Flower Magic: An interview with Rose Lowder
Rose Lowder (1941) is a French-Peruvian experimental filmmaker. She has lived and worked in Avignon (FR) since 1972, where she began to make films. Trained as a painter and sculptor, she previously worked as an editor for the film industry from 1964 to 1972.
Lowder has a very unique approach to film as she composes her movies frame by frame in her camera, a 16mm Bolex. By crafting her own image-weaving process —a very technical and meticulous method—Lowder produces a new spatio-temporal image. She manipulates and transcends reality, to reveal a new cinematic vision that celebrates and magnifies natural environments, leading the way in ecological cinema.
Rose has been programming experimental films since 1976. Soon after that, she co-founded the Avignon Experimental Film Archives (AFEA) in order to acquire 16mm films and bibliographic documents. The AFEA has since published several books such as The Visual Aspect, Canadian experimental films (AFEA, 1991), L’image en mouvement (AFEA, 2002), Images/discours (AFEA, 2006).
Sylvia Segura You once said that you wanted to create images that do not exist in reality. Viewers can often be unsettled with the visual experience you propose as if you wanted to re-educate their gaze…
Rose Lowder When we film an image, however we do it, it never does correspond exactly to the reality that was filmed. It is always something else. It is a reality more or less modified, which can be modified in a thousand ways depending on the working method but also on the camera that is used, the film, the weather, the light, et cetera. There are so many things that come into play that it is very difficult to give a concise description of what is done. Which does not make it any easier as it means that the artist-filmmaker has to decide exactly what she or he is going to do with all these parameters.
As I have often said, you need a minimum of technical skills. It is not enough to be a virtuoso. The beauty of an image does not necessarily make an interesting work, or a good film. You have to think about what is the purpose of the image you want to make. Amongst the infinite variety of things that can be done, can they be done with the skills and technical equipment we have, in the place we want to film? What do we want to achieve and how is the purpose of the film thought of in relation to a possible audience?
When I choose a subject, I try to work on it in a way that catches the attention of the audience, but leaves the viewer time to think. This means making a film that allows the viewer, regardless of their knowledge or education – to go beyond watching, to lead them to think about more than just the tree that was filmed. When I film, I do not work for a particular audience but I try to produce something which is interesting in relation to both the subject and the cinematographic means of expression. It is a question of taking further what I have been able to do in my previous films. It means that I build on my first experiences. I can know that something will not work cinematographically or artistically or is not feasible with the equipment or the time that I have. I store up a lot of previous experiences, but not only by filming. Sometimes I can borrow things from music or dance. I keep them in mind, in a sort of cupboard from which I can retrieve them when they might be useful.
Sylvia Your practice is essentially linked to the handling of the Bolex camera, your instrument of visual research. You have developed a know-how of your own that dramatically increases perceptual capacity. It was the subject of your thesis: ‘visual perception in relation to the cinematographic medium’ How and when did your research start?
Rose It wasn’t planned at all. When I was working in the film industry, I had the opportunity to see experimental films. There were screenings at the independent bookstore ‘Better Books’ in London where I discovered that you could make films as an art. At the time, I was painting, sculpting, and I had no ambition of becoming a filmmaker. But what I discovered ther was that you could actually work without a crew and without being part of the film industry. What was really relevant to me was to see that what was seen projected on the screen did not correspond to what was on the film strip when you looked at the images on a light table. So I decided to explore how it worked.
I soon discovered that there was an overlap of images on the screen but not on the film strip. I started reading books on perception. I didn’t know much about the subject; I have no scientific background. I ended up studying our visual perception system in relation to the functioning of the projector, for three years.
This is when I discovered a lot of interesting things. It was just research for my own interest. After what I discovered by drawing on and perforating film strips, making them into loops in order to be able to study them, the next stage was to see if the same things took place visually when filming a scene of reality. This was difficult as a lot of things do not work on film, I had to persevere over quite a few years. First, changing the focus, going forward or backward. Then I discovered you could film anywhere on the film reel, that I could mix scenes shot at different times in completely different places. That meant that I had to work for a few years before I could do what I do now.
What happened is that I started to make one or two small films and they were shown in an important international event in London, much to my surprise (laughs). The film Roulement, rouerie, aubage (1978) shows a paddle wheel which is there (she indicates the paddle wheel in the Teinturiers Street, where she lives nearby in Avignon, ed.). That one was appreciated by the audience who were there, there were quite a few well-known filmmakers present, such as Malcolm Le Grice or Peter Gidal. That’s kind of how I became a filmmaker. That was in 1979. But I didn’t think, “I’m a filmmaker, that’s it” (laughs). In France it was very difficult because it was dominated by academics who tended to show only their student’s films. It was very antagonistic, since they all ignored each other. And for no good reason. Just because the work is different doesn’t mean you can’t show each other. When I organized screenings in Avignon, I showed a lot of films that had nothing to do with my work. I chose the best films among what was available. I tried to show a large range of experimental film as I thought it was important that the public could see what was being done, even though obviously I was personally more interested in some films than others.
Sylvia I read in an article that you had written explaining that experimental cinema necessarily resorts to handcraft knowledge that is often inspired by visual arts. Which is interesting since you didn’t study cinema but visual arts first in Lima, then in London. Can you tell us more about your background?
Rose I started to take art classes in the studio of a Peruvian artist named Suarez when I was 8 or 9 years old. I drew still lives, fruits and bottles, with charcoal and a piece of bread to rub out or correct my drawing. Sometimes he was kind and let me eat one of the fruits (laughs). He had a large studio in an old building in Miraflores (district of the province of Lima, ed.). There were four big windows and from the top you could see palm trees and these big black birds, gallinazos. You don’t see them anymore in Miraflores. When I was a kid, they used to be everywhere. These are my first memories. After that I attended adult painting class at the Art Center run by John Davis, an American specialist in Peruvian pottery, and his wife Isabelle Benavides who came from an illustrious family and owned the Art Center. I also took classes with Brockie Stevenson, who was a painter in Lima on a Fullbright scholarship.
Later in High school, I enrolled in the drawing from life evening classes at the School of Fine Arts in Lima. This was the art education I received before I left for London to attend Regent Street Polytechnic.
Sylvia When we discover your work, there is a whole botanical imaginary that is offered to us. Where does this sensitivity to nature come from?
Rose I was born in Peru where we were very close to nature. I spent my childhood in our garden. When my mother didn’t want to be disturbed, she’d put me outside in the garden and forbade me to return to the house before a certain time. I got my education alone in nature. It was truly beautiful. We had bellisimas which are a creeper with pink flowers, a fig tree, an avocado tree, et cetera. In those days, everyone had small gardens full of flowers in Miraflores. “Miraflores” means “look, flowers”.
Later on, John Davis’s classes took place outdoors, teaching you to draw or paint in front of the nature all around Lima. At the time, Lima had only one million inhabitants. You were able to get into nature quite quickly, even by bicycle. This is absolutely not the case anymore.
I was used to draw and paint from the countryside which was easily accessible. Needless to say, it would not be the same if I had to draw or paint something today. It is a lot of work and it is not at all the same process as pulling the focus to allow you to see all the details. There are a lot of things in an outdoor scene and you have to choose what you want to be more important in your images. But my work in film does rest upon a long traditional training in drawing and painting.
Sylvia Your research implies a sum of constraints and a technical rigor which are fundamental to the understanding of your films. They are often described as very beautiful, very poetic, very dreamlike, but behind these aesthetic qualities lies an extremely concrete, almost scientific process that results from a long investigation of the potential of your camera. Could you share with us the story of this empirical research?
Rose It’s obvious that you have to know what your camera is capable of. The important thing is to look at what you want to film and see what the camera is capable of capturing. Sometimes I go a fair distance to look at a place to see if there are any cinematographic possibilities there. And sometimes I give up as either the weather or the light is not good. I always start with the subject, not with the camera. There are things that I finally managed to film after I’d struggled with the weather and the light, like for the movie Turbulence (2015). It was filmed in the Southwest of France, from the banks of a small river, Aude, in Alet-les-Bains, a small picturesque medieval town. The river has a small waterfall. During my stay, the sun never came out. Sometimes it takes a long time to make a movie because of that. It wasn’t a question of what the camera could do. I knew very well what it could do with that little waterfall. The problem was the sun. The sun was more important than the camera (laughs). It often rains in the Southwest. Sometimes a whole week. I had to return to the place several times, different years. When I went back for two weeks, there were only two non-rainy days and the film was finally shot on the one day when the light was good. Not to mention the trees nearby the waterfall. Not only did the sun have to be out, but it had to be between 2:30 and 3:30 pm when its rays shined through a gap between the branches of the trees. I was really glad when I finally succeeded to film that waterfall.
Sylvia Your movies reveal a kind of hyper-awareness of forms, of natural and human forms. The force of the wind, the sunshine, the passing of cars, the shopkeeper across the street like in Rue des Teinturiers (1979). You often talk about the improvised composition of your images. Can you tell us more about it?
Rose I filmed this image of Rue des Teinturiers from our balcony. At the time, we were eating outside on the balcony very often. So it was the view we had every day. I filmed over several months. [She searches in her notebook]. You see why I don’t give my notebooks away? (laughs).
It’s really just an ordinary notebook but an indispensable tool! I indicate the film that is used, the lens, the number of perforations, the date and the light, which I don’t measure, I just guess. Let’s see… Mid-March, End of March, April, May, July and… what time… 9am to 4pm, 9am to 5pm, 10:30am to 6pm, 2:15pm to 6:15pm. [She still reads her notebook] Here, I filmed on a windy day. I waited for a day when it was windy. There are other reels where you can see the sun is going in and out continuously. To make the scene more colorful, I also chose to film when there were people passing by wearing rather colorful clothes.
It depended on the day, on the light. Because obviously at the beginning of the day I didn’t know how it would end. At 9 o’clock in the morning I didn’t know what it was going to be like at 4 o’clock. Also, I did not join the reels in chronological order because I didn’t want the film to be seen as a linear progression in time. The structure of the film is relatively complex as there is a rotation of focuses. [She reads from her notebook] And at each successive focus point of the scene, more or less images are filmed, in a series, 1, 2, 3, 2, 1. One image on one focus point, then two images on the next, then three images on another focus point, then two, then one, and all the images are filmed like that with a rotation of the quantities of images taken at each focus point. That is to say that between the two rotations, between the focus points and the number of images filmed each time, the scene is never filmed the same way twice. That was to introduce variations. Here I started to note down what happened during filming: people going to lunch, people going back to work, the clouds, the sun. This is my first notebook, at this stage the drawings are very simple, from 1977 to 1982.
Sylvia I don’t know if you are familiar with the work of British philosopher Timothy Morton who theorized the concept of “ecological thought” which goes far beyond the dominant discourse on nature and the gestures to preserve it. Basically, his theory is that we are part of a whole, that everything is interconnected in a kind of mesh in which things exist because they are aware of and in relation to others. This ecological thought reminds me a lot of your practice because it is based on a whole ecosystem. It’s very telling for instance what you wrote in Rose by Rose Lowder (Lightcone Editions, 2015) on how the movie Habitat Batracien (2006) was made. It was all a question of balance between the elements: you, the frog, the color of the frog, the snake that you hadn’t seen and that is going to trigger the jump of the frog, the waiting in the cold, etc. There is a complete interrelation between all the elements.
Rose The so-called primitive people considered nature and themselves to be one same thing. It is the developed countries and their so-called modern philosophy, that decided that humans are above nature and are controlling it. Whereas the primitive community, knew very well that it was the other way around. They were perfectly aware that they were a part of nature and that they had to be aware of how it worked and act accordingly. When I was a kid in Peru, my father would always take us to the countryside. We would climb up small pathways only used by the local indians going up to their tiny terraced fields. When one of the local farmers passed by, my father would ask them where they going. They told him “to work on their potato field”. When my dad asked them whether it was very far away, they told him « oh, it’s not far! ». Then he asked them, « yes, but how far is that? », they answered « Oh, three days walk! ». So as a child, I realized straight away that we did not live in the same society as those farmers. This was confirmed as they were incredibly generous. We could not cross a field where a family were eating their lunch without being invited to share their meal. We were embarrassed because we were wealthy compared to them and didn’t need to be fed at that moment, but we never refused because that would have been extremely impolite besides being completely contrary to their traditional hospitality.
I remember one time in Italy we were sitting on a bench and there were old people next to us eating peaches. They gave us peaches right away.
Just imagine, you’re in Paris on a bench, well nobody is going to give you a peach (laughs). Another time in Italy, we were participating in a theatrical event and decided to explore the area. I remember the local councillor making a big speech on the town’s main square to introduce a religious parade. Looking for a bus towards the coast we asked where it stopped, but since the bus never arrived, the councillor invited us to her farm house. She showed us all the decorated wagons which were being prepared for the parade and then invited us to have lunch with all her family.
Sylvia Yes, there is a real coherence, an almost symbiotic relationship between you and the environment you work. But this goes even further. The more you refine your filming method, the more it melts into the very object of your movies: with, for example, the movement of the objects responding to the movement resulting from the process of weaving the images in the camera. There is an interdependence of the mechanical and natural elements in your movies.
Rose Yes. Sometimes reality acts in such a way that it becomes responsible for the way it is represented in the film. For example, in Roulement, rouerie, aubage, when the wheel reaches the top of the frame, the sun’s rays over-expose the image. As any film editor knows, over-exposed images must be cut out. But I wanted to get these over-exposed images as it meant that each time the wheel turned, it affected the way it was presented in the film. It is the functioning of the wheel that modifies its presentation.
“The subject matter is ecological, I film in situations, where people are working properly. Whether it’s Guérande salt farmers or organic farms, the aim is to draw attention to things that are going in the right direction. I don’t make activist films like some filmmakers who film everything that is going wrong. For me, there are too many things that are going wrong. I wouldn’t know what to film (laughs).”
Sylvia Can we speak here of ecological cinema?
Rose My work is not entirely ecological because of the chemistry involved in making films. The way I work is relatively ecological because very little film is used compared to the quantity projected. There are no spares or trims. The subject matter is ecological, I film in situations, where people are working properly. Whether it’s Guérande salt farmers or organic farms, the aim is to draw attention to things that are going in the right direction. I don’t make activist films like some filmmakers who film everything that is going wrong. For me, there are too many things that are going wrong. I wouldn’t know what to film (laughs). I think I’d be pretty depressed filming all the things that are wrong. I’d rather film things that are going well. I’m much more comfortable in those situations. I often work in fine farms, with people who are courageous and generous. Often it is the people who have little that share the most. It is also an exchange between people living in the countryside, working with nature, sometimes in fairly isolated places, and me from an urban background. They help me to work as they put me up, often provide very good meals with the products from their farm, and I support them by paying for the lodging and the meals. And then there is an exchange on our experiences and what happens in our lives. Which is nice.
Sylvia Yes, what you describe shows that there is a real ecological awareness in your approach. It is a political gesture.
Rose Yes, it is a question of ecological politics or political ecology (laughs).
Sylvia The unexpected is an essential dimension of your work. You have said that you enjoy seeing the things you shoot have a life of their own. You establish a dialogue with a reality that escapes you. This generates a tension between the vagaries of the natural elements you are trying to capture and the very meticulous work of making the film. Your films express precisely the beauty of what is unpredictable.
Rose It’s a real risk because you never know whether it will produce something interesting or not. It’s only when the reel comes back from the lab that I can know. Working with nature is an adventure as, like life, you never know what’s going to happen. And as an artist there can always be periods which are better than others.
Sylvia I would like to talk about your career as a female artist. I have read that when you were at school in Peru, girls were naturally oriented towards activities that were basically considered feminine, such as sewing, embroidery. Later, when you were working in London in the 1960s, you managed to become a film editor, the only position that was allowed for women at the time.
Rose There were a lot of preconceived ideas at the time. When I was editing a film for the BBC in London, I remember a director, who was an educated man, a graduate of one of the most prestigious British universities (I can’t remember whether it was Cambridge or Oxford), who spent half an hour before editing the film with me, asking how it was possible that I was in the cutting room. Obviously, he was expecting the editor to be a man. It seemed so absurd. I didn’t know what to say. Whereas at that time in Hollywood there were female editors who were very well-known. When I worked for the BBC women editors were very rare. It made me wonder if the few women hired was more to show off the diversity than to use our editing talents. I don’t know. Luckily the situation has changed. Today, there are many more women artists and filmmakers.
Sylvia At least they are more visible now.
Rose Yes, I think the times when they were only allowed to do watercolors like my mother, who was born in 1902, are over (laughs).