The film looks at transcendental themes, the denial of death, our relationship to nature and the illusion of safety. It took the director several years to make this cinematic vision of reality and dreams.
What I remember about my first encounter with was my visceral response: strong, indefinable. Trying to explain it afterwards, my words became elusive, like trying to explain what a song is ‘about’. Peter Mettler’s work defies classification. He dislikes calling it a documentary, yet it enlarges the definition of documentary in a way that is explorative, reaching beyond language.
The process of making this three-hour film lasted eight years and took the funders, TV commissioners and distributors on a journey that would dazzle the most daring in its groundlessness, its reluctance to find security through narrative or tight definition. Filmed in North America, Switzerland and India, it looks at transcendental themes in an intimate, participatory way and also in a more observational fashion.
Voices, experiences, encounters arise and dissolve like a dream of life remembered on film, a stream of consciousness linked by jet vapour trails, radio receivers and the hovering eye of the camera. Banality and profundity intermingle. Entranced Christians look for God in Toronto; people search for bliss through the ultimate sexual high in Las Vegas; ex-junkies articulate the indefinable ecstasy of heroin in Switzerland and hoards receive blessings from a guru in India.
The film’s journey echoes that of its characters. Peter’s fascination with the world is linked with the fascination of the film’s ability to recreate experience in all its complexity. When cinema was invented, seeing a train on the screen made people flee in terror from the theatre. That type of visual celluloid shock reverberates in Peter’s work.
I met Peter at the Visions du Reel Festival where his film had just premiered, winning the Grand Prix and the Special Jury Prize. I asked what it was like to show the film after all these years in the making.
PM: A film has so many different lives…the stage when you’re thinking about making it… and the shooting process. Then there’s the very long process of editing – as a material it’s like a live organism, it’s constantly shifting.
It has many facets and sides – it’s fluid. Then finally you finish it, and I had this strong feeling – it’s just one version of that living organism. But then suddenly it struck me, it exists as a print, as a fixed set of images and sounds that you play on a machine. And when it is shown for the first time in Nyon, it comes alive again in a chemistry with the audience and is somehow even more out of my control than ever. It lives according to the social context of the moment, more specifically of that night, but also of these times. The meanings it reveals are again different than the meanings I was looking for when I started, so it really is like a different version even though it is exactly the same edit. It holds different meanings now.
ED: What is the relationship between you and the viewer?
PM: I guess it is a kind of mirroring process. I find myself really like a medium, just as the film medium is a medium between out here in the world and inside the cinema. Things pass through me and my equipment. What people see in the theatres is like looking at a mirror. It’s not that different for them as it would be walking out in the streets, leading their normal lives. The film is not trying to tell you something, it’s not trying to instruct you.
ED: Did you consciously have to get out of the way to enable that?
PM: It was like a modus operandi from the beginning that I’d just work chronologically and according to the places I’d chosen: basically just very general regions and four themes. The rest was a matter of following things as they’d unfold, – responding to things that jumped out either intellectually or emotionally. Sometimes they were very obvious and strong things that I knew were important, and other times, many times, the meaning wasn’t obvious to me, but I sensed it was a trail to follow for a moment.
ED: What were the themes?
PD: Transcendence, the denial of death, relationship to nature and illusion of safety.
They were four themes that were important to me, that had surfaced over the years of making films and writing – and living. They became ingrained in me. I could forget the words, but in my response, my intuitions, my senses, they were there. If I looked at something and it intrigued me, it was often because of those elements.
If I’m forced to say what it’s about, I actually don’t mention those themes. They were more my tools. But in the end… – maybe it’s about identity, in the sense of how we form our picture of the world, how we form our picture of reality: what our belief structure is, what our activity is that gives us a sense of purpose and value and aspiration and continuation. I think those things permeate the film and that it’s ultimately mysterious – you’re always looking for the truth and the truth is always elusive.
ED: When you say “I stop looking for and just look,” isn’t that a realisation?
PM: For me in that process it was sort of a level of realisation. There’s a difference between looking for something with desire and purpose and just looking. Because when you look for something with desire and purpose, you’re filtering and seeking and editing and deleting – and wanting. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s different than looking and being and letting it come to you, in a way.
ED: Seeing the film seems like listening to music.
PM: It works like music. The images work like music. It’s a musical kind of film and a musical kind of structure. I see it much more as a composition than a story or an essay.
ED: The funders were incredibly supportive even when the edit took longer than anticipated. What happened?
PM: We came up with a total of 55 hours … and it was not repetitive material. It was already a film in a sense, and it was kind of mind-boggling to deal with the fact that it was supposed to be a 90-minute film knowing it could never hold the breadth of the experience and associations that were necessary to convey that experience. I decided to take certain parts of the film and edit them in a long fashion, ending up with something that was five hours that we’d show to television co-producers. It was a kind of plea to support something that was longer, and of course we needed the money for it as well. They were basically instantly supportive the day they saw that material.
It was amazing that once the film was rolling, I didn’t have to defend things or argue. It was very free. But to get it going in the beginning was really hard. I didn’t want to fake a proposal. I really openly said, “This is a filmmaking process, not a scripted blueprint. I don’t know what it will look like in the end.”
ED: Does such a film require its own space to play in?
PM: This festival is one of those spaces, I think. Even the title is great: ‘Visions du Reel’. It is a vision of reality that can be any genre… What is normally called documentary is also fiction because it is still a subjective reaction and a creation, and no matter how hard you try to be neutral and objective, it is a manipulation and it is filtered through the experience of the maker. Visions du Reel really acknowledges that and also tries to encourage work that addresses that.
After the opening of the film, the atmosphere seemed charged, almost resembling a rave more than a festival. Peter told me how he was overwhelmed by the strong emotional responses from people. As a generation, we need such filmic hymns to the complexity of living, undetermined by pre-formulated TV slots. We need spaces to wonder.
Emma Davie is a filmmaker based in Scotland, currently directing a documentary for the BBC that follows a year in the life of a Scottish island, as well as working on her own film Sightseer.
Peter Mettler filmography:
Lancalot Freely, 1980; Gregory, 1981 (both short films)Scissere, 1982; Eastern Avenue, 1985 (both experimental films) The Top of his Head, 1989; Tectonic Plates, 1989 (both features) Picture of Light, 1994; Balifilm, 1997; Gambling, Gods and LSD, 2002 (all documentaries).