… as sure as the rain
- Director: Nick Stewart
- Origin: Mexiko, UK
- Year: 2017
- Runtime: 110 min
- Colour: colour
- Language: English
About this film
Using footage shot on a trip to Mexico, this essay film explores the childhood memories of Irish artist and film maker, Nick Stewart, and Mexican writer and artist, Helen Blejerman.
Stewart was brought up in Ireland and lived in Belfast through the darkest days of the conflict there. The experience of that time runs through the dozen or so stories that make up his half of the script of the film. Blejerman has written another set of stories that similarly explore her Mexican childhood and subsequent move to the UK.
These stories counterpoint documentary footage shot by Nick Stewart while traveling in Mexico. Structured around the 21 stories that constitute the script, the film weaves a network of associations, memories and observations together in a non-linear narrative that is, by turns, political, biographical, poetic and factual.
The music of Nils Frahm, that underscores many of the sequences, is an essential part of the film.
Nick Stewart, Filmmaker
Interview with the Director
- Nick, I’m delighted that we can finally show your film. Your work impressed me a lot when I saw it first about a year ago. It seems to be a very personal film, isn’t it?
First, let’s put this in context. I went to Mexico to record a project for Dougald Hine, the writer, teacher and culture-maker. Dougald asked me to accompany him to video an extended conversation he was planning to have with Gustavo Esteva, the activist, “deprofessionalized intellectual” and founder of the Universidad de la Tierra in the Mexican city of Oaxaca. So, my being in Mexico was for that reason, not for me to make a film. I did not set out to create a feature length film. As I describe below, it was something that more or less happened by accident. I stumbled into it blindly. Nobody was putting pressure on me to complete something. There were no professional bodies involved. No funding agencies to keep updated and happy. No producer breathing down my neck. I followed my nose, initially just editing for the pleasure of it. It was only when Helen Blejerman, an artist and writer from Mexico, now living in Sheffield, was contacted, that this began to change. At that point it became our project, though I remained as director. Working with Helen was the first time in a long time that I feel I have truly collaborated with another artist. The fact she responded to the initial request with the story of her father’s death set a benchmark for me, one that required that I should write honestly about my Irish background and the experience of living in a divided community and perhaps commit myself to speaking about things less politically and more personally … or at least to fuse the personal and political in a more simple way.
The film is not an overtly political one: we didn’t want to indulge in polemical debates or ideological speculations about these questions. We were clear that political resonances were to be embedded in the broader sweep of the stories in each chapter. We wanted them to simply define one facet of a complex narrative that weaves “…a network of associations, memories and observations together in a non-linear narrative that is, by turns, political, biographical, poetic and factual.”
- … as sure as the rain is, in fact, a journey; a journey through memories, through thoughts, and it’s also a literal journey to Mexico. You bridge the metaphorical with the real.
It’s an essay film, in the traditional sense of that genre. Once the decision had been made to make this film I was very clear that it was not going to be a documentary. I was never interested in ‘reporting’ stuff about Mexico. I was open about my position being a transient tourist, “ignorant” of Mexican politics or daily life, as I say in the film.
Travel is not an escape for me. When I travel I am confronted by my past. On the one hand, yes, it draws me out of myself into sights and sounds and smells, impressions of difference. On the other, a part of me slips into memory, is overwhelmed by images and events from the past. Sensory experience is overlain with memory. Mostly there is little cause and effect to this: memories aren’t often prompted in a rational manner from the experience at hand. Instead, they seem to rise from the unconscious in ways that are not, consciously, grasped. Memory is, itself, a poetic process. The ‘logic’ of this is one that translates well into film. Helen and I barely needed to discuss this. It just seemed obvious that we would write associatively in relation to the edited sequences. The unresolved tension between the ‘real’ imagery and the associated narratives would, we believed, make for a more lasting film experience that could be viewed and re-viewed without necessarily exhausting the potential meanings.
- You tell your story in chapters, and, I find that the film becomes stronger with each chapter. Rather than creating a traditional narrative arc, your narrative keeps rising, if I can describe it like this. Can you tell me how you have conceived of your film?
Travelling through Oaxaca and Cuernavaca, I shot around fifteen hours of focused footage – footage that I took some care to record as best I could. But I had no over-arching objective in mind. There was no plan guiding me. I simply responded to lived experience keeping a sort of video journal of things, though with no thought of any of it being seen in public. My two Flip cameras allowed me to respond quickly to situations, while the bulkier semi-pro Sony camcorder, I had also brought, was used in circumstances that permitted greater reflection on what was being recorded.
Back in London I began reviewing what I had shot and quickly realised that, while in Mexico, I had, almost unconsciously, pursued a particular methodology in my approach to recording. Whole sequences of shots, focused on particular subjects, lasted anything from two to fifteen minutes. In one case I had shot some 40 minutes of an extraordinary graduation ceremony at Cuernavaca University. Certain ideas and themes began to emerge. There were the usual cinematic tropes of travelling shots in cars and the street life of cities. But also, architectural follies and eccentric memento mori on forgotten church walls, political protests and Christmas nativity celebrations, kids in brightly coloured electric toy cars and old women dancing in clothes of hallucinatory intensity. The extent of my recording allowed me to conceive of discreet sequences around these subjects and I began to realise that it might be possible to create something more ambitious than the usual artist’s gallery video sequence or short film.
Once Helen had agreed to the collaboration, we worked through a lot of variations of both the editing and the sequencing of these discrete “chapters.” We tried to get a feel for a narrative arc, however tenuous that might be: we wanted a sense of beginning, middle and end. There were definitely clear decisions made about where the most emotionally resonant chapters, for both of us, would sit in the whole. From the start I was clear that the graduation ceremony would, somehow, be at the end. This, and the also obvious beginning chapter, gave us two clear anchor points to work between.
The music of Nils Frahm was also important in cementing the whole.
The most important thing for me is that, this open form, built on a poetics of association and imaginative engagement, contributes to a viewer experience that can sustain multiple viewings. I’m not interested in disposable narratives that, once experienced hold no further interest. A genuine artwork should refresh itself at each viewing.
- All of Helen’s sequences are poignant, deeply moving and thought-provoking. How did this collaboration come to fruition?
I had reached a point in editing where I realised that the work was going to be a feature length film. But I had no clear idea how to go about completing it. I tried various approaches, including hiring actors to participate in the voice recordings, but none of it worked. On an intuition, I contacted Helen, an artist I knew and respected from my time living in Sheffield some years back. I sent her my archive of the footage and simply suggested that she could respond how she saw fit. A few days later I received the sequence about the death of her father, a sequence that remained more or less intact right until the end of the editing process. This piece was the first one completed of the twenty-one that form the film. After that we simply met on a regular basis, after writing and rough editing new pieces, while also discussing how these developing sequences might fit together to make a whole.
I have limited experience of such personal writing while several of Helen’s pieces are, arguably, the most powerful in the film. They set a benchmark which I strove to reach.
- “Our birth certificate, our promise of freedom.” Helen speaks of her father, a Mexican Jew, whose presence, whose absence, she evokes vividly. But it’s not only about her father, tho. I found the passage to be contemporary, topical, universal. Would you agree?
Yes, I agree. Helen writes in this piece about the intimate feeling of loss of a father that passed away frustrated as an artist, born first generation in Mexico, knowing the post-trauma of the pogroms in Russia. But she also writes, about what it meant to her to migrate to the UK, to fulfil the dream of being an artist, and in that way finding the “Birth Certificate… the freedom” that her father did not find but encouraged in her.
Helen’s work has a particular way of going from the intimate to the universal.
We both wanted to acknowledge the integrity of our experience: that the politics of place and identity is an integral aspect of our lived experience. I also wanted to maintain a balance between that and the reality passing in front of the camera. It was important that this reality also had some integrity: that the viewer would not be thinking, ‘why am I watching this image with this voice-over’? The associations needed to fit.
- … as sure as the rain shifts between what one might call amateurish aesthetics and a professional look through the viewfinder. It’s a push-and-pull that kept me intrigued. It reminded me of the nature of memory.
As I am not a professionally trained director or camera person, I had no pretensions about the film’s overall ‘look’. I generally dislike the professional look of much film today. Digital editing and effects are too often used to create a spurious filmic reality that quickly becomes mannered. I prefer the unadorned look of simply edited footage.
A camera is, for me, a tool to facilitate perceiving the world more clearly. The frame creates relations between things that otherwise would remain separate. Vision is intensified. Time is made perceptible. If wielded with sensitivity and focus, a camera might even be said to alter consciousness through an intense engagement with detail and immersion in slow-time. Essentially, it enables a poetic process, a way of engaging with the poetry of the everyday. As such it provides a means for me to transform my experience of travel from one of listless passivity to active engagement. When I’m shooting my objective is not to be professional. It is, rather, to bring formal, poetic precision to what I’m recording, while avoiding unnecessary, tricksy, camera work and effects. Does this mean it is amateur? Yes, if we accept that the root of the word means, love.
My background is in art. I worked with video art for a decade or more. So my interest in film is grounded in an appreciation of raw, direct, everyday imagery, as employed by many in the history of avant-garde film and more contemporary video art.
Nevertheless, in this film I have tried to extend that to a more ambitious level. The audio mastering was done at Pinewood Studios. An amazing experience I was lucky to access through a friend in film. As well as my and Helen’s editing, I also employed two editors – one to work with me to master the final work and one to colour balance the whole thing. The film is, in other words, at a cinematic level of technical realisation.
- What is next for you? Are you working on a new project at the moment?
The experience of creating this film has changed the way I work. Future ideas will be shared and developed, at least in part, through collaborations yet to be initiated.
I continue to shoot video wherever I go, whenever I can. I also have an archive of around 150 hours of video footage that I’ve recorded over a period of 20+ years, particularly on my travels to and from Ireland and London. Much of this was recorded with some precision, though, as with the current film, with no clear objective in mind. Right now I have begun the process of working through this material, digitising what I feel is significant and keeping notes in association with it. I also have 20 + years of writing, journals and other material, that is being plundered for further narrative possibilities. Do I know where this is going to lead? No. But that isn’t a problem. I love this sense of working into the unknown, slowly drawing something together, trying to see patterns and relations across such an extended period of time. It’s a slow process that, thanks to the accessibility of laptops and digital editing, is now, for me, unhindered by external demands and deadlines. It’s a personal art that I expect to continue on a timeline to the end of my life.
- Thank you very much for this interview.