Editor’s note: We republish this 2012 conversation to remember Michael Glawogger, who, we learned yesterday, died while filming in Africa.
Critic and curator Dennis Lim chatted with nonfiction filmmaker Michael Glawogger, who appeared in person at Pacific Film Archive in May, 2012, to introduce Whores’ Glory as part of a retrospective series. What follows is a transcript of the evening.
Pacific Film Archive’s Kathy Geritz introducing: Good evening and welcome to the Pacific Film Archive. My name is Kathy Geritz and I’m one of the curators here. It’s nice to see so many of you with stamina after the [San Francisco International] film festival, and we’re glad you have it, because we’re really delighted to have Michael Glawogger with us over the long weekend, showing his films and in conversation with Dennis Lim.
A couple of summers ago I went to the Flaherty Film Seminar where I saw a number of Austrian filmmaker Michael Glawogger‘s documentaries. They were selected by Dennis Lim and as I mentioned, the two of them are our guests this evening. And the very last program in the seminar included a short film by Michael that was really lovely. It was going down a street, really interesting old buildings, and slowly it dawned on me that I was looking at San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, and so afterwards I asked Michael, “How did it come to be that you did a short film on San Pablo Ave.?” and it turned out that he had gone to the [San Francisco] Art Institute in the early 1980s, and I think he said it was his bus route over to the school.
That is an interesting detail that will come to life for you when you see Michael’s work. Because he brings an extraordinary care to constructing and composing his images, one that I think harkens back to perhaps a training in an art institute as an approach to filmmaking.
So our tribute to Michael Glawogger this weekend will include his documentaries, perhaps he is best known for his trilogy, his short films made at the Art Institute, and one of his feature films. It’s being presented as part of our series called “Afterimage: Filmmakers and Critics in Conversation,” so Michael, of course, is the filmmaker. And as I mentioned Dennis Lim will be the critic. But he is also the organizer and curator of this series, and the tour that Michael has been doing from Boston to New York to the Northwest Area—Portland and Seattle and now here.
Dennis contributes to the NY Times, Los Angeles Times, Artforum, Cinemascope and other publications, and is the editorial director of the Museum of the Moving Image where organizes film programs and also edits the multimedia magazine Moving Image Source, which you should all check out. He’s also been a wonderful introducer of filmmakers to places like us, and so therefore to all of you. It’s a pleasure to thank him for that.
The conversation will take place afterwards; we hope that you will all be able to stay and first hear the two of them talk in depth; then we’ll open it up to your comments and questions. It’s a pleasure to introduce Michael Glawogger.
Michael Glawogger: Thank you. Welcome to this four nights of showing films and talking about them. I have to thank Dennis Lim, because he’s really the father of all of this—he put it together and without him I wouldn’t be here today. Also thank you to the PFA and Kathy Geritz.
I have to warn you a little, now that I’ve been here in the States here for quite a while and now how people watch films here—maybe it’s different in the Bay Area—but my films are called documentaries, but they’re maybe not the kind of journalistic work many people expect when they think about things like prostitution, big cities, manual labor; so it’s right what Kathy Geritz said that I started out my work here at the Art Institute; what you’re bound to see is more artistic documentary filmmaking—some call it even experimental, some call it provocative, I don’t know—you can judge that. I’ll be here for all of your questions and I look forward to that. Have a pleasant screening.
Dennis Lim: Thank you all for being here, and I wanted to thank Kathy, again, for making this possible. I’ve been wanting to show Michael’s films in the States for a while, and I think he’s especially happy to have this touring retrospective here in the Bay Area, given his history here. Since we’re here actually, let’s start with a question about that: what actually brought you to the Art Institute years ago?
Glawogger: I thought when I wanted to be a filmmaker I never thought I’d wanted to do features or documentaries, I was actually into being an experimental filmmaker. If you’re going to stick around for a while, there’s going to be a film called Megacities, and there’s a little piece in this film where a guy in Mumbai has a BioScope—we call him the BioScope Man—and he collects little film strips from Bollywood films that he found in movie theaters when they fall down in the projection room, and he sews them together with needle and thread. I always liked this idea, randomly sewing pieces of film together, so in Megacities there are traces of my upbringing here and hardcore experimental filmmaker, and I’m still happy when I see that.
My filmmaking is very visible—I don’t do any kind of ‘candid camera,’ I don’t go anywhere I’m not allowed to go, because I need close relationships with the people there, and I need time there, and I need presence there. I’m not a kind of filmmaker who goes there and ‘steals’ some kind of images….The access I have to have is very thorough; I need the permission of the government, as well as the permission from the mafia, because there’s always mafia, so I have to deal with all those people before I even talk to one girl.
Lim: Since we’re doing conversation in three nights, I thought I’d try to keep it focused to the film you’re seeing on a given night, so we’ll talk mostly about Whores’ Glory, which is your most recent film, and is also going to be released here soon, on May 25.
So maybe a question that would unite all three feature-length documentaries that are being shown here: Can you say a little bit about the structural aspects of the film? The film we’ve seen is a triptych, in three locations, Workingman’s Death is a portrait of manual labor in five very different regions, very different physical environments, and Megacities is subtitled 12 stories of survival. So obviously this use of chapters and this kind of structure is something that you’ve done a few times: Can you talk a little bit about the importance of that in your feature documentaries?
Glawogger: It’s actually with Megacities that I invented it, and I always say when I grow up I’m going to make a film about one thing, so I’m approaching that—I’ll limit myself to more and more pieces, and with this film I’m not even there yet, but Bangladesh was the first part to that film, and it came out as a very substantial part, and as opposed to Workingman’s Death, I didn’t have the feeling I could deal with this in 20 minutes because there was too much impact in it. So I knew that I had to find something different, and I thought it was very interesting that this film, maybe more than dealing with prostitution it deals with the relationship of religion and sexuality.
And since I’ve had that I was looking for something that goes back to fine arts, and the paintings that we have in Catholic Churches, like the triptych, the altar paintings, and it’s the most unusual step I take in this film that I use an alter painting like this, but not in the Catholic sense alone. But I make heaven in the world and hell out of three different religions, so I chose the Buddhist part to the be the most light, or as you would say in terms of painting, like the left side of the painting, and in terms of a Hieronymus Bosch paintings, it is heaven with a little piece of hell in the heaven. And then you have the most worldly part, and then you have the most thoroughly Catholic part that deals a lot with death, and is probably the most guilt-ridden and philosophical part, so that was the structure I was finding out while I was doing the film.
Lim: So was the idea mainly to find three different religious cultures, or to find three very different—
Glawogger: It wasn’t from the beginning, but when I found out during research and filming that this was the connection, that all the girls have such strong religious ties, and also that religion is also interfering, or even dominating the sexual behavior—I thought this could be interesting for the film.
Lim: I think a question people watching the film will wonder about is access, and how you secured it, and how it was different from one place to another. Could you say a little bit about what it involved in these different environments, talking to not just the women, but the unseen forces, those controlling the business, as well the clients…?
Glawogger: Actually, I have to state something about my filmmaking before I answer that, because my filmmaking is very visible—I don’t do any kind of ‘candid camera,’ I don’t go anywhere I’m not allowed to go, because I need close relationships with the people there, and I need time there, and I need presence there. I’m not a kind of filmmaker who goes there and “steals” some kind of images, maybe like those who are experienced filmmakers or experienced movie watchers here see that when they see my images. So the access I have to have is very thorough; I need the permission of the government, as well as the permission from the mafia, because there’s always mafia, so I have to deal with all those people before I even talk to one girl. Where normally a film starts is to build up a relationship with the protagonist, but before I could come in this sense to be allowed to establish that I had to go through all those dealings. I can only say that the dealings with the mafia is easier than the dealings with the governments….
With the mafia a good handshake is a handshake, and they tell you what they want. With the governments it’s more like dancing. For example, in Thailand, the King of Thailand would say there is no prostitution in Thailand, so try to apply to make a film about prostitution in Thailand when the King of Thailand say there’s no prostitution: It’s kind of a tap dance.
It took me four years.
Lim: How did you get around that?
Glawogger: I don’t know. You say that you want to make a film about bar girls, and three months later they say, ‘What do you mean by bar girls?’ Because they of course know, you know, so it’s a dance. And you have to have somebody in Thailand who makes a front for you, who goes the way with you because he believes it’s worthwhile. But he risks a lot because it’s a film about something that doesn’t exist!
Lim: And what about Bangladesh?
Glawogger: There the mafia is in there—it’s the mothers. The mothers are like the roof, there’s nothing above them. They pay the police, but they have a board… strangely enough they have a hundred-year-old structure, but at the same time NGO’s [non-governmental organizations] sometimes come there and teach them democracy, which of course they don’t understand. But since they were taught democracy, they have a board.
Glawogger: So suddenly you’re there and you have nine big mothers—heavy women with a lot of power and arm—and they say, ‘We have democracy now, so you have to speak before us.’ But when you talk to them, the head mothers are already talking to producers in the back about how much money they want, so what you tell them is not what this whole thing is about.
Lim: And in Mexico, it seems to be a somewhat more lawless environment….
Glawogger: No, you know about the Drug War, so it’s the real mafia that rule that place.
Lim: So it was a similar process, in terms of dealing with them?
Glawogger: Oh, it was much easier. They watched my movies; they look like they’re in a Scorsese film! They sit down with you, they discuss everything with you, they want their share—but it was a very safe environment because the moment everyone knew we were dealing with them we didn’t even have to lock up our cameras.
Lim: So did they all ask to watch your movies before they agreed to be in the film?
Glawogger: Yeah! The mothers in Bangladesh wouldn’t care, but the guys in Mexico did, but then they said no drugs, or that the girls could smoke drugs, but we don’t want to see any of the trafficking while we have the war here.
Lim: So you talked about choosing these three different religious cultures, but it also seems to me what’s striking about the three is that they are three very different physical spaces as well. Could you talk about what you were responding to? Obviously you have the fish tank in Bangkok, the narrow corridors in Bangladesh, and a sort of motel-like, cruising slowly up-and-down strip in Mexico… how did that inform your style of filmmaking in each space?
Glawogger: It’s sort of the most importance thing for me—I need locations that will show something. I mean, a location like the fish tank is a given for a filmmaker, because you have the women on one side in the light and the men sitting in the dark and the glass wall in between them, visually it’s so good that even if no word is said you know what the whole thing is about. It’s almost like Brecht said: One is sitting in the light, one is sitting in the dark. And also, it was so striking to me—I never thought of it—that the first moment I went into the fish tank I realized that the women are actually seeing themselves because of the lighting situation. They’re seeing themselves because when you have a glass and one side is dark and one side is light, the glass will turn into a mirror. So the women will actually see themselves—it’s absolutely amazing! And then you have the situation where the women are talking about the men outside, and the men are talking about the women, but they could not hear each other! So in terms of location, for me it is the perfect thing for a film. I’m not that issue-driven, I don’t like to have people sit against the wall and talk about things. I think the enemy of documentary filmmaking is the interview, because it’s the most unrealistic thing that you could have—you nail somebody to a chair and say, ‘What is this all about?’ When does that ever happen in reality?
‘Oh yeah, prostitution is very bad,’—that’s sort of the enemy for me. So I’m looking for situations, and the second part is a situation like a labyrinth, doors are going open, every door has a different life—it’s like an ancient Greek labyrinth. And the third one is like the American concept; this brothel actually came to life in the Mexican-American War, and now it’s a drive-through brothel. Two days ago I was in the Redwoods and I was in a drive-through tree, and you have drive-through McDonalds, and there they have a drive-through brothel. That’s also very cinematic, I think. Some people have asked my why I didn’t do Internet prostitution—because I don’t know what to film! Where is that happening? I need some kind of reality in that sense.
There’s a little piece in ‘Megacities’ where a guy in Mumbai has a BioScope—we call him the BioScope Man—and he collects little film strips from Bollywood films that he found in movie theaters when they fall down in the projection room, and he sews them together with needle and thread. I always liked this idea, randomly sewing pieces of film together, so in ‘Megacities’ there are traces of my upbringing here and hardcore experimental filmmaker, and I’m still happy when I see that.
Lim: I want to come back to something that you said in your introduction when you were talking about the assumptions American viewers have and how they watch documentaries. Maybe this connects back to what they expect a documentary to be, which I think maybe connects to what you were just saying about ‘talking-head, social issue’ films, which your films are decidedly not. You’ve been in the States for a few weeks now showing your films in three different cities—could you flesh that out a little bit? Were you implying American audiences expect more of a journalistic aspect to documentary films?
Glawogger: I think they do, yeah. But it’s not only American, I mean, it’s like a documentary is in some sense of the word that people go out there and want to prove something. Like if I wanted to make a film that said, ‘Prostitution is bad,’ I could go out there and I could stick microphones in the women’s faces and ask, ‘Do you feel bad?’ And they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, I feel very bad.’ So you can prove your point very easily from whichever side you are on.
I often say that if Michael Moore was a right-wing guy with the method of filmmaking that he works with they would crucify him. But of course because he’s a liberal, it’s OK. But the way he does it, in my opinion, is not okay, because it’s just a very political, agitatory kind of guy who goes out and proves his point. When he films George Bush and says what this guy is thinking when he sits in the kindergarten during 9/11 is very bad—who knows what this guy is thinking? You can always make a point in that sense, you can always go out in the world and make your point. But it’s way more difficult to have an open vision of that and see what’s really happening. What are those girls really feeling? What is it like to have sex 20 times a day? I’m much more interested in whitewashing myself and really look at things than prove some kind of issue or theory.
Lim: I think the other issue which you just brought up in passing was money and payment. This actually came up in a New York Times review of Whores’ Glory that questioned the fact that subjects were paid. I know that you have talked about this and have a strong position on why you think it’s important to actually pay your subjects. Can you say a bit about this?
Glawogger: I think that it’s a very important thing, because in America the confusion between documentary filmmaking and journalism is very big, because people think when you pay somebody that you pay him to say something, that you pay him to say something that you want to hear. But I have a very different take on this, I say that I spend so much time with the people, they give me their whole life, their stories, they give me everything they have—and then I go away and say, ‘Wham, bam, thank you ma’am for the movie,’ and I don’t even give them anything and then I say this is heroic… I’d say that my mother told me to behave myself in the world, so I’d like to give people something. Sometimes it’s not even money, sometimes it’s a present, but often it’s money. I did this with all the film, but in the case of this film it was very easy, because the prostitutes do not joke about that—they would not even participate in the film without being paid. What you pay for an interview equals what you have to pay for a blow job…
And I think this is very OK. Maybe they should probably ask even more from me, because they are giving me more than that.
Lim: I think the other issue in terms of this idea of your films not conforming to expectations of documentaries has to do with aesthetics perhaps, and the fact that your films do not look necessarily like what we expect films about these subjects to look like. Is this something that you have experienced?
Glawogger: I have the feeling that for a lot of people a documentary looks more truthful when it’s filmed like shit.
But if you take a lot of care to reflect what you actually see, then it looks beautiful, and people say, ‘Why does this look beautiful? It’s not supposed to look beautiful because they living in shitty conditions—’
Lim: Where do you think this comes from? This assumption?
Glawogger: I don’t know. Because people don’t trust the world that something that is gritty or dirty can also be beautiful. For me that’s the essential thing—when I see a scene that makes a knot in your head because it’s beautiful and the same time that it’s horrible well, that’s what art is about… I don’t put lights up, I don’t do [anything]—the girls make themselves beautiful. And Plato said, ‘Beauty is the splendor of truth,’ so here we go—if this looks beautiful to you, there might be some truth in it.
Lim: I’m sure we have questions, let’s take a few.
First Audience Question: Thank you for the film. Michael, I wanted to ask about the color choices in the triptych, because each chapter has its own color palate as well.
Glawogger: Mostly that comes from the women. They spend most of their day making themselves look beautiful, to dress themselves up. I don’t do colors here. I think most of the work is done before filmmaking—you choose a place because it has some quality, because of religion, because of bright light, because of darkness, because of intensity. But when filming is done in a documentary sense that is all done. I never put any makeup on the girls, I never put any lights up—it’s like we changed light bulbs so that we would meet the point where the film exposes, but that’s about it. But it’s not a color choice in the artistic sense where I say, ‘I need orange, I need yellow.’ But it’s a choice that I filmed it on film, because that’s the choice between oil colors, acrylic colors, or a print—because these pictures have a certain kind of warmth to them, and that’s a very deliberate choice, that’s a choice where, say, I want to film it like that, I want the background to be out of focus, I want it to be warm. I had choices when the women wanted to be beautiful, I would always gave them some kind of glamor. I’d say to my my cameraman, ‘Don’t make them dark in the face, they’ve worked on their makeup all day, let’s see it. Let’s see it, because I owe it to them.’ That is more the choices—it’s not so artificial that I’d say that the first part has to be this color. In Workingman’s Death it is even more imminent, but it came from the actual settings: we have an almost black and white first one, a yellow second one, a red third one, but it all comes out of reality. But I play with these things in a subtle way when I can feel them and see them.
Second Audience Question: Going along with that then, I was interested in your use of soundtrack. Because you’re saying that the colors are coming from the women and the environment, but clearly you’re applying these songs and they are often commenting… they have that layer as well. So I was curious because it’s a different kind of soundtrack, with all the pop songs, then what we usually associate with this type of subject matter—so I was curious about the soundtrack.
Glawogger: Yeah, it’s a good question, but it’s the hardest one to answer because music is also a gut feeling. I would have so many concepts of this, like without sound, without music, this and that, and mostly what prostitution is about waiting, and what the girls do most of the day is listen to music. And when I’m with them I wait and I listen to music, so I tried to create some kind of a kind of dialogue. I give my music, you hear their music. I also tried out so many things, but then it gets so ethnographical—you hear the Bollywood music, you hear this and that.
And then I had the second concept that it should only be female love songs and PJ Harvey should write it. But the songs that worked with PJ Harvey were the songs she wrote in the ’90s—she was assigned to do the whole soundtrack but she said, ‘I’m not there anymore, I cannot put myself in the position of the ’90s.” But then we found different things that were only female song. But then again, in the film the customers would also have a voice in the film, so I said, ‘Let’s do duets too.’ In the end, that was it.
Transcription by Jesse Ataide, with permission from Pacific Film Archive, Michael Glawogger, and Dennis Lim.
This conversation between Michael Glawogger and Dennis Lim took place at the PFA Theater on Friday, May 4, 2012, following a screening of Whores’ Glory. Courtesy of the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. (C) 2012 The Regents of the University of California.
Dennis Lim is a critic and programmer in New York. He contributes to The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, ArtForum, Cinema Scope, and other publications, and is editorial director at the Museum of Moving Image, where he organizes film programs and edits the multimedia magazine Moving Image Source.