A Disturbing Experience of the Unknown

Interview with Danish director Michael Madsen about his sci-fi documentary The Visit

The Visit

Danish director Michael Madsen is one of those filmmakers who relentlessly expand our horizons on the range of possible documentary film forms. In his last film The Visit (2015) which was premiered in May in Czech cinemas and on the DAFilms portal, transforms the traditional film motif of alien invasion into a philosophical encounter with the unknown. The director explains the central theme not only of his latest film, but of his whole oeuvre of work and their connection with the selected stylistic means.

The Visit addresses the notorious topic of alien invasion using the unconventional method of distanciation. Why have you chosen this particular approach?
I was aware that a potential encounter with an alien form of life would substantially change our perspective of the reality. The Visit is not a film about aliens, but about us. In no case did I want to show the form of extra-terrestrial beings because we don’t know what they would look like. The sole option would be to create a mirror image in which we would identify the limits of human thinking and reflect on our preconceptions in the face of the unknown. If such an event occurred, we would have to revaluate the way in which we look at ourselves. The experience of encountering the unknown would be beneficial, but at the same time disturbing or even frightening, and the form I have chosen in this film corresponds with these feelings.

Your film centres around hypotheses and possible future scenarios, rather than present or historical events usually addressed in documentary films. Why do you think that documentary film is the right medium for this approach?
If you are interested in documentary filmmaking, then you are interested in reality. A documentarian should not suffice only with revealing reality or its moral evaluation. It is important to note that reality is always the result of a certain interpretation – perspective through which it is structured. In my films, I try to explore various angles of perception – this time I had a particular chance to play with the perception not burdened with the knowledge of reality, a perspective of the Other. I believe that the documentary form can immediately connect with the viewers through a confrontation with their concepts of reality.

You place great emphasis on the active role of viewers. Do you believe that documentary film can engage the audience more than a fiction film?
I don’t believe that there’s a clear line between documentary and fiction, but alienation in classical fiction films is more complicated because its effect consists in identification with the characters. If you try to provoke the audience to think about abstract concepts, these elements have to be suppressed. I naturally find inspiration in fiction film: for instance Antonioni’s work showed me how it is possible to use images to explore philosophical conceptions of the human situation, instead of merely narrating the plot.

Why do you employ the conventional documentary technique of talking heads to communicate with the audience?
I’m aware of the problematic nature of this technique and they serve a specific purpose in my films. I wanted to create a situation in which the experts speak to the audience as if they were visitors from the space. In this respect, talking heads represented a useful, but not ideal filmmaking instrument, although it was hard to breathe life into such a rigid form. I will perhaps find more effective ways of work for my upcoming films.

The Visit

Another of your filmmaking signatures is the use of the tracking shots in slow-motion. What function do they serve?
I use slow-motion shots because they provide a richer and more detailed representation of things. Aliens would see the same world in front of their eyes, only from a different time and space perspective. I am fan of long and slow shots, as they allow us to get deep into the image and to notice its various aspects thus overcoming the “overly human” Renaissance perspective.

The film’s slow pace combines with hypnotic tracking shots that are even more remarkable in interior sequences. How are they related to your perception of cinematic space?
I’m currently working on another film project focusing on architecture, and I’m intensively thinking about the addressed topic. How to combine the “stillness” of architecture with filmic “sculpting in time” as Tarkovsky would put it? These are two different forms of expression, two possible interpretations of reality. It is clear that in such a case, the camera can’t only function as a passive element. It has to serve to exhibit the hidden temporality of the moving image.

Your films, The Visit and namely also Into Eternity (2010), are full of references to sci-fi classics (Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey [1968] or Tarkovsky’s Solaris [1972]). Do you generally draw inspiration from the sci-fi genre?
I’ve always been attracted to science fiction: when I started working on Into Eternity dealing with the construction of a nuclear waste repository in Finland and the possible scenarios of dealing with this site by future generations, I presented it as a potential sci-fi film. I find it remarkable that it works with the theme of conceptual breakthrough. Such a ground-breaking event then leads to the finding that the reality is different from how it has so far seemed. Quality sci-fi films are able to use the topic as a philosophical inquiry into reality and the human nature. I also like the possibilities of the visual stylisation facilitated by the sci-fi genre. At the same time, I’m aware that this genre forms a part of the mainstream, hence the use of sci-fi elements in my works can serve as a means of connecting with audiences that are not normally fond of documentary film.

The Visit

You’ve mentioned that The Visit focuses on the experience with something alien, unknown and ungraspable to reason. Do you think it’s possible for us to prepare for such an experience?
I don’t think that it’s possible to get ready for something so exceptional, however, we can think about the nuances and potentialities of this type of experience. Since Renaissance, we have cherished the idea that we can use scientific knowledge to fully grasp reality. This experience would especially bring a loss of control revealing the limits of our understanding. Thinking about something similar can thus deepen our respect and self-reflection, ideally along with considerations regarding alternative means of perception.

Can modern science be instrumental in this endeavour?
Based also on my encounters with many prominent contemporary scientists, I wouldn’t say so because we can’t reduce reality to empirical facts. Many intelligent researchers would formulate this thought differently, they would say that they are aware of the diverse nature of reality, but such heterogeneity can never exceed the limits of the reason. But this approach might be too romanticising.

Many prominent scientists appear in your film. What did the film mean to them?
Most of them saw it as a great opportunity: they could try to experience the hypothetic event which they had contemplated perhaps their entire life. I hope I managed to capture moments in my film where they disregard all theories and fully immerse in the absorbing experience of the unknown. Such an experience is in many respects typically human, not much different from falling in love, for instance. You don’t have to be a believer to discover a desire for an otherworldly experience of the Other and this is the desire that I try to capture in my films.

Michael Madsen (*1971) is a Danish film director and conceptual artist. He gained international renown with his film Into Eternity (2010) dealing with the risks imposed on future generations related to depositing nuclear waste, screened at numerous major international festivals. The Visit follows up on the success of his preceding film: winning the Grand Jury Prize for the Best International Documentary Film at Sundance. Madsen also collaborated on the 3D documentary series, Cathedrals of Culture (2014), initiated by Wim Wenders.

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