One day in Brooklyn,
a director & friend of mine
who I was living with at the time told me,
you need to see this movie.
He wasn't wrong.
The film was The Invader, by Belgian born director & prolific video artist Nicolas Provost. It details the trials of one Amadou, an immigrant from an unnamed African nation, washed ashore on the European continent. He makes his way to Brussels, where he is strained through the ringer of exploitation, ethnocentricity, & racism, as he desperately tries to assimilate, while maintaing a sense of personal honor. Amadou, played by Isaaka Sawadogo, becomes quickly infatuated by his vision of perfection & grace, a woman named Agnes, white, powerful, secure in status & company. He encroaches upon her circle, & ingratiates himself well within her good favor, telling her & others his name is 'Mr. Obama.' Things seem tenuous, unsettling at best as he walks the tightrope between anonymity & deception. Once the veil is pierced, & the world turns on him, as it always has towards outsiders, he is forced into a corner he can only emerge from with violence.
The film is striking, & Sawadogo's performance in particular is to be noted for its innocence, even in the most calculating & deliberate moments. Each image, exquisitely framed, set against pitch perfect score & design, is to be savored. I missed it once it was over. Then I watched it again. That this film managed to premiere at Venice in 2011, & still remains largely unseen / unheard of stateside, is beyond frustrating. It is an outrage.
Months later, my same friend invited me to a dinner, with the director Kevin Jerome Everson (Quality Control, Island of St. Matthews) as the guest of honor. Seated across from us I would learn, was Nicolas. I asked him where he was living. Turns out it was in a building around the corner from me. The same building I live across the street from now. We had been close for some time, without realizing it. Somehow, that still makes sense. On the day we met for coffee (him) & tea (me), he seemed troubled by the day's paper that sat on the counter of the cafe. I couldn't blame him. The media had been a flurry of homicides & police incidents the last few days. While speaking, it struck me what a remarkable creature Nicolas was: someone who is unabashedly compassionate, radicalized, progressively political, outspoken, & articulate (in spite of his initial reluctance to prepare for our conversation with any written questions, citing its likelihood to be "too much work." At one point he stopped the recorder to protect the details of his new project. What follows is the crux of our talk, what didn't drift away from all the talk of dreams & images that speak to the spirit.
still from Gravity, Video projection with sound, 6′, 2007
EL: You get a lot of your news from the internet?
NP: Mainstream news is completely biased of course, but in America, it's nowhere near as bad as in Europe or in Russia for example. My parents have been watching the same newschannels all their life, so they have been influenced, by the things they've seen & been told & now feel, the amount of negativity, the whole thing is crazy. If you're interested in what's happening in the world, if you're interested in information, you have to be a strong person, to deal with your own demons, because you get so many negative impulses through everything [in the news]. Ebola, ISIS, Ferguson, Gaza, what is going on in 2014? With the internet you can do your own investigations, no bias. People who really want to know, they can know now. But you have to sift through all the bullshit. Maybe this is part of it, because I'm going to be a father. I don't know.
EL You think about the world you're bringing your son into.
NP At some points, yes, obviously. And also from the images we saw out of Gaza, I couldn't take it. I cried all the time every time I saw it. It's so absurd that the whole world is watching this open prison being destroyed, & the amount of misinformation that goes along with it. And now we have to get used to seeing mountain climbers beheaded as well. I mean, can you imagine if that happens here? This cynicism is here, it's everywhere now. It's just lies, lies, lies, lies.
EL There's glaring discrepancies between the truth & what it seems like all the time. You can't even trust the New York Times to be anything other than callous & complicit at times. The media's ideas are not reflected in reality. Things are never what they seem if you take things on face value from the news. Has that informed any of your work?
NP It does now, yes. It has allowed me to understand myself better, as I get older, through my work. I've always said that what I did was very intuitive, didn't question very much the political side of making art…
EL When you were younger you mean?
NP Yeah, yeah… Not with visual arts, especially video art… I want to try to make something that talks about film language, & also can surprise the audience. You know, what surprises you as an audience, what can still surprise you, after all these years of overload of moving images, & how can I do it as poetry, & still move you just by making something that moves. That was the most important thing. And I've over the years been inspired by cinema & cinematic language, & tried to show that we are all a part of this big film memory. This memory bank, that we've all been raised with the same films, we've all seen the same stories. Storytelling has been there from the beginning, telling stories by the campfire, religion came out of storytelling. It is our obsession. & that is what really interests me. Why is it that as people we are so obsessed with escaping from reality into the other reality --- fantasy?
EL You mean why do we create other worlds?
NP When you are not really working, when you are not doing something that is quality time with your family, when you are not taking time that is good for your soul or your body, then you are escaping. Reading a book, listening to music, watching films, watching television --- it is pure escapism. You can choose if you want to be not thinking, as with mainstream stuff, just letting stuff come over you, or if you want to participate, where it's about poetry. But it's because we as humans are so obsessed with storytelling, in all it's forms. Music is also storytelling. Then it was books, literature. Now it's film. Over the last hundred years we've all been raised with the same film codes. The 90 minute format that has evolved, why is it so perfect?
EL: I feel like it doesn't make any sense at all.
NP It has to do with the journey of a story.
EL The three act structure.
NP The first 15 minutes introduces the situation, who are the main characters. After that 15 minutes, you understand who the main characters are, what their problems are, if they want to fight them, if they don't know how. And at 30 minutes, the main character says, "I'm going to fight it. My plan is this." And then we go to a midpoint, where we see how he has to change to solve the story. And then you build to a climax with obstacles on the way, followed by a resolution. It's the simplest, proven way of telling a story, And they have figured out that, probably, the 90 minute format is the perfect amount of time to relate all these points & curves.
EL What happens if you're not interested in telling stories like that? What happens then? How long is the perfect length then? What if I don't care about time?
NP Then it's about an attention curve. You have to make something that holds people close & doesn't let them go.
EL Right but even in that zone, the deep viewing zone, it's still about what is too long. With a movie like Jeane Dielman (Jeane Dielman, 23 quay du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 1975 --- dir. Chantal Akerman), it's not broken up in that way at all. And yet it feels perfect.
NP I wonder if I could still watch it today.
EL I think about that too. Am I so inundated with this storytelling culture that it's somehow inhibited me from being more receptive to different types of storytelling than I was when I was younger, when I was less formed?
NP For me as an artist, it's really important. It's all about storytelling. Find the right direction, & figure out what kind of story you want to tell. Everything's been done, how can you still be an auteur today? Cause I have a feeling that it's really necessary today.
EL Right. Like we need more of those.
NP It's tough to survive in that way.
EL Everybody wants to do it too. I question the theory of it, but I still feel like it's a good place to be, cause when you strip it down to brass tacks, that search, that mission is really just trying to make things that show the mark of someone who maintains a certain degree of signature & loyalty to their own sovereign individuality, both lyrically & visually in their work, & who doesn't really conform as per the parameters of the culture at large. It doesn't have to be so conflated. It should be more about whether or not people are qualified for it is all. It's about if you maintain a certain consistent through line, a signature to your work, rather than the other people who just kind of identify with the idea or title of it.
still from Exoticore, 27′, Color, 2004, 35mm
still from Exoticore, 27′, Color, 2004, 35mm
NP I often think about something Paul Schrader said, about how cinema has changed today. He said that when he started making films, in the 70s, there were still real revolutions to be had. Things were clear. The formats were clear. It could be used as dissidence against the system. You could put content on top. Now, after the digital revolution, there is only a revolution of form. When you're in the middle of a revolution, as we find ourselves, it is extremely difficult to elevate content. We really don't understand anything about cinema, it's not going the way we thought it was going. It's more & more commercial, even in Europe, all superheroes, action films, there are less & less auteur examples of cinema, distributors are becoming less & less inclined to take chances at festivals, nobody sees these films anymore. If you have a film & you want people to see it, you have to make it an event. How can you make it an event today when everything is presented as an event?
EL How can you be special when everything's special?
NP The most groundbreaking things are what's happening in television right now, which is amazing. That now you have the culture embracing length to tell stories & develop characters, that apparent need. That's a new phenomenon.
EL It was originally not meant to be consumed in one stretch. Tune in Next Week...
NP People are tired of waiting, & want to watch it all as one thing.
EL If people are willing to watch 13 hours of House of Cards or 8 hours of True Detective, in a row, how come we can't make an 8 hour film & market it to be played in a theatre? It's because of the home environment, people not wanting to leave their homes. They want the safety of deciding whether or not they want to watch it all in one stretch. And if they don't want to, all they have to do is press pause. Go in the kitchen, make a sandwich, come back. In the theatre, it doesn't revolve around you.
NP The movie theatre belongs to another era. Now you have it at home. Why would you go sit with other people who don't care, eat chips & popcorn? I don't have this need for watching movies to be a social thing as they used to be. You would go to the movies because you had to, they weren't coming out on television, they weren't coming out on VHS, you had to go & see them, so you were forced to be in a social context. It was great, cause people respected films in that time.
EL There's something social about it, but also something anonymous. It's the only social interaction that is totally anonymous like that, & in that way, there's still something about it that I like. You know, like, the experience is all mine, but surrounded by strangers.
NP It was the same as when you would be watching something on television in the past & know that there were millions watching with you. It is about sharing knowledge, & in cinema you know you are within a group, diving into this dream. It's not that you acknowledge it, that you talk to each other about it, it's just knowing ---
EL---that it's happening at the same time?
NP It's the same moment for them as it is for you. But that's changed. In the 70s, you look at the films they made, it's one masterpiece after another. And now we can be happy if we have maybe three masterpieces in a year. There was an event every week. People were talking about it. Now everyone is completely individual, so cinema & film language goes towards --- & I've questioned this as a video artist --- what can surprise an audience. It's difficult. With video art you can't afford certain things. It has to be about content, & delivery. At the end of the 90s I lived in Norway & I made something between film & art, & I didn't know what it was. I used film language to make poetry, but you couldn't show it in a gallery. The art community wouldn't take you seriously then. If it was video, it had to be an installation. It had to be about the space, & talk about the space, & it was yet, clearly, art which you were making. Now things have changed, because of the digital revolution. Then, we had no technology, no craft to work with the medium, so the dirtier the things we made were, the better. It was just about content & concept. That doesn't do it anymore today. These times are over. Nowadays, video art is usually made up of serious productions.
EL Do you feel like there was a sort of natural progression from that initial work in the late 90s to when you finally made your debut, The Invader? Is that something that was a long time coming or that you feel that you had to work towards before you were ready? Was it something you wanted to do & couldn't because of certain reasons?
NP Well I knew when I had to make a feature I would do it. I wanted to be an artist since I was a little kid, I just knew that but I didn't know how it would evolve or even what medium it would be? I watched a lot of television at home, so I was obsessed with imagery. When I was 17 I saw Blue Velvet. That changed my life. I remember where I saw it, & when I came out, I thought, "Well, what else am I gonna do besides make films?" It just took a knife, split me open, & injected me with the disease of cinematic language. How am I gonna get rid of that now?
EL The only way is just to keep making them.
NP And I felt too young to go to a film school. You know, what are you going to do at 18, or 20 in a film school? I mean, you have nothing to say. I didn't know who I was. So I went to the Art Academy to discover who I was. And on my own, I developed my own language, with the few, limited means we had at the time: Super 8, Hi-8, VHS, mini-DV, & just do with what you got. And I started writing, when I came back to Belgium, after 10 years in Norway. I made a short film Exoticore, with Isaka Sawedogo, the same actor as The Invader. It did well in festivals, & I met a producer who asked if I wanted to make a feature. And it felt logical to work with him again.
EL He's amazing. How did you meet him?
NP He comes from the African theatre tradition, which is very expressive. He was in Norway, he lived there, got involved in cultural programs, the theatre program, & wasn't happy. He was back & forth between Burkina Faso & Norway.
EL Okay. I wasn't sure which country he hailed from. In the film, it's not stated. It's as if it doesn't even matter.
NP Well, I didn't think it did. He's an alien in my film.
EL Were there other writers that informed the work? I had certain reactions to it, referentially, that I'm not sure if others would share.
NP Well, Taxi Driver. That's the biggest reference of an alien in a big city, & the city is a big character, he's a lonely person trying to survive, fighting the system & his own demons. It's completely inspired by the work of Paul Schrader, which I realize now, after reading his book. His work has been so influential, these stories about God's Lonely Man, the Man in His Room… I saw Affliction again last year & it's still just so striking.
EL It's interesting if you re-read the script of Taxi Driver now, if you read it when you were younger, & look at how it still draws you in. It provides for an easy return later on, & more of a return on the investment you set with it when you're younger. A lot of the time in culture, the gold fades in certain work, with time. Certain things though, they are understood more as you get on. I was wondering if you'd read Ellison's Invisible Man, or James Baldwin.
NP (shakes his head) I am unfortunately completely inspired by the visual world. It's a long story, but I was completely disgusted by literature at a certain point, because of a certain teacher. In college. He was also my Master Teacher for 4 years, & he tortured me psychologically for years. I'm not ashamed of it anymore today, but for a long time I was ashamed [at being poorly read].
EL I have lots of those works --- things I should've read but never did because people were telling me I had to.
NP Also, with movies, in my experience, the movie starts, within 10 minutes, you know if the director is going to take you by the hand. You have directors who will tell you, explain everything to you, what it's about, but with others, they will guide you gently, & let you know naturally & uncover what is going on yourself. Whereas with literature, you have to read at least 30 pages before you know, what style, what tone it is…
Every Man & Woman Is a Star, film still from Plot Point, Video projection with sound, 15′, 2007
EL It's funny how there's a stigma with that.
NP With what?
EL With starting a book & closing it. With closing the book. You get that disdainful, squint-eye from people: Did you read this?... I started it.... Oh…You didn't stick with it?
NP (laughter) Maurikami works for me, visually. His writing works.
EL You know? I didn't like it, if it was a film, I would shut it off. But there are films like that as well, Titanic, Schindler's List, that I've never seen, that I'll never see. In The Invader, you have so little direct information about what's actually behind his actions, his intentions, so little explanation, in the way of a rationale or a justification for anything he does, & the only thing you can use to make sense of it in terms of connecting the parts & pieces together in your own mind, is that it comes from desperation, & alienation, & that this type of behavior, this type of story, is what those things breed: Desperate, reaching, acting out, in ways that may appear dishonest, or surreptitious, or even criminal, but all it is is this reaching out, striving for communion & a sense of belonging. Beyond all that though, you still have no idea of who he is, where he comes from, who he was before, you hardly know his name. Ultimately, although we're seeing fairly literal, realistic actions & scenes, you are still somehow involved in a strictly subconscious narrative. We see him on the street, on the bench, in the hotel lobby, it's all physical, physical. There's nothing esoteric or otherworldly about it, & yet you are immediately sucked into the narrative in terms of imagining the inner life of the character. The character is invisible in this way.
NP He's an alien. My aim was that I wanted it to be a confrontation with the audience about their own prejudices, about who is an invader. I wanted it to be that halfway through the film you begin to feel uncomfortable, because you start to realize that it's about you. That's it about your discomfort, I wanted to show the malaise of the world today. And we absolutely live in a malaise over the last 10 years. The migration problems in Europe, the racism.
EL We only see the surface. He tells you nothing, he shows you everything. All you have is behavior. You catch yourself judging it. And asking if you yourself are capable of the same. The character is accepted initially by people, by the woman in question in the story [played by Italian actress Stefania Rocca], & then it seems as if by a thread, suddenly, everything turns against him, for seemingly no reason. It inundates the audience with this frustration, with his frustration. It speaks to the Immigrant experience.
NP I gave little signals, that people, that she starts to realize he's not who he says he is.
EL To me it was more that he represented the unknown, & therefore a threat.
NP Everyone has demons & lives double lives, if even only in their head. The idea was born of the film, because I wanted to make a film with Isaaka, it had to be in Belgium because I lived there, it had to be in Brussels because of the architecture, it had to be in French because he speaks French, & it had to be about the experience of solitude, which I understand, & am not ashamed of. I didn't want to make yet another politically correct movie about migration problems, where you put the immigrant in a little box of suffering & everyone else is guilty. These people are more complex than that. In the countries where you try to integrate, it's not black & white. I decided, let's make him a real cinematic anti-hero, where the drive is that he is thrown into a new world, trying to find his place, looking for love & prosperity, he's being abused, & ends up fighting his own demons. I still think these are the most beautiful characters, all my favorite movies are these guys. As a young man, how can you not identify as Travis Bickle?
still from Induction, Video projection with sound, 10′, 2006
EL It's something you're afraid to admit to at times.
NP Well, taken out of context, it doesn't make sense. But you understand him. This is something today you cannot talk about. I remember when I was showing The Invader at a the Goteborg Film Festival in Sweden, & I had been showing it for nearly a year already, & I knew the film could be misunderstood: the main character is an African guy who comes to Europe, & takes the law into his own hands. These are people who have abused him, & in movies people get killed, the bad guys get killed, & I knew what I was making. I knew that people might say to me, You can't tell that story, as a White Man, or as a European, because it can become a commercial for the extreme Right, but we'd had only great reactions to the film so far. Then at that festival, at least half of the audience was having a completely one-dimensional reaction to it like this: You can't tell that story, You can't show that film in Africa, what are African's going to say about that film, & it's so horrible to say something like that. Who are you to say this film can't be shown in Africa? How are they different from you? I realized recently that I had forgotten just how much love for humanity & hate for injustice had compelled me to make this film. I have to make films by subject, things that inspire me. Not by my industry.
EL Do you feel like stuff like PlotPoint or Stardust, or Dark Galleries, which are all about people juxtaposed with culture's effects on their lives to some extent, with their composed tension, do you feel like something about that is still connected to having a very composed narrative storywise while still being concerned with their real-life struggles?
NP I'd just be very happy if I can make something today that moves me with classic editing, simple, telling the story visually from left-to-right, with no special effects. In cinema, 1 + 1 is sometimes 3. We are indoctrinated with film language, & what moves people, but if you keep it simple, it can be very hard.
EL Is there something about reappropriation that moves you? All these films contain direct references if not direct liftings of others' work.
NP I always tried to avoid the political aspect of things. At the time of The Invader, I thought it this is not a political film. But I realize now, I just didn't want it to only be a story about an immigrant. That it was supposed to be a film about all of us. If we can take the elements & cliches & sculpt that into something else, that's what I want to do.
EL It's about finding something beautiful in the articulation of the injustice.
NP I think the spiritual side of cinema is more important than the political. I think storytelling is spiritual: it's a journey by which we try to understand who we are, & change for the better. Every story is that. Always. Even with the most abstract things that I've made, there's always some desire to make something that's beautiful in its aesthetic & poetry, but also to make something that keeps the tension going. You want to keep on watching this, even if it is abstract. I always try to achieve a climax that transcends. That's extremely spiritual [for me]. I don't close it. In the end, I try to go a little bit up, & open it. So it's something that you take with you, to reflect on. Not something that is easy for the brain to say Oh, I understood that. It has to be something that you know you understand, but only through an inner logic. We all have an inner logic. Everyone can understand the abstract. And that's a zone, which I think is the most important zone, that we share together, that abstract, inner logic. And that's where everyone knows, I understand this & you know that others do too, but you can't put words on it. That's the power of visual arts. And that's what I try to do. You build up to something, you are moved by something, some concept of the film, or the idea of what the characters are doing, but the end has to go up a little --- so you can fly home. In a good film, you don't want to know where the film is going [at the ending]. The best ones, you don't. One of the biggest compliments I ever got was from a man who I met at a party, a friend of my family, a construction worker, totally not a "film guy." And I met him & we became buddies that evening. And I really enjoyed being buddies with him, with this macho guy. Two years later, I had only met him once, I heard from a common friend, he tells me this story: He's the kind of guy who falls asleep to a movie, he can't sleep, he decides to go downstairs to turn on the TV, watch a movie, fall asleep. & Five minutes in, he can't stop watching. He's fascinated by the movie, he can't stop watching. He couldn't sleep. And then an hour & a half later, the credits come up, & he sees my name, & he jumps up in the air & screams, "What??? Nicolas!!! You kept me awake???" & it was The Invader. He always falls asleep to a movie, & this time he couldn't. And it was me. That is the biggest compliment. That's why I have to make a second film. So more people can see the first one. To earn it.
Nicholas Provost is represented by the Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp. All Images ©Nicolas Provost & courtesy of Tim Van Laere Gallery.