C. S. Nicholson
C. S. Nicholson is a British-Norwegian filmmaker based in Oslo, Norway. He holds a BA in Film & TV Production from the University of Westminster, and has worked as director, story producer and editor for 15 years, mainly in TV. "The Discoverer of the Discoverers" is his directorial debut in cinematic documentary and is among the films selected for Experimental Brasil.
1. What led you down the path of experimental filmmaking, and how do you perceive its role in the broader landscape of cinema?
I can’t say I set out to become an «experimental filmmaker» on purpose. My first attempt at directing was a short («Zenarki») about international noise music anarcho-collective Origami Republika. We were told to make a doc in secondary school, and I had access to the Origami network’s transmedia luminaries/brilliant weirdos Tore Honoré Bøe and Lasse Marhaug. The film ended up being experimental because I hadn’t learnt the rules of filmmaking yet. Also, being 17 years old, rules didn’t interest me.
Back then there was a distinct cultural underground. Things seem more homogenised now, locally and globally. (It’s all «digitally» now, I suppose.) I don’t know if the capitalist establishment succeeded in buying everything. Perhaps more people just came to embrace the mainstream? Content creators on social media are eager to be liked rather than creative for the sake of expression. So, ours is an age of conformity. Even cinema has started to look like a cult. Especially in the documentary field, where filmmakers, critics and financiers appear to be in a collective emo trance fixated on empowerment (the feelgood of populist politics). Documentary has long been hijacked by activists and journalists. Nothing wrong with socially conscious films—Adam Curtis is one of cinema’s true greats—but moralists tend to demand that all films be that, and in whatever way the Zeitgeist deems exactly right. Experimental filmmaking can be one dislocated shoulder out of that creative straitjacket.
When the technology to make films first started becoming affordable, everybody gushed about the inevitable democratisation of cinema. Yet films remain prohibitively expensive to make, indie films included. Turns out indie filmmakers are highly dependent! The gatekeepers funding indie cinema is the same rotating cast of people that runs the marketplace where films end up. The word «independent» is a delusion, not unlike the «alternative rock» of the 1990s: a genre invented by the big record corporations as a so-called alternative to the other rock stars they were selling.
A pre-requisite for funding now is for directors to participate in pitching forums and labs, where indie filmmakers gather to develop their various projects in unison, monitoring one another, censoring themselves. (Some of these events even make once-independent filmmakers dance, literally dance!) Such filmmaking-by-group assignment seminars encourage groupthink among filmmakers. Inevitably, some streamlining of storytelling will ensue. Although this might not be the goal—the organisers encouraging filmmakers to keep one another in check usually say they’re looking for «auteurs», believe it or not—the result is a broader landscape of cinema with an ever-expanding monoculture of films (now available for a limited time only on Mubi). We’re routinely told by distributors, commissioners and curators that they’re looking for «controversial films». And yet I don’t see any political diversity in this field at all. (I’m just as predictably Leftist myself.) Where’s the controversy when we all have more or less the same vision?
This is precisely why we need experimental filmmaking: Perhaps some experiment will lead the way out of the rut cinema is in? Directors who don’t really aim to please funders, distributors or fellow filmmakers retain the possibility, at least, of artistic freedom.
And they don’t have to dance for money.
2. When crafting a film, what is your approach to storytelling and how do you balance it with experimentation?
How do I balance storytelling and experimentation? I don’t know that I do! With «The Discoverer of the Discoverers», I still don’t know whether I experimented too much or not enough.
Telling a story is basically the same as telling a joke: first you set it up, then you end with a punch line. It’s a very familiar structure that we’ve all encountered thousands of times. So once I’ve mapped out the story’s «set up» and «punch line», I try to think of ways to mix it up a little. I generally have—and try out—too many ideas. The next step, then, is to reign in some of that experimentation. By the time the final edit is locked, I’m too wrapped up in the work to know whether I’ve made a confusing and tiresome film, or if it’s clear, but perhaps a bit boring.
Hopefully, with «The Discoverer of the Discoverers» I lucked out and struck a balance.
3. How do you view the relationship between your films and the audience, and what techniques do you use to create an immersive experience?
On the one hand, I want to express myself; on the other, I’d like the audience to take over the story by reading things into it, filling in the gaps, connecting dots, bringing their own knowledge and experiences to bear, and so on. I curate an experience by selecting sounds and images, and if that experience is hypnotic enough, another story will hopefully form in the viewer’s mind. A great film is like a street drug in that way. The film is a frame within which experiences emerge.
I try, then, to limit my director’s dictatorial need to micromanage the experience. To leave certain things unexplained or unclear, leave spaces without spoken or written information, etc. I’ve used slow motion extensively. (Probably too extensively!) One of the reasons for this is that it elevates the mundane to another sphere, by denying the viewer the ability to watch events as they would normally. Also, a long take in slow motion gives audience members the opportunity to examine those parts of the image they themselves would like to explore. Like looking at a still photo, but with the added realism of impermanence.
Like slow motion, music is a key instrument for me. I try to put the audience under by using looped samples. «The three R’s,» to quote Mark E. Smith: «Repetition, Repetition, Repetition». Except that I add changes, so that it’s all different while staying the same. What I’d like to get to is the maximal within minimalism: An imagined melody inside a drone; a richness of shapes in the poverty of slow motion, etc.
In documentary, immersion is sometimes viewed with suspicion. Docs are expected to inform and agitate, not intoxicate. But to me, cinema has the power of altered states of consciousness. The best films, fiction or not, are fever dreams. To view the trancelike as escapism is to misapprehend the relationship between our perception and the world. I wish to hypnotise as I am hypnotised.
Films that try to circumvent subjectivity by avoiding the tools that might convey a perspective just seem cowardly to me. I watch films in order to see the world through somebody else’s eyes, to immerse myself in somebody else’s world, not to fool myself into believing I’m experiencing objectivity. Empathy is more interesting than neutrality. So the trend we see in films by Sergei Loznitsa, David Easteal, Kelly Reichardt, et al. is merely cinema as waste of time, as far as I’m concerned.
4. Can you provide insight into your creative process, from the initial idea to the final product?
My day job is in TV. The good news is that you learn the craft of storytelling at its most elemental. The bad news is that you start internalising the rigid «rules» of that craft.
What I’ve noticed is that I tend to begin my own projects by stress testing the initial idea in basic, almost commercial terms: Do I have the necessary building blocks to engage an audience? (A visual subject matter? A universal, preferably existential theme beyond the mundane? A haunted protagonist who’ll be undergoing some morally complex challenge during the shoot—and who can be eloquent about it? etc.)
Soon, though, I start freaking out that I might subconsciously replicate the reductive storytelling techniques and basic aesthetics I’m made to use in television on a daily basis. And so my mind soon starts looking for ways in which to surprise myself. There will be periods where the latest idea always seems the best. (In fact the opposite is often the case, and I end up dusting off my initial idea.)
In science, «experiment» implies a hypothesis to be tested. But when I have an idea, experimentation is something I use to try and throw that plan a little off. What feels fresh is the unexpected. To experiment is to the cultivate the unpredictable, and if I’m lucky, I might just stumble on an unexpected result. Maybe even a revelation. Something my ego couldn’t have come up with.
What I love about documentary storytelling is that any event I film is so far beyond me, influenced by an immeasurable, countless number of factors, things and people. Reality dwarfs the imagination, and so a documentary shoot necessarily extends much further than the self. Psychologically, nonfiction is expansive where fiction is claustrophobic.
Take «The Discoverer of the Discoverers»: Only the first scene was shot as planned. The rest were defined by coincidences: That we were permitted to film the enstoolment of the head of the family that first encountered Europeans simply because we, too, are European was entirely unexpected. That we even were there just as the Kpatènon family chose a new head—a once-in-a-generation event—was pure accident. When the new head showed up for the shoot at his business wearing the garb of a Vodu priest (rather than, say, a suit), I was taken by surprise. As I was when I decided to film a griot singing the oral history: The cinematographer, Peder Bratterud, had come up with the idea of shooting it in profile. But then the elder who showed up to sing—Mr. Avocèvouyè Akéhintô Zounvi—turned out to be blind on one eye. Which gave us an arresting image that seemed to be a metaphor for something.
And when filming cutaways of generic street scenes turned out to be unworkable (due to constant harassment), we came up with the idea of filming out the car window as we drove—the basis for the slow motion portraits of people passing on motorcycles that you see towards the end of the film. (And without which we wouldn’t really have a story, I think.) We only shot those in slow motion because many of the streets had cobblestones, making drive-by images filmed at normal speed too shaky. So all in all, it was like the whole production was a shoot set to «shuffle».
Once filming wraps, it’s important to somehow transfer the unruliness and lack of control of a doc shoot to postproduction, where a filmmaker risks regaining control. Inviting collaborators is one solution: I initially made some loops for the score, but when producer and multi-instrumentalist Stian Kjelstad Granmo (of Locult, a duo on São Paulo’s Alcalina Records) added overdubs and studio wizardry, he took the soundtrack beyond what I could’ve envisioned.
«Experimental cinema» is often used to describe films consisting of nonfigurative blotches of texture on a roll of celluloid, or clips assembled without a story. What I do is not formally radical, really—I basically play around with narrative, then add a score that isn’t to everyone’s liking (drones, loops, ever-changing repetition…). My process consists of trying to avoid clichés, and to leave enough room for randomness to come in and subvert my control. The most exciting results are when I’m surprised myself.
5. What obstacles have you encountered as a filmmaker, and how have you overcome them?
Money is an issue, always. There’s no getting around the fact that films require equipment and a crew. And nobody is as passionate about the project as the director. Even if you receive gracious favours—which you’re bound to use up, outstaying welcomes left, right and centre—expenses will pile up. But working day jobs to fund films at night slows progression down substantially. People lose faith, collaborators drop away, and you start going a little loopy from exhaustion, isolation and the general effects of unhealthy obsession.
State subsidies and/or corporate investments are an option for some, but that lunch isn’t free, or even cheap. Funders meddling in artistic choices is unacceptable to me. That said, there’s no way I can continue in this no-budget manner once I’ve finished the companion to «The Discoverer of the Discoverers» (a feature doc currently in postproduction I’ll be calling A Stranger Has No Eyes).
Experimental filmmaking is a nonstarter on the so-called «free market». The only source of funds in a country like Norway are state bureaucrats. But their fear of offending someone fuels a moralistic gatekeeping you really wouldn’t want to crash, even if you could. Their default position of avoiding controversy is wholly incompatible with bold vision. And fear is hardly conducive to expression. So, unwanted by the marketplace and made to compromise by public funders, actually independent filmmakers need to hustle for money in other ways.
I overcame this obstacle through stubbornness (or perhaps stupidity), and only for the time being. I’ve yet to find a solution to the financing riddle. Pull that boat over the mountain!
6. How do you balance the technical aspects of filmmaking with artistic expression in your films?
I don’t know if I balance it as much as make do with what I have: the equipment available and, more importantly, the people willing to collaborate with me. I always want to work with more than what I have. That said, limitations are a blessing. They ground you, and problem-solving really gets yer creative juices a-flowin’. Whether in production or postproduction, technical limitations guarantee your ideas aren’t met as imagined. Something else emerges instead, beyond your little daydreams, and that’s far more exciting.
For «The Discoverer of the Discoverers», I couldn’t afford to hire brilliant sound designer Anna Nilsson for nearly as long as is standard practice. But then again, most audience members won’t watch it on the silver screen in surround sound anyway. It’s better to make the best film you can with the means at your disposal than spending too long on it by hustling for yet more good money to throw after bad. I’m still working out when to be a perfectionist, and when not to be.
7. What guidance would you offer to those seeking to enter the world of filmmaking?
Don’t take advice from me! I do everything the wrong way, and am still learning—the hard way.
8. How do you define success in your films, and what metrics do you use to measure it?
I’m not sure success enters into it. You embark on a project because of an insistent, irrational need to express yourself. What happens next—whether it’s a failure or a success—has no bearing on that urge.
Even though «The Discoverer of the Discoverers» is the first thing I’ve made that doesn’t make me squirm in embarrassment—making it a success of sorts—I do crave validation. It’s pathetic, but a vague, deluded feeling of success can come in handy when you need a bump of motivation. I was especially chuffed that the film was selected by Mirage—Art Of The Real for its world premiere. This is a new festival in Oslo, Norway—«The Discoverer of the Discoverers» only screened at its 2nd edition—but it projects a vision for cinema that I’ve been sorely missing: documentary as art. (And not just reportage or polemic—although of course it can be those, too.) For «The Discoverer of the Discoverers» to be screened alongside dreamlike visions such as Under the Sky Shelter (Diego Acosta, 2021), Faya Dayi (Jessica Beshir, 2021) and Museum of the Revolution (Srđan Keča, 2021) made little old me feel successful by association!
Then there’s the festival in Norway that’s so establishment here that it merely calls itself Kortfilmfestivalen (lit. «The Short Film Festival»). It rejected «The Discoverer of the Discoverers» by including it in its Salon des Refusés, a practice modelled, I assume, on the «exhibition of rejects» that sought to ridicule modernists at the Paris Salon in 1863, ultimately paving the way for Impressionism and the avant-garde. If that’s not a metric for measuring experimental filmmaking success, I don’t know what is!
Not to mention that one of the artists whose work has meant the most to me since adolescence, Michael Gira of Swans and The Angels Of Light, told me he found «The Discoverer of the Discoverers» mesmerising. So I must be onto something.
9. What are some of the recurring themes or topics that you explore in your films, and what motivates you to delve into these subjects?
I’m slowly realising that the recurring theme in my work is the unreliability of narrative. An odd theme to burrow down on when you’re making documentaries, perhaps, and not a little quixotic: If truth cannot be ascertained, why harp on about it?
Yet the tension you feel whenever you doubt the veracity of something, is something you can’t dismiss until it is resolved. And doubt, when you think about it, can never be completely resolved. You can’t even be a hundred per cent sure of the existence of an outside world, or of other minds, let alone of the things people tell you in documentary films. And because documentary films, at the most basic level, are expected to contain factual truths, I love poking at doc narratives.
The stories we tell ourselves and each other cannot possibly be entirely true. This impossibility is a gift to a documentary filmmaker. It provides endless tension, and tension is the very core of storytelling.