Tuesday, October 04, 2022

VIFF 2022 and De Humani Corporis Fabrica: interview excerpts with ​​Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor

All interview answers below are from the press release for De Humani Corporis Fabrica, as conducted by Jean-Michel Frodon. I have already used all the images provided in the press package for the film in my previous VIFF blogposts, and my requests for an email interview or fresh stills have gone unanswered, so I'm afraid this is all I'm going to be able to do for now - the film screens this Thursday at the Cinematheque and Saturday at the VIFF Centre. 

The use of hyperbolic language and superlative adjectives often presents as bullshit, these days - the omnipresent language of the hustle, especially when writing about film: everything is phenomenal, everything is superb, everything is riveting. I'm not saying I'm not some sort of hustler myself - what was it that Burroughs said, beware of whores who say they don't want money; what they mean is they want MORE money, much more...?  - and I'm not saying I don't have my own agendas, but... I want to indulge in superlative language in a moment, and want to assure you that this is genuine self-expression on my part, whatever else you might say about me; I am making no money on this writing, am as ever blogging out of sheer enthusiasm for the subject I am writing about (and a desire to see more films as exciting anbd groundbreaking as the one I am here praising - all too rare an experience). The film in question has guaranteed that every other film has gotten only 4/5, at best, on my People's Choice ballots, because only one film that I've seen deserves the highest score possible. You've read me mention it before. 

De Humani Corporis Fabrica is the most exciting, challenging, and flat-out essential documentary I've seen in years, up there with the filmmakers' own Leviathan and, say, Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death - probably my top two documentaries of the 21st century, now joined by a third. It alternates between passages of great abstraction,where the viewer is confronted with our own unrecognizeable interior landscapes (which at times, in fact, reminded me of footage I've seen of the interior of pipes in a building's plumbing-system, as a small camera was being fed through them) - to passages that are extremely difficult to watch, often involving surgical violations of the surface of the body, points at which punctures or incisions or ruptures occur - stuff like blood dripping from a penis after kidney stone operation, for instance, or a C-section. Sometimes - as with closeups of cataract surgery, as seen above - we get a bit of both: a feast of colours (a lot of them reds) and shapes, but still unsettling, because you can see that it is an eye you are looking at (we might even riff off Brakhage here and call it "The Act of Seeing One's Own Eyes," omitting the preposition). Elsewhere, one type of image leads directly to the other: an opening sequence of brain surgery will be comfortable enough for most viewers, but perhaps not the brief moment afterwards, for me the first flinch in the film, when the camera is extracted through a tube inserted in the patient's head, and we get to see where we've been and how we got there. Seeing inside the brain is not as upsetting as passing back outside and seeing where we've been: funny how that works! 

There are many questions to be raised about the film, so much so that I highly encourage you to go with someone you can talk with, afterwards. One of the most basic questions, however, is how it came to be that Paravel and Castaing-Taylor were allowed to shoot anything at all. In Canada, there is such emphasis around patient confidentiality, such a fear of liability, that you aren't even supposed to snap a selfie, lest someone else be captured in the frame. Apparently things are different in France, where the film was shot in multiple hospitals - something spoken to in the press release for the film (all italicized questions are posed by Jean-Michel Frodon. LCT and VP are, obviously, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel):

How did you obtain permission to shoot in these conditions, what is the deal with the hospital administration ? 

LCT : The only deal was that we could film anything and everything, so long as we had the consent of everyone involved. To our surprise, the doctors and medics were incredibly generous, and excited to show us how they operated and share with us the tools of their trade. Even more surprising was the eagerness on the part of the patients. I think that the medics saw us as a kind of distraction from their daily routines, and they were amused at finding themselves the object, or as they often said, in cryptocolonial parlance, the “tribe,” of an anthropological gaze, whereas they typically saw themselves as monopolizing the most authoritative or legitimate gaze in their universe. With patients, it was often quite different: they seemed to see us as a benevolent companion, or as a protective witness to what they were about to endure, usually otherwise alone, frequently anesthetized, and almost always very fearful. 

VP : There’s a kind of unspoken morality that might suggest that a place like this - a hospital - is inaccessible, hermetic. We were the first to be surprised by the realization that, on the contrary, we were often welcome, and even perceived as being useful, or shall we say, having a purpose. 

LCT : For the carers, and some of the patients, we were an exotic presence, just as we were for the fishermen during the shooting of the film Leviathan. Their work is so intense, so engaging and so exhausting, that our presence changed the routine, afforded them some moments of relief, and even humor. We were pretty clueless, made many mistakes, and there was a lot they could educate us about. We soon realized that they were also interested in our point of view, in how we would observe them, and how they appear to outsiders. In certain cases, especially in geriatric units, the doctors wanted to see our footage, in the hope that our outsiderly perspective would allow them to see their care differently, and eventually improve it. 

VP : When we were almost finished with the film, we showed it to some doctors because it was essential to us to know what they thought of it, and considered our representation of them just. We were surprised at the intensity of their emotions. It meant a lot to them that their work could be seen and shared, especially the multiple ways they have to confront suffering and death. All over the world, people publicly applauded the medical staff during the first wave of the pandemic, but who really knew much about what they do? The film tried to unveil this cloak of invisibility, which has two aspects: both diminishing the obscurity of their work, and also fighting against the false images of hospital life that abound in fiction films, especially television series. The situation in hospitals, especially public ones, demands that we not turn our gaze away from the conditions in which the everyday reality of this work takes place. 

(Allan again): All this raises a subsequent question - that of informed consent. Perhaps things work differently in France, but there are sequences in the film - we might be reminded of Titticult Follies - where we see patients who do not appear to be mentally sound. One I cannot write about without spoiling something - a sad and sobering surprise that comes when you get the answer to the question, "What's that sound" (people who see the film will know exactly the moment I mean); but there is one older gentleman, for example, who is somewhat adamantly trying to leave the hospital via an elevator, repeatedly pressing a button, as two orderlies try to talk him back to his room. I do not know how one judges competence in such matters. I was shocked when my own mother, of compromised competence, was in hospital and a doctor presumed to have a very important conversation with her without including me, which I think was actually key to her dying a few days later. It is not clear that this fellow understands where he is or what he is doing: he knows that the elevator goes down and thus out, obviously, and that out is better than in, but beyond that, I wouldn't assume that any permission he might give would count for much (one wonders if relatives were consulted?). Ms. Paravel speaks to this question in the press release, thus:    

Was it difficult to obtain the permission from all the people we see filmed? 

VP : For us, it was essential to be assured each time that there was genuine consent. We spent a lot of time with people in geriatric units, who are clearly in a state of mental fragility, explaining to them and showing them what we’d filmed, putting the camera in their hands so that they too could film and experiment with it, etc. Generally, as we mentioned, we were surprised by how keen both the patients and the medics were to be filmed. I can only remember one doctor who didn’t respond to our approach, and one patient who asked us not to use the footage of an emergency operation that saved his life. 

(Allan again): Other questions get raised. One that the film doesn't itself address, but that it provokes in viewers, is the evolutionary value of our queasiness at what we see, and how our actual biology might inform the taboos that the film violates (for example, in putting a gigantic image of a bleeding penis on the screen). You will surely hear gasps, screams, cries, nervous chatter when and if you see the film with an audience. Some people may faint, some people may vomit (if there was ever, truly, a film to faint or vomit in, this is it; I'm actually really looking forward to surveying audience reactions to this film). It's all somewhat puzzling to me. I could see having some sort of adrenal surge - a flight or fight response - at seeing damage done to the human body, of the body tensing up or going into some sort of hyper-alert overdrive, to help it deal with whatever threat it seems to be witnessing, but why have we evolved so that when we see something horrifying involving our own bodies, we might lapse into unconsciousness? It makes no sense, as a response to danger, unless perhaps it is the involuntary equivalent of "playing dead" - but even still: if I've got a great big  gash in my thigh, for instance, and am losing blood, playing dead isn't going to help me, and passing out probably equates with bleeding out. I guess if it's someone near me who has the gash, passing out might spare me the messy work of coming to their aid, but even still, on a species level, that's a counter-intuitive bit of evolution, as if your body has come to think that protecting you from the awareness of a problem is somehow going to solve that problem! Yet I've fainted twice at the sight of blood, and DID worry that if things got too gory in the film, I might black out. 

I didn't - though I did squirm and make nervous comments to a viewing companion and occasionally look away ("to make notes"). Perhaps my recent surgeries have hardened me a bit to the things the film depicts...? (As I say, I've had lots of experience with bleeding from the penis, so...).  

I did not get to ask questions on the above topics, but the press release does delve into the notion of taboos. None of my own were triggered, mind you - I had no moral objections to anything shown in the film; everything shown is as respectful and tasteful as can be (yes, it is possible to have a ginormous closeup of a bleeding cock that is respectful and tasteful). But I should imagine that in many countries, showing this film would be impossible, still, because of societal norms that dictate that you cannot represent genitals, or dead bodies, or "indignities to the human body," as I believe Canadian law once had it (and may still, in some provinces). The internet has loosened up things a great deal, but when I lived in Japan (1999-2002 - not THAT long ago) you still couldn't see genitals or pubic hair, male or female, in films as non-pornographic as Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre (which I had on VHS; the scene where the ghosts of murdered women rise from the grave had optical fogging over their crotches). Films like Bad Taste, Blue Velvet, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II, and Romero's Day of the Dead were all, for years, censored in one way or the other in some parts of Canada, deemed obscene, which is just another way of saying they broke a taboo. Granted, those are all non-documentaries, but they're all the work of respected, and now quite famous, filmmakers. But given that we all have bodies, come from bodies, and are to ourselves, at least, naked; given that we all bleed when cut; given that the body is vulnerable in a thousand ways, why do we relegate seeing its mysteries to a well-paid elite of medical professionalswhile we prefer to look away in horror? (My wife and I were both horrified to see the results of my surgeries, and any attempts to post images of them on Facebook were met with "content warnings" and optical foggings, to protect the squeamish and sensitive). Why ARE these taboos in place, concerning such universals as our own flesh? Why will - I expect - the vast number of VIFF attendees decide NOT to come to screenings of this film...?

The press release gives some indication as to the relationship of the filmmakers to these taboos. 

Although it is quite unique, this film reflects your work at the Sensory Ethnography Lab. What are the connections between this new project and your previous work? 

LCT : Sometimes people talk about our work as an effort to relativise humanity and recontextualize it in a larger ecological or even cosmological sphere, which I guess is half true. But it’s not always the case, as with Somniloquies or Caniba. And this new film is even more centered on human beings, even as we try to evoke the interdependence of the human and the non-human, and our place among technologies and in a cosmos that exceeds us. The exploration of the inexhaustible landscapes and liquiscapes inside the body hopefully gives us a new understanding, or at least sensibility, of the kinds of peculiar beings we are.

 VP : As in all of our work, we navigate in the space between beauty and horror. As in our other films, there is a political dimension that doesn’t immediately reveal itself nor is announced as such. But we try to understand how beings are put together. So there was a kind of research into languages, visual and auditory, that give access to aspects of reality that had up to now remained unperceived. In each work, we’ve found it critical to question taboos, explore the why and how of restrictions and repression. In this case, the taboo that this film confronts is the one of our own finite nature, both in our relationship with the inevitability of death and with the frontiers of each body: frontier meaning the physical body, the sealed envelope of our own skins, which is also the frontier that defines individuality as a value, perhaps a frontier that is overvalued, a frontier which masks the extent to which we are also collective beings. There is thus a necessarily transgressive aspect to our films, an aspect that seems crucial to us. We feel that there are ethical ways of transgressing and other ways that aren’t. 

LCT : The in/finitude of the body is evoked in different ways, both by the various surgical procedures that seem to “repair the living,” and by the limitless expanses of flesh and folds that we discover inside our bodies. Once we cross the frontier of the skin, we glimpse our own infinitude, which is by turns divine and utterly profane —both expressive of but also subject to profanity after profanity — and which is both transfiguring and traumatic. 

Not everything in the film is taboo-busting. In particular, there is a sort of "wandering eye" footage near the end that is shot at a bar (one with astonishing murals on the wall, shown in detail; I disagree that they are pornographic, though some people have accused the artist whose work they most reminded me of, Maurice Spira, of trading in obscenity, too).There were questions that arose here, too, which are answered a bit below - which is also the end of the press release is the end of the article. There's more that I have not included. There are questions that I have (like differences in gendered responses to the film, even among the filmmakers, one female, one male) that I don't think I'll get answered. But I'll be attending the film again (probably the Cinematheque screening on Thursday) and urge anyone interested in adventurous, taboo-busting, and very rich documentary filmmaking to consider attending. There have been tons of enjoyable films this VIFF, but to me, this was the greatest film of the festival, and I'm really looking forward to seeing it on a big screen, with a (big?) audience. 

What does the final scene, which occurs in a very peculiar location, represent for you? 

VP : The dining room, the so-called “salle de garde,” is a very specific space in French hospitals, a place where all day and all night doctors and interns gather, and not the other care-givers - it’s very hierarchal. They go there to eat and to rest, but it’s a space controlled by rules that may seem like folklore but are very strict. For example, it’s forbidden to speak about medical subjects, and there are codes about where and how to sit, with punishments of a generally sexual nature for each infraction. Most doctors are strongly attached to this space, which traditionally was adorned with pornographic frescoes. Here we get a sense of how life, death, and religion intermingle. 

LCT : And of course sex. For me, the final scene is carnivalesque —in desublimating, and to some degree transcending or finding temporary peace with, all the traumatic transgressions that medics both enact on their patients and are themselves subject to. Without these moments of liminal anti-structure, or catharsis, it would be hard for the medics to keep on going. It’s obscene, to be sure — etymologically too, as it happens behind closed doors — but it’s also therapeutic and purgative. It’s also a world, or a ritual, that’s on the wane, as its pornographic, mostly heterosexist, and sometimes patriarchal imagery is at odds with emerging sensibilities. 

Does giving the film the title De Humani Corporis Fabrica indicate that we’re at a historical turning point in relationship to science, medicine, the body, on the level of what happened in 1543, when Vesalius published his work – indeed, at the very moment when Copernicus published On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres? 

VP : The film doesn’t claim to play a role comparable to that of Vesalius in the history of medicine. But we do try to open up our bodies and look at them with new eyes, in a way that hadn’t happened before, one that adds movement, time, texture, and sound to still anatomical imagery. This has physical, technical, political, spiritual, and existential implications, which are all being reconfigured in the present moment, and it addresses contemporary crises, like the current pandemic, which reminds us of our finitude, and somehow simultaneously of our immense solitude and our mutually constitutive interdependent collectivity. The film’s ambition is to help us reinterpret our body and its relationship to the world. 

VIFF listings for De Humani Corporis Fabrica here. Trailer here. Good luck! 

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