meant that we had to dig deep and get very expressionist with our sounds.
Roger: Yes, and we were thinking that a lot of the shots in our music videos looked kind of like scenes from movies, but more LoFi, like something the New York No Wave Cinema might have produced if they got their hands on digital equipment. So we wanted to try sampling some of our own previous work, mixing it up together and making something new: our first short film.
How does the concept of improving yourself and hunting down your dreams like a wild and savage animal manifest itself in your film?
SJS & RS: In this film we show the layer dividing real life from dreams as being as thin as the skin between a body of water and the air above it. There's not much effort in pushing through one realm into the other but somehow our heroine and her man have ended up in worlds so distant from each other that they can't even quite remember who it is each of them has lost. In the darkness between there is wildness and confusion.
What are your opinions about the drug culture and its impact on creativity?
SJS & RS: It’s up to people to decide for themselves but we’re of the opinion that the best results usually come about when artists keep their drugs in the recreational drawer and do the work when they're straight, once all their faculties are back online. Both of us have dabbled a bit recreationally when we were young, like everybody else, but we're now bringing up a little autistic boy, so we've got the biggest responsibility you could possibly have. We have quite unusual minds anyway and we're pretty well tapped into our creative wells so it's not something we feel we need. If we were out of our faces all the time we wouldn't get any work done. As far as culture and society, drugs were useful to help expand consciousnesses and to Open the Doors of Perception for artists, musicians, writers from the Romantic poets onwards, a way for people to throw off the shackles of traditional thought. But, in the case of Lennon and McCartney, for example, it then took the methodical brain of somebody like the straight-laced George Martin to put it all back together in ways that really worked. Captain Beefheart always claimed to be anti-drugs and he and the Magic Band produced some of the weirdest and tightest music going. You don’t have to be Wired to be Weird. Having said that, we have written a couple of songs drunk as Pepe Le Pew and they turned out pretty cool. So, basically: you've just got to work it out for yourself.
How did you come to write the film's prose and dialogue?
Roger: Years ago I started trying to write an experimental science-fiction novel, inspired by the '60s New Worlds era experiments of Michael Moorcock and JG Ballard. When we we were making In The Dark I Sat we decided to thieve chunks of my unfinished novel and mix it in with some cut-ups from Art History essays and a couple of our unreleased songs, one by Sarahjane (which gave the film its title) and one by me.
The movie’s cast is full of searching characters. Where did you find your cast and what is their background? Can you explain your working relationship with your actress and how do you feel about the primal importance of finding the right muse or misrule in cinema?
Roger: Sarahjane is the actress and I'm the actor. We decided soon after meeting to be each other's Muse and that works very well for us. We're a micro-collective, or a binary auteur and we do everything ourselves,
Sarahjane: So far we have used no other actors. When we act we direct each other.
Roger: Or we argue about the direction each of us should take and then we just go ahead and do it whatever way we wanted to in the first place.
Sarahjane: If we do make a film with our son he'll be our actor without necessarily knowing he's being our actor. He doesn't communicate verbally but it's obvious from his behaviour that he's aware when a camera is pointing at him, so us introducing a camera into our interactions with him will be as close as we get to directing him. It'll be interesting for us to work this way, as the issue of sensitivity will be a tussle for us. We want to celebrate our son and find new ways of communicating with him, using the language of film. At the same time we don't want to be exploitative.
What is your current favourite movie?
SJS & RS: There are so many films from more than a hundred years of cinema that we could pick for this but instead we'll highlight two filmmakers who have recently become our friends and had an influence on our own work. Walter Ungerer is an American who has been making experimental films since the early 1960s and Allan Brown is a Canadian who has collaborated with Montreal's Volatile Works collective. At this year's Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival in the Scottish Borders we saw Walter Ungerer's short, I Just Don't Get It – It's My Russian Soul, and Allan Brown's first feature, Silver. We loved the colour, vibrancy and energy of My Russian Soul, and Silver gave us the boot up the behind we needed to finally go ahead and buy a couple of Super 8 cameras and some film-stock.
I Just Don't Get It – It's My Russian Soul by Walter Ungerer (USA)
If you could travel back in time what year would you go to?
Sarahjane: I don't want to go back to a specific time but I'd like to visit an era: the Black and White era of German Expressionism, Jean Cocteau and the Film Noir Femme Fatales. I love that look and I like to perform in our films as a strong female with striking makeup and lighting.
Roger: I'd like us to go back a hundred years to 1916, to a specific place, the Cabaret Voltaire club in Zurich, so we can watch the early days of DADA unfolding, and participate in that. But I'd want us to come home again. I wouldn't want us to get stuck in the middle of World War I.
What would be an ideal world for independent cinema?
SJS & RS: Maybe a place a bit like the indie music scene in the '80s where you had underground bands creating the most experimental music (the more famous of these being the likes of The Fall in the UK and Sonic Youth in the States). There was an audience for this, probably the younger brothers and sisters of Punks who'd grown up listening to some pretty outrageous sounds. Bands were championed by John Peel and so you could hear them on his Radio 1 show. As well as the thousands of homemade zines being sold at gigs and in shops like Rough Trade, there was an established music press with three papers, NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, competing with each other, so you could read reviews and interviews. There was a cooperative distribution network linked in with independent record stores throughout the whole country. It was a thriving, fully self-sustained scene. It started falling apart because BritPop / Blur / Oasis / Creation Records made indie musicians think they should strive for mainstream success; then John Peel passed away and Amazon shut down all the indie record stores. Or something like that. Anyway, so what might the cinematic equivalent of that look like? You hint at this in your Anarchy In The UK film. If there were collectives like London's Exploding Cinema in every city and every town then that would be a great start, wouldn't it?
How do you feel about the imagery of the crow and suicide?
SJS & RS: We're friends with the crow. Crows have helped us and we smile when we hear their squawk. The same year we made In The Dark I Sat, with its tale of a crow who controls our heroine, we made our first video art installation at the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival. The installation was called Sung To The Crows. It was inspired by an anonymous 14th century Borders Murder Ballad, Twa Corbies, where two crows have witnessed the slaying of a knight and, after picking his remains, they spy his hawk and hound going off hunting and his lover with another man. Our installation was presented as a Surrealist crime scene with a wedding dress covered in thousands of hand sewn sequin blood splatters; multiple video projections; strange music; a macabre figure which was part man and part crow; and the constant cawing of the corbies. Our slain knight pleads with the crows to bring him back into the world through the dreams of his murderers to wreak vengeance. We scared the shit out of one volunteer who was supposed to be invigilating. She left after only an hour and never came back!
As far as suicide. Suicide isn't beautiful. It's sad. It's sad that Ian Curtis killed himself. If he'd managed to hold on a few hours, days or weeks he might have realized that he wasn't feeling so bad anymore and he could have gone on to create great music for decades. Suicide is also terribly sad for the people left behind.
I'm a big believer of improvising and continuing to experiment with film editing. Can you explain your state of mind and tricks at the time of putting the film together in the editing room?
SJS & RS: We think we've picked up a feel for rhythm and structure after editing 20 or so music videos for our songs. There's a lot of improvisation: trying out different things, messing about with effects etc. When we were editing In The Dark I Sat, it was done in one or two long stretches. We spent just as long working on the sound, music and dialogue as we did on the visuals.
Other then the Pink8 and Cine-Rebis manifestos I haven’t really heard of any other new statement of belief in film journalism. What would be the first outline of your own cinema manifesto?
SJS & RS: We've been working on a manifesto but it's for all the arts and it asks for filmmakers, musicians, artists and writers to make work which breaks down the boundaries between the avant garde and the mainstream. We have some other demands, including: keeping it DIY and looking at the world as though you're seeing it reflected in the shards of a smashed mirror.
Which thinkers and authors do you admire?
Sarahjane: There are quite a few women whose thinking has fascinated me through the years. I always go back to Patti Smith, and the artist, Louise Bourgeois, and we were watching an interview with the Belgian filmmaker, Chantal Akerman, the other day which was interesting. I like to see the way other female artist's thoughts resonate or contrast with my own.
Roger: I go through phases of reading all kinds of books: literary ones, trashy genre novels or biographies of bands. I often like to dip into experimental books by Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Richard Brautigan, Flann O'Brien and others, without necessarily reading the whole book. I think it's ok to do that.
SJS & RS: As far as philosophical thinkers, Alain de Botton's book and TV documentary about Status Anxiety seems to explain a lot about the ways people behave nowadays.
In what way is the world's cultural zeitgeist affecting your inspiration?
SJS & RS: Unfortunately, the current zeitgeist seems to mostly involve Kim Kardashian's arse, Kanye West's ego and Donald Trump's tiny little mouth all fighting it out for the spotlight at the epicenter of a great cultural vortex. We probably filter a lot of what comes into our minds from the zeitgeist through our own dream logic. We want to cut-up the world and put it back together like a Hannah Höch DADAist photomontage!
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The Bird And The Monkey