Marcus Lindeen: I see myself as a storyteller, working with documentary material almost as a kind of sculptor
If we take into consideration the old definition of a documentary film as something that is a “creative treatment of reality”, what does that creative shaping of reality mean for you as a director of three documentaries? Where can you be creative in a documentary? Only with the form or is it possible to adapt the content? Do you sometimes incorporate replicas or scenes which did not truly happen?
I see myself as a storyteller, working with documentary material almost as a kind of sculptor, shaping it into the form I feel works best for the story I want it to be. But that is, I think, how most documentary filmmakers work, more or less. Of course, there is a balance to not completely twist the reality around, and there is also the ethical perspective where I have a responsibility as a filmmaker for the people who I expose in the film. I want all the participants to feel proud of the film afterwards. In the studio work I am doing, I also play with theatricality as an esthetic. It is obvious for the audience that the film is staged. There are lights and smoke machines and even a built up set design. The methods I am using to sculpt the material is of course the editing, but I also direct the participants on set, giving them suggestions to alter lines from their stories or using multiple re-takes to get the dialogue right. I try to avoid inventing things that was not there from the beginning, as I consider reality to be much more wild and unpredictable than what I can invent with my imagination. But I do alter the stories for efficiency. Like manipulating the timeline. Making two storms into one an these kinds of things.
How would you describe working with actors who are not really actors? What are the advantages and disadvantages compared to working with professionals?
I am used to working with professional actors in my stage work, and that is of course different. But people who are invited into the studio to portray their own stories become actors in some sense. They feel an agency that I think is quite liberating and is altering the traditional power balance of the documentary subject being used by the filmmaker. At least, in the moment of the studio work, where they feel they can question the motives behind a scene or say no to deliver a line a certain way.
There has been a change in narration in documentaries in recent years. How do you manage to connect several narrative settings which are more or less inevitable in documentaries? There is almost always that material in the past which is a document in itself and the revamping of events from the contemporary angle. What was your greatest challenge in connecting these two narrative settings in the film “The Raft”?
That is always the tricky part of making documentaries, that you get so locked into a form of interviews and archive. People retelling stories from the past and images illustrating this in some way or another. It is really difficult to imagine alternate ways unless you are moving into either fiction and using actors to restage a scenario that happened, or becoming very experimental with the form. I guess Regretters and The Raft would be considered examples of the more experimental approach to the traditional documentary form. Even though I feel they are not that experimental after all. Except for the difference in their looks, being shot in a studio and even building up a theatrical stage set and so on, the biggest difference I think is the conversational aspect of the two films. That the protagonists talk to each other mostly, and less into the camera or to me as a filmmaker, even though both films also use the talking head format quite extensively as well. This relational dimension is maybe more important to me than the studio itself. It gives me as a director and a writer a dramatic possibility. Even though the films are not portraying big dramatic conflicts between the participants, there is still a sense of a relationship being played out between people that is intriguing for an audience.
The raft itself, as a set piece, became the bridge between the past and the present. This was part of the original concept of the project and I am very happy how it turned out. But I am curious for upcoming film projects to figure out more ways of challenging the limitations of documentary forms. It can’t be too pretentious or far out, then it becomes too experimental, and I still want for my work to be communicative and efficient even, in some sense.
You’ve received the main award at the renowned documentary film festival CPH:DOX for the film “The Raft”. How much does this form of acknowledgment influence your work? Did it influence the better reception of the film?
Of course it helped. So far we have gotten invited to over 40 film festivals and got cinema distribution in France, UK , Switzerland and the US. Soon it will also come to Mexico and Colombia. It has really been an amazing year in terms of seeing the international potential really pay off for the film.
What do you think about the idea of the volunteers on the raft “risking their lives for science”? Were they really aware of what they were getting into? However, they did not know much what kind experiment it was about. Santiago had an idea, but was finding the solution for world peace really his intention? The Acali experiment should have been an experiment conducted on a group of people, but was in fact conducted on individuals such as Santiago, Maria, Fé , and the other expeditioners who only wanted to test their limits. Of course, this does not exclude the anthropological meaning of the mission, but it may be pompous to say that they did it “for science”. What is your opinion on this?
Totally. I think they mostly did it for the adventure, but for Santiago it sounded better to say they risked their lives for science. It is still tricky for me to fully understand, all these years later, why they did it. I mean, people left their kids behind. Which is just so unthinkable today. But I guess the 70s were different in many ways. Ethics within science was at least, that’s for sure.
Given that reality TV shows are extremely popular nowadays, and this whole setting with the raft could be interpreted as the foundations of reality shows, why is so little known of this experiment? Perhaps the experiment would be widely known had some murder indeed happened?
I think the expedition fell into oblivion because the scientific results were not interesting enough. And, of course, had someone actually died on board the scandal would have been much bigger. But, from my findings in the press archives, it seems like it did get a lot of attention at the time. But it was so long time ago. We forget. Remember that also today our media outlets are full of quirky stories that people follow for some time and then we forget. Even though they might prove to be worth a second look.
Santiago Genovés wrote two books on the Acali experiment. Did they too serve as material for his character?Given that he is not alive, and not present in the narrative happening here and now, how difficult was it for you to reconstruct his character (which was in fact skillfully portrayed)? How have the other participants’ stories affect your perspective on Santiago’s character?
I used Santiago’s diary from the expedition as a basis for the narration of the film. The Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho is making the voice of Santiago. I will say that, for some reason, I thought I could treat the fact that he was the nemesis of the film very lightly. All the participants were mocking and ridiculing him as to make it kind of funny and pathetic. Because I didn’t really dare to find a personal connection to him, I also failed for a long time to finish the film. It became one of the main factors that delayed the whole process, and that made the editing difficult because I struggled to find a voice for him, a truthful voice that contained some kind of vulnerability and reflection and showed that he did have some kind of breakthrough in the course of the film. Right before we began the final recordings with the narrator, I needed to sit down and write this long letter to Santiago. In a way, it felt so stupid to write a letter to a dead man. But I was using his whole life’s achievement and turning it into my project, my experiment. I needed to come to terms with that. I realized while writing this long letter to him, I wanted to explain why I identified with him. That was my big realization — I am like him more than I cared to admit. I’m making this humongous project that is really, really difficult to manifest — from raising the financing to build the full-size model of the raft to gathering all the subjects and crew needed to make it happen. For what? He was just like me, confused mid-Atlantic, totally at sea to figure out what this is all about! What does it all lead to in the end? I needed to feel some humbleness towards his ambition because I do admire him. I mean he did manage to get this crazy experiment to happen. I could identify with this obsession and the dream of success. I had to encounter my need for total control through his need for total control, the factor, he realizes, that eventually leads to his failure. I felt I had to start listening more to the people around me.
Couldn’t have Santiago, as a scientist, presumed that the group would in the end turn on him, and fantasize about killing him in particular?
I think he had mixed feelings about the possibility of violence. In one way he really wanted things to happen so that he could study it. On the other way, he was afraid of things getting out of hand. That is why he screened everyone before for mental issues and actually decided to take out two participants just days before departure, because he felt they were being too unstable in their behavior. I think that he deliberately chose weaker men than him, so that he wouldn’t be threatened onboard.
In what way did Santiago want to represent feminine power? Did he really believe in it, or was it again used as a means for his base hypothesis – that violence was inevitable. It seemed to me that this question was quite important to you and that it did in fact have the place it deserved in the film. What do the women on this raft represent? What kind of (in)capabilities were they given?
For a long time I could only find the women. I thought all the men were dead. It wasn’t until very late, just two months before shooting that I managed to find the Japanese man Eisuke Yamaki and could invite him as well. But I was hesitant to do that as I really liked the idea that only the women were left alive to tell the story of how they were fighting against this patriarchal alpha male out at sea all those years ago. I mean there is such an irony in the whole situation. That Santiago had given all the important positions to the women, to see what would happen if the women had the power, and then he couldn’t take it himself and eventually became overpowered by the strong women onboard. But the film still has a lot of focus on the women and to me it is also about some kind of sisterhood and them sharing their experiences with each other, reclaiming the story from him.
I must admit that I went to watch the film not knowing what I would be watching. I told my husband as little as: “I am going to watch a film about a raft on which some orgies happened.” I surmised that from an article I skimmed through. Of course, the film is much more than that, and it offered me much more than I had expected. Still, the question remains – how much are people truly captivated since the movie is about an experiment known as a “sex raft”?
This is still a question I have with all the movies I have done. To handle the expectations people have. The best scenario is that you get them interested enough to enter the cinema, and then give them something they had not thought they would get. But the trick is to not disappoint them. Here, of course, we knew that the fact that the expedition had been called “the sex raft” would maybe create a lot of hunger for sex, and possible disappointment when the film is not really delivering that. But from my experience so far, it seems that people are not walking out wanting to have seen something else or claiming their money back.
You are interested in people who are ready to do something radical. What was the greatest challenge for you as a director?
One challenge was obviously realizing this beast of a project on a documentary film budget. With production demands more relating to fictional filmmaking. Another challenge was to shape an interesting narrative out of a science experiment that in many ways had proven to be quite disappointing, especially in terms of drama. I mean, nothing really happened. No one died, and not much sex happened. Which was a problem for both Santiago as a scientist, but also to me as a storyteller.
Could you tell us something about your future projects?
Right now I am working with two theater projects in France. My play “Wild Minds”, which is a documentary performance based on interviews with extreme daydreamers, will be shown as part of Festival d’Automne in Paris at Théâtre de Gennevilliers in October. At the same time I am looking for new material for future film projects.
Marcus Lindeen is an artist, writer and director. He studied directing at Dramatiska Institutet in Stockholm and made his debut with Regretters, both a theater play and a documentary film about two Swedish men who change their sex twice. The play was translated into several languages and the film went on to win numerous awards. Among them the prestigious Prix Europa for best European documentary in Berlin in 2010. Regretters also picked up both the Swedish Academy Award (Guldbagge) and Kristallen (Swedish Emmy) for best documentary film in 2011. Besides touring a ton of festivals, the film was also screened at MoMA in New York and The National Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow. In 2011 his second film Accidentes Gloriosos premiered at The Venice Film Festival and won the prize for best medium-length film in the Orizzonti section. It’s an experimental fiction in black-and-white that deals with car crashes, sexual adventures and bottomless holes. The film also screened in the festival Hors Pistes at Centre Pompidou in Paris. In 2012 his play The Archive of Unrealized Dreams and Visions opened at Stockholms Stadsteater. The production is based on unfinished and never seen film scripts by Ingmar Bergman. Lindeen’s theater work has also been produced and presented for Dramaten (The Royal Dramatic theater in Stockholm), Riksteatern (The National Touring Company of Sweden), The National Theater in Oslo and The Schaubühne in Berlin. His latest production, A Generation Lost (2013), about youth unemployment, was produced for The Royal Dramatic Theater (Dramaten) and went on to be performed in The Swedish Parliament and broadcasted on National Swedish Television. The same year he was commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm to create the performance Wild Minds, which in 2016 was invited to perform at The Schaubühne in Berlin. His latest film, The Raft, premiered at CPH:DOX film festival in Copenhagen where it picked up the main award. The film is about the 1973 Acali expedition, where eleven people drifted across the Atlantic in a social study to understand violence. In the film he reunites the still living crew members on a life-size replica of the original raft. The film is the second installment in a trilogy of studio-based documentary films, where Regretters is the first. The replica used in The Raft has also been presented as an interactive art installation with video and sound work that was commissioned by and exhibited at Centre Pompidou in Paris (2017).
Interviewed by Milena Ilić Mladenović: Born in 1986. Graduated from and completed her master’s studies at the Department for General Literature and Literature Theory at the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade. Writes short stories and long poems, incompetent essays, and competent recipes. Records stories of her sons.