Is this crap or brilliant? This is the question I ask myself after watching The Human Surge, Eduardo “Teddy” Williams’ indescriptible first feature film. Structured in three segments shot in Argentina, Mozambique, and the Philippines, it follows young subjects engaged in clueless conversations and contains a strange mixture of realism, fantasy, and poetry, while delving into the experimental.
Praised by critics and festival goers, this 30-year-old Argentinian filmmaker, who studied at Universidad del Cine in Buenos Aires, has four previous short films—Tan atentos (2011), Could See a Puma (2011), The Sound of the Stars Dazes Me (2012), Que je tombe tout le temps? (2013) and I Forgot! (2014)—shot in Argentina, France, Sierra Leone, and Vietnam. The Human Surge brings to mind Alex Rivera‘s cult sci-fi classic Sleep Dealer, Peruvian Juan Daniel F. Molero’s Videofilia, Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama, and the films of Mexican enfant terrible master of naturalism Nicolás Pereda.
We talked with Teddy at the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival about his travels, inspiration, creative process, mix of fantasy and realism, and viewpoint that “form and content are one” while “dialogues are openings to different windows.”
How was the idea of The Human Surge born?
It is a development of my short films. Not the dramatic continuation of a story, but the development of what I learned or wanted to do differently or new in each short. In Sierra Leone I discovered that I really liked filming in a country unknown to me. It put me in a very useful state of mind for the film. And in Vietnam I discovered that not understanding the language was something I liked when shooting film.
Did it represent a challenge or inspire you?
I like the clear and simple feeling of that moment when you hear people saying things that make sense to them but none for you. It allows you to see other things, and not get stuck with words generating images in your head. In a new place everything is beyond me, forcing me to do stuff other than what I’d do if I had more control over things.
So you decided to shoot your first feature in the Philippines and Mozambique, besides your homeland Argentina. Did the script specify those countries?
It was not specific for any country. The script I had was very open, I adapted as I got to know new people and places. It would have been very strange to bring something set in stone to a place I never went to. The idea was to learn about the place once there to include it in the film.
So the script was like a skeleton…
It had a structure: the beginning, the connections between countries, the end, and some specific scenes I wanted. The part that takes place in Argentina was a bit more precise because it is much easier for me to imagine scenes there. For the other countries, I had dialogues and scenes written in the script, but they changed when I arrived. And some scenes are totally improvised.
So you also use improvisation while you are on the set?
A lot of the work with the actors consisted on spending time together doing “nothing” in order to build trust. Then at the time of filming I would tell them to talk about something we talked about earlier, to say a specific sentence I had jotted down. I would tell them “talk about what you want but at some point say this and that,” or I would simply follow them with the camera without understanding what they were saying, not until someone translated it to me when I was editing the footage. There was plenty of trust and freedom. I tried not to have a fixed idea that a certain thing had to be done. It was important to explain to the actors that anything they thought they forgot or got wrong was not bad, that what they had done could have been even better than what I wanted them to do initially, that they needed to trust me in not having any problem with that.
The Human Surge is a difficult film to explain to people. It has no clear story line and the dialogue do not always make much sense…
It is not something that moves forward, that develops. Many people think they do not, but for me they make a lot of sense. What I notice in the response of audiences is that it is not about paying specific attention to the connection between one line of dialogue to the next, but about a certain line of dialogue that catches your attention because it touches a specific topic that you associate it with another…You begin to make connections. Dialogues are openings to different windows. Characters can talk about very different things, but then a bigger texture of all the different intertwined themes takes shape gradually.
[It is] my way of seeing films, even the most classic ones. I may not be able to tell you what a movie is about. I retain certain things that interest me and that’s it. As if there was a not very clear cloud-like structure, but you gradually compose your own…
I would describe you movie as dark and grainy. The aesthetics can be quite ugly…
For me it is very pretty. The idea was to make the texture of the image change by using a different camera for each part. In Argentina it was filmed in Super 16mm. The segment in the Philippines was shot with a Red Scarlet [camera]. And in Mozambique I shot it myself with a smaller camera, a Blackmagic Pocket, [which is] easier for me to use, and after editing the footage, I shot it again in Super 16mm off the computer screen. At the same time, each camera allowed me to have different ways of working a scene in the same movie. When you work with film in a low budget movie you have very little material and you can only repeat most of the scenes twice, which gives you a different energy than when shooting video as I did in Mozambique, where I was able to repeat the scenes more times. And having a big camera, you grab people’s attention on the street more than with a small camera, when I was able to film as being part of the normal life of the street. These differences have an impact on what we see beyond the texture of the image. That ugliness that you say, or let’s say that non-perfection.
There are several scenes in which the camera seems to be lagging behind the characters…
It gives you the feeling that people are not posing for you, that everything is not at the service of the spectator, that they are doing their lives and you are trying to get a hold of it, that something beyond the camera is happening. The scenes are fiction and obviously everything was set up, but it gives you a sense of documentary realism that collides with other parts of the film that belong to planes of strangeness. Being that the camera and the lighting are imperfect, the images look real but they also look quite strange, and there are moments when everything is quite false as well. That conjunction between reality and falsehood, fantasy and realism is something very important in the film. I express that feeling through the camerawork and type of lighting.
Who inspires you in your work as a filmmaker?
I have some rejection to the fact that since your first short everyone wants to associate you with someone. I want to think about how I can communicate using cinema. To think about other directors is not useful for me. Those associations can be made by other people if they feel like it. Literature could be what connects me the most with cinema, it allows me to create my own images. The fact that images generate in my head rather than seeing them. I also borrow things from songs—I played trumpet at school. I believe that communication with rhythm and musicality helps me a lot to think about the development of a structure. For me, the film has a certain musical structure.
Are you working in a new project?
I’m at the stage when I’m thinking about small elements for a film. As we said earlier, the film has this cloud-like form before it takes shape. The first thing I think about are details: dialogues, elements, places, movements…Small things that at first mean nothing but make sense all together when I find them a structure.
Tell us a couple of those details.
Islands. A lot of water, a lot of wind, a lot of rain. Some special places I visited.