Essay Film Festival 2017: Interview with Babette Mangolte

Babette Mangolte was present for a retrospective of her work at the Essay Film Festival in 2017.

  • What was it about film-making that led you to become interested in cinema?

I discovered cinema around 1959.  At that time, I didn’t think I could make films – essentially I was a spectator interested in watching films, in particular silent films and foreign films. I felt films could show you places you will never go to as well as reveal ideas to you that could not be expressed with words.

Prior to 1959 when I went to Paris to go to university I had seen only a few films. I was mostly interested in theater and novels when I was young, so I was familiar with English, Russian, Italian, American and French literature but I had serious gaps in German literature, so discovering Weimar cinema was a wonderful surprise.

When I was a teenager, I was essentially reading six hours every day. Later I replaced my reading evenings with watching movies at the French Cinematheque. I think silent films shaped my taste and made me discover the image. By 1962 I was watching films from 10 AM until midnight and so I had to find a way to  make a living of it.  I decided to become a cinematographer – the image and the camera movements were the most interesting to me.

  • How do you feel grouping this selection of your work as ‘essay films’?

For me Chris Marker and Alain Resnais define film essay in the 1950s.  I discovered those films only by the mid 1960s and I never thought essay film was what I was doing when I started to make films in New York in the 1970s. I am an experimentalist and my work is influenced by my original training as a historian (my parents were historians) and as a mathematician.  My interest in science is still very strong today and that is why I do not use similar concepts in many of my films. I have no problems with the term essay film, which has been applied to many films I love and even to some that I shot. I am less interested in issues and more in formal concepts. For me, essay films can be more concept based and I make films that aim at developing new ways of viewing and hearing.

  • Colour plays a strong role in your cinema, what informs your approach to colour?

I think what informs all my compositional sense and taste in color is based on my early introduction to fine art when I was a child. My mother, who loved paintings, organized  a trip to Paris  every year where we visited museums and galleries during the day and theaters at night. Another big influence was my grandmother who lived all her life in a small village. She was a farmer with little land and poor, but she was the one who showed me how to observe the colors in the sky to predict the weather for the next  day. She showed me how to observe nature. In her garden every afternoon after the farm work she suddenly stopped and looked around to reflect on her day and prepare for the next. I was fascinated by this habit.

  • How did the trilogy of landscape films come into being?My interest in observing the land came from my grandmother and my love for American film shot on locations like John Ford’s westerns that made me dream about visiting the States in the mid 1960s in the days when I was in the street marching against the Vietnam War. But I had a strong attraction for a different sense of scale that I felt was America. Certainly on my first trip to the USA in 1975 I knew I had to shoot a film about the West. It became the Sky on Location. I often make a film to understand something and in this case it was shifts in colors that came with seasonal changes and temperatures that I found were the concepts to explore. And I wanted to comprehend the vastness of the terrain and the complexity of it. It was made to observe a strange settlement in the making and to understand what drives it. To construct multiple rows of houses that are all the same seems strange to a European. Visible Cities made ten years later was about playing with the idea of imagining what life you could have in those mansions with cathedral ceiling and fake landscaping.
  • In a discussion about The Camera: Je, La Camera : I you refer to using a technique you call the ‘subjective camera’ – could you expand on this notion?

The idea was to permit the spectator to experience how it is to be a photographer. The film simulates the rendition of what the photographer sees through his camera and shows the details of slight changes in the faces of the models and how those changes motivate the photographer to take a photo.

In the second half of the film I’m running out of the loft and want to escape the anxiety of my last model. This escape retrieves a sense of balance only after going inside an empty loft where I imagine a version of a Muybridge motion study with stop motion. Then I try to find some perspective in the disorder of the architectural chaos of the city downtown where I walk.

My attempt to analyze the act of photography was based on my subjective experience. I use the film camera as a subjective device to communicate the experience of being a photographer to the spectator.


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