Cecilia Alemani: Where does the title of this film come from?
Camille Henrot: The title of the film is the English translation of a very famous book written in 1499, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. The book is famous for being one of the very first printed books, but also for its highly coded and mysterious style. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili was written in many different languages (a mix of Latin, Italian, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and invented languages. The book also contains Egyptian hieroglyphs).
The book is an allegory that can be read in many different ways – as a romance or as a philosophical essay. What attracted me to the book was an excerpt that Carl Jung used in Psychology and Orientalism. The hero, Poliphile, is going through a forest and arrives to a city covered with obscure inscriptions he cannot decipher. He wants to go back, but to do so on he has to cross once more the forest where a gigantic snake lives. He understands that if he returns now he's turning his back to adventure – the feeling of discovery and life.
Through this story Jung expresses how necessary it is to face your fears in order to keep life interesting. I liked this story, I felt I could relate my experience in India to this idea of being surrounded by a magnificent architecture and landscape, all covered with signs that you can't read, and feeling rejected and left out of deciphering meaning. I was struck by the paradox of India being often imagined as a cure against the Western world's feverish agitation, and at the same time being the number one manufacturer of psychotropic drugs. I imagined the film like a series of hallucinations that would create physical sensations and psychological imprints while showing very physical aspects of reality, such as the manufacturing of anxiolytics.
CA: In your work, you have often taken inspiration from the relationship between East and West and from the very notion of orientalism: can you talk about these dynamics in relation with this particular film?
CH: When I was commissioned this project I had never been to India. I felt very uncomfortable with the idea of "India" as the thematic of an exhibition. I was afraid of the cliché but I didn't want to miss the opportunity of going there. The easy understanding of "exoticism" doesn't exist anymore and was uninteresting to me anyway. I didn't know where to start. I had the feeling that traveling to India and making a film about it was a dangerous experience. I had just returned from Egypt, where I was shooting the film Cynopolis, and while I was there I had a lot of trouble with the police. It was in 2009 and there was already an atmosphere of tension and I was seeing myself from outside, this blonde, selfish, and stubborn tourist giving backlash to everyone to get her way.
I started reading a lot about India but I didn't want to see any films. I just saw Notes for a Film in India by Pasolini, which is beautiful but doesn't escape the "traps" of exoticism (like the "beauty" of extreme poverty). I had met a lot of people who had been to India. It was a very strange experience. There is an extreme pleasure when people talk about a distant place to someone who hasn't been there but is about to go. I could see there was a strong and special desire by witnessing Westerners stretching their capacity to represent this image of the world.
As you can imagine, I was suspicious of people that were "mad about India" but then I was suspicious about my one prejudice against them and the "Indian fascination". I was wondering, why is India having such a specific place in Western imagination? What is it that's being projected? What is it in the reality of India that creates this fascination and how much awareness of this reality is there really?
These were all the questions I had in mind when shooting the film. A lot of Western tourists come to India to get a life-changing experience. There is a therapeutic expectation even if they don't visit yoga centers or Ashram. I wanted to capture these relations and contradictions: this hope of a more fulfilling life in India away from Western materialism while also being the number one medicine producer in the world with more than 90 percent being exported to the West. One is not the consequence of it at all. I liked the way these ideas interact.
In this work, there seem to be many dualistic narratives going on: the snake as a symbol of fertility but also of fear; the double notion of India as a land of dreams but also as the unconscious of the West, and the religious pilgrimage, which is intertwined with scenes shot in the pharmaceutical house.
CA: Can you talk about this movement between opposite poles?
CH: Dualistic narratives are completely defeated when it comes to India. The first thing I understood, even before going there, was what Nietzsche stated very clearly: "Orient and Occident are chalk-lines drawn before us to fool our timidity." I wanted to challenge the dualistic way of thinking (East and West, conscious and unconscious, real and imaginary, religious and scientific) by superimposing so many things that would completely destroy the binary pattern.
Accumulation, and showing "many things" allows me to show how things were secretly existing in degrees, and not in essence. Our language and our concepts are based on difference and opposition and I think that the language of a film should work in a different mode, based on similarities. I wanted my film to progress not didactically but like a flux – there are too many images, too many ideas. I'm hoping the viewer just lets go, and doesn't try to read the image like a text. That's why I liked the reference of Polyphile (in French the title of the film is Le Songe de Poliphile). Poliphile can be understood as "friend of many things" (from Greek Polloi "many" and Philos "friend").
The notion of proliferation in India really fascinated me as its most striking cultural character: there is a fantastic number of gods who have a fantastic number of avatars and some of these avatars have a fantastic number of heads and arms and they have a fantastic number of stories about them. There is this fantastic number of lives one person can live. A fantastic number of people everywhere looking at you, a fantastic number of temples, a fantastic number of dishes, a fantastic number of textile colors.
There is an overload of detail in each thing you see and the proliferation doesn't make any of these things less valuable. In Western culture the idea of one god has fetishized the singular; scarcity, poverty, resignation, minimalism, elitism, etc. The shift to monotheism must have been such a frustrating experience to the people of the West that used to admire an opulence of gods and have the possibility to address different deities on different matters. With just one god you have less chance to be heard. I believe that's why the saints were invented.
CA: Music always plays a crucial role in your work: when does the music come in? Do you have a score to begin with or do you start from the visual component and then add the music? Is this a new music composition that you commission for the film?
CH: I'm always thinking about the music very early and then it's a back and forth between music and images. For The Strife of Love in a Dream I collected a lot of sounds. It was the first time I was recording and using existing sounds for a film. One of the very first shots was the Kathakali dancing and while filming it my heart started to beat more and more quickly. I was totally out of breath at the end of the performance. I asked Joakim, the composer of the music, to build a soundtrack in this spirit. I wanted a film that is visceral. I believe in the early cinema idea of film being a language made of rhythm and colors and not a transcription of literature or theater.
CA: How do you go about using found footage?
CH: Devika Singh, who is a friend of mine and was a great adviser in preparing the shooting of the film, recommended me to see the film The Indian Tomb by Fritz Lang. It's surprising to see a film so old fashioned in the presentation of India made by such a visionary director. The heroin character, an Indian princess, is played by a German woman and the association with exoticism and eroticism and cruelty is really offensive, just as in The Jungle Book or Tintin, these works have shaped the way people see India even today, and I wanted to bring awareness to this – the dark side of "the dream-like world of India" built by Western artists. I knew that no matter how hard I would work and how much time I would stay in India, I could never totally escape the power of these representations (especially in Disney films and Tintin because these were presented in childhood) so I at least wanted to show where it comes from.
CA: What kind of equipment do you bring with you when you shoot in far off places like India or the South Pacific Ocean? Do you rely on a team or is it mainly you?
CH: I did some films all by myself (such as Psychopompe) but most of the time I work with a cinematographer. It helps me do things in a better way because it gives me enough distance to anticipate the next steps. For Strife of Love in a Dream we were a team of three people; an assistant producer and guide, a cinematographer, and myself. When I went to Vanuatu it was only two of us, because it was very expensive to travel there.
These two shootings were really exhausting and difficult, and as soon as I had a little more money and the possibility to have a real team, I was able to go further. For Grosse Fatigue I had a very small team in DC, similar to India, but a serious production team from Paris (who had previously organized everything such as the cinematographer, producer, assistant producer, intern, makeup artist, and actors) they told me it was very important to have a serious production team and the team on the location can be small – as the only way to keep flexibility and have space for improvisation which is vital for me but the organization that allows you work fast needs to be done by real professionals.
1. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Eliseo Vivas. Schopenhauer as Educator. Chicago: Regenery, 1965. Print.