Cats are Cats. Danish Film Director Jon Bang Carlsen

Cats are Cats. Danish Film Director Jon Bang Carlsen
Dita Maļinovska . Jon Bang Carlsen and cats
Kaspars Zaviļeiskis
Jon Bang Carlsen is one of the most prominent contemporary Danish cinematographers, he has directed a large number of documentary films, a few feature films, TV series, he also writes prose and poetry. Also, he is one of the authors of the film “Over the Roads, Over the River”, part of the “Riga 2014” project “Force Majeure. Riga” – specifically, the film’s section titled “Cats in Riga”. Why cats, is this a metaphor, and what does Carlsen think about work in the documentary film genre, are some of the questions we asked the charismatic director during a brief virtual conversation.

Figure It out Yourself!

The film’s section by Carlsen is by far the most unusual. While the other sections of the film offer various views of Riga and the city’s neighbourhoods, they all feature people. Carlsen, however, has filmed Riga… as seen by a cat.

Given that one of the scenes shows the May 9 celebrations in Riga, and later a cat playing with a dead mouse, this appears to be quite a clear metaphor. The director, however, declines to give a definitive answer and replies evasively: “I like cats and wanted to see something from a non-human angle. It is not a metaphor for anything, cats are cats. And they eat mice even on an evening the Russian victory is celebrated in Riga.”

The political factor may also be present in filming cats at the Riga City Council, as the Mayor of Riga professes to love cats, yet Carlsen asserts again that “Cats in Riga” is simply a film about cats in Riga. And that is no surprise, knowing the history of his provocative films and the way he expresses himself in art. Carlsen has always been an alternative artist, letting the viewers, consumers figure everything out themselves, without providing any particular explanations. As if he was saying, you may interpret the subtext any way you want, why should I care? “What people read into what’s happening on the screen depends on what their minds are preoccupied with.”

 

Arranging Pieces of Reality

During the official interviews for the film, Carlsen said: “When I arrange my pictures of reality in a timeline, it has nothing to do with the truth. It is a very personal opinion of the world, and I hope, of course, that it may help other people in their dialogues with life.”

Little wonder, then, that his part of the film will be starkly different from the others. I go on to ask the director, whether he always tries to work outside the box. Carlsen does not deny this: “This is the way I usually work. I arrange reality in front of the lens to open the camera’s eye to what I see, being who I am. We all do that.

Documentary filmmaking doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the truth, but hopefully it has something to do with honesty.”

Jon reaffirms his honesty as he continues to tell us about how he was preparing for shooting scenes in Riga. “I have two cats back home, so I have studied them for a long time. The fragments of Riga that are shown in the movie, I was led to by following the cats.”

Cats as location managers, huh? This confession alone proves that Jon has lost none of his ability to play a few pranks in his films, even if it is documentary filmmaking. “Luckily Valdis (Celmiņš – ed.), my cinematographer, is a very patient man,” Jon goes on to say. “Because, contrary to many humans, cats don’t like to be ordered around. But as I said before, the style I chose for this movie is how I usually arrange the chosen fragments of a reality that always have to be processed by the individual filmmaker.”

Nothing Ever Ends

Carlsen’s experience of a filmmaker is further enriched by the fact that he lived in South Africa for a couple of years. “You are always influenced by the different cultures and landscapes you live in,” he says, but when we ask if this has had a profound effect on his work as a film director, Jon says this is rather not so: “My style primarily changes over the years because I change with age.” And he adds, in his trademark ironic manner: “Also because of all the other stuff that happens even inside a dumb Dane.”

The prestigious “Dok Leipzig” documentary festival ran a retrospective of the almost 64-year-old director (his birthday is just around the corner, on the 28th of September), and Jon has also decided to have a look back on his work. “I have made almost 50 films in many genres, but I always wrote, sometimes filmed and storyboarded the material myself. That is why my next movie “Nothing Ever Ends” consists of shots from most of my previous films.”

“I collectively see all my films as one film telling about how one person, in this case – me, tries to see through to the life that surrounds him.”

Carlsen emphasises that, interestingly enough, the material from the different films does join together like it was meant for it. “Which I actually think it was,” adds the director. “We, documentary filmmakers, are not journalists jumping from one world to another. We are more like gardeners, always working on our little plot of land… But of course we bring in new plants to enrich our garden. Like those cats in Riga.”

Our brief conversation ends with a question about the director’s future plans. “After “Nothing Ever Ends” I will hopefully do a feature called “I’m a Man” to be shot in South Africa, and release a book called “How to Invent Reality” about how I have chosen to arrange those fragments of reality I use in my storytelling.”

We tell Carlsen we would love to have a copy. In the meantime, the new film “Over the Roads, Over the River” will have its premiere in “Splendid Palace” cinema already on the 3rd of September.

 

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