Albert Serra: “I go for the works that make us better”

Albert Serra hasn’t stopped touring the world with presentations and discussions since he received the Golden Leopard Prize at the Locarno Film Festival for his Story of my death, where he imagines a meeting between Casanova and Dracula. And so it continues, this career of a film-maker Olivier Père described as renewing the way pioneers and dreamers made cinema.

© Pere Virgili

When we met Albert Serra he had just arrived from New York, where Story of my death was screened at the MoMA and the Lincoln Center as part of the New Directors/New Films. He had already fully displayed his traveller status some years before following the premiere of Honour of the Knights, a demystifying but respectful approach to the figure of Don Quixote, and Birdsong, a film that daringly takes a poetic and comic approach to the Three Kings of the Orient. The two works, which share errant characters and which Albert Serra created with great faith in his own cinema, revealed a film-maker who – in the words of Olivier Père, his discoverer at the Cannes Festival Director’s Fortnight – represents the loveliest cinematographic appearance in the 2000s, because it is completely anarchic, impertinent, enthusiastic and unexpected, and renovates the oldest, fair and free way of making films, that of the pioneers and dreamers. “I’ll start by stating that I am not interested in festivals,” explains the film-maker from Banyoles. “I don’t like travelling either, let alone places out of Europe, except the USA, which fascinates me. The thing is I am a eurocentric, I feel I am a part of European culture and it is in cities like London, Paris or Rome where I feel at ease. That said, I travel the world to accompany the films, because I owe it to my fans, to the people who love me and, ultimately, my cinema. In addition, if I accompany the films, they are better understood and the conversation is always interesting. I make films that invite conversation and that really involve the public. Why do they exist? What do they represent in the history of cinema? Every film has a unique feature and there are always reasons for a conversation.”

I heard that when you travel around the world, you never say you’re Spanish or Catalan; you always say you’re from Barcelona, though you’re actually from Banyoles…

Practically no one’s heard of Banyoles. The thing is when I say I’m from Barcelona it’s not an ideological thing, it’s simply because everyone knows the city, and, what’s more, it comes across well. It would be easy to say I’m from Spain, because they can identify it, but I don’t want to be linked to Spanish cinema. If I say I’m Catalan, I have found out a lot of people don’t know where Catalonia is, let alone what it is, so I lose a lot of my time trying to explain. By the same token, everybody knows Barcelona and many have been to it. But it’s not just that: they consider it a modern, nice and pretty city. I haven’t found a single person who doesn’t like Barcelona. There is a favourable unanimity that even surprises me. It has such a good image abroad that I get to find it exaggerated. So much enthusiasm seems to me unjustified to a certain degree, although I like Barcelona, especially because of the good weather.

If you don’t talk about Catalonia around the world, it saves you having to talk about the current political process. I wonder if you’d want to talk about it.

I always read with interest any articles by the journalist Antonio Baños, who is now speaking about the possibility of independence being accompanied by a certain social change in Catalonia. But I’m not interested in politics. I’m completely apolitical. From a cultural point of view, I try to do my bit for humanity in another way. As there is so much evil, it has to be fought…

How do you do it?

Through self-sacrifice. When I speak badly of other dir­ectors, actors or whoever, it’s actually myself I’m killing off. Many people think I cultivate a character to be in the newspapers. They’re wrong. Would do I gain with it? Making enemies with people who’ll never forget what I’ve said about them. I don’t get anything out of it. I don’t do it for my sake, but for humanity, in the long run.

Do you really mean it?

Don’t you doubt it. I go for the works that make us better and consequently make humanity better. Let’s see, which film generates more good, a Godard or a Spielberg? Do you end up a better person watching a film by Straub or by Scorsese? I don’t understand why do we have to be so pleasant with the commercial films that have such a wicked influence. Olivier Père, who is now director of the cinema section of the Arte chain, recently said to me that after watching The wolf of Wall Street, he reflected that, at about the same age Scorsese was now, Bergman had directed Fanny and Alexander. Who has contributed more to humanity? It is deplorable that, at his age, Scorsese makes such rubbish that causes so much harm. It’s about time he produced something worthy.

Can art change society then?

Maybe not in the short term, but it can in the long, and so it must be done in a demanding and radical way: the artists who have followed this path have often been put aside and scorned during their time, but have later been the most recognised with the passage of time because they showed that their works made us better. We must value what is enhancing and denounce what is detrimental. I was criticized for my speech at the Gaudí awards when, on giving the award to the best film editing, I defended the film editors, who are in my opinion underestimated in the cinema world despite their job being crucial and decisive to the film’s result. As much or even more than that of the actors, who are more visible and better paid.

Maybe there wasn’t any need, in defending film editors, to suggest that the actors should be expelled from the Academy and sent to Guantánamo…

Was it necessary for Eduard Fernández, in defending actors, to express his sadness for Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, while the public were applauding?  This actor was a completely selfish person who died from overdose and caused his family a lot of pain and grief. If we compare him to film editors, who are humble and often poorly paid, is this stinking-rich actor with a multi-million apartment in Manhattan and spending thousands of dollars on drugs any better than them?

Maybe they shouldn’t be compared.

You say this, but I’ll tell you something else. What have those at the awards, those who felt offended by my remarks, ever done to stop Guantánamo? I’d say the same as me: nothing whatsoever. And I’ll tell you another thing. After the awards ceremony, I went to the party. There were technicians, directors and even producers, but I saw few actors. In fact, only three actresses. What’s going on? Actors don’t mix with the ordinary people? Aren’t they interested in the rest of the cinema world’s people? I’m hardly a big fan of these parties, but I make an effort and, as it happens, I spoke to a whole range of people, despite the fact that I’m interested in the cinema they make, produce or take part in.

You say that you’re not very interested in a lot of films that are made because they come from people who are apparently only influenced by cinema. And that this is not the case with you.

It’s a matter of methodology. If you come from surrealism or you like Dada, you know that something done for fun or provocation can become a work of art. And that’s why you don’t need to learn academically. Anyway, I’ve never been to a film school. And rock musicians don’t go to music school either to make their careers. We also know that in concerts, under not always the best conditions, a sort of magic atmosphere is born that can’t be achieved by the same people in a studio recording with all the equipment. This happens too in life: you can prepare a birthday party and die of boredom; on the other hand, you can bump into a few friends by chance and spend one of the most magic nights in your life. I try to get my filming sessions (and even the sets, where I keep choosing, without preconceived ideas, all the possibilities offered by the images) to be a performance: I’d die of boredom if everything was calculated, if there wasn’t any risk involved, if everything depended on technique. In the end, as you know, the main thing is the artist’s view. Thanks to this view, whatever has to come out of chaos does in fact come out by an inevitable magic. My films depend on me and they would be as good if I made them with other people. I get involved and talk less and less in each shooting session. There’s no need.

You’ve somehow expressed the idea that artists can turn shit into gold, as happens literally and metaphorically in Story of my death, with Casanova’s excrement.

We have mentioned at some other time that my films are made with detritus: the actors are neither professional nor part of the technicians. In addition I shoot with the worst cameras. But talent, truly, goes a long way.

It’s curious how you manage to keep the spirit of performance as your films are created, a long process requiring organised filming, not to mention the laborious stage of editing – which is a way of putting things in order – though in your case you say that what prevails is the random element.

It must be possible to discover new beauty at any given moment. If I am making cinema, it is to be free, to live a different life, more entertaining and crazy, to have more interesting experiences than those in real life. This passes on, because those who make cinema with me want to experience it too. Maybe it is no coincidence that, during the shooting or under the influence of my last film, five of the people who took part in it changed their partner. Art changes you, forcing you to face chaos in a harmonic way. It is a harmonic contrast. As for my way of working, I always put myself in the shoes of the writer. No matter how much they study the rules of writing, a real writer doesn’t become one. You don’t have to copy a style, or follow an academic methodology. In any case, you can let yourself be influenced by an attitude. I’m fully aware that a writer must be focused and that nobody can write on his place. Even though many people work on a film, it is still me who must make it. Many directors rely on crutches, such as professional actors or directors of photography. They want them to make the films for them and, thereby, they don’t take over their own work, which is exposing themselves to empty sheets of paper, as a writer does. Some of them copy, too, which is another way of going nowhere. Others maybe don’t aim to copy, but their influences show through too much.

You stated that, in any case, an attitude can influence in a positive way.

As I said, I was influenced by surrealism. Also by literature, which is something serious. In any case, regarding attitude, I am especially inspired by two persons: Fassbinder, although his results don’t always convince me, and Warhol, whose works I prefer. They used to work in a focused way, intensively, always with the same people. Fassbinder and Warhol make a mix with Buñuel, Carmelo Bene and Straub, whose formal rigour I admire. But that said, my style has nothing to do with them. I haven’t copied it from anybody. In essence, it is a reflection of my personality. And it is non-transferable, as are the styles of the film-makers who have influenced me. They are inimitable and whoever tries to copy them fails. This clearly happens with Warhol. Buñuel and Carmelo Bene weren’t influenced by anybody and they didn’t influence anybody else either. They can’t have followers. In fact, maybe this happens with many of the great film-makers. If I mention Godard you will tell me that…

… he even influenced Tarantino, who, in actual fact, copies from everybody.

But in essence nobody can follow him because Godard is always more radical than his followers. This radicalism is what I am interested in. I insist, I don’t see why we should try to make commercial cinema be interesting to us. There are those who make an effort. I don’t. I recall now that George Sadoul, a now completely discredited credit, once said that humanity owed much more to Marxist cinema than to commercial cinema. I am not so much interested in the ideological side, but in the formal radicalism that has made contributions to art’s history and therefore to humanity. Then referring to this, I state that the importance of Scorsese or Coppola is not linked to art’s history, but to the USA’s power over the world. I’ll tell you something else: it is not unlikely that in a hundred years I’ll be recognised as more important than Coppola and Scorsese in art history.

Why would that be likely?

Because I don’t make concessions for convenience’s sake, when I make or sell a film. Look, I’ve travelled the world a lot, and I’m starting to think there is no one as incorruptible as me; I am not speaking only of mentality, but of actions. Maybe many end up hiring popular professional actors because the television pays better, or they accept the introduction of some changes to please the audience, despite their initial intentions. Far from submitting myself, I do what I please, and this not only allows me to be free, but will also make me more important than Spielberg, Scorsese and Coppola. An extraordinary thing, but not impossible.

I’ve always admired the faith you have in your own cinema.

If I didn’t have faith in it I couldn’t do it. A lot of conviction is needed to give life to my films. This is possible because I have a production company. In reality I consider what I have done as a producer more far-fetched than what I have done as a director. Making my films is easier than making them possible. If I didn’t believe in them, how could I go on with them? Would it make sense? Something I’d like to stress is that, with conviction, you are at peace. Talent, the capacity to do things, helps. I think it was Prosper de Merimée who, with a certain envy, said that Stendhal wrote at peace and never got angry with anybody. He must have been a man convinced of what he did.

Speaking of Stendhal, who wrote about how aesthetic experiences can disturb us, the next film will turn around the world of art, but you say that about its cynicism…

The project is on, but it needs resources to materialise. We are working on it while I still have some shows with Story of my death. I fancy a bit of holiday time. When it’s summer I’ll be spending a few days in Cadaqués with my friends. Do you know when I am most happy? In the sea, looking towards the mountains, at the Llané beach. I was also very happy once flying to Madrid with Ryanair. As we were about to arrive, a big storm broke out. It was a moment of great vitality, both physically and spiritually.

One thought on “Albert Serra: “I go for the works that make us better”

  1. Feia temps que no llegia tanta coherència en un mateix article. Albert Serra aposta per l’èsser humà, i fer-ho no vol dir parlar a favor seu, sinó crear missatges (de la forma que siguin) on la singularitat sigui premiada enfront la vulgaritat… i n’hi ha pocs que fan aquesta aposta.

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