Poster from Phie Ambo's film 'When You Look Away'

Phie Ambo's'When you look away'

Talking to the creator of one of the most interesting pieces of independent film that I have seen in the decade, about restructuring her process and re-writing how she worked with film.

Published: October 11, 2017Words: Phie Ambo & J.Scott Stratton

What is consciousness? Does it extend beyond this mortal coil? Are we more than our own bodies? These questions and others like them have fuelled the scientific and philosophical desire to better understand the human condition. They have also provided ammunition for politic upheaval, religious zealotry, and genocide.

Who we are as a species is a touchy subject to cover, because there are no concrete answers – regardless of what some religious fundamentalist might argue. It’s an even harder subject to explore when transferring the rulesets of what we do know about the universe, into rulesets that dictate how you would begin to explore those questions on film.

This is what sparked my interest in Phie Ambo’s latest film When You Look Away. Within the first five minutes of sitting down to watch it, I realized that she had forsaken all the traditional methods of narrative and filmmaking, to see if she could tell a story about consciousness following the same nonsensical and random behavior of the universe.

Of course, I knew there had to be more to the process than just showing up at random locations and filming. She had to have made a system to break the logistical nightmare that would be “making a film with no plan.”

I reach out to Phie, to see if I could learn more about the process in which she made this film, and whether or not she found some personal catharsis in the completion of it.

This project goes against many of the doctrines of traditional filmmaking by leaning on a fluid narrative, how did you overcome your training as a filmmaker in order to create ‘When You Look Away’?

It took me a long time to figure out how to make a movie about consciousness without limiting the subject violently with my own consciousness. I needed to open my mind to all the chaos that reality consists of.

I did a lot of research for this film and tried to find labs or scientists that I could build the film around – as I did in the previous two films in this trilogy, Mechanical Love and Free the Mind.

Yet every time I found someone with an answer, I just had a new question. One day I stumbled upon the double-slit experiment, and that just made me realize that I might as well forsake all my usual methods – because things are not what they seem.

I then developed three rules that I had to obey all through the process of making this film with the purpose of hacking my habits and I have been truthful to them all the way. These are rules that prevent me from doing what I usually do when I make films:

  • I cannot plan my journey – everyone who participates must either come to me or come via each other.
  • The film must be told in chronological order – time manipulation is not allowed.
  • I must take everything at face value – the film does not question the worldview of the characters.

Since you working from this idea of randomness and spontaneity, how did you overcome the logistical problems with production – like scheduling, for example?

That´s a very good question because there were a lot of consequences in working this way! First of all, I worked alone and withdrew from the “film world” over the whole period of filming. I didn’t pitch the project anywhere because I didn’t want to disturb the organic system of participants that was starting to form.

I was nervous that people would contact me for the wrong reasons, so I kept the project to myself for the 18 months that it took to record it. I was the co-founder of a big film company, and I left because I could not be in both this films extremely sensitive atmosphere and in a practical business-like vibe. So I started my own one-woman company and worked like a hermit during the recordings. I focused only on trying not to panic when nothing happened.

Sometimes there were months between new participants contacted me but I stayed calm, and this was possible for me because I was only responsible for myself economically. I consider the filming process of this film like a meditation; you just take one breath at a time and see what happens.

One of the things that I loved about the film was that it seemed to follow more of an artist process (exploring a concept) rather than a production process (normally associated with film). How did you balance this fluid exploration of an idea, with the idea that a coherent film narrative needs to be produced in the end?

It helped me a lot that I had made the rules at the beginning of the process. It took a lot of decision making off my shoulders – I just had to go with the flow and not force anything to happen. At the end of the recording process, I started the editing phase with my editor, and that was when it got really interesting!

We were used to working with the material like it was a block of wood and we were carving out the sculpture. In this film, that process was forbidden. We made a printout of all the recording dates and then we followed them in linear structure – which I had never done before. Everything in the film happened in the sequence that you see it.

I wanted to investigate the crazy bowling game of reality to see what led to what. This was really hard at times because our instinct as storytellers is to place the scenes where they fit into the drama – but we could not do that. When we looked at the film after the first cut, we could see that the dramaturgy that reality and coincidence had formed was much better than if we had structured it with our limited understanding of reality.

You meet a lot of (seemly) random individuals during the film. How “random” were they in practice?

They came either because they had heard from other participants that I was working on this project, or approached me more or less out of the blue. I did not contact any other people than Holger – the high energy physicist that inspired me to explore the concept. People have asked me, “why didn´t you talk to this and this person?” But if I had cheated on my own rules, then it would be no fun. So I stuck to them.

You use yourself as the driver of the narrative of this film. What lead you to make this choice of making your presence known to the audience (through narration) as the filmmaker in this film?

This film is very personal, and it´s important that the audience know who is making it. This is not science – it´s an artistic journey that I take with the audience, so I feel it´s best to let them know who they are traveling with. I ask a lot from the audience in this film. It´s not an easy film to watch, so I wanted to invest myself in it to.

How long did the entire journey of making ‘When You Look Away’ take?

I started developing the film in 2012, and during my research phase, I visited a biodynamic farmer (this was before I had made the concept for the recordings). I ended up making a whole film about this farmer “Good Things Await” because he and his farm were perfect for a whole film so I got a bit delayed on my journey.

Scene from Phie Ambo's film 'When You Look Away'

On the other hand, I learned a lot about being patient and letting things happen unforced on that farm. I don´t think I could have made ‘When you look away” without having spent two-and-a-half years on a biodynamic farm.

The actual recordings started for this film in 2014 and went on for 18 months. We edited for four months and did the sound design in six weeks – so, all in all, it took around three years to make it once I cracked the nut with the recording method.

As much of the subject matter within the film is theoretical or philosophical, do you like to feel like you reached a catharsis (conclusion) in your exploration of this concept?

Hmm – I think the question “what is consciousness” cannot be answered. I didn’t find a specific answer, but I got very curious about other things like “what is information?” and “is water a kind of medium for communication?”

In this film, the journey is the purpose of the film – the end goal is not important. I did not have a specific ambition with this film other than inspiring people to ask more questions.

Now that this project is complete, where are you directing your attention?

I am currently recording a film about a group of 10-14-year-old children who are building their own community called “Utopia.” I am very interested in how to spark civil courage and citizenship because I think we live in a time where the grassroots are very much needed.