Thomas Imbach is a self-taught, Swiss filmmaker, who combines digital video and 35mm film in his novelistic works, which range from documentary to fictional narratives. Imbach has made several features, including Well Done (1994), Ghetto (1997) Happiness is a Warm Gun (2001), Lenz (2006), and the satirical I was a Swiss Banker (2007), shot mostly under water.
Christoph Terhechte, head of the Berlinale International Forum of New Cinema, brought Imbach’s most recent film, Day is Done (2011), to UnionDocs by, on March 22, 2013.
A meditative reflection on 15 years of life, Day is Done presents the answering machine messages left for a man who is only identified as “T”, but is implicitly the director himself. T appears as a distant and selfish artist who isolates himself behind windows of his Zurich apartment, from which he observes time passing. Beautiful time-lapses of the city’s urban streets emphasize his indifference to the relationships suggested by the messages.
In the Q & A with UnionDocs Programmer Steve Holmgren, Christoph Terhechte was most interested in hearing the audience’s response to Day is Done, since the film tends to be divisive.
Christoph Terhechte: I’m very interested in what other people think the film actually is.
The noises are clearly a work of fiction, because he couldn’t have shot all that with the microphone at his window. The noises in the film are something that he added later, like when the guy is climbing the crane and it becomes almost like electronic music. Also in all of these time-lapses and slow-motion scenes.
But those messages are authentic and really from his answering machine. It’s interesting because over the 15 years that he shot the film, apparently maybe after two-thirds of what we see, he got a mobile phone. The era of the answering machine is clearly over. I don’t know whether any of you still has an answering machine at home. I recently threw my own machine away and I tried to play the tape on it, but it wouldn’t play anymore.
I’d be very happy to answer whatever I can answer, and also to hear what you think about the film. Sometimes it’s an advantage not to have the director there, because you can be more open. I’d also like to know how you position the film in terms of being a work of documentary or fiction.
Steve Holmgren: I got to do a Q & A with Jonas Mekas at the Greenpoint Film Festival previously and asked him a question about a certain type of cinema that was independent cinema but had diary elements—personal cinema. He gave a quite eloquent answer about believing that cinema is just different branches from the same tree, from commercial films to persona, diaristic ones. It’s always interesting for me to see what we can put on the screen that is very personal but also resonates with universal or with other audiences.
CT: Yes, it’s interesting because there is this thing that people call first-person cinema, but actually here, although [Day is Done] is totally personal, and it’s all about “T”, as he calls himself in the credits, you rarely hear his voice. You only hear other people speaking, so it is a different way of making a diary film. It still has that feeling, but he has a totally different approach, and it’s another branch to that tree.
Steve Holmgren: I guess so. That’s one of the first things I thought about when seeing it, that the raw elements that comprise the film are answering machine tapes and 35mm film, both of which are pretty much absurd at this point for most people. So it’s kind of a specific type of approach, and you wonder about the messages: who left those voicemails, what are they saying, how do they identify themselves? Anyone have any thoughts, comments, reactions?
Audience Member 1: I thought it was a very beautiful film. It’s hybrid I suppose, but to me it is a documentary. It’s more a documentary than something like Super Size Me, which is just a premise, and then the filmmakers go out and prove the premise. The lens or the camera doesn’t have to look at the people. It has to look at something, but it doesn’t necessarily have to show everything, so [Imbach] chooses to look out the window, which is his space, his view from the window. It’s very story-driven too.
CH: I was kind of nervous at first. When I’m presenting a film, even though it’s not my film, but the work of a filmmaker who I invited to our festival before, I still wonder if people will like it or not. In the beginning of the film there’s this very light tone, with the parents who call to say they are just coming back from the airport, for example. But then, it becomes more and more serious. You learn about the father’s illness. I got sucked into the film again. Not having seen it for two years, it worked for me once again. I must have seen it 5 or 6 times, and I discover some new elements each time, and I have different thoughts. What I find particularly interesting is that it’s shot on 35mm, so he was operating [the camera] all the time. He couldn’t just have the camera running like a video camera and be out. He suggests that whenever people call, he’s actually there. The sounds could have been recorded anytime, but he’s playing them at the moment you see images, so he is even more cruel to himself in exposing this—this kind of indecent behavior, as a lover or a member of his family, or just as someone who doesn’t communicate.
SH: I was wondering about the music rights too, just how he cleared all of that?
CT: I know that he wanted to use the original music first. Those songs are his favorite songs, and then he recorded it with the actor who plays the alter ego in the film Lenz, Milan Petzel. He used a preliminary recording on the first version that I saw, which I liked very much. But when he went to record the final version, Milan Petzel had a sore throat, so he couldn’t work with him, and instead he decided to use this musician who lives in Switzerland. I guess that the music rights are not very cheap for these famous songs.
When you mention the 35mm—with the exception of the archival material he’s using in the film, he shot it on 35, but then he transferred to HD. He actually scanned the negative, because he told me that would give it the best resolution, and then he post-produced the film in 4K. He was asking us two years ago to present it on 4K. We were unable to give him that. We only had a 2K projection, which still proved to be satisfying.
SH: How was the reaction?
CT: Order Some people find it boring, because it’s a lot of time-lapses and they don’t get into it. But other people are as fascinated as I am by the fact this is a film about time passing, about really important events in someone’s life—or at least about separations, and falling in love again—and about obsessions, the death of the father, the probable death of the motorcyclist, and, of course, the birth of his son, and all these other things that are happening in his life, and his creative career. I find it incredibly dense and I’m touched by it, but I’ve talked to people who just didn’t get it, and say that it’s absolutely boring and artificial.
SH: It certainly provides a nice space for meditation about your own life. It provides the opportunity to watch time passing for someone else, and to see a lot of events that have a lot of weight in their life. There are a lot of pieces you can put together yourself, and about what’s going on, whether you know him personally or not.
CT: There are also questions of privacy, I would say. A woman, I think it was Claudia, says: “Oh I don’t even know who’s listening to this.” Of course, you were all listening and, in the meantime, thousands of other people have listened to that. As far as I know, he did ask everyone whether they would agree to have their messages used in the film, but it feels very voyeuristic at times.
It is a difficult thing, this voyeurism. For example, in observing this woman who always gets the mail, who walks from left to right to get it and then comes back from right to left with the mail. He’s clearly obsessed with her. You don’t really know whether she knew she was being filmed or not. You don’t know for most of the people you see. There’s the one guy in his orange uniform who looks at him and notices, and there is the camera team who is filming the the burned car and clearly notice, but for everyone else, you don’t really know. The film does not tell you whether they ever looked up at him, and whether there’s any consent. It is on that edge, but at the same time, we as an audience are looking into someone else’s life, and listening to some really private stuff.
SH: Would you care to comment about where he might fit in, in terms of a greater film scene? We haven’t showed a lot of work from Switzerland. There’s Peter Liechti and certain other people that we know a bit, but it seems like there’s something going on there in the larger context of European documentary or hybrid films.
CT: It’s very hard to place him in the context of Swiss films, because it is a small country. They don’t make so many films, but they have some outstanding filmmakers who are kind of different from one another. There’s no one who compares to Thomas Imbach, and I don’t really know whether I can compare his work with that of any European filmmaker. He’s rather unique.
As a festival programmer, you’re looking for that. You don’t want to present 30 or 40 films that all look alike and tell people this is the New Wave. You want to have a program that is sometimes even contradictory. You want to have different approaches.
You also want to show that sometimes filmmaking means that a filmmaker employs [a method] that you would usually despise in a different context. I usually hate time-lapse. It’s something that I don’t like in general, but here it works for me and I can’t really tell you why. Except of course that the film deals with time. I wouldn’t know why here it looks beautiful to me, and in other films it would look superficial. However, I’m always fascinated when I find out that I hate zooming in one film, and when I see a film by Hong Sang-Soo, I like it. I don’t really know why, but it apparently means that it is the right thing to employ for one film and the wrong thing to employ for another film.
Audience Member 2: How do you feel about the cynicism in the film?
CT: Can you define what you mean by cynicism?
Audience Member 2: The voice was sort of calling attention to itself, regarding his poor performance as a family member or in other social aspects. It becomes somehow cynical.
CT: Buy I wouldn’t call it cynical. To me it’s being honest, this, as you said, very unflattering self-portrait. You can still be vicious in some way, but I don’t think it’s a cynical point of view, unless you find that he actually likes to be the bad guy and he’s exposing himself by saying “I’m the artist.” I don’t think that’s what he’s doing.
Audience Member 2: What is beyond the obsession, or where does the obsession lead us? Watching this woman walk over and over again, where does that lead us?
CT: He does tell us: while I’m having a love affair with Monica, or Claudia, or Eva, or whoever the other women are, we don’t know all of their names, I’m still flirting with the woman who walks by my window every day. He’s saying: I’m not a very trustworthy person, at least not when it comes to my private life. I wonder how he found the courage to actually portray himself in that way, but I don’t find him indulgent in it. It’s a very subjective thing to say, you might see it totally different and I appreciate that, but it’s not the way that I saw it.
Audience Member 2: I think it plays for sympathy in understanding what we’re viewing, but I think the underlying message is to distrust this view and to distrust the enterprise, to distrust the project, and it doesn’t seem to me very inspired.
CT: cheap zenegra 100mg That could be the reason why he calls it a work of fiction, and why he calls himself “T” in the credits, when the messages calls him Thomas. To say that’s not me, it’s a projection. I asked him the question when we showed the film, and he escaped it. He didn’t really want to talk about how much is fiction and how much is reality.
Audience Member 3: But it opens up the perspective. What he’s showing about himself is how other people perceive him and what other people expect of him. It isn’t necessarily a fair reflection of his personality, because he hasn’t got the opportunity to justify himself, so you just see the disappointments he might have caused.
Audience Member 2: I don’t have any status for him, he’s simply a name. The question is, when you have zero context for a person, how do you approach this picture? Do I approach it as if he’s an artist, and I should regard him on a certain plane, or give his perspective a certain value?
CT: I don’t know the person Thomas Imbach. I know the filmmaker Thomas Imbach. The context I have shared with him is film festivals. I’ve once been to Zurich to look at one of his films, and we had a coffee, that’s all. There’s a mutual trust in a way, but that’s in a professional way. I don’t know anything of his personal life except through his films, which of course are quite revealing. This one of course especially, but even before then, in Lenz it was clear that the main character in the film was in fact Thomas Imbach and that he used the classical story to tell his own.
Audience Member 2: I just want to make clear that I’m not necessarily judging the actions in the film, but more that the manipulation of the apparatus is what seems cynical to me. I imagine myself as an arts funder or something like that, and it seems to me like an abuse of a system. Like a manipulation somehow based on power, and that’s where I get uncomfortable, and find it a little bit cynical in the presentation.
CT: There is a certain time-lapse. The last frame that we saw of his son of being maybe 13 years old or so, is at least five years apart of the scene we saw before that, so I think between the last messages on the answering machine and the completion of the film there were at least 6 or 7 years. I think he needed that time, because it would have been too close, too personal, too direct, but with time passing, and him working on other projects with the same people, it became less offensive to the people involved. That’s my interpretation.
When [Steve] was talking about Jonas Mekas—who of course hasn’t make a film, at least that I know of, with an answering machine, but who is constantly filming and constantly using material that he records with people around him—you raise the same questions. How much of what happens around you are you actually allowed to present to other people not involved? And how do you paint an image of yourself by filming what’s around you? You always create some kind of glorification. Certainly in a very different way, since Jonas Mekas does it in a very different way and style from Thomas Imbach, but the basic equation of how you use images, and in this case recorded sounds, to position yourself as an artist, as a filmmaker, as a person, by using whatever material you stole from other people around you. That question remains the same.
Audience Member 2: There’s a question there of resources as well. [Day is Done] seems to me to be coming from a different perspective than Jonas Mekas, in terms of how it’s positioned, the way the subjectivity of who is filming is framed. There’s a monumentality here. You’re talking about watching this on 4K and we don’t watch Jonas Mekas on 4K. I think there’s a different relationship to scale and its power.
CT: Do you think that your approach to this film would be different if all of that had been Super 8 instead?
Cheap Audience Member 2: Yes, I think it probably would have been. If this is from a filmmaker whose resources allowed him to make things that were in Super 8 and that was the only resources he had and he ran a small cinema in New York and he was 80 years old, yes I would have a different approach to it. I think those contextual clues say a lot about what’s coming through.
Audience Member 3: Do you think he seems to be regretting what he’s done wrong and right in his past, or just neutrally reflecting, whereas an 86-year-old New Yorker would say: well that’s my life?
Audience Member 2: Maybe. The tones of the films are hard to compare. The tone in the relationships to the subjects are really hard to compare. I agree formally, in terms of internalizing things from your life and putting it into work, many people do that and I can see the comparison there, but I think in the angle of view, in the forms of restrictions, in the choice of medium, in the format of presentation, there’s a very big difference. Jonas Mekas’ work doesn’t create this distance with his subjects. There’s a real psychological distance from the answering machine. These are people talking at me and what I’m doing is shooting this thing, and there’s very little sense of relationship.
CT: Probably also that’s what he’s saying is that he has difficulties keeping up relationships, and that he’s not certainly a good father. He’s certainly not the best person to keep up a long relationship.
So it has something to do with the person, and whoever knows Jonas Mekas knows how easily he embraces people and makes them his friends at least for the night. They are different people definitely, and I know Thomas well enough to say that he doesn’t embrace strangers as easily as Jonas does. Those are different personalities and of course you can see that in the films. But both the work of Jonas Mekas and this particular film, and other diary films in general, are autobiographical, and so they talk about the filmmaker himself. In that way they raise questions of morality and what you’re supposed and not supposed to do and how you expose others in your own artistic work.