YIDFF 2011 International Competition
Images of a Lost City
An Interview with Jon Jost (Director)

Renewing Reality

Q: Looking at Images of a Lost City and London Brief (YIDFF ’97), place seems to be an important part of your work. What is it about places you find so interesting?

JJ: I constantly travel and live in many different places. In effect, I’m a totally uprooted person. I have no home. And somehow, maybe because of its absence in my life, I have become attentive to places and their particular peculiarities.

Q: And what about Lisbon?

JJ: Well the first time I went to Lisbon was in 1963, before the advent of cars in Lisbon. It was more like being in 1920. And it was an extraordinarily beautiful city. At that time the azulejos were still on the walls; they all later fell down. They went through this period where they had laws where it was better for landlords to let their buildings collapse, so they let them collapse. They didn’t do any maintenance, and all these beautiful azulejos fall off the buildings. The thing is that the azulejos were the waterproofing and the construction there is rather piss-poor. Basically they have some kind of masonry column, and in between they just fill it with masonry junk: sand, rocks, and a touch of concrete to bind it together. Moisture gets in, it gets water bogged and the building falls down. The azulejos were not just decorative; they were nice ceramic that kept the moisture outside.

Q: So what’s lost about the city?

JJ: That way of life, and the architecture that holds it. That area is starting to get gentrified and it’s starting to get globalized. When I lived there, there was a little old lady selling her little collection of turnips and potatoes and stuff in her little cave. Well she’s not going to be there much longer because someone’s going to come and say, “I’ll buy that whole building, you’re gone and now I have my house in this beautiful area.” But on one level, I suppose if it wasn’t all gentrified it would all just fall down.

Q: This footage was shot 12 years ago. Had you edited the film then, wouldn’t it have just been “Images of a City?”

JJ: No, it wouldn’t have. Lisbon lives in a permanent past tense. It’s in their culture. This saudade stuff. Portugal is a beautiful place with nice weather. There’s everything you could wish to have, but they’re all sad. The myth is that they’re sad because their king, Alfonso, went charging off to defeat the Arabs. He didn’t come back and they’re still waiting.

Lisbon was briefly the capital of Spain. They had their explorers. They went off and had their nice empire and it all fell apart. And they’re licking their wounds. They’re trained to be sad, melancholic. And they’re kind of proud of this thing. In a way they lose themselves. They lose their own possibility because they’re suffocating on their culture’s insistence that there’s nothing that can be done.

Q: Although it’s tamer than much of your other work, Images plays a lot with noise, shutter speed and other aspects of DV. It’s certainly not a clean, clear look at Lisbon.

JJ: Most of us have seen everything a thousand times and it’s fucking boring. If you shoot it normal—I don’t care if it’s crisp and clean and well lit—it’s still boring. So you have to use the medium somehow to change normal, everyday reality into something interesting again. Reality is interesting, but you’re tired of it, so you have to renew it. That’s what an artist’s job is.

I don’t do anything remotely flamboyant in Images. I suppose the image is a little grittier than people usually like, but I like that. I deliberately made the camera do that. I could have gotten a cleaner image but I didn’t like the look of that. Otherwise there are a few places where it does interesting things, and some long, sneaky dissolves.

Q: I suppose it is cleaner than Nas Correntes de Luz da Ria Formosa, another work of yours shot in Portugal.

JJ: To me it’s like an urban variant of Nas Correntes in that it’s sort of structured in a similar way. Nas Correntes was shot in the summer of ’96, when I was just trying to get used to this new DV camera, and the idea that it didn’t cost any money to shoot. After 35 years of being afraid to touch the button because it was money you didn’t have going down the drain, I told myself I had to go out and shoot. I didn’t mean to make a film about Cabanas, but I tended to gravitate toward these out of focus shots and they really worked in that beach town. In Lisbon I decided I was going to keep this up. I was sort of hooked on this out of focus thing, but I looked at a handful of shots and said nope, this isn’t right for Lisbon. So the proper aesthetics for Cabanas were not the proper aesthetics for Lisbon, even though they’re both Portugal. They’re different places.

Q: But your shift to DV had an important influence on both films.

JJ: With film you had to worry about time. Time was money, and besides you only had 10 minutes to shoot with. But suddenly you had this medium where you can just shoot. You can say, “Well here is somehow something of interest,” just let the camera roll and wait for that interest to happen. Basically it was teaching yourself patience.

It was so unconscious that I was shooting a film of Lisbon that it took another 12 years until I got around and said maybe I should make one. Which is another one of the things I like about DV. It completely took away the necessity to think in terms of films.

When I was teaching workshops, I would say to my students, “Quit worrying about what movie you’re going to make. Just go shoot. It doesn’t cost you anything, and you’ll learn something. You’ll learn how to shoot and you’ll learn how to see. And maybe in the process of doing that, you’ll end up with a movie.” Like one of the movies I showed here at Yamagata, 6 Easy Pieces (YIDFF 2001). It was completely disparate things that sometime said, “Hey, put me together. I’m a film.” Digital video completely altered my way about thinking of making film because it was like, “Stop thinking about making a film. Just go and shoot, and the film will come to you.” If there’s a film, it will come to you.

(Compiled by Kyle Hecht)

Interviewer: Kyle Hecht
Photography: Hanawa Shun / Video: Keino Yutaro / 2011-09-30 in Tokyo