An Interview with Gabriel White (2014)

Gabriel White: Tongdo Fantasia (2008)

Jack Ross Interviews Gabriel White on Tongdo Fantasia

Jack: I thought I’d start off by asking you about some of the Buddhist themes in the film.

Gabriel: It wasn’t a conscious decision to go around looking for Buddhist things, it was something that happened naturally as I was living there. I’m not a Buddhist, but tended to be escaping to those kinds of places in the weekend, heading for the hills. Then over the years of editing the material I’d filmed, I latched onto this idea of a constellation or network of temples linked by old walking tracks. And I came to realize that this was a nice idea for a structure - to present the sequences for the film as pathways between temples, and of things being linked by the idea of walking.

J: So you’re a pedestrian filmmaker. Would that description be an irritating one?

G: No, not at all. When I started making this kind of travel diary work, in Melbourne in 2001 actually, I wasn’t particularly well travelled, and walking was a good metaphor for my need to make physical and mental journeys - walking and talking.

J: I guess that’s a basic travelogue device, a talking head, but that isn’t really what interests you about it is it? Some would see it as an attempt to gain superhuman status as people become used to your face.

G: Initially I saw myself as an artist appropriating that sort of posture, like David Attenborough on drugs. But I suppose we live in a different paradigm now with regard to representing yourself on screen or on record or even presenting yourself as a commentator. Pretty much wherever we are now, we’re always on record and on screen and we’re encouraged ‘comment’ the whole way through. One obvious downside of that is the loss of meaning where there used to be meaning, because the sense of effort and focus in the act of recording oneself has dissipated, and the cinematic image particularly has a sort of weightlessness or banality now. A long time ago I began to see that banality of the video screen as my modus operandi as a filmmaker. I saw a degree of freedom in it, in that you can easily make films by yourself, you can make them any length etc. It’s a lo-fi aesthetic but it also I think it takes film into a realm that’s closer to more inward, personal processes like writing and drawing. I’ve always preferred to see the camera as a pencil to use in the here and now, rather than something you need to bring to a pre-prepared situation.

J: OK but this film is many many hours of footage turned into one hour, and our reading of it depends on our reading of the way things have been arranged after filming.

G: Yes. So the rawer the raw material looks and sounds, the more you pay attention to the editing and arrangement of it, which is where more care has been taken and where the themes and ideas emerge. I know that some viewers, perhaps most, are going to be turned off by this rawness or the apparent self-indulgence of the first-person approach, or are going to have trouble accepting it as valid and they won’t hang around to perceive the underlying thematic structure.

J: Let’s talk about the way it plays variations on very simple themes then - I guess the main one might be the natural and the unnatural, for example the intersection which you call a lake, which starts to look like a lake as you talk about it. I thought the funniest or sharpest reflection on that theme was that island you visited and you say the main thing that strikes you about it is concrete.

G: I mean those are actually trite observations on the destructiveness of mankind, but they occur in different parts of the narrative and they’re posed ‘in situ’, and in a simple and unserious way. I’m making work as I go about living, I’m not making my art on a cloud of contemporary theory, and yes the old truisms like nature and man arise and recur unintentionally and spontaneously.

J: Yes it wasn’t a diatribe, there was a quirkiness in the way you stated it, and also some of the things became strangely beautiful and you realize that the unnatural sort of becomes a kind of nature. I guess the obvious example from the film is the tyre with all the little things growing in it.

G: I guess I was trying to respond to the radical and, for me, quite troubling transformation of the landscape and the society in Korea. Because modernization happened earlier in Western countries we’re further removed from the trauma of it. In Korea it was so recent and so hurried and sudden; one minute there’s temples, villages and rice paddies, next minute the Americans bomb the hell out of the place, and then it’s smothered in concrete, and the concrete has barely dried.

J: There were a whole lot of things the film didn’t explore that it could have explored. But to me that was a kind of strength. It seemed to me to show a lot of takes on this place but made no attempt to exhaust them or pompously pronounce on them.

G: It comes back to that Buddhist thing - that everything begins and ends with ignorance. That to me is the beauty of having to deliver my thoughts and impressions immediately through speech in a place I have next to no historical or cultural comprehension of. It’s not about pomposity or commenting from on high, it’s about being forced to grope.

J: And also your audience is ignorant too. They don’t care about the history of Genghis Khan but they do care about an immediate shot, a teasing thought. But leaving that aside, you talk a certain amount in the film about your experience of being a language teacher and of course you were teaching in a language school the whole time you were in Korea.

G: That was my one point of real interaction with the people that lived in that place, which was of course with the kids – I mean that’s why it’s all about cartoons. These kids grow up with a billboard video out their window, so I conceived the film as it were from the perspective of a cartoon character, of someone who is at home in a world like that. Of course I was not at all at home in Korea - for me it was precisely like spending a year as a hologram or figment. It was lonely, confusing and alienating if I am really truthful, but it definitely provided me with a challenging experience to try to convey.

J: The thing I was reminded of by the film as an organic whole was Basho’s travel diaries, where you get someone who wants to record moments, but wants to record them as paintings, as poetry, as prose, which is how you ultimately presented your journey - through text, still images and a film. And also because Basho worked on his diaries for years after the ostensible journeys, as you did. In fact he lies and creates stuff for effect, and the result is this masterpiece of Japanese literature, even though in form it’s exactly like a thousand other travel diaries, it’s just that his one is honed and edited and turned into something. He’s using the form to get across this sense of life’s pilgrimage. And I thought Tongdo Fantasia had not consciously imitated it, but had effectively made the same choices and ended up with an artifact you experience in a not dissimilar way.

G: That’s really interesting and flattering Jack. Of course, I’ve never read a single word of Basho, but yes the project was all about stumbling into exactly that kind of unconscious conversation, or forging from my sense of personal dislocation some more intuitive connection.

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