Guido van der Werve is well-known for his persistent exploration of the futility of life, through audiovisual records. His work can be described as performances captured by the camera. He is a unique case of commitment to honesty and lyrical directness; tied together with the naming/enumeration of his oeuvre. Starting from Number Two, Guido created a list of works that perform individually and together the absurdity of life.
He often challenges his physical strength and endurance, and unleashes his creativity with self-undertaken tasks. Which led him to his latest piece, ‘Nummer Achttien’ (Number Eighteen). Based on the true story of his recovery after suffering from a severe accident, ‘Nummer Achttien’ is the first attempt of Guido to narrate the confrontation of a lifetime, in the form of a feature film.
Technically, ‘Nummer Achttien’ is a collage of family footage, real-time shots, reincarnations and musical. This is a film not worth fighting for to squeeze it into a genre. But it is definitely a film worth seeing, for its poetic playfulness and humour, dark at points—the perfect portrait of the disasters and victories in life.
Your work has strong diaristic elements. You take both the position of the observant and the one being observed. What does it entail to bring your reality into the light of the camera?
I rather have the door open, I always did. I had this idea that whatever happens in this film, reality is both as dark and as beautiful as it can be. I found it unnecessary to add actors. In particular, for this film, I felt that it wouldn’t have been authentic. I had some 8 mm footage from my father, it was all family footage. Because I wanted some scenes from my childhood, I was hoping to find something within this footage that tells the story by itself. But this is not the way fiction works. So I realized that I want to impersonate some scenes.
I want things to be real. I love authenticity, keeping it as real as possible. For me to turn to fiction was a ‘eureka’ moment. A lot of filmmakers, like Tarkovsky, actually use the idea of memories from childhood. The way we remember things is not like a documentary. It is kind of pseudo-documentary. So this gave me a bit of freedom to play with creativity. I try not to throw whipped cream on the imagery I have.
But I also wonder what does ‘real’ mean. Even for our conversation right now, maybe it is not authentic. There is always some fiction involved. It is always the question, what is reality anyway. At some point, while making this film, I invited a lot of doctors to my house. They all came in, saw the cameras and reacted differently. One doctor actually came very drunk. I had to throw away all of that footage. So then I realized that I wasn’t truly registered to reality, because of the crew I had with me. I did a side step and decided to allow some fiction. You cannot really direct life.
Humour, authenticity and music seem to be your making recipe. I enjoy the poetics these three can bring, along with the personal tone. How do you think the audience connects with your work? What feedback have you been receiving for this film?
I saw the film twice on the big screen. It is such a personal story. I was afraid that people would think that I am glorifying myself, or that I have a lot of self-pity. I was hoping to transcend those things that made me start making the film in the first place, to something more open, universal; to something that many people can think that this is about them. During the days of the IFFR, I got a lot of good feedback. But I also read in a newspaper that I am an artist with ‘a rough life.’
So far, most of your works were one man’s story. Like the ‘Number Nine,’ where we see you standing at the North Pole for one day in time-lapse. Or in the ‘Number Eight,’ where you walk across the frozen waters, in front of a ship that is steadily smashing the ice. What are your inspirations? How do you develop your videos and films?
I was being obsessed with challenges, because I am slightly competitive. Now, I took a recovery from this as well. I guess I have this stupid competitive mindset. Usually, when I do something a lot, I think there is enough reason to actually film it. For example, when I was doing triathlon, I was spending 25 hours a week training. Which made me think that I probably do this for a reason. (ref. ‘Nummer Veertien’, 54’, 2012)
My father was a drawing teacher, so we were visiting museums in Rotterdam (the area I come from). I was looking at paintings, and they were all fine. But I was totally obsessed with romantic classical music. I grew up playing piano and I wanted to be a pianist. But I didn’t dare, it requires a high level. Later on, I wanted to be an inventor. That is why I was studying industrial design. Later on, I was working in a cinema in Amsterdam. There, I could see people laughing and crying. I thought that films have the same power as music. So, then I decided to do that. I also started analyzing why music is so direct. I think composers are using a state of mind as if they have a search light. They find something that says everything in the simplest way. It is almost as if they abstract it into a mood. Mood after mood. Because of this analysis, I thought I am actually not going to make films with actors, but I am going to make films with moods. And the story development is just a variation of moods. That is my way of working.
You are in the position of experiencing both the art scene, as a video maker, and the film scene, now with your first feature film. What can you share from this experience?
The film industry is a whole new thing for me. I am kind of well-known artist, which puts me on a side track as a filmmaker, in a way. But I also find it a good thing, that I am not known as such.
As a video artist, I usually don’t really think of what the audience will think. People are going in and out of the museum. I like it when things are open, as it happens in the art scene. I think it is a bit more equal. On the other side, I think films are more confrontational. In art, you have the curatorial support. There is a difference between someone buying a film ticket, without knowing anything about the film, sitting there for one hour and a half; this brings a bit more responsibility. You might waste people’s time or money.
If you could reflect on your work path so far, what format do you think the ‘Number Eighteen’ project would have been, without the accident?
It could be anything! Well, at the time before my accident, I didn’t really know what to do anymore. I thought I did a lot. I was pondering what else to do. At some point, I noticed that filmmakers used a book, that already has enough to make a film out of. So, I thought that maybe I could actually do that, and I started reading a lot of books. I found the ‘Le Grand Meaulnes,’ which has this beautiful story inside. He is in love with this girl, he is following her everywhere, but at some point, she dies. Then, he lifts her up and walks down the stairs with her corpse. I thought that would be a beautiful scene. Very cinematic. Maybe I could go back to make one long scene. One long scene with the partner carrying the other partner dead, down the stairs. I thought that could be a beautiful film. Of course, it already exists. But anyhow, I had the idea of making a script out of it. Then I had my accident. But yes, originally that was the number 18 project.
In the back of my mind, I have this thought that after this accident, I got a second chance. Unconsciously, I am still thinking, ‘let’s see what I can do with it.’ I had the idea of making a feature film. But what I actually did was to compose music in 12 acts. There is the libretto part, for example, that deals with a certain theme. I am showing now one of these acts at the Eye Film Museum in Amsterdam. I hope these acts can be autonomous. I think there are 6 art pieces that make one feature film. I am not sure yet.
‘Nummer achttien – the breath of life’ premiered at the 52nd International Film Festival Rotterdam, as part of the Tiger Competition. Gusto Entertainment releases the film in Dutch cinemas on March 9.
2023, Country: the Netherlands | 91 mins | Dir: Guido van der Werve | Stars: Guido van der Werve, Marguerite de Brauw, Guido Pollemans | Production: Danielle Guirguis (Smarthouse Creative Impact Studio)
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