I Wanted to Photograph You
Studio Visit / I Wanted to Photograph You Conversation with Aykan Safoğlu
For the Solitude Blog, curators Johanna Markert and Lukas Ludwig from anorak spoke with filmmaker Ted Fendt. Drawing from the past ten years of his practice, Ted provides insight into his working process, the collaborative development of his films, and the dynamic relationships with the protagonists behind and in front of the camera. The three engage in a close reading of selected film scenes and surrounding material: observations of minor gestures, or the beauty of a shot of someone reading. Here, this reading serves as both a mode of conversation and point of departure for developing a filmic language that is as much devoted to drifting and uncertainty as it is focused and intentional. It makes space for the intimate encounters with characters situated in the mundanity of everyday life.
Johanna Markert and Lukas Ludwig in conversation with filmmaker Ted Fendt — Aug 8, 2022
Outside Noise (2021, Super 16mm, color, sound)
Johanna: We had the opportunity to watch all of your films. To enable a better insight, I’ll try and give a bit of background. Your films draw on protagonists as they go about their everyday lives. They tell of their chance encounters and conversations, part-time jobs as city guides, travel plans, temporary homelessness, and fascination with literature. There is a fragility inscribed in those characters‘ relationships, with each other and their environment, a vulnerability and precariousness that doesn’t dissipate. As viewers, we are confronted with this on several levels: there are characters who meet but don’t seem to be close and a plot that doesn’t want to culminate, but also camera work and editing that describe a peripheral gaze that is distant and at the same time devoted to the poetry of the moment. Do you recognize your work in this description?
Ted: I do. It’s funny to think about this now, as only recently have I felt like I have gotten this overall sense of my films. So it’s something that I suppose has been developing slowly over the past ten years or so, from one film to the next.
Lukas: It’s been exciting to see how your filmic language develops. An inevitable continuity exists in your work, as you often work with the same actors/protagonists over extended periods of time. How do these collaborations come about, and how do those relationships influence your process as a filmmaker?
Notes for future project
Broken Specs (2012, Super 16mm, color, sound)
Travel Plans (2013, 16mm, color, sound)
Ted: The films I made around my hometown in New Jersey and in Philadelphia were all with people I had either gone to high school with and stayed in touch with, or friends of theirs I met later. They were all open to working on these films and letting me use their homes or apartments as sets and playing characters usually vaguely based on one or two of their personality traits. Since we’d known each other so long, there were already solid relationships amongst them and with me. The onscreen chemistry is definitely a mirror of their offscreen chemistry. And I cast people for specific roles from the wider circle of friends because I liked their personalities and enthusiasm and I felt we would get along. Usually, I’d develop the script over several months. I was making many trips back and forth, telling them about the changes and developments as we went along.
The situation for my first film shot in Europe, Outside Noise (2021), was a bit different because I no longer had the production infrastructure I’d had before – a crew of people ready to film and do sound – and the cast were people I had only recently met. And because of our geographical distances, the writing/filming process involved a lot of getting to know each other and a lot more open communication about what was and was not working for us in terms of character development or dialogue writing, or even just the pace of shooting.
The relationships and the dynamic between myself and the actors, and between the actors, has a huge influence on how their dynamic feels onscreen. The intimacy between the characters played by Daniela (Zahlner) and Mia (Sellmann) in the Ingeborg Bachmann scene, or with Natascha (Manthe) as they eat breakfast, for example, resulted from months of them getting to know each other and discussions we had after we filmed the part in Berlin (where things were a bit rushed and less prepared, and they had only met twice before!).
Classical Period (2018, 16mm, color, sound)
Cesare Pavese: Turin – Santo Stefano Belbo (1984–85, with Renate Sami: 16mm, color, sound)
Film Diary 1975-85 (2005, with Renate Sami, Super 8mm, color, silent)
Johanna: Circling back to the opening question, I find it particularly interesting how vital the relationships and dynamic with the protagonists behind and in front of the camera are to you. What surfaces is a collaborative process that is open to the joint development of the material, but is also informed by its limitations. As you just noted, parts of the plot emerge from the conversations that unfold during this process. Something I’ve noticed is the recurrent fascination with literature, books and words, which seems to reference an invisible, imagined world, inscribed in the protagonists’ fictional as well as real lives. Why is this?
Ted: The simplest answer is that it is a reflection of my interests. When I made Classical Period (2018), the idea was to take my interest in books and make that the basis of a film, featuring the kinds of conversations I have or could imagine having with people if I were describing a book to them or discussing a book we’d both read. And when we were brainstorming topics of conversation for Outside Noise, this idea came back just because it is a reflection of myself and other people I know: if I’m hanging out with someone, they may very well tell me about a book they’re reading or pull something off the shelf to show me. In fact, I remember coming across Bachmann’s Das dreißigste Jahr (1961) as I was turning 30, just before filming in Berlin began, and maybe telling Daniela about it. And she later brought up »Die gestundete Zeit« (1953) as a poem she found fascinating and maybe worth incorporating into the film. The book you see her character reading in bed in the beginning of the film is a book by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas that I was reading around that time too. And the copy of Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues (1984) that Mia hands Natascha was also something I’d just read – and maybe looks a bit out of place, but whatever.
Outside Noise (2021, Super 16mm, color, sound)
Of course, there’s also just the beauty of a shot of someone reading. I remember seeing the Super 8 diary films of Renate Sami in 2018 and there was a really amazing shot of a woman reading a book by a window, which I haven’t forgotten. Sami also has another great shot of a woman reading a newspaper in a cafe in Turin in her Cesare Pavese film (Cesare Pavese. Turin – Santo Stefano Belbo, 1984–85). I don’t think any of them involve her reading, but I made several visits to the Met’s show in 2014 or so of Cézanne’s portraits of his wife, usually seated in a chair, which also left a big mark.
Lukas: For me, a kind of image emerges here, perhaps something like a floating library, a constellation of texts, quotations, and recitations that encircle the films. In Classical Period, one of my favorites, reading becomes a central part of the plot that follows a group of literary scholars interpreting Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (1321). What’s striking to me are the longer passages of collective reading, quietly and out loud. It feels like the Divine Comedy becomes a kind of architecture of the film; the protagonists seem stuck in the different Cantos, or the circles which Dante passes along its way through hell (Inferno) and purgatory (Purgatorio). Associating further, this constellation reminds me of an airport, where the characters are waiting to continue their journey, or at least waiting for a trajectory to emerge, though everyone seems to have a different destination. Where does this fascination with temporary or spatial architectures of transition or deferral come from?
Ted: It’s funny, I haven’t really thought of this the way you’ve described this, with the image of an airport, but it is useful for something related I’m thinking of now! So, thank you.
I’ve noticed I’ve been very into autobiographical readings of my films lately, so take this with a grain of salt, but maybe this interest is just a reflection of my life? This kind of narrative that doesn’t involve a strong and overt goal and maybe involves a degree of drifting and uncertainty definitely mirrors my own experiences to a large degree. But I’ve also always been more interested in character studies, and using the construct of a film to convey a personality somehow in the powerful and magnified way only film has.
So, whereas another film may focus on a character trying to achieve something and that is supposed to be really exciting to follow (and very often is!), I’m convinced there is also something exciting in smaller, less obviously intense moments. Or maybe they are more intense because not so overt?
Johanna: The way you describe the intensity of small moments that film can bring to life is very apt. It is conveyed through the observations that reveal your view on the protagonists, where the material of film itself also plays a role. Does the feel, color, and resistance of 16mm film material make the protagonists seem more tangible? Or put differently, to what extent does the material here condition your gaze?
Ted: This is oddly a central question but still very difficult to articulate. Kodak has a blog in which they try to promote movies shot on film, and I always find it funny the 1:1 effects filmmakers seem to imagine shooting on film will have on an audience. Of course, the material one chooses to work with influences both how one works and the aesthetic effect the work has. There’s a certain rhythm to shooting on film, a material limitation to how much film is in the camera, to how much film I can afford to purchase (often secondhand) and develop as a very low budget filmmaker, and there’s the limitation of how much I can even afford to print. These considerations inevitably inform how much I shoot, how many takes I do, and at the same time, since with the exception of a project I made in film school, I’ve shot everything on 16mm, I don’t think too consciously of this when I’m actually working, beyond practical questions like whether the ISO is fast enough for the lighting conditions.
There is a particular beauty to a projected film image that I find unique, and that does convey what was filmed in an intensified manner. I’d like to preserve this experience and aesthetic as much and as long as possible.
Lukas: This unique experience of the cinematic image, as a representation that is at the same time more and less than what the camera records, is something that resonates. While we, unfortunately, cannot be physically in your studio today, I’d be interested to hear what you currently have on your desk.
Ted: Two things. A notebook full of notes for a short film to be done in the fall with actors in Berlin. And, I’ve had a Bolex camera for a number of years, and during the summer of 2018, I filmed a small stone tower in Vermont while visiting a friend. I took another look at the roll in 2020, wanting to work on something during the first months where Outside Noise was finished but could not yet be shown. I decided to return to Vermont in September 2021 and film more, the tower again as well as two stone quarries and the mountains and valleys.
Not having an editing table here, I’ve improvised by borrowing some editing techniques from other filmmakers such as Robert Beavers, and I’ve begun to edit the five rolls of film I have from 2018 and 2021. I have a projector, rewinds, a splicer, and several pages of notes. I’m sorting through the footage, organizing the shots, and trying to see if there is a film in here. I may return to Vermont and film more this summer. It’s a completely different manner of working than in the past and could go in any number of directions. I haven’t recorded any sound yet, and that could present even further directions. For now, I’d like to use the images in a less literal way than they may initially appear, maybe to suggest something about the landscape and human intervention. But it’s still a bit too soon to say.
Projection of work in progress
Ted Fendt is a filmmaker and translator based in Berlin/Germany. Between 2012 and 2016, he made a series of 16mm films about everyday suburban life in New Jersey and neighboring Philadelphia with non-professional actors culled from his group of friends, the last of which, Short Stay, premiered at the Berlinale Forum in Berlin. His following film, Classical Period (Berlinale Forum 2018), shifted focus to more literary matter with in-depth conversations about Dante, Catholic religious martyrs, the poet Denise Levertov, and other topics.
Johanna Markert is a curator based in Berlin. With Lukas Ludwig, she codirects Anorak e. V., a nonprofit organization for contempoary art in Berlin where they’re currently programming a monthly screening and conversation series dedicated to artists’ moving images. Recently, she collaborated with artist Ana Wild on a book and performance titled Gravity and Grace for which mystic, political activist, and philosopher Simone Weil’s idea of »decreation« served as a critical starting point. From 2018 to 2019 she was a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude. www.anorakanorak.com
Lukas Ludwig is a freelance curator, lecturer, and chef. He is interested in donkeys, self-organization, Cockaigne, and and life in a present of Crisis Ordinariness. With Johanna Markert, he runs the nonprofit art organization Anorak e. V. From 2018 to 2019 he was a fellow at Akademie Schloss Solitude. www.anorakanorak.com
© 2023 Akademie Schloss Solitude and the author