Thomas A. Østbye: Reducing Reality or Losing Control of the Film

What is most mysterious in life is existence itself, says renowned Norwegian director Thomas A. Østbye in an interview about his documentary films and his Indonesian interactive project 17.000 Islands. The interview was made at the 19th Jihlava IDFF.

What is most mysterious in life is existence itself, says renowned Norwegian director Thomas A. Østbye in an interview about his documentary films and his Indonesian interactive project 17.000 Islands. The interview was made at the 19th Jihlava IDFF.

Please tell us more about the concept of your best known film Imagining Emanuel and about its inner structure.

I was interested in how the film style affects the content. I wanted to make a film about identity and how identity is communicated in documentary films. Then I chose to use different styles of documentary and portray one person in different styles so we can see how the style affects our image of this person. I met Emanuel whose life situation depended on communicating his identity. He didn’t have money means to communicate it, he only had his story to tell because he was illiterate. He had no papers and no people who knew who he was because he came alone to Norway. I thought it was interesting to work with him to see how different parts of the Norwegian society would see him and at the same time see how different documentary styles would portray him. The basic idea was to have an image of Emanuel in different styles. One chapter would be one style and the next chapter would be another style. But his story is very complicated to be reduced to short stories. I had to mix the styles a little bit.

You kept following Emanuel’s life story and used a completely different approach when making Out of Norway. You gave him the camera and he made a video diary about his return to Africa. What is the relation between the two concepts?

The first film has all these ways to look at Emanuel from the outside. But I still wanted to follow his story after the film to double check what would happen. When I started making the next film I thought of various ways of continuing the first film. It’s very difficult to do the same style again and there‘s no point in doing that. The only solution I saw was that we changed this concept totally to the opposite. Now it would be Emanuel watching us so it would be like a mirror or a flip side of the first film.

You have made one more film dealing with the topic of immigration which is screened as an educational film at an asylum institute. Have you become a specialist on this theme in Norway?

I don’t know. I made three films dealing with this topic. I entered into this topic as I wanted to make a film about identity. I met Emanuel and I thought it’s good to make a film both about identity and film style; not abstractly but with a political case. I may be famous for these films but there are more people dealing with this topic in Norway. I don’t only make immigrant films now. I think that I’m rather known for making stylistic documentaries, I have a very specific style for each documentary. I haven’t been an activist before making these films but I got to know all this information about the situation for asylum seekers. It was kind of shocking and I felt obliged to communicate it. It was my duty to tell it rather than a conscious choice.

Your distinctive stylistic position is proved by your new film Things. You use static shots to capture things; the film is essentially very contemplative. Does the film have a theme in the regular sense of the word?

That‘s a difficult question. My concept was not to have a topic. Not to have a story or hide behind a concrete message. My intention was to try to relate to the world in another way than what I usually do and also try to make a film that does not use the world or reality to illustrate a point. My question was whether it is possible to film the world without reducing it or using it like a brick in a construction. For me, the world is most mysterious when I’m able to see one brick. I see it’s a brick but because it’s so clear it can be mysterious that it even exists or that I can see the brick or that I’m existing in a world with the brick. That’s the mystery of life for me. When you watch films that are telling you a lot or that have a very effective dramaturgy I kind of forget the mystery of existence because I’m seduced into the storytelling or the topic.

Besides documentary film, you have also introduced your cross-media project 17.000 Islands at Jihlava IDFF and other festivals. It enables the viewers to edit their own film out of scenes from Indonesia. Why have you decided for this approach and what does it tell us about creating documentary images?

Documentary for me is to use film as a tool to approach reality. I basically use two tools. The first is to simplify or take away unnecessary parts; this approach is employed in Human or in Imagining Emanuel. The other approach is to do something where I lose control over the film; for example by giving Emanuel the camera or in 17.000 Islands. The film is based on how Suharto, former president of Indonesia, used propaganda to make the image of Indonesia into a nice little package while the reality of Indonesia is very diverse and laden with conflict. When we make a film, we, too, make a kind of package or constructed version of the world. To break out of this system of simplifying reality, we wanted to have many different viewpoints, many different voices to give a more diverse image of Indonesia. So we made a platform where anybody can make their own version of our film.

Are these interactive projects an alternative that will become the future of documentary? Or is it something that will always remain on the periphery while the mainstream will still underlie to narratives and script editing?

I hope that regular documentary will survive. I really like traditional documentary films, the cinema situation of watching. I also like radio very much, it’s one of my favourite media. I’m not very fond of interactive documentaries but we had to do this because of the concept and the topic. I think there will be a lot more interactive documentaries, it will be a platform for itself. But I hope the cinema will survive and there will be no competition. I don’t think interactive documentaries will take over traditional documentaries because interactive means you have to take part and you have to make choices and it’s a conceptually totally different experience from actively perceiving something in the cinema. What we do in 17.000 Islands is that we make a film, then we make a platform on the internet where people can reedit it and then we take those films from the internet and we put them in the cinema again. I think it’s important that we keep the cinema as a place for documentaries.

Photo: Ian Willoughby and Thomas Østbye at Jihlava IDFF. is powered by Doc Alliance, a creative partnership of 7 key European documentary film festivals. Our aim is to advance the documentary genre, support its diversity and promote quality creative documentary films.

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