Jørgen Leth (71), with his 42-strong film back catalogue, could be Denmark’s most significant and prolific artist. He is mainly concerned with making documentaries, with even his fictional films featuring documentary elements.
The Danish Institute of Film is currently releasing all of Leth’s 42 films on DVD. These bear testament to a long life lived in a spectator’s visual realm. Leth is an aesthetic, a man who often edits his documentaries haphazardly. He prefers his separate scenes so independent and illustrative, that they should fit together in a random collage. This is particularly evident in the short film The Life in Denmark (1972) and the 66 scenes from Amerika (1981). But, first and foremost in the short film The Perfect Human (1967) which quickly made him world renowned, due to its critique of the almost advertising-like superficial life.
In today’s Norway, Leth is most known for the film he did with Lars von Trier, The Five Obstructions (2003). In this film, von Trier gives Leth «impossible» tasks, based on the success of The Perfect Human. Many may recall one of the «obstructions»; when Leth is sitting, tuxedo-clad, in the midst of the Bombay slum eating a luxurious meal, whilst the dirt poor and starving stare behind the plastic table cloth. Leth is also, to some, known as the man behind the biography The Imperfect Human (2006), which angered half of Denmark. He was thoroughly abused in the media, and had to go undercover. Why? A small paragraph in the book sensually depicted his relationship with the young daughter of a chef in Haiti. Leth, who had long since moved to Haiti, and later, became its honorary Danish ambassador, white and relatively wealthy, was accused of being an old, white manipulator. However, Lars von Trier and others came to his defence; they recognised him as someone who always experiments with life, testing and breaking limits, an artist who despite everything has something to tell us. This episode portrayed Denmark perhaps at its worst, its bourgeois morality, as a know-it-all welfare state, and revealed a dim attitude to writing – nobody cared for the remainder of the book.
Leth first came to my attention that time in Copenhagen: a few intelligent (female) newspaper articles defended him – opinion pieces of those who have and those who have not lived a life themselves. Later, online, I came across a journalist who went to Haiti to see the dark, «suppressed» 16-year old. In response to whether she had recovered from the humiliation with Leth, she said: «What is wrong with you? I have had plenty of men before him, and enjoy it immensely. »
JØRGEN LETH, you literally emigrated from Denmark. Why?
“This was a journey which took place in two speeds. My first time there was in 1981. I was due to make a feature film entitled The Foreign Correspondent – about a foreign correspondent who suffers a mental breakdown. For this I needed to live in a country which had a crisis. I was attracted to the banana republic as portrayed by Graham Greene in The Comedians – by its eerie, Tintin-like universe, its political terror and voodoo.”
I feel that both Leth’s fictional films; The Foreign Correspondent (1983) and Traberg (1992), were themed around, and framed by, Haiti. The film – out on DVD in Denmark this month – features the portrayal of a lost and searching male main character as its focus. But, the main character disappears, or is displaced, out of the fictional centre, all the while the Haitian reality offers itself up with a terrific and obsessive force. Not unlike what Leth himself encountered:
“I kept returning to Haiti. I lived there from 1991 and actually arrived in the dramatic months of January – April 1991 just as Aristide was inaugurated as President. I had just been through a severe and protracted depression which stole a year and a half of my life. At some point after my divorce. I thought I would not get through it alive. I had to do something about it, so I left.”
And what did a white Scandinavian as yourself, really gain from Haiti?
“I have learnt more from the Haitians than I have taught them. As opposed to other white, well-intentioned film people, I learnt how to be humble in the face of life’s circumstances – death is present every day. In Haiti, it is possible to conquer many of your Western comfort syndromes.”
Is Leth really considering whether it is ethical to film every situation, for instance dead or dying people? In Haiti, Leth are often in situations where assaults occur while he films. I ask about his filming of a funeral ceremony where the priest is attacked by someone, right in front of Leth’s camera:
“I was filming in the church among the loved ones of a shipping fatality. I was deeply moved. As the sole photographer in church that day, it was important to film it. The images are very graphic, harrowing and moving. At the same time, you should know that I learnt a lot from Living Theatre in the past, in an art history framework. As a result, I have taught myself to be observational sympathetic, not to risk, during traumatic circumstances, losing the ability to observe. I have witnessed Haitian tragedies, but in each instance I perform with a certain decorum. For instance, once I portrayed dead bodies laying on the street by filming how another photographer depicted death. This was how I explained the killed. I filmed the female photographer who shoots the dead bodies for the news agencies. The ethical is decided by the situation as it happens, not by a theory.”
Your son, Asgeir Leth, also made a shocking film about Haiti. How intimate should you be with Haiti’s violence?
“His Ghosts of Cité Soleil is a very brave piece of work, made in the slums of Port-Au-Prince where President Aristide organised political groups to support himself. For a long time, the slums were no go areas, but Asgeir was present there during the most dramatic period before and after the President’s departure.”
But, were you not afraid he might get killed?
“Yes, I was afraid. I was scared the entire time.”
You are aware that the two main characters in the film were killed afterwards?
“Yes, I followed them both closely. They are now both dead.”
JØRGEN LETH is older than fellow Danish film maker Lars von Trier. In a way, von Trier is his «student», and in The Five Obstructions, he gets to challenge his idol. Von Trier is also the producer of Leth’s current project, The Erotic Human.
You are inspired by difficulties, so I am curious what kind of relationship you have with Denmark’s «enfant terrible», Lars von Trier. In a previous interview, you described him as a person with a «purist complex » – that he inhabits an almost religious need to deconstruct.
“Which he has. That is evident. You can say many things about Lars. And most are true. You could argue that he might also suffer an Oedipus-complex towards me. The whole idea of the purist in The Five Obstructions was him having an illusion about breaking down my monitoring, observer role as film maker. For instance, that I would break down in front of the poor suffering earth shattering misery in Mumbai. But, you could say that this was a miscalculation on his part. I am not sentimental, something Lars was, in this assessment. He possesses melodramatic traits. However, you could say just as many negatives as positives about him. This film expressed both his devilishness and his love of me.”
“Lars von Trier is more intelligent than me, I am unable to imagine what his thoughts are. In the film we made, I was never able to prepare myself. The fact that he is so devilish, makes a good film. The infeasibilities inspire me and make me inventive. At the same time, we both create strict game rules. For instance, there are no lengthy conversations outside of the film.”
In the «fifth obstruction», you read a text written by von Trier, an admittance that in the end, he is the one being obstructed. This was not meant ironically?
“No, I am very touched by that scene. It quickly dawned on me that these were very powerful words from his end, probably his most self-aware ever. That chapter really touches me, he is showing me infinite generosity. He is admitting to something he is unable to do, yet I am. Do you agree?”
Yes. You can tell from the way it is edited. He is moved, he sitting there, sensitive.
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