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?
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